March 3, 2024

Where the centrist rebellion goes from here

THE GOP’S McCAIN FANTASY — Four years ago, Sen. John McCain dealt a decisive blow to the Republican push to topple Obamacare with a memorable thumbs-down vote on the floor. The dramatic moment, as the 2008 GOP presidential nominee crippled his own party’s efforts to “repeal and replace” the landmark health care law signed by the Democratic president who defeated him, resonates in Washington to this day.

And some in the GOP are hoping to watch a revival of it — to see one or more centrist Democrats stage their own McCain moments by tearing down their party’s precarious plans for a $3.5 trillion social spending bill packed with progressive wish-list items.

For several reasons, that Republican hope is almost surely in vain. The biggest one is simple: In the summer of 2017, McCain was standing against an attempt to take away benefits from the American public, protections that were growing in popularity as then-President Donald Trump pushed to revoke them.

Yet any moderate Democrat who casts a deciding vote to quash the social spending plan promoted by President Joe Biden would be yanking away benefits — or at least halting the establishment of new ones — from the public, donning a black hat by stopping legislation that’s poised to expand paid leave, universal pre-K, free community college and Medicare coverage.

Even Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who is said to envision herself as a home-state heir to McCain’s maverick mentality, knows better than to let her resistance to a bill as big as $3.5 trillion play out at the 11th hour, when it would hurt her party most. The Democratic architect of the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure deal (your Nightly host rejects the Playbook-pushed acronym that rhymes with a peanut-butter brand) is laying down her marker early, with a spokesperson telling our Burgess Everett earlier today that she won’t accept a social spending plan with a price tag shaped by Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders.

There’s another big reason that a Democrat is unlikely to play the McCain role of showy spoiler, this one embodied by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.). Unlike the Arizona conservative and decorated war hero, most Democratic centrists are the Rodney Dangerfields of the Hill: They get no respect.

Sinema and her Senate centrist-in-arms Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) are persistently reviled by the left and embraced by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. McCain was hardly Mr. Popular in the post-tea party GOP, but his heroic personal narrative and past standard-bearing put him on a different intra-party footing than Sinema or Manchin stands on today.

At least Sinema and Manchin have outsize influence in the 50-50 Senate, however. Gottheimer co-chairs a bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus that’s operated in the shadows of the Senate’s dealmakers throughout the infrastructure drama, even after it helped deliver 35 Republican votes for an independent commission to examine Jan. 6.

One congressional aide even compared Gottheimer’s caucus to the cycle of cicadas, those weak 17-year presences that end up crunched on sidewalks, to our Sarah Ferris back in June. So Gottheimer and his fellow House centrists are putting their oft-underestimated credibility on the line as they hold out their votes for their party’s budget this week in a push to get a faster vote on the Sinema-led Senate infrastructure bill.

But their ultimate goal is to gain influence inside their party, particularly as the 100-plus members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus start making demands for the forthcoming social spending bill. The best way to get that influence isn’t by tanking the speaker’s priorities, McCain-style — especially when Gottheimer is trying to repeal the cap on state and local tax deductions in the same bill he’s holding up.

Gottheimer can win by reaching an agreement that makes his centrists look as smart as possible while giving Democratic leaders what they want. He might still defy the laws of legislative physics this week and lead his allies to a House-floor squashing of the budget, with its reconciliation instructions that tee up the social spending bill. But the safer bet is that as memorable as McCain’s rebellion was, it is unlikely to get a sequel.

Welcome to POLITICO Nightly. A note for next week: Nightly won’t be publishing from Monday, Aug. 30-Monday, Sept. 6. We’ll be back and better than ever Tuesday, Sept. 7. Reach out with news, tips and ideas for us at [email protected]. Or contact tonight’s author at [email protected] and on Twitter at @eschor.

DEADLINE DRAMA — The White House has been clear for weeks that there wouldn’t be a “mission accomplished moment” to end America’s longest war. But after initially pushing back the timeline to pull out of the country, the president had been adamant about marking the war’s end by a date certain: Aug. 31. And it quickly became the latest example of how the White House’s devotion to deadlines can backfire, Christopher Cadelago and Natasha Korecki write.

“Deadlines serve a purpose. They are motivational. They bring focus,” said David Axelrod, a senior strategist for former President Barack Obama. “They also can be treacherous and hard to keep, especially in complex situations. And that can come back to bite you.”

Until last week, Biden’s Afghanistan policy had been defined as a rigid adherence to his withdrawal deadline. And that insistence opened him up to a wave of criticism for being both shortsighted and politically motivated — the withdrawal was timed to mark the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks that effectively triggered the war.

Biden’s resolve seemed to recede a bit on Sunday night when, in response to two consecutive questions about his Aug. 31 deadline, he said his “hope” was to “not have to extend” it. “But,” he added, “there are going to be discussions, I suspect about how far along we are in the process.” Administration officials point to the thousands of evacuations that have taken place in the past few days as an example of their agility.

