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Before the momentous events of last week — before Democratic underdogs Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff swept both Georgia runoffs, dispatching two incumbent Republicans and delivering the U.S. Senate to Democrats for the first time since 2015; before Donald Trump incited a violent mob of MAGA zealots to besiege the U.S. Capitol, finally compelling scores of Republican officials to repudiate a president they’d spent years enabling — President-elect Joe Biden seemed destined, whether by choice or necessity, to settle for incremental change.
Before last week, outgoing GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was on track to continue controlling the Senate — to torpedo Biden’s Cabinet picks, to ignore Biden’s Supreme Court nominees, to block Biden’s bills from ever coming up for a vote on the floor. And before last week, soon-to-be-former President Trump was on track to continue controlling the GOP — to rile his base, to hold politicians hostage, to delegitimize his successor one inflammatory tweet at a time.
But McConnell lost those powers last Tuesday night in Georgia. And Trump may have lost his the next day on Capitol Hill.
Now Biden has a chance to capitalize.
Soon he will enter office with Democratic majorities in both the Senate and the House — albeit by the slimmest of margins. Twitter, meanwhile, has permanently banned Trump, and other social media behemoths may follow. In a matter of days, the former president could find himself puttering around Mar-a-Lago as a deplatformed pariah, sapped of his online sway while the GOP scrambles to redefine itself as something other than the party of Trump.
How should Biden react? Does he double down on his promise of bipartisanship, betting the moment has finally come for the kind of across-the-aisle cooperation that eluded his old boss Barack Obama? Or does he do everything in his power to actually enact the progressive agenda he ran on — reaching out to moderates in the other party at first, but when that (all but inevitably) fails, using his congressional majorities to muscle through as many reforms as possible before the very real risk of losing seats in the 2022 midterms threatens to close his window of opportunity?
In his first remarks on the Georgia results, Biden seemed to suggest that he could do both. “Georgia’s voters delivered a resounding message yesterday: They want action on the crises we face and they want it right now,” he said last week. “On COVID-19, on economic relief, on climate, on racial justice, on voting rights and so much more.”
But while “Georgia’s voters ... want us to move,” they also want us to “move together,” Biden added, saying he was “just as determined today as I was yesterday to try to work with people in both parties — at the federal, state and local levels — to get big things done for our nation.”
Asked last Friday whether the assault on the Capitol would make that “job easier or harder,” Biden didn’t hesitate. “I think it makes my job easier, quite frankly,” he said. “A number of my Republican colleagues, former colleagues, [have] called me” to say they are “as outraged and embarrassed and disappointed and mortified by the president’s conduct as I am and as the Democrats are.” He went on to praise Utah Sen. Mitt Romney as a “man of enormous integrity” and to say he was “so proud” of McConnell for speaking up on the Senate floor, claiming that “there are so many more” Republicans like them.
“Others ... should be ashamed of themselves,” Biden concluded. “But they make up a minority of the Republican Party.”
Some Republicans have echoed Biden’s hopeful tone. Rep. Tom Reed of New York, who has emerged as a leader of moderate House Republicans, told the New York Times Thursday that the party needs to stop “worrying about base politics as much” and start "standing up to that base.” He predicted that a sizable number of Republicans would pursue compromise legislation with Biden on issues such as climate change “in order to achieve something.”
Yet sooner or later, Biden’s optimistic vision of a nation ready to “turn the page” toward unity — and the willingness of Republicans like Reed to compromise — will collide with the harsh realities of partisan politics. It’s one thing for McConnell — who was just reelected to the Senate for another six years — to accuse Trump of pushing our democracy to the brink of “a death spiral.” It’s one thing for his wife, former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, to resign from the Trump administration at the 11th hour, along with several others. And it’s one thing for former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Trump friend and adviser, to argue that Republicans must “separate message from messenger” because “I don’t think the messenger” — meaning Trump — “can recover.”
But abandoning Trump isn’t the same as embracing Biden. Just hours after Wednesday’s riot, 147 House and Senate Republicans still voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election; a snap YouGov poll initially found that a plurality of GOP voters (45 percent) approved of the attack on Capitol Hill (though that number declined in subsequent surveys). Whatever becomes of the 45th president, Republican politicians determined to regain control of Congress in 2022 will have little incentive to further alienate their pro-Trump base by rewarding Biden — an illegitimate president in the eyes of those same voters — with bipartisan achievements.
