Democratic senators are beginning 2022 where they left 2021: With no clear path to pass their agenda and ample frustration in the ranks.
The year-long push to get President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill passed has stalled in the wake of resistance from Sen. Joe Manchin, and it’s now taking a backseat to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s drive to overhaul voting laws and change the Senate rules to achieve that goal.
But that effort, too, could very well collapse.
Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema remain steadfastly opposed to changing the rules along straight party lines, worried that such a partisan tactic would have damaging ramifications on the body, even though Democratic sources say senators have directly appealed to the two holdouts to argue that failing to act could cost them their seats. And Democrats lack 60 votes to overcome a GOP filibuster with Republicans roundly rejecting their push to change election laws.
Now that leaves Democrats uncertain what – if any – signature accomplishment they can achieve in a pivotal midterm election year that will have profound implications for the final two years of Biden’s first term in office.
“There is deep frustration with the pace of events,” Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon told CNN after Democrats huddled for a virtual caucus meeting this week. “It drains the energy out of our efforts, and we start to feel like Groundhog Day, like we keep coming back to the same conversation day after day after day.”
“I can only hope that our two Democratic senators will change their minds at some point as they see that there’s a huge need for both (bills),” Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat, said Wednesday, referring to Manchin and Sinema. “I hope they’re going to share with us what it is that they can support, because up to now, that still remains, as far as I’m concerned, a mystery.”
During the virtual caucus meeting, Sinema did address her colleagues about the issue of voting rights and the Senate rules, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter. She reiterated her long-standing opposition to reducing the 60-vote threshold to overcome a filibuster, noting her worries that it would forever change the institution and allow a future GOP majority to go even further to enact conservative laws nationwide.
While she and Manchin both have told their colleagues they are willing to continue talking about the Democrats’ two signature pieces of voting legislation, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, many expect the effort will ultimately fall short when Schumer forces a vote by Martin Luther King, Jr. Day later this month. That could ultimately force them to consider narrower changes, such as overhauling the 1887 Electoral Count Act, though Democratic leaders have dismissed that as wholly insufficient.
“We don’t want this to drag out another six months, whether it’s Build Back Better or voting rights or restoring the filibuster,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat. “We just want to get this done.”
While many Democrats won’t acknowledge publicly their agenda is floundering, others concede that at the very least the party’s messaging surrounding what they have managed to accomplish has been woefully inadequate.
Democrats started last year by pushing through the sweeping American Rescue Plan, a nearly $2 trillion bill that expanded the child tax credit, poured money into state and city governments and buoyed small businesses struggling in the pandemic. By fall, Senate Democrats and the White House had cut a deal with a group of GOP senators and pushed a sweeping $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill into law.
But the party had promised even bigger reforms through their $3.5 trillion Build Back Better bill, whose price tag eventually got sliced in half amid opposition from Sinema and Manchin and after months of party infighting.
“We have time to fill in those blanks, but we’ve got some work to do,” Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, acknowledged. “It’s one of the casualties of having a party that wants to get a lot done. Sometimes as you are legislating, you are not communicating.”
While many of Sinema’s demands were addressed in the Build Back Better bill that was approved in November by the House, Manchin hit the brakes late last year on Senate action, with concerns over the price tag and the temporary nature of the new spending programs that he believes will ultimately be made permanent.
And while Manchin has had scant conversations with the White House in recent weeks, whether his concerns can ultimately be addressed – and would satisfy progressives who are eager to dramatically expand the social safety net – will be a hugely complicated task in the 50-50 Senate where any one Democratic defection will scuttle the entire effort.
“Guys, I think I made my statement pretty clear,” Manchin said Wednesday, referring to his position from late last month that he wasn’t ready to back the $1.75 trillion bill.
Pressed if there were any changes in his views since that statement, he replied: “No.”
Indeed, the internal struggle, frustrations and real fear that Democrats might not be able to finish a cornerstone of the President’s agenda is settling in among some in the rank-and-file. And some Democrats argue the best thing they can do is to take a break and see if time shakes some of the agenda loose.
“I think there needs to be a little cooling off period right now,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut. “There still is a possibility, maybe even a likelihood, that we can do something significant, but I think after the way that the end of the year went down, it would be better for everybody to just chill out for a bit.”
Of Manchin, Murphy said: “I think he’s probably got frustration with us and with the White House. I think we’ve got frustration with each other.”
What’s driving the anger among many Democrats: The expiration of the expanded child tax credit at the end of 2021, a provision Manchin opposed because of its cost and his demands to include a work requirement for families receiving the generous benefit.
“I think it’s completely irresponsible to raise taxes on working people during this pandemic,” said Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat on the ballot this year. While he said that Democrats are committed to finding a way to get the benefit extended, he acknowledged, “I don’t know what the path is.”
For now, Democrats are eying ways to revive pieces of their Build Back Better agenda that Manchin hasn’t torpedoed, with some suggesting that provisions on climate change, prescription drug reform, universal pre-K and child care assistance could still be thrown together in a smaller package – even if it isn’t as sweeping as the plan they once imagined.
“I feel reasonably confident that we can do infrastructure 2.0. I think Build Back Better is in the rearview mirror. Joe Manchin has made that clear,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii. “Sometimes a reset is helpful to recalibrate expectations. I am not saying I was pleased with what Joe Manchin said last month, but we are going to have to make lemonade out of lemons.”
Yet it will take far more time to do just that.
Sen. Tim Kaine, fresh off a 27-hour travel nightmare up I-95 in Virginia, said Wednesday that discussions on voting rights were going “as slow as my commute.”
CNN’s Ted Barrett, Ali Zaslav and Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.