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Analysis: What full Democratic control of Washington could mean in 2021

Peter Cohn, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- It's far too early for Democrats to measure the drapes. But with coronavirus cases spiking, former Vice President Joe Biden surging and at-risk Senate GOP incumbents faltering, it's worth considering the implications of a Democratic sweep on Nov. 3.

The incoming administration and Democratic leaders would have to move fast and pick their spots: The president's party almost always loses seats in midterm elections. They would have less than 18 months to put points on the board before lawmakers go into self-preservation mode.

They won't have a big margin for error. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales sees the House breakdown staying about where it is, give or take five Democratic seats. So Speaker Nancy Pelosi may only be able to lose 10 to 20 votes and still pass bills without GOP support. Meanwhile, a massive Senate wave, extending to states like Kansas where no Democratic senator has won since 1932, probably has a ceiling of around 55 Democratic votes.

Progressives pine for the "nuclear option," or eliminating the 60-vote filibuster threshold. But institutionalists, including left-wing icon Bernie Sanders of Vermont, know the shoe eventually ends up on the other foot. After Democratic Leader Harry Reid went nuclear for most of President Barack Obama's nominees, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did the same for President Donald Trump's Supreme Court picks.

Sanders, who is in line to become Budget Committee chairman, instead wants to expand the use of budget reconciliation, which allows bills to pass with simple majorities but is generally limited to fiscal policy actions.

Climate policy still divides Democrats, though to a lesser degree than when Rust Belt senators helped kill Obama's "cap and trade" plan a decade ago. The party is more unified around health care, which could also fit more snugly inside reconciliation.


But party leaders will need to tread carefully since it will be purple-to-red-state Democrats that wrest control back from Republicans. Just ask former Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who lost in 2010 after voting for the health care law.

"I got hit from the left in my primary, and then I got hit from the right in the general," Lincoln said. "Raising money in Arkansas is not easy; you've got to go outside (the state). And then you get hit for that."

It may not be "Medicare for All," but Biden wants big changes like lowering the Medicare eligibility age by five years and a "public option" for the Obamacare exchanges to compete with private insurers, along with bigger coverage subsidies. Total costs could be north of $2 trillion over a decade, based on estimates from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and others.

A chunk of offsets could come from prescription drug savings, as Biden has proposed. But the appetite among Senate Democrats, where the pharmaceutical industry has more sway, may not be what it is in the House, where Democrats have proposed more than $600 billion in 10-year savings.


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