Democrats Have Inherited a Broken Senate. Can They Make It Work?

Tom Udall used his farewell address as New Mexico’s senior senator to deliver a dire assessment of the chamber in which he had served for 12 years. “The Senate is broken,” he said in December. “Our government is supposed to respond to the will of the majority while protecting the rights of the minority. Instead, we have the tyranny of the minority. That minority is superwealthy, politically powerful, and dangerously out of touch with the American people.”

“We have to do something to fix this,” he said, concluding with a warning to his colleagues: “We do not have any time to waste.”

Udall’s urgency was well-placed, as was his implicit warning that Senate Democrats must seize every opening to govern boldly if they hope not only to repair a broken Senate but also to save their party and their country. To do this, Senate Democrats must frame a policy agenda that matches and ideally exceeds the ambition of President Joe Biden. As the new Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) must empower committee chairs to amplify agendas on issues ranging from racial justice to military spending. Accountability must be a priority—not just when it comes to trying Donald Trump for high crimes but also with investigations into his administration’s failed response to the coronavirus pandemic, the profiteering by pharmaceutical companies, and the monopoly crisis that has grown dramatically worse since Covid-19 hit. And they must build better relations with grassroots activists, embracing candidates who can excite and extend the party’s base as part of a smarter strategy for building on the Democratic majority in the difficult midterm elections of 2022.

None of this will be easy, as Senate Democrats have no margin for error.

When Udall spoke in December, he was preparing to leave a Senate where a narrow Republican majority had functioned for four years as a rubber stamp for Trump’s White House wrecking crew. Yet Democrats failed to achieve their hoped-for gains in the November 3 election. Only a last-minute reprieve—the January 5 Georgia runoff victories by the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff—positioned Democrats to control the chamber with the barest possible majority.

The Georgia wins eased Biden’s burden. Cabinet nominees and judicial picks will navigate a confirmation process defined by Schumer and Judiciary Committee chair Dick Durbin (D–Ill.), a far easier route than if former majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who turned the Senate into what Schumer called a “legislative graveyard,” and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a calculating partisan who is desperate to satisfy his party’s right wing, had retained those positions. Policy proposals have a chance to get hearings, debates, and votes as the new president and his allies seek a $1.9 trillion stimulus package to address the pandemic and the economic crisis it has spawned.

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