How to Count to 50

Senate Dems represent 56.5% of the country, but Joe Manchin (and Mitch McConnell) will dictate their agenda

Let’s stipulate something at the outset: There was no circumstance under which President Biden’s American Rescue Plan would get Republican support. Not if it came in under $1 trillion. Not if it was stripped of funding for the arts or Planned Parenthood. Not if no one whispered the words “minimum wage.”

This was fated from the moment the second hand struck A-Democrat-Is-President o’clock, and Mitch McConnell dusted off his old playbook. 

Like Barack Obama, Joe Biden responded to a crisis he inherited by proposing a large stimulus that polls very well, even among Republicans. But as in 2009, Republicans see no upside to working with the new president. If the economy bounces back, they figure, Biden will get credit regardless. But by withholding their votes and making the bill partisan, they can take some bloom off the rose. After all, hadn’t Biden promised to unite the country? 

In 2009, this worked splendidly. Obama’s overtures to Republicans watered down the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act until it was too small and too loaded with inefficient tax cuts to quickly juice a languishing economy. Republican messaging about a convoluted process and out-of-control spending stuck, laying the groundwork for GOP gains in 2010.  

You’re watching what they hope will be the sequel. 

Biden learned from Obama’s experience. His $1.9 trillion bill is front-loaded with tangible stuff, not abstruse “shovel-ready projects”: $1,400 stimulus checks, $400-a-week unemployment supplements, a $3,600-per-child allowance, billions for schools and vaccines. By year’s end, Biden wants the pandemic under control and the economy cranking, putting him in a stronger position than Obama was 11 years ago. 

For Republicans, replaying 2009 would seem like a risky move. Yet they feel no pressure to bend. No Republican supported the bill in the House on Friday; few if any are likely to in the Senate, either. 

The party can enforce this orthodoxy because — owing to our institutions’ rural bias — Republicans don’t need majorities to gain power. Senate Republicans haven’t represented a majority of Americans in 22 years, though they’ve controlled the Senate for two-thirds of that time.

Democrats, by contrast, must form broad, fragile coalitions to govern. Over the last three Senate election cycles — one-third of senators are elected every two years — Democrats have won the aggregated national vote 50–43. They currently represent 56.5% of Americans. But the Senate is split 50–50, and progressives find themselves at the mercy of their caucus’s most conservative members — specifically, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, whose state backed Trump by 39 points. 

The math is simple: Without Manchin, they can’t get 50 votes. Without 50 votes — and Vice President Kamala Harris as the Senate’s tie-breaker — they can’t do anything. 

That brings us to Thursday, when the Senate’s parliamentarian declared that the provision of the American Rescue Plan raising the minimum wage violated the “Byrd rule” governing budget reconciliation, the process Democrats are using to circumvent a filibuster and its impossible 60-vote threshold. 

The decision let Manchin off the hook. He’d opposed the hike on the ground that $15 an hour was too high for low-cost states. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, meanwhile, complained that the provision didn’t belong in a COVID relief bill, a convenient dodge. 

But as progressives pointed out, the parliamentarian doesn’t have the final word. That belongs to Harris, who, as the Senate’s presiding officer, can disregard the parliamentarian. The Senate can try to overrule her, but the Congressional Research Office has said doing so probably requires an unlikely 60 votes. A more straightforward option, former Obama aide Dan Pfeiffer advised, is for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to fire and replace the parliamentarian, as Republicans did in 2001. 

The White House immediately announced that it wasn’t interested. 

The left seethed, accusing Biden of hiding behind procedural minutia to abandon a core campaign promise. The anger is justified. Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage is worth $4.30 per hour less than it was in 1968, and since 1978, while CEO salaries increased by 1,008%, workers’ paychecks jumped just 12%. Such inequality is unsustainable as well as reprehensible. 

But there’s no guarantee the demanded solution would produce the desired result. Again, there’s a math problem: The Byrd rule aside, Democrats don’t have 50 votes to raise the minimum wage, and the White House won’t risk the entire bill over one piece of it. 

There’s also a time crunch. Without the minimum wage, the American Rescue Plan has a clear runway to passage before federal COVID assistance runs out in two weeks. But if Democrats play parliamentary hardball or try putting the screws to the holdouts, the legislation could become a slog, bog down remaining Cabinet nominations, and force a confrontation with Manchin that Schumer wants to avoid just six weeks into the new administration. 

Remember, broad coalitions are fragile. 

Still, the White House can’t shrug off its promise indefinitely. Losing is one thing; not bothering to fight is another. Hiding behind parliamentary arcana is the weakest excuse of all. 

The silver lining: Assuming no last-minute fix materializes, this won’t be the last bite at the minimum-wage apple. Sen. Bernie Sanders is prepping an infrastructure bill for later this year that will also move via reconciliation, giving Democrats time to develop a Byrd-rule strategy and get Manchin and Sinema on board. 

Or they could stop worrying about antiquated norms and get on with the inevitable. The parliamentarian and the Byrd only matter because of the filibuster. So long as it exists, McConnell’s minority — which represents 43.5% of Americans — will control their agenda: the climate crisis, voting rights, LGBTQ protections, and anything else they can’t squeeze into reconciliation will die. 

And when Democrats don’t deliver, they’ll pay the price. That’s McConnell’s playbook. 

Sooner or later, Democrats — Manchin and Sinema included — will have to decide whether they want to govern or let Republicans hold them hostage. They can’t do both.