WASHINGTON – With elections in view and Democrats' headline domestic bill in a rut, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Chuck Schumer have very different takes on how things are going in their chamber.
“I know we're spending the week dealing with assistant secretaries of something or other, and that's terribly important," Sanders, the progressive firebrand and Vermont independent, said dryly on Wednesday. The Senate confirmed 15 nominees last week for the Federal Maritime Commission, judgeships and other posts.
“It has been a busy, productive and truly bipartisan week here,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the next morning. The New York Democrat cited a sexual harassment bill lawmakers approved minutes later and progress on addressing violence against women, the budget and industrial competitiveness.
The conflicting appraisals of how the party is using its time come as Democrats have run headlong into the limits of running a 50-50 Senate with no votes to spare. It underlines a debate over how to balance passion with pragmatism as Democrats court voters before the November elections, when Republicans have a real chance of capturing House and Senate control.
For some Democrats, it's time to draw contrasts with Republicans by forcing votes on priorities like helping families afford health care and combating global warming. Others see wisdom in declaring what victories they can and avoiding anything that might complicate efforts to strike deals with their own party's mavericks over broader priorities.
Democrats have just 49 votes for at least the next few weeks while Sen. Ben Ray Luján recuperates from a stroke. Yet even with the New Mexico Democrat, goals such as voting rights, immigration and other issues have faced solid Republican resistance and fallen short of the 60 Senate votes needed to approve most legislation.
For many Democrats, the big prize would be resuscitating a smaller version of President Joe Biden’s lead domestic priority: a 10-year, roughly $2 trillion package of health care, family services and environment initiatives. Moderate Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., effectively killed the measure in December when he said it was too costly, but has said he's open to a more modest alternative.
Democrats have differing assessments of how they've used Senate control so far.
“It’s no great secret that for five months, with the exception of the infrastructure bill, we have not been addressing the needs of the American people,” Sanders told reporters last week. Biden signed the bipartisan, $1 trillion package of road, water and other projects in November.
Sanders and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said they want the Senate to vote on curbing pharmaceutical prices, one of the sidelined bill's popular elements. Sanders said he would like votes on several of that measure's components, and let Republican opponents explain their votes to constituents.
Americans are “outraged” that with rising inflation, the pandemic, climate change and other problems, “their elected officials are simply not responding,” Sanders said on the Senate floor.
Democrats “spent Biden's period of maximum political capital basically just waiting around” for an agreement that never came on the social and environment bill, lamented Adam Jentleson, a progressive strategist and former top Senate aide. Presidents often have the most momentum in the first year or two after taking office.
Underscoring progressives' impatience, the environmental group Evergreen Action launched a 30-second digital ad last week saying Biden, Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., “must deliver" now on Democrats' promises to control global warming. The spot is running in two markets: Washington, D.C., and Brooklyn, New York, Schumer's home.
Moderate Democrats want accomplishments to promote, too.
“It’s frankly not important to me what we call it,” Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger, facing a competitive reelection in central Virginia, said of the measure her party calls “Build Back Better.” "It’s important to get something done.”
Manchin is a defender of his state's coal industry yet has expressed openness to including tax credits and other steps to tackle climate change in a revived package that might include prescription drug price restrictions and other items.
Yet he's said he wants lawmakers to move first on this year's budget and revamping how Congress counts electoral votes in presidential elections. He's also scoffed at the belief that “spending trillions more of taxpayers’ money will cure our problems, let alone inflation," signaling negotiations won't be easy.
Any deal with Manchin, if achievable, is expected to take at least until spring. Many Democrats feel there would be nothing gained from quick votes now or other public pressure that could roil him or another party maverick, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.
Minutes after Manchin's December rejection of the bill, which had passed the House, White House press secretary Jen Psaki accused him of “a breach of his commitments" to Biden about supporting the effort. Schumer promised a vote on the measure “very early” in 2022 so constituents would know every senator's position.
That's not happened, and Schumer has shown no signs of allowing showdown votes now on the bill's components, either. “We’re continuing to have discussions and we will be moving forward” on the legislation, he said this month.
Schumer said that while differences with Republicans “are real," Democrats cannot “ignore the genuine chances for progress" when bipartisanship is possible.
Instead of continuing to openly criticize Manchin, the White House has emphasized how the legislation would help voters. Signs promoting it at recent Biden events said, “Lowering costs for families," a tacit nod to soaring inflation, which has helped tank his popularity in polling.
For now, Democrats hope for a compromise bill. It could pass with just 50 votes, under special procedural protections that would let them prevail with Vice President Kamala Harris' tiebreaking vote.
“I can’t help but think that we’re not so helpless and incompetent as to be unable to take advantage of” that opportunity, said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.
AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro and Associated Press writers Chris Megerian and Matthew Daly contributed to this report.