In a sign of things to come, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, perhaps the leading barometer of raw GOP ambition, is already accusing Biden of breaking his bipartisan promises for noting that police responded a lot more violently to last summer’s Black Lives Matter activists than to Wednesday’s mostly white rioters.
“Biden has a historic opportunity to unify America behind the sentiment that our political divisions have gone too far,” Rubio tweeted. “But instead he decided to promote the left’s efforts to use this terrible national tragedy to try and crush conservatives or anyone not anti-Trump enough.”
Republicans will need an enemy to run against, and that enemy will ultimately be Biden, not Trump. If House Democrats follow through on their threats and try to impeach Trump again, the right will immediately pivot to blaming the new president for dividing the country — even though they were ones who fostered the “stolen election” delusions that led to the deadly assault on the Capitol.
No wonder Biden sounded lukewarm when asked Friday whether he supports the idea. "If we were six months out, we should be doing everything to get him out of office — impeaching him again, trying to invoke the 25th Amendment, whatever it took," he said. "But I am focused now on us taking control as president and vice president on the 20th and to get our agenda moving as quickly as we can."
Biden has been likewise noncommittal on calls from his party to prosecute Trump, saying he will leave those decisions to his attorney general. Yet if Trump takes the unprecedented step of pardoning himself before absconding for Florida, Biden’s Justice Department will almost certainly feel obliged to challenge the constitutionality of the scheme by seeking an indictment — another move that could end Biden’s bipartisan “honeymoon” before it begins.
At the same time, progressives in Biden’s own party are already balking at the moderate makeup of his Cabinet, his cautious attitude toward Congress and his courtship of so-called Never Trump Republicans.
So what’s Biden’s game plan? How can he realize the new possibilities of his presidency without abandoning his hope to unify the country?
Some constraints will be clear from the start. While Biden can no longer completely blame McConnell for tying his hands, he still doesn’t have the power to go as big as many Democrats had once hoped, or as some still do. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has seen her margin shrink to 11 seats, which will limit her ability to push the envelope. And with just 51 votes in the Senate, counting Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as the tie-breaker, a single Democratic defection there is enough to defeat a bill, which means Biden’s agenda can only be as ambitious as his own party’s moderates allow.
In a statement issued Wednesday, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin called on both parties to meet in the middle — a not-so-subtle reminder of his sudden centrality.
“Now more than ever, we must enter a new era of bipartisanship in Washington,” Manchin declared. “With tight margins in the House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans are faced with a decision to either work together to put the priorities of our nation before partisan politics or double down on the dysfunctional tribalism.”
Yet McConnell’s forces can still filibuster almost any Senate legislation that fails to attract a supermajority of 60 votes. So unless one of Biden’s legislative proposals passes muster with every single Senate Democrat and 10 Republicans, it’s probably DOA. Few if any big-ticket items will clear both of those bars.
Even the sort of small-d democratic reforms that Senate Democrats could theoretically make with just 51 votes — enlarging the Supreme Court to dilute the power of the conservative bloc, or scuttling the Senate filibuster that stalls much progressive legislation — aren’t possible right now. Manchin and Arizona’s Krysten Sinema oppose both ideas, and other red- or purple-state Democrats don’t seem keen, either. This includes Jon Ossoff, who has come out against expanding the court. (Manchin did say on Sunday that he will consider “the pros and cons” of statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, which if enacted could pad Democrats’ majority in the Senate.)
But while 51 votes may not be as good as 60, it’s a lot better than 49.
A few moves are mapped out already. Biden has long pledged to reverse Trump’s executive orders on day one regardless of who controls the Senate. Expect Biden to keep that promise and work to repair America’s tattered relationship with European allies by rejoining the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Accord. He will also reverse Trump’s travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries. By the same token, a Democratic Congress can use the Congressional Review Act (just like Republicans did after Obama) to effectively repeal every agency rule issued by the Trump administration within the last six to seven months — no filibusters allowed.
