With Legislative Prospects Dim, Democrats to Highlight Past Bills
WASHINGTON — With major legislation likely to be rare in a divided Congress, Senate Democrats are planning to put much of their effort over the next two years into selling the impact of laws they have already passed, heralding the benefits and making sure that tens of billions of federal dollars are spent appropriately and in a way that gives them a political advantage.
Senator Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat and majority leader, said the top Democratic priority would be to focus on the implementation of key Biden-era initiatives such as the $1 trillion public works law, a statute providing incentives for the domestic production of microchips, clean energy projects, job training and new health and drug benefits. The strategy reflects a concern among Democrats in Congress — shared at the White House — that voters do not credit them for the creation of an array of popular programs, and a determination to ensure that changes ahead of the 2024 elections.
As Senate Democrats gathered for a private retreat on Wednesday following President Biden’s State of the Union address, Mr. Schumer devoted a session to talking about how they could ensure the new laws are properly carried out and provided a memo outlining how lawmakers could get credit for federal spending and projects in their states.
Democrats hope to employ the strategy to boost the re-election prospects of their most endangered incumbents such as Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, who is promoting his state as a prime location for such projects as a new “hydrogen hub” — a center for production and storage of the clean-energy gas.
In an interview, Mr. Schumer said the push would be done in close coordination with the White House and would include committee hearings to assess progress in putting the legislation into effect, a process that he said would produce dividends for the country and political benefits for Democrats trying to hold their majority in 2024.
“The No. 1 thing I think we can do for the good of the country, and for the good of our members, is make sure this is implemented well,” he said. “We had record legislation last year. But unless people know that it’s actually affecting them, it doesn’t register.”
“It is going to be an implementation year,” he said, “an implementation Congress.”
The congressional approach dovetails with the Biden administration strategy that was on display Tuesday night as the president spent considerable time underscoring the millions of jobs already created during his tenure and more that will come online in the future because of initiatives such as the microchip and infrastructure laws, both of which were bipartisan.
The president traveled to Kentucky in January to laud new federal aid to begin upgrading a heavily traveled bridge connecting Kentucky and Ohio, a project backed by Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader, who was also on hand along with other politicians from both states.
Last week, Mr. Biden was in Manhattan to announce a $300 million grant to begin work to create a new rail link beneath the Hudson River, a project officials in New York and New Jersey have pursued for years. Mr. Schumer and numerous other public officials from the two states celebrated with him.
“Biden gets it,” Mr. Schumer said of the president’s eager embrace of the old-school rituals of groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings. “He’s always loved implementation.”
To fortify the effort, Mr. Schumer and his chief of staff, Mike Lynch, met for lunch Tuesday at the White House with Ron Klain, Mr. Biden’s outgoing chief of staff; his successor, Jeffrey D. Zients; and other top White House officials to explore their approach going forward.
Mr. Schumer and other Democrats say they learned a lesson from 2010, when they were not aggressive enough in seeking credit for the achievements of the Obama administration through its economic stimulus bill and health care law, suffering midterm setbacks that year as a result. Criticized for the cost of producing signs for public works projects showing where the money came from, some states ditched them altogether.
Democrats are determined not to allow that to happen again.
Mr. Schumer said that the White House would notify Democratic lawmakers when bringing projects to a state, then coordinate the announcement with them and try to have a high-ranking official such as a cabinet secretary on hand to draw attention to the event. He said he met with Democratic committee chairmen last week to encourage them to conduct hearings on the rollout of the signature pieces of legislation.
“We are going to have our committees really focused on implementation,” Mr. Schumer said, describing the effort as “making sure that the programs in their jurisdiction get implemented quickly and well.”
In the memo circulated at the retreat, Mr. Schumer and Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, provided a lengthy list of deadlines for seeking federal aid. The covered areas included new surface transportation projects, greenhouse gas reduction initiatives and guidance for encouraging constituents and companies to qualify for the myriad tax breaks and incentives included in the new laws.
Republicans who criticized Mr. Biden’s portrayal of the financial state of the nation say that Americans will see through Democratic claims that they are reinvigorating the economy.
“It is an absolute farce that the Biden administration is trying to take credit for an economic rebound when so many Americans are suffering at the grocery store, the gas pump and their utility bills,” said Representative Michael C. Burgess, Republican of Texas.
Republicans are also certain to hit Democrats for taking political advantage of the new funding sources. But in his speech Tuesday, Mr. Biden said he was happy to share credit with Republicans who opposed the infrastructure bill but are still seeking aid for their districts and states.
“I still get asked to fund the projects in those districts as well, but don’t worry,” he said. “I promised I’d be a president for all Americans. We’ll fund these projects. And I’ll see you at the groundbreaking.”
Mr. Schumer said the focus on getting the new laws in place doesn’t mean he has given up on legislating. He said he sees the potential for approval of a series of bipartisan bills, including a farm bill, the annual Pentagon policy measure, legislation to eliminate the disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine, expanding a new $35 per month cap on insulin costs to all Americans and legislation to overhaul energy project permitting, among others.
But he said that, given the Republican-majority House, it makes sense to put the focus on the “powerful” legislation of the past two years.
“To let implementation not happen,” he said, “would be a sin.”