Dec 13, 2021

Tick-tock: Biden's agenda on the clock

Tick-tock: Biden's agenda on the clock

This week is critical.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

President Joe Biden is getting closer to passing his signature agenda item. Plus, a question about separating personal feelings from a politician's policies.

Author: The White House
Author: The White House

19 predictions.

On Friday, I did something I rarely do: I published 19 predictions about the future of politics. The post is for subscribers only, but if you click the link and subscribe you can still access it. Feel free to share it and ask your friends to sign up to Tangle, too! 

Quick hits.

  1. As many as 50 people have died in Kentucky after a series of tornadoes and storms tore through the state. (The storm)
  2. The House Panel investigating the Jan. 6 riots is set to recommend contempt charges against former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. (The charges)
  3. New York Attorney General Letitia James is suspending her campaign for governor and eyeing an early January deposition of former President Donald Trump. (The announcement)
  4. Fox News host Chris Wallace is leaving the network to start a streaming show at CNN. (The resignation)
  5. Actor Jussie Smollett was found guilty of staging a hate crime against himself. (The ruling)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.

Today's topic.

The Build Back Better plan. This week is crunch time for President Joe Biden and Democrats, who are hoping to push through Biden's $1.7 trillion social spending and climate change package before Christmas.

State of play: We covered the latest Build Back Better framework in early November. The bill included free preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds for six years, expanded home care for the elderly and disabled, a cap on child care costs, an extended child tax credit, $550 billion of clean energy tax credits and climate resilience infrastructure, $100 billion to reduce immigration backlogs and $150 billion for affordable housing, among other plans.

In mid-November, the House passed a new version of the bill that also included four weeks of mandatory paid family leave, an expansion of medicare to cover hearing benefits, and a reduction of premiums for the Affordable Care Act. And there are all sorts of smaller programs, from 12 months of Medicaid coverage for new moms to public housing repairs and salmon conservation, tucked into the bill.

Democrats plan to pay for the bill with a 15% tax on large corporations making over $1 billion in profits, as well as a 1% surcharge on companies that buy back their own stock. There is also a new 5% tax rate on income above $10 million and an additional 3% surtax on income above $25 million. The nonpartisan CBO scored the bill and said it would increase the federal budget deficit by $160 billion over 10 years.

Does it have the votes? Biden is getting close. Remember: Democrats are using a Senate process called reconciliation to pass this bill, so they don't need a single Republican vote to push it through. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), a longtime holdout, would not commit to voting for the bill earlier this month, but Congressional insiders say she is privately on board (and is supportive of keeping paid family leave in the bill, a major win for Democrats).

Stop me if you've heard this before, though: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) is still holding out. The West Virginia Democrat is opposed to including paid family leave, and Democrats say they're willing to drop the proposal from the bill if it earns his vote. Last week, the CBO released a new estimate on the bill's cost if all the programs were extended for a full 10 years, which is the Democrats' intent. The topline number came in at $3 trillion over a decade. Democrats criticized the report, saying it didn't include some of the offset proposals in the bill, but Republicans — including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) — are using the new score to urge Manchin to vote "no."

Meanwhile, the latest inflation numbers last week showed prices are still rising across the country, which Manchin has repeatedly expressed concern over. President Biden maintains the bill would reduce inflation and cost of living for millions of Americans, but Manchin continues to worry publicly about more federal spending at a time of rising costs.

Now what? Tick tock. Democrats want the bill on the Senate floor before Christmas. It's been delayed several times already, and has also been cut in half from its original $3.5 trillion top line. It's possible they'd even bring it up for a vote merely to ramp up the pressure on Manchin. If the bill isn't passed before Christmas, Democrats fear it will continue to lose momentum and be reduced even further during negotiations.

Below, we'll take a look at some commentary on where things are from the left and right, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • The left says the bill would be a boon for middle class America, with an untold number of benefits.
  • They argue that Democrats are using the same budget tricks used in every kind of spending bill.
  • Some criticize Democrats for already having pared down the bill so much from what it could have been.

In a Fox News column, Leslie Marshall, one of the website’s resident liberals, made the case for how the Build Back Better plan would help Americans.

