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Democrats' December dread builds after defense stumble

Senate Democrats’ daunting year-end agenda started off with a face plant on a routine, popular defense bill. That was supposed to be the easy part.

Senate Republicans’ Monday blockade of the annual defense legislation over lack of amendment votes presaged a bitingly difficult December for Democrats’ slim Senate majority. Top of mind is clinching President Joe Biden’s $1.7 trillion spending package, which can pass with only Democratic votes and is expected to move after the routine defense bill. Simultaneously, the House and Senate need to fund the government past Friday and raise the debt ceiling in the coming weeks.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he wants to advance the party-line social and climate spending legislation before Christmas, but he needs total unity among his 50 Democrats to move forward. Holdout Sen. Joe Manchin was noncommittal on Monday evening about bringing the bill to the floor; he’ll have to vote to proceed to the legislation before he and other senators can move to amend it.

The West Virginia Democrat said he spent Monday afternoon reviewing the package and again raised concerns about how spending more money might affect inflation. He said that and the new coronavirus variant are among the concerns that should give Congress “cause to pause.”

“I heard an awful lot over the Thanksgiving break that prices were high and people were very much upset about that and concerned about: Is inflation going to get worse?” Manchin said.

A few minutes later, after leaving a late afternoon leadership meeting with Schumer and his lieutenants, Manchin surmised: “It’s going to be a long month.”

December is indeed looking climactic for Biden and the Democratic controlled Congress. The huge spending bill with big expansions of childcare, education and climate action appears close to an inflection point in the evenly divided Senate, while leaders discuss how to take a default off the table. Meanwhile, Schumer’s prior decision to delay consideration of the annual defense legislation until November is testing bipartisan cooperation even as Democrats plunge ahead on their party-line spending proposal.

“It’s overwhelming. It’s uncertain. But my sense is there’s no forcing mechanism like the end of the year. I’d rather have these deadlines approaching for Dec. 31 than May 31,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).

Murphy, like many senators in both parties, said that the defense bill would ultimately pass given its history of succeeding annually for 60 years — it’s one of the few things Congress actually does reliably. Yet Democrats said that the hiccup on Monday is part of the GOP’s coordinated strategy of mucking matters up as Biden’s approval sinks.

Summing up the GOP strategy, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said: “You can never say there’s a bottom and they won’t go lower.”

“It’s about a general effort to obstruct anything that’s going on, with the hope that will reflect poorly on Joe Biden,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).

Still, despite the delay on the defense bill, Democrats aren’t quite ready to bring the social and climate bill to the floor as they and Republicans debate with the Senate parliamentarian on whether the House-passed bill can survive the Senate’s rules. On the most immediate chopping block are a new immigration provision, which must directly affect the budget in order to stay in, and federal paid leave, which Manchin opposes including in the reconciliation bill.

At the same time, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell senses leverage. He rallied his members to block a vote on the defense policy legislation, accusing Schumer of “poor planning” and adhering to “political timetables.” Schumer blamed the hold-up on “Republican dysfunction” after the Senate GOP rejected a proposed deal on amendment votes two weeks ago.

“It’s incompetence of managing the bill,” shot back Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “We can get it done this week. They don’t have their act together on reconciliation yet, so it’s not to delay that.”

Even as they levied a war of words Monday, Schumer and McConnell are quietly coordinating on raising the debt ceiling. Schumer has long resisted McConnell’s demand that Democrats raise the debt ceiling unilaterally through the arcane budget reconciliation process, which would prompt at least one additional marathon voting session on amendments, known as a vote-a-rama.

But Manchin, the key swing vote, said Democrats will probably need to pursue that avenue — provided Republicans don’t make the process as painful as possible.

“It’s our responsibility to make sure that we take care of the debt ceiling. And Democrats are now in control, so we want to make sure we do it and do it right,” Manchin said.

Schumer and McConnell met earlier in November, and Manchin said the two leaders were still negotiating. Yet at the moment, McConnell and Schumer are revealing little about their negotiations on the debt limit, leaving their respective caucus members guessing about how Congress could avoid the looming potential of a debt default.

When asked about the path forward following a weekly leadership meeting, Senate Minority Whip John Thune replied: “That’s been held close to the vest by the leader.”

Lest anyone think McConnell might again provide GOP votes to advance a debt limit increase as he did in October, Thune was more firm: “All I can tell you is the Democrats are going to have to deliver the votes.”

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