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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Leading Democrats are appealing with President Joe Biden to move unilaterally on some of the party’s fundamental legislative issues, seeing executive action as their only option for delivering on their promises and re-energizing liberal voters who they fear would boycott the November elections.
In areas such as voting rights, police reform, and immigration, where Democratic bills have been stymied by Republican opposition in the Senate, the leaders of the influential Black and Asian American caucuses made direct requests to Biden during a recent meeting at the White House, urging him to issue executive orders that would expedite their proposals without congressional approval.
The appeals come at a particularly perilous time for House Democrats, who are facing a difficult midterm election season in which a loss of just a few seats would result in the loss of their majority. Biden’s dwindling poll numbers add to the significant obstacles Democrats face in a historically unfriendly midterm election year.
“I don’t want anyone to misunderstand that we feel executive action is preferable to legislation,” Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal said during the House Democratic issues conference in Philadelphia.
“However, there are a number of areas where, in the absence of legislation, the administration may take action to help move us closer to the goals we’re pursuing.”
During their recent discussion with Biden, the caucus leaders appeared to acknowledge the harm done in previous months by intraparty bickering that resulted in numerous legislative dead ends.
The only way to turn things around, argued Black Caucus Chair Joyce Beatty, Hispanic Caucus Chair Raul Ruiz, and Asian American Caucus Chair Judy Chu — all of whom made or will make similar arguments to Vice President Biden — is for the president to put pen to paper.
“The Congressional Black Caucus has not been silent as a result of this,” Beatty remarked, referring to the caucus’ efforts to advance voting rights. “We understand the relevance and significance of preclearance,” she said, referring to the Voting Rights Act requirement that states or local governments with a history of racial voting discrimination obtain federal approval for changes to election policies.
According to Jayapal and Ruiz, the Progressive and Hispanic caucuses will release a list of their own executive action goals next week.
Biden is well-versed in executive action, having witnessed it in operation during his tenure as President Barack Obama’s vice president. In 2014, when confronted with a Republican-controlled Congress, Obama said that he possessed a “pen and a phone” and began taking executive actions on issues such as gun control and immigration. Biden has also acted unilaterally, most recently with a series of executive orders sanctioning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
However, executive action has significant limitations, which is why it is frequently used as a last resort.
Democrats’ desire for Biden to go it alone is widespread. House leadership and rank-and-file members shared Jayapal’s concerns on the route forward when Democrats convened in Philadelphia for their annual issues conference – an event that came perilously close to not happening due to party infighting for fresh emergency financing for COVID-19 relief.
The one-and-a-half-day retreat was intended to serve as a reset for a caucus in desperate need of one, as a record number of members retire and those for reelection face strong, moneyed, and, in some cases, Donald Trump-endorsed opponents.
After Biden delivered a pep talk to Democrats on Friday, many conceded that he may be their only opportunity in the next ten months to keep the promises made to Democratic voters who gave them control of the House, Senate, and White House less than a year and a half ago.
Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the party’s master legislator, appeared to give the White House a wink.
“It is critical for the administration to act swiftly if legislative action cannot be obtained,” Pelosi told reporters Friday.
For many members, including House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the failure in January to pass one of the primary legislative priorities, voting rights legislation, was still fresh.
The voting rights package imploded on the Senate floor in January after Democratic centrist Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona refused to amend the procedural procedures necessary to allow the bill to overcome a Republican filibuster with a majority vote. Democrats assert that additional action is required to combat a fresh wave of voter suppression sweeping the country.
Clyburn, who was present at Biden’s White House meeting last Monday, said he reminded the president of the historical significance of executive orders, including the emancipation of slaves in 1863 – two years before the 13th Amendment was ratified by Congress.
“When we look back on our history as a country — a great country — we frequently, more frequently than not, find strong leadership in our executive branch directing the Congress,” Clyburn added. “Abraham Lincoln used executive action to abolish slavery before Congress could act.”
“I believe you’ll find that throughout history, the Congress and the people have needed to be nudged by the person chosen to lead,” he added.
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