by Gabe Fleisher
Good morning! It’s Tuesday, November 16, 2021. Election Day 2022 is 357 days away. Election Day 2024 is 1,085 days away.
I was at the White House on Monday as President Biden signed his sweeping infrastructure bill into law. Here’s what it was like on the South Lawn...
Inside Washington’s infrastructure pep rally
President Joe Biden has been mocked in the past both for his love of trains and for his belief in bipartisanship. But he put the two together on Monday as he signed into law a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, a goal that has eluded leaders in Washington for years.
The package, which includes $550 billion in new spending, will make sweeping new investments in America’s roads, bridges, highways, ports, pipes, and power lines — plus Biden’s beloved railroads, of course.
“To paraphrase one of my favorite former vice presidents, it’s a big f’ing deal,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) crowed at the White House signing ceremony for the legislation, a reference to Biden’s hot-mic moment at a similar event for Obamacare in 2010.
The ceremony was Washington’s hottest ticket on Monday. About 800 guests, including governors, mayors, labor and business leaders, and Democratic and Republican members of Congress, gathered on the White House South Lawn to watch Biden make their shared infrastructure dream a reality. (“It’s like the beginning of a ‘Saturday Night Live’ episode,” one journalist behind me remarked, watching as figures from every corner of American political life converged in a single setting.)
Indeed, the mood was almost as giddy as an SNL cold open: after months of bruising headlines about the Afghanistan withdrawal, rising inflation, sinking approval ratings, and his party’s losses in Virginia, Biden seemed at ease as he basked in one of his biggest accomplishments to date.
Along with applause lines intended to signal the historical gravity of the moment (“America is moving again,” he declared), Biden even mixed a few ad-libbed jokes into his speech, including references to Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff as his wife Jill’s “second husband” and to his onetime vice presidential rival Sarah Palin as the governor who “could see Alaska from her porch.”
It was fitting for an event that was part legislative ritual, part high school pep rally. Lawmakers arrived together in buses (“Field trip to the White House!” one tweeted), then piled onto the lawn; once they had taken their seats, veteran and freshman members alike kept popping up to take pictures of the ornate White House backdrop.
“Should we do the wave?” Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), who is being urged to launch a primary challenge against centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) in 2024, asked with a smile. More than once, when a public works project would be mentioned from the podium, members from that state or district would loudly whoop and cheer.
The members of Congress launched into chants of “Joe! Joe! Joe!” as Biden started speaking, and a few even turned around to take selfies of themselves with the president while he was mid-speech. Before and after the ceremony, many of them held their phones out to narrate vlogs for their social media audiences: I heard no less than three separate lawmakers proclaim “It’s finally Infrastructure Week!” to begin their videos, each flashing grins into their cameras.
Most were using iPhones, but 81-year-old Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) — fresh off of announcing his retirement earlier that day, and known for nursing an avid photography habit — snapped away with his SLR camera throughout the ceremony. (Vermont Rep. Peter Welch, the odds-on favorite to take Leahy’s seat, was also nearby. When a fellow journalist tried to get his attention, two Democratic congressmen joked, “That’s Senator Welch to you.” It turns out lawmakers all have pretty much the same sense of humor.)
Lawmakers from both parties seemed mostly in good spirits, although some grumbled about the cold weather during the ceremony, which was held outdoors and lasted almost two hours. “We were wondering when you were gonna stop,” Rep. Don Young (R-AK) could be heard saying to Biden after he signed the bill. “We damn near froze to death.”
I stood behind a clutch of rank-and-file House Democrats and was listening closely for their reactions throughout the speeches. Of the four members of Congress who spoke, Pelosi was also the only one to receive a standing ovation from her fellow lawmakers; she received a hero’s welcome from her caucus, a sign of the regard she is still held in even as the months-long battle over Biden’s agenda has tested her sway on Capitol Hill.
The enigmatic Sinema, on the other hand, received a fairly muted reception, even from Democrats, while her infrastructure negotiating partner Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) caused murmurs when he used his remarks to lightly criticize other Democratic plans. “Is this the time for that?” one congresswoman asked aloud, shaking her head.
Although the event was intended to hail the infrastructure package, references to the administration’s next endeavors are what consistently drew the largest cheers from the lawmakers seated by me. As Vice President Kamala Harris put it, the infrastructure bill was just “part one of two” for the party’s economic agenda. Next up is the heavier lift: the $1.75 trillion “Build Back Better” package, which aims to expand public education, public housing, child care, elder care, and health care in the United States, while also combatting climate change.
“That’s right!” one House member yelled out after Harris spoke about the need to pass the forthcoming package.
When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) divulged that she plans to hold a vote on the measure this week, the Democrats near me clapped louder than they had for anything else. It sent a clear message: Happy as they were with the win they celebrated on Monday, Democratic lawmakers are hungry for more — and this next package is what really excites them.
