"If I were the majority leader," bellowed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., into a microphone before the Pikeville, Kentucky, Rotary Club recently, "we wouldn’t be doing any of this stuff."
The "stuff" Democrats are "doing," according to McConnell, is the partisan $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill Democrats passed on their own in the winter. Other "stuff" may include the bipartisan infrastructure bill — it depends on which Republican you talk to. McConnell supports that package for now. The biggest "stuff" in McConnell’s mind is the $3.5 trillion social spending package Democrats are now assembling and hope to pass by the end of September.
"They’re trying to thread the needle here with a massive transformation of our country into what Bernie Sanders believes America ought to look like," McConnell said, referencing the senator from Vermont. "Today’s national Democratic party is a bunch of socialists and this $3.5 trillion bill is their signature event."
It is one thing for a group of Republicans to support the infrastructure bill. That is likely good politics back home – depending on the member. It’s likely really good politics for Republicans – across the board – to oppose the Democrats’ "stuff." The GOP can portray it as "stuff" – a hodge-podge of ill-defined social spending – and curate a message that Democrats are just for big government. Republicans will then use the "stuff" against Democrats in the midterm elections. Republicans know what they’re doing on this front. But Democrats know what they’re doing, too.
To wit: Control of the Senate in 2022 is a jump ball. Almost anything could dictate which way the Senate slants.
The House is another story. Democrats barely have control now. They almost lost the House in 2020 – which few saw coming. There are multiple indicators which favor the GOP to flip control of the chamber in 2022. There are often big loses in the first midterm for the party of the president. Democrats are not performing well on the "generic" ballot right now. President Biden’s approval rating is slipping.
Republicans have their own brand of "stuff" they lob at the Democrats such as Afghanistan, inflation, border security, gas prices and abortion. That is what the minority party always does: attempt to show the voters a laundry list of things the other side did wrong.
Democrats will retort that they approved extra COVID-19 relief money when Republicans would not help. And if Democrats are lucky, they may be able to thread the needle over the coming days to pass the infrastructure bill and the big social spending package.
Republicans abhor that, but while they won’t support any of it, it could do them a political favor ahead of the 2022 midterms. Political parties, however, do not win majorities in Congress – big or small – to sit on them and protect them. Parties win the majority with the expectation that they will use their political clout to pass major initiatives. Establish new policies. Cast votes on the floors of the House and Senate to codify their view of America in statute.
Otherwise, why bother?
So, Democrats may go for broke this fall with their massive spending package. Will voters reward them? Maybe. Republicans will excoriate them, for sure. But if things turn out the way Democrats want, they will have made law and entrenched their policies for years to come.
A prime example of this is when President Clinton won the White House in 1992. He had big Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate. Within months, Congress approved major (but controversial) stimulus acts to boost the economy. Lawmakers sweated for months to craft a comprehensive health care bill, known then (derisively) as HillaryCare. Democrats passed a mammoth crime bill which imposed an assault weapons ban. Congress approved NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Following all of that, Democrats promptly lost control of both bodies of Congress as Republicans picked up 54 seats in the House in the 1994 midterms. Democrats had not lost the House in 40 years.
Nevertheless, Democrats had enacted much of their political agenda — sans health care. Most Democrats who lost in 1994 defended their roll call votes from the 103rd Congress — even if they lost their seats. Many of the policies Democrats enacted were here to stay. The crime bill may have been the most controversial of measures — especially the assault weapons ban, although that ended after a decade when Congress failed to renew it.
Fast-forward to 2008.
Democrats scored big majorities in the House and Senate again under President Barack Obama, but in 2009, the economy was reeling because of the financial collapse. Democrats quickly passed a (controversial) and expensive stimulus plan. The House (but not the Senate) okayed an environmental bill called cap and trade. Both bodies of Congress approved the banking regulation measure known as Dodd-Frank. Finally, the piece de resistance. Democrats moved the Affordable Care Act, better known as ObamaCare.
Democrats clung to control of the Senate in the 2010 midterms, but the bloodletting in the House was historic. Republicans captured a staggering 63 House seats. It was a legendary rebuke. Republicans pulled off their victory mostly on the repudiation of ObamaCare.
Republicans were then on a mission when they won the majority. They would "repeal and replace" ObamaCare. Yet here we are, in the late summer of 2021 and ObamaCare remains the law of the land. After years of trying to unwind ObamaCare, Republicans could never coalesce around a plan to succeed it.
Repeal it? Sure. That was the easy part. Replace it? Never happened.
To be clear, Republicans certainly put dings and dents in ObamaCare. But, for good or ill, the health care law remains mostly intact after withstanding multiple Supreme Court challenges.
Today, Congressional Democrats are attempting to pass their massive, $3.5 trillion social spending bill. It is far from a done deal that Democrats can pull this off, but Republicans push so vehemently against it because they know it will be hard to unwind legislation of this magnitude. Look at the ObamaCare experience.
Democrats know that 2022 is very challenging politically. Moreover, some Democrats will even confide that they believe 2022 is already a lost cause regardless what they do. But Democrats have the majority now and they are inching closer to passing the most transformative piece of legislation since FDR’s New Deal. Even if the voters take it out on Democrats in 2022, the $3.5 trillion bill would still be law.
Republicans may say Democrats passed a lot of "stuff," but even they know that if they win control of Congress in 2022 they would not be able to do much about it.