Slate’s guide to the most important figures in politics this week.
Welcome to this week’s edition of the Surge, the newsletter from which, as recently released emails reveal, Dr. Anthony Fauci got all of his information about the pandemic. “What a great and smart newsletter that is so good,” Fauci said in his many emails to everyone.
The Surge is the only perso—er, conceptual being—looking forward to the Senate’s return next week for a stocked June session of stuff that will fail. One item is so destined for failure that President Joe Biden has pressed the red emergency button of making Vice President Kamala Harris take the blame for it. Biden, meanwhile, abruptly went hard on a couple of Democratic senators by calling them quasi-Republican dirtbags, but his spokeswoman assured us he was just doing an impression of TV punditry. No one is more psyched for a summer of dashed dreams than the Senate parliamentarian, and former President Barack Obama wants to remind you that Joe Biden will always work for him.
But first, let’s check in on the late-stage theatrics of the bipartisan infrastructure talks.
1. Shelley Moore CapitoWhen does the dance end?
When last we left this interminable soap opera, the White House and Senate Republican negotiators, after weeks of talks, were still about $1.5 trillion apart on an infrastructure deal. Republicans, led by West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, had put forward an offer that included $257 billion in new spending, while the White House’s latest offer was at $1.7 trillion. The two sides also didn’t have a settled understanding of what counted as “infrastructure,” and each side’s proposed pay-fors involved stabbing the other’s favorite piece of legislation (the American Rescue Plan for Democrats, the 2017 tax cut bill for Republicans) in the face. In a meeting between Capito and Biden this week, though, we saw real movement from the president: He offered to meet Republicans at $1 trillion in new spending, as well as to drop an increase in the corporate tax rate. Now all Republicans need to do is quadruple the amount they’re barely comfortable spending in the first place and agree to alternative taxes, like a 15 percent corporate minimum “book” tax, that they absolutely hate. Do you see this happening? Capito is meeting with the president again on Friday, and the pretend deadline that both sides pretend is very important has now become June 9. The date that you should really watch for, though: whatever day one side feels it can walk away without looking like too much of a jerk.
2. Chuck SchumerGoodbye to Happy Friendship Senate, welcome to Thunderdome Senate.
By Senate standards, it was a relatively productive spring. The chamber passed bipartisan legislation on combating hate crimes against Asian Americans and on drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. It spent weeks cobbling together a package to beef up technological competition with China that it should be able to pass as soon as the Senate returns next week. (And would have passed last week, had Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson not had a Johnson-esque meltdown.) But Republicans’ filibuster of legislation to set up an independent Jan. 6 commission last Friday was a sign of how difficult things are about to get. In a letter to fellow Senate Democrats before adjourning for recess last week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer warned that the June work period “will be extremely challenging,” and that they “will test our resolve as a Congress and a conference.” On tap is the House-passed Paycheck Fairness Act that Republicans have filibustered in a previous Congress; the For the People Act, which all Republicans hate on an existential level; and perhaps gun safety and LGBTQ equality legislation. It is difficult to see Republicans allowing any of this to proceed. And if they don’t, that should bring the question to a head within the Senate Democratic Caucus: Are we just going to let them do that? Or should we consider changing the rules?
3. Joe BidenMy dear friends, Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, who suck.
One of the funnier moments this week was President Biden, who’s so far played good cop to centrist Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, completely out of the blue taking a hard swipe at them. At an event in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Tuesday, Biden went on one of his characteristic asides that his communications teams have dreaded for the past 50 years. “I hear all the folks on TV saying, ‘Why doesn’t Biden get this done?’ ” he said. “Well, because Biden only has a majority of effectively four votes in the House and a tie in the Senate, with two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends,” he said. It should be noted that Sinema and Manchin do not vote more with Republicans than they do with the president. That falsehood makes the remarks all the more SPICY! White House press secretary Jen Psaki, in a clean-up the following day, made the risible suggestion that the president wasn’t engaging in “anything other than a little bit of commentary on TV punditry.” No, he was paraphrasing a TV punditry question and then giving his direct answer to that TV punditry question. Let the bad cop out.
