US president-elect Joe Biden is to get the Democratic US Congress that he sought after his party’s stunning success in Georgia, but his expansive legislative agenda on issues such as healthcare and climate change cannot be assured a smooth ride.
Wins by Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff for Georgia’s two US Senate seats in runoff elections on Tuesday last week have given the party control of that chamber of Congress, in addition to the US House of Representatives and the White House.
Biden is due to take office on Jan. 20, even as supporters of US President Donald Trump on Wednesday last week stormed the US Capitol building to protest a congressional session convened to certify Biden’s victory in November last year.
Although the 100 Senate seats are to be split between the Democrats and the Republicans 50-50, US vice president-elect Kamala Harris, who is to be sworn into office with Biden, would serve as the tie-breaking vote on any deadlocks in her role as Senate president.
However, with the Senate divided down the middle, compromise with Republicans would be necessary for Biden to get anything substantial done, and his most ambitious pieces of legislation might need to wait, even though the party’s progressives would push him and Democratic leaders to move ahead.
In the short term, Biden’s executive and judicial nominees are to have an easier time getting confirmed, which only requires a majority vote.
His administration might also be able to dodge harassing investigations, as Democrats take over the chairmanships of Senate committees from Republicans.
Democrats and the new majority leader, US Senator Chuck Schumer, are to have the power to control the Senate calendar and which bills are brought to the floor for a vote.
That conceivably would allow Schumer, working together with Biden and US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to bring forward measures that might attract support from moderate Republicans or pressure others to take unpopular stands.
However, Schumer and Pelosi are to preside over razor-thin Democratic majorities, leaving little margin for error and potentially emboldening Republicans to obstruct their agenda as much as possible.
Even so, Schumer on Wednesday last week promised to deliver “bold change.”
“Senate Democrats know America is hurting,” he said. “Help is on the way.”
COURTING THE MIDDLE
Biden’s transition team has focused on crafting a policy agenda that can woo moderate senators of both parties, a Biden adviser said, especially conservative Democrats such as US Senator Joe Manchin, and Republicans such as US senators Susan Collins and Mitt Romney, who can help form the 60-vote majority necessary for most measures.
US Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat and close Biden ally, is among those tasked with cultivating relationships with Republicans.
Even with Democrats in control, Biden’s initial moves are to be measured. He is expected to request about US$1 trillion in additional COVID-19 relief funding, a package that would include economic stimulus, support for state and local governments, and money to reopen schools and distribute vaccines.
A Biden aide said that the president-elect’s team believes it would be politically unpalatable for Republicans to oppose COVID-19 relief, along with funds for vaccine distribution and reopening schools at a relatively modest cost.
Schumer on Wednesday said that sending most Americans US$2,000 checks — an effort that died in the Senate when Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to allow a floor vote — would be a top priority in the new Congress.
Broader policy efforts that would require complex tax changes and be more politically fraught would not be an immediate priority.
Rather than tackling major tax reform, such as reversing tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, some Democrats and Biden advisers have said that his first step could be to beef up US Internal Revenue Service enforcement to go after wealthy tax cheats who deny the US hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue every year.
Democrats might also be able to use a process known as reconciliation to push through some budget-related items on a simple majority vote, George Washington University political science professor Sarah Binder said.
In 2001, the last time that there was 50-50 control in the Senate, a tax-cut package was passed using reconciliation, with then-US vice president Dick Cheney, a Republican, serving as the deciding vote.
During that period, then-Senate majority leader Trent Lott negotiated a power-sharing agreement with the Democratic leader Tom Daschle. They agreed to accommodate both parties’ interests and placed equal numbers of senators on committees, so neither party had the upper hand.
McConnell might press Schumer for a similar agreement, with the threat to gum up the works otherwise, but the relationship between the two has been so bitter that it might not be possible.
“If they don’t come to an agreement of how to proceed, then the slow gridlock that has been occurring would be absolutely dead stop,” Lott said, adding that McConnell might work well with Biden based on the years they shared in the Senate.
GO BIG OR GO HOME
During the presidential campaign last year, Biden spoke in sweeping terms about being a Democrat in the mold of former US president Franklin Roosevelt, pledging action on issues such as immigration, climate change, healthcare and economic inequality.
While the tight margins in the House and Senate would make that difficult, if not impossible, some Democrats have said that Biden should not back down from trying to advance an ambitious agenda.
Schumer can force moderate Democrats and Republicans to take votes on big-ticket packages such as Biden’s US$2 trillion clean-energy plan, said Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal advocacy group.
Biden plans on issuing a flurry of executive orders upon taking office on matters such as immigration, where he would reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for so-called “Dreamers” and curb deportations.
On climate, he would have the US rejoin the 2015 Paris climate accord and reverse many Trump administration environmental policies.
Yet Biden must also think about the longer term.
As vice president under former US president Barack Obama, he watched as Obama pursued an aggressive early agenda involving healthcare and climate change. In the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans seized upon those polarizing efforts to regain control of the House.
This time around, Republicans might be uninterested in cutting deals with Biden, preferring to wait Biden out in the hope of flipping control of both chambers next year, said Jim Manley, once a top aide to former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“I think it’s going to be a tough two years,” Manley said.
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