The Democrats are afraid.
They hold the presidency and control both houses of Congress. Yet they are afraid.
They fear passing their bills over the objections of united Republicans and exercising what history calls the “Tyranny of the Majority.”
Some voters, including supposed independents, say they favor compromise. If the parties could agree, the threatened tyranny could be avoided. The federal government could produce broadly accepted policies.
But what if the minority party – right now, the Republicans – chooses not to compromise but insists on opposing. Republicans may believe they could win the next election by steadfast opposition. Compromise might help the Democrats, they may feel, jeopardizing their chances.
Wait a minute. The minority can simply be voted down if necessary and the Democrats can pass their proposals. That’s the essence of majority rule in a democracy in which the people elect leaders to carry out their proposed agenda.
But that’s not the real system. The Senate needs 60 senators to end debate on a bill and vote on it. Forty-one senators can block a bill by a filibuster. No supermajority, no final vote. The filibuster amounts to “Tyranny of the Minority.”
Some Democrats accept the filibuster, recognizing that someday they will be in the minority and will want the same protection. They cling to a weak version of majority control. They accept minority control of major bills, even if the result can be gridlock, a failure of the political process.
A few members of either party may occasionally break ranks. For example, Sen. Susan Collins and a handful of other Republicans voted to end debate on a bill creating an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. By then the GOP had obtained all of its demands on the bill.
But some GOP senators declared that no matter how satisfactory the bill, they would not support it. The findings might make their former president and party look bad just before the next congressional elections. They filibustered successfully. Party before principle.
On the other side, at least a couple of Democratic senators promised to block a move to end the supermajority requirement. They fear offending the Republican voters they need to get re-elected. Party before principle. Maine’s Angus King is on the fence.
Still, the filibuster is fading. The Senate has eliminated it for judicial and other top-level administrative appointments, and many spending bills. Each party cut back selectively when it was in control.
Both sides seem to believe voters won’t care what they do either way. Congress may be held in low esteem as an institution, but its members keep getting re-elected.
Some senators suggest there’s no need to prevent minority rule, because sometimes compromise happens. Or a “gang” – a small, bipartisan group often including one or both Maine senators – tries to draft a deal that can gain majority support. Gang-built bills risk ultimate failure because they may gain a majority but not 60 votes.
Compromise is impossible on issues like the Capitol invasion, where it’s a yes-or-no choice. And some bills, like voting rights, may be dead on arrival because there’s no hope of getting to a supermajority vote.
Opinion in the U.S. is now deeply and sharply divided. Both sides say they want to compromise, but that may mean in practice that the other side has to agree to their position. That makes supposed bipartisanship a sham, not a joint effort to find a creative way of solving problems.
In the past, each house of Congress passed its own version of a bill and sent it to a formal Conference Committee composed of representatives of both parties from each house. That meant the majority and minority parties might take part in extended negotiations to produce what would be a new bill.
Because there is no hope for a negotiated bill when one party’s core policy is to oppose virtually anything proposed by the other, the Conference Committee is a politically endangered species.
President Biden seems to get all this. He pledged to seek compromise with the Republicans. On the infrastructure bill, he has cut about $500 billion from his original proposal. The GOP counterproposal was for even less than former President Trump said was needed, not a basis for a bipartisan deal.
Next year’s midterm campaign may focus on Biden saying, “Well, I tried to compromise but I was blocked,” and Republicans taunting him with, “He didn’t keep his promise to compromise.”
Biden is trying to take advantage of his party’s control to enact a Democratic agenda on the theory that last year’s elections should have consequences. That may not happen on key bills without the Senate ending minority control.
The question for the Democrats, who could kill the filibuster, is whether passing the Biden agenda is worth overcoming their fear of using their majority power.