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In his inaugural address on Wednesday, Joe Biden said his presidency will focus on “uniting our nation.” And he might be better suited to that job than anyone else: As Slate’s senior politics writer, Jim Newell, wrote, Biden’s long career in politics has earned him “the broadest reservoir of goodwill.” But the new president is about to face two major tests, on the COVID-19 stimulus and on immigration, and congressional Republicans are not going to roll over in the name of “unity.” On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Newell about what Biden and his team want to get passed right away, how they might do it, and what might stop them. A portion of our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity, is transcribed below.
Mary Harris: The Biden administration has mapped out a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill that includes a round of $1,400 checks and a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour. The content of this bill is important, but what might be more important is the process used to get it passed. Getting another stimulus through the Senate using the regular order, meaning a two-thirds majority to avoid a filibuster, is probably going to be difficult, maybe impossible.
Jim Newell: I don’t know if there are 10 Republican votes for a $1.9 trillion package like that, especially now that, with a Democrat in office, they’re going to rediscover their big concerns about the debt and everything. One example: After inauguration, when I was walking out, I saw Mitt Romney and I just asked him a couple of questions about the speech. He said it’s a wonderful speech, this is exactly the message we need to hear. He seemed pretty excited about how things had gone. And then I asked him for his thoughts on the stimulus package and he said, well, we can agree to disagree, and I don’t think now’s the time to be spending any more money.
If Mitt Romney isn’t coming aboard …
Right. And that makes sense—just because he was critical of Trump doesn’t mean he’s not a fiscal conservative. But I think that’s gonna be the attitude, and so there might only be a few Republican senators in play. If that doesn’t work out, then you have to talk about doing a reconciliation bill, which is kind of a fast-track process where measures that are explicitly taxing or spending measures can be passed with 50 votes only in the Senate.
Reconciliation is an opportunity for the controlling party to pass major legislation with a simple majority, avoiding a filibuster. But reconciliation can only be done under certain circumstances, and only once each fiscal year.
I think Democrats will have a couple weeks of politeness maybe, but then they’ll move to that process. It stops short of getting rid of filibuster—if you get rid of the filibuster, then you can pass any type of legislation you want with 50 votes. But I don’t think Democrats have the votes to do that right now.
Would they need more than a majority to get rid of the filibuster?
No. Under the “nuclear option,” which is this way of sort of eliminating a Senate rule by setting a new precedent, you can just do it by a simple majority.
But you think they don’t even have a simple majority.
No. I mean, Joe Manchin, West Virginia senator, said a couple of months ago, reiterated, that under no circumstances will he ever get rid of the filibuster. And then that doesn’t even count some of the other centrist Democrats. You’re going to have two Democrats from Arizona and two from Georgia now. And then there may be just some other traditionalists there who aren’t ready to do that.
The second bill that’s going to put this new administration to the test is the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which includes an eight-year pathway to citizenship for the undocumented. It makes sense that the Biden administration would prioritize this—similar reform almost passed back in 2013.
I think it’s still the same kind of political bargain that they were looking at in 2013 and before that in 2006, 2007, where Democrats want a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already here, and Republicans in exchange want enhanced border security. Everyone wants to come up with the right number of guest worker visas so that labor can all be managed legally through the system.
It almost worked in 2013. You had a bipartisan group in the Senate put together a bill. You had a lot of outside actors working on it. You had the Chamber of Commerce on business’s end and AFL-CIO representing labor’s point, trying to hash out the details. And they got a compromise done. It passed the Senate with 68 votes—all Democrats and  Republicans. It would have passed the House if the House had brought it up because there were all the Democrats and you would have had enough moderate House Republicans who would have voted for it. But Boehner never brought it up because they were threatening to overthrow him from the speaker’s position if he did so. He did not have the will of his conference on that.
So when I look ahead to this year, it looks on paper like it could be the right coalition because Biden could put forward a roughly similar idea. You could still get a bipartisan group in the Senate, and you have Democrats controlling the House so you could actually pass it. But if you look at the context of that 2013 bill, this was right after the GOP had released that autopsy, that RNC autopsy of why they lost the 2012 election.
Which said that they had to appeal to more diverse constituencies.
Yeah, and they had to soften their tone on immigration. That was the operative and donor class thinking on this. But then Trump won in 2016 by going very hard on immigration. So I just don’t think that Republicans in the Senate are going to have the will to go along with a Democratic immigration bill enough to move it.
So it’ll be an interesting temperature check.
Yeah. I’ll be curious to see if it just goes down on party lines. The 2013 one, that was something where [Florida Sen. Marco] Rubio was one of the big architects of it, and it really hurt his chances running for president in 2016 in the primary. So I wonder if they’re willing to take the plunge again or if they feel like things have just changed enough now that it’s not worth the effort.
There’s so many former Obama, former Clinton folks in Biden’s staff, who were operating in a different political reality than we’re in now. I wonder what you’re looking for to see if they’re doing what actually needs to be done or if they’ve learned the lessons of the years past.
All the signs have been really promising that they’ve learned those lessons. You’ve heard Joe Biden himself say the first bill we’re going to do is going to be expensive and we’re going to pay for it with deficit financing. They’re not worried about these optics of not having every single dollar paid for in new legislation they create. And that is a big lesson, learning from the Obama years.
I think a lot of them regret that the stimulus they passed in 2009 was maybe a half or a third of what it needed to be to help get the economy going again. And I think if you look at Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan—which is phase one of his plan—I think a lot of them think this is a makeup call for that. So once Republicans, at 12:01 on Wednesday, decide that it’s time to care about the national debt again, I don’t think Democrats are going to buy that as much. I don’t think they’re going to be so concerned with that argument that a lot of the Republicans, some of them are consistent, but most of them are making in bad faith—that it’s a Democrat in office, time to not spend any more money.
Does it help that Biden’s at the end of his career? There’s so much talk about maybe he won’t run for a second term. Is that freeing?
Maybe. It depends on if he is going to run for a second term. And I suspect, it’s a pretty good chance, that he has decided he’s not going to run for a second term. But he doesn’t want to announce that because then suddenly you lose some of your power. Then you have a lot of jockeying in Congress about who’s going to replace you, and your authority is diminished right off the bat. So he’s not going to say that, and that’ll be interesting, to see how that’s teased out over the next however many years.