Schumer vows votes on background checks, voting rights after break
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Thursday outlined a long to-do list for the Senate after a two-week April break, vowing to hold votes on background checks and a sweeping election reform bill.
“When the Senate returns to session, our agenda will be no less ambitious than it was over the past few months. We will focus on three areas: One, voting rights, civil rights. Two, economic recovery and jobs with an emphasis on climate change and build back better. And three, health and gun safety,” Schumer said from the Senate floor.
Schumer’s speech is the first time he’s addressed what legislative items Democrats will turn to next after using the previous two weeks to focus on President Biden’s Cabinet in the wake of passing a sweeping $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.
Schumer said that he would hold a vote on a sweeping ethics and election reform bill known as the For the People Act.
Senators battled in a committee hearing this week after the bill, which in addition to expanding access to voting also creates an independent nonpartisan redistricting commission in an attempt to get rid of partisan gerrymandering, restructure the makeup of the Federal Election Commission and work to give more transparency to campaign donations.
“This Senate will once again be the forum where civil rights are debated and historic action is taken to secure them for all Americans,” Schumer said on Thursday. “This Senate will take action to protect the voting rights of tens of Americans. The Senate will vote on the For the People Act.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee will take up the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which renews and strengthens the Voting Rights Act. Schumer, in a separate letter to the Senate Democratic caucus, said he would also bring that bill to the floor “eventually.”
Schumer also said that the Senate would address a spike in hate crimes targeting Asian Americans and gun safety.
Schumer is expected to huddle with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and other Democratic senators on Thursday to discuss the path forward on background check legislation. With the legislative filibuster still intact, a bill will need 60 votes to pass including the support of 10 GOP senators — an uphill task given the gridlock in Congress on background check legislation.
“I’ve … committed to put a bill on expanded background checks on the floor of the Senate,” Schumer said.
The House previously passed a bill to extend background checks to all sales and transfers, with some exceptions for gifts, some family members, immediate harm or a temporary transfer for hunting. But Republicans have warned they think the bill is too broad, and Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) have also flagged concerns about the bill.
The Senate is expected to leave on Thursday for a two-week break. One of the first items to get a vote when they return will be legislation from Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) on the increase during the coronavirus of hate crimes targeting Asian Americans.
“The Senate will address health and gun safety. When the Senate gavels back into session, we’ll vote on Sen. Hirono’s COVID hate crimes bill,” Schumer said.
Hirono’s legislation assigns a point person within the Justice Department to expedite the review of coronavirus-related hate crimes and provides more resources to state and local governments.
Schumer has been tight-lipped for weeks, including during a press conference on Tuesday, about where Democrats were going legislatively. Democratic senators indicated as recently as Wednesday that while discussions were underway, no decisions had been made.
Democrats face a backlog of priorities they want to pass after four years under the Trump administration and with control of both Congress and the White House for the first time in 10 years.
Once the Senate returns on April 12, they will be in session through the end of May.
Schumer also offered a preview of Democrats’ long-term agenda, discussing what they would be focusing on over the next few months.
“We will also keep a laser focus on our economic recovery. In the coming months, the Senate will consider legislation to rebuild our infrastructure and fight climate change, boost research and development and domestic manufacturing, reform our immigration system and grow the power of American workers,” Schumer said.
Biden is expected to unveil his next economic proposal on March 31, which will likely jump-start work in Congress on passing a multitrillion-dollar package that covers jobs, infrastructure and climate change.
Senators have said they want to get a bill out of committee by the end of May and a bill to Biden’s desk by September.
Though Democrats are likely to use reconciliation — a budget process that sidesteps the filibuster — for infrastructure without changes to the legislative filibuster they will need Republican support to enact most legislation.
There’s growing support for getting rid of the 60-vote hurdle but Schumer doesn’t yet have all 50 of his members behind making changes to the rules — the number he would need to invoke the nuclear option.
Schumer encouraged Republicans to come to the table on legislation.
“We will not agree on everything, but we must agree that inaction is unacceptable. The Senate must help the country finish the job against COVID while continuing to build a more equal economy and more just society,” he said.
Schumer declined to say during a press conference on Thursday if he supported getting rid of the 60-vote threshold, but pledged that Democrats would enact a “bold” agenda.
“Everything — everything — is on the table,” he said.
Updated at 11:31 a.m.