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Schumer's agenda: Election changes, infrastructure investment

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks about Senate Democrats legislative accomplishments as he holds a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on March 25 in Washington, D.C.  Credit: Getty Images/Pool

WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Thursday laid out an ambitious agenda for the Senate when it returns from a recess in two weeks that includes gun background checks, sweeping election changes and a massive infrastructure investment.

Schumer, the New York Democrat, challenged Republicans to work with Democrats and said he would put the legislation on the Senate floor for debates and votes, though he did not offer a specific timeline of legislative actions.

And he didn’t rule out defanging the filibuster to pass his priorities, pointedly saying that "everything’s on the table" shortly before President Joe Biden said at the first press conference of his term that he’s for making changes to limit "abuse" of "the filibuster rule."

"When the Senate returns in April, we’re going to begin to focus on three major areas: voting rights and civil rights, economic recovery and jobs with an emphasis on climate change and Building Back Better, and health and gun safety," Schumer said at a news conference.

"We will try to work with our Republican colleagues on a bipartisan basis when and where we can," he said.

"But if they choose to obstruct rather than work with us to deliver the bold help that American families need, we will push forward and make progress, nonetheless," Schumer said. "Failure is not an option."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who did not respond to a request for comment, already has rejected or questioned most of the legislation Schumer is proposing.

McConnell said Thursday that during the break he’ll listen to his constituents’ "concerns about all the consequences of Democrats’ go-it-along efforts" in passing the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill and the "multi-trillion-dollar cousin of the Green New Deal that Democrats are reportedly planning as a sequel."

Schumer’s agenda includes bills passed in the House or introduced in the Senate, and the confirmations of three more top Justice Department officials.

One of the top priorities is passage of the so-called For the People Act that would set a national standard for federal elections, guarantee voting rights, tighten campaign finance laws, empower the Federal Election Commission and boost governmental ethics.

At a Wednesday Senate hearing, Schumer accused Republican state legislatures of proposing voter restrictions that smacked of "Jim Crow" laws that disenfranchised Black voters. McConnell denied the charge and blasted the Democrat’s bill as "a partisan power grab."

Another priority — gun background checks and anti-discrimination bills — gained added urgency after last week’s mass shootings in which gunmen killed eight people, including six Asian Americans, in the Atlanta area and 10 people at a Boulder, Colorado, grocery store.

Democrats also will repeal Trump administration regulations, including an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rule that favors employers facing discrimination claims and the rollback of limitations on methane emissions from oil and gas.

And it includes the next big bill that has yet to be written — a sweeping effort that would cost as much as $3 trillion that would fix streets, sewers, airports, broadband and other infrastructure while upgrading those facilities to address climate change.

Schumer has the narrowest of majorities with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote in an evenly split Senate, said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government of George Mason University.

But Schumer’s acting as if "Democrats won a big mandate in 2020 for an aggressive liberal agenda," he said.

"Schumer knows that right now the Democrats have the numbers, if they can hold their slim majorities together on critical votes, and that the opportunity to move issues forward is right now," Rozell said. Historically, the president’s party loses seats in the midterm elections.

Schumer addressed doubters at his news conference, pointing out Senate Democrats accomplished their first three goals: holding Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, confirming Biden’s cabinet nominees and passing the sweeping stimulus bill.

"My job," he said, "is to find the most forward progress that we can get done."

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