4. Kamala HarrisWhat doomed assignment can I take on today, Mr. President?
Biden was speaking in Tulsa to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, where he announced that he wanted June to be a “month of action” on voting rights legislation in Congress. And “to signify the importance of our efforts,” Biden said, he had asked Vice President Kamala Harris to spearhead these efforts. Our response to this news was: Ah, so the voting rights push in Congress really is that dead. It’s not that Harris is incapable of leading it, or a bad selection to do so. It’s that presidents give their deputies the high honor of leading on a certain issue when that issue is a hot mess for which they want the blame pinned on someone else. For example, Biden had already given Harris the high honor of dealing with the Southern border and the root causes of immigration from Central America. Since when has this country dealt with the root cause of anything? President Donald Trump gave Vice President Mike Pence the grand opportunity to solve the global pandemic. President Obama gave Vice President Biden the economic recovery following the worst financial collapse since the Great Depression. If the president has put something on the vice president’s plate, it’s because the president doesn’t want the indigestion.
5. Elizabeth MacDonoughHot Hammer Summer.
What a boring spring it was for Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth “the Hammer” MacDonough. With the Senate acting on mostly bipartisan legislation through regular order, and no tricky reconciliation bills going through that required constant adjudication, there were no hopes and dreams for her to crush for obscure parliamentary reasons. But chin up, now! If (when) these bipartisan infrastructure talks fall through, Democrats will have to resort to reconciliation to pass the rest of Biden’s spending agenda along party lines, giving MacDonough fresh opportunities to send Chuck Schumer and Bernie Sanders home crying. Last Friday, MacDonough offered just a teaser trailer of the upcoming Summer of Pain, clouding a Schumer plan to allot himself additional reconciliation bills with just enough uncertainty, perhaps, to scare Democrats away from even trying it. She’s back.
6. Melanie StansburyA strong counter to the Democrats-are-screwed narrative.
Democratic candidates got routed in a congressional special election in Texas last month, with two Republicans candidates advancing to the runoff. This week, though, we saw the first one-on-one special congressional election between a Democrat and a Republican in New Mexico’s 1st District, to replace Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. While it's a safe Democratic district, the margins were closely watched to gauge whether Democrats might have typical in-party enthusiasm problems heading into the midterms. If they do, though, it didn’t show up in this race. The Democratic candidate, Melanie Stansbury, won by 25 percentage points—better than Haaland’s 16-point reelection margin and Biden’s 23-point margin in the district in 2020. The win was an optimistic sign for Democrats, too, that they could beat back Republicans’ messaging about crime and alleged Democratic support for “defunding the police,” which Republican candidate Mark Moores ran aggressively on. But there was another hypothesis at play here. One major element of the national coalitional shifts is that suburban, college-educated whites—who are high-propensity voters—have been moving swiftly toward Democrats, while Republicans are more reliant on low-propensity voters more activated by Trump’s name on the ballot than anything else. This special election was at least one early data point that this swap could redound to Democrats’ advantage in 2022.
7. Barack ObamaJust finishing the job!!!
It’s time for Entry No. 7, our weekly wild card where we stir shit up. One element we’ve noticed in the background of Biden’s presidency is some legacy-skirmishing between Biden and his former boss, President Obama. In a March piece, Axios reported that Biden was coming around to ditching the filibuster if it could bring him closer to an FDR- or LBJ-style domestic policy legacy. “He loves,” Axios reported, “the growing narrative that he’s bigger and bolder-thinking than President Obama.” In general, the feeling that the Obama years—especially the first two, when Democrats held large congressional majorities—were squandered on excess negotiations with Republicans has been a driving force behind the aggression with which the Biden administration is moving. So you have to love the way Obama framed the narrative of the Biden administration in an interview with Ezra Klein this week. According to Obama, “Joe and the administration are essentially finishing the job” that he started. “And I think it’ll be an interesting test,” Obama continued. “Ninety percent of the folks who were there in my administration, they are continuing and building on the policies we talked about, whether it’s the Affordable Care Act, or our climate change agenda, and the Paris [climate accord], and figuring out how do we improve the ladders to mobility through things like community colleges.” Oh, you thought you were the next FDR, Biden? You’re just implementing the loose ends of the Obama legacy.