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Democrats look to crush states’ highway habit

Democrats look to crush states' highway habit

House Democrats are trying to use a massive climate and infrastructure bill to change how Americans get around — by breaking states’ decades-old fondness for building highways.

Legislation the House passed this month is the biggest advance yet in Democrats’ efforts to bake climate policies into transportation, addressing the largest single contributor to the United States’ greenhouse gas output. It would also represent an historic shift away from the roads-first approach to federal transportation spending that has reigned since Dwight Eisenhower created the Interstate Highway System.

But the bill is riling up opposition from two potential allies of the Democrats’ big-spending infrastructure initiatives: state transportation departments and the road-building lobby. That creates an awkward dynamic for supporters of the House bill, which faces a perilous path through the evenly divided Senate.

Critics say the five-year, $ 549 billion bill would represent one-size-fits-all Washington meddling at its worst.

“There are 50 different states with 50 different sets of transportation challenges. What is right for one may not be right for another,” said Dave Bauer, CEO of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, which supports many of the bill’s provisions and principles. “It’s really hard to determine that five years at a time from Washington, D.C.”

The bill’s supporters say the old system is unsustainable.

“We have to begin to look at alternatives,” House Transportation Chair and bill sponsor Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) told POLITICO in the run-up to the bill’s passage in June. “You can’t pave over the whole country.”

The bill, H.R. 3684 (117), would erect new bureaucratic hurdles for states seeking to spend federal money on laying asphalt, while steering them to more climate-friendly options like transit. It also would give cities more power over selecting and funding transportation projects — boosting the leverage of Democratic-led enclaves in red states such as Texas, where Houston is engaged in a high-profile fight with the state’s DOT over a highway expansion local pols don’t want.

The bill is, for now, is separate from a compromise infrastructure bill backed by the Biden administration and key GOP senators, which would provide $ 579 billion in new spending, as well as a $ 3.5 trillion go-it-alone proposal that Democrats hope to approve by party-line votes. These chess pieces are separate for now, but portions of all three could end up blended together into whatever Congress ends up enacting.

DeFazio said state DOTs have reflexively built highways instead of looking at other alternatives — a habit that needs to change. As a rare exception, he pointed to Virginia’s efforts to expand passenger rail service to combat perennially snarled traffic on Interstate 95.

“I’m not saying you can’t ever add [highway] capacity. But I’m saying first you have to look at the range of alternatives,” DeFazio said.

A sea of highways

States have tended to use one primary strategy to tackle congestion: adding new highways or expanding existing ones.

From 1993 to 2017, states laid down 30,511 new miles of freeway lanes in the hundred largest urbanized areas — a 42 percent increase in highway capacity. Typically when it comes to federal transportation funding, about 80 percent of federal transportation goes to highways, and 20 percent to transit.

Urban planners and transportation researchers say it’s impossible to pave the way to free-flowing traffic. In fact, they say new lanes often increase congestion, a phenomenon that economists call induced demand, in which creating a greater supply of something just makes people want to use it more. And more traffic brings more pollution. A recent study by the Rocky Mountain Institute, a sustainability research organization, found that Colorado’s plans to add 200 new lane-miles over the next decade would have the same impact on carbon emissions as adding 70,000 cars to the roads.

The Democrats’ bill won’t be able to undo decades of feverish highway building overnight, but its backers say it represents a huge shift in mindset.

The bill, called the INVEST in America Act, would set limits on how states use money from one of the biggest pots of federal highway cash, the National Highway Performance Program, by requiring them to consider whether an “operational improvement or transit project” would be more cost-effective than expanding capacity for single-occupancy vehicles.

As part of that analysis, states would also have to consider the cost to maintain a project that would increase highway capacity, and prove that their modeling of travel demand has a documented record of accuracy.

It would also give more money and power to cities by granting them more authority over project selection and access to funds previously reserved for states. For example, the bill would require states to give local governments more money through an existing block grant fund than is the case at present, and create a new pot of money to go directly to Metropolitan Planning Organizations.

“These changes represent a long-needed shift to ensure that the federal transportation program enhances, rather than undermines, safety and sustainability efforts at the local level,” said Corinne Kisner, executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

It would also force states to spend a higher proportion of their federal funds on bridges, intended as another way of ensuring they repair existing infrastructure before building anew.

The bill would probably force the greatest changes in red states, which spend proportionally more than blue states do on building new highway capacity, according to data tabulated by the pro-transit group Transportation for America from 2009 to 2014, the most recent available. Mississippi topped the list.

Exceptions exist, though: Republican-led Nebraska spent vastly more on repairs than new highways in those same years. And some Democrat-led states, such as Washington, have often shunned critical highway repairs, contributing to the wear that lawmakers say they want to fix.

States cool to the idea

The trade group that represents state DOTs in Washington responded to the bill with a carefully worded statement that praised the legislation’s policy goals but said the best way to meet them is by giving states more, not less, flexibility.

“We very much appreciate that the House bill addresses so many important priorities —including equity, greenhouse gas reduction, resilience, [electric vehicle] charging, and more,” said the statement from Jim Tymon, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. “We firmly believe that if the federal program can provide maximum flexibility rather than prescriptive requirements, states can deliver the policy outcomes envisioned by the House while also advancing each state’s own unique priorities.”

The group Associated General Contractors of America took a harder tone, warning in a letter last week that “restrictions on states to build new highway capacity would have a negative economic effect on the roadway construction industry,” particularly small firms.

But some policy veterans, such as former Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Jim Aloisi, the effort doesn’t go far enough.

“Federal largesse has been responsible in large part for the automobility-centric society that we have today that most of us understand is not sustainable,” Aloisi said in an interview. “And what Congress giveth, Congress can reduce or take away. For me, the House bill represents, to be perfectly candid, a modest effort, almost a timid effort in the right direction.”

‘Look, it’s our money’

The House bill’s odds for success become more fraught in the Senate, where lawmakers will have to combine it with either its Senate committee counterpart or with the massive bipartisan infrastructure package that President Joe Biden supports.

Both the Senate bill and the larger infrastructure proposal would pump money into state DOTs with minimal restrictions on what they do with it — largely maintaining a highway-friendly status quo.

Even if the House proposal becomes law, state transportation agencies are probably already figuring out how to continue funding their traditional priorities as if nothing had changed, Aloisi said.

“State DOTs across the board will be very good, and their private allies and supporters, at figuring out how to navigate their way through the language that the House passed,” he said, adding that there are likely already “consultants working overtime.”

But he said changing the states’ ways is a necessary goal and praised Congress for starting to try.

“I think the federal government has every right to say look, it’s our money, and we are now in the process of redirecting and transitioning from a 1950s approach to something that more clearly reflects not just the moment, but the future,” Aloisi said.

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This post originally posted here Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories

Postponed Weddings, Stockpiled Insulin and Covid: The Bizarre Life of Texas Democrats in Exile

Celia Israel was putting finishing touches on her wedding last week when she learned that, instead, she had to drop everything and leave.

The Democratic state representative from Texas had driven with her partner of 26 years, Celinda, to see a family friend who was making her outfit. They were set to get married on the floor of the Texas state House early in the morning on Thursday. But before Israel’s partner got fitted last Sunday, her phone buzzed with a text from fellow state legislator Gina Hinojosa.

“She said, ‘I need to talk to you.’ And I could just sense, like, ‘Oh no,’” Israel said. “So I called her and I said, ‘Are you in jail?’ She said, ‘No, I’m going to have some news. I hate to tell you this, but your wedding isn’t going happen on Thursday.’”

Israel is one of the over 50 state House Democrats who fled Texas on Monday to deny Republicans a quorum for a major new elections bill that has stirred backlash: axing pandemic-era practices to expand voting access adopted in a large Democratic-leaning county, further restricting mail voting in the state and making election workers liable for new potential civil or criminal penalties. Democrats are in the minority in Texas, but Republicans can’t pass the legislation without them there — so they left for Washington, D.C.

In interviews with a dozen Texas lawmakers during their first week in Washington, they described a hectic, last-minute scramble to pack and get out of the state.

Many found out on Sunday that the quorum break was a go, but they didn’t know how long they would be gone — or, until hours before they departed on Monday, where they were actually heading.

“One thing I had to do early Monday morning was stock up on insulin,” said state Rep. James Talarico, who has Type 1 diabetes, “because I didn’t know where we were going to be and if I was going to have access to a pharmacy. It’s those little things you don’t think about.”

State Rep. John Bucy piled into a car with his 27-weeks-pregnant wife and their 17-month-old daughter and drove 22 hours to join the rest of the caucus, after deciding not to fly. State Rep. Erin Zwiener brought her young daughter with her to D.C., keeping her entertained during meetings with members of Congress. Tearing up, state Rep. Ina Minjarez described leaving her husband at home as he grieves the recent death of a parent.

“I don’t think the public understands what we leave behind is important to us. It’s important,” Minjarez said. “And for me, it was just trying to get my house in order.”

