Joe Biden's agenda hangs in the balance.

The next 48 hours could determine the fate of his presidency.
Isaac Saul Sep 30, 2021

I'm Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, non-partisan politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then my take. First time reading? Sign up here.


No more emoticons? 😔

Yesterday, without really making much of a fuss about it, I tried inserting some emojis into the Tangle newsletter just to spice things up a bit. Then I got this email from my mom:

I guess I have to listen to my mother...


Today's read: 12 minutes.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was seen speaking urgently into her phone last night during the Congressional baseball game. (Screenshot: CSPAN) 

Quick hits.

  1. The Senate is preparing to approve a government funding bill hours before the midnight deadline to keep the government open. (The funding)
  2. The CDC issued an urgent health advisory instructing women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant to get the Covid-19 vaccine. (The advisory)
  3. Former President Donald Trump has "exiled" Corey Lewandowski, one of his top advisors, after allegations Lewandowski made unwanted sexual advances toward a major Trump donor. (The allegations)
  4. The House Committee investigating the January 6 riots has subpoenaed 11 people associated with the planning of pro-Trump rallies that preceded the riots. (The subpoenas)
  5. Terry McAuliffe (D) and Glenn Youngkin (R) had their second and final debate in the race to become Virginia’s next governor. (The debate)

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Today's topic.

The Biden agenda. On Tuesday, we set the table for what was coming this week in Congress.

Quick recap: The president is trying to pass a $1.2 trillion, bipartisan infrastructure bill today. But progressive Democrats say they will only vote for that bill if it comes with a guarantee that the Senate passes its $3.5 trillion spending bill, also known as the reconciliation bill, which can become law without a single Republican vote.

The problem: Moderate Democrats in the Senate, including Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), say they won't support another three trillion dollars of spending, and want more time to scale the bill down and flesh out what it's going to do. Pelosi has said she wants the language of the $3.5 trillion bill settled on before passing the smaller bipartisan bill, a demand to appease the progressives in her caucus, but Manchin and Sinema say there is no way that will be ready by today.

Now, Democrats are basically in a game of chicken — with each other. If House Speaker Nancy Pelosi brings the bipartisan infrastructure bill up for a vote in Congress today, and progressives stick to their guns, the bill will almost certainly fail (unless enough House Republicans magically get behind it). That wouldn't be the death knell for Biden's agenda, as they could always bring the bill up again later, but it wouldn't be good, either.

The other option Pelosi has is delaying the vote. But this would break her promise to moderate Democrats that there would be a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill today. Remember: In August, about 10 moderate Democrats demanded a vote on the bipartisan bill that passed the Senate, so Pelosi cut a deal by promising there would be a vote by September 27. That was three days ago, it's now September 30, it's still not clear the bill would pass and there has yet to be a vote.

Perhaps, with assurances that the White House was close to a deal to get Manchin and Sinema on board for the reconciliation bill, the Democratic caucus could wait it out a few more days. But they don't yet have those assurances. Pelosi could also bring the bill up for a vote and let it fail — which could ramp up pressure on both progressives and Manchin and Sinema. That seems unlikely, though, as Pelosi traditionally is not one to try to pass a bill she doesn't have the votes for.

Meanwhile, the government will shut down tonight at midnight if a continuing resolution (a short-term spending bill) isn't passed. It seems like that bill is in the works and should sail through Congress today, but only because Democrats will remove language that raises the debt ceiling — meaning they will still have to deal with that problem within a few weeks.

Below, we'll take a look at some views on this pickle from the right and left, then my take.


What the right is saying.

The right is supportive of Manchin, Sinema and other moderate Democrats, and believes Biden's agenda is a massive government takeover.

In Politico, Rich Lowry said that as the political prospects for Democrats' $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill have "sagged," they’re "trying to recalibrate by arguing a generational spending binge really won’t cost anything at all."

"Citing provisions to offset the spending, Biden said last week that the bill is 'going to cost nothing.' At a Wednesday news conference, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi repeated this argument with great confidence. 'It's not about a dollar amount,' she told reporters. 'The dollar amount, as the president said, is zero. This bill will be paid for.' Trying to redefine the cost of a $3.5 trillion bill as zero must rank among the most shameless, patently absurd attempts to change reality through a talking point ever attempted," Lowry wrote.

"It’s the equivalent in its transparent, willful implausibility of Donald Trump’s pledge that Mexico would somehow, at some time, despite all its denials, pony up and pay for the border wall," Lowry added. "Put aside that the reconciliation instructions say that the bill can increase the deficit by up to $1.75 trillion over a decade, and that if Biden were truly adamant against new deficit financing, he could threaten to veto any bill adding a nickel to the debt. He hasn’t and he won’t. Regardless, even if the bill is fully financed through tax hikes, it still costs something — or the tax increases wouldn’t be necessary in the first place."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board called it a moment of truth for moderates.

