Schumer/Biden filibuster strategy flops ... so now what?

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

No, really … now what? Chuck Schumer led his Senate Democrat caucus off a cliff yesterday, egged on by Joe Biden, forcing some vulnerable incumbents not just to vote for an election-federalizing bill that sets them up as big targets in November, but also to vote to end the filibuster — making them even bigger targets. Schumer did this despite knowing full well that he didn’t have the votes to pass either, and yet

The year-long Democratic push for federal voting rights legislation died in the Senate on Wednesday night, after Republicans blocked an elections bill for the fifth time in six months and Democrats failed to unite their caucus behind a plan to rewrite the Senate’s rules and pass it anyway. …

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) then moved to reconsider the legislation to propose a rules change allowing for the bill’s advancement with a simple majority of 51 votes. The Senate rejected that maneuver 52 to 48, with two Democrats, Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), joining all 50 Republicans in opposition.

The late-evening vote amounted to a bitter but unsurprising finale for the Democratic voting rights effort on Capitol Hill, a campaign backed by top party leaders and pushed by key elements of its coalition even as Manchin and Sinema repeatedly made clear they would not weaken the 60-vote rule, defending it as a tool to protect minority-party rights and promote bipartisanship in U.S. democracy.

But Schumer and other top Democrats were determined to push forward with a floor confrontation regardless, even as it promised to expose bitter divisions inside their own party rather than amplify a GOP blockade that they have described as an existential threat to democracy.

Punchbowl asks the obvious question — cui bono? They can’t figure that one out either:

To be honest, we still don’t fully comprehend the Democratic strategy here. Schumer, backed by Biden, pushed this fight to the bitter end knowing he was going to lose. How that helps him, Senate Democrats or Biden just isn’t apparent to us. Wednesday’s vote, in fact, cemented Manchin and Sinema as the biggest pariahs in the Democratic Party. So how does it help Schumer get their votes during the rest of the 117th Congress, or further the party’s goals heading into the midterm elections? …

Are Senate Democrats in better shape now than they were two weeks ago? No.

Between this doomed bill and their reconciliation vehicle for the Build Back Better spend-o-rama, Biden and Democrats have next to nothing to show for a year’s legislative work. They did get an infrastructure bill passed, but that happened because Republicans had a common interest in that kind of spending. With that in mind, Biden now wants to break up BBB into “big chunks” to get all 50 Senate Democrats on board, and then look for bipartisan paths on other legislation:

Q Just one more follow-up on Build Back Better: When you said it’s going to likely be broken up into chunks — you mentioned that the climate pieces seem to have broad support, you mentioned Senator Manchin is a supporter of early childcare — you left out the Child Tax Credit. And I wonder if it’s fair to read between the lines and assume that that is a piece, given Senator Manchin’s opposition to it, that the extension of that is likely one of those components that may have to wait until sometime down the line.

THE PRESIDENT: There’s two really big components that I feel strongly about that I’m not sure I can get in the package: one is the Child Care Tax Credit and the other is help for cost of community colleges. They are massive things that I’ve run on, I care a great deal about, and I’m going to keep coming back at in whatever fora I get to be able to try to get chunks or all of that done.

So if that was an option, why not do that months ago? Why stage a very public fight that divided Biden’s own party and set off a family feud only to turn around and do what was obviously the only solution in the first place? What was the point of siccing progressive activists on the party moderates that allow Democrats to exercise narrow control of Congress in the first place?

Besides, as Punchbowl also notes, the “chunks” strategy means an end to reconciliation for most of those other “chunks.” They’ll have to either put them off for another budget cycle to use a subsequent reconciliation vehicle or work with Republicans. Right now, though, they’re in talks to finish the current budget cycle and any BBB talk could put an end to those talks, leaving Democrats with yet another legislative failure:

If Democrats try to revive the Build Back Better, that may hurt their chances of getting an omnibus budget deal. Here’s Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, to us and our friend Emily Cochrane of the New York Times: “It probably does because that would be the order of business. It takes the oxygen out of the air. As I said, we gonna have a long winter ahead. I would like to get regular order, get these bills passed. If we don’t, we’re heading to a [continuing resolution]. For the year probably. But not yet, ok?”

In other words, Shelby is saying BBB would disrupt the omnibus negotiations and force Congress to pass a CR to keep federal agencies open. Remember, government funding runs out Feb. 18. A bipartisan spending deal is possible, just not with BBB in the picture.

In his presser yesterday, Biden also spitballed about breaking up his election-federalizing bill to focus on areas of bipartisan support:

Q I have two really simple questions. I promise. You campaigned on canceling $10,000 in student loans. Do you still plan to do so, and when?

And then, my second question is: Now that you’ve clarified the Bull Connor comments, do you plan to reach out to Republicans like Mitt Romney to talk about reforming the Electoral Count Act?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I’m happy to speak out. I’ve — I’ve met with — I’ve talked to Mitt on other occasions.

And, by the way, I reached out to the Minority Leader as well at the time that he made his speech.

And so, I have no reluctance to reach out to any Republican and anyone who — and I’ve made it clear.

And this again is where Punchbowl’s question applies. Why didn’t Schumer and Biden try that before attempting to bulldoze the filibuster? Republicans have signaled for weeks that they were willing to reform the ECA, which would have offered Biden a chance to claim a real win. A really smart political strategist would have had a bipartisan bill ready for a vote on January 6 in one chamber or another. Instead, Biden and Schumer claimed bipartisanship was impossible (after getting a win on infrastructure with GOP help) and that the filibuster just couldn’t remain.

Now they’re forced into a position where they have to work with Republicans to get any kind of win on the board before the midterms. Every time something passes now, it will rebut their hysteria over the filibuster and prove Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, and Mitch McConnell right. And you can bet that the GOP will remind everyone of that each time, which will make any and all of those legislative successes mainly a benefit to Republicans and make them look like the responsible governing party.

So Democrats really have to ask themselves cui bono — and whether their current leadership can even do that basic political calculation.