9 min read

Party leaders from behind

We’ve come a long way from Sam Rayburn and LBJ.
Party leaders from behind

Good morning! It’s Tuesday, July 26, 2022. Election Day 2022 is 105 days away. Election Day 2024 is 833 days away.

In today’s newsletter: Every once in a while, I like to take a step back and decode some of Washington’s broader dynamics, to give you an idea of how the capital city really works behind the scenes.

I’ll be doing that today, turning an eye to the four current congressional leaders. Later on, I’ll have some other key news items you should know about, plus what’s going on today in Washington. Let’s dive in:

Analysis: Party leaders from behind

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) declined to tell me last week if he supports the House-passed bill to codify protections for same-sex and interracial marriages. We still don’t know how he will vote.

We do have the answer, however, to the other question I asked McConnell: No matter what he decides, he will not be whipping his GOP senators to join him, releasing them to vote as they wish.

NBC’s Sahil Kapur noted on Twitter that it might be in McConnell’s political (and, as one-half of an interracial marriage, personal) interest for the bill to pass. “But,” Kapur added of the Senate’s top Republican, “he also prefers to be a reflector of caucus sentiment [rather than an] arm-twister.”

Which got me thinking: does that really set McConnell apart? The more I thought about it, the more McConnell’s allergy to arm-twisting seemed to align him with his fellow congressional leaders.

A new style of laissez-faire legislative leadership has been rampant in recent months — and I think it’s worth examining, both to consider how it came about and what it says about the broader climate in Washington.

Gone are the days of powerful, larger-than-life gavel-wielders like Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson or House Speaker Sam Rayburn, arm-twisters extraordinaire.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell flanked by his leadership team at a press conference last week. (Gabe Fleisher / Wake Up To Politics)

In their place, today’s congressional leaders have mostly shrunk their roles to acting as partisan weathervanes, reliably working to find the median of their respective caucuses and then planting themselves firmly in it.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), for example, gave up months ago on pressuring his members into supporting President Biden’s expansive tax-and-spending package. Instead, he’s handed the pen to his most recalcitrant member, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), and agreed to pass whatever the moderate will give him.

Critics argue that, at other points in the process, he’s similarly bent to the will of progressive lawmakers, getting into the reconciliation mess in the first place by going along with left-wing demands for a larger package than he had the votes for.

“Much of his approach to leadership [is] often bound up in avoiding telling his members ‘no,’” CNN reported last year, summarizing this critique.

Then there is House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). At first glance, McCarthy and Schumer have little in common — but the men share reputations as consummate Washington glad-handers. Neither rose in their party ranks due to mastery of policy; rather, their prized skillset is the ability to stay in constant touch with and stroke the egos of their members.

(There’s a reason every profile of Schumer mentions that he knows the cell phone number of every Senate Democrat, while reporters always note that McCarthy can rattle off the names of the pets and children of his House Republicans.)

McConnell, it should be noted, has taken some lonely votes this Congress, joining minorities of his caucus to support bipartisan bills like the infrastructure and gun control packages. But, importantly, he made no known effort to bring over Senate Republicans to those causes — the type of corraling that has traditionally been the province of congressional leaders. (There’s a reason each party’s top vote-counters are known as the “whip.”)

Congressional leaders have increasingly been shying away from giving their party members that sort of direction: most infamously, McCarthy declined to even give guidance to his members on how to vote on certifying the 2020 election — one of the most historic roll calls in recent memory — for fear of angering one wing of his party or another.

LBJ giving the “Johnson Treatment” to then-Sen. Richard Russell. (Yoichi Okamoto / National Archives)

The one exception to this rule among the current “Four Corners” — as the congressional party leaders are known — might be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

While Schumer failed to get 50 Democrats on board with Biden’s costly Build Back Better Act, Pelosi was able to shepherd it through her chamber with only one Democratic dissenter, maneuvering around objections from progressives and moderates alike.

Schumer’s inability to replicate that feat meant a number of Pelosi’s vulnerable Democrats were left hanging, forced to cast votes on a controversial package that didn’t even become law.

It wasn’t the first time Pelosi had strong-armed her members into walking the plank for her party: the same thing happened with a climate bill in 2010. (This is sometimes known in Washington as being “BTU’d,” for a politically risky tax measure passed by House Democrats in 1993 only to watch it die in the Senate.)

But the type of hard-nosed tactics practiced by Pelosi is becoming exceedingly rare. You don’t have to go back to LBJ cajoling lawmakers in the 1960s to see the changes that are afoot.

Just compare McCarthy to... himself in 2019, when he stripped Rep. Steve King (R-IA) of his committee assignments to punish him for making racist comments. Three years later, the GOP leader has refused to do the same for Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), despite rhetoric that has gone far beyond King’s.

With Pelosi as a noticeable exception, this has been a key undercurrent in the legislative maneuvering of both parties in the Biden era: McConnell, Schumer, and McCarthy deferring to their members, afraid to push boundaries or even for “yea” votes.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is one of the last hard-nosed legislators of her kind. (Gage Skidmore)

Each leader faces different calculations and considerations, but there are some broader dynamics that I think run through it all.

