WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden, no longer dealing with the impeachment trial of his predecessor, set out this past week to lay the groundwork for other aspects of his first 100 days agenda, including ramping up bipartisan talks on an infrastructure package and introducing an immigration reform bill.
Biden, asked about former President Donald Trump’s acquittal by a majority of Senate Republicans last Saturday, made clear he was eager to move past the trial, which loomed over the first 24 days of his presidency.
"For four years, all that's been in the news is Trump," Biden said Tuesday in a CNN town hall event in Wisconsin. "The next four years, I want to make sure all the news is the American people. I'm tired of talking about Trump."
Biden and White House officials insist the president’s priority is passing his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package through Congress by March 14, but his next legislative pushes have started to come into focus. Infrastructure, immigration and climate change were among the key topics of meetings and events held by Biden and White House officials the week following Trump’s trial.
The president’s aides have balked when asked to outline his next steps after a relief package is passed, but they have indicated Biden will lay out a clearer road map for his legislative priorities when he delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress in March.
Until then, Biden has sought to build up his engagement with Republicans, inviting GOP lawmakers on two separate occasions to meet with him at the Oval Office to discuss the stimulus package and an infrastructure deal. But the president has faced pushback from some Republican leaders who question whether he’ll deliver on his promise to usher in a new era of bipartisanship, as congressional Democrats maneuver to pass his stimulus package without major GOP input.
"Notwithstanding all the talk about bipartisan unity, Democrats are plowing ahead," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said earlier this month in a Senate floor speech.
Biden has defended the push by Democrats to pass his relief bill through a budgetary process known as reconciliation which would allow him to pass the bill through the Senate with only a simple majority of votes, essentially eliminating the need for GOP crossover votes in an evenly split Senate. Biden has argued that changes proposed by Republicans to reduce the price tag of the package ultimately fall short of what’s needed to rev up the economy and get vaccinations in arms.
"I’ve told both Republicans and Democrats, that’s my preference, to work together," Biden told reporters recently. "But if I have to choose between getting help right now to Americans who are hurting so badly and getting bogged down in a lengthy negotiation or compromising on a bill that’s up to the crisis, that’s an easy choice. I’m going to help the American people who are hurting now."
Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), said that while "Democrats have to be careful that they’re not just saying ‘my way, or the highway’ on everything," Biden is responding to the urgency of the moment in trying to move quickly on a stimulus bill.
"The public really wants something done," Suozzi said, pointing to national polls that show broad support for Biden's proposal. A Quinnipiac Poll found 68% of respondents supported Biden's package. The poll, released Feb. 3, surveyed 1,075 adults and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Suozzi, a vice chairman of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, said he believes Biden will eventually rally bipartisan support for other elements of his agenda in the coming weeks given Biden’s personal ties in the Senate, where he served for 36 years before he was elected as vice president under President Barack Obama.
"Biden has a lot of personal relationships. He knows a lot of people, and if he doesn't know the people, he knows somebody who knows the people," Suozzi said.
Freshman Rep. Andrew Garbarino (R-Bayport) said he believes the White House and Democratic leaders are "wasting a great opportunity to say ‘look, we did this together and now we’re going to build off this,’ " but he did not discount the possibility of Biden finding some level of support for an infrastructure package as preliminary talks kick off.
Garbarino said there "will be an appetite there" from Republicans to work with Democrats on funding upgrades to the nation’s roadways, transportation hubs and communications systems.
"Anybody who doesn't think their district needs more money for clean water projects, anybody who doesn’t think their district needs more money for roads, for mass transit, or tells you they don’t, they’re lying," Garbarino said. "Everybody needs this money."
Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) also said infrastructure seemed to be the next issue most likely to generate fruitful bipartisan discussions.
"We all agree that we have to rebuild and modernize our crumbling infrastructure," Rice said. "The need to build out our broadband infrastructure has never been more critical … that’s one of the things that came out during this pandemic … There’s some hope there for bipartisanship."
The office of Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) did not respond to an interview request, but in a statement issued hours after Trump’s Feb. 13 acquittal, he said: "Now with the Senate having rendered its final verdict, we must focus on ending this pandemic, getting our economy growing and all of America's kids back in school learning, strengthening our national security, defending our freedoms, and so much more."
Biden will be in a better position to engage with congressional Republicans now that Trump has decamped to his Florida estate without his powerful Twitter account in tow to weigh in on the issues of the day, said former Rep. Pete King (R-Seaford). Trump was banished from several social media platforms in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob of his supporters.
"When you're out, you're out," King said of Trump’s ability to influence the dynamics on Capitol Hill. "He’s still going to influence things from the outside, but he’s not the president. President Joe Biden, if he asserts himself, can lay out the game plan … and if he’s working with Republicans, that makes his voice stronger and also weakens Trump."