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Essential Politics: As a tough month ends, President Biden faces a critical period

Looking cheerful, Speaker Nancy Pelosi takes questions from reporters
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) takes questions from reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday, a day after the House approved a $3.5-trillion budget plan.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press )

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had reason to smile as she took questions from reporters at her regular Capitol Hill news conference this week: She had just engineered a unanimous vote by the chamber’s Democrats to move forward on President Biden‘s domestic program — legislation that Washington’s conventional wisdom repeatedly had declared dead.

The 220-212 party-line vote in the House gave Biden a victory that contrasted with the steady flow of bad news from Afghanistan. His legislation cleared a major hurdle; the final tests, however, still lie ahead.

August has been the cruelest month for Biden’s presidency, but September likely will prove the most consequential.

Through much of this month, Afghanistan has dominated the news, especially Thursday with the bomb attack at the Kabul airport that took the lives of at least 13 American service members and many more Afghans. As heart-wrenching as the reports from Kabul have been, however, they’re unlikely to hugely shape how Americans view Biden’s presidency. Foreign affairs, whether successes or failures, only rarely have such impact.

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Biden ran for office largely on two promises — getting the pandemic under control and proving that after a decade of stalemate, government could deliver material improvements in the lives of average families. This summer, both of those have been called into question as hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 have once again spiked, inflation has risen and the legislative process has ground on without tangible results.

That, more than the barrage of news from Afghanistan, has accounted for the drop in Biden’s public approval seen in multiple public polls, and it is those issues that, most likely, will determine how voters judge his presidency long after Afghanistan once again has faded out of the headlines.

Sprinting toward an uncertain finish line

The next several weeks provide Biden and his aides an opportunity to reverse their slide on those domestic-policy topics.

The current Delta-variant wave of the pandemic may have crested — the rate of increase in cases has slowed in most of the country. Although deaths, which always lag behind by several weeks, continue to rise, the pattern seen in other countries that entered the Delta wave before the U.S. suggests that hospitalizations may begin declining after Labor Day.

On the legislative front, Congress is now racing toward late-September deadlines for final action on Biden’s plans.

The late Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), whose 59 years in the House set the record for consecutive service, used to liken Congress to an old car on a cold day: It sputters and balks for a long time, then suddenly zips down the road.

After months of sputtering, both the House and Senate have now accelerated. The measure passed by the House committed the chamber to a Sept. 27 vote on the $1.2-trillion, bipartisan infrastructure bill the Senate passed in early August. By then, lawmakers also hope to have reached agreement on a larger package of Democratic priorities that would be voted on, first in the House and then, if approved, in the Senate under the special procedures of budget reconciliation, which prevent a Republican filibuster.

The two pieces of legislation need to move in tandem because of the realities of the Democratic coalition: Moderates anxiously want approval of the infrastructure bill, which validates their belief (and Biden’s) that bipartisan legislation remains possible. Progressives, skeptical of negotiating deals with Republicans, are equally keen to win approval of the larger budget package, which accomplishes long-sought Democratic goals — reducing child poverty, improving access to childcare, expanding access to healthcare, reforming immigration and combatting climate change, among others.

Because neither group fully trusts the other — and because Democrats have not a single vote to spare in the Senate and only three they can lose in the House — Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and other Democratic leaders have needed to carefully choreograph the process to keep both factions in harness.

Now, in the race to finish, they have three factors working for them and one big one pushing in the other direction:

The most important fact in their favor is that nearly all elected Democrats support the substance of both bills.

The infrastructure bill may be the top priority for moderates, but it includes a lot of provisions that urban progressives support — more money for mass transit, for example. And moderates back nearly all of the individual items in the budget package. The two factions disagree about how much money various programs should get, but Biden, who has a keen sense of where the party’s center of gravity lies, has put forward proposals that generate a Democratic consensus.

In addition, numerous polls have shown that the provisions have public support. For Democrats worried about reelection, there’s a lot to like about a vote to expand childcare or reduce the cost of Obamacare insurance plans.

Finally, Democratic lawmakers know, just as Republicans did during former President Trump‘s tenure, that their political fates are entwined with the president’s. If Biden suffers a huge legislative loss, almost every elected Democrat will take a hit. Legislative success might or might not significantly improve the political environment for Democratic candidates — parties almost always lose ground after winning the White House; failure, however, almost surely will doom them.

Paradoxically, Democrats’ tiny margins in the House and Senate make members less likely to defect on key votes because no one wants to take the blame for sinking the boat they’re all in.

What keeps the result uncertain? The sheer size of what Democrats are trying to do.

Essentially, the party is trying to accomplish at least a decade’s worth of legislation in one package.

The infrastructure bill, alone, involves matters that have been stalled since Obama’s second term. On top of that, the budget proposal would make the biggest changes in healthcare since passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, including expansions of Medicare that have sat on the legislative agenda for decades. It would provide a near-universal benefit to families with children that supporters have sought since 2001. It would legalize the status of millions of immigrants currently living in the U.S. without authorization, including the Dreamers, young people who arrived in the U.S. illegally as children, breaking a logjam that has persisted since the late 1990s.

