Joe Biden resorted to one of his grandfather’s stock phrases when he was asked by reporters Monday morning whether an agreement would finally be forged on his ambitious spending plan this week.
As he was about to board Air Force One, the president replied, “With the grace of God and the goodwill of the neighbors.”
Although Biden did not mean it in precisely these terms, the Democrats are only holding their Senate majority “with the grace of God.”
There is no need to consult actuarial tables to understand how fragile a zero-votes-to-spare Senate majority can be in the midst of a pandemic. All that is required is to brush up on the history of the Senate during the first two years of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency.
The 1952 Eisenhower landslide created a Senate balanced on a knife edge, with the Republicans holding a 48–47 majority aided by an independent (Oregon’s Wayne Morse) who caucused with the GOP. During the next two years, a stunning nine senators died in office, including Majority Leader Robert Taft.
After his death in 1953, The New York Times described it as a “Senate controlled by the Republicans more out of courtesy than fact.”
Senate Democrats, led by their newly chosen Minority Leader Lyndon Johnson, never pressed their advantage, even though Morse would eventually become a fiercely liberal Democrat.
As Robert Caro makes clear in the Master of the Senate volume of his majestic series of LBJ biographies, Johnson believed that the best political strategy was to work with Eisenhower rather than oppose him.
Even though governors can appoint senators to fill vacancies temporarily, that arrangement should provide little comfort for the Democrats.
Fifteen Democratic senators represent states with Republican governors. And seven of those senators (Bernie Sanders, Patrick Leahy, Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey, Jeanne Shaheen, Ben Cardin, and Joe Manchin) are over the age of 70.
Just last week, Mother Jones broke the story that Manchin had been contemplating leaving the Democratic Party to become an independent. After initial angry denials, Manchin confirmed the rumors, although he insisted that he would, in any case, continue to caucus with the Democrats.
And while Kyrsten Sinema is significantly to Manchin’s left on issues such as climate and abortion, it is possible to imagine her abandoning the Democrats out of pique over the rage that has been directed at her by party activists.
There is modern precedent for a majority-altering Senate party switch. In 2001, with the Senate divided 50–50 as it is now, Vermont’s Jim Jeffords, a true moderate Republican, abandoned the GOP to caucus with the Democrats and make Tom Daschle majority leader.
The real threat to Senate Democrats lies in the unalterable realities of human mortality. The point is not to be ghoulish but realistic. Container ships from China have been moving faster than congressional negotiations over the Biden reconciliation package.