Narrow House majority will test Democratic unity in Biden administration

After two years in power with a comfortable margin to lose votes among their own ranks, House Democratic leaders will enter the 117th Congress with new pressure to keep progressives and moderates united or be forced to work across the aisle far more often with House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy.

“That defines our challenge,” said Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democrat from Michigan. “We are going to have to push hard to show that everyone’s view is legitimate, but the test will be to try to not allow some voices to keep us from moving anything because it’s not the biggest and boldest thing they can think of. That’s going to be hard.”

Democrats won 222 seats in the House compared to Republicans’ 211, according to CNN projections, with several races still to be called. Democrats held a 35-seat majority heading into Election Day.
But after losing incumbents across the country and failing to unseat a single House Republican, Democrats’ problems have been exacerbated in recent weeks since Biden picked two House Democrats — Reps. Marcia Fudge of Ohio and Cedric Richmond of Louisiana — to serve in his administration. While both members are from safe Democratic districts, it will take time for them to be replaced. What already was a thin margin may now be down to just a handful of votes.

“I’m certainly concerned by the slimming of the majority. I indicated to the administration very early on that I wanted them to be very careful in terms of the members that they appointed from Congress,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters.

Hoyer argued, however, that “there have been close majorities before.”

“We’ve gotten through those and gotten our work done. I think, frankly, we’re going to be a very unified caucus,” the Maryland Democrat said.

Pelosi has made the same argument.

“Here’s what you should do. Go look at the 106th and the 107th Congress … there is similar numbers to now,” she told reporters Wednesday. “I don’t remember anybody … ever saying, ‘Oh how slim is your majority.’ They had the gavel, they had the majority.”

While Pelosi is widely expected to receive the votes she needs to become speaker, the formal floor vote in January will be an early indication of just how strong her hold is on the caucus with such a thin majority.

Rank-and-file members are also cognizant of how a narrower majority could impact Biden’s ability to get legislative priorities through the House. It could be harder to find consensus for a coronavirus package, an infrastructure bill and even must-pass spending bills with just a handful of votes to spare. Even with a larger majority in 2019, Democrats struggled to find a budget they could agree on.

And, while the Senate could remain in GOP control if Georgia Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler both hold their seats in two January runoffs, the House had been the place where Democrats could craft bills that touted their message on campaign finance reform and gun legislation — even if the bills were dead on arrival in the Senate. Now, every piece of legislation will have to be carefully whipped and have broad buy-in before it is brought to the floor. That includes some procedural rule votes that have largely passed by big margins over the last two years.

Majority Whip Jim Clyburn said there would be “significant changes” to how he whips the votes next year but didn’t provide details.

“Oh like, you know, when you got 20 votes to spare, it’s a little different when you only got two,” the South Carolina Democrat said. “So you make the adjustments. We’ll go from bill to bill. I mean, it’s not gonna be any one standard thing.”

Angling from moderates and progressives

The narrow majority presents different opportunities for moderates and progressives in the caucus. Moderates believe that a narrow majority will give them the chance to reach across the aisle with the blessing of leadership to get to a bill that can pass both chambers of Congress and be signed by the President. That model is playing out in real time now as the Problem Solvers Caucus in the House has worked for weeks with a bipartisan group of senators to try and craft a way forward on Covid relief.

“In order to help the vice president and the President-elect’s agenda and help them advance their agenda, we are going to have to work with both sides. There’s no other option,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat from New Jersey.

But progressives also say that their role in a narrow majority will be to serve as a check and balance on the Biden administration and ensure it is enacting the kinds of reforms that the campaign promised. While Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York told CNN that she saw a narrow majority as an opportunity to try and forge compromise among moderates and progressives, she also was clear that the growing number of more liberal members won’t accept compromise just for the sake of getting any bill.

“That slogan gets tossed around a lot here — that you can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good … oftentimes we aren’t asking for perfect legislation, we are very often trying to pass bad stuff. I am nowhere near naïve enough to think that Democratic administrations are not capable of doing bad things,” Ocasio-Cortez told reporters Wednesday. “All of these things … will come on a case-by-case basis as to whether this is a ‘perfect being the enemy of the good’ situation or whether this is just bad legislation that happens to be endorsed by our party. We aren’t allowed to say that, but it is the reality and it happens.”

Biden will have his hands full even in his first 100 days. The President-elect has made it clear he wants to see another stimulus bill passed in 2021, but Congress has struggled for months to pass even a narrower package. And a bipartisan framework has been lambasted by some in the progressive caucus who have argued it doesn’t do enough to help Americans weather the pandemic. Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and others have pushed the bipartisan group to include $1,200 stimulus checks even though that ask would push the topline of the proposal well over $1 trillion, which would never pass muster among Senate Republicans. On infrastructure, progressives have made it clear they want clean energy to be a major component of any package to rebuild America’s crumbling roads and bridges, but some of those proposals won’t go anywhere in a Republican-controlled Senate.

“If your question is, ‘is it better to have a bigger House majority?’ Absolutely. If you have a small majority, it just means you have fewer voters you can lose. It’s as simple as that,” Rep. David Cicilline, a Democrat from Rhode Island, told CNN.

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