More than a week into his administration, President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda seems to have hit a wall in Congress.
Biden, who served in the United States Senate for 36 years before his ascension to the vice presidency, was pitched as a “master legislator” by allies and supporters during the 2020 campaign. The president, himself, bolstered that image with constant references to his history of working across the aisle to craft bipartisan compromise.
“Compromise is not a dirty word, it’s how our government is designed to work,” Biden told the National Education Association last July. “I’ve done it my whole life.”
“I’ve been able to bring Democrats and Republicans together in the United States Congress to pass big things, to deal with big issues,” he added at the time.
Such efforts, made in an attempt to convince voters that Biden alone could break the decades-old gridlock of Washington, DC, did not stop after the election was over. In the months leading up to the inaugural, Biden and his team promised that they would be ready “on day one” to hit the ground running on a long list of legislative priorities.
Biden’s ambitions were only further displayed when a memo penned by incoming Chief of Staff Ron Klain was made public to the press earlier this month. In the document, Klain wrote that the administration’s first ten days would be vital to show the country a turning point had occurred.
With Biden marking his tenth day in the White House on Friday, however, the president’s legislative agenda appears to have stalled on Capitol Hill. The problem is partly a result of the president’s own actions, but also a result of institutional disarray among Democrats. While the party finds itself in control of the presidency and both houses of Congress for the first time since 2008, it appears unsure of how to exercise that authority.
In the Senate, Democrats only hold power thanks to a tenuous balancing act. Even though the Senate is split 50–50 between both parties, the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris ensures Democrats have the majority.
To date, though, that majority is fragile. The Senate Democrat conference not only includes strong progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the incoming chairman of the Budget Committee, but also moderates like Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). Theoretically, even as the majority of the Democrat conference is closer on policy to Sanders than Manchin or Sinema, the Senate’s rules and procedures strongly favor minority dissent over majority rule.
That status quo was recently exhibited in the battle over the filibuster. The rule, which requires a three-fifths vote—usually 60 votes—to end debate on a piece of legislation, had become a point of contention for Democrats and Republicans when figuring out how to organize the newly elected Senate.
A significant portion of Democrats argue that since they have control of the Senate, it is imperative to abolish the filibuster to prevent potential obstruction by Republicans. Progressives, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), have urged abolition to ensure swift action not only on Biden’s agenda, but also hot-button issues like expanded access to abortion and gun control.
The mounting support for eliminating the filibuster on the left led Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to demand that any agreement on organizing the chamber included strong protections for the rule. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) refused such an agreement. Schumer contended that while he had no plans to jettison the filibuster currently, conceding to McConnell’s terms would remove any leverage Democrats had for keeping Republicans inline.
While Schumer held out on agreeing to protecting the filibuster, McConnell’s demands on the issue put pressure on moderate Democrats. Manchin and Sinema, in particular, faced intense questions and scrutiny on the topic since both had once defended the filibuster, claiming the limitation it imposed on majority rule was the “entire premise” of the Senate.
Sinema, who in 2018 became the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in Arizona since 1988, was the first to relent under the media pressure. The Arizona lawmaker told the Washington Post earlier this week that she not only opposed “eliminating the filibuster” but was also “not open to changing her mind” on the topic. Manchin, who had been suggesting for weeks that he would not be the 51st vote to kill the filibuster, shortly announced he too was firmly opposed to abolition “under any condition.”
Sinema and Manchin’s decision to reaffirm their support for maintaining the filibuster undermined Schumer’s position. Without his full caucus willing to even embrace the threat of discarding the rule, Schumer would likely be unable to muster the votes for a rule change, at least while the Senate remained split evenly. McConnell said as much when announcing that he would drop his insistence on codifying protections for the filibuster in any organizing agreement.
Moderates and Their Discontent
In the House of Representatives, the situation appears only marginally better than the Senate. Democrats went into the 2020 congressional races with a majority of 14 House seats. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and then-Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL) had high hopes for expanding those numbers.
Democrats, buoyed by the perception that the coronavirus pandemic had hobbled President Donald Trump and Republicans, targeted not only marginal seats but a few strongly GOP districts as well. Hopes for another 2018-style “blue wave” never materialized, however. In fact, when the election was over, Democrats found they had actually lost ten seats, dropping their majority to less than five seats overall.
The losses were largest among moderate Democrats. In Minnesota, House Agriculture Committee chair Collin Peterson lost his largely rural district by more than 13 percentage points. Peterson, a conservative Democrat who had bucked his party on impeaching Trump, was nevertheless painted as an ally of progressive firebrands. Such attacks proved successful as Peterson, who had held his seat for 30 years and previously beat back well-funded opponents, went down to defeat.
Unable to push back against GOP attacks on “socialism,” coupled with the embrace of controversial ideas like “defund the police” by progressives within their own ranks, moderate Democrats found themselves in a difficult position politically. After the election, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) gave voice to those frustrations during a conference call with Pelosi and fellow Democrats that was leaked to the press.
