Democrats Stare Down Nightmare September

The Hill

September 7, 2021 6:00 am

Democrats are staring down a nightmare September, a month jam-packed with deadlines and bruising fights over their top priorities.

The numerous legislative challenges in a condensed timeline will test Democratic unity and provide plenty of opportunities for Republicans to lay political traps just a year out from the 2022 midterm elections, where they are feeling increasingly bullish about their chances.

When lawmakers return to Washington, they’ll have to juggle averting a government shutdown in a matter of days with Democrats’ self-imposed deadline for advancing an infrastructure and spending package that is at the center of President Biden’s economic and legislative agenda and sparking high-profile divisions.

That’s on top of a looming decision about the debt ceiling, a voting rights clash set to come to the Senate floor in mid-September, lingering Afghanistan fallout and, in the wake of a controversial Supreme Court decision, a heated fight over abortion.

“I think it’s a full agenda,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told The Hill.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) added that the Senate’s schedule would be “crowded” but that they were “getting used to working weekends and we’re going to continue to.”

Senators are scheduled to return to Washington on Monday, though they’ll only be in for three days that week because of Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday. The House is set to return on Sept. 20.

That leaves Democrats little time to finalize a massive $3.5 trillion spending package before key deadlines set by leadership in both chambers.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has given his committees until Sept. 15 to finalize their parts of the spending package so that Democrats can then start negotiating the bill within the 50-member caucus.

And, as part of a days-long standoff, House moderates got a commitment to bring up the other piece of Biden’s package, a roughly $1 trillion Senate-passed infrastructure bill, for a vote by Sept. 27, just days after they return from a weeks-long summer break.

But Democrats are still trying to lock down how to pay for the package, bridge divisions on shoring up the Affordable Care Act and expanding Medicare, draft immigration reform language and iron out sections on climate change.

There are already high-profile warning signs amid simmering tensions between moderates and progressives — neither of whom Schumer or Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) can afford to lose if they are going to get the two bills to Biden’s desk.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) threw the latest wrench into the $3.5 trillion package when he called for a “pause” on the bill last week and warned that he likely couldn’t support the price tag. In a 50-50 Senate, and Republicans unified in opposition, Democrats can’t afford to lose Manchin.

“Let’s sit back. Let’s see what happens. We have so much on our plate. We really have an awful lot. I think that would be the prudent, wise thing to do,” Manchin said at a West Virginia Chamber of Commerce event on Wednesday.

“I know they’re going to go nuts right now … because what I said is going to all my caucus in Washington,” Manchin added, referring to his Democratic colleagues. “But I’m thinking of it from the standpoint of where we are as a nation today.”

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) has also warned repeatedly that she doesn’t support a $3.5 trillion top-line figure.

Both Sinema and Manchin have urged the House to move the $1 trillion bipartisan bill separately.

But any push to go below $3.5 trillion, or delay the timeline for passing the bill, is a nonstarter for progressives, who quickly rejected Manchin’s suggestion.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called rebuilding the country’s physical infrastructure “important” but said making improvements to health care, education and combating climate change was “more important.”

“No infrastructure bill without the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill,” he said.

Outside groups are also urging activists and progressive lawmakers to steel themselves for a heated fight with their own party over the $3.5 trillion package.

“We are in a powerful, but precarious place—we passed the budget resolution with all our progressive priorities still on the table, but still have a race to the finish line as major corporations invest millions in a major lobbying blitz,” the progressive groups wrote in a memo.

The Democratic deadlines over voting on the infrastructure package are set to collide with an end-of-the-month deadline to fund the government.

Congress has until Oct. 1 to pass government funding bills to prevent a shutdown. While the House has passed nine of the fiscal 2022 government funding bills, the Senate has passed none. Senate Republicans have warned they won’t help pass the full-year bills without a deal on top-line spending numbers, an equal increase in defense and nondefense funding and an agreement to avoid politically controversial policy riders.

Instead, lawmakers are likely to use a continuing resolution, a short-term bill that continues current funding levels, into late November or December to keep the government running.

The continuing resolution could also be an attempted vehicle for raising the debt ceiling, which would effectively dare Republicans to either support a debt hike or risk a government shutdown. The Treasury Department is currently using so-called extraordinary measures to keep the country solvent but is expected to hit a wall sometime this fall.

Republicans have warned that they won’t help raise the debt ceiling, either on its own or if it’s attached to something, because Democrats are planning to sidestep them to try to pass their $3.5 trillion plan.

Democrats need at least 10 GOP votes in order to increase the nation’s borrowing limit. But 46 GOP senators signed a letter late last month vowing to oppose it, writing that “this is a problem created by Democrat spending. Democrats will have to accept sole responsibility for facilitating it.”

Democrats could raise the debt ceiling on their own as part of the $3.5 trillion spending package. But they left it out of their budget instructions, arguing that it should be bipartisan.

“The White House and Janet Yellen preferred it be done outside of reconciliation, to keep it bipartisan, stop making this a partisan issue because it’s fraught with peril. Mitch McConnell seems to want to do that. I don’t think he’ll succeed,” Schumer told reporters last month, referring to the Senate Republican leader.

Amid the spending fights, Schumer has also teed up a voting rights brawl that Democrats are hoping will move their holdouts on changing the chamber’s legislative filibuster.

Republicans previously blocked the For the People Act, a sweeping bill to overhaul federal elections, from getting the 60 votes needed to start debate.

Democrats are hoping that they’ll have a voting rights bill ready by the time they return that could unite all 50 Democrats. But even if they did, they don’t have the 50 votes needed to nix or pare back the legislative filibuster.

Schumer hasn’t taken a public stance on filibuster reform but argued that his caucus shouldn’t let Republicans prevent them from acting.

“Republicans refusing to support anything on voting rights is not an excuse for Democrats to do nothing,” Schumer said after Republicans blocked a quick start to the voting rights debate as senators bolted from the Capitol for the recess.

Congress’s long to-do list has only expanded over the break following the botched Afghanistan withdrawal and a Supreme Court decision allowing a Texas law that bans abortions after six weeks to remain in place.

Lawmakers, including Democrats, are vowing to grill administration officials over the Afghanistan exit, where the administration was caught off guard by the Taliban’s quick rise and overestimated both the Afghan government and military.

Though Democrats largely agree with Biden’s ultimate endgame, withdrawing U.S. military forces, the president has found little cover from Democratic lawmakers over his handling of the exit.

“The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee should quickly begin investigating the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and forces after two decades of American investment of resources and troops, and why we were unable to better anticipate it,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said in a statement.

Pelosi, meanwhile, added the abortion fight to the House agenda after the Supreme Court decision.

“Upon our return, the House will bring up Congresswoman Judy Chu’s Women’s Health Protection Act to enshrine into law reproductive health care for all women across America,” Pelosi said, referring to legislation that would codify Roe v. Wade.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has also vowed that it will hold a hearing on the Supreme Court’s “shadow docket,” which the justices have increasingly used to issue decisions on weighty cases on an emergency basis.

But the fight could also reignite Democratic tensions. The same bill has only 48 Democratic supporters in the Senate, where progressives are renewing their calls to nix the filibuster and expand the Supreme Court.

Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), while saying she agrees with those goals, warned that both would fall short among Democrats in the Senate.

“The reality is that if a vote was brought up tomorrow to change or eliminate the filibuster or reform or add seats to the Supreme Court, it would fail,” Smith wrote in a string of tweets. “I wish it were different. We don’t have the numbers and that’s what we have to focus on changing.”