Biden’s Legislative Agenda

Democrats were widely expected to take the US Senate when Joe Biden was elected President. While they gained several seats, Republicans remain in charge of the chamber. Democrats have 48 seats now, with the opportunity to get two more in January. Unless they sweep the two races in Georgia, Biden will need Republican support to get anything done. This severely limits what Biden can accomplish.

While extremely small in number, there remain a few Republicans in the Senate who would cross the aisle to vote with Democrats on very specific issues. This group of half dozen or so Senators will be critical to Biden’s legislative success.

In 2022, Democrats will have the opportunity to pick up seats in PA, WI, NC and possibly IA. Midterm elections typically go against the President in power, but Senate seats are increasingly tied to whomever won the state in the previous Presidential election Until that time, The following is a look at the chance for legislation on various issues:

Health Care
Health care is simply too politically polarizing to expect any movement on. A vote on importing prescriptions and Medicare negotiating rates have an outside chance of happening, because previous votes have been all over the map. Some Democrats have voted down such measures and some Republicans have voted for them. What is more likely to secure passage is funding for COVID19 vaccine distribution and rapid testing

Dream Act
Every Democratic Senator voted for the Dream Act in 2010 except Jon Tester, who later said he was wrong and would change his vote. Joe Manchin said in 2018 he would vote against it without a border security provision. However, in 2010 Lisa Murkowski did vote for the Act. It seems likely Sen. Collins would as well. At exactly 50 votes it could pass, but would have to be included as an amendment in some larger appropriation bill. Mitch McConnell wouldn’t let it be brought up otherwise.

A Stimulus is actually likely to happen, and would likely have quite a bit of Republican support. The problem is it’ll be massively watered down from the 3 trillion dollar package passed by House Democrats. Direct payments to Americans and bailouts for businesses would be the most likely to survive. Any help for local and state governments would be minimal. The bill would probably be close to the one put forward by Trump that was rejected by Nancy Pelosi shortly before the election-possibly more watered down.

Criminal Justice Reform
Of all the issues, this one has the single largest chance of seeing passage. Trump signed a law in 2019 that featured a wide variety of humanitarian improvements to the federal prison system and was a progressive step forward, even if it was a small one. The law expanded compassionate release, de-escalation training and banned certain restraints for pregnant prisoners.

Biden will likely sign off on a bill that takes these improvements further. A bill that applies new programs to prevent recidivism, puts new tougher rules on private prisons and allows judges more discretion in sentencing will likely get support as well. Ending the sentencing disparity of drug crimes and taking the teeth out of mandatory minimums seem to have momentum as well. If Biden moves Marijuana off Schedule 1 status, it’s also not out of the question to see that codified into law.

These measures would rather easily have the support of all 48 Democratic Senators. Self described Civil Libertarians like Sen. Lee (UT) and Sen. Paul (KY) would take a leading role in writing the law. Sen. Cruz (TX) also occasionally votes for civil libertarian measures. The three most moderate Senators-Sen. Collins (ME) Romney(UT) and Murkowski(AK) would go along. It’s also conceivable that vulnerable Senators like Sen. Burr(NC)and Sen. Johnson(WI) would also get on board. States with large prison populations like Florida could see it’s Senators Rubio and Scott vote for this as well. Lastly, Republican populist Josh Hawley(MO) would be a gettable vote. This nearly 60 votes.

When Obama nominated his Supreme Court Justices in 2010, they got about half a dozen votes from Republicans. Only two Senators still remain from that time” Sen. Graham and Collins. On Trump’s Supreme Court picks, Murkowski has been the second most sympathetic to Democratic arguments. If how red state Democrats voted on Trump’s nominees are any indication, we can expect Republican Senators from PA and WI to follow suit. If Republicans decide to not hold a seat open for years on end, the votes are there to narrowly confirm a justice.

Russian Nuclear Treaty
The last nuclear treaty with Russia was passed in 2010 with about a dozen Republican votes. At the time, the GOP was the party that had taken more of a hardline stance against Russia. With a Republican Party that has had to increasingly defend it’s relations with the former USSR, the likelihood of a successful nuclear arms reduction package has increased dramatically since the Obama era. Treaties require a 2/3 vote in the Senate, so 16-18 votes would be required. While difficult, this is definitely doable.

Presidential Power Checks
Trump’s election showed that many of the norms that reign in a President are actually not codified into law, simply because it was thought that there would be no need for it. After Trump, there will be the opportunity to finally put to paper some of these checks and balances. Some examples:

  • Clarifying whether a sitting President cannot be indicted
    -Clear rules on foreign holdings a President has while in office
    -Rules on the business ventures of a sitting President.
    -Clear rules on the use of private email.

After Nixon left office, a series of rules were written to prevent his abuses of power from happening again. Republican voters assume the worst about Biden and would back any measure to keep him accountable. All sides would win from a “good government” reform package and it would likely pass pretty easily.

Biden will have to govern mainly through his power as a chief executive, but these issues are probably all likely to pass by the end of his term, and would still amount to quite a record of achievement. A stimulus would be an essential component in economic recovery. Criminal Justice Reform could be the largest progressive legislation signed since the ACA. The nuclear reduction package would only be the 6th such measure ever signed, and the checks on Presidential power would be the largest reform to government itself in about 50 years. Successful distribution of a COVID vaccine would be the most significant government initiative to fight a pandemic in 70 years.

While a Republican Senate is serious cause for concern, there is some reason to be hopeful that good things are still possible, even when dealing with fundamentally dishonest actors.

Libertarian Socialist who writes about politics, economics, philosophy religion & history. Former Newspaper Columnist.

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