Democrats' Agenda Stalls With Big Setbacks At Year's End

President Joe Biden conceded more work needed to be done to pass his social spending and climate package after talks with Sen. Joe Manchin stalled.

Democrats are approaching the end of the year with little to show for their efforts at passing new laws protecting voting rights, reforming the immigration system, expanding the social safety net, fighting climate change and more.

With a tenuous 50-seat majority in the Senate and several moderate lawmakers who continue to object to their plans, the party is finding it hard to make progress on much of their ambitious legislative agenda.

“We’re frustrated and disappointed,” said Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, told reporters on Thursday.

Democrats had hoped to pass the Build Back Better Act, their $1.75 trillion social spending and climate package, by Christmas Day. But negotiations between Manchin and President Joe Biden are said to be going poorly, with sharp disagreements over the child tax credit and other provisions.

Manchin got an earful from his colleagues on the Senate floor on Thursday, including from Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), a leading advocate of the monthly child tax credit payments, which will lapse next month without congressional action. But the discussions didn’t appear to yield any progress.

Biden issued a statement on Thursday that conceded what congressional Democratic leaders did not: More work needed to be done to pass the bill.

“My team and I are having ongoing discussions with Senator Manchin; that work will continue next week,” Biden said. “Leader Schumer and I are determined to see the bill successfully on the floor as early as possible.”

Top Senate Democrats have pledged to “pursue every means to achieve a path to citizenship in the Build Back Better Act,” but it’s difficult to see what that path is.
Top Senate Democrats have pledged to “pursue every means to achieve a path to citizenship in the Build Back Better Act,” but it’s difficult to see what that path is.
Ting Shen/Xinhua via Getty Images

Biden didn’t explicitly pull the plug on trying to pass the bill this year, but given that Manchin is still not on board and the bill text is not finalized, it would be exceedingly difficult to get the job done before January.

Progressives, meanwhile, are fuming about the Senate’s inaction on the bill. Many House progressive lawmakers supported the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure law last month with the understanding that their Senate counterparts would follow through and approve the Build Back Better Act.

“The House did our work, and now it’s time for the Senate to do theirs. They must stay in session until Build Back Better is passed,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in a statement on Thursday.

The party got more bad news on Thursday after the Senate parliamentarian, who acts as the chamber’s referee, blocked a third attempt to include immigration reform measures in the Build Back Better legislation.

Top Senate Democrats responded by issuing a statement pledging to “pursue every means to achieve a path to citizenship in the Build Back Better Act,” but it’s difficult to see what that path is when there isn’t enough Democratic support to overrule the parliamentarian on the issue. (Such a step would require votes from all 50 Senate Democrats and support from Vice President Kamala Harris).

A late push by Democrats to pass new laws to protect voting rights, which are under assault across the country, also flamed out this week. Despite several meetings between key senators and administration officials in hopes of creating momentum, nothing really changed on the issue. Republicans still oppose new federal voting laws, and Democrats like Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) continue to oppose unilaterally changing the rules of the Senate to do so.

Still, Democratic senators say they are determined to make progress on their agenda and pass Build Back Better into law even if it takes longer than expected.

“There’s not a real difference between getting something done on Dec. 21 versus Feb. 7 or whatever it may be,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).

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