Senate Democrats are stumbling into the end of their first year in the majority, with two of their biggest priorities — President Biden’s spending bill and voting rights — stuck in limbo.
Democrats entered the year facing sky-high expectations about what they could accomplish, with their base pushing a lengthy to-do list after the Trump years. Instead, Democrats are on the precipice of wrapping up for the year facing the painful reality of the limits of a one-vote majority.
The setbacks fueled angst within the caucus and are poised to send Democrats back home to voters — and into the 2022 midterm elections, where Republicans are feeling increasingly bullish — with key pieces of their legislative agenda incomplete.
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) called a 50-50 majority “problematic,” adding, “I’ve used the word ‘sucks.’”
“Yes, I am frustrated,” she said. “I’m afraid we won’t retain the majority if we don’t pass voter protection legislation, which our constituents also expect us to do.”
Asked about his message to voters given the multifront stalemate, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) fired back: “Welcome to the United States Senate. I’ve been here for 25 years, and I’ve seen the decline of this institution.”
“Unless and until we change the rules of the Senate and get serious about legislating on the behalf of the American people, we’re going to continue this frustration,” he said.
Democrats won back control of the Senate for the first time in six years in January, but it's a narrow 50-50 majority that relies on Vice President Harris to break a tie.
They've had significant wins including a coronavirus relief bill and the bipartisan infrastructure deal. But some of the party’s biggest priorities have hit a buzz saw in the Senate, where 60 votes is required for most legislation. While the House has passed long-held agenda items on gun background checks, LGBTQ equality and police reform, those ideas have languished in the Senate.
Democrats have faced stumbling blocks even when they can bypass the filibuster: Democrats stripped a $15 per hour minimum wage proposal out of a coronavirus relief bill after a negative parliamentarian ruling, and progressive dreams of a $6 trillion climate and social spending bill got whittled down to roughly $2 trillion by the time it passed the House with major climate programs, expanding Medicare to cover dental and a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants all dropped from the bill.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) warned that “people are giving up on a government that they see doesn’t respond to their needs.”
“You have a Capitol Hill that is dominated by very powerful lobbyists. ... That’s not democracy. That is a corrupt political system, and we’re moving not only to an authoritarian type of society system, in a parallel to that, you’re moving toward an oligarchy,” he said.
Durbin, asked about potential backlash from voters, argued that the current rules of the Senate undermine the Democratic majority.
“I’m trusting that responsible members of the press will remind them that a 50-50 Senate is not a Democratic majority. And frankly in a 51-49 or anything short of 60 is not a Democratic majority,” Durbin said.
The setbacks for Biden and Senate Democrats are coming from two fronts.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), heading into a Democratic lunch on Thursday, appeared to acknowledge that the party’s biggest priorities were likely slipping away for the year.
“We have 50 votes for elections. We have 50 senators to move Build Back Better. We have an agreement with Republicans on all nominations,” Cardin said, describing what he was hoping to hear. “I’d also like to see Santa Claus this year.”
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) set an ambitious timeline for Democrats to pass Biden’s Build Back Better legislation before Christmas. He stuck with that timeline as he opened the Senate for the week on Monday, saying that Democrats were “working hard to put the Senate in a position to get the legislation across the finish line before Christmas.”
But the negotiations hit a significant stumbling block, sparking frustration within the caucus.
“We need to get this done. We have talked, we have talked, we have talked. It is time to put it on the floor and vote,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
In another blow, Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough on Thursday night rejected Democrats' third immigration reform plan that they were hoping to get into the spending bill that would have granted 6.5 million foreign nationals a temporary parole status that would give them five-year work and travel permits.
As Democrats increasingly acknowledged that Biden’s spending bill was likely to slip, they instead pivoted to voting rights. A group of Democrats, including Sens. Angus King (I-Maine), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.), has been holding a flurry of behind-the-scenes negotiations to come up with a deal that could win over all 50 Democratic senators and break a stalemate over voting rights legislation.
Because Republicans have blocked several voting rights and election bills this year, Democrats acknowledge that they will need to change the 60-vote legislative filibuster in order to get something done.
Democrats are facing pressure within their own caucus to move voting rights legislation, including taking up that fight before turning to Biden’s spending bill.
“It is a contradiction to say that we must protect the voice of the minority party in the Senate while doing nothing to protect the voices of minority people,” said Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.).
Hirono questioned, “If we don’t, Democrats don’t stand up to this attack on our democracy, then what are we doing here?”
And while Democrats have won over a number of their colleagues, who were undecided on filibuster reform, they face the two biggest holdouts that they did at the start of the year: Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).
“We took all 50 folks' views into account to come up with the beginnings of a proposal. ... Trying to come up with something that is consistent with what we understand 50 peoples' positions to be, that doesn’t mean we hit the sweet spot for all 50,” Kaine said.
Manchin has been engaged in talks with both Republicans and Democrats but hasn’t committed to changes. He’s also been a longtime opponent of using the “nuclear option,” another hurdle for Democrats if they are going to convince him to go it alone.
But Sinema, in a statement from her spokesman, signaled that she’s still largely in the same place: Supportive of the 60-vote legislative filibuster and wary of the carveout idea that is under discussion as a potential rules change option.
“We don't have the votes right now to change the rules,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), acknowledging the political reality that the party currently faces.
Democratic negotiators haven’t landed on a formal proposal but say a number of options are under consideration, including a carveout, reverting to a talking filibuster or switching the cloture requirement from 60 “yes” votes to 41 “no” votes.