President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda faces a critical month ahead as he and congressional Democrats work to secure agreements with Republicans on several key items – including a far-reaching infrastructure bill and a policing overhaul – and gear up for action on voting legislation they believe must pass to overcome efforts in GOP-led states to restrict voting rights.
But major obstacles for Democrats lie ahead. The two parties remain far apart on key aspects of an infrastructure package, leading some Democrats to argue that time is running out to secure a deal. And there is no clear path to passing the voting rights bill in the Senate that the House has already passed. Republicans remain stiffly opposed, while divisions even persist among some Democrats over the legislation and how to secure its passage. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin reiterated his opposition to the bill in a Sunday oped, making it clear he would not support changes to Senate rules to push through much of Biden’s agenda.
Also being weighed this month are enhanced regulations on guns and next steps on investigating the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol after Senate Republicans blocked the formation of an independent investigation.
Many Democrats are anxious to weaken the filibuster and push these measures through without any GOP support, but Manchin is insisting his colleagues in the evenly divided Senate press forward with bipartisan talks, believing the partisan approach would destroy the character of the chamber. Pressure on him will pick up, including a meeting Tuesday with civil rights groups who are trying to convince him to back the voting bill and gut the filibuster that Republicans are using to block it.
But his Sunday op-ed was Manchin’s strongest declaration yet.
“I believe that partisan voting legislation will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy, and for that reason, I will vote against the For the People Act. Furthermore, I will not vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster,” the moderate West Virginia Democrat wrote in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
As lawmakers returned to Washington this week, pressure is mounting from the left for the White House to walk away from negotiations with Republicans, go it alone and pass a massive infrastructure plan with just Democratic votes.
But, despite the fact that the talks between Biden and Republicans have dragged on past the initial Memorial Day deadline without a significant breakthrough, there are political risks in pulling the plug on the talks too soon. For one, Manchin has signaled he’s not ready to give up the talks. Without him, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer can’t pass an infrastructure bill along party lines.
Biden on Friday rejected the GOP’s latest counteroffer, despite a $50 billion increase in spending, telling Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the Republican negotiator, that the new offer did not meet his policy goals, according to the White House. The two are expected to speak again Monday. But with the slow pace of talks, it’s unclear if the gap between Democrats and Republicans can be bridged.
While both sides have moved closer to the middle, their contrasting proposals, which amount to $1 trillion in new spending from the White House and roughly $300 billion in new spending from Republicans, remain miles apart.
A bipartisan group of senators could emerge as the next key negotiating partners with Biden on infrastructure. Whether they can reach a deal remains to be seen but the group has been working on a proposal that it could unveil as soon as this week, according to sources familiar with the effort. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” Sunday that the President would be willing to meet with the group.
“He is willing to meet with anyone who will help to move this forward, you know the clock is ticking. There is an end point to this discussion,” she said.
Meanwhile, if Democrats are going to move alone, they’ll need weeks – if not months – to get a bill ready to go to the floor. The House this week will mark up its $547 billion surface transportation bill, a piece that could serve as a cornerstone of a Democratic-only infrastructure plan.
Democrats are facing intense pressure to enact federal voter protections amid state-level efforts to pass restrictive voting bills, but as of now, the votes aren’t there for the party to pass one of its signature priorities in the Senate.
Schumer has pledged to bring the Democrats’ sweeping voting rights, campaign finance and ethics reform bill, entitled the For the People Act, to the floor by the end of the month. But Manchin made it official last month that he can’t back the bill in its current form and instead would prefer to pursue the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which is narrower in scope and aims to restore enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday that the chamber, which is in a committee work period this week, will discuss the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, though it also faces little chance at advancing through the Senate.
The next several days will be a key test for Schumer and Democrats as to whether they will make changes to the more sweeping legislation to garner Manchin’s vote. But the West Virginia Democrat is not the only one who has expressed concerns about the current version of the bill. Other Democrats, including Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, have said they need to see changes in order to ensure the bill can be successfully implemented. The bill was first introduced back in 2019 as House Democrats’ first piece of legislation after they won the majority.
“We cannot fail on key things to our democracy like S.1,” Schumer said at a recent press conference, adding, “Everything is on the table and we’re going to continue to discuss it as we move forward.”
But even if Senate Democrats got every member in line to vote “yes” on the bill, there still wouldn’t be the 10 Republican votes needed to pass it. And with Manchin and others clear that they will not gut the filibuster to pass the bill, Democrats can’t get around the need for GOP support.
