The Surge

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

Welcome to this week’s edition of the Surge. Since last week, we boned up on Wikipedia articles about hypersonic weapons and Eastern Europe, and here’s what our government experts are missing about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine … 

Nope, we’re not going to do that. Please do read and listen to Slate’s wonderful coverage of the war here.

But the Surge is sticking with its bread-and-butter: grimly cartoonish domestic politics and weird legislators. We hate that a few days after the State of the Union, the only thing we remember is the heckling, but it is what it is. Build Back Better has a new name, and one that you won’t forget: It’s called … making the jobs stuff … um … the politics bill … it will come to us soon. Also, we’re going to explain why Ketanji Brown Jackson’s SCOTUS nomination will be such a breeze. (We apologize in advance if she goes down in flames.)

But first, don’t burn yourself, because we’ve got some sizzlin’ hot Senate Republican leadership feuding.

Mitch McConnell grinning
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Rank 1

Last Week

1. Mitch McConnell

Who will rid him of this meddlesome Rick Scott?

Last week, Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, released a 31-page policy plan mixing culture-war agitprop with an electorally counterproductive call to raise taxes on half of the country and sunset all federal legislation. Hmm. This … “proposal” … ran counter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s strategy to not release any Republican agenda for the midterms, so as to keep the focus on Democrats’ problems. According to Politico, McConnell gave Scott an earful in private when the Senate returned from recess on Monday. And on Tuesday, in something you do not see every day, he upbraided Scott’s plan publicly during Republican leaders’ weekly press conference. “If we're fortunate enough to have the majority next year, I'll be the majority leader,” McConnell said. “I'll decide in consultation with my members what to put on the floor. And let me tell you what will not be a part of our agenda. We will not have as part of our agenda a bill that raises taxes on half the American people and sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years.” Scott, then, responded later in the week with an op-ed gloating about how ably he had upset the Washington elites. This is a pattern we’ll see more of next year if Donald Trump doesn’t run, in which case the 2024 GOP presidential primary will become a bloated free-for-all with everyone trying to stick it to the “establishment.” So at least we have something to look forward to.

Rank 2

Last Week

2. Kevin McCarthy

The one thing he can do about his pair of untouchables.

The best thing Democrats ever did for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was to strip Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar of their committee assignments last year. That way, when Greene and Gosar did their next horrible thing—speak to a conference of Putin-loving, Hitler-curious white nationalists in Orlando, for example—McCarthy could argue that he had no further means of punishing them (other than delivering them a stern talking-to). McCarthy is allergic to courageous stands, and any day where there’s no pressure to take one is a success for him. The important question for him, though, is whether Greene and Gosar’s evening out with the dregs of the base has made him rethink his stance that the pair would get committee assignments in the next Congress, perhaps even “better ones.” If that’s something they have an interest in, threatening to go back on that might be the only workable option he has to prevent them from repeatedly embarrassing the party.

Rank 3

Last Week

3. Lauren Boebert

Totally owned Biden by heckling him while he was talking about his dead son.

And then there’s The One Who Has Somehow Kept Her Committee Assignments. Both Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert and Greene attended the State of the Union to heckle the president, and were just waiting for the right time. Boebert found it, all right, shouting out as President Joe Biden was about to talk about his son Beau and how he wasn’t sure whether exposure to toxic fumes from burn pits led to the brain cancer from which he died. Excellent work! Perhaps only topped in efficacy by the moment that she and Greene tried to start a “build the wall!” chant. (It ended solely with their participation.) Look. If you’re trying to disrupt a presidential address to a joint session of Congress, heckling is old hat. It’s been 13 years since Rep. Joe Wilson’s innovation there. Either toss a banana peel down the aisle as the president walks in, slip a whoopee cushion under the vice president’s seat, or sit quietly and watch the speech.

Rank 4

Last Week

4. Lindsey Graham

This Week in Linds!

It’s been a month since we did our last check-in with the Senate’s busiest busybody, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who’s juggling about 20 different schemes at any given moment. In the last week, one scheme—convincing Biden to nominate his home-state judge friend, Michelle Childs, to the Supreme Court—fell apart. Biden instead nominated Ketanji Brown Jackson, a move that made Graham extremely mopey. Despite having voted to confirm KBJ to her current slot on the federal appellate, her selection here means to Graham that “the radical Left has won President Biden over again.” On Tuesday night, Graham was seen muttering “shut up” when Boebert made her State of the Union outburst, a sentiment with which Speaker Nancy Pelosi agreed. But the most notable episode of the week may have been when Graham, feeling frisky, got on Twitter and asked someone in Russia to assassinate Vladimir Putin. Everyone from Greene to Rep. Ilhan Omar urged him, as a sitting senator, to chill out, and Graham walked it back a touch. What will Graham be up to next week? A few suggested conflicts for him to nudge his way into: Mitch McConnell/Rick Scott, Kanye West/Pete Davidson, MLB/the baseball players.

Rank 5

Last Week

5. Joe Manchin

How seriously to take this latest float?

Biden used his State of the Union to make one last push for a reconstituted “Build Back Better” bill, arguing—essentially, directly to Joe Manchin—that it could be a vehicle for deficit reduction and fighting inflation. Biden even introduced a newish rebrand for the grab bag of social programs and climate investments: “Building a Better America.” All right! Manchin, who killed BBB in December, did make an offer of sorts in an interview with Politico the following day. He said he could support a bill that raises taxes and cuts prescription drug costs, and then uses the proceeds to pay down the deficit, make climate investments, and maybe fund a social program or two. We’re still skeptical. First, the two items he wants most—prescription drug negotiations that provide meaningful savings for the government, and raising tax rates—are the two revenue-raisers with which Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema has the most problems. Second, he would want the energy section to no longer just be about clean energy investments; in light of the Russia invasion, he’s viewing the clean energy investments as a trade for ramping up domestic oil and gas production. Progressives will hate that. And then, of course, once a bill starts getting put together, everyone will start lobbying for their expensive pet projects again. So fine, Manchin’s engaging again. But there’s a long way to go.

Rank 6

Last Week

6. Ben Ray Luján

Back to work.

Here’s your annual entry about something good that happened. New Mexico Sen. Ben Ray Luján, who had a stroke and underwent decompressive surgery about a month ago, returned to the Senate this week, popping up Thursday for a Commerce Committee hearing where he received a standing ovation. He immediately made an impact, helping advance a couple of nominations that were put on hold until his return. Assuming he’s more or less back for good now, Democrats will no longer have to run the Senate with a maximum working majority of 49 seats. That will be of great use to the Democrats when they try to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson, which they hope to do before the April 8 recess. About that …

Rank 7

Last Week

7. Ketanji Brown Jackson

Let’s jinx it: This is going to be such a breeze.

The stars are aligning for the breeziest Supreme Court confirmation that we can remember. It’s being completely buried in the news by Russia and Ukraine, and Republican leaders don’t want to make a show of blocking the first Black woman nominated to the Supreme Court when they’ve got so much else going for them. The stakes are low, as this wouldn’t change Republican appointees’ 6–3 advantage on the court. The most important signal of how this will go, then, came from McConnell, who met with Jackson earlier this week. In an interview following the meeting, McConnell said there’s “no question” that she’s qualified to serve on the court. That doesn’t mean that he, or more than a few Senate Republicans at most, intend to vote for her. But it’s not in their strategic interests to make a big deal out of this. So then the only question is, how will Rick Scott screw it up?