Biden’s options for his agenda are quickly boiling down to ‘punt’

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President Joe Biden came into office with an ambitious agenda and his party holding both houses of Congress. But thanks to the filibuster, he can’t get any laws passed without the votes of 10 Republican senators. Two Democrats, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, have refused to play along with changing the filibuster rule.

What will Biden do next?

Option one: Progressives keep yelling at Manchin and Sinema, calling them racists and closet Republicans until they change their tune. Good luck with that. Biden lost West Virginia by 39 points. You think Manchin cares?

Option two: Wait it out and campaign against GOP “obstruction” in 2022. That could backfire. John F. Kennedy in 1962 was the only Democratic president since the Depression to gain Senate seats in his first midterm. Democrats lost six seats in 2010 and eight in 1994. And even if Democrats gain ground in the Senate, they may well lose the House in 2022, after the Census shifted more House seats to Republican areas.

Option three: Cut bipartisan deals. Biden used to know how to work across the aisle. But the parties are much further apart now. There is little that Biden can do to meaningfully threaten Republicans, and his own party doesn’t fear him. At 78, Biden lacks the will, energy and charisma to force a deal. Even scaled-back infrastructure talks have collapsed.

Option four: Bend the rules. In 2010, Democrats passed ObamaCare by running part of it through the budget-reconciliation rule, which allows some tax and spending bills to bypass the filibuster. The rules are complex and opaque, and even the Senate parliamentarian has ruled that Democrats only get to use reconciliation one more time this year. Undoubtedly, plenty of spending can be buried in the final budget, but unless they are willing to fire the parliamentarian, Democrats will have to leave a lot on the cutting-room floor.

Some have suggested rewriting the filibuster rule instead of repealing it. But forcing a “talking filibuster” or dropping the threshold for ending one to 55 votes from 60 wouldn’t solve the basic problem that there are very few Republican votes for most of Biden’s proposals, and little incentive for Republicans to play along.

Never bet against the creativity of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in devising Rube Goldberg schemes to get around the rules, but some Democrats facing re-election next year in swing states and districts may be just as happy not to have to vote on some of Biden’s more sweeping plans.

Having to take responsibility for changing the rules or firing the parliamentarian to pass trillions in new spending and massive revisions to criminal justice and voting could look like an electoral suicide mission in 2022.

Option five: Executive orders – what can’t they do? Barack Obama’s favorite response to being stymied in Congress was just to use his “pen and a phone” to do whatever he wanted. Donald Trump, too, leaned more on executive orders after losing the House. Biden is temperamentally not a fan of that approach. But many around him are — Kamala Harris spent her whole presidential campaign promising to do things by executive order — and Biden is likely to listen to them as his other options run out.

But there are three problems with executive orders. One, as Trump and Obama could tell you, they can be repealed by the next president. Two, some of them won’t survive court challenges. And three, even the most aggressive advocates of executive orders don’t seriously think you can use them for Democratic priorities like changing election laws.

Option six: Refocus on foreign policy. Presidents who are thwarted at home have often looked abroad for accomplishments. But this does nothing for a Democratic base hungry for change here at home and often uninterested in events abroad. Biden’s global ambitions so far, such as reviving the Iran deal, have run headlong into external events such as the eruption of war between Israel and Hamas. A future crisis, perhaps in Taiwan or Belarus, is unlikely to be the sort of thing that unites and energizes Democrats.

Option seven: Pick fights with Trump. If all else fails, play the oldies. Running as “not the Orange Man” got Biden elected, and Trump is nothing if not eager to be back in the news. Biden came in wanting to be the next FDR, but if he can’t do that, well, at least the Trump Show always got good ratings.

Dan McLaughlin is a senior writer at National Review.

Twitter: @BaseballCrank

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