Despite Control of Congress, Democrats’ Agenda Appears Stalled 

Heading into what analysts expect to be their last year with unified control of Congress and the presidency for the foreseeable future, it remains unclear whether the Democratic Party will be able to capitalize on the opportunity to see key legislative priorities enacted into law. 

This week, just as Democratic lawmakers were celebrating a pair of significant victories on Capitol Hill, two members essential to their tenuous hold on the Senate majority signaled that they will block the party’s two biggest legislative priorities. That raised questions about how the Democrats will spend the remainder of the 117th Congress. 

On Wednesday, reports began to emerge that talks between the White House and West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin over President Joe Biden’s signature Build Back Better social and climate spending package had broken down. Democrats cannot afford to lose a single vote on the package, meaning that without Manchin’s support, the measure is as good as dead, given lockstep Republican opposition in the evenly-divided chamber. 

Also Wednesday, Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema said that she would not support an effort to alter Senate rules to allow the body’s Democrats to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, a package of voting rights measures, suggesting that that bill may also be doomed. 

Senate rules stymie Democrats 

The Democrats control 50 of the Senate’s 100 seats, and can rely on Vice President Kamala Harris to cast a deciding 51st vote in the event of a tie. However, because of the Senate’s filibuster rule, which requires a 60-vote majority to cut off debate on a subject, the Democrats are significantly constrained in their ability to pass legislation without significant Republican assistance. 

In the past few days, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer worked out an agreement with Senate Republicans to temporarily waive Senate filibuster rules in order to raise the nation’s debt limit and avoid a government default. Shortly thereafter, he brought the annual National Defense Authorization Act to the floor, where it passed on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis, 88-11. 

There is one well-known road around the filibuster: a process called budget reconciliation that allows a bill that fits certain parameters to be exempt from the filibuster. The Build Back Better Act is written in the form of a budget reconciliation bill, but that protection is only useful if the Democrats can retain all 50 of their members, meaning that Manchin’s refusal to support it is fatal to its chances of passage. 

No carve-out for voting 

Democratic senators pushing the voting rights legislation had hoped to convince the party to come together on a vote that would narrowly change the filibuster rules — something that can, ironically, be done with a simple majority — to allow the voting rights bill to pass with 51 votes. 

On Wednesday, however, Sinema’s office issued a statement indicating that while she supports the Freedom to Vote Act, she is not inclined to change the filibuster rule in order to pass it. The statement suggested that to do so would only invite wild swings in federal law in the future, whenever a party gains unified control of Congress and the White House. 

On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, criticized the suggestion that Democrats might do away with the filibuster in order to pass their agenda.

“Entire generations of statesmen would have seen … these unhinged proposals as Armageddon for our institutions,” he said.

So, now what? 

Experts are divided on exactly what the current impasse means for the remainder of the 117th Congress. Some, like Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, say they expect little legislative activity to take place. Sabato told VOA he expects Democrats to focus on tasks like filling vacant seats on federal courts, which they can do with a simple majority. 

“Judicial appointments are the one area where they really have been successful,” Sabato said. “They’ll fill every possible judgeship, as long as they maintain the 50-50 Senate. As long as they can do that, they’ll get something done that will have long-lasting effects.” 

Sabato said there is faint hope that there could be some bipartisan move toward regulating major social media firms, but he pointed out that while both parties are angry at companies like Facebook and Twitter, the parties don’t agree on the changes they would like to see implemented.

And in an election year when Republicans hope to take control of Congress, he added, there may be little incentive to cooperate.

“They could reach a compromise, but again, if Republicans are confident of gaining control of Congress — which they have every reason to be — why would they compromise when they have a good chance of getting everything they want when they’re in charge?” 

Biden can point to one major bipartisan victory, a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, which was signed into law last month, and addressed a long wish list of projects around the country sought by lawmakers of both parties. Since then, however, attracting Republican support or maintaining Democratic party unity on other major planks of Biden’s agenda has proved elusive. 

A more hopeful outlook 

William A. Galston, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies program, told VOA that he still holds out hope that Democrats and Republicans in Congress will be able to find some common ground in the first half of 2022, before the looming midterm elections make cooperation a practical impossibility. 

“One possibility is that they will turn to issues that are less visible right now, but which may have a greater prospect of bipartisan support and therefore, success on the floor of the Senate,” Galston said. “There have been a number of bills, for example, dealing with supply chain issues. And it is at least possible that pieces of larger bills could be peeled off, the ones that are most likely to get support across party lines.” 

In particular, he pointed to a piece of legislation that passed the Senate following the cooperative efforts of Schumer and Republican Sen. Todd Young, of Indiana. The bill, called the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, creates a Directorate for Technology and Innovation in the National Science Foundation.

Part of the new directorate’s mission would be to “to improve national competitiveness in science, research, and innovation” in order to support the goal of the administration’s national security strategy. 

“That would put us in a substantially better position to address some key looming challenges, including our competition with China,” Galston said. The bill has not progressed in the House of Representatives, he noted. However, he said, “I suspect very strongly that if the White House and leaders in both chambers got together, they could figure out how to unstick that bill.” 

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