HCR: McConnell won’t permit Biden to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

June 14, 2021

Today, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) told radio personality Hugh Hewitt that it is “highly unlikely” that he would permit President Biden to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court if the Republicans win control of the Senate in 2022.

While it seems certain that, if returned to his leadership role in the Senate, McConnell would block any Biden nominee, the fact he said it right now suggests that he is hoping to keep evangelical voters firmly in the Republican camp. In 2016, after Justice Antonin Scalia died in February, McConnell refused even to hold hearings for President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland. McConnell’s justification for this unprecedented obstruction was that Obama’s March nomination was too close to an election—a rule he ignored four years later when he rushed through Amy Barrett’s appointment to the Court in late October when voting in the upcoming election was already underway—and yet the underlying reason for the 2016 delay was at least in part his recognition that hopes of pushing the Supreme Court to the right, especially on the issue of abortion, were likely to push evangelical voters to the polls.

McConnell’s stance was at least in part directed to the changing nature of the judiciary under President Biden. Last week, the Senate confirmed the first Muslim American federal judge in U.S. history, a truly astonishing first since Muslims have been part of the U.S. since the earliest days of African enslavement in the early 1600s. By a vote of 81 to 16, the Senate confirmed Zahid Quraishi, the son of Pakistani immigrants and veteran of two tours of duty in Iraq, to the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.

More to the point, perhaps, for McConnell, is that the Senate today confirmed Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Jackson takes the place of Merrick Garland, who is now the attorney general. This post is generally seen as a stepping stone to the Supreme Court. Biden has suggested he would appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court, and Jackson is widely thought to be a top contender.

Aside from its implications for the Supreme Court, McConnell’s stand makes a mockery of Senator Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) insistence on bipartisan support for legislation that protects voting rights. Manchin is demanding that bills protecting voting win bipartisan support because he says he fears that increasing partisanship will injure our democracy. McConnell’s flaunting of his manipulation of Senate rules to cement Republican control of our courts leaves Manchin twisting in the wind.

States, too, are passing voter suppression legislation along strictly partisan lines. The Brennan Center for Justice keeps tabs on voting legislation. It writes that “Republicans introduced and drove virtually all of the bills that impose new voting restrictions, and the harshest new laws were passed with almost exclusively Republican votes and signed into law by Republican governors.”

The Republican domination of the government over the past four years is on the table today as Democratic lawmakers try to get to the bottom of who authorized the FBI under former president Trump to spy on reporters, Democratic lawmakers and their families and staff members, and on White House Counsel Don McGahn and his wife. CNN chief congressional reporter Manu Raju tweeted that Adam Schiff (D-NY) who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, says after speaking with Garland that he still doesn’t know who started the investigation. “We discussed the need to really do a full scale review of what went on in the last four years, and make sure that steps are taken to re-establish the independence of the department,” he said.

While Attorney General Merrick Garland has referred the issue to the inspector general of the Justice Department, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler (D-NY), tonight announced the committee would open a formal investigation into the department’s secret seizure of data. “It is…possible that these cases are merely our first glimpse into a coordinated effort by the Trump Administration to target President Trump’s political opposition,” the committee members said in a statement. “If so, we must learn the full extent of this gross abuse of power, root out the individuals responsible, and hold those individuals accountable for their actions.”

In the midst of the uproar over the news that the Trump Department of Justice investigated Democratic lawmakers, the top national security official in the Justice Department, John Demers, a Trump appointee, has retired. Demers ran the department that had a say in each of the leak investigations.

Meanwhile, in Brussels, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, organized as a military alliance after WWII, met today. The heads of state of the 30 participating countries issued a communique reaffirming “our unity, solidarity, and cohesion,” and reiterating that, in case of attack, each nation would come to the aid of another. The members reiterated their commitment to a rules-based international order.

While the statement said NATO members remained open to a periodic, focused, and meaningful dialogue,” it singled out Russia as a threat and called for it to withdraw its forces from Ukraine, Georgia, and the Republic of Moldova. It condemned Russia’s “illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea.” It warned that NATO countries would, in certain circumstances, recognize a cyberattack as “amounting to an armed attack” and would treat it as such, rising to each other’s defense.

