Democrats face mounting hurdles to agenda
Democrats are returning to Washington this week facing multiple political and policy headaches as they confront a packed agenda.
Congressional leaders have laid out a lengthy to-do list for the coming weeks as they barrel toward the 100-day mark for both President Biden and Democrats’ first unified government in a decade.
They’ll be racing against the clock: The House is in session for two weeks before lawmakers leave town again, and Congress faces a 15-day sprint next month leading up to the Memorial Day recess.
“As the Senate returns to work this week, we’re going to pick back right up where we left off, aggressively filling the Biden administration with well-qualified nominees and pursuing timely legislation that meets the needs of the American people,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said during a floor speech Monday.
Democrats have pledged that they will use their slim majorities in each chamber to enact a “bold” agenda amid pressure from the base, with leadership laying the groundwork for high-profile votes.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), in a letter to the House Democratic Caucus, said he’ll bring up bills on paycheck fairness and D.C. statehood.
“We ought to be very proud of the work we have done so far, but we still have much to do to deliver on our promises to the American people. And the April legislative work period will see the House consider a number of key bills to achieve our goal,” Hoyer wrote.
Schumer, meanwhile, has said the Senate’s focus will be on voting rights and civil rights, the economy, and mental health and gun reforms.
The House has already passed some of the party’s biggest priorities, including a sweeping election and democracy reform bill known as H.R. 1, protections for so-called dreamers and an expansion of background checks for gun purchases.
But many of those bills don’t have the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate, adding to the simmering debate among Democrats about whether to change or eliminate the legislative filibuster.
“One of the myths that defenders of the filibuster like to use is that it encourages debate and compromise. In reality, today’s phone-it-in, remote control filibuster is used to make sure debate never even starts,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Monday.
Durbin is at the center of some of Congress’s biggest debates. As Judiciary Committee chairman, he’s taking the lead on immigration legislation, and Schumer has said the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which restores and strengthens the 1965 Voting Rights Act, will also go through Durbin’s panel.
The Illinois Democrat predicted the Judiciary Committee could have subcommittee or committee-level hearings on background checks or gun violence during the current work period. But he hedged on whether immigration would be ready, after initiating bipartisan talks late last month.
“I don’t know if we’ll make that much progress, but I’m going to try,” Durbin said, adding that whether the bills go through committee or straight to the floor depends on “whether or not we have a chance” on defeating a filibuster.
Asked if there were measures he thought were ripe for floor action before the end of the month, when Biden will hit his 100-day mark, Durbin said he could only speak for issues that fell under the Judiciary Committee’s jurisdiction but that many of the party’s top priorities were still in the discussion phase.
“There are some bills,” he said, while adding that they were not “major.”
Additionally, Democrats are holding discussions this week on raising the minimum wage, after a push to increase it to $15 per hour hit buzzsaws in the form of the Senate parliamentarian and a group of Democratic centrists, as well as Biden’s sweeping infrastructure plan.
The president met with a bipartisan group of lawmakers Monday afternoon to discuss his plan, which has sparked GOP opposition and even signs of Democratic divisions.
The roughly $2.3 trillion infrastructure package includes money for roads and bridges, but also manufacturing, broadband expansion and improving the nation’s water supply.
Republicans have panned the expansive scope of the proposal, arguing it goes well beyond the traditional understanding of infrastructure.
“The Biden administration unveiled their latest misleading titled legislation, this time under the supposed veil of infrastructure. The White House has lumped together a motley assortment of the left’s priciest priorities,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Monday.
Democrats say they ultimately want the package to be bipartisan but argue that they could achieve that goal by garnering bipartisan support among American votes, not GOP lawmakers, a similar argument made over the recent coronavirus relief bill.
Democrats are prepared to use reconciliation, an arcane budget process, to pass the infrastructure bill on their own, sidestepping Republicans and the Senate’s 60-vote legislative filibuster.
“We’d like to get the Republicans to work with us. … We would like to work with them, and we will try to work with them, but we have to get things done. And if we can’t work with them, we’ll move forward on our own,” Schumer told reporters in New York on Sunday.
But what qualifies for reconciliation has limits, and parts of Biden’s proposal have sparked pushback from Democrats.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said over Congress’s recent two-week recess that he did not support increasing the corporate tax rate to 28 percent from 21 percent, adding that he would support raising it to 25 percent instead.
“As the bill exists today, it needs to be changed,” Manchin told Hoppy Kercheval, the host of West Virginia Metro News’s “Talkline.”
Manchin also warned in a Washington Post op-ed that he would not weaken the filibuster and did not favor using reconciliation, potentially significant headaches for getting some of the party’s biggest priorities to Biden’s desk.
“We should all be alarmed at how the budget reconciliation process is being used by both parties to stifle debate around the major issues facing our country today,” Manchin wrote.
Senate Republicans haven’t successfully filibustered a bill yet, but they could face a test this week. Democrats want to bring up legislation from Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) on coronavirus-related hate crimes, amid an uptick in the targeting of Asian Americans.
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said GOP lawmakers needed to find out more about the bill, adding “we’ll see what happens.”
“I think we’ve got members who are interested in finding out more about what’s in it and perhaps having an opportunity to engage in a discussion,” Thune said.
Hirono said Republicans were proposing amendments to the bill, which would require the Justice Department to appoint an official to oversee the expedited review of coronavirus-related hate crimes.
“What’s the reason for Republicans opposing anything?” Hirono said, arguing that her legislation was “noncontroversial” and “pretty straightforward.”
Durbin added that the vote on taking up Hirono’s legislation could be a test for the future of the legislative filibuster.
Democrats don’t have enough votes in their caucus to change the rules — they would need all 50 members — but supporters for reforms are hoping that if Republicans block bills that have broad support, it could shift the handful of key hold outs.
“I really think it is, in a way,” Durbin said, when asked if Hirono’s bill was a test for the filibuster. “If we can’t say that hate crimes against Asian Americans and others is reprehensible and ought to punished, that’s a serious mistake.”