And the trip is still happening amid a pandemic. On Saturday, three of the Texas Democrats tested positive for coronavirus, the caucus announced in a statement. One of them was Israel. Caucus leadership, which did not specify the members who tested positive, said all three of them were fully vaccinated.

All of this effort and expense — and personal health — is pouring into a quixotic-at-best quest to kill the GOP bill. It’s the second time Democrats have walked out to deny a quorum in the state legislature, but Republicans can just keep calling special legislative sessions and keep trying to pass the legislation, presuming the Democrats will return to the state eventually.

“We have a short window here,” state House Democratic caucus chair Chris Turner told reporters on Tuesday, when the members arrived at U.S. Capitol. “We can’t hold this tide back forever. We’re buying some time. We need Congress and all our federal leaders to use that time wisely.”

Indeed, furious Republicans have promised not to negotiate over the bill despite the Democratic block, instead promising arrests for the fleeing lawmakers once they return, decrying them for abdicating their responsibilities and hammering them over the case of Miller Lite pictured on one of their getaway buses to the airport. The Republican State Leadership Committee and the Associated Republicans of Texas launched a joint six-figure ad campaign targeting Texas House Democrats in swing districts, calling their move a “publicity stunt.” And Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has already promised to call a second special session on Aug. 8, immediately after the current one expires.

The Texas Democrats’ hope their second walkout helps galvanize the Democratic Party in Washington and nationally around the cause of voting rights — and gets Democrats unstuck on their own federal elections legislation that has stalled in the Senate. The Senate filibuster and intra-party concerns that Democrats’ main election legislation goes too far halted its progress. In meetings with members of Congress, they are pleading for federal action that would override or preempt the Republican bill they are fighting back home.

The effort has turned the Texans, briefly, into Washington mini-celebrities: They’ve become regulars on cable news, while young Hill staffers shuffled over to them while eating in a Capitol office cafeteria on Tuesday to ask for pictures and cheer them on.

But their endgame is unclear. Every House Democrat who spoke to POLITICO indicated they intend to stay out of Texas until the current special legislative session is over, but they demur about what comes after that. It isn’t even clear how long they’ll stay in D.C. — or even their current hotel, the Washington Plaza. Lawmakers say the party caucus is footing the bill so far, but that’s an expensive long-term proposition. Posts asking about potentially housing the lawmakers have sprouted on D.C. neighborhood listservs.

And among the lawmakers, rumors swirl about whether they’ll stay in D.C. or take their show on the road to a different state.

“If you find out, let us know,” one Texas legislator joked, when asked where they’re going next.

By noon on Thursday, Israel’s wedding ceremony would have wrapped up, and she and a group of friends and family would have been celebrating at brunch. Instead, she was on a bus leaving a small rally in front of the AFL-CIO building, off of Black Lives Matter Plaza, heading back to the group’s hotel for a Zoom interview with a local TV station and a call with her staff still working back in Austin.

The lawmakers were relatively quiet, still figuring out what the rest of their day would look like. A constant theme of their first week in Washington was uncertainty, as they tried to squeeze into the offices of as many members of Congress and interest groups as possible, sometimes with little notice, to argue their case for new federal voting-rights legislation. As they drove, a shout from the back of the bus went out: “The black pastors are overwhelming the capitol!”

The lawmakers who weren’t already scrolling through Twitter picked up their phones, trying to find video of a group of faith leaders and activists protesting back in Austin. “Gromer’s got it,” Israel said, referencing a video from a Dallas Morning News reporter. “Let’s all retweet it.”

The trip is about meeting members of Congress, but the Texans also want to make sure the public knows that they’ve left Austin — and why. Media appearances are a regular part of members’ schedules, part of an effort to make sure they stay plugged in with constituents back home, through the local press, social media and virtual town halls.

Media contact has increased “about ten-fold,” Israel said once she arrived back at the hotel, where she tucked away in a conference room converted into a makeshift Zoom studio, propping her iPad up on a box of manila folders behind a ring light for a hit with her local NBC affiliate.

“Thank God someone thought to buy a Texas flag,” she joked right before the TV interview, where she talked about her postponed wedding and Republicans’ pressure campaign.

Almost immediately after the interview, she was on the phone with her chief of staff, Taryn Feigen, who is still working back in Texas. Israel wanted details on how the trip is being received back home. “How are things going? And we should probably talk about — I’m not sure where to go on social media,” Israel said.

“And how are the constituents’ calls?” she continued. “Are they real constituents, or are they just make-believe angry people?”

“It’s both,” said Feigen. “If they’re displeased, I would say 95 percent are just anywhere from Texas” and not necessarily constituents, she continued, noting that angry callers often decline to give their information. “We’re getting a lot of attention … We’ve gotten a lot of thank yous, constituents and not.”

The two discussed pulling together a newsletter to let constituents know what Israel and the rest of the Texas Democrats have been up to. Israel said she was frustrated about how Republicans have portrayed the trip.

“I am angry that we’re being portrayed as not working,” she tells Feigen. “The speaker put out a list of people that are still taking their per diem, and I’m like, ‘Well, no shit, because we’re doing more work than you are.’ They’re just going in at 10 o’clock, saying a prayer and yucking it up. And then what are they doing?”

Amid planning a town hall with other Austin-area members to talk about their trip and handling more routine office duties like a delegation letter about a highway, they agreed to pull together a newsletter, emphasizing “we’re doing things that are designed to just help shed light on the horrible Texas [elections] bill,” Israel told Feigen.

“Let’s get a newsletter out,” Israel says. “Like, ‘a week in D.C.?’ It feels like two months.”

At 2:30 p.m., the newly wed Israel and her wife would have been driving to West Texas, to stay in a historic hotel with their sisters in a town called Marathon. “That’s our special place,” she said earlier in the day, holding back tears. “It would have been iconic sunsets that just go on forever. The stars at night really are big and bright. We would have been deep in the heart of Texas and just thinking about our 26 years together.”

Instead, she was wrapping up about an hour of downtime at the D.C. hotel. She spent the time reading messages wishing her a happy birthday, looking at a map of the Metro — “I want to ride the train on my birthday … I’m a train chick” — and quizzing lawmakers and reporters cycling through the lobby about birthday dinner options. Some options were quickly ruled out: “I don’t trust barbecue in D.C.,” she told a fellow lawmaker who asked if she was going to a delegation lunch.

Israel and state Rep. Jarvis Johnson were due for a meeting with Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) on Capitol Hill. After a short Uber ride, Espaillat staffers greeted them outside the Longworth House office building to sign them in and escort them around the Capitol complex, which is still not open to the general public.

Espaillat ushered them into a private room just off a House committee chamber — where many members of Congress hid during the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol — and they began the pitch they have given to members throughout the week. They started by describing what was in Texas Republicans’ proposal for new state election rules, focusing in particular on the provisions that grant new powers to poll watchers, and urged Congress to act.

The conversation quickly turned to one of the Washington Democrats who, perhaps more than anyone else, holds the fate of the Texans in his hands: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has called Democrats’ “For the People” election bill over-broad but signaled openness to other legislative approaches on voting rights. Members of the delegation met with Manchin earlier on Thursday, and Israel had been briefed by her colleagues before meeting with Espaillat.

“My goal is for us to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Israel said. “Let’s find the three or four good things that we can get through the senator, and let’s move forward. That would be a big help to us. My big message is, to whatever extent, you can be reassured we don’t need the perfect thing.” Israel has been a big advocate for opening up online voter registration in the state, and she raised throughout the day the potential penalties election workers would face under the GOP bill.

Throughout the day, Israel has repeated this message, stressing that Texas Democrats don’t need the “combo plate” of federal help, as she put it — just “rice and beans” will do.

Many of them publicly call for the passage of the For the People Act — Democrats’ sweeping elections legislation that would set a slew of new federal standards for state election administration — as well as the restoration of a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But they know why Congress has not acted yet, and they’re prepared to accept smaller-scale, compromise legislation that would protect voting rights.

“We run out of clock on Aug. 7. The governor just announced he’s going to call another special session,” Israel told Espaillat. “It just so happens that Aug. 6 is the anniversary of when LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act. So, we’re working around an event on Aug. 6, to try to put some pressure on the Senate to act.” (She declined to share details with POLITICO.)

As the 20-minute meeting wrapped up, the conversation returned to Manchin. “So Manchin was receptive?” Espaillat asked.

“Yes,” Israel, she repeated. “That’s good to hear,” the New York Democrat responded.

Israel’s postponed wedding has also been on the minds of her colleagues. “[I realized it] pretty immediately,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, who is Israel’s deskmate at the state Capitol and was supposed to officiate the wedding. “Ever since the law was changed to recognize same-sex marriage, I’ve been hounding her to get married and let me be a part of it.”

Once she knew about the quorum break, Israel dreaded having to tell her partner Celinda, who had been headed out the door to meet her seamstress. “It was like forcing these words out of my mouth,” Israel said, adding: “And she could tell what’s up.”