"An Oxford Economics analysis shows an expected increase in GDP growth. It also projects that 750,000 jobs will be added to the economy by the end of 2023," Marshall wrote. "There are measures in this act to address climate change and to protect our environment, such as a $900 tax credit for e bikes, reducing hazardous fuel to assist national parks, and forest conservation... Build Back Better would invest one billion dollars for salmon conservation; projects for both Pacific salmon and steelhead populations and their habitats. These projects will stimulate local economies in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska.

"An estimated 3.4 million Americans would gain health insurance as a result of this legislation," Marshall added. "The bill provides coverage for hearing aids every 5 years, a $35 monthly cap on insulin and lower prescription drug prices. It also provides support for in-home and community-based care... the act will provide an entire year of healthcare coverage through Medicaid for new moms. The Child Tax Credits will be extended; that is $300 per child under six and $250 for older minor children... Universal Pre-K for all 3 and 4-year-old’s is included in the bill as is access to free school meals for nine million more students and 29 million children will receive $65 a month to help their families pay for food over the summer."

In The Washington Post, James Downie asked if Manchin will "see through" Sen. Lindsey Graham's fearmongering about the latest CBO report.

"For one, the senator [Graham] repeatedly pretended his version of the BBB and the actual bill were the same. 'President Biden said the bill was fully — fully paid for. Vice President Harris said it was paid for,' he told host Chris Wallace. 'The CBO says it’s not paid for. It’s $3 trillion of deficit spending.' Later, he claimed the bill spends 'more money than we did in World War II' — which, again, is only true of the alternative CBO score he had.

"In the past, Republicans themselves have time-limited parts of bills to lower their top-line costs," Downie said. "In 2017, for example, Republicans made part of the Trump tax cuts end early to keep costs down. (Tellingly, Republicans chose to sunset most of the tax cuts for individuals in 2025 while making the corporate tax cuts permanent.) And unlike Republicans then, Democrats have been open about the sunset. President Biden recently reiterated his pledge to pay for any extended BBB program 'whether that’s for a day or a decade.' When Wallace asked about the GOP hypocrisy, Graham first spluttered, 'What’s that got to do with anything?' Then he claimed that Republicans had to end the individual cuts early because 'you can’t go beyond 10 years in terms of the budget window' — when the cuts were ended after eight years. And finally, he simply pivoted back to lying about the BBB’s cost."

In Jacobin Magazine, Ryan Moore said America's "ruling class" is once again stopping us from truly building back better.

"During the coronavirus pandemic, the country paid homage to the extraordinary sacrifices of its nurses, teachers, and factory workers, but it has proceeded to rebuild in the interests of big business and wealthy elites," Moore wrote. "The fate of the Build Back Better Act currently hangs in the balance, but even if it does pass, the bill will be a shadow of its former self, having already been stripped of paid family leave, expanded Medicare eligibility and benefits, tuition-free community college, a tax on billionaires, and more. The nation’s pitiful response to the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic calls to mind the recovery from the financial crisis and recession of 2008–9, which imposed austerity and debt on working people while bailing out financial institutions."

What the right is saying.

  • They argue the bill’s real cost is being obscured by budget gimmicks.
  • Republicans worry it will drive up inflation and many of the programs will remain permanent.
  • They implore Sen. Manchin to hold strong on his "no" vote.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote about the "real cost" of Biden's spending plan.

"We’ve been telling you for months that the plan’s advertised cost of $1.75 trillion over 10 years includes multiple budget gimmicks that disguise the real cost," the board wrote. "Enter Sens. Lindsey Graham and John Cornyn, who asked CBO director Phillip Swagel to add up the cost of the bill that recently passed the House if all of its programs were made permanent. This is a more honest accounting because Democrats admit both that they want to make the spending permanent and that they’ve adjusted programs to make them fit under the Senate budget rules so they can pass with a mere 51 votes (including Vice President Kamala Harris). Mr. Swagel’s response, sent on Friday, is a torpedo speeding toward the hull of Build Back Better.

"Take the child allowance, which Democrats say will cost only $185 billion because it ends after one year," it added. "No one believes they won’t extend it next year, and the year after that, ad infinitum. CBO says the real cost over 10 years is $1.597 trillion. Democrats also peg their earned-income tax credit expansion at a cost of $13 billion because it too ends after one year. CBO says the real cost is $135 billion over 10 years."

