Schumer lays out ambitious spring, early summer agenda

Senate to take up civil and voting rights, health and gun safety and economic recovery measures

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer holds his news conference on upcoming Senate business in the U.S. Capitol on Thursday.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer holds his news conference on upcoming Senate business in the U.S. Capitol on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 25, 2021 at 2:01pm

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer on Thursday outlined his plan to bring several priority Democratic bills to the floor in coming months, focused on civil and voting rights, health and gun safety and economic recovery.

The vast majority of the legislation the New York Democrat listed on his spring and early summer agenda have little to no Republican support and thus are unlikely to draw the 60 votes needed on a procedural motion to even bring them up for debate.

But Schumer's plan to hold those procedural votes is largely a test of a widespread Democratic hypothesis that the GOP will block their agenda at every turn, and the only way for Democrats to deliver on their promises to voters will be to alter or get rid of the filibuster rules that mandate a 60-vote threshold for most legislation.

“We will try to work with our Republican colleagues on a bipartisan basis when and where we can. But if they choose to obstruct, rather than work with us to deliver for American families, we must make progress nonetheless,” Schumer wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter to Senate Democrats. “Failure is not an option.”

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Schumer’s “Dear Colleague” was just one of three communication tools he used Thursday to talk about the upcoming legislative agenda. He also outlined his plans during his daily opening floor speech and a news conference.

At the news conference, he dodged a question about whether he supports ending the filibuster with what has become his canned answer, saying “bold action is an imperative” and Democrats will discuss as a caucus how to deliver on that if Republicans block their priorities.

“Everything is on the table,” Schumer said.

President Joe Biden opted during his own news conference Thursday, his first since taking office, to take a stronger position on overhauling Senate filibuster rules than he has previously. He reiterated his support for moving back to a talking filibuster but said he also has “an open mind about dealing with certain things that are just elemental to the functioning of our democracy like the right to vote."

“If there’s complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster, then we’ll have to go beyond what I’m talking about,” Biden said.

The first bill Schumer plans to bring to the floor when the Senate returns to session the week of April 12 is a Biden-endorsed measure from Hawaii Democratic Sen. Mazie K. Hirono designed to combat the increasing number of hate crimes against Asian Americans. The bill, which the House is also expected to vote on after the recess, would assign a point person at the Department of Justice to expedite reviews of COVID-19-related hate crimes and provide support for state and local law enforcement agencies to respond to such crimes.

While no Republicans have co-sponsored Hirono’s bill, it could conceivably draw enough Republican support to pass.

GOP, Manchin opposition

The other bills on Schumer’s agenda, however, have less of a change of winning over Republicans.

The bill that has drawn the most partisan division is a massive overhaul of voting rights, campaign finance and ethics laws dubbed S 1, a nod to it being Democrats' top priority. The House passed its companion version, HR 1, earlier this month on 220-210 vote with all Republicans opposing it.

While 49 of the 50 Senate Democrats support S 1, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III is not on board with the full package. He said he supports many of the voting rights provisions but he has concerns about the ability to implement some of them, especially in rural areas, as well as other aspects of the sweeping legislation.

“Instead of arguing about the election reforms on which we disagree, Congress should be working together to enact those on which we can agree,” Manchin said in a statement Thursday. “Pushing through legislation of this magnitude on a partisan basis may garner short-term benefits, but will inevitably only exacerbate the distrust that millions of Americans harbor against the U.S. government.”

Another bill Schumer plans to bring up that Manchin and Republicans oppose is a House-passed bill to expand background checks on gun purchases.

Manchin and a few Republicans, like Pennsylvania’s Patrick J. Toomey and Maine’s Susan Collins, support the part of the bill that would close commercial background check loopholes in existing law that allow people to purchase firearms online or at gun shows without undergoing a background check. But the House bill would also require background checks on private, person-to-person sales, which Manchin and Republicans say is a step too far toward curbing Second Amendment rights.

Schumer has not indicated whether he’s open to changing S 1 or the background checks bill to win Manchin’s support.

Some Senate Democrats want to do more to address gun safety after two recent mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, Colo. Biden in a speech Tuesday, the day after a gunman armed with an AR-15 and a handgun killed 10 people at a Boulder grocery store, called on the Senate to also ban assault weapons as it takes up the House-passed background checks legislation.

