Slate’s guide to the most important figures in politics this week.
Welcome to this week’s edition of the Surge, your weekly politics newsletter covering Democrats’ efforts to pass a bunch of excitingly half-baked programs that will expire a few seconds after they’re implemented.
On that front, Democrats were all in perfect agreement this week: They agreed that they should reach an agreement, soon, on a framework that can then serve as an outline for a discussion draft of a framework of a bill. The train could reach the station any second now, folks. Bernie Sanders is mad. Kyrsten Sinema loves the Trump corporate tax rate. Marjorie Taylor Greene is an idiot. New Jersey is “hmm.” And can someone catapult Steve Bannon into the calaboose already?
Let’s start with the guy who’s making the tough calls this week.
1. Joe BidenMaking the necessary decisions that please no one.
White House and Capitol Hill reporters spent all week using every tool in their arsenal to get a good read on where negotiations stood over the Build Back Better bill, catching a word here or there from a tight-lipped senator or aide. And then, on Thursday night, President Joe Biden just went on TV and blurted everything out. Bless him. He said that the paid leave program was down from 12 to four weeks; that expanding Medicare to include dental, vision, and hearing was “a reach” because Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema were opposed to it; that free community college is out because of opposition from “Mr. Manchin and one other person”; that if he went after the filibuster, he would “lose at least three votes right now” on his economic agenda; and that Sinema—who’s “smart as the devil”—says “she will not raise a single penny in taxes on the corporate side and/or on wealthy people, period.” As this was all transpiring, the White House press shop was working at breakneck speed offering “clarifications” of the president’s dishing. It was a good recap, though, of the difficult decisions that Biden had to make this week. Left to their own devices, congressional factions would never have stopped advocating for including the maximalist versions of their preferred policies in the final bucket. The president needed to step up and adjudicate, and so he has.
2. Bernie SandersWhat can he do?
The Vermont senator is rarely in a sunshine-and-rainbows mood, but any reporter who’s asked him a question this week can attest that he’s been particularly irritable lately. And for good reason: As the administration pares back the $3.5 trillion bill to fit in a box half that size, because two centrist senators are demanding it be so, a lot of Sanders’ priorities are on the block. The Medicare expansion—a biggie for Sanders—is on the verge of being trimmed down to giving seniors a one-time $800 coupon for the dentist. The climate portion of the bill appears poised to keep all of the carrots for major polluters to change their ways, but few of the sticks, because there is coal in Manchin’s state (and portfolio). Sanders’ frustration with Manchin blew up a couple of times in private this week. He accused Manchin of telling the rest of the Democratic caucus to “go F themselves” in a leadership meeting on Monday. In another meeting on Wednesday, Sanders reiterated the need for a $6 trillion or $3.5 trillion package, and Manchin responded—with hand gestures—that he was comfortable with zero. That, right there, is the problem for Sanders and progressives. They need Manchin’s vote, and Manchin could take or leave the entire project. This is another one of those moments where we must, again, note the catastrophic long-tail consequences for Democrats of Cal Cunningham unzipping his pants in 2020.
3. Steve BannonIs Merrick Garland gonna send him to the slammer?
Building back better is not the only thing Democrats are focused on. House Democrats tried to make a point this week that congressional subpoenas cannot be ignored, as has been the prevailing trend for years now. After former Trump aide (then exile, and now, we guess, friend again) Steve Bannon ignored a subpoena to testify before the Jan. 6 select committee, the House passed a resolution holding Bannon in criminal contempt of Congress. This would refer him to the Justice Department for possible criminal charges, and Attorney General Merrick Garland has said he’ll give it a look-see. Cool. But … is this really going to do the trick of restoring authority to congressional subpoenas? A criminal prosecution, as CNN writes, “could take years, and historically, criminal contempt cases have been derailed by appeals and acquittals.” So here we have another situation, reminiscent of the Trump years, where Congress attempts to assert itself against flagrant violations of congressional authority, but the whole thing just sits in the legal system until we’re all dead. Why is it so consistently difficult to put this pig in the pokey? Can someone just cast this clown to the clink already, or heave this hustler to the hoosegow? (We have several more of these but will stop … for now.)
