The Surge

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

Welcome to this week’s edition of the Surge, coming to you on … what day is it here … either the second or third day of Sept. 30, 2021.

This newsletter is often about Congress, but today it’s about CONGRESS. You cannot believe how Congress-y it is out there. Democrats’ agenda is on the line as moderate and progressive sects jockey in their endless battle for primacy. But maybe none of this even matters, since the anchor of the global economy—the dollar—is going to collapse in a couple of weeks so the National Republican Senatorial Committee can get some ad material.

Though it’s been quite the chaotic week, there’s no need to be confused. It’s a classic “the fate of one bill in the House hangs on the ability of two senators to agree on a separate bill that’s not written” situation. We begin with those two senators.

Joe Manchin.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Rank 1

Last Week

1. Joe Manchin

You want a number? Are you sure about that?

About 90 percent of Democrats in Congress are always and at all times frustrated with the West Virginia Democrat, even as they acknowledge they would be in the Senate minority without him. As Democrats rushed this week to reach a deal between moderates and progressive factions that would allow the whole Biden agenda to move forward, many pointed to Manchin’s refusal to negotiate as the main sticking point. Just give us a number! they said, a million times, insisting he lay out what he’d be willing to spend on Democrats’ party-line social spending and climate package. On Thursday, he finally opened up: He would be willing to spend $1.5 trillion—a far cry from the $3.5 trillion most Democrats in Congress were targeting—and that progressives could take it or leave it. “I’ve never been a liberal in any way, shape, or form,” Manchin told reporters, adding that liberals who view him as a tedious impediment to their agenda need to “elect more liberals.” He is Not Wrong. But then again, having him put out a number, even a stinky one, is progress. He does want a bill.

Rank 2

Last Week Up from last week #5

2. Kyrsten Sinema

A different strain of centrism.

No one, meanwhile, really knows what the Arizona senator wants. Her communications director said in a statement Thursday that the White House is “fully aware of Senator Sinema’s priorities, concerns, and ideas,” but the White House might beg to differ. Of the very little floating around about Sinema’s views on the reconciliation bill, though, there is an important distinction to delineate: She and Manchin do not represent the same strains of centrism. Think about who they represent. Manchin, from West Virginia and a predominantly white working-class electorate, has a more populist strain: He’s on board with tax increases on the rich and taking on prescription drug companies, but he’s protective of heavy fossil fuel industries. Arizona, meanwhile, has purpled in large part due to an influx of white-collar professionals in Maricopa County. Meaning Sinema is much more interested in resolving climate change, but she’s also more anti-tax, and pro-corporate, than Manchin. These distinctions make the process of getting Sinema and Manchin on board with the same bill more difficult. Democrats have been stuck on 48 Senate votes through much of this process, but there are plenty of policy paths going forward that could hit a dead end at 49.

Rank 3

Last Week

3. Chuck Schumer

Oh, like you don’t sign secret agreements that you don’t agree with all the time?

Little did all but two people know, during these last couple of weeks of everyone in Washington wondering what Joe Manchin could tolerate in a reconciliation bill, that Manchin had laid out his thinking months ago. In a July 28 document leaked to Politico just this Thursday, Manchin listed his conditions for a reconciliation bill—$1.5 trillion in spending with policy conditions and acceptable tax revenue raisers—in a document that was countersigned by none other than Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. No one else in Congress—not Schumer’s No. 2, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, nor Schumer’s House counterpart, Speaker Nancy Pelosi—knew about this document. A Schumer spokesperson said that though he signed this document labeled “Agreement,” the majority leader “never agreed to any of the conditions Sen. Manchin laid out; he merely acknowledged where Sen. Manchin was on the subject at the time.” Exactly. It’s like when we tell the bank that when we signed the mortgage, we were merely acknowledging that’s what they thought we should pay. Schumer did write under his signature on the document that he “will try to dissuade Joe on many of these,” as Manchin no doubt knew he would. So why did Schumer sign this thing anyway? It was what he had to do to get Manchin’s vote for the budget blueprint earlier this summer, a necessary procedural step toward the reconciliation bill. Both Schumer and Pelosi, given their tight margins, have had to resort to these sorts of desperate maneuvers—secret contacts, promises for votes they don’t want on certain dates—just to keep the ball rolling. Every step is about getting through the next hour. It’s hard.

