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Democrats slim down ambitions after back-to-back failures

After two strikeouts, don’t expect Senate Democrats to immediately swing for the fences again.

There’s little appetite in the Democratic majority to publicly fall short on high-profile priorities so soon after the party’s failures to both weaken the filibuster to pass election reform and to approve President Joe Biden’s $1.7 trillion social spending bill. Instead, many Democrats are itching to get back to voting on bills that have plenty of GOP support, such as a new deal to fund the government or changing antitrust laws.

Sure, Democrats will try to revive their signature domestic spending bill, and they say they will keep fighting for election reform. They might even change the Electoral Count Act. None of that, however, is expected to play out on the Senate floor anytime soon.

“My advice to leadership is to find those things where we really have a solid amount of momentum, where you clearly have 10 or more Republicans,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who is working on a bill to protect wildlife that has more than a dozen GOP co-sponsors.

In interviews with Democrats across the ideological spectrum, senators largely described wanting to put some points on the board within the confines of the chamber’s supermajority requirement. But it’s also fair to say the party is not entirely united on the path forward.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called Wednesday’s failed vote a “good start” and said he wanted to see more of it. He argued that the Democrats’ “current direction is failing” and the party should force votes on Biden’s “Build Back Better” bill regardless of whether it will succeed.

That, Sanders said, would put the GOP on the record as opposing Democrats’ plans to expand child care and fight climate change.

“We’ve been negotiating with two senators for five months and it has gotten us nowhere, so we need a new course of action. And I think what we have got to do now is to make it clear where 48 of us stand,” Sanders said Thursday. “Right now, we are playing into Republicans’ hands by not having them vote against anything.”

Nonetheless, the party’s more modest approach was on display Thursday afternoon as the Senate headed home for a recess after Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) joined Republicans to block a rules change that could have allowed elections legislation to pass by a simple majority. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer set up votes for next month on a large tranche of nominees, which Democrats can confirm easily without GOP support.

Schumer has vowed that Biden’s spending bill will come to the Senate floor at some point and his razor-thin majority will work on it until it passes with Manchin’s approval. The problem is that Democrats are starting from square one with Manchin, who said his previous negotiations with Biden are now void.

“What Build Back Better? I mean, at this point Sen. Manchin needs to sit down and get clarity about what’s got 50 votes,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who is close to Biden. Asked about Sanders’ idea to switch strategies, Coons replied: “Good for him.”

Democrats haven’t coalesced around a specific list of goals moving forward, and Schumer hasn’t indicated what legislation he’ll pursue next. But despite his pursuit of partisan priorities, last year he was able to cut deals with Republicans on infrastructure, competitiveness legislation and a hate crimes bill last year — and he still talks up finding compromise where he can.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who serves on Schumer’s leadership team, said “there’s going to be a lot of discussion about where people want to go.”

But with the Feb. 18 government funding deadline looming, several senators said Democrats’ focus will turn to appropriations and reaching a sweeping spending deal that could include disaster and pandemic aid. Congress has been operating on stopgap funding patches since Oct. 1, and the upper chamber’s two appropriations leaders are retiring.

Senate Appropriations Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said Thursday that negotiations are “getting much closer to something that both the House and the Senate could agree on.” Still, some Republicans are fine with enacting stopgap spending bills for the rest of the year, which would keep spending levels flat and preserve spending riders from the presidency of Donald Trump. Democrats acknowledged they would need a strong GOP commitment to move forward.

In addition to the funding package, other possibilities include finding a bipartisan path forward on Russia sanctions and getting legislation that addresses competition with China over the finish line. While the China bill passed the Senate last year, it stalled in the House, prompting an agreement between Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi to work out the differences in conference. Stabenow said there’s a “lot of interest in the Senate about the House passing” it.

The Senate Judiciary Committee also approved a major antitrust bill Thursday, which could see floor action. And Manchin suggested Thursday he’s focused on updating the Electoral Count Act with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) after Wednesday’s failed effort to weaken the filibuster. Manchin said they needed to “secure the vote,” but senators need a bipartisan proposal first, which is at least weeks away.

Senate Democrats are still holding out hope that Manchin will sign on to a narrower version of the social spending bill that addresses child care, climate change or prescription drug prices. But they acknowledge a deal isn’t exactly imminent and, at this point, Democrats will take what they can pass.

“If we can pass bills at 60, we’ll do that,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “If we can pass bills with 51, we’ll also do that. The question is what has the votes necessary for enactment and that will be a criteria.”

The high-profile setbacks on the social spending bill and elections reform package within the span of a month has prompted complaints, particularly among members of the House, that Democratic leadership over-promised and under-delivered. While Senate Democrats want to pivot to legislation that can actually pass the chamber — bipartisan or not — some say the party needs to switch up its messaging strategy.

“Whether we like it or not, part of politics involves explaining to people the motivations of your opponents,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) “ And we have not done a very effective job of explaining to the American people why Republicans are refusing to work with us on voting rights or“ the social spending bill.

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this report misstated one word in Sen. Bernie Sanders’ quote due to a transcription error.

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