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Analysis: What are the odds Biden can un-stall the rest of his agenda?

It’s a good opportunity to check in on his agenda and his priorities.

For an honest assessment, I went to CNN’s Phil Mattingly, who covers the White House and knows as much as anyone about the procedures on Capitol Hill that Biden will have to maneuver if he wants to get more things done.

Our conversation, conducted via email and edited slightly, is below.

WHAT MATTERS: Biden has been in office for six months. What’s your assessment of his ability so far to execute on the three-legged agenda — American Rescue Plan (ARP), American Jobs Plan (AJP), American Families Plan (AFP) — he laid out?

MATTINGLY: I always think about ARP through this lens — Biden put a $1.9 trillion proposal on the table six days before he took office. He signed a $1.9 trillion proposal, which included every key plank he proposed, into law. That’s pretty good execution! But context here is important. It was a moment of very real dual crises. It was a brand-new President and brand new Senate majority that both desperately wanted to deliver. It was progressives and moderates unwilling to undercut their new leader in his opening weeks. I’m not knocking the work of the president or his well-regarded legislative affairs team, but I am saying they benefited tremendously from that rare convergence of factors.

Which brings us to AJP and AFP. If you told Biden’s team two months ago they’d be in the place they are right now on their push, they’d be happy. Very happy. But it only gets harder from here. The high-wire act — the narrowest of majorities, progressives and moderates on very different pages (unlike ARP), a bipartisan deal that has been tenuous from the start — is real and one misstep brings it all crashing down.

Odds of infrastructure happening

WHAT MATTERS: What are the current odds Biden is able to sign an infrastructure bill into law?

MATTINGLY: I promised myself I was done with putting odds on things in the early weeks of Nov. 2016, and I’ll stick to that here. What I will say is this: The bipartisan infrastructure proposal is the linchpin of Biden’s whole agenda at this point.

There’s the math — without it, he doesn’t have the votes for the second piece of his plan, the $3.5 trillion progressive-driven proposal that would transform the role of the government to a degree unseen in about decades. Period.

But there’s also the Biden of it. He wants it. Badly. Not necessarily because he campaigned on bipartisanship and “breaking the fever” and all that. But because of the broader message it sends that government can work. Democracy can work. The US, even in these polarized times, can work. He talks about it often, but the degree to which that 30,000 foot view of things animates his presidency is still a little under-appreciated.

Doesn’t mean it happens — it’s been declared (wrongly) nearly dead several times in the last week. It will be again. And it very well could eventually die (where are the 10 GOP votes? Do House progressives revolt?). But keep the above points in mind before making any official death declarations.

What about bipartisanship?

WHAT MATTERS: Biden came into office pushing for unity and he has at least gotten some Republicans to negotiate on a bricks and mortar infrastructure plan and police reform. But his largest priorities will all, it seems, require a Democrats-only strategy. Has he failed on the unity front?

MATTINGLY: It’s an interesting question because of the trade-offs here. Yes, Biden wants unity and bipartisanship (in Washington, not just in public polling, contra to what White House officials say). But there also was never any real effort to compromise on ARP. Nor will there be on the Democrat-only second piece of his agenda. That’s a policy decision.

Republicans weren’t going to support what Biden wanted on ARP. Biden, at the urging of Hill Democrats, saw a moment to go big and lock in some tangible, if short-term, progressive wins. He chose that route. Same deal with the $3.5 trillion package. He’s choosing once-in-a-generation social safety net expansion over bipartisanship. That’s a calculated strategic decision — and one that’s intertwined with the politics, whether they’ll acknowledge it or not. White House officials believe the politics of the moment — coming off a once-in-a-century pandemic, and, to be frank, following a Republican president who wasn’t nearly as hostile to government programs as most in his party — will reward enacting those policies, even if along party lines.

WHAT MATTERS: So much of the GOP opposition is built around framing Democrats as socialists before the 2022 midterms. Is the same true of Democrats and their unwillingness to compromise on elements of bills they want — they want Republicans to appear to be obstructionist and antidemocratic?

MATTINGLY: Honestly, my sense based on reporting is it’s far less about that than it is seeing a real moment to notch victories on issues they’ve only dreamed about enacting into law for decades. There are limits obviously — with only 50 votes in the Senate, things like voting issues and elements of climate and immigration, are off the table. On those, Democrats are happy to pin the obstructionist label on. But on what they are moving, it’s far more policy driven than messaging, at least at the moment.

WHAT MATTERS: But to hear Sen. Joe Manchin tell it, you could have a strong voting bill if both sides would just come to the table. What would have to change in Washington for that kind of Manchin bipartisan utopia to occur?

MATTINGLY: Who votes in primaries? How districts are drawn? Who funds campaigns? Who and what goes viral? In short, every current incentive in federal electoral politics?

I’m not knocking Manchin here — he’s not naïve, contrary to the caricature of him, and he knows this. The reality is there are small windows (see the infrastructure framework and police reform) where there’s actual space to do something. But I can’t stress enough how small those windows are.

Breaking the filibuster

WHAT MATTERS: Manchin (and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema) are the most vocal Democrats about not wanting to end the filibuster. There are ways around it with budget reconciliation. Some Democrats are also pushing an exception for constitutional issues, like voting rights. What are the odds senators like Manchin and Sinema would buy into such an idea?

MATTINGLY: I’ll stay true to my firm position on giving odds, but I will give a percent chance that it happens: 0%.

WHAT MATTERS: The latest standoff I’ve read about is over the debt ceiling, which must be raised in order to keep the government solvent. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says no Republicans in the Senate will vote to raise it.

MATTINGLY: Yuuuuuuup. Don’t let this sneak up on you. It’s a *huge* looming battle that, based on my reporting, people on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue quite simply haven’t been paying close enough attention to yet. That’s about to change. Or at least it better. Soon.

WHAT MATTERS: Immigration, climate change, voting rights, police reform, gun control, are all perennial issues that leap to mind that Congress has been unable to address in a meaningful way for years or decades. Which one stands the best chance of seeing a big bipartisan effort in the next five years?

MATTINGLY: Police reform is really quite close right now. Don’t know that they get it over the finish line, but that’s the smart money pick.

Immigration has come close so many times, and you don’t find anyone who think the current system is in any way sustainable, so that’s probably where many would lean.

But I’m going to go with climate. I’m intrigued by the new House GOP climate caucus. As newer generations cycle into politics it’s far less polarizing on the topline (It exists. If you don’t believe that you’re willingly blind.) Add to that the jarring photos and video of catastrophic natural disasters that seem to come across the airwaves almost daily at this point and it’s the kind of thing that historically has stirred action. Does that mean the two sides will agree on the scale of what needs to be done? Probably not. But it seems like space is starting to open up there.

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