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Washington: US President-elect Joe Biden is planning to quickly sign a series of executive orders after being sworn into office on January 20, immediately forecasting that the country's politics have shifted and that his presidency will be guided by radically different priorities.
He will rejoin the Paris climate accords, according to those close to his campaign and commitments he has made in recent months, and he will reverse President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the World Health Organisation. He will repeal the ban on immigration from many Muslim-majority countries, and he will reinstate the program allowing "dreamers," who were brought to the United States illegally as children, to remain in the country, according to people familiar with his plans.
US President-elect Joe Biden.Credit:AP
Although transitions of power can always include abrupt changes, the shift from Trump to Biden – from one president who sought to undermine established norms and institutions to another who has vowed to restore the established order – will be among the most startling in American history.
Biden's top advisers have spent months quietly working on how best to implement his agenda, with hundreds of transition officials preparing to get to work inside various federal agencies. They have assembled a book filled with his campaign commitments to help guide their early decisions.
Biden is planning to set up a coronavirus task force on Monday, in recognition that the global pandemic will be the primary issue that he must confront. The task force, which could begin meeting within days, will be co-chaired by former surgeon general Vivek Murthy and David Kessler, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner.
But there has also been a recognition of those around him that he may have to lean more on executive actions that he had once hoped. He can reorient various federal agencies and regulations, and he can adopt a different posture on the world stage.
But pushing major legislation through Congress could prove to be a challenge.
Although the Democrats will hold a narrowed majority in the House, the final makeup of the Senate is not yet clear. That will be decided on January 5, with two runoff elections in Georgia. Democrats would need to win both races to effectively have control of the Senate – with Vice-President Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaking vote – while Republicans would retain a narrow advantage by winning at least one.
"The policy team, the transition policy teams, are focusing now very much on executive power," said a Biden ally who has been in touch with his team who, like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. "I expect that to be freely used in a Biden administration at this point, if the Senate becomes a roadblock."
A Republican-held Senate – or even one with a narrow Democratic majority – probably will affect Biden's Cabinet picks given the Senate's power to confirm nominees.
Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris earlier this year.Credit:AP
One option being discussed is appointing Cabinet members in an acting capacity, a tactic that Trump also used.
"Just by virtue of the calendar and how many positions are filled, that's always a possibility," the person said. "Because the Senate moves so slowly now, so much more slowly than it used to."
On Saturday afternoon, about two hours after networks called Biden the winner of the election, the president-elect had a brief call with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, who called to congratulate Biden on a "tremendous victory," according to two Democratic officials.
Schumer called while en route to a celebration in Brooklyn, holding his flip phone out the window so that Biden could hear the cheering crowd.
If Senator Mitch McConnell, stays as majority leader, he would be trying to manage a conference torn between two factions with different interests, but neither necessarily eager to help Biden – one with senators running for reelection in swing states in 2022, and another with those seeking the national spotlight as they vie for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
"In the old days, the mandate meant that the other side would be more amenable, or feeling they had an impetus to work," said Senator Robert Casey jnr. "I'm not sure that applies any longer."
It is unclear whether Biden has communicated with McConnell yet directly; aides have not commented on any conversation.
A closely divided Congress could hamper Biden's efforts to do sweeping legislative actions on immigration reform. He has also said he would send a bill to Congress repealing liability protections for gun manufacturers, and close background-check loopholes. He has pledged to repeal the Republican-passed tax cuts from 2017, an effort that could be stymied if Republicans hold the Senate majority.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.Credit:AP
Without congressional cooperation, however, Biden has said that he plans to immediately reverse Trump's rollback of 100 public health and environmental rules that the Obama administration had in place.
He would also institute new ethics guidelines at the White House, and he has pledged to sign an executive order the first day in office saying that no member of his administration could influence any Justice Department investigations.
Biden has long pledged to rejoin the Paris climate accords by executive order, but he has also said that he would attempt to convince other nations to adopt higher standards in an attempt to curb the impacts of climate change.
Senator Christopher Coons, a longtime Biden ally who holds the seat Biden had for 36 years, offered a broad overview of Biden's initial agenda: "Get us out of this pandemic that's been made far worse by Trump's bungled mishandling of it, rebuild our economy in a way that's more sustainable and more inclusive, and deal with division and inequality."
The President returns to the White House after golfing while news of his defeat broke.Credit:
He noted that Biden's style will be quite different, saying that Trump and Pelosi haven't spoken in more than a year.
Coons suggested that Biden would promptly be reaching out to leaders in both parties.
The coronavirus response has been foremost on Biden's mind, and it is seen inside his campaign as a chief reason for his victory. He has previously said that even before the inauguration he would reach out to Anthony Fauci, the country's top infectious-disease expert, asking him for advice.
Biden also wants to quickly appoint a supply commander to oversee production and distribution of testing – and, when ready, vaccines – as well as materials such as masks and gowns.
The coronavirus – and Biden's response to it – could also significantly impact the traditional spectacle that surrounds the transfer of power. Inaugural balls could be altered. And while Biden has previously said he wouldn't envision wearing a mask while being sworn in, he has said they could try to limit the traditional throngs that fill the steps of the US Capitol.
Dr Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House coronavirus taskforce.Credit:AP
Much of Biden's early agenda – including which pieces of legislation to prioritise – will be determined in the coming weeks as his transition team begins taking on a far more prominent role.
Biden's transition effort is being overseen by Ted Kaufman, one of his closest advisers. Kaufman, who was appointed to replace Biden in the Senate when Biden became vice president in 2009, also helped co-write an update to the law governing the transition process, which was passed in 2015 and signed by President Barack Obama.
Biden's transition team has been given government-issued computers and iPhones for conducting secure communications, and 10,000 square feet (929 square metres) of office space in the Herbert C. Hoover Building in Washington, although most of the work is being done virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic. His advisers have been granted temporary security clearances and undergone FBI background checks to fast-track the processing of personnel who can receive briefings on intelligence.
But one important next step is for the head of the Government Services Administration to rule that the election results are final, enabling Biden's transition team to expand its work and gain access to government funds. Biden officials are prepared for legal action if that administrator – Emily Murphy, a Trump political appointee – delays that decision, according to officials familiar with the matter.
Trump has so far not conceded defeat, falsely claiming Saturday that he won the election.
The last time there was a prolonged delay in a transfer of power was in 2000, when uncertainty over the results in the contest between then-Vice President Al Gore, a Democrat, and then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, a Republican, stretched out until the Supreme Court ended a Florida recount that gave Bush the victory on Dec. 12.
The Bush administration's sluggish start and lack of qualified personnel in place was cited by the 9/11 Commission Report as a critical vulnerability to US national security for the attacks that occurred less than eight months after the inauguration. That prompted changes to the law and the granting of access at an earlier date following the political conventions.
"When George W. Bush left he made clear to his Cabinet that this is going to be the best transition of power that's ever occurred. Because we weren't treated very well when we came into power," said Michael Leavitt, who at the time was the outgoing secretary of Health and Human Services. "Barack Obama to his credit said the same thing. There was a spirit of cooperation that went on and needs to continue. Whether it will or not I don't know. But we're better prepared."
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