Reid plan backfires: How vote scores are hurting vulnerable Senate Democrats

Harry Reid’s attempt to protect his vulnerable colleagues – preventing difficult amendments and scheduling messaging bills – inadvertently pushed them closer to an unpopular president.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington in this July 29, 2014, file photo. In November 2013, On his watch, Democrats pushed through a rule change on a controversial simple majority vote (the so-called "nuclear option") that ended filibusters on executive nominee confirmation votes, with the exception of the Supreme Court.

Several Senate Democrats are running their campaigns as far away from the president as possible. Democrats are defending six states that Mitt Romney won in 2012. Three Democratic incumbents find themselves in tossup races in states Mitt Romney won by landslide margins. The president’s approval numbers in those states are dismal, forcing Democrats to deny policy agreement the chief executive.

However, many Democratic incumbents have had difficulty doing so. Unsurprisingly, many of them are tripping over their voting records. In 2013, Sen. Mark Pryor (D) of Akansas was the Democrat who voted with the president the least – and his presidential support score is 90%.

To many liberals, Senator Pryor barely counts as a Democrat. So why is his presidential support score so high? In many ways, the combination of gridlock and legislative campaigning in the 113th  Congress has limited conservative Democrats’ ability to distance themselves from Obama.

First, gridlock over policy has pushed Senate majority leader Harry Reid to schedule executive nominee confirmation votes. When the House and Senate are controlled by different parties, it often stymies congressional production. That effect is particularly pronounced when the parties are polarized. The 113th  Congress, so far, has passed 98 fewer laws than the 112th , which was the least productive Congress since the Civil War. Gridlock, in part, pushed Democrats to shift their governing strategy. After the nuclear option was invoked last November, the Senate could confirm executive nominees by a simple majority. This procedural change gave Democrats a useful outlet to accomplish some of their governing goals in the face of legislative gridlock.

However, this tactic had a downside. It had the effect of boosting presidential vote scores of many vulnerable Democrats. Votes on confirming nominees made up the overwhelming majority of votes in the Senate. Fifty-two percent of all votes cast in the 113th  Congress were on presidential nominees. In the 2nd  session a whopping 182 out of 270 votes (67%) confirmed (in most cases) presidential nominees. And in many cases those nominees were confirmed on party line votes. This boosted presidential support scores for many conservative Democrats who were seeking distance from the president, not demonstrate a cozy relationship.

Second, as is often the case in election years, the Senate scheduled campaign votes. Majority parties have political incentives to make their majority party look good at the expense of the minority party. Therefore, majority leaders (or the speaker in the House) schedule votes that highlight that distinction. Campaign votes were prominent in the 113th Congress. In 2nd  session (2014), 26 of the 88 non-nominee votes in the Senate, just under 30-percent, were for bills that had practically no chance to pass the Senate and zero chance at passing the House. Votes on a constitutional amendment to limit money in politics, the Paycheck Fairness Act, raising the minimum wage, and the Sportsman’s Act are all bills that had little opportunity to become law in this Congress. If you are outraged that seemingly common sense measures had no chance of becoming law, then scheduling these votes had their desired effect. These bills were never intended to pass. They were scheduled for members to use on the campaign trail. Yet again, they pulled many vulnerable Democrats’ vote history closer to the president’s agenda.

The remaining votes in the 113th  Congress were on must-pass or important legislation (such as the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), Highway funding extension, the FARM bill). These were bills the president may not have liked but did not outwardly oppose or threaten with a veto.

The legislative schedule, affected by gridlock and campaign incentives, artificially boosted many Democrats’ voting scores in an election year when that trend is very damaging. The irony here is Harry Reid’s attempt to protect his vulnerable colleagues – preventing difficult amendments and scheduling messaging bills – inadvertently pushed them closer to an unpopular president. In hindsight, many may have like an opportunity to illustrate policy differences with Obama. Regardless, today many Democratic candidates in red states are now forced to stringently highlight a mere 5-10% “policy” disagreement between themselves and the president.

Joshua Huder publishes his Rule 22 blog at

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