First, consider President Biden’s proposed infrastructure package, a program of government spending of over $2 trillion. I would ask you to glance through this summary, courtesy of CNN, updated March 31, 2021.
There are two ways that the Democrats in Congress can proceed. They can act without any Republican cooperation, which would mean that in the Senate they would need all 50 Democrats to pass the bill with Vice President Harris’s tie-breaking vote. For that, they would need only to pacify centrist Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, which would mean a little trimming off the spending and some modifications on the tax plan. They can do that by calling it “budget reconciliation,” a process limited to bills that are just about taxing and spending. Otherwise, it could be filibustered, in which case it would need 60 votes rather than just 50 + 1.
Or, they could get some Republicans on board. But that would mean agreeing to some major cuts. As you look over that summary (see the link above), it should be clear that much of what’s in that package isn’t what is normally understood as “infrastructure.” Infrastructure usually means transportation, but this package has elements that would seem more like social welfare, precisely the area where Republicans think the Democrats spend too much. Biden’s package also includes measures to address climate change, so much so that critics charge it has the Green New Deal embedded in it. Making a deal with Republicans would mean kissing a good deal of that goodbye–and, in the process, infuriating Progressives, many of whom are already talking about forming their own party and leaving the Democratic Party to twist in the wind.
But the Democrats’ position in Congress is precarious. They control the House by a margin of fewer than ten seats, and in the Senate, they have no margin at all, just a tie with the vice president as the tie-breaker. What that means is that all it takes is for one Democratic senator, especially a Democratic senator from a state where the Democrats do not have a secure advantage, to die or be caught in a big scandal. If the Democrats lose even one seat in the Senate, the Republicans will have a majority. And at that point, the Republicans will be in a position to exact a high price for even a little bit of cooperation on matters like infrastructure.
What makes the Democrats’ position even more precarious is that in midterm congressional elections, the president’s party usually loses seats. And you can be sure that the Republicans, as we speak, are strategizing to win back the majority in both chambers of Congress. If we just remind ourselves that back in 2016, the Republicans’ majority in the House was so secure that the Democrats barely even tried to upset it, and if we remind ourselves that the Democrats, even while keeping their majority in the House, lost some seats in the 2020 election even while Trump lost the presidency, it becomes clear: the Democrats’ position in Congress is precarious now, and it will be particularly so next year.