President Joe Biden signed three executive actions Wednesday. The first mandated masks and social distancing on federal property, the second supporting under served communities and the third rejoined the Paris Climate Accord. (Jan.20)
WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden’s prospects of pushing through his ambitious priorities on COVID relief, racial justice and climate change certainly improved when Democrats won both Georgia Senate seats – and full control of Congress – earlier this month.
But the retention of the Senate filibuster – a congressional tactic that essentially requires 60 Senate votes to get bills passed – means the new president might have to rein in some of his most progressive ideas because the moderates in both parties he’ll need to pass legislation won’t go for them.
A raise in the federal minimum wage to $15. A curb in oil and gas development. Efforts to reverse decades of systemic racial discrimination. The Senate filibuster makes those much harder lifts.
The filibuster is a long-standing tool used by senators in the minority to block a vote on a bill by endlessly debating the measure. The only way to stop debate and force a vote is if 60 members agree to do so.
And while Democrats now control the Senate thanks to Georgia and Vice President Kamala Harris as president of the chamber, they only have 50 votes – not enough to stop debate and force a vote if Republicans decide to filibuster.
Is there a work-around for Democrats?
The filibuster has been around since the early days of Congress, a recognition that the “world’s greatest deliberative body” should never shut off the exchange of ideas.
But the strategy has gained a reputation in recent decades as more an obstacle used to kill legislation rather than a tool to encourage debate. South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, then a Democrat, filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
Democrats could do away with the filibuster for bills (as they did in 2013 for presidential nominees and Republicans did in 2017 for Supreme Court justices). But members of both sides have been reluctant to do so.
Two Democrats – Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona – already have said they won’t back any effort to do away with the filibuster. And Biden, so far, has also been reluctant to call for such a step.
“This body operates every day, every hour, by consent,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor Tuesday defending the filibuster. “And destroying the filibuster would drain comity and consent from this body to a degree that would be unparalleled in living memory.”
All of which means Biden can only go so far under the current rules.
The president does have options. He could continue signing executive orders to carry out portions of his agenda. He’s already issued more than 30, including ones reversing former President Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban, requiring masks on airplanes and overturning Trump’s prohibition on transgender troops from serving in the military.
But orders only last as long as the occupant in the White House does. And a flurry of top-down edicts would undermine Biden’s call for bipartisan unity and his respect for congress where he served for 36 years.
Some Democrats are pushing the use of a legislative mechanism known as “reconciliation” that would bypass the filibuster and allow passage of a bill by a simple majority. New Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said reconciliation is one of the “tools” his caucus is seriously considering with COVID relief.
“We must get big, strong bold things done. That’s the bottom line,” Schumer told Rachel Maddow on MSNBC Monday. “If we don’t, I worry about the future of this democracy.”
Here’s how the narrow majorities in Congress could affect Biden’s ability to pass his agenda:
Biden has made conquering the virus that has killed more than 421,000 Americans and reviving the nation’s battered economy his immediate priority.
He’s proposed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that provides stimulus checks, aid for renters and small businesses, and funding for vaccine distribution.
But Republicans have balked at the total price tag, citing the spiraling federal debt that’s approaching $28 trillion. Some also question whether the federal government should continue bailing out the unemployed or whether to reduce the size and scope of the $1,400 stimulus payments he wants to give millions of Americans.
Even more iffy is Biden’s proposal as part of COVID relief to nearly double the federal minimum wage, from $7.25 to $15.
“If the federal government mandates a universal $15 minimum wage, many low income Americans will lose their current jobs and find fewer job opportunities in the future,” Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Pat Toomey said Friday in a statement.
Biden has pledged to confront systemic racism on a number of fronts: housing, policing, education and health care. He’s issued several executive orders addressing certain aspects and is assembling one of the most racially diverse Cabinets in history.
He’ll need to find areas of compromise with Congress such as on legislation to increase monitoring and training of law enforcement agencies as well as limitations on the use of force that have contributed to police brutality against Black Americans exemplified by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year.
But his proposals for deeper and financial costly reforms that would disproportionately help minorities, such as closing the income gap (including a minimum wage hike), passing anti-poverty tax credits or cancelling federal student loans figure to meet significant opposition even if the filibuster is eliminated.
Susan Rice, director of the White House Domestic Policy Office, said Tuesday that the White House would prefer those reforms be passed by Congress to make them permanent.
But “there’ll be some instance where in advance of legislation or efforts to achieve legislation, it’s wise to take executive action,” she told reporters at the White House. “I don’t think we should assume that doing something by executive action, where it may also be appropriate to seek legislation, that we wouldn’t do it. We have a very full legislative agenda.”
Biden has pledged to be the most aggressive president on climate change, which he has called “an existential threat.” His goal is to decarbonize the U.S. power sector by 2035 on the way to reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
He’s already issued an executive order rejoining the Paris Agreement, an international treaty on climate change, and his administration is expected to undo a host of anti-climate rules enacted under Trump covering emissions, such as methane, that contribute to global warming.
Biden figures to get bipartisan support for any legislative efforts to expand key technologies, notably carbon capture techniques some oil and gas companies are already using.
But his proposal to spend $2 trillion over four years to spur further development of clean energy, such as wind and solar, to meet the 2035 target will have to win over the fiscal conservatives in Congress.
And plans to curb fossil fuels will have to win over energy-state lawmakers including Manchin, the incoming chairman of the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee, whose state remains a top producer of coal that would be a prime target of climate legislation.
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