Sen. Joe Manchin (?-WV) dropped an H-bomb on Build Back Better over the weekend. And on Monday came the first wave of fallout, but also evidence that there may still be a blue light at the end of the tunnel.
To nobody's surprise, there was plenty of sniping on the Democratic side of the aisle (and, presumably, lots of schadenfreude on the Republican side). Democrats heaped blame on one another, including some sniping from the White House directed in Manchin's direction, and some counter-sniping from the West Virginian. The progressives are extra angry, of course, and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) called on Joe Biden to implement a bunch of Build Back Better through executive orders. That's just her emotions talking, though. She surely knows that (1) if that was viable, Biden would already have done so instead of dancing with Manchin for many months, and (2) if a president could spend hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars in that way, the U.S. would have a shiny new wall along the Mexican border.
Most of this finger-pointing isn't especially interesting or important, and will be forgotten by January. However, it is worth it to note what Manchin said. First, he feels that while Biden himself negotiated in good faith, the White House staff behaved less admirably, which frustrated the Senator. In particular, he says he made clear that he wasn't happy with smoke-and-mirrors funding, and that while he's ok with funding pre-K education and working on global warming and shoring up Obamacare, he doesn't like the expanded child tax credit.
Even when Manchin was dropping his bombshell on Fox on Sunday, he didn't actually go Full Sherman. After declaring his intention to vote "No," Fox host Bret Baier followed up with: "You're done. This is a 'no.'" And the Senator answered: "This is a 'no' on this legislation." (emphasis ours). On Monday, Manchin went further, explaining that "I knew what they could and could not do. They just never realized it, because they figure surely to God we can move one person. Surely, we can badger and beat one person up. Well, guess what? I'm from West Virginia. I'm not from where they're from, [where] they can just beat the living crap out of people and think they'll be submissive." He also said that if the Democrats follow a proper process (i.e., committee hearings) and if they pare back the 2017 tax cut, his vote is still available.
None of these things is consistent with someone who is about to declare himself a Republican or an independent, or with someone who wants to destroy his party from within. They are entirely consistent with someone who began to take the arm-twisting personally, who felt he wasn't being heard, and who therefore took the actions he felt were necessary to achieve a reset. Inasmuch as Capitol Hill insiders talked a great deal last week about the need for a cooling off period, it can't come as too much of a surprise that Manchin, in effect, blew his top.
In short, it would seem the death of Build Back Better was greatly exaggerated. It's not completely dead, it's just mostly dead, and Miracle Joe might just bring it back to life. It could still go down in flames, of course. But if it does become law, the Democrats are arguably better off, PR-wise. That is to say, the previous framing was "we wanted $6-$7 trillion in goodies, and got less than $2 trillion, which is disappointing." Now, you could argue that it's "we thought we were getting $0 in goodies, and managed to wangle nearly $2 trillion." Again, though, that assumes that the sausage eventually gets made. (Z)
Tonight, Joe Biden will address the nation on the subject of COVID-19, and more particularly, the subject of omicron and what his administration is planning to do in response to the new variant. According to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, the theme will be "please get vaccinated," and the President will not announce a national lockdown or any other measures of that sort.
We will see about that. Yes, we would be very surprised if Psaki was proven wrong, and Biden was to announce some major new COVID-19 policy tonight. However, the speech might just be the calm before the storm. The omicron variant has, as expected, become the dominant strain of the disease. Last week, 12.6% of Americans with COVID-19 were infected with omicron. This week, it's up to a staggering 73.2%.
Meanwhile, here's the latest heat map for new infections, courtesy of the Mayo Clinic. The darker the color, the higher the rate of infections per 1,000 people.
The lighter red states have rates of 12 to 25 infections per 1,000 residents, with Louisiana (13 per 1,000), Alabama (14.5), Montana (15.7), and California (17.9) leading the way. The darker states have rates of 25 infections per 1,000 people and higher, with Ohio (76.3 per 1,000), Wisconsin (77.2), Massachusetts (79.2), Rhode Island (111.1!), and New Hampshire (116.1!) getting the worst of it. Maryland, as you can see, has not submitted data recently, and while we couldn't fit Alaska and Hawaii on the map, they're in the moderate-red part of the spectrum, with 25.5 per 1,000 for the former and 28.7 per 1,000 for the latter.
We are not epidemiologists, and so we are not especially qualified to explain the pattern shown in the map. If someone were to insist on a guess, we would say that it seems to be hitting hardest in states that are cold (so, people have to be indoors a lot). Whatever the pattern is, it clearly is not red state/blue state, or high-vaccination state/low-vaccination state (admittedly, those two dichotomies are basically the same dichotomy). It's also clearly not due to how cosmopolitan the state is, since California and Washington get plenty of international visitors (who might be omicron carriers) but are at the low end of the spectrum, whereas a state like Delaware, which barely has airplane service, much less international tourism, is at 70.4 infections per 1,000 people.
