Senate Democrats shift strategy after progressive agenda falters

sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) speaks to Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) as they arrive to the Capitol for votes regarding judicial nominations on Wednesday, February 2, 2022.

Senate Democratic moderates are urging their leadership to tack to the center by moving bills to the floor that can pass with strong Republican support, but it’s creating tension with liberals who don’t want to abandon the core components of Build Back Better, voting rights legislation and other progressive priorities.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (DN.Y.) appears to have heard the message from moderates in his caucus loud and clear.

This week, Schumer is stressing plans to vote on legislation that has bipartisan support, such as ending the use of forced arbitration clauses to avoid sexual harassment and assault lawsuits, a bill to strengthen the nation’s cybersecurity infrastructure and a measure to improve US competitiveness with China .

“We’re gearing up to have a productive couple of weeks,” Schumer announced at a press conference at which he and his colleagues highlighted those bills.

The shift away from partisan initiatives that occupied the Senate’s time and attention last month and the end of last year – filibuster reform, voting rights legislation and Build Back Better – comes after centrist Democrats made clear that they wanted to focus on more bipartisan legislation.

Democrats in both chambers of Congress are growing more anxious about the midterm elections in November. Political handicappers expect the House to flip to the GOP, while control of the Senate is more of a toss-up.

“We’ve tried on Build Back Better to go our separate ways, do it through reconciliation, fell short. We tried to go our separate ways, get something done with respect to voting rights and protecting them, and we’ve fallen short,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a longtime ally of President Biden’s.

Carper said the desire among Democrats and Republicans to shift away from purely partisan initiatives to bills that had more likelihood of passing with bipartisan support is “almost palpable.”

“I can feel it in both caucuses,” he said, adding that colleagues “are beginning to yearn for, like, ‘Let’s try to work together on some stuff and get some things done.’ †

“We showed what we can do on infrastructure,” he added, referring to the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate last year by a vote of 69-30.

“There’s a real hunger for that now,” he said of the desire among moderate Democrats to start working more with Republicans. “I’m interested in finding what works and getting stuff done.”

sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a Biden surrogate on the 2020 campaign trail, said, “I think we can and should do bipartisan legislation.”

“There are a number of bills that are ready to move,” he said, citing a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and the bipartisan Recovering America’s Wildlife Act.

Coons also highlighted negotiations on an omnibus spending package and legislation to improve US competitiveness and bolster the domestic semiconductor manufacturing industry as top near-term priorities.

Bipartisan postal reform legislation is another bill that several Democratic senators are now touting.

Schumer’s allies say the focus on bipartisan legislation over the next several weeks dovetails with the pledge he made shortly after Democrats won the Senate majority to pursue bipartisanship wherever possible.

Democrats note that former President Trump’s second impeachment trial was bipartisan, as seven Republicans voted to convict him on a charge of inciting insurrection.

The Senate also passed a bill combating hate crimes against Asians and the US Innovation and Competition Act with bipartisan majorities last year.

But some liberal Democratic caucus members aren’t happy about leaving Biden’s climate and social spending agenda in limbo while their colleagues ramp up work on passing less ambitious bills with Republican support.

“I think we have legislation that is enormously popular, which meets the needs of working families, and I think we’ve got to stay on it as aggressively as we can,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said that “the big pieces are still there in Build Back Better,” which she called “an ongoing issue right now.”

“I don’t think we’ve ever entirely left it,” she said.

Several Senate progressives are discussing the possibility of breaking up their sweeping election reform bill, the For the People Act, into smaller pieces that could be brought to the floor for votes.

However, many Democratic senators were left with a bitter taste in their mouths after spending most of the fall working on Build Back Better only to fail to pass a bill because Sen. Joe Manchin (DW.Va.) refused to support it.

They were also left frustrated by the weeks spent working on filibuster reform and voting rights legislation, which predictably came up short on the Senate floor. That has left Democrats up for reelection with fewer accomplishments under their belt than they want heading into what is expected to be a tough midterm election.

Schumer, who is up for reelection this year, signaled to colleagues that he’s aware of their frustration over the inability to move major priorities with only 51 votes.

Speaking to colleagues on the Senate floor Monday, Schumer emphasized that “there are numerous good proposals that we can address here in the Senate on a bipartisan basis.”

The Democratic leader has made no recent mention of holding a vote on Build Back Better, Biden’s sweeping climate and social spending bill, which Manchin effectively blew up when he told “Fox News Sunday” in December: “I cannot vote to continue with this piece or legislation.”

Schumer pledged then to bring the massive bill up for a vote anyway, to put Manchin and others on the record.

“Senators should be aware that the Senate will, in fact, consider the Build Back Better Act, very early in the new year so that every member of this body has the opportunity to make their position known on the Senate floor, not just on television ,” he wrote in a Dec. 20 “Dear Colleague” letter.

Seven weeks later, however, Schumer is showing little desire to ratchet up pressure on Manchin by forcing him to vote on Build Back Better.

Manchin on Tuesday said he’s ready to pivot to bipartisan measures, such as an overhaul of the Electoral Count Act of 1887 that he is working on with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

“Hopefully we’re going to bring the bipartisan bill of fixing the Electoral Count Act,” he said. “Hopefully within a couple weeks we can get that one ready.”

Manchin said he’s not eager to revive the debate about Build Back Better.

“I’d like to think we never want to get back to that. You can’t do it when you have a divided Congress and you got a country that’s being split apart. We need to bring it back together,” he said.

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