Congress faces make-or-break moment to secure bipartisan deals on key Biden priorities
(CNN) -- President Joe Biden's bipartisan push faces a crucial moment on Capitol Hill this month where talks over several big-ticket items could lead to major legislative victories hailed by both parties -- or they could collapse and prompt a bitter round of recriminations and open partisan warfare.
It's a big week for talks: On Wednesday, Biden is slated to host his first meeting at the White House with Republican and Democratic leadership from the House and Senate since taking office. The following day, he'll meet with six GOP senators on infrastructure.
Republican and Democratic sources say that the outcome of a number of major items -- Biden's infrastructure plan, policing legislation and a bill to curb China's influence -- could go either way this month, leading a bipartisan coalition to push a fragile compromise through a divided Congress or prompting the parties to give up on finding a deal. While there's been progress on some key issues in the effort to overhaul policing, and a top House Democrat on Sunday signaled openness to accepting a deal that does not end qualified immunity, several sources familiar with discussions were wary that a deal could be reached by Biden's May 25 deadline, the first anniversary of George Floyd's death.
The ultimate outcome of these talks in May could help define Biden's first term, since 2021 remains a crucial period for policymaking, while 2022 will be consumed with both parties focused on winning the midterms, a recipe unlikely to yield much legislative success. Even so, much of the oxygen on Capitol Hill this week will be consumed by the House Republican Conference's internal politicking as the party moves to oust Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney as conference chair.
Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said there's a "window of opportunity" to get legislation done in the next several weeks. But key decisions must be made, whether it's on making it easier to sue police officers and charge them with crimes -- a key sticking point in policing legislation -- or on how to pay for an infrastructure package, an issue that has long divided the two parties. And Democratic leaders, along with Biden, must soon decide whether to attempt to go it-alone.
Both sides are expressing optimism -- at least for now.
"We're going to try to get some infrastructure done and have a robust package of building stuff for Americans, and at the end of that process, Americans will have an asset to show for their tax money," said Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican who is involved in bipartisan discussions on an infrastructure package smaller than Biden's $2 trillion-plus offering.
On infrastructure, Blumenthal said, "My own personal preference is to go big." He understands the President wants to cut a bipartisan deal, but he said, "As for Republicans, I'll believe it when I see it."
As the bipartisan talks take shape, partisan battle lines are also being drawn.
Senate Democrats are gearing up for a partisan standoff over a sweeping voting and election overhaul bill that they have made a signature priority, but that has exposed some internal divides within the party and won't win the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster.
The Senate Rules Committee on Tuesday will vote to send the legislation to the full chamber, a move that will prompt a heated back-and-forth over the role of the federal government in American elections and efforts by states to restrict access to voting.
But chief among the President's priorities on Capitol Hill is a major infrastructure package. The White House is now engaged in an all-out bipartisan push on infrastructure, an effort that includes intense discussions with top committee Republicans including Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Wicker.
The talks are expected to intensify this week as lawmakers return from recess and Capito is scheduled to visit the President once again, along with GOP Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Mike Crapo of Idaho, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Wicker. The focus is on finding out whether Republicans and Democrats could cut a more modest deal on infrastructure and then come back later using a special budget tool known as reconciliation to pass some of Biden's more ambitious reforms like paid family leave and extending the expanded child tax credit.
The obstacles to passing even a scaled back infrastructure bill include disagreement over how big the package should be. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in an interview with Kentucky Education Television (KET), a PBS affiliate, that most Republicans believe the price tag for that would be around $600-800 billion, which is lower than Biden's proposal but still a higher range than the $600 billion Republicans have proposed so far. Senate Democrats have argued that even a bare-minimum package would need to be far more than that.
In the days ahead, the scope and price tag will take center stage in the negotiations. But bigger differences about how to cover the cost of an infrastructure bill present additional landmines for bipartisan talks.
Republicans remain opposed to rolling back portions of their 2017 tax cut while Biden has spent the weeks since his joint address to Congress making the case for raising taxes on corporations and wealthier Americans.
Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told CBS News on Sunday that she was "pleasantly surprised" by the support for a big infrastructure investment that she's heard from CEOs.
"And the reality is, they knew increased corporate taxes were coming, and I have been very pleased by how many CEOs have come out to support the President's plan. So, there will be room for compromise, for sure," she said.
Groups of bipartisan senators are also looking for ways to find consensus. And in a signal that Democratic leaders want to give bipartisan talks some breathing room, an aide familiar with the talks tells CNN that the Senate Budget Committee will punt passing a budget, the first step in a partisan reconciliation process, until at least June.
Capito has expressed optimism about getting a deal, despite the many potential holdups. "I do think we have some real good possibilities of getting a bipartisan bill here," she said recently in a radio interview with Hoppy Kercheval of Metro News in West Virginia.
