Democrats’ bleak Senate picture gets worse

Debbie Stabenow during the Senate Democrats weekly press briefing at the U.S. Capitol, on Jan. 11, 2022.

This week: The Briefing, Vol. XI, Issue 2

  • McCarthy wins after conservatives win concessions
  • Matt Bevin is a prankster
  • Debbie Stabernow to retire


House Speaker: The showdown in the U.S. House was longer than it could have been, but it was still mercifully short. Rep. Kevin McCarthy was sufficiently determined to become Speaker that he ultimately gave in where he had to. For the most part, this is a good thing. 

Conservatives were withholding support from him, based on a desire for changes to the House rules that were mostly designed to make leaders like him more accountable. But these changes will also serve to increase conservative influence.

Many of the concessions they wrested from McCarthy seem like simple common sense:

  • A promise of a floor vote on House term limits. Given term limits’ popularity with voters and incumbents’ hesitancy about voting on them, this only makes sense.
  • A more open amendments process, which will loosen the leadership’s grip on which provisions will ultimately pass the House.
  • A rule that members must be given 72 hours to read legislation before voting on it.

Another change is the reinstatement of the so-called Holman Rule, which has been in the House rules for the majority of the last 150 years. The Holman Rule allows Congress to legislate in the appropriations process on certain matters, such as the firing of a specific federal employee or a cut to a specific program. Without this exception, such changes have to go through a different legislation process and cannot be appended to appropriations legislation.

The concession that received the most discussion was the restoration of the Motion to Vacate the Chair, which essentially makes it easier to remove the Speaker. Any individual member would be able to make this motion. Previously, party leaders had wanted to require five people to make such a motion. But as Rep. Dan Crenshaw pointed out, there is little difference between the two. Once you agree to let just five people bring House business to a halt for a no-confidence vote on the speaker, is it really that much worse to let one person do it?

Finally, there were two changes not directly tied to House rules. First, McCarthy promised that his Congressional Leadership Fund will no longer spend in primaries for safe Republican House seats. This takes away House Leadership’s direct ability to protect incumbents from conservative challenges. Second, he promised more seats on the House Rules Committee for Freedom Caucus members.

Many Republicans are not happy with these changes. Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to portray all this as something extreme, and further as something that will cause government shutdowns. Indeed, this has become the Democrats’ new talking point.

But in reality, most of these House rules are nothing new. Many were in effect before former House Speaker Pelosi started consolidating her power. For example, the one-member Motion to Vacate had been in place prior to 2019. The Holman Rule originally took effect in 1876 and was in effect as recently as 2018. Pelosi called the concessions “ridiculous,” but the only thing ridiculous is the idea that they represent something groundbreaking or ominous.

Trump Abortion Fight: President Trump started off the new year by attempting to divide the Republican Party over the abortion issue. He blamed pro-life Republicans for the party’s underwhelming election performance in 2022. 

“It wasn’t my fault that the Republicans didn’t live up to expectations,” he wrote on Truth Social, citing the (well-padded) record of his endorsees. The abortion issue, he claimed, “was poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those that firmly insisted on No Exceptions, even in the case of Rape, Incest, or Life of the Mother.”

Pro-life campaigners shot back, pointing out that many of the losers among Trump’s endorsees deflected or were evasive on the abortion issue, including Arizona’s Kari Lake and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, relatively few Republican candidates endorsed a no-exceptions abortion ban.

What Trump has done here is set up a potential repeat of 2015 and 2016, when he was able to triumph over a divided Republican field in spite of suspicions about his own commitment to the pro-life cause.

Ultimately, Trump’s presidency produced greater progress on abortion than any previous Republican presidency. That is undeniable after the court’s reversal of the Roe v. Wade abortion decision was made possible by his appointment of three justices with impeccable conservative legal credentials. 

On the other hand, the tactic of dividing the party over abortion in order to point responsibility for losses elsewhere is one that conservatives should generally condemn. 

There have always been fights over abortion in Republican primaries — in fact, it has long been the most common fight. But a full-blown internecine fight over Trump and abortion in the 2024 could be extremely damaging for the chances of the eventual GOP nominee. 

Governor 2023

Kentucky: Former Gov. Matt Bevin (R), it turns out, has a sense of humor. He showed up on the filing deadline at the Capitol, having invited the media there, then proceeded to lecture them. What he did not do is what he had strongly hinted he would do, which was file to run for governor again.

Bevin only narrowly lost reelection in 2019, but he left office very unpopular. 

As we noted recently, there remains a crowded field of prominent Republicans eager to challenge Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear In this year’s election, including the sitting attorney general, agricultural commissioner, and state auditor. 

Senate 2024

Michigan: Democrats were already facing a very difficult Senate map for 2024, but it turns out that when it rains, it pours.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) has held her seat in Michigan since She won her first statewide race in 2000 over Republican Sen. Spencer Abraham. She never faced any serious challenge to reelection, and that in a state which is competitive for both parties under the right conditions.

In short, she was a great placeholder for the Democrats, and it will be a lot harder to elect someone else next year.

Who might run? Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) has already ruled herself out. Reps. Debbie Dingel (D) and Elissa Slotkin (D) are considering it. Detroit-area Rep. Haley Stevens (D) is considered another possible candidate, as is Attorney General Dana Nessel.

Among Republicans, two names under consideration are former Rep. Pete Meijer (who lost his primary last year to a Trump-endorsed candidate who in turn lost in the general election) and Rep. John James.

Previous articleNew House Rules
Next articleLess Waste