Senate Democrats ready to field House-passed bills but expect obstacles

GOP expected to block most bills, which some Democrats hope will lead to a filibuster change

Staffers place a sign on a podium Wednesday in preparation of a House Democratic news conference on their HR 1 overhaul. Senate Democrats plan to bring this bill and other key House measures to the floor this session, but Republicans can block them. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Staffers place a sign on a podium Wednesday in preparation of a House Democratic news conference on their HR 1 overhaul. Senate Democrats plan to bring this bill and other key House measures to the floor this session, but Republicans can block them. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 4, 2021 at 5:30am

House Democrats are planning by the end of the month to again pass at least 10 bills that languished in the Republican-controlled Senate last Congress, but the measures still face long odds to become law this session despite unified Democratic control.

Democrats run the floor in the evenly divided Senate, where Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer plans to bring the House-passed bills up for procedural votes. But with the filibuster still in place, Republicans can, and likely will, block the bills from being debated, let alone sent to President Joe Biden’s desk.

The bills the House is considering over a four-week stretch that started last week include a massive overhaul of campaign finance, voting and ethics laws dubbed HR 1; policing accountability, gun control and anti-discrimination bills; and measures to expand workers’ bargaining rights and provide legal status for some undocumented immigrants.

“We’re taking bills that we passed in the last Congress, that we vetted very thoroughly, that we had overwhelming support for … not only among our party, but among the American people, and we are moving those to the Senate,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told reporters Tuesday. 

“When we moved them to the Senate last Congress, they got no attention,” the Maryland Democrat added. “They were not brought to the floor. They were deep-sixed. They were put in the trash bin, which was, we think, sad for pieces of legislation that enjoy, in some cases, 90 percent [support] of the American people.”

Schumer told reporters Tuesday that unlike Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who controlled the Senate last Congress, he would bring the House-passed bills to the floor.

“We are not going to be the legislative graveyard, very simply,” the New York Democrat said. “People are going to be forced to vote on them. ‘Yes’ or ‘no’ on a whole lot of very important and serious issues.”

‘Getting things done is tough’

Senate Democrats need a minimum of 10 Republicans to join them in passing legislation because the chamber’s filibuster rules require 60 votes to end debate on most bills. 

“You don’t have to be much of a mathematician to know, if you’ve got 50 on one side and 50 on the other side, getting things done is tough,” Hoyer said.

None of the 10 bills on the House’s priority list have much, if any, Republican support in the Senate. 

The one likely to draw the most bipartisan backing is a bill to provide special legal status for undocumented farmworkers. When the House passed the bill last year, 34 Republicans voted for it. There was no companion measure in the Senate last Congress and the bill has yet to be introduced for this session, so it’s hard to gauge how many Senate Republicans support it.

Of the other nine House bills, eight had Senate companions last Congress but only three had any GOP co-sponsors. 

In the Senate, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham has long partnered with Illinois Democrat Richard J. Durbin on a bill to provide a path to citizenship for “Dreamers,” the young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. The House is going to again vote on its version of that bill the week of March 15.

GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska both co-sponsored legislation last Congress to eliminate the expired deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, which prohibits gender discrimination. Murkowski is an original co-sponsor again this Congress, but Collins has not signed on as yet. 

Collins, who has been outspoken about her view that Biden and most Democrats have yet to put much effort into working with Republicans, also has not co-sponsored the latest version of the Equality Act, despite supporting it last Congress. The House last week voted 224-206 to pass that bill, which would prevent discrimination against individuals based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Only three Republicans supported it.

‘Complete unifiers’

Several Senate Democrats told CQ Roll Call this week that the conference has not yet strategized how and when to bring the House bills to the floor, but they support Schumer’s commitment to holding votes that would force Republicans to take a position.

“I hope, on a couple of bills, that even if we know that we can’t get enough votes, we put it on the floor, debate it and vote on it,” Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey said. 

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine said many of the bills the House is sending over are “complete unifiers” for Democrats. He hopes some will be scheduled for floor time after the Senate passes a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill this week and before Democrats take up another big economic package, both of which are being done through the budget reconciliation process that allows for a simple-majority vote.

As for the regular order bills, Kaine said Democrats would try to get the bipartisan support needed to actually pass them, but they won’t dawdle if Republicans don’t want to work with them.

“There will always be an effort to get Republicans on board, but the issue is what will the patience be,” he said.

Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who is close with Biden, envisions a different strategy, one that will show the Senate can legislate on some issues.

“I think there is room for progress on bipartisan bills in the coming weeks. They will not be these topics initially,” he said, referring to the House bills. “But without revealing any confidence, I just had a conversation with someone I never expected to be legislating with about his interest in doing a bill on an issue that was very surprising and encouraging.”

Filibuster frustration

If Republicans don’t cooperate, there are a ton of Democrats in and outside Congress who hope senators will grow frustrated enough to upend the filibuster rules to get legislation passed. 

Eliminating the filibuster would require all 50 Democrats and Vice President Kamala Harris to vote to change long-standing Senate rules, deploying the so-called nuclear option. Both parties have eroded the filibuster rules on nominations in recent years, but there’s been bipartisan interest in protecting the legislative filibuster — the last main difference between the Senate and the House, where a simple majority rules. 

“I think every one of our colleagues has to make a decision on what they believe is in the best interest of their constituents,” said New Mexico’s Ben Ray Luján, who was just elected to the Senate after several years in House Democratic leadership. “For me, my constituents supported me knowing that I support filibuster reform. And so I’m going to come here and hope that that’s a tool that we can use.”

While many senators, led by progressives such as Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, support nixing the filibuster, more moderate senators have been hesitant and in a few cases flat-out opposed. 

West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III, a key Democratic swing vote, has pledged that there are no circumstances under which he’d support getting rid of the filibuster. However, reporters have still pressed him on the issue, to his frustration.  

“Never! Jesus Christ, what don’t you understand about never?” Manchin said Monday.

Schumer, understanding the divide in his conference, declined Tuesday to say if he’d support eliminating the filibuster if Republicans block key Democratic priorities. 

“We’re going to come together as a caucus and figure out a way to get the bold action the American people demand,” he said. “But we will put bills on the floor. That’s the huge difference between [Republicans] and us.” 

Some Democrats think there’s a middle ground to be had.

“I don’t support eliminating the filibuster, but I do think there are ways that we can make it work better, and we should continue to take a look at that,” New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen told CQ Roll Call.

“One [idea] is that you have to actually be on the floor, controlling the floor and talking, if you’re objecting to going forward,” she said. “The other is to reverse how the votes are required. Right now it takes 60 votes to move forward. Well, maybe it should take 40 votes to stop. And that puts the onus on the people who don’t want to do something."

If Democrats can’t get most of their priorities signed into law, they’ll have to figure out how to explain that to voters who gave them the trifecta of Washington power with Biden in the White House and Democrats in control of the House and Senate. 

Hoyer, for one, thinks the message to voters is pretty simple: “Elect more people who vote for the things they want.”