And to pay for much of the cost, it would raise taxes on large corporations and the wealthiest Americans, reversing much of the tax cut that the Republicans passed under Trump.

Much of the public discussion of the package has focused on its topline number. Schumer and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the chair of the Budget Committee, struck a deal earlier this year for $3.5 trillion over the next decade. Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have said they’ll insist on reducing the price tag, although they’ve not said by how much.

But even if all Democrats in the House and Senate agree on the overall number, a piece of legislation that seeks to do so many things provides a thousand opportunities for disagreements, any one of which might be enough to defeat the final measure.

In think tanks, congressional hearing rooms and executive branch offices, Democrats have spent years debating these policies and honing proposals for what they would do if they had the votes to put their program into action. They now have about five weeks to get it all down in writing and win near-unanimous support on their side of the aisle for passage.

The future of Biden’s presidency depends on whether they can pull that off.

The next Afghanistan debate — refugees

As of Friday morning, the U.S. had evacuated more than 105,000 people from Afghanistan since mid-August — an unprecedented airlift, as administration officials say.

The vast majority remain in temporary shelter overseas while officials conduct security screening that can routinely take months, sometimes years. Some will seek permanent residence in other countries, but an untold number will, eventually, make their way to the U.S.

During former President Obama‘s tenure, when the administration relocated thousands of refugees from Syria, many governors, mostly Republicans, balked, citing what they called security risks. Already, similar objections have started regarding Afghans.

The resettlement debate doesn’t break down entirely along partisan lines — the Republican governor of Utah, for example, said his state would welcome Afghan refugees. But the red-blue divide is a powerful factor.

On Thursday, a large group of California Democrats urged Biden to send them Afghan evacuees, Sarah Wire reported. Afghan families have flooded lawmakers’ offices seeking assistance, including several from California, Meena Venkataramanan reported.

In addition to Afghan citizens who are now refugees, U.S. officials estimate that about 6,000 American citizens were in Afghanistan when the evacuations started, Tracy Wilkinson reported. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said that number was down to about 1,500.

By Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the number of Americans in the country was down to about 1,000 of whom about two-thirds were in the process of leaving.

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The latest from Washington

In early August, when Biden bowed to protests from progressive Democrats and approved a renewal of the nationwide moratorium on evictions, he predicted that the Supreme Court might well strike it down. On Thursday evening, the justices did block the eviction ban, as David Savage reported. By 6-3, they ruled that “if a federally imposed eviction moratorium is to continue, Congress must specifically authorize it.”

Several states, including California, have their own eviction bans, but in states that do not, officials fear a sudden rise in homelessness as the ban ends.

ICE is poised for changes as Biden’s nominee to head the immigration agency moves toward a Senate confirmation vote, Venkataramanan wrote.

Israel’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, was scheduled to meet Thursday with Biden, a session that was postponed to Friday after the bombing in Kabul. Wilkinson and Chris Megerian previewed the issues the two likely will discuss.

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The recall and more from California

Have questions about California’s recall election? Here’s a complete guide to the 2021 recall. And here, for voters who aren’t clear about the process, is how to vote by mail in the recall.

Vice President Kamala Harris was scheduled to campaign with Gov. Gavin Newsom at a rally in the Bay Area on Friday. She canceled her appearance after the Kabul bombing, Phil Willon and Noah Bierman reported.

Newsom and Larry Elder, the latter a conservative talk show host who is a leading Republican candidate in the recall, have a mutually beneficial relationship, George Skelton wrote in his column. The more Newsom attacks Elder, the stronger Elder gets among Republicans. And the stronger Elder gets, the more he scares Democrats into voting for Newsom.

Gustavo Arellano looked at Elder’s appeal to the right wing.

And Mark Barabak talked to recall supporters who say that toppling Newsom is just the first step in their campaign to remake California.

A little-known Democrat took the stage to clash with Republicans in a California recall debate, Willon and Seema Mehta wrote. Wednesday’s debate was a publicity opportunity for Kevin Paffrath, they wrote.

A key factor in the recall is voters’ feelings about how the state has managed pandemic-related restrictions on schools, Mehta wrote.

The state’s rise in homicides has become a recall rallying cry for Republicans, but experts question whether Newsom’s policies have had much to do with it, Melody Gutierrez wrote. Homicides are up across the country, they note.

California lawmakers have started to debate whether to impose a statewide COVID-19 vaccination mandate, Gutierrez and Taryn Luna reported.

In the meantime, one lawmaker argues that unvaccinated Assembly members should be suspended during the end of the legislative session, John Myers reported.

And Patrick McGreevy reported that a bill stalled that would require fixes to California’s troubled unemployment agency. Several other proposals to reform the agency remain under consideration in the Legislature.

Sign up for our California Politics newsletter to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting, including full coverage of the recall election and the latest action in Sacramento.

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