WASHINGTON — With his victory recognized by Congress and his party set to control both the House and Senate, President-elect Joe Biden moved Thursday to fill out his Cabinet, while his aides and allies drafted plans for an ambitious legislative agenda headlined by $2,000 stimulus checks to individual Americans.
Just hours after the House and Senate confirmed his election and President Donald Trump said he would peacefully transfer power, Biden announced Judge Merrick B. Garland as his attorney general and settled on three nominees to run the Labor Department, the Commerce Department and the Small Business Administration.
The president-elect’s ability to push through key parts of his agenda and win confirmation of his Cabinet selections received a significant lift this week, as Democrats picked up two Senate seats in Georgia, resulting in a 50-50 split. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has the power to cast the tiebreaking vote, which would give Democrats control of the chamber.
As part of what he has pledged will be a next round of economic assistance, Biden is expected to move quickly to gain passage of $2,000 stimulus checks — which were a big focus in the Georgia elections — along with expanded unemployment benefits, aid to state and local governments and additional relief for small businesses.
But despite Democratic control, the scope of his ambitions will be somewhat constrained by the moderates in his party, as well as a much thinner majority than his party’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, had.
In the House, Democrats will have only a 12-seat advantage, potentially dampening the multitrillion-dollar ambitions that Biden laid out in the 2020 campaign to expand health care, reduce economic inequality and combat climate change, as well the scale of his proposals to raise taxes on corporations and the rich.
Still, even a tenuous grip on power gives Biden far more ability to pursue his agenda, and to assemble his preferred team of Cabinet secretaries and other top advisers, than the alternative that his aides had been planning for since the November election: at least one Georgia loss and a Senate controlled by Republicans who appeared set to resist most of his proposals.
“When you’re in the majority, you have the chance to really play offense,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who is set to be chairperson of the Finance Committee after Biden takes office.
Biden has repeatedly expressed hope that he will be able to form bipartisan coalitions to pass legislation, which could be strained by Republican reactions to Democratic efforts to impeach Trump in his final weeks in office over his role in the insurgency Wednesday at the Capitol building. Biden described that rampage as domestic terrorism but declined to address calls to remove Trump from the presidency: “I will not speak to that today.”
A spokesperson for Biden, Andrew Bates, said he and Harris were “are focused on their duty — preparing to take office on Jan. 20 — and will leave it to Vice President Pence, the Cabinet and the Congress to act as they see fit.”
The most immediate effect of the changed political dynamic will be on Biden’s ability to win confirmation for his Cabinet nominees, as well as White House jobs and other top-level political appointments. With Republicans in charge, his team had been bracing for bruising clashes.
Biden plowed ahead Thursday with selecting top Cabinet officials, including Garland, whom Republicans had blocked for a Supreme Court seat when Obama nominated him in 2016, after Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, refused to hold hearings or a vote on the nomination.
Biden said that Garland, along with other nominees for top Justice Department posts, would help “to restore the honor, the integrity, the independence of the Department of Justice in this nation. It’s been so badly damaged.”
“I want to be clear to those who lead this department who you will serve,” Biden said Thursday during an event in Wilmington, Delaware. “You won’t work for me. You are not the president or the vice president’s lawyer. Your loyalty is not to me. It’s to the law, the Constitution, the people of this nation, to guarantee justice.”
Biden also plans to nominate three top economic officials — Gina M. Raimondo for commerce secretary, Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston for labor secretary and Isabel Guzman, an Obama administration veteran and the director of California’s Office of the Small Business Advocate, to run the Small Business Administration.
Those positions, while not as high-profile as the attorney general, will play a critical role in the Biden administration given the power those agencies wield over workplace conditions, promoting American businesses and providing aid to small businesses. Walsh has significant backing from labor unions, reflecting Biden’s plan to focus on workers, while Guzman has spent years as a small-business advocate. Raimondo is a rising star in the Democratic Party.
