The Morning Dispatch: The Infrastructure Tightrope

Happy Friday! On this date in 1790, President George Washington signed the Residence Act into law, establishing the nation’s capital along the Potomac River. 

Alexander Hamilton never should’ve made that compromise with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. It gets way too muggy here in the summer.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Senate voted unanimously on Wednesday to pass a bill banning the import of products from China’s Xinjiang region due to the ongoing genocide taking place there against Uyghur Muslims. “Once this bill passes the House and is signed by the President, the United States will have more tools to prevent products made with forced labor from entering our nation’s supply chains,” said Sen. Marco Rubio.

  • The Internal Revenue Service and Treasury Department on Thursday began disbursing the new advance Child Tax Credit payments established by the American Rescue Plan, sending money—mostly through direct deposit—to tens of millions of families with children under 17 years old.

  • Justice Stephen Breyer—the oldest member of the Supreme Court—told CNN Wednesday that he has not yet decided when he will retire. Some progressive activists have been pushing him to step aside as early as this year to ensure a Democratic Senate could confirm his replacement.

  • Days after Haitian officials requested the White House send troops to the country in the wake of its president’s assassination, President Biden told reporters not to expect a large deployment. “We’re only sending American Marines to our embassy,” he said. “The idea of sending American forces to Haiti is not on the agenda.”

  • Facebook announced Thursday it had taken action against “Tortoiseshell,” a hacking group based in Iran that had been using the social media platform to “distribute malware and conduct espionage operations across the internet,” targeting U.S. and European military, defense, and aerospace personnel.

  • Due to rising COVID-19 transmission rates in the area, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health announced Thursday it is again imposing an indoor mask mandate for both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, effective this Saturday.

  • At least 60 people are dead—and up to 1,500 more missing—after severe flooding swept through parts of Germany and Belgium on Thursday.

Reconciliation Bill Complicates Infrastructure Efforts

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.)

We last wrote to you about Senate Democrats’ parallel tracks with bipartisan infrastructure and reconciliation a few weeks ago, when President Biden complicated things by publicly linking the two. That threw the negotiations into chaos, but we’re starting to get a little bit of clarity regarding what comes next. On Tuesday, Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee came to an agreement on a $3.5 trillion proposal that they plan to include in an upcoming budget resolution.

That total—while much less than the $6 trillion plan initially proposed by progressive Democrats—still covers a large part of Biden’s $4 trillion economic agenda. The legislation is still a work in progress, but Democrats plan to include as many of their priorities as possible in the finished product—universal prekindergarten, two years of free community college, an extension of the child tax credit, clean energy requirements for utilities, and a paid family and medical leave program, to name a few.

While Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he’s “very proud” of the plan, many questions remain. For one, passage of the bill depends on a handful of moderate Democrats who have not firmly committed to supporting the $3.5 trillion package. Sen. Joe Manchin, for example, has said he wants any new spending programs to be fully financed. He also voiced specific concern yesterday about the proposed climate change provisions. “I’m not a hard ‘no’ on anything,” Manchin told reporters. “I’m just saying that I like to find ways to pay for things.”

Democrats have no room for disagreement in the evenly split Senate if they are to pass the behemoth legislation without Republican support. And the needle to thread gets even narrower when you consider the House, where Democrats also have a slim majority and can only afford to lose a handful of members while advancing partisan legislation.

Schumer claimed on Tuesday that fully financing the proposals was only “one of the options on the table,” but argued it was “doable, absolutely.” Democrats have already hinted at using dynamic scoring for the legislation, building in assumptions about resulting economic growth to paint a rosier picture of the final price tag. Some analysts, however, are more skeptical: Many of the short-term spending items in the current plan may become permanent in the future. Congressional Democrats, for example, may only extend Biden’s expanded Child Tax Credit for a year or two this time, but they are already planning to fight to renew it in future budget battles.

Democratic leaders plan to pass the bill using reconciliation, a budget approval process that allows legislation to be passed by simple majority rather than with 60 votes. Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote gives Democrats that simple majority.

But reconciliation has its drawbacks. One component of the maneuver is the Byrd rule, which allows senators to object to provisions that don’t affect spending or revenue levels and prevents changes to Social Security benefits or Social Security payroll taxes from being included. In late February, for example, the Senate Parliamentarian blocked a reconciliation provision to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Now, as Democrats continue to debate what should and should not be included in the upcoming budget resolution, certain proposals will inevitably be excluded from the reconciliation process. Sen. Sherrod Brown accepted this as reality earlier this week. “We’re gonna get yeses and nos. We know that,” he told Politico. “The most important thing is we go big. The public wants us to go big. We make a difference for a generation on some of these issues.”

Another problem, however, is that Democrats’ go-it-alone approach on the $3.5 trillion budget threatens to derail a delicate bipartisan consensus on the smaller, $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, which includes funding for transportation projects like roads, bridges, and rail systems, as well as water systems, broadband, and power grids.

