After 18 months trying to eke out progress from a 50-seat Senate majority, Democrats are running out of time to do all the things their party hopes to accomplish before the midterms.
During the dog days of summer, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer aims to finally complete work on languishing microchip and veterans benefits legislation, admit two new countries to NATO and pass a party-line health care bill. All that he hopes to make happen in two weeks’ time, as senators regularly contract Covid and the most senior Democrat, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, recovers from a hip injury. Mother Nature intervened too, as a thunderstorm postponed a microchip vote that had been scheduled for Monday night.
Democrats are still trying to filibuster-proof their top agenda item — lowering drug prices via the so-called budget reconciliation process, furthering the time crunch. And some senators want to curtail the four-week August recess to negotiate climate change legislation, enshrine same-sex marriage rights or confirm judicial nominees.
In a brief interview, Schumer declined to comment on the possibility of canceling some of the traditional August recess. He said that Democrats are “trying to do the best we can. It’s tough with Covid and everything. We’re going to get things done.”
In the longer term, Senate Democrats are scheduled to return to D.C. for another six weeks before the midterms; two of those weeks are in mid-October and may drop off the calendar so incumbents have more time to campaign, an increasing priority as the party clings to its majority. That means the Democrats may have some tough choices ahead of them with their limited amount of remaining floor time.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said Monday his party’s “first job, I believe, is to legislate,” noting that if Democrats can keep the Senate this fall they can still confirm President Joe Biden’s nominees next year regardless of whether the party can hold the House.
“We have to focus on the big things, the big building blocks. And those things that are bipartisan and can get 60 votes,” said Heinnrich, who is still hoping Democrats find a way to address climate change in the coming weeks.
Democrats’ list of legislative goals runs much longer than their immediate health care agenda and must-pass work such as funding the government past Sept. 30. Depending on which Democrat you ask, they may hope to change the Electoral Count Act to avoid another Jan. 6, pass antitrust legislation, lower the price of insulin, ban stock trading by members of Congress, legalize marijuana, codify same-sex marriage and contraception or fill 77 current judicial vacancies.
There’s no guarantee they’ll have another chance at any of those priorities next year, with Republicans threatening Democratic control in both chambers. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said that Schumer has “publicly” indicated her antitrust legislation, which aims to rein in Big Tech companies’ market dominance, will come to a floor vote this summer.
“I’m continuing to give speeches and to push it and Sen. Schumer said it will get a vote. And I hope it will be as soon as possible. No one wants a vote more than me,” Klobuchar said.
By some measures, the 50-50 Senate’s had a productive 18 months: They’ve passed a $1.9 trillion party-line coronavirus package, postal reform, bipartisan laws on firearm access and infrastructure and confirmed a new Supreme Court justice and a host of other nominees.
Still, Democrats spent many of those months talking about doing more. Much more.
This year, Democrats already curtailed their ambitions sharply after failing to change the filibuster rules to enact elections reform and the massive trillion-dollar-plus Build Back Better bill became a slimmed down prescription drug and Obamacare subsidy bill. Now, with the Senate scheduled to be in session roughly 13 weeks for the rest of the year, Democrats are balancing how much more their thin majority can accomplish in D.C. with a demanding campaign season in battleground states.
At the moment, the health care legislation looks like it will pass, although whether it can happen as soon as next week is uncertain. Democrats still have a few hurdles to jump to ensure the bill can pass the Senate with a simple majority — they first have to clear it with the chamber’s parliamentarian and then they need enough Democrats in town to pass it. And that’s not certain given the way coronavirus is knocking out senators on a daily basis.
“My assumption is they’ll have the votes to pass something,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). But, he added, “do they have full attendance? Because it’s going to take that; They’ll have to go through a vote-a-rama and have everybody here.”
The Senate’s also about to have D.C. all to itself. The House is scrambling to wrap up its work this week, with leadership warning that votes could go into Friday evening. The House is expected to pass the microchip legislation by Friday, once it passes the Senate.
Leadership is also still mulling further votes on gun safety measures that will stall in the Senate.
The House is expected to leave on Friday to start their extended August break, and will return briefly to pass a slimmed-down health care bill if Democrats finalize a deal with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). Manchin is out with Covid this week and has broadly agreed to vote for extending Obamacare subsidies for two years and lowering prescription drug prices; he spurned a larger deal this summer that would pour money into addressing climate change and raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations.
A White House staffer told House Democratic chiefs of staff during a meeting on Monday that Biden would take executive action on climate change, but did not provide specific details on what those steps would be, according to attendees.
Jordain Carney contributed to this report.