“And she said, ‘Well, you’re not going,’” Israel continued. “And I didn’t say anything, because I knew better. … She was pissed. She’s a South Texas Latina, they’re fierce.”

Once her partner returned, “I didn’t say anything, because I needed her to tell me,” Israel said. “So she said, ‘Let’s just postpone it.’ And I was crushed.”

The pair began their drive back to Austin, to make preparations for Israel to leave. “All I could do was say, ‘I’m sorry.’ I said, ‘Politics is dumb.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, politics is dumb. Let’s go home.’” They arrived back in Austin on Sunday night, and Israel started to pack.

Before they broke the news to Israel, Howard and Hinojosa began plotting ways to make it up to her, including getting Celinda to Washington so they could get married there instead. They mulled trying to set something up at an iconic D.C. landmark, and even getting a special guest to officiate.

“First I called Donna and I was like, ‘Donna, you know what? I know you’re marrying Celia, but what if we could get Nancy Pelosi?’” Hinojosa said, laughing. “We had no reason to believe that she could, but I thought that would be a great story for Nancy Pelosi and maybe she’ll do it.”

Before they tried to rope the speaker of the House into their plans, Hinojosa first floated the idea by Israel.

“I said, ‘No fucking way,’” Israel recalled. “We’re Texans.”

She wants to get married on the floor of the Texas state House — whenever she can get back there.

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This post originally posted here Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories

Democrats unveil $3.5T go-it-alone plan to fulfill Biden’s agenda

Democrats unveil $3.5T go-it-alone plan to fulfill Biden’s agenda

Senate Democrats announced a top line budget number late Tuesday that will propel their plan to enact the full array of President Joe Biden’s social welfare and family aid promises without Republican votes.

The proposal sets an overall limit of $ 3.5 trillion for the spate of Democratic policy ambitions that won’t make it into a bipartisan infrastructure deal, if Congress can reach one. If the still-forthcoming budget resolution can clear both chambers with lockstep party support, it will unleash the power to circumvent a GOP filibuster using the so-called reconciliation process, the same move that Democrats used to pass the president’s $ 1.9 trillion pandemic aid package in March.

Combined with a bipartisan infrastructure compromise that’s still getting shaped into legislation, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the budget’s investments in infrastructure, the middle class and more would total about $ 4.1 trillion, “which is very, very close to what President Biden asked us for.” Biden will also attend Democrats’ lunch on Wednesday to discuss the plans, Schumer said.

“We are very proud of this plan,” Schumer said. “We know we have a long road to go … If we pass this, this is the most profound change to help American families in generations.”

Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee reached agreement on the overall total for their party-lines spending plan during their second meeting this week with Schumer and White House officials in the Capitol. Their next step is ensuring all 50 Democratic caucus members can support the $ 3.5 trillion figure, said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the budget panel.

“The goal is for the Budget Committee to all be on the same page and then sell it to the caucus,” he said. “Once the Budget Committee is on the same page, numbers will start to come out. But we still have a little ways to go to get there.”

The budget resolution will require backing from every Democrat to make it through the upper chamber and officially kick off reconciliation, which will formally instruct various committees to turn the president’s priorities into legislative text. Progressives like Budget Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had pushed for a top line as high as $ 6 trillion, while centrists have endorsed a smaller figure that doesn’t rely on deficit financing.

Despite getting trillions less than his original ask, Sanders said the agreement on $ 3.5 trillion is a “big deal” when it comes to “transforming our infrastructure.” The budget plan is set to expand Medicare to cover vision, dental and hearing for seniors — a major priority for Sanders.

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.), both moderates, said earlier Tuesday that they’ll need time to sort through the plan compiled by the Budget Committee.

“We need to pay for it,” Manchin said. “I’d like to pay for all of it. I don’t think we need more debt.”

Before an agreement was reached, Kaine and fellow Budget panel member Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) didn’t dismiss Manchin’s financing demand outright.

“There are many ways to get there,” Van Hollen said. “Certainly, it’s important that everyone who says it needs to be paid for also identifies ways to pay for what needs to be done.”

Democrats’ massive party-line package is expected to include policies like Biden’s proposal for two years of free community college, paid leave, health care subsidies, extending the boosted child tax credit and helping families cover child care costs.

Schumer has said he hopes to adopt the budget resolution on the floor in the next few weeks. That vote will be “the first step” toward passing the “remaining elements” of Biden’s social and economic plans without Republican support, the leader told Democratic senators in a letter this month, warning of “the possibility of working long nights, weekends, and remaining in Washington into the previously-scheduled August state work period.”

Meanwhile, negotiations on a bipartisan infrastructure bill, which would require support from at least 10 Senate Republicans, are starting to get shaky amid GOP concerns over spending and ways to finance the legislation.

Embarking again on a reconciliation bill will be arduous and painful for Democratic lawmakers. The process involves enduring two more vote-a-rama sessions in the Senate, each of which will allow Republicans to fire off a barrage of politically tricky amendments.

The Senate parliamentarian, who serves as the chamber’s nonpartisan procedural enforcer, is also expected to shoot down parts of the proposal that are found to be out of bounds under the special budget process.

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This post originally posted here Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories

Opinion | The Democrats Need a Reality Check

Opinion | The Democrats Need a Reality Check

If you’re looking for a microcosm of the burdens weighing on Democrats, look at what happened last week when the Supreme Court upheld Arizona’s new voting laws. A state legislature and a Republican governor passed those rules into law. When they were challenged, a conservative Supreme Court upheld them by a forbidding 6-3 majority. And in its decision, the Court strongly hinted it would look favorably on the voting restrictions imposed, or underway, in a dozen other states.

The decision was a gift-wrapped present to future Republican candidates, and a direct slap at one of the top priorities of not just Democrats, but good-government advocates across the country. The Democratic response? President Joe Biden urged the Senate to pass the For the People act, a voting rights bill that doesn’t even have full support from his own party. Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, echoing the thoughts of many, promptly tweeted out some items from the progressive wish list: “We must abolish the filibuster and pass the For the People Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Act,” he said, “and we must expand the Supreme Court.”

In Washington, in the year 2021, neither of these things is going to happen. The “For the People Act” can only be passed by killing off the filibuster, a notion that is itself at least two votes short of reality. Even full passage of the law wouldn’t solve many of the key challenges those GOP laws present for democracy. And expanding the Court by four members—to let President Biden create a 7-6 liberal majority—has nowhere near majority support in the Senate and is in any case a genuinely bad idea.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, with the Democrats relying on wishful thinking and vague threats to fulfill their biggest campaign promises. Didn’t Joe Biden win the Presidency with a 7 million vote popular majority? Didn’t Democrats win both houses of Congress? If there’s anything more unnerving and disheartening than the Republican Party’s shredding of core democratic and republican principles over the past several years, it’s how so many of the Democrats’ attempts to fight back are grounded in delusion or futility.

There are reasons. The wishful thinking that seems to have captured the party begins with a profound mismeasurement of what happened last November, which in turn feeds a profound misunderstanding of how major political change happens—and in turn triggers the embrace of “solutions” that are similarly grounded in delusion. What remains to be seen is whether there is a politically potent answer to this dilemma. (Spoiler alert: the answer is “yes…maybe”).

Reality Check 1: Biden Can’t Be FDR (or even LBJ)

There’s no question that Biden is swinging for the fences. Beyond the emerging bipartisan infrastructure bill, he has proposed a far-reaching series of programs that would collectively move the United States several steps closer to the kind of “social democracy” prevalent in most industrialized nations: free community college, big support for childcare and homebound seniors, a sharp increase in Medicaid, more people eligible for Medicare, a reinvigorated labor movement. It is why 100 days into the administration, NPR was asking a commonly heard question: “Can Biden Join FDR and LBJ In The Democratic Party’s Pantheon?”

But the FDR and LBJ examples show conclusively why visions of a transformational Biden agenda are so hard to turn into reality. In 1933, FDR had won a huge popular and electoral landslide, after which he had a three-to-one Democratic majority in the House and a 59-vote majority in the Senate. Similarly, LBJ in 1964 had won a massive popular and electoral vote landslide, along with a Senate with 69 Democrats and a House with 295. Last November, on the other hand, only 42,000 votes in three key states kept Trump from winning re-election. Democrats’ losses in the House whittled their margin down to mid-single digits. The Senate is 50-50.

Further, both Roosevelt and Johnson had crucial Republican allies. In the 1930’s, GOP Senators Robert LaFollette and Frank Norris were ardent advocates for organized labor. In the ‘60s, Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen gave LBJ crucial help in getting his civil rights agenda passed. When Medicare became law in 1965, it passed with 70 Republican votes in the House and 13 GOP votes in the Senate. In today’s Washington, Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell have been successfully working to keep Republican support for Biden’ policies at precisely zero.

