Senate Democrats ended a frustrating day in a frustrating week with President Joe Biden acknowledging that his sweeping social spending bill will wait until next year — a setback that comes as the party also spins its wheels on election reform.
Biden released a statement on Thursday night vowing to work with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to put his $1.7 trillion social safety net and climate plan “on the floor as early as possible” while alluding to unfinished work ahead, both in negotiations with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and clearing procedural obstacles. One of those obstacles came roaring back into view Thursday night as the upper chamber’s rules referee struck Democrats’ latest attempt at immigration reform from their party-line bill.
Before Biden’s statement, Senate Democrats met for one of their last party meetings of the year, which became an "intense" discussion, in the words of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Schumer did not pull the plug for the year then on either elections and voting legislation or the spending bill, according to attendees at the lunch.
Instead, Democrats braced for Biden to acknowledge the political realities that the party is not yet close to a deal with Manchin on the social spending bill.
Biden’s "perspective and voice is absolutely critical," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).
“A two-week cooling off would not be the worst thing,” said one Democratic senator on condition of anonymity.
Front and center for Democrats is the imminent expiration of the expanded child tax credit, now caught up in a dispute between most of the party and Manchin. And House progressives made clear they are not for a cooling off period.
House Progressive Caucus leader Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said she spoke to Biden on Thursday and conveyed that she wants the Senate to stay in D.C. and keep working through the holidays. Senators are preparing to jet home after finishing work on some of Biden’s nominees given the stubborn impasse.
"The House did our work, and now it’s time for the Senate to do theirs. They must stay in session until Build Back Better is passed," Jayapal said.
Democrats are also staring at a brick wall on their push to defang the filibuster in order to pass their elections bill via a simple majority, with the party several votes short of changing the Senate rules. Biden spoke to several key senators on Thursday about that effort and said the Senate must "make progress on this as quickly as possible."
Schumer is also tangling with Republicans over confirming Biden’s nominees before year’s end, which at the moment appears the most likely avenue of progress before 2022. Most of Thursday’s party meeting focused on overcoming Republican opposition to ambassador nominees.
“We didn’t really talk about Build Back Better," said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), referring to Democrats’ social spending bill. "We actually talked about the nominations that need to be cleared and the Voting Rights Act."
Biden’s statement Thursday night ends a day that Senate Democrats began in the dark about where their agenda stood. They are now facing the growing likelihood that they will go home empty-handed on major party priorities.
“Allowing the child tax credit to expire would be unconscionable,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “We deeply need a path forward, we need a strategy and a sense of how to get across the finish line on the child tax credit, which is the biggest middle-class tax cut in generations. And we have, really, a moral as well as historic obligation.”
The Senate faced a jam-packed schedule going into December. The chamber ultimately averted a government shutdown and a debt default, and also passed the annual defense policy bill. That theoretically cleared the deck for Biden’s $1.7 trillion social spending bill.
And many Democrats viewed the end of the year as the best forcing mechanism for passing Biden’s agenda, with the expiration of the child tax credit looming and senators eager to return home for the holidays. Schumer repeatedly said he wanted the Senate to vote on the social spending bill by Christmas.
But given Manchin’s opposition to a one-year child tax credit expansion and flailing conversations with Biden, Democrats will instead stumble into the holiday break without floor action.
"A 50-50 Senate is really problematic. I’ve used the word ‘sucks.’ It definitely enables one or two people to hold things up," said Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii. "So, yes, I am frustrated."
“We missed an opportunity. But I’m not giving up,” added Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “Apparently Manchin’s approach to this has changed a lot. I don’t know where he is today or where he’ll be tomorrow.”
Democrats faced no shortage of other issues as they pushed to get the social spending bill over the line by Christmas, the ambitious deadline that Schumer offered mere days ago. The Senate parliamentarian is still reviewing key elements of the House-passed version of the legislation to ensure that it complies with Senate rules. While immigration got nixed on Thursday night, other aspects of those discussions could spill into January, according to people familiar with the internal haggling.
And Democrats don’t have a final deal on state and local tax relief. For some members, the last few days are just the latest hurdle in the longest evenly-split Senate in history.
“We recognize we have a 50-50 Senate, and we’re not getting cooperation from the Republicans on any of those issues, and we recognize it’s a challenge,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) “It’s been a challenge all year.”
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are watching from the sidelines with glee. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday touted his support for separating the physical infrastructure bill that passed earlier this year from the social spending bill, arguing the move gave Republicans an advantage.
"I said, ‘Let’s pass the sugar and then see if they can swallow the spinach,’" McConnell told reporters. "So the spinach was left behind. And as we speak today, they’re having a hard time swallowing the spinach."
As Biden’s climate and social spending bill flagged, Schumer teased the potential of changing the filibuster to pass elections reform legislation before the new year. Yet Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are unconvinced about changing the Senate’s supermajority threshold on most legislation, with Sinema pointedly warning Wednesday that it would allow future Republican majorities to run roughshod over any elections changes Democrats make now.
That statement blew up any hope of quick action before the holidays. And that leaves Democrats hoping for nothing short of a miracle that’s highly unlikely to arrive.
“All I want for my birthday and Christmas is preservation of American democracy,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).