Democrats Race to Rack Up Accomplishments Before Campaign Starts

  • Backlog may intrude on lawmakers’ holiday season
  • Defense, spending, semiconductor bills are in hopper

Next week’s rush to move along a massive spending package is only the first item on a holiday season list Democrats must check off.

They’ll return from recess under a time crunch to build on their success clearing the infrastructure bill with a series of other priorities they hope to showcase to start the election year. Beyond the president’s $1.75 trillion social spending and tax package, must-do items include appropriations bills to keep the federal government running and the Pentagon’s annual budget bill.

House and Senate leaders are already tearing up their personal holiday plans as legislative work days dwindle and the push intensifies to make a dent in President Joe Biden’s agenda.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), a member of Schumer’s leadership team, said Democrats are working hard to get all the major pieces finished by next month and that “it’s easy to move things fast once you get an agreement.”

“But I’m getting out my piano so we can do Christmas carols together here because we’re going to be probably running right up to the week of Christmas,” she said in an interview.

Photographer: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who is part of Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s leadership team, said Democrats are aiming to get a slew of bills finished by the end of the year.

Electoral Nudge

Rattled by a dismal showing in recent elections in Virginia and elsewhere, Democrats are under pressure to show voters they can bridge their divisions and fill their legislative promises as they prepare for a tough 2022 election when control of both chambers is up for grabs. Failure to do so would provide more fodder for Republicans who are eager to portray the opposition as ineffectual and focused on the wrong priorities.

Sarah Binder, a congressional analyst at the Brookings Institution, said that because Biden campaigned on a “return to normal” following the tumultuous Trump years, “there’s an expectation that the government is going to start working and running and sort of functioning as a well-oiled machine.”

But she said the “the December pileup is large,” with the usual appropriations bills as well as the debt limit and social spending package still awaiting action. While Congress has passed ambitious legislation in election years, such as the 2010 Wall Street overhaul, Binder said “generally party leaders try not to push purely partisan measures in election years.”

Democrats are racing against the calendar. With another recess for Thanksgiving, both chambers have no more than 15 scheduled workdays to avert a series of crises, beginning when a stopgap to fund the government expires Dec. 3. Also looming next month is the date by which Congress must formally raise the nation’s debt limit or risk a default. Meanwhile, inaction on the National Defense Authorization Act threatens Pentagon funding and a planned pay raise for U.S. troops.

The House has already passed a $777.9 billion defense bill (H.R. 4350) and most of the dozen annual appropriations bills. But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) hasn’t brought any of them to the Senate floor as he struggles to bridge intraparty divisions over the social spending package.

“Passing transformative legislation is not easy. It’s hard, very hard,” Schumer said.

Time Running Out

The window may be is closing soon for Democrats to make their case before voters’ perceptions harden. After data released Wednesday showed consumer prices spiking, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) urged Democrats to work on lowering inflation rather than on another spending bill.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell(R-Ky.) last week criticized the Democrats for spending so much time on the social spending package and that the Senate’s “real business” of funding the government and taking care of the military is being ignored.

Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have predicted Democrats will pass the social spending bill (H.R. 3684) by Thanksgiving. But it’s still not clear all Democrats support provisions in that measure on drug prices, paid family leave, and immigration. Pelosi said progressives led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) will carefully review Congressional Budget Office scoring before the measure is put to a vote.

Photographer: Craig Hudson/Bloomberg
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) arrive for a news conference at the Capitol on Nov. 5.

Delays to accommodate progressives could easily push budget and spending matters into winter, said Bill Hoagland, a former GOP appropriations aide and senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

“I think they’re working right up until Christmas Eve,” Hoagland said.

Wrapping Up

Democrats must figure out how to keep the government funded after the current stopgap measure expires at the beginning of December. Hoagland said the government’s ability to borrow may be exhausted around the same time if, as expected, the Treasury Department transfers $118 billion to shore up the Highway Trust Fund.

“We are facing not just a train wreck but a colossal train wreck that’s coming now in early December,” Hoagland said.

Talks on wrapping all the appropriations bills in an omnibus package have largely stalled. Senate Appropriations Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) reported no progress in talks with ranking member Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), saying the Republicans have ignored Democrats’ efforts to compromise on defense spending.

Leahy said Republicans “seem intent on driving us toward a full-year continuing resolution”—referring to a measure that would maintain current levels of funding through the fiscal year.

Shelby said struggles over Biden’s initiatives have consumed most of lawmakers’ energy, but once both of the Democratic bills are done “maybe we’ll get real serious” about government funding.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed(D-R.I.) said Schumer hasn’t indicated when his panel’s version (S. 2792) of the defense authorization bill will get full Senate consideration. Reed said the priority has been reconciliation. “We’re going to go,” he said. “It’s just a question of when.”

Other work has also slowed or stalled, including efforts to produce a final version of the United States Innovation and Competition Act (S. 1260) the Senate passed to help semiconductor manufacturers.

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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