So the grander ambitions of Democrats run smack against history. If Biden had come into office with a Congress skewed the way FDR and LBJ’s were skewed, nobody would be talking about ending the filibuster, or sliding big policies through via reconciliation. Biden could enact his most ambitious plans with ease. By contrast, if those presidents had been elected with the narrowest of margins in key states, and had a razor-thin House majority, a deadlocked Senate, and adamant Republican resistance, the New Deal and the Great Society might well have been nothing more than historical footnotes.

Indeed, given the 2021 reality, Democrats should be celebrating a possible bipartisan trillion-dollar plus infrastructure bill and the $ 1.9 trillion American Rescue plan as significant first steps. Instead, progressives are turning their fire on the President for failing to govern as if he had LBJ- or FDR-like clout.

Reality Check 2: The fight is asymmetrical—and favors the GOP

While Democrats gesture on Twitter at building new systems, Republicans are working the current one with ruthless effectiveness.

The threats to a free and fair election that have emerged since last November are real—and require nothing more than the willingness of state legislators to use and abuse the existing tools of government. Arizona, whose two new voting rules were just validated by the Supreme Court, also took the power to litigate election laws away from the (Democratic) Secretary of State and gave the power to the (Republican) Attorney General. In at least 8 states, Republicans are advancing legislation that would take power away from local or county boards. Many more states are moving to make voting harder. It might be anti-democratic, but it falls well within the rules.

Also within the rules: How McConnell helped build a federal bench almost certain to ratify the power of those legislatures to pass laws far more restrictive than the Arizona rules upheld last week. He creatively eviscerated Senate norms to keep Merrick Garland off the Supreme Court and hand Donald Trump an astonishing three nominations in a single term. And he’s recently suggested that, should a Supreme Court vacancy open, he’d block even consideration of a Biden nominee if the Republicans take the Senate back in 2022. This is abnormal, anti-democratic and a cynical abuse of power—but it’s legal within the existing rules.

And it’s savvy politics: His own base loves it, and voters in the center see a party playing tough, but still within the rulebook.

In the face of such provocations, some Democrats want to throw out the rulebook and fundamentally alter the Court. Senator Markey and House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler introduced legislation to expand the Court with four new members, which—assuming all goes according to their plans—would make for a seven-to-six liberal majority.

There are only two problems with this: It is all but politically impossible and it is a really, really terrible idea. Even Mitch McConnell, at the peak of his Congressional majority under Trump, never tried to shove new seats onto the court. At least three Democratic senators—Michael Bennet, Mark Kelly, and Catherine Cortez Masto—are publicly opposed to the idea, and several others, like Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, are openly dismissive of the possibility.

Beyond the numbers, however, is the blatantly transactional nature of the idea. Its sole purpose is to overcome an entrenched conservative majority. It’s no more defensible than was Ted Cruz’s declared intention to keep Scalia’s seat open for four years in the event Hillary Clinton had been elected in 2016. And—to state the obvious—it would prove no obstacle to a future Republican President and Congress adding more justices of their own to the Court, until you’d need a chamber the size of the Senate to accommodate all the bickering new justices. As an institution, the Supreme Court would be effectively dead.

It might be fun for the Democrats to imagine changing the game right under McConnell’s nose—but they should remember what happened the last time they tried it. In 2013, leader Harry Reid decided to end the filibuster for all judicial nominations except the Supreme Court, hoping to push more of Obama’s nominees through. But when Democrats lost the Senate in 2014, that reform proved meaningless; more than 70 percent of Obama’s post-2014 nominations failed. The person who capitalized on Reed’s move was Mitch McConnell: In the four years the GOP held the White House and the Senate, more than 200 Trump-nominated judges were confirmed. McConnell then scrapped the filibuster for the high court as well, giving him the tools to put three Supreme Court justices on the bench. As a result, conservatives will dominate that branch for years to come.

Reality Check 3: The Democrats’ Legislative Fix Will Never Happen—And Doesn’t Even Touch the Real Threats.

It’s understandable why Democrats have ascribed a life-or-death quality to S. 1, the “For the People” bill that would impose a wide range of requirements on state voting procedures. (With Joe Manchin’s declared opposition, the bill is somewhere between moribund and dead, however potent it may be as a fundraising pitch for midterm money.) The dozens—or hundreds—of provisions enacted by Republican state legislatures and governors represent a determination to ensure that the GOP thumb will be on the scale at every step of the voting process. The proposed law would roll that back on a national level by imposing a raft of requirements on states—no excuse absentee voting, more days and hours to vote—but would also include public financing of campaigns, independent redistricting commissions and compulsory release of presidential candidates’ tax returns.

There are all sorts of Constitutional questions posed by these ideas. But there’s a more fundamental issue here: The Constitutional clause on which the Democrats are relying—Article I, Section 4, Clause 1—gives Congress significant power over Congressional elections, but none over elections for state offices or the choosing of Presidential electors.

What this implies is that states could require different rules for voting depending on the office. It could, as a bill being considered by the New Hampshire legislature currently proposes, set different dates for electing federal and state officials, with the state imposing sharp limits on voting for governor, state legislative seats and Presidential electors—and a different, congressionally-imposed rule for the House. If you think Republican state legislators wouldn’t eagerly embrace such an administrative burden, you haven’t been paying attention.

Finally, there is nothing in S. 1—nor in the narrower John Lewis bill—about the more serious threats to a fair election: the rules that apply after the votes are counted. In state after state. GOP legislatures are pushing to empower partisan poll workers to challenge vote counting, replace local and county officials with more partisan figures; some have even flirted with arrogating to themselves the ultimate power to certify or reject future election results. Once again, these moves are well within the power of state legislatures. They require only the willingness, or cynical eagerness, to discard the norms that have governed our elections. And there is nothing in the bills Democrats have invested such hope in to cure those post-election threats.

Reality Check #4: The Electoral College and the Senate are profoundly Undemocratic—and We’re Stuck with Them.

Because the Constitution set up a state-by-state system for picking presidents, the massive Democratic majorities we now see in California and New York often mislead us about the party’s national electoral prospects. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s 3-million-vote plurality came entirely from California. In 2020, Biden’s 7-million-vote edge came entirely from California and New York. These are largely what election experts call “wasted” votes—Democratic votes that don’t, ultimately, help the Democrat to win. That imbalance explains why Trump won the Electoral College in 2016 and came within a handful of votes in three states from doing the same last November, despite his decisive popular-vote losses.

The response from aggrieved Democrats? “Abolish the Electoral College!” In practice, they’d need to get two-thirds of the House and Senate, and three-fourths of the state legislatures, to ditch the process that gives Republicans their only plausible chance these days to win the White House. Shortly after the 2016 election, Gallup found that Republican support for abolishing the electoral college had dropped to 19 percent. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, a state-by-state scheme to effectively abolish the Electoral College without changing the Constitution, hasn’t seen support from a single red or purple state.

The point isn’t that the Electoral College should be retained. It’s that the tool for ending it is a process that requires a broad national consensus, geographic as well as numerical. And, unlike the 18-year-old vote, or women’s suffrage, the “nuclear option” of a Constitutional amendment to change how we elect presidents is nowhere near that stage. Clearly Republicans have learned just how much the Electoral College favors their candidates and seem unconcerned that they are evidently no longer capable of winning more votes than their opponents.

The same broad shifts help explain why the Senate has become an increasingly uphill fight for Democrats. Critics of its highly undemocratic structure note that with population shifts, the imbalance between the most and least populous states has grown exponentially. (The difference between California and Wyoming in how many citizens are represented by each Senator is an astonishing 78 to 1.)

In fact, the smallest states have just as many Democrats as Republicans—and even apart from that, the complaints have as much relevance as bemoaning the law of gravity or human mortality. Equal representation in the Senate is the only part of the Constitution that cannot be amended. To understand how far afield the Democrats are now thinking, the journal Democracy recently undertook to write a wholly new Constitution, which abolishes both the Electoral College and equal representation in the Senate. Prospects for adoption are… low.

The plausible (but difficult) solution: Just win more.

Whether the public sees Democratic demands for these structural changes as overdue or overreaching, the key point is that they are currently exercises in futility. The only plausible road to winning their major policy goals is… to win by winning. This means politics, not re-engineering. They need to find ways to take down their opponents, and then be smarter about using that power while they have it.

They certainly have issues to campaign on. In the few weeks, we have learned that some of America’s wealthiest people have paid only minimal or no federal income tax at all. (Jeff Bezos even got a $ 4,000 child tax credit.) Even as the Wall Street Journal editorial writers were responding to a Code Red emergency (“class warfare!”), the jaw-dropping nature of the report—followed by a New York Times piece about the impotence of the IRS to deal with the tax evasions of private equity royalty—confirmed the folk wisdom of countless bars, diners, and union halls: the wealthy get away with murder.

