RACHEL SCOTT: Biden’s first 100 days: crisis and opportunity.
HOUSE SERGEANT AT ARMS WILLIAM WALKER: (From video.) Madam Speaker, the president of the United States.
MS. SCOTT: President Joe Biden addresses Congress –
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) America is on the move again.
MS. SCOTT: – promising unprecedented spending and transformative change.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) We’re in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century.
MS. SCOTT: But will Biden’s proposals gain bipartisan support?
SENATOR TIM SCOTT (R-SC): (From video.) Our best future will not come from Washington schemes or socialist dreams.
MS. SCOTT: Or even get the backing of all Democrats?
SENATOR JOSEPH MANCHIN (D-WV): I’ve never been for that and I’ve told him I’m not for that.
MS. SCOTT: And does Biden’s first 100 days in office demonstrate he can turn his bit plans into action? Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week.
MS. SCOTT: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. I’m Rachel Scott.
It was a big week here in Washington. President Joe Biden spoke to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, the chamber only partially filled due to COVID-19 protocols, and history was made. Biden became the first president to address Congress with a female vice president and female speaker of the House both there sitting behind him. The president shared his optimism with the American people.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) One hundred days ago, America’s house was on fire. We had to act. And thanks to the extraordinary leadership of Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader Schumer, and the overwhelming support of the American people – Democrats, independents, and Republicans – we did act.
MS. SCOTT: So the president has met some of his key promises on that list – administering over 200 million vaccine doses, getting Congress to pass his COVID relief bill, rejoining the Paris climate accord, and starting the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan – but not all of his promises have been kept so far. We’ll have more on that later. During his speech President Joe Biden even urged more action, including passing his infrastructure and childcare proposals. The two would amount to roughly $4 trillion in government spending, but could that price tag make members of Congress wary of supporting Biden’s agenda?
Joining us tonight are four reporters covering all things Washington: Geoff Bennett, White House correspondent for NBC News; and joining me here in the studio is Lisa Desjardins, correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Jonathan Martin, national political correspondent for The New York Times; and Ashley Parker, White House bureau chief for The Washington Post.
Lisa, I want to start with you. It’s so nice to be here in studio with you. You were inside of the chamber on Wednesday, so take me inside of the room. This was a moment that President Biden had been waiting for for 36 years; did he meet it?
LISA DESJARDINS: Of everyone in that chamber, I think Joe Biden is the person that probably has been to the most State of the Union addresses. (Laughter.) Here he was finally giving one, and it was a speech like none we have ever seen or will ever see again. Looking out at the group in front of me, it was dotted with members of Congress who, I have to say, really were not as electric feeling as you usually are for this kind of a speech, but it was way more intimate, you know, and I think that speaks to Joe Biden’s style. He likes to lean in and kind of get that whispering voice, and that at some points was effective, but on the other hand when there were lines that were meant for applause you noticed when there was not applause. One other thing I noticed that may not have been evident on the feeds you all saw was that more Republicans than usual, I felt, were standing up for policy issues, and especially when President Biden – he did this on purpose – talked about jobs. I saw Garret Graves of Louisiana, Mike McCaul of Texas standing up to talk about climate jobs. Joe Biden tried to get them to stand and a few of them did.
MS. SCOTT: And my eyes were on Senator Joe Manchin, who appeared to be taking a lot of notes there.
MS. DESJARDINS: He did, and you know, he – it’s funny, he is a lot like Joe Biden in many ways. One is that he thinks of himself as a big policy guy, and he’s very attentive, and he also likes the moment that he is in – a powerful one.
MS. SCOTT: Ashley, I want to turn this to you. President Joe Biden, he laid out this very ambitious agenda when it comes to infrastructure. He went really big on this. Was it too much of a risk? Is there any hope of actually getting this done?
ASHLEY PARKER: Well, President Biden and his advisors don’t think so, and in some ways he came into office against the backdrop of a number of crises he identified, coronavirus being first and foremost among them but also the economy, climate change, and racial justice. And in some ways those crises were liberating and gave him what he believes is the opportunity to go big and bold and ambitious and sort of fancy himself much more of a transformational figure than a transitional figure. And when you talk to senior administration officials they say if there was ever a moment where the country – and by that they mean Democrats, Republicans, and independents – were going to accept more government in their life, more government in society, now is the moment. They went big and bold on their COVID relief package and they pushed it through without, it’s worth noting, a single Republican vote, and the lessons they took from that are that they can do that again. They are reaching out across the aisle, they would love to get some Republican votes, but they have also signaled and are operating on parallel tracks that if they can’t get that they are prepared to at least try to do this again with only Democratic support.
