Democrats can blame the filibuster, gerrymandering, even the basic structure of the Senate for their inability to fulfill their New Deal wishes and Great Society dreams. But one problem they have is more fundamental: They are trying to enact big programs with historically small majorities.
The party held no fewer than 59 Senate seats and north of 300 House seats when the major New Deal legislation was passed. Democrats enjoyed a 68-32 Senate majority and a 295-140 edge in the House at the height of the Great Society. Democrats held roughly three-fifths majorities in both houses of Congress when they passed President Bill Clinton's 1993 tax increase and ObamaCare, even if both prevailed only by small margins.
Democrats are trying to pass a slew of liberal legislation, anchored by a $3.5 trillion spending package, with a 50-50 Senate and just four seats more than a bare majority in the House. They feel justified in doing so not only because they think their majorities should rightfully be bigger without the structural inequities mentioned above, but also because they are sure Republicans would usher in the conservative equivalent under the same circumstances.
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After all, Republicans pushed through three conservative Supreme Court justices — including one just before an election polls showed they were likely to lose — without the filibuster. They passed the 2001 Bush tax cuts through reconciliation in an equally divided Senate, although 12 Democrats joined in, and the 2003 sequel 51-49 in the same chamber.
Democrats find themselves in a position similar to Republicans in recent years: Their majorities are small by historical standards, but more ideologically homogeneous than before. They have a faction that is so intent on ensuring purity that they are willing to sink legislation, assuming the Congressional Progressive Caucus is truly willing to use its leverage in a Freedom Caucus-like manner. And because majorities are so small, the moderates remain a faction that can disrupt all the carefully laid plans (even if they normally cave).
The political conditions facing Nancy Pelosi are not all that dissimilar from those of John Boehner, the man who tearfully handed her the gavel the first time she became speaker. Time will tell whether Democrats have more to show for their majorities in the end.
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