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Biden's Agenda To Come Into Sharper Focus, Even As Trump Plots His Comeback

President Biden speaks Friday at a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing site in Portage, Mich. The House could pass a version of his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief legislation this week.
Brendan Smialowski
AFP via Getty Images
President Biden speaks Friday at a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing site in Portage, Mich. The House could pass a version of his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief legislation this week.

Joe Biden has now been president for one month.

So far, he has signed a record number of executive orders, brought the United States back into the Paris climate accord, introduced a comprehensive immigration bill and begun the groundwork for his major COVID-19 relief legislation. He has also taken his lumps when it comes to messaging about reopening schools.

The Trump impeachment trial took up much of the political oxygen in Washington, D.C., but with that in the rearview mirror, this week may mark a real turning point to the Biden agenda — although Donald Trump will reemerge with his first post-presidency speech Sunday.

Biden's Cabinet is also still being filled out, while outside Washington, the big thaw in Texas begins after a dangerous — and revealing — several days of a rare deep freeze.

Here are six things we're watching this week:

1. COVID-19 relief bill movement

The country is surpassing 500,000 deaths from COVID-19.

"It's stunning," Dr. Anthony Fauci, a Biden medical adviser and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday. He called it "horrible," "devastating" and "historic." "People will be talking about this decades and decades and decades from now," he noted somberly.

Biden's $1.9 trillion relief plan, which would send another round of direct payments to qualifying Americans and disburse billions of dollars to state and local governments, could see a vote in the House by the end of the week. Also remember: The bill still has to go through hurdles in the Senate to see if its provisions qualify under budget reconciliation, since Republicans are not on board and think it's too costly.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., vows that the bill is "on track" to be on Biden's desk by March 14, the date that enhanced unemployment insurance benefits expire. "We will meet this deadline," he said in a letter to colleagues Friday.

2. Schools — to reopen or not to reopen isn't really the question

Americans have sharply different views about reopening schools. About two-thirds of U.S. students are already offered some in-person options, but the Biden administration has struggled to lay out clearly and consistently when and how all schools should open.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidelines say schools can reopen without all teachers being vaccinated. Biden's White House has said teachers should be a priority for vaccines, as it tries to walk a tightrope between science and teachers unions, a key Democratic constituency. But this is a bit of a false debate.

The heads of the largest teachers unions say they are on board with the CDC's guidelines. And while vaccinations are important to teachers, they actually rate access to personal protective equipment, limited class sizes and regular cleanings as more necessary.

But those things cost money. And the same Republicans criticizing Biden for not advocating more strongly for reopening schools full time are not on board with his COVID-19 relief plan — which allocates $130 billion for schools — because, they say, it's too expensive and because there's money left over from past relief measures.

3. Texas thaws out as political spotlight heats up

Thousands line up Sunday to receive food and water at a mass distribution site at NRG Stadium for Houston residents who are still without running water and electricity following last week's winter storm.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
Getty Images
Thousands line up Sunday to receive food and water at a mass distribution site at NRG Stadium for Houston residents who are still without running water and electricity following last week's winter storm.

In addition to the coronavirus pandemic and school reopenings, the biggest story outside Washington has been the Texas deep freeze. Texans will finally have more seasonable weather this week, but the fallout is far from over, in both the short and the long term.

People are still waiting in long lines for water; pipes are busted and need repair; and the loss of electricity and heat for millions led to the deaths of more than two dozen in the state. There are heartbreaking stories, including those of an 11-year-old boy who died of hypothermia in a mobile home, a 75-year-old man who died grabbing oxygen from his truck and another who is said to have frozen to death in his recliner next to his wife.

Texas energy companies' almost-century-old decision not to be part of the U.S. power grid, to avoid federal regulation, is now coming under scrutiny, as are Republican state officials' more recent decision not to regulate and mandate winterization of energy facilities. Congressional Democrats say it may be time to connect Texas to the national grid, but Republicans think that's the wrong move.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called the lack of preparation "outrageous," but some are pointing the finger at Abbott and his predecessor, Rick Perry, for allegedly putting profit ahead of preparedness. Abbott also walked back initial comments that renewable energy sources were to blame — when natural gas was the main problem.

Abbott stands for reelection in 2022, and while he's still the odds-on favorite to win, how he handles this crisis will likely shape his fate. And Sen. Ted Cruz, back from Mexico, is lucky he's not up for reelection until 2024.

Cruz got absolutely roasted by late-night comedians for his overnight jaunt.

Stepping back, though, it is remarkable that the governors of the nation's four most populous states — run by Republicans and Democrats alike — have struggled with handling natural disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year.

4. Merrick Garland finally gets a hearing

Almost five years after former President Barack Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, Garland will get a confirmation hearing Monday and Tuesday to be Biden's attorney general.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, back in 2016, refused to even hold a hearing for Garland, a judge with the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C., when he was Obama's pick to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia. McConnell said he blocked Garland's nomination because Scalia's death happened during a presidential election year.

Four years later, though, McConnell did an about-face and pushed through Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, to replace liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg after her death — in a shorter timetable and in another election year.

5. What about the rest of the Cabinet?

Filling out Biden's Cabinet has been a slow-go. Just seven of his Cabinet-level posts requiring Senate confirmation have been put in place.

Xavier Becerra, Biden's pick for health secretary, testifies Tuesday, but his nomination has become controversial. Republicans don't like that as California attorney general he filed more than 100 lawsuits against the Trump administration. He also does not have a medical background, and Republicans see him as too liberal.

Interior secretary nominee Deb Haaland's confirmation hearing is also Tuesday. She would be the first Native American to lead the department but is expected to face tough questioning from Republicans. That's because she's opposed to new oil and gas drilling leases on federal land, something that lines up with Biden's views.

We're also watching to see what happens with Neera Tanden, Biden's pick to be budget director. Conservative Democrat Joe Manchin said he would oppose her nomination because of "overtly partisan" statements and tweets she has made. And while the Biden administration says it is sticking with her, hoping that at least one Republican will vote for her, there are reportedly behind-the-scenes preparationsto replace her.

Democrats hope to fill out more of Biden's Cabinet in short order. Schumer said he expects Linda Thomas-Greenfield to be confirmed as ambassador to the U.N. this week, for example. And several other nominees have now been reported out of their respective committees and are ready for a full Senate vote, the majority leader added.

6. Trump returns

Just when you thought he was out, Trump jumps right back in. The former president will make his first major speech since leaving the White House at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Sunday.

These events are usually an opportunity to see who a party's emerging stars are going to be — and to whom the party will turn to lead it in the next presidential election cycle. But all eyes will be on Trump. He has dangled the possibility that he will run again, which very much puts a freeze on the rest of the potential Republican field.

Will Trump look to settle scores with Republican establishment figures and those who voted for his impeachment, or will his speech be about how to beat Democrats and draw distinctions with Biden? Look in particular to immigration as a potential area of emphasis. It has always been an animating issue for Trump and his base, and Biden's new legislative plan offers Trump some fresh fodder.

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Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.