Democrats Pursue Legislative Wins in Challenging Election Year

  • Spending, trimmed social policy bill still on the agenda
  • Election year poses hurdles for passing ambitious plans

Congressional Democrats are trying to salvage an election-year agenda after the defeat Wednesday of their voting rights legislation.

That deflating but expected outcome for the party came on the heels of the collapse of negotiations on the Build Back Better social spending package. Combined, it’s left the party lacking some signature victories it would love to run on in what appears likely to be a difficult midterm election environment.

To beef up their accomplishments, House and Senate leaders are discussing ways to enact a scaled-back version of President Joe Biden’s signature legislation this spring, as well as passing an omnibus spending measure and more pandemic economic aid. But they’re cognizant of their political reality.

“Harder than hell,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said in an interview about the outlook for this year. “Everybody is measuring every proposal against its impact in November. That doesn’t mean we can’t do anything, but it is more difficult to do.”

Biden said at a news conference Wednesday he’s confident Democrats can pass “big chunks” of the social spending package. He also touted what they already accomplished, specifically the American Rescue Plan Act (Public Law 117-2) and the bipartisan infrastructure package (Public Law 117-58), and said he intends to spend his time this year on the campaign trail detailing what those mean for voters.

The stakes are high for Democrats anxious to deliver on Biden’s agenda before defending slim margins in both chambers. As the party in power, they face the historical trend of losing seats, and the president’s approval rating may prove to be a drag. They’ve encountered numerous obstacles and distractions, including intraparty squabbles, Republican opposition, and the continuing Covid-19 threat, which has made governing particularly challenging.

While they’ve recently come up short on their priorities, Democrats still have time to rack up a few wins even in the politically charged time of an election year and in a highly polarized Capitol, veteran congressional observers said. In interviews, they noted that lawmakers have completed ambitious legislation in the second year of previous Congresses, including the Affordable Care Act (Public Law 111-148) and the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul (Public Law 111-203) in 2010.

“Although rank-and-file members do often sort of run scared and don’t want to take potentially partisan or polarizing votes in an election year, the record suggests that in fact big bills do get done,” said Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution.

Photographer: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), President Joe Biden, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) are working to move the party’s agenda amid the political pressure of the election year.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said they intend to revive efforts to finish—in some form—the social policy package (H.R. 5376) that’s stalled with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) opposing its cost and scope.

“What the president calls ‘chunks’ I would hope would be a major bill going forward,” Pelosi said at a news conference Thursday. “It may be more limited, but it is still significant.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told reporters he’s using “every waking minute” to salvage parts of that measure, such as dealing with drug prices and the child tax credit.

“We’re all in,” Wyden said.

Read More: ‘Fight Like Hell’: Democrats Draw Lines on Slim Biden Plan

Binder said she expects Democrats to make an all-out effort to salvage the legislation, but it’s uncertain whether it will yield a final product that resonates with voters and helps them in the election. Wendy Schiller, a Brown University political scientist, agreed, noting those 2010 successes preceded losing the House.

“Whatever they get, then they have to go sell it,” Schiller said. “And you have to start selling it as soon as you get it done.”

Pressure Is On

Talks have been underway for weeks to trim the economic legislation and, possibly, use multiple vehicles to get programs enacted, said Bill Hoagland, senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

“If you think you’re going to lose control of the Congress, then the pressure is on for Democrats to try to get as much of their agenda through,” said Hoagland, a former top GOP Senate staffer. “I think they’re going to want to focus on moving as much as they can.”

While reworking the social spending plan, lawmakers are negotiating a spending framework that could allow the House and Senate to sign off on a roughly $1.5 trillion omnibus appropriations package funding the government for the rest of fiscal 2022. However, the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), were divergent Thursday in their levels of optimism that an agreement would be reached before the current spending stopgap expires Feb. 18.

In addition to carrying 12 appropriations bills, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters the omnibus may include money to address disasters such as the tornadoes that hit Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s home state of Kentucky and the Colorado fires. Also possible, he said, is “substantial” foreign aid. Separately, Pelosi said it may carry more money to address the Covid-19 threat.

Lawmakers said the omnibus could attract other items, such as a bipartisan plan to help the restaurant industry. In addition, while lawmakers are still pushing for enactment of Senate-passed competitiveness legislation (S. 1260), they said they might try to get $52 billion on the omnibus to help the U.S. semiconductor industry if talks falter with the House, which is working on a companion bill. They may also try to reach a bipartisan deal on the Violence Against Women Act and a new Water Resources Development Act, popular biennial legislation authorizing funding for ports, flood control, and coastal protection.

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Sen. Chuck Grassley(R-Iowa), the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, said in an interview that while the social policy plans won’t get GOP support, there are some other deals to strike, such as one to advance antitrust legislation (S.2992). The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the antitrust measure Thursday, readying it for floor action.

“There’s a bipartisan point of view that Big Tech is too much of a monopoly and we got to do something about it,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at; Kyle Trygstad at