WASHINGTON – The nation’s capital has been quiet as 2021 came to a close, but the new year is likely to bring a flurry of activity in Congress and the White House as Democrats try to make the most of their slim majorities in the House and Senate and Republicans hope to retake control of both chambers in the upcoming midterm elections.
After a key moderate Democrat withdrew his support for a bill party leaders had promised to pass by year’s end, President Joe Biden and his congressional allies will begin 2022 with serious questions hanging over their legislative agenda. Republicans, meanwhile, are champing at the bit as the elections approach and Biden’s approval ratings remain low, weighed down by economic concerns as the pandemic grinds on.
With the nation soon marking one year since supporters of Donald Trump stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, the former president continues to exert significant influence on a GOP that has excommunicated members who criticize him or reject his claim that the 2020 election was stolen. While Republicans grapple with that rift, Democratic leaders are also struggling to hold together a coalition of moderates and progressives who disagree on how they should use their limited time in control of both the White House and both houses of Congress.
Here are some of the political storylines to keep an eye on in the new year.
The future of Democrats’ agenda in Congress
The end of the year was shaping up to be a frenzy of last-minute deal-making as the White House and congressional Democrats sought to finalize the Build Back Better Act, a bill passed by the House in November that includes most of Biden’s domestic policy agenda in a single, sprawling package. But that action came to a sudden halt when Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said Dec. 19 he could not support the bill, dooming its chances of passage amid universal GOP opposition in the evenly divided Senate.
Manchin has said he could support parts of the massive proposal – which includes an extension of monthly child tax credit payments and subsidies to lower the cost of child care, college, health care, electric cars and more – but objected to what he has called “budget gimmicks” that hide the bill’s true cost. The legislation passed by the House would raise roughly $1.7 trillion over a decade but spend most of that money in just a few years, with Democrats wagering their programs would prove too popular for a future Congress not to extend.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that extending all the provisions for 10 years – the same duration as the tax increases on businesses and the wealthy that would pay for them – would increase the total cost of the legislation by nearly $3 trillion.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has said he plans to hold a symbolic vote on the bill in January to force Manchin to officially oppose it, but such a move could hurt vulnerable Democrats who face re-election in November more than the West Virginia senator, who represents a state that voted heavily for Trump in 2020.
Democratic leaders settled on the short-term funding approach after earlier resistance from Manchin and other centrist Democrats led the White House to propose cutting the bill’s original $3.5 trillion price tag in half. While moderates argued the party should prioritize and fully fund fewer programs to ensure their long-term impact, more left-wing members like Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Seattle, the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, successfully pushed to include short-term funding for nearly all the original bill’s provisions with the idea that they could be extended later with new tax hikes to pay for them.
In an op-ed in the Washington Post after Manchin torpedoed the bill a week earlier, Jayapal called for Biden to use his executive authority to act on the priorities targeted by the Build Back Better Act, including combating climate change and lowering health care costs. Yet while executive orders let a president bypass Congress to change policies, they can be easily reversed by a future occupant of the White House.
In an appearance on MSNBC on Tuesday, Rep. Suzan DelBene, a northwest Washington Democrat who leads the moderate New Democrat Coalition, cautioned that executive action can’t provide the “long-term, durable policy” she has advocated. While DelBene said she had not yet spoken with Manchin about a path forward for the legislation, the West Virginia senator has also called for his party to narrow its focus to allow for longer-term funding.
One of Manchin’s chief gripes with the bill is the expanded child tax credit, a major priority of DelBene and other moderate Democrats, which the House version of the bill would extend by just one year. A provision in the pandemic relief bill Democrats passed in March transformed an existing tax credit into monthly payments similar to the child allowances that exist in many other developed countries, with two-parent families that earn up to $150,000 a year eligible for the monthly payments of up to $300 per child.
Families earning up to $400,000 a year are eligible for reduced payments, but Manchin has said the benefit should go only to lower-income families. That would reduce the cost of the program, the single most expensive piece of the Build Back Better Act, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates would cost nearly $1.6 trillion over a decade in its current form.
Before withdrawing his support for the bill, The Washington Post reported, Manchin privately made an offer to the White House that he would support a bill including universal preschool, health insurance subsidies and climate change provisions but excluding the child tax credit extension. Manchin’s insistence that the bill should reflect the true cost of its provisions suggests the legislation may need to be broken into separate pieces, but Democrats have just one shot at sidestepping a Republican filibuster in the Senate, which is why they piled so many provisions into a single bill in the first place.
Crafting a bill that meets the demands of Manchin and other moderates without losing the support of progressives will be a difficult balancing act, but it may be Democrats’ last chance to pass major legislation before the election in November. Funding all the bill’s provisions for 10 years would also ensure their long-term impact without counting on a Congress extending them after the midterms, a prospect that looks increasingly unlikely as Democrats’ hopes of retaining control of both the House and Senate dim.
What’s at stake in the midterm elections
November’s midterm elections will decide who occupies all 438 House seats and one-third of the 100 seats in the Senate. With Democrats holding the narrowest of majorities in both chambers, Republicans are well positioned to seize control of at least one of them, leading to a divided government that would likely grind Biden’s legislative priorities to a halt.
