Democrats are facing looming challenges as they plot their next legislative step, threatening to cut short a victory lap over the coronavirus relief bill.
The days-long debate on the $1.9 trillion package provided the first glimpse of battle lines in the Biden era and the 50-50 Senate, where Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerFixing Congress requires fixing how it legislates Beware the tea party of the left Bottom line MORE (D-N.Y.) will need to spend the next two years trying to make good on big promises with the slimmest of majorities.
But it also underscored the chaotic nature of a narrowly divided Senate, where any one Democrat can have an outsize influence and Republicans, who unified against the relief bill, are still needed to pass most bills, for now.
“In a 50-50 Senate, if any one member changes their mind on an amendment or vote or issue, it can change the outcome,” said Sen. Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsDefense & National Security — Military starts giving guidance on COVID-19 vaccine refusals Blinken pressed to fill empty post overseeing 'Havana syndrome' Who is afraid of the EU's carbon border adjustment plan? MORE (D-Del.).
That point was driven home Friday during a nearly 12-hour pause that put an uncomfortable spotlight on Democrats’ internal scramble that tested Schumer’s ability to get Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinWhite House: Window for finalizing sweeping budget package 'closing' Progressives see budget deal getting close after Biden meeting Democrats at odds with Manchin over child tax credit provision MORE (D-W.Va.) back on board by making changes without losing progressives like Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWhite House: Window for finalizing sweeping budget package 'closing' Jayapal says tuition-free community college 'probably won't' be in spending plan Progressives see budget deal getting close after Biden meeting MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDemocrats narrow scope of IRS proposal amid GOP attacks Overnight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — FDA moves to sell hearing aids over-the-counter FDA proposes rule to offer over-the-counter hearing aids MORE (D-Mass.).
Schumer spent four years as minority leader, keeping his caucus united against ObamaCare repeal efforts and the 2017 GOP tax bill. But the relief package was his first big legislative test as majority leader, and a preview of the competing factions within the caucus.
“It's important that he be able to hold us together as a caucus. Even with, you know, all night, many votes, that sort of thing,” Coons said.
Democrats weren’t the only ones keeping a close eye on how the coronavirus fight played out, trying to read the tea leaves on what to expect from Schumer and President BidenJoe BidenWhite House: Window for finalizing sweeping budget package 'closing' Jayapal says tuition-free community college 'probably won't' be in spending plan Jan. 6 panel votes to hold Bannon in contempt MORE with other legislative fights on the horizon.
“We learned a lot too about dealing with their side and some of the members on their side who suggested they might be inclined to be with us on some things,” said Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneDemocrats narrow scope of IRS proposal amid GOP attacks Senate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair GOP rallies around Manchin, Sinema MORE (R-S.D). “I think it’s indicative of what we’ll be looking at in the future.”
Thune — noting that Republicans were in talks with Manchin, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and others — added that narrowly divided Senates are difficult because “every man is a king and every woman is a queen.”
Democrats were helped by a unified belief within the caucus, as well as broad support from the American public, that more aid was needed to combat the coronavirus.
Schumer has been publicly wary of repeating what he views as the party’s mistake in going too small with stimulus during the Great Recession, pledging early on that while Democrats wanted to get GOP support this time around they weren’t going to water down the bill to win over Republicans.
“I feel good about the long-range here. I feel good about moving on to new victories,” Schumer told reporters, adding that the “secret to the success” was “every person realizing that we needed every other person to have this victory.”
But that pledge for unity will soon encounter immediate tests, with the 60-vote legislative filibuster still intact and infrastructure, the next big priority for Democrats, already sparking signs of divisions.
Manchin is signaling he’s wary of using reconciliation — the budget process that lets the majority party bypass the Senate filibuster — to pass an infrastructure and climate package without making a concerted effort to involve Republicans.
“We want to work in a normal process, a regular process, to where we basically can have input. We can hear from our friends on the other side. At the end of the day you might not agree on the final product, but if you had a little bit of input on the ingredients, it makes it more palatable for somebody,” Manchin told reporters.
“Well, I'm not for reconciliation. ... I'm not saying that won't be what might be needed at the end to get something done,” he added.
Rank-and-file senators are already talking across the aisle about areas of agreement that might be able to garner bipartisan support and more than 60 votes.
Coons said senators were discussing a “whole series of issues that … require bipartisan legislation, whether it's immigration or infrastructure or now raising the minimum wage.”
A bipartisan group, led by Manchin and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsEmanuel to take hot seat in Senate confirmation hearing Overnight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — FDA moves to sell hearing aids over-the-counter Rachel Levine sworn in as first openly transgender four-star officer in health corps MORE (R-Maine), has started brainstorming areas where they think they could be helpful in breaking the gridlock between Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFixing Congress requires fixing how it legislates McConnell: GOP should focus on future, not 'rehash' 2020 Hoyer: Democrats 'committed' to Oct. 31 timeline for Biden's agenda MORE (R-Ky.). The same group helped unlock a months-long stalemate late last year on a $900 billion coronavirus bill.
“We're not the tail wagging the dog trying to run the place. OK, we're basically saying that we're gonna hit some rough spots. And if they can't get to where our leadership — McConnell and Schumer — can work together … then basically we can help break the logjam,” Manchin said.
Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTrump-backed bills on election audits, illegal voting penalties expected to die in Texas legislature The Memo: Conservatives change their tune on big government Defense & National Security — Military starts giving guidance on COVID-19 vaccine refusals MORE (R-Utah) added the group was talking about what their “agenda” could be going forward.
“[We] talked about everything from family policy to minimum wage, immigration … infrastructure,” Romney said.
But it’s unclear how much appetite there will be from Democrats to try to reduce some of the big promises Biden and congressional Democratic leadership made during the 2020 campaign. The talk of bipartisanship comes as there’s growing support within the caucus for reforming the filibuster to make it harder for Republicans to block legislation on top Democratic priorities.
Schumer defended his strategy of going it alone on coronavirus relief, arguing that parts of the package incorporated bipartisan bills and the legislation overall was broadly supported by Republicans. He added that the Democrats’ strategy could help convince Republicans early on to work with them or be left behind.
“Hopefully now that they’ve seen we can do it without them,” he said, “they’ll join us and do it with us.”