Senate meltdown reveals deepening partisan divide
An unexpected Senate meltdown this week is prompting Democrats to re-evaluate what they can realistically accomplish this year in Congress.
Senators were up until 2:52 a.m. on Friday trying to hammer out a deal on how to move forward on a bipartisan bill to improve U.S. competitiveness with China. In the end, the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement and had to punt the legislation into next month.
Less than 12 hours later, a bill to establish a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol failed on a mostly party-line vote, even though it passed the House a week earlier with 35 Republicans supporting it.
The Senate’s May work period, which wrapped up Friday afternoon, was supposed to be devoted to securing a significant bipartisan win with the China bill.
Instead, the Senate left town for a weeklong recess without getting either one of Senate Majority Leader Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) top priorities passed.
Schumer was left frustrated, as were many Democrats and several Republicans, after two consecutive late nights and a rare Friday session failed to get any legislation passed.
The Democratic leader and his colleagues are now taking a harder look at what they can hope to accomplish with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as Senate minority leader and former President Trump as the de facto GOP leader.
Schumer circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter to Democratic senators Friday afternoon that said, “We have … seen the limits of bipartisanship and the resurgence of Republican obstructionism.”
He noted that after moving pieces of the China competitiveness bill through six different committees and accepting “dozens” of GOP amendments, Republicans still delayed passage of the bill by two weeks.
Schumer, speaking at a press conference, later insisted that he and President Biden still want to get as much done as possible with Republicans through regular order, without having to resort to the budget reconciliation process that would let Democrats pass major legislation without any GOP support.
“It is frustrating, but that’s not going to stop us where we can from working in a bipartisan way. That’s the preferred way to go. It’s just not possible in many different areas with this Republican Senate and it won’t stop us from acting,” he said.
Schumer noted that there were more votes on amendments to the China bill this week than there have been during entire years under the Senate Republican majority when McConnell was majority leader.
He also complained that McConnell made no effort to rein in a group of Republican conservatives, led by Sens. Ron Johnson (Wis.), Rand Paul (Ky.), Rick Scott (Fla.) and Rand Paul (Ky.), from forcing the Senate to use all the procedural time required to process the bill — which would have forced senators to work well into the Memorial Day weekend to finish it.
“McConnell’s nowhere on the floor, nowhere around to try to prevent that from happening,” Schumer said.
The one-two punch of having to postpone action on the China bill, after 68 senators voted to end debate on the core components of the bill, and the failure of a motion to begin debate on the Jan. 6 legislation left even the most ardent proponents of bipartisanship rethinking what the prospects were for working across the aisle going forward.
Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), the loudest voice in the Democratic caucus for working with Republicans, said he made a personal appeal to McConnell to let Republicans support the Jan. 6 commission but was shot down.
“He just said, ‘Joe, we disagree,’” Manchin said of his conversation with the GOP leader. “I said, ‘Sir, I respect that. We disagree, but how can you disagree on killing the country?’”
“He looks at it strictly as politics. He thinks the Democrats are going to play politics,” Manchin added.
In an unusual move, Manchin blasted his GOP colleagues on Twitter for not supporting the commission.
“There is no excuse for any Republican to vote against this commission since Democrats have agreed to everything they asked for,” he wrote, asserting that McConnell made this “his political position” because he thinks it will help his party in the 2022 midterm elections.
Manchin later admitted to reporters that working with Republicans through regular order instead of using the budget reconciliation process is tough, yet he vowed he’s not giving up.
“This stuff’s not easy. Regular order’s not easy. I know that,” he said.
Republicans weren’t happy either on Friday morning, complaining they had little time to review hundreds of pages added to the China bill over the past two days.
“Do you not understand this process — how you just get dumped on you hundreds of pages of complex legislative text and you’re expected to say, ‘Yay or nay’?” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) fumed to reporters Friday.
Tensions over the Jan. 6 commission bill boiled over when Schumer and Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), a prominent moderate Republican, were spotted having what appeared to be an angry exchange on the Senate floor.
A person familiar with the conversation said Collins was frustrated that Schumer delivered a bare-knuckled political speech before the Senate voted on a motion to proceed to the bill, despite Collins’s efforts to try to build GOP support for the legislation.
Schumer had agreed to support an amendment sponsored by Collins that would give Republicans on the commission more control over staffing hires in order to make the underlying bill more palatable to GOP senators.
But instead of mentioning any of those concessions before the vote, Schumer turned to the Republican side of the aisle and chastised them for not having the courage to support an independent review of the Jan. 6 attack.
“If our Republicans vote against this, I would ask them, what are you afraid of? The truth? Are you afraid that Donald Trump’s big lie will be dispelled? Are you afraid that all of the misinformation that has poured out will be rebutted by a bipartisan, down-the-middle commission?” he said on the floor.
Hanging over Friday’s tensions is the lack of progress made over the past month in negotiations between Republican senators and White House officials over infrastructure spending plans.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), the lead GOP negotiator, acknowledged last week there were “vast differences” between the two sides, after the White House issued a counter offer that proposed spending $1.5 trillion more than what Senate Republicans were seeking.
The group of Senate GOP negotiators upped their offer on Thursday by unveiling a $928 billion roadmap that would spend $506 billion on roads, bridges and other projects, $98 billion on public transit, and $56 billion on airports, among other priorities.
But prominent Senate Democrats are panning the latest GOP plan and calling for the talks to end.
“Dangle the bait; lure us to forgo the alternative; then slow walk us; then never get to 60. Oh, and no climate btw,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) tweeted of the Republican framework.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said it wasn’t a serious offer.
“They don’t have pay-fors for this, it’s not real,” Warren said on MSNBC.