Democrats end year reopening old wounds
Congressional Democrats are ending their first year in a unified Washington with tensions running high — among their own members.
The inability to get Build Back Better (BBB) and voting rights legislation done, despite months of behind-the-scenes talks on both, has Democrats increasingly venting their frustration.
The standstill is in many ways opening up old wounds — between the House and Senate, moderates and progressives, and progressives and leadership — that dominated headlines for months this year.
“It is actually delusional to believe Dems can get re-elected without acting on filibuster or student debt, Biden breaking his BBB promise, letting CTC lapse, 0 path to citizenship, etc,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) in one of several tweets critical of both the Senate and leadership.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) took a veiled swipe at Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) in an MSNBC interview, saying that there are “two Democrats who, in my view, are kind of acting like Republicans.”
“You’ve got two people saying, ‘You know what? Hey, if you don’t do it my way — I don’t care what the president wants. I don’t care what 48 of my colleagues want. It’s my way or the highway,'” he added.
Part of what’s fueling the frustrations, at least for progressives, is the belief that there was an agreement made with all congressional Democrats that the Build Back Better climate and social spending legislation should move in tandem with the bipartisan infrastructure package.
Most House progressives ultimately helped pass the infrastructure bill, saying that President Biden assured them he could get 50 votes for the spending package in the Senate. But so far those votes haven’t materialized, and the Senate is still punting the bill into 2022.
“You may recall that the agreement from the beginning was that there was one package: Part of it would be the bipartisan infrastructure, but the other part would be all these things that are now in Build Back Better,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “Obviously we are having a problem pulling the second half of that across the finish line.”
Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, described himself as “frustrated and disappointed” because they had missed an “opportunity” to work out a deal on the spending bill.
Manchin has also bristled this week under an intense media focus around Capitol Hill. The moderate-minded Democrat is swarmed several times a day as he goes to and from the Senate floor or party lunches by reporters trying to nail down his positions on the spending bill or on discussions about changing the Senate rules.
“This is bullshit. You’re bullshit,” Manchin yelled at reporters this week.
He’s also regularly started telling gaggles of reporters that he’s “got nothing — N-O-T-H-I-N-G.” On Friday, coming out of the final caucus meeting of the year Senate Democrats are expected to have, Manchin remained silent as reporters peppered him with questions before adding as he walked onto the floor, “Merry Christmas.”
Even as Democrats traded shots, they also played up their legislative accomplishments amid headlines about how they are facing roadblocks on their biggest priorities.
“Of course we wanted to get the Build Back Better bill done by the end of the year, but this is also a moment to celebrate some pretty impressive achievements by this Congress and this president,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “I think there’s a yin and yang to the end of the year.”
“We set our objectives sky high — we did — and we shouldn’t be ashamed of that, but we also should not be ashamed of what we did get done,” he added.
Democratic senators are also frustrated about their inability — so far — to change the Senate’s rules.
Republicans have blocked several voting rights bills this year using the 60-vote legislative filibuster, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was able to drag out end-of-the-year votes on Biden’s ambassador and judicial nominees.
A group of Senate Democrats are trying to find a proposal that could win over all 50 members of their caucus on changing the rules, with an eye toward passing voting rights legislation and smaller changes that would “restore the Senate.”
“The reason we’re doing the rules change is that we actually want to debate bills instead of this bull where you walk in and you speak and then someone sends out a tweet to raise money. That’s about what’s happening now,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee.
“We’re good at immediate crises … but when it comes to these really, really important long-term things that a lot of other industrialized nations are dealing with, we’re not,” she added. “We’re making a mockery out of our democracy.”
Senators are hoping that leaving town until early January could help cool tensions and provide the space for a breakthrough. Senators typically stay in session in Washington, D.C, for a few weeks at a time and get noticeably more irritated when they cut into those breaks. The Senate had been expected to leave for the year on Dec. 10.
“I will tell you that I think it’s healthy that senators are going home to eggnog and fruitcake. Maybe that will improve their attitudes,” Durbin said during a CNN interview.
The White House and some Senate Democrats want to be able to return to the Build Back Better legislation in January, and Democrats are signaling they now want to pass voting rights legislation before the formal start of the 2022 election.
But hanging over both is Manchin.
“I think it can get moving in January,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), but asked if Manchin would be there by then, he added, “I don’t know.”
Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) interrupted when a reporter started to ask him if Manchin would support a rules change: “I am not about to try to speak for Sen. Manchin.”
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