Progressives fume over Senate setbacks

Progressives are fuming over a setback on the minimum wage, worried that it signals looming problems for getting other key priorities through Congress.

Though Democrats control both the House and Senate for the first time since 2010, Thursday’s decision by the parliamentarian to exclude a wage increase from the $1.9 trillion relief bill is reviving tensions about limited powers to pass some of the biggest Democratic campaign promises.

Progressives are warning that without making significant rules changes, they’re going to face a “Groundhog Day” of watching bills they championed — and their voters supported — pass the House but die in the 50-50 Senate, where Democrats control the majority.

“It’s not just about minimum wage,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters. “Democrats made a lot of promises in winning the House, the Senate and the White House. And it’s going to come up again and again.” 

Democrats, she added, face a choice: “Are we going to stick to these rules, or are we actually going to use the levers of government to work for the people?”

Evan Weber, political director of the Sunrise Movement, put it more bluntly, saying, “Most Americans do not give a shit about and have never heard of the ‘Byrd rule.’”

“What will happen next if the parliamentarian rules a 100 percent Clean Energy Standard, another key Biden promise, is in violation of the arbitrary Byrd rule? … From inequality to the climate crisis, our country and its people are in a state of emergency and in desperate need of action. Where is the urgency from our supposed leaders?” he added.

Democrats are using reconciliation — a budget process that allows them to bypass the 60-vote filibuster — to pass their coronavirus relief legislation, which they had hoped would also include the $15 minimum wage increase.

But Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate parliamentarian, advised senators late Thursday that it did not comply with rules that govern what can and cannot be included in legislation that uses the budget process.

Her ruling is a potential warning sign for Democrats who are hoping to use a second reconciliation package to pass an infrastructure bill, likely with climate change proposals that largely stalled when the Senate was under GOP control.

But the party faces bigger problems when it comes to passing its priorities outside of reconciliation, where they still need 60 votes to get most legislation through the Senate. In an evenly split Senate, where Democrats have the majority because Vice President Harris can cast any tiebreaking votes, the support of at least 10 GOP senators will be needed to clear procedural hurdles for legislation.

That includes big campaign promises such as tighter gun laws, immigration reform, voting rights, democracy reforms and LGBTQ protections.

The House, for example, is expected to pass legislation next week that would enact a sweeping overhaul of campaign finance and election and ethics laws.

But the measure, H.R. 1, is likely to go nowhere, despite Democrats also controlling the Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) teed off against the bill from the Senate floor this week, calling it an attempt to “grab unprecedented power over how America conducts its elections and how American citizens can engage in political speech.”

The House also is expected to soon take up a police reform bill, which does not have 60 votes in the Senate.

Earlier this week, the House passed legislation that expands protections in education, housing, employment and more to LGBT people and prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in credit, jury service and public accommodations.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has pledged that the bill will get a vote, but it will need GOP support. Democrats introduced the same measure last year; it had only one GOP co-sponsor in the Senate.

Progressives argue the dynamic underscores that changes are needed in the Senate: either overruling the parliamentarian or nixing the legislative filibuster.

“If people in this country send us to government to change lives, we have a mandate to change those lives. And this problem is especially compounded in the Senate, which already has an extreme anti-democracy bias,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

“So really our options right now, at least our immediate options on this specific issue, is to do something about this parliamentary obstacle or abolish the filibuster. Those are out two options right now,” she added.

The filibuster’s high threshold is why Democrats are trying to pass coronavirus relief through reconciliation, which places strict limits on what can be included in the bill.

Several progressive Democrats immediately revived calls for nixing the filibuster after the parliamentarian’s ruling on minimum wage.

“We shouldn’t need to use an arcane procedure to pass the people’s agenda! If we don’t let the filibuster stand in our way, the Parliamentarian’s decision on minimum wage won’t matter. End the McConnell Veto!” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) tweeted.

Supporters of eliminating the filibuster argue that leaving it in place effectively hands control of the Senate to McConnell because Republicans are able to block most legislation.

“Today it’s the minimum wage. Tomorrow, the filibuster stands to block legislation on immigration, gun violence prevention, climate justice, voting rights and more,” Kevin Kimble of Just Democracy said in a statement Thursday.

But the White House has dismissed talk of using Harris to overrule the parliamentarian — a maneuver that doesn’t have enough support among Senate Democrats to be successful anyway. The caucus also doesn’t have the votes to nix the filibuster.

Democrats would need all 50 members of the caucus to vote on eliminating the filibuster. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are on the record opposing such a move, and several other Democratic senators are viewed as wary.

Progressives are warning that voters gave them a trifecta — control of the House, Senate and White House — in order to enact the agenda they campaigned on and that those same voters won’t be forgiving during the 2022 midterms if Democrats fail to deliver because of Senate procedural rules.

“No American voted to give power to a parliamentarian,” Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) tweeted. “It will be hard to explain to voters in 2022 what we as Democrats produced if we stick to arcane ways.”

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Charles Schumer Jeff Merkley Joe Manchin legislative filibuster Minimum wage Mitch McConnell Pramila Jayapal progressives Ruben Gallego

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