Tensions rise as Democrats face Senate bottleneck on agenda
Frustrations are building among congressional Democrats as the party’s priorities pile up in the Senate.
Legislation granting statehood to Washington, D.C., approved by the House on Thursday, is just the latest big agenda item that is set to stall out on the other side of Capitol Hill.
In the majority-run House, Democrats are passing the party’s big priorities along party lines. In the Senate, Republicans can block most legislation with the filibuster, putting the focus on approving President Biden's nominees and moving smaller bipartisan measures.
Irritation between members of the same party over the differences between the chambers are a time-honored tradition, but that doesn’t make them any less annoying to those living through them.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) characterized himself as “frustrated.”
“Hopefully, at some point in time, the people themselves will say to the United States Senate, and their representatives in the United States Senate will say, it is undemocratic, with a small D. It is un-American to have the minority hold the majority hostage,” Hoyer told reporters.
A group of House Democrats held a press conference on Thursday to urge Senate Democrats to get rid of the 60-vote legislative filibuster.
“My constituents do not care about arcane Senate rules and procedures. ... We have sent bill after bill after bill to that side of the Capitol,” said Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), a military veteran who flipped a red seat in 2018.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, warned that if Democrats let the filibuster block big pieces of the party’s agenda there would be blowback in the next election.
“They’re either not going to come out and vote for you next time or they’re going to vote for the other guy,” she said.
Democrats pledged to go “bold” if they won back control of Congress, with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) vowing to shake off the chamber’s “legislative graveyard” status after House Democrats watched their priorities get ignored by the GOP-controlled Senate in the final two years of the Trump administration.
“Today, with the filibuster in place, with Democrats in control in the Senate, it’s still Mitch McConnell’s graveyard,” Jayapal said, referring to the Senate Republican leader.
House Democrats have already passed a laundry list of big priorities for Biden and progressives: a sweeping election reform bill, a bill to expand background checks, legal protections for some undocumented immigrants, a measure strengthening the voting rights bill and LGBTQ protections.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declined to weigh in on the filibuster debate, saying whether or not Democrats would “have any progress on all these fronts ... well, that’s a debate for the Senate.”
Democrats don’t have the 50 votes needed to nix the filibuster and change the rules, a perennial sore spot for the party’s base.
“You know I'd abolish the filibuster tomorrow. I'm sick and tired of what's been happening in the gridlock in the Senate on voting rights and on so many other things,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, said during an interview with MSNBC.
But the problem is bigger than just the legislative filibuster. Some parts of the party’s agenda don’t even have 50 votes in the Senate.
There are still five Senate Democrats who haven’t signed on to a bill supporting D.C. statehood. That puts the bill short of the votes needed to pass even if Democrats got rid of the filibuster.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who supports D.C. statehood, called linking nixing the filibuster to getting rid of D.C. statehood “premature.”
“I don’t think just in a matter of what we’re going to be dealing with — the biggest priority is infrastructure and voting rights, those are the first two. So I don’t foresee there’s going to be floor action on this anytime soon, so I would say let’s get through the things that are the ones that we have kind of embraced as the urgent ones,” Kaine said.
Senate Democrats are digging in on infrastructure. And after passing an anti-Asian hate crimes bill, they are expected to spend next week on Biden nominees and a water bill.
Schumer is supportive of D.C. statehood, which he described as “an idea whose time has come,” but hasn’t pledged to give it a vote.
“We're going to do everything we can to pass it,” he told reporters.
It’s isn’t just D.C. statehood — the Rules Committee will mark up a sweeping election reform bill early next month. But it’s deeply opposed by Republicans, and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has drawn a line saying that any bill should be bipartisan, potentially depriving it of 50 votes.
After eight Democrats joined all Republicans in opposing a $15 per hour minimum wage proposal in coronavirus relief legislation, the issue has largely fallen to the backburner. Other buzzy progressive goals, including the Green New Deal or expanding the Supreme Court, lose more Democratic support and are unlikely to get brought to the House floor, much less the Senate.
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who made an unsuccessful bid for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination, said he didn't support expanding the Supreme Court.
“I don't think the American public is interested in having the Supreme Court expanded,” he said.
Instead, the strategy on the filibuster among Senate Democrats is to bring up bills that garner 50 votes within their own caucus. The hope is two-fold: First, that it will force Republicans to go on the record against popular ideas, and second, it will show holdouts that without changes, big pieces of their agenda won’t be able to make it to Biden’s desk.
“We can’t just assume that they’ll block them. We have to give them opportunities to get on board and then if they block things that we have a mandate to do ... that will also be instructive,” Kaine said.
There are some signs of bipartisan progress on certain issues.
After police reform stalled out last year in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) say they are making progress and are hoping for language in a matter of weeks.
But Bass also acknowledged that there was frustration among House Democrats about the lack of progress on bills being sent over to the Senate, saying: “Of course. Of course there is.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is leading a bipartisan group that he says includes 10 Republicans — the number needed to break a filibuster — on immigration reform that would marry protections for "Dreamers" and agricultural workers with some border elements like more immigration judges or technology.
And Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) is holding talks with Republicans on gun reforms, predicting he’ll know by the end of next month if there’s likely to be an agreement.
If the talks fall apart, however, it’s likely to pour fuel onto calls from those within their own party to change the rules.
“The Republicans make the case that the filibuster is an incentive for bipartisanship,” Murphy said. “So let’s test the theory. Let’s see if Republicans really do come to the table on an issue like guns. If they don’t, given how much I’m willing to engage, then it’s increased evidence that the current rules don’t work.”