Overpromising and underdelivering is a cornerstone of American politics. Campaign on sky-high aspirations followed by disappointment on unmet expectations. Sen. Chuck Schumer promised “bold change” in the wake of Democrats successfully taking control of the Senate and maintaining a slim majority in the House following the 2020 elections.
“Bold change” was an eye-rolling premise to anyone willing to accept the realities of a 50-50 senate. Knowing full-well Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia was unwilling to eliminate the filibuster to allow Democrats to implement their agenda at will. In November 2020, Manchin appeared on Special Report with Bret Baier and clarified where he stands.
“I will not vote to pack the courts. I will not vote to end the filibuster… I don’t know of any Democrats in the caucus that are for defunding the police… We can’t even pay for Medicare for some.”
As difficult as it would be to misunderstand Manchin’s statement ignoring it would not be. Schumer was well aware of his position before the two U.S. Senate runoff elections in the state of Georgia. Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock were successful in their respective Senate races. Democrats held a technical majority heading into 2021. With the Senate deadlocked at 50-50, Vice President Harris would cast the tie-breaking vote if necessary, giving Democrats control of the chamber by the narrowest margin possible. Despite that, Schumer pressed forward on what would be the beginning of a difficult road ahead.
Democrats are attempting to generate a positive messaging campaign focusing on their 2021 accomplishments. But, unfortunately, while there are accomplishments, they do not meet their pie in the sky aspirations and have left many disappointed.
The first order of business was the American Rescue Plan which foreshadowed how burdensome accomplishing agenda items would be. Passing it involved down to the wire compromise with Manchin. What was once a $400-a-week unemployment payment was reduced to $300 at the instance of Manchin. In addition, up to $10,200 in taxes would be forgiven on unemployment benefits received through 2020 as part of their agreement. Manchin was prepared to vote in favor of an amendment by Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, which forced Democrats into last-minute negotiations with Manchin. Democrats agreed to lower the income cap that determines eligibility for stimulus payments. $80,000 for individuals, $120,000 for single parents, and $160,000 for households became the agreed-to thresholds. Nonetheless, mission accomplished.
While Build Back Better faces numerous roadblocks, the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill was a hard-fought success story. Negotiations were tense and, at times, seemed on the brink of collapse. Nevertheless, the bill would pass 69 to 30. Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was one of 19 Republicans who voted in favor. McConnell proudly voices his support for the legislation. It is remarkable considering McConnell once branded himself as the grim reaper of Democrat legislation.
“So think of me as the Grim Reaper: the guy who is going to make sure that socialism doesn’t land on the president’s desk.”
The bipartisan infrastructure bill faced an uncertain fate in the House due to it initially being paired with Build Back Better. Eventually passed it on its own in the House and was signed by President Biden. While many, not all, Republicans reviled its passage. Democrats had what could arguably be considered their most remarkable success story of 2021. Physical infrastructure legislation has been attempted over the years but has never been accomplished until now.
“This is what it looks like when elected leaders take a step toward healing our country’s divisions rather than feeding those very divisions.”
-Sen. Kyrsten Sinema before vote.
While messy, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan is a resounding positive for our future. Over the years, the number of American casualties has been unjustifiable—a continuous conflict with no end in sight. Military members serving our nation are selfless and honorable heroes. But, unfortunately, subject to the whims of our interventionist tendencies. Thank you, President Biden, for removing ourselves from a lose-lose situation.
Another success story was the vaccination of over 60% of Americans. While the coronavirus variant Omicron looms large over any previous successes, it is impossible to dismiss such an accomplishment.
Coronavirus is atop the list of concerns for most Americans. It has burdened and ravaged everyday aspects of American life throughout its existence. Unfortunately, it has continued to mutate and prolong this vicious cycle. When if ever coronavirus will resolve entirely is an anxiety-inducing uncertainty.
Many point their finger directly at the Trump administration for its dismissive approach to controlling coronavirus. President Biden won the 2020 presidential election in large part due to Trump’s recklessness and carelessness in his handling of coronavirus. For sure, Trump had an eventful presidency but nothing more noteworthy and consequential as coronavirus. All his blunders and embarrassments would have been background noise if Trump had led on fighting coronavirus. Instead, he was too focused on how it would harm his policies, particularly on economics. Safety protocol, concern, and compassion should have been his messaging priority. Being conscious of Americans’ real struggles would have gone a long way.
Gathering crowds of 20,000 plus at political rallies amid a pandemic was apathetic and selfish. Would it have been that difficult to sacrifice political aspirations for a moment? It is not complicated political science here. People were not only suffering and dying from coronavirus. But subject to Trump’s arrogance and apathy, whose primary concerns were electoral. President Biden has made every reasonable attempt he could to help curb the impact of coronavirus. Trump did not.
We cannot ignore the political challenges on the horizon for Democrats. The electoral defeats in Virginia and the close call in the New Jersey governor’s race show Democrats have their work cut out for them in 2022. As mentioned, coronavirus is on the rebound, with Omicron rapidly spreading as the most contagious disease variant yet. Inflation remains high with no signs of coming down. Priorities such as criminal justice reform, preserving abortion rights, and increasing the minimum wage have taken a backseat. As a result, there has become a new sense of urgency to accomplish two major priorities early next year.
