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Who Is Winning the Capitol Hill Game of 3-D Chess?

Given the clown car that is the House Republican Conference, we did not necessarily expect Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) & Co. to pass any bills during their first, oh, 6 months in power. After all, if you can't even agree on who should be speaker (something that House caucuses and conferences have had no issue resolving since the Civil War era), then can you agree on anything?

However, the red team has surprised us getting two bills through the House that either have passed, or probably will pass, the Senate. The first is the resolution overturning the new Department of Labor rule that would allow for the consideration of environmental factors in money managers' decisions. Not require, mind you, but allow. As we pointed out over the weekend, resolutions like this cannot be filibustered, and need just a bare majority to pass. House Republicans went first, and then Senate Republicans followed suit, with Sens. Jon Tester (D-Gas) and Joe Manchin (D-Coal) joining them. The bill is now headed to Joe Biden's desk, where he's already promised his first veto.

The second bill, which hasn't passed yet but is almost certainly going to, involves crime in Washington, DC. It's been quite a soap opera, so you'll have to bear with us. This one starts with the DC city council, which is quite lefty. They noticed that despite the United States' habit of throwing the book at criminals, and despite the fact that the country has the highest number of prisoners in the world (2,068,800, well ahead of #2 China at 1,690,000), and despite the fact that the country has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world (629 per 100,000, well ahead of #2 Rwanda at 580 per 100,000), the U.S. still has as much crime as any industrial nation. And so, the D.C. city council, which is predominantly Black, and which just might have noticed that incarcerated Americans are disproportionately Black, tried to reduce the penalties for certain violent crimes. The thinking that is if what the country is doing isn't working, maybe it's time to try something else.

Republicans have had a field day with this, as you can imagine, as the GOP's plan for 2024 is to paint the Democrats as "soft on crime." And guess what? Congress has oversight authority over D.C., and is allowed to override decisions of the city council with a straight majority resolution—again no filibustering. So, Republicans in both chambers decided to force a vote on the matter, thinking that it would put the Democrats in a corner. Either the members of the blue team could back D.C. and open themselves up to "soft on crime" attacks, or they could stick it to D.C. and upset their base (especially Black voters).

What has happened since the resolution passed the House on a party-line vote has been... unusual. D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser (D) has flip-flopped on whether she wants the new rules sustained or overturned. The D.C. council has tried to withdraw the new rules. A number of Senate Democrats—like Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Manchin, and Tester, all of whom happen to be up for reelection next year—have said they will join the Republicans in helping to overrule the D.C. council. Joe Biden has said he will not veto the resolution and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has said he's not going to whip votes. So, the Republican-sponsored resolution looks likely to succeed.

At a glance, then, it might appear that the Republicans are scoring some big victories here. That is to say, they are getting Republican-sponsored resolutions through both chambers of Congress, while at the same time managing to divide the Democrats on politically sensitive issues like fossil fuels and crime. Maybe McCarthy deserves more credit for political savvy than we've been giving him?

It's certainly possible that is the case. But there's also a very different way of looking at these events. To start, the Republicans aren't actually going to accomplish very much with their two resolutions. The Dept. of Labor rule is still going to take effect, thanks to Biden's veto pen. And the new D.C. rules were contentious enough that even the D.C. city council has now though better of them.

Meanwhile, and very importantly, in setting up these show votes, the Republicans are actually giving vulnerable Democrats some useful fodder for their messaging. Someone like Manchin or Tester, for example, can go back to their home states and say "I certainly support what my party does for working people. But when we're talking about the fossil fuels that are important to our state's economy, or the crime that put our children in danger, I'm not afraid to stand up to the other Democrats, even if it is the President himself." Other Democrats who are planning to vote to override D.C., a list that may even include some of the lefties like Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) will similarly be able to claim the mantle of "tough on crime." Again, our view is that "tough on crime" is pretty foolish, given how poorly it's worked out for the U.S. in the last 200 years, and given the disproportionate impact on non-white Americans. But "tough on crime" is what the great majority of voters want.

In short, we're not sure exactly who is winning the current rounds of 3-D chess. An interesting test is forthcoming, though; McCarthy is putting together an omnibus energy bill that will include a "greatest hits" of Republican ideas—resume work on the Keystone XL pipeline, make permitting easier, expand drilling on federal lands, and more than a dozen other initiatives along these lines.

The Speaker's first problem is getting the bill through his own chamber. If he doesn't get Democratic votes, and he probably won't, he has only a five-vote margin of error, of course, and there are some ideas that even members of his conference will not be thrilled about. For example, the two Montana Republicans may not be open to despoiling more federal lands. Well, OK, who are we kidding—Ryan Zinke never met so much as a single square inch of land he didn't want to despoil. But Matt Rosendale might feel differently.

The Speaker's second problem is getting the bill through the Senate. He is presumably counting on Manchin, Tester and some other mystery group of Democratic senators to climb on board. But unlike the DoE and D.C. resolutions, this one would be filibusterable. So, it's going to take a whole bunch of Democratic aisle-crossers. We doubt that the Republicans can pull it off, or that they can even get much political mileage out of the vote, since Democrats can say things like "You can't possibly expect me to support Keystone XL after what just happened in East Palestine, Ohio!" But if we are wrong about these guesses, then we will indeed have to go back and consider our assessment of McCarthy. (Z)

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