Senate

This week: Democrats try to clear deck for Build Back Better

Democrats are trying to clear the deck as they prepare to try to pass President Biden’s climate and social spending plan by the end of the year. 

Democrats started December with four major items on their to-do list: Fund the government, raise the debt ceiling, pass a sweeping defense bill and pass Biden’s Build Back Better legislation. By the end of the week, the spending bill is expected to be the only item incomplete.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is vowing to take up the bill, which passed the House last month, by Christmas. 

“Democrats have made very good progress on some of our largest priorities for the month. … Soon we will be able to turn to another crucial item on our December to-do list: passing Build Back Better in time for Christmas. We remain on schedule to bring this bill to the floor of the Senate before December 25,” Schumer said on the Senate floor late last week.

Finishing the bill this year would be a huge win for Democrats and let them avoid the potential that the legislation gets bogged down or scaled back if it goes into 2022. Democrats are also under pressure to act quickly because the beefed-up child tax credit is set to expire at the end of the year. 

But Democrats are facing several roadblocks.

They don’t yet have the 50 votes needed to start debate on the spending bill. They need total unity again from the caucus, plus Vice President Harris in the chair, to pass the bill.

Neither Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) nor Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have said if they support the bill. Biden is expected to meet with Manchin this week as soon as Monday.

In addition to policy details, Manchin has raised concerns about the size of the legislation and questioned its potential impact on inflation, which is at a near 40-year high. 

Republicans are hoping the new inflation data, which was released Friday, and a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report requested by Republicans on the cost of the spending bill if all of its provisions were made permanent could help sway Manchin into pausing or sinking the spending bill. 

“What I think will happen is that Joe will take these numbers and he will start making decisions about what comes next, and my hope is that Sen. Manchin will say, ‘Stop, shelve Build Back Better until we find better answers to where inflation is headed,'” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters.

Beyond trying to lock down support within their own conference, Democrats also need to wrap up formal talks with the Senate parliamentarian, who offers unofficial guidance on if a policy complies with the budget rules that govern what can be included in the spending bill.

“We anticipate that the bipartisan ‘Byrd bath’ — where both sides get together and make their case to the parliamentarian and argue back and forth — we expect those to start next week. I want to thank the parliamentarian’s office — and all of our committee staff — for working so hard this week to bring us to this point,” Schumer said. 

Meadows contempt vote 

As Senate Democrats focus on negotiations over the spending bill, House Democrats will vote this week on a resolution to hold former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows in contempt for refusing to cooperate with the select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

The committee investigating the Capitol attack released a 51-page document on Sunday laying out its efforts to obtain documents and testimony from Meadows and notes repeated warnings from its chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss), of the consequences if he refused to cooperate. 

The House committee told an attorney for Meadows that it was moving forward with contempt charges against the former chief of staff due to his failure to appear before a second scheduled deposition last week. 

“The Select Committee is left with no choice but to advance contempt proceedings and recommend that the body in which Mr. Meadows once served refer him for criminal prosecution,” Thompson wrote in a letter to George Terwilliger III, Meadows’s attorney.

Meadows filed a civil complaint against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the committee last week, arguing the select committee does not have the authority to issue the subpoenas directed at him or obtain his phone records from a third party and that Biden’s refusal to assert executive privilege opens constitutional questions that should be decided through legal action. 

Debt ceiling 

Democrats are expected to vote to formally raise the debt ceiling this week after paving the way for a one-time exemption to the filibuster. 

Democrats have said they will vote to raise the debt ceiling by Dec. 15, when Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said that they must act in order to keep the government solvent. 

Democrats haven’t yet said how much of a debt ceiling increase they will pass. As part of the deal struck by congressional leaders, Democrats will need to raise the debt ceiling to a specific number rather than raising it to a particular date.

Islamophobia bill 

House Democrats are scheduled to vote Tuesday on legislation creating a special State Department office charged with identifying and confronting anti-Muslim violence around the globe, including any state-sponsored campaigns deemed to fit that category.

The vote on the bill comes as House progressives are pushing Pelosi to discipline Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) for her incendiary comments targeting a Muslim colleague, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), arguing that the response thus far from Democratic leaders — a vote on the State Department bill — lets her off the hook too easily. 

Defense bill

The Senate is poised to pass a sweeping defense policy bill this week, capping off a weeks-long stalemate over the legislation on the floor. 

The Senate vote comes after House and Senate Armed Services Committee leaders came up with a compromise bill last week that sets 768.2 billion top line for bill, including $740 billion for the Department of Defense, $27.8 billion for national security programs within the Department of Energy and $378 million for defense-related activities.

The House then passed the bill last week. The Senate is expected to vote to get the bill over an initial procedural huddle, where it will need 60 votes, on Tuesday.

The Senate action comes after the bill was stuck in a stalemate for weeks because of a fight over amendment votes.

Senate leadership has tried to set up a deal on 18 amendment votes before the Thanksgiving break, but that was blocked by several Republicans.

GOP senators also subsequently blocked the bill from overcoming a procedural hurdle to start winding down debate late last month. 

And a package of roughly 25 amendments was blocked by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) earlier this month as he pushed to get his legislation to ban imports from China’s Xinjiang region, where administration officials have accused the government of carrying out genocide against the predominately Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority, either included in the defense bill or brought up for a vote in the House. 

Tags Bennie Thompson Biden spending plan Build Back Better Act Byrd bath Byrd Rule Charles Schumer Contempt of Congress debt ceiling Ilhan Omar Islamophobia Janet Yellen January 6 Committee Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Lauren Boebert Lindsey Graham Marco Rubio Mark Meadows Nancy Pelosi National Defense Authorization Act parliamentarian Reconciliation

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