Here's how a Biden administration could still make significant progress on liberal goals with a Republican-held Senate

  • Democratic hopes of a unified government with control of both Congress and the White House were dashed this week.
  • Depending on the outcome of two runoff races in Georgia early next year, Democrats may face at least two more years of divided government.
  • But experts say a Biden administration has plenty of leeway to leave a mark on healthcare and climate.
  • But without legislation cementing it, regulatory or administrative actions could be reversed by another Republican president.
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Heading into Tuesday's election, Democrats dreamed of a unified government under President-elect Joe Biden. The party was gearing up to roll back the 2017 tax cuts, bolster Obamacare, and pass a massive economic stimulus plan. 

But their ambitions ran aground this week. Democrats shed House seats despite projections they would strengthen their majority. They were also defeated by wider margins than expected in several critical Senate races against Republicans, dashing Democratic hopes of wresting control of the chamber from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The outcome of two runoff elections in Georgia this January will decide which party controls the Senate when Biden assumes office. If the GOP wins at least one of those races, the stage is set for another period of divided government, with Biden becoming the first president since George H.W. Bush in 1989 to start his first term without his party controlling Congress.

The scenario has alarmed many Democrats, who argue the GOP would stonewall a Biden administration and cripple its agenda. They point to McConnell stating in October 2010 he wanted to make Barack Obama a one-term president. Sen. Ron Wyden, ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said "the history is pretty ominous."

"You say to yourself: Is Mitch McConnell gonna turn over a new leaf?" Wyden told Business Insider last week. "Pretty hard to see, given the fact he wasn't even willing to work for a robust economic package before the Senate broke for the election at a time it would have benefited Trump."

Biden campaigned on enacting sizable tax increases for the wealthiest Americans and corporations, creating a public health insurance option, and passing a climate change plan. Little of his ambitious platform appears likely to draw support from Republicans.

But experts say there is room for a Biden administration to achieve major elements of his agenda on healthcare and climate, though tax increases are unlikely to pass. "A Biden presidency w/a narrow GOP majority in the Senate is not half a loaf. It's the loaf," Daniel He mel, a tax law professor at the University of Chicago, wrote on Twitter.

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What Biden can do on his own without Congress

Hemel argued Biden can implement new regulations to fight climate change. Measures taken could include reviving and strengthening Obama-era regulations mandating power plants reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reinstating fuel-economy standards.

Other experts say Biden action could take unilateral action on some aspects of healthcare, such as barring the sale of the short-term insurance plans from Obamacare marketplaces that don't cover pre-existing conditions and increasing outreach funding so more people know they can enroll for coverage.

"As president, Biden could reverse many of the healthcare changes Trump made over the last four years and change the tone and direction of the nation's response to the pandemic," Larry Levitt, executive vice president for health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, wrote on Twitter.

Executive authority may be an alluring alternative for Biden, given his experience serving an administration that used it extensively.

"Congress has given the president a huge amount of discretion in law over time and Trump used it in a particularly aggressive way, and it's still there," Andrew Rudalevige, a political science professor at Bowdoin College, told Business Insider.

Obama employed it to press ahead with his goals on immigration and climate in his second term. Then Trump used it to push the boundaries of executive action, imposing tariffs on goods deemed a threat to national security and also enacting a $300 federal weekly unemployment-benefit program.

"Even though presidents can easily issue executive orders, other presidents can just as easily revoke them," Sharece Thrower, an associate professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, told Business Insider. "Even before they're taking office in that transition period, new presidents start to review what executive orders they can revoke from the previous administration."

That appears to be the case. The Washington Post reported on Saturday that Biden is planning to sign a slew of executive orders shortly after his inauguration on January 20. They include:

  • Rejoining the Paris climate accord.
  • Repeal the Muslim travel ban.
  • Reverse Trump's withdrawal from the World Health Organization.
  • Reinstate the DACA program allowing "dreamers" brought to the US as kids to stay.
  • Reverse Trump's rollback of nearly 100 Obama-era public health and environmental rules.

Some Democrats say McConnell has long had a friendship with Biden that could lend itself to dealmaking between the pair. Biden has touted his ability to work with the GOP, and previously said "you'll see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends" if Trump lost.

"They have negotiated big things before. They've come through some very hard and even bitter fights over judicial confirmations," Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware told Politico.

But Republicans appear ready to thwart any of the big-ticket items Biden may pursue early in his presidency, like stimulus spending. McConnell indicated Friday that Republicans would support only a targeted relief package, while Democrats have long insisted on an massive plan to pump at least $2.2 trillion into every corner of the economy.

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