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Analysis | The workhorses of the Senate are in danger of dying out politically, which can leave huge gaps


While contemplating retirement, Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.) quoted competing verses from the Old Testament and New Testament. From Ecclesiastes he read that there was a “time” to move on, but from Galatians he heard the call to move on.

“Do not tire of doing good; you will reap a great harvest if you don’t give up,” Kaine said in Richmond on Friday, paraphrasing the New Testament verse he says guided his decision to run for another six years in 2024.

It’s an almost perfect metaphor for life in the Senate: getting tired, plodding along, waiting and hoping that the great legislative rewards will finally be reaped. Throw in the gritty political environment driven by 24/7 cable news and social media’s fixation on the politics of instant gratification, and it’s no big surprise that Kaine came very close to finding “a time to give up.”

Kaine’s near departure sparked a fire exercise of sorts for Democrats, worried that the already difficult 2024 campaign map would become even trickier if the popular two-term incumbent elected to retire.

Senator Tim Kaine says he will seek another term

But it also created fears that the Senate would lose another of its workhorses trying to find bipartisan compromises after last year’s departure of a handful of Republicans who traditionally worked across the aisle.

Four others in the Democratic caucus — Senator Angus King (I-Maine), Joe Manchin III (DW. Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) — all face decisions in about running again in the coming months after playing a key role on bipartisan bills from the past Congress.

Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who turns 77 on Election Day 2024, also must decide whether to run for another term after his leadership role as a GOP dealmaker.

Even if they run for office, several of these centrists expect very difficult reelections in 2024 and may not return.

The solution: The 2024 election could be brutal for Senate Democrats

GOP retirements from last year, combined with this year’s re-election decisions and next year’s election, the Senate’s core center, which has served as a legislative hive, could disappear. A rotating cast of more than two dozen senators served in bipartisan “gangs” that acted as rump caucuses that passed legislation into law.

As of late 2020, a bipartisan group of nine senators established a framework for what would become a $900 billion pandemic relief package. By the summer of 2021, an evenly split group of 20 senators paved the way for what grew into a more than $1 trillion infrastructure package.

The latest pieces of legislation designed to jump-start the domestic semiconductor industry came about through bipartisan talks between key rank-and-file senators. That came just after a group of two Republicans and two Democrats forged the first modest form of gun control legislation since 1994.

The same happened with bills that codified same-sex marriage rights and revised election laws to prevent another attempt to overturn presidential elections like the January 6, 2021 riot at the Capitol.

That productivity was the driving force behind Kaine’s decision in favor of the New Testament and the search for another term.

“The Senate is frustrating. Things aren’t moving fast,” he told reporters in Richmond, marking off some of the recent successes for both Virginia and the nation. “I think we’ve been hit [a] step and I think I’m getting better at it. Because it’s a weird place, the Senate, you have to learn to get better at it.”

Those bipartisan efforts, however, serve as both moments to congratulate the dealmakers and as a continued repudiation of how the Senate continues to waver from its original design.

None of those successes came about by ‘ordinary order’, as old-timers like to call it. It’s the kind of process made famous by the Schoolhouse Rock song “I’m Just a Bill” that taught kids that bills started in committee, passed the House, then the Senate, and then compromised. hatched that every room had to pass again.

That process has withered on the vine over the past decade as congressional leaders, particularly in the Senate, have claimed more power outside of committee chambers.

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Derek Willis, now a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, built a database five years ago to track congressional actions for a project jointly produced by The Washington Post and Pro Publica, showing the atrophic nature of legislative debate.

In Harry M. Reid’s first term as Senate Majority Leader, 2007-2008, the Nevada Democrat allowed nearly 64 percent of all votes to pass on legislative changes. Amendments used to serve as the bread and butter of what an ordinary senator can do to participate in the system. In Reid’s last term as Majority Leader, 2013-2014, amendments received less than 22 percent of the vote.

In his first term as Majority Leader, 2015-2016, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) landed 53 percent of all votes on amendments. That fell to a record low of less than 10 percent in his last term in 2019-2020.

In 2021 and 2022, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) opened the chamber slightly more than McConnell, according to Willis’ database. More than 23 percent of all appeals were for amendments.

But a lot of that Amendments came during the four sessions, each spanning about two days, when Democrats used a parliamentary apparatus to pass two huge bills on party-line voting — in return, they had to allow an almost unlimited number of amendments to be tabled.

Otherwise, most legislation was considered with very little input from rank-and-file senators, unless they happened to be part of the “gang” that worked out the compromise.

Even popular bipartisan bills don’t see the same light. The Pentagon’s national policy bill, which used to have about two weeks on the Senate floor for debate and amendment, last month received a few hours of consideration, a few amendment votes, and then final approval.

That lack of robust activity prompted senators like Romney, Sinema, King and the recently retired Rob Portman (R-Ohio) to create these informal bipartisan meetings on issues like infrastructure.

If these so-called gangs are to continue to thrive, they need critical mass in terms of senators willing to participate. Portman’s replacement, Sen. JD Vance (R), has embraced the far-right, anti-establishment ethos that doesn’t lend itself to working across the aisle.

The radicalization of JD Vance

Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), now retired after years of working collegiately with Democrats on the Appropriations Committee, has been replaced by Sen. Eric Schmitt (R), who spent much of his GOP primary last year trying to approval from former President Donald Trump.

The Republicans that Tester and Manchin have already challenged come from the MAGA mold of the party, creating the potential to dramatically alter the ideological balance if they replaced those centrist Democrats in January 2025.

Kaine saw his own personal ambition — a congressional rewrite of the 2001 and 2002 war resolutions to update the rules of engagement for the current battlefield — languish as committee chairmen failed to persuade Senate leaders to spend speaking time to what would be a cumbersome task. and time-consuming debate.

By deciding to run for another term, Kaine indicated that he wants to see those successful bipartisan groups continue their work. He even suggested that the road to an overhaul of immigration and border laws could go in that direction.

He may need to take a more leadership role in those kinds of conversations now that so many Republicans have retired and his Democratic colleagues are considering doing the same or running tough re-election races.

Kaine has the resume — mayor, governor, national party president, vice presidential nominee, senator — with the gravitas to run the charge.

“Now that I’ve made the decision, I’m all in,” he said on Friday.

The bigger question might be whether there will be enough senators like him in another two years to reap the legislative harvest of hard work.

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