Meanwhile, Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats, said Sunday that while he’s generally opposed to getting rid of the filibuster, he would consider changing it in order to pass the For the People Act.
“If it comes down to voting rights and the rights of Americans to go to the polls and select their leaders versus the filibuster, I’ll choose democracy,” he told Tapper on “State of the Union.”
Key negotiators in the bipartisan effort to overhaul policing are targeting June as the month to finalize a deal. The talks between Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Democratic Rep. Karen Bass of California represent one of the best chances for bipartisan action on Capitol Hill, as the three negotiators share deep respect and trust among one another. They and their staffs have been working through weekends and recess to find a bipartisan way forward. This month will test whether they can close the deal.
“June is the month,” Bass, the lead negotiator for House Democrats, said last week.
“We understand that we have got to get this done, and we can’t have it linger,” the California Democrat continued. “We know that we’re getting ready to go into the summer months, and so I say that in good spirit, because we have been working together very well. So, we are holding each other to June.”
Before the recess, Scott, the lead negotiator for Senate Republicans, told reporters it’s “June or bust” when it comes to closing the deal.
Negotiators have been working through key sticking points, including qualified immunity. Some House progressives have balked at any compromise that falls short of eliminating the legal doctrine that protects police officers from being sued in civil court. Scott, who’s the only Black Republican in the Senate, has floated a compromise that would place the responsibility on police departments, but some Senate Republicans have expressed concern over any changes to qualified immunity.
Investigations into January 6
Not even hours after Senate Republicans blocked the creation of an independent panel to investigate the January 6 insurrection, Democrats began plotting how to proceed with a probe to investigate the attack that left five people dead and more than 140 police officers injured.
In a call with her caucus, Pelosi outlined possible options to investigate the insurrection after she was asked a question about the next steps. Those options included giving the Senate a chance for another vote on the legislation to create the commission, creating a new select committee in the House to do the investigation and allowing the standing committees to continue their existing probes into the January 6 riot, or designating one preexisting committee, such as Homeland Security, to take charge of an investigation.
However, the House isn’t back in session until June 14, with only committee work happening this week, so it’s unclear whether Pelosi will make moves on these options before then.
Meanwhile, the Senate Rules and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committees released their findings on the security failures that led to the January 6 attack this week. The 100-plus-page report includes a detailed look at how security failures, poor planning, slow response time from law enforcement and lackluster sharing of intelligence and communications all contributed to the deadly insurrection, according to sources familiar with the effort.
The Senate investigation has been conducted in a bipartisan manner by Democratic and Republican leaders of the two committees, but it will undoubtedly spawn a fierce battle between the two parties about what else should be done to investigate the Capitol attack.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that the Senate joint committee report made him confident that the existing Senate committee inquiries will be able “to uncover all actionable facts about the events of January 6” and said he’ll continue to support these probes “over any that seek to politicize the process.”
China bill and other agenda items
The Senate is expected to pass rare bipartisan legislation this week aimed at combating China’s influence.
A final vote was delayed until after the Memorial Day recess after the bill advanced following an hours-long fight over amendments that threatened to derail the legislation. To move the legislation forward, Schumer reached a deal with GOP Sen. Ron Johnson and several Senate Republicans to push the votes on the China competition bill until the Senate returned this week, and move directly to voting on advancing the January 6 commission legislation, which failed last month after Republicans blocked the bill.
As a result of the agreement that was reached, Schumer said there will be a series of votes that could culminate in final passage of the bill, which would invest more than $200 billion in American technology, science and research, as soon as Tuesday.
The sweeping legislation aims to confront China’s influence on multiple fronts and “will supercharge American innovation and preserve our competitive edge for generations to come,” Schumer said.
The bill was the product of multiple Senate committees, making it one of the few areas of successful bipartisan cooperation in the chamber. If the bill does pass, it would amount to a major bipartisan win for Schumer, who co-wrote and strongly backed the measure, as well as for Biden, who made reaching across the aisle a central component of his strategy but has faced criticism for moving unilaterally on his largest agenda items to this point.
The Senate is grappling with several other items after returning from recess as well.
Schumer said at a recent press conference that when the Senate reconvenes, Democrats will “force a vote on HR 7, the Paycheck Fairness Act, equal pay for women,” which he described as “a long overdue piece of legislation.”
The majority leader went on to say that the Senate will also “begin to confirm President Biden’s judicial nominees,” and said that he may “ask the Senate to consider gun legislation and LGBTQ equality legislation during the June work period.”
This story and headline have been updated with additional developments Tuesday.
CNN’s Ali Zaslav and Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.