As the emcee for the ceremony, Blunt explained that in pre-pandemic times the event would have been a luncheon so lawmakers could bond with the new president, but noted that, after his 36 years in the Senate and eight as vice president, Biden was a pretty familiar figure already. Blunt, presenting the traditional gift of a painting, said first lady Jill Biden helped pick the pre-Civil War landscape with a rainbow in the sky.
“A rainbow, always a good sign,” Blunt told the Bidens.
A couple of minutes later, presenting the new president with a flag that flew over the House during his swearing-in, Pelosi took a more forceful tone as she recalled how the national anthem at a baseball game ends with a declaration to act.
“Play ball! Right there, play ball. So we’re going to get ready to play ball. We’re ready to go,” she told the president.
In his own speech, Biden clearly spelled out that he wants to work with Republicans and try to heal the partisan wounds of the past decade, saying that “unity is the path” for defeating the coronavirus crisis and overcoming other critical issues.
But within hours of settling into the White House, Biden issued a couple dozen executive orders that covered everything from border policy to reentering a global climate accord.
It demonstrated that he understands the need for quick action and that, just because some Republicans clashed with President Donald Trump, they will not become allies of the new president’s agenda.
In fact, two of the most prominent anti-Trump Republicans criticized Biden’s emerging agenda.
“We face significant challenges that require bipartisan responses. Today’s Executive Orders reverse important policies and impose significant economic cost that will imperil our recovery,” Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the most senior Republican to vote last week to impeach Trump, said in a statement.
And Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the lone Senate GOP vote last year to convict Trump in his first impeachment trial, declared his opposition to Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue package, returning to his roots as the proclaimed deficit hawk 2012 Republican candidate.
“We just passed a program with over $900 billion in it. I’m not looking for a new program in the immediate future,” the 2012 GOP presidential nominee told reporters.
By Thursday morning, less than 24 hours after talking about rainbows with Biden, Blunt dismissed the initial price tag.
“I suspect the whole package is a nonstarter, but it’s got plenty of starters in it,” he told reporters, suggesting Republicans would pick and choose some items but definitely block proposals such as raising the $7.25 federal minimum wage. “There’s some things in there that aren’t going to happen, there’s some things that can happen. And that’s how this process should work.”
Quite a few Democrats do not think that’s how the process should work.
Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, said that he is ready to quickly push through a new budget resolution for this fiscal year that would allow Biden’s rescue package to clear the Senate with just 51 votes, instead of the usual 60 votes.
“We’re ready to go, I mean, we could go in a matter of days, if leadership makes that decision,” Yarmuth told reporters Thursday.
He grew up in Louisville politics with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and has little trust in his hometown colleague to be a bipartisan broker with the new administration. There is a preference to try to find GOP support, but not to wait forever.
“I think the objective of both the House Democrats and the administration is to get this done as quickly as possible and whatever we need to do,” Yarmuth said.
Democrats still feel snakebit over how things unfolded the last time they controlled the presidency and both chambers of Congress. In early 2009, well into the Great Recession, then-Vice President Biden played a key role in rounding up a few Republican votes that were needed to clear the 60-vote hurdle to end debate.
The trade-off for those votes? Lowering the relief package’s cost to less than $800 billion, a sum that liberal economists felt did not meet the crisis. Senate Democrats then spent the summer and fall trying to round up Republican support for the Affordable Care Act, a delay that ended up being fruitless and gave conservative opponents time to build up public opposition to legislation that was difficult to explain to voters.
Not a single Republican voted for the ACA, and Democrats lost the House majority in the 2010 midterms.
With a 50-50 Senate, and with Vice President Harris’s tie-breaking vote providing the Democratic majority, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) would need to find at least 10 Republican votes to pass most legislation — a very tall order in today’s polarized Washington.
Plus, several of the most traditionally dealmaking Republicans — including Blunt and Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) — face reelection in 2022, and the prospect of conservative primary challengers that would make it riskier to cut deals with the Democratic White House.
Democrats also point to McConnell’s stewardship of the Senate in his six years as majority leader, declaring in February 2016 that it was too political to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court with a Democratic pick.
These Democrats do not want to adhere to Senate traditions that Republicans picked and chose from, preferring to blow up the filibuster soon.
“I’m a supporter of filibuster reform. I obviously want to be able to make my case to the caucus,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told reporters Wednesday, suggesting that a GOP blockade of Biden’s agenda would eventually lead to overturning filibuster rules.
So far the most conservative Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), has resisted any talk of ending the 60-vote threshold. He has argued that Biden can unlock the bipartisan magic.
“If there’s one person who understands how this place used to work, how it should work and how it can work — if it doesn’t work under Joe Biden, it doesn’t work at all,” Manchin told reporters Thursday.