‘A dreaded two years’: Biden, allies gear up to face a GOP Senate

The emerging likelihood of a Republican Senate and a Joe Biden presidency have left Democrats split on whether to keep fighting for potentially doomed progressive priorities or compromise with the GOP on both personnel and policy.

Although votes are still being counted in Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Georgia, and lawsuits likely to drag on for weeks, Democratic officials and advocacy groups are already confronting the prospect of several more years of Mitch McConnell controlling which bills and nominees will see the light of day. At this point, their best hope of being able to set the agenda is either winning both runoff elections in Georgia this January, or waiting until 2022, when dozens of GOP senators are up for reelection.

“It’s a dreaded two years ahead,” said Larry Cohen, who chairs the progressive advocacy group Our Revolution and is a close ally of Bernie Sanders. “We can celebrate for a day or two beating the worst president ever, but I worry that real change is going to be thwarted.”

The still-uncertain election result is forcing a top-to-bottom reevaluation of what policies and which Cabinet appointees will be able to win the necessary Republican support. Democrats worry they won’t be able to deliver on broad goals like comprehensive immigration reform, voting rights, and action on climate change — and even more immediate targets, like passing a multi-trillion coronavirus relief package, will require more compromise than many in the party wanted.

The fact that Republicans outperformed polling in the House, Senate and presidential races has also forced the Biden team to grapple with what sort of policies have the public’s support, one adviser said.

“There may be issues with legislation, but more importantly, what does it mean, what’s the message?” the adviser said of the closer-than-expected results. “You can’t look at this election and not see division, and not think about the implications for policy writ large.”

The results are splintering the Democratic Party into different camps: one that sees the divided outcome as a mandate to find a way to work with McConnell and Republicans on a more moderate agenda, and another that points to Biden’s historic popular vote win as a directive to work harder to push through progressive ideas even in the face of GOP pushback. Others, including Congressional Progressive Caucus leader Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) say Democrats’ strategy depends on the final outcome in the states that haven’t yet been called.

“If he wins Georgia and Pennsylvania and Arizona, that’s a different situation than if he squeaks through with just barely enough electoral votes,” Jayapal said in an interview. “A very close election isn’t the moral repudiation of a horrific president I think some of us were hoping for, but it’s at least a political repudiation if he wins the electoral college and popular vote.”

With the final tally still unknown, progressives are already pointing to McConnell’s efforts throughout the Obama administration to hinder the Democratic agenda — including his work to block the confirmation of Merrick Garland, widely seen as a moderate pick, to the Supreme Court — as evidence that trying to work with the GOP would be futile.

“You shouldn’t operate off the thesis that Republicans are going to join with you out of the goodness of their hearts, that they’re going to somehow come around and just say, ‘Hey, President-elect Biden, we’re happy to help you get this agenda passed,’” said Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ former campaign manager. “It’s going to require sustained campaigns in which you’re not only targeting the senators, but you’re targeting their states and their voters to make sure that they are aware of what’s going on and really playing pretty brass-knuckled politics of dragging these Republicans to the right position.”

More moderate members of the party, however, argue that working across the aisle is the only way they will be able to get anything done.

“If Democrats really care about the Democratic legacy and what we can do for the American people, we have got to send stuff to Joe Biden’s desk to allow him to sign it,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) said Wednesday. “But the only way that you get to that is to get through the Senate. And that means that you have to have bipartisan ideas.”

K Street is also pushing for compromise. In a post-election memo to clients, the lobbying firm Invariant said that progressives have to “temper their expectations."

“The left’s vision of a Biden New Deal, progressive tax reform, aggressive Wall Street regulators, social justice reform including policing, an expanded Supreme Court, and reforms to the Senate’s legislative filibuster may have to wait,” they wrote.

Progressives vehemently disagree. Jayapal warned that if Democrats compromise too much, they’ll be punished at the ballot box in the 2022 midterms.

“The young people who just turned out in record numbers need to see results,” she said. “They need to see Biden champion things like the cancelation of college debt and aggressive action on climate. If people see that it’s business as usual and there’s no real movement on income or health care, I worry that we will lose them, and potentially lose them for a generation.”

The question is where Biden, who has long touted his ability to work with Republicans and McConnell in particular, will ultimately fall in that debate. The answer will determine the path forward for his policy agenda, which he has said will start with a new national coronavirus strategy and a massive economic stimulus package.

While neither Biden nor his advisers has specified how big of a relief bill they want to see, the working assumption among many Democratic officials had been that any relief plan would be modeled off the two stimulus packages House Democrats passed earlier this year that the Senate refused to take up — the $3.4 trillion HEROES Act that passed in May, and a more streamlined $2.2 trillion version that passed at the start of October.

