Even for a divided Congress, the 118th Congress so far has been historically unproductive. That's in no small part because the House devoted much of its floor time to partisan bills with no chance of advancing in the Senate — not to mention two protracted periods where the House had no speaker.
But lawmakers still managed to hold over 1,000 roll call votes between the Senate and the House of Representatives, giving us a trove of data to dissect and analyze. While many of those votes were on procedural measures or relatively minor, non-controversial legislation, some were important enough to catch the eye of President Joe Biden, who staked out official positions on over 60 bills that came up for floor votes in 2023.
Like we've done many times before, 538 decided to aggregate these positions to see how often each member of Congress voted with or against Biden on these key votes. On the whole, the data painted a picture of deep partisan divides in Congress, with the outcomes of most votes hewing closely to party lines. But the circumstances under which members broke with their party can give us a peek behind the curtain into how they view not only Biden, but also their reelection bids and their relationship with their party — regardless of the messaging and bluster they may put out.
The Democratic majority in the Senate voted in lockstep last year — among the 147 final Senate roll call votes on questions on which Biden expressed a clear position (including his nominations for judicial or executive posts), the average Democratic senator* voted with Biden 99 percent of the time. Most of the dissent came from just a handful of senators, many of whom are facing tough reelection fights in red and purple states. Still, though, their rate of agreement with Biden was much higher than most of their GOP colleagues — the average Republican senator voted with Biden just 19 percent of the time.
While Senate Democrats were extremely unified last year, Republican senators were more freethinking, agreeing with the president anywhere from 5 to 71 percent of the time (though most voted with Biden less than 25 percent of the time). Interestingly, Republicans who have been in office longer voted with Biden at a slightly higher rate than those who are newer to the Senate. GOP senators who have been elected four or more times agreed with Biden a median of 28 percent of the time, while Republican senators who have been elected only once (or not at all**) agreed with him a median of 10 percent of the time. That's likely because the senators who have been around longer hail from a time when the Senate was more bipartisan and are often more willing to work with Democrats. Many of the newer GOP Senate recruits are more conservative and have been less open to compromise.
Three Republicans in particular weren't afraid to cross the aisle last year: Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. All three voted with Biden more than half of the time, with most of that agreement happening on nomination votes. Collins and Murkowski have long been seen as among the most moderate Republicans in the Senate and often make headlines for breaking with their party on consequential votes. While Graham is ordinarily quite conservative when it comes to legislation, he's said before that he believes presidents should be given broad deference to choose their judicial and executive branch nominees, and he voted to confirm the majority of Biden's picks last year.
In recent years, these kinds of nomination votes have taken up the bulk of the Senate's floor time; in 2023, 81 percent of the Senate votes that we tracked were nominations. Since nominees can be confirmed with a simple majority rather than the 60 votes needed to pass most legislation, Democratic leadership in the Senate has turned its focus to confirming a historic slate of federal judges. While Democrats have fallen slightly behind the breakneck pace of judicial confirmations under former President Donald Trump, in 2023 the Senate took roll call confirmation votes on 119 Biden nominees. Democrats displayed near-unanimity on these votes: On average, 99 percent of the caucus voted to confirm Biden's nominees.
When it came to actual legislation, though, senators of all parties were a little less inclined to support the president's agenda. Last year, the Senate took 28 final roll call votes on bills that Biden had expressed a clear position on. Eighteen of those votes were related to the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to review and potentially overturn regulations made by the executive branch. As we wrote last summer, these kinds of votes are largely for show, as they are almost certain to be vetoed and not at all likely to garner the two-thirds majority required to override such a veto.*** As a result, they're an excellent avenue for vulnerable senators who may be up for reelection soon to advertise their moderate credentials.
Sen. Joe Manchin in particular took advantage of these CRA votes: Of the 18 CRA-related votes the Senate took in 2023, Manchin agreed with Biden on only one of them (voting against a resolution that would nullify certain gun regulations). And across all 28 non-nomination roll call votes we tracked in the Senate, the West Virginia senator voted with Biden just 36 percent of the time. That number is much closer to the average Senate Republican than it is to Manchin's fellow Democrats.