The statement was less strident against China, noting its “growing influence and international policies can present challenges.”

NATO leaders vowed to stand against terrorism and to continue to support Afghanistan despite the U.S. withdrawal. They reiterated that they did not want Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. In a reflection of the new era, the signatories’ statement called for addressing climate change. It also affirmed “the critical importance of women’s full, equal, and meaningful participation in all aspects of peace and stability, as well as the disproportionate impact that conflict has on women and girls, including conflict-related sexual violence.”

Biden says he promises to prove “that democracy and that our Alliance can still prevail against the challenges of our time and deliver for the needs and the needs of our people.” With this strong statement of NATO solidarity in hand, Biden will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday.

HCR: Why is Critical Race Theory such a flashpoint in today’s political world?

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

June 12, 2021

Yesterday, David Ignatius had a piece in the Washington Post that uncovered the attempt of the Trump administration to reorder the Middle East along an axis anchored by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudia Arabia (more popularly known as MBS), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and Jared Kushner of the U.S.

To make the deal, the leaders involved apparently wanted to muscle Jordan out of its role as the custodian of Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, a role carved out in the 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan that was hammered out under President Bill Clinton. The new dealmakers apparently wanted to scuttle the U.S.-backed accords and replace them with economic deals that would reorder the region.

This story has huge implications for the Middle East, for American government, for religion, for culture, and so on, but something else jumps out to me here: this story is a great illustration of the principles behind Critical Race Theory, which is currently tearing up the Fox News Channel. Together, the attempt to bypass Jordan and the obsession with Critical Race Theory seem to make a larger statement about the current sea change in the U.S. as people increasingly reject the individualist ideology of the Reagan era.

When Kushner set out to construct a Middle East peace plan, he famously told Aaron David Miller, who had negotiated peace agreements with other administrations, that he didn’t want to know about how things had worked in the past. “He said flat out, don’t talk to me about history,” Miller told Chris McGreal of The Guardian, “He said, I told the Israelis and the Palestinians not to talk to me about history too.”

Kushner apparently thought he could create a brand new Middle East with a brand new set of alliances that would begin with changing long standing geopolitics in Jerusalem, the city three major world religions consider holy. It is eye-popping to imagine what would have happened if we had torn up decades of agreements and tried to graft onto a troubled area an entirely new way of interacting, based not on treaties but on the interests of this new axis. Apparently, the hope was that throwing enough money at the region would have made the change palatable. But most experts think that weakening Jordan, long a key U.S. ally in the region, and removing its oversight of the holy sites, would have ushered in violence.

The heart of the American contribution to the idea of reworking the Middle East along a new axis with contracts, rather than treaties, seems to have been that enough will and enough money can create new realities.

The idea that will and money could create success was at the heart of the Reagan Revolution. Its adherents championed the idea that any individual could prosper in America, so long as the government stayed out of his (it was almost always his) business.

Critical Race Theory challenges this individualist ideology. CRT emerged in the late 1970s in legal scholarship written by people who recognized that legal protections for individuals did not, in fact, level the playing field in America. They noted that racial biases are embedded in our legal system. From that, other scholars noted that racial, ethnic, gender, class, and other biases are embedded in the other systems that make up our society.

Historians began to cover this ground long ago. Oklahoma historian Angie Debo established such biases in the construction of American law in her book, And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes back in 1940. Since then, historians have explored the biases in our housing policies, policing, medical care, and so on, and there are very few who would suggest that our systems are truly neutral.

So why is Critical Race Theory such a flashpoint in today’s political world? Perhaps in part because it rejects the Republican insistence that an individual can create a prosperous life by will alone. It says that, no matter how talented someone might be, or how eager and dedicated, they cannot always contend against the societal forces stacked against them. It argues for the important weight of systems, established through time, rather than the idea that anyone can create a new reality.

It acknowledges the importance of history.