Build Back Better, as initially designed, from the onset was a farfetched objective only seen as viable through rose-colored glasses. Six months of negotiations and its future is more uncertain than at the start. How did Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Senate Budget Chairman, throw out a number like $6 trillion without immediately being laughed out of the room? Even a negotiated down $3.5 trillion was unrealistic under current circumstances. $1.75 trillion is proving challenging. Democrats are using reconciliation, which allows for passage on a simple majority, but its use is limited to exclusively budgetary items. The Senate Parliamentary has stuck down three different immigration proposals as an example of how her decision could shape Build Back Better.
Keeping the cost within the boundaries of $1.75 trillion required a bit of creativity. Democrats would fund individual programs for various timeframes to stay within budget. The objective was to pass them now and worry about renewing them later. The assumption was that once enacted; they would not be retracted. For example, a one-year extension of the enhanced child tax credit was an intricate part of Build Back Better but only funded for one year due to its enormous cost. Meanwhile, Universal pre-would be funded for six years.
Manchin expressing his opposition to Build Back Better on Fox News Sunday and delving further into his opposition Monday on MetroNews Talkline may have been the eyeopener Democrats needed. The problem Democrats had from the start is the assumption all Democrats will eventually go along to get along.
“They figured, ‘Surely to God we can move one person. Surely, we can badger and beat one person up. Surely we can get enough protesters to make that person uncomfortable enough they’ll just say, ‘Okay, I’ll vote for anything just quit.’”
While Manchin has become the poster child of opposition for Democrats, he is not necessarily wrong in his approach. Why create uncertainty about the future of each piece of the legislation? Democrats face the daunting reality they will no longer control both chambers of Congress following the 2022 midterms. It could very well be many years before they hold this kind of power again. So why risk the short-term expiration? There is a high degree of uncertainty that Republicans would even consider continuing any of them once they expire. Only now do Democrats recognize that a smaller but consistent package is more realistic and beneficial. It is where they should have started initially. The New Democrat Coalition has pointed this out previously.
“At the start of these negotiations many months ago, we called for prioritizing doing a few things well for longer, and we believe that adopting such an approach could open a potential path forward for this legislation.”
A statement from Rep. Pramila Jayapal suggests aspects of Build Back Better be enacted via executive order due to Manchin’s opposition. When White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked about using executive orders to execute components of Build Back Better, she did not dismiss the possibility. Still, she said it was not something presently being discussed. It would be a mistake for President Biden to consider this route. It would give Manchin justification to walk away from discussions and put the final nail in the coffin of Build Back Better. Executive orders are reversible and provide an uncertain future to Americans who may rely on them. The quickest and easiest path is not always the best.
Schumer has said he will bring a version of Build Back Better up for a vote regardless of whether Democrats have a deal with Manchin. The idea is to put Manchin on the record as a no vote and continue to put pressure on him. Manchin has long been unphased by the prospect of holding a vote and has encouraged Schumer to do so previously. However, the effectiveness of such a strategy is questionable at best. For all the heat Manchin has endured throughout the process, I am skeptical a floor vote will be the reason he caves to pressure.
Voting rights legislation has been considered a top priority amongst Democrats. However, Republican-controlled states have continued enacting legislation that would impose statewide changes and restrictions on voting protocols. Georgia, Iowa, Florida, and Texas have already passed legislation while other states are in the process.
The path to passage of the Freedom to Vote Act is more perilous than even Build Back Better. At least with Build Back Better, Democrats have reconciliation at their disposal. Enacting the Freedom to Vote Act would need to go through regular order. Which means it is subject to a Republican filibuster. Sen. Schumer has said he will bring up a vote in January. If Republicans filibuster it again as expected, Democrats will attempt to change Senate rules regarding the filibuster. The numbers are not on Schumer’s side. It would require all 50 Democrats to vote in favor, with Vice President Harris breaking the tie. Both Manchin and Sen. Sinema of Arizona have been advocates for maintaining the filibuster and have thus far refused to alter their positions.
Democrats have been considering a few strategic options.
- A carve-out for voting rights legislation would allow for a simple majority vote to pass voting rights legislation but other legislative proposals would still be required to meet or surpass the 60 vote threshold. President Biden has said he supports making an exception to the filibuster in order to pass voting rights legislation.
- Reinstating the talking filibuster which would require opponents to hold the floor for as long as possible, ultimately only delaying eventually passage. Would require 51 votes to pass in the Senate.
- Alter the filibuster threshold from 60 votes to proceed to a simple majority unless at least 41 Senators were present to block it. Opposing Senators would be forced to remain present on the floor to avoid passage.
None of these alternatives presently have the support of Manchin or Sinema. However, Manchin has voiced support for more minor procedural changes to allow the Senate to work more efficiently. He has even held meetings with Republicans on the issue.
Again, Schumer is taking what some would argue is an unnecessary risk as forcing votes does not equal success. Willingly exposing internal strife among Democrats is not appealing messaging; displaying dissension and resentment more than desire will have people further questioning Democrats’ ability to lead. Let the media speculate but do not affirm their perception.
Democrats find themselves in a situation where 2021 was not a complete loss but has ended on a dour note. Their significant accomplishments occurred early, and the last few months have been time-consuming with nothing to show for it. Democrat priories remain on the sidelines. Others are attempting to be intertwined into Build Back Better but may be forced to be removed in the end. We shall see what 2022 brings for Democrats.