4. Kyrsten SinemaA late, challenging curveball: The Trump tax cuts are off-limits.
The Arizona centrist is on board with much of the social spending and climate change measures in the reconciliation bill. The nettlesome issue for her, which reached a head this week, is on the pay-for side. We learned that she is against any rate increases in the corporate tax, top income tax bracket, and capital gains tax. That, on top of her already-known opposition to the savings that would come with aggressive government drug pricing negotiations. Now, Biden was not correct that Sinema has refused to tax corporations or the wealthy a “penny.” She has agreed to a slew of alternative revenue raisers that don’t increase rates but target, for example, billionaires’ unrealized capital gains. But untested ideas like that may make other Democrats too nervous to achieve widespread support as they’re trying to wrap things up. “It’s the ninth inning,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal told Sinema in a meeting Thursday. “I mean, when are you going to vet these issues?” It sure feels like Democrats need to get Sinema to fold on at least some rate increases as they’re trying to close a deal—and to remind her that she campaigned against the very Trump tax cuts that she’s now single-handedly trying to protect.
5. Bob MenendezA brief note about New Jersey.
Let’s take the heat off of Manchin and Sinema for a second and consider an unappreciated villain for progressives in these negotiations: New Jersey. Yeah, YOU. A few things about this state. It is the home turf of one Rep. Josh Gottheimer, who represents many workers in the financial industry and therefore many of the financial industry’s interests in Congress. Gottheimer has been the leader of the moderate bloc in the House trying to take away progressives’ leverage in talks. New Jersey members are also the tip of the spear in the fight to fully restore the state and local tax deduction, a pricey item that, if included, would deliver benefits distributed sharply to the wealthy at the expense of funding for programs for working people. And then there’s olllllllllllllllllll’ Sen. Bob Menendez, who’s been a staunch, but underappreciated, opponent of aggressive drug negotiations, and who is a representative, ally, and campaign cash recipient of the many pharmaceutical conglomerates headquartered in his state. Sinema and Manchin are what they are. But New Jersey? You listening? We look in your direction and we say, “Hmm.” That is all. Don’t @ us.
6. David Price and Mike DoyleThe Democratic retirements are picking up.
Last week, in observing Kentucky Rep. John Yarmuth’s retirement, we expressed surprise that more senior House Democrats hadn’t announced their retirements as the prospects for losing the majority grew. Sure enough, two more announced their retirements earlier this week: North Carolina Rep. David Price, a professorial (because he’s an actual political science professor) appropriator, and Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Doyle, a longtime member from Pittsburgh. In interviews with the New York Times, all three members largely tiptoed around the obvious issue—they don’t want to serve in the minority again after all these years—and focused instead on polarization as an impediment to governing, in both parties. “The people in the House who have been drawing all the lines are people who have not served in a governing majority,” Yarmuth said. “They all have come since 2010.” The retirees are all members who get along well with moderates, leaders, and progressives, and they’re worried that’s no longer in vogue. “I have a concern that we will have the ability to pull ourselves together, and not fracture among the caucuses the way the Republicans have,” Price said. So he’s outta here.
7. Marjorie Taylor GreeneAnother fight.
Before she was in Congress, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene would walk up to members of Congress and badger them with nonsense. That’s how she spends her time as a committee-less member of Congress, too. She’s shouted at New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for supporting “terrorists,” and hollered at a group of Democrats on the Capitol steps about their support for abortion rights. This week, during the Bannon contempt vote, she started shouting at Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin about why he is not investigating Black Lives Matter protests. Then Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney got involved, telling Marjorie Taylor Greene to focus on her “Jewish space laser” conspiracy. “I never said that!” Greene shouted back. “You’re done. You’re a joke!” Greene is going to be the next speaker, isn’t she?