Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer faces staggering policy challenges — President Joe Biden’s economic agenda, voting rights legislation and another risky debt limit fight — constrained by GOP leader Mitch McConnell’s hardball tactics and Democratic disunity in the 50-50 Senate.
Schumer has set an end of the month deadline to break a deadlock among Democrats over Biden’s multi-trillion-dollar economic plan. That would pave the way for the House to clear a separate bipartisan infrastructure bill. Backed up after that is a Dec. 3 deadline to fund the government and once again raise the government’s debt ceiling.
While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also has to manage party divisions on Biden’s plan, Schumer must deal with McConnell and a Republican minority that can throw roadblocks in front of the rest of the Democratic agenda, including voting rights, immigration and a host of other 2020 campaign promises Schumer may never be able to deliver.
“From here on, it’s only going to get more difficult,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, who was a top aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “There’s no more kick the can down the road. Schumer has to make some decisions not everyone will be happy with.”
The outcome could determine how Democrats fare in next year’s midterm elections. The party will struggle to keep its Senate majority, and Republicans are favored to seize control of the House where Democrats now hold a 220-212 majority. Historical patterns and Biden’s falling approval ratings add to the potential of a Democratic rout and a dead halt to the party’s agenda.
During Schumer’s first months in power, the Senate has made some other headway, approving Biden’s cabinet and pushing through a budget resolution with only Democratic votes that sets the stage for the economic plan. A number of bipartisan bills also have moved through the chamber, including the infrastructure measure, legislation to boost U.S. semiconductor chip production and competitiveness against China, and hate crimes legislation.
But negotiations over the economic package of tax increases paired with expanded health, child care and climate change programs have dragged on for weeks. Schumer’s biggest challenge is addressing the competing demands of centrists like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and progressives like Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, typically with Republicans aligned against him.
Sanders regards the $3.5 trillion framework Democrats drafted as a compromise from the $6 billion he sought. Manchin and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema want it to be substantially less — Manchin has set the bar at $1.5 trillion. Biden has said he thinks a compromise might be found around $2 trillion.
Complicating matters further, Manchin has told the White House and congressional leaders that he will not support including a key clean-power provision in the Democrats’ spending package, putting at risk a central element of the legislation designed to fight climate change, according to a person familiar with the matter. The climate provisions have been among progressives’ chief demands.
A final decision about the fate of the program, which would pay utilities for using clean energy and penalize those that don’t, hasn’t been made, said the person, who asked not to be identified discussing non-public deliberations. But without the support of Manchin, who holds a swing vote on the package, it’s not likely to survive, the person said.