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Biden Agenda To Face The Challenges Of A Closely Divided Congress

President-elect Joe Biden will face a closely divided Congress in January.
Carolyn Kaster
President-elect Joe Biden will face a closely divided Congress in January.

President-elect Joe Biden said Friday, as ballots were still being tabulated in states across the country, that voters had spoken loudly to embrace the policies and principles he campaigned on.

"They have given us a mandate for action on COVID and the economy and climate change and systemic racism," Biden said in a late-night speech in Wilmington, Del. "They made it clear they want the country to come together — not pull apart."

Biden followed Saturday night by calling on Democrats and Republicans to come together after the election and pledged to join them.

"And I believe that this is part of the mandate from the American people. They want us to cooperate," Biden said. "That's the choice I'll make. And I call on the Congress — Democrats and Republicans alike — to make that choice with me."

But Biden, who secured enough votes to win the Electoral College on Saturday morning, will face a narrowly divided Congress when he takes office in January. Biden's significant lead in the popular vote did not translate to a Democratic wave in the House and Senate, leaving Biden without the votes necessary to pursue an aggressive legislative agenda in Congress.

Democrats maintained control of the House of Representatives but the GOP made gains, picking up at least five seats in the election. Control of the Senate will remain undecided until early January following a pair of runoff elections in Georgia.

Republican reaction to Biden's victory has been muted as focus shifts to GOP efforts to defend incumbent Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in those Georgia seats. So far, most Republican senators, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have not congratulated Biden or acknowledged his victory.

But Democrats are already calling those races the linchpin that determines the success of Biden's agenda. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., used Biden's victory as a call to arms in the Georgia races.

"A Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate would be the biggest difference maker to help President-elect Biden deliver for working families across the country and in Georgia where, for too long, they have been denied the help they need by President Trump, Mitch McConnell and a Republican-led Senate," Schumer said in a statement. "The best way to ensure that positive agenda can be carried out and deliver help to working families in Georgia and across the country is to elect Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to the Senate."

Republicans, like Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, began framing a GOP Senate as a key check on progressive policies well before the final ballots were cast — a message that will likely be central in the campaigns in Georgia.

"Democrats couldn't eliminate the filibuster and, you know, make D.C. a state — or Puerto Rico," Cornyn told NPR days before the election. "So it would force the White House and the Senate to compromise and negotiate."

Regardless of the outcome in Georgia, the victors will have a narrow majority in the Senate. And Democrats will be forced to contend with divisions within their own party on some of the biggest policy items on Biden's list.

Among the most controversial is a plan to combat climate change. Democrats themselves are not fully unified on how to approach the issue. Divisions over how quickly and aggressively to move to limit carbon emissions have simmered within the party since progressive lawmakers like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., introduced the Green New Deal — a plan to eliminate the carbon footprint by 2030 — back in 2019.

Biden has proposed a $2 trillion plan to fight global warming that includes a vast expansion of solar and wind energy, a network of electric vehicle charging stations and a plan to reach zero net-emissions by 2050. But many moderate Democrats are skeptical of those plans and Republicans have mocked the proposal and successfully ran against the proposal in states like Texas and South Dakota.

Republican Sen. Mike Rounds, who was reelected this week in South Dakota, echoed a message that will likely dominate GOP pushback to many Biden proposals.

"When you think about what they're suggesting, with tax hikes and changes in our economy, they're talking about changes with regard to our energy activity," Rounds said late last month. "They're talking about a 'Green New Deal,' which would cost $90 trillion over 10 years. We can't afford that. And most of us don't think that a President Biden could ever stop the far left from pushing that."

Passing such a massive climate overhaul would require the kind of months- or years-long political investment that consumed Washington during former President Barack Obama's push to pass the Affordable Care Act in 2009. Such an effort is politically risky with full control of Washington and could be impossible if Republicans control the Senate.

Progressive activists are also calling for Biden to move on another issue that divides the party, Medicare for All. Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., both oppose the plan and instead want Obamacare expanded with a public option. But progressives argue that the party has shifted to embrace widespread government-sponsored health care.

Ocasio-Cortez tweeted shortly after Biden's victory was announced that every House Democrat who embraced the progressive health plan was reelected or is on track to be reelected.

Like climate change, Medicare for All would be an all-consuming political effort in a time when the country is still struggling with a deadly pandemic.

And Biden himself has promised to make COVID relief his first priority.

"I want everyone to know that on Day One, we are going to put our plan to control this virus into action," Biden said Friday. "That can't save any of the lives that have been lost, but it will save a lot of lives in the months ahead."

Biden has consistently promised that one of his top priorities will be to take immediate steps to combat and control the spread of the coronavirus, which has surged in recent weeks. His plan includes investing in expanded testing with a Pandemic Testing Board and a vast Public Health Jobs Corps as well as better tracing capacity and greater production and distribution of personal protective equipment. His plan also includes a plan to boost jobs to aid in economic recovery.

In his speech on Saturday, Biden said his administration's work would begin with managing the pandemic and pledged to begin the work as early as next week.

"On Monday, I will name a group of leading scientists and experts as transition advisers to help take the Biden-Harris COVID plan and convert it into an action blueprint that starts on Jan. 20, 2021," Biden said. "That plan will be built on a bedrock of science. It will be constructed out of compassion, empathy and concern."

His proposal is in line with policies included in several bills Democrats passed in the House. But Republicans have rejected two comprehensive coronavirus packages passed by the House.

McConnell has said strong jobs numbers released this month bolster his belief that any COVID-related legislation should be dramatically pared back from Democrats' plans.

"I think it reinforces the argument that I've been making for the last few months that something smaller — rather than throwing another $3 trillion at this issue — is more appropriate," McConnell told reporters this week in Kentucky. "With it highly targeted towards things that are directly related to the coronavirus, which we all know is not going away until we get a vaccine."

Congressional leaders say they hope to pass some COVID relief before the end of this year but Democrats have long insisted that they expect the economy will need further support in 2021.

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Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.