Democrats shift strategies to keep majority

·6 min read

Senate Democrats are opting to play it safe in the final weeks before the midterm election by pledging not to allow a government shutdown over Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) controversial permitting reform bill or any other divisive issue that could give beleaguered Republican candidates a second wind.

They are sidestepping partisan showdowns over a marriage equality bill, a measure to cap the price of insulin, legislation to crack down on powerful tech platforms such as Apple and Amazon and a proposal to ban members of Congress from owning and trading stocks.

This pivot comes after a productive summer when Democrats enacted a handful of high-profile bills into law.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has scheduled votes this week on a broadly bipartisan treaty amendment to cut down on climate warming hydrofluorocarbon emissions and a previously considered measure to require dark money groups to publicly disclose their donors.

The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, an agreement originally signed in 1987 to protect the ozone layer, advanced easily by a vote of 64 to 30 on Tuesday. It is expected to garner the 67 votes needed for ratification on Wednesday.

The Disclose Act, which would require organizations that spend money in federal elections and on judicial nomination to disclose their donors, has already been voted on several times this Congress as part of broader election reform legislation.

Every single member of the Democratic caucus has either sponsored or co-sponsored the bill. It isn’t expected to attract any GOP votes.

Next week, Schumer will focus on a bill to fund the government, which he will keep as clean as possible to avoid a last-minute blowup that could threaten to shutter federal departments and agencies.

“There’s kind of a ‘first do no harm’ mentality, which I think is very smart and strategic,” said a Democratic senator, who requested anonymity to discuss Democratic caucus strategy.

“I don’t know whether I would have made the decision to not put up a vote on the marriage act; I probably would have forced a vote on the marriage act,” the senator added, expressing disappointment that Schumer postponed a vote to protect the right of same-sex couples to marry after it became clear it could not muster at least 10 Republican votes before Election Day.

Schumer has promised to bring the Respect for Marriage Act, which passed the House with an overwhelming bipartisan majority in July, to the Senate floor after the election.

He has also pledged to move a controversial proposal crafted by Manchin to speed the permitting of fossil fuel and other energy projects — something he agreed to do as part of a deal to secure Manchin’s vote for a sweeping tax reform and climate bill in August.

But House and Senate Democrats say they won’t allow it to derail the funding bill, which must pass by Sept. 30 to avoid a government shutdown. Democrats say they’ll vote for Manchin’s permitting reform proposal to keep the federal government operating or take it out if it jeopardizes the Republican support the funding stopgap  needs to pass the upper chamber next week.

“With a White House that’s a Democratic White House and two Democratic houses [of Congress,] we’re going to get a CR done, we’re not going to shut government down,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), pledging that Democrats will support a continuing resolution to fund the government, even if it includes permitting reform language they would prefer to set aside.

“I don’t think we’re going to run the risk of any sort of shutdown, even for a couple of days,” he added.

A second Democratic senator who requested anonymity to discuss behind-the-scenes deliberation said House progressives would likely back down and accept the Manchin permitting reform proposal if it’s added to the short-term funding measure.

Instead, it’s the opposition of Senate Republicans that would force Schumer to pull Manchin’s legislation out of the funding resolution.

“We’ve got political winds greatly shifted in our favor and if we have a big fight among Democrats at this moment, it undoes the sense of unity and mobilization” heading into an election, said the Senate Democrat, explaining a desire to avoid an internal battle over Manchin’s side deal with Schumer.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said he’s going to vote for the short-term government funding measure, even if it includes Manchin’s permitting reform proposal.

“We’re very pleased with what we’ve been able to accomplish,” he said, referring to the passage of a $280 billion chips and science bill in late July and the Inflation Reduction Act in August, which will reform the tax code, fight climate change, lower prescription drug costs and reduce the federal deficit.

“I don’t think we’re going to upset the apple cart; I think we just want to continue to focus on the issues we think are important. Obviously, the CR we’ve got to get done,” he said, making reference to the continuing resolution to fund the government.

After passing the Inflation Reduction Act, which accomplished several key objectives of President Biden’s agenda, Senate Democrats feel like their political fortunes have improved significantly.

Biden’s approval rating, which had been mired around 40 percent for much of this year, has ticked up in recent weeks.

A Gallup tracking poll published in late July found that Biden’s job approval rating rose by 6 points to 44 percent, his highest in a year.

Political handicappers now say Democrats are favored to keep the Senate as GOP candidates allied with former President Trump have failed to meet fundraising expectations and/or struggled in the polls.

Feeling better about their chances of keeping their majority, Democrats are opting for conservative play calls in the final weeks of the election, like a football team running the ball in the fourth quarter to wind down the game clock.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who warned in a New York Times op-ed in April that Democrats in Congress needed to enact more bold reforms to keep their majority in 2023, said  Tuesday that Democrats have a strong enough list of accomplishments heading into Election Day.

“Democrats have been delivering big time. We’ve still got more in front of us that we could do before the election, and I’d like to see us do that,” she said.

“Two good places would be with the Disclose Act to bring down the influence of dark money and the second is the Stock Act to put a stop to members trading on Wall Street. We could do both of those,” she said.

Schumer has committed to a vote on the Disclose Act, which is expected to fall neatly along party lines and fail to muster the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. But the Democratic leader has already indicated to negotiators that a vote on a stock trading ban, which divides Democratic lawmakers, will not come to the floor before the election.

And Schumer hasn’t scheduled a vote before November on a bill sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) to crack down on the market power of major tech platforms such as Apple and Amazon. Picking a fight with the deep-pocketed tech industry a few weeks before the election is seen as a dangerous political move, say Democratic senators.

Instead, Schumer announced Tuesday that the Senate will return to Washington after an early October recess to take up the annual defense authorization bill. Passing that bill a few weeks before the election will blunt Republican attacks that Democrats are weak on national security.

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