The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden’s big agenda is imperiled as his priorities stall in Congress and a debt fight looms

President Biden makes his way to Marine One at the White House on May 19. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

In his first formal address to Congress last month, President Biden implored lawmakers to act expeditiously on an ambitious to-do list.

On expanding access to voting, Biden pushed for legislation to be sent for his signature “right away.” On immigration, he urged Republicans and Democrats to at least “argue over it” and “debate it,” but mostly, “let’s act.”

Biden told Congress that he wants to sign legislation overhauling controversial policing practices by May 25, the first anniversary of the murder of George Floyd. And while he pledged to do everything in his power to counteract the rash of gun violence, Biden added: “It’s time for Congress to act as well.”

Yet the burst of legislating that characterized the first few months of the Biden administration — from the signing of $1.9 trillion in coronavirus relief into law to swift passage of several Democratic priorities in the House — has slowed dramatically. The White House’s hopes for meaningful policy achievements hinge on a handful of critical ongoing negotiations, centered mainly in the Senate, and each of those is now struggling to move forward.

For weeks, a trio of negotiators on policing have been tied up over how much immunity — if any — law enforcement officers accused of misconduct should enjoy from lawsuits. A bipartisan group of senators has also quietly discussed expanding background checks for gun purchases, a weeks-long back-and-forth that the lead Democrat involved said was “frustrating.”

Immigration continues to vex GOP and Democratic lawmakers, as Republicans remain wary about granting legalization to undocumented immigrants as long as migrants, including unaccompanied children, continue to arrive at the southern border in large numbers. And on voting, Senate Democrats, who hold the barest of majorities, have not even rounded up unanimous support within their ranks, much less the 10 GOP votes that would be needed to clear legislation through their chamber.

“At every level on all three — immigration, guns, policing — various levels of achievement at this point,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), giving a candid assessment of the issues his Judiciary Committee oversees. “Some disappointing, others very encouraging.”

President Biden met with Congressional leadership on May 12 to see if they can reach some “consensus on a compromise” on his infrastructure plan. (Video: The Washington Post)

So far, senior White House officials and Democratic leaders have let the bipartisan discussions proceed without much interference from them, empowering rank-and-file lawmakers to hammer out significant compromises on guns, policing and immigration that could help define Biden’s legacy. But it’s unclear how much more of a legislative window they have, because they soon face a fiscal crunch, including an expiration of the debt limit this summer, which will probably consume Washington with partisan battles over federal spending.

Impatience is starting to mount, particularly among Democrats in the House, who are staring down challenging political and structural head winds ahead of next year’s midterm elections and are eager to sell their accomplishments to voters. These Democrats are also skeptical that there is any real appetite from Republicans to carry out bipartisan accomplishments after most GOP lawmakers rejected a commission — negotiated by one of their own — to investigate the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

“We need to produce victories to make sure that we win,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.). “We’re going to have a hard time winning the [2022] election. Gerrymandering is going to severely affect our chances. And so we need to be able to have strong, concrete arguments about what you get from a Democratic-controlled House, Senate and White House.”

The White House has checked off significant legislative accomplishments already, such as the massive pandemic relief package and a slate of Cabinet secretaries who were confirmed at the fastest pace in recent memory. The first tranche of judges tapped by Biden are poised to be confirmed as early as June, while the Senate is working its way through legislation aimed at boosting U.S. competitiveness against China, which could form one pillar of the White House’s broader infrastructure ambitions.

Biden has turned his attention to his next big-ticket legislative priority: a pair of infrastructure bills designed to bolster the economy and the workforce, which total about $4 trillion. The president, a veteran of the Senate who still feels at home at the Capitol, has been visibly involved, from convening Oval Office meetings to his top aides exchanging paper with GOP negotiators.

In contrast, senior officials at the White House and on Capitol Hill say that, on the most sensitive issues, such as guns, immigration and policing, the administration has deliberately chosen to let lawmakers take the lead in negotiations without overt involvement from Biden or his top aides.

The overall legislative strategy is one that aides say stems from Biden himself, whose decades in the Senate and eight years as vice president have imbued in him the value of relationships and insight into how successful negotiations unfold on Capitol Hill. There’s an acknowledgment, one senior White House official said, that each negotiation is unique, and Biden gets the balancing act needed in congressional talks while knowing when to act through executive actions and the bully pulpit.

Biden is aware of “what is the right way to encourage them and to be engaged,” said the senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about White House strategy. “That kind of deft touch, I think, is very important, and one that is deliberate, careful and considered daily.”

