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Democrats confront fragile majorities as Congress returns with big plans

The party's narrowing margins in Congress will test its ability to stay unified to pass Biden's sweeping infrastructure proposal.
Image: Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., leave the White House after meeting with President Joe Biden on Feb. 5.Oliver Contreras / Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Democrats' narrow edge is poised to get even narrower this week when Congress returns from a two-week recess with big ambitions to bolster infrastructure spending, expand the safety net and confirm more of President Joe Biden's nominees.

Last week, Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida died at 84. This week, Republican Rep.-elect Julia Letlow of Louisiana is expected to be sworn in, cutting Democrats' edge to 218-212. That means Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., could afford to lose no more than two Democratic votes to pass a bill without Republican support.

The 50-50 split in the Senate is already as slim as it gets, testing Democrats' resolve to stick together against unified Republican opposition to most of Biden's agenda, including the sweeping $2 trillion infrastructure package he rolled out March 31.

Matt House, a Democratic consultant and former aide to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said his old boss and Pelosi have been adept at staying unified and must continue doing so.

"The far ends of each caucus will have a decision to make — swallow and pass big but imperfect bills or take bills down and damage the party across the board," he said. "Democrats can't afford the tea party-esque behavior that paralyzed Republicans, because the political health of the party rests on doing the big bold things Democrats promised during the campaign."

Some Democrats say they must pursue bipartisanship. As Schumer was exploring ways to use a special budget maneuver to bypass Republicans more often than once per fiscal year, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., warned the party not to make a habit of using the tactic, known as reconciliation.

"Senate Democrats must avoid the temptation to abandon our Republican colleagues on important national issues. Republicans, however, have a responsibility to stop saying no, and participate in finding real compromise with Democrats," Manchin wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.

And he vowed that there is "no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken" the 60-vote rule for most legislation, which threatens Biden's ambitions for the minimum wage, voting rights, gun control and the DREAM Act. Without Manchin's vote, Democrats have no path to change the filibuster.

Asked about her fragile majorities Sunday, Pelosi said that the U.S. has "a big need" to tackle infrastructure and that Democrats have extended a hand to Republicans.

"You've heard me say again and again, public sentiment is everything. Lincoln said that," she said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "I have no doubt that we will have a great bill in the House. I hope that it will be bipartisan."

A senior Democratic aide said: "The caucus recognizes that you have little room for error. That's why they'd much rather do things in a bipartisan way. And we're hoping to do that." The aide added, "But there's an urgency for everyone to act as boldly as possible and quickly as possible."

Tensions between the parties are also growing as Republicans roundly reject Biden's infrastructure proposal as unjustifiably large, echoing the dynamics that led to the party-line vote on Covid-19 aid. They have also rejected tax increases considered by Democrats on upper earners and corporations to fund it.

Last week, a group of Republican senators led by moderate Susan Collins of Maine criticized the Biden administration for having "roundly dismissed our effort" to reach a deal on a smaller Covid-19 bill "as wholly inadequate in order to justify its go-it-alone strategy."

Democratic aides say any infrastructure package will take months to develop and bring to a vote.

Hate crimes, election overhaul, gun control

The two chambers are expected to advance legislation by Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., and Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, to beef up the federal response to hate crimes against Asian Americans.

The House is also poised to vote this week on the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would create stricter rules about equal pay for women, and another bill to combat workplace violence, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told colleagues.

The Senate plans to vote on more of Biden's personnel, including Gary Gensler to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as sub-Cabinet nominees.

Senate committees plan to work on proposals like the For the People Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and measures to improve U.S. competitiveness with China.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and top Republicans on several committees criticized Biden's defense budget proposal, calling on him to spend more on the military to push back against the rise of China.

"If President Biden's support for America's military matched his zeal for spending at home, China would get nowhere close to overtaking us," they said. "Both parties should be able to agree that we must maintain America's edge over China."

Republicans have focused on immigration to rally their base, blaming Biden for record numbers of children who are seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Other Democratic priorities, like extending background checks for gun transfers, face uphill climbs. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., is leading an effort to find 60 votes for a compromise.

Schumer said in a statement: "The American people are demanding action from Congress, and I've committed to hold votes on the floor of the United States Senate on gun violence prevention legislation."

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., criticized Biden's executive actions targeting "ghost guns." He said his caucus will "pursue every option — be it legislative or judicial — to protect the right to keep and bear arms from infringement by this Administration."

On Tuesday, Capitol Police Officer William Evans, who was killed in a recent attack on the complex, will lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda. Biden is expected to attend and pay his respects.

Alex Moe contributed.