Sep 28, 2021

The historic week in Congress.

The historic week in Congress.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who is trying to navigate her party through this week. Official U.S. Embassy photograph by: Archibald Sackey and Courage Ahiati

Biden's agenda is on the line this week.

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.” First time reading? Sign up here. Would you rather listen? You can find our podcast here.

Today's read: 10 minutes.

I'm going to lay the foundation for this wild week in Congress, give you some quick hits, and answer a reader question. We'll be back to our typical format tomorrow.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who is trying to navigate her party through this week. Official U.S. Embassy photograph by: Archibald Sackey and Courage Ahiati

Quick hits.

  1. President Joe Biden got a Pfizer Covid-19 booster shot on live television as additional doses have rolled out. (The vaccine)
  2. Democrat Terry McAuliffe has maintained a small lead in the Virginia governor's race against Republican challenger Glenn Youngkin. (The polling)
  3. Gen. Mark Milley is testifying before Congress today on the withdrawal from Afghanistan. (The testimony)
  4. Democratic Rep. Karen Bass formally launched her campaign for mayor of Los Angeles. (The announcement)
  5. Treasury secretary Janet Yellen said the Fed could exhaust its cash reserves by October 18 if the debt limit isn't raised. (The warning)

What's happening.

This is turning into one of the most important weeks in the history of Congress, so I’ve decided to press pause on the normal newsletter format today and explain exactly what’s going on.

The topline of what you need to know right now is that this week could determine the future of Joe Biden’s domestic legislative agenda — and is perhaps the most important week of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's 44-year career in Congress (and her biggest challenge to date).

As we've covered in Tangle, Biden, Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have been trying to pass two bills at once: the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package and the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. The bipartisan infrastructure package is mostly traditional infrastructure: roads, bridges, internet expansion, fortifying infrastructure against major climate events, and so forth. It's the largest federal infusion of money into infrastructure in America's history, so it's no small bill, and it's clear it will have a huge impact on American life.

In principle, the infrastructure bill has support from every Democrat in the House and Senate, some moderate Republicans in the House, and even got some support from Republican senators.

The reconciliation bill is the larger $3.5 trillion spending package, which is still being drafted and debated. But the general outlines of what Biden hopes to do are massive: invest $200 billion in universal preschool, provide free community college for two years, provide 12 weeks of guaranteed paid parental leave, expand the child tax credit, expand Medicare, lower the price of prescription drugs, create fees for polluters, and a lot more.

So: there are two huge bills that, until last night, Democrats had been trying to pass simultaneously. We've covered the infrastructure bill here, here and here. And we've covered the reconciliation package here, here and here.

Why at the same time? The reason Democrats have had these bills on a two-track process is that each bill has support from different factions of Congress. It's also because the massive $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill can be passed without a single vote from Republicans, thanks to a quirk of Congressional rules.

So here's how that is playing out: Moderate Democrats and some Republicans in both the House and Senate support the passage of the $1.2 trillion package. It was, after all, written up by both Republicans and Democrats. Because Democratic leadership knows this, they decided to try to tie its fate to the reconciliation package, essentially saying Congress gets both or neither. They tried to do this by forcing near-simultaneous votes on the bills and by crafting them together. Progressives in the House and Senate have said they will only pass the smaller, $1.2 trillion package if they are certain they'll get the larger reconciliation package, too. Meanwhile, because Democrats need all 50 Democrats to vote with them in the Senate, they are left trying to sell moderates like Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) on the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package that progressives want, which neither currently supports.

So why is it such a big deal now? Because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised moderate Democrats a vote on the smaller infrastructure package this week, and now the House is set to vote on the $1.2 trillion package Thursday. So if progressives get on board and give it the votes to pass, they know it will become law. If they don't support it, Pelosi will have to rally enough Republicans to vote for the bill so it won’t fail. But progressives also know that the larger, $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill isn't ready, and that they could end up passing this smaller bill and then be stuck trying to convince everyone to vote for a massive spending bill later on, with no leverage (i.e. no ability to threaten to sink the infrastructure bill) to get what they want.

