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Deadlines to keep the government funded and prevent a default on the national debt are looming over Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer‘s pursuit of a full slate of legislative priorities.
The oncoming battles will help define the summer on Capitol Hill and could limit the ambitions of the New York Democrat, who hopes to shepherd President Joe Biden’s agenda within the confines of a razor-thin majority, internal party divisions, and aggressive Republican opposition.
Schumer’s navigating dexterity will be key to Biden’s success in his first year in office and to whether Schumer can hold onto the top leadership spot after the 2022 elections.
“We’re moving now into the difficult phase,” said Bill Hoagland, senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center. “The honeymoon’s over.”
The dynamics of the 50-50 split chamber has already provided plenty of obstacles for Schumer to maneuver through. Those are likely to remain and will be amplified by a time crunch.
With the Senate planning to be out for a two-week July 4 break, lawmakers have less than 30 official workdays between now and mid-September. Plans are needed to extend government funding by the end of the fiscal year to avoid a shutdown in October. Lawmakers must also renew authority for several key programs before they expire Sept. 30.
Phil Schiliro, a Democratic strategist who served as President Barack Obama’s liaison to Congress, said Schumer’s steps to advance party priorities and traditional must-dos simultaneously will be driven by the short calendar and realities of having the narrowest majority possible.
“What Sen. Schumer could do, what President Biden could do always comes down to, ‘Are there the votes?’” Schiliro said.
Democrats passed a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package (Public Law 117-2) and confirmed Biden’s cabinet, but they often had to do so with limited GOP support and with a majority that hangs on the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.
Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) agreed to divide up resources and staff equally between the parties when Democrats took control. But McConnell has opposed most of the Biden agenda and recently promised that “100% of our focus is on stopping this new administration.”
The majority leader also faces limits in his own party. Political frustration and pressure on the left is on the rise as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has refused to support a sweeping election overhaul (S.1.) and, along with at least one other Democrat, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), opposes eliminating the filibuster. Doing so would make it easier to pass measures on issues such as gun control and ensuring equal pay for women (H.R. 7).
Frances Lee, a Princeton University political scientist, said Schumer’s challenge is that Democrats’ wish list doesn’t have the unanimous support it needs from within their own caucus.
“Any initiative that Democrats want to push without bipartisan support needs to command total consensus among Democrats, and they are not there yet on any of the items,” Lee said.
Schumer’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Schumer has tried to bridge the moderate-liberal divide in the Democratic caucus, said Izzy Klein, a former Schumer aide and co-founder of the Klein/Johnson Group, who said the leader keeps close tabs on colleagues with his flip phone.
“His style is to be everywhere with his members,” Klein said.
Schumer has pulled members of different factions into his leadership team, including Manchin and liberal Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Schumer initiated private talks with Manchin about changes to the elections bill.
He revised strategy after infrastructure talks between Biden and Sen. Shelly Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) broke down. After consulting with Biden, Schumer tapped Sinema to jump-start discussions with other Republicans.
Schumer has been able to garner a handful of bipartisan legislative wins in the first half of this year, including a measure (S. 1260) to enhance U.S. economic competitiveness with China and an anti-hate crimes bill (S. 937).
Trent Lott, a former Republican Senate leader, credited Schumer for restoring an open amendment process on the competitiveness bill and adopting the power-sharing agreement that Lott and former Democratic Leader Tom Daschle worked out in 2001 when the chamber was similarly divided.
But he said in an interview that McConnell is the “master” of blocking bills and Schumer is in danger of getting bogged down in “purely partisan wars,” such as over election laws.
“If they could move a defense bill in the Senate and if they can begin to move some appropriations bills, that would be positive,” Lott said.
Daschle said in an interview that McConnell’s current strategy “is reminiscent of his actions when President Obama took office,” particularly “his proclamation that his role was to make sure that Obama was a one-term president.”
Infrastructure talks claim the most attention, but government funding is a mounting concern since the Budget Control Act and a two-year bipartisan plan that provided top-line spending numbers for appropriators to follow expired.
Without a new deal, neither Schumer nor Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) have yet to announce plans to consider fiscal 2022 spending measures. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the Appropriations ranking member, said there could be “multiple” stopgaps setting both sides up for a “long, hard winter” in 2022.
And without an agreement on top-line numbers for defense, work has also slowed on the National Defense Authorization Act rewrite that typically moves in the summer.
Schumer’s plan to pursue another budget reconciliation bill — to avoid needing 60 votes to advance a piece of legislation — could provide a vehicle to address the debt limit without a protracted negotiation. The Bipartisan Policy Center estimates that the nation’s borrowing authority will expire this fall.
Still other controversies could distract lawmakers.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Schumer’s top deputy and the Judiciary Committee chair, told reporters Democrats are committed to bringing dozens of judicial picks up for votes to fill “over 100 vacancies at the district and circuit court level.”
The potential for confirmation fights will be magnified if Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer decides to retire.
“If there ends up being a Supreme Court vacancy,” Schiliro said, “that will take up an enormous amount of energy in July in order to have a confirmation by October.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at email@example.com