Now Democrats are in sharp disagreement over core elements of the next agenda items — on infrastructure, climate change and immigration — both on key policy areas as well as whether Congress should begin to pay attention to the eye-popping federal budget deficit, as a growing number of moderate Democrats want.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, a veteran Virginia Democrat, predicted “frustration in our future” because of the rules of the Senate.
“I think there’s a real risk of political letdown because expectations are relatively high,” Connolly said. “If the reason you’re not getting things through is because of this archaic, racist-laden procedure that requires a super-majority 60 votes to pass something, I don’t think that’s going to fly in today’s environment, and, frankly, nor should it.”
The sentiment was echoed throughout the halls of both chambers by Democrats — but particularly in the House.
“They are already infuriated by the lack of progress being made in the Senate, not just for this Congress but previous Congresses,” said freshman Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a New York Democrat, referring to the party’s core voters. “Frustration, anger, despair.”
To get such legislation passed in the Senate, it would require either the support of 10 Republicans in the 50-50 chamber or a historic move to change the rules of the Senate so legislation can overcome a filibuster by just 51 votes. Lacking the votes to change the rules, Democrats will have to cut deals with Republicans — something that has proved to be extraordinarily difficult in a highly polarized political climate.
“I think we can deliver a reasonable response to this,” Manchin said. “If they think it’s all their way or the highway, that’s not going to happen in areas where I’ve come from.”
Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said that on changing the filibuster, “I think you have to be careful what you wish for because you feel frustrated now because you can’t enact everything that you want to enact.”
“But it could be that five or six years from now you’re really happy you can stop the other side from enacting things that are really bad,” said King, who says he will wait to see if Senate Republican seriously obstruct upcoming bills before deciding if he will back changes to filibuster rules.
Progressives are firing back.
“It’s incumbent on those senators too to look a little bit at their role,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who co-chairs the progressive caucus in the House. “Yes, they represent their state but also, if they hold up legislation, it has an effect across the country.”
‘To be honest, it gets harder’
The $1.9 trillion relief bill, a sweeping measure that injects aid to the economy, small businesses, schools, the jobless and middle- and low-income families, was approved by Congress in Biden’s first 50 days in office — an effort Democrats viewed as essential to deliver on their campaign promise and respond to the crises caused by Covid-19.
To get there, progressive Democrats swallowed losses over the minimum wage and agreed to lower weekly unemployment benefits. Moderates backed a larger price tag than they would have otherwise allowed — all in the name of getting the bill to the President’s desk in the middle of a national emergency.
Now talk about making some of the temporary items in the bill — such as an expansion of the child tax credit — permanent is already generating an intraparty debate.
“The question is how it would be offset, how would it be paid for,” said King when asked if he’d back a permanent expansion of the tax credit. “I do think there is a limit to what we can borrow.”
King added: “I think we ought to start paying for things.”
Some Democrats, meanwhile, don’t view the next items on Biden’s agenda as an emergency requiring immediate action, arguing Congress should deliberate far more methodically.
Intraparty debate over infrastructure and immigration
Indeed, one of the next big tests will be over a massive infrastructure package that some Democrats have already estimated could cost trillions, as they begin to debate how to finance such a plan and how much of its costs should be offset.
Democrats are going to have to reconcile how much of the infrastructure package should be focused on roads, bridges and broadband and how much of it will be aimed at expanding a so-called clean energy agenda, which could be difficult for moderate members from districts where fossil-fuel-based industries are big employers.
“It’s difficult,” said Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democrat from Michigan. “It will be, but whether it is Sen. Manchin or anyone else, they are going to have to look at the totality of the legislation. It will be hard.”
The challenges for infrastructure are not just what to include in the bill, which can cut along urban and rural divides and scramble party lines, but how and if to pay for it.
Fresh off of approving $1.9 trillion, which had been proceeded by trillions more in government spending to combat the pandemic, many Democrats argue that at least part of the package’s costs should be offset. But there is no consensus on how to do that.
On Thursday, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn rebuffed suggestions that the gas tax be raised, a common option some Democrats have pushed in the past.
“Whatever the pay-for is, it should be fair and equitable,” said Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat. “This whole thing of saying, ‘Let’s just raise the gasoline tax’ is unfair to rural people. People who have tractors and pickup trucks.”
House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal dismissed the idea that an infrastructure package would be more challenging. But when pressed by CNN on if there was agreement about how to finance such a plan, the Massachusetts Democrat said he didn’t want to get into those discussions. His own infrastructure package that passed out of the House last year never provided a way to pay for itself.
“I am not going to put a pay-for on the table or talk about those things until we actually have buy-in in terms of the architecture for it,” Neal said.
The other big question: What parliamentary tactics to use to pursue a massive infrastructure bill. GOP senators, including key swing votes like Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, are pushing back at the idea of using a budget process known as reconciliation to allow the bill to pass on just Democratic support, a tactic that Democrats used to approve the $1.9 trillion relief bill.
And Manchin himself has vowed to block such an effort if Democrats don’t try to win over Republicans first, a clear sign that the legislation is bound to move slowly as Democrats eye Memorial Day as their time frame for advancing it in the Senate.
But there are other items that could also stall out.
On immigration, Democrats face problems within their own ranks. A comprehensive bill that would have given millions of immigrants a path to citizenship hasn’t yet received the support needed to get it passed on the House floor — in part because some moderates argue they don’t see a path to passage in the Senate and they don’t want to vote on a controversial bill that is dead on arrival in the other chamber.
“It takes time to get members on board and just get them comfortable,” one Democratic House member told CNN about the process they were involved in. “If you are going to make members walk a plank, you have to tell them what the path is. Sen. (Chuck) Schumer and Sen. (Dick) Durbin should work with us and tell us what that looks like.”
Instead, House Democrats are looking to pass two more narrow bills — one focused on agricultural workers and another on young undocumented immigrants, known as Dreamers — next week. The comprehensive immigration bill is expected to be worked up in committee next month, but members say it will take time to get the support needed to put it on the floor.
Yet such measures will still need 60 votes to advance in the Senate.
“This place is supposed to be based on compromise,” said Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat. “I have a different perspective than the folks on the far left and the far right. I think you have to do the best you can do — and that’s what you do.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said that while gutting the filibuster should be on the table, there’s still a chance to cut bipartisan deals on all these big-ticket items before the 2022 midterm elections.
“I don’t think the American public cares about the rules of this place. They just want us to get things done,” Murphy said. “I worry that there is this expectation being set that the only way you can pass anything in the Senate is by changing the rules. I don’t accept that. I just don’t.”
CNN’s Olanma Mang contributed to this report.