Centrism or Bust in the 117th Congress

Charlie "Chuck" Cook
December 22, 2020

Almost a month ago, this column speculated that the configuration of the 117th Congress, combined with a Joe Biden presidency, could create the opportunity for a fruitful, productive era in Washington. We won’t know until after the two Georgia runoffs on Jan. 5 which party will hold the majority in the Senate, but it is already clear that an ideological agenda of any sort has no chance of passing two congressional chambers, getting a presidential signature, and being enacted into law.

At least three members of Speaker Pelosi’s Democratic caucus look likely to enter the Biden administration, creating vacant Democratic seats and further eroding an already wafer-thin advantage for the party in the House. Pelosi could find herself, at least temporarily, with a majority of just 219 or 220 members. The idea that anything remotely progressive could pass the House is laughable.

Ditto the Senate. With the outcome falling anywhere between a 52-seat GOP majority and Kamala Harris breaking the tie in a 50-50 chamber, nobody is going to be jamming anything overly conservative or liberal through this Senate.

In short, there are two paths: Either almost nothing of consequence passes, or it will be only consensus-oriented legislation, with coalitions built from the center out, rather than from an extreme in. The current coronavirus-relief package easing its way through Congress was instituted by the bipartisan, evenly divided “Problem Solvers Caucus,” cochaired by Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer and GOP Rep. Tom Reed. It’s a legislative mutt that nobody will truly love but a lot can like—or find at least acceptable. That should be a model for Congress going forward. In today’s version of American politics, that is about as good as it can get.

Former ABC News political director and author Mark Halperin made some good points in his always astute Wide World of News political newsletter on Wednesday, writing that “whether or not Georgians decide to keep Republicans in the Senate majority in 2021, Mitch McConnell will be the second-most-powerful person in D.C. next year. The confirmation of Joe Biden’s nominees and his legislative agenda—and perhaps the political viability of his entire presidency—depend to a certain extent on the hopes, dreams, calculations, and desires of the Gentleman from Kentucky.”

McConnell is the Republican that Democrats and liberals love to hate more than any other, save President Trump, but watching him maneuver politically is like watching a chess grandmaster playing when many others in both chambers and both sides of the aisle would be severely challenged by a simple game of checkers.

Just look at his performance of late. As CNN political reporter Stephen Collinson writes, “By waiting so long to greet Biden as president-elect after November's election, McConnell likely built the political capital he needs to shut down any embarrassing efforts by pro-Trump senators to block Biden's inevitable ascent to the presidency.”

As I wrote a month ago, some think hopelessly optimistic, there is a real chance that after a five-year period of extreme partisanship, surpassing any time in American politics in the past 140 years, the stars might be lined up just right to give us a respite. There is a real chance that the heat can be lowered a bit, the wingnuts on both ends of the spectrum might be marginalized, at least for a time, and some pragmatic and incremental steps can be taken on a host of issues that don’t have to be highly partisan or deeply ideological. As the pandemic proves, just about anything can be made to be partisan and divisive, but it doesn’t have to be. There doesn’t have to be someone pouring gasoline over every issue and throwing matches in every direction.

This is a time to lower the temperature and not fan the flames, or at least push aside those who don’t know how to do business any other way. No one knows this better than Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell. These two old bulls might be able to do business.

This article was originally published for the National Journal on December 18, 2020.