Art by Norah Jankey
In Late January of 2021, the United States Senate will bear a perfect split, 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (D) breaking any ties in voting. This razor-thin majority (51-50, including the vote of Harris), which Democrats won with the victory of Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia this past Tuesday, gives President-elect Joe Biden the votes he needs to pass his major legislative proposals, such as a public option, climate reform, and much more. A one-vote majority may not seem entirely certain to secure the Democrats’ plans, but due to the hyper-partisanship of Washington, Senators consistently fall into party-line votes without many notable dissents or cases of division. In recent years, news sites and voters have been able to predict the outcome of a Senate action before a vote even takes place simply by noting which party has introduced the legislation and the affiliation of each Senator. Moderates in Congress, who were once seen as ‘swing’ votes on a number of issues and did not always obey the majority will of their party, have become increasingly scarce as the political parties become even more polarized.
In the past, a party’s majority did not assure the passage or rejection of any given bill brought before the Senate floor. An example of this can be seen in the 2017 ‘skinny repeal’ vote, a Republican effort to roll back elements of the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare). Two Republican moderates, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, planned on joining the Democratic minority in voting against the measure, which would have made for a 50-50 vote, or rather a 51-50 vote should Vice President Mike Pence (R) break the tie in the Republicans’ favor. However, another Republican moderate, John McCain of Arizona, joined the other two dissenting GOP Senators in striking down the Obamacare repeal. McCain gave no prior indication of his plans to cross the aisle, leaving both sides of the chamber in shock. It must be acknowledged that 97 of the 100 Senators voted along party lines, so the skinny repeal’s failure should not necessarily be touted as a victory or rebirth of the Congressional moderate. Despite this, the vote was a powerful symbol of the few elected officials willing to put aside their partisan beliefs for one highly polarized vote.
Even in the mere two years since the 2018 midterm elections, examples of high-profile party line votes can illustrate just how little ‘swing’ margin is present in modern American politics. When the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump reached the Senate, a number of moderates from both parties seemed to consider voting ‘either way’: conviction or acquittal. Democrat Joe Manchin, from the deep-red state of West Virginia, remained undecided until immediately before the impeachment vote. Moderates Collins and Murkowski also appeared largely undecided on the matter, though the vast majority of other Senators had previously made public statements either backing or rejecting impeachment efforts. However, once the Senate vote arrived, Manchin (D) voted to convict the Republican President, while Collins and Murkowski (R) acquitted him on both charges. The lone Senator to cross the aisle was Republican Mitt Romney of Utah. Every ‘moderate’ Senator who has previously been undecided fell into line with their party.
A similar recent example of a near party line vote came in late October with the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Senate votes on appointments to the nation’s highest bench were previously bipartisan and overwhelmingly in support of the President’s nominee. Until recent years the votes were nearly unanimous as a sign of the court’s non-partisan nature. The Barrett vote was the opposite; similar to the impeachment vote, all but one Senator, Collins (R), followed their respective parties to deliver a 52-48 confirmation vote. This example in particular highlights clearly how Congress’s ability to reach across the aisle has nearly become extinct, falling to the responsibility of an ephemeral and fleeting handful of moderates.
The shift away from a moderate Congress to increasingly polarized votes and discussions is a danger to the United States democratic system and people. If the outcome of each vote can be predicted as soon as a bill is proposed, then debate deteriorates. Bipartisanship falters. Persuasion comes to a standstill. Each caucus isolates itself, establishing a true ‘us vs. them’ system. However, if the semblance of a moderate group of Senators is reborn, then there is a new breed of lawmakers willing to listen to the arguments presented by each party, able to make a decision not based on their political affiliations but their moral compass and by the efforts of their fellow legislatures. The future for unity looks bleak, but even a few more officials able to cross boundaries and divisions can deliver a clear message of hope.
Caldwell, Leigh Ann. “Obamacare Repeal Fails: Three GOP Senators Rebel in 49-51 Vote.” NBC. Published July 28, 2017. Accessed January 2, 2021. https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/senate-gop-effort-repeal-obamacare-fails-n787311.
Hertz, Michael T. “Why did Murkowski vote against allowing impeachment witnesses?” Nation of Change. Published February 4, 2020. Accessed January 2, 2021. https://www.nationofchange.org/2020/02/04/why-did-murkowski-vote-against-allowing-impeachment-witnesses/.
Sprunt, Barbara. “Amy Coney Barrett Confirmed To Supreme Court, Takes Constitutional Oath.” NPR. Published October 26, 2020. Accessed January 2, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2020/10/26/927640619/senate-confirms-amy-coney-barrett-to-the-supreme-court.
Zaslav, Ali. “Undecided Democratic senator calls for the Senate to censure Trump.” CNN. Published February 3, 2020. Accessed January 2, 2021. https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/03/politics/joe-manchin-censure-trump/index.html.