The COVID-19 Relief Bill Passed. What's Biden's Next Big Move?
Now that Democrats have passed President Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, all eyes turn to what's next.
But what that is isn't exactly clear.
"I would expect the president's agenda, moving forward, will reflect the Build Back Better agenda that he talked about on the campaign trail," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday. "But the order, the size, the timeline has not yet been determined."
In other words, no one quite knows yet.
There are indications that infrastructure could be the next big push, but there's also voting rights, the minimum wage (which was nixed from the COVID-19 relief bill and is important to progressives) and immigration.
And none of it will be easy to pass — and may not pass at all.
Getting the COVID-19 bill passed had to be done through a maneuver that only required a majority vote because the legislation got zero Republican support.
Most legislation requires 60 votes to advance to a floor vote because of the increased use of the filibuster over the past two decades. Republicans under party leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky have used it at a high rate, and they show no signs of letting up on its use during the Biden presidency.
Biden is still holding out hope that he can get Republicans on board for other legislation, but the track record for bipartisan compromise on big-ticket items isn't very good in Congress.
Americans ostensibly value compromise — this week's NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found, for example, that two-thirds said it is more important for Biden to compromise with Congress to find solutions than to stick to his position on issues even if doing so means gridlock.
Of course, people say they want compromise, but they often mean they want others to come around to their position.
Biden began his presidency with a flurry of executive actions on a range of issues, from racial justice to climate change to immigration. But there's only so far those executive actions can go.
For more meaningful change, any president needs Congress. But if Republicans voted en masse against the COVID-19 relief bill, which was broadly popular with the American public, it's hard to see them coming around on much else.
And if Republicans — who only have a 28% approval rating on how they're handling their job in Congress in the NPR poll — refuse to compromise on any of Biden's other priorities, almost nothing else will get done.
After all, Democrats will only get so many chances to use budget reconciliation, the process they used to do an end run around the filibuster for the COVID-19 relief bill. That maneuver can only be used on bills tied to the budget.
Here's where the politics meets the policy for some of the possible next areas of focus for Biden and Congress:
Infrastructure should be the one of the most ideologically possible places that both parties agree.
Democrats are preparing multitrillion-dollar legislation that would pay for bridges, roads, public transit and water projects. It will also be climate-oriented.
"I have called upon the Chairs of the Committees of Jurisdiction to work with their Republican counterparts to craft a big, bold and transformational infrastructure package," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Friday. "Building our transportation system has long been bipartisan. It is our hope that spirit will prevail as we address other critical needs in energy and broadband, education and housing, water systems and other priorities. As we engage in these job-creating initiatives, we must discuss their impact on the federal budget, on creating economic growth and on preserving our planet."
But how many Republicans will really be on board? That's unclear. While both sides agree U.S. infrastructure is a problem, the question, for years, has been how to pay for it. President Barack Obama and then-House Speaker John Boehner came close to some agreement but could never overcome that obstacle.
During the Trump years, it became something of a joke inside Washington every time the Trump administration would declare one week or another "Infrastructure Week" because real movement on infrastructure issues never came to pass.
A major Democratic priority is new voting rights legislation.
Voting rights bills were passed overwhelmingly in 1965, 1993 and 2002, but since a Supreme Court ruling vacated key parts of the Voting Rights Act, Republicans have mostly abandoned wanting to be part of any new legislation.
Earlier this month, the House passed a large bill narrowly, 220-210. It is designed to protect marginalized groups' ability and access to vote, and it limits gerrymandering.
But it is already coming under fire from Republicans in the Senate.
Ted Cruz of Texas called it a "universal fraud law" and continued to spread conspiracies about the 2020 election and false allegations of widespread fraud.
Mike Lee of Utah went so far as to say, "This is a bill as if written in hell by the devil himself."
So it doesn't appear Republicans are open to this piece of legislation.
A minimum wage increase, which is a progressive priority, was stripped out of the COVID-19 relief bill because the Senate parliamentarian ruled it could not be included in a budget reconciliation bill.
Democrats want it gradually raised to $15 an hour, something Biden (as well as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders) campaigned on. Republican Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Tom Cotton of Arkansas have proposed legislation that would gradually raise the wage to $10 an hour over the next four years and, importantly, index it to inflation.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., would require businesses with $1 billion in annual revenue to pay employees $15 an hour.
But it's unclear what, if any of these, McConnell would support — or whether Democrats are open to lowering their thresholds.
Immigration is another thorny area. Despite bipartisan recognition of the continued problem of more than 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally and an increase in unaccompanied minors coming to the Southern U.S. border in the last two months, there appears to be little desire, particularly among Republicans, to find a middle ground.
Biden has already introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill, but Democrats acknowledge it doesn't have the support even within the party to move ahead. Instead, House Democrats have decided to move piecemeal immigration bills starting next week, which are not expected to get any traction in the Senate.
It's an animating issue for the GOP base, and there is tremendous incentive for Republicans to stick to a hard line, especially after the Trump years. President Donald Trump used immigration to stir up the culture war and intense emotions. It was quite the switch from just after the 2012 election when Romney lost badly with Latinos, and the GOP was doing soul-searching on how to appeal to the largest-growing demographic group in the country.
A lot of members of Congress, especially senators, are wary of committing to anything comprehensive, especially after the 2013 legislation, which garnered 68 votes in the Senate, fell apart in the House.
Fourteen GOP senators crossed the aisle back then, just four of them remain. McConnell was not one of them and spoke out against the legislation back then.
And after Trump, immigration very well may be the third rail of American politics.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.