MS. SCOTT: Geoff, big on infrastructure but I also think it was notable what the president did not talk about. What was missing from his address and what does that way about his priorities going forward?
GEOFF BENNETT: Well, the president didn’t speak much about immigration, Rachel. This has been one of the issues that has bedeviled this administration. When Ashley points out the four crises that President Biden articulated back in January immigration was nowhere on that list, but the administration soon found itself grappling with an uptick in migrants crossing the southern border, presenting themselves for asylum. The president today in an interview with NBC News, he pointed to the obstruction during the transition. He said that because the outgoing Trump administration was not cooperative and did not share information with his transition team the Biden White House was really flat-footed, and so now they’re in a situation where there are now 22,000 children who showed up as unaccompanied migrants who are effectively wards of the state; they are in government custody now. The sort of silver lining in that number, though, is that the administration has done a fairly good job in a short amount of time of moving those children from Border Patrol custody to HHS custody, and those Border Patrol facilities were really designed to hold adult men for a temporary period of time, but there was a situation just a few short weeks and months ago where those kids, many of them were staying in these facilities for weeks when they were only supposed to be there for – three days is the legal limit. And so now the administration is doing what they can to pair these migrant children with parents and guardians. So many of them come from these Northern Triangle countries with a name or a phone number of a parent in this country that they can be paired with, and so as soon as that vetting can be done the administration says they’re trying to pair those children with those responsible parties. But right now the administration is trying to handle this through a diplomatic avenue, the vice president meeting with – meeting virtually for right now, at least, with the president of Guatemala, but all of those diplomatic solutions take time. If the administration is going to rebuild the asylum process that was effectively dismantled under the Trump administration, that takes time. If the Biden administration sends more money and resources to the Northern Triangle countries, that takes time. And right now what you have are migrants who are making the decision whether or not to come right now because, as it gets to the summer months, crossing that desert becomes more dangerous and more fraught.
MS. SCOTT: Less on immigration, definitely, in that speech, more on infrastructure. Jonathan, I want to take you back to 1996, if you can go back with me here, when President Bill Clinton said at the time the era of big government is over. When you look at the price tag on these proposals, is President Joe Biden bringing it back?
JONATHAN MARTIN: Well, that’s the – that’s the hope, that the country and the electorate can swallow some of this spending in a way that they, you know, in the Reagan era and certainly into the Clinton era, were not apt to do. And this is, I think, Rachel, one of the big bets that Biden is making, that the combination of a global pandemic and a GOP president who was never that doctrinaire, especially on spending, sort of has opened the door to pursue a more expansive and expensive domestic policy agenda. I think we’re going to see what happens in the midterms next year to see how the voters feel about it, but Biden is going big, there is no question about it. I’m skeptical that he can get through a divided Senate everything that he laid out in that speech this week. I think it’s going to be a pared down version that ultimately gets to his desk, but he’s going to push for as much as he can get, and I think it’s going to be a great test next year in the midterms to see how that plays out.
MS. SCOTT: Ashley, you wrote this week that COVID-19 changed everything for President Biden. Some progressives have been surprised by just how liberal he has been. I was talking to Senator Elizabeth Warren this week. She said she was delighted to see progressive pushes like childcare included in these proposals. Are we looking at a Joe Biden that is more liberal than a candidate Biden?
MS. PARKER: Yes and no. Progressives, as you said, have been pleasantly surprised with how, so far, big and bold and, frankly, progressive his proposals have been, and that is a little bit in contrast with candidate Biden, at least in terms of some of his rhetoric. A lot of the big issues in the Democratic primary were things like defund the police, pack the Supreme Court, blow up the filibuster, and Biden, especially compared to a lot of the rest of that field, was notably more moderate. But the thing about Joe Biden, and his advisors will point to this, is they say everything that he’s doing now – for instance, his climate plan – is just what he promised as a candidate.
And what his real skill is, is that, again, his proposals so far have been fairly progressive, but he is very moderate in temperament, in tone, and he is a creature of the Senate who instinctually believes in deal making, even if he doesn’t, as we’ve seen so far, actually make the deal, and so in that way he has been able to please the progressive wing, largely please the moderate wing of his party. And even some Republicans in Congress, you’re seeing this real frustration because they can’t get any of their attacks to stick to him. Their aides who I talk to privately are incredibly frustrated that all of their bosses – these Republican senators and House members – come out and before they criticize Joe Biden say he’s a first-rate person, he’s a fantastic guy, he’s warm, he’s wonderful, and nothing exactly has stuck so far. Ted Cruz, for instance, tried to brand Biden as boring but radical, and that just don’t have the zing you need for a good political attack.
MS. SCOTT: And Senator Ted Cruz was closing his eyes during parts of that speech, but Senator Tim Scott delivering the counter, what did you make of it, Lisa?
MS. DESJARDINS: You know, I thought that he definitely sized the moment. He has been a rising star for a long time, and now I think he has gotten to that point. He’s no longer a rising star; he is a star for conservatives. He said something a lot of conservatives wanted to hear: America is not a racist country. But of course, Democrats aren’t saying that America is a racist country; they’re saying systemic racism is a problem.
I do think it’s an interesting speech, that response, because it’s really more risk than reward, right? You know, you – it’s sort of a platform for becoming president. But I looked it up, since 1983 only one person who has given the presidential response actually has gone on to become president.
MS. SCOTT: Wow.
MS. DESJARDINS: Joe Biden is that person. So you know, the joke is Tim Scott can wait another 30 years or so, but he is definitely getting a lot of attention. It was a more partisan speech than what we’ve heard from him in the hallways in Congress, when he’s trying to make bipartisan compromise on racial justice.
MS. SCOTT: Yeah, trying to walk that fine line there. It was a big night of big policy proposals, but in reality some of the administration’s big promises appear to be stalled. That includes immigration reform, gun control, and police reform. President Biden has backed out of his campaign promise to create a commission on policing. Instead, he’s putting pressure on Congress to act before the anniversary of George Floyd’s death on May 25th.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Congress should act – should act. We have a giant opportunity to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice – real justice.
MS. SCOTT: Now, Senator Tim Scott pushed back in the GOP response to Biden’s speech, accusing Democrats of stonewalling his police reform bill.
SENATOR TIM SCOTT (R-SC): (From video.) My friends across the aisle seem to want the issue more than they wanted a solution, but I’m still working. I’m hopeful that this will be different.
MS. SCOTT: Geoff, Senator Scott met with George Floyd’s family yesterday. A bipartisan group of lawmakers have started negotiations. But May 25th, is this a realistic deadline?
MR. BENNETT: You know, I spoke to Tony Romanucci – he’s one of the Floyd family’s attorneys – and he said that they might not make that May 25th deadline. It’s important, he said, that President Biden set that as a marker, but, he said, what’s more important is that both sides continue to work on this, and right now what you have are Democrats and Republicans cautiously optimistic that they can find common ground on this George Floyd police reform bill. On the Republican side, as you mentioned, you’ve got Tim Scott. On the Democratic side you’ve got Karen Bass, the congresswoman from California. And they both have the blessing from Democratic and Republican leadership, respectively, to work on this.
There are right now a couple of sticking points, one of them being qualified immunity, which basically is a shield – it basically protects law enforcement officers from civil suits, and so one of the things that we’ve seen from Republicans – the pushback has been maybe drop that protection for police departments but keep it in place for individual police officers. There are other provisions in that bill that are popular on both sides – potentially ending no-knock warrants, ending the sort of chokehold that took the life of George Floyd. So even if Democrats and Republicans aren’t able to get this done by May 25th, right now it appears that there does seem to be a cooperative will to get something done, at least by the summer.
MS. SCOTT: Jonathan, Biden called the 2020 election a battle for the soul of the nation, and Republicans are now saying that he’s not doing enough – he’s not reaching across the aisle enough. Do you believe that he’s made this sort of good-faith effort, and do you think he had a missed opportunity there by not even mentioning former President Donald Trump in his speech?
MR. MARTIN: Oh, I think that’s going to be a tough ask for this president, to cite Trump in that way. I think – on the Tim Scott issue, on policing – I think it’s fascinating that he’s both the key player on the GOP side in this negotiation and gave the response, and I think those two are interconnected. I think it’s going to be tough for the Republicans to not support a bill that he blesses, given the platform that he now has in the party, just based off their internal politics, and I think the issue may be, you know, just how much of a compromise is this? And does it face a challenge on the left, especially in the House, if the bill is substantially watered down?
And to get to your question, that really is the issue here, right? How do you do bipartisanship at a moment of maximum polarization in the country, where you’ve got a very divided chamber in the Senate, and House folks where there’s just not many moderates left, especially on the Republican side? It’s difficult and I think each party has to swallow the possibility of taking half a loaf and, you know, the possibility of losing a pretty hot issue, and so I think this issue, policing, is going to be a test of that, Rachel.
And, I think, infrastructure – just how willing are Republicans to come up towards a trillion dollars – or, at least in the neighborhood of a trillion dollars – to negotiate on that issue is going to tell us a lot. And is Biden willing to come down and sort of, like, sign a real infrastructure bill that’s just sort of, you know, roads, bridges, you know, broadband, that kind of thing? And it’s going to be an interesting test on those two issues especially. Can bipartisanship still work? I think both parties have an incentive to do it here, but the politics of each is very tricky.
MS. SCOTT: We talked a little bit about immigration, obviously, infrastructure. Another promise that the president made was on gun reform legislation. He said he was going to send a bill to Congress on day one. We know that this has been a difficult issue. So, Ashley, I want to ask you, was it a mistake that he implied that he could basically send a bill to Congress and get something done within the first 100 days – within the first 100 – the first 24 hours, actually, he said?
MS. PARKER: Yeah, this is one of the areas where he has not delivered on his promise, certainly not to the extent that activists would like to see. When you ask Biden administration officials about this, they say it all comes down to timing, having a sense of the right moment. That is something they believe his experience all those decades not just in the Senate but as the vice president for former President Barack Obama gives him.
And again, they sort of define their presidency by what Ron Klain told me are these four pillars, which, again, are these four crises. Gun reform/gun control was not one of them, but if you look at his presidency – and, again, we talk about there’s stuff they can – presidents can control and then there are all these unscripted things. There have been so many mass shootings, just as there were before, since he took office that it’s very clear he feels the pressure to do something, but it’s an incredibly tough issue in Congress.
And when I talk to people on the Hill they point to, you know, a couple things. They say, if we couldn’t get it done after Sandy Hook it’s increasingly unlikely, and this moment right now is not better, and in some ways worse, than other failed efforts to really do pretty modest things with guns so far.
MS. SCOTT: Lisa, there’s a lot that he’s facing an uphill battle on. He said to transgender people out there that he has their back, urging Congress to pass the Equality Act. But give us a little bit of a reality check here: What is the hope for that even getting done?
MS. DESJARDINS: This is such an important topic. He has problems within his own party. You know, during the votes on the American Rescue Act there was a vote-a-rama, like dozens of amendments. One of those amendments was a Republican amendment about Title IX and transgender sports, and for that amendment – which essentially would back the idea that transgender youth should not be able to play in the sport of the gender they identify with – Joe Manchin voted with Republicans. So that is one of President Biden’s challenge(s), but on the other hand there is some political will in this country because if you look at the surveys – we just did a PBS-Marist-NPR poll that shows two-thirds of Americans support transgender rights, they don’t want laws restricting them, and more than half of Americans personally know someone who is transgender, so this is one of those issues where there is some national agreement but deep political divide.
MS. SCOTT: And we’re seeing that play out throughout the country as well, where you have some states that are passing these anti-transgender bills already.
MS. DESJARDINS: So far five states have either passed a law or issued an executive order, and it’s specifically geared towards sports. That’s where Republicans are narrowly targeting this, and it’s no accident. This is going to be a big election. J-Mart was talking about the next election; we’re going to hear about this in those conservative states that may have one or two swing districts. They’re going to push this issue.
MS. SCOTT: Well, let’s turn to some of the other challenges facing President Joe Biden in his own party. The president has to deal with moderates who are worried about spending too much. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has pressed Biden to pass his next bills with bipartisan support and the public seems to agree with that. A new ABC News-Washington Post poll found that six in 10 Americans want to see President Biden reach across the aisle and work with Republicans even if that means making major changes to his proposals and his legislation. Ashley, let me take this to you. You’re always talking to members of both sides of the aisle. How much hope is there that Biden’s legislation is actually going to make it through Congress?
MS. PARKER: Well, I think I want to go back to the bipartisanship part of this first, which is that Biden has done something that’s been incredibly fascinating to watch, which is he has redefined bipartisanship to not necessarily include a single Republican vote. His definition of bipartisanship is something that has the support of the country, so maybe Trump voters out in the country, but not their elected representatives in Washington; that has the support of local elected officials, of Republican governors in a bipartisan way, but again not necessarily Republican support in Washington, and it will be interesting to see how much he can convince the country of that definition. Obviously, that poll you mentioned, there is some skepticism there, right? Those people were talking about traditional bipartisanship where you get Democrats and Republicans and you negotiate a bill in committee and you make changes, and that is not really what seems to be happening so far. But the final thing I will add is that when you talk to Biden administration folks they say, look, with the COVID rescue plan there was urgency, there was a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, we had to push it through. We come to infrastructure in a very different way where we have more time and we are sort of more sincere and more earnest and more hopeful about our outreach.
MS. SCOTT: Yeah, and he has been taking this plan –
MR. MARTIN: And Congress.
MS. SCOTT: And Congress. And he has been taking this plan on the roll. And Jonathan, I want to ask you this question because we’ve seen the president take this plan on the road, he wants to sell the package. You have some new reporting out talking about some of the ad spending, right, ahead of the midterm elections. I mean, is this – it’s important because they’re trying to keep this base, trying to keep some of the Republicans that voted for Biden, but is that even possible if he doesn’t even get any Republicans onboard?
MR. MARTIN: Yeah, I think it’s possible that he can keep some of them, and certainly independents who used to be Republicans and have now changed their ID. I think it’s possible he can keep some of them, especially if they can keep framing the alternative as Trumpism, which of course is what drove a lot of those voters into Biden’s arms in the first place. But there’s no question that the more Trump is diminished and the further away that we get from January 6th that if politics gets back to a more traditional kind of tax-and-spend Democrat sort of frame that Republicans like to drive, obviously, that’s going to benefit the Republicans, and I think that’s part of the reason why you now see the Biden folks saying to Congress let’s negotiate, let’s roll our sleeves up and try to get something done. The more buy-in that the Biden folks get from the Republicans, whether it’s on policing or on infrastructure, the more they can go to the country and say, look, we’re working together, this is not just sort of, you know, wild-eyed liberalism here, we had X number of votes on these bills. Ashley is right, they definitely want to redefine bipartisanship, but they know that it’s easier to sell a police reform bill or infrastructure if they have real GOP votes on those bills, and that’s why I think the hope is in both of those cases they’re going to have buy-in from Ds and Rs alike.
MS. SCOTT: Geoff, I know you were talking to Capito. What were the conversations that you were gathering from her? Is there going to be any progress on this?
MR. BENNETT: Yeah, and I can tell you based on my conversations with lawmakers on the Hill and White House officials that both sides seem to be coalescing around a plan that would basically split the president’s jobs and infrastructure package into two, where if any of this is going to be bipartisan it would be focused on the physical infrastructure package – all that money aimed at revitalizing roads and bridges and waterways and broadband. There could be a bipartisan agreement on that. Shelley Moore Capito, the Republican from West Virginia, she is leading the Senate Republican effort. They introduced a counterproposal somewhere in the neighborhood of $600 billion. And so, you know, that could probably pass as a – as a standalone with some Republican backing. And then –
MS. SCOTT: Geoff, we’re going to have to leave it right there and we’re going to get back into it in the Extra. But many thanks to Geoff, Lisa, Jonathan, and Ashley for their insights, and thank you for joining us. Make sure you join us for our Washington Week Extra. Catch it live at 8:30 on our website, Facebook, and YouTube.
I’m Rachel Scott. Good night from Washington.