Senate Republican Whip John Thune told reporters Tuesday that the ambitious Democratic plan could endanger GOP support for the separate bipartisan infrastructure package that is expected to receive a vote soon.

“The issue of linkage with reconciliation, I think, is still a big one too, and whether or not voting for an infrastructure bill enables the subsequent reconciliation bill, which is going to have the massive spending … and the tax increases that our members are going to be very opposed to,” Thune said.

In a bid to force quick movement on the issue, Schumer announced yesterday that the Senate will take a procedural vote to consider the bipartisan infrastructure bill next Wednesday. But Senate Republicans—even those working with Democrats on the legislation—voiced concern about such an imminent deadline. Sen. Rob Portman, the Republican leader on the infrastructure proposal, told reporters he would not vote to advance the measure unless he believes it is ready. Other Senate Republicans have expressed similar sentiment.

“[The infrastructure bill] doesn’t exist yet; that’s what’s so weird about where we are,” Cornyn said. “Sen. Schumer [is trying] to get us to proceed to a bill that hasn’t been written yet, and there’s no CBO score so we know what the pay-fors are and whether they’re credible or not. I would not agree to proceed to an unwritten, unscored bill.”

Still, some Democrats are optimistic they’ll get Republican support on the infrastructure bill regardless. Asked whether Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will ultimately oppose the legislation, Sen. Jon Tester told reporters he didn’t think that would be in Republicans’ best interests. “It’s better for them to pass the bipartisan bill and let the Democrats fight it out on the $3.5 trillion bill.”

Former GOP Senate aide Liam Donovan told The Dispatch that Schumer’s decision to force a vote on the bill is a political one. “This gambit is designed to be a win-win,” he said. “Either they lock in Republican support for the bill, which helps moderate Democrats get on board, or Republicans shoot it down, and they can blame Republicans and use that as the reason to swiftly move on to reconciliation. Schumer’s trying to set up a situation where heads they win, tails Republicans lose.”

But Donovan is skeptical the infrastructure bill will pass with the necessary 60 votes. “Right now I’m very pessimistic on the odds, not least because Schumer is calling for a vote knowing that they’re not ready,” he said. “So that tells me that it’s not set up for success—it’s set up for failure.”

Democrats Struggle to Navigate Cuba Protests

As a striking wave of anti-government protests across Cuba persists into a sixth day, divisions between American lawmakers regarding how (if at all) to respond to the plight of Cuban demonstrators continues to dominate the domestic political discourse. 

Disagreement over the unrest’s root causes is driving these debates, which up until yesterday the Biden administration had been reluctant to identify as Cuba’s communist leadership, opting to use the word “authoritarian” instead. The White House noticeably changed course yesterday.

“Communism is a failed system. A universally failed system,” President Biden told reporters Thursday. “And I don’t see socialism as a very useful substitute, but that’s another story.”

His comments echoed those of his press secretary, Jen Psaki, earlier that day. “Communism is a failed ideology, and we certainly believe that it has failed the people of Cuba,” she told reporters in the daily press briefing. “They deserve freedom.”

The administration’s explicit condemnation followed backlash from the Cuban-American community, Democrats and Republicans alike, who called for Biden to take tangible steps on top of his Monday statement in support of protesters. On Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas—himself Cuban born—issued a warning to would-be Cuban and Haitian refugees, telling them not to come to the United States.

“The time is never right to attempt migration by sea,” he said. “Allow me to be clear: If you take to the sea, you will not come to the United States.”

“A stirring, two-paragraph statement on the second day of protests isn’t nearly enough from the leader of the free world when the suffering is 90 miles from U.S. shores,” Cuban-American columnist Fabiola Santiago wrote in the Miami Herald Wednesday. “‘Where is Biden? Where is Biden,’ shouted Cuban-American demonstrators Tuesday in Tampa, showing their support for the #SOSCuba movement.”

As of Thursday, at least one person had been killed in demonstrations and more than 100 had been detained or kidnapped by police working on behalf of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel. Government-imposed internet blackouts, police brutality, and intimidation by regime-loyalists were also deployed to stifle the spread of dissent. 

Díaz-Canel has shifted blame onto the United States in his several public statements since the outset of demonstrations, accusing protesters of being “opportunists, counterrevolutionaries, and mercenaries paid by the U.S. government.” The Cuban president has also pointed to American policies of “economic asphyxiation”—i.e. the economic blockade and sanctions—as driving forces behind the unrest. 

Some American activist groups have expressed similar sentiments.

“The people of Cuba are being punished by the U.S. government because the country has maintained its commitment to sovereignty and self-determination. United States leaders have tried to crush this Revolution for decades,” Black Lives Matter said in a statement Wednesday, referring to Cuba’s 1950s Marxist uprising that installed the sitting government. “Instead of amity, respect, and goodwill, the U.S. government has only instigated suffering for the country’s 11 million people—of which 4 million are Black and Brown.”

