This week: Democrats eye next step after coronavirus relief bill win
Democrats are hunting for their next big legislative agenda item, after President Biden signed a sweeping coronavirus bill last week giving the party its first win after taking back the Senate and the White House.
The House is in for a week before leaving for a committee and district work period until mid-April, and the Senate has another two weeks before the April recess.
In the meantime, Democrats are debating what item to make their next legislative priority — a test of what could unite the razor-thin House majority and potentially garner enough GOP support to pass the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) indicated that Democrats would be focusing, for now, on confirming Biden’s nominations as they devise a strategy for their next step.
“We have a lot of things we want to get done. Obviously, the Build Back Better bill is important. Obviously, doing something about China is important. Obviously, many of the bills the House has sent over are important,” Schumer said late last week. “Our first priority is to fill up the president’s Cabinet. We’re making good progress this week and next week. And then we will decide on the next few things to go forward on.”
Democrats will only be able to use two reconciliation bills this year, which can avoid the 60-vote filibuster in the Senate. They’ve already used one for the coronavirus bill, and House Democrats are at odds over what the scope of the second should be.
Democrats are likely to use it for infrastructure, but there’s also push to make such a bill bipartisan, underscoring the broad, pent-up interest after years of “infrastructure week” didn’t yield a big agreement. Lawmakers are looking at a months-long timeline to get a package to Biden’s desk, with senators saying they want to pass a bill around September.
Meanwhile, the House is sending over a litany of bills that represent big Democratic priorities but are passing that chamber on party lines — underscoring a rocky path in the 50-50 Senate where at least 10 GOP votes are still needed to pass most legislation.
The House has already passed a sweeping election and ethics reform bill, LGBTQ anti-discrimination legislation and background checks bills and will take up immigration legislation this week.
Schumer has vowed to use the Senate to enact a “bold” agenda, including pledging votes on the House bills, though as written they could struggle to get enough Republican support. Democrats are under growing pressure to nix the 60-vote legislative filibuster, with progressives and outside groups predicting the caucus will face an inflection point if Republicans start blocking bills broadly popular with Democrats.
“The wish of a good number of our colleagues, maybe most, is that we work with Republicans to get those things done. But if we can’t, failure is not an option. And we will have to put our heads together as a caucus like we do now,” Schumer said during an interview with MSNBC when asked about the filibuster.
Schumer is also eyeing a bipartisan package aimed at countering China. He’s previously said he wants to bring that bill, which is still being crafted, up this spring, but hasn’t given a hard timeline.
“I spoke with another Republican last night about a bipartisan effort that Sen. Schumer is leading to pull together a bill to confront China and to make our country more competitive, investing in manufacturing and in research and in onshoring supply chains,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said during an interview with PBS’s “Newshour.”
Democrats are set to wade into an immigration debate, as the Biden administration is under growing scrutiny over a migrant surge at the southern border.
The House’s votes also come as comprehensive immigration reform remains stuck in limbo as Democrats try to shore up support with razor-thin margins in both chambers.
The House will vote on the Dream and Promise Act, which would offer a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought into the country as children who meet certain conditions or those with temporary protected status.
The House will also vote on a separate bill that allows agricultural workers to get temporary status as certified agricultural workers and establish a path to a green card for long-term agricultural workers.
Both bills passed the House during the previous Congress, but immigration legislation stalled out in the GOP-controlled Senate.
The House floor action comes as Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas will testify for the first time since being confirmed. He is set to appear before the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday.
The hearing was billed as being about the future of the department after “four years of mismanagement and misuse,” but Mayorkas is expected to be grilled about the surge at the border, where the detention of thousands of children has threatened to spark a humanitarian crisis.
Democrats are rallying behind Biden and trying to draw a contrast from the Trump administration, which had a controversial policy of separating children from their parents to deter Central American families from making the trek.
“It will be nothing like what we saw in the Trump administration of babies being snatched from the arms of their parents,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday during a press briefing.
But Republicans, sensing a political opportunity, have homed in, making trips to the border and accusing Biden’s administration of creating a crisis.
“Biden has created a crisis on the border that he won’t admit,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told Fox News.
The House is slated to take up the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which is expected to pass with some bipartisan support, on Monday evening.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) are spearheading the efforts on the legislation, which looks to provide funding and grants for a variety of programs that tackle domestic abuse.
VAWA’s authorization lapsed in 2018. The House previously passed legislation to reauthorize the measure in 2019 with a handful of GOP lawmakers supporting the measure, but the legislation was blocked in the formerly Republican-controlled Senate.
Proponents say it is a critical component in protecting abuse victims, and have pointed to provisions that would provide funding for victim services, the health care system’s response to domestic abuse and language aimed at improving access to housing for survivors, aiding communities of color and preventing firearm homicide.
“After its initial enactment a quarter-century ago, VAWA — through policy reforms, interstate cooperation and grant allocation — has been pivotal in providing a national response to protecting half of the population,” Jackson Lee, who chairs the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, said in a statement following its reintroduction.
“Equally important, it has ushered in a seismic transformation on how society perceives violence against women. The law has enhanced and improved the lives of girls and women, boys and men. It has unquestionably improved the national response to these terrible crimes.”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will get a closed-door briefing Monday on Biden’s recent strike in Syria, after lawmakers grumbled about the need for better congressional notification.
The briefing weeks after an airstrike targeting Iran-backed militias restarted a dormant debate on Capitol Hill about war powers, an area where Congress has increasingly ceded its authority to the executive branch.
Democratic senators said at the time that they weren’t properly notified about the strike, or offered briefings immediately in its aftermath. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, told reporters that he learned about the strike on the news.
The Senate will keep confirming Biden’s nominees as they look to fill out his Cabinet.
The Senate will hold a final vote on Rep. Deb Haaland’s (D-N.M.) nomination to lead the Department of the Interior. Four GOP senators voted last week to advance her nomination, in a potential preview of the GOP support she’ll get during Monday night’s final vote.
In addition, Schumer has teed up Isabel Guzman’s nomination to lead the Small Business Administration and Katherine Tai’s nomination to be the U.S. trade representative.
Schumer and Senate Democrats also successfully moved Xavier Becerra’s nomination to lead the Department of Health and Human Services out of committee last week, making it available for a vote on the floor.
The House is also expected to vote on legislation that would prevent automatic spending cuts to Medicare from kicking in.
“The House will consider legislation to ensure that we preclude cuts to Medicare, as well as farm supports and other programs implicated by sequestration,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said on the floor last week.
The bill comes just ahead of the 2 percent cut to Medicare that is slated to pick back up within the next month, with the previous moratorium expiring. Congress was facing additional cuts, unless they took action, to offset spending from the recent coronavirus bill.
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