Of course, he’s completely right (except for the part about Manchin and Sinema voting with Republicans—they are reliable Democratic votes).
Not only is it true that Biden has narrow majorities, this is likely to be a defining feature of his presidency. Unforeseen events always take a hand, but if you had to guess now, it seems likely that one of the headlines at the end of the Biden years will be, “The president had vaulting ambitions, frustrated by razor-thin (and perhaps temporary) legislative majorities.”
Somehow, this was apparently passed over or brushed aside at Biden’s session with liberal historians at the White House that focused on how he could be a transformative leader in the mold of FDR or LBJ.
It didn’t figure in the spate of commentary around the time of the passage of the Covid-relief bill that Biden was indeed on track to be the next FDR.
It should have driven as much attention to what Biden can’t do, as what he can do, or he wants to do, but the wish-casting among Democrats and some journalists was too strong to acknowledge the cold reality.
FDR had a historic majority in the House and a healthy majority in the Senate, which is what made it possible for him to be FDR. Needless to say, he wasn’t complaining that a couple of wayward Democrats were keeping him from doing anything shortly after the completion of his 100 days.
The reaction of the left to Biden’s predicament is to blame Manchin for being so stubbornly supportive of the filibuster.
The Rev. William J. Barber II, a civil rights leader, told the Washington Post in frustration, “They need to let Manchin understand we elected Joe Biden — not Joe Manchin — to be president.”
True enough, although many voters surely believed they were electing someone like Manchin as president—an old-school pragmatist who’d object at overturning a long-standing Senate practice in a headlong rush to try to rush to match the legislative output of transformational progressive presidents.
Indeed, Biden didn’t crusade against the filibuster in last year’s campaign. In fact, he didn’t even say ending it would be a priority. As late as February 2020, he said he opposed eliminating the filibuster. He was showing more leg by July, although only saying if Republicans were “obstreperous,” the filibuster would have to get a second look.
When in March of this year, he suddenly said the filibuster was being “abused” and had to change, Republicans hadn’t filibustered anything yet. If anyone had abused the filibuster over the past couple of years, it could only be Senate Democrats blocking President Donald Trump’s agenda.
Manchin has been the focus of attention on the filibuster, so much so that he’s complained about reporters badgering him about it. Sinema, though, sounds equally adamant, and there are other Senate Democrats who would go long if the party decided to go nuclear, but have no enthusiasm for the idea.
Regardless, on a number of high-profile issues like the $15 minimum wage and the HR1 voting bill, Biden’s problem isn’t getting to 60 votes to overcome a filibuster; it’s getting to 50 for a simple majority.
That the White House has been so willing to try to negotiate with Senate Republicans on infrastructure is probably a sign that it doesn’t have 50 votes for the current Biden proposal, either.
There’s no doubt that Biden is going to be able to spend a lot of money, although a new ruling from the Senate parliamentarian has dashed the hopes of Democrats that they might be able to use reconciliation—the budget process that bypasses the filibuster—multiple times this year.
But big, sweeping measures—like the voting bill, climate legislation and immigration changes—are out of reach absent a sea change.
A couple of months from now, it could be obvious that the highly touted Biden revolution is sputtering to a stop before it even gets started.
If so, the fault won’t be Manchin’s or Sinema’s, or in our stars, but in the simple fact that Biden doesn’t have enough votes in Congress—never did and never will.