The Democratic takeover of the White House and Congress is complete. But the truth is that the party was caught flat-footed by it: Almost no one expected JON OSSOFF and RAPHAEL WARNOCK to both win in Georgia — let alone planned for how they’d run Washington if it happened.
The lack of preparation is now causing confusion among congressional Democrats about how they should exercise their newfound power in the critical early days of the administration.
Conventional wisdom is that presidents have a small window of opportunity to make their mark with a big legislative achievement or, best case, two. Timing is critical, as is sequencing. But beyond a desire to address the pandemic — unquestionably Biden’s first priority — Democrats seem to be all over the place on what their legislative game plan looks like.
Our Democratic sources say Biden’s two top targets will be a Covid package and a massive infrastructure bill paired with clean energy policies, a nod to climate advocates. But Democrats are also talking about criminal justice and policing reform as well as good governance proposals to clean up elections.
Contrary to two years ago, when the party took the House and leaders articulated a plan for a series of major votes on guns and equality in the first few weeks of the year, no clear agenda has been presented to them by President JOE BIDEN, according to interviews with a half-dozen senior Democrats on Wednesday night.
In fact, Democrats aren’t even on the same page about how to get Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid package through Congress. Before Biden was sworn in, aides had been hashing out plans to use the fast-track “reconciliation” process to try to jam it through on a party-line vote. But now Democrats are pressing pause because Biden is, as one person called it, “bipartisan-curious” — i.e. he wants to try to win over Republicans first, to the chagrin of many senior Democrats eager to move quickly. (Biden aides reached out to moderate GOP Sen. LISA MURKOWSKI of Alaska this week, and Democratic Sen. JOE MANCHIN of West Virginia says he hopes to talk to them over the weekend.)
Meanwhile, a third idea is percolating in the House: passing a narrower proposal of $1,400 stimulus checks and vaccine-distribution assistance to provide quick relief and notch a win — or, if all else fails, demonstrate to Biden that the GOP isn’t going to play nice. That idea, however, is running into resistance in the Senate. (Heather Caygle, Sarah Ferris and Caitlin Emma have more here.)
The lack of clarity extends to immigration. Many Democrats privately concede that the massive immigration bill Biden introduced on Day One was mostly symbolic — a gesture to advocates that’s unlikely to come to fruition. But on the Senate floor Wednesday, CHUCK SCHUMER — who helped write and pass a sweeping immigration bill in 2013 — said doing so again was a “very high priority” and “one of the most important things a Democratic Congress can do.”
On top of all this, the Senate will soon have to conduct an impeachment trial of DONALD TRUMP (see our scoop on that below), and Schumer and MITCH MCCONNELL are still at loggerheads over a Senate power-sharing agreement that is sucking up time and could delay confirmations.
For now, the frustration is contained to a handful of top lawmakers and aides trying to come up with a path forward. But we shall see how long they can keep a lid on it.
RELATED … BURGESS EVERETT: “Democrats poised to rebuff McConnell’s filibuster demands”
A THREE-DAY IMPEACHMENT TRIAL? We knew Democrats and Republicans were ready to turn the page on Trump ASAP — we just didn’t realize how quickly. We’ve heard from multiple Hill sources that lawmakers have privately discussed the possibility of a three-day impeachment trial for Trump, which would be the fastest of any such procedure for a president. (Past presidential impeachments have ranged from as short as 21 days to as long as 83.) Of course, Trump is an EX-president, so …
To be clear: Talks about parameters for the trial between Schumer and McConnell are ongoing and closely held; nothing’s been decided. But even the suggestion of that time frame underscores how much senators want to dispense with the matter. They also point out that there isn’t exactly a complex set of facts to sort through; anyone watching TV lately would know the gist. “This one is cut and dry,” one person told us. “It’s not like Ukraine where you had to get into how this person is connected to that person.”
One complication is Trump. Will he want witnesses? They’ll have to give him due process if he does.
THE FIRST CABINET MEMBER — “Senate confirms Biden’s pick for national intelligence director,” by Andrew Desiderio and Burgess Everett: “Avril Haines, Biden’s pick to serve as director of national intelligence, was confirmed by an 84-10 vote … Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) cleared the way for a vote earlier Wednesday after initially resisting speedy confirmation of her nomination. …
“Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) … said he would hold up quick confirmation of Homeland Security nominee Alejandro Mayorkas. It’s unclear if Mayorkas can even get out of committee in its current formation, according to a Republican senator. And there are multiple GOP holds on bringing him directly to the floor, not just Hawley, the senator said.”
WaPo’s SMK has a good roundup of Biden’s first day in office.
And the newspaper’s Ashley Parker gets a tour of Biden’s Oval Office.
