Following Biden's Lead, Schumer Plans Bypass of GOP to Enact Progressive Agenda

Dem leader floats reconciliation to force controversial measures through Senate

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer / Reuters
January 27, 2021

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) is following President Joe Biden's unilateral lead, pushing forward with plans to enact a host of progressive policy goals without GOP votes.

Days after Biden issued a historic 17 executive orders on his first day in office, Schumer urged the president to declare a national climate emergency, saying the move would authorize Biden to do "many, many things under the emergency powers of the president … that he could do without legislation." Schumer also joined Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) to encourage Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in student debt via executive order. In a Tuesday campaign email announcing their partnership on the issue, Warren said Biden could impose the policy "without waiting for Congress."

Should Biden need to rely on lawmakers to pass his agenda, however, Schumer could still sidestep Republicans through reconciliation, a budget rule that would allow Democrats to pass certain legislation with just 51 votes. Schumer on Monday floated using the rule to take gas-powered cars off the road by 2040. The Democrat is also advancing plans to pass Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid bill through reconciliation. Biden's bill includes a provision that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15—a move that could cost anywhere from 1.5 million to 3.7 million jobs, according to a nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimate.

If successful, Schumer's scorched-earth approach would almost certainly face legal challenges. It could also undermine Biden's repeated calls for unity and bipartisanship. Republicans have already expressed anger with Biden's opening flurry of executive orders—Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) on Friday accused the president of implementing a "radical leftist agenda" that "will not help unify our country." Rep. Jason Smith (Mo.), the top Republican on the House Budget Committee, told the Washington Free Beacon that Biden's wide use of executive power, and by extension Schumer's push for reconciliation, would prove divisive.

"We're barely a full week into Joe Biden's presidency and already he has signed more executive orders than any other president in history at this point in his term," Smith said. "Rather than focus on bipartisan measures that unify the country and support working-class Americans, Democrats are prioritizing their progressive wishlists that will only further divide this country."

Neither Schumer nor the White House returned a request for comment.

Biden has already addressed climate policy through several executive orders, including one that canceled the Keystone XL pipeline project, killing thousands of union jobs in the process. The president also announced that he will halt new oil and gas leasing on federal lands and offshore waters through executive action on Wednesday, with Schumer calling the move a "strong opening push." 

Declaring a national climate emergency could allow Biden to take things a step further and suspend offshore drilling altogether. During his campaign, the Democrat pledged to prevent oil companies from drilling in an attempt to stifle climate change, saying "no more drilling, including offshore," and "no ability for the oil industry to continue to drill, period." 

Power the Future founder and executive director Daniel Turner told the Free Beacon that a climate emergency declaration would permit Biden to "abolish whole industries."

"The environmental movement has wanted this for some time now, but nobody has ever claimed it," Turner said. "Now that politicians have had a taste of how much power they can wield by declaring a national emergency, there's no reason why they wouldn't do it with climate."

On the congressional side, Schumer told reporters Tuesday that Senate Democrats could employ reconciliation as early as next week. Top progressives in the upper chamber back the move, with socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) pledging to go forward "soon and aggressively" to pass Biden's stimulus bill, raise the minimum wage, and "much more." 

Biden's relief package appears unlikely to pass the Senate in its current form without using the reconciliation process, with even centrist Republicans such as Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) criticizing the bill's "pretty shocking" price tag. It's also unclear if a minimum wage hike could pass using the rule. Legislation qualifies for reconciliation only if it has a direct impact on federal revenue. Sanders—who serves as Senate Budget Committee chairman—has argued that a minimum wage bill would be fair game, as increased wages would lead to "a very positive impact on the federal deficit."

"It clearly has to be done by reconciliation," Sanders recently told the Guardian. "That's something I'm working very hard on."