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Joe Biden’s legislative priorities: Gun control and five other issues fight to move forward in Congress

In the opening months of Joe Biden’s presidency, Congress’ job was crystal clear: Pass a relief bill and get it signed into law.

The understanding was that every other priority: guns, immigration, infrastructure, climate and voting rights could wait on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers were fully on-board, redirecting plans so that nothing would distract from a unified message.

But, the quiet part of that equation was that passing anything other than the Covid relief bill was always going to be a major slog. Now, more than halfway through Biden’s first 100 days, interests are competing in what should come next, what is possible and where the party goes from here. Members are beginning to roll out their long-awaited plans and the legislative agenda suddenly feels like it could go in several direction.

But the reality is that the party is still extremely limited by both the rules of the Senate and the members there in what it can do. The focus right now is on infrastructure and what to do about China on the hill. While Democrats have been waiting for four years for this moment, while they’ve been promising communities across the country the kind of change that comes along once in a generation on immigration, on guns and on voting rights, Congress is not equipped right now to support the kind of Democratic shift that perhaps progressives and voters thought they could get when Democrats won control of the House, Senate and White House.

The following is a breakdown of where some key items stand:

What’s next

The next legislative agenda item that the White House has bought into is passing a bipartisan bill to rein in China’s influence and impact on the US economy. That effort certainly isn’t on Democratic voters’ list of desires. It probably doesn’t crack the top 10, but it does give the administration an opportunity to reset the table with Republicans, build something bipartisan and perhaps create some momentum to begin conversations with Republicans on infrastructure. This bill is about building relationships, and if Republicans can’t get there, Democrats are also happy to have it as a legislative legacy item they can use when Republicans accuse them of being soft on China.


The key thing to keep in mind on infrastructure is that this massive bill is still very much a work in progress. Lawmakers are still in the ideas phase right now. They have priorities they’ve been working on for years. They have plans they can quickly roll into legislation, but they don’t have a process yet. They don’t have a decision on if they’ll work with Republicans or have to pass the bill through reconciliation. They don’t know how much of their climate agenda will fit and how much of the legislation will be paid for or even how you could cover the cost. The White House’s trial balloon Monday of spending $3 trillion spread over two components: a workforce modernization piece as well as a bricks and mortar infrastructure piece came after lawmakers have been saying for weeks that they don’t want to get ahead of the White House on how this will all be structured.

Key things to watch on infrastructure: Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and the Senate Finance Committee chairman, will spend the next several weeks rolling out a series of plans to potentially pay for infrastructure. Next week, expect to see a plan to retool international taxes to cover pieces of infrastructure. You’ve also seen ideas floating around of raising the corporate rate. Democrats are very serious about that option because it creates a dial where every point you go up gives you about $100 billion in revenue. The other option is lowering the cost of prescription drugs. There are multiple ideas floating around, but the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that plans that deal with price adjustment can generate $500 billion in revenue. That’s why prescription drugs may become part of this discussion.


The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing Tuesday on the future of gun control in the Senate. The House passed two bills earlier this month that tackled who can buy a gun and how to close loopholes on background checks. We’ve said it before and will say it again: the votes are not there in the Senate to pass the House bills. The votes are not there to pass an assault weapons ban. The votes are not there to limit the number of magazines. The major difference between what Republicans are willing to do on background checks and what Democrats are willing to do on background checks is that most members agree that if you are going to go and buy a gun from a licensed firearm dealer or at a gun show, you should have a background check. What they don’t agree on and have struggled to agree on in the past is whether when you sell a gun to a family member or friend or privately transfer a gun, do you have to run a background check? That’s why a failed 2013 bill to expand background checks on gun sales from West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey was a big deal. It struck a compromise. But, Manchin-Toomey isn’t the bill that Democrats are talking about bringing up for a vote.

Right now, Schumer has pledged to bring the House’s background check bill to the floor. It required background checks on everything. It was universal. That does not have the votes.


As a surge of migrant children continues on the border, Congress has yet to receive any supplemental funding request from the administration to tackle the problem with more money. For now, the focus on immigration is on pieces of legislation that have bedeviled Congress for more than a decade. The House passed the DREAM Act and an agricultural workers bill last week. The Senate has introduced compliment legislation to tackle the issues as well. But despite optimism from Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, that he’s “close” to getting the Republican support he needs for the DREAM Act, GOP aides in moderate offices and in leadership CNN is talking to say that is not the case. Durbin would need 10 Republicans to sign on and many of them are requiring that any passage of the DREAM Act come with robust border security.

Trading a pathway to citizenship for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for more money for the border is going to be a hard sell for some Democrats, especially those on the left and in the progressive caucus in the House. The balancing act here is profound, and the Democratic caucus isn’t even entirely united on the strategy for immigration reform. In the House, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus were taken aback by Durbin’s comments last week that comprehensive immigration reform wasn’t happening this Congress after a group of them led by Rep. Linda Sanchez, a California Democrat, worked to write legislation and education members in the caucus. A hearing was scheduled on the bill and members were continuing their work. Tonight, the CHC will meet with Durbin in an effort to get on the same page.


As CNN reported Monday, this robust discussion about the future of the filibuster isn’t going to start in a serious way until after Democrats’ see multiple pieces of legislation go down because of it.

Yes, Manchin and Biden have talked about a talking filibuster. But the reality is that if you don’t get rid of the 60-vote threshold at the end of all that talking, all you do is create a scenario where Republicans can control the floor at length and halt your entire agenda every time someone objects to something. The talking filibuster could backfire for Democrats unless the 60-vote threshold is scraped, which Manchin has said repeatedly he won’t do. Even if the filibuster is disposed of, it also doesn’t clear the way for progressives to pass their agenda. You still have a dynamic Democratic caucus in the Senate where you have to convince your most moderate members every time to get on board. If you get rid of the filibuster, you don’t all of a sudden pass an assault weapons ban, comprehensive immigration reform and the rest. It takes time, convincing and a lot of questions about Democratic unity.

Manchin isn’t the only one. Yes, some members are opening the door in ways we haven’t seen. And yes, a few major defeats could force the issue to a place where we haven’t been before. But, we aren’t there yet. And just because Manchin is the only member talking about not wanting to abandon the 60-vote threshold, doesn’t mean he’s the only one. There are likely plenty of others.

Minimum wage

This was the perfect example of a place where Manchin and Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema were talking about their opposition, but it turned out the resistance to raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour was far greater than just two members. When the Senate voted last month on this amendment to the Coronavirus relief bill, eight Democrats voted against it, many of whom we had never heard from before publicly.

Later Tuesday, members of that group will meet to discuss what kind of minimum wage they could get behind. There are a myriad of ideas being floated from regional minimum wages that would take the economic conditions of a state into account before assigning a minimum wage to simply smaller dollar increases. The point is that raising the minimum wage isn’t off the table, it just would have to be a smaller number to actually pass and garner some Republican votes.

Article Topic Follows: National Politics

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