‘The era of bipartisanship is over’: Senate hits rough patch

The Senate’s months-long effort to clinch bipartisan deals — and prove the body can still function — is quickly running out of gas.

The Senate passed legislation this week aimed at competing with China, in a win claimed by both sides as an example of how the embattled chamber can cut and pass meaningful agreements.

But senators are facing a heavy lift as they try to figure out what’s next on the legislative agenda, with a host of bipartisan talks facing skepticism and Democrats grappling with dissent in their ranks.

The two Senate leaders are trading shots over who is to blame for the rough patch as the chamber braces for a rocky few weeks.

“It’s pretty clear the era of bipartisanship is over,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters, predicting that June would be a “check the box” month for Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) fired back, saying Republicans had picked “the path of obstruction and gridlock.”

Only minutes after passing the China bill, the Senate pivoted immediately to Republicans blocking legislation aimed at addressing gender pay inequity. It’s the second time GOP senators have successfully used a filibuster since President Biden took office.

There’s also widespread skepticism, and signs of trouble, about whether myriad behind-the-scenes talks will result in something that can get 60 votes and break a filibuster in the Senate.

“That’s what we do best, is talk,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) quipped when asked about the frequent inability of the Senate’s infamous bipartisan gangs to cut deals that become law.

Cornyn and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) announced Wednesday that they had effectively pulled the plug on efforts to find common ground on expanding background checks.

The two had been talking for weeks about trying to expand the number of sales subjected to a background check, and particularly how to handle unlicensed sales.

Cornyn said they cut off talks over the Memorial Day recess, though Murphy noted he was still discussing the issue with other Republicans.

“We’re no longer having any talks on a regular basis,” Cornyn said, adding that they had “worked hard” but were “unable to reach a conclusion.”

It’s the latest setback for a years-long effort to get a deal on gun reform in the Senate after a bipartisan bill in 2013 by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) fell short. The House passed legislation this year to expand background checks to nearly all sales, but it’s considered a non-starter by Senate Republicans. Manchin is not on board either.

The impasse is not just on background checks.

Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is leading an effort to craft a bipartisan immigration deal — another legislative white whale that Congress has come close to but never been able to catch.

But Durbin indicated that those talks were yielding little progress.

“We’ve got to reach the point where we start bringing House-passed bills in front of this group and get down to specifics,” Durbin said on Tuesday.

One potential bright spot could be police reform negotiations, where lawmakers involved in the talks have described them as on the cusp.

“They may be just days away, I hope, fingers crossed, of coming up with something positive, which we want to be sure happens,” Durbin said.

Senators were careful not to say anything was locked in, though they have been exchanging paper. NBC News reported late Tuesday that negotiators were closing in on one of the biggest sticking points, qualified immunity, though senators stopped short of saying there was an agreement.

“I think they’re getting closer,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, when asked if there was a deal on the legal protections for police officers.

“I don’t know that they are there yet.”

And Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the lead GOP negotiator on police reform talks, warned this week that unless they could get details down on paper within the next week or two, it would be hard to meet an informal end-of-the-month deadline.

Still, other areas are showing little movement.

A minimum wage proposal crafted by Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) is still being shopped to colleagues nearly two months after they announced they were teaming up. The issue first got bogged down after a progressive push for a $15 an hour wage was removed from the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.

“Nothing new on that,” Romney said. “We’ll see if we get enough people to sign up for it.”

The shaky ground for bipartisanship come as Democrats are facing problems in their own caucus. A growing number of Democratic lawmakers are skeptical that Republicans even want to cut big bipartisan deals and view negotiations as a waste of time.

“Dems are burning precious time & impact negotiating w/GOP who won’t even vote for a Jan 6 commission. McConnell’s plan is to run out the clock. It’s a hustle. We need to move now,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted Wednesday. 

But Democrats don’t have the votes to nix the filibuster, which would require total unity from their 50-member Senate caucus. That’s forcing them to lean on their negotiations with Republicans to try to figure out if there’s a path to the 60 votes needed to advance most legislation.

Nowhere has the between-a-rock-and-hard-place dynamic for Democrats been more on display this week than in two areas: infrastructure and voting rights.

Manchin’s opposition to the For the People Act has Democrats mulling whether they should try to break up the sweeping bill to see if there are provisions in it that could at least unify Democrats and break the stalemate to move forward.

“I think the most important pieces of that bill don’t have 60 votes, and eventually our caucus is going to have to make a decision as to whether we want to let Republicans be in charge of the country,” Murphy said, about the For the People Act.

Biden, meanwhile, ended infrastructure talks with Republicans on Tuesday, but the mantle has been taken up by a bipartisan group of consensus-minded senators who hope to coalesce behind a framework by next week.

The group is expected to be working on a proposal of roughly $900 billion and have said that after multiple meetings they are making progress but still need to win over their colleagues.

“Until you’ve taken it to the broader audience, everything is just, you know, opinion,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.).

But the bipartisan group is facing bipartisan skepticism that any agreement worked out could get enough support to overcome a filibuster. Republican negotiators from the group met with McConnell on Wednesday.

“We want to make sure that we do something meaningful that everybody has input on,” Murphy said. “You shouldn’t assume that a bipartisan package has 50 Democratic votes.”

Even Democrats taking part in the talks warn that they won’t wait around forever.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) told reporters he would give the talks “a week.” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who has also been in the meetings, added during an MSNBC interview that he would “give this group a couple days.”

Cornyn, asked about the group, appeared unconvinced.

“I wish them well,” he said. “But two people talking or a small group of people talking doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get buy-in from the larger Senate.”

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bill Cassidy Bipartisanship Charles Schumer Chris Murphy Dick Durbin For the People Act Infrastructure Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Cornyn John Thune Jon Tester Kyrsten Sinema Mark Warner Minimum wage Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Pat Toomey police reform Tim Scott
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