POLITICO announced its new White House team this morning: Playbook’s own Eugene Daniels, Laura Barrón-López, Natasha Bertrand, Chris Cadelago, Natasha Korecki, Anita Kumar, Tyler Pager and Alex Thompson, led by editors Sam Stein and Emily Cadei. Staff note from Blake Hounshell and Carrie Budoff Brown
BIDEN’S THURSDAY — The president, first lady Jill Biden, VP Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff will watch the virtual presidential inaugural prayer service at 10 a.m. in the Blue Room. Biden and Harris will receive the President’s Daily Brief at 12:45 p.m. At 2 p.m., Biden will speak about pandemic response and sign executive orders and other actions in the State Dining Room, with Harris attending. They’ll be briefed at 2:25 p.m. by members of their Covid-19 team.
— PRESS SECRETARY JEN PSAKI will brief at 4 p.m.
DON’T MISS IT: The Playbook team will sit down with CEDRIC RICHMOND, the White House senior adviser and director of the Office of Public Engagement, today at 1:30 p.m. ET. We’ll discuss Biden’s top legislative priorities and news of the day with Richmond. Register here
BIDEN SETS STANDARD FOR PROFESSIONAL BEHAVIOR: “I’m not joking when I say this: If you ever work with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect, talk down to someone, I will fire you on the spot. No ifs, ands or buts.” (Serious question on our minds this morning: Does this standard apply to how mid-level press aides treat reporters?)
CORONAVIRUS TRACKER: The U.S. reported 4,409 Covid-19 deaths and 186,000 new coronavirus cases Wednesday.
— Today marks one year since the first confirmed coronavirus case in the U.S. AP
— Biden signed an executive order Wednesday creating a national standard of mask wearing in federal buildings and during interstate travel. The Independent
— At least 14.3 MILLION people have been vaccinated. WaPo
REFLECTING ON INAUGURATION DAY — “Where Biden stood, reminders of a failed insurrection,” AP: “On the very spot where President Joe Biden delivered his inaugural address, an insurrectionist mob had tried — and failed — to overturn his election just two weeks before. Nearby, at the West Terrace doors, a Capitol police officer was brutally assaulted with a flagpole in one of the siege’s most chaotic moments. …
“And from the podium, the starkest sight of all: a National Mall mostly empty, dotted with troops, the usual crowd of spectators replaced by a silent field of American flags.”
ICYMI: Biden pal Sen. CHRIS COONS told our Alex Thompson on Wednesday that the newly minted president “is planning to run again” in 2024. Biden will be 82 on Inauguration Day 2025. “He is up for the challenge,” Coons said.
PROMISE KEPT? — CNN looks at how one of Biden’s promises — to make his Cabinet “look like the country” — has fared now that nominees are in the process of getting confirmed.
MAGA WORLD REELS … “Trump leaves QAnon and the online MAGA world crushed and confused”: Tina Nguyen and Mark Scott dive into how Trump’s supporters are handling his departure online.
WHAT’S NEXT? — “Trump leaves behind diminished GOP,” by Elena Schneider: “Three of the big power centers that drove the GOP’s last successful midterm campaign are no longer the same forces in party politics now, with Republicans out of the White House and in the minority in both chambers of Congress. The Koch network of megadonors and big-spending outside groups has stepped back its partisan political campaigning, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce not only shrunk its spending but made a bipartisan shift.
“Others, like the National Rifle Association, [have] been consumed by internal strife. The advocacy group announced last week it would be filing for bankruptcy. In their place, power and cash consolidated around Trump and the GOP’s Senate and House leadership in recent years.”
DISINFORMATION PERSISTS — “‘They Have Not Legitimately Won’: Pro-Trump Media Keeps the Disinformation Flowing,” NYT: “Forgoing any appeals for healing or reflection, right-wing media organizations that spread former President Donald J. Trump’s distortions about the 2020 election continued on Wednesday to push conspiracy theories about large-scale fraud, with some predicting more political conflict in the months ahead.”
KNOWING KAMALA HARRIS — The San Francisco Chronicle has a seven-part podcast with Joe Garofoli and Tal Kopan going deep into the new VP’s life and career, to which they added a new bonus episode this week. Listen here
SNEAK PEEK — Time’s post-inauguration cover featuring a story by Charlotte Alter on “how the quest for unity will be President Joe Biden’s defining test.”
FIRST IN PLAYBOOK — NYT White House correspondent Katie Rogers, a key chronicler of Melania Trump’s tenure, will be writing a book about Jill Biden’s first year as first lady. Rogers is repped by Javelin’s Matt Latimer, and her book will be published by Crown.
JIM JORDAN ON PARDONS: At the inauguration we caught up with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) while we waited for Biden to take the oath of office. Jordan mentioned he had recently talked to Trump about pardons, and we had the following exchange:
Playbook: “Don’t you find some of these pardons an abuse of power?”