For a Democratic Party whose core theme is to bring more fairness into American economic life, these reports represent a huge cache of political ammunition. They underscore why Biden wants tougher tax enforcement, a global minimum corporate tax, and an end to some of the most egregious (and perfectly legal) tax outrages. It is—or should be—an unrelenting theme part of the Democrats’ arguments. So should a near-daily reminder, in cities and towns across the county, about the businesses and homes the massive Covid relief package has saved, and about the totally unified Republican opposition to that plan. That message—along with specific accounts of what a major infrastructure program would do—needs to be delivered at a granular level from now until November 2022.

By contrast, if Democrats believe that a parade of ambitious, intellectually intriguing bills doomed by a GOP Senate minority will resonate back home, they are under a serious misconception about how intently regular voters follow the legislative process. The disconnect between most voters and the daily play of politics is more like a canyon. It will take a focused, repeated message to bridge that gap.

Of course this is a whole lot easier said than done. A political climate where inflation, crime and immigration are dominant issues has the potential to override good economic news. And 2020 already showed what can happen when a relative handful of voices calling for “defunding the police” can drown out the broader usage of economic fairness. (It’s one key reason why Trump gained among Black and brown voters, and why Democrats lost 13 House seats.)

The lesson of history is clear: America’s historic steps toward social justice and deepening our democracy have always—and only—happened after major Democratic political victories. In the absence of significant Republican support for those steps, the need for that kind of victory is even more crucial. Otherwise, we can expect more arguments that ring from the fanciful to the desperate to the delusional.

Plugging Obamacare’s biggest hole poses dilemma for Democrats

Plugging Obamacare’s biggest hole poses dilemma for Democrats

Democratic lawmakers are grappling with how to extend health insurance to millions of poor Americans in states that have refused Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, believing their upcoming party-line “human infrastructure” package represents the best chance to plug the health law’s biggest gap.

After months of behind-the-scenes discussions, Democrats are coalescing around three options for closing the coverage gap in the Medicaid expansion holdout states, according to nine sources on and off the Hill. These approaches, which would leverage the existing Obamacare insurance marketplaces or require the Biden administration to create a new coverage program, each carry risks. And lawmakers still don’t see a clear path forward as they face a narrowing window to assemble a massive package of Democratic priorities.

“The question has always been how to do it. It’s a pretty challenging question,” said House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.), whose tax-writing panel is helping craft a fix.

Tackling the Medicaid gap would fulfill President Joe Biden’s pledge to extend coverage to the 2.2 million low-income adults in the 12 states where Republican officials have resisted the program for nearly a decade. It would also give Democratic lawmakers from those holdout states — like Raphael Warnock of Georgia, who’s leading efforts in the Senate to close the Medicaid gap — an achievement to campaign on, with control of both chambers up for grabs in next year’s midterms and health care remaining an important issue for voters.

The costly effort faces competition from other Democratic health care priorities that are jostling for position in infrastructure legislation, including an expansion of Medicare’s benefits and permanently increasing financial aid to people who purchase coverage on the ACA’s health insurance marketplaces.

The debate over how best to spend limited health care dollars could force Democrats to choose between leveraging their control of Washington to shore up the ACA, or making a play for swing voters by adding coverage of dental, vision and hearing to Medicare. Closing the Medicaid coverage gap polls high with Democratic supporters, though independents and Republicans in a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll said expanding Medicare benefits is a bigger priority.

“I’m very keenly aware that poor people are the first to get squeezed out when there’s a budget problem,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), whose home state has the nation’s highest uninsured rate. “I’m really pushing to say: At least do something for people who’ve been left out for more than a decade and have nothing to show for the Affordable Care Act. But it’s a challenging sell.”

Yet, momentum for plugging the coverage gap has grown in recent weeks, after key Democratic leaders have embraced the effort. Congressional staff are still hashing out thorny policy questions over how to expand coverage to poor adults in the Medicaid expansion holdout states, but no clear preferred policy has emerged amid concerns over potential drawbacks. Some approaches could take years to set up, cost more than leaders want to spend or inadvertently penalize states that already expanded Medicaid.

Advocates and Democratic lawmakers from Medicaid expansion holdout states say this month marks the first critical deadline in the effort, as congressional budget writers seek to finalize the parameters for infrastructure legislation the party can pass through reconciliation without Republican votes. While that budget resolution won’t include the details of which health policies make the final cut, it could provide the first sign of whether lawmakers are working with enough money to fund a Medicaid gap fix.

The House is largely leading efforts to craft the policy, sources said. Options under consideration include:

— Allowing low-income adults to get free private coverage through Obamacare’s insurance marketplaces. Financial assistance for the marketplaces has been closed off to people earning below the poverty line, about $ 13,000 for an individual, because Obamacare’s drafters expected they would be covered by Medicaid expansion. However, a 2012 Supreme Court decision made the expansion optional for states, creating the coverage gap Democrats are trying to close.

— Directing the Department of Health and Human Services to stand up a new Medicaid-like program for people who would otherwise be covered by Medicaid expansion in the holdout states. Warnock, whose election helped secure Democratic control of the Senate and faces voters again next year, plans to introduce legislation as soon as next week that would back this approach and substantially boost financial incentives for holdout states to expand Medicaid, according to a draft bill obtained by POLITICO.

— A hybrid model that could address concerns about either of the two approaches, according to a senior Democratic aide. People could quickly receive free coverage on the marketplaces until federal officials can create a new program that would likely provide better benefits.

A White House spokesperson didn’t comment on whether Biden is pushing lawmakers to address Medicaid expansion in the human infrastructure package, which is expected to also include investments in child care, education and combating climate change. The spokesperson referred POLITICO to a recent tweet from domestic policy chief Susan Rice that said Biden “is ready to work with Congress this year to close the coverage gap.”

Biden’s budget called for creating a federal-run health insurance option to cover people in the Medicaid expansion gap, but the White House hasn’t publicly weighed in on the approaches Congress is considering. Policymakers see complications with each idea.

For instance, relying on the Obamacare markets could give the new enrollees skimpier benefits than what they would receive through Medicaid. It could also require the government to provide costly subsidies to private insurers to cover out-of-pocket health costs that Medicaid would typically cover. But creating a new federal program would take time to set up.

Those drafting the legislation are trying to ensure they don’t inadvertently reward states that refused expansion or incentivize expansion states to drop coverage so that the federal government will foot the entire bill.

“To the extent you give more incentives and benefits to irresponsible states, then some of the responsible states will say: ‘I want that, too,’ which adds to the cost,” Doggett said. “How do you justify excluding states from a federal Medicaid program?”

Matthew Fiedler, a fellow at the USC-Brookings Schaeffer Initiative for Health Policy whose research focuses on the Medicaid coverage gap, and other experts said they’re not concerned about states dropping Medicaid expansion, given that the federal government picks up 90 percent of the cost. Still, Medicaid experts believe policymakers must provide the right balance of “carrots and sticks” to discourage states from dropping out.

Whatever approach lawmakers choose will have to pass muster with the Senate parliamentarian, who interprets whether policies satisfy strict reconciliation rules. However, lawmakers and outside experts are optimistic any policy would survive because changes to the Obamacare markets and Medicaid expansion have previously been pushed through the fast-track budget process.

The effort recently received a major boost from the powerful Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus — as well as House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn. The groups argue that closing the coverage gap would be “one of the single most important steps” toward reducing the stark racial inequities in America’s health care system.

It would also give red state Democrats a concrete win to take to their voters.

“By this time next year, by the time you guys run for re-election next year, you’ll be able to run on Medicaid expansion,” Clyburn recently told lawmakers in Alabama’s statehouse. “I think we [can] get that done — I know I’m gonna raise hell to get it done.”

Democrats aim to avoid a Jan. 6 panel ‘circus’

