Senate

Biden and Schumer face battles with left if Democrats win big

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) got a glimpse of what’s in store for them if there’s a blue sweep after watching progressives call for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) to step down as the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Biden has pledged to unite the country, restore comity in Washington and work with Republicans if he is elected president, but the uproar over Feinstein’s brief hug with Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Thursday is a sign that many on the left will have little patience working with Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) next year.

Liberal activists and even some junior Democratic senators are warning against spending too much time trying to compromise with Republicans in 2021 if Democrats win control of both the White House and Senate, which looks increasingly likely.

They remember the months wasted in 2009 when former President Obama patiently negotiated with GOP leaders to pass a $789 billion fiscal stimulus plan — which in retrospect many Democrats now concede should have been larger to jumpstart an economy that was in recession — and a bipartisan health care reform package, which Senate Republicans refused to endorse in the end.

“You would hope that he learned the lesson from the Obama years,” Bob Borosage, co-founder of Campaign For America’s Future, a liberal advocacy group, said of Biden. “He’s done his closing argument in the campaign around bipartisanship, reaching across the aisle and bringing the country together.”

“It reflects his long pride in himself as being able to work across the aisle. It’s a real concern he might go the wrong way. My fear is not that he goes the wrong way forever but he decides, ‘Let’s try and see if they’re going to operate in good faith,’ as if we haven’t had more than enough proof from Mitch McConnell about what kind of faith he operates in,” he added. 

Biden came under fire during the Democratic primary when he talked about his civil relationships with the late Sens. James Eastland (D-Miss.) and Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.), two segregationist Dixiecrats, early in his Senate career.

Biden and Schumer will have to juggle the priorities and political interests of what could be an incoming class of Senate Democratic moderates, such as former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former astronaut Mark Kelly and Maine Speaker of the Statehouse Sara Gideon, with liberal firebrands like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and their progressive allies.

One of the biggest questions will be how aggressively to move on health care, which Schumer is making Democrats’ top issue in 2020. Senators are debating whether to focus on repairing the damage Republicans wrought under President Trump to the Affordable Care Act, or push bolder ideas, like the public option or expanding Medicare to people aged 55 and over. There’s also a debate over how quickly to move on the issue. 

Some Democratic moderates are already pushing back against the demands of liberal activists.

One Senate Democratic aide warned that incoming Democratic senators who narrowly defeat GOP incumbents can’t be expected to embrace proposals like filibuster reform as soon as they get to Washington. 

The aide, responding to the harsh criticism of Feinstein, said “people who are saying we should fight more are a loud subset of the Twitter-verse” who “don’t know anything about winning elections or Senate procedure” and who “are trying to raise money.”

The aide noted that Kelly, who is running in a special election against Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), will be up for reelection in 2022, when the late Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) term is set to expire. McSally was appointed to fill McCain’s seat after he died. 

The desire not to work with Republicans was on full display Thursday after Feinstein’s praise of Graham’s leadership, when she expressed hope about working on bipartisan legislation in the future, sparked outrage on the left.

Demand Justice, a group co-founded by Brian Fallon, a former Schumer aide, and other prominent voices on the left, called on Feinstein to step down as the top Democrat on the committee.

NARAL Pro-Choice America on Friday accused Feinstein of lending “credibility” to Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings, which it called “unprecedented, shameful and wrong.”

“As such, we believe the committee needs new leadership,” NARAL President Ilyse Hogue said in a statement.

Senate Democratic aides say they doubt Schumer would move to demote Feinstein after the election if Senate Democrats win the majority, but they acknowledge he will be under some pressure to do so.

Committee chairs in the Democratic caucus are based on seniority in each committee and approved of through a caucus vote.

“I can see the outside groups doing something and if anything happens, it’s possible that Chuck could persuade her to hand over the gavel if we become the majority. But I think that persuasion effort is going to be really challenging,” said a second Senate Democratic aide. 

“If we stay in the minority, nobody’s going to do a damn thing,” the aide added, but warned that if Democrats are in control, there will be a lot of pressure on how Feinstein runs the committee.

Feinstein’s moment of collegiality with Graham angered many liberals and Democratic activists, prompting calls for a shakeup of the Democratic establishment and new leadership voices. 

Neil Sroka, a spokesman for Democracy for America, a liberal grass-roots advocacy group, said Feinstein’s praise of Graham while Republicans are in the process of ramming Trump’s conservative Supreme Court nominee through the Senate as quickly as possible was a poke in the eye.

“It’s a burn from a broken Democratic establishment in the United States Senate that underscores who in the Democratic Party has been obstructing the reforms that need to happen in the Senate to make it a functional institution at this point and why those people shouldn’t be in power anymore,” Sroka said.

Another headache for Schumer is how to deal with liberal colleagues and outside activists who will immediately call for filibuster reform if Democrats win back the White House and Senate.

Borosage said if Biden is in the Oval Office and Schumer becomes majority leader, the push for filibuster reform will be “immediate and fierce” and “pushed by a whole coalition of grassroots groups with lots of pressure on senators.”

“It will be very fast. It will happen immediately,” he said. “There’s no question people don’t have any desire to go back through what Obama did, where you fritter away your majority in idle pursuit of supposedly moderate Republican votes.”

Schumer has repeatedly deflected questions about whether he would support scrapping the Senate filibuster, arguing that Democrats first need to find out whether they will be in the majority and how big their majority might be.

Schumer could also face calls from Democratic colleagues to share more power throughout the caucus. While he expanded the Democratic leadership team when he took over as Senate minority leader after the 2017 elections, much of what Senate Democrats do is coordinated through his office.

“They do need to do a better job of distributing power, including Schumer,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) told The Hill last month, when asked what Democrats needed to do differently for Barrett’s confirmation hearing after the bitter partisan fight over Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018.

The scorched-earth approach that some critics felt Senate Democrats employed against Kavanaugh revved up conservative voters and may have helped Republicans oust former Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.).

“The power is centralized for sure in the leader’s office,” said another Senate Democratic aide. “I think there will be some rabble-rousing among members.”

Tags 2020 campaign 2020 election Amy Coney Barrett Bernie Sanders Bipartisanship blue sweep Brett Kavanaugh Charles Schumer Claire McCaskill Dianne Feinstein Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Joe Donnelly John Hickenlooper John McCain Jon Tester Lindsey Graham Martha McSally Mitch McConnell progressives Senate Judiciary Committee Steve Bullock Supreme Court
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