When the Senate broke for recess ahead of Memorial Day weekend—immediately after Senate Republicans filibustered legislation that would have established an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol riot—Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer sent a letter to his Democratic colleagues about the grind that awaited them when they returned on June 7.
“Senate Democrats are doing everything we can to move legislation in a bipartisan way when and where the opportunity exists,” Schumer wrote. “But we will not wait for months and months to pass meaningful legislation that delivers real results for the American people. Looking ahead, the June work period will be extremely challenging. I want to be clear that the next few weeks will be hard and will test our resolve as a Congress and a conference.” Among the challenging items Schumer said they would consider were the Paycheck Fairness Act and LGBTQ equality legislation, potential gun safety legislation, and S. 1, the For the People Act, Democrats’ all-encompassing election and voting rights legislation.
To the naked eye, it might appear that the Senate agenda this year has been to hopscotch from place to place with no real destination, all while seconds tick off the clock of the brittle Democratic governing trifecta. But since Senate Democrats completed their early work of confirming Cabinet nominees, holding an impeachment trial, and passing COVID relief legislation, there’s been a throughline connecting the work. The schedule has been organized as a steady uphill progression to identify the limit of bipartisanship. June is designed to be the month they reach it, forcing a caucus conversation about opening the Senate rulebook.
Democrats started off with the easy stuff, just to show what a bipartisan Senate process looks like. The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, to bolster federal investigations of crimes targeting Asian Americans, passed the Senate nearly unanimously after some haggling on amendments. (When it reached the House, 62 Republicans voted against it.) The Senate then passed, by another near-unanimous vote, a water infrastructure bill.
The bipartisan U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, supposed to be the next easiest thing—it’s about keeping up with China!—earned two weeks of precious floor time and votes on nearly two dozen amendments. It still hasn’t passed, however, because the most open Senate process on major legislation in years still smelled a little fishy to Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who wants the bill killed when the Senate resumes consideration.
Schumer’s emphasis on putting bipartisan legislation on the floor this spring was an effort to show not just Republicans, “but my colleagues as well, that we mean we’re serious that we want to do bipartisanship when we can,” as Schumer told Ezra Klein in a late April interview. There’s “a real desire on some of my members to try everything they can to preserve that bipartisanship. They believe it’s very, very important for the future of the country.”
During the same period, various Democrats were deputized to find out whether they could reach bipartisan agreement with Republicans on other agenda items. Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy has been working with Texas Sen. John Cornyn, among others, about gun legislation. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and House Rep. Karen Bass have been working with South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott on police reform. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin has been trying to figure out if there’s anything bipartisan that can be achieved on immigration.
Some of these negotiations have been serious and aren’t worth ruling out just yet. The only pursuit for bipartisanship that’s been an outright joke, meanwhile, is West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s quest for a deal on voting rights. So far, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski—who’s opposed, like all Republicans, and with no wiggle room, to the For the People Act—is the only Republican who would support legislation to restore a crucial element of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court gutted in 2013. [Update, June 6, 2021, at 9:56 p.m.: Update: Manchin reiterated in an op-ed this weekend that he would not vote for the For the People Act, would not vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster, and would prefer to work with Republicans to pass a restoration of the Voting Rights Act.]
Schumer has organized the schedule so that his caucus will know by the end of the month which elements of the Democratic agenda that could be filibustered—Biden’s spending plans on jobs and families, which can be passed by a majority through reconciliation if needed, are on another track—will be filibustered. They’ll know where deals can be made, and where they cannot. And they’ll have to decide, as a caucus, if they’re willing to live with that or not.
The goal over the next few weeks is to turn the abstract discussion about Senate tradition and constructive bipartisanship into a set of concrete questions: Which of the party’s priorities are too important to abandon, if Mitch McConnell refuses to go along with them? What specific sacrifices—equality, gun safety, voting rights—are Democratic senators prepared to make in the name of preserving the filibuster?
“They want us to work in a bipartisan way,” Schumer told Klein when asked about the two most steadfast Democratic supporters of the filibuster, Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. “Well, what happens when the bipartisan way doesn’t work, if it doesn’t? Then, the choice is starker, and we have to see how that evolves.”