Democrats start putting GOP on notice as patience runs thin
Democrats are warning Republicans that they won’t keep waiting around for potential bipartisan deals, as congressional leaders face growing pressure to go-it-alone on their agenda.
More than four months since President Biden took office, most of the party’s biggest priorities have been stuck in limbo in the Senate, forcing Democrats to focus instead on nominations and smaller bills that can garner enough support from both sides of the aisle.
But Democrats, assessing their strategy as they head toward Memorial Day and the summer, are vowing to move forward after weeks of behind-the-scenes talks aimed at trying to find common ground with Republicans have led to mixed results.
“We always hope that our Republican friends will work with us on things. … We hope to move forward with Republicans, but we’re not going to let them saying ‘no’ stand in our way,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters Tuesday.
Schumer’s comments come as Democrats continue to hold talks on various topics with the GOP, partly to find areas of bipartisan agreement but also to show key moderates in their own caucus that they’re trying to work with Republicans.
Schumer, on Tuesday, put a firm deadline on when Democrats will move forward with Biden’s sweeping infrastructure plan — with or without Republicans.
“That’s our plan, to move forward in July,” Schumer said.
The White House and Republicans still appear far apart on a scaled-down infrastructure deal amid steep differences over the scope of a bill, the price tag and how to pay for it.
Senate Republicans are slated to send a new counteroffer to Biden on Thursday that is expected to be around $1 trillion, largely financed by using unspent coronavirus funds. But Democrats are signaling they are rapidly approaching the point where they feel they should pull the plug.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said it was “close” to the time that Democrats should walk away, or negotiators “have to make some progress really soon.”
And it’s not just infrastructure.
Though negotiations on police reform appear to be making progress, other efforts to lock down long-sought agreements appear to be slow going.
Murphy has been leading discussions with Republicans to try to find a deal on gun reforms after the House passed a bill to expand background checks. But he said the talks were nearing an “expiration date” if lawmakers return from the one-week Memorial Day recess without a breakthrough.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the majority whip and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, added that his bipartisan talks on immigration were running up against familiar points of disagreement, threatening the ability of the Senate to match protections passed by the House earlier this year dealing with agricultural workers and so-called Dreamers, immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children.
“I’m not happy with the progress that we’ve made. I think we need to do better,” he said, adding that the southern border was the biggest sticking point.
The slow movement on some of the talks come as Democrats are about to hit the first GOP filibuster of their months-long majority, reviving a dormant fight over the procedural hurdle, which requires most legislation to get 60 votes to pass the Senate.
Republicans are expected to block a bill that would establish a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, putting new pressure on Democrats to get rid of the legislative filibuster.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) predicted that Democrats wouldn’t nix the filibuster just because Republicans block the commission, but that it would influence a larger fight looming over voting rights.
“I think if the Republicans filibuster Jan. 6, I don’t know that we’ll change any Senate rule … but it will then become very key to the voting rights discussion,” Kaine said.
Democrats believe the next phase of the filibuster fight will arise when they start bringing bills to the floor and forcing Republicans to block them, underscoring what top priorities can’t pass without a rules change.
Murphy said that there were “more conversations” happening among Democrats about the filibuster.
“We’ll bring a bunch of bills to the floor that we think should have bipartisan support to try to work out that bipartisan deal. But if we can’t, it may ultimately be proof that the filibuster is not bringing Republicans to the table,” Murphy said.
Durbin said Democrats were moving closer to that phase of the fight. He added that the behind-the-scenes talks have garnered mixed results.
“Some are in a very delicate position where they can go either way. … We have to measure each one of them differently,” Durbin said.
But he declined to put a hard point on how long the talks should go on, adding that “the longer we wait, the more anxious we become.”
“We have a lot to do, and a limited amount of time,” Durbin said.
But, even as Democrats start to put Republicans on notice, they also still need to shore up support from their own members. To pass Biden’s infrastructure plan through the budget reconciliation process or eliminating the filibuster, they will need all 50 of their members to agree — and they aren’t there yet.
“We still have to sort of make the case to some of our members that the filibuster is an obstacle to bipartisan compromise and I don’t think that’s happened yet,” Murphy said.
Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) raised eyebrows Tuesday when they released a joint statement urging Republicans to work with them on the Jan. 6 commission. But Manchin told reporters that he wasn’t willing to blow up the filibuster if GOP senators block the bill.
He’s also not sold on reconciliation, saying he still wants to break up Biden’s infrastructure package.
“We don’t have to” use reconciliation, he said. “If the place works, let it work.”
Democrats will hold a meeting Wednesday on the For the People Act, a broad measure that would overhaul federal elections, viewed as a top priority for the party. The caucus met earlier this month to start discussions but reached no definite decisions. Manchin, the biggest hold out, wasn’t able to attend as he was traveling with first lady Jill Biden.
Kaine said the goal of the meeting is to figure out exactly where every member of the caucus is on the bill and what changes might need to be made to lock down 50 Democratic votes.
“The real key is making every Democrat declare where they are,” Kaine said. “And if they don’t like it, well what don’t you like about it? Can we change this or that?”