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Essential Politics: For Biden, summer brings two steps forward, one step back

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) speaks at a microphone as other senators watch.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) speaks to reporters after the Senate voted to move forward on a bipartisan infrastructure deal.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press )

President Biden has staked his tenure on two priorities on which he has kept a single-minded focus — defeating the pandemic and reshaping the U.S. economy to provide more of its benefits to working- and middle-class families.

For much of his early weeks in office, Biden achieved more progress on the former goal: Despite vaccine resistance from a significant minority of Americans, the administration’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign succeeded far beyond what other large, wealthy countries had been able to do, getting more than two-thirds of the adult population protected in record time.

By contrast, after an initial success with his $1.9-trillion COVID-19 relief package, the rest of the president’s legislative agenda, designed to advance his “Build Back Better” plans, bogged down in the congressional morass.

In the last two weeks, those positions have flipped.

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With the Delta variant of the virus spreading faster than officials had expected, the pandemic has worsened. At the same time, however, the path forward for Biden’s legislative package has started to clear.

As a result, as the administration completes its first six months in office, its two big goals remain uncertain — both achievable, neither firmly in hand.

Pandemic worsens, legislative picture brightens

Back in the spring, in the administration’s most optimistic plans, this was meant to be a summer of celebration. Officials always warned that success was by no means certain, but they dared hope that by this point, three-quarters or more of the adult U.S. population would have been vaccinated, leaving the virus so few potential hosts that cases would decline to a manageable level.

Hesitancy and resistance, especially but not exclusively among conservative Republicans, combined with the more contagious Delta variant of the virus to sink that hope.

In recent weeks, the number of new cases of COVID-19 has risen in all 50 states; hospitals in the worst-hit places, especially Missouri and Arkansas, have begun to buckle under the pressure; and the administration has responded by once again urging Americans to wear masks indoors and by requiring federal workers to show proof of vaccination or undergo frequent testing.

Importantly, the number of COVID-19 deaths remains small compared with the toll of the previous three waves. That’s because so many of the most vulnerable Americans, especially the elderly, have gotten vaccinated. Even in states with a lot of vaccine resistance, the number of shots has begun to rise rapidly as the Delta wave has mounted, providing more evidence that some significant number of people will drop their hesitancy if they’re convinced of the risk.

At the peak in December and January, the U.S. was averaging more than 3,000 deaths a day from COVID-19. This month, the average has stayed below 300 even as case numbers have soared and hospitalizations have risen. Although an increase in deaths typically lags weeks behind a surge in hospitalizations, there’s little prospect of another terrible increase in the the toll.

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As a result, the pandemic no longer vastly outweighs other concerns on the minds of most Americans. In the latest national survey from Monmouth University, for example, just 17% of Americans named COVID-19 as the top concern for their families, down from 39% a year ago. Economic worries now top the list.

But for the administration, any resurgence of the disease poses a political challenge. Getting COVID-19 under control has been Biden’s proudest boast, and the upsurge in cases may be one factor in a softening of his support that has appeared in several recent polls.

In California, for example, Biden’s approval rating has slipped slightly, according to a new UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll, sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, released Wednesday. Most notably, the share of Californians who strongly approve of how Biden is doing his job fell from 39% in April to 30% currently, the poll found.

Gridlock in Congress likely also contributed to that softening.

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Biden won his election on the message that “we need to bring people together to meet the challenges facing our country and deliver results for working families,” his strategist, Mike Donilon, wrote in a memo that the White House sent to reporters on Thursday.

For the last four months, however, voters have been seeing a lot more talking than delivering on Capitol Hill.

That’s why the Senate’s 67-32 vote on Wednesday to move ahead with a bipartisan $1-trillion deal to increase spending on infrastructure counts as a big success for the president.

Negotiations to reach the agreement have gone through many twists and turns, and the bill will face more perils before it’s final, but it may have become too big to fail. The fact that 17 Republicans said aye on Wednesday’s vote, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, strongly indicates that a critical number in the party have decided that all-out obstruction — the strategy the GOP followed against former President Obama — won’t work now.

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Republican votes for the deal came despite a blast from former President Trump, whose repeated failures to come up with his own deal on rebuilding the country’s roads and bridges turned “infrastructure week” into one of his administration’s recurring punchlines.

“This will be a victory for the Biden Administration and Democrats, and will be heavily used in the 2022 election,” Trump said in a statement warning Republicans to vote no or face primary challenges. “It is a loser for the USA, a terrible deal, and makes the Republicans look weak, foolish, and dumb.”

The infrastructure agreement incorporates many of the priorities that Biden set out when he proposed his own plan in March. Roughly $55 billion for upgrading the nation’s water systems, for example, will be enough to replace every lead water main in the country, administration officials say. The $39 billion for bus and rail systems represents the biggest infusion for transit modernization in history.

To win Republican support, Biden hived off a large chunk of spending from his original package and added it to the separate, Democratic-only bill that party leaders hope to pass in the fall using the budget process known as reconciliation, which bypasses any filibuster attempt.

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That reconciliation bill could also become the vehicle for a major immigration measure, as Biden and leading Democrats made clear in recent days. The provision would provide legal residence and a path to citizenship for Dreamers, the young immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, as well as long-term farmworkers and recipients of Temporary Protected Status — several million people in all.

