Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) scored two significant victories this week, but he’s facing big headaches as he tries to keep his razor-thin caucus unified while President Biden‘s top legislative priority hangs in the balance.
Schumer, who is up for reelection next year, made good on an ambitious timeline to have the Senate vote on the roughly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and a budget blueprint that unlocks the ability for Democrats to try to pass a $3.5 trillion spending plan without GOP votes this fall.
The breakneck pace played out with around-the-clock meetings, attempts to set hard deadlines, threats to one of the biggest areas of bipartisan agreement in Congress — the August recess — and eventually a grueling 20-hour session until the Senate passed both measures.
“Many said it was an impossible task, but Democrats in the Senate are determined, fiercely determined, to move President Biden’s Build Back Better Agenda forward. Sometimes it took a little prodding, it took working weekends, late nights, cloture motions, but we kept working at it,” Schumer told reporters about his strategy.
Schumer is being careful not to declare victory, comparing the state of play to catching “a nice long pass at midfield, but we still have 50 yards to go before we score a touchdown.”
“We have no illusions, maybe the hardest work is yet to come,” Schumer said.
Schumer’s warning about the trek ahead to pass the $3.5 trillion spending package comes as the path has already been laced with potential pitfalls, with progressives eager to drop the bipartisan track and stuff everything into one large bill they could do on their own.
Schumer is not a member of the Senate Budget Committee, but he sat in on the talks with an eye toward getting a budget resolution that could bring all 50 members of his caucus on board in a first step toward the spending package, which is expected to include Democratic priorities like immigration reform, expanding Medicare, child care and combating climate change.
The balancing act earned Schumer praise from Biden, who called the New York Democrat’s leadership on the two-track strategy for advancing Democrats’ signature issue “masterful.” He also got shout-outs from both ends of the caucus.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) thanked Schumer for his “leadership in the arduous process which has gotten us to where we are today.” The two Brooklynites have made efforts to tout their alliance. They’ve swapped public praise and even traversed the second floor of the Capitol together this week to provide a photo op of them side-by-side, symbolically driving home their unity.
Though Schumer at times frustrated Republicans in the bipartisan group by trying to build pressure on them to finalize the deal, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a member of the group, praised Schumer for his “patience,” which Tester added was “not something that he is known for.”
“He has been incredibly patient as this bill has been debated and changed and moved forward,” Tester said about Schumer’s outreach on the bipartisan bill, while adding that Schumer also “pushed the envelope and made sure we were tending to business.”
Schumer will face yet another legislative tightrope with higher stakes as he tries to shepherd the $3.5 trillion plan through the Senate.
Unlike the bipartisan bill, he won’t be able to lean on GOP votes, meaning he’ll need total unity from Democrats. And unlike on the budget resolution, which includes few details besides a top-line figure and spending levels for each committee, Democrats are expected to spend weeks, if not months, hashing out the details.
“We’re going to be working very hard the next few weeks, the next month, frankly. … That’s a hard job. Such a large, important bill, but we’re going to roll up our sleeves,” Schumer said.
Even as Democrats disperse back to their home states until mid-September, Schumer is keeping a tight grip as he tries to keep the work on the spending plan on track. Drafting the bill will be a herculean effort with 12 Senate committees tasked with writing pieces of it, which will then be rolled together into one final bill.
Schumer convened all of the committee chairs on Tuesday night to lay out the plan for the summer break. He’s planning to convene weekly Zoom calls with the committee chairs. Each committee is expected to hold weekly calls with its members as they try to work through the thorny sticking points and potential pitfalls.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said that Democrats could start to “shop” their pieces around but that the focus would be on each committee having an agreement on their section by the end of the recess. Schumer wants committees to have their work wrapped up by Sept. 15.
“You got to get the committee on board first,” said Kaine, who is on the Senate Health Committee that is tasked with drafting part of the bill, about the strategy.
Schumer is also expected to do a lot of the outreach he’s known best for around the Capitol: Calling up members of his caucus on his flip phone to take their temperature. Asked about his plans for outreach over the summer break, an aide added that the Democratic leader would be in “nonstop communication with individual members.”
Schumer is known for frequently checking in with all the corners of his caucus. When he became Democratic leader in 2017, he expanded his leadership team to include discordant voices including centrists like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and progressives like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) something he’s frequently mentioned in interviews when he talks about unity.
But there are already signs of big headaches looming. Manchin issued a statement only hours after Democrats passed the budget resolution raising concerns about the price tag for the upcoming spending package.
“I have serious concerns about the grave consequences facing West Virginians and every American family if Congress decides to spend another $3.5 trillion,” Manchin said about the stalemate.
Manchin joins Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who previously made it clear that she wanted to scale down the size of the bill.
“I do not support a bill that costs $3.5 trillion — and in the coming months, I will work in good faith to develop this legislation with my colleagues and the administration,” she said.
Schumer can’t afford to lose either of the centrist Democrats if he’s going to get Biden’s spending plan through the Senate, where the 50-50 split gives him no margin for error. But the warning signs from the middle of the chamber are sparking concerns of backlash from progressives, whom Schumer also can’t afford to lose.
Asked about the possibility that they could lose members on the left if they shift for Manchin and Sinema, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-ill.), Schumer’s No. 2, called it a “balancing act.”
“What we tried to do was be as fair as possible through the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and I think we have, and secondly to be open to their reactions and suggestions when it comes to the budget resolution,” he said.
Some progressives have shut down talk of shrinking the size of the package, and outside groups are pushing for Schumer to go even bigger than $3.5 trillion, arguing that growing warnings from climate scientists mean Democrats need to invest more to combat climate change.
Though the all-night budget marathon was largely meaningless because the changes were nonbinding, they did highlight areas related to climate that Republicans could use to try to peel off Democrats during a repeat exercise later this year when they’ll actually be able to change the Democratic bill.
Republicans were able to pick eight Democratic senators on a nonbinding fracking ban, as well as three Democrats to support the idea of an income cap on who can claim a tax credit when they buy an electric vehicle, a big priority for Biden. The vote was symbolic, but if Republicans could get it into the fall spending package, where it would have teeth, it would place restrictions on a big priority for Biden.
Meanwhile, Joseph Geevarghese, the executive director of the progressive group Our Revolution, said Manchin’s position “made clear” that passage of the $3.5 trillion spending plan “is far from a done deal.”
Schumer, when asked about the balancing act, stressed that Democrats will need to overcome differences if they are going to get anything accomplished and that “every part” of Biden’s plan will be included.
“There are some in my caucus who may believe it’s too much,” he said. “There are some in my caucus who may believe it’s too little.”
Via The Hill