Louisiana GOP Sen. Bill Cassidy, meanwhile, told NBC's Chuck Todd on Sunday that McConnell has made clear: "If we can find something that actually spends money on infrastructure, roads and bridges -- imagine that, as opposed to what the Biden plan does which is spends a trillion on things which have no relationship to infrastructure -- we can cut a deal."
Policing overhaul efforts
Serious bipartisan talks over legislation to overhaul policing between Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Democratic Rep. Karen Bass of California are also expected to continue this week as the lawmakers leading an effort to broker a deal say they are making progress, despite thorny unresolved issues.
Lawmakers appear to be nearing an agreement to set federal standards for no-knock warrants, bans on chokeholds except in life-threatening situations, and limits on equipment the Defense Department can send to state and local police departments, according to a source familiar with the discussions.
But key sticking points include how to handle qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that critics say shields law enforcement from accountability, and section 242, a part of federal law that sets the bar for criminally prosecuting police officers.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn on Sunday said Democrats should not delay new policing reform legislation even if a provision on ending civil lawsuit protections currently afforded to police officers is not included, arguing that the party can push to end qualified immunity at another time.
"I would never sacrifice good on the altar of perfect. I just won't do that. I know what the perfect bill would be. We have proposed that. I'm willing to see good legislation and I know that sometimes you have to compromise," the South Carolina Democrat told CNN's Jake Tapper on "State of The Union."
"We got to root out the bad apples, and let's go forward with a good, solid program. If you don't get qualified immunity now, then we'll come back and try to get it later, but I don't want to see us throw out a good bill because we can't get a perfect bill."
Clyburn caught lawmakers off guard when he suggested that Democrats could drop changes to qualified immunity.
Sources familiar with the talks said that the issue remains at the center of negotiations now at a crucial juncture. And some were perplexed that Clyburn seemed to be taking the issue off the table just as the two sides were trying to resolve something that they have been haggling over for weeks.
"Clyburn is on his own," one source familiar with the matter told CNN.
High-profile police shooting deaths across the country have fueled a sense of urgency to the talks, and Biden in his joint address to Congress called for lawmakers to "get it done" by the anniversary of Floyd's death at the end of May.
Scott said in a recent interview on CBS' "Face the Nation" that he feels "hopeful" about the prospects for a deal on policing, saying, "This time, my friends on the left aren't looking for the issue, they're looking for a solution."
As for Clyburn's comments, Scott said Monday afternoon they were "certainly encouraging to hear and consistent with what I've been hearing in this process."
Another issue that has drawn bipartisan support is legislation aimed at curbing China's influence.
There are multiple bipartisan bills dealing with China -- from boosting technology funding to trying to rein in China's economic influence in the United States -- that are expected to be rolled into a package on the Senate floor, potentially later this month, in an effort that could represent Biden's best chance at a major bipartisan package from Congress.
There are still pitfalls, however, that could threaten to scuttle the effort.
Multiple committees are working on pieces of the package. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has approved a China bill, while the Senate Commerce Committee is expected to debate legislation known as the Endless Frontier Act from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and GOP Sen. Todd Young of Indiana that would provide a $100 billion boost to technology funding. The committee has spent the past week trying craft a compromise to address concerns from various senators before the committee takes up the measure. One potential roadblock that's still being negotiated: Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, has raised issues that the tech funding creates a new entity at the National Science Foundation, rather than boosting the Department of Energy's National Laboratories.
In addition to those bills, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is expected to debate legislation this week that could be added to the China package, and Sens. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, and John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, have a measure to increase funding for semiconductor manufacturing and research in the US.
Election overhaul bill and gun legislation
In the Senate, Democrats also want to take action on a sweeping voting bill and gun legislation, though neither priority is on track to have the votes to overcome a filibuster and pass out of the chamber.
The Senate Rules Committee is holding a business meeting to consider S.1, the For the People Act, Democrats' signature election and voting overhaul legislation that passed the House in March and that Democrats say would counter efforts by Republicans at the state level to restrict access to the ballot box.
While it won't have the 60 votes to pass out of the Senate, taking up the voting legislation will give Democrats an opportunity to tout the legislation, and will give some more liberal-leaning lawmakers the chance to once again argue that the filibuster should be eliminated.
Schumer indicated at news conference in New York earlier this month that he would put S.1 to a full chamber vote when the Senate is back from recess.
"S.1 is going to be voted on by the committee on Monday, it will be voted by the floor of the Senate, we hope our Republican colleagues will join us because this is just democracy and common sense, if not, everything will be on the table, we must get it done," Schumer said.
It also looks increasingly unlikely that a bipartisan deal will be reached on gun legislation, an issue which received renewed focus in the wake of recent shootings.
Schumer has indicated he plans to move a House-passed gun bill to the Senate floor, though he has continued to hold out hope for the possibility of bipartisan action.
"Even on the very difficult subjects," Schumer said at the end of April in floor remarks, citing gun safety as one issue, "strong legislation coming out of bipartisan compromise is never out of reach." He noted at the time that Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut "continues to discuss bipartisan safety measures" with Cornyn and others.
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