Schumer shifts Senate into campaign mode

May 23, 2024

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is shifting to campaign mode as he’s planning a series of message votes on border security, access to contraception and other hot-button issues.

The shift reflects a broad acknowledgement within the Senate that there’s little chance of passing substantive legislation between now and Election Day as lawmakers hunker down for a grueling campaign.  

Schumer has largely avoided so-called “show votes” on bills that have little chance of passing because for most of this Congress — and for Democrats’ first two years in the Senate majority in 2021 and 2022 — he wanted to focus on legislation that actually could become law.

But senators don’t expect much more to get done before the election, other than the confirmation of judges and executive branch nominees, now that Congress has safely passed $61 billion in funding for Ukraine, the annual appropriations bills for fiscal year 2024 and a five-year reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“We’re getting closer to the election,” said one Democratic senator who requested anonymity to explain Schumer’s new focus on messaging votes.

“The question is what can we done the rest of the year?” the lawmaker asked, noting that the top priorities — Ukraine funding, government funding, the reauthorization of FISA warrantless surveillance and the FAA — are already done.

Democrats are feeling increasingly nervous about losing their Senate majority as new polling out last week showed President Biden trailing in five battleground states, including Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, which are also hosting Senate races.

Many Democratic senators are worried that border security has become a political liability for Biden, but they see an advantage over Republicans on women’s health issues, especially abortion rights.

The Senate will vote Thursday to advance a bipartisan border security deal that only mustered four Republican votes when it came to the floor as part of an emergency foreign aid package in February.

Senate Republicans, including the bill’s co-author, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), say they will vote overwhelmingly to block the legislation again on Thursday, even though it was endorsed earlier this year by the National Border Patrol Council, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.

That’s something that Schumer and other Democrats say will make for a good talking point in campaign ads and on the stump this fall, when they’re facing a barrage of Republican attacks over border security.

“Three months ago, Donald Trump told his Republican allies to block the strongest bipartisan border security bill in a whole generation. Luckily, we are trying again tomorrow, and I hope this time Republicans join us to achieve a different outcome,” Schumer said Wednesday.

Schumer tried to draw more attention to Thursday’s vote by previewing it earlier this month and holding a press conference Wednesday afternoon focused on the flow of fentanyl across the southern border.

But Schumer and other Democrats know full well that the bill is expected to pick up only two or three GOP votes at most.

They know there’s essentially no chance of getting Republicans to support any border security legislation or proposals to protective women’s access to reproductive health, which is why they plan to hammer their GOP colleagues with political messaging votes.

Schumer also announced on the Senate floor Wednesday that he will set up a vote next month on the Right to Contraception Act, which Democrats hope to use to further highlight the rulings of conservative judges that have limited women’s access to health care, including abortions.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, said Democrats plan to highlight their political and policy differences with Republicans on other issues but declined to say what other messaging bills are coming.

“You’re going to have to wait with bated breath to determine what’s next but there will be other opportunities,” she said.

Republicans, however, are shrugging off the votes as unlikely to do much to protect vulnerable Democratic incumbents, such as Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

“This is actually, right now, purely and simply a political stunt, and I think most people are going to view it that way,” said Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.).

He said the issue is “baked” into how many voters view Republicans and Democrats as polls show voters trust the GOP more to handle border security.

“There’s no way [Democrats] can run away from it. They own it. Their incumbents own it,” Thune said.

Lankford, the lead Republican author of the bill, said there’s “no question” the bill would make the situation at the border better, but he said Schumer’s not bringing it to the floor with a sincere desire to get it passed.

“This is not trying to accomplish something. This is about messaging now,” he said.

Senate Democrats say they expect Schumer to set up other votes on other messaging bills related to women’s access to health care and reproductive rights later this year.

Schumer forced Republicans to vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act in May of 2022 after a draft opinion of the Supreme Court’s majority ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned the right to an abortion, leaked to the public.

Republicans blocked that bill by a vote of 49 to 51, with some of them arguing it went well beyond simply codifying the right to an abortion established by Roe v. Wade in 1973.

Schumer also brought voting rights legislation to the Senate floor in January of 2021, even though it was crystal clear that it would not have enough GOP support to pass.

Democrats pushed the bill forward to highlight what they said was a refusal by Senate Republicans to protect voting rights, especially those of Black voters, from a barrage of new restrictions at the state level.

But much of the 2022 election year, when Democrats still controlled the House, was devoted to passing major bipartisan bills, including legislation to address gun violence after the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and to bolster the domestic production of semiconductors.