The scope of stimulus legislation will likely turn on the results of the Senate run-offs in Georgia in early January, a little more than two weeks before Biden is inaugurated. If either Democrat fails to unseat their GOP incumbent rivals, and the body remains under the thumb of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican, Biden’s ambitions will be checked from the outset. The immigration legislation Biden said he plans to send to the Congress within his first 100 days would likely be dead on arrival.
But sources familiar with internal discussions stressed that getting a grip on the surging coronavirus crisis is far and away Biden’s top concern. Until that happens, one of the sources said, the President-elect’s wider legislative agenda is likely to take a backseat.
The realities of a divided Washington, or one where Democrats hold the slim congressional majorities, mean any big legislative initiative will either need some bipartisan support or demand uniform Democratic backing, further complicate the road ahead. Biden is planning an announcement sometime in December to spell out his priorities to the public, according to a source involved in the plans.
The executive options
Biden has a wider berth when it comes to executive orders.
His transition team has spent months thinking through the unilateral actions Biden could take almost immediately upon entering the White House. No final decisions have been made on specific steps, but a transition official said Biden will consider using the many “levers at his disposal.”
“There’s multiple things that are going to be taking place at the same time,” Biden said. “But the most important thing, I think, is to focus on those folks, who are always, when crisis hits, are the first ones hit — and recovery comes to last.”
Health care workers and first responders, he said, should be the first in line to take a Covid vaccine once one is authorized for use and distribution channels open up.
But Biden acknowledged that a good deal of his agenda could come to “depend on the kind of cooperation I can or cannot get from the United States Congress.”
He cited his commitment to send legislation with a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants to the Senate, but also said he was poised to immediately roll back some of Trump’s “very damaging” executive actions, in particular those related to the climate.
Some of that can be accomplished by fiat, Biden’s campaign said before the election, spelling out a series of measures that would bring down emissions, up public investment in clean energy and incentivize private innovation.
But the scale of the climate agenda agreed to by the Biden-Sanders “unity task forces” will require legislation, too. How that takes shape remains to be seen — and, like so many other questions facing the transition, could hinge on the outcome in Georgia.
Many leading climate activists have long believed that any significant investment in a transition from fossil fuels will need to be baked into an expansive economic stimulus bill. By this summer, after engaging publicly and privately with Biden’s campaign, they came away with a cautious optimism that the President-elect’s team was “coming around” to a similar understanding.
Some of the most notable early work of the Biden administration-in-waiting, which is coming together at breakneck speed with the rollout of nominees to influential cabinet posts and announcement hires to senior White House posts, will take place outside the Oval Office. Trump officials have gutted or hamstrung agencies whose charters clash with the President’s long-running efforts to crush what his former chief strategist derisively labeled “the administrative state.”
That means an early effort, Biden indicated in his NBC News interview, to rebuild the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA, he said, has been “eviscerated” by Trump.
There is also a growing push for the new administration to make an early splash by using executive power to forgive student loan debt. Biden has called on Congress to pass relief to borrowers, but a plan promoted by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, of New York, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren argues that Biden could, with the stroke of his pen, cancel as much as $50,000 per person.
The to-do list
The to-do list is a long one: Biden during the campaign pledged to make the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act an early priority. As part of that, he pledged to direct federal resources to combat violence against transgender women, with a specific mind to transgender women of color.
He has also assured the labor movement that he would reengage with government workers’ unions.
“On Biden’s first day in office, he will restore federal employees’ rights to organize and bargain collectively,” read the pledge on Biden’s campaign website, “and will direct his agencies to bargain with federal employee unions over non-mandatory subjects of bargaining.”
The shadow of Trump’s tenure looms over much of the early Biden agenda.
The President has repeatedly leaned on the Justice Department to take up his political causes. Biden during the campaign promised to resurrect the barriers between top elected officials and staff and senior prosecutors.
The first step, his campaign said, would come through the issuance of an executive order “directing that no White House staff or any member of his administration may initiate, encourage, obstruct, or otherwise improperly influence specific DOJ investigations or prosecutions for any reason.”
Anyone from the administration found to be in violation of that code would be fired.
A number of Biden’s domestic priorities overlap with his desire to reengage with other leading powers on the world stage. His “day one” agenda includes a promise to immediately rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and World Health Organization — both of which were dumped by Trump.
Biden’s international climate docket includes the convening of a “world summit” that could potentially build on and seek out more ambitious ground than the what was agreed in Paris.
Trying to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal will be a knottier proposition, one made all the more difficult by the recent assassination of country’s top nuclear scientist — a killing Tehran has blamed on Israel.