5 takeaways from the POLITICO Pro congressional agenda briefing

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*This article was originally made available to POLITICO Pro subscribers on 01/08/2021 05:47 PM EST


A panel of POLITICO reporters and editors held a video briefing Thursday to discuss key issues facing the 117th Congress, as well as how President-elect Joe Biden may work with lawmakers to further his policy priorities and the impact that Democrats’ surprising sweep in Tuesday’s twin Georgia Senate runoffs may have on Biden’s chances for success.

Budget and Appropriations reporter Caitlin Emma, Biden transition and Health Care reporter Alice Miranda Ollstein and Legislative Services editor Peter King briefed Pro subscribers on these and other top issues, and answered questions about the upcoming policy debates expected in the new Congress and administration.

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Here are five big takeaways from the call:

1. Biden gets his Cabinet

The most immediate and straightforward impact of Democrats’ victories in Georgia is the assurance of relatively swift and smooth confirmation of his Cabinet nominees, Alice explained.

While Senate Republicans had told POLITICO they would have tried to tank the nominations of several of Biden’s picks had they held the majority — Including HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and OMB Director Neera Tanden — that now won’t be possible.

What Republicans can do, however, is slow down the process. While Biden’s team is calling for the Senate to hold hearings and votes on his nominees prior to the inauguration — something the chamber has done during past presidential transitions — Republicans will maintain control over the committees’ schedules while Mike Pence remains the vice president able to cast the 51st vote, and only one hearing is scheduled so far between now and Jan. 20. Biden’s team plans to keep arguing that the concurrent crises of the pandemic, struggling economy and recent cybersecurity attack mean that they need as much of the Cabinet in place on day one as possible.


2. Get ready for reconciliation

Democrats will finally get their shot at deploying the powerful budget tool this year after winning a narrow majority in the Senate.

As Caitlin explained, reconciliation presents Democrats with an opportunity to pump billions of dollars into the economy and reshape social policies. While limited in how often they can use it and what it can be used for, Democrats will have as many as three bites at the apple. There’s precedent for using it twice in a single year — Republicans deployed reconciliation in 2017 in an unsuccessful attempt to repeal most of Obamacare and then later to successfully pass their massive tax overhaul.

How exactly Democrats will use the budget procedure remains to be seen — coronavirus reliefhealth care expansion and huge investments in infrastructure and clean energy are all on the table.


3. Covid, Covid, Covid

Biden campaigned on a host of sweeping health care pledges, including creating a public health insurance option and lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 60. But with the Georgia runoffs giving Democrats only the narrowest of majorities and with several moderate and conservative members in the caucus, Alice pointed out that action on those items will still be an uphill battle. And the administration will be consumed at first by efforts to address the Covid-19 pandemic — including passage of bills to better fund testing and vaccination campaigns.

While the pandemic will likely continue to take up Congress’ time and resources and crowd out action on other priorities, it has also highlighted and exacerbated other problems in the health care system, increasing the likelihood of bipartisan action on things like opioid addiction and drug prices. If something does get enacted on those other issues, it is unlikely to be a sweeping bill like H.R. 3 last Congress.


4. A budget year ripe for bickering

Congressional leaders — faced with that slim majority in the Senate and a narrowed majority in the House — will need to thread the needle with the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic caucus when it comes to deciding on overall defense and nondefense funding levels for fiscal 2022.

Progressives have already pledged to push for significant cuts to the Pentagon’s budget — an effort that likely won’t sit well with more vulnerable members and the Biden administration. There’s also a slate of fiscal 2022 spending bills that need writing and a debt limit that must be raised this summer.

Two things Caitlin and Alice said are also worth watching — whether Democrats will bring back earmarks and try to repeal the decades-old Hyde amendment that bans federal funding for abortion. Democratic appropriators have so far pledged to do both, but expect resistance from some Republicans and some moderates.


5. How much time for oversight?

If they can stay unified, their new majority will allow Democrats to secure votes on issues like climate, voting rights, election security, student loan debt relief and immigration that might never have reached the floor, even if the bills aren’t eventually enacted because they can’t overcome GOP filibusters.

But Alice said she is also watching to see how much time Democrats spend on oversight, especially in the short term, investigating things that went on in the Trump administration. Some will want to explore what went wrong with the Covid response and hold people accountable, while others will urge lawmakers to put that energy into dealing with the current response and moving forward.


More on Biden's First 100 Days:

Access more in-depth analyses and infographics from POLITICO Pro that will help you stay ahead of new policies and regulations coming from the Biden administration. 

Visit the resource center >>

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