As Biden projects unity, Senate Democrats see little action

The US President says he will sign a GOP-backed measure to overturn changes to the criminal code in the District of Columbia

President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer talk to reporters at the Capitol in Washington, on Thursday, March 2, 2023.
President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer talk to reporters at the Capitol in Washington, on Thursday, March 2, 2023.J. Scott Applewhite (AP)

President Joe Biden visited the Senate on Thursday to demonstrate unity among Democrats – but he ended up endorsing a Republican priority instead.

With Democrats acknowledging they cannot get much done in the closely divided Congress, Biden has pledged to try to find areas where the two parties can agree. He made good on that promise in remarks at a caucus luncheon, telling senators that he will sign a GOP-backed measure to overturn changes to the criminal code in the District of Columbia.

“If you pass it, I will sign it,” Biden said, according to multiple people in the room who requested anonymity to discuss the closed-door meeting.

Accompanying Biden as he left the luncheon, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he believes “we can get a lot of good bipartisan stuff done in these two years” and that Democrats “are filled with unity, optimism – and optimism about 2024.”

Even so, Schumer’s Democratic Senate has been largely immobilized this year as the newly Republican House has shown little appetite for compromise. In addition, a string of Senate Democrats have been absent due to health issues and some moderate senators facing reelection next year are voting with Republicans. While Schumer gained a coveted extra seat for his party in the November elections, bringing the margin to 51-49, Democrats have not yet been able to use their majority to advance any of their policy goals.

Schumer has repeatedly focused on Democratic accomplishments in the last Congress, helped by the then-Democratic-led House, in lieu of making promises about the current session.

“If the last two years focused on getting our agenda passed into law, one of the focuses of our lunch will be on how the next two years will be about implementing that agenda,” Schumer said on the Senate floor Thursday morning as he previewed Biden’s visit.

In the absence of Democratic legislation, Republicans are finding some success advancing their own policy goals – by forcing votes on Biden administration regulations that they see as overly burdensome. The Republican measure that Biden said he will support would override the District of Columbia’s effort to overhaul how the city prosecutes and punishes crime as the local murder rate has skyrocketed.

As they left the caucus meeting with Biden, several Democratic senators said they will support, or are considering supporting, the Republican effort to repeal the changes to the DC criminal code.

“If anything, we should be increasing penalties for certain offenses,” Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania said. He said he will vote to overturn the changes to the DC code.

On Wednesday, the Senate voted to overturn a new rule set by the Department of Labor over the way asset managers consider climate change and “environmental, social and governance” factors in investments for retirement plans. It was able to pass with the support of Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana, who are both up for reelection next year.

Biden has said he will veto that and keep the rule in place.

Republicans are forcing the simple-majority votes by using the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to overturn certain regulations that have been in place for a short time. Those votes are some of the only policy measures that have been considered this year, as Schumer has put a raft of judicial and executive branch nominations up for votes instead of legislation that has little chance of becoming law.

Democrats have had to hold back on some of the more controversial nominations, as well, as members of the caucus have had extended absences. New Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman is gone for several weeks dealing with clinical depression after he suffered a stroke last year. California Senator Dianne Feinstein is in her home state this week dealing with a health issue, according to her office. And Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey returned from a short absence this week after undergoing surgery for prostate cancer.

Schumer said Monday that Biden’s visit would also be focused on the contrast between Democratic policy priorities and House Republicans – and the dilemma that the House GOP faces as conservatives insist on budget cuts in exchange for raising the country’s debt limit, action that must come this year to avoid a default.

“We’ll talk to the president about how we can make sure Americans see that contrast,” Schumer said before Biden’s visit.

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