Senate Democrats encounter obstacles in final sprint

Senate Democrats in a sprint to accomplish as much as they can before the August recess and the start of the fall midterm campaigns are already getting tripped up by a series of unexpected problems. 

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced progress over the July 4 recess in negotiations with centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on a long-delayed budget reconciliation package, but an aide to Manchin last week cautioned a deal is still not close.  

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is holding up a vote on a China competitiveness bill, while legislation to cap insulin prices is coming under fire from Republicans.  

Health absences in the caucus are also tripping up the party, complicating votes in the 50-50 Senate.

It all sets up a chaotic and challenging homestretch sprint before lawmakers turn to full campaign mode.  

Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) on Monday predicted that the Democratic absences would limit the chamber’s agenda this week.  

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) on Monday announced he had tested positive for COVID-19 and will work remotely this week, missing an expected vote on President Biden’s nominee to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Steve Dettelbach.  

The announcement came less than 24 hours after Schumer announced that he too has tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss votes this week.  

“They’re not going to have votes to do anything but bipartisan noms [nominees],” Thune said.

“It’s going to be tough for the Democrats to manage any kind of agenda that doesn’t entail moving executive branch noms that have broad bipartisan support, so to me it should be a week where we wind up early,” he added.  

The absences put Dettelbach’s nomination on a razor’s edge, as only two Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Rob Portman (Ohio), voted to discharge Dettelbach out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  

A third Democratic senator, 82-year-old Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), is recovering from surgery after falling and breaking his hip last month. A spokesman for Leahy, however, said his boss will be available to vote on Dettelbach or any other issue if needed.  

“Senator Leahy’s recovery and physical therapy are proceeding well and he expects to be available for votes this week if necessary,” said Leahy spokesman David Carle.    

If Collins and Portman both vote to confirm Dettelbach, there would need to be five Democratic absences for Republicans to defeat him, but it remains to be seen whether their votes on a procedural discharge petition mean they’re willing to help speed him through the Senate while Schumer is still trying to negotiate a partisan reconciliation bill.  

McConnell warned over the recess that he would hold up the final version of the China legislation, known as the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), unless Democrats stopped trying to move a reconciliation measure through the chamber with just Democratic votes. 

The GOP leader doubled down on his threat Monday, warning that “party-line scheming” on the budget reconciliation bill that would include hundreds of billions of dollars in tax increases would bring Senate business to a halt.  

“Democrats moving ahead and trying to jam the Senate and the country with a party-line tax hike through reconciliation will certainly crowd out our ability to process the bipartisan USICA bill aimed at competing with China,” McConnell said on the floor.  

“Our side cannot agree to frantically steamroll through delicate bipartisan talks in order to meet an artificial timeline so our Democratic colleagues can clear the decks to ram through a party-line tax hike,” he added.   

Thune, the second-ranking member of Senate GOP leadership, confirmed the competition bill, which would provide billions of dollars in assistance to the domestic semiconductor manufacturing industry, will not pass before the August recess — a serious setback to the Democrats’ summer agenda.  

“No, not if they continue to try and press forward on a partisan reckless tax and spending bill. I think the only way that USICA gets done is if they withdraw this idea of trying to do a big reckless tax and spending bill on a party-line, partisan basis,” he said.  

Talks between Schumer and Manchin on elements of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda picked up momentum over the two-week July 4 recess as they reached agreement on a proposal to lower the costs of some prescription drugs and to increase taxes on wealthy individuals who earn income from pass-through businesses. The estimated $203 billion in revenue raised by the tax increase would be used to extend the solvency of Medicare’s hospital trust fund by three years.  

But a spokeswoman for Manchin warned last week that her boss isn’t anywhere close to reaching a final deal with Schumer on the broader budget reconciliation package.  

“Sen. Manchin still has serious unresolved concerns and there is a lot of work to be done before it’s conceivable that a deal can be reached he can sign onto,” Sam Runyon said.  

Manchin is already coming under attack from special interest groups for supporting a 3.8 percent tax on individuals who earn more than $400,000 in annual income from pass-through businesses.  

Americans for Tax Reform, a group that favors smaller government and lower taxes, said the tax proposal will raise taxes on 1,870 filers in West Virginia, slamming it as a “$252 billion tax increase on small businesses.”  

Manchin on Monday told reporters “there’s people talking back and forth” but added that he remains concerned about the impact of the legislation on inflation. 

“My main concern is inflation, truly inflation,” he said. “When they talk taxes and talk all these things here, I want to make sure it’s not inflammatory. … So you got to be very careful what we do.”

Schumer’s other top priority for the July work period is a bipartisan bill sponsored by Collins and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) that would cap out-of-pocket insulin costs at $35 per month.  

But that proposal is already running into stiff Republican opposition.  

A group of GOP senators led by Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.) sent a letter to the Senate Finance Committee Thursday asking it to review the insulin legislation before it comes to the floor.  

The lawmakers wrote that Schumer’s plan to bring the bill to the floor in July or early August wouldn’t allow a key committee of jurisdiction to weigh in.  

Toomey on Monday said there is “widespread” concern among Republicans about the bill bypassing the committee, but Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) countered by saying his panel has already examined the issue at length as part of earlier legislative work.

Thune on Monday said it’s not clear whether the insulin bill has enough support to overcome a filibuster.  

“We don’t know the answer to that right now. I think we’ll get a better sense this week probably, because it sounds like there are some interactions between that bill and some of the things they’re trying to do in their new 3.0 Build Back Better bill,” he said, referring to the budget reconciliation bill, which includes prescription drug reform but not a cap on insulin prices.

Aris Folley contributed. 

Tags Biden Charles Schumer Joe Manchin John Thune Mitch McConnell Patrick Leahy Richard Blumenthal
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