This week: Democrats confront gridlock over Biden spending plan
Democrats are trying to break through weeks of gridlock over President Biden’s sweeping social spending plan, as they inch closer to an end-of-month deadline to get a two-part infrastructure package to his desk.
The Senate will return from its one-week break on Monday, while the House will return from a two-week break, which they interrupted for one day last week, on Tuesday.
After the House punted last month on the Senate-passed, bipartisan infrastructure bill, Democratic leadership is hoping to get that bill and a separate, still-being-negotiated social spending bill to Biden this month.
“I have said from the beginning that the execution of the two-track legislative strategy for the Bipartisan Infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act would be difficult. To pass meaningful legislation, we must put aside our differences and find the common ground within our party. As with any bill of such historic proportions, not every member will get everything he or she wants,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote in a letter to his caucus about the upcoming work period.
“At the end of the day, we will pass legislation that will dramatically improve the lives of the American people. And we must aim to do that in the month of October,” he added.
But even as Democrats have gotten closer to the self-imposed deadline, they’ve struggled to find the sort of breakthroughs on significant parts of the bill that would unite progressives and moderates, neither of whom leadership can afford to alienate given the tight margins in the House and Senate.
Progressives are going increasingly public with their frustration with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), two key votes in the Senate who have warned for months that they oppose a $3.5 trillion top-line figure for the eventual bill.
A group of progressives held a conference call last week urging the two Democratic senators to offer specifics about what they can, or can’t, support in the final bill. The senators, or their spokespeople, have said that they are in talks with the White House about the legislation.
“We are waiting for just a couple of senators to tell us what their proposal is,” said Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).
Sanders also wrote an op-ed for a West Virginia newspaper, which ran on Sunday, making the case for a $3.5 trillion bill and naming Manchin as one of the hold-ups.
“Poll after poll shows overwhelming support for this legislation. Yet, the political problem we face is that in a 50-50 Senate we need every Democratic senator to vote ‘yes,’ We now have only 48. Two Democratic senators remain in opposition, including Sen. Joe Manchin,” Sanders wrote.
Manchin quickly fired back, calling Sanders an “out-of-stater” that was trying to “tell West Virginians what is best for them despite having no relationship to our state.”
He added that Sanders was trying to “throw more money on an already overheated economy” and that 52 senators — an apparent reference to himself, Sinema and the 50-member Senate GOP caucus — “have grave concerns about this approach.”
Though the House and Senate both passed a budget resolution earlier this year that allows them to pass a bill of up to $3.5 trillion without GOP support, the White House, Democratic leadership and a growing number of lawmakers have acknowledged the final bill will be smaller.
Both Sinema and Manchin have said they can’t support a bill of that size, and the White House has thrown out a top-line figure around $2 trillion.
But Democrats’ headaches stretch beyond just trying to land on a top-line figure, which will determine how much money they have to fund an ambitious wish list.
Democrats had hoped to use the spending bill to pass new efforts to combat climate change, new child care and education benefits, beefed up health care programs, housing assistance, an overhaul of the tax code and long-sought immigration reform.
But as the scope of the bill grows smaller they’ll need to decide whether they try to put smaller amounts of money into more programs, a strategy preferred by progressives, or fund fewer programs more generously, a tactic backed by key moderates.
And they’ll need to unite their divided caucus around the details of those programs, including choices between bolstering Medicare or Medicaid, how to structure new benefits and how big to go on tax increases.
Climate activists are also furious at Manchin after multiple reports late last week suggested that he wanted to cut a key climate program included in the House bill. Manchin’s opposition to the Clean Electricity Payment Program, which tries to incentivize companies to move toward renewable energy, could lead to the program getting cut.
But the program is key to Biden’s plan to cut carbon emissions and the reports sparked a new round of backlash at Manchin.
“Senator Manchin has clearly expressed his concerns about using tax payer dollars to pay private companies to do things they’re already doing. He continues to support efforts to combat climate change while protecting American energy independence and ensuring our energy reliability,” Manchin spokesperson Sam Runyon said in an email to The Hill on Friday night.
The Senate will vote on an updated election reform and voting bill on Wednesday, setting up another clash as Democrats struggle to get legislation to Biden’s desk.
Schumer will move on Monday evening to tee up the vote, after Democrats spent months working on a revised bill that could unite all 50 members of his caucus. They also spent weeks letting Manchin try to find 10 GOP votes for the legislation.
“I hope that our Republican colleagues will join us in good faith, and as I have said before, if they have ideas on how to improve the legislation, we are prepared to hear them, debate them, and if they are in line with the goals of the legislation, include them in the bill,” Schumer said.
But the bill is expected to be blocked by a GOP filibuster, meaning it will fall short of the 60 votes needed to advance.
Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) in a statement on Thursday evening said that the bill “will continue to go nowhere.”
“Senator Schumer wants to stage another political stunt around the umpteenth iteration of the same partisan power grab that the Senate has already considered and rejected repeatedly. … Democrats call this latest repackaging a ‘compromise,’ but it’s only a compromise among themselves. It is not a compromise for the left and the far left to discuss how much power they should grab,” he said.
There’s growing support within the Senate Democratic caucus, and intense pressure coming from outside of it, to create a carve out from the legislative filibuster to let voting-related legislation pass by a simple majority instead of hitting the higher 60-vote threshold required for most legislation.
But in order to change the legislative filibuster Democrats would need total unity from their entire 50-member caucus, something they don’t have. Both Manchin and Sinema have said multiple times that they oppose nixing the filibuster, and others are viewed as wary of changing the rules.
Democrats have also introduced a bill to update and bolster the Voting Rights Act after it was gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court decision.
They introduced the latest version of that bill earlier this month. Every member of the Democratic caucus except Manchin, who supported previous versions of the bill, has formally signed on as a co-sponsor.
“There were some changes — I don’t know. I’ve got to check with my staff. There were some changes,” Manchin said when asked earlier this month why he wasn’t co-sponsoring the bill.
Jan. 6 committee
The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol is moving forward with its plan to refer former Trump White House strategist Stephen Bannon to the Justice Department (DOJ) for criminal prosecution after he refused to appear for a deposition.
The panel will meet on Tuesday to vote on a contempt report, a step toward finding Bannon to be in criminal contempt for refusing to comply with a subpoena. After the committee action, the full House will need to vote to send the issue to the DOJ, which would need to make its own decisions on prosecution.
Bannon was subpoenaed by the committee along with three other Trump aides. Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Kashyap Patel, the chief of staff to then-acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, are reportedly “engaging” with the committee, while Dan Scavino, Trump’s deputy chief of staff for communications, was only recently able to be located and served.
Bannon has informed the committee that he would refuse to comply with the subpoena, citing a yet-to-be-filed suit from former President Trump claiming documents and testimony sought by the committee are covered by executive privilege.
“The Select Committee will not tolerate defiance of our subpoenas, so we must move forward with proceedings to refer Mr. Bannon for criminal contempt,” Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said in a statement.
The Senate will also consider additional nominees this week.
On Monday evening, the Senate will vote on Gustavo Gelpi’s nomination to be a United States circuit judge for the First Circuit Court of Appeals. On Tuesday they’ll take up Christine O’Hearn’s nomination to be a United States district judge for the District of New Jersey.
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