What to Know in Washington: Biden Policies Surprise Progressives

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President Joe Biden’s progressive policy focus is a surprise to some liberals after he ran a centrist campaign, beating back calls for “Medicare for All” and a Green New Deal.

The turnaround showcases how far the center of the Democratic Party has shifted left since Biden served as vice president, and has some analysts thinking economic growth will prove even stronger than if Covid-19 hadn’t happened.

“It really does feel like a systemic change,” said Thea Lee, president of the Economic Policy Institute. “Before, it was all about the deficit, deficit, deficit — and anyone who did not agree was sidelined. Now, it is almost the flip side,” she said.

The first indication of the new approach came with Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic-relief package — a size that dwarfed most estimates on Wall Street. Faced with calls from Republicans to scale it down, the president has instead endorsed pursuing a Democrat-only bill in Congress that delivers on his demand.

The administration has also dismissed concerns the aid package — which is on par with the Cares Act passed during the darkest, early days of the Covid-19 crisis — would stoke inflation. Officials have specifically rejected the argument made by Larry Summers, who served as former President Barack Obama’s National Economic Council director.

Biden is planning a second, “recovery” initiative to be unveiled in the coming weeks. He’s scheduled to meet with labor leaders today to discuss his pandemic recovery plans and “get input on the President’s infrastructure plan,” according to the White House schedule.

The way the White House distanced itself from Summers at both the briefing-room podium and in private conversations demonstrates the extent to which this administration has moved past the economic thinking dominant in the past two Democratic ones. Read more from Nancy Cook.

Photographer: Shawn Thew/EPA/Bloomberg
Biden speaks to the media at the White House on Tuesday.

Biden Says U.S. Has Opportunity for ‘Change’ in Race Disparities: Biden said the racial strife that’s gripped the U.S. since George Floyd’s death is an opportunity to make significant strides toward addressing inequity, likening the era to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. “We have a chance now, a chance now, to make significant change in racial disparities,” Biden said at a CNN town hall event in Milwaukee last night.

After winning election in part on the strength of the Black vote, Biden has promised to devote his presidency to addressing deep-seated U.S. racial disparities. He’s sought to place racial equity at the center of broader issues, including his effort to curb the coronavirus pandemic, and during the town hall he spoke at length about policing and race relations. Read more from Mario Parker and Justin Sink.

Happening on the Hill

Haaland’s Interior Hearing Set: The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a confirmation hearing Feb. 23 for Interior secretary nominee Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), according to a spokeswoman for Chairman Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). Haaland will face tough questions from Republican senators over the Biden administration’s moratorium on new oil and gas drilling on public lands, as well as her own opposition to fossil fuel energy production. An enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, Haaland would be the first Native American to serve as Interior secretary if confirmed, Kellie Lunney reports.

Biden’s First Address to Congress Not Likely Till March: Biden’s first address to Congress is all but certain to slip into March, making it the latest debut presidential speech to lawmakers in decades. The Senate’s impeachment trial of Trump slowed work on a coronavirus relief bill, delaying the originally expected timeline. Two White House officials said yesterday they didn’t expect Biden to lay out his longer-term economic recovery plan—set to feature in the address to the joint session—until after the aid bill passes. Jennifer Epstein and Justin Sink have more.

Trump Blames McConnell for Losing Senate: Trump attacked Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in a statement yesterday, saying Senate Republicans cannot win back the chamber under his leadership. Trump called McConnell a “dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack” and said of the Georgia runoffs: “We should have won both U.S. Senate seats, but McConnell matched the Democrat offer of $2,000 stimulus checks with $600.” Mark Niquette has more.

Around the Administration

Biden Plea to Remake Grid Boosted Amid Crisis: The icy weather that left millions without power in Texas has critics of the Biden administration’s fight against climate change blaming renewable energy, but the failures have more to do with an ill-prepared power grid and shortfalls in traditional electricity sources. Energy analysts and experts said the blackouts in Texas underscore the U.S. electric system’s need for more of almost everything, from additional power lines criss-crossing the country to large-scale storage systems that can supply electricity when demand spikes or renewable generation declines.

That could give at least a rhetorical boost to Biden’s plans for a “historic investment” in the nation’s electric grid, including better transmission systems and battery storage that would make the system more resilient amid extreme weather spurred by climate change. Read more from Jennifer A. Dlouhy and Ari Natter.

Biden’s Options on Federal Land Renewable Plans: Biden will look to the Obama administration as a blueprint to accelerate wind and solar power development on public lands—but it also may have to borrow some Trump administration policies on environmental impact reviews, trade groups and former Interior officials say. The key to rapidly building out solar and wind on federal lands is for the administration to proactively identify sites that are best suited for projects—where good renewable resources exist and there’s access to electric transmission lines, said Timothy Fox, vice president of research at ClearView Energy Partners in Washington. The Obama administration did exactly that when it designated 20 solar energy development zones on federal land in six Western states. Read more from Bobby Magill.

Biden Says He Invoked Production Law for Vaccines: Biden said that Moderna and Pfizer agreed to sell more doses of their coronavirus vaccine to the U.S. faster than planned after he invoked federal law that could force their production. The government announced last week that the two companies would deliver 300 million doses of each of their vaccines to the U.S. by the end of July, enough to inoculate all American adults. “We got them to move up time because we used the National Defense Act to be able to help the manufacturing piece of it, to get more equipment,” Biden said at last night’s town hall event. Read more from Josh Wingrove, Jennifer Epstein and Justin Sink.

Biden Builds Out China Team With Tougher Tone: Biden is filling out his China policy team with staff whose past writing and speeches align with the tough tone toward Beijing that had emerged under his predecessor, adding to evidence that the new administration won’t revert to an earlier era of conciliation. Among the new hires is Melanie Hart, a former senior fellow for the Center for American Progress, who will help oversee a review of Trump administration policies. Read more from Nick Wadhams and Jenny Leonard.

Biden Lifts Policy That Stymied N.Y.-N.J. Rail Tunnel: Major transit projects, including the Gateway Program rail expansion between New York and New Jersey, will have an easier path to funding after the Biden administration rescinded a Trump-era policy. The Federal Transit Administration yesterday scrapped a letter from 2018 saying transit projects couldn’t count federal loans toward the sponsor’s share of project costs even if sponsors would eventually have to repay the loan with their own money. Read more from Lillianna Byington.

U.S. and Japan Reach Troop Financing Deal: The U.S. and Japan will extend their agreement on troop funding for a year, as Biden seeks to stabilize alliances strained by his predecessor’s “America First” policies. Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi announced the deal today that will keep Japan’s share of the cost of hosting about 55,000 U.S. military personnel at around 200 billion yen ($1.9 billion) annually. The government of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was expected to sign the accord soon and seek parliamentary approval within the financial year, which ends March 31. Read more from Isabel Reynolds.

Khamenei Tells U.S. to Act on Nuclear Deal: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told the U.S. it has to act on its promise to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal and not just use words, as Iran is days away from curtailing international inspections on its atomic activities. “We’ve heard a lot of great words and promises, which were violated and the opposite of which was carried out,” Khamenei said in a speech shown on state TV today and in a reference to Trump’s decision to abandon the accord in 2018. Read more from Arsalan Shahla and Patrick Sykes.

To contact the reporters on this story: Giuseppe Macri in Washington at gmacri@bgov.com; Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com; Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com; Michaela Ross at mross@bgov.com

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