With the most promising window for action in the Joe Biden era already closing, Democrats are going all-in on advancing a sweeping infrastructure bill—at the expense of many other progressive priorities on their wishlist.
Police reform, guns, LGBTQ protections, and voting rights—they were once all near the top of the to-do list for Democrats when President Joe Biden took office and Democrats claimed control of the House and Senate. But, at the moment, none of them are going anywhere, and the packed summer schedule ahead means they’ll stay stuck for the foreseeable future.
Progressives held out hope that the dog days of summer might see momentum build toward ending the 60-vote threshold to pass bills known as the filibuster, a prerequisite to pass most of their agenda. Instead, those days will be filled with work on a $600 billion bipartisan infrastructure plan and a multi-trillion dollar package containing major expansions of health care, childcare, and education benefits that would pass along partisan lines.
In a letter released last Friday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) officially advised senators to clear their nights, weekends, and even the sacred August recess in order to get both prongs of Biden’s marquee policy package done. He suggested action on other fronts is possible, but Capitol Hill observers in both parties expect every minute of the schedule until Labor Day to be consumed by the infrastructure package.
“What they're saying is, economic package first,” said Jim Kessler, co-founder of the moderate Third Way think tank and a former Schumer aide. “The other pieces, as critical as they are, are going to go on their own timeline. Guns, police reform, voting rights, under the current Senate rules, the paths are very murky.”
But progressive activists—who’ve been pushing hard for election reform legislation as a priority of existential importance to the party and the country—are expecting Biden and Democrats on Capitol Hill to pour as much time, energy, and political capital into advancing their For The People Act elections bill, and changes to Senate rules, as they are into an economic package.
Getting an infrastructure package passed would be a “historic success” that “should be celebrated,” said Rahna Epting, executive director of the advocacy group MoveOn, but, she added the intense focus on the push “leaves on the table so many other things, so many progressive and Democratic priorities that the people voted for this last election cycle.”
“It’s not enough to just deliver on the Build Back Better agenda,” Epting added. “That’s the agenda that ideally proves to voters that life is better under Democratic governance—but we also need voters to be able to vote in 2022.”
Ironically, of all Biden and Democrats’ priorities, infrastructure was seen as perhaps the easiest lift—a clean swing on a noncontroversial issue that could actually pass, giving Democrats a solid achievement to campaign on in the 2022 midterm elections. And if the bill is anything like the one Biden and top Democrats envision, it’d represent the most ambitious public investment in generations.
That a relatively straightforward-seeming path ahead is now so complicated illustrates how difficult it is in this closely divided Washington to get anything done—and how hard it is to make headway on the other items many Democrats have been clamoring to tackle after taking control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.
Although Democratic leaders suggested they could vote on firearm background check legislation in June, it didn’t happen, and no action is expected in light of another failed round of bipartisan talks. And the Equality Act, a landmark LGBTQ rights expansion that Biden promised to pass in his first 100 days, has not gotten a Senate vote amid GOP opposition and concern from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). Schumer teased a possible vote on it in July, but the bill was not mentioned in his letter to senators last week.
On most fronts, the legislative torpor isn’t necessarily for lack of trying. Consistent bipartisan talks on police reform are proceeding, albeit slowly, as Biden’s target date for action, the May 25 anniversary of George Floyd’s death, recedes into the rearview mirror. The lawmakers involved announced a preliminary deal two weeks ago, but there’s concern that a potentially significant step forward on law enforcement reform might also languish amid a packed schedule.
“There’s a crowded agenda on the Senate floor and if we don’t do something soon, we will lose a historic moment where we really should rise [to] the moment and make the reforms necessary,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), one of the lead negotiators, told ABC News on July 1.
