Democrats aren’t getting everything they want in the reconciliation package, which is to be expected.

The 2020 election results were far from a mandate for a sweeping Democratic legislative agenda.

Many Democrats these days are understandably upset at the recent actions of two prominent senators, Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ). The pair of centrists are working to significantly pare down — and even take entire chunks out of — Biden’s massive social spending programs in the “reconciliation bill.” Those chunks are policies that would have real-world impacts, like a carbon tax, expanded child tax credit, and others. And it’s the seemingly arbitrary nature of their demands — including a focus on the price tag rather than the bill’s specific components — that has led to much of the consternation.

The problem for Democrats, however, is that Biden does not enjoy the massive congressional majorities that FDR and LBJ each had when they passed sweeping social programs of their own, and he therefore needs both Sinema and Manchin on board in order to pass his reconciliation package (because Republicans are not going to provide the votes for it). In fact, Biden’s majorities are about as narrow as one can have and still claim them — 50–50 in the Senate (with VP Harris as the tiebreaker) and 220–212 in the House. These narrow margins are the result of an extremely close 2020 election: Democrats took the Senate by 148,782 votes, and they kept their House majority by just 31,751 votes. (And, for what it’s worth, Biden won the presidency by only 42,918 votes.)

No party that wins an election by such razor-thin margins is likely to be in a position to pass everything it wants. (Remember that Republicans, who held a 52–48 majority in 2017, failed to overturn the Affordable Care Act — something they had promised to do for years — because their deciding vote was John McCain, who voted no.) For Democrats to push through Biden’s reconciliation bill fully or even mostly intact, they needed to win Senate races in North Carolina, Maine, Montana, and elsewhere in 2020, but they didn’t. Now, their deciding Senate vote belongs to a guy whose state Trump won by 39 points. They also should have grown their House majority (as they were projected to), but they instead saw it shrink.

In other words, the country did not give Democrats their blessing (or a mandate) to pass the kind of sweeping legislation that many of the party’s voters want. Rather, they gave them permission to wrest control from a guy whose presidency was famously chaotic and exhausting for many voters and to show that they can govern more responsibly. It should not be forgotten that Biden won 8% of Republicans (by comparison, Trump only won 4% of Democrats) and decisively won independents, 52–37%. He is president today in part because a lot of non-Democrats also voted for him.

This isn’t to say that Democratic annoyance at Sinema and Manchin isn’t understandable. Moreover, we may not even be having this conversation but for the Senate’s filibuster rules, which have forced Democrats to squeeze most of their priorities into one package. The reality, though, is that we continue to be a very divided country, politically speaking, and thus neither party has had a mandate in recent years to enact their entire agenda. Biden’s struggles with Congress, then, should come as no surprise.



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Michael Baharaeen

Political analyst focused on electoral politics, Congress, demographic trends, polling, public policy, and political history.