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The Morning Dispatch: Delta Is Waning, But What About Winter?
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The Morning Dispatch: Delta Is Waning, But What About Winter?

Plus: The House takes up the debt ceiling.

Happy Monday! Declan is on vacation this week, and Andrew has a kid due in just a few days. Say a prayer for your Morning Dispatchers, who may be in danger of having to temporarily mortgage the pirate skiff for a three-man canoe.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • After permitting Democrats to pass a short-term debt ceiling increase without filibustering it, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sent President Joe Biden a letter Friday warning that Republicans will not assist with a debt ceiling increase again.

  • An L-410 aircraft carrying parachuters crashed in the Tatarstan Republic of Russia Sunday, killing 16 people—including the pilot and co-pilot—and severely injuring six others.

  • Southwest Airlines canceled more than 1,000 flights this weekend, citing air traffic staffing shortages and bad weather. The Federal Aviation Administration pushed back, saying the culprit was “aircraft and crews being out of place.”

  • A Navy nuclear engineer and his wife were arrested Saturday after attempting to sell military secrets to an undercover FBI agent posing as an agent of a foreign power, the Justice Department said.

  • Afghanistan’s economic and social distress following the collapse of the Afghan government and Taliban conquest have been compounded in recent months by the region’s worst drought in decades.

COVID Cases Falling

(Photograph by Getty Images.)

When it comes to covering the ongoing COVID pandemic, there are cases-up stories and there are cases-down stories. As new cases and hospitalizations are ticking up, there’s a frantic undertone to much of the coverage—pictures of crowded hospitals go viral and policymakers sweat to find new policy knobs to turn to get things back under control. When cases are receding, the opposite is true—people noticeably relax, thoughts stray back to the normalcy that’s doubtless just around the corner, and public health experts take on a scolding tone as they warn the public not to let their guard down just yet.

In recent months, as the Delta variant raged across the Southeast, the headlines were full of cases-up stories. But the accelerating spread of the virus peaked in mid-September, and while cases are still rising in some rural parts of the country, both cases and hospitalizations have fallen significantly in the month since. As a result, we’re back to familiar old cases-down news cycles like arguing about whether Anthony Fauci is being too much of a worrywart when he says it’s “too soon to tell” whether Americans will be able to gather for Christmas. (Fauci later claimed his comments had been misinterpreted and that he intended to celebrate with his own family.)

Sometimes cases-up periods result in policies that don’t go into effect until a cases-down period is well underway. That’s what has happened with Biden’s latest round of aggressive vaccine mandate provisions, which were announced days before new cases peaked on September 10, but which still remains under development at the Labor Department, out of the public eye.

As we wrote last week, the mass resistance that some polling earlier this year suggested might meet work-mandated vaccines turns out to have been largely a mirage: Faced with a requirement to get vaccinated as a condition of future work, most holdouts have begrudgingly gotten shots. But some have argued that in the short term, the delay between Biden’s OSHA announcement and its implementation might have actually been counterproductive for vaccination rates, with businesses that might otherwise have required the vaccine on their own content to wait around for OSHA to be the bad guy.

“It takes OSHA time to implement regulations,” former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told CBS News last month. “You’ll have to put in place guidance, give businesses a grace period, and then figure out what the enforcement mechanism is going to be. In the near term, a lot of businesses that might have mandated vaccines are now going to sit on their hands and say, I’m going to wait for OSHA to tell me just how to do it and give me more political cover. So in the near term, you could actually discourage some vaccination.”

In the meantime, Biden has continued to cajole companies not to wait before requiring their employees to get the shot. “Businesses have more power than ever before to change the arc of this pandemic and save lives,” the president said at an event in Chicago last week.

In addition, states and localities (overwhelmingly those run by Democrats) have continued to pack on mandates of their own. On October 6, the city of Los Angeles adopted one of the strictest requirements in the nation: an ordinance requiring anyone 12 or older to show proof of vaccination before entering nearly any indoor public space in the city.

Despite the slowing rate of cases, there’s one reason why some remain skittish about the months ahead: Last winter’s surge, which started taking off last October and peaked in January, was the deadliest single period of the entire pandemic.

