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Watching from afar, Congress will make or break Biden agenda

WASHINGTON — The most striking part of President Joe Biden's address to Congress on Wednesday may be the absence of most members of Congress, the very House and Senate lawmakers who will make or break the new administration's agenda.

Despite an audience thinned by coronavirus restrictions and wary after the Capitol siege, it is Congress that will determine whether Biden's sweeping $4 trillion proposals to invest in America and revive the role of government will come to pass.

"The president, he can put together whatever laundry list he would like to see Congress act on," said Frances Lee, a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton, "but in the end, it will be Congress deciding what to take up."

Unlike his recent predecessors, Biden is a veteran of the legislative process and appears eager to reengage Congress as a co-equal branch in governing.

When President Donald Trump addressed Congress, he largely relied on the sheer force of his personality to muscle his ideas into law, with mixed success. With soaring speeches, President Barack Obama ultimately worked around a resistant Congress using his "pen and phone" to push a second-term agenda through executive actions.

Biden is personally courting lawmakers with gusto, inviting them to meetings at the White House and sending his advisers to Capitol Hill, as he tries to nudge the narrowly split Congress to join his massive effort to reinvest in America.

"Look, you've got a 50-50 Senate, where everybody's vote counts, and you got a House that's closely divided, and there's going to be a lot of give and take, I think, in this process," said Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who had been a Biden rival in the 2020 presidential campaign.

"But I think the direction the administration has taken is a very good and consequential one for the country," he said. “This perpetual underinvestment has caught up to us."

Usually an electrifying event, a president’s first address to Congress marking his first 100 days in office, Biden’s speech will be a more subdued affair, sobered by the pandemic that has cost hundreds of thousands of American lives and by the scars from the deadly Capitol insurrection challenging his election victory.

Just about 200 of the 535 members of Congress have been invited to attend, with no special guests or constituents filling the visitors' galleries. Only Chief Justice John Roberts will join from the Supreme Court, along with a few top military brass, rather than the 1,600 people who typically crowd the House chamber on an often celebratory night for the new president.

Security is tight, with National Guard troops still stationed at the iconic building almost four months after rioters stormed inside, trying to save Trump's presidency. Five people died, including a protester shot by police outside the very House chamber where Biden will speak.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will be joined on the dais by Vice-President Kamala Harris, two women and both Californians, a history-making portrait of female empowerment the country has never before seen. "It’s about time," Pelosi said earlier Wednesday on MSNBC.

Many Republican lawmakers are skipping the event altogether, a protest of sorts as they pan Biden's first 100 days in office and cede the evening to Democrats. House Republicans are just wrapping up a private retreat in Florida, and few are expected to dash back to Washington for Biden’s speech.

That leaves Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy to represent their side of the aisle, which could create a lopsided sense of support inside the chamber for Biden's agenda as Democrats outnumber Republicans.

"I’ll have a great seat — right in front of my TV set," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who is staying home.

Despite the potential lack of lawmakers jumping to applaud or sitting in silence as Biden outlines his priorities, it's the rank-and-file members of Congress who will ultimately decide on the size and scope of his proposed infrastructure and human capital investments in the American Jobs and American Families plans.

While Congress was able earlier this year to swiftly approve Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill on party-line votes, holding Democrats together or reaching across the aisle to Republicans will prove more daunting on issues including election reforms, gun control, policing law changes and immigration.

McConnell has dismissed Biden's approach as a "bait and switch" presidency — one that promised bipartisanship with Republicans but that is going it alone with a very Democratic, if not progressive, agenda.

The president’s proposals include massive investments that Republicans argue are stretching the definition of infrastructure — electric vehicle charging stations for the automobiles of the future, as well as the construction of new veterans hospitals, child care centre services and other facilities. As investments in families, there are promises of free preschool for 3- and 4-year-old children, free community college and tax breaks that send as much as $250 a month to households with children.

Together, Biden’s two proposals would be paid for by raising the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28% and hiking taxes on the wealthiest 1% of Americans earning above $400,000.

"Behind President Biden's familiar face, it's like the most radical Washington Democrats have been handed the keys," McConnell said ahead of the speech.

But Biden is also changing the definition of bipartisanship, as his administration argues that the proposals are popular with Republican voters, despite resistance from Republicans on Capitol Hill.

In that, the president may have all the audience he is looking for on Wednesday as he speaks not just to the lawmakers he needs to pass his agenda, but also to the voters who will influence them to act — or not.

Lisa Mascaro, The Associated Press