On guns, for instance, Justice Department officials have offered technical guidance when asked by senators, and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) has kept White House aides in the loop on his talks with Republicans. A similar dynamic exists on policing negotiations, which are led by Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) and Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

Although administration officials have been helpful if called upon during the policing talks, Bass said, “it is 100 percent up to us.”

“I really feel like the strategy here is very smart, which is to have the White House focused on the next big-ticket item while allowing rank-and-file members, like myself and Booker and others, to try to work out deals on other issues,” said Murphy, who has been meeting with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and other Republican senators on a gun deal. “It hasn’t always been that somebody like me gets the wiggle room to try to negotiate something like this.”

The hands-off approach is bearing fruit on the measure to beef up technology research and counter China’s rising global influence. The Senate is expected to approve the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act in the coming week, after it was hammered out on Capitol Hill — largely without White House involvement.

But it’s far from clear that Biden’s legislative strategy will yield the other bipartisan achievements the White House craves.

The two sides appeared to hit a major obstacle Friday on infrastructure, as Republicans characterized a White House counteroffer as insufficient and began to cast blame on administration aides. While negotiators seem to be earnest on policing, Republicans and Democrats haven’t been able to come to an agreement on the doctrine of qualified immunity, which shields police from legal liability.

Senate Democrats are holding a second caucus-wide meeting Wednesday to discuss the party’s position on voting rights legislation. And, in a sign that bipartisanship may not be possible on the issue, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has quietly started to explore whether an immigration overhaul would be possible under a special budgetary procedure known as reconciliation, which would allow legislation to pass with a simple majority in the Senate.

On guns, Murphy and Cornyn have met in person a handful of times, and their aides are exchanging various legislative proposals. Murphy says the talks center on expanding the number of background checks that are conducted and ensuring checks mandated by law actually occur. Cornyn has discussed reining in unlicensed firearms dealers, such as the seller who allowed a mentally ill man in Texas to purchase a gun that was later used to in a 2019 mass shooting, and ensuring enforcement of current laws.

Murphy said that although the negotiations have been the most substantive ones he’s had on the issue since he came to the Senate, the fact that his group has been talking for six weeks without a conclusion has been “frustrating, but maybe not unexpected.”

At some point, he added, “there’s got to be an end to the road.”

“There’s a lot of things being talked about in the background” while other topics grab headlines, Cornyn said. “There’s . . . actually some encouraging conversations going.”

Still, another factor at the front of minds at the White House and on Capitol Hill is that the window for ambitious legislating is already starting to diminish.

The suspension of the debt limit ends after July 31, and Congress will need to either raise it or suspend it again around that time to prevent the nation from defaulting on its debt. Doing so triggered some of the most bitter fights in the Obama administration between the former president and congressional Republicans, and GOP lawmakers are signaling similar warfare in the coming months.

“It normally takes some concession for any administration to get the debt-limit increase,” warned Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of the Senate GOP leadership. “I don’t know what that looks like yet, but I don’t think you’ll get a debt limit without working with our side on some things we’d like to see.”

The Biden administration has started discussions around the debt ceiling, communicating across federal agencies to prepare for a potential standoff. Meanwhile, some Democrats tried to ward off the coming fight over the nation’s borrowing capacity by discussing including a debt-limit hike in the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, which was signed into law in March, according to party aides. That bill was passed using reconciliation to avoid a Republican filibuster in the Senate.

But doing so made some Democrats “squeamish,” said one of the aides, because the legislation would have to specify the amount of debt, a figure in the trillions of dollars, to which the ceiling would be raised. That would be a tough political vote for many moderates, who would prefer voting simply to suspend the debt limit, like Congress has done repeatedly in recent years.

Some senior Democrats are working to prepare legislation — whether it’s a bipartisan deal or a bill meant to force Republicans on the issue.

“I want to be able to go to Chuck Schumer and say we have something that absolutely must be called win or lose, or we have something ready to pass,” Durbin said. “I have work to do to prepare both of those.”

Other Democrats hope bipartisan efforts on infrastructure or other issues don’t drag out that long. Nearly 60 House Democrats have signed a letter advising on the “the size, scope, and speed of the next legislative package,” urging the administration to ditch the talks with Republicans and get moving.

“It’s just a matter of: At what point do you quit working with people that have no intention of actually working with you?” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), a leader of the liberal wing. “And we’ll just at that point get it done.”