Rank 4

Last Week Down from last week #1

4. Pramila Jayapal

Not a pushover.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus, for perhaps the first time in the Surge’s life, let it be known this week that it would not be a doormat. When Pelosi announced earlier this week that there would be a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure deal on Thursday, history would’ve suggested that the CPC would find a way to save face and fold. But the group, led by Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal and a nimble, devoted core, stood firm in opposition, insisting on the original strategy of not passing the bipartisan deal until the Senate had also passed a reconciliation bill. Thursday passed without a vote. That doesn’t mean this thing’s over, or that the CPC is now calling all of the shots on the Hill. As we write, on Friday, Oct. 1, the House is still technically on Sept. 30 legislative day, as it never adjourned Thursday night, and a whole lot of moderates and rank-and-file members really, really want to pass the bipartisan deal in the coming hours or days. There is plenty of time for enough members of the CPC to face the pressure and agree to let the bipartisan deal through. But the CPC, long a social club for deep-blue members to put on their résumés to ward off primaries, is behaving like a disciplined voting bloc getting results.

Rank 5

Last Week

5. Josh Gottheimer

Getting walked over 1,000 percent so far.

We do not want to make too much fun of New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, leader of the moderates who are trying to force an immediate House vote on the bipartisan infrastructure deal, for the same reason we didn’t want to declare Jayapal the new permanent emperor of House politics in the previous entry. This is, as of Friday afternoon, a live situation. However: ha-ha, Josh Gottheimer. He chirped all week, through Thursday, about how assured a successful vote on infrastructure was—“1,000 percent”—and looked forward to “drinking a nice glass of Champagne” Thursday night. It’s possible that Josh Gottheimer had a nice glass of Champagne Thursday night, but not to celebrate anything. The dude is getting flat outmaneuvered as of Friday afternoon, and it doesn’t seem like either Pelosi or President Joe Biden has been too upset that his plan to delink the two bills isn’t paying off yet. The Gott needs to the Gett his head in the game here. The time has come for a new threat!

Rank 6

Last Week Down from last week #2

6. Mitch McConnell

Democrats have to raise the debt ceiling themselves—just not that way.

Time for this week’s check-in on America’s favorite arbitrary statutory obstruction to paying the country’s bills, the debt ceiling! Oh God … the debt ceiling. If you’ll recall, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, employing made-up stupid-nonsense reasons, has been insisting that Democrats put up all of the votes to raise that thing themselves, so Republicans can demagogue against it in campaign ads. Democrats actually agreed to the condition this week to do it by themselves. Republicans, however, are set to filibuster that bill next week, not even allowing Democrats to take it to a vote. McConnell and Republicans are trying to funnel Democrats into raising the debt ceiling through a separate reconciliation bill, a painful, time-consuming process that would take about two weeks. That’s cutting it awfully close: The Treasury said this week that the limit needs to be raised by Oct. 18 before the government would run out of cash. So either Democrats initiate the reconciliation process in the coming few days (which leaders are still rather insistent that they will not do) or they decide to nix the filibuster on debt ceiling increases or they bet entirely on Republicans blinking closer to the deadline. Very normal law, very normal country.

Rank 7

Last Week

7. Kristi Noem

The knives are out. But whose knives?

The right used to love South Dakota’s governor. She didn’t force people to wear masks or shut down their businesses during COVID, making her extremely cool. But there have been … developments. Earlier this year, Noem vetoed a bill barring trans women and girls from competing in women’s sports, the biggest danger of any kind in American history, offering some executive orders instead. More recently, she wouldn’t stop private businesses from implementing mask mandates. Those decisions aren’t just getting her criticized by conservative media. They’re drawing out opposition research against her. One is a rather serious allegation that she directly retaliated against state employees for not giving her daughter a certification as a real estate appraiser. The other involved an allegation that she was having an affair with Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager and an adviser to her, which Noem called a “disgusting lie.” (Noem cut professional ties with Lewandowski following a separate sexual misconduct allegation against him.) So who’s behind this rush against Noem? Well, she clearly wants to run for president in 2024. Maybe it’s someone else who wants to run in 2024, too.