Democratic leaders have put some of their priorities to a vote. As promised, Schumer devoted precious floor time to consideration of their For The People Act, known by its legislative shorthand of S.1, in June. All 50 Democrats were united in advancing it. But a GOP filibuster meant the bill did not proceed to debate. Legislation to counter the gender pay gap met a similar fate. As did a bill to establish an independent commission investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
These votes are easy to tee up, but with each day on the floor a valuable one, the appetite for show votes among Democrats inside and outside the Capitol is fairly low.
In his letter to colleagues, Schumer said June’s vote on S.1 “represented the starting gun—not the finish line—in our fight to protect our democracy” and that he “reserves the right” to put the legislation back on the floor at any time. Barring a seismic shift in the political environment, however, that will not happen. Instead, many Democrats are eyeing legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act, which cannot be considered until the fall due to procedural reasons.
Some Democrats hoped the June schedule of planned failure might build momentum for ending the filibuster. With Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) still steadfastly opposed to that option, it’s not hard for many to see the filibuster conversation growing more muted as Congress tackles the meat of infrastructure legislation.
Activists, like Ezra Levin, co-founder of Indivisible, are working to ensure the pressure stays on the filibuster and election reform. “People see the crisis of democracy on the same level of a crisis of unpaved roads, and they're going to show up and make some noise,” he told The Daily Beast.
They are also skeptical that Biden’s dream of a big bipartisan infrastructure bill is any more attainable than modifying the Senate rules. Although five GOP senators helped negotiate the bipartisan infrastructure proposal Congress will consider this month, it’s an open question whether five more will sign onto it. “We’re closer on a Senate rules package than we are to getting 10 Republican votes on a massive infrastructure bill,” Levin argued.
If the bipartisan deal falls apart, Democrats may proceed on a partisan bill passed through reconciliation. Either way, there’s a growing indication that the broader package could be a salve for Democrats concerned about their priorities languishing: if it’s the only train leaving the station, then they might as well cram as much stuff into it as possible.
Immigration reform, for example, is among those Democratic priorities destined to fall by the wayside this summer. But some progressives are pushing for Biden’s so-called American Families Plan to include it. Rep. Chuy García (D-IL) announced last week that he would not vote for any version of a bill that did not include a path to citizenship for Dreamers, the undocumented migrants brought to the U.S. as young children.
The left’s much-celebrated Green New Deal, meanwhile, isn’t going anywhere on its own anytime soon. But a large cohort of Democrats see the climate plan’s provisions on clean energy and green transit as essential to any infrastructure effort—and basically nonnegotiable.
“We’re not gonna have a better opportunity to take a huge bite out of our carbon emissions. So, this is like the last place where you would want to sell out or compromise,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Most Democrats believe they won’t get a better opportunity than the first months of the Biden administration to enact the sweeping policies they’ve campaigned on for years. And with an evenly-split Senate and just a five-seat advantage in the House, all it could take is one lawmaker to slow down that train—turning what was already a challenging lift into a legislative obstacle course of epic proportions.
“I’ve always been an optimist on this,” said Kessler, “but it’s going to be a high-wire act all the way to the end. This thing is going to look like it’s plunging to its death 30 times before it gets to the president.
For his part, Biden has tried to publicly keep the spotlight on the broader party agenda even as his administration goes all-in on the dual-pronged economic package. This week, he is set to give an address on voting rights from Philadelphia, outlining how his administration is planning to protect the franchise amid a churn of GOP-backed bills on the state level aimed at repealing voter access they believed led to their 2020 election defeats.
Biden’s move comes after prominent liberals have voiced their discontent that the president has not fully leveraged his bully pulpit to push for voting legislation. Progressives are glad to see him devoting a speech to the issue, but they have made clear expectations are high as the clock runs out on their window to change voting rules ahead of the 2022 elections and, almost inevitably, GOP attempts to gerrymander a House majority.
“Talk is cheap,” said Levin. “There is an actual policy timeline for this—that’s not to say roads and bridges aren’t important, but there isn't as urgent a timeline applied to the infrastructure package as democracy reform.”
“In the next five to six weeks, he added, “we’ll know whether this is a historic presidency or a flop.”