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Wake Up To Politics - January 18, 2022

Wake Up To Politics: Biden’s possible pivot
Wake Up To Politics - January 18, 2022

by Gabe Fleisher

Good morning! It’s Tuesday, January 18, 2022. Election Day 2022 is 294 days away. Election Day 2024 is 1,022 days away.

Biden’s possible pivot

President Joe Biden enters the first week of his second year in office with a stack of nagging problems on his hands:

  • The Covid-19 pandemic, which Biden promised to end, continues to rage throughout the U.S. More than 800,000 new cases are being reported every day across the country and hospitals in a majority of states are nearing capacity amid the rise of the Omicron variant.
  • Inflation, which Biden initially dismissed, has now reached a 40-year high.
  • The Build Back Better Act, the centerpiece of Biden’s domestic agenda, is stalled in Congress amid opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV).
  • Voting rights legislation, which Biden has described as essential for the survival of democracy, is expected to fail in the Senate this week as two Democrats spurn his efforts to modify the filibuster.
  • In the foreign policy realm, which Biden once claimed as his specialty, indications are rising that Russia is preparing to attack U.S.-allied Ukraine, bringing Europe closer to war than it has been in decades.

All of this is adding up to surging discontent in the Democratic ranks. Biden’s party, per the Associated Press, is a “coalition in crisis.” According to the New York Times, Democrats are “deflated” and “frustrated.” The Washington Post reports that some Biden backers are now staring “into the abyss.”

Meanwhile, historical trends suggest that things could soon get even worse for the president’s party, which is likely to lose control of Congress in the midterm elections this November. Portending losses later this year, Biden’s dismal approval rating makes him the second least popular president in modern history, while Republicans boast their largest advantage in party identification since 1991.

President Biden faces a long list of problems as his administration enters its second year. Gage Skidmore

So, what will Biden do next to try to engineer a turnaround? That’s the top question on the mind of many Democrats, and there are obviously several paths forward his presidency could take.  

But with voting rights expected to be added to his list of legislative failures, some Biden allies are urging him to return to a strategy he has largely discarded: After seeking to go it alone on his party’s top priorities, Biden might have to pivot back to bipartisan compromise.

Of course, Biden arrived in office promising to restore unity and bipartisanship to Washington. And one of his most prized accomplishments thus far — the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package — was achieved with Republican support.

With the rest of his economic agenda on the back burner, Biden is likely to spend a lot of time ahead of the midterms trumpeting the bipartisan infrastructure bill, especially as work soon begins on projects funded by the package. Biden delivered a speech focused on the package last week, and has another event aimed at promoting scheduled for Thursday.

Could Biden pull off another major agreement with Republicans? The opposition party has largely been disinterested in working with Biden or striking deals, but there are a few bipartisan efforts underway.

The key one to watch right now is on election reform: after the Democratic voting rights package likely fails this week, a bipartisan group of senators working on an alternative are likely to move into the spotlight. That group is focused on overhauling the Electoral Count Act of 1887, the confusing law that lays out the procedures for the certification of Electoral College votes, which former President Donald Trump urged his vice president, Mike Pence, to subvert by claiming the power to overturn the results.

However, according to the New York Times, the group is expanding its focus to possibly also “include other measures aimed at preventing interference in election administration, such as barring the removal of nonpartisan election officials without cause and creating federal penalties for the harassment or intimidation of election officials.”

As its focus has grown, so has the group itself: Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) recently revealed that the bipartisan “gang” has nearly doubled in size.

Sen. Mitt Romney could be at the center of several forthcoming bipartisan efforts. Gage Skidmore

Romney could also be at the center of another potential bipartisan push. With Build Back Better floundering, the Washington Post reported that vulnerable House Democrats are pushing their leaders to give up on the larger package and instead try to forge compromises with Republicans on some of its most popular provisions, such as the expanded Child Tax Credit and lowering the cost of prescription drugs.

If Democrats do decide to pursue a compromise Child Tax Credit, Romney would be the likely partner, having previously put forward a similar proposal. Manchin and Romney have reportedly already discussed a possible deal, and the Utahn has urged the White House to come to the table. (They have yet to show any interest, he said.)

Any bipartisan action probably wouldn’t come until Biden’s current plans are shelved. On election reform, that turning point could arrive this week; Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) told the Times that the bipartisan Electoral Count Act negotiators would meet again in the coming days, after the Democratic proposal is dispensed with.

Other bipartisan efforts could also emerge from the shadows after attention moves from voting rights. An omnibus spending bill will need to be passed with bipartisan support; Democrats are eyeing a possible agreement to include additional pandemic aid (and possibly even a Covid-focused paid leave provision) in the measure.

As the Post columnist David Ignatius points out, the focus on voting rights and Build Back Better has also crowded out the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, a bipartisan bill to bolster technology research and compete with China. The measure passed the Senate with support from both parties in June; it has been languishing in the House since then, but per Ignatius, the bill could receive a surge of renewed action soon.  

If bipartisan deals do emerge, watch for them to come not from the party leaders, but from the rank-and-file. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is reportedly incensed with Biden after the president’s voting rights speech in Atlanta last week, in which the president compared those who oppose his legislation to infamous segregationists.

McConnell called Biden’s speech “deliberately divisive” and “profoundly unpresidential.” But efforts to ink a limited election reform agreement appear to be moving on without either man on board.

“We don’t feel like we have to ask for permission,” Collins, who has been organizing the election reform talks, told the Times in an interview, summing up the view of members of both parties who are going around their leaders to engage in the negotiations.

