Democrats return with lengthy to-do list
Lawmakers are set to return to Washington with a full legislative plate after punting some of their biggest priorities into 2022.
Democrats are poised to dive directly into two big fights — President Biden’s sweeping spending plan and voting rights legislation — putting a spotlight back on intraparty divisions that dominated the end of last year.
Other deadlines, like funding the government, are also looming. And coloring all of the legislative fights is the growing pull of the midterm elections, which typically dampen the chances for major legislation. Democrats are under pressure to pass big priorities amid uncertainty over who will control Congress after this year.
Here are five things on Congress’s to-do list for the start of 2022:
Build Back Better revival
Democrats are vowing to find a way to resuscitate at least part of a roughly $2 trillion climate and social spending bill after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) put it in the deep freeze.
Manchin — after weeks of signaling concerns about the House-passed bill but refusing to give it a direct cut — announced his opposition during a “Fox News Sunday” interview on Dec. 19 and then doubled down during a West Virginia radio interview warning that Democrats had miscalculated if they though they could pressure him into supporting the sweeping legislation.
“I’m not from where they’re from, and they can just beat the living crap out of people and think they’ll be submissive, period,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), facing pressure from within his own caucus, is pledging to force a vote in early January on a revised version of the House-passed bill. Democrats are using the budget rules to avoid a GOP filibuster, but they’ll still need total unity from all 50 of their members, including Manchin, in order to start a debate.
But Democrats are also in negotiations and floating ways to potentially scale back the bill so that it would include a smaller number of programs that would be funded for a longer period of time.
If Democrats go smaller, they’ll need to make painful decisions about jettisoning some of their pet priorities that are likely to hit serious roadblocks outside of the budget rules, given the 60-vote threshold required for most legislation.
One of the biggest sticking points is over the child tax credit. Democrats, as part of a coronavirus relief bill passed in March, included a beefed-up child tax credit through 2021.
Manchin’s recent offer to the White House didn’t include the child tax credit, which is viewed as a must-have for both the administration and many of his colleagues.
Voting rights and filibuster reform
After months of grumbling over the rules, and growing pressure from both activists and Senate Democrats, Schumer is poised to bring a fight over voting rights and changing the Senate’s filibuster rule to a head.
In a letter to his caucus, the Senate Democratic leader said he would bring voting legislation to the floor in January and that if it is blocked by Republicans, “the Senate will then consider changes to any rules which prevent us from debating and reaching final conclusion on important legislation.”
Republicans have used the 60-vote legislative filibuster to block several voting and election bills, arguing that they would federalize elections. That’s fueled frustration from outside groups and members of Schumer’s own caucus who want the majority leader to outline a plan for how Democrats will pass legislation as state legislatures debate new voting rules.
Schumer hasn’t publicly endorsed specific rules changes, but he’s made it increasingly clear that he’s ready to make changes in an effort to “restore the Senate.”
A group within the Senate Democratic Caucus, including Sens. Angus King (I-Maine), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.), have been working on a proposal for how to change the Senate’s filibuster rule. Those ideas include implementing a talking filibuster, creating a carveout from the filibuster for voting rights legislation or changing the number of votes required to break a filibuster from 60 “yes” votes to 41 “no” votes.
But to change the rules without GOP support, Democrats would need total unity from within their 50-member caucus, and so far they don’t have it. Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have backed keeping the 60-vote hurdle, though Manchin has been taking part in private talks and Sinema has called for a public debate on the rules.
Schumer, however, is warning that he could make the Senate vote on a rules change even if it is destined to fail, a pressure tactic that would put senators on the record and fire up his party’s base.
“I believe our constituents deserve to know which Senators choose to hide behind ill-conceived and abused rules and which Senators prefer to restore Senate floor procedures to better align with the Founders’ intentions,” he wrote.
Nord Stream 2 sanctions
As part of a deal struck with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to clear dozens of Biden nominees before Christmas, the Senate will vote on sanctions related to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which carries natural gas from Russia to Germany.
The pipeline has sparked bipartisan pushback in Congress, but also headaches for the administration as Cruz kept holds for months on Biden’s State Department nominees.
Senators discussed three potential options: a vote on Cruz’s bill at 60 votes, a vote on Cruz’s bill as an amendment to a larger bill from Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) that touches on Nord Stream 2 or competing and separate votes on the Menendez and Cruz bills.
In the end, the Senate agreed to vote on Cruz’s bill by Jan. 14, where it will need 60 votes to advance. That means Cruz needs to peel off at least 10 Democrats.
The administration previously pressured Democrats to help block Cruz’s amendment when it was offered to a sweeping defense bill in November. But Cruz, according to a source familiar with his thinking, believes he wins the January vote even with the higher threshold.
The vote comes at a precarious time for the administration, as Russia has beefed up its military presence along its border with Ukraine, raising fears of another invasion.
Funding the government
After Congress clears its January schedule, they will run almost immediately into another deadline to fund the government and prevent a Valentine’s week shutdown.
Lawmakers have until Feb. 18 to fund the government after passing a short-term stopgap bill in early December.
The top four appropriators — Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Kay Granger (R-Texas) — have met or spoken recently about how to break a months-long stalemate and make progress on full-year funding bills.
But so far they’ve yet to hit a breakthrough, raising the prospect that Congress could need to use another stopgap, which continues funding at current levels, to get them deeper into 2022.
Republicans have warned that without a deal, Congress could need to accept a full-year continuing resolution, which would fund the government through Sept. 30. But Democrats have been loath to put that option on the table and, in a bid to talk down Republicans, warned that it would negatively impact the Pentagon.
Iraq War authorization
The Senate is expected to turn back to a years-long push to nix the military authorizations for the Iraq wars after hopes of a vote this year hit procedural stumbling blocks.
Kaine and Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) had expected to get a vote on their proposal — which would repeal the 1991 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force — as part of a sweeping defense bill.
But amendment votes ran directly into a brick wall when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) blocked votes on a package of 25 amendments, including the Kaine-Young one, over a push to get his own legislation either voted on as an amendment or passed in the House.
Amid the stalemate, the Senate scrapped passing its own version of the defense bill and instead took up a compromise worked out between leaders on the House and Senate Armed Services committees. That did not include the repeal of the Iraq War authorizations.
Schumer hasn’t yet said how he will bring the bill to the floor, but Kaine and Young have the 60 votes needed to break a likely GOP filibuster.
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