Meanwhile, here are the 15 states experiencing the worst COVID fatality rates right now, from #1 Michigan at 1.17 deaths per 100,000 people per day to #15 Minnesota at 0.6 deaths per 100,000 people per day:
The point is, it's not quite so simple as "get vaccinated or suffer the consequences." Clearly, some high-vaxx states are being hit hard while some low-vaxx states are getting off relatively scot-free at the moment. Further, given that the vaccines take a couple of weeks to kick in, and the booster takes at least a week, new vaccinations certainly aren't going to save the holiday season, or even make much of a difference until mid-January.
Meanwhile, the sorts of things that served as bellwethers in March-April of last year are starting to happen again:
It is not especially important, in the scheme of things, if a couple of performances of "Hamilton" are postponed, or if SNL has to break open the film vault, or if the Cleveland Browns have to play with a bunch of players who have no business suiting up for an NFL game (after all, their fans are used to it). However, these things do tend to cause people to sit up and take notice. Indeed, if there was any one event last year that really got the ball rolling on lockdowns and the like, it was the suspension of the NBA season (the NFL season was already complete by then).
So, Joe Biden will give his speech tonight, and will tell people they really need to get the shot(s). But that is not likely to be the end of it. It's true that omicron is less likely to produce fatalities than other virulent variants, particularly since so many people are vaccinated, and the vaccines do seem to prevent most cases from turning serious. But it's also true that the variant is spreading like wildfire, that hospital beds and other resources remain limited, and that circumstances remain ripe for the emergence of yet another variant. So, there is sure to be pressure on the administration to do more, even if nobody quite knows what that "more" will be. (Z)
The 1/6 Committee has shown a willingness to go boldly where no House committee has gone before. Just last week, they recommended a criminal contempt charge against Mark Meadows, making him the first former member of the House to be targeted like that since Sam Houston back in the 1830s. And on Monday, the Committee shifted its gaze from a former member to a current member, namely Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA), a leading member of the House Freedom Caucus. They want to talk to him about his efforts to install former Department of Justice official Jeffrey Clark as acting attorney general.
Thus far, the Committee is handling Perry very respectfully, asking him to stop by for a chat as opposed to subpoenaing him. However, if he doesn't play ball, they are in an excellent position to turn the screws. It's not so easy to tell the House Sergeant-at-Arms to grab Steve Bannon and march him to the committee's hearing room. It's much easier to do that with a sitting member of Congress since they are, you know, in the building (and also because the House has wide latitude for policing its own members). And once a precedent is set with Perry (whether he testifies voluntarily, or less so), then surely the Committee will move on to other Republican members of the House, like Jim Jordan (OH), Lauren Boebert (CO), and Marjorie Taylor Greene (GA).
There was also other news on the 1/6 front. It leaked over the weekend that Rick Perry apparently played a key, previously unknown, role in encouraging three key state legislatures to overturn the election results. That would be the Rick Perry who served as Trump's Secretary of Energy, not the Rick Perry who is currently running for governor of Texas. Perry (the conspirator, not the gubernatorial candidate) denies that the incriminating text message came from him, but the phone is registered under his name, and the phone number appears on some of his Department of Energy paperwork.
Further, Alex Jones is pretty desperate to avoid testifying, in part because he's pretty exposed, and in part because it undermines his image as a rebel who's above the law and who speaks truth to power without consequence. So, he's filed a lawsuit against the 1/6 committee claiming that he shouldn't be forced to testify because testifying would be a violation of his First and Fifth Amendment rights. Obviously, the Fifth Amendment is not a "Get Out of Testifying Free" card. The First Amendment argument isn't great, either; Jones is claiming to be a journalist, and asserts that his interactions with Donald Trump are protected as work product. Still, when you're desperate, you go with what you've got, and it's not like Jones can claim executive privilege.
And speaking of desperate, inside sources say that Donald Trump is getting nervous that he's in deep trouble. He doesn't like the negative coverage he's getting, and he doesn't like his acolytes asserting the Fifth Amendment because he believes, probably correctly, that people will infer guilt from that. He would much prefer that they all do as Steve Bannon is doing, and ignore the Committee. Of course, that could send Bannon to the clink for a few years, so it's not a surprise that a lot of Trump underlings don't love that option.
