Sen. Angus King is still undecided on whether to support D.C. statehood, an important goal for many of the Democrats he aligns with. And the independent Mainer is in no rush.
“I’m still kind of pondering it,” King said on Wednesday. “There are just other issues I’m engaged in at this point.”
King is one of five Democratic caucus members who have yet to support the statehood bill, souring what should be a milestone week for the movement to empower the capital city. The House will approve statehood for the second time on Thursday, and now Democrats have a supportive president in Joe Biden.
But the statehood proposal, like other central elements of the Democratic agenda, may not make it to the Senate floor this year given its lack of unified support from Biden’s party. With infrastructure and voting rights bills proving difficult enough to get to the president’s desk, Democrats are putting long-held progressive priorities like a 51st state, Supreme Court expansion and a $15 minimum wage on the proverbial back burner while they focus on what’s actually achievable.
After a Trump era that emboldened its left flank to push ambitious plans, the party’s legislative agenda is gliding down from loftiness to pragmatism.
“Passing infrastructure is more important than anything that we’re not sure that we can actually get the votes to pass,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who supports both D.C. and Puerto Rico statehood. “Right now we need to focus our limited floor time on the most important stuff for the Biden administration to be successful and our country to be successful … if we can do the other stuff, great.”
That’s not to mention the Green New Deal that liberals reintroduced on Tuesday, which will join Supreme Court changes on the list of progressive goals that likely won’t even get to the House floor. Another passel of liberal bills already won House passage before stalling in the Senate, such as ethics reform, new background checks for gun buyers, LGBTQ safeguards and protections for so-called Dreamers.
The underlying problem for progressives: Most of their big-ticket proposals are several votes — or in some cases many more — away from unifying the Senate’s 50 Democratic caucus members, and others divide the House’s slim Democratic majority.
Those lines are especially clear on D.C. statehood, which this year boasts a historic amount of Democratic support in the Senate yet still can’t pass, due to hesitance among some Democrats and the existence of the filibuster. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who supports D.C. statehood, conceded that “it’s not the highest priority for me. It’s important. I support it. But voting rights, the infrastructure stuff, is a much higher priority.”
Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) pushed back, arguing that the issue of statehood is hardly “extraneous” to the party’s goals.
“We’re talking about the votes and the democracy of 725,000 people,” Jayapal said, referring to the lack of urgency of some of her Senate colleagues to vote on D.C. statehood. “It is core and central to who we are as a democracy and to who we are as Democrats.”
The Senate has changed hands from what Democrats liked to call Mitch McConnell’s “legislative graveyard,” but the upper chamber is still the place where many of the boldest ideas in Biden’s party will be buried. While the filibuster remains an impediment to progressive achievements, the reality is that Democrats are finding it plenty hard to get all 50 of their senators on the same page to begin with.
D.C. statehood — which is expected to be approved on party lines on Thursday — is one glaring example, with some Democratic senators suggesting it’s not worth the floor time when their chamber is already tied up with cross-aisle negotiations on bills that stand a chance of becoming law.
House progressives, though, warn their counterparts across the Capitol can’t stiff-arm proposals that are popular with their base without Democratic voters punishing them for sidestepping a long list of campaign promises that helped deliver the party control of Washington.
“If it’s a worthwhile thing to do, of course there’s time,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) of the D.C. statehood bill.
Dean is among the House Democrats set to appear at a press conference demanding an end to the filibuster on Thursday. Beyond D.C. statehood, the Pennsylvania Democrat easily ticked off House-passed bills that have piled up in the Senate this year: “The Equality Act. A couple of gun bills. Violence Against Women Authorization. So many transformative bills.”
One obvious difference since the 2020 election, of course, is that Democratic leaders can now force Republicans to go on the record against their high-priority bills. But in the case of statehood, that would also smoke out the five members of the Senate Democratic Caucus who are so far withholding support: King, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Mark Kelly of Arizona, and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. Shaheen supported statehood in the previous Congress and said Wednesday she still supports the concept but hasn’t reviewed the House’s latest bill.
In fact, it’s not clear that any Democratic senator is outright opposed to D.C. statehood, even as the quintet keeps their names off the bill. Kelly said he supported the goal of giving representation to Washingtonians but was noncommittal in an interview.
“I haven’t really got into any of that. We’ve got so much other stuff,” Manchin said of the D.C. statehood proposal.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he will “try to work a path to get it done” but did not guarantee a floor vote. He’s publicly committed to considering voting rights legislation and gun background checks, but in the coming weeks the Senate is focused on considering narrow hate crimes legislation, a water infrastructure bill and a bill aimed at helping the U.S. compete against China.
That lineup isn’t exactly representative of the issues that have energized that party’s activist base for the last five years.
“Frustrated is an understatement,” said Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) of the Senate’s agenda.
Democratic leaders have anticipated this backlog of left-wing bills. Within hours of the party winning a pair of Senate seats in Georgia and landing in full control of Washington, they were facing cries from liberals to blow up the filibuster and deliver on a sprawling agenda.
But those demands aren’t compatible with a House and Senate so narrowly divided that even absences are a major headache. Even once-bipartisan issues like immigration, labor union protections and gun safety are miles away from a 60-vote super-majority in the Senate.
Importantly, Democrats have capitalized on their party’s energy to enact other progressive measures. They passed a massive $1.9 trillion coronavirus bill with beefed-up unemployment benefits and child tax credits and have committed to passing another similarly large infrastructure bill.
“We’ve passed a huge and necessary relief package. We’re working on a big infrastructure bill and we’re committed to take up [the voting rights and ethics bill] S1 soon. So we’re working through all the pieces,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Some House Democrats are searching for workarounds that could keep their loftiest hopes alive, even on voting rights. Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus made the case to Biden on Tuesday for passing immigration reforms with a simple majority in the Senate — rather than risking another big letdown with bipartisan talks. (White House press secretary Jen Psaki swatted down the idea the following day.)
That frustration is unlikely to abate. Nearly 100 days into Biden’s tenure, many House Democrats — who’ve already spent two years since they took back the majority watching the Senate squash their priorities — are getting impatient.
“Look, for four years, we complained that bills went to the Senate and died and went to Mitch McConnell’s graveyard. We can’t have these really good bills die in the Senate under Democratic control,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) said. “Our colleagues in the Senate need to figure out a way.”
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