The Surge

Slate’s guide to the most important figures in politics this week.

Welcome to this week’s edition of the Surge, your weekly newsletter about the brain activity of a West Virginia senator.

The clock is ticking on this Congress, and Democrats are staring hard at their watches. If we could choose a word to describe the state of Democrats in Washington this week, it would be something other than array—indeed, an antonym for that word would come in handy. Liberals cheered when Joe Biden cut off one set of infrastructure negotiations with Republicans, then groaned as he blessed another set of infrastructure negotiations with Republicans. Vice President Kamala Harris went to Guatemala and gave everyone something to complain about. Jack Reed versus Kirsten Gillibrand is the feud you didn’t even know you wanted, and Democratic climate hawks are beginning to worry that the Biden administration is losing its interest in bold climate action. Biden is in Europe eating “shepherd’s porridge pudding pie” with Boris Johnson. There is one (1) set of difficult bipartisan negotiations in the Senate that is going well—actually, it’s turning south as we write this—so let’s celebrate it before writing about its collapse next week.

But first, the West Virginia senator’s brain would matter a lot less if one man in North Carolina had kept his pants on last year.

Joe Manchin.
Sen. Joe Manchin. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Rank 1

Last Week

1. Joe Manchin

Democrats don’t have enough Senate seats.

We could write another entry asking what the dickens West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin could possibly mean by insisting that Democrats work with Republicans to find a way to stop Republicans from passing election-rigging laws across the country. Republicans love passing those laws. They don’t want to stop doing it. Just the opposite! But the bigger problem for Democrats here is that the limits of the 50-seat Senate majority are exposing themselves. Any majority is going to have a couple of people at the margin, in difficult political circumstances, who draw strength from opposing elements of their party’s agenda. The key to a successful majority, then, is to give up on those people and find the votes elsewhere. Democrats don’t have votes elsewhere. It would be cool for Democrats if they did, but they do not. It would have been cooler for them if Cal Cunningham did not cheat on his wife in the middle of the North Carolina Senate campaign, or if Sara Gideon had simply bought Maine and appointed herself a Senate seat with all the money she raised, instead of losing to Susan Collins. Instead, Democrats are about to hit a legislative wall dictated by the size of their majority. And the expectations management hasn’t been great.

Rank 2

Last Week Down from last week #1

2. Shelley Moore Capito

One bipartisan negotiation cut off, one more to go.

The Biden administration cut off infrastructure negotiations with a group of Senate Republicans led by West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito this week. Both sides immediately released the press releases that they’ve had in the hopper since the day these negotiations started, assigning the other side blame. But why does blame need to be assigned when no deal was ever close to christening? Republicans could offer about $300 billion in new spending before their side would have revolted. Biden couldn't go under $1 trillion in new spending without his side revolting. There was no overlapping interest in how to pay for it. Republicans and Democrats do not believe in the same things—fine! The only weird thing about the end of the discussions was that Biden’s next move was to shift talks to a … different? Bipartisan group? Whatever. Maybe they agree to something narrow, maybe they don’t. It’s mostly about checking another box so that Senate Democratic moderates will agree to pursue another big bill through reconciliation along partisan lines.

Rank 3

Last Week Up from last week #4

3. Kamala Harris

An alternate theory of her vice presidential selection.

They say Joe Biden is a nice man who doesn’t hold grudges. Hmm. What if that is a lie? Consider his selection of Vice President Kamala Harris as his running mate. The cutesy story is that, after she took a shot at him in the first primary debate in 2019, he got over it, made up with her, and selected her for his team! But then what does he do? He puts her in charge of solving the root cause of migrant surges to the border and schleps her down to Guatemala, where she’s heckled by Guatemalan Trump truthers and has to tell would-be refugees to not even try coming to the United States, pissing off liberals back home. She then gave a sarcastic answer in an interview to Lester Holt about why she hadn’t visited the border as vice president—“I haven’t been to Europe either”—driving Republicans absolutely mad. If Biden really is a nice person, then this would all be a coincidence. If Biden is a normal monster, like most politicians, then he’s setting her up for a fall so she loses any thoughts about succeeding him in 2024. If Biden is an all-time Machiavellian sicko who plots revenge in half-decade increments, then he’s setting her up for a fall as revenge for a debate tactic in June 2019.

Rank 4

Last Week Down from last week #3

4. Joe Biden

A European tour to apologize for Donald Trump.

