Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., speaks during a news conference, Tuesday, Sept 20, 2022, after a Democratic weekly policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington.(AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

Democrats have been, for the past several weeks, in a surprising alignment. Senators and representatives have united to pass a series of legislative compromises, both bipartisan and partisan, that President Joe Biden signed into law. Last week, House Democrats achieved near-perfect unity and passed public safety bills that fund local police departments—helping vulnerable incumbents rebut Republican charges that Democrats want to defund the police. Outside the Beltway, as special election turnout and voter registration metrics indicate, the overturning of Roe v. Wade has pulled sometimes-disgruntled progressives off the sidelines to carry the Democratic banner proudly this November.

Republicans, meanwhile, have been divided on several floor votes, allowing bipartisan legislation to reach Biden’s desk. Senate GOP leaders are playing a blame game over their narrowing chances of retaking the Senate. The Dobbs earthquake has made Republican incumbents and candidates scatter, with some gamely defending extremist positions and others frantically scrubbing their websites.

Usually, the opposition party shelves its differences in midterm years to exploit fissures in the governing party’s coalition. Democrats should flip this script by staying unified and watching Republicans trash each other.

But the obscure issue of energy permitting reform is getting in the way. More than 80 House Democrats and at least eight Senate Democrats are calling on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to table Senator Joe Manchin’s proposal to relax permit requirements for energy projects and strip it out of the bill needed to keep the government open past September 30. The New Yorker now faces a big decision: keep faith with Manchin or bow to his antagonists.

Last month, in another act of party unity, Democrats voted unanimously for the Inflation Reduction Act, which paired robust clean energy tax credits with measures to buoy fossil fuel production. To win Manchin’s support for the bill, Schumer also promised the coal champion that the Senate would pass permitting reform. Manchin is gung-ho to secure approval for the stalled Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline project connecting his home state of West Virginia and southern Virginia, which gets special treatment in the permitting package. He has also argued that such reform would speed up the construction of renewable energy projects.

Clean energy devotees are divided over the proposal. Eleven directors of environmentalist organizations were arrested earlier this month at a Capitol Hill protest against the bill. Yet the American Clean Power Association, the lobby shop of the renewable energy industry, urged passage. In turn, progressives in Congress are not on the same page. While Democratic permitting reform opponents are mostly from the party’s progressive wing, other progressives, such as Senators Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Tina Smith of Minnesota, back Manchin’s bill. Biden is on board as well.

To fulfill the second part of their summer climate agreement, at least for now, Schumer is attaching Manchin’s proposal to the must-pass funding bill and has scheduled a cloture vote for September 27. But it may lack the necessary 60 votes to keep Republicans from sinking it. In addition to the Democrats calling for permitting to be removed from the bill, several Republicans have bristled at Manchin completing a climate deal they didn’t vote for in the first place. Plus, most Republicans don’t think Manchin’s proposal reduces regulations enough. If the Tuesday cloture vote fails, Schumer will face a decision. He could try to stare down filibusterers from both parties and try to make them fold before the government shutters on October 1. Or he could pull permitting reform from the government funding bill, perhaps with a pledge to revisit the issue after the midterms.

Democrats shouldn’t make Schumer’s job harder than it already is. The party is on a hot streak, partly because of a legislative strategy sensitive to the needs of vulnerable swing district incumbents. Not since 2002—when President George W. Bush’s Republicans picked up eight House seats—has the president’s party led in generic congressional ballot polls this close to the midterms. Remarkably, Democrats have mustered a slight one- to two-point lead in the Real Clear Politics and FiveThirtyEight averages even though they’re saddled with what’s usually the burden of an incumbent president. Why put this momentum at risk?

Almost all of the Democrats pressing Schumer to shelve permitting reform do not represent competitive House districts or Senate seats. Just over a month before a tough election with control of the House on the line, the needs of the vulnerable should carry more weight. With declining but still high energy costs, swing district Democrats would prefer to say that they advanced American energy production and independence. Granted, Republicans could still filibuster on their own. But such a scenario would give Democrats an opportunity to charge the GOP with hypocritically abandoning their deregulatory principles just to be obstructionist. 

Of course, Republicans cannot be solely blamed for blocking permitting reform if they have Democratic help. The likelihood of bipartisan cover incentivizes Manchin’s Democratic critics to hold fast to their opposition. Instead of taking intense heat for sabotaging fellow Democrats, progressive holdouts can argue that Manchin’s plan simply lacks sufficient bipartisan support, and there is no reason to rush. Moreover, it may prompt Schumer to avoid a bloody floor fight that could draw attention from other recent Democratic successes, not to mention Republican travails.

Without Democratic unity, delaying a vote may prove Schumer’s safest option. But the demands of backbencher purists did not help Democrats rack up legislative accomplishments and give themselves a rare chance to keep control of Congress during a midterm when they hold the White House. Democrats unified through compromise, and they fused progressivism with pragmatism. They took on seemingly unsolvable problems and delivered. They can do it one more time before America votes if all wings of the party remember what’s brought them to the cusp of victory.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.