HCR: What “bipartisanship” REALLY means today

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

June 8, 2021

After Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) announced this weekend that he would not support either the For the People voting act or an attempt to break the filibuster for a voting measure, but would work to get bipartisan agreement on the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, today Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pulled the rug out from under him. 

McConnell said today that restoring the provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that protect minority voting would give too much power to the federal government and that such protection was unnecessary anyway. “The Supreme Court concluded that conditions that existed in 1965 no longer existed,” McConnell said. “So there’s no threat to the voting rights law. It’s against the law to discriminate in voting on the basis of race already. And so I think it’s unnecessary.” 

To say there is no threat to the voting rights law is delusional. The reality is that In 2013, within 24 hours of the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision ending the Justice Department’s oversight of certain states’ voting requirements, Texas enacted a strict voter ID law. Other states quickly followed suit. And now, in the wake of the 2020 election, Republican-dominated state legislatures across the country are drastically curtailing voting access. 

Today, more than 300 “advocacy, civic, faith and labor groups representing nearly 2.5 million Americans from 43 states and the District of Columbia” asked the president and vice president to fight for the For the People Act. “[F]air representation and voter access in America are under direct attack,” the letter read. “We are extremely worried about the very survival of our democracy.  We ask that you place the urgent passage of this bill at the top of your administration’s agenda.”

This afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said that the Senate will still vote on the For the People Act, as scheduled, in late June. He says he is open to changes to the measure if they will help get Manchin on board. But he is going to force senators to go on record for or against voting rights. 

Gone are the days when McConnell could protect his caucus from unpopular votes simply by refusing to bring anything to a vote. Republicans have had to vote on the bipartisan, independent January 6 commission, which was popular, and voted to go before the country as a party protecting insurrection. Now they will have to take a stand on other popular measures like voting rights and, if the Senate breaks up the bill, getting big money out of politics, which is even more popular, and so on.

Today, Republicans filibustered a measure designed to prohibit discrimination in pay based on sex. The bill would have limited pay differentials to things like education, training, and experience, and would have prohibited employers from retaliating against workers who compared their salaries. Blaming the Democrats for advancing what he calls “partisan” bills, McConnell pointed to the equal pay act as a sign that the “era of bipartisanship is over.”

In fact, we had an illustration of what “bipartisanship” means in today’s Senate when the Senate Rules and Administration and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees that investigated the January 6 insurrection today produced a bipartisan report on the events of that day. Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee chair Gary Peters (D-MI) told reporters: “There were significant, widespread and unacceptable breakdowns in the intelligence gathering. . . . The failure to adequately assess the threat of violence on that day contributed significantly to the breach of the Capitol… The attack was, quite frankly, planned in plain sight.” 

To gain bipartisan support, the report focused on communications failures. It did not explore the roles of government officials, including former president Trump, in the January 6 crisis, and it did not use the word “insurrection” apart from quotations of witness testimony. The result was a curiously sanitized rendition of the events of January. Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA) commented: “January 6th didn’t happen because there were security failures, it happened because there was a violent mob that attacked the Capitol, and we need to know why that happened.”

McConnell’s comment about the end of bipartisanship was a sweeping declaration that he would lead Republicans in opposing the Democratic program, and that includes the American Jobs Act, the extensive infrastructure bill that President Biden initially pegged at $2.3 trillion. Biden has been negotiating with Republicans, led by Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, on the measure, but today called it quits after they refused to raise their offer more than $150 billion despite his offer to cut more than $1 trillion off his initial ask. Republicans blamed Biden for ending the talks. 

Biden has not, in fact, ended the talks, though: he has handed them to a different group of lawmakers who have shown a willingness to work across the aisle. That group includes Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema (D-AZ), who might be persuaded to be more reliable Democratic votes if they have a bigger hand in the infrastructure bill. If this group does manage to hammer out a bipartisan infrastructure package, a vote on it could undercut McConnell’s ability to hold his caucus in opposition to the Democrats.

The biggest sticking point in negotiations is that Democrats want to fund much of the American Jobs Act by increasing corporate taxes from the lows of the 2017 tax cuts (although not to the level they were before those cuts), while Republicans are adamant they will not sign on to any such increases. 

