Essential Politics: Gridlock in Washington? Not yet, but progress on Biden’s agenda is slow

President Biden puts on his sunglasses after speaking at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., on Thursday.
President Biden puts on his sunglasses after speaking to reporters at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., before a trip to Ohio on Thursday. Does he foresee gridlock with Congress?
(Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

This is the May 28, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

Weeks ago, President Biden set Memorial Day as a check-in date to evaluate how his ambitious legislative agenda was progressing on Capitol Hill. With Congress about to leave town for a break, the verdict is decidedly mixed.

This week, a small group of Republicans led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia offered a new proposal in their negotiations with the White House over Biden’s ambitious infrastructure plans. They moved a few steps toward the administration’s position — enough for White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki to say that talks would continue — but not so much that any deal appeared imminent.

At the same time, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky moved to block legislation to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, seeking to head off an inquiry that could focus more attention on President Trump‘s role in instigating the deadly assault. McConnell’s move marked the first Republican filibuster of the year.


The infrastructure bill and the Jan. 6 commission represent the opposite ends of the scale of progress in a closely divided capital, ranging from possible glimmers of progress to gridlock.

Relatively few issues so far have landed in the fully stuck category — a victory of sorts for Biden, who ran for president in part on his ability to break partisan stalemates. But it’s equally true that few have moved beyond the stage of possible progress, a troubling reality for the president and his congressional allies.

The divided Senate

Another way to think about the scale of progress is this: If the roll were called today, several of the measures Biden backs would get more than 50 votes in the Senate, but fewer than 60.

That’s true of the Jan. 6 commission, which six Republicans backed in a procedural vote on Friday that failed to end McConnell’s filibuster; it’s almost certainly true of legislation to impose new national standards on policing, which the House passed in early March; and it’s probably true for House-passed bills that would provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants currently living in the U.S. without legal authorization.

Each languishes on the Senate calendar because of the chamber’s filibuster-enabling rule that requires 60 votes to end debate.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer of New York has three potential ways to deal with that problem: negotiations aimed at getting to 60 votes, which essentially means finding 10 Republicans; bypassing the 60-vote requirement by using the complicated and limiting procedures that allow budget measures to pass with a simple majority; or changing the rules to allow a majority to end debate.


Schumer can’t use that third path because at least two Democrats — Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — say they won’t back any effort to change the Senate’s rules, and all the Republicans say no.

“I’m not ready to destroy our government, no,” Manchin said on Thursday when asked if Republican opposition to the Jan. 6 commission had caused him to change his mind.

“It’s time to come together. I think there’s 10 good people” on the GOP side, Manchin said.

That’s Manchin’s standard declaration — a three-part formulation that states his opposition to changing the filibuster rules, exhorts both sides to “come together” and puts the onus on Republicans to come up with compromises.

Manchin’s use of such language has left all sides to guess whether he and Sinema might, at some point, announce that GOP intransigence has left them no choice but to support a rules change. For now, however, their opposition blocks that option, leaving negotiations and the budget procedures known as reconciliation as the two pathways.

Negotiations have appeared most promising on policing. Schumer, McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) have deputized Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) and Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) to try to work out a bill that could pass the Senate.

Biden said he wanted a bill on his desk by May 25, the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. That date came and went with the three Black lawmakers saying they were still making progress in the talks but hadn’t yet reached a solution. The main issue appears to be how much to liberalize the rules under which people can sue police officers for violating their rights.

“We’re gonna keep talking until we get it across the finish line,” Bass told reporters.

The odds remain longer on a successful outcome for the infrastructure talks. Biden initially proposed just over $2 trillion in new spending. The Republicans’ first proposal was close to nothing — repackaging existing spending but offering almost no new funds.

Since then, the two sides have narrowed their gap to a limited extent. This week, Biden offered to cut his plan to $1.7 trillion but did so in part by moving several hundred billion dollars into other pending legislation. On Thursday, the Republican group upped their offer to more than $900 billion but again counted a large amount of existing spending, meaning that the real gap between their number and Biden’s remains much larger than it appears at first glance.

More ominously, the GOP group proposed that Congress pay for the infrastructure spending in part by abandoning Democratic plans for a five-year extension of the expanded Child Tax Credit, a signature Biden policy that the administration says can cut child poverty nearly in half.

