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From voting rights to abortion: Inside the new Democratic Congress if the party pulls off a major midterm win

If Joe Biden’s party pulls off a majority, it will provide a shock to the DC political class and change the game for his legislative agenda, John Bowden writes

Tuesday 08 November 2022 11:54 GMT

What happens if Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer pull it off?

It seems like an impossibility, at least if you listen to the Washington DC pundit class. A Republican takeover of the House, in their minds, is all but a certainty; in the Senate, pessimists now fret that John Fetterman, Cheri Beasley, Tim Ryan and Val Demings will all fail in their bids to flip various GOP-held Senate seats red and even worry that Herschel Walker will succeed in ousting one of the Democrats’ own, Raphael Warnock, in Georgia.

But the election is far from certain if you listen to polling experts or activists on the ground, both of whom paint very different pictures than the one being lifted up as inevitable for Washington come January by the DC media. Analysts like Nate Cohn of The New York Times have noted that a polling error of just a few points in the favour of Democrats would lead to a massive unexpected win for the president’s party, while Democratic-aligned organisers say there’s a reason to believe that could take form.

Tamika Middleton, managing director of the Women’s March, expressed such optimism in an interview, which she attributed to what she says is a post-Roe vs Wade wave of women at the polls that she says surveys aren’t accounting for: “I mean, what we see even just in the … registration of new voters. It’s telling us that women will turn out in different numbers. We’re seeing higher numbers of women registering to vote, we see that not just nationally, but we also see that in specific states.”

So what does a congressional agenda look like, two years into Joe Biden’s presidency under the hypothetical scenario of resurgent Democratic majorities in Congress, reinvigorated by a fresh mandate from voters?

Roe needs a response

At the top of nearly every Democrat’s list, no matter where they stand on the political spectrum, is codifying the abortion rights protections of Roe vs Wade into federal law. Be they connected to party leadership in the halls of Congress or on the ground rallying voters in swing states, the answer was the same.

“Obviously, if Democrats win, it will be in no small part because of the overturning of Roe vs Wade. So I think Democrats should lean into that,” advised Joseph Geevarghese of Our Revolution. “If they win on that, they’ve got to deliver on that.”

The Independent confirmed in a conversation with a senior Democratic congressional aide that abortion rights are indeed “first on the agenda”. And all agree that the path to doing so lies in reaching the magic number in the Senate: 52. That’s 50 votes needed to reform the filibuster via the so-called “nuclear option”, plus two: Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, the only Senate Democrats to come out ardently against changes to the filibuster rule for any reason.

Abortion-rights protesters regroup and protest following Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in Washington, Friday, June 24, 2022. (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

“It seems sort of facile to say but really so much depends on the configuration of the Senate,” the senior Democratic source told The Independent.

For many Democrats, the sense of urgency on this issue is at the highest its ever been. Republican legislatures around the country rushing to implement bans on abortion and GOPers at the national level considering the same, and more than ever the left is warning that Republicans will simply dismantle the filibuster to pass that ban and the rest of their own agenda given the chance.

“The moment Mitch McConnell takes the gavel, takes charge of the Senate, the filibuster is going to be gone and they’re going to do all kinds of things. We need to recognize this and understand that we need to be thinking much more aggressively,” warned Kelly Dietrich of the National Democratic Training Committee.

Voting rights

Remember the short-lived push by the White House to reform US voting laws? The bill, which predictably stalled in the US Senate after passing the House, would have made Election Day a federal holiday, mandated two weeks of early voting nationwide, expanded mail-in voting, and declared partisan gerrymandering illegal. It was seen as a major piece of legislation that would have expanded voting access nationwide but particularly in GOP-led states that have levied restrictions on voting in recent years that what Mr Geevarghese in his interview characterized as “an assault that’s playing out by the GOP and Trump all around the country”.

President Joe Biden arrives to cast his vote during early voting for the 2022 U.S. midterm elections with his granddaughter Natalie Biden, a first-time voter, at a polling station in Wilmington, Del., Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022. (Tasos Katopodis/Pool Photo via AP)

Expect a renewed push on that issue, especially from progressives, if Democrats hold the House and Senate. If the party gets within striking distance of ending the filibuster, those calls will be especially vocal.

“Look: The reason Republicans are competitive in the House is because of gerrymandering. Full stop. The reason that Republicans control so many state legislatures is gerrymandering, full stop, right? So we’re playing a game where the rules are rigged. We have an opportunity to unrig the rules. So that would allow us to accomplish a whole lot more,” said Mr Dietrich.

Build Back Better, back again

Joe Biden’s signature piece of legislation ended up being his signature defeat of the first two years of his presidency. The bill ultimately failed to pass through the reconciliation process before being sort-of resuscitated, in part, in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act this summer.

But that hasn’t led to Democratic leaders giving up on it. If the ground in the Senate changes even a little bit, it swings the door wide open for leadership to take the president’s social services and climate agenda and put it squarely back on the table.

“I mean, the notable piece is, the pieces that were in Build Back Better obviously don’t need 52 [votes]”, noted the Democratic congressional aide who spoke with knowledge of leadership’s positions.

Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer (EPA)

“From the perspective of the House, at least, the House already sort of has this package of legislation that’s sort of on the shelf that was originally a part of build back better but didn’t make it into the final inflation Reduction Act,” they continued.

“It’s sort of those you know, it’s a lot of the pieces that didn’t make it, like Child Tax Credit, like housing, like child care, universal pre K paid leave, caregiver, home health care.”

That message is music to progressives’ ears, given that they have spent the last few weeks and months warning that the Democrats are ceding ground on kitchen-table issues like rising consumer costs to Republicans.

Our Revolution’s chief urged his party’s leaders to “speed…the priorities that would be delivering on things that will help them win”, like improving the standard of living for working-class Americans and expanding labour rights.

Build on the narrative that “an expanded Senate majority will mean we pass a higher minimum wage. An expanded Senate majority will mean lower prescription drug costs.An expanded Senate Majority will mean more aggressive climate protection.”

Get loud for 2024

There’s one more priority that the Democrats’ grassroots base wants to see Joe Biden and his allies in leadership pursue if they keep majorities in the House and Senate: Bragging.

No, seriously. There’s a wide sense among the Democratic base that the messaging coming from party leaders is insufficient; that it can’t just be about stoking fears of what a Republican takeover will look like, but rather needs to also focus on a positive vision of what a Democratic majority wants to do for Americans. And part of that, according to activists and organisers, begins with telling voters what Democrats accomplish and have already accomplished, as well as what that will mean for their lives.

“We need to quit being modest. We need to quit being scared of any kind of blowback. And we need to go out and brag,” insisted Kelly Dietrich. “Republicans are the party of Putin, right? Republicans are the party that wants to give Comcast a tax break. We’re the ones trying to say the Child Tax Credit should be permanent. We’re the one saying you shouldn’t be footing the bill.”

“It’s a 24/7 kind of old, aggressive messaging that’s needed to break through and be consistent and set the tone and set the agenda, set the political environment, if you will, for the coming year.”

Mr Geevarghese concurred, and said that in the next campaign cycle Democrats needed to move away from a messaging centred on raising alarms about the GOP or Trumpist agenda to one centred on their own party’s priorities for delivering to voters.

“I think Democrats are running a campaign that is more based on fear,” he said. “When it comes to the economic argument, they’re saying, ‘look, if Republicans take power, they’re gonna take Social Security they’re gonna roll back Medicare,’ but they’re not leaning into, you know, what we can do in the United States Senate if we expand our power base. We will deliver A, B, C, D, that will equal a boost in your standards of living.”

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