Senate Democrats are preparing for possible summer action on their still-elusive climate, tax reform and prescription drugs bill, grinding behind the scenes on a new version during high-profile gun safety talks.
With much of Washington’s attention on guns, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) met twice this week on a potential party-line package. There’s more afoot: Schumer and his staff are working with the Senate parliamentarian to help tee up a possible July or August vote. And a prominent Democratic pollster has tested how popular major components of a hypothetical bill would be in Senate battleground states.
The talks could all fall apart, of course, just as they did in December when Manchin rejected a $1.75 trillion, White House-blessed plan. Any bill advanced this summer would be much slimmer than that one, focusing on lowering drug costs, reducing the deficit, raising taxes on the wealthy and boosting energy sources both clean and domestic.
It’s not everything Democrats want, and they may have to take Manchin’s terms in the heat of the midterm campaign season or face another rejection from the mercurial centrist. But with its work deep into the calendar, the party is putting a new spin on an old saying: Build Back Better Late Than Never.
“I’m spending a significant amount of time every day on it. I can’t get into all the negotiations. I believe we’re going to get there,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who chairs the tax-focused Finance Committee. “Sen. Schumer makes these calls, but I think it’s just really key to get this done before the August break.”
After meeting a half-dozen times this spring, Manchin and Schumer offered few details Thursday of what they are working on. Schumer intentionally is keeping most Democrats out of the loop to limit public fretting — and media reporting — about the state of the talks with Manchin, according to two senators in the caucus who declined to speak on the record.
“It’s tight as hell,” said one Democratic senator of the negotiations.
There are signs, however, that talks are getting more specific: Manchin and Schumer are going line by line over what a possible deal would look like, building a potential agreement from the ground up rather than rehashing disagreements from last year, according to Democrats familiar with the matter. Much of the recent focus is on energy policy; Manchin indicated he will not support a bill that sends direct payments to companies that produce clean energy for consumer use, also known as “direct-pay,” drawing an important line in the negotiations.
Manchin was the first Democratic senator to warn about potentially rising inflation and was widely dismissed by his colleagues last year when he raised those concerns. With inflation now at its highest rate in 40 years, any conversation about spending more money will be a difficult sell with him, and he wants deficit reduction in the package, a person close to him said.
Of the provisions being considered for a new party-line bill, tax increases and prescription drug reform would bring in new revenues, but the energy component could require hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending.
To most Democrats, the fact that talks are continuing well past the unofficial Memorial Day deadline for a handshake deal is reason enough for optimism. Discussions on a party-line spending bill are happening while negotiations on both gun safety and competitiveness with China are still unfinished.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the No. 4 caucus leader, said that despite the pile-up of critical issues, “there’s good conversations going on” between Manchin and Schumer.
Schumer said “our talks with Manchin are continuing” while the West Virginian would only say the discussions are “very respectful.” Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also met with Biden on Wednesday, and afterward Pelosi said of Democrats’ party-line spending bill: “It’s alive. I’ll just say that.”
“As long as they’re talking, it’s good,” added Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.). “That’s the good news. All these months later, it’s still viable.”
Schumer is hoping he can bring up the bipartisan gun safety package for a vote next week, clearing the decks for bringing a Democratic bill to the Senate floor in July or August. By using what’s known as budget reconciliation, the measure would need just a simple majority of votes in the 50-50 Senate, and can avoid a GOP filibuster.
Making that happen requires plenty of closed-door efforts — Schumer is also working with the Senate parliamentarian to ease consideration of a potential party-line spending bill. The GOP would be able to challenge specific provisions once there is final bill text, possibly knocking out portions of the bill if they run afoul of the chamber’s strict budget rules. But Schumer is trying to make all the preparations he can should he and Manchin come to an agreement before Sept. 30, when the current budget reconciliation protections expire.
The Senate is currently slated to go on a two-week recess at the end of the next week, then return for four weeks before breaking for the bulk of August. Those weeks could give Democrats a huge opportunity to add another accomplishment before the November midterms.
And they need it. Polls show Biden’s approval rating is around 40 percent, endangering Democrats’ slim Senate majority. But according to a May survey by Hart Research Associates obtained by POLITICO, passing Manchin’s vision would offer a jolt come election time to four Democratic senators in New Hampshire, Arizona, Nevada and Georgia, where voters would be more likely to support the incumbents if such a bill passes.
“The poll showed that a focused bill would be popular and would help Democratic incumbents who are running for reelection. The aspiration in sharing the results is that they would encourage Senator Manchin and others to continue moving the process forward,” Hart Research President Geoff Garin said when asked about the poll. Garin warned that the poll itself does not offer “tea leaves” about Democrats’ prospects of success in the coming weeks.
Republicans are nonetheless getting worried, particularly with the gun debate taking up so much oxygen in Washington. One GOP aide fretted that Democrats “are using the debate on gun control as a distraction from their work to jam through” a smaller version of Build Back Better.
Another ominous sign for the GOP: Manchin-led bipartisan energy negotiations have ceased, leaving a party-line approach as the best option for the moderate senator.
Democrats said they’re not intentionally hiding the negotiations, but conceded that Washington’s focus on firearms does allow the reconciliation discussions to unfold with less scrutiny. Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are also involved in the gun talks, with Sinema taking a leading role.
And some Democrats are concerned that the Schumer and Manchin talks don’t directly include Sinema, another crucial moderate swing vote. Still, Sinema was far more supportive of the Build Back Better bill in December than Manchin.