Democrats Race Against the Clock on Year-End Agenda—If They Can Agree on One

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The easiest way to look foolish in Washington is to declare with any certainty the fate of any political agenda. Time and time again, legislation that should be a slam dunk turns to dust; remember the bipartisan immigration plan from 2013, the pledges to do something about gun violence after every school shooting, the urgent calls for police reform after George Floyd’s murder? It’s similar for long-shot measures that are assumed to be D.O.A. in the face of massive lobbying opposition; here, see the Obama administration’s economic stimulus or, later, Obamacare. Washington is a place that loves to throw tarot cards into diplomatic burn bags.

So as the year ticks toward a merciful end, The D.C. Brief is going to be careful not to make predictions for what’s possible with the remaining half-month before 2022 begins and it officially turns into election season again. But there are plenty of signs that the big lifts might be a little tougher than anticipated as tempers flare in both parties and at both ends of Capitol Hill. President Joe Biden will finish his first calendar year in power assured a spot in the history books for massive spending already on the books, but his holiday toasts of virgin eggnog might be a little more festive if Democrats could pull together and push the rest of his agenda into reality.

Even the nominally easy stuff is running into trouble. Yesterday’s vote to increase the borrowing power of the nation’s credit card until 2023 almost went off the rails. One of the most important, combustible and should-be-routine process votes on the agenda came close to derailing when Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock openly mulled tanking the debt ceiling vote unless his fellow Democrats could assure him a voting rights bill would get the same special treatment to win passage with a bare majority.

During a private lunch yesterday, Warnock told fellow Democrats that he had a real problem changing the rules to cover the economy but not for civil rights. Senators listened to Warnock, a first-term Senator who is a senior pastor in the Atlanta church that was home base for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Warnock later went to the floor of the Senate to call out what he sees as Democratic hypocrisy.

“I feel like I’m being asked to take a road that is a point of moral dissonance for me,” Warnock said in a floor speech that had many Democratic offices watching with hitched breath. “Because while I deeply believe that both our democracy and our economy are important, I believe that it is misplaced to change the Senate rules only for the benefit of the economy when the warning lights on our democracy are flashing at the same time.”

Ultimately, Warnock voted with 49 other Democrats to boost the borrowing power by a 50-49 margin. (NBC News has a must-read on Warnock’s thinking.) But the close call revealed just how fragile the Democrats’ majorities in the House and Senate truly are. Even one defection in the Senate can tank the to-do list and four in the House can similarly detonate the agenda. With Republicans almost entirely lockstepped against Biden’s agenda, that means lone wolves have unilateral veto power.

It also revealed just the urgency of all of Biden’s competing priorities. Voting rights is atop the list, as is his massive—yet still pared-back—social spending bill, Build Back Better. At the same time, as TIME’s Abby Vesoulis reports, it seems Congress is going to let a popular child tax credit expire this month with no easy extension in the obvious offing. That jumbled set of priorities seems to have ricocheted into one interlocked package, not because of a cohesive policy ideology but because Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is exercising his right to drive his colleagues batty with demands of modifications to each of the three and will only change the Senate’s filibuster rules with Republican support.

“There’s no policy reason they have to be linked, but they do come down to the same person,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said. It was a diplomatic equivalent of an eye roll over Manchin’s grip on the party.

The mounting frustration has folks on edge and Democrats openly wondering if Manchin is genuinely looking for changes or just stringing them along. Biden and Manchin are due to chat again this afternoon as the social spending bill seems—at least in some quarters of the Democratic caucus—to be doomed to find a home next to that Elf of a Shelf. Democrats understand that their party’s base is watching closely.The activists who are crucial to any hopes for Democratic success in next year’s midterm elections are increasingly going public with their gripes. What good is a governing trifecta of the House, Senate and White House if they don’t deliver on the promised agenda? Yet that seems to be where the Democrats are heading.

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Lest this devolve into yet another Democrats in Disarray story—although I do have quite the binder of them—it’s important to also acknowledge the Republicans’ own woes. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a deal with Democrats to let them raise the debt ceiling with a one-time window to bench the filibuster and save millions of jobs. In turn, former President Donald Trump is hurling invectives as McConnell. Meanwhile, they’re trying to figure out how to navigate the fringe voices in their ranks; Trump’s political power demands they defend the marginal voices of Marjorie Taylor Green and Lauren Boebert even as most recognize their strain of Republicanism to be detrimental. And a leadership fight for who lands on top should the GOP prevail and retake the House majority is starting to breed mess.

All the while, the slow burn of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on Congress is starting to yield results (see below). That could crank up heat on Republicans who may have encouraged the failed insurrection or at least harbored sympathies for the mob that sacked the Capitol. Just last night, every Democrat—and two Republicans—voted to refer a former Republican House member to the Justice Department for going mum in the probe despite Republicans’ defense of their pal’s potential involvement in—and this isn’t a joke—a “First Amendment-protected political rally.”

So while the debt ceiling went up, the Pentagon got its defense bill largely as requested and lawmakers are getting ready to ditch Capitol Hill for their districts, don’t mistake any of the lawmakers as merry or bright. It’s still pretty grinchy around town, and there’s no reason to think that the arrival of an election year will warm political hearts.

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