"Mrs. Pelosi may figure she can bludgeon House Democrats into line, as she always has in the past," the board said. "But Senators are a different story. The Speaker and her agenda couldn’t win a race for city council in Mr. Manchin’s state of West Virginia. Mr. Biden lost the state by 39 points to Donald Trump. If progressives defeat the infrastructure bill, the centrists will know they’re not even the tail wagging the tail of the Democratic caucus," the board wrote. "They’re essentially hostage to progressive demands that are likely to cost the swing-state Members their seats in 2022. But it’s hardly better if the Speaker postpones a vote. This would also mean the progressives are still in charge, and who knows when they’ll let the Speaker hold the vote."

Daniel Henninger called it Nancy Pelosi's "hell week."

"As it began, this week’s House agenda read like the to-do list of a madhouse: Vote on a $1 trillion infrastructure bill. Vote on a $3.5 trillion spending reconciliation bill. Vote on a continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown until they decide the 'details' inside the 2,465 pages of the spending bill. Vote to increase the U.S. government’s debt ceiling, now at $28 trillion," he wrote. "Keep in mind what the Byrd Rule governing reconciliation is, or was. Conceived in 1985 by Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, its purpose was to discipline the substance of spending and taxes inside a budget process that had been wrecked by the 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act. Chuck Schumer has made a mockery of Robert Byrd’s reform. Discipline is dead because it is in the way. The result is legislative chaos.

"Last week, when Speaker Pelosi and Mr. Schumer said they and the White House had a ‘framework’ for the revenue to pay for this spending, their Democratic colleagues Sens. Bernie Sanders and Mark Warner said they had ‘no idea’ or ‘the foggiest’ what the two were talking about,” Henninger wrote. “The country’s president, Joe Biden, weighed in the next day with the assertion that his spending plans, by now heading north of $6 trillion, would ‘cost nothing.’ Washington is in Fantasyland and Mr. Biden has become Jiminy Cricket in ‘Pinocchio,’ crooning ‘When you wish upon a star . . . your dreams come true.’”


What the left is saying.

Much like the Democrats in Congress, the left is split. Some want the bipartisan infrastructure bill to pass and to take the win, while others want progressives to hold strong and try to get the whole Biden agenda through at once.

In his Substack newsletter, Bloomberg's Noah Smith insisted Democrats "pass the damn infrastructure bill."

"I am no expert on the politics of fiscal legislation, but this just seems insane to me," Smith said. "First of all, the optics feel terrible — having convinced Mitch McConnell and the Republicans (!!!) to support a major government spending initiative, Democrats are now threatening to torpedo that impressive achievement. Not only does that make Democrats look like an incompetent, divided party that is incapable of governing, but it takes the wind out of Biden’s legislative agenda and denies him at least one important victory, possibly two.

"It also seems utterly unlikely to achieve the goals that the progressives want," he wrote. "Manchin and Sinema would like to pass the infrastructure bill, but they don’t care about it so much that they’d do anything to save it. Nor would they be likely to take the brunt of public anger if the bill got killed — after all, they voted for it. Americans are not going to accept a complex progressive narrative about how Manchin and Sinema are actually the ones who killed the bill because they didn’t accede to this and that demand from the progressives. Instead, the people who failed to vote for the infrastructure bill will be the ones who are perceived to have killed the infrastructure bill."

In The Washington Post, Katrina vanden Heuvel asked if "corporate Democrats" will derail Biden's agenda.

"The $3.5 trillion plan contains reforms that enjoy overwhelming public support," she said. "In its current form, it improves families’ lives by sustaining the monthly child allowance, investing in daycare, providing universal pre-K and guaranteeing paid family leave. It makes community college tuition free. It extends Medicare to cover hearing, vision and dental expenses. It lowers prescription drug prices to help seniors and save the government over $500 billion. It makes the first serious investments addressing the threat of climate change. And these measures would be paid for largely by raising taxes on the richest and corporations (at or below the rates before the 2017 tax cuts), cracking down on tax avoidance and curbing fossil fuel subsidies. What’s not to like?

