President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders reluctantly acknowledged Thursday that the Senate would soon recess for the year without passing their sprawling $2.2 trillion social safety net and climate spending bill or voting rights legislation.
But Senate Democrats vowed not to go home until they reached a bipartisan deal to end various GOP-led holds on President Joe Biden’s executive and judicial nominees. In particular, Democrats were eager to confirm a slate of Biden’s ambassador nominees.
In punting action on the party’s legislative priorities to 2022, Democrats are relinquishing the momentum of a calendar-driven deadline. No one could quite predict how long it would take to get the job done in the new year.
“I think it’s important to get these things right. It’s about focusing on the details,” said Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, one of the Democrats up for reelection next year in a battleground state.
Other Senate Democrats acknowledged the possibility of passing either priority this year had evaporated, predicting Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer or Biden would acknowledge that publicly.
Biden did so in a statement Thursday night, saying he briefed Schumer, D-N.Y., and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on his talks with Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., who remains the chief obstacle to getting the votes to pass the reconciliation bill.
Biden said Manchin has concerns about the bill's gross cost exceeding the $1.75 trillion framework that the White House agreed to this fall, and that they'd continue discussions next week.
"It takes time to finalize these agreements, prepare the legislative changes, and finish all the parliamentary and procedural steps needed to enable a Senate vote," Biden said. "We will advance this work together over the days and weeks ahead; Leader Schumer and I are determined to see the bill successfully on the floor as early as possible."
Biden also put in a plug for passing voting rights legislation "as quickly as possible," without offering a specific timeline.
Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said a delay might even help drum up the momentum needed to finally get the reconciliation package done.
"If there is a silver lining here," Sanders said, "it gives us more time to explain to the American people what is in this bill and who is opposed to this bill and why they are opposed to this bill."
The House passed its version of the budget reconciliation package on Nov. 19. Schumer had set a goal of passing it in the Senate by Christmas, hoping the aspirational deadline would provide the momentum needed for his caucus to reach consensus on any final changes.
But there are still party disagreements over some provisions, like relief from a $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions, on top of Manchin's opposition to the general structure and cost of the package.
“I'm truly disappointed. We had more than ample opportunity to reach … a Democratic agreement,” Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said. “We missed that opportunity, but I'm not giving up.”
Durbin and some other Democratic senators thought Schumer should have scheduled a motion to proceed on the reconciliation bill in order to force Manchin to stop waffling.
“You don't have the votes until you put it on the floor,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said.
There are also many procedural steps senators have yet to go through in vetting the package with Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough to ensure it complies with the "Byrd rule" that governs which policies can be passed through reconciliation.
While many Democrats expressed frustration or disappointment at the delay, most said they still expected to pass the reconciliation bill next year.
"We'll get all this done,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said. “Legislating is hard. It always takes longer than you expect.”
Voting rights in limbo
Democrats have an easier path to passing the spending package since the reconciliation process allows for a simple majority vote.
But on their two voting rights bills, which all 50 Democrats support, they would either need 60 votes to overcome a GOP filibuster or to change the Senate rules to allow for simple majority passage.
Various groups of Democrats have been huddling for weeks to discuss potential rules changes, but they have yet to figure out a consensus solution.
Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema have participated in the discussions, but so far they remain opposed to getting rid of the filibuster or Democrats using the “nuclear option” to change the rules without GOP support.
The rules changes being discussed include ideas like reverting to the talking filibuster, where senators have to speak on the floor if they want to delay consideration of a bill, or requiring the minority to put up 41 votes to block cloture instead of putting onus on the majority to get 60 to end debate.
Neither of those solutions would create a clear path for Democrats to pass the voting rights bills without GOP support, however.
Biden spoke Thursday with some of the senators working on voting rights and rules changes, including Manchin, Virginia’s Tim Kaine, Montana’s Jon Tester, Georgia’s Raphael Warnock and Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, who chairs the Rules Committee.
Klobuchar couldn’t predict how long it will take the caucus to reach consensus but said she underscored the urgency during their Thursday lunch.
“We're just calling for restoring the Senate to debate the fundamental issue of our day, which is our own democracy,” she said.
The only thing keeping the Senate in session Thursday seemed to be the hope of confirming more of Biden’s nominees.
Schumer filed cloture on 22 nominees and was seeking agreement with Republicans to get those and maybe others confirmed quickly. Senators did reach an agreement to vote on three State Department nominees Thursday, headlined by the nomination of Nicholas Burns to be ambassador to China.
Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., suggested Democrats might be willing to keep working into January if Republicans don’t cooperate.
“We have over 150 left to go and we're ready to file cloture on every single one of them and get them done — stay here to get them done till the end of the year,” she said.
But that appeared to be little more than a negotiating position.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune said Thursday that he didn't anticipate a final agreement on nominations until Friday, with the bulk of them still tied up over Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, seeking a vote in relation to blocking the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
The regular order is for nominations that aren’t acted upon at the end of the calendar year to be sent back to the White House, which would then have to resubmit them all in the new year. Thune, R-S.D., said a unanimous consent agreement to prevent that would require significant concessions from Democrats, noting it’s something "our members wouldn't want to just give away."
Child tax credit expiration
One immediate consequence of Democrats not passing their reconciliation bill this year is that the enhanced child tax credit that Democrats enacted in their March coronavirus relief law is set to expire at the end of December.
Advocates credit the provision with helping to reduce childhood poverty by giving families monthly checks of up to $300 per child.
“I don't know where that stands, but I can tell you the level of emotion in our caucus on that child tax credit is very high,” Durbin said.
The IRS sent out the last monthly checks, absent congressional action, on Wednesday. Several Democrats said they didn’t expect a standalone extension, although Finance Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., vowed to look at all options for ensuring the payments continue and checks get sent out on Jan. 15.
“We’re going to do the child tax credit, keeping it on track is extraordinarily important,” Wyden said.
Manchin has raised fresh complaints about the child tax credit, propping it up as an example of his frustration that Democrats have structured the package to have several major programs last just a couple years instead of the length of the 10-year budget window.
Senate Budget ranking member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., sought to sway Manchin against the package late last week when he highlighted a score from the Congressional Budget Office showing that if programs in the package were made permanent it would cost $3 trillion, rather than $231 billion if the provisions sunset.
Democrats, including Schumer, have rejected the CBO score as inaccurate, saying that if Democrats were to extend the length of programs in future bills they would find ways to pay for that spending.
Another provision complicated by the delay is the state and local tax deduction. High-tax state Democrats want to provide relief from the current $10,000 cap on the SALT deduction retroactive to cover the 2021 tax year. Senators want to get rid of the House provision that raised the cap to $80,000 and exempt taxpayers up to a certain income level but they’ve not agreed on a threshold, with progressives pushing for it to be lower than senators whose states are most affected prefer.
New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, who is leading the charge for a higher threshold, said “it’s not the most significant issue pending” on the reconciliation package but hopes to get to a resolution on that and the entire package early next year. The IRS filing season typically begins in the latter half of January.
“It’s always still possible, especially if we do it in January, to make it retroactive,” Menendez said. “I think it becomes more difficult the longer we wait.”
Republican leaders, meanwhile, seemed gleeful that Democrats couldn’t bring the reconciliation bill to a vote this year.
“The best Christmas gift Washington could give working families would be putting this bad bill on ice,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday.
Mary Ellen McIntire, Niels Lesniewski, David Lerman and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.