Democrats are warning they won’t tolerate GOP stonewalling as they try to make good on their pledge to enact a “bold” agenda and avoid Obama-era missteps.
Fresh off a big win on coronavirus relief, Democrats are facing intense pressure not to water down their legislative priorities after years of a backed-up wish list during the Trump-era and a decade since the party has had a unified government it could use to muscle through sweeping reforms considered anathema to the GOP.
“We will try to get them to work with us. But if not, we will put our heads together and figure out how to go,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) was more blunt, calling GOP leadership “divorced from reality” for opposing policies that are popular — even among Republicans — outside the Beltway.
“Our standard for bipartisanship can no longer be what happens here in the Capitol, because we know that the strategy of my colleagues, legislatively, is not to try and find common ground — it’s obstruction and mischaracterization,” he said. “They ran this playbook during the Obama administration … They are running the same playbook again.
“We will not let them get away with it,” he added.
The plow-ahead strategy is significant with a host of big agenda items looming in the coming months, including sweeping proposals addressing infrastructure needs, climate change and fixes to the Affordable Care Act.
Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, said Democrats would prefer bipartisan proposals, particularly on issues like infrastructure that are widely popular in both parties. But Democrats have no intention of letting up, he added, when it comes to pursuing legislation that polls well among voters of all stripes. With that strategy, Democrats are all but daring Senate Republicans to oppose policies popular on both sides of the aisle.
“We’re going to keep putting stuff over there, because Schumer’s going to keep putting it on the floor and make them cast bad votes,” Yarmuth said.
The political reality is two-fold: Democrats, particularly in the House, are disgusted with GOP colleagues who voted to overturn the 2020 election results and feel little incentive to offer an olive branch. And in a significant shift from the Obama years, there’s a growing belief within the party that going small or letting priorities stall out in hopes of making them bipartisan is the wrong tact.
“I think it’s significant. Holding out and not getting it. Or you know holding out and having [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell or [then-House Majority Leader Eric] Cantor, at the time, say ‘Hey look guys, we’re not going along with any of this,’” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), about the lessons learned from the Obama administration.
“I think the balance we’re trying to strike is: We’re not going to wait around to do what the public needs, but we want your good ideas,” he added.
Unlike in the Obama era, the growing desire to not let Republicans stonewall Democrats’ priorities is being coupled with the fallout from the Jan. 6 Capitol attack that has deepened partisan rancor, particularly in the majoritarian-run House where 139 Republicans voted to challenge election results.
“We’re still getting some of these confused messages from our colleagues about the insurrectionary violence that took place,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.). “I think some of our colleagues are experiencing serious cognitive dissonance because their rhetoric is to support the police, but when our police were violently and viciously attacked for hours by facist insurrectionist[s], they turned the other cheek.”
Raskin added that he is willing to work with Republicans on “positive legislation,” but added a warning: “I’m not going to entrust anything valuable to my country to those people.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) summed up the first quarter of 2021 as “a volatile, sad, dangerous period in the Congress’ history.”
Those tensions have been on display as conservatives have led an effort to gum up the House floor, an effort that doesn’t successfully prevent Democratic priorities from passing but does cause big headaches for leadership.
On the Senate side, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) sparked broad backlash for telling a radio host that he wasn’t afraid during the Jan. 6 attack by a pro-Trump mob, but if “those were tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and antifa protesters, I might have been a little concerned.”
Hoyer called it a “racist statement” and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) called Johnson a “racist.” In an acknowledged break with chamber’s typical clubby decorum, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) used a speech on the Senate floor to call Johnson a racist and accuse him of spreading “bigoted tropes.”
The verbal fireworks come even as Democrats, particularly in the Senate, stress that there’s still interest in working with Republicans, who they are in constant touch with on a myriad of lower-profile issues.
“I will always do everything I possibly can to try to find common ground,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). “The question becomes what do you do if the other side just says ‘No way.’ And what Mitch McConnell did in 2009, he said ‘My number one goal is to stop Barack Obama from getting reelected.’”
Democrats want infrastructure to be bipartisan, and the Biden administration has been in touch with GOP senators as recently as Thursday.
But there are deep divisions over the scope of the bill and key aspects like how to pay for it, leading Democrats to acknowledge that they’ll likely need to lean on their own members and pass it through reconciliation.
“What I have seen this year and in past years is that if we want to do something significant, it is very hard to get Republican support,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “If Republicans are prepared to support a significant and important piece of legislation that deals with climate change, deals with infrastructure, that’s great. My own feeling is at this point I doubt that that will be the case.”
Meanwhile, the House is sending over a slate of bills that represent big agenda items, but that were passed along party lines, putting growing pressure on Democrats to nix the filibuster or risk letting GOP opposition stall their priorities.
Among that slate of legislation are bills to expand background checks prior to gun sales and extend citizenship to Dreamers — two ideas with overwhelming popular support across the country, but not among Republicans on Capitol Hill. Democrats are increasingly using that popular support — not the stance of GOP lawmakers — as a gauge for what they’ll bring to the floor.
“I’m just pleased that what we’re doing here very much has bipartisan support outside the Congress,” said Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). “And I think that matters more than what’s happening here.”
Democrats don’t have the votes, currently, to nix the filibuster, which requires 60 votes for most legislation, and Republicans haven’t actually filibustered a bill yet this year. But supporters argue that watching Republicans block bills that have 50 Democratic votes and broad bipartisan support could move senators who are on the fence about changing the rules.
Wyden, who supports the talking filibuster, described the Senate as “kind of at an inflection point,” questioning the tenability of blocking bills that garner support from a swath of their own voters.
“If, as we saw on the Recovery Act, we continue to say a) we would like to work together, b) show that we’re serious about it things like doing it for a sufficient amount of time and then c) and then go forward with an agenda …. where the individual items get strong support from Republicans, I don’t know how they’re going to be able to find that a winning strategy,” Wyden said.
“I can’t recall a time when I’ve seen strong support from Republican voters at the kind of grassroots level in terms of the individual items,” he added, “and then Republicans saying ‘We’re not going to support it.’”
After the Jan. 6 attack and the exit of the mercurial Trump administration, some lawmakers said they were hoping for a return to a more gracious era of bipartisan cooperation. Since that hasn’t happened, some Democrats suggested they have no choice but to plow ahead with the agenda voters selected them to pursue.
“I was hoping that after the inauguration, after things settled down, that we would get a spirit of bipartisanship. But it doesn’t seem to be coming,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.). “The question is: Do we continue to wait, or do we legislate?
“I think the decision is to go forward with legislation.”