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President Biden’s agenda faces a key month in Congress, as Democrats’ slim majorities and bipartisan opposition to ending the filibuster threaten to stall his legislative priorities.
In an op-ed Sunday, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he would not support the For the People Act, a sweeping piece of legislation tied to voting reforms that has no Republican support. In the same piece, Manchin did express his interest in passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would help combat partisan gerrymandering that can dilute the voting power of minorities.
The problem for Manchin is that the John Lewis act would in all likelihood need to find at least 10 Republican votes to overcome the Senate’s legislative filibuster, which requires 60 votes for most major legislation. While a unified Democratic push could eliminate the rule, which liberals note has been used to stop civil rights legislation in the past, Manchin said he would not “vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster.”
“Our founders were wise to see the temptation of absolute power and built in specific checks and balances to force compromise that serves to preserve our fragile democracy,” Manchin said in the op-ed. “The Senate, its processes and rules, have evolved over time to make absolute power difficult while still delivering solutions to the issues facing our country and I believe that’s the Senate’s best quality.”
Without abolishing the filibuster, much of Biden’s agenda may be dead in the Senate ahead of next year’s midterm elections. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was blunt in a letter to his Democratic colleagues in late May, saying, “Looking ahead, the June work period will be extremely challenging. I want to be clear that the next few weeks will be hard and will test our resolve as a Congress and a conference.”
On infrastructure — the Biden administration’s top legislative priority — Democrats can still turn to the reconciliation process, which could allow them to pass legislation with just 50 votes if they can get their entire caucus aligned. Manchin has said he wants an infrastructure bill to be bipartisan, but NBC News reported Monday morning that he’s determined to pass a bill. Earlier this year, Manchin made similar comments about the pandemic relief bill before eventually supporting it as it passed with zero Republican votes.
Negotiations on infrastructure are expected to continue this week between the White House and GOP Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, Manchin’s West Virginia colleague. The administration has also expressed interest in another proposal from Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Mitt Romney, R-Utah.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm called the Republican negotiating position “perplexing” on Sunday, saying the brokering has to be done soon. Meanwhile, progressive groups are concerned that a bipartisan package would go too light on various climate measures promised by Biden, a worry shared by left-leaning members of Congress.
“OK, I’m now officially very anxious about climate legislation,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., tweeted Monday. “I’ll admit I’m sensitive from the Obama climate abandonment, but I sense trouble. Climate has fallen out of the infrastructure discussion, as it took its bipartisanship detour. It may not return.”
At Monday’s White House briefing, press secretary Jen Psaki was asked what the president’s message was for those Democrats who were becoming antsy about the pace of legislation.
“We do have time,” Psaki said, adding, “As anyone here knows, it takes time to move these things forward. To get Democrats on board, to get Republicans on board, ultimately we’re looking to have enough of a coalition to move forward on these bold historic ideas, and we obviously don’t have that at this moment, but we’re working toward that.”
Some Democrats have expressed frustrations that the negotiations are resembling the 2009 talks on health care, which dragged out for months but resulted in no Republican votes on the Affordable Care Act. But at the time, Democrats enjoyed a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate, allowing them to overcome the filibuster. Today they control a Senate split 50-50 with Republicans, and party leaders are struggling to keep more centrist members of their caucus in line.
Manchin and fellow moderate Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., are sometimes portrayed as the lone roadblocks to the Democratic agenda. But a number of less outspoken Democrats are thought to share their concerns about the potential of liberal overreach ahead of the midterms, when the party in power tends to lose seats in Congress.
For example, an amendment to March’s COVID-19 relief package that would have raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour was rejected after eight Democratic senators voted against it, including Chris Coons and Tom Carper of Delaware, two of Biden’s closest allies. A number of Democratic senators have expressed skepticism about some of the White House’s proposed tax increases on wealthier Americans, while Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia and Mark Kelly of Arizona join Sinema as the Democratic holdouts on the PRO Act, a top labor movement priority that would make it easier for unions to organize.
Other Democratic senators, such as New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan, face tough reelection battles in 2022 and are wary of their party’s leftward turn.
As negotiations with the GOP continue, frustrations have begun to boil over in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Freshman Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., said in a CNN interview Monday morning that Manchin “has become the new Mitch McConnell. Now Joe Manchin is doing everything in his power to stop democracy and stop our work for the people.”
Bowman, a member of the “Squad” of prominent left-wing members of the House, has said he was unsure if he’d vote for a bipartisan infrastructure bill if it were too much of a compromise from Biden’s original proposal.
While much of the focus has been on the Senate, slim Democratic margins in the House mean that members from either wing of the party could stymie any attempt at a party-line bill.
A deal on a criminal justice reform package, however, may still garner enough votes to overcome a filibuster attempt in the Senate. Last week Yahoo News reported that bipartisan negotiators were close to finalizing legislation that could get at least 60 votes.
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