At a closed-door lunch on Tuesday, Sinema, an Arizona Democrat, informed her caucus that she would try to get a bipartisan deal with Republicans on an infrastructure package and that she had Biden’s blessing to make that attempt, according to three sources in the room.
But after Sinema left the meeting, one Democrat after another teed off on the strategy and expressed deep frustration at what they viewed as a fruitless effort to find consensus with Senate Republicans — worried that any bipartisan deal would unlikely win the support of many in their caucus, reflecting the growing tension between the progressive and moderate wings of the party.
“There is no way Manchin and Sinema are going to cut a deal that represents the view of the caucus,” said one Democratic senator. “It’s just not going to happen.”
Another Democratic senator added, “A group of four or five people don’t get to carry 50 Democratic votes on their back.”
The Democratic frustration centers on this fear: They may squander their best opportunity to pass much of Biden’s agenda with their party controlling both chambers of Congress and their majority at stake in next year’s midterms. And with the prospects of passing legislation only bound to get more bleak as the next elections draw nearer, Democrats say now is the moment to jettison Republicans and try to get an infrastructure bill done along straight party lines.
But they need the support of Manchin and Sinema, who spent Tuesday evening in the basement of the Capitol trying to cut a deal with a handful of GOP senators — within hours of Biden ending talks with Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia after they hit an impasse following weeks of negotiations.
“I’ve been ready to move on from bipartisanship for major priorities for the Biden administration for a while now,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, said that Democrats have a bad history of wasting precious time, stemming from the Obama years.
“We have a lousy record to live down,” Whitehouse said.
Democrats seek total unity on multiple fronts
But the quandary facing Democrats is this: They need the support of all 50 members of their caucus to successfully push through their economic agenda through the filibuster-proof budget process — and they don’t have that support from Manchin and Sinema, among some others, who want to find a deal with Republicans instead.
Top Democrats refused to say Tuesday if they had confidence that Manchin and Sinema could find a bipartisan deal that could win over their caucus.
“There’s not a hell of a lot of time left in this session,” Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats and one of the senators who pushed back at the Democratic lunch, said Tuesday. “I have not seen any indication that Republicans are prepared to support the kind of serious legislation this country needs.”
Indeed, after he left the lunch, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also would not say if he had faith that the Sinema-Manchin effort could produce a bipartisan deal to the satisfaction of his caucus.
Instead, he indicated that he would allow those bipartisan talks to continue, while pursuing a go-it-alone strategy to move an infrastructure bill along straight party lines. That would allow the talks to continue this month — to see if any bipartisan deal can be reached — before moving ahead next month by passing a bill through the budget reconciliation process, a tactic used by Democrats to enact the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief law earlier this year without GOP support.
But there are strict limits about what provisions can be included in such a package — since they must be budget-related in order to meet strict Senate rules — plus it would only pass if all 50 members of the Democratic Caucus agree.
“We’re pursuing, a two-path proposal,” Schumer said when asked about the bipartisan talks. “On the one hand, there’s bipartisan negotiations, and those are continuing. … We all know, as a caucus, we will not be able to do all the things the country needs in a totally bipartisan, a bipartisan way. … And so at the same time, we are pursuing the pursuit of reconciliation.”
Schumer’s No. 2 made clear that the success of the rest of Biden’s agenda rests on successfully navigating the reconciliation process.
“I hope,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin when asked if the agenda comes down to the reconciliation process.
Rest of agenda imperiled
Schumer this month has set the stage for votes on hot-button issues that lack the support of 10 Republicans needed to break a filibuster — namely on elections legislation and House-passed bills stemming from gun violence. Plus, Schumer doesn’t have the support within his caucus to change the filibuster rules and lower the 60-vote requirement for advancing legislation down to 51 votes.
And the skepticism is broader than just Manchin and Sinema.
New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat who could face a tough reelection next November, has not yet embraced calls to gut the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold, though she backs some changes to how the tactic is used. Asked if she would support lowering the 60-vote threshold, Hassan would not answer directly but did say, “It’s important for us to do as much as we can” in a bipartisan way.
“Not yet,” said Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat who also is involved in the bipartisan infrastructure talks, when asked if he backs gutting the filibuster. “I think the filibuster does serve a purpose. On the other side, some people are using it just to, you know, block things. And that’s not good.”
Sen. Mark Kelly, an Arizona Democrat up for reelection next year, indicated he hasn’t decided if he backs lowering the 60-vote requirement or if his position is in line with Sinema’s opposition to changing the rules.
While Kelly said Tuesday he is “generally a believer in change,” the freshman Democrat said: “I’ll evaluate any change to our rules, regardless of what they are, based on what’s in the best interest of Arizona, and the best interest of our country.”
To many Democrats — particularly progressives in the House — allowing the likes of moderates in the Senate dictate their party’s ambitions, continues to enrage them.
Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a leader of the progressive caucus in the House, said it’s time for Biden to step up.
“The reason we got the American Rescue plan done is because the President leaned in. The longer we let things sit around, the more time we give to opposition, the more time we give to people who just want to delay because they don’t want to get anything done,” Jayapal said.
Others were equally as blunt in directing their anger at the Democratic-led Senate.
“I am very frustrated,” Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, a New Jersey Democrat, told CNN on Tuesday. “The Senate is not doing their job.”
CNN’s Ted Barrett and Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.