Biden’s $1.9T rescue signed, agenda now faces a slog

Lisa Mascaro
Associated Press

Washington — Tough as it was for Democrats, passing President Joe Biden’s sweeping $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue package into law was the easy part.

Now, they are hunkering down to push the next priorities in Biden’s agenda forward past what, so far, has been a wall of entrenched Republican opposition in the so-very-split Congress. It’s likely to be a long slog.

Popular legislation to expand voting rights, raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and develop the president’s “Build Back Better” infrastructure package are all on deck this spring and into summer. But unlike the relatively quick passage of the American Rescue Plan, halfway through the president’s first 100 days, sending the next measures to Biden’s desk is expected to take many months. Democrats are even considering changing historic filibuster rules to overcome opponents and speed the bills along.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., arrives for her weekly news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, March 11, 2021.

“It will take time to put all the pieces together,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, a member of party leadership.

Biden’s signing of the American Rescue Plan on Thursday marks a milestone for his administration and for Democrats who have command of the House, Senate and White House for the first time in a decade.

But Democrats face mounting pressure from within their centrist ranks to try harder to win support from Republicans, especially on the coming infrastructure bill — a multitrillion-dollar investment in roads, bridges, ports and broadband that could be even bigger than the just-signed coronavirus rescue package.

At the same time, the progressive flank is eager to waste no time and take more dramatic steps, including changing the Senate’s 60-vote margin required by filibuster rules, if needed, to leave Biden’s opponents behind.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said all options remain on the table.

“We need a big bold agenda, just like we passed,” Schumer said this week, vowing to “do everything we can to get that bold agenda done.”

If Republicans “won’t join us in that,” he said, “our Congress is going to come together and figure out next steps.”

The next big test will come quickly, even before the big infrastructure bill is fully formed.

The House is rapidly sending the 50-50 split Senate a series of bills that many Americans support — to expand voting rights, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and expand background checks for gun purchases.

Democrats are set to use those bills as test drives to assess Republican attitudes. If Senate Republicans start blocking the legislation, Democrats are prepared to force them into long days and nights of dramatic floor filibusters, like the movie version in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia opened the door to forcing opponents to stand and make their case in the so-called “talking filibuster” — to feel some pain, as he put it — if they want to block a bill.

Manchin has been among the most outspoken Democratic opponents of doing away with the filibuster, but he is not alone. While it takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster on legislation, a tall order in the evenly split Senate that would require at least 10 votes from Republicans, it also takes 50 votes to change the Senate’s rules. As many as 10 other Democrats are also hesitant to eliminate the tool.

The filibuster gives the minority enormous ability to halt action, and Senate Democrats used it plenty of times when they were out of power. But filibuster opponents say it has been abused over the years, particularly as a mid-century tool to delay civil rights legislation, and call it a historically racist tool that affords the minority too much power over the majority.

Doubting bipartisanship will emerge, there is growing support among Democratic senators to do away with the filibuster if Republicans use it to block Biden’s bills.

“If Mitch McConnell continues to be totally an obstructionist, and he wants to use the 60 votes to stymie everything that President Biden wants to do and that the Democrats want to do, that will actually help people” by making it clear that Democrats will need to get rid of the filibuster, said Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii.

“We may not be quite there yet,” said the senator, whose own views have shifted to now favoring eliminating the tool. “I am.”