The Republican position took a hit this morning, when ProPublica published an investigation based on leaked tax documents. It revealed that America’s 25 richest people—some with more than $100 billion in wealth—pay remarkably little in federal income taxes…sometimes nothing. They can avoid taxes through various accounting methods, while ordinary Americans pay full fare. 

Also this morning, Biden tweeted: “I’m working hard to find common ground with Republicans when it comes to the American Jobs Plan, but I refuse to raise taxes on Americans making under $400,000 a year to pay for it. It’s long past time for the wealthy and corporations to pay their fair share.”

HCR: Democracy is now at risk

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

June 2, 2021

Today, more than 100 scholars who study democracy issued a letter warning that “our entire democracy is now at risk.” The letter explains that the new election laws in Republican-led states, passed with the justification that they will make elections safer, in fact are turning “several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections.”

If we permit the breakdown of democracy, it will be a very long time before we can reverse the damage. As a nation spirals downward, the political scientists, sociologists, and government scholars explain, “violence and corruption typically flourish, and talent and wealth flee to more stable countries, undermining national prosperity. It is not just our venerated institutions and norms that are at risk—it is our future national standing, strength, and ability to compete globally.” 

The scholars called for federal action to protect equal access to voting and to guarantee free and fair elections. Voting rights should not depend on which party runs the state legislature, and votes must be cast and counted equally, regardless of where a citizen lives. They back the reforms in the For the People Act, which protects the right to vote, ends partisan gerrymandering, and curbs the flood of money into elections.

They urged Congress “to do whatever is necessary—including suspending the filibuster—in order to pass national voting and election administration standards that both guarantee the vote to all Americans equally, and prevent state legislatures from manipulating the rules in order to manufacture the result they want. Our democracy is fundamentally at stake.”  

“History,” they wrote, “will judge what we do at this moment.” 

But in Tulsa, Oklahoma, today, President Joe Biden noted that the events that transpired in the Greenwood district of that city 100 years ago today were written out of most histories. The Tulsa Massacre destroyed 35 blocks of the prosperous Greenwood neighborhood, wiping out 1100 homes and businesses and taking hundreds of Black lives, robbing Black families of generational wealth and the opportunities that come with it.

Biden pointed out that he was the first president to go to Tulsa to acknowledge what happened there on May 31 and June 1, 1921. But, he said, “We do ourselves no favors by pretending none of this ever happened or doesn’t impact us today, because it does.” He drew a direct line from the terrorism at Greenwood to the terrorism in August 2017 at Charlottesville, Virginia, to the January 6 insurrection. Citing the intelligence community, he reminded listeners that “terrorism from white supremacy is the most lethal threat to the homeland today. Not Isis. Not al-Qaeda. White supremacists.”  

Victims’ trauma endures, too, and it eventually demands a reckoning when “what many people hadn’t seen before, or simply refused to see, cannot be ignored any longer.” Today, Americans are recognizing “that for too long, we’ve allowed a narrowed, cramped view of the promise of this nation to fester, the view that America is a zero-sum game, where there’s only one winner. If you succeed, I fail. If you get ahead, I fall behind. If you get a job, I lose mine. And maybe worst of all, if I hold you down, I lift myself up. Instead of if you do well, we all do well.” Biden promised to invest in Black communities extensively to unlock creativity and innovation. 

Then the president took on the elephant in the room: voting. On Saturday, Biden took a stand against the state voter suppression laws being passed in Republican-dominated legislatures that, as he said, attack “the sacred right to vote.” They are “part of an assault on democracy that we’ve seen far too often this year—and often disproportionately targeting Black and Brown Americans.” They are “wrong and un-American.” 

Biden called on Congress to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the voting protections the Supreme Court stripped out of the 1965 Voting Rights Act with the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision. He called on “all Americans, of every party and persuasion, to stand up for our democracy and to protect the right to vote and the integrity of our elections.

