WASHINGTON — For the last two years, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been portrayed by opponents as the Grim Reaper for turning the Republican-controlled upper chamber into a graveyard of legislation passed by the House’s Democratic majority. Hundreds of House-passed bills died in the Senate in 2019 and 2020, with few examples of meaningful compromise between the two sides of the Capitol.
This session of Congress, the House bills are piling up again in the Senate chamber, many of them identical or similar bills to what was passed. And now, Democrats are in control of the Senate’s agenda but hold the thinnest majority possible: a 50/50 split, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking any tie vote.
As the Senate returns this week for a busy spring season, they will face the question of whether any progress can be made on key Democratic priorities like immigration, gun policy, voting rights and policing reform — to say nothing of President Joe Biden’s $2.2 trillion infrastructure plan.
With two Democratic senators unambiguously opposing any changes to the Senate’s 60-vote requirement to pass legislation, Democrats must either reconcile differences with Republicans or risk becoming the new overseers of the legislative graveyard.
Any compromise legislation in the Senate would then have to clear the House, where the Democrats’ majority became narrower this year. Just four Democratic members — whether in the progressive or moderate camp, or somewhere in between — could join all Republicans in sinking any measure.
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said infrastructure-related legislation, along with bills already passed by the House related to immigration and background checks for firearms, “hold some promise for bipartisanship.”
He pointed out the Senate version of the House-approved Dream Act, which would offer a path to citizenship to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, was introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
“We should challenge the Senate, and challenge Republicans in particular, to engage with us, to debate it and to have votes,” Casey said in an interview last week.
Republicans, however, are still fuming over the Democrats’ use of budget reconciliation, a legislative process that allows deficit-altering bills to advance through the Senate with only a majority vote, for the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill signed into law last month. That package passed both chambers of Congress with no Republican votes. Republicans have complained that Biden’s call for bipartisanship was all for show.
Democrats have said they could use the process again to pass parts, if not all, of Biden’s infrastructure plan without GOP votes.
Casey supported Democrats’ use of budget reconciliation for the relief bill, saying it was an urgent matter that should not have been delayed or watered down. The other matters now before the Senate could benefit from a more deliberative process, including weeks of negotiations with Senate Republicans and House leadership, he said.
Still, he said, he believes the 60-vote filibuster threshold was getting in the way of true progress in the Senate.
“The vote should be — especially on something as consequential as voting rights — it ought to be a 50-vote rule and not a 60-vote rule,” Casey said. “We can allocate plenty of time for long speeches, but when the vote occurs, we shouldn’t be hamstrung by some need to get to 60 votes.”
“It really is compromising our ability to get things done that the American people expect us to get done,” Casey said.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., repeatedly has insisted he will not support eliminating the filibuster, which allows any one senator to put a hold on legislation and requires 60 votes to proceed.
Coming under continued fire from progressive groups and questioned by journalists, Manchin wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post last week that spelled out, once again, that there is “no circumstance” he would vote to “eliminate or weaken” the filibuster. Manchin also has slammed the use of budget reconciliation, imploring his fellow Democrats to try to reach compromises with Republicans.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., has also opposed eliminating the filibuster.
The House-passed measures on the Senate’s agenda are divisive and so partisan to the point that it remains highly unlikely that 10 Republicans would join all Democrats and Independents in supporting them.
Immigration fixes and background checks repeatedly have fallen through since the early 2010s, and the voting rights bill was passed in response to laws to restrict voting taken up in Republican state legislatures, including Georgia.
Graham, the co-sponsor of the Dream Act, said in a statement accompanying the bill’s introduction in February that he does not expect the bill to pass as a stand-alone measure.
“I believe it will be a starting point for us to find bipartisan breakthroughs providing relief to the Dreamers and also repairing a broken immigration system,” Graham said. “I look forward to working with Sen. Durbin and others to see if we can find a way forward.”
The parties remain far apart on policing reform, too. Senate Democrats blocked the Republican-sponsored Justice Act from consideration last summer, saying it didn’t go far enough to hold police accountable. They want the Senate to instead pass the House’s George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which, among other things, sets a national use of force standard and lowers the bar for putting police officers on trial for misconduct.
A spokesman for Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said in a statement that “Democrats have shown little to no willingness to work with Republicans” on immigration, voting rights, policing reform, but that the senator “is always open to the possibility of working with his Democratic colleagues in order to make progress.”
The spokesman noted how Democrats supported the filibuster when they were in the minority and used the technique to block the Justice Act just last year. Republicans left the filibuster in place because they “prioritized bipartisan cooperation.”
“Now that the shoe is on the other foot,” the spokesman stated, “the Senate Democrats want to eliminate the filibuster so they can ram through their left wing agenda.”
Toomey has been one of few Republicans in support of gun policies like expanded background checks and red flag laws, but his legislation is more limited in scope than the House measures passed last month.
Toomey, appearing on “Meet the Press” on March 28, said Senate Republicans could support expanded background checks on commercial gun sales.
And last week, after Biden announced executive actions on gun control, Toomey stated he believed “there is an opportunity to strengthen our background check system so that we are better able to keep guns away from those who have no legal right to them.”