Image for New Year, Same Old Issues Facing Senate Democrats

It’s a new year, but the Senate is haunted by the same issues it struggled with last year – the Build Back Better Act, voting rights, immigration reform and the filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says he may tee up floor votes on some or all of those issues this month.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi is likely entering her last year in Congress after a career marked by major legislative achievements. House Democrats are already jockeying to determine who will follow Pelosi either as Speaker or House Democratic Leader.

Meanwhile, the new year likely brings the final chapter to Nancy Pelosi’s storied political career, which spans more than 30 years, includes becoming the nation’s first female House Speaker and features passage of major legislation such as the Affordable Care Act, the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the American Rescue Plan and a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. Jostling to replace her has already begun.

In a letter to colleagues, Schumer announced a vote on Senate filibuster rules will be scheduled by January 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The rule change is intended to exempt a Senate floor vote on voting rights legislation.

“Let me be clear: January 6th was a symptom of a broader illness – an effort to delegitimize our election process,” Schumer wrote, “and the Senate must advance systemic democracy reforms to repair our republic or else the events of that day will not be an aberration – they will be the new norm.”

Schumer and congressional Democrats have been sharply criticized by key constituences for failing to act as GOP-controlled state legislatures enacted election changes that critics assert are intended to suppress voting by minorities and gerrymandered congressional districts to benefit Republicans. President Biden also has been chastised, leading him to give a tacit blessing to a Democratic effort to exclude voting rights legislation from a Senate filibuster.

The letter distributed by Schumer indicated the specific changes to the filibuster rule are still “evolving” after months of private negotiations failed to produce a consensus within the Democratic caucus. As he has been on other measures, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin poses a potential roadblock to any filibuster exemption.

Biden’s slipping approval ratings in polls appears to have galvanized Schumer to bring some of the President’s key priorities to floor votes. How exactly that will occur isn’t clear, but one possibility is that the $2 trillion Build Back Better Act could be split up and voted on in pieces. That would allow Senate Democrats to be on the record in support of provisions such as extending the child tax credit, granting paid family leave, reducing prescription drug prices and investing in clean energy.

Depending on how voting of chunks of the Build Back Better Act is designed, some elements may fall out of the budget reconciliation process and, as a result, be susceptible to filibuster threats that require 60 votes to overcome. No Senate Republicans have signaled support for Biden’s human infrastructure measure and two of the 50 Senate Democrats have expressed reservations. Manchin has been the most vocal, saying he won’t vote for the bill as approved by the House.

Relying on a slim Democratic majority, the House under Pelosi’s leadership has approved voting rights legislation and the Build Back Better Act. While she waits for what the Senate will do, Pelosi has turned her attention to the midterm elections and the prevailing wisdom that Republicans will regain control of the House. She has coordinated House Democratic events throughout the country to focus on specific provisions in House-passed legislation. This week, Pelosi sent a survey to Democratic voters seeking advice on how to proceed during 2022 to improve prospects in the midterm election.

As Pelosi tries to maximize what is likely her last year as Speaker and a Member of Congress, the House Democratic Caucus is wrestling with whether it should be led by someone from the progressive wing or someone with more center-left views.  The next-in-line caucus leaders, Steny Hoyer and James Clyburn, who are both in their 80s, pose another question about how to project Democrats to new generations of voters.

Some intriguing, well-spoken potential candidates might include Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of New York, 51, who has chaired the House Democratic Caucus since 2019 and was the House manager for Trump’s second impeachment. A lawmaker who has gained prominence is Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, 56, whose district includes Seattle and some of its suburbs and chairs the House Progressive Caucus.

As Pelosi tries to maximize what is likely her last year as Speaker and a Member of Congress, the House Democratic Caucus is wrestling with whether it should be led by someone from the progressive wing or someone with more center-left views.

Their backgrounds offer interesting choices to position House Democrats moving forward. Jeffries is African American and Jayapal is a naturalized US citizen who was born in India and grew up in Indonesia before coming to the United States when she was 16 to attend college. Jeffries is an attorney and Jayapal worked as a financial analyst and immigrant rights activist after earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in business administration.

The wild card that might influence the midterm elections is the House committee investigating the January 6 Capitol attack. The committee says it has already conducted 300 interviews and collected thousands of documents, emails and phone records in its quest to identify what happened, why it happened and who is accountable. The committee has aggressively pursued depositions from Trump associates and Fox News commentators and may invite former Vice President Mike Pence, who was in the Capitol during the attack, to testify. A report from the committee is expected by mid-year.