“DSA stands with the Cuban people and their Revolution in this moment of unrest,” the International Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America tweeted earlier this week, also in defense of the Communist regime. “End the blockade.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders—who has a history of defending aspects of the Castro regime in Cuba—ventured an ever-so-slight criticism of the current regime on Tuesday. “All people have the right to protest and to live in a democratic society. I call on the Cuban government to respect opposition rights and refrain from violence,” he said. “It’s also long past time to end the unilateral U.S. embargo on Cuba, which has only hurt, not helped, the Cuban people.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez released a similar statement late Thursday night. “We are seeing Cubans rise up and protest for their rights like never before. We stand in solidarity with them, and we condemn the anti-democratic actions led by President Díaz-Canel. The suppression of the media, speech and protest are all gross violations of civil rights,” she said. “We also must name the U.S. contribution to Cuban suffering: Our sixty-year-old embargo. … The embargo is absurdly cruel and, like too many other U.S. policies targeting Latin Americans, the cruelty is the point.”

Republicans in Florida are putting forth proposals of their own—some more extreme than others. “What should be contemplated right now is a coalition of potential military action in Cuba,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said on Fox News Tuesday, drawing comparisons to the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan during the Obama administration. “What I’m suggesting is that [the air strikes] option is one that has to be explored and cannot be just simply discarded as an option that is not on the table.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, meanwhile, wrote a letter to President Biden asking the administration to work toward restoring internet access for the Cuban people. “Similar to the American efforts to broadcast radio into the Soviet Union during the Cold War in Europe, the federal government has a history of supporting the dissemination of information into Cuba for the Cuban people through Radio & Televisión Martí, located in Miami,” DeSantis said.

“We have the technical capability to do this & doing so would show strong support for their fight for freedom,” Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr, a Republican, added in a tweet.

Biden conveyed caution in remarks to reporters yesterday: “We’re considering whether we have the technological ability to reinstate that access.”

Worth Your Time

  • Recent developments in Cuba and Haiti “may lead more people to seek freedom in the United States,” Ilya Somin notes in Reason. “One might expect an administration led by a President who makes a point of praising immigrants and America’s historic role as a haven for refugees to welcome such people with open arms. But, sadly, one would be wrong to do so,” he writes. “The Biden administration here is continuing a pre-Trump policy, not one initiated by the previous administration, with its special hostility to migration. It was, in fact, Barack Obama—during his last days in office—who cruelly ended the previous ‘wetfoot/dryfoot’ policy under which Cubans who landed in the United States were allowed to stay. But the fact that the policy predates Trump doesn’t make it right. It still denies migrants fleeing brutal oppression even the chance to be considered for asylum in the United States. And it does so for no better reason than that they arrived by sea—which for most is the only feasible way [to] come at all.”

  • Over at Arc Digital, Nicholas Grossman makes the case that, when it comes to voting rights and electoral reform, Democrats’ eyes are not on the ball. “Voter suppression is not the main danger of Republicans’ anti-democracy strategy. That’s the last war,” he argues. “Still ongoing, still worth fighting, but sometimes overstated, and not what makes this moment uniquely concerning. The big danger is what happens after the election. We know how to counter disproportionate burdens on voting. Educate people and get out the vote, including with door-to-door volunteers. ‘They’re trying to take away your rights, don’t let them’ is a good motivator. But election officials throwing out enough votes to swing their state, legislatures overruling their voters and supporting a different presidential candidate at the Electoral College, and Congress refusing to recognize the results would be uncharted territory. In 2020, Trump and his allies tried all three.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • In the G-File (🔓), Jonah wades into the ongoing debate over which “side” is more responsible for our current culture wars. “We live in a moment where much of the right is determined to live down to the expectations of the left. And the left sees this behavior as proof that they shouldn’t respect the objections of those they want to change,” he writes. “It’s an old story that has gotten more extreme, with plenty of blame to go around. But pointing out how some on the right have gone crazy doesn’t absolve the left for helping us get here.”

  • Jonah continues this conversation with Yuval Levin on The Remnant, asking the National Affairs founding editor and American Enterprise Institute fellow a host of questions about negative polarization, self-destructive politics, and American exceptionalism.

  • The second Advisory Opinions this week features David and Sarah discussing a 4th Circuit ruling on young adults and firearm purchases, the latest on the Michael Avenatti saga, and a new Tennessee law about transgender bathroom policies.

Let Us Know

What is the United States’ responsibility toward Cuba during their protests? 

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), Tripp Grebe (@tripper_grebe), Emma Rogers (@emw_96), Price St. Clair (@PriceStClair1), Jonathan Chew (@JonathanChew19), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

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