November Issues Preview
Joe Biden to the White House? His policy agenda would face some tough sledding in a divided Congress with the Senate likely still controlled by Republicans.
The final makeup of the Senate won’t be determined until January after a pair of runoff races in Georgia. Both Senate seats there are now held by Republicans, so it’s an uphill slog for Democrats who still hold the House to take back the Senate.
Amid that backdrop, POLITICO Pro’s policy teams took a look to see how successful Biden would be enacting his platform with a likely GOP-led Senate pushing back.
— A government-run insurance option would be off the table: The new Democratic president’s most ambitious plans for expanding health care coverage would surely stall if Republicans keep the Senate.
— Lower tax expectations: Biden ran on an aggressive tax agenda, including higher rates for wealthy Americans and corporations, but would likely have to scale back his plan in face of strong opposition from a GOP-led Senate.
— A mixed bag for Silicon Valley: The former senator and vice president from Delaware has surrounded himself with tech-savvy advisers and allies, but don't expect a return to the Obama era's chumminess with Silicon Valley.
USDA secretary to set the tone on agriculture and food policy: The first clue to the kind of Agriculture Department would exist under Biden would be his pick for USDA secretary. Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is the favorite — a moderate from North Dakota who was also on Trump’s short list for USDA head.
Democratic Reps. Marcia Fudge of Ohio and Cheri Bustos of Illinois are also in the top tier of contenders, along with California Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross and Delaware Agriculture Secretary Michael Scuse.
It's likely the USDA pick’s first order of business would be undoing most of the Trump administration's measures that sought to decrease participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Biden has said he wants to expand household SNAP benefits by 15 percent during the economic downtown.
Biden would also need to address the spigot of trade aid money that's been funneled to farmers and ranchers during the last few years. Cutting off the billions of dollars to producers would be politically unpopular, even if economists say that the taxpayer-backed assistance is unsustainable.
On climate, Biden wants to push the agriculture industry to have net-zero emissions, which he’s proposed achieving in part by boosting USDA's conservation programs that financially reward farmers for engaging in sustainable practices.
The trick, however, would be coaxing farmers to get on board given how reluctant many have been in the past about government proposals like the Green New Deal. — Liz Crampton
Expanding on Obamacare gets harder: Biden’s most ambitious plans for expanding health care coverage, including a government-run insurance option and lowering the Medicare eligibility age, would come off the table if Republicans keep the Senate. And they would still be difficult lifts even if Democrats secure control of the chamber in a pair of Georgia Senate runoff elections in January.
Though Biden's legislative agenda has narrowed, he could focus on pushing through an expansion of Obamacare subsidies to more middle-income people. With the prospect of congressional gridlock, Biden could take other smaller measures to bolster coverage without congressional support, like reopening HealthCare.gov for Obamacare enrollment and restoring advertising funds that the Trump administration slashed.
He could also try new ways of incentivizing the remaining dozen Medicaid expansion holdout states to extend coverage to millions of poor adults.
The Supreme Court's upcoming review of Obamacare remains the major wild card — a decision that overturns all or part of the law would force a scramble to shore up coverage.
A few prospects have already emerged as likely candidates to oversee Biden’s health care agenda as Health and Human Services secretary. Among them: former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who has advised Biden on the pandemic response, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and North Carolina Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen, who was a top health official in the Obama administration. — Jason Millman
Biden would have to lower his tax expectations: He ran on an aggressive tax agenda, including higher rates for wealthy Americans and corporations, along with expanded tax credits for lower income people and incentives for companies to return jobs to the U.S. But while he may have won the presidency, with the Senate appearing likely to stay in Republican hands, he’d probably have to jettison much of his plan.
That’s not to say there aren’t areas where the two sides could agree. For instance, Republicans are also interested in using the tax code to lure jobs back to America. And there are parts of the 2017 tax overhaul that are nearing expiration that members of both parties would like to keep alive, including generous deduction rules for equipment purchases and other investments by businesses. — Toby Eckert
Social media under fire: Biden has surrounded himself with tech-savvy advisers and allies, but don't expect a return to the Obama era's chumminess with Silicon Valley. Instead, the next four years probably mean even more heat for big tech companies like Facebook, which repeatedly tussled with the Biden campaign over issues such as the platform's refusal to take down misleading attacks on Democrats.
In contrast with President Donald Trump's attacks on the tech giants, Biden is expected to bring a more practical, steady focus that could result in actual regulation and legislation.
Status quo plus: A Biden Justice Department would be expected to continue —and could even broaden — the antitrust lawsuit that the Trump administration filed against Google in October, which narrowly focused on the company's command of the search market.
Biden also would inherit Trump’s efforts to block China’s telecom giant Huawei from building the 5G networks of U.S. allies, an issue that has largely earned bipartisan support. Biden could continue that quest as well, though maybe with some milder rhetoric.
Still, Biden may have more trouble getting GOP buy-in with initiatives that are more popular in Silicon Valley, such as creating more open immigration policies or spending billions of dollars to expand broadband access.
Personnel moves: People will be watching to see if Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai and Federal Trade Commission Chair Joseph Simons step down soon — moves that had been expected regardless of who won the White House.
It's less clear if the Senate will bother confirming Trump's FCC nominee, Nathan Simington, whose nomination hearing is still set for Tuesday in the Commerce Committee. — John Hendel
A Biden defense policy: The former vice president has telegraphed he doesn't anticipate drastic cuts to the Pentagon budget, but is expected to reverse or reevaluate some major planks of Trump's national security policy.