Well, most of them, that is. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) was also on hand for the South Lawn event, but didn’t seem to join in the loud cheering for the “Build Back Better” bill, which he has sought to whittle down or delay.
Back at the Capitol on Monday, Manchin declined to rule out waiting on the larger spending package until the new year. In other words: it was good that Biden and friends seemed to enjoy their celebratory signing ceremony. It might be quite some time before they get another one.
More headlines to know
→ “Patrick Leahy, longest serving US senator still in office, announces he won't seek reelection” CNN
→ “Beto O’Rourke says he’s running for Texas governor” Texas Tribune
→ “Steve Bannon surrenders to face criminal contempt of Congress charges” CBS News
→ “Republicans gain heavy House edge in 2022 as gerrymandered maps emerge” New York Times
→ “Biden proposes 20-year drilling ban around Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a sacred tribal site” Washington Post
Policy Roundup: Education
On Tuesdays, Wake Up To Politics contributor Kirsten Shaw Mettler offers a briefing on the education news to know this week:
For-profit institutions are excluded from current proposals to increase Pell grants. Approximately 900,000 low-income students attending for-profit college receive Pell grants, a type of federal education aid. House Democrats have excluded for-profit schools from their recent proposals to increase the maximum Pell grant by $550 in the Build Back Better Act.
For-profit institutions are pushing back, with Jason Altmire, president and CEO of the for-profit group Career Education Colleges and Universities, calling the provision “unprecedented.” Many Republicans have also rebuked the provision, claiming it is discriminatory. Even some Democrats appear to be concerned, with a dozen or so arguing that the policy harms students.
International student enrollment at American colleges has seen a sharp decline. For the 2020-21 year, there was a 15% drop in international student enrollment: the largest decline in seven decades. This was likely due to challenges presented by COVID-19 and traveling restrictions.
International students bring diversity, tuition and competition to American universities. Some colleges think the situation is rebounding, saying that Fall 2021 saw a significant increase in international student enrollment.
More education policy headlines, via Kirsten:
— On Wednesday, a federal judge overturned Texas Governor Greg Abbot’s ban on school mask mandates, saying such restrictions violate the American with Disabilities Act.
— The plaintiffs from two separate racial discrimination cases, one regarding Harvard and the other University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, are asking for their Supreme Court cases to be heard together, hoping for a ban on affirmative action.
— Schools are battling substitute teacher shortages, leaving educators scrambling.
All times Eastern.
→ President Joe Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing at 9:30 a.m., then travel to Woodstock, New Hampshire. At 2:25 p.m., he will visit the NH 175 Bridge in Woodstock and deliver remarks on how the new bipartisan infrastructure law will improve the nation’s roads and bridges. Biden will then return to Washington, D.C.
Vice President Kamala Harris will deliver remarks at 4:40 p.m. at the White House Tribal Nations Summit, a two-day virtual conference with Biden administrations officials and leaders from more than 570 tribes across the United States. It is the first such summit since 2016.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Andrew Bates will hold a press gaggle aboard Air Force One during the flight to New Hampshire.
→ The Senate will convene at 10 a.m. to resume consideration of Biden nominees. At 11:30 a.m., the chamber will vote on confirmation of Graham Steele to be Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Financial Institutions, followed by a cloture vote to advance Robert Bonnie’s nomination to be Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm Production and Conservation.
The Senate will then recess recess 2:15 p.m. for weekly caucus meetings. At 2:30 p.m., the chamber will vote on Bonnie’s confirmation, followed by a cloture vote to advance Brian Nelson’s nomination to be Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Crimes.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas at 10 a.m. Mayorkas is expected to face tough questioning on the Biden administration’s immigration policies and handling of the border.
→ The House will convene at 10 a.m. and vote under “suspension of the rules” on 13 pieces of legislation this afternoon:
- H.R. 4591, the VA Electronic Health Record Transparency Act
- H.R. 5516, the VITAL Assessment Act
- H.R. 2433, the Burn Pit Registry Enhancement Act
- H.R. 4626, the VA AIM Act
- H.R. 5603, the Protections for Student Veterans
- S. 796, the Protecting Moms Who Served Act
- H.R. 4233, the Student Veterans Counseling Centers Eligibility Act
- H.R. 147, the BRAVE Act
- H.R. 3730, to amend title 38, United States Code, to establish in the Department of Veterans Affairs an Advisory Committee on United States Outlying Areas and Freely Associated States
- H.R. 5721, the VIPER Act
- H.R. 2915, the HOPR Act
- H.R. 5652, the DHS Acquisition Review Board Act
- H.R. 5574, the TRANSLATE Act
→ The Supreme Court is not in session today.