So we know we’ve said this before, but this week, President Biden would probably agree that this is the week that could make or break his political future, not to mention his legislative legacy.
We navigate all of you through the machinations on the Hill then turn to some tidbits.
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(cover photo cred: Samuel Corum / Getty Images News)
Here we go…
High Noon at the Congressional Corral
The thing that made me laugh the loudest from all of the weekend chatter was Speaker Pelosi in her interview with George Stephanopoulos when she said, “It’s an eventful week.” That might well be the understatement of the decade.
To give you a sense of the week, every administration usually puts out a schedule at the beginning or the end of the week depending on how fluid things are, which is commonly called “The Week Ahead.” It’s intended as guidance, mostly for the press as a chronicle for the most precious commodity in Washington: how a President spends their time. It generally contains an event for each day. Well, yesterday, the week ahead guidance released by the White House had just two things on it. The first was a paragraph that said, “Throughout the week, the President will continue to engage with members of Congress and Congressional leadership on his Build Back Better agenda and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, as well as passing the Continuing Resolution, providing disaster relief, and avoiding a default.” The only other item he has is a Wednesday event on COVID in Chicago. So, it's one of those rare weeks in Washington where everybody's focused on all of the same things.
The media always tend to magnify any single event because they're covering the moment with very little perspective on the backwards or forwards of politics and history. Frankly, some events start off as big and a few weeks or months later, they aren’t what they started out as. But I believe it is fairly safe to say that this is a huge week for the Biden Presidency and for his agenda. You've got the bipartisan infrastructure bill that was scheduled for a vote Monday, postponed until Thursday, in order to get a framework for a reconciliation bill that the House and Senate can vote on despite the fact that there are still lots of competing interests and multiple timetables. And then the thing that is now going to become more front and center because we've got deadlines as early as Thursday for a government shutdown, which is how do we fund the government for some period of time? And how's the debt ceiling going to get raised? We've talked for several weeks about how this is the week it all comes together. Well, welcome to that week.
I agree. It's High Noon at the Congressional Corral. So, unlike the usual week where they're busy passing National Pinochle Day resolutions, this week the stakes are enormous. There are three big games of chicken going on (which is worrisome because usually Congress can barely handle one such face off). First, the Democrats tried to jam the GOP on a bill to both raise the debt limit and cough up enough short-term funding to keep the Government open at the end of this week. That just failed in the Senate. It was political tussle and by far the least important of the stand-offs: McConnell has already said the R’s will vote for a short-term funding bill and now the Dems are backing off and that short term bill will happen in the next 24 hours. The second, much more dangerous game of chicken is about raising the debt limit in mid-October. While the Democrats have the votes to do it alone, and prevent financial catastrophe, the Republicans are trying to jam the D’s and make them take all the blame for a huge debt increase. (Quite cynical since the R’s already voted to spend much of the debt that now has to be agreed to.) Finally, the mega-game of chicken is the stand-off between Democratic moderates and progressives in the House. The progressives are threatening to torpedo the President’s big-win bipartisan infrastructure bill (the vote is now Thursday, having been moved back from yesterday because Speaker Pelosi didn’t have the votes to pass it). This one is going to be tricky.
Tricky indeed! Speaker Pelosi made the first move in a Democratic Caucus meeting Monday night by saying it was time to vote on the bipartisan infrastructure legislation passed by the Senate despite not having even a framework on budget reconciliation (let alone an actual bill passed by the Senate on this). It is a BIG move by Pelosi and a HUGE bet that she can find the votes. She knows this is the only way forward because reconciliation isn’t ready yet despite her efforts to get it there. Plus, she knows the President and Democrats need a win. The question is whether she can make this happen. Progressives have linked these two legislative vehicles for months. It’s been their leverage to get it all done and not simply stop after the bipartisan bill. An enormous amount is on the line this week. It’s the trickiest week for Speaker Pelosi since health care in 2010. She has an impressive track record for winning these battles, but this one will require A LOT of Pelosi magic in order to convince more progressive legislators to move forward without a lot of tangible progress on what reconciliation will eventually look like. She’s moved a big stack of chips into the middle of the table. We are about to see her hand.
I think the next move is Senate Majority Leader Schumer’s to make, since what the House really needs to creep forward is a new number on the big spending bill. What is the bottom line cost/size of their domestic spending bill? $3.T is dead and buried, bludgeoned to death by Senators Manchin and Sinema (and God Bless ‘em for that). Late last night early potential deal numbers started leaking out of the caucuses; $2 trillion? $2.5 Trillion? Once we start seeing real numbers being floated in the media, a deal is close. Will Joe Manchin vote for a bill over $1.8T (which is about all the non-BS tax revenue that can realistically be scrapped together to “pay for” the bill’s massive new spending)? Will the progressives accept a big whack to the beloved $3.5T spending smorgasbord? That is the big issue at the heart of the matter for the Dems.
The predictions, before Pelosi spoke last night, was you've got 90 or so progressives, half of which have said they're not voting for the bipartisan plan without reconciliation being close to done and that number Murphy talked about being agreed to by the House and the Senate. This is going to be the real first test of whether people are voting their very short-term interests this week, or voting their longer-term interests, meaning 2022 and beyond.