If polling and precedent are any indication, the GOP is poised to retake the House and perhaps also the Senate. The party that controls the White House has historically fared poorly in midterm elections, as frustrated voters who can’t oust the president elect lawmakers to put a check on the executive branch. According to averages of polls compiled by the website FiveThirtyEight, as of Friday 51.6% of Americans disapproved of the job Biden has done as president while 43.3% approve, and Republicans also held a slight edge over Democrats when U.S. voters were asked which party they favored in congressional races.
Controlling the House and Senate wouldn’t mean Republicans could enact any laws they want, since Biden could veto legislation, but it would let GOP leaders decide what bills get voted on in committees and on the floor. It would also elevate some Northwest lawmakers to powerful committee roles.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, would become chair of the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee, whose wide jurisdiction includes health care, energy policy and internet regulations. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, would chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, likely making him the most visible critic of the administration’s foreign policy and effectively giving him veto power over a new Columbia River Treaty for which U.S. and Canadian negotiators resumed talks at the end of November.
Control of the House will also depend in large part on the new congressional districts in each state, based on population data from the 2020 census. While some states let judges or nonpartisan commissions redraw district lines, most states’ maps are decided by the party in control of state government, and in the current cycle Republicans are redrawing 2.5 times more districts than Democrats, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Shifts in the U.S. population also mean some states are gaining extra districts in 2022 while others are losing them. While neither Washington nor Idaho saw big enough population gains over the past decade to gain new seats, Oregon and Montana will each send one additional representative to Congress, with the new districts favoring Democrats in Oregon and Republicans in Montana.
While neither of Idaho’s senators faces re-election in 2022, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is defending her seat against political newcomer Tiffany Smiley, a Republican from Pasco who is counting on strong GOP turnout to help her overcome strong political headwinds in the heavily Democratic-leaning state.
A few House races in Washington seem even less certain. GOP Reps. Dan Newhouse of central Washington and Jaime Herrera Beutler of southwest Washington are both facing challengers from within their own party after they drew the ire of Trump supporters when they voted to impeach the former president for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.
In Washington’s most competitive congressional district, which stretches across the Cascades from the eastern suburbs of Seattle and Tacoma to Wenatchee, three Republicans have already lined up to challenge Democratic Rep. Kim Schrier for a seat the National Republican Campaign Committee has identified as a top target.
While Washington’s nonpartisan primary system means the top two vote-getters in the Aug. 2 primary will move on to the general election regardless of party affiliation, most states hold partisan primaries that encourage candidates to appeal to their party’s most vocal voters. The result has been more lawmakers at the extreme ends of the political spectrum and political gridlock that threatens Congress’s ability to conduct what was once routine business.
How will a growing political divide affect Congress?
One of the most basic responsibilities of Congress is to pass legislation each year to fund the federal government, but amid growing division in recent years lawmakers have repeatedly let funding lapse and caused government shutdowns that have disrupted air travel, shuttered national parks and furloughed federal workers.
Although Democrats hold majorities in both chambers, the Senate filibuster rule means at least 10 Republicans need to vote with all 50 Democrats to pass a bill to fund the government. Lawmakers passed a stopgap funding bill in early December that extended the previous year’s funding level through Feb. 18, when a shutdown will begin unless Congress either passes a new annual spending bill or kicks the can farther down the road with another temporary provision.
Each year, House and Senate committees write 12 separate appropriations bills that together decide how much money goes to each federal program. That process is meant to encourage compromise, but spending bills have increasingly been held hostage as part of other political fights.
The nation’s longest-ever shutdown happened for 34 days in 2018 and 2019 as Democrats resisted then-President’s Trump demand for funding to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. In 2013, Republicans shut down the government in one of several attempts to undo then-President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.
Government shutdowns are just one sign of growing division among Americans and the lawmakers they elect to represent them. A month before the 2020 elections, a Pew Research Center survey found roughly 80% of both Democrats and Republicans said their differences were about core American values and about 90% of each group said a victory by the other side would cause “lasting harm” to the country.
Trump’s repeated claim that the election was stolen from him through massive fraud – despite being rejected by GOP state election officials, Trump-appointed judges and Trump’s own attorney general – still have wide support among Republicans. A poll released Tuesday by the University of Massachusetts Amherst found 71% of GOP voters consider Biden’s victory illegitimate.
Other surveys show most voters only say they trust U.S. elections when their party wins. In polls conducted by Ipsos, 39% of Democratic voters said in 2019 they expected the next election to be fair, but 69% of Democrats said the same in 2021. Republicans said nearly the exact opposite, with 72% saying in 2019 they expected the next election to be fair and just 37% saying the same in 2021.
Yet Trump’s insistence that he won the election and his repeated attempts to overturn the result present a unique challenge to America’s democratic institutions. In an October poll by Quinnipiac University, two-thirds of Republicans said they didn’t consider what happened at the Capitol on Jan. 6 to be an attack on the government, and the few Republicans who have tried to hold Trump accountable for his role in that day’s violence have been punished by their own party.
November’s election will be the first major test of U.S. voting systems and a preview of an even higher-stakes election in 2024. Even without control of the White House at stake, claims of fraud – and claims by Democrats of voter suppression after GOP-controlled states have enacted voting restrictions – are likely to play a major role in voters’ faith in the outcomes.
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