Senate wraps for the year, punting Build Back Better, voting rights

The Senate wrapped up its work for the year, with Democrats punting work on Build Back Better and a debate over changing the rules into 2022. 

The Senate adjourned for the year early Saturday morning after a marathon of votes that lasted throughout the day Friday, into a rare all-night session and threatened to drag into next week without an agreement.  

The Senate will now return to Washington on Jan. 3, absent seconds-long, constitutionally mandated sessions over the holidays where no votes will occur and only one senator will be present. 

As part of the deal, the Senate confirmed roughly 50 nominees during the lengthy session that started on Friday and wrapped in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday morning, including long-stalled ambassadors and several district court judges. 

But leaving for the holidays officially punts both President Biden’s climate and social spending legislation and voting rights legislation, which would require a change in the Senate rules, into next year. 

Democrats haven’t said when they could pick back up either, though the White House has indicated that Biden wants to see the spending bill move in January, and senators view the formal start of the 2022 election cycle as an informal deadline for passing voting rights legislation. 

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has vowed for weeks that the Senate would pass Biden’s Build Back Better legislation by Christmas, an ambitious timeline given divisions within his own caucus and ongoing conversations with the Senate parliamentarian about the details of the bill.  

But Schumer acknowledged on Friday that the Senate was unlikely to meet that timeline.  

“Senate Democrats are working to pass Build Back Better and send it to the president’s desk as soon as possible,” Schumer said. 

“The president requested more time to continue his negotiations, and so we will keep working with him hand in hand to bring this bill over the finish line and deliver on these much-needed provisions,” he added. 

Biden released a statement this week acknowledging that he was still negotiating with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a key vote, who the president said, “reiterated his support for Build Back Better funding at the level of the framework plan I announced in September.” The president released a framework for a $1.75 trillion bill, but the price tag went into flux as House Democrats made changes. 

“I believe that we will bridge our differences. … My team and I are having ongoing discussions with Senator Manchin; that work will continue next week,” he said. 

Some members of Schumer’s caucus had wanted him to bring the Build Back Better legislation to the floor even without knowing if Manchin or Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) would help start debate. 

Because all 50 Democratic senators are needed to both start debate and pass the bill, if either of them had voted no, it would have marked a painful setback for the spending legislation. 

“We need to get this done. We have talked. We have talked. We have talked. It is time to put it on the floor and vote,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

But Biden’s statement helped give Democrats cover to delay the bill until they have Manchin on board. In addition to needing to lock down support within their entire caucus, senators are still in talks with Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough to determine if key provisions of their bill comply with budget rules that govern what can be included under reconciliation, the process Democrats are using to sidestep the filibuster. 

“We’re getting ready to continue to make progress on working with the parliamentarian. What we’ve got coming up is the bipartisan presentation,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. 

In addition to continuing talks over the break on Biden’s spending bill, Democrats are expected to keep talking among themselves about how to change the Senate’s rules with an eye toward passing voting rights legislation. 

Changing the Senate’s rules and passing voting legislation are linked in the minds of many Democrats because Republicans have used the 60-vote legislative filibuster to block several voting and election bills. 

Though Democrats have been having behind-the-scenes talks on voting rights legislation for months, those hit new urgency this week as they weighed trying to pivot amid serious roadblocks on Biden’s spending bill. 

But Democrats don’t yet have the votes within their caucus to change the rules. Both Sinema and Manchin are supportive of the 60-vote filibuster. 

But rules reform supporters feel like they are making progress. More Democratic senators came out in support this week of changing the 60-vote hurdle currently needed for most legislation to advance through the Senate. 

Democrats huddled before they left town with Marty Paone, a former secretary of the Democratic conference and parliamentary expert, who walked them through the history of rules changes and fielded questions. 

“It was a discussion where every senator who was there got to ask historical questions that they had about the way the Senate operated, not just about the filibuster … because we’re looking at reforms to restore the Senate,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who has been helping lead the filibuster talks. 

Tags Build Back Better Charles Schumer Chuck Schumer Democratic priorities Elizabeth Warren Filibuster infrastructure bill Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Mitch McConnell Ron Wyden Ted Cruz Tim Kaine
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