The last time we had a Senate divided at 50/50 was back in 2001. It only stayed that way until May of 2001 when Vermont Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords switched parties, giving Democrats 51 seats.
But, the make-up of the Senate was much less polarized than it is today. In 2001, 30 senators — 10 Republicans and 20 Democrats — represented a state that voted for the other party's presidential nominee. There were blue-state Republicans like Senators Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois, and red-state Democrats like Senators Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Fritz Hollings of South Carolina. Today, just six senators — three Republican and three Democrats — sit in a state where their party's nominee for president did not win. In other words, 20 years ago, many more senators had a political incentive to work with the opposite party. In fact, when President Bush passed the 2001 tax bill through reconciliation, 12 Democrats voted for it and two Republicans voted against it. Today, reconciliation means it passes only with a party-line vote.
We also know that the two parties don't just disagree on how to solve problems; they don't even agree on the same set of problems. This wasn't always the case, according to data compiled by Pew Research Center. "In 1999, improving the educational system topped the list of priorities for both Republicans and Democrats, and four of the top five issues for Republicans were listed among the Democrats' top five issues as well," wrote the authors of the Pew survey. "Ten years later, in the wake of the financial crisis, three issues (economy, jobs and terrorism) topped the list among both Republicans and Democrats (although they ranked them slightly differently)." By 2019, there was "not one overlapping priority between the top five priorities for Democrats and those of Republicans."
Finally, given the incredible volatility in our politics over the last fourteen years (the House and Senate have switched hands three times), a party in power knows that it has a very short window for pushing its priorities. Or, as former U.S. Rep. and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel would advise: “Don’t let a crisis go to waste."
However, the problem with pushing through major legislation on a party-line vote is that it alienates not just those in the other party, but it may fail to attract independent voters. If only one side is willing to defend it — and the other side is busy trashing it — well, that law can become pretty unpopular, very quickly.
Some policies are ultimately passed through reconciliation can start out as relatively popular — like health care reform — but end up much less popular as the process drags on (see, Obamacare, 2009-10). Others, like the 2017 tax reform bill passed by the GOP, started off unpopular and stayed that way.
In the case of health care reform, Barack Obama came into office with a pretty deep well of goodwill on the issue. An ABC/Washington Post poll taken in December of 2008 found that 68 percent of Americans thought he would be able to make significant improvements on the health care system. In April of 2009, 57 percent of Americans approved of the job Obama was doing on health care. But, by August of 2009, after a sustained campaign of opposition to health care legislation, including congressional town hall meetings overrun with anti-reform protestors, opinions of the law and Obama's handling of it plummeted. Obama's approval rating on the issue of health care dropped 30 points in those four months (from +26 to -4), and more Americans (50 percent) opposed proposed changes to the health care system than supported them (45 percent).
Meanwhile, the tax bill that Republicans passed through reconciliation in late December 2017 was never popular. A Gallup poll taken in early December that year found that just 29 percent of Americans approved of the legislation, compared to 56 percent who disapproved. A month later, Gallup found little improvement for the law, with just 33 percent approving and 55 percent disapproving. Or, as Gallup's Frank Newport wrote about the legislation in 2019: "There is little evidence that Americans were clamoring for a new tax law in 2017 before it was passed. The tax law received a very negative reading from the public in early December 2017, and, as I have noted, Americans have been negative about it ever since. Trump and Republican leaders have been unable to alter these apparently set-in-stone attitudes; the public as a whole remains negative."
So, how does the Democratic COVID relief bill compare to either of those examples? We don't have much polling yet on the proposed legislation, which makes an apples-to-apples comparison difficult.
So, how about President Biden? How does he compare at this point in his presidency to his predecessors? Biden’s job approval ratings are about 10 points lower than where President Obama's were at this point in his first term (53 percent to Obama's 65 percent), but he is much less polarizing than his immediate predecessor, Donald Trump. For example, a recent Marist College poll found that 55 percent think Biden is doing more to unite than divide the country. At this point in 2017, just 36 percent said that of Pres. Trump, while 57 percent said they thought he was doing more to divide the country.
So, Biden starts with a deeper well of support than Trump, but not as deep as that of Obama.
Democrats, including White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain and Biden pollster John Anzalone, argue that individual pieces of the COVID bill itself are popular. They both pointed to a poll out this week from Yahoo/YouGov that found large majorities of Americans supporting everything from $2,000 relief checks (74 percent approve) to a raise in the minimum wage to $15/hour (58 percent support). However, the poll also found that policies that Biden enacted by Executive Order, such as rejoining the Paris Climate accord and halting construction of the wall at the southern border, had less than majority support. Lifting the ban on travelers from Muslim countries, for example, had support of just 42 percent of Americans.
So, if Democrats decide to go ahead with reconciliation (as it looks almost certain to be the case today), they can not afford those policies that are currently popular to become unpopular.
More fundamentally, however, is the question of whether the Biden administration will be able to show Americans that they have successfully tackled COVID and improved the economy. If the economy recovers, vaccine production and distribution improve, and families can plan for summer vacations and schools back in session, process arguments about a lack of bipartisan outreach aren't going to get much traction.
However, if the next six months are messy, those attacks will likely carry more of a sting. Republicans will have an easier time making the case that Democrats, in their zeal to promote their own limited agenda, failed to fix the nations more serious problems.
However, let's also be realistic about what a bipartisan deal would mean politically for Democrats and Republicans. If things go well over the next six months, both sides can take credit. If things don't go well — say the vaccine distribution is still not fixed or the economy is still sputtering or schools are still shuttered — it won't matter that Biden was able to get a bipartisan bill to tackle these issues. The blame will fall squarely on him and his party.
Image: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite