After going big and bold in the 117th Congress, Democrats are playing it safe heading into 2024.
With 23 Senate seats up for reelection, including in largely Republican states such as West Virginia, Montana and Ohio, they’re focusing on must-pass bills to keep the economy humming.
Senate Democrats say the agenda they discussed at a private caucus meeting this week essentially boils down to passing debt limit and appropriations legislation, the annual defense bill, the farm bill and the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization, with nominations sprinkled in.
It’s the political equivalent of running the ball right up the middle for three yards and a cloud of dust.
But Democrats say the focus on more routine legislation comes after they spent two years passing a landmark prescription drug reform, climate and deficit reduction bill — the Inflation Reduction Act — along with the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, gun-violence legislation and the $280 billion CHIPS and Science bill, among other accomplishments in the last Congress.
Democratic senators say they’ll spend a lot of time over the next two years implementing those bills and bringing more public attention to those new laws, especially in Senate battleground states like Ohio, where Sen. Sherrod Brown, the state’s lone remaining statewide elected Democrat, is running for a fourth term.
“We’ve got to make sure the bills that we have passed … are implemented and that people get what they need. We are focused on common-sense, bread-and-butter economic issues, which means having people’s back,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), the chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Steering Committee.
Klobuchar said Senate Democrats will also focus on nominees and judges.
“Maybe you’ll see a few treaties” on the floor, she predicted.
There is little desire among Senate Democrats to put bills on the floor that would force vulnerable incumbents, such as Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Jon Tester (Mont.) and Jacky Rosen (Nev.), to take tough votes when the legislation is likely to go nowhere in the GOP-controlled House.
Senate Democrats also plan to spend a lot of time over the next two years painting the House Republican agenda as “extreme” and their own legislative goals as common-sense, prudent and designed to keep the economy chugging along.
They got a dollop of good news on Thursday, when the Commerce Department reported that U.S. gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 2.9 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, exceeding expectations.
Their strategy is that a slow and steady pace could win next year’s race for the White House, Senate and House.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) declined to unveil the Senate Democratic agenda for the new 118th Congress when he held his year-end press conference in December, telling reporters that he would first need to talk about it with colleagues.
“There will be a lot to do, but I’m going to withhold judgment until I come back,” he told reporters.
After holding their first regular caucus lunch meeting on Tuesday, Democratic senators say the policy focus at the start of the year is raising the debt limit, passing the farm bill and passing the annual National Defense Authorization Act.
“We want to continue our successes of the last Congress and continue delivering for the American people. This was the most successful two years in decades — many people compare it to the Great Society favorably or equally, some even [to the] New Deal because of what we did on climate,” Schumer said after the Tuesday meeting.
But Democratic lawmakers say with the House controlled by Republicans, they’re going to set their sights more modestly over the next two years, well below the aspirations of former President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” or former President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”
One Democratic senator, who requested anonymity to discuss Tuesday’s meeting, said the agenda boils down to “basically two things, the defense act and the farm bill.”
“I’m sure other things will come up, but between now and Oct. 1 the farm bill and the NDAA have to be resolved along with the debt ceiling,” the lawmaker said, referring to the National Defense Authorization Act.
Schumer said on Tuesday that House Republicans don’t appear to be interested in working with Senate Democrats.
“Unfortunately, right now House Republicans — at least where they seem to be headed — have different ideas,” he said, pointing to the first bill House Republicans passed this month, which would repeal nearly $80 billion in new IRS funding Democrats included in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act to beef up tax compliance.
Schumer said the House legislation would make it easier for “the ultra-rich tax cheats to escape accountability” while “at the same time blowing a $100 billion hole in the deficit.”
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) said “the points that Chuck has made, the defense authorization bill as well as the farm bill, are obvious” must-pass items on this year’s agenda.
Durbin, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, said that getting regular spending bills passed before the end of the year and restoring what lawmakers call “regular order” is a priority after Congress has recently ignored spending bills until the end of year and then balled them up into huge omnibus packages.
The Senate Appropriations Committee didn’t pass any of the 12 annual appropriations bills last year, delaying a vote on a 4,155-page omnibus package until Dec. 22.
But getting any spending bills passed this year with Republicans in control of the House will be a challenge, as House conservatives are demanding that federal funding levels be capped at the same level they were in fiscal 2022, which would amount to a 5.5 percent cut in nondefense, nonveterans-related sending and a 9.7 percent cut in defense spending.
Democrats have already dismissed the House GOP proposed funding levels as a nonstarter.
Even so, the new chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), is intent on getting at least a few of the 12 regular appropriations bills to the Senate floor this year.
“We expect to return to regular order,” she told The Hill after meeting with other senior Democrats on the Appropriations Committee on the first floor of the Capitol Thursday.
Other top Democratic priorities, such as providing a path to citizenship to immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children, the so-called “Dreamers,” or legislation to address gun violence in the wake of three mass shootings in California that claimed 19 lives over the span of 44 hours are not likely to see any floor time this year.
Durbin, a leading advocate for immigration reform and giving Dreamers a path to citizenship has said last year’s lame-duck session, when Democrats still controlled the House for a few weeks after the midterm elections, was probably the best chance to pass an immigration deal for the foreseeable future.
Schumer, who held a press conference on Thursday to criticize the marketing of a miniature AR-15-style assault rifle to children, didn’t make any commitment to bring gun legislation to the floor but he said he would continue to search for Republican votes for an assault-weapons ban and other gun-control measures. Any such bills would need 60 votes and the support of at least nine Republicans to pass the Senate.