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When An Ambitious White House Agenda Meets A Split Senate


President-elect Joe Biden has compared the challenges he faces coming into office to those faced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he became president in 1932. And like FDR, Biden wants to meet the moment with bold action and an ambitious legislative agenda that includes most urgently passage of his proposed $1.9 trillion pandemic economic relief package.


JOE BIDEN: It includes much more, like an increase in the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour. People tell me that's going to be hard to pass. Florida just passed it. As divided as that state is, they just passed it. The rest of the country's ready to move as well.

MARTIN: Biden and his supporters also want sweeping measures to address climate change, health care and tax reform, among other priorities. But to get anything passed in Congress, Biden and his team will have to contend with political realities on Capitol Hill, especially in the Senate, where the chamber will be split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris poised to be the tiebreaker.

So what happens when an ambitious agenda meets a slender majority? We've called Gregory Koger to ask him how this dynamic could play out. He is a professor of political science at Miami University and the author of "Filibustering: A Political History Of Obstruction In The House And Senate." And Professor Koger's with us now.

Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

GREGORY KOGER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So first of all, what does this 50-50 split in the Senate mean? And by that, I mean, what kind of legislation do you expect Democrats to be able to pass simply by relying on the vice president's tie-breaking vote - assuming, of course, that all the Democrats stay together?

KOGER: Right. So it creates a huge challenge for the Democrats just unifying their own members. So, for example, on climate change, they will need a senator from West Virginia to sign off on anything that affects the coal industry. That's just one example of how it can be challenging just to unify the Democrats. And then on top of that, they will also need Republican votes for most of their major initiatives.

MARTIN: And why is that? You need a supermajority for most initiatives. I mean, why is that?

KOGER: So there are some legislative priorities they can pass with a simple majority. Anything that is budgetary can move through the budget process laid out in law. So climate change, tax reform - those can probably move with just Democrats on board. But the rest of the legislative proposals, most legislation moving through the Senate, is subject to a filibuster, which means that any one senator can threaten to speak indefinitely and drag out the debate.

And the normal process for ending a threatened filibuster in the Senate is known as a cloture process, and that requires three-fifths of the membership of the Senate in order to shut off debate.

MARTIN: So let me get to that a little bit more in a minute. Do you consider the Senate dysfunctional at this point?

KOGER: Absolutely - the fact that it has these supermajority requirements in order to pass major legislation combined with parties, you know, not inclined to cooperate with each other. Secondly, it can't set its agenda from day to day and agree how to debate legislation on the floor. That is what makes it excruciating to watch them try to pass major legislation.

MARTIN: I just wanted to move on to what should happen about this. And some have suggested ending the filibuster - I mean, the Senate practice that allows a minority to block legislation simply by engaging in endless debate. I mean, this is former President Barack Obama talking about the Voting Rights Act at the funeral of late congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis.


BARACK OBAMA: And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster - another Jim Crow relic - in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that's what we should do.

MARTIN: OK, so you wrote a whole book about this. Should the filibuster be ended, in your view, to make the Senate more productive? Is that, in your view, a good place to start?

KOGER: That wouldn't be where I'd start. Right now, if the Democrats adopted a simple majority cloture rule, what that would do is it - politically, it would set up a situation which you still need every Senate Democrat in order to pass major legislation because at that point, you know, all the Republicans are out. They'll just - no.

What the Democrats might find is that it's more difficult than you might think to get every Senate Democrat on line on a piece of major legislation. And even if they do, it still doesn't solve the underlying problem that the Senate has setting its agenda.

MARTIN: So what's a better idea?

KOGER: Make it harder to filibuster. Count people who don't vote on a cloture vote towards shutting off debate and saying, look, if you can't be bothered to show up to vote, well, then you're not part of the filibuster.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, what would make people care about this? It's hard to get people interested in process, but what we're hearing you say is the process really matters in getting these elected leaders to sort of grapple seriously with these problems together. How do you get people to care about this? How do you create urgency around something like this?

KOGER: So I think what it takes is an agenda that is trying to move through the Senate - you know, a president who actually sees legislation as a way to move the country forward. In Joe Biden's case, he will get the legislation that he needs through the House without much difficulty, I don't think. And then it'll go to the Senate.

And I think that's the point where people who want to see something happen to solve the real problems in their lives will then see the Senate's not doing anything. And they'll - and that is the point at which I hope they demand answers. Holding each senator responsible for why the Senate is not solving the nation's problems is what it would take to move this country forward.

MARTIN: That's Gregory Koger. He's a professor of political science at the University of Miami and author of "Filibustering: A Political History Of Obstruction In The House And Senate."

Professor Koger, thank you so much for talking with us.

KOGER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULES OLSON'S "STAY LIKE THIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.