All things considered, Congress has had quite the productive month.
Despite fears that leadership might not be able to accomplish everything they needed to get done with so few weeks left in the year, since Thanksgiving, Congress reached a deal to fund the government through next year, passed the annual military budget bill and passed a $2.5 trillion increase to the debt limit, averting the possibility that the U.S. would default on its debts for the first time ever.
But will Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., be able to reach his goal of passing the Build Back Better bill — President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion social spending and climate change measure — before Christmas?
Barring a Santa Claus-style miracle, it’s beginning to look at lot like the measure will be punted to 2022.
In a statement released Thursday night, President Joe Biden acknowledged his ongoing discussions with negotiations with holdout Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat and a key vote to getting the bill through the evenly divided Senate.
"I had a productive call with Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and Majority Leader [Chuck] Schumer earlier today," Biden said. "I briefed them on the most recent discussions that my staff and I have held with Senator Manchin about Build Back Better."
"In these discussions, Senator Manchin has reiterated his support for Build Back Better funding at the level of the framework plan I announced in September," the president continued, adding an air of optimism: "I believe that we will bridge our differences and advance the Build Back Better plan, even in the face of fierce Republican opposition."
But, Biden acknowledged, this accord will take time to reach – signaling that the bill will not get done before Christmas.
"My team and I are having ongoing discussions with Senator Manchin; that work will continue next week," the president, himself a former senator, said. "It takes time to finalize these agreements, prepare the legislative changes, and finish all the parliamentary and procedural steps needed to enable a Senate vote. We will advance this work together over the days and weeks ahead."
"Leader Schumer and I are determined to see the bill successfully on the floor as early as possible," he added.
"Build Back Better is urgently needed to lower the cost of prescription drugs, health care, child care, and elder care," Biden said of his key legislative priority. "Notwithstanding the unrelenting Republican obstruction – not a single Republican is willing to move forward on the bill – I am determined to see this bill enacted into law, to give America’s families the breathing room they deserve. We also need urgent action on climate change and other priorities in the Build Back Better plan."
"We will – we must – get Build Back Better passed, even in the face of Republican opposition," the president continued.
The House of Representatives passed the bill, which expands Medicare, funds universal pre-K and makes the largest-ever legislative investment to combat climate change, last month.
Manchin has previously expressed concerns about inflation and the cost of the bill’s programs if they are extended, not wanting to add to the deficit.
President Joe Biden has attempted to assuage Manchin’s concerns, citing the fact that the bill is paid for, financed by tax increases on corporations and the wealthiest Americans.
Additionally, on the subject of inflation, the White House has pointed to a letter signed by 17 Nobel Prize winners in economics which said that, “with the investments being financed by tax increases, the inflationary impacts will be at most negligible.”
But a a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office – requested by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. – estimated the bill would increase the deficit by $3 trillion by 2031 if the measure's temporary provisions are renewed and not paid for.
The White House has pushed back against that review, with White House press secretary Jen Psaki calling it “a fake CBO score that is not based on the actual bill that anybody is voting on” at a briefing on Monday.
But Manchin admitted Monday the long-term costs of the temporary programs in the bill are weighing heavily on his mind, calling the report "very sobering" and noting he was "very concerned" by its price tag.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, joked that the West Virginia senator “has been camped out in the Lincoln Bedroom and has his own parking space at the White House, he’s has been there so often.”
“I couldn't ask for Joe Biden to do more in this effort to find common ground with Joe Manchin,” Durbin told Politico.
Another slowdown for Democrats has come in the form of the the Senate parliamentarian's review of the bill. Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate's nonpartisan arbiter of the rules, has to review the bill to make sure it passes the chamber's budget rules to allow it to be passed via the budget reconciliation process – which allows certain bills to be passed with a simple majority rather than the chamber's 60-vote filibuster threshold.
Durbin added that he’s “frustrated” and “disappointed” that this legislation — a major part of President Biden’s domestic agenda — will be delayed until 2022.
“There comes a point where you got to say to Senator Manchin, if we're paying for everything that we have scheduled, we're keeping faith with the American people, we're not adding to the deficit, we’re not making it worse for inflation,” Durbin said Thursday, adding: “For you to speculate, ‘what will this cause if these are extended for 10 years?’ It's just that — it's speculation. It's not really the reality of what we're doing.”
He’s not the only Democrat feeling frustrated by the delay.
“Every day that we delay is a bad day for the American people,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, chair of the Senate Budget Committee, said.
“That is why people in our country should know that a 50-50 Senate sucks and we can't get things done,” Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono told CNN.
"We recognize we have a 50-50 Senate and we’re not getting cooperation from the Republicans on any of those issues," Sen. Ben Cardin told Politico. "And we recognize it’s a challenge. It’s been a challenge all year."
“We need to get this done,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said to CNN on Thursday. “We have talked. We have talked. We have talked. It's time to put it on the floor and vote.”
A number of Democrats thought that the looming expiration of the expanded Child Tax Credit, a signature Democratic achievement, as well as the possibility that lawmakers wanting to return home for the holidays, might spur some action.