That bill got an important, albeit limited, endorsement from Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who said in a statement that she would vote to move the package forward when the Senate takes key procedural votes, a step that could come in the next two weeks. Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who has also offered support for the reconciliation package, have been the holdouts in the Democratic caucus, which needs to be unanimous to provide the 50 votes needed for passage if all Republicans vote no, as expected.

Sinema said, however, that she would not support a final bill as large as $3.5 trillion over 10 years, the number that Senate Budget Committee chair Bernie Sanders of Vermont negotiated with the White House and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York.

Sinema’s limitation drew angry rejoinders from the party’s left, which already viewed the $3.5-trillion figure as a compromise. The White House was more welcoming.

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“She’s on board for passing if in fact she sees all the pieces of it,” Biden told reporters Thursday evening, referring to Sinema, with whom he met earlier in the week. “That’s why she allowed the budget to go forward.”

Biden originally proposed roughly $2.3 trillion for infrastructure and another $1.8 trillion for his American Families Plan, for a total of about $4.1 trillion. With $1 trillion in the bipartisan bill plus somewhat less than $3.5 trillion in the Democrats-only package, Congress could end up passing legislation very close to that amount.

That outcome is far from assured. With an evenly divided Senate and a tiny majority in the House, the Democrats have almost no margin for error. By late September, however, it’s possible that Biden may be celebrating a double legislative victory. If the pandemic is once more in retreat by then, the White House may be able to take the victory laps that this summer’s setbacks postponed.

New California Politics newsletter launching

As California’s gubernatorial recall election moves into full campaign mode, the Legislature heads into the home stretch for the year and the once-a-decade redistricting battle looms, The Times is launching a newsletter devoted solely to California politics.

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If you’ve enjoyed the Monday editions of Essential Politics, you can continue to follow John Myers and his Sacramento colleagues with all the news of the political ups and downs of the Golden State by signing up for the new California Politics newsletter.

Meantime, we’ll continue to bring you the latest on Washington and national politics, and we thank you for your continued readership and support.

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L.A. Times/Berkeley Institute for Governmental Studies poll

The new statewide poll offered a host of yellow caution flags for Gov. Gavin Newsom: With the state’s recall election less than two months away, he has a solid lead among all voters, the poll found. But the problem for him is that all voters aren’t going to show up — especially not for an off-cycle election being held in mid-September.

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As Phil Willon reported, the voters whose answers on the survey indicate that they are most likely to turn out are very closely divided on the recall. For Newsom, the poll suggested, the greatest danger may be that the vast majority of Democrats think he’ll win. Republicans are highly motivated to vote, while many Democrats are complacent.

As Willon and Julia Wick wrote, Newsom still has time — and plenty of money — to persuade those Democrats to turn out for the Sept. 14 election. But for now, apathy may be his most dangerous foe.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris both saw their approval ratings dip in the new California poll, but support remains strong in the state for the president’s spending proposals. Melanie Mason covered all the details of the new survey.

And the state’s voters continue to support stringent gun regulations, the poll found, but their belief that gun control will deliver safety has waned just a bit, Patrick McGreevy reported. The state’s long-standing effort to strictly regulate firearms, especially its three-decade-long ban on assault-style rifles, is at risk in a current battle in court, McGreevy wrote.

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The Jan. 6 investigation gets underway

After weeks of political jousting, most recently over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi‘s refusal to appoint die-hard Trump backers including Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) to the investigative panel, the first hearing got underway with devastatingly compelling testimony from Capitol police officers. “I could have lost my life that day ... many times,” Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell told the panel.

As Sarah Wire reported, the police testimony was designed to set the context for an investigation that likely will take months and to rebut the effort by Trump and his supporters to falsely depict the Jan. 6 riot as a benign protest with only small, incidental violent moments.

As Virginia Heffernan wrote in her column, the proceedings became a must-see, must-listen event.

If you missed them, however, here are five takeaways from the hearings.

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For Tom Mann, the hearings have provided some vindication, although he takes little pleasure in it. A decade ago, the long-time scholar of Congress at the Brookings Institution in Washington co-wrote a book warning that the Republicans had become an “insurgent outlier in American politics.”

As Mark Barabak wrote, Mann and his coauthor, Norman Ornstein, took a lot of criticism from people who called them alarmist. Now, they seem prophetic. And Mann, now a scholar in residence at UC Berkeley, remains deeply worried.

“We’re on a precipice,” he said. “We’re actually potentially so close to losing our democracy.”

The latest from Washington

Masks on. Masks off. Masks on again at the White House: Chris Megerian examined the administration’s shifting strategy as the threat grows from the Delta variant.

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That response included Biden’s order that federal workers show proof of vaccinations or get regular testing, Megerian wrote.

Melanie Mason looked a how the Delta variant could shake up the 2022 midterm election.

Senate leader Schumer has introduced a bill that would legalize marijuana at the federal level. Sasha Hupka looked at the chances of the measure becoming law.

Thursday’s latest statistics from the Commerce Department on the nation’s economy showed the GDP back to pre-pandemic levels. Don Lee examined where the economy goes from here.

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On Friday morning, the first 200 Afghans who aided the U.S. arrived at a Virginia military base, but as Eli Stokols wrote, many others remain in peril.

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