Democrats aim to avoid a Jan. 6 panel 'circus'
They hope to keep some of their work behind closed doors, outside the glare of the fiery public hearings that defined the Republican select committee on Benghazi during the Obama administration.
While the plans for the committee are still in early stages, sources tell CNN that Democrats intend to make an effort not to turn it into a second round of impeachment, but instead use it to explore a range of issues that don’t all center on Donald Trump, even if the former President’s role, they argue, cannot be ignored.
The strategy underscores the political reality of a committee that likely won’t be staffed and completely ready to begin its work for weeks, as some staff will need to obtain security clearances in order to conduct their work. By then, Republicans and Democrats will be into the fall, when election messaging and the battle for control of the House of Representatives will be in full swing.
For many Democrats, who already have a narrow margin in the House, the challenge of not overreaching will be important, as Republicans will seek to paint the party as obsessed with investigating an already ousted President. The political challenges surrounding the select committee were one reason why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi picked Republican Rep. Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican who was expelled from GOP leadership after she repeatedly criticized Trump, as a member of the panel.
“I don’t get the sense that my colleagues worry this is going to be a circus,” said Rep. Peter Aguilar, a Democrat from California. “I give the speaker a lot of credit for picking Liz Cheney as a member to send that message.”
Aguilar argued that after just two meetings, the committee is united in following the truth and not letting politics dictate how it pursues its investigation.
“It’s not like we are throwing things at the wall and then saying let’s dial this back because we don’t want it to be political,” Aguilar said.
At this point, Aguilar said, many of the biggest conversations have been about staffing, logistics and where to go first.
Pelosi selected a series of Democrats for her committee who have experience taking on sweeping investigations and haven’t attracted internal ire for antics that could be seen as a distraction. The California Democrat also selected a group of members she has close relationships with and who hail from diverse political backgrounds, including more moderate members like Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida.
The panel is chaired by House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, who negotiated the agreement for an independent commission with Republican Rep. John Katko of New York, which Pelosi had sought before turning to the select committee after Senate Republicans blocked the commission.
Select committee members met last week after Pelosi named them to the new panel, and then met virtually Wednesday to discuss strategy and make a plan for hiring staff. Sources say the timing of a first hearing is not yet determined, but Thompson said last week that it would likely be hearing from US Capitol Police officers about their experiences on January 6.
“There are forces out there who would like to bring this investigation down into a partisan mud fight as quickly as possible, and Chairman Thompson knows that he needs to stay focused on reporting to the American people our analysis of what happened and all of the facts that go into it,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat on the select committee who led Democrats’ second Senate impeachment trial of Trump.
“This is not going to be Benghazi part two because that really was a political show, and this is extremely serious business getting to the bottom on the attack on America,” Raskin added.
There is no guarantee that Democrats will be successful in keeping the committee from being seen as a partisan tool by voters, particularly when the panel dives into Trump’s role leading up to the insurrection. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, has begun selecting his own members to serve on the panel, who are sure to be critical of the whole endeavor, just as Democrats were during the GOP Benghazi investigation.
Republicans have signaled they’re going to push the committee to scrutinize Pelosi’s role in securing the Capitol as the attack unfolded, as well as point to political violence involving far-left groups like antifa that occurred during last year’s protests of police brutality.
Last week, McCarthy said it was “shocking” that Cheney would accept a committee assignment from Pelosi, while accusing the speaker of playing politics with the select committee.
Democrats charge that Republicans have little to complain about when they opposed an independent commission.
“Republicans have a tough case to make, because they voted down an independent commission that would be evenly divided between the parties,” said House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who is on the select committee. “But the underlying message is they don’t want an examination of what happened on January 6.”
Democrats have said they could call Trump to testify. Key Republican members could also be sought, including McCarthy and others who spoke to Trump as the insurrection unfolded. Those requests might spur lengthy court battles that could drag out the select committee’s work.
But Democratic sources tell CNN there will also be a focus on a number of other outstanding questions, including how the Capitol was so ill-prepared for the insurrection and how some of the insurrectionists were able to navigate the Capitol, including finding the location of Rep. Jim Clyburn’s office.
Aides say there are also still questions about whether through tours of the Capitol any member purposefully or inadvertently tipped off the insurrectionists about the layout of the complex — a still-unsubstantiated allegation House Democrats made in days after the attack — and how social media posts and speeches by members leading up to the insurrection could have played a role.
While the agreement for an independent commission would have required the investigation to wrap up by the end of the year, Pelosi and Thompson have not put a timeline on the select committee’s work.
Susanne Sachsman Grooms, a former House Oversight Democratic aide who helped with the formation of multiple select committees, said there’s often a lag in getting new committees off the ground because of the logistical challenges that come with it.
“The first step is staffing up, and then they will want to get out document requests, because responding to them takes the longest,” said Grooms, who is now a partner at Kaplan Hecker & Fink. “I can imagine there will be some months gap in time before they get to a place where you could have a hearing.”

Author: Lauren Fox and Jeremy Herb, CNN
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Democrats have national power, but Trump’s base is thriving, raising the stakes for Biden at a critical time to his goal of a transformational presidency

Democrats have national power, but Trump's base is thriving, raising the stakes for Biden at a critical time to his goal of a transformational presidency
GOP governors such as Greg Abbott of Texas and Florida’s Ron DeSantis are flexing power to implement America First policies as Democrats struggle to maximize their 2020 national mandate to enact their own ambitious reforms.
Their aggressive moves on immigration, easing gun restrictions, targeting social media giants and adding restrictive voting laws seem tailored to please the ex-President and, more importantly, to tap into his support base as they prep reelection races that could merge seamlessly into 2024 White House runs.
Republican-led state legislatures, meanwhile, are drafting and passing a slew of election laws that discriminate against Democratic voters and threaten nonpartisan election certifications. Changes from Arizona to Texas and Michigan to Florida are all built on Trump’s lies that last year’s election was stolen.
While elected GOP officials are implementing Trump brand policies even without him in the Oval Office, the consequences of his presidency are being felt as the new conservative Supreme Court majority shows its colors.
The top bench, remade by Trump, again reprieved Obamacare. But it gave the first glimpses of a new era of right-wing jurisprudence by further gutting the Voting Rights Act last week. The decision suggested that Democratic efforts to challenge restrictive GOP voting laws will struggle in court. And it underscored the inability of the majority party in Washington to counter the measures with broad voting rights legislation halted by Senate Republicans with a filibuster blockade. The court’s aggressive tone is leaving progressives even more desperate for 82-year-old liberal justice Stephen Breyer to retire while Senate Democrats have a chance to confirm a replacement.
Across the street, Senate Republicans still in thrall to the former President have managed to again block Democratic efforts to subject him to accountability, killing a bipartisan, independent commission to look into the Capitol insurrection. Democrats have since decided to create their own select committee to investigate the deadly riot, though some of Trump’s closest allies in the House are openly vying for a seat on the panel to embolden the ex-President’s defense and derail the probe.
Trump is meanwhile cementing his hold on the Republican Party by conducting auditions for the 2022 midterm primaries, as candidates line up to pay the price of admission: perpetuating his democracy-staining lies about voter fraud.

A challenge for Biden

The strength of America First policies in the red half of the United States underscores the nation’s gaping political divide since it comes at a time when Biden is more popular than Trump ever was nationally. With an approval rating around 50%, the President has so far appeared to retain the grip on the political middle ground that helped him defeat Trump last November.
He used July Fourth celebrations to hail a national rebound after the pandemic, even if a new Delta viral variant and skepticism of vaccines among conservatives made it impossible to declare full independence from Covid-19.
“Over the past year, we’ve lived through some of our darkest days,” Biden said at a White House party Sunday.
“Now I truly believe … we’re about to see our brightest future,” he added.
The success of GOP policymaking outside Washington is piling even more pressure on the White House and Capitol Hill Democrats to make the most of what might be a narrow window of power before the midterm elections next year to pass one of the most ambitious party programs in decades.
Biden is seeking quick action on his bipartisan infrastructure deal with Republicans — a promise kept to voters who bought into his vow to bridge partisan divides.
But the deal is fragile, since many Senate Republicans are balking at the complex choreography that will see it moved alongside a huge Democratic spending bill worth up to $ 6 trillion needed to buy progressive votes.
The second bill would include many measures defined by the White House as “human infrastructure,” including home health care for sick and elderly Americans, and it would likely be financed by a rise in corporate tax rates.
The bill has the potential to be one of the most transformative pieces of social legislation passed in years and could significantly tilt the balance of the economy toward less well-off Americans — a process started by Biden’s $ 1.9 trillion pandemic rescue bill. With its practical and ideological impact the measure would be more than a match for the conservative policy engine whirring in the states. But first Biden has to pass it.

Abbott and DeSantis lead the charge

One question that will be answered over the next couple of years is whether the dive right by Republicans — which delights the party base — will further alienate suburban voters who deserted Trump in 2020. At the same time, if Biden can deliver on his agenda he might not only excite his core voters — whom Democrats badly need to show up en masse in the midterms — it might also validate his own appeal to centrist voters and even anti-Trump Republicans.
The enthusiasm with which Republicans are extending Trump’s political legacy is meanwhile an early indicator that whether the ex-President runs in 2024 or not, his political inheritance will again be on the ballot.
In Texas, for instance, Abbott is leading the charge among Republicans seeking to paint a picture of a nation in crisis, riddled by crime and plagued by a tide of undocumented migrants in a bid to wound the Biden presidency.
“Mr. President, things have changed so quickly and so dramatically under the Biden administration. It’s been amazing and disastrous,” Abbott told Trump last week when the twice-impeached ex-commander in chief visited Texas to accompany the governor on a trip to the US-Mexico border.
Abbott has called back the state legislature for a special session in a new bid to pass restrictive voting laws. Democrats initially managed to stall the bills by walking off the floor to deprive Republicans of a quorum needed to hold votes.
As he leads Texas in Trump’s image, Abbott has also vowed to build the border wall that the ex-President promised Mexico would pay for, and is soliciting private donations. He will likely fail to raise the billions of dollars needed but his plan is a sign of how electric the issue of immigration remains for GOP voters. In another building block of a potential GOP presidential primary campaign, Abbott made a huge show of signing a bill that allows holstered handguns to be carried in Texas without a permit. Texas is also among Republican-led states that have passed tough new limits on abortion — part of an apparent wider effort by the conservative movement to elevate the issue to a Supreme Court seen likely to water down abortion rights.

