Democrats hit crucial stretch as filibuster fight looms


Democrats are hitting a crucial stretch as much of President Biden’s agenda remains stuck in congressional limbo.

Democrats have touted their progress under Biden’s first 100 days, where they passed a sweeping $1.9 trillion coronavirus bill, filled out the administration and inched the country back toward normalcy after a yearlong pandemic.

But it’s the next 100 days that they view as key for big priorities that will test the filibuster, and what if anything can get GOP support, as Democrats try to juggle trying to satisfy a base with a long wish list with razor-thin margins heading into 2022.

“I’m trying, in this month and next month, to do two things. No. 1, put some bipartisan things on the floor that show the Republicans but my colleagues as well that we mean we’re serious that we want to do bipartisanship when we can,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said during a recent interview with "The Ezra Klein Show.”

“But second, we’re also going to put on the floor some of the things that don’t have bipartisan support,” Schumer added.

And his biggest priorities — the S.1 For the People Act and Biden’s infrastructure plan — will be early tests of both the chances of crafting bipartisan deals and the Democratic unity they will need if that falls short.

The Senate will start work on the first, an expansive bill to overhaul federal elections, next week. The Senate Rules Committee is expected to vote on the bill Tuesday, a first step to getting a vote on the floor by August.

The House passed the bill earlier this year along party lines. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the chairwoman of the Rules Committee, is spearheading the effort in the Senate and has made changes to the legislation including giving state and local governments more leeway on the bill’s mandates, as well as changing timelines for some of the bill’s provisions.

But Republicans are across-the-board opposed to the bill, equating it with a federal “takeover” of elections, and the changes are unlikely to win over their support.

Supporters of changing the Senate’s rules are keeping a close eye on Tuesday’s committee vote, arguing that the election legislation is a key test for the filibuster, which mandates a 60-vote supermajority to pass most legislation.

Fix Our Senate, an outside group pushing for rules changes, predicted that the fight over the filibuster “is about to return with ferocity — and the battle lines are being drawn.”

“In the coming weeks the Democrats’ number one bill and top priority will face off against Sen. McConnell’s focus on defeating it – and we all know that the filibuster will be the weapon he uses to win this fight with fewer votes, unless Democrats eliminate it,” they added.

And while Schumer hasn’t endorsed changing the Senate’s rules he’s hinted that he views the election reform bill as a crucial moment in the filibuster fight.

“The process that I outlined for S.1 is a process that, I think, could very well cause the Senate to evolve,” he said.

But it’s unclear it could get even 50 votes, the number needed to pass even if Democrats did nix the filibuster. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has vowed to oppose the House-passed bill, instead signaling that he wants to focus on voting rights as he talks with a group including Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.).

“The vote should be accessible. It should be secure and it should be fair and that’s the responsibility we have,” Manchin told “Talkline with Hoppy Kercheval." “The John Lewis Voting Rights Act. It’s something we used to ratify bipartisan, no problem at all… I think we should ratify it for all 50 states.”

It’s a similar dynamic that could snag several of Democrats' priorities, where ideas like D.C. statehood or raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour don't unite the caucus. Democrats are also divided over even getting rid of the filibuster, several senators wary of changing the rules and Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) on the record opposed.

Democrats are also ramping up their behind-the-scenes work on Biden’s sweeping $4 trillion spending plan. Democrats only need 50 votes to pass it under reconciliation — a budget process that allows them to avoid the filibuster — but aren’t yet in agreement about the scope or strategy for passing the plan.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is planning to mark up the next budget resolution this month, which, once it passes the Senate, will greenlight Democrats passing another bill under reconciliation.

But there are big divisions among Democrats about what should be included in that bill, even though Schumer and Biden need total unity.

A group of centrist-minded Democrats want to break Biden’s plan up and pass what can get 60 votes in one package and the rest through reconciliation. That push comes as Biden is continuing to negotiate with Republicans including inviting Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) to the White House this week.

Capito told MSNBC that the divide between Biden and congressional Republicans on an infrastructure package is “not nearly as big as what you might think,” adding that the $568 billion proposal that she unveiled with 10 Republicans is not their “final offer.”

But a growing number of Democrats believe they’ll have to go it alone to pass most, if not all, of Biden’s plan amid divisions with Republicans about both the top-line and how to pay for an infrastructure package.

Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) predicted that a smaller bipartisan bill would be Democrats “Plan B” if they couldn’t lock down the 50 votes they need to pass a sweeping package on their own.

And Democrats, meanwhile, are pointing to McConnell’s comments this week that “100 percent of my focus is on stopping this new administration,” as a sign that the party should stop trying to waste time winning over GOP support.

“Handing the keys to the Biden agenda to McConnell is like a chicken handing a knife to a butcher. Filibuster must go,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) tweeted in response to McConnell’s comments.

Even as Democrats are engaged in the two high-profile fights, they are also holding bipartisan talks on a myriad of topics including a massive China bill, immigration reform and background checks.

The Senate Commerce Committee will vote on a China competitiveness bill on Wednesday after delaying last month when senators filed roughly 200 amendments to the legislation. The legislation is a priority for Schumer and Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), potentially giving Democrats another pathway to bipartisanship as the rules change fight looms in the background.

Democrats haven’t placed hard cut off points on their background checks or immigration talks, but a bipartisan group negotiating behind-the-scenes on police reform have pointed to May 25, the one year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, as an informal deadline for reaching a long-sought agreement.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who is leading the talks with Republicans, said that he’s “hopeful” they’ll be able to get a deal after police reform stalled last year in the immediate wake of Floyd’s murder, with progress on some of the thorniest issues including no-knock warrants, the use of chokeholds and qualified immunity, a legal shield for police officers.

“So we have literally been able to bring these two bills very close together,” Scott said. “I think my party, significant numbers in my party have already said to me, we will go where you go on this issue as long as I can explain my position.”

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