On Sunday, Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough dashed the hopes of Democrats eager to move ahead with a long-overdue overhaul of the nation's immigration system, ruling that plans for a permanent resident status and path to citizenship for some 8 million undocumented immigrants was "not appropriate for inclusion in reconciliation." Democrats had attempted to include the provision in an upcoming reconciliation bill; the budgetary process allows certain bills to be passed with a simple majority, rather than the Senate's customary 60-vote threshold, so long as they meet certain spending and revenue criteria.
MacDonough's ruling, conventional wisdom says, means that Democrats will have to push through any sort of immigration reform through the usual legislative motions. That means they'll likely run into agenda-ending opposition from Senate Republicans, who have spent the past four years (and beyond) railing against any law that could be seen as even remotely permissive to the undocumented community.
But would it shock you to learn that conventional wisdom is not only fallible, but is also, in fact, utter bullshit that only serves to highlight the Democrats' unwillingness to actually wield the political power they've been granted as the majority party? Despite Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's assertion that "both sides agree" the parliamentarian's word is final, the truth is that the only thing preventing Democrats from putting their immigration reform plans in the reconciliation bill is themselves.
It's helpful here to think of the Senate parliamentarian as something of an outside referee — a person whose job it is to look at the rules and decide whether a law or legislative tactic is kosher, or not. But the parliamentarian's decisions, informed and well-researched as they may be, aren't actually binding. All it would take is a simple majority of 51 votes to override MacDonough's ruling, thereby giving the Democrats free rein to include the path to citizenship in their reconciliation bill. And wouldn't you know it! Democrats just so happen to have a 50+1 vote majority in the Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris acting as the crucial tiebreaker. All they need to do is do it.
But despite some agitating from the progressive wing of the party to disregard the parliamentarian's decision, at this point that seems unlikely, with Democratic leadership evidently more concerned about maintaining the "both sides agree" decorum to which McConnell paid his unctuous lip service — an irony punctuated by McConnell's own eagerness to alter Senate rules for conservative gains when he was in charge.
This is because McConnell understands, or at least is willing to embrace, a fundamental truth: Politics is about power. It's about who can accumulate, and manipulate, and wield authority to get things done. Norms, civility, and the appearance of guardrails are useful tools at times, but at the end of the day, what matters is what you've accomplished. Democrats in this instance are in a position to accomplish something monumental for the millions of undocumented immigrants for whom this country is home. But given that opportunity, they nevertheless seem content to shirk that responsibility, either because they lack the will to push ahead, or because they never really prioritized the legislation to begin with.
Either way, this whole episode is an example of the ridiculous fallacy in the common refrain that people should "vote blue no matter who." Here we have the Democrats with majorities in the House and the Senate, as well ultimate power in the White House. This is ostensibly exactly why voting blue matters! And yet, when given the opportunity to do something with their power, the Democrats seem content to throw their hands in the air and hope people just forget the whole thing.