But Manchin wasn't the only one to break from the Democratic caucus last year. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, facing a brutal reelection fight this fall, voted with the president 71 percent of the time, 21 percentage points less frequently than the Democrat with the next-lowest agreement rate (Sen. John Fetterman). Tester isn't necessarily known as a problem child within the Democratic caucus, but he's certainly no progressive. Running in a state that voted for Trump by 16 points in 2020, Tester is likely trying to put as much distance between him and his party as he can without tanking any major legislation — all but one of his disagreements with the president last year were on CRA measures, and he voted to confirm all of Biden's nominees.
The House of Representatives
The story of the House in 2023 was one of gridlock, prompted by both a slim Republican majority and infighting between the GOP establishment and hard-right conservatives. But one thing that Republicans did seem to agree on was their opposition to Biden's agenda.
In 2023, the House took 54 roll call votes on measures on which Biden expressed a clear position. The average Democratic representative sided with Biden on those votes 93 percent of the time, while the average Republican representative voted with the president 5 percent of the time.
Unsurprisingly, Democrats in more competitive districts voted with the president less frequently than the rest of their party. Those in districts that Biden won by 10 points or less in 2020 supported the president 84 percent of the time (9 points less than the partywide average), while the five Democrats representing districts that Trump won voted with Biden only 70 percent of the time (23 points less). Rep. Jared Golden, who occupies the second-reddest seat currently held by a Democrat, was the only one to vote with Biden less than half the time.
This competitive-district pattern was much less true among Republicans: On average, those in districts that Trump won narrowly voted no differently than other Republicans, while those in districts that Biden won voted with the president 8 percent of the time, not even 3 points higher than the party average. The cohort of five Biden-district New York Republicans — much covered this Congress for being electorally endangered and having to take politically tough votes — voted with Biden slightly more often, 10 percent of the time. To put that in perspective, though, that's a difference of only two to three more votes with Biden over the course of the year than the party average.
The most frequent Republican defector was Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Biden-district moderate and co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, who voted with Biden 22 percent of the time. But other outliers were as likely to come from solidly conservative districts as they were swing districts, and their voting habits may be more indicative of disagreements with the rest of the party than agreement with Biden: For example, some hardline conservatives like Reps. Ken Buck, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Thomas Massie opposed some of their own party's spending or foreign policy proposals.
While the high level of cohesion within the GOP conference on votes last year may seem at odds with the dominant narratives about House Republicans' chaos and dysfunction, it isn't particularly surprising. The party in control of the House controls what comes up for a vote, and party leadership will generally only call votes on bills that they're confident their whole caucus will support. (That's especially true this congress, when Republicans' razor-thin margin means they can only afford to lose a handful of votes.) As a result, in recent years, the majority party in the House has been significantly more unified than the minority party, regardless of which party that is and whether they are in the same party as the president.
In fact, we identified a similar pattern last congress, when the House Democratic majority was impressively unified in pushing Biden's agenda through the chamber with a majority of less than 10 members. Strikingly, the median Democrat from 2021-2022 voted with Biden 100 percent of the time, and even the member who agreed with him least often (once again, Golden) still did so 88 percent of the time, more than the 25 members (including himself) with the lowest scores in 2023.
As we might expect, Democrats have returned to less cohesive voting patterns while in the minority this Congress, particularly as members in competitive districts have moderated to break more often with the president.
Looking back to Trump's presidency, there's also precedent for a majority party sticking tightly together in opposing the president. The current Republican majority — which took power in the latter half of Biden's presidency — so far seems to be acting similarly to the Democratic majority that took over in the latter half of Trump's. As the minority party in the 115th Congress, the middle 90 percent of Democrats voted with Trump a wide 12 to 41 percent of the time (a range of 30 points); as the majority party in the 116th Congress, they voted with Trump a much narrower 5 to 11 percent of the time (a range of only 6 points).
A closer look at what legislation actually made it to the House floor in 2023 paints a picture of a deeply divided chamber that spent relatively little time on productive legislating. Remarkably, Biden supported only three of the House bills included in our study, and only two were signed into law. For a majority of Republicans, these were the only bills on which they agreed with Biden. These were also, interestingly, three of the four bills on which Democrats were least likely to agree with Biden: On average, only 64 percent of Democratic representatives voted for them. The two bills here that became law were the May bipartisan debt limit bill and the December annual defense authorization bill, two major, must-pass pieces of legislation. The other, a fentanyl control measure, was the only bill on which more Republicans than Democrats agreed with Biden.