Policy Briefing: Education

Every Tuesday, Wake Up To Politics contributor Kirsten Shaw Mettler offers a briefing on the week’s top education news.

High school students are staging walk-outs for increased Covid protections. Protestors from Oakland to New York City have called for increased safety procedures in K-12 schools, including remote learning, increased Covid testing, and the provision of N95 masks. The CDC has recommended that schools cancel extracurriculars like band and football.

Meanwhile, many K-12 schools are actually decreasing Covid restrictions. While a minority of schools have returned to remote learning, most are working to stay in person. States like Arizona and Virginia are pushing against school mask mandates.

Due to a combination of updated CDC guidance and shortages, many schools are also walking away from testing. The latest health guidelines loosen testing and isolation recommendations, especially for asymptomatic and vaccinated students. Some schools have had trouble maintaining their current testing procedures as the Omicron surge makes tests difficult to find.

The White House has pledged to provide schools with 10 million tests a month: half rapid antigen, half PCR.

Schools and students have been clashing across the country over Covid testing and masking restrictions. Chris Yarzab

More education policy headlines, via Kirsten:

  • Colleges enrolled a million fewer students in fall 2021 compared to fall 2019, continuing the decade-long declining trend.
  • Loan servicer Navient has canceled $1.7 billion in private student debt in order to resolve various lawsuits that accuse the company of contributing to the national student debt crisis.
  • The University of Michigan fired its president for allegedly having an inappropriate affair with a subordinate.

Plus, a correction: Due to an editing error, last week’s education briefing incorrectly stated that Chicago public schools held a week of classes online amid a clash over Covid safety measures. In fact, the school district did not hold classes at all during the impasse.

One more thing that caught my eye...

Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court’s landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision (which legalized same-sex marraige across the country), is jumping into the political arena.

Obergefell announced this morning that he is running for a seat in the Ohio State House, per the Cincinnatti Enquirer.

Jim Obergefell (left) after the Supreme Court announced its decision in the same-sex marriage case that bears his name. Elvert Barnes


All times Eastern.
White House
President Joe Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing at 10:15 a.m. Then, he and Vice President Kamala Harris will receive their weekly economic briefing at 11:15 a.m.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki will hold her daily press briefing at 12 p.m. She will be joined by Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor who is now overseeing implementation of the bipartisan infrastructure law for the Biden administration.

→ The Senate will convene at 12 p.m. and begin consideration of H.R. 5746, the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, the Democratic bill that would establish new nationwide standards for voting by requiring states to institute online, automatic, and same-day voter registration; a minimum of 15 days of early voting; and no-excuse mail voting, among other changes.

The measure, which passed the House in a party-lines vote last week, would also make Election Day a federal holiday and restore provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that require new voting rules in certain states to be “pre-cleared” by the federal government.

The chamber will kick off debate on the 735-page bill this afternoon, but no votes are expected to take place today. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will file cloture on the measure during today’s session, setting up a likely cloture vote on Wednesday. The cloture vote will require 60 senators to back the bill for it to advance, a threshold it will not reach due to its lack of Republican support. That failed cloture vote will lead Schumer to attempt to force a change to the Senate’s cloture procedures (the rule that allows filibusters) — an effort that is also expected to fail.

→ Senate Democrats will hold a special caucus meeting at 5 p.m. The party is expected to discuss Schumer’s plan for forcing a vote on changing Senate filibuster rules; Schumer has yet to divulge key details to his members, including exactly what changes he will be pushing for. All 50 Democratic senators would need to support a potential rules change using the one-party “nuclear option”; Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) indicated last week that they will oppose any changes to the filibuster that do not have bipartisan support.

Although Senate Democrats have recently been meeting virtually amid the rise of the Omicron variant, today’s huddle will be held in-person.

→ The House will convene at 12 p.m. Later in the day, the chamber is slated to hold a vote under suspension of the rules on S. 2959, the Supplemental Impact Aid Flexibility Act, a bipartisan bill relating to the Impact Aid Program, which assists districts that collect less in local property taxes to fund their schools because they either include tax-exempt federal property within their borders or because they have children who live on federal property (mostly tribal lands or military bases) enrolled.
The measure before the House today would allow these districts to use previously reported headcounts on their Impact Aid applications for the 2022-2023 school year, since attendance numbers from this year could be affected by the pandemic.

→ House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will hold a ceremonial swearing-in for Rep.-elect Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick (D-FL) at around 6:45 p.m.

Cherfilus-McCormick won a special election last week to fill the seat vacated by the April 2021 death of Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL). With her swearing-in, the House will be made up of 222 Democrats and 212 Republicans (with one remaining vacancy), leaving room for Pelosi to sustain four Democratic defections on key votes (instead of only three).


→ The Supreme Court will release orders at 9:30 a.m. Then, the court will hear oral arguments in two cases: Shurtleff v. Boston (at 10 a.m.) and Cassirer v. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation (at 11 a.m.).

The first case is a lawsuit brought by Harold Shurtleff, who sought to fly a flag with the Christian cross in front of Boston’s city hall. (Boston sometimes allows outside groups to fly flags on a flagpole outside of the building, but the city rejected Shurtleff’s request, and he is arguing that the decision violated his First Amendment rights.)

The second case involves a technical question that could decide a long-running dispute between the heirs of Lilly Cassirer, a German-born woman who had a famed Impressionist painting (now worth about $40 million) seized by the Nazis before she fled to the United States, and the art gallery in Spain where the painting now hangs.