One-upmanship on the border

Abbott’s border play has not gone unnoticed by other potential GOP presidential primary rivals.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem — a Trump favorite — sent a detachment of National Guard troops to a border that conservatives say is insufficiently defended by the Biden administration, using cash from Republican donors.
DeSantis grabbed his own headline by announcing last month that he was sending local and state law enforcement officers to Texas and Arizona, saying, “America’s border security crisis impacts every state and every American.”
He may have made the most progress of any potential 2024 presidential candidate not named Donald Trump in aligning himself with the issues that electrify the party.
From his position in Tallahassee, he emerged as a hero during the pandemic for conservatives who chafed against the masking and social distancing advice of federal health officials. By taking on the cruise industry, DeSantis made a stand against “vaccine passports” — a hot-button issue on the right.
But the Florida governor showed a deft touch in putting politics aside when Biden visited bereaved relatives of the victims of the collapsed condo building near Miami, potentially showing he could carve out more moderate appeal.
DeSantis is not just implementing policies that Trump might like. He also appears to be trying to move out of the shadow of the former President, who once regarded him as a protege — a potential cause of future tensions between the two.
The Florida governor, for example, recently signed a bill banning transgender athletes from competing in female sports. GOP strategists see the issue as one with appeal wider than their own grass roots as the midterm elections loom. He also gained kudos among voters who believe that Trump has been “canceled” by social media platforms.
In May, DeSantis signed a measure that would allow Floridians to sue Silicon Valley giants that they believe infringe their rights to freedom of speech. And any Big Tech company that “de-platforms any candidate for statewide office” will face fines of $ 250,000 per day. DeSantis also signed a measure that opponents say grievously curtails the right to demonstrate, as he aimed for a piece of Trump’s “law and order” constituency.
It is a record that makes DeSantis an emerging hero of the conservative movement — and a key player in the intensifying ideological battle that will help define Biden’s presidency and the fate of the next two national elections.

Author: Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN
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Proving Racist Intent: Democrats Face High New Bar in Opposing Voting Laws

Democrats and voting rights groups say they can no longer count on the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, to serve as a backstop for preventing racially discriminatory voting restrictions.

The 6-to-3 decision by the Supreme Court on Thursday that upheld voting restrictions in Arizona has effectively left voting rights advocates with a higher bar for bringing federal cases under the Voting Rights Act: proving discriminatory intent.

That burden is prompting civil rights and voting groups to recalibrate their approach to challenging in court the raft of new restrictions that Republican-controlled legislatures have passed this year in the aftermath of Donald J. Trump’s election loss in November. No longer, they say, can they count on the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, to serve as a backstop for preventing racially discriminatory voting restrictions.

“We have to remember that the Supreme Court is not going to save us — it’s not going to protect our democracy in these moments when it is most necessary that it does so,” Sam Spital, the director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said Friday.

The high court gutted the central protection of the Voting Rights Act in a 2013 decision, and on Thursday the court further limited the act’s reach in combating discriminatory laws, establishing strict new guidelines for proving the laws’ effects on voters of color and thus requiring litigants to clear the much higher bar of proving purposeful intent to discriminate.

Mr. Spital said his group would have to carefully assess its next moves and “think very carefully” before bringing new cases that, if defeated, could set damaging new precedents. The Arizona case, filed in 2016 by the Democratic National Committee, was considered a weak vehicle for challenging new voting laws; even the Biden administration acknowledged that the Arizona law was not discriminatory under the Voting Rights Act. Choosing the wrong cases, in the wrong jurisdictions, could lead to further setbacks, Mr. Spital and other voting rights advocates said.

At the same time, Mr. Spital said, it is imperative that voting restrictions enacted by Republicans not go unchallenged.

“It will force us to work even harder in the cases that we do bring,” he said. “Once the rules of the game are set, even if they are tilted against us, we have the resources — we have extraordinary lawyers, extraordinary clients, and we have the facts on our side.”

Thursday’s ruling also laid bare an uncomfortable new reality for Democrats and voting activists: that under existing law, they can expect little help from the federal courts on election laws that are passed on a partisan basis by the party that controls a state government. Republican lawmakers in Georgia, Florida and Iowa have moved aggressively to push through voting laws, brushing aside protests from Democrats, voting rights groups and even major corporations.

Arizona Republicans were candid about the partisan nature of their efforts when the Supreme Court heard the case in March. A lawyer for the Arizona Republican Party told the justices that the restrictions were needed because without them, Republicans in the state would be “at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats.”

“It’s much harder to prove these things — it takes a lot more evidence,” said Travis Crum, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who specializes in voting rights and redistricting cases. “Courts are often reluctant to label legislators racist. That’s why the effects standard was added in 1982.”

The high court’s decision also raises the stakes for 2022 contests for governor in the key swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where Democratic governors are poised to block measures proposed by Republican-controlled legislatures. If a Republican won the governor’s seat in any of those states, the legislature would have a clear path to pushing through new voting laws.

Republicans on Friday lauded the Supreme Court ruling, calling it a validation of the need to combat voter fraud — though no evidence of widespread fraud emerged in President Biden’s victory.

Justin Riemer, the chief counsel at the Republican National Committee, argued that the new “guideposts” set by Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority opinion, were welcome and would force a recognition of the broader options for voting available in a state.

“It reaffirms, for example, that states have an incredibly important interest in protecting against voter fraud and promoting voter confidence,” Mr. Riemer said. “When the court looked at Arizona’s laws, it noted how generous the voting provisions were.”

Mr. Riemer noted that Democrats would also have a harder time in meeting new standards for showing that laws impose unreasonable burdens on voters.

“I don’t want to say completely shuts them out of Section 2, but it’s going to make it very difficult for them to strike down laws that are really minimally, if at all, burdensome,” Mr. Riemer said, referring to the section of the Voting Rights Act that addresses racially discriminatory practices.

Major Supreme Court decisions affirming a new restriction on voting have historically been followed by waves of new state-level legislation. In 2011, 34 states introduced some form of new voter identification legislation after the court upheld Indiana’s voter identification law in 2008.

The first immediate test of a newly emboldened legislature will come next week in Texas, where lawmakers are scheduled to reconvene for a special session, in a second attempt by Republicans to pass an election overhaul bill. The first attempt failed after Democrats in the State Legislature staged a contentious late-night walkout, temporarily halting proposals that were among the most restrictive in the country.

Those proposals included bans on new methods of voting, a reduction in Sunday voting hours and provisions that would make it easier to overturn elections and would greatly empower partisan poll watchers.

The uncertain legal fights will play out in a federal judiciary remade during Mr. Trump’s administration, and Democrats in Congress have failed to enact federal voter protections.

The legal defense fund that Mr. Spital represents sued Georgia in May over its new voting laws, arguing that the laws would have a discriminatory effect. Other lawsuits, including one the Department of Justice filed last week, argue that Georgia acted with intent to discriminate against voters of color.

But some Democrats, while lamenting the decision by the Supreme Court, noted that they still had plenty of constitutional tools to challenge repressive voting laws.

“Obviously, it is now going to be more difficult to litigate,” said Aneesa McMillan, a deputy executive director at the super PAC Priorities USA, who oversees the organization’s voting rights efforts. “But most of our cases that we challenge, we challenge based on the First, the 14th and the 15th amendments of the Constitution.”

Among the guideposts Justice Alito articulated is an assessment of “the standard practice” of voting in 1982, when Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act was amended.

“It is relevant that in 1982 States typically required nearly all voters to cast their ballots in person on election day and allowed only narrow and tightly defined categories of voters to cast absentee ballots,” Justice Alito wrote.

Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling established a series of guideposts for determining whether merely the effect of a voting law is discriminatory, rather than the intent.
Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

The court did not address the purpose clause of Section 2. But those cases often rely on racist statements by lawmakers or irregularities in the legislative process — trickier elements of a legal case to prove than the effects.

“You’re not going to get that smoking gun kind of evidence,” said Sophia Lakin, the deputy director of the A.C.L.U.’s Voting Rights Project. “It’s pulling together a lot of circumstantial pieces to show the purpose is to take away the rights of voters of color.”

Mikala Compton/Reuters

In Texas, some Democrats in the Legislature had been hoping that they could work toward a more moderate version of the bill in the special session that starts next week; it remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court decision will induce Republicans to favor an even more restrictive bill.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and State Representative Briscoe Cain, both Republicans, did not respond to requests for comment. Speaker Dan Phelan and State Senator Bryan Hughes, both Republicans, declined to comment.

But whether the Supreme Court decision will open the floodgates for more restrictive voting legislation in other states remains an open question; more than 30 state legislatures have adjourned for the year, and others have already passed their voting laws.

