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Biden's Big Plans To Face Hurdles In Congress

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Joe Biden laid out an ambitious agenda for what he would like to do after he is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States in January. But Biden will not necessarily have the Congress he wants to easily pass it. And we're going to hear more about that from NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis, who's with us now. Sue, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey there.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit more about what the next Congress will look like for Joe Biden, just based on the results we have at this point.

DAVIS: Yeah. And I think this is important because, you know, obviously, Joe Biden is projected to win this election. That's a great night for Democrats. But down the ballot tell us a little bit of a different story. You know, Republicans had a good night on election night. Republicans are poised to gain seats in the House. They held off a big Democratic wave in the Senate. Democrats were really expecting sort of a - or seeking a sort of big repudiation of Trump election. And they didn't really get that. In some ways, it was a status quo election down the ballot, that the message that the country was sending is they wanted a different president, but they didn't necessarily want a different Congress.

The big question mark here is the Senate. OK. So Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is projected to have 50 seats in the next Senate, Democrats 48. We have two special elections in Georgia on January 5. And if Democrats were to be able to pick up those seats, that would be a 50/50 Senate, and it would become a Democratic majority because in a split Senate, the vice president breaks that tie.

So the center of the political universe is about to shift to Georgia because so much is at stake in those two Senate seats. But I do have to say a word of caution here. Coming out of this election, Republicans, you know, they are not down and out. And they have a very good track record of winning Senate races in Georgia, especially special elections and runoffs. So I think that they have the advantage going into those races.

MARTIN: So we've talked a lot this hour and earlier today about some of the - excuse me - differences of opinion among the Democrats about some of these key issues on how progressive should they be, how moderate should they be. But let's set that aside for a minute and just say that there is a list of things that Democrats do agree on. By and large, they want to repeal the GOP tax bill. They want to expand or perfect, as Joe Biden says, you know, tweak or perfect or improve the Affordable Care Act. They do want a public option. They do want citizenship for DREAMERs, people who are brought here as children, who - brought here illegally as children. They do want to balance the conservative tilt of the federal judiciary, the federal bench, with people who have different views. And they do want to work on policing reform, voting rights - a long list of things that they do agree on, even if they don't agree on all the particulars. Is that basically all on hold if they don't win the Senate, or is there any room for agreement with the Senate Republicans?

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, we have a decade of evidence of what divided Congress looks like, and it's not particularly productive. Gridlock has generally defined the past decade in government. And I think that the safest assumption is that it would probably be a lot more like that than some big legislative breakthroughs. If Mitch McConnell stays the majority leader, you know, he has proudly called himself this entire Congress the grim reaper for the Democratic agenda, things like a public option, things like immigration reform, especially the House Democrats see it. Yeah, they're probably off of the agenda.

I also think the Biden administration was, you know, how they were planning for a Democratic-controlled Senate and a split Senate are two very different things. One thing we're immediately going to be looking to watch for is, who does the president appoint to fill out his Cabinet? And are there going to be any of those big confirmation fights that he wouldn't have confronted with a Democratic Congress? But he may have a very potent check on his power with Republicans in the Senate.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, the vice president, President-elect Biden often said during the campaign he could work with Republicans, that he had many Republican friends. Some Democrats scoffed at that. But he does have a long relationship with Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader, you know, at the moment, as well as other Republicans. Could that come into play? I know you've done some reporting on this.

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, McConnell and Biden have a long relationship. They cut some of the biggest deals, most memorable deals of the Obama administration era. The two of them were the two that hammered out the deal to head off the fiscal cliff back in 2012. They have a personal relationship, too. McConnell is the only Republican senator who attended the funeral of his son Beau back in 2015. They are definitely two people that can cut a deal. I would caution with that that the deals they cut were always at a time of crisis, when deadlines were impending or something had to get done. I do think two things. We are still in the middle of a crisis. There's still a pandemic going on. And legislation will have to be done. And also, right after this election, the Supreme Court's about to take up a case on the Affordable Care Act. And if that law is dismantled, they might be confronted with having to do health care legislation, whether they like it or not.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Susan Davis. Susan, thank you.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.