The Democratic Senate: Open for business

By Lisa Hagen

(USN)- DEMOCRATS EMBOLDENED BY hard-fought victories in crucial Senate contests are seeing new opportunities to try and advance top party priorities in a chamber they argue is no longer overseen by a legislative “grim reaper.” But what they’re quickly finding is that uniform control of Congress still doesn’t guarantee passage of a broad and “bold” agenda promised by President Joe Biden.

Over the past two years, the party drove passage of a series of bills in the House – measures on LGBTQ rights, gun control and policing and immigration reforms – that never saw the light of day in the GOP-led Senate. But Democrats’ fortunes changed after narrowly winning the upper chamber earlier this year, heightening prospects of enacting more policies with control of Congress and the White House.

At the very least, they can bring to a vote bills that languished because former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to consider them.

“We’re not going to be the legislative graveyard very simply. McConnell refused to put bills on the floor,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said at a press conference on Tuesday. “I’m putting bills on the floor. People are going to be forced to vote on them, yes or no, on a whole lot of very important and serious issues.”

For the next few weeks, Democrats will reintroduce a cascade of legislation that passed the House last session. Last Thursday, they advanced the Equality Act, a bill that codifies sexual orientation and gender identity into federal workplace anti-discrimination law. On Wednesday evening, the House also passed H.R. 1, a sweeping elections and government reform bill, and a policing reform bill that was spurred by the death of George Floyd in police custody last June.

“We’re not going to be the legislative graveyard very simply … I’m putting bills on the floor.”

And next week, House Democrats will tackle additional priorities of particular importance to Biden: a bill strengthening worker protections to organize and collectively bargain and two measures enhancing background checks for gun purchases.

But once again, their fate in the Senate looks uncertain at best – while others look dead on arrival – since there doesn’t appear to be enough Republican support to help carry the bills across the finish line.

Even with a majority, Democrats are confronting the stark reality and limitations of a 50-50 Senate where most pieces of legislation are still unlikely to break through since they’ll need to garner some support from mostly resistant Republicans. And absent filibuster reform, Democrats will need at least 10 GOP votes on most legislation to clear the 60-vote procedural threshold to move forward – the biggest obstacle to accomplishing their agenda.

Still, Democrats see a new political landscape where they can at least this time force votes on key legislation to get members on the record as opposed to never getting any consideration from the Senate.

And while that’s a big step forward, it still doesn’t necessarily mean key priorities will make it to Biden for him to sign into law. Democrats are acutely aware of the challenges of small majorities, and many see the filibuster as the gravest threat to advancing their agenda and delivering on promises made during the 2020 election.

Pressure to eliminate the filibuster is building once again after a Senate ruling that Democrats can’t add a $15 minimum wage hike to their coronavirus relief bill, which only needs a simple majority to pass under the budget reconciliation process. The move means Democrats will need to raise the hourly federal wage through stand-alone legislation and thus encounter the filibuster.

Progressives and a growing number of Democrats in the House are pushing their Senate colleagues to do away with the stall tactic frequently employed by the minority party. But the votes still aren’t there. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia – a necessary vote in any plan for repeal – pointedly reiterated his opposition this week: “Jesus Christ, what don’t you understand about never?”

While the decision is ultimately up to the Senate, supporters of ending the filibuster hoped to get the president in their corner to help lobby members reluctant to amend chamber rules.

But the White House indicated Thursday that the longtime senator hasn’t changed his position in favor of preserving the filibuster and that Biden remains hopeful the party can make some headway with Republicans.

“Our view is that … moving forward on a number of long overdue policy efforts by Congress is too important to prejudge what the outcome will be,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at Thursday’s briefing. “We’ve certainly seen the threats by some in Congress, but we’re going to continue to work to see if there’s a bipartisan path forward.”

But if recent House votes are any indication, gaining support from GOP senators will be a daunting challenge. Most of these bills are winning little to no Republican votes and sometimes even less than the first time they passed. When the Equality Act advanced in the House last week, only three Republicans supported the bill – five fewer GOP members than in 2019.

Republicans, meanwhile, are rallying against the House bills as they make their way to the Senate for the first time. Their biggest target is H.R. 1, which got no support from Republicans in 2019. The bill is a sweeping package of election and campaign finance reforms at a time when GOP state legislatures around the country are seeking to enact laws that would put limits on voting following pandemic-era changes during the November election that eased some rules.

The reforms package cleared the House for a second time on Wednesday but once again garnered no GOP support. Republicans are arguing that H.R. 1 benefits politicians and their reelection races instead of rank-and-file Americans.

“House Democrats say they will try to recycle failed legislation that would have Washington Democrats grab unprecedented power over how America conducts its election and how American citizens can engage in political speech,” McConnell said last week.

“For several years now, we have seen the political left grow less interested in having normal policy debates within our governing institutions and more interested in attacking the institutions themselves to tilt the playing field in their side’s favor,” the Kentucky Republican added.

With the filibuster still in place, Democrats will need to negotiate with Republicans to try and win their support on most bills. One area where that seems slightly more promising is legislation to reform policing. The death of Black Americans like Floyd and Breonna Taylor last year prompted months of protests against police brutality and systemic racism.

In 2020, House Democrats passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act – which among other things bans police use of chokeholds at the federal level, reforms qualified immunity for officers and creates a federal registry of police misconduct – with only three Republicans. This time around, no Republicans supported the bill, though one noted that he accidentally voted for it.

But policing reforms hit a snag in the Senate and talks ultimately broke down last summer. The GOP-led Senate didn’t take up the House bill, while Democrats argued a Republican bill proposed by Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina didn’t go far enough on police accountability.

There appears to be some openness to reengaging in bipartisan talks on the issue. Scott told reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday that he’s talking with both parties to find areas of common ground but expressed hesitations on reforms to qualified immunity – a legal doctrine shielding officers from being sued for actions that don’t clearly violate a person’s constitutional rights.

Democrats, however, remain hopeful that they can still push through some of their agenda, especially since polls show that many of the issues they’re advancing have popular support among Americans – and even GOP voters. They think it’s possible to apply pressure to Republicans on bills backed by the general public even if the filibuster remains intact.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island said he sees two strategies to make more progress on House-passed bills: put Republicans in a tough spot over legislation that has popular support or see whether Democrats’ minds change on filibuster reform if Republicans keep obstructing the passage of legislation in the Senate.

“There’s a possibility that could put the opposition in an awkward enough position that they’d have to sue for peace, but you have to really make the effort to make this an issue and drive it as an important issue into the election. I think that’s doable and plausible and all of that, but I don’t know how many of my colleagues agree.” Whitehouse told reporters at the Capitol earlier this week.

The other option Whitehouse sees is highlighting repeated Republican obstruction. “It’s one thing to say I don’t want to get rid of the filibuster. It’s another thing after you’ve met repeated bad-faith obstruction to say, ‘OK, this is getting out of hand.'”

House Democrats have reiterated similar sentiments, especially when it comes to changes to long-standing Senate rules like the filibuster that they say were used to try and block civil rights legislation from passing decades ago.

At a press conference with House leadership, Democrats dismissed questions about the challenges of getting their legislation through a 50-50 Senate. They said it will ultimately come down to public pressure – either on axing the filibuster or voting out members who don’t represent their interests.

“We can’t magically make the Republicans be for what the people are for,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said Tuesday. “And so if the people want those bills to pass, they will either demand that we do away with the filibuster or demand that some Republican senators who refuse to vote for what the people want leave office.”


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