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Democrats Control Washington, But That Doesn't Mean Their Agenda Will Pass

House Democrats are planning a strategic wave of party priority legislation on everything from guns to immigration, even as none — if any — of the bills is likely to pass a 50-50 Senate.

"We believe these bills enjoy overwhelming support among Democrats, Republicans and independents among the American people," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said this week. "Frankly, we don't know why that support, particularly in terms of Republican support, doesn't translate to the members of the House or the Senate."

This week, Democrats passed a sweeping package to overhaul election and campaign finance laws, as well as a bill to change policing policies that was originally drafted in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by police in Minneapolis last year.

Last week, Democrats passed the Equality Act, which would explicitly ban discrimination against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Republicans were nearly unified in opposition to all three measures.

Hoyer said that in the weeks ahead, Democrats will take up legislation to expand labor rights, as well as gun legislation to enhance background checks for purchases and to close the "Charleston loophole" to further tighten the background check system.

The Equal Rights Amendment to require equal legal rights regardless of sex will get a vote, as will the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, whichexpired in 2018 and has been stuck in a partisan deadlock since. Immigration bills are also on the agenda, including a proposal to provide permanent legal status to certain people, such as those brought to the U.S. illegally a children and often referred to as "Dreamers."

Since many of these bills were passed by Democrats in the previous Congress, they can be brought back up for House votes and bypass the committee process before April 1 under House Rules. All of them collected dust in the then-GOP-controlled Senate, but Hoyer said Democrats are hopeful that a Democratic-controlled Senate will allow some of these bills to see "the light of day."

They will also keep up the left's pressure campaign against the filibuster, the Senate rule that requires a 60-vote supermajority to pass legislation. Politically, Democrats are concerned about the prospects of a Democratic-controlled Washington's ability to pass their agenda and how that could spark a backlash in the 2022 midterms if they have nothing to show voters for giving Democrats the majority and the White House.

In this polarized Congress, Senate Democrats will need 10 Republicans to advance any of their priorities, and none of these House bills has that level of support in the chamber right now.

"You don't have to be much of a mathematician to know, if you've got 50 on one side and 50 on the other side, getting things done is tough," Hoyer acknowledged.

Like a growing number of Democrats, Hoyer said he supports changing filibuster rules. "I personally believe that the filibuster is an undemocratic aspect of the United States Senate. At some point in time, the majority ought to be able to rule," he said. "And we'll see if, at some point in time, the Senate gets so frustrated that it repairs to having majority rule."

That conflict will be a reoccurring tension among Democrats in this Congress, as the vast majority support blowing up the filibuster against a small but critical mass of Senate Democrats who oppose it. Right now, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., doesn't have the votes to consider it.

One key opponent to changing filibuster rules, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was asked last week if he could ever foresee changing his mind on the issue. "Never!" he yelled. "Jesus Christ, what don't you understand about never?"

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has promised "chaos" in the Senate if Democrats change the rules, saying that Republicans will object to all routine measures in a never-ending procedural protest. "This body would grind to a halt like we've never seen," he said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
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