| Washington Wrap |

Biden Unbound

After Georgia triumph, here's Biden's program

Like a tsunami following an oceanic earthquake, it took two months for the November elections to become a Democratic “Blue Wave.”

The victories last week of Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia’s Senate runoff elections may have been overshadowed by the riot at the Capitol, but they will shape America and the world every bit as much, at least until the 2022 midterms.

After the presidential election in November, Republicans consoled themselves with their apparent control of the Senate, in addition to their gains in the House. It seemed that Biden’s agenda was stillborn. But now that Democrats have 50 senators, Vice President Kamala Harris will cast the tie-breaking vote. In theory at least, the Democrats can enact whatever legislation they want.

The first effect of the Democratic majority is that the progressive wing of the party will expect a share of the spoils. Unlike in 2016, Bernie Sanders bowed out of the race relatively early, to endorse Biden. The president elect championed a much more moderate agenda than Sanders, but the senator and his supporters gritted their teeth and showed up at the ballot box in record numbers to defeat Trump.

Following the election, Biden who assumed he would be governing with an opposition-controlled Senate, was in no hurry to fill his cabinet with progressives. When Sanders himself announced his interest in a cabinet appointment, Biden’s official excuse for not offering one was that it would enable the Republican governor of Vermont to appoint a conservative to fill Sanders’ Senate seat. But the truth was that Biden wanted his cabinet appointments to be consensus moderates, whom Senate Republicans could also support.

Now with a Senate majority, Democrats can confirm whomever they want, and that puts Biden in a difficult position. A majority of 51–50 is as narrow as it gets — it takes just one Democratic senator to bring down a given bill. And the Democratic Party isn’t just Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. It’s also Joe Manchin, a senator representing the deep red state of West Virginia (Trump won there with 69%) thanks to his personal popularity as a former governor and his relatively moderate positions. Jon Tester of Montana, another red state, is another senator Democrats will need for every vote.

Biden could give in and advance a very liberal agenda. But the result of that could be that Manchin and Tester (and, in 2022, Raphael Warnock of Georgia) lose reelection in 2024. For this reason, Biden needs to walk between the rain drops, without antagonizing either camp.

So which policies will Biden seek to advance, and what could his party pressure him to advance against his wishes?

Climate change

This could end up being Biden’s legacy. While other issues are considered controversial, this is the area where Biden means to leave an imprint. We can expect legislation to encourage solar panels and wind turbines at the expense of fossil fuels. More ambitious proposals could include tax incentives for “greener” households. Biden’s challenge will be how to affect the transition from fossil fuels without hurting the economy.

Supreme Court Reform

After the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Trump hurried to appoint Amy Coney Barret to her seat on the Supreme Court. Democrats were furious, warning that if they took control of the Senate, they would “pack the court,” enlarging it and adding liberal justices to counterbalance the conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court (currently there are six conservative and three liberal justices). Biden refused to express an opinion on the matter for some time, but ultimately announced that if elected he would appoint a bipartisan commission to present him with its recommendations within 180 days. On this flashpoint issue Biden can expect intense pressure from his party’s progressive wing, though senators such as Manchin will likely not be on board.

Statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico

This is one of the Democrats’ greatest political ambitions. The country’s capital has only nominal congressional representation (its House Representative can vote in committees, but not in floor votes), and Puerto Rico residents can only vote if they move to the mainland, even though they’re considered citizens. Both places are considered left-wing bastions. Washington, D.C., has the most reliably Democratic electorate in the country, with over 90% of the vote in presidential elections. If Democrats could confer statehood on these two areas, they could hypothetically guarantee their control of the Senate for years ahead. But the chances of this taking place are low. It’s hard to see the more moderate senators backing this, and for that matter, it’s hard to see Biden backing such a controversial issue.

COVID relief package

Despite widespread consensus among Democrats, there are hints of friction. Manchin, for example, has said that although he isn’t opposed on principle to a $2,000 stimulus check, he isn’t convinced of the necessity for it. Others in the party want a higher check, and others still want several stimulus checks. Biden for his part said that the $600 payments that have been already approved are a start, but that larger payments will be approved shortly, though he didn’t specify the amount. That debate plays out on a background of America’s astronomical $27 trillion debt. Every time the government prints money for COVID relief it raises the debt, weakens the dollar, and raises the risk of inflation.

The Filibuster

That brings us to a related issue. In the United States there’s a tradition that legislation is only approved with a majority of 60. This is a tradition, not a legal requirement. But in recent years the practice has increasingly fallen into disuse as the partisan divide widened. Democrats are pressuring Chuck Schumer, the incoming Senate majority leader, to abolish the filibuster, so that everything from standard legislation to dramatic bills such as adding a state to the union could be approved with a simple majority of 50 senators plus Vice President Kamala Harris. Over the years Democrats have repeatedly promised to end the filibuster, but adding states still has a low probability of success. With division in the United States running so deep, it’s hard to imagine Biden going for something as dramatic as the addition of two states to the union, a move expected to encounter petitions to the Supreme Court.

It should be noted that not all legislation depends on Congress. Biden is expected to reverse Trump’s policy by 180 degrees on immigration and the border wall, and to provide a path to citizenship for the “dreamers,” children who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents. This comes to some 11 million people currently living in the United States.

Biden will also reverse Trump’s foreign policy — he’ll try to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, restore the relationship with NATO, and be less chummy with countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Hungary.

 

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 844)

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