Today’s politics recap
The supreme court refused to block Maine vaccine requirement
Joe Biden’s nearly $3tn domestic agenda remains unrealized after an 11th-hour push to rally Democrats around a pared-down package that he framed as historic, failed to close the deal in time for his meeting with world leaders in Rome at the G20 summit.
But after a dramatic Thursday of bold promises and dashed hopes, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, was forced to postpone a vote on a $1tn infrastructure bill for a second time in a month, as progressives demanded more assurances that a compromise $1.75tn social policy plan would also pass.
It was a setback – though perhaps only a temporary one – for Democratic leaders, who had hoped to hand the president a legislative victory that he could tout during his six-day trip to Europe for a pair of international economic and climate summits.
The delay underscored the depth of mistrust among Democrats – between the House and Senate, progressives and centrists, leadership and members – after a lengthy negotiating process yielded a plan that was about half the size of Biden’s initial vision.
Countless newspaper columns and hours of airtime have been expended trying to understand the motives of the two holdouts, who can effectively decide whether Democrats keep their campaign promises – with huge implications for next year’s midterm elections.
Manchin is not so mysterious. He hails from coal-rich West Virginia, a conservative state that Donald Trump won twice in a landslide, and once ran a campaign ad in which he shot a rifle at a legislative bill. He owns about $1m in shares in his son’s coal brokerage company and has raised campaign funds from oil and gas interests.
Critics accuse him of putting personal and local concerns ahead of his party, the nation and the world. The USA Today newspaper wrote in an editorial: “It’s no stretch to conclude that Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin is risking the planet’s future to protect a dwindling pool of 14,000 coal mining jobs in his home state of West Virginia.”
Sinema, however, has been described as enigmatic, sphinx-like and whimsical. In 2018 she became Arizona’s first Democratic senator for more than two decades and, despite progressive credentials and a flair for fashion statements, has taken conservative positions on several issues.
She also provokes the left with stunts such as a thumbs-down gesture on the Senate floor when she voted against raising the federal minimum wage and, on Thursday, a parody of the TV comedy Ted Lasso with the Republican senator Mitt Romney. Perhaps tellingly, Sinema raised $1.1m in campaign funds in the last quarter with significant donations from the pharmaceutical and financial industries.
Senate’s 50-50 split lets Manchin and Sinema revel in outsize influence
Joe Biden recently summed up his problems getting things done.
In an America where the US Senate is split 50-50, then effectively any single senator can hold a veto over the president’s entire agenda. “Look,” laughed Biden at a CNN town hall, “you have 50 Democrats, every one is a president. Every single one. So, you got to work things out.”
It explains why the most powerful man in the world is currently struggling to get his way in Washington – and why two members of his own party, Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, are standing in his way.
Such is the distribution of power that American presidents can only impose their will up to a point if Congress refuses to yield. While the White House can do much with executive orders and actions, major legislation must gain a majority of votes in the House of Representatives and Senate.
Democrats do currently control both chambers – but only just. The Senate is evenly divided between 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, meaning that Vice-President Kamala Harris must cast the tie-breaking vote. That means all 50 Democratic senators must be on board in the face of united Republican opposition – an increasingly safe (and bleak) assumption in polarised era.
By contrast, President Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats reached 59 seats in the then 96-member Senate, while President Lyndon Johnson’s Democrats had 68 in what by then was a 100-seat chamber. Biden is trying to match the scale of both men’s ambition with no room for error.
This is why his agenda – huge investments in infrastructure and expanding the social safety net – depends on the blessing of Manchin and Sinema in what might seem to the watching world as a case of the tail wagging the dog.
Bernie Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont defeated by Biden in last year’s Democratic primary, tweeted earlier this month: “2 senators cannot be allowed to defeat what 48 senators and 210 House members want.”
But the cold reality is that, after months of painful wrangling and concessions, Manchin and Sinema have almost single-handedly narrowed the scale and scope of Biden’s grand vision.
Today so far
With no major climate legislation firmly in hand and international allies still smarting after four bruising years of Donald Trump, Joe Biden faces a major challenge to reassert American credibility as he heads to crucial UN climate talks in Scotland.
The US president, who has vowed to tackle a climate crisis he has described as an “existential threat” to civilization, will be welcomed to the Cop26 talks with a sense of relief following the decisions of his predecessor, who pulled his country out of the landmark Paris climate agreement and derided climate science as “bullshit”.
But Biden, who departed to Europe on Thursday and arrived in Rome on Friday morning for a G20 summit, will head to Glasgow with his domestic climate agenda whittled away by a recalcitrant Congress and a barrage of criticism from climate activists who claim Biden’s actions have yet to match his words.
This disconnect has perturbed delegates keen to see a reliable American partner emerge from the Trump era, amid increasingly dire warnings from scientists that “irreversible” heatwaves, floods, crop failures and other effects are being locked in by governments’ sluggish response to global heating.
“The US is still the world’s largest economy, other nations pay attention to it, and we’ve never had a president more committed to climate action,” said Alice Hill, who was a climate adviser to Barack Obama. “But there is skepticism being expressed by other countries. They saw our dramatic flip from Obama to Trump and the worry is we will flip again. A lack of consistency is the issue.”
Supreme court agrees to hear case involving federal government’s ability to curb emissions
FDA clears Pfizer shot for children aged five to 11
The Food and Drug Administration has cleared another hurdle on the way to making vaccinations against Covid-19 available to children aged five to 11, authorising the use of child-sized shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for emergency use.
Up to 28 million American children could be eligible for vaccinations as early as next week, once advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) make more detailed recommendations on who should get vaccinated. A final decision from the CDC director, Dr Rochelle Walensky, is expected shortly after that.
It’s a major moment in the US effort against the coronavirus. As the Associated Press puts it: “While children are at lower risk of severe illness or death from Covid-19 than older people, five- to 11-year-olds in the US have been seriously affected, including more than 8,300 hospitalisations, about a third requiring intensive care, and nearly 100 deaths.
“The government has also counted more than 2,000 coronavirus-related school closings since the start of the school year, affecting more than a million children.”
US director of national intelligence releases declassified Covid-19 report