WASHINGTON — Democrats began the year with an ambitious to-do list that included providing billions of dollars in pandemic aid, reviving lapsed expanded payments to most families with children and giving Afghan refugees a pathway to citizenship.
By December, they had one final opportunity to enact their remaining priorities by shoving them into a 4,126-page, $1.7 trillion spending package that would avoid a government shutdown. But in the scramble to assemble a package that could get support from both parties, many of those goals were left out.
Now, Democrats may have to wait a long time for another chance as they enter a new legislative world.
Despite their strong showing in the midterm elections, Democrats will most likely struggle to win the support needed to enact priorities that eluded them while the party controlled Washington for the past two years.
Republicans, poised to take charge of the House on Tuesday with a slim majority, have threatened to force deep spending cuts as they pledge aggressive negotiating tactics. And even though Democrats will expand their slim Senate majority by one seat, a few of the most reliable Republican negotiators will have been replaced by more hard-line conservatives.
The compromise spending package highlights how difficult it will be for lawmakers to fulfill the basic responsibility of governance and keep the government funded, let alone reach agreements on broader policy. Just two returning House Republicans supported the spending measure, as party leaders and senior lawmakers urged opposition — even on measures they had supported including in the package.
“We are going to reclaim this body’s integrity in service to the American people after this institution covers itself in disgrace one last time under Democrats’ one-party rule,” Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader still laboring to secure the votes needed to become speaker, said in a speech condemning the spending package when it passed the House.
What’s In the $1.7 Trillion Spending Bill
“A new direction is coming,” he said, calling the spending package a “monstrosity.”
In a letter to his colleagues on Friday, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 House Republican, announced plans to bring up a series of bills that are likely to be rejected by both President Biden and a Democratic-controlled Senate — including rescinding billions of dollars Democrats approved earlier this year to shore up the Internal Revenue Service and toughening immigration enforcement at the southern border.
Mr. McCarthy has also signaled support for a pledge circulated among the most conservative members of his party to oppose any legislation championed by the Republican senators who backed the sprawling spending package. The group who backed the package includes Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, and several other senior Republicans.
That opposition, however, underscores the troubles Congress faces on legislation that lawmakers in both parties say they support.
Democrats pointed to the successes of the past two years and key elements of the spending package as evidence that bipartisan cooperation remained possible, even amid the lingering trauma and divisions from the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol. Those efforts included the overhaul of an archaic law on election procedures that President Donald J. Trump sought to manipulate to remain in power; a measure that mandated federal recognition of same-sex marriages; a $1 trillion infrastructure law, a climate, health and tax law; more than $100 billion in aid to Ukraine in its war against Russia; and a bipartisan industrial policy bill.
“Most of what we did was bipartisan — I believe that’s going to continue,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, said at a news conference this month as he praised the passage of the spending package, which Mr. Biden signed into law on Thursday. “That doesn’t mean we’ll always agree with them or get everything we want, but I think you’re going to find bipartisanship continuing in the next Congress more than people — more than the prognosticators believe.”
Even as they acknowledged some disappointments in their legislative ambitions, Democrats insisted they would try again in the new Congress.
“There’s never been a year in American history where every problem was solved by Congress in that year, but this year, we solved more problems than any other year in modern congressional history,” said Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut.
“Next two years are going to be tough,” he added, though he suggested it would be better to “wait to see how much of a hellscape” comes with the Republican majority.
Inaction on several smaller bipartisan measures resulted in part from the reluctance of party leaders, particularly in the Senate, to devote days of valuable floor time to them amid a crush of other pressing matters.
In such cases, must-pass bills can become the only viable vehicles to carry smaller measures into law, unless all 100 senators agree to pass them. The decisions about what bills can ride along with a must-pass bill also rest with the leadership, who calculate what additional policy items might derail the underlying bill.
“Once you get down to where four people and their staffs are making all these decisions, it’s a terrible way to legislate,” said Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, one of the retiring Republican lawmakers, referring to party leaders as he lamented that several priorities he championed, including a wildlife protection bill, failed to make it into the spending package and did not receive a stand-alone vote.
Many lawmakers, military veterans and organizations fumed after the measure that would have given Afghan refugees a pathway to permanent legal status in the United States was dropped, calling it a failure to help people who had risked their lives to assist American forces.
Another measure that did not make the cut would have banned tech giants like Google, Meta, Apple and Amazon from favoring their own products on their online platforms, a practice critics say hurts smaller businesses and consumers. And a last-ditch effort to reach an agreement on a framework to overhaul the nation’s immigration system faltered, in the latest long-shot effort on an issue that has stymied previous administrations.
Even with senators like Mr. Blunt willing to back several key compromises earlier in the year, Democrats saw several of their priorities jettisoned as a result of partisan opposition, including renewal of an expired expansion of the child tax credit, which helped millions of children out of poverty. Without enough support, they also failed to address the cap on the nation’s ability to borrow, even though lawmakers fear a Republican-controlled House will refuse to raise the debt limit next year without extracting significant concessions from the Biden White House.
Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia had secured a commitment from party leaders to vote on a proposal that would streamline the process for constructing oil and energy infrastructure, in exchange for supporting their marquee climate, health and tax plan. Earlier this month, the conservative Democrat pleaded with his colleagues to take up the measure as part of a must-pass defense policy bill.
But lawmakers in both parties rejected it, even as Mr. Manchin warned that Republicans were squandering an opportunity to enact a bill they had long sought.
“You can get 40 Democrats voting for something they never voted for before, but you can’t get 20 Republicans who always wanted it?” Mr. Manchin asked in an interview.
“It got politicized,” he added.
Luke Broadwater, Carl Hulse, David McCabe and Jim Tankersley contributed reporting.