President Joe Biden’s agenda, from abortion rights to climate change and more, will largely be blunted in the new Congress, with his party’s grip on Capitol Hill loosening for the first time since taking office.
With a fractured 51-seat majority in the Senate and his party in the minority in the House of Representatives, Biden will find himself with fewer allies in the legislative branch. Moderate lawmakers who were defeated or retired will exit Congress this week, and strident conservatives who have committed to blocking Democrats’ legislative priorities will gain power.
House Republicans will have no appetite for Biden campaign promises such as an assault weapons ban, federal abortion rights protections, criminal justice reforms and voting rights legislation.
A divided Congress will keep the government functioning, said Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist who worked as an aide to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and in the White House for President George W. Bush.
“Do I think they’re going to do anything much beyond that? No,” Jennings said.
Democratic lawmakers and strategists say Biden and his aides will have to lean in further to executive action to advance progressive priorities with congressional Republicans focused on undoing his achievements and investigating his administration.
“I think that it is the primary way that we’re going to get anything done, and I think that they – I believe they know that,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said in an interview. “They have articulated to me that they want to be bold with executive action and they want to do as much as they can for the American people.”
Jayapal said the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which she chairs, aims by the end of January to send the White House an updated list of executive actions for Biden to take. One of the group’s top priorities, she said, is an expansion of the number of workers who qualify for overtime pay.
Biden has relied more heavily on his executive authority to make headway on progressive issues over the past six months, canceling student debt for federal borrowers, forgiving federal marijuana convictions and providing federal assistance to women seeking abortion care.
The White House declined to comment on the executive actions it may be considering. It said in a statement that Biden remains committed to working across the aisle to secure bipartisan support for his agenda.
“The presidency is still the most powerful job in the world, and there are some things that can be done through executive action if Congress isn’t moving on them,” said Ben LaBolt, a former Biden adviser and Obama White House aide. “I think you’ll see some of that come out of this administration.”
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‘Dead on arrival’
Republicans are vowing to derail even the bipartisan parts of Biden’s agenda once their party controls the lower chamber. GOP leader Kevin McCarthy has pledged bills that pass the Senate with the help of moderate Republicans will be “dead on arrival” and will not reach the floor of the House of Representatives.
The agenda of the past two years, including Democratic spending, “That legislative agenda is done come January,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, underscored as senators left Washington.
“If Biden is willing to work on common-sense policies that reduce the burdens of government on small businesses and help create jobs and help working people, then there’s plenty of room for bipartisan cooperation,” Cruz said. “But it will take the White House making a decision to no longer embrace the radical left in their party.”
Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist with close ties to Republicans on Capitol Hill, said he doesn’t foresee any significant bills making it to Biden’s desk over the next two years, other than measures to fund the government or respond to national emergencies such as hurricanes and wildfires.
“Issues that Democrats push in the Senate are going nowhere in the House. Congress is really going to be a megaphone for both sides to use on how they would lead the country,” Bonjean said. “It’s a scene-setter for the presidential election, really.”
Fierce clashes with conservatives since the midterm elections over federal spending bills have dampened but not dashed Democratic hopes for Republican cooperation in other areas.
Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse, incoming chair of the House Democrats’ messaging arm, said he and his colleagues intend to work with Republicans wherever they can. “But we also will be prepared to stand against the extremism that unfortunately is on the rise in the House Republican conference,” he said.
“It will take a commitment on the other side of the aisle to actually govern. And it is very clear that that does not seem to be their priority. So time will tell as to whether or not ultimately we’ll be able to make significant headway on some of those issues.”
Though it will be harder for Biden to fulfill his campaign promises in a Republican-run Congress, Biden ally and Delaware Sen. Chris Coons said, “I wouldn’t count him out.”
“This president has had the most remarkable broad legislative successes, I would argue, of any president since LBJ, and he has been discounted, underestimated his entire career, but particularly as president,” he said.
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The White House similarly argued that the midterm elections showed voters support Biden’s agenda and his efforts to protect women’s reproductive rights and safeguard American democracy.
“The bottom line is that we believe there are opportunities to work together, and the president has made clear he’s willing to work with anyone who is willing to work with him,” White House deputy press secretary Emilie Simons said.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren said the cryptocurrency regulations she’s working on are an example of an area in which Democrats and Republicans may be able to work together.
“It’s not nearly as good as having a majority of Democrats in the House and the Senate, and the president in the White House, all of whom are trying to move in the same direction. But it’s also not the kind of expectation that we’ll all be caught in concrete and unable to make any change,” said Warren, D-Mass.
A difficult time for Democrats
A lack of support from Republicans should not stop Democrats from bringing key legislation to the Senate floor, said civil rights leader and National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial.
“It’s a difficult time to pass a real voting rights bill. A real minimum wage increase. But I think that those should be put on the floor. I think they should be passed. I think the Democrats should not be disabled, particularly on the Senate side. They should force the Republicans to cast the vote on these bills.”
Progressives say Biden should not back down from Democratic priorities, including a minimum-wage increase, even if they are doomed to fail in the GOP-run House.
“I think good policy is good politics,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent. “There’s overwhelming support to raise the minimum wage, we’ve seen it in state after state. And we’ve got to fight for that here. Now, I’m not going to guarantee that Republicans are going to support it, but that doesn’t mean … you don’t stand up and fight for what the American people want and the workers desperately need.”