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Biden eyes ambitious agenda on pandemic, economy, racial equality

President Joe Biden speaks during his inauguration Wednesday

President Joe Biden speaks during his inauguration Wednesday in Washington.   Credit: Patrick Semansky / Pool / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

WASHNGTON — President Joe Biden launched an ambitious agenda Wednesday, promising to tackle the pandemic, the economic crisis, climate change and racial equity — despite a narrow majority in Congress, an impeachment trial and a divided country.

On his first day in office Biden began to reverse scores of Trump administration actions with executive orders and the Democratic leaders of the Senate and House — Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California — prepared to act on their sweeping legislation.

"We’ll press forward with speed and urgency for we have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibilities — much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build and much to gain," Biden said in his inaugural address.

But the longer-term agenda that Biden and his chief of staff Ron Klain have revealed over the past week contains so many pieces of legislation that it likely will take the rest of the year for Congress to process — and may not happen at all, depending on Republican resistance.

The top legislative priority will be Biden’s proposal for a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief and stimulus package, which includes $350 billion for state and local governments, $1,400 checks for working people and extended unemployment payments, among other things.

The Senate will take up that legislation in the coming weeks as it works to confirm key Biden cabinet members and hold an impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, said Schumer, the new majority leader.

Another top priority will be Biden’s intent to ramp up the role of the federal government in manufacturing and distributing vaccines for COVID-19 as its death toll passes 400,000, vowing to vaccinate 100 million Americans in his first 100 days in office.

The White House proposed a day-one bill to overhaul the U.S. immigration system with a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally, border protection with expanded use of technology and foreign aid to Central America to curb refugees.

Biden has endorsed the House Democrats’ bill that would federalize many voting rules to create broader access, restore the Voting Rights Act, declare statehood for Washington, D.C., put new restrictions on campaign contributions and add government personnel ethics rules.

And in a few weeks in his first address to Congress as president, Biden said he will lay out his proposal for massive infrastructure and job training investments that form the core of his recovery plan to reboot the economy as his administration works to tame the pandemic.

The partisan battle in Congress over many of the Democratic priorities could be harsh and difficult, given the narrow majorities the Democrats hold in both the House and Senate and Republican opposition to reversing Trump’s policies, lawmakers and political experts said.

The Senate is divided evenly between the two party caucuses, giving Democrats a majority only with the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. In the House, Democrats have 221 members, just three more than the votes they need to pass legislation.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Democrats do not have a mandate for sweeping ideological changes. "The people intentionally entrusted both political sides with significant power to shape our nation’s direction," he said.

McConnell can block legislation with a filibuster, which take 60 votes to end. Democrats speak of changing the rules to weaken or abolish the filibuster, but that likely won’t happen soon, said Molly Reynolds, a Brookings Institution fellow and expert on the filibuster.

And since both parties will have to overcome their own internal divisions between their more moderate and more extreme members, that gives each party an opportunity to peel off a lawmaker from the opposition on some matters.

Meanwhile, Democrats’ grand plans have been delayed by the slow start they’ve gotten in the difficult transfer of power in the White House and in Congress.

"The change of Senate control happening so late means that the Senate is not even organized yet," said Frances Lee, a Princeton politics professor, blaming Trump’s refusal to concede and the delayed outcome of Georgia’s two Senate runoff elections won by Democrats.

The Trump impeachment trial on charges of incitement of insurrection will slow things down more. Pelosi has not said exactly when the House will transfer the its article of impeachment and Schumer has not said when or how the Senate trial will take place.

Scholars, along with conservative activist Rick Manning of the Americans for Limited Government, said they believe it is possible that Congress could pass a COVID-19 stimulus package and even an infrastructure plan.

But they raised doubts about other progressive Democrats proposals.

"We’re not looking at a major legislative presidency right now," Lee said. "Given all the special obstacles that the Biden administration faces, the expectation of major legislative breakthroughs here at the start are not realistic."

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