Biden’s negotiating skills will be tested as he aims to have posts filled and programmes approved

Now the honeymoon is over, it’s down to hard work for American President Joe Biden and his new administration.  Only a handful of his Cabinet nominees have been approved in Congress and he faces the prospect that up to three candidates may fail to pass muster.

This will test his negotiating skills and legendary capacity to work “across the aisle”, a term beloved of US political commentators.  Opposition is hardening within the Democratic Party on issues such as the minimum wage.

The problem begins and ends with the near balance in both houses of Congress. In the senate there is a 50-50 split between the Republicans and Democrats, which means Vice President Kamala Harris must almost live in the chamber to ensure legislation is passed by means of her casting vote. The House of Representatives is little better with the Democrats holding 222 seats to the 213 held by the GOP.

While Harris can break a tie in the Senate, this means not losing a single Democrat — or winning over a Republican.

The nature of the challenge is illustrated by Biden’s candidate to run the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden.

This 50-year-old political consultant and former government official is the president of the Centre for American Progress, a liberal advocacy organisation. Prior to the election she savaged more than one Republican in a series of tweets, deleted only after she was nominated.

The GOP nevertheless has her on record and three moderate GOP senators have said they will oppose her.

But West Virginia Democrat Senator Joe Manchin, too, has said he will not back Tanden because of her penchant for combative tweets.

GOP senators have their sights on two other Biden nominees — Deb Haaland for secretary of the Interior and Xavier Becerra for secretary of Health and Human Services. Senator Manchin won’t say how he will vote while the Brooklyn Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has chastised him for his stance on Twitter, displaying the tensions within the Democratic coalition.

Observers predict those tensions between progressives and centrists will be heightened as Biden moves to other parts of his agenda. Immigration reform and climate change are two obvious flashpoints between the left, which wants sweeping action, and centrists, who recoil at anything that could be labelled as radical.

Likewise, with the president’s $US1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. This is very popular, with 66% of all American adults in favour, according to a new Economist/YouGov poll released this week.  The GOP remains solidly opposed, claiming it is far too expensive and risks economic stability while progressives in the Democrats reckons it doesn’t go far enough. Hence the importance of single individuals.

Assuming the GOP opposition remains solid, parts of Biden’s agenda could be passed using the process known as reconciliation. This reduces the number of votes needed in the Senate to 50, rather than a filibuster-proof overall majority of 60.

This can be used only on legislation that materially affects the budget, and the negotiating process itself can lead to additions and subtractions that leave everyone with something to complain about.

Biden continues to woo the electorate. The Economist poll recorded 51% approval versus 36% disapproval while Washington DC and much of the electorate seems relieved that Donald Trump has gone for now.

Trump’s problems continue to mount.  This week the US Supreme Court cleared the way for the New York district attorney to examine his tax records much to Trump’s disgust claiming he was victim of the worst-ever political witch-hunt in US political history and his prosecutors were “fascists”.

Equally troubling have been the hints that the US Justice Department’s inquiries into the January 6 attempted insurrection at the Capitol is drilling deeper into background issues including the role of the president. Not without reason did Minority leader Senator Mitch McConnell remind the chamber after it failed to convict Trump that the impeachment process was not a court of law.

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