Congress will return to Washington this week with a host of problems to address – but no clear legislative paths to resolve any of them.
On immigration, the two parties are at sharp odds over what to do about the growing crisis at the Southern border. On mass shootings, there are discussions about a possible bipartisan approach to expand background checks and other gun legislation, but whether a deal can be reached that can pass Congress remains doubtful.
Advancing a centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s agenda – the $2 trillion-plus infrastructure and tax plan – is expected to take months as Democrats remain divided over details of the policy and the precise parliamentary procedure to employ to pass it.
Perhaps Democrats’ best chance of making a law is over a bill aimed at combating the rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans, but even that is facing resistance from some Senate Republicans who are trying to block the measure ahead of a key procedural vote expected Wednesday.
And in the House, the chamber will move this month on a bill to make the District of Columbia the 51st state – but that plan lacks the 60 votes to overcome a Senate filibuster. And Democrats don’t have the votes to change the filibuster rules so a simple majority of senators could advance legislation, rather than 60 – a source of major tension in the ranks.
Against that backdrop, Senate Democrats lack even 50 votes to pass a top priority for the party’s base: a major elections overhaul bill, given the opposition from one of their members, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and stiff resistance from the GOP.
All of which points to this grim reality for Democrats: Despite holding control of all of Washington, and pushing through the massive $1.9 trillion Covid relief measure earlier this year, the next phase of Biden’s agenda is turning out to be a tough slog. And progressive Democrats say if House and Senate leaders don’t deliver for their party’s base, there will a backlash on the left.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York Democrat who has not ruled out a primary bid against Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, said House and Senate leaders need to deliver beyond just “two transformative bills,” referring to the Covid relief plan and the emerging infrastructure package.
“I don’t think that’s acceptable,” Ocasio-Cortez told CNN, referring to settling on those two priorities.
A group of Democratic senators will have another meeting with Schumer as soon as Wednesday about reaching a compromise on increasing the minimum wage, a Democratic aide told CNN. Hiking the minimum wage to $15 an hour – a progressive priority – did not make it into the final Covid relief package. Besides Manchin, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Tom Carper and Chris Coons of Delaware, Jon Tester of Montana, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Ron Wyden of Oregon, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Patty Murray of Washington and Angus King, an independent from Maine, were all invited.
The other challenges ahead run the gamut.
Lawmakers are hoping to advance legislation to try to rein in China’s economic influence on the United States, in an effort that represents Biden’s best chance at a major bipartisan package from Congress. But even that could face hurdles to final passage in a 50-50 Senate and with a narrow Democratic majority in the House.
Biden and Schumer have said they want to work in a bipartisan way on all these major issues, but Republicans are deeply skeptical, noting that Schumer set the stage to use the budget reconciliation process to circumvent a filibuster multiple times, which they employed to enact Covid-19 relief.
“The administration roundly dismissed our effort as wholly inadequate in order to justify its go-it-alone strategy,” 10 GOP senators said in a statement last week, taking issue with the President’s approach.
A new reality
And as they return from their two-week recess, a new reality has settled over Washington: Manchin has insisted repeatedly that he will reject efforts by liberals in his party to weaken the filibuster or use budget reconciliation repeatedly in order to pass legislation without votes from Republicans. If Democrats want infrastructure or immigration or anything else, they will have to negotiate compromises that can win the support of at least 10 Republicans, the West Virginia Democrat has said.
“If the filibuster is eliminated or budget reconciliation becomes the norm, a new and dangerous precedent will be set to pass sweeping, partisan legislation that changes the direction of our nation every time there is a change in political control,” Manchin wrote in the Washington Post last week.
The infrastructure debate will pick back up this week now that Biden has laid out what he wants in the legislation.
The President is set to hold a meeting with a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the Oval Office Monday to discuss his plan.
The invited lawmakers include Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell of Washington and Alex Padilla of California; Republican Sens. Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Roger Wicker of Mississippi; Democratic Reps. Donald M. Payne, Jr. of New Jersey and David Price of North Carolina and Republican Reps. Garret Graves of Louisiana and Don Young of Alaska, the White House said Sunday evening.
But there are many details that must be sorted out. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee plans to move on a surface transportation bill by the end of May, but several other House committees plan to take action as well on other aspects of the sprawling proposal. The bill still has to be written.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has not made a decision on how to procedurally advance the bills, and whether to do it through the budget reconciliation process, which would allow it to advance in the Senate on a straight party-line vote, Democratic sources say.
Pelosi said she wants a bill to pass the House by July 4th. But when asked by CNN last week if she’s willing to pare back the price tag to win over Republicans, Pelosi signaled an openness to talk to the GOP but little willingness to cater to the minority party’s demands.
“It can’t be too small because what we’re talking about now needs to be transformative and it has to be big,” the California Democrat said.
But there are already signs of trouble ahead for Biden’s plan. Notably, Manchin said the corporate tax hikes in the bill are too steep and he wants them changed.
“As the bill exists today, it needs to be changed,” he said last week.
Congressional Democrats say they want to deliver on Biden’s agenda, but they also note the sweeping $2 trillion-plus proposal will be received in a very different manner from Biden’s first significant legislative victory, the Covid relief bill. And Biden needs all Democrats to get behind his massive infrastructure package if it’s going to have any chance of passing this Congress.
On gun legislation, Schumer has committed to putting the House-passed bill that would expand universal background checks on the Senate floor for a vote despite there not being enough votes for it to pass. The vote is designed to pressure Republicans to back a response to a spate of recent mass shootings. But Manchin and Tester – both red-state Democrats – have been skeptical of the House Democrats’ approach, meaning two House-passed bills could fail to even win support from 50 Democratic senators.
Meanwhile, there’s still the humanitarian crisis on the US-Mexico border. Over the weekend, several different delegations are taking trips before returning this week to view the migrant processing facilities in South Texas.
Democrats still want to see something happen with immigration in the Senate. Two different bills, one to help farm workers and one to help Dreamers, have passed in the House but hit a wall in the Senate. Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, a Democrat of Illinois who is leading the effort on immigration, wants some time to work with Republicans on the issue.
Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who is leading the effort on gun safety legislation, has also said he wants some time to work with Republicans on expanding background checks, and he has spoken with GOP senators during the chamber’s two-week recess.
Schumer has said they can have some time, but not too much.
This story has been updated with additional information Sunday.
CNN’s Clare Foran, Arlette Saenz and DJ Judd contributed to this report.