You may not know it based on the stalled components of his policy agenda, but President Joe Biden is preparing to deliver his first State of the Union address to a Congress that has delivered him a historically high level of success.
Despite a narrow House majority and 50-50 Senate that’s only under his party’s control because Vice President Kamala Harris has a tiebreaker vote, Biden enjoyed significant success when the clerk actually called the roll during his first year in office.
CQ Roll Call’s annual vote studies reveal that the president was successful on 96.5 percent of 2021 Senate votes on which he took a position, the third-highest success rate in the study’s 67-year history. It continues a trend of success in the first year of an administration, as Biden was behind only the first years of his two most recent predecessors, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
As has become the modern norm, the Senate votes were overwhelmingly on nominations — and the rate may even appear inflated because of the regularity with which the Senate now needs to have roll call votes on generally noncontroversial nominees who may have advanced by voice vote or unanimous consent in earlier times.
All told, Biden prevailed on 164 of the presidential position votes in the Senate, losing only six. A handful of those were cloture votes on taking up Biden administration priorities when it was well-known there wouldn’t be the Republican support needed to get to the 60 votes to overcome filibuster threats.
The list includes three measures related to voting rights, including the Voting Rights Act reauthorization named for the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., as well as a bill designed to combat gender-based pay discrimination.
And only six Republican senators — Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio, Mitt Romney of Utah and Ben Sasse of Nebraska — crossed over to support limiting debate on proceeding to a House-passed measure that would have set up an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrectionist attack on the Capitol.
The only piece of legislation that Biden opposed that actually passed the Senate? A joint resolution of disapproval to nullify an Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule that was requiring employers with 100 or more workers to require vaccination or regular testing to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
The Supreme Court issued a stay to block implementation of the emergency temporary standard on Jan. 13, 2022, and OSHA ultimately withdrew it while continuing to try to move forward on a related rule.
Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., joined all Republicans in supporting the disapproval measure, which can be considered under an expedited procedure that does not face the possibility of being blocked by a filibuster.
Fewer House votes
House votes on which the White House takes a formal position happen less often than in the Senate since the House doesn’t consider nominations. But, even with a narrow Democratic majority, Biden saw no defeats among the 55 House votes on which his administration did take a stand in 2021.
That’s no surprise, and in some respects the current polarization makes outcomes more predictable, says Julia Azari, an associate professor of political science at Marquette University.
“House Democrats probably see themselves as fairly dependent on the overall success of the administration,” even when the president’s approval rating is low, Azari said.
The most recent ABC News-Washington Post poll found Biden with just a 37 percent approval rating. Party support in the House has continued to be high regardless of approval ratings.
“It seems pretty clear that what’s going on with him is the crossroads of conditions and polarization,” Azari said.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi has long called votes only when she has the adequate support to pass legislation, and 2021 was no exception, with no measure backed by the White House losing a floor vote.
Nonetheless, key pieces of the president’s agenda remain in the balance, with the Senate never scheduling a vote, for example, on what was called a social infrastructure package.
Historic GOP opposition
As for Republicans, they exceeded historical norms with the extent to which they opposed the president’s position. The Senate Republican Conference in 2021 set a new low in CQ Roll Call’s tracking for support of a president’s nominations and legislative positions, exceeding the previous lows set during President Bill Clinton’s administration in 1993 and 1995.
Six Republican senators have opposed Biden at least 90 percent of the time, with Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley leading the pack of GOP foes and supporting the president on just nine votes in 2021.
House Republican support for the president’s positions on votes was practically nonexistent as well. The House GOP backed Biden on just 13 percent of the votes, as opposed to 99 percent support among House Democrats.
CQ Roll Call editors select presidential support votes each year based on clear statements by the president or authorized spokespersons.