Politics

Schumer’s Senate shocker: Bills are passing (seriously)

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer
is hoping to add a couple more bipartisan wins soon on expanding semiconductor manufacturing as part of a China competitiveness measure as well as limiting the cost of insulin to $35. Those follow-up victories are not guaranteed, but Schumer is feeling good enough to brag a little about how much meaningful legislation has cleared the chamber’s 60-vote threshold in the last five weeks.

Mitch McConnell
may have had 53 votes, but he never put many bills on the floor. When we can get the votes, we want to get it done,” Schumer said in an interview. “With 50 votes, we get a lot more done than they do with 53 votes, because they’re not that interested in getting the government to help people.”

The honeymoon may not last long. Schumer isn’t yet giving up on passing another party-line social spending bill after Sen. Joe Manchin
(D-W.Va.) spurned Biden’s previous offer in December, citing “conversations going on between varieties of senators” about another stab at a proposal that needs unanimous Democratic support to pass and could make or break Democrats’ fight to keep their majority.

And Schumer isn’t giving up on pushing the GOP; he said there “absolutely” will be election-year debate on legislation that Republicans broadly oppose. Democrats want him to put up votes on enhancing background checks, immigration reform and beefing up civil rights protections. Schumer also intends to quickly confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, which is likely to draw few GOP backers.

“When we can be bipartisan, we will. But we’re not going to shy away from things that are important that Republicans won’t go for,” Schumer said. “And will there be some votes on the floor where we may not win, but at least we will see where each member stands on important issues, important to the American people? That will happen.”

Not every senator is going out of their way to praise the Senate’s bipartisan streak: “You mean we were productive because the government didn’t shut down? There you go!” said Sen. Bernie Sanders
(I-Vt.). “Do you want a scoop? … I heard that all 100 members brush their teeth in the morning.”

Yet for the moment, Schumer and McConnell are delivering a bit of bipartisan compromise to the longest-running 50-50 Senate ever. It’s not always been pretty, but there’s been no debt defaults, no shutdown and no change in chamber control due to a party-switcher.

“It’s going to be up and down, and up and down. But I think there will be more bipartisanship. And where there isn’t on some of the judges, we’ll just proceed,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow
(D-Mich.).

In some ways, the breakneck party-line passage of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package one year ago was the outlier for this Congress, rather than a sign of what was to come. That’s in part due to Manchin’s opposition to Biden’s so-called Build Back Better bill, as well both his and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema
’s (D-Ariz.) resistance to unilaterally weakening the filibuster to pass federal elections reform. Manchin has repeatedly warned against further party-line legislation.

“95 percent of the time seems to be spent on partisan stuff, and 5 percent on bipartisan stuff. They’ve realized they’ve needed some accomplishments. I’m all for that,” said Sen. John Cornyn
(R-Texas).

Adding a quippy reference to the love-ins of the 1967 musical “Hair,” he added: “But I don’t think the age of Aquarius has broken out or anything.”

An impending midterm typically polarizes Congress more, not less. During Democrats’ last defense of their majority in 2014, Schumer helped push for votes on raising the minimum wage and paycheck equity that Republicans blocked, while GOP senators fought small-scale initiatives like a bipartisan energy efficiency bill.

Already some signs of a similar strategy this election cycle are emerging. The Senate recently took a failed vote on legislation that would codify Roe v. Wade and prohibit states from restricting abortion both later and earlier in pregnancy. More votes bound for gridlock could be on the way, including on a proposal to limit insulin prices that the GOP might filibuster.

For now, Schumer and McConnell are negotiating a start to talks with the House on the China competition bill this work period, according to a Senate aide. And Schumer hopes bipartisan support comes through for lowering drug prices. But at the moment, Schumer is pursuing judicial confirmations; on Monday he set up votes on a dozen lifetime nominees, a sign of where the Senate’s priorities lie for the coming days.

Senate Republicans acknowledged that it’s been a productive few weeks for the chamber but stopped short of crediting Schumer. Instead, they attributed the latest productivity spurt to Democratic leadership’s course correction after failing to pass the remaining portions of Biden’s domestic policy agenda.

“When you try and blow up the rules in the Senate and try to be able to do everything, at 51 with your own votes… what you get is zilch,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune
(R-S.D.) said.

Schumer “tried to do a bunch of those things with a pure Democrat majority [but] failed,” Thune added. “And then came to the conclusion that maybe a better solution would be to actually reach out and work with Republicans.”

The legislative path forward between now and November is not entirely clear. Schumer is still pushing for the chamber to pass a party-line tax, climate and spending bill; it’s uncertain whether he can get all 50 of his caucus members on board. And Manchin again reminded the Democratic caucus on Monday of his one-man veto power over anything Republicans uniformly oppose, imperiling Sarah Bloom Raskin’s Federal Reserve nomination by announcing his opposition.

In addition, a bipartisan group of senators is working on legislation to reform the Electoral Count Act — a herculean task given the byzantine nature of the 135-year-old law that governs certification of presidential elections. Some of that group’s members plan to meet this week. If the Senate can cut a deal on the results of those talks, it would exceed almost anyone’s expectations for bipartisanship this Congress.

Despite the sense among senators that the bipartisan stars temporarily aligned, some are already predicting a return to form after last week’s Ukraine and spending accords.

Sen. Chris Murphy
(D-Conn.) allowed that “there was some good juju in the air,” before adding: “I know what the broader trend line is here, and it’s not towards more stuff getting done. It’s towards less stuff getting done… this place doesn’t always remain super functional for long.”


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