A simple Democratic majority will suffice to confirm all of Biden’s Cabinet picks — even his controversial choice for director of the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, whom Republicans previously threatened to oppose. Less time fighting partisan battles over appointments means more time to focus on solving problems.
Similarly, McConnell eliminated the last remnants of the judicial filibuster years ago, so Biden will be able to fill court vacancies without a single Republican vote, including any that arise on the Supreme Court. And he won’t have to kowtow to McConnell when choosing his nominees, so those nominees can presumably be more progressive. Biden waited until after the Georgia runoffs, for instance, to reveal that he planned to tap Merrick Garland as attorney general — presumably because a Democratic Senate will give him a free hand to choose a replacement for Garland as the chief judge on the United States Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia, the most important judicial seat next to the Supreme Court.
But the events of last week could have the greatest impact on Biden’s legislative agenda, and his most consequential decision will come immediately: How to handle COVID-19 relief?
With the economy sputtering and cases rising again to record levels, the crisis could give Biden an opportunity to answer the call for national healing and notch a bipartisan victory right out of the gate. In December, President Trump’s 11th-hour demand for $2,000 stimulus checks — an idea first floated by liberal lawmakers last spring — inspired a half-dozen Republican senators, including possible 2024 GOP presidential candidates Rubio and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., to endorse the idea. When House Democrats quickly passed a stand-alone bill that would deliver $2,000 checks to millions of Americans, more than two dozen House Republicans signed on.
Yet McConnell refused to bring it up for a vote in the Senate.
With Democratic leader Chuck Schumer in charge of the Senate, Biden can finally get a vote on that bill — which is exactly what he has vowed to do.
"If you send Jon and the reverend to Washington, those $2,000 checks are going out the door, restoring hope and decency and honor to so many people struggling right now," Biden said in Georgia. “Their election will put an end to the block in Washington.”
Right now, it’s unclear what form relief legislation will take. On Friday, Biden said he would “be proposing” the $2,000 checks as part of “an entire package” along with “unemployment insurance, being able to continue with rent forbearance, a whole range of issues.” The price tag of this package, he confirmed, will “be in the trillions of dollars.” Others have floated the idea of a second stand-alone bill designed to authorize the onetime payments.
Republicans would have a hard time opposing such a popular measure. According to a Data for Progress poll released in late December, more than three-quarters of likely voters (78 percent) either strongly or somewhat support a coronavirus relief payment of $2,000; a subsequent survey by the same firm showed that a wide majority of Americans (62 percent) blamed Republicans for the failure to include such checks in the stopgap relief package passed last month. (The final checks were slashed to $600 — half the size of the initial relief payments sent out last spring.)
For Biden, putting $2,000 checks first — especially on their own — would accomplish one of two things. Either he gets the bipartisan moment he craves, assuming he can convince Manchin, who has already expressed doubts, to get on board — or he shows that despite his best efforts, Republicans aren’t going to work with him no matter what.
It could be a win-win. If Republicans cooperate, Biden could test them with other popular proposals. One idea would be more money for COVID-19 vaccination: Biden has already said he’s “gonna need [Congress’s] help in making sure that we establish thousands of federally run and federally supported community vaccination centers of various sizes across the country,” and Jeff Zients, the president-elect’s choice for White House coordinator of the pandemic response, told the Washington Post he is “optimistic” that Congress will approve “significantly more funding” for vaccination. (On Friday, the Washington Post reported that Biden would include “billions of dollars to improve vaccine distribution” in his initial multi-trillion-dollar relief proposal.)
Another idea would be doubling the minimum wage to $15 an hour. That bill is written and has already passed the House, so reviving it would be quick and easy. More than two-thirds of Americans support the measure, according to multiple polls. And parallel ballot initiatives have recently passed in states as varied as Arkansas, Missouri, Colorado and Maine. On Friday, Biden said he hoped “that Democratic control of the House and Senate” would “raise the odds of prompt action” on the issue.
The flip side of this strategy, however, is that whenever Republicans balk, Biden can say he tried — and then claim he has no choice but to move forward and pass his agenda without their support.