In The New York Post, Stephen Moore said Biden's Build Back Better agenda got a "double whammy" last week.

"First, the Labor Department reported inflation is now running at just under 7 percent over the last year. Prices were rising at a 2 percent annual pace when Donald Trump left office in January and then 5 percent this summer and now this," Moore wrote. "But then a few hours later came the second body blow to the Biden agenda. The Congressional Budget Office released a report that examined the true cost of the Biden BBB plan — minus the accounting gimmicks. The results were devastating: twice as high as previously reported and closer to $5 trillion in spending over the next decade.

"West Virginia’s Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin is now admitting the obvious: He’s worried that another multitrillion-dollar spending bill steamrolling through this Democratic Congress will make the inflation contagion worse," Moore wrote. "As even Obama economist Jason Furman has pointed out, inflation is not a global phenomenon right now, as evidenced by the much lower price increases in Europe. The inflation contagion is a made-in-Washington crisis. If the Washington spending spree doesn’t end soon, the inflation will continue to climb and put America at risk of a financial crisis and a gut-wrenching recession."

In Fox News, Howard Husock said the bill is repeating the same mistakes progressives have made for decades.

"This package would push more and more families toward full-time day care for their children," Husock wrote. "It would promote wind and solar power for our electric grid with no assurance they will keep the lights on. It would mandate a shift toward costly e-vehicles, and bring back welfare-without-work through its child tax credit. Sadly, Americans have seen this movie before – in similar political moments when Progressive confidence was such that they adopted legislation that proved to have tragic collateral damage.

"The side effects of the Great Society of the 1960s are well-known," he wrote. "Here are just two examples: a costly Medicaid system that fails to provide access to many of its recipients, who are plagued by poor health, and a so-called War on Poverty that pitted federally funded community groups against local elected officials but failed to defeat poverty."

My take.

There's a lot going on here.

I've opined quite a bit on the Build Back Better plan, and my perspective hasn't changed much: The things I've always most wanted to see were paid family leave, changes that allow the government to better negotiate our absurd prescription drug prices, and some climate change provisions that don't amount to more corporate welfare. Kudos to House Democrats who managed to pass a version of this bill that included four weeks of paid family leave; we'll see if it survives a Senate vote (I'd say the odds are slim).

Sen. Sinema may not be committing to vote for the bill, but she isn't vocally opposing it, either, which is a good sign she's on board. That means we’re really just down to Joe Manchin. I've long said that Democrats’ best strategy to "flip" his vote would be to isolate him with a 49-1 break in the Senate, and it's possible they do that this week even if they don't know where he stands. I've also said that I'd be pretty floored if Biden managed to pass this bill after detaching it from the smaller infrastructure legislation, and it would amount to one of the most significant legislative achievements for progressives and Democrats in decades. All of that is still true, and I think his odds are actually better now than they were a week ago.

As for the arguments above, I feel fairly confident about assessing the fibs coming from both sides. First: The obvious intent from Democrats is to make these provisions permanent. Any suggestion otherwise is a fib. Whenever Congress passes legislation like this, the idea is that it'll be so popular that it becomes politically unpopular for the other party to kill the legislation when it expires down the road. So, I think it's reasonable to say the "real" cost of something like the Child Tax Credit — which Democrats are only extending for a year in the bill but will obviously try to extend permanently beyond that — is closer to the Republican-requested CBO estimate than what the White House is saying.

That being said, it's also true that the Child Tax Credit would only become permanent if it is really popular. Which puts Republicans in a tough spot. Given that the literal language of the bill does not extend the credit more than a year, Republicans must concede it'll only last for, say, 10 years, if Americans love it, and if Republicans let it. Read differently, one could make the case they're arguing about not passing a piece of legislation they worry will be so popular it'll be impossible to kill (of course, when is the government giving money to people ever really unpopular?). This should not be a winning message with voters.

