This week: Democrats kick off chaotic fall with Biden’s agenda at stake

Greg Nash

Democrats are kicking off a chaotic fall this week, full of must-hit deadlines and a lengthy to-do list that will make or break President Biden’s legislative agenda. 

The Senate returns on Monday from the weeks-long August break, while the House won’t formally return until next week. 

The Democrats’ to-do list includes voting rights, funding the government, raising the debt ceiling, must-pass defense bills, an abortion fight in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Texas decision and a high-profile grilling over the administration’s messy Afghanistan withdrawal. 

But much of the focus this week will be on Biden’s two-part spending package, which includes the roughly $1 trillion Senate-passed infrastructure bill and the yet-to-be-finalized $3.5 trillion Democratic-only bill that would include top party priorities including combating climate change, expanding Medicare and long-sought immigration reform. 

Democratic leadership has set a soft deadline of Wednesday for Senate committees to be finished drafting the bill and for House Democrats to be finished with committee votes on the various pieces of the proposal. 

And House Democrats want to pass the $3.5 trillion bill by the end of month to sync up with a Sept. 27 self-imposed deadline for a vote on the smaller infrastructure deal that passed the Senate last month. 

But those deadlines are already under skepticism from Democrats, amid high-profile divisions between not only moderates and progressives but the House and Senate. 

“There’s no way we can get this done by the 27th if we do our job,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told CNN’s Dana Bash on Sunday. 

Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) called the Sept. 15 deadline “artificial.” And Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) told reporters she was “hopeful” with the progress Democrats were making before adding: “In terms of timing? It’s going to be a big question.” 

The tensions between moderates and progressives played out on the Sunday shows. Manchin told Bash that Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) “will not have my vote on $3.5 [trillion] and Chuck knows that, and we’ve talked about this.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in an interview with the same program, called Manchin’s opposition to the $3.5 trillion price tag “not acceptable.” 

The infrastructure strategy has highlighted the divisions between the two men, who are policy and personality opposites and don’t have a close working relationship. 

Sanders and progressives view the $3.5 trillion as a compromise, with Sanders initially pitching a $6 trillion proposal. Progressives have warned that trying to go lower than $3.5 trillion would backfire because it would lose votes from the left, leaving the party empty-handed. 

But moderates, including Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), have warned they aren’t on board with a top-line figure of $3.5 trillion. 

Schumer acknowledged during a caucus call last week that there was division within his conference on how big to go. He pledged that Democrats would “all come together,” but didn’t specify what number that would be behind. 

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) opened the door during a CNN interview to going lower, calling the $3.5 trillion figure the “ceiling.” 

How big Democrats go is a decision that will ultimately impact everything else because it determines how much they can fit in the bill. If they scale down the size of the bill, for example, that could force them to drop proposals altogether or phase them out earlier. 

As Democrats continue to haggle over the price tag, House Democrats will continue debating and voting on individual pieces of the bill. 

The House Agriculture, Judiciary and Energy and Commerce committees will meet on Monday to vote on their parts of the bill and the House Ways and Means and Transportation and Infrastructure committees will meet on Tuesday. 

Even as the House is moving forward with its version of the bill, many of those ideas including how to pay for the legislation still need to be worked out with the Senate. 

Complicating the task for Democrats are razor-thin margins in both chambers: Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) can lose only three Democrats, while in a 50-50 Senate, Schumer can lose none. 

Voting rights

Senate Democrats are readying a second run at voting and election legislation, after Republicans blocked a sweeping bill earlier this year that would overhaul federal elections, known as the For the People Act. 

A group of Democrats including Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sens. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Manchin have been negotiating for weeks to try to come up with a pared-down bill that could win over all 50 Democrats. 

A Democratic aide told The Hill that the group could be ready to announce their new bill this week, though a second aide cautioned that the timing wasn’t locked in and had slipped previously. 

Democrats have been eyeing legislation that would combine the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which strengthens the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the pieces of the For the People Act that unify Democrats. 

Schumer teed up a test vote to start debate before the Senate left for the weeks-long summer recess. If Democrats are able to work out a new deal they could swap their agreement into the legislation that Schumer teed up in August largely as a placeholder. 

“It is my intention that the first amendment to the bill would be the text of a compromise bill that a group of senators are working on. Let me be very clear, this is a debate the Senate must have,” Schumer said on the Senate floor at the time. 

Democrats would need 60 votes to start debate, meaning the support of 10 Republicans. 

Manchin, during his CNN “State of the Union” interview, said he had been pitching Republicans. But absent a significant shift, Republicans are expected to block debate. 

The procedural vote could slip to next week because the Senate is facing a truncated week, and will leave town on Wednesday. 


Congress is set to kick off its high-profile grilling of top administration officials this week. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Monday and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday over the administration’s Afghanistan exit strategy. 

The two hearings will be the first time an administration official has testified publicly since last month, when the Taliban reclaimed control of Afghanistan. The hearings are expected to be the start of a lengthy inquiry from lawmakers over how the administration underestimated the Taliban and overestimated the Afghan government and military. 

The Senate Armed Services Committee will also have a closed-door briefing on Wednesday on “recent developments” in Afghanistan with Gen. Austin Scott Miller, the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. 

“I remain deeply concerned about the events that accompanied our withdrawal and the ongoing humanitarian crisis,” Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said in a statement. “It is the duty of Congress — and the Senate Armed Services Committee in particular — to hold hearings to learn lessons from the situation in Afghanistan and ensure accountability at the highest levels.” 

Capitol security

Pelosi, Schumer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) are set to get briefed on Monday morning over Capitol security ahead of a rally on Saturday, Sept. 18, in support of the Jan. 6 rioters.

Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger will brief top congressional leaders about security preparations for the “Justice for J6” rally set to take place near the Capitol’s west front.

Police are expected to reinstall fencing around the Capitol building ahead of the rally amid fears of renewed violence, according to a source familiar with the request. 

CNN reported that Capitol Police are warning of potential clashes or unrest during the rally. 

Tags Afghanistan Amy Klobuchar Antony Blinken Austin Scott Bernie Sanders Biden families plan Biden infrastructure bill Biden jobs plan Build Back Better Capitol security Charles Schumer Dana Bash Filibuster For the People Act Immigration reform Infrastructure Jack Reed Jan. 6 Capitol attack Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Lewis Kevin McCarthy Kyrsten Sinema Medicare Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Raphael Warnock Stephanie Murphy Tammy Baldwin Tim Kaine voting rights
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