Who can forget their first presidential trip? For Donald Trump, it was to Saudi Arabia, where the monarchy flattered him with tremendous parties and presents and gave him the chance to touch a spooky glowing orb. For Biden, it’s a trip to Europe in which he intends to apologize to the continent for four years of Trump's dabbling with the idea of letting Russia take it over. Biden, as the AP writes, “will aim to reassure European capitals that the United States can once again be counted on as a dependable partner to thwart Moscow’s aggression both on their eastern front and their internet battlefields.” The bigger idea, one that Biden is obsessed with, “is to rally the United States and its allies in an existential battle between democracy and autocracy.” The trip will culminate in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Switzerland, where Biden will tell the leader to cut the shit while Putin is actively hacking his phone.

Rank 5

Last Week

5. Tim Scott and Cory Booker

A functioning negotiation?

Republicans want to run, hard, against Democrats on upticks in crime, weak support for law enforcement, and a supposed urge to “defund the police” in 2022. Those political atmospherics made us skeptical that anything could come out of negotiations between Republicans and Democrats on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act—about as skeptical as we were toward the bipartisan talks on gun background checks, negotiations for which did collapse this week. But somehow the police reform talks—between South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, and California Rep. Karen Bass—have been moving along nicely. Both Scott and Booker were maintaining optimism this week, and a couple of sources in the negotiations told NBC News that the talks were “mostly” settled as drafts began to circulate. The toughest sticking point is still qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that protects police officers from lawsuits. Democrats have wanted to eliminate it, an absolute red line for Republicans. Scott has proposed, instead, holding the police departments liable rather than officers. This could all still fall apart in negotiations, and even if a deal were reached, it only takes one Tucker Carlson to rally the opposition. But of all the filibuster-able policy falling apart left and right—on paycheck fairness, Jan. 6 commissions, infrastructure, guns, and voting rights—it’s a credit to Scott and Booker that these talks are still standing. For at least another day.

Rank 6

Last Week

6. Kirsten Gillibrand

A feud over military justice.

Senate Republicans on Tuesday filibustered consideration of the Paycheck Fairness Act, a piece of legislation designed to combat disparities in pay between men and women. The procedural vote, which needed 60 to overcome the obstruction, fell 49–50 on party lines. The one absent senator was Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand. According to her spokesman, Gillibrand “had a commitment to the Marines for an event at the United States Marine Corps War Memorial. When it was clear the Republican would filibuster the bill, she honored her commitment.” But, as happens literally every time Gillibrand does something Democrats don’t like, “Al Franken” began trending on Twitter, because many Democrats will never forgive her for helping force out the Minnesota senator who had numerous credible sexual misconduct allegations against him. Those pissed at Gillibrand for missing an already-doomed vote, though, should pay a little attention to a very live issue she’s been contending with. Earlier this year, after years spent working on it, she, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, and others reached a deal to overhaul how the military handles cases of sexual assault and other serious crimes. Gillibrand’s legislation has 65 co-sponsors ranging from Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on one end to Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley on the other. Six times in recent weeks, however, either Gillibrand or Ernst has tried to pass it via unanimous consent, and six times it’s been blocked. The issue is that the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee—Chairman Jack Reed and ranking member Jim Inhofe—claim they want the process to run through their committee. Gillibrand is unsparing in her view of what she believes is going on. “They are both against my bill, and they would like to kill it in committee,” she told the New York Times.

Rank 7

Last Week

7. Sheldon Whitehouse

A climate nudge.

Earlier this week, Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse tweeted that he was “now officially very anxious about climate legislation,” warning that “climate has fallen out of the infrastructure discussion, as it took its bipartisanship detour,” and that he doesn’t “see the preparatory work for a close Senate climate vote taking place in the administration.” In the days that followed, other climate hawk senators like Brian Schatz, Ed Markey, Chris Murphy, and Martin Heinrich all joined in the public display of disgruntlement and warned, in the case of Heinrich, that “an infrastructure package that goes light on climate and clean energy should not count on every Democratic vote.” All of this led to some public reassurance from White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy that in no way are they drifting away from their climate priorities. The threat that rank-and-file Democrats like those mentioned would tank a bipartisan infrastructure deal that Biden had signed off on is not especially credible. But these senators don’t see the groundwork being laid for strong climate provisions in a partisan reconciliation bill that would theoretically come afterward, and that’s the only way that anything meaningful on climate can get done.