WASHINGTON – President-elect Joe Biden is adjusting the scope of his agenda to meet the challenges of governing with a narrowly divided Congress and the complications of legislating during a raging pandemic.
Rather than immediately pursue ambitious legislation to combat climate change, the incoming administration may try to wrap provisions into a coronavirus aid bill. Biden's team is also considering smaller-scale changes to the Affordable Care Act while tabling the more contentious fight over creating a public option to compete with private insurers.
Biden is already working on an array of executive actions to achieve some of his bolder priorities on climate change and immigration without having to navigate congressional gridlock.
The maneuvering reflects a disappointing political reality for Biden, who campaigned on a pledge to address the nation's problems with measures that would rival the scope of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal legislation. But Democrats acknowledge that big legislative accomplishments are unlikely, even in the best-case scenario in which the party gains a slim majority in the Senate.
“Let’s assume my dream comes true,” Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin said, referring to a tight majority for his party. “I think we have to carefully construct any change in the Affordable Care Act, or any other issue, like climate change, based on the reality of the 50-50 Senate.”
“There’s so many areas, which we value so much that Republicans do not, that it will be tough to guide through the Senate under the circumstances,” the Illinois Democrat added.
Biden's agenda hinges on the fate of two Senate runoff races in Georgia, which will be decided on Jan. 5. If Democrats win both seats, the chamber will be evenly divided, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote.
In that event, Biden's agenda items stand a better chance of at least getting a vote. If Republicans maintain control, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might not bring the new president's priorities to the floor.
Biden's initial focus on Capitol Hill will be a multibillion-dollar coronavirus aid bill, which is certain to require significant political capital after lawmakers have been deadlocked over negotiations on Capitol Hill for months.
The president-elect said Thursday on CNN that while he supports a $900 billion compromise bill introduced this week by a bipartisan group of negotiators, the bill is “a good start" but it's “not enough” and he plans to ask for more when he's in office. His team is already working on his own coronavirus relief package.
People close to Biden's transition team say they're looking at that stimulus as a potential avenue for enacting some climate reforms — like aid for green jobs or moving the nation toward a carbon-free energy system — that might be tougher to get on their own.
Durbin mentioned President Barack Obama’s first term as a precedent for what Biden will encounter when he takes office.
Then, Obama was forced to focus much of his early energy on a stimulus package to deal with the financial crisis, and he spent months wrangling with his own party on his health care overhaul. Obama also enacted financial regulatory reform, but other progressive priorities, like cap and trade legislation and immigration reform, ultimately lost steam.
And he had a significant House and Senate majority at the time.
Still, some Republicans argue that if Biden approaches negotiations in good faith, there are some common areas of agreement. Rohit Kumar, the co-leader of PwC's Washington National Tax Services and a former top aide to McConnell, said it's possible to find a compromise on some smaller-scale priorities, like an infrastructure bill, addressing the opioid crisis and even a police reform bill.
“There is stuff in the middle, if Biden is willing to do deals in the middle — and that means being willing to strike agreements that progressive members don’t love, and maybe have them vote no, and be at peace with that,” he said.
Indeed, speaking on CNN Thursday, Biden expressed optimism about cutting deals with Republicans. He said when it comes to national security and the “economic necessity” of keeping people employed and reinvigorating the economy, “there's plenty of room we can work.”
Still, he acknowledged, "I’m not suggesting it’s going to be easy. It’s going to be hard."
But here, progressives, not Republicans, could be the roadblock. Waleed Shahid, spokesperson for the liberal Justice Democrats, said progressives are “worried and anxious” about Biden's history of making what he called “toxic compromises with McConnell."
“I think progressives will probably play a key role in trying to push Democrats to have a spine in any negotiations with Mitch McConnell,” he said. “People will hold him accountable for what he ran on.”
Shaheed said he believes progressives could play a role in pushing the Biden administration to embrace a more “aggressive approach” and pursue executive actions to address some Democratic priorities.
And indeed, Biden’s transition team has already been at work crafting a list of potential unilateral moves he could take early on.
He plans to reverse Trump’s rollback of a number of public health and environmental protections the Obama administration put in place. He’ll rejoin the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accord and rescind the ban on travel from some Muslim-majority countries. He could also unilaterally reestablish protections for “Dreamers” who were brought illegally to the U.S. as children.
But some of his biggest campaign pledges require congressional action and are certain to face GOP opposition.
Biden has promised to take major legislative action on immigration reform and gun control, but prior legislative efforts on both of those issues — with bipartisan support — have failed multiple times.
He’s also pledged to roll back the Trump tax cuts for the wealthy, forgive some student loan debt and make some public college free — all heavy lifts in a closely divided or Republican-controlled Senate.
“It’s easy to be skeptical and pessimistic in this Senate,” Durbin said. “I hope that they give us a chance to break through and be constructive and put an end to some of the obstruction.”