Many Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have been reluctant to support any package that exceeds $1 trillion. McConnell also suggested this week that Congress should pass another coronavirus relief package before the end of the year — a step that, if it happens, could leave even less room for Biden to follow up with a major spending package at the start of his term.

Other Senate Republicans have cast doubt that a package will come together in the lame duck, leaving it more likely they will be negotiating with Biden in early 2021. At that point, the overall price tag will become a major sticking point: The nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget recently estimated that the measures Biden has so far proposed could cost anywhere from $2 trillion to more than $4 trillion — and that’s separate from his campaign agenda, which CRFB estimated could cost $5.6 trillion.

“The underlying dynamic is still the same: They will want to get as big and as well-targeted a stimulus and relief package as possible,” one person who has worked with members of Biden’s economic team in the past and who is familiar with their views said. “But the size of it will necessarily be smaller than they would have gotten if they’d needed to convince the 50th Democrat versus trying to convince Mitch McConnell to allow a vote to happen.”

Even before the election, Biden aides had already begun a preemptive campaign against austerity politics, anticipating that Republicans would argue next year that the government should not pass any new major spending package because it would dangerously increase the size of the federal debt.

Jared Bernstein, a progressive economist and informal Biden adviser, laid out his case in the Washington Post late last month on why now is not the time to worry about budget deficits, noting that any forthcoming arguments against a major relief package from GOP lawmakers that center on budget deficits are thinly veiled attempts to kneecap a Biden presidency “before it has a chance to take off.”

“We must ignore the phony caterwauling of the deficit chicken hawks,” he wrote.

Biden has called for the stimulus legislation to include guaranteed paid sick leave for all workers, free Covid-19 testing and treatment for the uninsured and under-insured, and funding for state and local public health workers that Trump has opposed as “bailouts” for so-called "blue" Democratic regions of the country.

Biden is also expected to push for more generous unemployment benefits, extended relief for student loan borrowers, aid for state and local governments, protection against evictions and foreclosures, and small business aid, among other priorities.

He and his team have been differentiating between immediate relief efforts and what they are calling the “Build Back Better agenda,” a broader plan focused on creating a more resilient and more inclusive economy. Central pillars include infrastructure, manufacturing, clean jobs, and investments in what Biden calls the “care economy” — healthcare, childcare and education.

A GOP Senate could make it more likely that a Biden administration would try to address priorities like infrastructure within the initial coronavirus package, given the recognition that they may only get one opportunity. But at the same time, there are concerns that sliding initiatives aimed at fulfilling campaign promises into a sorely-needed relief package could unnecessarily bog down an effort that has already been stalled for months.

“If you get too carried away in your first stimulus package by loading the boat with too much else,” one former Democratic official said, “it could sink.”

Above all else, Biden and his economic aides emphasize a need to move as quickly as possible, especially with the prospect of getting a relief package passed in the lame duck session so unclear. Several of the relief measures passed this spring have already run dry, and some of the remaining components — including an eviction moratorium and expanded unemployment benefits — are set to expire at the end of the year. And with Covid-19 cases spiking this month, Biden’s advisers say controlling the pandemic is more urgent than ever.

The president-elect’s coronavirus strategy aims to replace the Trump administration’s patchwork system that left key decisions to states with a more unified federal framework that can be used going forward to shore up the medical supply chain and make a vaccine available to everyone free of charge.

The plan includes using the Defense Production Act to address ongoing shortages of protective gear for health workers, appointing a supply chain commander to oversee distribution of masks, test kits and vaccines, and creating a public health workers corp of 100,000 people to assist overburdened contact tracers. Biden has set a goal of increasing testing capacity to seven times what it is today, and has pledged to require masks in all federal buildings and on interstate transportation.

While he’s floated the idea of ordering a national mask mandate by executive order, he said he’ll first try to persuade local officials to enact them by arguing that they’re both a tool for reopening businesses faster and a patriotic way to protect one’s community.

“You don’t have to lock down if you are wearing the mask,” he argued at a town hall in October.

Biden’s team also plans to overhaul how the government updates the public about the pandemic — hoping to rebuild trust and overcome skepticism about a vaccine by putting forward scientists instead of politicians and replacing President Trump’s baseless declarations that the virus is “going away” with hard data about the severity and longevity of the outbreak.

“We’re going to try things and they’re not all going to work. We know that,” Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, a health policy and bioethics expert advising Biden, said in an interview. “But we’re going to evaluate everything we do constantly and refine it. When Biden managed the Recovery Act, he constantly asked, ‘Do we have to change how we’re handling this? Are we getting money to the right people?’ He’s not a scientist but he’s like one in that he tries things, monitors the outcome, and then tweaks it.”

Theodoric Meyer and Alex Thompson contributed to this report.

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