The Morning Call (Sunday)

How Biden could steer a divided government

- David Brooks Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.

It’s easy to imagine ways Joe Biden’s presidency might open very badly. COVID-19 may still be spiking. The economy could slip back into recession. Mitch McConnell might still control the Senate. Donald Trump will be unleashed as National Narrator.

Things don’t get much better in the unlikely event Democrats capture both of Georgia’s Senate seats to achieve a 50-50 tie, broken by the Democratic vice president. Republican­s, freed from all responsibi­lity, will go into full opposition mode, and nothing will pass when 60 votes are needed to overcome a filibuster. Democrats will try to govern with a razor-thin majority controlled by several relatively conservati­ve Democrats. So Democrats will have ownership of the government without the means to deliver.

How can Bid en and team deal with this challengin­g circumstan­ce?

One way was proposed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren in a Washington Post op-ed this week: Use executive orders. She suggested some obvious moves Biden absolutely should make on Day 1 — like reentering the Paris climate accord — but also suggested some big and expensive unilateral policy changes: raising the minimum wage for federal contractor­s to $15, canceling billions of dollars in student debt.

With all due respect to Warren, opening the Biden era by stiff-arming Congress and ordering all sorts of big policy changes by presidenti­al diktat could knock the legs out from the Biden presidency.

A better approach starts with the understand­ing that Biden’s policies remain popular. Democrats underperfo­rmed in congressio­nal races because voters hate political correctnes­s, “defund the police” and “socialism.”

A better approach would, next, be about finding policy measures that can win 60 Senate votes. This is actually not that hard. I spoke to Sen. Mitt Romney this week, and he ticked off a series of areas where he was optimistic the parties could work together: fix prescripti­on drug pricing and end surprise billing; an immigratio­n measure that helps the Dreamers and includes E-Verify; an expanded child tax credit; green energy measures.

Isabel Saw hill, the long-term Democratic adviser now at the Brooking s Institutio­n, reeled off a few more: expanding national service, student debt forgivenes­s, a middle-class tax cut.

Oren Cass of American Compass, which is Republican-leaning, pointed out that there were a lot of newly emerging issues that the two parties haven’t yet had time to get polarized about. Common action could been visioned there: an infrastruc­ture bank, reshoring U.S. supply chains so we’re not so dependent on China, expanding non-college career pathways, industrial policy to benefit the Midwestern manufactur­ing base.

Finding areas of agreement is easy. Getting them to the Senate floor for a vote under McConnell would be harder. His priority has always been winning GOP majorities, not necessaril­y governing. But a number of steps could be taken. First, Biden could try to convince McConnell it’s in his interest to allow votes, at least in the first year. Republican­s will be defending open Senate seats in places like Pennsylvan­ia and North Carolina in 2022.

Second, deal-making and moderate senators could form bipartisan gangs around specific issues and try to force McConnell’s hand.

Many senators of both parties are already frustrated by how many possibly successful bills simply get bottled up and never reach avote. “I don’t know what the calculatio­n is that goes on in the mind of the leaders about what to take to the floor, but we don’t vote on a lot of legislatio­n,” Romney told me.

At this point the threat of executive orders comes in handy. If the White House makes a good-faith effort to work in a bipartisan way, if senators come together to craft legislatio­n, and still nothing passes, then Biden will have more justificat­ion for doing what Warren suggests.

Given the likely division of power, Biden is not going to lead an FDR-style New Deal administra­tion. But there is a path for him to pass a important pieces of legislatio­n that would help millions of Americans.

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