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The Narrow Margin in the House


Voters in November gave Democrats the narrowest of majorities in the Senate. But their slim margin in the House could imperil infrastructure.

With the U.S. Senate split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, most political analysts’ eyes have been cast toward that side of Capitol Hill when debating what legislation can – or can’t – make it through Congress.


With Vice President Kamala Harris casting the Senate’s tie-breaking vote, the margin in the upper chamber certainly is perilous. But less discussed is the Democrats’ very narrow advantage in the U.S. House. As of today, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) can afford to lose only two votes from her caucus to pass legislation through her chamber of Congress.


With news this week that Congressman Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) will step down effective May 16, 2021, her margin will grow by one within a month, even if only temporarily. It also is likely to grow from there — but will it be enough to get a massive infrastructure package across the finish line?


Maybe not.


A Look At Upcoming Special Elections

With Rep. Stivers’ announcement, there now have been six vacancies in the U.S. House since the November elections. One, for Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District, has been filled. That seat was held by a Republican. Luke Letlow won his first term in Congress in November 2020, but died from complications related to COVID-19 before he could take office. His spouse, Julia, won a special election to fill her husband’s seat on March 20.


It is not yet clear when voters will choose Rep. Stivers’ replacement. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) has broad latitude to decide when to schedule a special election to fill the soon-to-be-vacant House seat. Speaker Pelosi might have some relief between Rep. Stivers’ May 16 retirement, but her cushion likely will be reduced again after the vote to fill the congressman’s seat since the district is decidedly Republican. Rep. Stivers has held this seat since 2011 and won each of his reelections by double-digit margins. Donald Trump won the district in both 2016 and 2020 and the Cook Political Report estimates Republicans, in general, have a 10 point advantage in most elections. Fortunately — for Democrats — most news sources believe Gov. DeWine is not likely to call for an election before November 2021, leaving the Speaker with a three-vote margin.


There also are five other special elections that could impact the House’s balance of power. What will happen to this three-vote advantage once these are decided?


Let’s take a look.


Florida’s 20th Congressional District, Date Unknown. This seat was held by a Democrat. The late Rep. Alcee Hastings passed away on April 6 from pancreatic cancer. Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has the power to call a special election, but has not yet done so. Perhaps the reason is that this seat is a relatively safe Democratic one. The Cook Political Report estimates Democrats, in general, have a 28-point advantage in this congressional district.


This election likely will increase Democrats’ margin by one, to four.


Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District, Runoff Election, April 24, 2021. This seat was held by a Democrat. Former Rep. Cedric Richmond joined the Biden administration as senior adviser to the president and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. The Cook Political Report estimates Democrats, in general, have a nine-point advantage in this race. The first part of this election was held in March and it resulted in a runoff. The top two vote-getters in the last contest, both Democrats, will face off on April 24.


Since both candidates are from the same party, we know this election will increase Democrats’ vote margin by one more, to five.


Texas’ 6th Congressional District, May 1, 2021. This seat was held by a Republican. The late Rep. Ronald Wright died from complications related to COVID-19. The Cook Political Report estimates Republicans, in general, have a six-point advantage in this district.


But that is not the full story.


As NBC News explains, there are 23 individuals who have thrown their hat into this race. If no candidate garners support from 50 percent of voters (which is likely, given the crowded field), there will be a runoff. That runoff, like the one in Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District, could be between two Republicans, or two Democrats, or a Republican and Democrat.


NBC News says this seat was once a safe Republican one, but “has trended to the left in recent years. In other words: this race is a tossup. It could strengthen Democrats’ margin to six, or it could diminish it by one, to four.


New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District, June 1, 2021. This seat was held by a Democrat. Former Rep. Deb Haaland has been confirmed as President Joe Biden’s secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The Cook Political Report estimates Democrats, in general, have a 25-point advantage in this race.


This contest likely will increase Democrats’ vote margin by one, to either seven or five, based on the results of the Texas race.


Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, November 2, 2021. This seat was held by a Democrat. Former Rep. Marcia Fudge was confirmed as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on March 10, 2021. The Cook Political Report estimates Democrats, in general, have a 30-point advantage in this district.


This contest also likely will increase Democrats’ vote margin by one, to either eight or six, based on the results of previous races.


Democrats Need To Control Timing Of Major Votes

It is notable that the Senate waited to hold votes to confirm Secretary Fudge and Secretary Haaland until after Congress voted on President Biden’s COVID-19 relief package. House lawmakers sent that legislation to the White House on March 10. Secretary Haaland was confirmed on March 15; Secretary Fudge on March 10. Both had the chance to vote in favor of that bill before being sworn into their new roles.


That timeline was no accident.


As House Democratic Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) explained to The Associated Press in December, Democrats had a strategy “to stagger the confirmations” to ensure Biden administration nominees would stay in the House for key votes. Indeed, President Biden held off formally submitting the nominations all at once so the House would have “ample time … to pass the 100-days agenda.”


Democrats will try to exercise similar control over the calendar when it comes to infrastructure. Speaker Pelosi has said she would like to have an infrastructure bill on the House floor around the July 4th holiday.


That also is not an accident. The bill, of course, remains largely unwritten, but as the special election outline indicates above, the late spring and early summer special elections are likely to widen the Democrats’ advantage in the House. Even if Democrats do not take the Texas seat, their margin should improve from two today to between five and seven after Rep. Stivers’ retirement and the special elections in Louisiana, New Mexico, and Ohio. If Florida Gov. DeSantis (R) schedules a special election before Independence Day, the margin could grow by one more.


Speaker Pelosi will need all of that … and possibly more … because of the growing intraparty rift on an infrastructure package and its intersection with tax policy.


Adding SALT To Infrastructure

In the upper chamber of Congress, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has said he will not accept an infrastructure bill that raises the corporate tax rate to 28 percent, as the White House has proposed.


In the House, however, Speaker Pelosi is facing the defection of almost three dozen lawmakers if she does not include a repeal of the cap on the state and local tax (SALT) deduction in the infrastructure package. As Fox Business reported on Sunday, the effort to add SALT to infrastructure “gained momentum last week when a group of 30-member coalition of bipartisan House members threatened to withdraw support for any changes to the tax code in the measure unless it also included a complete restoration of the SALT deduction.”


Even with an improved majority, Speaker Pelosi cannot afford to lose much of this coalition. In fact, she’ll either have to include a repeal of the SALT deduction cap – a costly provision and one that could attract ire from progressives – or find a way to convince more than three-quarters of them to abandon their SALT pledge. Neither path will be an easy one.


Democrats’ left flank in the House also is vulnerable when it comes to infrastructure. As The Washington Post reported two weeks ago, a group of lawmakers led by Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is calling for significantly more spending. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez even sent a fundraising email to her supporters calling President Biden’s proposal “a starting point” and arguing “it’s not enough.”


The Speaker’s Task In Historical Context

The Washington Post recently noted that very few speakers of the House have had this difficult of a balancing act. Indeed, the last time the Democratic Party came into a Congress with as narrow an advantage over the Republicans was 1890. Republicans, for their part, had a smaller margin in the 65th Congress, which was held from 1917 to 1919.


The Post concludes, “The House isn’t quite at the point that the Senate is, with one member being able to redirect things wherever he or she (might wish. But it’s close …” Watch Sen. Manchin, but don’t take your eyes of anyone in the House Democratic caucus either.

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