So what did the House do with the rest of 2023? Mainly, the Republican majority reserved its floor time for legislation attacking the Biden agenda and promoting its own policy proposals, even if those proposals had no chance of becoming law. Like the Senate, the House took a handful of direct votes to nullify administration policies under the CRA. And with control of the floor agenda, the Republican majority was also able to call up votes on a slew of other bills echoing popular GOP talking points, ranging from bolstering border security and immigration restrictions to banning transgender athletes from school sports to overhauling Biden's energy policies.
Meanwhile, Congress's other "must-pass" policy and spending bills languished. House Republican leaders struggled to wrangle hard-right opposition and managed to pass only six of 12 annual appropriations measures on near-perfect party lines while repeatedly punting deadlines for a government shutdown (and deposing former Speaker Kevin McCarthy in the process). On these six partisan spending proposals, which Biden opposed, average Democratic support was 0.4 percent, while average Republican support was 99 percent.
With small majorities and high levels of political polarization seemingly becoming the norm in Congress, the pressures producing trends of high majority cohesion don't seem to be going anywhere. Carefully avoiding votes that could divide the majority party may have worked for Democrats last congress as they squeezed Biden's legislative agenda through a unified government, but for a majority party at odds with both the Senate and the president, it's only resulted in historic levels of gridlock. The reality is that even an opposition party has to find a majority of votes on bills that the president supports if it wants to pass meaningful — and critical — legislation. Whether he finds the votes within his own party or risks angering them by cooperating with Democrats, Speaker Mike Johnson will need to solve that puzzle in 2024.
Additional contributions from Aaron Bycoffe and Holly Fuong.
*All references in this article to Democrats in the Senate exclude the three independent senators who align with the Democrats, unless otherwise noted.
**The only senator included in our dataset who has never been elected to their office is Republican Sen. Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, who was appointed to his seat in 2023 and is running to fill the remainder of the term this November.
***If you're wondering why a Democratic-controlled Senate had to vote on so many resolutions that a Democratic president opposed, it's because CRA votes are privileged, which means that senators can force a vote on them without the approval of Senate leadership.
In this study, we analyzed floor votes taken in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives during the first session of the 118th Congress, which met in 2023. Of the 352 roll call votes taken in the Senate and 724 taken in the House, this study focused on those votes that Biden had stated a clear position (support or opposition) on before the vote. Of these votes, we calculated a simple percentage showing how often each member of Congress voted in line with Biden's stated position.
To ensure consistency in comparing our findings with historical 538 presidential agreement score data, we sought to match the methodology used in previous interactives beginning with Trump's administration.
We used the following ground rules for which votes we counted as having a presidential position:
To determine Biden's position on bills and joint resolutions, we looked for a clear statement of support or opposition made by him or by someone on his behalf at the time that a floor vote happened. That is, if Biden made a statement of support for a bill only after a vote on its passage in the House, but before a Senate passage vote, his position on that bill would only be included for the Senate vote. Almost all statements by Biden can be found on the White House Office of Management and Budget's website, though in some cases we sourced his position from news reports when an official statement wasn't available. If Biden signed a bill but did not make a public statement supporting or opposing it before it was voted on, we did not include it.
We included only one vote per chamber on a given piece of legislation, with the exception of including veto override votes. In almost all cases, the included vote was on passage of the bill. However, some measures that Biden expressed a clear position on did not receive a final vote on passage because they failed an earlier procedure vote. In these instances, we instead included Biden's stated position on the last vote that was held on that bill, such as a motion to proceed or a Senate motion to invoke cloture.
We included all final votes on nominations made by the president, counting votes to confirm the nominee as agreeing with Biden and votes against the nominee as disagreeing with Biden. (For past interactives, Senate nomination votes were not included except for Cabinet and Supreme Court nominees. To allow for comparison across years, we generated an additional version of the 2023 Senate data that matched this methodology.)
We excluded from this dataset any members of the 118th Congress who were no longer in office at the end of 2023 or who missed more than half of all votes on which Biden had a stated position held in their respective chamber last year: Sens. Laphonza Butler and Dianne Feinstein and Reps. Gabe Amo, David Cicilline, Celeste Maloy, George Santos and Chris Stewart.
We applied the same parameters in analyzing data from previous years, excluding members who were no longer in office at the end of the congress or who missed more than half of eligible votes.
The data used in this article can be downloaded here.
How often every member of Congress voted with Biden in 2023 originally appeared on abcnews.go.com