Joe Biden Is Betting On A Broken Congress — At Least For Now

The incoming president wants to work with Republicans and limit his executive actions. How long will that last?
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) was one of President-elect Joe Biden’s earliest supporters, endorsing him immediately upon his entrance into the presidential race and repeatedly predicting Biden would triumph both nationally and in Casey’s crucial home state.

When Biden unveiled his $1.9 trillion coronavirus recovery proposal last week ― complete with billions to boost vaccine distribution, a $15 minimum wage and a $1,400 check sent to most Americans ― Casey was ecstatic.

“It’s incredibly encouraging that they went big,” he said of Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. “Sometimes we Democrats are really good at negotiating against ourselves before we invite Republicans into the negotiation.”

Still, even Casey has a tough time believing Biden can achieve one of his earliest stated goals: passing the package through Congress with the support of the 10 Republican senators necessary to avoid a filibuster.

“When it comes to that particular piece of legislation, getting 60 votes is going to be hard,” Casey said Tuesday in an interview.

Casey’s judgment isn’t a reflection of Biden, or his deal-making skills. It’s a reflection of a Congress ― and especially a Senate ― that is almost universally regarded as broken, riven by partisanship, allergic to compromise, in hock to donors on both sides of the aisle and incapable of passing all but the most essential pieces of legislation. Casey blames this decay on an “extraordinarily right-wing” Republican Party, an analysis backed up by many nonpartisan analysts of the legislative branch.

Although Americans would not necessarily agree on the cause of Congress’ dysfunction, they are united in their loathing for the institution. In the latest round of Gallup polling, approval for Congress was just 15%. A whopping 82% of Americans disapprove of the body’s job performance.

Biden and his aides regularly discuss what they call the four crises afflicting the U.S.: the coronavirus pandemic, the associated economic slowdown, racial injustice and climate change. At least for now, Biden is placing his presidency, and his ability to resolve those crises, in the broadly distrusted hands of Congress. He has insisted, again and again, that he’ll be able to work with Republicans on major issues. While he plans a blitz of executive action to reverse Trump administration policies, he throws cold water on bold executive actions pushed by progressives.

But his hopes of making Congress work again may be dashed sooner rather than later.

‘You’re Going To Be Surprised’

Democrats won control of both chambers of Congress — though they squeaked out control of the Senate after winning a pair of runoff elections in Georgia earlier this month and actually lost seats in the House of Representatives in November — which means Biden has options. Provided the Democratic Party sticks together, he can pass some legislation through a Senate process called reconciliation. The party could also decide to reform the filibuster, which forces most legislation to earn 60 votes for passage.

At a certain point, Democrats agree, Biden will have to decide whether to pursue a more aggressive strategy, both on coronavirus relief legislation and the rest of his agenda. The question is how long he can afford to put off that decision.

“Joe Biden is exceedingly patient. He’s more patient than I would ever be with these guys,” Casey said. “But if you look at his career, he’s not going to be a doormat.”

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said Biden can’t afford to fiddle away months of political capital attempting to negotiate with Mitch McConnell, who is about to be Senate minority leader. Reid views McConnell as hopelessly obstructionist and said Democrats should eventually move to end the filibuster.

“I think he’s going to give it some time. How much time? Two months? Three months?” Reid said in an interview. “Then, he’s going to have to make a decision. The filibuster is on the way out.”

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), pictured here in 2016, told HuffPost that Democrats should eventually move to end the filibuster.
Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), pictured here in 2016, told HuffPost that Democrats should eventually move to end the filibuster.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File

Biden has suggested a much longer timeline for Republican cooperation.

“I predict to you, and I may eat these words, I predict you as Donald Trump’s shadow fades away, you’re going to see an awful lot of change,” Biden told a virtual gathering of supporters last month. “I think you’re going to be surprised. It’s going to take six to eight months to get it underway, but I think you’re going to be surprised.”

