In the fall of 1966, Democratic members of the historic 89th Congress were eager to return home to begin midterm election campaigning. But President Lyndon Johnson insisted they stay in session to complete the final legislative pieces of his Great Society.

Johnson knew that, when the next Congress met in January, inevitable midterm losses would cut the massive Democratic majorities stemming from his 1964 landslide. He wanted to get as much as possible passed while he had the votes.

Fifty-five years later, President Joe Biden faces a similar challenge, amplified by his far smaller congressional majorities. The current Congress — the 117th — is his opportunity to pass his ambitious legislative agenda, and it seems he will spare no effort to do so.

Step one was last month’s enactment of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, an array of programs to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and revive the economy. Step two is his even larger $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan to restore the country’s physical infrastructure. Step three, which he calls the American Families Plan to meet long-pending social welfare needs, is coming soon.

Republicans, who unanimously opposed the initial measure, greeted the president’s newest plan critically, especially his proposal to trim some of former President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax cuts for corporations and wealthier Americans. Many want a smaller infrastructure package and no tax increases.

The ultimate legislative path remains uncertain, pending Democratic explorations of whether Biden’s plan can attract any GOP backing. But the negative Republican reaction suggests that, in the end, Biden and his congressional leaders will again rely totally on Democratic votes and use the budget reconciliation process to avoid a Senate Republican filibuster that would prevent action.

For some two decades, partisan gridlock has increasingly made reconciliation the preferred vehicle for both parties to pass major spending and revenue proposals. That’s how Trump and his GOP allies passed the $1.5 trillion tax cut without Democratic support.

Like Johnson in 1966, Biden understands he is unlikely to have the current Democratic majorities in the next Congress — and perhaps no majorities at all, given their current margin of five seats in the House and the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris in the Senate.

Democrats hope to keep their troops in line long enough to enact his proposals, knowing that, if they succeed, Biden will forever stamp his seal on the shape of the government, like Democratic Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Johnson did before him.

His determination to enact as broad an agenda as possible stems from a desire to tackle both the immediate problems revealed by the economic fallout from the pandemic and the underlying inequities that have built up over time.

The climate for action seems propitious: Biden and his agenda are popular with the American people, not just Democrats, and the events of the last year have increased support for activist government. Though the economy is improving, some 8 million fewer Americans have jobs than a year ago.

But that does not guarantee success. The requirement for virtual unanimity among Democrats means the battle over the infrastructure package — and especially the tax increases — will be harder than passing the rescue plan.

Already, some more moderates, especially those from GOP-leaning districts, have expressed concern the package is too costly. But some more progressive members say it is too small.

More significant may be divisions over raising new revenue to pay at least part of the cost. Some are wary about restoring higher taxes on business, while others want to scrap different Trump tax cuts, notably members from high-tax states who oppose the limit on deducting state and local taxes.

These divisions provide a severe challenge for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer — and for the Biden White House. And the Democrats may not be able to benefit from their decision to restore earmarks, the procedure allowing lawmakers to designate specific projects for funding.

Past rulings by the Senate parliamentarian suggest earmarks don’t meet the strict fiscal requirements for reconciliation bills. That could keep Democratic leaders from using them to secure votes from recalcitrant House and Senate members.

Meanwhile, the president is giving somewhat lower priority to an array of other, more controversial measures that don’t meet the rules limiting reconciliation legislation to measures affecting budget revenues and expenditures.

It’s a recognition these issues — immigration reform, gun control, increasing the minimum wage and election law changes — will be even harder, in part because they’ll require the regular legislative path, which means attracting at least 10 Senate Republican votes.

That may prompt the Democrats to offer compromises to the more sweeping proposals that can pass the Democratic House. Overall, it’s the kind of legislative agenda Washington hasn’t seen since LBJ’s days, and history provides a reminder how little time Biden has to pass even some of it.

Democrats lost 48 seats and their working majority in the House in 1966, though they kept numerical control. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama lost House majorities, after pushing agendas that, while ambitious, paled alongside Biden’s. Democratic loss of at least one chamber next year is likely.

That’s why the Democrats are pushing all out now, knowing this really is, as Biden said, a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.

(4) comments

gjthuro

biden aim high...you must be joking...it was just revealed that he received moire than $13 Million in speaking fees over past 10 years and funneled all the money thru an "S" account that avoided all taxes...so much for everyone paying their "fair share"...he is disgusting

lkl34

Biden's plans to spend more money faster will never solve anything. It will create more problems. Biden is the leader of the elite plutocracy. A career politician who should have left government service 40 years ago. Politicians for life are not what the country's founders intended.

Dwasserba

“ Republicans...greeted the president’s newest plan critically, especially his proposal to trim some of former President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax cuts for corporations and wealthier Americans.” Duh

barrykissin

The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy just released a report documenting that 55 corporations, whose profits exceeded $40 billion in 2020, paid $0 in federal corporate income taxes last year. Instead, they received $3.5 billion in rebates. The Biden administration has a lot of work to do in order to at all challenge the prevailing powers-that-be in our plutocracy.

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