...Ok, and last night? Last night we had our first big movement of the week. The Democratic caucus met, and it appears that progressives are softening a bit on the $3.5 trillion price tag. Pelosi told them they can no longer wait for a reconciliation package to be approved in the Senate in order to vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Moderates are signaling that they want the reconciliation bill, but at a much smaller price tag. So all signs, right now, are pointing to the historically large spending bill being a little bit less historic and a little less large, and probably coming a little bit later.

Sen. Manchin, the moderate whose vote in the Senate is crucial to passing the reconciliation bill, is continuing to say that a deal is "gonna take a while," and nothing happens without his or Sen. Sinema's vote. Since Pelosi promised to hold a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill on Thursday, that vote appears certain to happen. In the progressive (and Biden’s) dream world that was laid out, the so-called two-track process, that would mean Thursday would also see the Senate vote on (and pass) the reconciliation bill. But that doesn't appear to be happening anymore since Manchin and Sinema aren’t on board yet, and the package isn’t ready.

What's Joe Biden saying? Not much. The president has not been entirely clear on what he wants to happen, at least publicly, and — according to Politico — some House Democrats are legitimately confused about how to signal their support for Biden. Should they be voting to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill on Thursday, or not? It's unclear to us whether Biden wants progressives to try and tank this bill to get everything together or if he wants them to simply settle for a large chunk of his legislative agenda. I'm sure they know more than we do privately, but right now it truly is hard to tell.

That leaves progressives in a tough spot. Many of them have been saying they won't vote on the bipartisan bill without some kind of guarantee they'll get the reconciliation bill, too. Now they're being told that the reconciliation bill is no guarantee, or at least not at the price tag they wanted, and that they need to vote "yes" on the bipartisan bill this Thursday — with very little time to maneuver.

Is there anything else going on? Yes, actually. Quite a bit. The government needs to pass a new funding bill by Thursday at midnight or the lights go out. Yesterday, Democrats tried to pass a short-term government funding bill that would keep the federal government open, provide billions of dollars in hurricane relief and also raise the debt ceiling (an issue we covered two weeks ago). But Republicans in the Senate sank the bill. Then Democrats refused to pass a Senate government funding bill without the debt limit increase included.

So Republicans sunk the first bill because they are in obstruction mode, trying to slow down Biden's agenda by any means necessary. And this is a pretty good way to do that. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would not support raising the borrowing limit because it will allow Biden to push through his nearly $5 trillion in spending, something Republicans don't want. Since Republicans rejected the bill, Democrats are likely to remove the debt ceiling increase and try to pass it again, since that's a fight they can have in a few weeks (the debt ceiling needs to be raised by mid-October, or we risk a global financial calamity). Republicans have said they'll vote for the short-term funding bill so long as the debt ceiling isn't in it, and proposed a funding bill along those lines, but Democrats demurred and are now re-grouping.

Basically: It's a game of chicken. We're waiting to see if Democrats will try again without the debt limit increase, and if they do, we'll have to deal with the debt limit increase later in October. If they re-introduce the bill with the debt ceiling increase included, then that's a sign they are trying to put Republicans between a rock and a hard place: Raise the limit or shut down the government.

When it's all said and done, Democrats could end up passing a borrowing limit increase without Republicans. But because of how the process works, they'd have to choose a number to raise the limit to rather than just suspending it (as both parties have repeatedly agreed to do in the past). Doing that creates all sorts of political vulnerabilities, and Democrats fear Republicans would use the combination of spending increases, tax increases and raising the debt ceiling in attack ads heading into the 2022 midterms.

In other words: Nearly every ball that could be in the air is in the air right now. And it comes at a time when Biden is trying to solve for the thousands of Haitians stranded in Del Rio, Texas, is just getting past the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and is trying to institute new vaccine and testing requirements to get a handle on the still dangerous pandemic.