Durbin said he was "stunned" by Manchin's stance on the tax credit.
“I can tell you the level of emotion at our caucus about the child tax credit is very high," Durbin added. "That is such a critical element — the largest tax cut for working Americans in the history of the United States. We were so proud of what we've accomplished there and for this to come up as an issue toward the end was stunning.”
Manchin, for his part, has said he's "not opposed" to the Child Tax Credit, though did not elaborate further, simply decrying what he called "a lot of bad rumors."
Durbin noted that his colleague's opinion on the subject is hard to nail down.
"Apparently, Manchin’s approach to this has changed a lot," he said. "I don’t know where he is today or where he’ll be tomorrow."
Democrats have also floated the possibility of taking action to address voting rights ahead of the end of the year, rather than moving ahead on the nearly $2 trillion Build Back Better bill.
"If we can get the congressional voting rights done, we should do it," President Biden said Wednesday in Kentucky, adding: "There’s nothing domestically more important than voting rights."
Protecting voting rights has been a major aim of the Democratic majority in Congress all year, but their multiple efforts to pass voting rights have been repeatedly filibustered by Senate Republicans.
Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, a major voting rights advocate, delivered a powerful speech on the Senate floor on Tuesday to push for the chamber to pass voting legislation, calling it "the most important thing that we can do this Congress."
"With just one lone exception, all of our friends across the aisle have refused to engage with us in any way to address the growing barriers to what is basic to American democracy — the ballot box," Warnock said of the Democrats' multiple efforts to address voting rights this year.
Warnock called for the Senate to use the same mechanism that allowed the chamber's Democrats to lift the debt ceiling with a simple majority to do the same to address voting rights.
"Before we left Washington last week, we in this chamber made a change in the Senate's rules in order to push forward something that all of us think is important: We set the stage to raise the nation's debt ceiling," Warnock said Tuesday. "And yet as we cast that vote to begin addressing the debt ceiling, this same chamber is allowing the ceiling of our democracy to crash in around us."
"Be very clear: last week we changed the rules of the Senate to address another important issue, the economy," Warnock said. "This is a step, a change in the Senate rules we haven't been willing to take to save our broken democracy, but one that a bipartisan majority of this chamber thought was necessary in order to keep our economy strong."
"The judgment of history is upon us," Warnock said. "Future generations will ask, 'when the democracy was in a 911 state of emergency, what did you do to put the fire out?' Did we rise to the moment? Or did we hide behind procedural rules?"
Democrats are hoping to sway Manchin and fellow moderate Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to support a filibuster carve-out to address voting rights. Both Sinema and Manchin have expressed an unwillingness to use the so-called "nuclear option" to completely gut the 60-vote filibuster threshold.
Schumer met with Manchin and Sinema, along with Sens. Angus King, I-Maine, Tim Kaine, D-Va. and Jon Tester, D-Mont., to discuss a filibuster workaround to address voting rights – potentially restoring the "talking" filibuster, forcing lawmakers to physically hold the floor in order to hold up legislation, or an exception for voting and elections reform.
Sinema, through a spokesperson, told Politico that while she supports the voting rights legislation, she also supports maintaining the filibuster, though she's open to debating the rules of the Senate.
“It is time for the Senate to publicly debate its rules, including the filibuster, so senators and all Americans can hear and fully consider such ideas, concerns, and consequences,” Sinema's spokesperson told Politico. “If there are proposals to make the Senate work better for everyday Americans without risking repeated radical reversals in federal policy, Senator Sinema is eager to hear such ideas and — as always — is willing to engage in good-faith discussions with her colleagues."
Democrats discussed voting and Build Back Better, as well as a number of other agenda items, at a Thursday lunch. President Biden also joined a virtual call with Democrats on voting rights, which he called "productive" in a statement.
"We must also press forward on voting rights legislation, and make progress on this as quickly as possible," the president said in his statement about the Build Back Better bill. "I had a productive conversation today with several Senators about how we can get this vital legislation passed. Our democracy is at stake."
Schumer said that Democrats will address voting rights and pledged that their caucus continue to work to get the job done.
“Senate Democrats are working to find a path forward to respond to these attacks by passing legislation like the Freedom to Vote Act and the Voting Rights Advancement Act," Schumer pledged Thursday.
“Part of that conversation involves finding ways to restore the Senate so it can once again work as it’s supposed to,” he added. “These conversations are ongoing.”
Other Democrats also made similar vows.
"If we can change the process on the debt ceiling, then surely we can do the same to protect our democracy," Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper, a proponent of changing the filibuster to address voting rights, said.
"We think it’s so important that we change the rule in order to save the economy," Warnock told NBC News earlier this week. "Well, the warning lights on our democracy are blinking right now, and we seem unwilling to respond with the same urgency to protect the democracy that we have to protect the economy."
"All I want for my birthday and Christmas is preservation of American democracy," Virginia Sen. Mark Warner said.