There’s debate among Democrats over how much Biden actually believes Republicans are willing to work with him ― especially considering his experiences as Barack Obama’s vice president ― and how attached he remains to the Senate he joined in 1972. At that point, the filibuster was a privileged tool for senators to rarely deploy rather than an everyday partisan weapon.

There is growing consensus in the party for at least some reforms to the filibuster ― House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn has reiterated his support for its elimination in recent days ― but it may prove difficult to convince reluctant moderate Democrats like Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona or Joe Manchin of West Virginia to support completely ending the 60-vote threshold.

Casey suggested Democrats may need to wait for the right political moment to reform the filibuster, noting few Americans are well-versed in Senate procedure.

“At what point do you take that step? Do you do it in a vacuum or do you do it in the context of [Republicans] blocking something that the overwhelming majority of Americans want to see happen?” he said. “It’s going to be a tough call.”

‘A Moment Of Profound Crisis’

The incoming Biden administration has pointed to a slew of executive actions set for the first 10 days of his presidency as proof Biden is aggressively working to solve the four crises.

“President-elect Biden is assuming the presidency in a moment of profound crisis for our nation,” incoming White House chief of staff Ron Klain wrote in a memo to staffers earlier this week. “President-elect Biden will take action — not just to reverse the gravest damages of the Trump administration — but also to start moving our country forward.”

Still, many of the executive orders are aimed primarily at reversing President Donald Trump’s actions: ending the ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries; returning the U.S. to the World Health Organization and the Paris Agreement; ending Trump’s attempts to eliminate undocumented immigrants from the census count. Others are extensions of coronavirus relief measures, including lengthening a pause on student loan payments and a moratorium on evictions. Biden also plans on revoking the permit granted to the Keystone XL pipeline.

“I don’t think there will be another opportunity to work with Republicans if he doesn’t get this right.”

- Michael Steel, former spokesperson for former House Speaker John Boehner

But if there’s something Congress can handle instead of the executive branch, Biden would prefer Congress do so.

“I’ve spent most of my career arguing against the imperial presidency,” Biden told a group of columnists in December. “We got three equal branches of government.”

For example, Biden has unveiled legislation raising the minimum wage and supports eliminating some student loan debt, but he has so far declined to take steps toward either on a unilateral basis. Progressives, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), have pushed for both a $15 minimum wage for federal contract workers and eliminating a significant amount of student loan debt without congressional approval.

“It’s arguable that the president may have the executive power to forgive up to $50,000 in student debt,” Biden said in December. “Well, I think that’s pretty questionable. I’m unsure of that. I’d be unlikely to do that.”

The Incremental Option

There is another option: Biden can stick with his plans to work with Republicans, provided he’s willing to significantly limit his ambitions on key issues and risk the wrath of the Democratic Party’s left wing.

“When the Obama administration was willing to unshackle him, he was able to fairly quickly reach sensible agreements,” said Michael Steel, who was a spokesperson for then-House Speaker John Boehner during the Obama administration. “The left didn’t like those agreements, because the policy that represents genuine common ground with Republicans is not what they’re in favor of.”

Steel said a fully bipartisan path would require Biden and Democrats quickly establishing warm relationships with the GOP, working with them on the coronavirus package and likely delaying Trump’s impeachment trial.

“I don’t think there will be another opportunity to work with Republicans if he doesn’t get this right,” he said.

Even Reid, who has worked to warn Biden of McConnell’s obstruction, was capable of crafting a scenario where the Kentuckian became more willing to cut deals.

“I think it would be to McConnell’s advantage to no longer be the Grim Reaper,” Reid said, referring to a nickname McConnell once gave to himself. “A number of his senators want to try to get things done rather than just oppose everything. … He wants to make the Republican Party not the party of Donald Trump.”

Casey, for his part, imagined the possibility of a significant bipartisan deal on infrastructure spending, while Steel said he could see incremental progress on infrastructure, energy and immigration. But he predicted that convincing the GOP to sign up for Democrats’ sweeping plans on climate change or immigration would be a fool’s errand.

“I can’t imagine a broad restructuring of anything, frankly,” Steel said.

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