What's everyone saying? We'll get to that as the week progresses, when we can narrow our focus a bit, now that you understand the general outlines of where things are. Broadly speaking, though, progressive pundits are worried Biden will drastically scale down the reconciliation bill, moderates want to see the infrastructure bill (which will have a huge impact on the country) passed so Democrats have something to celebrate during the midterms, and conservative pundits are okay with swallowing the bipartisan infrastructure package but are happy to see it broken off from the larger reconciliation package.

Your questions, answered.

Q: How much does federal politics really matter? I work for a local city government and it seems to me that State and Municipal government policies have much more effect on your day-to-day life than anything the federal government does. Do we care too much about who the President is and should we care more about who our city’s Mayor or state’s Governor is?

— Logan, San Jose, California

Tangle: Federal politics do really matter. Still, one thing I often tell friends and readers is that I find it a bit shocking — and disheartening — how much more active your average American is in national politics than in local politics. They have different functions, obviously. And I certainly don't think we care too much about who the president is: But I do think we care far too little about who the mayor, sheriff, district attorney or local boards are.

One way to think about it is that the federal government creates guardrails that the state governments have to play within, and then the local government has to work inside the boundaries the state government sets. Another way to think about it is that state and local governments should have equal or greater power than the federal government, and that reforming your government in a more local way is the simplest route to creating a community outside the direction the federal government is going.

Obviously, the federal government matters more for certain issues: Military, health care and immigration all come to mind as areas where local government has far less power. But police reform, gun control, education, housing, public services — changes in all those areas will be much more efficiently achieved by your participation in state and local government.

I write a national politics newsletter, so obviously I think national politics matters. But I continue to be shocked at how little it bleeds into local participation. One recent example was the New York City mayoral race, which just had its primary this summer. Only 23 percent of registered Democrats and Republicans turned out for the election, and even that dwarfed the turnout in the 2013 mayoral primaries. The turnout rate for the presidential election in 2020, which was a foregone conclusion here, was 53.4 percent. 2.97 million New York City voters cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential race compared to 998,000 voters in the primary for mayor. It's difficult to conceive that so few New Yorkers cared about a race in which both their individual vote and the results of the race were much more influential in their daily lives.

But for whatever reason, that's where we are right now.

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A story that matters.

Facebook announced it is pausing its effort to build Instagram for kids. The news comes after a series of devastating leaked internal reports on the impact Facebook has on the mental health of teenagers, especially girls. Facebook had been developing a new Instagram app that was designed specifically for kids aged 10 to 12. Their announcement comes after a Wall Street Journal report that showed Facebook repeatedly found its app was harmful to teenagers in research studies the company funded. “While we believe building ‘Instagram Kids’ is the right thing to do, Instagram, and its parent company Facebook, will re-evaluate the project at a later date. In the interim Instagram will continue to focus on teen safety and expanding parental supervision features for teens,” the company said in a statement. CNBC has the story.


  • 81%. The percentage of Democrats who say they trust Biden on Covid-19.
  • 42%. The percentage of independents who say they trust Biden on Covid-19.
  • 11%. The percentage of Republicans who say they trust Biden on Covid-19.
  • 86%. The percentage of Democratic voters who have received at least one shot of a Covid-19 vaccine.
  • 60%. The percentage of Republican voters who have received at least one shot of a Covid-19 vaccine.
  • 70%. The percentage of Americans who say they are "very" or "somewhat" worried about climate change, an all-time high.

Have a nice day.

At 100 years old, the National Park Service's oldest active ranger is still going strong. Betty Soskin was born in Detroit on September 22, 1921, and is currently a ranger at the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California. Her career as a ranger began in 2004, and she has had a huge impact on the park service ever since. To celebrate her birthday, the park announced it was going to give out limited edition ink and virtual stamps honoring her. NPR has her story.

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