Jordan: “No, the pardon power is broad and the Constitution is pretty clear that the president can pardon who he thinks is worthy of a pardon.”
Playbook: “If Biden were to pardon his son tomorrow, how would you feel about that?”
Jordan: “The president’s pardon power is pretty broad — we’ve had hearings on that — so that’s up to Joe Biden.”
Playbook: “You wouldn’t criticize Joe Biden if he pardoned his son tomorrow?
Jordan: “I don’t know, I haven’t even thought about it. My guess is the country would have a problem with that.”
Playbook: “I find that very hard to believe. These pardons seem like a gross abuse of power to a lot of ethics experts.”
Jordan: “They have to take their issue up with the Constitution. Because the Constitution is pretty clear.”
Playbook: “Do you want presidents just willy-nilly pardoning aides who are charged with defrauding —”
Jordan: “Again, the president has that broad authority. At some point, soon-to-be-President Biden will be able to pardon who he thinks is worthy of a pardon. That’s just the way the Constitution is.”
SPICER UPDATE: Since we reported that SEAN SPICER, the former Trump press secretary turned Newsmax host, has applied to be a member of the White House Correspondents’ Association, reaction has come mostly from the left. ERIC SCHULTZ, a senior adviser to Barack Obama, called it “a terribly consequential decision pending before WHCA” that “will be a major test if they prize truth over all else — or they will reward the pioneer of using the WH podium for disinformation.”
On Wednesday, Spicer was spotted at Trump’s farewell speech at Andrews Air Force Base, which is exactly the kind of event a WHCA member would cover. The problem? He was there as a guest of the president, not as a member of the press corps. That’s a distinction that may matter to the WHCA.
A KENNEDY BACK IN THE WHITE HOUSE? The late TED KENNEDY’S 53-year-old son, former Rhode Island Rep. PATRICK KENNEDY, has launched a full-on campaign to head the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy. Kennedy, a mental health advocate who served on a Trump commission charged with tackling drug addiction, wrote a cover letter on his website: “To whom it may concern in the Biden-Harris transition team.” It cites his own struggles with addiction and experience with the National Institute of Mental Health. Here’s the thing: Biden officials tell our ace reporter TYLER PAGER that he hates when candidates openly lobby for jobs. At the same time, another official said, “Biden really liked Teddy.”
Kennedy tells Tara he’s been in talks with the transition team, but “I’m trying to put my aspirations for the administration on hold, kind of be patient, because we’ve got a five-alarm fire” with Covid.
SPOTTED AT THE LINCOLN, per the White House pool: Harris and the new second gentleman dancing to “Lovely Day” and holding hands during Wednesday night’s celebration. TOM HANKS and JOHN LEGEND were also in attendance. Harris was seen clapping her hands while KATY PERRY sang “Firework” steps away from where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
FIRST IN PLAYBOOK — Liz Allen, a partner at Glover Park Group who took a leave of absence to run communications for Harris during the general election, is returning to the firm, which is now known as Finsbury Glover Hering.
— Julia Nesheiwat is now a commissioner for the U.S. Arctic Research Commission (serving a four-year term) and will focus on climate, energy, the environment and national security. She most recently was the homeland security adviser in the White House and has served in multiple administrations.
TRANSITIONS — Sandeep Prasanna is now an attorney-adviser at DOJ’s Office of Legislative Affairs. He previously was subcommittee director for intelligence and counterterrorism on the House Homeland Security Committee. … Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.) is adding several former top Interior Department staffers: Amanda Hall as legislative director, Faith Vander Voort as comms director and Hannah Cooke as scheduler and financial administrator. …
… Carlos Sanchez, Aaron Trujillo and Monica Garcia are joining Sen. Ben Ray Luján’s (D-N.M.) office. Sanchez will be COS, Trujillo will be deputy COS and Garcia will be comms director. … Eli Mansour is now comms director for Rep. Diana Harshbarger (R-Tenn.). He most recently was deputy press secretary at the Department of Education.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Sen. Kevin Cramer … Eric Holder … Gary Locke … CNNers Sam Feist and Matt Hoye … Getty photographer Win McNamee (of “Via Getty” pic fame) … esteemed journalist Matt Cooper … Chris Donovan … POLITICO Europe’s Helen Collis … Campbell Spencer, celebrating with a Zoom birthday toast with friends (h/t Kristen Thomaselli) … Loren DeJonge Schulman (h/t Ben Chang)
Got a document to share? The new internal White House phone directory? A birthday coming up? Drop us a line at [email protected] or individually: Eugene Daniels, Ryan Lizza, Tara Palmeri, Rachael Bade.
Playbook couldn’t happen without our editor Mike Zapler and producers Allie Bice, Eli Okun and Garrett Ross.