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The midterm elections are less than seven months away and the window is quickly closing for Congress to add to its list of accomplishments before business largely shuts down for campaign season.
That makes next several weeks key for congressional Democrats who want wins to tout on the campaign trail. The Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmation, the March 2021 American Rescue Plan and the bipartisan infrastructure bill are their major achievements so far.
But it’s not clear how much more they can actually pass with partisanship and campaigning soon to take precedent over deal making and legislating. And it’s even murkier whether any congressional action wins could actually make a difference with voters in the fall.
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“They can spend a lot of time praying that the Fed figures out the right thing to do,” on inflation, University of Virginia Center for Politics Larry Sabato said what Democrats can do to boost their chances in the midterms
That’s because average Americans, Sabato said, “don’t follow Congress. They have no idea what they’re doing. They get impressions.”
But R Street Institute senior fellow for governance James Wallner said members of Congress aim to use votes they take to create those impressions in voters through their campaign rhetoric.
“Members are gonna seize on anything they do, and they’re going to try to tout that,” Wallner said. “And members also have a wonderful ability of convincing themselves of certain narratives in their own mind as to the importance of various votes.”
And opportunities for members to do that before the election are quickly running out.
Potentially the highest-profile bill Congress will deal with before the election – and the most likely to pass – is its China economic competitiveness bill. The Senate passed a bipartisan version earlier this year and the House passed its own version largely along party lines. That set up a “conference committee” between the two chambers that is likely to propose a single bill each can vote on now that Congress is back from recess.
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The size of the China bill might shrink during conference, especially in comparison to the size of the House bill. But in at least on sense, according to R Street Institute senior fellow for governance James Wallner, it may be too big to fail.
“The legislative process has a certain logic to it. And as it goes, it’s kind of like a train. As it gathers speed, it gets harder and harder to stop. And this is this would be the very final stage of that process,” Wallner said. “The people in conference want this bill to pass in the Senate. And so they’re not going to let something be put in there… that would somehow tank its chances and defeat it in the Senate at this last stage.”
“The biggest thing is that the COMPETES Act to get production back in America, to make sure that we’re leading over China in advanced technology. And the more we can produce in the United States, the better it is for costs,” Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a member of the conference committee, told Fox News.
A spokesperson for Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., also touted how close Congress is to “a final ‘Make it in America’ bill to boost America’s competitiveness in the global economy, help Americans access good-paying jobs, and lower costs.”
Additional coronavirus funding is also going to be a priority for Democrats when Congress comes back later this month. That will be complicated by Republicans who are likely to seek a vote on Title 42 – a COVID-era provision that allows for the deportation of most migrants – as part of any deal. President Biden is set to roll that back next month, upsetting Republicans and some moderate Democrats.
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Also floating in the background is the possibility Democrats could still pass something via budget reconciliation – the vehicle for the now-dead “Build Back Better” bill. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who killed the “Build Back Better” last year, recently signaled he could be open to a party-line effort focusing on prescription drugs, tax reform and climate.
Kaine’s spokesperson said he wants something akin to that to “lower the cost of child care and prescription drugs, establish universal pre-kindergarten, and make transformative investments in clean energy.”
Khanna also said a climate bill top priority for progressives.
“If we don’t get a bold investment in climate now, who knows when we will,” he said. “I have been relentless in saying, let’s get a deal on climate with Sen. Manchin that can get 51 votes.”
It all depends, however, on if Manchin is still interested in dealing on Democrat-only legislation. After March’s inflation numbers were released last week, Manchin said in a scathing statement that the U.S. needs to reign in spending and that inflation is a problem, “one political party alone cannot fix.”
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“Whatever BBB or its successor turns out to be, it will be very mild-mannered compared to the original design. I’m not sure there will be anything at all,” Sabato said. “Maybe Manchin is just having fun again.”
“There’s not a Build Back Better revival,” Manchin, D-W.Va., told reporters Tuesday at the Capitol, putting cold water on the president’s signature spending bill. “There’s not.”
And even if Manchin worked out a deal with progressives, it still may not pass muster with another moderate Democrat: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. A source familiar with the dynamics told Fox News that “what might be good for Manchin likely won’t be for Sinema,” particularly on taxes. Sinema made clear she is against raising taxes during previous rounds of reconciliation talks.
Other issues could come into focus before the midterms, including Ukraine funding, sanctions against Russia, energy prices, appropriations bills and legislation on mental health and addiction. Judicial ethics will also be a hot topic among Democrats given recent controversy surrounding Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife, Virginia Thomas. Some members of both parties also want a deal on big tech regulations and ocean shipping reform.
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But Republicans say anything Democrats actually act to pass won’t address the problems Americans care about, and will doom them in the midterms
“House Democrats’ priorities are not aligned with the American people. Instead of working to reduce inflation, lower prices, secure the border, or stop violent crime,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Fox News. “Democrats pass and promote policies that make all these problems worse. Americans cannot afford one-party Democrat rule.”
“The Democrats are in great jeopardy floundering around trying to find something that they can hang their hats on,” Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., said.
Even if Democrats do manage to break through and address some red meat issues for their beleaguered base, Sabato said it’s unlikely to move the needle.
“Maybe you forgive student loan debt. Maybe you pass something Manchin would agree to on climate change,” Sabato said. “Does it help? Maybe it’s a point or two. Is it going to transform reality in this midterm year? No.”