Despite the legislative filibuster, 51 votes do, in fact, give him that kind of leverage. How? A once-a-year parliamentary process known as budget reconciliation. The rules of reconciliation are labyrinthine, but basically it allows a simple, 51-vote majority to bypass the filibuster and advance major legislation with only 20 hours of debate — provided the legislation itself is directly related to spending and/or revenue.
Since its first use in 1980, the Senate has used reconciliation to pass everything from the Trump and Bush tax cuts to COBRA health insurance protections to Bill Clinton’s welfare-reform program and balanced-budget deal. It’s also how Trump and the GOP tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act (which only passed in the first place because Democrats had 60 votes in the Senate).
Could Biden squeeze into a single, filibuster-proof legislative package large portions of his so-called Build Back Better agenda — an FDR-inspired recovery plan designed to put millions of Americans back to work in manufacturing, infrastructure and clean energy while also closing the racial wealth gap, implementing new family leave protections and creating a Public Health Jobs Corps? Yes, experts say, as long as Democrats choose to be as creative and audacious as Republicans have been about stretching the boundaries of reconciliation to encompass their ambitions.
Any elements of Biden’s COVID-19 relief package that lack bipartisan support, such as bailouts for small businesses and state and local governments, could fit the bill; so could cash for further public health interventions. According to one analysis by Vox, Biden could probably pass many of his economic priorities through reconciliation as well: a new universal child allowance to “help parents and slash child poverty”; a fully funded rental housing voucher program; an expansion of Obamacare to “cover millions more and make coverage more generous”; a climate plan that “centers investments in clean energy, rather than taxes on dirty energy”; a “huge increase” in funding to low-income school districts. And through reconciliation Biden could also offset the massive cost of these projects by imposing an expiration date on the tax cuts that passed under Trump and largely benefited wealthy Americans — say, in two years, once the economy has recovered.
With Democrats in charge of Congress and the White House, progressives will demand they do all of this and more. But will Biden go that big? When asked if the incoming president is planning to use budget reconciliation as a bargaining chip, the Biden transition team declined to comment.
Their reluctance is understandable. Reconciliation was never meant as a way to force gigantic reforms through Congress with the minimum number of votes, and trying to do just that could trigger even more backlash — from moderates as well as conservatives — than eliminating the legislative filibuster, which has already been twisted beyond all recognition. Then again, progressives may argue, McConnell has never been shy about bending Senate rules for partisan advantage, so why should Biden unilaterally disarm at a moment when Americans are desperate for help — and when helping them may represent the surest and simplest path to future electoral success?
If Biden refuses to maximize his impact through reconciliation, his presidency could still be consequential — if ultimately circumscribed by both McConnell’s maneuvering and the demands of moderate Democrats (Manchin, Sinema) and Republicans (Romney, Maine’s Susan Collins, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski). It might look, in fact, a lot like Obama’s final years in office. Repealing Trump’s hundreds of actions on immigration. Renegotiating the Iran nuclear deal. Continuing tariffs on Chinese exports that are popular with both parties.
Beyond reconciliation, the best Biden could expect from Congress would be some incremental bills that chip away at big problems, along with proposals that address less controversial issues such as higher-education reform. Simplifying the child tax allowance — and making sure the poorest families can get access to it — may get a look. (A bill along those lines was co-sponsored by Romney and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and both Rubio and Mike Lee, R-Utah, have also worked on the issue.) And some sort of renewed, stand-alone infrastructure plan — Biden floated a $2 trillion plan during the campaign — could also attract bipartisan support, according to Manchin.
“Sending checks to people that basically already have a check … we have done an awful lot of that, [and] it's time now to target where the money goes,” he said Sunday. “If you want to spend $2 trillion, $3 trillion, invest it in infrastructure. … There’s a lot we can do to put people back to work."
Yet even if Trump is ostracized, polarization is unlikely to fade anytime soon. Republicans may attempt to put the Trump era behind them; Biden is sure to emphasize civility, decency and compromise.
But there is no guarantee that any of this good feeling will last, let alone translate into sweeping bipartisan legislation. More than anything else, it is the cold, hard math of Warnock and Ossoff’s wins in Georgia that has the potential to transform Biden’s presidency. But first Biden must decide if he really wants to be transformative.
With additional reporting by Brittany Shepherd.
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