Pentagon confirms latest mission to rescue Americans stranded in Kabul: The Pentagon revealed today it had performed another rescue mission to transport Americans stranded in Kabul to the Afghan capital’s international airport, where the urgent U.S. evacuation effort remains underway. The announcement comes after the Pentagon confirmed that three Army CH-47 Chinook helicopters last Thursday airlifted a group of 169 Americans from the Baron Hotel in Kabul to the Hamid Karzai International Airport just 200 meters away.

Taliban threaten consequences if U.S. delays Afghanistan exit: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to ask Biden to keep American boots on the ground in Afghanistan after Aug. 31’s withdrawal deadline but the Taliban say they won’t accept any extension. Johnson is set to push the American president for more time for evacuation during an emergency summit of G-7 countries on Tuesday, according to briefings to journalists by No. 10 Downing Street. The meeting comes as several thousands of people have gathered around Kabul airport in a desperate attempt to escape Taliban rule.

— FDA approves Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, making way for more vaccine mandates: The Food and Drug Administration fully approved the first Covid-19 vaccine for use in adults today, raising hopes that the decision will convince some holdouts to get vaccinated and spark a wave of employer and school immunization mandates. The agency’s decision applies to people 16 and older.

— Cuomo calls AG report a ‘political firecracker’: Gov. Andrew Cuomo pledged today to fight the allegations of sexual harassment detailed in a recent report from Attorney General Tish James as he addressed New Yorkers for the final time as governor. The governor’s video farewell remarks capped a 14-day transition period that began when the three-term Democrat announced his resignation. Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul will officially be sworn-in as New York’s first woman governor at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.

— Capitol Police clear officer in shooting of Ashli Babbitt during Jan. 6 riot: The Capitol Police said today it had cleared of wrongdoing the officer who fatally shot Ashli Babbitt during the Jan. 6 insurrection, announcing that an internal investigation found the officer’s conduct “lawful” and would not result in discipline. The department said in a statement that its Office of Professional Responsibility determined the officer’s actions were “lawful and within Department policy.” The Capitol Police allows officers to use deadly force “only when the officer reasonably believes that action is in the defense of human life, including the officer’s own life, or in the defense of any person in immediate danger of serious physical injury.”

— Trump-appointed judge clashes with Biden DOJ in immigration suit: A federal judge presiding over a major legal challenge to Biden’s immigration policies lashed out today at Justice Department attorneys, accusing them of trying to rush him into making a key decision in the case.

— Severe oil leaks worsened Keystone pipeline’s spill record, GAO finds: The company behind the controversial Keystone XL project that Biden effectively killed on his first day of office had an oil spill record “worse than the national average” over a five-year period thanks to two major spills, according to a Government Accountability Office report published today. The two spills from the Keystone pipelines dumped a combined 12,000 barrels of oil in the Dakotas even as operator TC Energy was planning to expand that pipeline with its proposed Keystone XL project, which would have tripled the amount of crude the pipeline system would carry from Canada into the United States.

Nightly asks you: Did you, or someone you know, initially decide not to get vaccinated but then got the shot? If so, what happened to change your mind (or theirs)? Send your response using our form, and we’ll include select answers in Friday’s edition.

POST-MERKEL NAILBITER Germany heads into the final month of its national election campaign this week with the three largest parties in a virtual dead heat, in the latest sign that the contours of the country’s political typography will be redrawn after Angela Merkel’s exit.

A rash of polls in recent days points to a steady decline in support for the ruling Christian Democrats, whose candidate for chancellor, party leader Armin Laschet, appears to have so far failed to convince the public that he is a worthy successor to Merkel, who plans to step aside after 16 years in office.

The Christian Democrats are supported by just 24 percent of the population, down from 29 percent last month, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls, which aggregates polling data from numerous sources. The Social Democrats, boosted by the popularity of their candidate for the chancellor, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, have jumped to 20 percent from 16 percent. The Greens, who many tipped to be the clear No. 2 party, have stagnated at 18 percent.

The most recent individual polls are even more worrying for the center-right Christian Democrats, who campaign together with their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. According to a weekly barometer published by the Bild am Sonntag newspaper over the weekend, the Christian Democrats are now even with the Social Democrats at 22 percent, but still ahead of the Greens at 17 percent.

STORM ROLLS INTO WH — For the first time since 2016, an NBA or WNBA championship team visited the White House today, as Biden welcomed the WNBA champion Seattle Storm. The president said the team had done significant work off the court to make an impact in their communities. “What makes this team remarkable is they don’t just win games. They change lives. Encouraging people to get vaccinated so we can beat this pandemic. Speaking out of standing up for racial justice and voting rights. Supporting education and mentorship programs for young people. And fighting to protect trans youth from an epidemic of violence and discrimination,” Biden said. “That’s what winners do: They shine the light, they lift people up, they’re a force for change.” Biden then knelt in front of the team with a customized Biden 46 jersey for a photograph.

Did someone forward this email to you? Sign up here.