Democrats face questions over agenda
Senate Democrats are uncertain about their next agenda item as they face a bevy of competing priorities and procedural headaches that threaten to stall some of President Biden’s campaign promises.
The Senate is spending the final weeks before a two-week break confirming nominations, with Democrats beating the pace set by both the Trump and Obama administrations for getting Biden his 15 Cabinet secretaries.
But what comes next once the Senate returns on April 12 is up in the air.
“I think the leadership is still talking with committee chairs and the White House,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) added that Democrats have had “discussions” but haven’t made a decision.
There could be a signal as early as this week if Democrats are going to tee up legislation for a cloture vote when they return on April 12. If they don’t, they’ll have to start from scratch on April 12 and eat up some precious floor time.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is being publicly tight-lipped about what’s next but predicted that the chamber will be busy as Democrats tick through a long to-do list after taking back control of both Congress and the White House for the first time in a decade.
“We have Cabinet — or sub-Cabinet people to confirm. We have judges to confirm. … We have a lot of bills that came over from the House that we want to put on the floor and get votes on and hopefully pass them,” Schumer told reporters.
“So we have a whole lot of things that we’re going to be doing in the next month,” he added.
Asked what is coming next, Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, demurred to Schumer. Pressed on whether there were competing priorities jockeying for limited time, he quipped: “You must work here.”
The House has approved several bills in mostly party-line votes, racing to enact priorities that were dead on arrival in the previous Congress with a GOP-controlled Senate and former President Trump in the White House.
Schumer, pledging to go “big” and “bold,” has already placed a House-passed bill on anti-LGBTQ discrimination on the Senate calendar, a first step toward giving it a vote. And he reiterated on Wednesday that the Senate would take up a sweeping elections and ethics reform bill.
“We will not let this stand. S. 1 will pass this body,” Schumer said, referring to the formal bill number.
But Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) warned against making it the next item on the floor over concerns that it would only dial up temperatures in the Senate and could spark distrust over voting.
“The only thing I would caution anybody and everybody about is that we had an insurrection, Jan. 6. … We should not at all attempt to do anything that will create more distrust individually. So I think there’s enough good that we can all come together; that’s what we should work on,” Manchin said.
Schumer is also interested in a bipartisan bill to respond to China, with Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) predicting it could come to the floor in late April amid intense negotiations.
Schumer mentioned the legislation when asked about the April schedule but didn’t put a hard timeline on it.
“We have a lot of bipartisan legislation that’s being talked about and looking at, the China legislation, China government legislation, water legislation, things like that,” Schumer said about the next work period, which runs from mid-April through Memorial Day.
Biden is also expected to outline a vast economic package on Wednesday, which will likely start the clock on Congress drafting a package tackling infrastructure, jobs and climate change. The Senate wants to have the bill out of committee by the end of May, but in an acknowledgement of the deep divisions about how to pay for the legislation, senators have publicly pegged September as their deadline for passing a bill.
Outside events are also scrambling an already full plate: Republicans see a political opening in a surge along the border that raises fresh questions about what, if anything, Congress will be able to agree on after years of failing to clinch deals on immigration reform.
The House-passed legislation earlier this month to provide a path to citizenship for “dreamers,” the term for immigrants brought into the country illegally as children, and agricultural workers.
Durbin said on Wednesday that a decision hasn’t been made yet about if he’ll bring the bills up through the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which he is the chairman.
But he told CNN’s “State of the Union” that he thought he was “close” to getting 60 votes for the DREAM Act.
“I’m going to sit down with members of the Republican side and ask them if they would consider supporting it. I think I will have some support. Whether it’s enough remains to be seen,” he said.
Shootings over the past 10 days in Atlanta and Boulder, Colo., are elevating calls for Congress to address gun violence — another issue that has been stuck in legislative limbo for years.
Schumer has teed up two bills, one that would deal with anti-Asian American discrimination and a second to deal with domestic terrorism.
“We must take action. And I hope we will have universal support for these pieces of legislation,” he said.
He’s declined to say if he would bring a bill to expand background checks up for a vote next month, only vowing to reporters that it would be brought to the floor eventually.
He’s expected to meet with Murphy and other Democrats to discuss the path forward on Thursday.
Murphy sidestepped if the end of May — the length of the Senate’s next work period — would be enough time to take up a bill in the Senate, noting he didn’t want to draw hard deadlines or get ahead of Schumer.
“We’ve got some work to do. My goal is not to get 50 votes but to 60,” Murphy said, adding that conversations with GOP colleagues would continue for the next “few weeks.”
But he added that while Democrats should try to get enough GOP support, they should be ready to bring a bill to the floor even if they don’t have it locked in.
“You may not know, you may need to call Republicans’ bluff,” Murphy said. “I think you try to get a bill that gets 60 commitments but if we can’t, then we should bring a good bill to the floor and dare Republicans to vote against 90 percent of their constituents.”