President Joe Biden began Thursday’s press conference with 470 words about the nation’s progress with the Covid-19 crisis, then the journalists in attendance asked him zero questions about it.
I mention this not to harangue the White House press corps—plenty of others have already taken care of that—but to highlight Biden’s political challenge.
Biden would prefer to focus on progress with the pandemic. He has already signed major pandemic relief legislation. He has control over the vaccination effort. He has reason to believe the virus will be abated and the economy will improve.
On every remaining legislative front, however, the outlook is daunting. Finding 10 Republicans who will routinely break filibusters is difficult, some think impossible. And the Senate Democratic caucus, while not exactly in disarray, is not fully unified either. The votes are not in hand to reform the filibuster, let alone abolish it. Biden can’t count on 50 Democratic senators to pass legislation on voting reform, immigration reform, climate change or gun control. And intra-party divisions are showing in regards to how much any new spending should be offset with tax increases and spending cuts.
Perhaps naturally, reporters were more interested in quizzing Biden in those areas where there’s little expectation of progress.
A prepared Biden was not knocked back on his heels. For example, when asked if cramped conditions for detained unaccompanied minor refugees were “acceptable,” Biden responded incredulously, with, “that’s a serious question, right?” before ticking off his efforts to date and concluding the current situation is “totally unacceptable.” Asked if he has talked with Republicans about immigration reform yet, he unapologetically replied, “No, because I know they have to posture for a while.” The progressive historian Rick Perlstein commented on Twitter, “Biden made clear he understands that the press’s posture toward him as adversarial gamesmanship, and wouldn’t play their game.”
That’s all good from a performance perspective. And good performances are important to maintain solid approval ratings and generate political capital. But underneath Biden’s command of the room, we can detect uncertainty from him about where his agenda goes from here.
Pressed on how he would “deliver” on “immigration reform, gun control, voting rights [and] climate change,” Biden’s initial response was to remind reporters that “the most urgent problem facing the American people” is Covid-19 and its related economic disruption. Those other issues, according to the president, belong in the category of “long-term problems; they’ve been around a long time,” which is another way for Biden to say we shouldn’t expect him to be a magician.
When Biden was queried on when, in the wake of the Atlanta and Boulder massacres, he would act on gun control, he replied that it was a “matter of timing,” without specifying the time. He said his next legislative push would be for infrastructure investment, an unmistakable signal that the recent mass shootings are not going to alter his legislative schedule—unlike how Sandy Hook scrambled Barack Obama’s second-term agenda.
Running somewhat counter to Biden’s low expectation setting for legislative action was his comments about the filibuster. Not only did Biden reiterate his newfound support for a “talking filibuster” requirement, he pledged that “if there’s complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster, then we’ll have to go beyond what I’m talking about.” To “go beyond” filibuster reform, presumably, is filibuster abolishment. That would suggest Biden is prepared to lean on institutionalist holdouts like Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, junk the filibuster, and speed through the bills most prized by progressives.
But before filibuster opponents get too excited, note that seconds later, Biden said, “it’s going to be hard to get a parliamentary ruling that allows 50 votes to end the filibuster, the existence of a filibuster.” The hope of either reforming or killing the filibuster rests on deploying the “nuclear option” of corralling 50 votes (plus the tie-breaking vice president) to overrule the parliamentarian and change the rules on a simple majority vote. Sen. Joe Manchin has said he would “never” do that to abolish the filibuster. And CNN reported that Senator Jeanne Shaheen joined Manchin and Sinema in supporting the existing 60-vote threshold to end the debate. Moreover, just yesterday, Manchin strongly implied to the National Review that he would not even go nuclear to impose a talking filibuster requirement.
Perhaps knowing the votes are not in hand to change the rules, Biden assured, “we got a lot we can do while we’re talking about what we’re going to do about the filibuster.”
Yet Biden indicated that he wasn’t about to rush through his to-do list, saying with a bit of contradiction, “we’re going to move on these [problems] one at a time, try to do as many simultaneously as we can.”
Senate Democrats may want to force a confrontation over voting rights. The bipartisan Group of 20 may want to chat about immigration and minimum wage. But unless they can come up with a breakthrough on their own, Biden appears prepared to stick to infrastructure as his main legislative priority for the time being.
An infrastructure bill will not be a simple legislative endeavor. Republicans and Democrats will clash over spending, taxes, and the environment. Some parts could qualify for the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process, but not all; one budget expert recently told Bloomberg News that reconciliation would turn the infrastructure bill into “Swiss cheese.” And if Democrats think they could pass some parts of an infrastructure package with 10 Republicans, and save the more ambitious parts for reconciliation, Republicans have told the Washington Post they probably won’t play along.
As current highway spending expires in September, it’s a good bet a final infrastructure bill won’t get done until that deadline forces Congress to act. Biden may not want to talk about much else besides Covid-19 and infrastructure between now and then.
Yesterday’s press conference is a warning that the press corps may have other ideas.