While we wait for the outcome in Georgia’s two Senate contests and the possibility of a 50-50 Senate, it is worth contemplating how President-elect Joe Biden could push at least some of his agenda through a Republican-controlled Senate. Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.
Presuming that control of the legislative body remains in Republican hands, the man who will decide which, if any, elements of a Biden agenda become law is another 78-year-old lifelong student of the Senate, the senior senator from Kentucky, Mitch McConnell. To understand what Biden could accomplish with a McConnell Senate, one needs to first understand McConnell.
As has been evident during the two decades he has led Senate Republicans, McConnell is driven by two things: the accumulation and the exercise of power. He rises every morning determined to remain the Senate majority leader, which requires that he preserve and grow his Republican majority.
During the 117th Congress, McConnell will bring to the Senate floor only the legislation he believes will benefit and reinforce his Republican majority. The first place he will look is to the political survival of 20 GOP Senate colleagues who face reelection in 2022, which is obviously at odds with Biden’s preference for a Democratic Senate.
In 2022, McConnell will lose to retirement an incumbent in the purple state of Pennsylvania, and possibly incumbents in North Carolina and Iowa as well. He will pay special attention to five Senate colleagues who could face strong challenges in 2022: Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, Marco Rubio in Florida, Roy Blunt in Missouri, Rob Portman in Ohio and Lisa Murkowski in Alaska. This political backdrop will animate and inform every McConnell decision for the next two years.
Each of these incumbents has a signature issue on which McConnell could find common ground with Biden. For Rubio, as chairman of the Small Business Committee, it would mean a second round of Paycheck Protection Program lending for small businesses hurt by the pandemic or advancing a cybersecurity bill that protects critical infrastructure. For Portman, it could be his bipartisan energy efficiency bill with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). For Murkowski, chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, it could be her bipartisan energy bill. For Johnson, it could be election security and protecting the integrity of the ballot box. And for Blunt, it could be further increasing federal support for National Institutes of Health research to fund more research into lifesaving cures for diseases, which aligns well with Biden’s cancer-moonshot initiative.
But beyond the parochial issues championed by key 2022 Republicans, there are a number of other issues on which Biden and McConnell could find common cause. Among them is coronavirus relief, for which McConnell has signaled he’s willing to make a deal that includes state and local funding, as well as stimulus and future pandemic prevention. A coronavirus down payment could come in the lame-duck session, but a larger bill is more likely to happen in February under the new president.
Next year may also be when we finally live through an actual Infrastructure Week. Biden will not get his $2.4 trillion energy and infrastructure plan through a McConnell Senate, but a much more modest highway bill unanimously cleared the Environment and Public Works Committee over the summer. And there’s a deal to be had on energy innovation, a package that acknowledges the country still needs an all-of-the-above energy strategy but also spurs more investment in renewables.
Then there’s the question of how to pay for all of this. A Republican Senate will not raise the corporate tax rate or increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans, as envisioned by the Biden campaign. But some small-bore tax measures are possible, like the bipartisan House bill introduced last month that would allow Americans to wait longer to withdraw money from their retirement accounts and make it easier for employers to offer 401(k) saving plans. Carbon pricing proposals have increasingly gained traction, and there are four bipartisan bills in the Senate.
Biden could also make real progress on key social issues, in particular criminal justice reform. There is real bipartisan support to build upon 2018’s First Step Act, which was a modest proposal that eased prison sentences at the federal level. There are other bipartisan reforms, including incentives to stop debt-based driver’s license suspensions that have trapped 11 million Americans who cannot pay off their debts and consequently lost their licenses. On the immigration front, with the tea party no longer controlling the House, it’s possible to see a comprehensive immigration deal like the one that garnered 68 Senate votes in 2013. Rubio and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) were involved in that effort. At a minimum, Congress has a moral obligation to address the fate of the 700,000 “dreamers” whose status Trump has put at risk, as well as the 545 children who were orphaned by Trump’s border policy.
The biggest opportunity lies in restoring America’s place in the world. After four years of America shrinking from the world stage, Biden will restore the country’s leadership role, and he’ll find willing allies not only in McConnell, but also in Rubio and Graham. Further, there is bipartisan agreement on a Pacific security arrangement to provide a check on Chinese expansion and strengthen U.S. ties in the Pacific theater by working with allies like India, Australia and Japan. McConnell is a former chairman of the subcommittee that funds American diplomacy – and he understands the importance of American soft power.
Divided government in the past has yielded significant legislative achievements. Consider the Clinton administration working with a Republican Congress on welfare reform after the 1994 election brought a Republican majority to the House, or President Barack Obama working with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) on the Budget Control Act and Patent Reform in 2011, after the “shellacking” in the 2010 midterms. As with any negotiation and any deal, the incentive structure needs to allow both sides to declare victory. But for two long-serving Irish American pols who relish the art of the deal, you could imagine a scenario in which bipartisan agreement can help heal the country and move us all forward together.
Todd Webster is a principal at Cornerstone Government Affairs. He is the former chief of staff to Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., and has worked for four other senators including Tom Daschle, Patty Murray, Robert Byrd and Tom Harkin.