Good morning! It’s Friday, January 22, 2021. Election Day 2022 is 655 days away. Election Day 2024 is 1,383 days away. Have questions or comments? Email me.
Three fights facing Biden’s Washington
President Joe Biden entered office this week with a soaring promise to reach across the aisle and find common cause with Republicans. But there are few signs yet that the spirit of bipartisanship is flourishing in the nation’s capital; instead, much of Biden’s agenda has already become mired in party-line food fights. Here’s a guide to the early political clashes of the Biden era:
Coronavirus response. In his inaugural address, Biden said that his administration “will be judged...by how we resolve these cascading crises of our era,” placing the coronavirus pandemic at the top of the list. To that end, he signed 10 executive orders on Thursday aimed at ramping up vaccinations — including by invocation of the Defense Production Act — and requiring masks on planes, trains, and buses.
Biden will also sign two more executive orders today to address the economic crisis induced by the pandemic; one will increase weekly food stamp benefits for American families on an emergency basis, while the other will provide improved protections (including a review of a $15 minimum wage) for federal workers.
The orders being signed today are piecemeal efforts to pave the way for a $1.9 trillion relief package that Biden hopes to pass through Congress soon. The only problem? It has yet to receive any Republican support. Two key GOP senators — Susan Collins (R-ME) and Mitt Romney (R-UT) — have already indicated skepticism about the legislation.
Without support from those senators, the bill has almost no chance of reaching the 60-vote threshold needed to avoid a filibuster. The legislation still has some hopes for passage — Democrats could use a procedural tool known as reconciliation, which allows some spending bills to be passed with a simple majority — but the bipartisan coalition Biden has frequently talked about fostering seems unlikely to materialize.
Biden’s vaccination plan has also come under fire in his early days. The president has pledged to vaccinate 100 million Americans in his first 100 days — but that is about the pace the country is going at now, leading to criticism that Biden’s plan isn’t ambitious enough. Biden bristled when a reporter asked him about the issue on Thursday. “Come on, give me a break, man,” he snapped back.
The structure of the Senate. Once known as “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” the Senate can barely even deliberate over anything right now, as Democrats and Republicans spar over the organizing resolution needed to take action in the chamber. Until the resolution is approved, bills or nominees can only be brought to the floor by unanimous consent; additionally, Republicans will continue to chair committees, even though Democrats are now in the majority with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has called for the chamber to adopt the same power-sharing agreement used the last time there was a 50-50 Senate, in 2001. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) wants an addition: a promise by the Democrats that they won’t invoke the “nuclear option” to end the legislative filibuster. (Senate Democrats themselves are split over the future of the filibuster; some are urging Schumer to end it, but he does not yet have the 51 backers needed to achieve the gambit.)
So far, there seems to be little Democratic appetite to accept McConnell’s demand — leading to an impasse hanging over the very first days of Democratic control in Washington. The breakdown is also causing a delay in confirming Biden’s nominees; only one has been confirmed so far, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, less than Biden’s last four predecessors.
The Trump trial. Another wrench is about to be thrown into Biden’s hopes of ushering through his legislative agenda and Cabinet nominees: the historic second impeachment trial for former President Donald Trump. The House impeached Trump for “incitement of insurrection” more than a week ago, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has yet to transmit the articles of impeachment to the Senate so the trial there can begin. (Pelosi has said she is waiting for the Senate organizing resolution to be hashed out.)
McConnell laid out his favored timeline for the trial on Thursday, proposing that the proceedings begin in February to give time for Trump’s new legal team to prepare their arguments.
While McConnell himself has declined to tip his hand on whether he will vote to acquit or convict Trump, members of his caucus are already gearing up to fight the impeachment charges. Some Republican senators are urging for the trial to be scrapped altogether, espousing the view (not shared by most legal experts) that the Constitution does not allow a former president to be tried for impeachment.
The impeachment trial — spurred on by the Democratic House, with limited Republican support — threatens to overwhelm any congressional momentum Biden may have had in his early weeks, as the other business of the Senate is likely to grind to a halt as lawmakers hash out the final battle of the Trump era before turning fully to the priorities of the new administration.
- In Thursday’s newsletter, I made a typo that implied the opposite of what I intended when writing about President Biden’s proposed slate of leaders for the Democratic National Committee. Biden’s slate ran unopposed.
- In Wednesday’s newsletter, I wrote that Vice President Harris would be the first person of color to serve in that office. In fact, Vice President Charles Curtis — who served under Herbert Hoover — was one-quarter Kaw Indian. Harris is the first Black vice president, first vice president of South Asian descent, and first woman of color to serve as vice president.
My apologies for those errors and my thanks to the readers who pointed them out.
All times Eastern.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will receive the President’s Daily Brief at 9:30 a.m. in the Oval Office, have lunch together at 12 p.m. in the Private Dining Room, and receive a briefing on the state of the economic recovery at 2 p.m. in the State Dining Room.
Biden will deliver remarks in the State Dining Room at 2:45 p.m. on his plans to respond to the economic crisis and sign executive orders, with Harris in attendance.
First Lady Jill Biden will tour Whitman-Walker Health in Washington, D.C. to “highlight and promote support services for cancer patients and caregivers, as well as hear about the impact of COVID-19 on access to health care, including cancer screenings and prevention efforts,” according to the White House.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki will hold a press briefing at 12:30 p.m., joined by National Economic Council Director Brian Deese.
The Senate will convene at 10 a.m. and begin consideration of the nomination of retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to be Secretary of Defense. After up to 10 minutes of debate, the Senate will vote around 10:30 a.m. on Austin’s confirmation.
Confirmation votes on Treasury Secretary nominee Janet Yellen and Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken are also possible later in the day.
- The Senate Finance Committee will meet at 10 a.m. to vote to send Yellen’s nomination to the floor.
The House will not meet today.
The Supreme Court justices will meet for their weekly conference.
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