Democratic agenda stuck in limbo

Less than a week into the new election year, Senate Democrats acknowledge their ambitious legislative agenda is in limbo and they don’t see a breakthrough happening any time soon.

The state of affairs is fueling angst among Democrats, who say one of the key lessons learned after the disappointing election results in Virginia and New Jersey in November was the need to get more done in Congress.

Leaders finally got the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill to President Biden’s desk in mid-November, but the rest of his agenda is stuck. 

Democratic senators say they expect Republicans to once again block voting rights legislation later this month and predict a vote to change the Senate rules to eliminate the GOP blockade will also fail. 

And they say there’s no clear path forward on the stalled Build Back Better bill, which needs to be overhauled to secure Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) support and isn’t expected to come to the floor before March.

Additionally, the top four leaders in Congress haven’t agreed on the parameters of an omnibus spending bill to fund the government by Feb. 18, when the stopgap measure passed last month is due to expire.

Even one of the Senate’s biggest legislative accomplishments of last year, the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which would provide $52 billion for semiconductor research and manufacturing, is stalled in the House.

Democratic senators say they have little idea what other legislation is on the agenda for the rest of the winter and spring. There’s been little discussion so far about priorities other than the two main ones on the calendar: voting rights legislation and the Build Back Better Act. 

“The eternal limbo is just sucking the life out of everybody,” said one Democratic senator about the stalemate on a voting rights bill, Senate rules reform and the Build Back Better agenda.

A second Democratic senator said the reality is setting in that voting rights legislation isn’t going anywhere and that Biden’s sweeping climate and social spending bill may be stalled for weeks longer.

“There’s no forward motion on anything,” the lawmaker said. “The process of trying to get the voting rights bill and Build Back Better over the finish line has drowned out everything.” 

In a major setback to Democrats, the enhanced child tax credit — a key component of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which passed in March — has expired, and there’s little hope of getting it renewed anytime soon. 

The lawmaker said Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) could have done more to manage colleagues’ expectations about the prospects of passing voting rights and Build Back Better given staunch GOP opposition to election reform and Manchin’s deep reservations about new social spending programs.

Schumer initially planned to bring Build Back Better to the Senate floor for a vote before Christmas, telling reporters on Dec. 14 that there were “good discussions going on” over Biden’s climate and social spending agenda.

But Democratic optimism for getting that bill passed by the end of December or by mid-January came crashing down when Manchin announced in a Dec. 19 “Fox News Sunday” interview that he would not support the package moving forward.

Manchin on Wednesday said he doesn’t have any immediate plans to resume negotiations with Biden on Build Back Better. Asked what he thought about the prospects of getting the bill “back on track,” Manchin chuckled and replied: “Guys, I think I made my statement pretty clear.” 

He told Fox News’s Bret Baier last month that he just couldn’t envision himself supporting the legislation. 

“I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can’t. I tried everything humanly possible. I can’t get there,” he said.

Democrats piled many of their legislative priorities — such as funding to address climate change, an extension of the enhanced child tax credit, universal pre-kindergarten and prescription drug price reform — into the Build Back Better Act. As long as it’s stuck on the back burner, so is almost all of the Democrats’ agenda for Biden’s first two years in office.

Manchin also effectively killed any chance of passing the voting rights legislation Schumer plans to bring to the floor when he ruled out enacting a rules change with a simple-majority vote, a controversial tactic known as the nuclear option.

“Being open to a rules change that would create a nuclear option, it’s very, very difficult. It’s a heavy lift,” he said on Tuesday.

Manchin said he wants to keep the 60-vote threshold in place for passing legislation through the Senate, though said he is open to more modest reforms, such as lowering the procedural vote threshold for starting a floor debate on a bill. He has also expressed support for making it slightly easier to bring a bill up for a final vote by setting the threshold for ending a filibuster at three-fifths of senators present and voting.

But Manchin is insisting on making rules changes with Republican support under regular order, which means rounding up 17 GOP votes.

“That’s not going to happen,” said a third Democratic senator. 

Other Democratic priorities, such as gun control legislation and immigration reform, have received little debate or attention under the new Senate Democratic majority.

The House passed two bills addressing gun violence in March: a bill requiring background checks for all firearm sales and transfers and a bill extending the time period for background checks from three to as many as 20 days. 

Senators say there’s been no discussion about scheduling a floor debate or vote on gun control measures anytime soon. 

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) made repeated efforts to include immigration reform legislation into the Build Back Better package that Democrats hoped to pass, but Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough said it didn’t comply with the Byrd rule governing the budget reconciliation process.

A study by the Pew Research Center found that the 30 substantive laws passed by this Congress before the August recess tied for the fifth fewest of the 18 Congresses since 1987.

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) publicly voiced the frustrations shared by her Democratic colleagues in an interview with CNN shortly before Congress left town on a two-week Christmas break.  

“You can have one person, or two people, just stop everything,” she said, “and that is why people in our country should know that a 50-50 Senate sucks and we can’t get things done.”

Tags Build Back Better Charles Schumer Democratic agenda Dick Durbin Gun control Immigration reform Joe Biden Joe Manchin Mazie Hirono voting rights legislation
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