WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden’s first days in office will be dominated by crisis: the coronavirus pandemic and economic emergency it caused, as well as the fallout from the deadly Capitol riot as his predecessor faces a Senate impeachment trial.
Biden frequently talks about the need to use the first 100 days, which have typically been a honeymoon period for new presidents, to make significant progress on the challenges facing the country, but the inability to find bipartisan cooperation may hamstring him before he takes the oath of office.
Biden said last week that the country is in a “crisis of deep human suffering in plain sight” when he outlined a $1.9 trillion funding bill that he has asked Congress to pass quickly.
The Senate already has a busy schedule. Lawmakers will have to find time to debate a funding bill, confirm Biden’s Cabinet nominees and deal with the article of impeachment passed last week in the House. A trial could start as soon as Inauguration Day.
That is not how Biden envisioned his early days in office would go a year ago when he was fighting for the Democratic Party’s nomination. Back then, he talked about how the focus of his first 100 days would be on reforming immigration policy, rebuilding alliances overseas and tackling climate change.
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But any loftier initiatives will have to be put on hold; more than 400,000 people in the U.S. have died from the coronavirus, with nearly 11 million Americans receiving unemployment benefits.
Here is a breakdown of how Biden plans to tackle those issues starting on Day One.
Biden has pledged to oversee administering 100 million Covid-19 vaccinations in his first 100 days in office, which transition officials say is still a reachable goal even though the Trump administration’s promised rollout of the vaccines has been much slower than expected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that more than 11.1 million doses had been given as of Thursday.
The Trump administration left distribution to the states, but Biden plans to broaden the federal government’s role. Biden’s team plans to set up federal sites for mass distribution, along with mobile vaccination centers for people in rural areas.
Supplies of the vaccines, the components and the materials will also be an issue, and transition officials have said Biden plans to use the Defense Authorization Act to speed production.
But Biden says he needs money from Congress to get to his vaccination goal. He has asked for more than $400 billion, to be used for the vaccines, slowing the virus’s spread and reopening schools.
The plan includes $20 billion toward a national vaccination program, $50 billion for testing and contact tracing and $30 billion for supplies and protective equipment. He is also seeking money to provide paid sick leave to encourage people to stay home if they are feeling ill, and he called for hiring 100,000 public health workers, nearly tripling the current number.
Biden will inherit an economy unable to recover from the pandemic, with an unemployment rate that has been stuck near 7 percent for months.
Biden wants Congress to pass another $1 trillion Covid-19 relief package, calling the previous efforts a “down payment.”
Biden’s plan includes $1,400 per person in direct payments and a $400-a-week federal unemployment insurance program. He is also asking for billions of dollars for federal nutrition programs and child care providers and an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour. In addition, he is asking for $350 billion for states and $35 billion more for small-businesses financing programs.
He will need the support of Congress, which holds the federal purse strings.
“A new president who has a legislative agenda tends to be most effective in their first year, because the other party has historically let the president have a little bit more room to pass their priorities,” said Casey Dominguez, a political science professor at the University of San Diego who has written about the 100-day honeymoon new presidents often enjoy with Congress.
Democrats will control both the Senate, but by just a razor-thin margin, and the House. It is unclear whether Biden will get to enjoy a honeymoon period given partisan polarization, Dominguez said.
A transition official said last week that members of the new administration have been reaching out to lawmakers and expect Congress to act quickly to pass a stimulus bill. But Biden’s team has backed away from an earlier demand that Congress send him a bill to sign by the end of January, and it now says it hopes legislation is introduced in February.
Day One executive actions
While sweeping immigration reform and climate plans may no longer be at the top of the to-do list, Biden has promised to reverse some of Trump’s most controversial policies.
Many Trump policies, such as climate deregulation, were enacted through executive orders or as informal guidance, not through congressional lawmaking, meaning Biden can roll them back fairly easily.
Incoming White House chief of staff Ron Klain said that on Inauguration Day, Biden will “sign roughly a dozen actions to combat the four crises” — Covid-19, the economy, climate change and racial inequality.
The Day One actions will include asking the Education Department to extend the pause on student loan payments and interest, rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate change, reversing the “ban” on travel from several majority-Muslim countries, issuing a mandate to wear masks on federal property and during interstate travel, and extending nationwide restrictions on evictions and foreclosures.
On Day Two, Klain said, Biden will “sign a number of executive actions to move aggressively to change the course of the Covid-19 crisis and safely re-open schools and businesses, including by taking action to mitigate spread through expanding testing, protecting workers, and establishing clear public health standards.”
Other executive actions Biden plans soon after he takes office include rescinding the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, ending Trump’s national emergency declaration at the southern border, stopping federal executions and reversing the ban on transgender people’s serving in the military, said a person familiar with the plans.
He is also expected to establish new ethics guidelines at the White House, and he has promised to sign an executive order declaring that any member of his administration would be fired if found trying to influence a Justice Department investigation, as Trump was accused of doing.
Biden is expected to propose a bill that would provide a pathway to citizenship for about 11 million immigrants who are in the country without legal status.
The bill would provide an eight-year path to citizenship for immigrants and a fast track for people in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, said an immigration advocate briefed on the plan.
Klain said Saturday in a memo to incoming senior White House staff members that Biden will send an immigration bill to Congress “on his first day in office,” but he did not provide specifics.
If it is passed, Biden’s bill would be the biggest move to grant legal status to people in the country without documentation since President Ronald Reagan did it for nearly 3 million people in 1986.
Still, recent attempts to overhaul the immigration system have failed, and Biden’s plan is likely to face an uphill battle on Capitol Hill, especially as he juggles other legislative priorities.
Biden has also promised to end some of the strict immigration practices of the Trump administration, which focused on building a border wall and restricting eligibility for asylum.
No president has entered the White House having to balance setting up his own administration and legislative agenda during a Senate impeachment trial of his predecessor.
Trump’s trial could impose rigid rules that delay Biden’s getting his Cabinet approved.
Biden and congressional Democrats will have to devote some of their resources in the early days of his term to figuring out how to manage that dynamic. It is still unclear what strategy they will land on.
Biden, who is on track to be sworn in Wednesday without any of his Cabinet nominees’ having been confirmed, has said he would like the Senate to split its time between the trial and hearings for his nominees, as well as work to pass his Covid-19 relief bill.
“Can we go half-day on dealing with the impeachment and half-day getting my people nominated and confirmed in the Senate, as well as moving on the package?” Biden asked reporters last week. “So that’s my hope and expectation.”
Some congressional Democrats have backed the suggestion to pursue a dual track, while others have floated the idea of waiting 100 days to transmit the article of impeachment to the Senate while Biden gets his administration up and running.
“I think they are going to have to work on both simultaneously,” Klain said Friday about the Senate. “Hopefully the trial will not be a lengthy trial.”