The survival of the Senate's effective supermajority rule to pass bills could hinge on a working group of 20 senators that includes the most moderate members in both parties.
If the group can cut deals and deliver victories, it could become the model for lawmaking under President Joe Biden. If it fails, the Democratic-led Congress will face pressure to pursue partisan avenues to enact its ambitious agenda, including the simple-majority budget process and nixing the filibuster.
The group, evenly divided between the two parties, is off to a rough start. It was sidelined for the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package. It is ill-defined and lacks a clear focus or method. It has yet to show signs of success in the new presidency.
Its ability to prove that the Senate can function under the 60-vote requirement carries high stakes for the future of the chamber — and for politics and policymaking over the next four years.
"The argument against the filibuster is that nothing happens and it's all obstruction. And if we can make it work, we can get legislation passed without changing the rules," said Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and has worked across the aisle.
Republican members of the group say they want to defuse the push to ax the filibuster.
"That's certainly our goal: to diminish the hue and cry by the left for elimination of the 60-vote rule," said Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas. "To say, no, there are ways in which we can work together, that the Senate can function, and needs to."
Sen. Todd Young of Indiana, another GOP member of the group, agreed.
"I do think that group will be the group that decides whether or not we can maintain the 60-vote threshold," Young said. "I don't see any reason for me to continue to participate in the group if some of the members significantly erode the filibuster, or decide to effectively abandon it altogether."
The group will serve as a critical test of Sen. Joe Manchin's theory that the filibuster should be preserved because it promotes cooperation. The West Virginian is the most outspoken Democratic supporter of the 60-vote threshold, and without him the party lacks the votes to modify it.
"Let's start talking to each other — not talking over each other or through each other as senators. We're talking as individuals with each other," Manchin told NBC News on Tuesday, when asked about the role of the group. "Good commonsense people should find common ground."
The two issues that have generated the most optimism about bipartisanship lately are an infrastructure package and legislation to enhance U.S. competitiveness with China.
The group of 20 was scheduled to meet on Wednesday, senators said, as Congress grapples with a host of contentious issues including a hike in the minimum wage, gun violence, immigration and the migrant influx at the border, and voting rights. But that meeting didn't materialize, according to two sources with knowledge of the situation.
Understand that this charade is supposed to fail, and fail miserably. But it will eat up months of time, if not years, without having to produce any results. And when it doesn't, Republicans will have a golden opportunity to take back the House, on top of ending any shot at anything passing for the next 46 months.
Sen. Joe Manchin said Wednesday that he favors a large infrastructure package that would be paid for in part by raising tax revenues — a point of contention between the two parties.
"I'm sure of one thing: It’s going to be enormous," the West Virginia Democrat, who is seen as a swing vote in a chamber divided 50-50, told reporters at the Capitol.
While he didn't predict a price tag, Manchin said Congress should do "everything we possibly can" to pay for it. He said there should be "tax adjustments" to former President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax law to boost revenues, including by raising the corporate rate from the current 21 percent to at least 25 percent.
The tax benefits in the Republican law were "weighted in one direction to the upper end," Manchin said. He also suggested an "infrastructure bank" paid for with revenues, potentially a value-added tax, that would be used for "rebuilding America."
"I'm not afraid to look at other things," he said.
A grand total of zero Republicans in the Senate would vote for a dime in higher taxes, so I have no idea what he thinks he's doing, but the infrastructure package will have no Republican support. Mitch McConnell made that clear early last week
Hope you enjoyed the American Rescue Plan Act. It's the last major piece of legislation that will ever make it through this Congress, or the next one.