“It’s hard to imagine what a spike in voting restrictions would look like now, because we are already seeing such a dramatic surge, more than at any time since Reconstruction,” said Wendy Weiser, the director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a research institute. “But passing new waves of legislation has certainly been the response in recent years.”

Gov. Tony Evers of Wisconsin is one of the Democratic governors who are holding off voting measures passed by Republican-led legislatures. On Wednesday, he vetoed the first of several pieces of Republican legislation on the electoral process.

In an interview, he said Republicans’ monthslong effort to relitigate the 2020 election had had the effect of placing voting rights on the level of health care and education among the top priorities of Wisconsin voters.

“It’s rising up as far as people’s recognizing that it’s an important issue,” Mr. Evers said. “They brought it on themselves, frankly, the Republicans have. I don’t think the people of Wisconsin thought the election was stolen. They understand that it was a fair election. And so the Republicans’ inability to accept Donald Trump’s loss is making it more of a bread-and-butter issue here.”

Author: Reid J. Epstein and Nick Corasaniti
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Democrats Brace for a Narrower Path to Challenge New Voting Laws

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Thursday involving Arizona voting laws appeared to limit the options for voting rights groups to mount legal challenges to restrictive new measures being passed in Republican-controlled states.

Voting rights activists, on the defensive this year in the face of a wave of restrictive new voting laws, grappled on Thursday with new guidance from the Supreme Court signaling that the challenge will be even steeper now for opposing these laws in court.

The 6-to-3 ruling established a series of “guideposts” for what could potentially constitute a violation under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, appearing to limit one of the few paths Democrats and activists have for mounting legal challenges to new measures currently being proposed and passed in Republican-controlled states.

“The test is more difficult to meet than Congress intended when it passed the act and that is necessary to meet the moment, in terms of the number of states and local governments out there designing racially discriminatory electoral rules,” said Chad Dunn, the co-founder of the Voting Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a former election lawyer. “So on that point, I think the dissenting justices got it exactly right: The test is too restrictive.”

There are other legal avenues to challenge restrictive voting laws besides the Voting Rights Act, including under the First, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. But the act has been paramount in helping to rein in laws that could disproportionately affect communities of color, and the decision could threaten some of the legal strategies that voting rights groups and election lawyers have been drafting to challenge some of the new laws.

Mr. Dunn noted that the court’s decision on Thursday did not invalidate or significantly hollow out Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. “I do think the test will work to stop a lot of discriminatory electoral practices,” he said. “And that part is good news.”

President Biden said he was “deeply disappointed” in the court’s ruling and said it would cause “severe damage” to the federal government’s ability to protect voting rights. He again urged Congress to enact new protections for voting.

“The court’s decision, harmful as it is, does not limit Congress’s ability to repair the damage done today,” Mr. Biden said. “It puts the burden back on Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act to its intended strength.”

At least three major cases involving Section 2 claims are in the federal court system, according to a database of election litigation maintained by Ohio State University. One of those cases is a lawsuit that the Justice Department filed last week against Georgia, claiming that the state’s new omnibus voting law, S.B. 202, is racially discriminatory in both its intent and its impact.

While the case was brought under Section 2, some election lawyers said that it was unlikely to be derailed by the court’s decision on Thursday.

“There’s two ways to prove a Section 2 case — you can show there’s purposeful discrimination, or you can show that the law at issue had a discriminatory effect,” said Tom Perez, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and former chief of the civil rights division of the Justice Department. “The court narrowed the effects test. The purpose claims are unchanged, and the Georgia case is a purpose case. The Georgia cases that were recently filed, they include claims of intentional discrimination and they include constitutional claims.”

The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold two Arizona voting restrictions indicated that paths to challenging similar laws will be narrower.
Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Republicans said the court’s ruling would serve as a green light for G.O.P. state legislators to pursue addition restrictions on voting.

“Rhetorically, it will provide them a shield to say, ‘What we’re doing is perfectly legitimate, the Supreme Court lets us do it,’” said Benjamin L. Ginsberg, a veteran Republican election lawyer. “What’s important to look at in that opinion is what the court looks at in the usual burdens of voting. You have to be halfway informed about where your polling precinct is. If a bunch of people can’t figure out where their voting precinct is, that doesn’t mean you have to lesson common-sense protections to help them.”

The conservative Heritage Foundation, which along with its political arm, Heritage Action, has for years advocated making voting harder, said that states should follow Arizona’s lead in enacting tougher voting laws.

Garrett Bess, the vice president of Heritage Action, called the Supreme Court’s decision “an enormous win for election integrity and voter confidence.” He added: “State officials across the country should take note and work to enact similar policies in their states.”

Since the November election, at least 22 new laws in 14 states have been enacted that impose new restrictions on voting, alarming Democrats and voting rights groups who say the measures are a threat to one of the pillars of democracy. So far, Democrats have had little recourse as states like Georgia, Florida and Iowa pass new laws, other than to file lawsuits and mount aggressive voter education campaigns on the issue.

The two provisions of Arizona law at the core of the Supreme Court decision on Thursday were increasingly common restrictions on voting that have appeared in other states. One law banned third parties from helping voters in dropping off their absentee ballots, a process Republicans derisively refer to as “ballot harvesting” but that is designed to help older, sick or otherwise disabled voters with handling their ballot. The other law canceled all votes cast in person at the wrong precinct.

At least 22 states have passed or introduced a law restricting ballot collections, according to a database maintained by the Voting Rights Lab, a liberal-leaning voting rights group. And one of the provisions in Georgia’s law would bar any voter from being allowed to vote provisionally at the wrong precinct before 5 p.m.

Rushes of similar legislation have followed Supreme Court rulings on voting laws in the past. After the Court upheld an Indiana voter identification law in 2008, numerous other states, including North Carolina, Texas and Pennsylvania, sought to pass similar laws.

Jen Jordan, a Georgia state senator who is seeking the Democratic nomination for state attorney general, said the ruling on Thursday would make it more difficult to bring legal challenges against the state’s new voting law, known as S. B. 202, because it would be necessary to prove that Georgia Republicans intended to make it harder for people of color to vote, rather than that being the effect of the new law.

“It’s very difficult to gather enough evidence or appropriate evidence to show actual intent,” she said, “and that seems like the only way you can do it now under the V.R.A.”

Even as some voting rights groups noted that it was not a worst-case scenario ruling, Democrats around the country were quick to deride the decision by the Supreme Court, which broke down along the court’s 6-3 ideological divide, and vowed to redouble their efforts to pass federal voting legislation.

“Today’s Supreme Court decision reinforces what we already know: Voting rights are under assault in America and we must act with the fierce urgency of now to end the era of voter suppression once and for all,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries, a New York Democrat who is the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

Author: Nick Corasaniti and Reid J. Epstein
This post originally appeared on NYT > Top Stories

Staving Off G.O.P. Attacks, Democrats Show New Urgency on Crime

Staving Off G.O.P. Attacks, Democrats Show New Urgency on Crime

But in Washington, Democratic leaders are now plainly more focused on heading off attacks from the right than placating the activist left.

If this week has marked a highly visible turning point in Democratic politics, the party’s shift toward treating public safety as a central political concern has been a gradual one. Indeed, the coincidental overlap in Mr. Adams’s strong performance and Mr. Biden’s speech served to create a kind of artificially sudden climax in what was really a monthslong process of reshaping the Democratic message on crime and law enforcement.

As early as last November, congressional Democrats were engaged in a pitched debate over the impact of the “defund” movement on down-ballot elections. In the 2020 general election, Republicans savaged Democrats all over the country by linking them with the most strident faction of activists to emerge during a summer of racial-justice protests. Many Democrats were convinced the party’s candidates had suffered as a result, while progressives bristled at what they described as centrist scapegoating.

Two Democratic reviews of the campaign concluded that the party had not sufficiently pushed back on those attacks. One report, by a collection of Democratic advocacy groups including the centrist think tank Third Way, concluded that Republicans had weaponized the “defund the police” slogan with particular effectiveness “against candidates of color in swing districts with large white populations.”

By late spring of this year, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was employing a more aggressive approach to answering Republican attacks. In a special election to fill a vacant House seat in New Mexico, Republicans were battering the Democratic candidate, Melanie Stansbury, for endorsing sweeping liberal legislation that would have reduced funding for police departments and placed stricter limits on law-enforcement authorities, among other progressive wish-list goals. With a crime wave buffeting Albuquerque, it was a potentially damaging attack.

But Ms. Stansbury and her national allies mounted a determined response, blanketing the Democratic-leaning district with ads that promoted her votes in the New Mexico State Legislature to fund local law enforcement. She won the race by a huge margin.

In another special election, pitting two Black Democrats against each other for an open House seat in Louisiana, the victorious candidate, Troy Carter, deflected criticism from a more progressive candidate, Karen Carter Peterson, who accused him of being too supportive of the police.

Author: Alexander Burns
This post originally appeared on NYT > Top Stories