Schumer faces cracks in Democratic unity

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is facing major tests of his ability to unite the Democratic caucus heading into a turbulent summer stretch.

Schumer, who has touted unity as a crucial asset, will now need to rally Senate Democrats to stick together amid new signs of division between moderate Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and a progressive wing that is increasingly restless five months into the party’s control of Congress.

Whether he succeeds will have sweeping ramifications for not only President Biden’s agenda, with fights over a slew of policy goals in June and July and separate talks on infrastructure coming to a head, but also the party’s message in the 2022 midterm elections. Schumer is up for reelection next year amid constant speculation about a potential progressive primary challenger.

“It is absolutely his job to be using every tool that he has in his toolbox to unify his caucus and be able to move things ahead. That is the entire mandate that he has as leader. This is certainly not just the Manchin-Sinema show,” said Mary Small, the national advocacy director for the progressive group Indivisible.

The gambit comes as Senate Democrats have largely managed to stick together since Schumer took over as Democratic leader in 2017, including opposing the GOP’s ObamaCare repeal and tax-cut efforts and Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination. More recently, that unity allowed Democrats to pass a sweeping $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package without any Republican support.

It’s a dynamic that Schumer has talked up several times this year, including telling The Nation in an interview last month that “on every major vote — and in each case, people predicted it would be hard — we’ve stuck together and succeeded.”

But the upcoming summer stretch, starting Monday with a three-week June work period, will test their unity and put a spotlight on internal tensions that threaten to hamper some of Democrats’ biggest policy promises, many of which have already passed the House only to be stuck in Senate limbo, and not necessarily because of GOP opposition.

Schumer, in a letter to his conference on the upcoming work period, warned that the weeks ahead would be “extremely challenging” for their 50-member majority. In addition to battles on the Senate floor, Democrats will need to decide on forging ahead with infrastructure on their own amid growing frustration with the ongoing bipartisan talks.

“I want to be clear that the next few weeks will be hard and will test our resolve as a Congress and a conference,” Schumer wrote to his colleagues.

But he also underscored the political stakes, adding that “the American people gave us a Democratic Senate to produce big and bold action on the major issues confronting us. And that is what we will do.”

Democrats are barreling toward a filibuster fight that could determine the course of Biden’s agenda and whether Schumer can deliver on his vow to take “big and bold action” on everything from voting rights and gun reforms to raising the minimum wage and immigration.

Supporters of changing the longtime Senate rules requiring 60 votes for most legislation hope that Schumer’s plan to bring up bills popular with Democrats, only to have Republicans block them, could sway lawmakers wary of invoking the so-called nuclear option, a move that would need support from the entire Democratic caucus.

“We will be putting the question … really starkly to Senate Democrats that you might prefer another option, but what you actually have in front of you is a choice to unify and go it alone or just accept that you’re doing nothing,” Small said.

Schumer has vowed that he will hold a vote by the end of June on the For the People Act, which would overhaul federal elections, change the composition of the Federal Election Commission and revamp redistricting.

Schumer is also planning to bring up a paycheck fairness bill that was previously filibustered by Republicans during the Obama administration and is mulling holding votes this month on gun reforms and LGBTQ protections. Absent a bipartisan agreement, each of those is likely to fall short of the 60-vote threshold needed to advance.

Schumer hasn’t explicitly backed nixing the filibuster but has warned that “failure is not an option” on issues like the For the People Act.

Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, credited Schumer with being willing to “smoke out any opponents” to the democracy legislation by forcing a vote.

“He’s made clear that the question will be called … so that pretty much puts every Democratic senator on notice that there is no hiding from the bill or hiding from the filibuster question,” he said. “This is a rare instance where without knowing for sure he has all the votes Schumer is showing leadership and calling the question.”

Senate experts say Democrats are unlikely to be able to get rid of the 60-vote hurdle.

“The idea that the Democrats could put together their full 50 coalition for an actual sort of full-scale, essentially, removal of the filibuster I think is unlikely,” Matt Glassman, a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Government Affairs Institute, said during a National Journal event.

To force through a rules change, Schumer would need the support of every member of his caucus.

Manchin and Sinema have been opposed to getting rid of the filibuster, positions they doubled down on during the Senate recess. 

“I have always said, “If I can’t go home and explain it, I can’t vote for it.” And I cannot explain strictly partisan election reform or blowing up the Senate rules to expedite one party’s agenda,” Manchin wrote in an op-ed published Sunday.

And other Democrats, who generate significantly fewer headlines on the rules fight, have also signaled that they are wary of taking that step.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) told CNN recently that she didn’t “think getting rid of it is the best approach.” And Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) appeared to embrace a talking filibuster during an event in her home state last month but stopped short of getting rid of the 60-vote threshold entirely.

“It’s important to protect minority rights,” she said.

The fight over the filibuster comes as Democrats are also struggling to stay unified behind a strategy on passing an infrastructure package.

A growing number of congressional Democrats are ready for Biden to pull the plug on talks with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) as the two sides remain far apart on both the price tag and potential scope of an infrastructure bill.

But to go it alone, Schumer would need the backing of his entire caucus. He’s said that he wants to move infrastructure — with or without GOP support — in July, giving him a few weeks to shore up support.

Manchin, however, is making clear that he’s not ready to relegate Republicans to the sidelines. Capito and Biden are set to speak again on Monday, and Capito, according to Manchin, will later brief a group of moderate-minded lawmakers that typically meets on Wednesdays.

On Schumer and Biden’s other flank are progressives who are ready to move, warning that they don’t want to pare down their infrastructure package just to, potentially, win over Republicans.

“Hmm. When the GOP passed legislation to provide a $1 trillion tax break to corporations & the 1% without a single Democratic vote, I didn’t hear my Republican colleagues say ‘Wait. It has to be bipartisan.’ Please don’t tell me we can’t use the same tools to help working people,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tweeted Friday.

Tags Amy Coney Barrett Bernie Sanders Charles Schumer Donald Trump For the People Act Jeanne Shaheen Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Maggie Hassan moderates progressives Senate Democrats Shelley Moore Capito
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