"Much of the press portray the Democratic conflict as pitting 'moderates' against progressives; the former threatening to vote against the reconciliation package; the latter demanding passage of both bills or neither," she said. "But the dissenters are far from 'centrists' or 'moderates.' They oppose the plan of the president of their own party, a lifelong moderate, who was just elected with a record number of votes... The few dissenters more accurately should be labeled as corporate Democrats. They enjoy lavish support from corporate lobbies mobilized to oppose all tax hikes and reductions in industry subsidies. Their objections are informed by deep pocket interests that pay for their campaigns. For example, Democrats have long campaigned to allow Medicare to negotiate bulk discounts on drugs. Yet the reform was torpedoed in committee by three House Democrats who have hauled in roughly $1.6 million in campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry. Joining them is Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), another leading recipient of Big Pharma donations."

The USA Today editorial board called for Democrats to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill, then negotiate on the reconciliation package.

"With every Democratic vote in the Senate and nearly every one in the House a prerequisite for passing the largest spending bill in history, a handful of moderates have made clear they will not vote for anything costing $3.5 trillion over a decade (the proposal is so chock full of ideas, it has come to be known only by its price tag). It's so much money that even with a welter of tax hikes on corporations and the wealthy, the legislation could still add to the national debt.

"We propose that the final package focus on the future of America and its children," the board said. "Biden's plan would dramatically slash U.S. emissions. His clean electricity plan would use incentives and fees to compel power companies into transitioning to renewable energy... Another vitally important element would provide universal preschool, which research has shown delivers dramatic results in preparing children with language and social skills. The package also would significantly improve the quality and pay of child care providers, with assistance to make high-quality child care affordable for low-income families. The United States lags the world in both categories."


My take.

In early August, when Biden got the infrastructure deal through Congress, I wrote that I couldn't believe Biden was getting away with tying these bills together, that I didn't think House Democrats had the "chutzpah" to tank the agreement if they didn't get their reconciliation bill, and that "there are plenty of traps ahead" for the bill to fall apart. Then, a couple of weeks into the news cycle, I wrote that Pelosi should be cautious about calling progressives' bluff and that "the hardest part is still to come."

Now we're here.

Frankly, my relatively accurate predictions from last month aside, I have no idea how today or the rest of this week will play out. It looks like Democrats are going to keep the government open and deal with the debt ceiling crisis next week. Images of Nancy Pelosi having an urgent phone call during the Congressional baseball game last night basically sum up where things seem to be. It's a scramble, and I don't think anyone — Manchin, Sinema, Pelosi, Biden, or the progressive caucus — really knows how this ship is going to dock.

But I can tell you what I think should happen: I think Democrats should take the infrastructure deal.

First, I'll concede that Katrina vanden Heuvel is right. Much of the opposition on the left to the reconciliation bill right now is coming from the corporate Democrats who are being lobbied against this bill by big-money interests like the pharmaceutical industry. And I think it’s perfectly reasonable to debate whether calling them moderates is an accurate representation. Being lobbied doesn't mean their position is inherently wrong, but it does point to some of the deep fractures in the Democratic party (it is also one of the reasons Republican populism is so hot right now — they have found resonance with the idea that Democrats have sold out to corporate America and globalism).

Still, I've written supportively about the bipartisan infrastructure bill in the past, and there's a reason it got backing from Republicans in the Senate: It's a good investment that is chock full of funding which should have been allocated years ago (like replacing all the lead water pipes in the country, a health necessity so basic it’s absurd it hasn’t been done yet). So I'm not going to spend much time rehashing whether the bipartisan bill is good or not; I’ve already expressed my support for it.

More interesting is to analyze what Democrats should do under the presumption they want Biden's agenda enacted. If you're a progressive, I still see the bipartisan bill as a huge win. And right now the party (and Biden) could use a huge win. The bill is brimming with progressive priorities and the exact agenda Joe Biden ran on: Hard infrastructure repairs, expansion of broadband internet, electric vehicle charging stations, climate-resilient infrastructure and public transit funding. On the whole, it's a pro-growth bill, something Democrats (politically and ethically) should embrace.

And from a progressive perspective, I still struggle to see the game plan (which is what I said weeks ago). I think it makes the most sense to pass the bill now. If progressives sink the bill, that will be the headline: “Bernie and The Squad sink bipartisan infrastructure bill.” If progressives support Biden's agenda, all eyes turn to Sinema and Manchin on the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. That's where you want the focus: Will Sinema and Manchin vote to expand the child tax credit? Will they vote for universal pre-K? Will they expand Medicare? Will they pass legislation that will reduce the cost of prescription drugs? Suddenly it's Manchin and Sinema holding up Biden's agenda (the one he ran on) and keeping these things from voters.You want those questions being asked of the politicians you're trying to pressure. If you sink this bill, the questions won't be on Manchin and Sinema, they'll be on the progressive caucus. The turmoil will turn into a Category 5 hurricane, and the dysfunction will snowball. If you take the win, you can ride that win and move onto the next agenda item with a little momentum.