“Are we going to have as bad a surge this winter as last winter? I think we can definitively say no,” Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, told The New Yorker last week. “But what people don’t appreciate about Delta is that it finds pockets of unvaccinated people and just rips through them. If you’re an older person living in this country, and you’re not vaccinated, it’s going to be a very bad winter.”

The Filibuster Stays

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed last week to help Democrats raise the debt ceiling by $480 billion through December of this year, buying more time at the deadline of a weeks-long standoff over the debt ceiling that had some Democrats advocating for changing Senate rules to exempt debt ceiling hikes and suspensions from the filibuster. 

Although the short-term increase ultimately passed along party lines, 11 Republicans, including McConnell, supported a key procedural step to allow the bill to pass by a simple majority vote. The bill now goes to the House, which will take it up tomorrow. The House will likely pass the bill just days before October 18, when Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned that the Treasury could run out of borrowing options.

As the deadline approached in recent weeks, Democrats reportedly discussed a slate of last-minute options for passing a debt ceiling increase without any GOP support and without having to resort to reconciliation, a lengthy process that allows the majority party to skirt the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold and pass a bill with 51 votes.

Last week, Democratic leaders flirted with the possibility of amending Senate rules so that debt ceiling hikes and suspensions would no longer be beholden to the filibuster. President Joe Biden called the idea a “real possibility” last Tuesday, and Senate Democrats reportedly discussed the idea during a closed-door meeting on Tuesday, along with other last-resort options. 

But as we noted last week, following through on that threat would have required the support of all 50 Democratic senators and Vice President Kamala Harris, the Senate’s tie-breaking vote. Standing in the way were centrist Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, who have insisted for weeks that they don’t support nuking the Senate rule. “I’ve been very, very clear where I stand on the filibuster. Nothing changes,” Manchin told reporters last Wednesday ahead of Thursday’s vote.

Despite Manchin’s assurances, Republican senators told reporters over the weekend that McConnell’s decision to help Democratic leaders increase the debt ceiling was influenced by the GOP’s fear that Manchin and Sinema might cave to pressure from Democratic leaders to support a Senate rules change. 

“[McConnell] said, ‘I think I’ve come up with a solution that could work and that I think Joe and Kyrsten will allow,’” GOP Sen. Kevin Cramer told The Hill on Friday. “That’s really important. Because if not they could, you know, carve out this one thing … to blow up the filibuster over. And I think he wanted to protect them from that and protect the Senate from that eventuality.”

Even though 11 Republican senators voted in favor of Thursday’s debt limit increase, many members of the GOP expressed frustration over the weekend that Senate Democrats threatened nuking the filibuster as a last resort option when they could have passed the bill through reconciliation weeks ago.

“Today’s vote is proof positive that the debt limit can be addressed without going through the reconciliation process—just as Democrats have been saying for months,” Schumer said Thursday. “The solution is for Republicans to either join us in raising the debt limit, or stand out of the way and let Democrats address the debt limit ourselves.”

McConnell made clear in a letter to Biden on Friday that he will not come to Schumer’s aid again to help pass another debt ceiling increase before December 3, Yellen’s next deadline. This means that in order to avoid a default, Democrats will have to pass another debt increase with reconciliation, likely without any Republican support.

“Your lieutenants on Capitol Hill now have the time they claimed they lacked to address the debt ceiling,” McConnell said in his letter. “They cannot invent another crisis and ask for my help.”

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham argued that Democrats are weaponizing their unilateral control over the federal government to warp Senate rules and traditions. “You either believe in Senate rules and procedures or you don’t. When we had control of the White House, House, and Senate, we were under pressure to change the rules to enact the Republican agenda. I thought it would be bad for the country and I said ‘No,’” Graham told The Hill

“It never crossed my mind to go to Democrats and say if you don’t do these two or three things I may have to change the rules. The bottom line is that’s extortion. It’s not healthy for the Senate and I’m not going to live that way,” Graham said.