Biden could cut nuclear spending and take a fresh look at Trump's nuclear weapons blueprint that calls for overhauling the entire U.S. arsenal and building new warheads.
He could also reverse Trump's troop drawdowns abroad by slowing the pace of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and scrapping a plan to remove 12,000 troops from Germany.
Biden would also be expected to cancel construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, for which Trump has forced the Pentagon to fork over nearly $10 billion to help finance.
Biden also has pledged to reverse Trump's restrictions on transgender individuals serving in the military.
Esper stays, Flournoy on the way: Trump is expected to keep Defense Secretary Mark Esper on the job through the inauguration, Jan. 20, despite months of speculation the Pentagon chief would resign or be fired shortly after the election.
Michele Flournoy, a former Pentagon policy chief, is the odds-on favorite to be defense secretary in the Biden administration. A familiar figure in the defense establishment, she would be the first woman to lead the Pentagon. — Connor O’Brien
GOP Senate control could hamper Biden’s trade agenda: Biden’s more ambitious trade proposals could face roadblocks from a GOP-led Senate — once the White House gets around to them.
At first, trade would likely take a back seat. Biden's campaign said any new trade deals would come after a “series of dramatic domestic investments,” but some things can’t be delayed.
Trading partners would pressure Biden quickly to lift Trump’s unilateral tariffs. And Biden would have to name a new U.S. trade representative and decide whether to continue talks with Britain and Kenya started under Trump.
The Biden campaign has been tight-lipped about appointees, but USTR candidates include Obama administration officials, like former agriculture negotiator Darci Vetter, policy wonks like Mike Wessel or Jennifer Hillman and politicians like Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.).
Biden would also face the expiration of the trade promotion authority, which can fast-track deals in Congress, next July. Given its domestic focus, Biden likely wouldn’t push for authority renewal or new trade deals immediately. But when he did, a GOP Senate would mean opposition to Democratic priorities, like using trade pacts to fight climate change.
But while it may frustrate progressives, Republicans controlling the Senate could be the preferred outcome for U.S. industry, leaving Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in place to rein in the Democrats while trading Trump’s go-it-alone foreign policy for Biden’s steadier, multilateral approach. — Gavin Bade
Biden's big swing on infrastructure: During the campaign, Biden promised a $2 trillion, four-year spending plan that would boost infrastructure, speed the transition to electric vehicles, reinvigorate transit and rail systems and more. Many before him have made similar promises, and many before him have failed for one reason: money. There is, put simply, no easy, politically-safe pot from which to draw.
Biden has proposed to pay for his plan with some amount of stimulus-style deficit spending, with the rest coming from increasing taxes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans. The tax piece, in particular, would meet a wall an expected Republican Senate.
Biden could still get pieces of his priorities enacted. For instance, his early months would likely to be consumed with another coronavirus aid bill and that could include a significant chunk of money for transportation industries.
Congress must also reauthorize surface transportation programs by the end of Sept. 2021, and that legislation could also be a vehicle for some of his priorities — but the more progressive they are, the more demagogued they will be, especially now.
It's likely that Biden would make attempts to yank back a Trump administration rule that lowered fuel economy standards for light duty vehicles and also repealed California's ability to impose their own GHG standards for motor vehicles. — Kathryn A. Wolfe
ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT
Climate agenda's uphill fight: Forget Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan, Virtually any legislation to rein in greenhouse gas emissions would be dead in the water, and any green energy provisions that hitch a ride on stimulus legislation would likely be more modest in scope. But that doesn’t mean he couldn’t make substantial progress on his promise to decarbonize the U.S. economy.
Biden has vowed to rejoin the Paris climate accord on Day 1, a simple step that would send a strong message to the world. Expect his administration to swiftly begin reversing Trump’s suite of climate rule rollbacks, including those that severely weakened carbon rules for power plants and undid limits on greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles and oil and gas drilling.
He can also use executive power to halt drilling permits on public lands, although he’s unlikely to take aggressive action to reduce oil and gas output, especially at a time of record unemployment.
The Trump administration’s sweeping rollback of Clean Water Act protections, however, can’t simply be reversed, since the previous, Obama-era rule would be unlikely to withstand scrutiny at the Supreme Court given its new conservative makeup.
And, while Democrats have been livid over the Trump EPA’s move to exonerate a series of toxic chemicals, it’s not clear the Biden administration will have the time or bandwidth to go back and review them all. — Annie Snider
Taking a look at the money: Biden’s campaign education platform included pursuing massive new federal funding for K-12 schools, boosting teacher pay and trying to make public college tuition-free for some students.
Additionally, in the Senate, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have already prepped a resolution to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt for millions of borrowers. The senators said Biden “would be very seriously entertaining" the plan.
If no new economic stimulus bill is passed, Biden has endorsed the House Democrats’ stimulus plan, which would extend the pause on monthly student loan payments until next November and keep the interest rate at zero percent.
He’s also committed to canceling $10,000 in student loan debt for each borrower, as a pandemic relief measure, but hasn’t said how he would pursue that loan forgiveness.
Title IX: Biden has also vowed a “quick end” to the Trump administration’s new rule on sexual misconduct in schools, which he says aims to “shame and silence survivors.”
The policy is a key part of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ legacy while in office. — Bianca Quilantan