I wouldn't be completely surprised if they can't reach an agreement this week and then she tries to ram through infrastructure on Thursday by letting the progressives just go ahead to pass their own huge $3.5T make-believe budget bill just to get their ya-yas out and then try to find a deal later in a conference committee. That is the highly unappetizing option the Dems have been trying to avoid since it extends this ugly fight instead of solving it, but Pelosi needs to do something to get progressives in line by Thursday. Republicans meanwhile are all happily taking online Cheshire cat grin classes and preparing to print a million new “Democrats Cannot Govern, Just Raise Taxes” yard signs. All this, of course, is a huge headache for Joe Biden. Already facing tough House midterms, this is the last sort of political mess he needs.
Now Gibbsie, we referenced the big, scary debt limit game of chicken earlier… how do you think that plays out when the real debt limit deadline hits in a few weeks? That one worries me, because while the other two games of chicken are political contests, screwing up the debt limit would be an economic disaster.
The Debt Game of Chicken
Those that were nervous about the process that's been undertaken to this point on the Democratic side had always assumed you could just kind of tuck the debt limit into reconciliation. Well, if you think getting reconciliation is a great place to put raising the debt ceiling and you think that's easy to get done, stop reading this paragraph and go back up to the beginning of the newsletter. Plan B is not going to be as easy as one thinks.
The debt limit probably has a little bit of time. With the GOP filibustering the debt limit increase and the continuing resolution to fund government, Democrats are likely to move this week to dropping the debt limit increase for the moment and seek a simple measure to stave off a government shutdown, scheduled to happen in a little more than 48 hours unless action is taken. The question for Schumer and Pelosi is for how long do they seek the additional funding. Right now, the government shutdown and the debt ceiling are not on the exact timeframe of the calendar, meaning they won’t both happen at the same time. There was some talk of adding government funding for two to three weeks to line that up and basically cause more challenging votes for the Republicans. Right now, though, the focus here has to be on ensuring government is funded past September 30th.
I think the R’s could in the end force the Senate Dems to do the debt limit on their own – remember they do have the votes – but as you say it could be clumsy to get done and turn into a crazy Guns of August 1914 scenario.
For me, and the business wing of the GOP, the real question is, “is the risk worth it?” Leader McConnell might want to remember that too-clever-by-half plans can spin out of control with disastrous consequences. Ask Count von Schlieffen. I will say that on one level Mitch is correct; it’s not a bad idea to force the party pushing a huge spending plan to also have to vote to increase the debt limit… as long as the same applies to other costly measures like, say, tax cuts. I mentioned Maya MacGuineas’ great 2017 Washington Post op-ed on this in our last edition’s tidbit, it’s worth a read. (And yes, I know the debt limit vote is mostly about money that’s already been spent, but I really like the idea of linking debt limit increases to spending and tax cutting bills.)
Wait a minute Murphy, are you suggesting that Mitch McConnell's political posturing on the debt ceiling is somehow not on the level?
I’m shocked, shocked that politics is breaking out in Washington DC!
Straw polls are never an oracle, but it is still interesting that a poll of attendees at Michigan’s famed Mackinaw conference shows a decline in support for Donald Trump. Granted it tends to be a business/chamber of commerce sort of GOP crowd, but still it’s interesting to see the decline. FL Governor Desantis does well, so I’ll bet a couple of lamps are smashing into walls down at Mar-a-Elba… look for Trump to start taking shots at the Tallahassee pretender soon.
Interesting moves by the Investigating Committee on the January 6 insurrection, immediately authorizing subpoenas for four senior people close to Trump. It’s interesting in a number of ways. One, they didn't go through the process of asking them to come testify, being stonewalled, and then it being either weeks or months later before they actually went to the subpoena to compel it. So, they skipped that process knowing the Trump people are going to try to run out the clock on all this stuff. I think it demonstrates a seriousness with which this is being approached. Then secondly, there was a lot of excitement around the fact that they subpoenaed Steve Bannon, and he's got some predictably dangerous and crazy rhetoric in the days leading up to January 6th. To me, the far more important subpoena is to the former chief of staff, Mark Meadows. Nobody would be more intimately familiar with everything the President was doing that day than the Chief of Staff. And nobody would be more intimately familiar with what communication was coming from outside of that building from the FBI, from the Pentagon and other places, than the Chief of Staff because those calls would go into his office first. Already, the Biden administration has said they will not hold information back because of executive privilege. So, it’s unclear when this would happen, but it’s certainly the makings for real fireworks getting to the very top of what was happening inside of the White House on that terrible day from somebody whose entire governmental responsibility is to know that intimately.
In other news, for our dear readers who think that the Republicans have the market on cynicism totally locked up, keep an eye on that paragon of political virtue in the great state of Illinois. Democrats are busy redrawing congressional districts. State house rumors indicate that they're looking at wiping out GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger’s district. That’s tragic because Kinzinger is one of the few House Members who voted for impeachment and has stood up to Trump and his stooges time and time again. Shame on the D’s. Of all the Republicans to try to squeeze out of a district, you’d think his courageous actions would earn him a pass, but alas, the D’s appears to have their hatchets out.
A lot to shake out in the wild week in Washington. We’ll see what happens by Friday.
Plus, here’s a tease for you: auf Wiedersehen, Angela.
Murphy and Gibbs