Senate tries to shake off graveyard status
The Senate is trying to shake off its legislative graveyard status, even as partisan headwinds, and a penchant for gridlock, loom over the chance of lawmakers reaching elusive, sweeping deals.
After being buffeted in recent years by growing partisanship, Democrats are moving smaller bipartisan bills on the floor. Behind-the-scenes talks are taking place on legislative white whale issues like new background checks for purchasing guns, police reform and immigration.
The optimistic talk might conjure comparisons to Charlie Brown, believing this time he’ll be able to kick the football. But Senate leaders say there are positive signs that make them hopeful, for now, this time could be different.
“Listen, conversations are taking place that give me hope. We have a long way to go, but at least we’re talking,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.)
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), his GOP counterpart, said that he was “hopeful” that Democrats would realize there is the potential for working with Republicans to craft long-sought agreements.
“Some of these issues are conducive to that. I’m hopeful that they’re not trying to like Charlie Brown and the football … because we have members on these issues that are very serious and want to legislate,” Thune said.
The sprouts of bipartisanship comes as big deal-making — outside of funding the government or, more recently, coronavirus relief — has faltered in recent years amid growing divisions, a shift toward nominations and a use of reconciliation, which allows the party in power to bypass the filibuster, to try to pass big agenda items.
With many of Democrats’ buzziest wish-list items out of reach right now, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has focused, for now, on smaller bills, arguing that they show that the Senate can function.
Last week, the Senate voted 94-1 on an anti-Asian hate crimes bill after Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), who spearheaded the legislation, worked to incorporate changes from Republicans, earning her praise from GOP senators.
On Tuesday, the Senate also voted to take up a water infrastructure bill that passed the Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously. And the Senate is looking to advance a bipartisan China bill once they return from a weeklong recess poised to start on Friday.
Democrats, asked to read the tea leaves of the smaller back-to-back wins, argued that it shows the potential for the Senate to craft bigger bipartisan wins if they just lean in more.
“I never thought that we would get 94 votes on the hate crimes bill. Never. But they got to put their amendments up, they lost their amendments and they still voted for it. Give them a chance,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said, referring to Republicans.
“I believe basically we need for the sake of our country we have to show that we can work in a bipartisan way. … The hate crimes bill was a very encouraging thing for me,” Manchin said, adding that he was “very pleased” by the process.
Schumer vowed that he would give Republicans the opportunity to make further changes on the Senate floor to the water bill. He also tied it to larger discussions on President Biden’s infrastructure proposal, noting the water bill that the Senate is taking up largely mirrors part of a GOP infrastructure proposal.
“What’s very interesting about it and bodes well for some bipartisanship in Build Back Better, the plan that the Republican senators sent to the president has almost the exact language that we are voting on on the floor,” Schumer said about the water infrastructure bill.
Democrats are currently mulling if they should try to split up Biden’s sweeping $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan and move whatever measure that can get 60 votes with GOP support — a path favored by senators like Manchin and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.).
They’re balancing those talks with behind-the-scenes negotiations to try to find a path toward the sort of politically tricky sweeping deals that have long eluded the Senate for years.
Schumer said Democrats were making “good progress” on two big issues: Gun reform and police reform.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who is delivering the GOP response to Biden’s address to Congress Wednesday, is holding talks with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.). The talks, which have been happening for months, comes after a police reform push derailed last year in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
“We’ve gotten big bills done together before. … He’s a good-faith actor, and he’s also a Black man in America and knows a lot of these issues personally. So if anybody can get it done on his side, he’s the right person to be negotiating,” Booker said on Tuesday about Scott.
Thune added there was “some hope” on police reform because Democrats “actually seem to be interested in a result.”
“There are lots of Republicans who would like to do something on that issue,” Thune said.
Durbin, meanwhile, is leading bipartisan talks on immigration reform. He’s focused on getting protections for “dreamers,” immigrants brought into the country illegally as children, and agricultural workers. And Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) introduced bipartisan legislation last week to address a surge at the border and are expected to meet with Durbin this week.
Asked about getting Cornyn to support a “Dreamers” bill, Durbin quipped: “I say a prayer every morning for John Cornyn.”
Without changes to the filibuster, Democrats need the support of at least 10 GOP senators to get most bills through the Senate. And infuriating progressives, the caucus doesn’t have the total unity it needs to change or get rid of the 60-vote filibuster.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned on Tuesday that Republicans likely wouldn’t help pass an immigration bill unless it addressed the border.
“I can’t imagine that we would take up an immigration-related bill, no matter how worthy it might be,” McConnell said. “Without insistence on our part that we address the obvious crisis at the border.”
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