Congressional Democrats have a slew of big-ticket items they want to pass soon and while they expect little or no help from Republicans, their biggest problem is more basic: the dwindling number of days Congress will be in session before the weeks-long August break.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer points to the early successes Senate Democrats had when there was skepticism they could impeach former President Donald Trump, confirm cabinet appointees and clear a $1.9 economic stimulus package quickly.
But all those issues had a united Democratic caucus in both the House and Senate behind them. Now Democrats want to enact a major infrastructure bill as well as an overhaul of the federal campaign and voting systems by August. Biden added to the to-do list Wednesday when he asked Congress to pass a policing revamp by the anniversary of George Floyd’s death on May 25. At some point, too, lawmakers must take up annual appropriations bills.
“It’s a lot to expect. It’s going to test the bipartisan bona fides of our Republican friends and it’s also going to test the determination of our leadership to get timely prepared for reconciliation measures that will be necessary,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat.
Reconciliation bills spin out of budget resolutions and can be passed with only 51 votes in the Senate, making them the preferred vehicle to get past filibusters. But they also eat up gobs of precious Senate floor time, between the budget resolution and the bills themselves, as well as the marathon day-long vote-a-ramas that accompany each. Reconciliation bills are also limited to carrying only items with a budget impact, a determination made by the Senate parliamentarian that also can slow things down.
In the Senate, eight weeks are planned for work between when senators return May 10 and the start of their August break. In the House, there are only seven weeks planned.
A senior Democratic aide in the House said leadership there is aware of the possible crunch.
“We have a plan for all of this and we have a Rules Committee that facilitates bills moving through the House, but the Senate doesn’t have the luxury of a rules committee so that’s a challenge to us getting bills to Biden,” the aide said.
“But we can move our agenda through the House,” the aide said.
One possibility is that some things will slip past the target dates. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on “CBS This Morning” Thursday she thought a policing bill could be finished by the May 25 anniversary date before backtracking slightly at a later press conference, when she said it would be brought to the floor when it is ready.
“And we’ll be ready when we have a good, strong bipartisan bill,” she said.
For the infrastructure bill, the questions are both about time and how to pass it. Senate Democrats are awaiting clarification from the parliamentarian on budget reconciliation issues as they mull how to proceed.
Then there’s the question of what to include in a bill. If Democrats can’t reach agreement with Republicans on a package, they will have to use reconciliation, a prospect many of them are already resigned to.
But with Biden unveiling his American Families Plan this week, Democrats will have to choose whether to pass one big bill including Biden’s American Jobs Plan with its infrastructure portions and his American Families Plan with its social spending or split the two proposals into separate bills, with each being passed using reconciliation.
“I believe when you talk about infrastructure, you’re talking about not only roads and bridges. You’re talking about the needs of the American people. And I think we should include as much as we possibly can in one or two reconciliation bills and get them passed,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders said this week.
Chris Krueger, an analyst with Cowen Washington Research Group, said in a client note the base case for passage of an infrastructure and social spending package was in late September, after the August break.
On the voting bill, numbered H.R. 1 in the House and S. 1 in the Senate to show their importance to leadership, Schumer said April 25 in an interview with MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan the deciding factor on that bill’s timing was the need to give time to state officials time to make changes that would be required.
“We’re consulting the experts, when is the latest that S.1 can undo some of the despicable and frankly racist changes that these Republican legislatures have made or trying to make in the way people vote,” he said.
“It’s probably by August or so,” Schumer said.
With the appropriations process only beginning to pick up steam because of the late delivery of the president’s funding request, meeting all those target deadlines will be difficult.
At the beginning of the week, Schumer on the Senate floor ticked off the major legislative accomplishments of the Democratic Senate and offered an upbeat assessment.
“In the first 100 days, the Senate has accomplished a lot more than most observers might have predicted. The next 100 days will bring more of the same,” he said.