Senate Democrats embrace bipartisan gangs as agenda stalls

As Democrats search for legislative wins heading into November, they are getting help from an unusual corner: Republicans. 

With Democrats’ reconciliation path in limbo — though members of the party want it to be revived — they are leaning into talks with Republicans on multiple fronts: immigration, election reforms and climate. 

The growing focus on trying to cut bipartisan deals comes after Democrats poured time and political energy last year into President Biden’s climate and social spending package, known as Build Back Better, and voting rights, both of which ultimately unraveled amid intraparty divisions. 

There’s no guarantee that bipartisan groups ultimately bear fruit by the end of the year, much less before the election, and plenty of skepticism. 

“You have every right to be skeptical if you look at the recent history. But the purpose of this is to come up with measures that can pass on a bipartisan basis,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat who is leading the immigration negotiations. 

Getting a deal on any of the topics would give Democrats, including a slate of vulnerable incumbents, wins that they could tout back home on the campaign trail. Though Senate Democrats passed a coronavirus bill and a bipartisan infrastructure package last year, they’ve also faced frustration from some of their members that they don’t have more to show voters heading into the midterms, where they are facing tough political headwinds. 

“We’ve got less than 200 days left, though. And instead of looking backwards, let’s look forward. Let’s get done what we can get done for the American people who elected us, for the American people who are counting on us,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said during an interview with CBS News’s “Face the Nation.”   

The election group is the farthest along. 

The gang, led by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), has been meeting for months as they try to get a deal on reforming the Electoral Count Act, a 135-year-old law that lays out how the Electoral College results are counted. The group has gotten a consensus on clarifying that the vice president’s role in Congress’s counting of the Electoral College vote is ceremonial and on increasing the number of lawmakers who need to support an objection to a state’s election slate before they can force a vote. 

“It is 135 years old. It was the source of confusion and ambiguity on Jan. 6,” Collins said about updating the law. 

The group is expected to meet again next week, with Collins noting they need to do “additional work.” 

The Senate’s other groups are substantially newer. 

The top four appropriators met for the first time on Thursday to discuss 2023 fiscal year government funding. They are hoping to get a deal by the end of the year, which would let Democrats lock in their spending priorities for another year even if they lose control of Congress in November and defang what would have been a brawl between a likely House GOP majority and the Biden administration. 

Meanwhile, a bipartisan immigration group and a separate bipartisan climate gang, led by Manchin and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), met for the first time this week. 

Both policy areas were included in the roughly $2 trillion House-passed Build Back Better legislation, which unraveled late last year after Manchin announced during a Fox News interview that he couldn’t support it. 

Democrats and the White House would like to revive reconciliation — with some floating Memorial Day as the deadline for getting a handshake deal — but what would ultimately get included in such a package and what would have to be dropped is in limbo. Democrats need total unity from their 50-member caucus to pass a budget bill without GOP votes. 

Manchin, who met with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) this week, said he wanted to focus a reconciliation bill on reducing the deficit and curbing inflation, with reforming the tax code being the linchpin. 

Manchin didn’t rule out that climate provisions could end up in such a bill, but indicated that his focus, for now, is on trying to find a bipartisan deal on climate. The Manchin-Murkowski group will meet again next week. 

“I’m working with a group trying to find a bipartisan way that we can move forward on energy, and we’ll just have to see where we can get,” Manchin said about the group. 

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who attended the meeting this week, said he was “neither discouraged nor encouraged” and “any time there’s an opportunity to try to find common ground for action on climate, I will take it.” 

But asked if he thought the bipartisan path represented a better opportunity than reconciliation, he responded: “No.” 

Durbin, meanwhile, said he viewed an immigration deal that could get 60 votes as the most viable path forward. 

“I don’t believe we ever stood a chance in reconciliation to deal with immigration. We tried … valiantly, I should say, to try to get the parliamentarian to see it the other way. So, I decided that the only course left is the ordinary business of the Senate, which is a 60-vote requirement,” Durbin said. 

Republicans have knocked Democrats over their midterm message, arguing that the party doesn’t have one. And they are feeling increasingly bullish about their chances of winning back the majority. 

GOP senators brushed off the possibility that cutting deals with Democrats on immigration, climate, election reforms or other issues could backfire politically by giving the party a legislative win to tout back home. 

“It’s the United States Senate. It’s kind of a collegial body. And there are always going to be folks who have similar interests who want to try to get together and solve problems,” Thune said. 

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who is a member of the bipartisan immigration gang, added “we’ve got to recognize that we have a crisis created at the border” and that if Congress is going to pass legislation on the issue, it needs to be bipartisan. 

“Not to do it purely for political reasons is illogical,” he said. 

But Republicans are warning that if Democrats restart their reconciliation effort, it could sink bipartisan talks, even if they are unrelated. 

“I think you’re going to start hemorrhaging any bipartisan support for these other efforts. That could … in my view throw a huge monkey wrench into any kind of a bipartisan negotiation,” Thune said. 

Durbin, however, said he thought Democrats could do both simultaneously, adding about Thune: “I don’t follow his logic.”

Tags 2022 midterms Biden bipartisan gang Bipartisianship Brian Schatz Build Back Better climate Dick Durbin election reform Immigration Joe Manchin Reconciliation Senate Democrats

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