With the Senate poised to keep the filibuster intact, there will be little to distinguish the new upper chamber from the one that largely stymied former President Donald Trump’s legislative agenda, potentially hobbling President Biden’s ambitious plans on everything from a sweeping jobs bill to immigration reform to overhauling the country’s infrastructure.
The new chief executive took office last week calling for “unity” in the wake of Trump’s contentious term that ended with the Jan. 6 Capitol riot by some of his supporters. But with the Senate now expected to keep a 60-vote threshold for legislation in place, Biden faces the daunting challenge of negotiating with Senate Republicans on most major legislation and the prospect that any failed deal-making could further divide the country.
The filibuster’s survival means Democrats’ ability to break ties in the evenly divided chamber via Vice President Kamala Harris’s decisive vote often will be moot. Without 60 votes to end the debate, meaning 10 GOP senators would join all Democrats, major bills would never get a simple majority vote to clear the chamber. That leaves Biden and Democrats to turn to a special budget rule that allows them to push one massive package through with 51 votes and then spend floor time on executive and judicial nominations.
That might sound familiar. The Senate of the Biden era is shaping up to be not that much different than that of the Trump years, observers say.
“The challenges [Biden] faces are the same challenges Trump faced, and are exactly why Republicans had no legislative agenda during the two years they controlled the House and the four years they controlled the Senate, which is, the party is divided,” said James Wallner, a senior fellow at the R Street Institute, who led the Senate Steering Committee staff under Republican Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Mike Lee of Utah. “The Democratic Party is divided, as well, and I suspect that those divisions will keep just as much stuff off the floor in the Senate as Republicans will.”
For now, Democrats, though they hold a slim majority, are focused on the votes needed for Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus package. Two centrists in the caucus, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, this week pledged to uphold the filibuster rule, notionally striking down the possible threat.
Biden has stressed a unity message, but a March cliff for aid doled out in a December bill is approaching. Senators also face the logistical constraints from a second impeachment trial of Trump.
Top White House aides and centrist lawmakers from both parties said they favored a bipartisan agreement. But pushback is already evident from the senators that the Democrats need to move past the 60-vote threshold.
In conversations with the White House, centrist Republicans such as Maine’s Susan Collins or Ohio’s Rob Portman have balked at both the overall cost and at some specific proposed provisions.
The bill is shaping up as an early test for Biden and his legislative ambitions: negotiate or bypass Republicans.
Democrats point to a budgetary tool called reconciliation that would allow one shot at passing a massive package with 51 votes. The wheels are in motion: On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said that he would bring a budget resolution to the Senate floor “as soon as next week.” That starts the reconciliation process.
It’s not an unfamiliar scenario for Democrats.
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