Worth Your Time

  • In the latest installment of our country’s ongoing culture war, students and faculty at the University of Michigan are calling for the firing of an award-winning professor for his screening of the 1965 version of Shakespeare’s Othello. Bright Sheng—a composer and immigrant from Communist China—has since apologized profusely for showing the film, which features a white actor in blackface as its protagonist, but remains in the university’s crosshairs. Robby Soave compiles some of the harshest responses in a recent story for Reason. “The University of Michigan is a public institution at which students and professors deserve free speech and expression rights. It is a violation of the university’s cherished principles of academic freedom to punish Sheng for the choices he makes in the classroom,” Soave writes. “Screening a racially problematic film in an educational setting is neither a racist act nor an endorsement of racism. At this point, it is Sheng who is owed an apology from the broader university community for falsely maligning him.”

  • In his latest for Commentary, Noah Rothman unearths an encouraging shift in American attitudes toward U.S. commitments abroad: “When confronted by the consequences of Biden’s policy of retreat from foreign conflicts, Americans have rediscovered that they prefer engagement to ignominious surrender.” In Quinnipiac University’s latest poll, only 28 percent of American voters still supported a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The majority, at 50 percent, favored keeping a residual military force behind. “Advocates of retrenchment from America’s post-9/11 obligations abroad now must defend their position against the undesirable real-world consequences their policy preferences produce. Full withdrawal from Iraq gave way to the rise of an unspeakably violent, abusive, and repressive terrorist caliphate, requiring America’s return to the theater,” Rothman writes. “Full withdrawal from Afghanistan has so far given way to the very same thing, the full consequences of which are yet to come. They are making a more compelling case for American extroversion in ways full-throated advocates for U.S. engagement in the world never could.”

Presented Without Comment

 Also Presented Without Comment

 Toeing the Company Line

  • In Sunday’s French Press, David delves into the U.S.’s shifting recognition—from the left, right, and center—of the pornography industry as inherently exploitative and culturally damaging. “Experience is teaching its harsh lessons once again. American men and women, including couples of all political and religious persuasions, are living in a world porn helped make, and countless millions don’t like the result,” David writes. “It’s a world that’s not just rife with outright exploitation and abuse, like countless other products, its consumption (especially at scale) harms the consumer.”

  • Friday’s G-File examines the argument—from Jonathan Chait and others—that American voters, lawmakers, and reporters should treat politics as a binary choice between Biden or Trump. On the contrary, Jonah writes, the reduction of our governing bodies into a quasi-parliamentary system actually emboldens radical wings of both parties. “The Electoral College, the filibuster, the Supreme Court’s nine seats, even the rule of having senators represent states rather than the popular vote; these institutions and structures intended to foster deliberation and compromise are seen as illegitimate barriers to total victory,” Jonah writes. “The features of the constitutional order become bugs in the eyes of the warring factions that crave zero-sum victories. This dynamic, as much as anything, gave us President Donald Trump in 2016—and almost gave us President Bernie Sanders.”

  • In Friday’s Dispatch Podcast, Jonah hijacks hosting duties from Sarah to have a candid conversation with Steve as The Dispatch celebrates its second anniversary. How did we get here? What is the state of the company? And where are we going?

  • Fewer Americans are celebrating Columbus Day, and activists have pushed for statues of Christopher Columbus to be removed, citing “white supremacy.” On the site today, Chris Stirewalt offers a history lesson on the struggle by Italian Americans to gain acceptance and details a particularly horrific event that led to President Benjamin Harrison to declare the first official Columbus Day celebration.

  • Also on the site today, Christian Schneider reports on the “stop the steal” effort in Wisconsin. The Republican-led State Assembly has allocated $680,000 for a former state Supreme Court justice to investigate the “integrity” of the 2020 election.

Let Your Friends Know!

As part of our efforts to grow the Dispatch community, this week we’re inviting you to do something we normally discourage: Forward to friends, colleagues, and family members and members-only Dispatch newsletters that you think they’d find worth their time. No need to spam on our behalf—we don’t want to annoy anyone. But all week long, you should feel free to share our work with folks you know who would benefit from our slower, fact-first approach to politics, policy and culture.

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@lawsonreports), Audrey Fahlberg (@AudreyFahlberg), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).