Crises Distract Congress as Leaders Struggle to Pass Priorities

  • Ukraine, baby formula shortages claim lawmakers’ attention
  • Spending decisions, voting legislation, nominees face delays

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Democrats may be forced to scrap large parts of their ambitious election-year agenda as a series of crises dominate Congress’ attention this spring.

With less than eight work weeks before the August recess, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) continue adjusting their plans to instead address emerging issues such as rising gas prices and advance aid packages to help war-torn Ukraine and alleviate baby formula shortages.

While those became must-do items, the legislation party leaders initially intended to consider, including a revamped Build Back Better spending plan and a voting rights overhaul, remain stalled.

“Democrats have really just been reactionary and their agenda has been overtaken by events and by pressure from within and outside to do something, or at least look like they’re doing something,” said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Democratic leaders are under pressure to deliver on priorities to energize their base before the November elections, when control of both chambers of Congress is at stake. They also view the coming months as their last best chance to shape policy and set spending priorities if they do lose their majorities.

The pressures of the calendar are particularly acute in the closely divided Senate, where Schumer’s plans to confirm large numbers of President Joe Biden’s nominees have been delayed amid Republican slow-walking and his party’s own Covid-19 and health-related absences, including the recent hospitalization of Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) after the lawmaker suffered a stroke.

In an interview, Schumer dismissed the notion that priorities are falling by the wayside.

“We have plenty of energy for everything,” the majority leader said. “We have a lot to do because the nation, the people of America, need lots of help.”

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
The baby formula shortage is one of several crises preoccupying Congress and making it harder for Democrats to press ahead with their priorities before the midterm elections.

Schumer said he’s still encouraging Democrats to revive the Build Back Better legislation (H.R. 5376) that stalled in the Senate after the House passed it with a $2.2 trillion price tag last year.

But Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who was key in killing the original Build Back Better measure, are at an impasse over details of a revised version. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said in an interview he’s “skeptical” a revamped bill would be considered under the 2022 budget reconciliation vehicle that would require a simple majority for passage.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said even a smaller package could address current crises, such as high prices on consumer goods. But little progress has been made and a time crunch looms, she said in an interview.

“I say, ‘tick tock, tick tock,’ every time I go into a leadership meeting,” said Warren, vice chair of the Democratic conference. “But we have the skinniest possible majority. We need every single vote. And trying to get everyone on board and headed in the same direction has been a real challenge.”

Next Bill Up

The Senate has devoted floor time to abortion rights, which party leaders believe will energize their supporters in November. Schumer shelved his original floor schedule to squeeze in a vote to codify the Roe v. Wade abortion rights ruling, after the leak of a Supreme Court draft opinion indicated justices were poised to overturn it. The vote failed, but Schumer hinted at more attempts that could mobilize the Democratic base.

Congress is likely to deliver on a legislation (H.R. 4521) to boost US competition with China. With $52 billion in funds for the semiconductor industry and bipartisan support, Schumer and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer(D-Md.) told reporters the measure has good prospects to be enacted this summer.

Democratic leaders announced their intent to move legislation that would address veterans’ exposure to toxic burn pits ahead of Memorial Day.

But Congress has made little progress on many bread-and-butter matters. House and Senate appropriators haven’t received any spending framework for their fiscal 2023 spending bills. While the House plans to consider bills this summer, lawmakers said they’ll still need a stopgap to prevent a government shutdown this fall.

“I am frustrated and disappointed we haven’t gotten it done,” Hoyer said about a funding framework, as the House instead prepared to vote on a baby formula supplemental (H.R. 7790).

The Senate cleared a $40 billion Ukraine aid package (H.R. 7691) after delays caused by Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) objections, but the annual National Defense Authorization Act isn’t likely to be finalized until a post-election session at the earliest.

Other issues Democrats intend to advance, but aren’t getting much traction on, include an immigration overhaul and another bucket of pandemic aid money. Talks on a policing overhaul and gun control initiatives have also stalled.

Democrats will work to confirm Biden’s nominees, particularly judges, while they’re certain to control the chamber. There are almost 100 awaiting votes, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has “tried to slow down this process to a trickle,” Durbin said.

“Members are going to have to spend some weekends, which is rare,” Durbin said. “But it’s the only way to convince McConnell and Republicans we’re serious.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bloombergindustry.com

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