Democrats worry Senate will be graveyard for Biden agenda
Liberal Democrats are growing more and more worried that the Senate will serve as a legislative graveyard for President Biden’s agenda unless he and other centrists rally behind doing away with the filibuster.
The tensions for now are mostly under the surface as the party approaches an initial victory under Biden: passage into law of a giant $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill.
The Senate is expected to pass it this week, and when it becomes law it will serve as an unmistakable victory in Biden’s first 100 days.
Yet this initial victory will cover up for fears among Democrats that big-ticket items passed in the House will die in the Senate unless the party greases the gears for change by ending the filibuster.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is insisting the Senate won’t be a graveyard — the term Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) welcomed in describing what would happen to legislation passed by the Democratic House to the Senate he controlled over the past two years.
“I believe and I believe my caucus believes that we need big, bold action, and we’re going to figure out the best way to get big, bold action on a whole lot of fronts,” Schumer said, vowing that “people are going to be forced to vote on them.”
But the White House on Tuesday sought to avoid the issue in some ways: Biden didn’t take questions from Democratic senators on Tuesday during a brief, eight-minute call to their weekly luncheon.
The call ended up serving as a pep rally ahead of the vote this week on the relief measure, but by taking no questions, Biden also avoided hearing from liberal senators about the filibuster or the push for a $15 minimum wage, which was included in the initial COVID-19 relief bill passed by the House early Saturday morning but is now on ice.
“He said we need to pass this bill and pass it soon,” Schumer told reporters after the call, referring to Biden. He said the Senate will “have the votes we need to pass the bill” and that Congress is on track to send the measure to Biden’s desk before federal unemployment benefits expire on March 14.
Asked Tuesday if he would support filibuster reform if Republicans block Democratic priorities such as expanding protections for voting rights, Schumer answered: “The bottom line is we’re going to figure out — we’re going to come together as a caucus and figure out a way to get the bold action that the American people demand.”
Liberal hopes for raising the federal minimum wage in the COVID-19 relief bill were dashed by a confluence of factors.
The Senate parliamentarian ruled raising the minimum wage couldn’t be included under special budgetary rules that Democrats are using to sidestep the filibuster in the Senate. That led some Democrats to call for overruling the parliamentarian, a step rejected by Biden and Senate Democratic leaders.
It also masked the fact that Democrats in the Senate did not have 50 votes to pass the minimum wage hike advocated by the House because of opposition from Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), who also opposes ending the filibuster.
Progressives now want to build pressure on Biden to end the filibuster in the hopes it will add to the pressure on Manchin and other Democrats to do so.
Without Biden’s support, however, liberal advocates for changing the rules of the Senate say there’s no chance of convincing Manchin or Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) to back rules reform.
They warn the votes of other centrists — Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) — are uncertain without Biden’s intervention.
“They’re not going to feel pressure on themselves to do it unless Biden himself gives them that pressure,” said Robert Borosage, co-founder of Campaign for America’s Future, a progressive advocacy group.
During Tuesday’s conference call, Biden expressed strong support for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, but he stopped well short of endorsing scrapping the filibuster.
He made clear to Democrats that he doesn’t want any distractions from the effort to send $1,400 stimulus checks and other aid to American families and businesses. He did indicate that he plans to come back to the minimum wage fight.
Democrats expect pressure on lawmakers to repeal the filibuster to mount after the House passes H.R. 1, a sweeping campaign finance reform measure, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which are both expected to run into Senate filibusters.
Biden has so far held back from supporting filibuster reform in the Senate, even though he sees legislation to strengthen voting rights as a critical priority.
Press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday said the White House is “not going to get ahead of the process.”
“The president’s view on the filibuster is well known,” she said. “He has not changed that point of view but certainly any step to protect voting rights, to ensure that it’s easier and not harder for people to vote in the country, we feel is a positive step.”
Two of the strongest voices for filibuster reform are Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Warren on Tuesday said Biden right now is focused on signing the COVID-19 relief bill into law instead of how to maneuver around expected GOP filibusters on minimum wage legislation and other priorities.
Sanders after the call said there will be more efforts to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
“Trust me, trust this will not be the last vote on minimum wage,” Sanders said. “There will be many votes. This minimum wage bill is going to pass.”
Democratic senators who favor filibuster reform say the parliamentarian’s ruling striking the minimum wage provision from the COVID-19 relief package adds momentum to changing the Senate rules.
“I think that has played a role and I also think over time the impact of the dysfunction that has been driven by a particular handful of members filibustering everything has moved our caucus from being relatively split on changing things, reforming the filibuster, to be much more unified that some things have to happen,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).
Heinrich said, “The sort of filibuster usage we see makes it impossible to do some very basic things that the American people demanded of us.”
“Raising the minimum wage is one of those examples,” he added.
Brett Samuels contributed.