Chuck Schumer doesn’t have to be the bad guy in the Senate’s infrastructure debate. The calendar is doing that job for him.
With the upper chamber closing in on President Joe Biden’s long-sought, $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure plan and readying a budget to set up a companion $3.5 trillion domestic spending plan, the majority leader is letting the simple threat of his members missing state fairs and overseas delegations drive the result. August in Washington isn’t any senator’s idea of a good time.
So while the Senate is scheduled to leave town later this week, Schumer is set to blow through the previously scheduled start to recess, and beyond. He’s betting it won’t take long for senators to get so tired, and miss enough events back home, to dramatically speed up the Senate’s endgame on the infrastructure bill it’s currently considering, not to mention a budget set to follow it that would end with an all-night vote-a-rama.
In a 50-50 Senate where power is dispersed across both parties and the ideological spectrum, the simple act of setting the schedule is one of Schumer’s most valuable tools — and senators are keeping a close eye on how much of their five-week recess is about to be sacrificed to the infrastructure gods.
“Getting home is always a good motivator,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who supports the bipartisan bill. “People are going to get irritated and sick of each other.”
Still, the August schedule was mired in new uncertainty on Monday after bipartisan bill backer Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tested positive for a breakthrough case of Covid following several days close to his colleagues. Viral spread within the Senate could complicate everyone’s plans.
Even if they don’t, Republicans are warning Democrats not to assume the 50-vote minority will simply fast-forward through the amendment process on the bill. Most members of the Senate have had little influence on the bipartisan infrastructure agreement Biden has blessed, leading to pent-up demand for proposed changes.
“We’ve lost at least a week. And maybe two,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a member of the bipartisan negotiating group and a farmer whose crops have been ravaged by weather this season, making it easier for him to remain in the capital. “It just depends. [The calendar] could be our worst friend. We could lose our whole damn break. I’m prepared to stay here.”
“He’s going to grind us down, there’s no question about it,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) of Schumer. “I take him at his word. It’s going to be unpleasant.”
Even as Biden’s agenda seemed to hang in the balance this spring and summer, the Senate kept up its usual languid schedule right up until late July: Like clockwork, the chamber came in late Monday afternoon, and most members flew out on early Thursday afternoon (usually right at 1:45 p.m.). Then came Schumer’s increasingly urgent warning of weekend work and August in D.C.
The New York Democrat also scheduled a failed vote two weeks ago that seemed to light a fire under negotiators, then kept the Senate in over the weekend to ensure the bill was finally finished. The bipartisan talks seemed most in danger of collapsing over the past two months when the Senate was out and lawmakers were scattered across the country.
As the bill was finally unveiled late Sunday, Schumer said he “tried to prod the negotiators along when they’ve needed it, and given them the space when they’ve asked for it.” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said Schumer pushed the bipartisan group of senators a “little bit faster” than they wanted sometimes, but it helped spur them along.
Monday marked the eighth consecutive day the Senate had been in session, already rivaling several 2020 streaks devoted to passing massive Covid aid packages and Republicans confirming Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. And the chamber is only beginning consideration of the infrastructure bill this week, with amendments still to get through and an entire budget resolution still to go.
Importantly, there’s no hard deadline holding the Senate in session. What runs the chamber’s calendar at the moment is a majority leader aware that time is running short for a unified Democratic government to pass its agenda and that senators value time away from Washington — in addition to their colleagues — after a long work period like this one.
Next weekend could also be spent in session to continue grinding through the Senate’s to-do list, Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said.
“The theory of the case is, we’re going to have a lively debate about the bill, opportunities for amendments. And there will come a time when we have reached our conclusion. That time will be defined by the Democrats and at least 10 Republicans,” Durbin said, referring to the Senate’s 60-vote requirement for ending debate on most legislation.
The death last week of former Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) is also a consideration. Enzi’s funeral is on Friday in his home state; the Senate could come back this weekend and resume its work if it has to take Friday off.
The bipartisan infrastructure bill clocks in at 2,702 pages, and legislation of that complexity would typically take several weeks on the Senate floor. The budget resolution normally takes the better part of a week to pass, with 50 hours of debate and the possibility to offer unlimited amendments.
“They’re going to have to allow a good amount of time just for people to digest the [bipartisan infrastructure] bill and prepare amendments to offer and, hopefully, get votes. It’s going to take a while. I don’t see any way this winds down at the end of the week,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). Still, he conceded that senators will get sick of each other “probably pretty fast.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said there should be no “artificial timetable” employed by Democrats to finish the bill and limit amendment consideration. McConnell has supported the bipartisan legislation, but as GOP leader is channeling the demands within his conference to have ample time for amendments.
With an amendment slog in his way on Monday afternoon, Schumer offered a simple yet effective warning that senators shouldn’t take too long to fight: “The longer it takes to finish the bill,” he said, “the longer we’ll be here.”