WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s agenda on Capitol Hill is off to a mixed start.
He scored a major early victory with passage of the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief and stimulus law.
He’s been fighting to follow that up with major investments in infrastructure, safety net expansions, climate change mitigation and tax increases on the wealthy. Those goals have potential, in large part because the Democratic-controlled Congress can pass them with or without Republicans.
But other priorities like addressing gun safety, overhauling immigration and bolstering voting rights have hit dead ends due to the Senate filibuster and, in some cases, Democratic divisions in a Congress where the party has wafer-thin margins in both chambers.
Where is Biden succeeding?
Biden’s biggest legislative success so far has been the Covid-19 relief law, which bolstered resources for vaccine distribution, authorized $1,400 checks for most Americans and more. As much of the U.S. has gotten vaccinated, coronavirus deaths have plummeted, much of the economy has reopened and voters give Biden high marks for his handling of the pandemic.
Some of Biden’s safety net provisions were included in the Covid-19 relief law, including a boost in Affordable Care Act subsidies and a major cash-for-kids allowance of up to $3,600 per child. But that’s just the beginning of what he wants and he’ll need more legislation to make those permanent.
Another area where Biden’s agenda is succeeding is judges, buoyed by the fact that nominees aren’t subject to a filibuster, meaning Republicans cannot stop him.
Led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrats have hit the ground running and confirmed seven so far. That includes two circuit court judges and five district court judges. There are 76 vacancies on circuit and district courts. Democrats are bracing for a potential Supreme Court retirement, though it’s not clear if or when one might occur. All judges require 50 senators to confirm, so as long as Democrats stick together, Republicans cannot stop Biden.
What’s up in the air?
Biden’s infrastructure plans are a live ball.
A group of 10 senators has struck a bipartisan deal for an extra $579 billion to fund roads and bridges, public transit and other physical infrastructure projects. But it still needs to be written and to secure a majority in the House and a super-majority in the Senate. Its fate is tied to Biden’s larger safety-net expansion as Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said the House will vote on both after they pass the Senate.
The larger bill would fund what Biden calls human infrastructure — in-home elder care, paid leave, two years of free community college. The vehicle for this is a reconciliation bill that can evade a filibuster and which Democrats hope to start moving this month.
The bill is Biden’s best hope for advancing climate action, likely in the form of investments in clean energy and tax-based incentives to comply with the rules. Democrats are weighing major investments in electric vehicles, green power and energy-efficient homes.
Biden’s estimated $3.6 trillion in tax increases on corporations and the wealthy are also in flux. It’s unclear how much the party will be able to agree on. With no hope of GOP support, the reconciliation bill is do-or-die for this part of Biden’s agenda, which is aimed at raising revenues to finance his economic programs and mitigating soaring income inequality.
Which priorities have stalled?
The president’s agenda is imperiled on policies that are subject to the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, where Democrats have 50 members and continue to struggle to achieve GOP cooperation.
Biden’s call for a $15-per-hour minimum wage hit a dead end in March, with eight Democratic members of the Senate joining all Republicans to vote it down.
More recently, equal pay legislation fell to a Republican-led filibuster. And the prospects for beefing up LGBT protections don’t look good.
Biden’s immigration bill to grant a path to citizenship for millions of people in the U.S. illegally and link green cards to the economy is going nowhere fast. Republicans roundly reject it, and Democrats are split. An updated “Dream Act” for young undocumented people passed the House but faces an uphill climate in the Senate.
Biden’s push to bolster voting rights has hit a brick wall in Congress after Senate Republicans filibustered debate on the House-passed “For The People Act” to set a minimum standard of voting access in every state and overhaul campaign finance laws. The separate John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act could pass the House but it is also unlikely to clear the Senate.
Most Republicans say the issue should be left to states and that the federal government needn’t weigh in. Conservative have been inflamed by fabricated claims by former President Donald Trump that the 2020 election was stolen from him, which has fueled a push in GOP-led states to tighten voting laws.
Negotiations between the two parties continue on police reform, but they have repeatedly missed their deadlines and Democrats worry that a split within the law enforcement community over police accountability measures could derail a deal.