Democrats Discover the Hidden Power of a Minority
Policy + Politics

Democrats Discover the Hidden Power of a Minority

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Just yesterday, it seems, Republicans were crowing about their landslide victory in November and President Obama and the Democrats were reeling in defeat. 

How things have changed. 

In just a few months, House and Senate Democrats have gone from being a beaten-down new minority party to an effective blocking force on Capitol Hill. They’ve provided strong backup to a president who clearly is not going to go quietly in his last two years in office. 

President Obama has wielded the threat of a veto to protect his immigration executive orders from Republican attacks and demonstrated that he – and not the GOP – would set the timetable for approving or rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline project. 

Related: GOP Senators Send Their Own Warning to Iran on Nukes 

Despite a massive resistance from Republicans and some Democrats, Obama has indicated he would cut a deal with Iran to limit its efforts to develop a nuclear weapon if he concludes it’s good enough. 

“The bottom line is the world is much more complicated than people thought it would be when the Republicans took control of both houses,” said former Democratic Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, now a Washington lawyer and co-author of The Partisan Divide: Congress in Crisis. “You still have a Democratic president, you still have a strategically organized Democratic party in both the House and the Senate, and the Republicans are going to have to figure out how to live with this – how to govern with it. And they haven’t figured it out yet.”   

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) used the post-election season to lecture Obama and vanquished Democrats on the realities of divided government. They said they would be willing to work with the Democrats and the president on some mutually agreeable measures, including trade legislation, elements of corporate tax reform and new highway legislation to bolster the nation’s infrastructure. 

As rhetoric gave way to reality, the two sides found that the politically charged atmosphere on Capitol Hill had changed little from previous Congresses – except in one way. Republicans were now fully responsible for getting things done, while Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and his troops had to adjust to a new diminished status in the Senate. 

Related: McConnell Vows to Avoid Another Debt Ceiling Crisis 

Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), however, soon found themselves more than capable of influencing the outcome of legislative debates. That’s because McConnell was six votes shy of the 60-vote super majority he needed to get anything done in the Senate, while Boehner was again at the mercy of a vocal faction of Tea Party conservatives determined to find ways to thwart Obama. 

Reid, looking like a buccaneer with a big bandage over his injured eye, has led four consecutive filibusters to block a House-passed Dept. of Homeland Security spending bill. The bill would have included language to block implementation of Obama’s executive orders to protect millions of illegal immigrants from deportation. 

Obama promised to veto the bill if it reached his desk. Then, last November, a federal judge in Texas ruled that Obama’s executive action was illegal and Obama’s action is on hold indefinitely

McConnell, possibly feeling that the court had taken the pressure off, eventually backed down and oversaw passage of a “clean” spending bill, with none of the immigration language, and sent it back to the House,  where it was eventually approved. 

Impatient with the administration’s years-long review of the Keystone Pipeline project, Republican lawmakers – with some Democratic support – finally sent a bill approving the pipeline project to the president.  They argued it would create thousands of jobs and enhance the nation’s energy self-sufficiency. Without Reid and a Democratic Senate to stop the Republicans, Obama – expectedly -- vetoed the bill. 

Related: House GOP Relents, Passes ‘Clean’ DHS Bill 

Finally, Republicans have been trying to hamper a potential deal limiting Iran’s ability to enrich uranium to the level needed for nuclear weapons. Some Democrats support a bill requiring any such deal to be approved by the Senate. However, they weren’t willing to back it if, as he originally intended, McConnell brought it to the floor while negotiations between the U.S. and Tehran continued. McConnell was forced on Monday to remove the bill from the Senate calendar. 

“Clearly being in the driver’s seat is not everything it’s cracked up to be,” said Ron Bonjean, a Washington political strategist and former GOP congressional communications official. “They passed the Keystone Pipeline legislation, but Republicans obviously need to do a lot more. 

They know that, but the challenge has been getting past the Department of Homeland appropriation, which has been stalling their progress and that had to come to a conclusion.”  

These have been stressful times for McConnell and Boehner – so much so that Reid and Pelosi, a former House speaker herself, have voiced mild sympathy for the challenges their GOP counterparts face. 

Reid and Pelosi both helped the Republican leaders break a stalemate over the $40 billion DHS spending bill, which nearly led to a partial shutdown of the department responsible for protecting Americans. Pelosi has a pretty good relationship with Boehner and in recent years helped him avert fiscal crises, provide relief for Hurricane Sandy victims and pass the Violence Against Women Act. 

“One underestimates Senator Harry Reid at his own peril,” said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political and congressional expert. “And I must say that Leader Pelosi – despite a lot of criticism against her because of the poor showing of House Democrats in the last two congressional elections – has regained a measure of stature, which I think she really deserves.” 

Related: McConnell Comes Up with a New Anti-Shutdown Tactic 

In some ways, McConnell, a shrewd veteran dealmaker, has been the adult in the room trying to forge bipartisan deals where he can, as with the Keystone Pipeline passage in the Senate. Boehner has resisted deals with Democrats unless necessary, acting more like a beleaguered teacher with an unruly class. 

Neither has had a particularly good first two months. McConnell has drawn the animus of House conservatives and outside conservative groups like the Club for Growth and Heritage Foundation, for compromising on the DHS funding bill. Boehner, for his part, has been humiliated by rebellious members of his conference. 

Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), a conservative, told The New York Times this week, “I think that right now the powers that be are already on a very slippery slope. They understand that, they know that. You lose one battle, but I don’t think you necessarily lose the war.” 

Republicans are clearly trying to reboot Congress with a more effective game plan that either attracts some Democratic support or divides the combative Democratic minority. Congress will face some daunting challenges in the coming months, with issues including Iran, new war powers for the president, Medicare payments for doctors, infrastructure, new government spending bills for the coming year and raising the debt ceiling. 

Related: McConnell Previews GOP Agenda of Compromise, Confrontation 

“We’re definitely moving to offense,” Sen. John Thune (R-SD), a member of the Senate leadership, told The Hill Monday. “We’re hoping the Democrats want to work with us on some of those issues, but like usual we’re not holding our breath on that.” 

Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, said Republicans face a more complicated challenge than many recognize. 

“People believe the Republicans ‘control’ Congress. But control is only nominal,” he said. “The House is split three ways: traditional mainstream conservative Republicans, very conservative and Tea Party Republicans, and Democrats. Two of the three factions must join forces to some degree to get 218 votes. In the Senate, Republicans have 54 votes but need 60 if all GOP senators vote together. Without six or more Democrats, McConnell can do little. And Republicans are helpless in both houses to overcome any presidential veto.” 

Democrats, meanwhile, freed from the responsibility to make sure the business of governing gets done, are plainly using all the leverage available.  

“Democrats have discovered the joys of minority status,” Sabato said. “In Congress it is almost always easier to stop things from happening than to make them happen. Democrats have a stop sign in both houses, and they have been able to get their way by using their institutional leverage, given GOP divisions. You’re not going to make history that way, but you will have control over legislative outcomes,” he added. 

Rob Garver of The Fiscal Times contributed to this story. 

Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: