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We the People: Biden campaigned on a transformative agenda, but only Congress can make it a reality

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 18, 2021

The U.S. Capitol on Aug. 6, 2021.  (Orion Donovan-Smith / The Spokesman-Review)
The U.S. Capitol on Aug. 6, 2021. (Orion Donovan-Smith / The Spokesman-Review)

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: What part of the federal government writes laws?

As a candidate, President Joe Biden made a lot of specific policy promises.

Early in the Democratic primary race, his campaign message was light on details and emphasized electability over the “big structural change” espoused by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who embraced the slogan “Warren has a plan for that.” But once he became his party’s nominee, it didn’t take long for Biden, too, to have a plan for just about everything.

Soon after Biden took office, the White House released the American Jobs Plan, which promised the biggest investment in infrastructure “since we built the interstate highways and won the Space Race,” and the American Families Plan, which envisioned a historic investment “in our kids, our families, and our economic future.”

Yet, for all the power vested in the office of the president, Biden couldn’t make that vision a reality. In the United States, only Congress has the ability to write laws and authorize the federal spending those plans require.

Biden’s Democratic allies in Congress campaigned on many of those same promises, and it didn’t take them long to start turning his twin plans – collectively dubbed the “Build Back Better agenda” – into legislation. But the road to making them law has not been smooth.

Speaking of roads, the one part of Biden’s agenda that garnered Republican support was fixing up the nation’s infrastructure. A group of moderate Democratic and Republican senators came together to craft a bipartisan framework for an infrastructure bill in June, and in August the Senate passed legislation based on it, authorizing about $550 billion in new spending.

With Democrats in control of the House of Representatives, it may have seemed the infrastructure bill was on a glide path to becoming law, but instead it became entangled in a fight among moderate and progressive Democrats over how to turn the rest of Biden’s ambitious agenda into legislation.

Democrats aim to pass a separate bill, which has come to be known as the Build Back Better Act, through a process called budget reconciliation that lets a majority party get budget-related legislation through the Senate with just 51 votes, rather than the 60 votes usually needed to avoid a filibuster. To do that, they need all 50 senators in the Democratic Caucus to vote for it – along with a tiebreaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris – because of unified GOP opposition to the bill.

Fearing some moderate Democrats wouldn’t support the bill containing many of Biden’s priorities – including universal preschool, affordable child care and provisions to combat climate change – progressives in the House refused to vote for the infrastructure bill until their centrist counterparts in the Senate at least verbally committed to voting for the Build Back Better Act.

Months of intraparty haggling finally ended Nov. 5, when progressive and moderate Democrats struck a deal and passed the infrastructure bill in the House, sending it to Biden’s desk to be signed into law. With the fate of a pared-down Build Back Better Act still uncertain, progressive Democrats have pleaded for Biden to use the “bully pulpit” of the presidency to pressure party centrists to back the bill, but there’s only so much a president can do.

At the end of the day, only the legislative branch can pass laws.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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