Traditionally, that's how successful administrations have worked. So regardless of what Democratic faction you’re in, I'm not seeing the rationale for sinking this bill. Pretty much the only reason to tank it would be to “prove” you have a spine and punish Democratic leadership for not keeping the unrealistic promise they’d link the bills together. But the results of that chest-puffing could legitimately end any chance that any of Biden’s agenda comes to pass. It seems to me we’re seeing the liabilities of a bad plan coming home to roost, and now it’s time to take the rational exit ramp.


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Your questions, answered.

Q: Can you explain why we need to give Israel $1 billion for the Iron dome system? I don't get it. That's a ton of money when we have other needs at home. Is part of it that most of the money will be spent with U.S. defense contractors and therefore help the economy like any other spending bill?

— Brent, Texas

Tangle: I suppose it depends on who you ask. The fundamental reason, from the U.S. Congress's perspective, is because it protects an ally. Israel is our staunchest ally in the Middle East, and the Iron Dome is a defensive system (used only to shoot rockets out of the sky) that protects Israeli citizens. Funding it is a sign of support for Israel, and is one element of a larger geopolitical alliance in which we get a lot in return, namely military technology, intelligence and military forces on the ground in a key location in the Middle East.

Frankly, I'm not sure the recent debate in Congress — where progressive Democrats temporarily "blocked Iron Dome funding" — is actually as much about the Iron Dome as it is a debate about our relationship with Israel, Israel's treatment of Palestinians, and what many on the left want to change about that relationship. The Iron Dome is, in my opinion, as good a military investment as there could be: It's purely defensive and it doesn't just save Israeli lives, it also occasionally saves Palestinian lives when Hamas indiscriminately shoots rockets that often land in Palestinian territory.

That being said, a better critique is about what that money is actually doing right now: The Iron Dome doesn't need this funding imminently, so it is basically going into a military slush fund. As former Senate staffer Dylan Williams noted on Twitter, this is on top of annual missile defense aid to Israel and, contextually, is more than the U.S. spends on "nonproliferation, Anti-Terrorism & Demining Assistance globally ($890m in 2021) & more than twice what the US spends on direct contributions to NATO ($420m in 2019) & the entire Peace Corps ($410.5m in 2020)."

So, you could definitely make an argument that we are over-funding military equipment and underfunding other peace-forward initiatives. But, again, I don't think this is really a debate about whether the Iron Dome deserves our support so much as it is a debate about our relationship with Israel more broadly.  

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A story that matters.

Dozens of ships off the California coast are unable to unload their cargo. Truckers on America's highways are overworked and overwhelmed, facing unending traffic. Rail yards are clogged, with one group of trains backed up 25 miles outside a Chicago facility. America's supply chain is teetering on the edge, and nobody seems to know how to fix it. "This month, the median cost of shipping a standard rectangular metal container from China to the West Coast of the United States hit a record $20,586, almost twice what it cost in July, which was twice what it cost in January, according to the Freightos index," The Washington Post reports. In a story that makes a mundane but critical issue interesting, The Post dives into how our supply chain broke and what it means for the future.


Numbers.

  • $65 billion. The amount of money in the bipartisan infrastructure bill that will go toward expanding broadband internet in rural America.
  • $55 billion. The amount of money in the bipartisan infrastructure bill that will go toward replacing lead pipes and upgrading our water infrastructure.
  • $15 billion. The amount of money in the bipartisan infrastructure bill that will go toward building electric vehicle charging stations and school buses.
  • $550 billion. The amount of new spending in the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
  • $256 billion. The amount of money the bipartisan infrastructure bill would add to the debt, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
  • 77%. The percentage of Texas voters who say abortion should be legal when a pregnancy is caused by rape or incest, according to Quinnipiac.
  • 72%. The percentage of Texas voters who say it’s a bad idea to enforce new abortion laws by allowing private citizens to sue someone they suspect violated the law.

Have a nice day.

Carlene Knight is one of seven patients with a rare eye disease who volunteered to undergo a cutting-edge gene modification procedure. The patients let doctors inject the revolutionary gene-editing tool CRISPR directly into their cells while they were still in their bodies, according to NPR. Previous experiments had been done only after cells were removed, edited and then reinfused in patients’ bodies. Now, Knight says that her once non-existent vision is rapidly improving. On Wednesday, researchers revealed for the first time that this approach might be working — improving vision for some patients with the condition known as Leber congenital amaurosis. While many more patients will need to be followed to determine the efficacy and safety of this approach, it's a very encouraging start. NPR has the story.


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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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