At such point that the Department of Justice decides to pick up the ball and run with it—a development that looks more and more likely each day—then the former president is going to go ballistic. He knows full well that the DoJ has real power to punish lawbreakers, and he also knows that while running out the clock on the 1/6 Committee is at least a possibility, running out the clock on the DoJ would be many degrees more difficult. That is in part because they will be in office until at least 2025, and in part because it's not so easy for a sitting president, even a hypothetical Republican who replaces Joe Biden, to kill an ongoing investigation. Trump has firsthand experience with the latter problem. (Z)
As long as we're on the subjects of desperation, Donald Trump, and Donald Trump's desperation, let's also note that he sued New York AG Letitia James (D) yesterday. He wants the courts to put an immediate stop to any and all investigations involving him and his company. In particular, he does not want to be forced to sit for a deposition next month, which James is gunning for.
We consulted with reader R.E.M. in Brooklyn, a practicing attorney in New York, who took a look at the filing and said it's probably not frivolous enough to result in sanctions (which generally attach to counsel and not the client, anyhow), but that it's also not likely to go anywhere, and will probably get kicked pretty quickly. We guess there's no harm in trying a Hail Mary pass, although given Trump's sensitivity to appearances (see above), it does contribute to an overall impression of someone who's been caught with their hand in the cookie jar and is desperately trying to avoid the consequences. (Z)
California's redistricting commission, which includes five Democrats, five Republicans and four independents, has approved district maps for both Congress and the state legislature. And though the House seat that the state will lose is going to come out of the Democrats' hide, the overall picture is unexpectedly good for them.
To start, a handful of Democratic districts got a little easier to hold, such as the one in Orange County represented by Katie Porter. There are a few Democrats who took it in the teeth, yes, like Sara Jacobs, who goes from a completely safe district (D+32) to a swing district (D+2). However, most of the state's Republican representatives also got bad news. Most obviously, Devin Nunes' district is going to swing 16 points, to D+5. Perhaps that helps explain why he's quitting the House to go run Donald Trump's new media venture. The districts of Mike Garcia, David Valadao, Michelle Steel, Ken Calvert and Tom McClintock will also shift leftward, with the former three possibly becoming competitive.
All you really need to know is this: Democrats are satisfied with the result, particularly the leaders of various ethnic communities. In particular, the new map has 16 districts that are majority Latino. Meanwhile, Republicans are screaming bloody murder. In a statement, National Republican Redistricting Trust Executive Director Adam Kincaid declared:
California's 'independent' redistricting commission is producing wildly contorted congressional lines that rival the extreme gerrymanders in Illinois and Maryland. These new draft maps ignore California's communities in a desperate attempt to try to save Nancy Pelosi's majority.
Because if there's anyone who can be counted on to tote Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-CA) water, it's 14 randomly selected private citizens, 9 of whom aren't even registered Democrats.
All other things being equal, the new map is likely to cost the Republicans two seats. One of those would offset the Democratic seat that is disappearing, and the other would be a net gain for the blue team. That is about as much as the Democrats could have hoped for during this go-round. (Z)
On the same day the Democrats learned they have a good chance of going +1 in California, they also learned of a very possible -1 in Florida. Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-FL) is a leading moderate and a member of the 1/6 Commission who has managed to win three times in a swing district (FL-07, which is D+3). She flirted with a challenge to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) earlier this year, but decided against it when Rep. Val Demings (D-FL) jumped into the race. Since then, Murphy's fundraising has been sluggish, her district has been drawn to be less friendly, and she's faced a steady stream of death threats. So, she's retiring, at least for now. She left open the possibility of a future run, and there is talk she might try to take on Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) in 2024.
The announcement makes Murphy the 22nd Democrat to stand down this cycle, as compared to 14 Republicans. We presumably don't need to remind readers for the second time this week that is not a good omen for the Democrats. And not long after Murphy jumped ship, Rep. Albio Sires (D-NY) became the 23rd. At 70, he decided he's had enough. Sires took over the seat of Sen. Bob Menethe z (D-NJ) when Menendez was appointed to the Senate, and now Menendez's son Bob Jr. is angling to replace Sires. Time will tell if Democratic pooh-bahs and voters get excited about a mini-dynasty, especially given that the elder Menendez has been badly tainted by scandal. However, the district that Sires is leaving, NJ-08, is D+27, so it's going to stay in Democratic hands regardless of which candidate wins the primary. (Z)
Whoops! The staff poet laureate got stuck in the Nantucket airport due to COVID cancellations, so we neglected to run new verse yesterday. Here are the previous entries:
Anyhow, after offering some criticism of others' verse, B.N. in Manhattan, KS, has decided to show us how it's done:
With the wave of new Omicron cases
A fresh travel dilemma Ted faces:
What sneak flight plan to choose?
Exit Texas by "cruz"?
Or desert to some "I"-land oasis?
And here's one from a Cruz constituent, namely M.B. in San Antonio, TX, who likes to work blue:
In the Senate, Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley
Walk around belly-to-belly,
Because once in haste,
They used library paste,
Instead of petroleum jelly.
Note that we interpret the latter entry as a comment on a particular form of mutual admiration society, and not a comment on any particular sexual orientation. (Z)