David Dayen reports on the new president, policy and all things political
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March 25, 2021
President Manchin’s Agenda
Plus, real talk about the border
Joe Manchin in his natural habitat, talking to reporters about things he wants done. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)
The Chief
Moderate members of Congress who represent the margin of victory on legislation always get outsized attention. You might say that’s why they’re moderates; nobody’s hanging on Richard Blumenthal’s every word, after all (though they should! Blumenthal is an underrated lawmaker. But I digress.) But the combination of an extremely narrow Senate majority and pent-up demand for liberal policies have forced us to peer entirely too deeply into the mind of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). And it’s a pretty confusing place.

Manchin has kind of a shtick on big bills, where he stakes out a very rigid position, calls for bipartisanship around it, and then signs on to the Democratic position, once he wins something or other. That thing can be harmless or even laudatory. On the American Rescue Plan it was the Butch Lewis Act, the $86 billion multiemployer pension rescue, which was a priority of a lot of the caucus but was Manchin’s bill for years. But it was also the cutback of $100 a week on the federal unemployment enhancement in exchange for one additional week of coverage, and the rapid narrowing of the phase-out on direct payments. There was no economic or even political case for this other than for Manchin to say he changed the law.

Now we’re seeing this play out on additional parts of the Democratic agenda. Two weeks ago Manchin said Republicans had to be included in any infrastructure bill in order to win his vote. This would threaten to sink the entire project. Then yesterday he said that the package would be “huge,” as much as $4 trillion (above the $3 trillion plan Biden will reportedly roll out next week), and that it should be paid for by raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy, something no Republican would ever agree to. Pressed on that fundamental distinction, Manchin said Republican intransigence was not “reasonable,” asking, “Where do they think it's going to come from? How are you going to fix America?”

This suggests that Manchin knows well that infrastructure will only happen through the reconciliation process, and that “including” Republicans means allowing them to reject tax increases before finding a way around them. This increases the chances of success over the too-cute White House theory that you could pass the pieces that Republicans like through a regular bill and throw everything else into reconciliation, hoping that the opposition just plays along. I don’t know that every dollar needs to be offset on this bill, but we’re talking about someone in Manchin who gets a call from staff daily updating him on the precise national debt figure. So that’s where we are.

Of course, Manchin is making a lot of announcements these days, because literally every item on the agenda is subservient to his agreement. As I noted yesterday, he’s against anything even two inches to the left of the background check bill he couldn’t pass in 2013, making progress on gun safety so remote that the Biden team is dipping into executive orders to see what can be done. (I’m big on executive action, as you know, but guns are an area where you need to legislate.) He was among those taking down the $15 minimum wage bill, although his plan to get to $11 rapidly and then index to inflation shares similarities with the long phase-in for $15. Bernie Sanders apparently rejected this in a meeting this week, which I think wasn’t smart.

Wait there’s more. Manchin opined on S.1, the democracy bill that includes independent redistricting and voter participation standards and more public financing of elections, which got its first Senate hearing yesterday. He said that any bill on voting would need bipartisan support “to be accepted as legitimate by U.S. voters.” This essentially gives voter-suppressing conservatives a veto over ending their own suppression. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also told labor groups this week that they need to find 50 co-sponsors for the PRO Act, a welcome change to labor law that would eliminate right-to-work laws and punish union busting, to get a floor vote. Guess who’s one of the 5 Democrats not signed on? Manchin.

I’ll add here that Manchin did save the job of Colin Kahl, nominated for a chief policy position at the Defense Department. Manchin voted for Kahl in committee, making it likely that he’d be confirmed. Manchin has played kingmaker on all controversial nominations, taking down Neera Tanden but mostly letting Biden’s choices through.

Manchin is right now leading a group of 20 Senators charged with showing that the Senate can work under the current rules. Another way of saying that is that Manchin is leading a group that’s opposed to Senate majority rule and desperate to find a fig leaf to keep it at bay. Manchin has said that the filibuster rule enables “cooperation.” If by that you mean cooperating on not doing much of anything, sure. Manchin desperately wants common ground where none is to be found. But he’s still a West Virginia senator, and he’ll take money to build the Joe Manchin Suspension Bridge. Just not the Joe Manchin Independent Redistricting Commission.

Bordering on Truth
We’ve seen an interesting turnaround on the immigration narrative in recent days. The media was set to anoint this “Biden’s big crisis,” replete with photo evidence and quotes from the “loyal opposition” like Stephen Miller, if you can believe it. But there’s truth about the border to be found, and it’s seeping into the coverage.

Much of the traffic at the border involves repeat expulsions under the Title 42 order, which allows for immediate deportations on the basis of protection from COVID. Factor in the repeat crossers and the numbers are identical to 2019, when Trump was in office before the pandemic. And if agents have to continually round up the same desperate border crossers, then the Title 42 order isn’t exactly protecting them from alleged coronavirus exposure, now is it?

The exemption to Title 42 for unaccompanied minors is fueling family separation, only before migrants get into America. I prefer to allow children a refuge from violence, and it’s important to understand that the opposing position is to send them back into hell. But the choice is to follow international law and let everyone seeking asylum a path to do so, or to violate it through a draconian order, the exemptions of which are perpetuating an influx of young people.

Immigration is endless fodder for demagoguery, but at least there’s some real talk slipping into the usual coverage. Biden does need to manage the situation because of the delicate politics; so far he’s delegated to Kamala Harris, whose focus will be on international diplomacy. Countries ravaged by hurricanes and bad COVID response will trigger out-migration, and the goal needs to be making those countries more hospitable.

Here’s a good op-ed on the subject from Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar, of the border city of El Paso, Texas. And here’s a bad suggestion from more moderate border Dem Filemon Vela, asserting that some children are too old to get protection from violence.

What Day of Biden’s Presidency Is It?
Day 65.
Today I Learned

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