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Essential Politics: ‘Once we get past March 1, it’s not impossible, but it becomes very difficult’

Rep. Pramila Jayapal
Rep. Pramila Jayapal spoke to grassroots progressive activists on a call Monday.
(Mandel Ngan / Associated Press)
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Another day, another deadline.

I joined a progressive group’s organizing call Monday expecting to hear what’s next for voting rights in Congress from the headliner, Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).

To recap: Senate Democrats forced debate on voting rights this month for the first time this Congress, but lacked the bipartisan support required to pass a pair of voting bills (the Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act) and the intraparty support necessary to change the rules to pass them.

But what really stood out to me was Jayapal’s insistence that Congress pass some version of Build Back Better, President Biden’s social spending and climate change agenda, by March 1.

Welcome to today’s Essential Politics newsletter. I’m Nolan D. McCaskill, a congressional reporter who will be guiding you into what’s next for one of Biden’s top legislative priorities.

BBB (BM*) — Build Back Better (*by March)

The significance of March 1 is that it’s the date on which Biden will deliver his first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.

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“The attention has to move back to Build Back Better, and we are really trying to figure out — and you can help us — all of the ways in which we can elevate Build Back Better, particularly for the next four weeks,” Jayapal said to grassroots activists. “The next four weeks, sort of leading up to the State of the Union, is the timeframe we have to try to get as much of Build Back Better passed as possible.”

Biden expressed confidence last week that “big chunks” of BBB could become law. To some, that signaled a piecemeal approach to policymaking. But due to the budget reconciliation process by which the Senate is trying to pass BBB, Democratic leaders believe the path forward is with one significant bill that Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) can vote for. That process would allow both chambers to pass a package with a simple majority vote rather than requiring the support of 10 Senate Republicans on individual policies.

“There is actually more agreement than it may seem on a lot of the parts of the bill,” Jayapal said, highlighting climate, universal childcare, universal pre-K and prescription drug price negotiations as proposals Manchin backs.

“Time is not our friend in the legislative process,” she continued. “So March 1 is sort of the place where I know the president wants to be able to come to Congress and say, ‘We delivered on these key pieces of Build Back Better.’ So there’s kind of a unique little opportunity. Once we get past March 1, it’s not impossible, but it becomes very difficult to have people to continue to believe that we’re going to get something done.”

Jayapal added that Biden should sit down with Manchin and remove aspects of the bill the House passed that the West Virginia senator never committed to.

“There were things that he did not agree to, and we understand that,” Jayapal said. “But we need his vote, at least on the components of Build Back Better that were in the framework.”

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The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment about where it stands on a March 1 deadline for BBB.

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The state of the union before the State of the Union

In his inaugural address last year, Biden conceded that “speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy.” But “unity is the path forward,” he declared then.

One year later, Americans are still bitterly divided — and, according to the latest Pew Research Center survey, an increasing share of voters in both parties want to see their leaders stand up to the opposition.

More than 7 in 10 respondents who identify as or lean Republican said they want Republican congressional leaders to stand up to Biden on issues that are important to GOP voters, a 13-point increase from a year ago. While half of the respondents who identify as or lean Democrat said Biden should work with Republicans to accomplish things, 48% want Biden to stand up to Republicans on issues that are important to Democratic voters. That latter figure is an 11-point increase from this time a year ago.

Overall, nearly 8 in 10 respondents said they’re dissatisfied with the way things are going in the U.S., 12 points higher than when the question was posed in the early months of Biden’s presidency. More than 6 in 10 of the U.S. adults surveyed, however, did say they believed this year will be better than last year.

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The president’s approval rating is down to 41% in the new survey, with 56% disapproving of Biden’s job performance. And only 20% believe Biden will ultimately be a successful president. An additional 43% said Biden will be an unsuccessful president, while 37% said it’s too early to tell.

When asked about the state of the country, a majority of respondents said they feel fearful (62%), angry (55%), not hopeful (53%) and not proud (78%). With the exception of an 8-point shift in hopefulness, the mood of the nation one year into the Biden administration is largely on par with what it was in the final months of the Trump presidency.

But a majority of respondents also lack confidence in Biden’s ability to handle the pandemic (56%), make good economic policy decisions (56%), make wise immigration policy decisions (58%), bring the country closer together (70%), effectively deal with China (61%), work effectively with Congress (58%) and effectively handle law enforcement and criminal justice issues (59%).

President Joe Biden walks back to the White House.
President Biden walks back to the White House after a short trip to visit businesses in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

The outlook is also bad for both political parties, with a majority of respondents saying both parties are too extreme in their positions and neither govern in an honest and ethical way. But while Democrats get a pass, a majority of respondents also said Republicans don’t respect the nation’s democratic institutions and norms.

The COVID-19 pandemic also remains a problem, with 69% citing it as a major threat to the economy and 57% seeing it as a major threat to the health of the U.S. population. U.S. adults are divided over whether the worst is behind us (49%) or the worst is still to come (50%).

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Less than half of those surveyed (47%) said economic conditions are “only fair.” A quarter said they’re “good,” and 24% described them as “poor.” Nearly 6 in 10 respondents (57%) said job availability is better than it was a year ago, but a majority said America is worse off than it was a year ago when it comes to availability of consumer goods (70%), healthcare costs (55%), gas prices (82%), housing costs (79%), food and consumer goods prices (89%) and the federal budget deficit (68%).

Pew surveyed 5,128 U.S. adults, and the results have a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

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The view from Washington

— The Supreme Court dismissed a case between House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), David G. Savage reports, letting stand a special rule set by House Democrats that allows members to cast proxy votes during the pandemic.

— The high court also agreed to hear major challenges to race-based affirmative action in U.S. colleges and universities. As David G. Savage notes, the justices voted to hear a pair of appeals contending that Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are violating civil rights laws by giving preferences to some minority students seeking admission.

— Pelosi said Tuesday she is seeking reelection to her San Francisco-area congressional seat, though she remained silent on whether she would seek to retain her position leading House Democrats. As Mark Z. Barabak writes, Pelosi’s plan extends one of San Francisco’s longest-running, most-fevered political guessing games: Who will succeed the Democrat when she finally does step aside?

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Erin B. Logan and Anumita Kaur highlight how Republican members of Congress who opposed the bipartisan infrastructure law aren’t letting their vote stop them from touting the benefits of the law to their constituents.

— President Biden and congressional Democrats have come up short on voting rights. But Democrats are in danger of disappointing Black voters even more by failing to act another priority: criminal justice. Melanie Mason and Noah Bierman tackle the question: Will another promise to Black voters fall short?

The view from California

— Melody Gutierrez and Howard Blume break down what we know about new proposals that would require California students to be immunized.

— Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers reached a deal to once again require employers to provide workers with up to two weeks of supplemental paid sick leave to recover from or care for a family member with COVID-19, according to Taryn Luna and Melody Gutierrez. A similar law expired Sept. 30.

— Shopping mall magnate Rick Caruso has changed his political affiliation from no party preference to Democrat as he weighs a potential run for mayor of Los Angeles, Benjamin Oreskes reports.

— With state lawmakers drafting the toughest COVID-19 legislation in the nation, California is poised to become the front line of America’s vaccination wars.

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