Leading Democrats quickly denounced that idea. In a statement, the leading House and Senate backers of the tax credit called the GOP proposal to end it after this year “absolutely outrageous” and said that adopting their plan would mean “raising taxes on American families — and doubling child poverty.”

If the talks with Capito’s group fail, Biden and Schumer could turn to the budget reconciliation path, as they did to pass Biden’s $1.9-trillion COVID-19 relief package earlier this year. That would require all 50 Democratic votes. Manchin, who has repeatedly said he wants to see a bipartisan bill, would have to be persuaded that they had given negotiations their best shot.

Measures that clearly can’t fit into a budget framework and which have no chance at a bipartisan agreement, such as the Democratic plan to create new, national standards for elections, have a grimmer prospect. They can only move forward if Manchin and Sinema agree to filibuster reform.

That’s why, at offices all around Washington, smart advocates are working on arguments about why their group’s top priority — whether it be immigration reform, measures to combat climate change or changes to labor laws — could fit within the complex rules that govern budget bills.

In February, the Senate parliamentarian, whose job it is to interpret those rules, said that a proposal to increase the minimum wage could not be included in a budget reconciliation measure, which led to its being left out of the $1.9-trillion relief bill. As a summer of slow negotiations unfolds, expect to see a lot more such high-profile issues land on the parliamentarian’s doorstep.

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The latest from Washington

On Friday morning, the administration released Biden’s first budget, in which annual federal spending would top $6 trillion, Don Lee and Eli Stokols reported. Biden almost certainly won’t get everything he’s asked for, but with Democrats in control of both houses of Congress, his budget will shape policy much more than has been common in recent years.

It’s not easy being a Guatemalan immigrant member of Congress and outspoken opponent of that country’s government. Tracy Wilkinson and Sarah Wire wrote about why Rep. Norma Torres, the only member of Congress born in Central America, sleeps with a gun by her bed.

Kristen Clarke won Senate confirmation, becoming the first woman of color to head the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, Del Wilber and Jennifer Haberkorn reported.

Also, Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland said the Justice Department would boost resources to fight hate crimes, Wilber reported.

The theory that a laboratory accident could have started the COVID-19 pandemic is getting new attention, with Biden ordering a 90-day review by U.S. intelligence agencies, Chris Megerian and Emily Baumgaertner reported.

Democrats promised to lower drug prices, but plans are sputtering, Jennifer Haberkorn and Stokols wrote. The proposal to give Medicare the authority to negotiate drug prices has stalled, and Biden has deferred other healthcare initiatives until after the infrastructure bill, at the earliest.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to the Middle East this week, and, as Wilkinson wrote, his 48-hour trip highlighted the fraught Middle East relationships needed to avert war.

Doyle McManus looked at how McConnell and the GOP have perfected the politics of ‘No!’

Here’s Haberkorn and Stokols’ account of the Republicans’ new infrastructure offer.

And Wire examined the questions that might go unanswered if the Republicans succeed in blocking a Jan. 6 investigative commission.

The future of the GOP

Former House Speaker Paul Ryan, in a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, urged the GOP to return to Reaganism and end its Trump fixation, although he didn’t mention Trump by name, Janet Hook reported.

“If the conservative cause depends on the populist appeal of one personality, or on second-rate imitations, then we’re not going anywhere,” Ryan said. “Voters looking for Republican leaders want to see independence and mettle,” he added. “They will not be impressed by the sight of ‘yes men’ and flatterers flocking to Mar-a-Lago.”

The speech was the first in a series the library plans on the future of the Republican Party.

The latest from California

Mayor Eric Garcetti is likely to be named ambassador to India, Stokols and Dakota Smith reported. The formal announcement of Garcetti’s post — and several other high-profile ambassadorial nominations — is expected to come in early June.

John Cox, the multimillionaire Republican who ran for governor and is now a recall candidate, has been ordered by a judge to pay about $100,000 to a consultant from his failed bid, Seema Mehta reported. The payment involves one of a string of unpaid bills from Cox’s last campaign.

On California’s Central Coast, anti-Asian bias and the Big Lie feed on each other, Mark Barabak writes.

A new California COVID relief plan being considered in the Legislature could include checks, business grants and child savings accounts, Patrick McGreevy reported.

And California voters will decide in 2022 whether to allow sports betting, McGreevy wrote.

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