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Hit by realities of 50-50 Senate, Democrats turn focus to bipartisanship

By Lauren Fox, CNN

Democrats on Capitol Hill are pivoting away from talking about what was once was a cornerstone of their agenda — the Build Back Better Act — to focusing on a batch of smaller, bipartisan proposals that they hope can show voters that even a 50-50 Senate can work.

“This is smart to do,” said Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana. “Truth is these are not make believe issues. They are real.”

This week, Democrats introduced a bipartisan update to the Violence Against Women Act, which lapsed three years ago. The Senate passed by voice vote a bill that would reshape how companies handle sexual harassment cases, a bipartisan group of senators continues to negotiate legislation on reforming the Electoral Count Act and Russia sanctions, and the Senate is poised as soon as next week to pass a massive postal reform bill that lawmakers have been trying to to get over the finish line for years.

“It shifted when the talks on BBB fell apart,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, referencing the broad social spending bill Democrats have failed to advance for months. “It obviously feels like you need some breathing room to work on other things.”

The uptick in bipartisan efforts in the Senate come as Democrats are keenly aware of the reality of arithmetic in their chamber. With West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin a “no” on Build Back Better and even more steadfast in that opposition as inflation numbers tick upward, Democrats see little upside in forcing a series of votes on legislation that doesn’t have support of the entire caucus months before the midterms.

“If we don’t have 50 Democrats willing to vote to move forward, we don’t have 50 Democrats willing to move forward at this point,” Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, said of Build Back Better. “I do think we will see bipartisan legislating this month and next and my hope is we will get to a place where my colleague from West Virginia embraces some proposal … but it would be premature to say what I know what that looks like.”

For now, senators say conversations on Build Back Better are happening organically, on a member-to-member level, to see what — if anything — Manchin could eventually support. But Manchin has said repeatedly he’s not focused on any of those efforts right now.

Asked if a few months of bipartisanship could be enough to convince him to come back to the table on Build Back Better, Manchin responded, “Why would I want to go backward when we’re going forward?”

“I don’t go backward,” he said.

Adding even more urgency to the bipartisan push is the fact that Democrats don’t have the votes right now to pass anything along a party-line vote. The fragility of a 50-50 Senate came into sharp focus earlier this year when Sen. Ben Ray Lujan’s office announced that the New Mexico Democrat had suffered a stroke. While he’s expected to make a full recovery, it will be weeks before he is able to return to the chamber.

“Of course, with Sen. Lujan not here for awhile — God love him. He’s getting better. … It means there are some logistics we have to work through,” Minnesota Democratic Sen. Tina Smith told CNN.

Democrats had a choice to make after January. While some members have argued that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer should put Build Back Better on the floor and force members to go on the record, there is a political risk to reminding voters over and over again that the party isn’t united.

Toward the end of January, Democrats spent weeks trying to pass voting rights legislation, attempting to convince Manchin and Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema to get rid of the filibuster. Neither caved on their position, setting into motion days of headlines about Democratic disunity.

“We are not getting rid of the filibuster. If you want to get something done, you got to work together,” Manchin said.

The issues the Senate is tackling now — government funding, domestic violence legislation, postal reform — may seem small in comparison to a nearly $2 trillion investment in the country’s economy and social agenda that Build Back Better was, but Democrats are candid that it may be the best and only path forward to showing voters that they deserve another chance at the majority. Taking a pause now from Build Back Better could also help heal long-damaged relationships in a body that has become more and more partisan over the past decade.

“All of a sudden, there is sincere, Democratic participation,” said Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. “Now, I am not so naïve as to believe if the ratio were 60-40 this would be occurring, but I am glad that they finally recognize the realities of a 50-50 Senate.”

It’s also a formula that worked last year when a bipartisan group helped shepherd through Congress a bipartisan infrastructure bill.

“I think BBB being off the front burner has allowed us to look at the issues Americans care about and focus on them,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican from Utah.

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