Ukraine crisis, Supreme Court scramble Democrats’ agenda
Democrats are seeing their legislative agenda upended by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a looming Supreme Court fight.
Democratic lawmakers, returning to Washington on Monday for an intense six-week sprint, had hoped to home in on how the party is working to cut costs heading into November, as President Biden faces tepid poll numbers and voters see the economy and record-high inflation as a top concern.
While Democrats still expect Biden to highlight the theme during Tuesday night’s State of the union address, much of the political oxygen for the immediate future will be focused on Ukraine, including what Congress’s response will be, as well as a race to confirm Biden’s Supreme Court nominee by early April.
Asked if the two issues would overshadow Democrats’ economic message, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) declined to rank them but acknowledged that Ukraine is the most urgent because it’s a “life and death struggle.”
“Ukraine is so timely and such a life and death struggle that that takes precedence over most other things,” Durbin said.
Both the Supreme Court nomination and Russia’s invasion happened while Congress was out of town, meaning this week is the first time they’ll be able to strategize in person.
Top administration officials briefed the full House and Senate in back-to-back classified meetings on Monday night, and a bipartisan group of senators met with Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova.
Democrats’ domestic legislative agenda was already facing setbacks. Build Back Better, the sweeping climate and social spending bill that was envisioned to be its centerpiece, is dead in its House-passed form, with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a key holdout, appearing to be in no hurry to revive a scaled-down version.
But Democrats had been expected to focus on smaller bills that could tackle myriad areas including lowering the cost of prescription drugs and insulin, as well as discussions on suspending the gas tax. What exactly the plan would look like is in flux, but Democrats pitched ideas during a closed-door lunch before of their recent break. The effort is being led, in part, by Democrats who face tough Senate races in November.
“We are focused on getting costs down, and you’re going to see a lot of activity in March from us on that issue,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at the time.
However, that effort is still in its nexus and lawmakers are under pressure to move quickly to supply billions in new funding to help aid Kyiv and other countries in Eastern Europe in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The administration requested $6.4 billion from Congress over the weekend, including $2.9 billion for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development for humanitarian assistance as well as security assistance to Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic states and other allies on NATO’s eastern flank, according to a Biden administration official.
The Biden administration is also asking Congress for $3.5 billion in additional funding for the Pentagon, according to the official.
Lawmakers are looking at putting the emergency spending in a government funding bill that they are trying to pass by March 11, when the government will shutter unless they pass the massive bill known as an omnibus or a short-term continuing resolution that would keep the government running at current levels.
“The administration has asked for a $6.4 billion package of humanitarian aid, of economic aid and of the kind of military aid that will help the Ukrainians defend themselves. We intend to work on a bipartisan basis to include it in the upcoming omnibus bill,” Schumer said.
Even as Democrats and Biden grapple with an international crisis, the Supreme Court battle is already overshadowing much of the domestic agenda.
Democrats want to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson, Biden’s pick to succeed Justice Stephen Breyer, by April 8, when they will leave for a two-week break.
Jackson is launching her charm offensive this week. She is scheduled on Wednesday to meet with Schumer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Durbin and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman and top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, respectively.
The meetings, even though they are closed-door, will garner the public spotlight and launch what will be weeks of sit-downs with Jackson, who would be the first Black female justice if she’s confirmed. Senators are also already starting the paperwork process, including sending the White House a questionnaire that Supreme Court nominees fill out for the Judiciary Committee.
Durbin said on Monday that Democrats haven’t locked down a week for the committee hearing. But he’s previously said that the hearing would last three days, including a day of opening statements, a day of questions to Jackson and a final day of outside experts and witnesses.
“I would like to,” Durbin said about the April 8 timeline, “but I want to do it in a respectful, fair and orderly way.”