Second: The idea this bill would worsen inflation is, at the very least, a contested notion. The Biden administration's talking point here is entirely admissible: They have 17 recipients of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences saying it will ease longer-term inflationary pressures. Another 56 well-respected economists penned and signed a similar opinion, saying Build Back Better would create jobs, would not add to inflationary pressures and would increase labor productivity. I'm not a Nobel Prize-winning economist, but it sounds like stating as fact that this bill would raise inflation is a stretch.

There's also the obvious fact that the Biden administration knows his poll numbers are cratering because of inflation. If he really thought a bill like this was going to make things worse, he'd almost certainly never support it. That's not to say it won't — because inflation very well may continue to get worse for the next year, with or without this bill — but at the very least I think it's believable that the Biden administration thinks it will help ease it instead.

Still, there are plenty of other legitimate criticisms of this bill from the left and right. Casey Mulligan, for instance, made a compelling case that the child care plan would actually increase costs for many middle-income families. Aditi Ramaswami wrote about how the bill will give a huge gift to the gas industry despite being touted as addressing climate change. And Democrats have spent an inordinate amount of time fighting over a huge tax break for wealthy Americans despite promising to increase taxes on America's top earners to help pay for the bill.

As in the past, we're still waiting for what the final bill the Senate produces actually is. But there's no doubt it feels closer to becoming a reality now than it ever has before.

Your questions, answered.

Q: How are you able to keep your personal feelings about a politician apart from whether you like their policies or not?

— Dave, Wheeling, Illinois

Tangle: Honestly, I don't try to. I think allowing myself to feel personal feelings about a politician apart from their policies is an important part of being an astute, honest political observer. I say that because whether a politician is "likable" often plays a bigger part in determining their success than the policies they are actually running on. Like it or not, politics is too often a popularity contest in the high-school-prom-queen sense, which is why charismatic lawmakers who do very little can often survive in Congress while the wonky geeks who draft the important legislation can fall out of favor.

I also think, given my job here with Tangle, it's important to allow myself positive feelings about people whose politics I disagree with and negative feelings about people whose politics I like. Sen. Lindsey Graham, for instance, is a politician who regularly works across the aisle, professes respect for many of our institutions, and has voted in favor of several important bills that I supported throughout his career. But he's also smarmy, self-interested, regularly lies to the public, and flip-flops in order to advance his own career prospects, more than many of his colleagues.

I don't like him, but I've respected many of his votes. I think it's possible to hold both those opinions simultaneously.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

A story that matters.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he wants to create a pathway for private citizens to sue gun manufacturers, sellers and distributors in his state, modeled on the  recently passed abortion ban in Texas. Newsom's bill "would allow private citizens to sue anyone who manufactures, sells or distributes assault weapons or ghost gun kits or parts in the state for at least $10,000 per violation," according to The Wall Street Journal. Newsom made the announcement on the heels of a Supreme Court ruling on Friday that allowed the Texas ban on abortions at six weeks to remain in place for now, but also opened the door for abortion providers to sue over the law. The proposal is the first of its kind, and is just the sort of Democratic response to the Texas abortion bill that many liberal activists had threatened if the abortion ban was upheld. The Wall Street Journal has the story.


  • 44%. The percentage of adults 65 and older who had a booster shot by Thanksgiving, according to new CDC data.
  • 41%. Biden's overall approval rating, according to a new CNBC poll.
  • 44%-34%. The percentage of Americans who said they want Republicans or Democrats to control Congress, respectively, in the same poll.
  • #1. Inflation's ranking as the most important issue to voters, according to the poll, overtaking coronavirus.
  • 6 in 10. Among Republicans, the number of voters who believe vaccines pose a greater risk to their kids than Covid-19.

Have a nice day.

On Saturday morning, Katie Posten walked outside her home in New Albany, Indiana, when she saw something that looked like a note stuck to her windshield. When she picked it up, though, she saw that it was a black and white photo of a person she didn't recognize with a name and the year 1942 written on the back. Posten, unsure what to think, posted the image online and asked for help finding its owner. Her post got traction on Facebook, until someone came across it who had a friend that shared the last name written on the back. Posten soon found out the photo had traveled 130 miles in the air from Dawson’s Creek, KY on the monstrous tornado winds, landing cleanly on her car windshield. And she eventually connected with Cole Swatzell, who said the photo belonged to his family. AP News has the story.

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