Schumer, while noting he authored legislation to ban assault weapons when he served in the House, did not make any promises. He said he planned to meet with Connecticut Sens. Christopher S. Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, Democrats who’ve championed gun safety measures in recent years, later Thursday to discuss strategy.

“We’re going to plot the best way to go forward to get the most done,” Schumer said.

Another House-passed bill Schumer promised a vote on is the Equality Act, which would ban discrimination against individuals based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Senate version of the bill is sponsored by every Democrat except Manchin.

One bill Schumer mentioned that the House has not yet moved this Congress is the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would reauthorize and expand upon the 1965 Voting Rights Act and rename the law after the longtime Georgia Democratic congressman and civil rights activist, who died last year.

The measure is part of Democrats’ effort to ensure everyone, especially minority voters who have been disenfranchised by disparate state election laws, have equal opportunities and access to vote.

Senate Democrats are also continuing to lead the charge on repealing Trump administration executive actions through the Congressional Review Act, following several votes they forced last Congress using the CRA process. With the time window for using the CRA to repeal Trump-era rules running short, Schumer announced two measures the Senate would consider after the recess.

One would repeal the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rule, which Schumer said “gives employers an unfair advantage over workers when settling discriminatory claims.” The other CRA measure would reverse the Trump administration’s roll-back of regulations on methane emissions from oil and gas, part of Democrats’ commitment to fight climate change.

Economic agenda

Schumer also talked broadly about items on Democrats' economic agenda.

“In the coming months, the Senate will consider legislation to rebuild our infrastructure and fight climate change, boost research and development and domestic manufacturing, reform our broken immigration system and grow the power of American workers,” the majority leader said in his floor speech.

In his “Dear Colleague” letter, Schumer added some other items: “The Senate will consider reforms to improve the United States Postal Service, a critical lifeline for our small businesses and workers, and begin hearings on a bipartisan workforce development and apprenticeship bill.”

Schumer did not provide specific floor timing for any bill other than Hirono’s hate crime measure.

He also declined at his news conference to get into specifics on the planned infrastructure package and whether it would include a tax code overhaul as a means to pay for the trillions of dollars Democrats want to invest.

“We’re discussing all of this with the White House. Our discussions have all just been preliminary,” Schumer said, noting Biden is expected in the coming days to reveal more details on his “Build Back Better proposal focused on economic recovery, jobs, and climate change — a very powerful threesome.”

Schumer did note that three Senate committees — Environment and Public Works, Banking and Commerce — are working on various components of an infrastructure package, like surface transportation and broadband investments, that Democrats hope will draw bipartisan support. He said in the “Dear Colleague” letter that the Senate would consider those “this summer.”

At the news conference, Schumer was asked how to square his goal for bipartisan infrastructure bills with members of his caucus, like Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, who want to use the budget reconciliation process to allow for a simple majority vote — so Democrats can approve more spending and tax increases than Republicans are likely to support.

“When we can get even parts of the bill where Republicans will work with us, good. And maybe they’ll work with us on more and more and more,” Schumer said. “Hopefully, we can get them to work with us. But as I said, if we can’t, we’re going to have to move forward.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters later Thursday on a Zoom call that the major obstacle to bipartisanship on infrastructure is Democrats' desire to include climate-related provisions in the package.

"In some people's minds, the more sustainable it is climate-wise, the less bipartisan it is. And the more bipartisan it is, the less green it is. So we have to strike the balance because we would be wasting our time to build, to create legislation that is of the past century instead of going forward into the future," she said.

Pelosi acknowledged that Democrats would seek to use the budget reconciliation process to push measures Republicans don't agree to in a bipartisan bill, but that comes with its own set of challenges because the reconciliation rules place "certain restrictions on policy" and that would exclude some of Democrats' green initiatives.

On immigration, Schumer said he supports Biden’s comprehensive plan that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in this country. But he declined to specify whether that bill, sponsored in the Senate by New Jersey’s Robert Menendez, would get a vote or whether the Senate would take up smaller pieces like the House-passed bills to provide legal status for farm workers and “Dreamers,” the young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

“We’re going to meet and figure out the best way forward where we can get the most done,” he said.

At his own news conference Thursday, Biden was asked about how far he is willing to go to get the priorities Schumer outlined passed amid GOP opposition. He said it will be up to Republicans whether they want to work together or “divide the country,” but his plan is to solve problems. “We’re going to move on these one at a time, try to do as many simultaneous as we can,” Biden said.