Democratic Death Watch: 'Biden’s agenda is pretty much dangling by a thread'

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Yes, my headline is pretty blunt but no more so than this NY Times piece itself. Last week CNN published a story about the progressive push to get Justice Breyer to retire. There’s was one paragraph in that story which I found particularly striking. It noted that the Senate could fall into Republican’s hands “at any moment” because “two members of the Democratic majority are near or just over 80 years old.” In other words, Democrats are one stopped heartbeat away from losing the chance to replace Breyer with a young progressive.

Today, the NY Times weighs in with a piece that is focused not just on Justice Breyer but the possibility that President Biden’s entire agenda could come to a grinding halt if the wrong people were to die suddenly.

“Our ability to make good on Biden’s agenda is pretty much dangling by a thread,” said Brian Fallon, a former aide to Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic majority leader. “I don’t think it’s uncouth to talk about it. I think it’s a reality that has to inform the urgency with which we approach those issues.”…

In the most extreme case, deaths could end Democrats’ ability to pass legislation without Republican support — or even flip control of either chamber. That’s more likely in the evenly divided Senate, where a single Democratic vacancy could hand Republicans committee gavels and the power to schedule votes until a Democratic successor was appointed or elected.

A serious illness could also upset the party’s delicate legislative arithmetic. “Schumer needs all 50 votes,” said Mr. Fallon, now the executive director of Demand Justice, a progressive advocacy group focused on the federal judiciary. “If somebody is laid up or is hospitalized for a long period of time and their vote’s not there, then having the majority is somewhat meaningless.”

It’s also possible that a special election or governor’s appointment could shift Senate control more lastingly. Several states require governors to fill vacancies with a temporary replacement of the same political party as the departed senator. But nine senators in the Democratic caucus represent states with Republican governors who can appoint anyone they choose. That could let a Republican governor name a Republican replacement, giving Republicans the majority, even if it may be temporary.

The Times doesn’t even stop at identifying particular Senators who might be at elevated risk of death:

Patrick Leahy, 81, Democrat of Vermont, was briefly hospitalized in January. Thom Tillis, 60, a North Carolina Republican, underwent cancer treatment. Questions have been raised about the health of Dianne Feinstein, 87, a Democrat who has represented California since 1992. Vermont’s other senator, Bernie Sanders, 79, had a heart attack in 2019.

They included Tillis in this list for balance I guess but of course the power dynamic doesn’t change if a Republican Senator dies. Democrats would still be in control. The focus of this story is what happens if one of these elderly Democrats were to die in the next six months or so. Suddenly, it’s possible Democrats lose control long before the outcome of the 2022 elections where Republicans have a real chance to take the House. And if that happens, Biden’s ability to pass big progressive bills is over for his entire first term. So as much as this Democratic death watch seems a bit grim, it really does have the potential to completely alter the course of this administration.

Ultimately, I think this story is being pushed by progressives who are trying to send a message to Justice Breyer. Brian Fallon, who is quoted in the piece, leads Demand Justice, the same group that sent this mobile billboard truck to the Supreme Court last month.

Bluntness is their modus operandi so it wouldn’t surprise me if the entire piece was their idea.