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Democrats’ Infighting Threatens to Doom Progress on Biden Agenda

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 12/16/2021 Steven T. Dennis and Laura Litvan

(Bloomberg) -- Democrats are facing a sour end to the year, with party divisions and Senate rules stalling President Joe Biden’s economic agenda and a late pivot to voting rights threatening to hand the party another defeat before year’s end.

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The Democrats succeeded in pushing through a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package in March and, more recently, a $550 billion infrastructure bill. But after other priorities like gun control, immigration and policing reform fell aside, Biden’s economic package, totaling roughly $2 trillion, was to be their crowning achievement heading into next year’s mid-term elections. 

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Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, is holding up passage of that bill, which requires the backing of all 50 senators who caucus with the Democrats but is immune to a Republican filibuster under special budget rules. Biden has been negotiating directly with Manchin in recent days, but those discussions haven’t yielded any breakthrough.

The sudden shift in focus to voting rights on Wednesday signaled the Democrats’ growing sense that the tax and spending bill won’t get passed in 2021. Yet voting rights efforts have failed repeatedly this year, only underscoring Democrats’ inability to use their slimmest of majorities to realize the president’s domestic promises.

Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday made clear that GOP opposition to Democrats’ voting rights overhaul remains intact, calling the legislation “a naked power grab.” With just days before lawmakers leave town for the holidays, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will meet with all Senate Democrats on the matter later Thursday, but didn’t commit to any immediate time frame to forge ahead.

“These conversations are ongoing,” Schumer said. “The fight to protect voting rights is far from over in the Senate.”

Biden said Wednesday before leaving to survey storm damage in Kentucky that he hoped to get his signature Build Back Better measure completed before the end of the year, but acknowledged, “it’s going to be close.”

Asked later if Democrats should turn their attention to voting rights and defer the spending plan until the new year, Biden said only that they should pass voting rights changes if they can.

“If we can get the congressional voting rights done, we should do it. If we can’t, we got to keep going,” he said. “There’s nothing domestically more important than voting rights.”

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Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, backed the voting rights effort. But House progressives, typically strong Sanders allies, lashed out at the Senate’s delays.

“It is unacceptable that discussion of further delays to the passage of the Build Back Better Act is being framed as a choice between this legislation and voting rights,” Representative Cori Bush of Missouri said in a statement.

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Senator Raphael Warnock, a Georgia Democrat, seized the breakdown in talks on the economic agenda to make another appeal for voting rights. The Senate, he said, just agreed to a one-time rules change to expedite a debt limit increase -- albeit with GOP support.

One of just three Black senators, Warnock put the issue in stark terms, pointing out that previous generations had bipartisan support for slavery, segregation and denying women the right to vote.

“Future generations will ask, ‘When the democracy was in a 911 state of emergency, what did you do to put the fire out? Did we rise to the moment? Or did we hide behind procedural rules?’” he said on the Senate floor. 

Two moderates in the Senate Democratic caucus -- Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and -- have met with fellow Democrats but so far have refused to change the 60-vote rule that gives the GOP a veto over most legislation.

Filibuster Dilemma

Sinema took part in a meeting with other Democratic senators Wednesday on the issue. Afterward, her spokesman, John LaBombard, said that she supports the vote threshold “to protect the country from repeated radical reversals in federal policy which would cement uncertainty, deepen divisions, and further erode Americans’ confidence in our government.”

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Sinema wants a public debate on Senate rules, he added.

A third Senate moderate who has been reluctant to kill the filibuster rule, Angus King of Maine, is among those openly discussing changing how the filibuster operates to make a blockade harder for the minority.

Many of Biden’s other domestic policy promises have little prospect of getting the 60 votes they require to advance. That includes new gun controls, a minimum wage increase, and a path to citizenship for 11 million unauthorized immigrants.

With McConnell commanding near-unanimous support in his caucus to filibuster voting rights bills, Democrats have debated dropping the 60-vote rule entirely, dropping it just for voting rights, or enacting other changes.

Requiring a so-called “talking filibuster” might be the easiest way to get Manchin’s, Sinema’s and King’s backing, because it wouldn’t require doing away with the 60-vote rule. But it’s not clear they would support it, or that doing so would eventually result in legislation reaching Biden’s desk.

Wall of GOP Opposition

Republicans have three times filibustered broad voting rights legislation designed to counter a record number of new restrictions in GOP-run states that Democrats say are aimed at suppressing participation by minorities and poorer Americans. 

The most recent bill, endorsed by all Senate Democrats, would create an automatic voter registration system through each state’s motor vehicle agency, make Election Day a public holiday and provide voters with at least 15 days of early voting for federal elections. It also seeks to curtail partisan “gerrymandering” of congressional districts and would put in place new campaign finance disclosure requirements that include mandating outside groups report their donors.

It includes a Manchin-backed provision that allows voters to use several types of identification cards and documents, which can be either hard copies or in digital form. The bill was blocked by GOP senators in October.

A month later, Democrats picked up the backing of a sole Republican -- Lisa Murkowski of Alaska -- on another bill designed to restore some protections of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act that were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. But that still left them nine votes shy of what was needed to advance the bill to the Senate floor.

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