Biden has promised to reinvigorate the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration — part of the Labor Department — which has been criticized for failing to protect workers during the pandemic, including through lax oversight of workplaces like meatpacking plants. And he has pledged to provide more economic aid to small businesses, particularly those run by Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American owners.
The Democratic-controlled Senate is likely to accelerate consideration of the new president’s political appointees. Nominees who had been expected to run into roadblocks — like Neera Tanden, a scathing critic of Republican senators and Biden’s pick to oversee the Office of Management and Budget — now appear far more likely to be confirmed.
The new political calculations were on display just hours after the results of the Georgia races were clear Wednesday, when Biden revealed he had selected Garland of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit as attorney general. Before Tuesday’s elections, some Democrats had expressed worry that choosing Garland would allow a Republican-controlled Senate to replace him on an important court. Now that Democrats are in control, that is no longer a concern.
It will also allow Biden to nominate and confirm other judges as well, including justices to the Supreme Court, if an opening arises during the next two years.
More broadly, the president-elect and his team are setting higher expectations for a legislative agenda now that his party controls Congress. Efforts like expansion of the Affordable Care Act and an ambitious overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws are more likely than they were with the Senate in Republican control. Several immigration advocacy groups issued statements urging Biden to quickly put the Democratic gains to use.
But aides to Biden — and the president-elect himself — are wary of moving too aggressively. Both chambers remain very closely divided, which means that the loss of just a few Democratic votes could block a bill that moderates view as too radical, even if it employs a parliamentary maneuver — like Trump’s 2017 tax cuts — that allows it to pass the Senate without facing a filibuster.
The first big test of Biden’s congressional efforts is likely to be another coronavirus relief bill that provides more stimulus for the economy, additional aid to individuals and businesses, and extra funding for vaccine distribution and other pandemic responses.
Wyden, whose Finance Committee will play a crucial role in stimulus legislation, said he would push to include an overhaul of the nation’s unemployment benefits system, which is administered by states and has struggled to process claims and payments. Biden’s economic team is preparing to work closely with Wyden and other congressional leaders in drafting a bill.
The prospect of additional aid from Congress under Democratic control has economic forecasters raising their hopes for growth in 2021, to as high as 6%, which would be the fastest rate since the Reagan administration.
If Democrats can push through additional stimulus of about $1 trillion, it would add about a percentage point to gross domestic product growth for all of 2021, depending on timing, said Michelle Meyer, head of U.S. economics at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
“That leaves us flirting close to 6%” growth for the year, Meyer said. “These are very large dollar amounts.”
But some Federal Reserve officials were more circumspect, suggesting Thursday that government spending might be muted by political reality.
“I don’t think it’s a blank check for the Democrats, but they will be able to do more than they would have otherwise,” James Bullard, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, said during a webcast event. “When parties get control of all three branches,” he said, then “they start to fight within the party in ways that you might not expect.”
Biden will almost certainly struggle to win approval for his full climate change agenda, which includes $2 trillion in spending on green initiatives and the elimination of greenhouse gas pollution by 2050. But he is still expected to use early legislation to push hundreds of billions of dollars in renewable energy spending as part of stimulus and infrastructure measures, potentially including efforts to promote high-speed rail and the construction of 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations and 1.5 million new energy-efficient homes.
Health policy could also prove challenging. Biden repeatedly campaigned on strengthening the Affordable Care Act, and even a slim congressional majority should make parts of that goal possible. There is strong support among Democrats for increasing subsidies in the health insurance marketplaces and interest in expanding coverage to more low-income Americans in the states that have not expanded Medicaid.
Larger structural change, however, will still face significant obstacles. Biden supports allowing all Americans the choice to enroll in a government-run insurance plan, a policy known as the public option. That policy split the Democratic caucus when it was debated in 2010, and may not be feasible to pass using the reconciliation process. His proposal to lower the age of Medicare eligibility to 60 may also divide Democrats politically.
But some health issues could prove unifying, Wyden, whose committee oversees Medicare and Medicaid spending, said Thursday. Democrats were likely to move quickly to spend more on vaccine deployment, as the nation watches the pandemic flare up anew.