Senate Democrats are running out of days before the midterm election to pass their legislative priorities and confirm President Biden’s judicial nominees, putting pressure on Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to make tough calls about the schedule in the weeks ahead.
The resurgence of COVID-19 infections in the Senate Democratic Conference is making the situation more precarious, as Schumer’s plan to pass prescription drug reform before the August recess could be derailed if any of his Democratic colleagues test positive next week.
At least four senators have come down with COVID-19 in recent days and at least two are expected to miss votes this week: Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.) announced positive tests late last week, but Smith was back at work Monday.
A fourth Democrat, Sen. Pat Leahy (Vt.), is out after undergoing a second hip surgery, though his office says he will be available to vote if needed.
The Senate suffered another setback Monday when extreme weather in the Washington area forced Schumer to postpone a vote on a long-delayed bill to provide $52 billion in funding to the domestic semiconductor manufacturing industry.
“Unfortunately, a number of storms on the East Coast disrupted plans of a significant number of senators,” Schumer said. “I remain hopeful that we can remain on track to finish this legislation ASAP.”
Schumer said the Senate would move next to the Honoring Our PACT Act, which will provide hundreds of billions of dollars to help military veterans who were exposed to toxic substances during their service.
The new wave of coronavirus infections may postpone action on the budget reconciliation bill, which Democrats hope to take up next week to lower prescription drug costs and extend Affordable Care Act health insurance subsidies.
“If they keep having people out with COVID, it’s going to be hard to do. Obviously they can’t do reconciliation,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).
Thune urged Schumer to shelve the reconciliation bill and schedule votes instead on bipartisan bills that could pass even with a few Democratic absences.
“There’s a bunch of stuff that’s teed up that’s bipartisan,” he said, citing the defense authorization bill. “They’re prioritizing what gets considered on the schedule and what doesn’t, and we’ll find out a lot about their priorities in the next couple of weeks.”
Schumer can’t afford a single absence in the 50-50 Senate as every Republican is expected to vote against the reconciliation package.
The Democratic leader made a pitch to moderate Republicans such as Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Murkowski to consider voting for the prescription drug reform, even though he’s moving it with special budget rules to circumvent a GOP filibuster.
“I say it to our colleagues across the aisle, our Republican colleagues: If you want to help Americans better afford their health care and medications, then you should support passing this bill,” he pleaded.
But Republicans aren’t at all inclined to help Democrats get their agenda through, with a few exceptions such as the CHIPS bill and the defense authorization measure.
“They’re running out of runway, which is fine with me,” said Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), an adviser to the Republican leadership team.
The packed schedule and the dwindling number of days left to pass legislation means a bill to protect same-sex marriage, which passed the House overwhelmingly, likely won’t reach the Senate floor before Labor Day.
Schumer on Monday acknowledged “another busy week of an exceedingly busy work period” and warned “none of this is easy.”
“There’s a lot we must continue working on to lower costs for the American people, to strengthen health care and prescription drug costs, make sure they’re lower, confirm highly qualified nominees, protect our fundamental rights and fortify U.S. national security interests,” he said on the floor.
A bill sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) to crack down on Big Tech monopolies may get squeezed out, and a resolution ratifying Sweden’s and Finland’s accession to NATO is hanging in limbo.
Meanwhile, vulnerable Sens. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) are pushing for a vote on a bill to temporarily suspend the gas tax, and Schumer needs to figure out what to do about a bipartisan bill to cap insulin costs, which he said he wanted to get done before the August recess.
Those bills are getting pushed aside to make space on the calendar to help veterans suffering from toxic exposure. Schumer said that bill has to come back to the floor to fix “a technical error.”
The Senate this week is expected to wrap up work on the CHIPS bill, which will also provide $81 billion for the National Science Foundation and a 25 percent tax credit for investments in semiconductor manufacturing.
Senate Democrats are also facing 77 judicial vacancies, including seven appellate court and 66 district court openings, that they need to fill by year’s end. Democrats worry that if they lose control of the upper chamber in November, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will slow the pace of judicial confirmations to a crawl.
The Senate also needs to take up the annual defense authorization bill, the Water Resources Development Act and a short-term government funding measure to keep federal departments and agencies open after Sept. 30.
The Senate entered into agreement to take up the water bill, known as WRDA, at a time to be determined later.
Also on the list of must-pass legislation is a bill sponsored by Manchin and Collins to update the Electoral Count Act of 1887 to clarify that the vice president does not have sole authority to determine or adjudicate disputes over electors when Congress convenes in a joint session every four years to certify the results of the presidential election.