Advances in gerrymandering have made congressional districts, and then members of Congress themselves, more partisan. And just as many lawmakers fear primaries from activists in their gerrymandered districts, congressional leaders now also must worry about possible challenges from within.

The experience of John Boehner, who had to surrender the House speakership amid revolts from his right flank in 2015, is likely seared into the mind of McCarthy, his onetime deputy.

Greene and other House conservatives frequently reminds McCarthy that they haven’t committed to supporting him for speaker in 2023 if Republicans win back the House, which helps ensure he will say little to condemn them. (He’s facing blowback at home too: the Los Angeles Times reported this week that right-wingers in McCarthy’s own district are growing angry with him.)

McConnell, too, faces threats from some Senate Republican candidates about opposing him for his leadership role, while Schumer spent much of the past year worrying about a left-wing primary challenge.

Marjorie Taylor Greene is threatening to oppose Kevin McCarthy as House speaker. (Gage Skidmore)

At the same time, increases in geographic polarization and declines in split-ticket voting have made majorities slimmer and given political unicorns like Manchin maximum leverage.

Changes in the media environment play a role too: once upon a time, a low-ranking member of the House or Senate would probably be anonymous. Today, they probably have their own podcast or a standing guest spot on MSNBC or Fox, new platforms from which to lord their new power over their superiors.

Amid these inverted dynamics, the new Washington often finds itself frozen in fear: lawmakers fearing their voters, leaders fearing their members, and less and less being done to rock the boat or threaten the status quo.

The same-sex marriage bill, set to face a vote in the Senate soon, will offer an interesting test of this Congress of freelancers, to see if a measure opposed by influential Republican activists can cobble together enough rank-and-file support without receiving any guidance (or cover) from leadership.

If it does, it will be another win for the moderate middlemen who also helped lobby for the gun control and infrastructure bills — and another reminder of the diminished power wielded by Congress’ titular leaders.

More news you should know

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) tested positive for Covid on Monday, further complicating Democratic efforts to pass a reconciliation bill. Manchin thus is the third Democratic senator currently out with Covid, joining Sens. Tom Carper (D-DE) and Tina Smith (D-MN). Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has also missed several votes recently after recently falling and breaking his hip.

In the 50-50 Senate, Democrats must have full attendance if they want to pass their Manchin-drafted reconciliation bill, which the party had hoped to approve before leaving for recess at the end of next week. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (D-AK) also announced Monday that she has Covid, which could delay a final vote on the same-sex marriage bill; she is one of its main GOP supporters.

President Biden, meanwhile, is still Covid-positive as well, but “his symptoms have now almost completely resolved,” according to his doctor.

Sen. Joe Manchin tested positive for Covid on Monday. (Third Way)

— The Justice Department appears to be broadening its investigation of former President Trump and his allies. According to the ABC News, prosecutors recently brought two top advisers to former Vice President Mike Pence — his chief of staff Marc Short and legal counsel Greg Jacob — in for questioning before a federal grand jury empaneled as part of the investigation.

Per the Wall Street Journal, Short and Jacobs were asked about Trump’s efforts to pressure Pence to overturn the 2020 election, an element of the former president’s post-election plans that it was not previously known DOJ was investigating.

Short is the highest-ranking Trump White House official known to have appeared before the grand jury.

What’s going on in Washington today

All times Eastern. Click on an event’s time to watch it.

President Biden is in Covid isolation. He will virtually receive his daily intelligence briefing (9:30 am) and then meet virtually (2 pm) with executives from SK Group, a South Korean conglomerate, which will announce a $22 billion investment in U.S. manufacturing.

Later, Biden will virtually join (5 pm) the House Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus’ celebration of the 32nd anniversary of the American Disabilities Act, which is today.

Vice President Harris will meet with disability rights leaders (1:15 pm) and hold her own celebration of the Americans with Disabilities Act anniversary at the VP’s residence (6:45 pm).

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre will be joined by National Economic Council director Brian Deese at her daily press briefing (3:15 pm).

The Senate will convene (10 am) and hold a rescheduled vote to advance the CHIPS Act, which would provide $52 billion in subsidies for domestic manufacturers of semiconductor chips. The chips are an essential component in just about every electronic device, but only 12% of them are currently made in the U.S., down from 37% in 1990.

The House will convene (12 pm) and vote on 27 pieces of legislation, including measures to combat human trafficking, protect domestic violence victims, fund research on the cognitive side effects of Covid, expand research on medical marijuana, require smoke alarms in public housing, and award the Congressional Gold Medal to the victims of the 2012 attack in Benghazi.

Congressional committees will hold hearings on combatting the fentanyl crisis (10 am), how gun violence affects the safety of law enforcement officers (10 am), racism in banking (10:15 am), and decriminalizing cannabis at the federal level (2:30 pm).

The Supreme Court is out until October.

That’s it for today. If you enjoy Wake Up To Politics, it’s always appreciated if you donate to support the newsletter or buy some merch. Or if you tell your friends and family to sign up at wakeuptopolitics.com.

If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to email me: my inbox is always open.

Thanks for waking up to politics! Have a great day.

— Gabe