“We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again,” Spanberger told her colleagues. “We lost good members because of that. … If we are classifying  as a success . . . we will get f—ing torn apart in 2022.”
Since the election, the dysfunction has only increased. Earlier this month, Pelosi was narrowly reelected as leader after encumbering opposition from moderate Democrats, many of whom opted to vote “present” instead of supporting the speaker. Perhaps, ironically, with moderates refusing to back Pelosi openly, the speaker was forced to rely on the votes of hardline progressives, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Cori Bush (D-MO).
Pelosi’s divided conference and more broadly her reduced majority, which is only three seats at the moment because of vacancies, has created a shaky foundation upon which to govern.
The political divisions and narrow majorities among congressional Democrats would likely be a problem for any president. Biden, however, has taken steps that have only enhanced those complications, according to some political observers.
On his first day in the White House, the president made good on a campaign pledge to send Congress an immigration bill. The legislation, which includes a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal aliens, has been cheered loudly by immigration rights advocates. Among congressional Democrats, meanwhile, the bill has been met with skepticism.
Moderate Democrats in both the House and Senate have contended privately that the legislation is too comprehensive. Politico reported that upon the bill’s unveiling, some members and staff “privately questioned if Biden was simply checking a box to appease activists.”
While most Democrats support some form of immigration reform, Biden’s initial proposal has irked moderates. Behind the scenes, Democrats have fret over the political implications about voting for a pathway to citizenship.
In 2016, Trump ran heavily on restricting immigration and did better than expected among both blue-collar voters and Latinos. Democrats had hoped that four years of Trump administration policies would shift narrative to them on the issue. Those hopes came up short in 2020, with Trump and the GOP winning seats in majority-Latino communities in Texas and Florida, while campaigning to prevent “open borders.”
As such, Democrats fear that immigration and a pathway to citizenship for illegal aliens could become the issue that mobilizes a Republican resurgence in 2022. Going off history alone, the president’s party almost always loses seats in the first midterm of a new administration.
Complicating the discussion is that Biden’s pathway to citizenship measure, as currently written, provides more risk than reward for Democrats. In an effort to depoliticize the bill, the president and his team have suggested an eight-year timeline for citizenship. The reason for that decision seems to be that Biden wants to limit accusations from the right that he’s seeking to expand the electorate to benefit his party in 2022 or his own reelection in 2024.
While such considerations could benefit Biden, some Democrats are pushing back on the timeline. Many argue that voting for a pathway to citizenship and then waiting eight years for the political benefit leaves moderate Democrats in a bind.
The Biden administration appears to be bending to political realities, telling supporters on Capitol Hill it is open to breaking up the immigration legislation into smaller and more politically viable bills.
“It’s not an all-or-nothing approach,” a source close to the talks told Politico earlier this week. “We aren’t saying you have to pass the Biden bill. But we are saying this is what we want to do and we are planning to move legalization forward.”
A similar logjam has occurred with Biden’s plan to combat the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. Upon taking office, the president called for Congress to swiftly pass a $1.9 trillion relief plan. The proposal, if enacted, would provide more funding for vaccine distribution, provide $1,400 in direct payments, and increase loans for small businesses.
More controversial, though, the bill also seeks to bail out cities and states facing public spending burdens because of the pandemic and raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour.
Since the relief program was unveiled, Democrats have debated on the best way to ensure its approval. Initially, Biden had hoped that the measure would garner bipartisan support. That outcome became increasingly unlikely after Democrats insisted on including the city and state bailouts as well as further direct payments—all of which Republicans, most notably in the Senate, oppose.
The matter is also complicated because with Sinema and Manchin’s refusal to jettison the filibuster, Democrats would need 60 votes to assure the passage. As such, Schumer is proposing to pass the spending plan via budget reconciliation. The tactic allows the Senate to pass legislation affecting spending, revenue, and the debt ceiling with a simple majority of 51 votes.
Biden, who has shown lukewarm support for splitting the relief legislation into separate bills as proposed by Republicans, has been largely overruled by Schumer. The majority leader, who some claim wants to prove his ability as a dealmaker and legislator, has repeatedly asserted that reconciliation is the only way forward without large-scale compromise.
Even through budget reconciliation it is unclear if the $1.9 trillion package can remain intact. The reconciliation process specifically is governed by narrow guidelines of what can and cannot fall within its scope. It is also unclear if Schumer can line up his entire conference behind the package if it survives rules challenges.
Already some moderate Democrats have expressed concern over what will eventually wind up in the package. Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) told CNN on Thursday that while he would vote to start the reconciliation process, he is likely to take a “wait and see” approach to the overall product.
Similarly, Manchin cannot be a considered a firm vote on the matter. The senator has recently expressed concern on the economic impact that a $15 minimum wage is likely to have on the coronavirus-burdened economy, according to the Hill.
The fights over immigration and reconciliation are also set to play out as the Senate will be sidelined with Trump’s second impeachment trial, which is expected to start the week of February 8. The trial, along with the need to confirm the rest of Biden’s cabinet and administrative appointees, is likely to stall the new president’s agenda further.