For the first time in over a decade, Democrats have what is known as a "trifecta" of power, with control of the White House, Senate and House of Representatives. In theory, this would make it easier for Democrats to pass their legislative priorities, but their extremely narrow majorities in both houses of Congress may act as a stumbling block to accomplishing their goals.
The House has already passed measures shoring up voting rights, enacting campaign finance reform, enshrining legal protections for LGBTQ Americans, raising the federal minimum wage, and implementing stronger background checks for firearm purchases. Progressives in Congress see the opportunity to enact lasting change — but they are hampered by their narrow majorities and Senate rules.
"I have eternal concerns about the Senate," said Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna, one of the most prominent progressives in the House, in an interview with CBS News. "You could almost teach that in fifth grade civics, that everything that passes in the House doesn't pass in the Senate."
This pattern of passage in the House and failure in the Senate stems from the Senate rule that requires 60 senators to vote to end debate on most legislation. Democrats have the smallest possible majority in the Senate, with 50 seats and Vice President Kamala Harris casting any tie-breaking vote. Most bills considered to be priorities for Democrats are unlikely to garner support from 10 Republicans. But if Democrats voted to eliminate this rule, known as the legislative filibuster, it would allow legislation to pass by a simple majority.
Activists and progressives in the House have pushed Senate Democrats to eliminate the filibuster, arguing it is especially important for passing voting rights legislation. The House recently passed a wide-ranging bill called For the People Act, which encompasses elections and campaign finance reforms. Republicans almost universally opposed the bill, saying the bill amounts to federal overreach and would place an undue burden on state governments who must implement the regulations outlined in the bill.
Another priority for congressional Democrats is passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would restore a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act knocked down by the Supreme Court.
"How can you say it requires a 60-vote supermajority in deciding whether every American has the right to vote?" Khanna said, arguing in favor of eliminating the filibuster.
But Democrats face obstacles to eliminating the filibuster within the party. Senator Joe Manchin is vehemently opposed to ending the filibuster, and has also said he will not support creating a carve-out to allow voting rights bills to pass by a simple majority. Manchin wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post this week reiterating that he would not vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster, for several key Democratic priorities. Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema is also on the record saying she opposes eliminating the filibuster.
There's little that members of the House can do to influence their Senate colleagues to end the filibuster. But Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, advocated for educating voters on the filibuster so they can pressure their senators to end it.
"Nobody on the Democrats' side wants to go back to our constituents and say, 'You did your part, but we couldn't get what we needed to get done because of arcane procedures,'" Jayapal said in an interview with CBS News. "We're going to do our best to educate our constituents about what the holdup is."
Jayapal argued voters don't care about the minutiae of Senate rules, but want to understand why the lawmakers they elected to office aren't able to pass their priorities through both houses of Congress.
"If we can't do that, then yes, that will affect our ability to hold the House, the Senate, and in four years the White House," Jayapal said, warning that not eliminating the filibuster could have repercussions for Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections.
There are a few workarounds to the 60-vote threshold absent eliminating the filibuster, such as budget reconciliation, which allows Congress to pass budget-related bills with a simple majority vote in the Senate. Congress passed President Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan through reconciliation without any Republican votes, and may have to approve his massive $2 trillion infrastructure proposal through reconciliation as well.
However, there are strict rules for using budget reconciliation. Thethat a provision raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour could not be included in the final version of the American Rescue Plan, as it violated reconciliation rules. This does not bode well for any attempts to pass a minimum wage hike through budget reconciliation in the future.
Nonetheless, progressives in Congress are pressing forward with ambitious legislation that addresses their goals, even though these bills are unlikely to pass in the Senate. One such example is the THRIVE Act, recently reintroduced by Democratic Senator Ed Markey and Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, which would invest $10 trillion over ten years in renewable energy, climate justice and infrastructure projects.
"The intersecting crises we face — the climate crisis, the coronavirus pandemic, the economic recession, and a crisis of racial injustice — demand bold and urgent action that matches the scale and scope of the emergencies at hand," Markey said in a statement to CBS News, adding that any infrastructure legislation passed by Congress "must be ambitious, center justice in every investment, and include the strongest environmental standards possible."
Markey, who is considered to be one of the most progressive members of the Senate, also argued it is necessary to eliminate the filibuster to pass ambitious legislation.
"But if we are going to set our country on a path to progress and save our democracy – by finally passing a $15 minimum wage, protecting and expanding voting rights, and passing universal background checks — we have no choice but to abolish the filibuster. It's time to abolish this relic of a Jim Crow past, and take the necessary action to ensure we never return to business-as-usual," Markey said.
While the use of the filibuster long predates the Jim Crow laws of the late 19th and 20th centuries, it was used extensively by senators from the South to block civil rights legislation, leading some lawmakers to consider it a racist relic of the past.
Despite the challenges presented by the filibuster, progressives in Congress are feeling emboldened to use their power as a bloc. Khanna argued that although the minimum wage hike was excised from the American Rescue Plan, "we got a lot of the things that we wanted."
"Overall, that was quite a progressive bill," Khanna said. He also said that Mr. Biden's infrastructure bill was a "strong start," and incorporated some progressive priorities with regard to investing in renewable energy and expanding broadband access. On Friday, the Progressive Caucus released a list of demands for an infrastructure package, including $450 billion in Medicaid home and community-based services, permanent paid family leave, guaranteed housing choice vouchers for eligible Americans, and a binding federal clean energy standard.
Jayapal said she believed progressives had "gained more leverage and more power" in Congress, thanks to the popularity of many of their priorities.
"What we call progressive policies are actually very popular and populist policies, and they have a tremendous amount of support because people really want to see the government working for the people," Jayapal said.