Joe Biden was inaugurated almost a month ago, but his Administration has not pursued a comprehensive legislative agenda during his firsts weeks in office. In great part because the Senate divided its attention between the second Trump impeachment and the confirmation process of the Biden cabinet.
With the impeachment fight over, we can expect the Senate to continue its confirmation schedule (only 7 out of 23 position have been confirmed so far) and for the Biden Administration to move forward with their legislative agenda. Currently, Biden has signaled that the three main focus areas are: COVID relief, immigration, and infrastructure.
Biden is expected to face an uphill battle before passing some of his agenda through Congress, which currently stands divided with the Democrats holding a slim majority. Democrats hold 50 out of 100 seats, not counting VP Kamala Harris who is expected to be a tiebreaker vote in the future. Biden cannot afford a single Democratic defection. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi also holds a slim majority in the House, after Democrats lost several seats in the 2020 election.
Most modern-day presidents, excluding Trump, had a so-called “honeymoon period” where they enjoy high approval ratings. Presidents usually try to use this grace period to pursue their major policy goals before the District of Columbia turns into campaign mode for the midterm election and those rosy approval ratings turn to dust.
Biden’s clock is ticking, his national approval rating currently stands at 54%, which is not spectacular but enough for the time being. Biden will need to be very strategic on which legislation he wants to push through Congress, he will not want to spend political capital in a pipe dream bill with no real chance on becoming law.
COVID-19 Relief: The best chance for Biden
The Administration has spent much of their first days in office sketching out their plan to pass through Congress a massive $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. The bill includes $1,400 stimulus checks, extended unemployment benefits, an increase in the federal minimum wage, and aid to state and local governments.
The Biden Administration has shown some signs that he may be willing to seek bipartisan support for the bill, like the two-hour meeting the Biden held with some 10 GOP senators on January. Despite these conciliatory approaches, the Democrats are moving forward with their bill through a process called “budget reconciliation” which would allow the bill to be approved by a simple majority in both houses of Congress, preventing the GOP to employ any filibuster to block the bill.
In fact, the House Budget Committee has already approved the bill for a vote on the House floor. The Democrats appear to be relatively united on their push for the relief bill, with Republicans expressing significant concerns on the increase in public spending.
The prospects for Biden having its first legislative win of his presidency are fairly high, as they only need to convince their own caucus to get it done. However, they will still need to iron out the details on the increase in the federal minimum wage that was proposed in the first draft of the bill. As there are some doubts if that policy can even be implemented through budget reconciliation and there has been some resistance from Senate Democrats to approve this specific policy.
The minimum wage increase already appears to be dead on arrival, as the Senate Parliamentarian has ruled that it should not be included in the budget reconciliation and Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Krysten Sinema (D-AZ) have said they will not support such a measure, which would leave the Democrats two votes shy of what they need to get VP Harris to cast the tiebreaker vote. Biden has acknowledged this reality and has reportedly told some governors that the minimum wage hike will likely not happen.
Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the minimum wage fight, Biden still has a good chance to present his first legislative win to the American public in early March. The other bills he has in mind, however, will really test the political abilities of the President.
Infrastructure and Immigration: Mission Impossible?
The President has unveiled an immigration bill offering a path to citizenship for almost 11 million undocumented immigrants, including refugees, unauthorized farmworkers, and those individuals who overstayed their visas.
Biden probably won’t be able to use the same trick he’s using in his COVID bill for this proposal. For an immigration bill to actually become a law, he will need at least 10 Republicans on board to avoid any filibuster to derail his bill in the Senate, which is a tall order. After all, if Biden has not yet been able to receive that kind of support for his COVID bill (where there is vast public support) what would make us think he has the clout to overhaul America’s immigration system?
The White House knows the limitations it has, which is why they have apparently decided to take more of a gradual approach to tackle the issue. Proposing separate bills touching specific issues (like citizenship for “dreamers”) instead of a complete overhaul of the entire immigration system. Biden’s rationale being is better to have some smaller results than nothing at all.
However, even this strategy will be difficult. As the White House needs to find the perfect balance between persuading enough Republican Senators without enraging the most progressives Senators in their own caucus who will fight for bigger changes.
Besides immigration reform, the Biden Administration is also making some progress in presenting an infrastructure bill to Congress, as part of Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda. The Administration has yet to reveal major details about their plans, as it will need to get its own party in line, while also debating if the Administration should focus on other issues, before making any detailed plans public.
What we can be sure of is that any infrastructure program will be a very expensive thing to do, at a time when the country is still facing the economic repercussions of the COVID crisis with real unemployment probably as high as 10% and following three expansive relief packages. Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, has said that a tax hike might be implemented to pay for Biden’s plan.
It is not very difficult to imagine how Republicans might be hesitant to support a bill that increases both public spending and taxes, specially after the trillion dollar price-tag of Biden’s COVID relief bill. However, Biden could try and use the reconciliation process one more time (it can only be used twice per year) and pass his bill with his razor-thin Democratic majority in Congress before the midterm elections. In either case, Biden will be relying heavily on the job of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) who will be key to determine if the administration will be able to transform its majority in actual policy achievements.
Biden first days in office were defined by the impeachment of Trump and the easy policy wins he achieved with executive orders. With Trump out of the picture (for now) and the frenzy of executive orders over (hopefully), Biden awakens to the reality facing his Administration: slim majorities in both houses of Congress, a GOP wary of his policy proposal, and Progressives pushing for radical changes.