In Tulsa today, Biden called the Republican efforts to restrict voting a “truly unprecedented assault on our democracy.” He urged voting rights groups to redouble their efforts to register and educate voters, and then he put pressure on Democratic senators Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ), who continue to say they will not challenge the Republican use of the filibuster to stop passage of voting rights bills. Biden promised to fight “like heck with every tool in my disposal” to get the For the People and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act passed. 

He has asked Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the effort. Today, she released a statement placing today’s fight for voting rights in the context of our history. “[M]any have worked—and many have died—to ensure that all Americans can cast a ballot and have their vote counted,” she said. “Today, that hard-won progress is under assault.” She promised to work with voting rights organizations, community organizations, the private sector, and Congress to strengthen voting rights. 

“The work ahead of us is to make voting accessible to all American voters, and to make sure every vote is counted through a free, fair, and transparent process,” she said. “This is the work of democracy.”

HCR: Just how radical has the Republican Party become?

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

May 28, 2021

This afternoon, Republicans in the Senate killed the bill to establish a bipartisan independent commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection. The vote was 54 to 35, and yet the thirty-five “no” votes won because of the current shape of the Senate filibuster, which requires 60 votes to break, even if the minority doesn’t show up to vote. 

For their part, having killed the bipartisan, independent commission, Republicans are now complaining that the Democrats might set up a committee on their own. Maine Senator Susan Collins told Politico, “The most likely outcome, sadly, is probably the Democratic leaders will appoint a select committee. We’ll have a partisan investigation. It won’t have credibility with people like me, but the press will cover it because that’s what’s going on.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could indeed set up such a House committee, although she has been clear that she preferred the bipartisan approach. Such a select committee could issue subpoenas and hold hearings to investigate the people involved in the attack. Republicans, who likely fear some of their own would be implicated, are already claiming such a committee would be partisan. President Biden could also set up a commission, which he could then staff in a bipartisan fashion, but without congressional support it could not issue subpoenas. 

On Thursday, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) continued to hope Republicans would vote for the commission, saying,  “…the Democrats have basically given everything they’ve asked for, any impediment that would have been there, and there’s no reason not to now unless you just don’t want to hear the truth.” Today, after the vote, he said, “I never thought I’d see it up close and personal that politics could trump our country. I’m going to fight to save this country.” 

Indeed, by refusing to investigate what is arguably the most dangerous attack on our democracy in our history, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has brought out into the open just how radical the Republican Party has become.

As if in illustration of the party’s increasingly antidemocratic radicalism, in Georgia last night, Representatives Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) continued to stoke the same Big Lie that drove the insurrectionists, claiming (falsely) that former president Trump won the 2020 election. The two representatives are on a tour of rallies, possibly to distract from the scandals in which they’re embroiled. Last night, Gaetz, who is under federal investigation for sex trafficking, told attendees that the nation’s founders wrote the Second Amendment to enable citizens to rise up against the government. “It’s not about hunting, it’s not about recreation, it’s not about sports,” he said. “The Second Amendment is about maintaining, within the citizenry, the ability to maintain an armed rebellion against the government if that becomes necessary.”

As the audience cheered, Gaetz continued: “I hope it never does, but it sure is important to recognize the founding principles of this nation and to make sure that they are fully understood.”

For his part, President Biden appears to be trying to undercut the increasingly radical Republicans by trying to improve conditions across the country, especially for those hurting economically as the nation’s factories automate and as their jobs move overseas. 

When he took office, his first order of business was to get the coronavirus under control, demonstrating that the federal government could, indeed, do good for the people. That has been a roaring success, with about 62% of American adults currently having received at least one vaccine. Biden is now aiming to have 70% of American adults vaccinated by July 4. New cases are plunging as the vaccines take effect, and the country is reopening rapidly.

Biden also turned quickly to repairing the economy, with the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which expanded unemployment benefits and the child tax credit. That credit will start to show up in people’s bank accounts in mid-July and is expected to cut child poverty in half. 

So far, Biden’s approach to turning the mood of the country seems to be working: while his predecessor is polling at 39% approval and 57% disapproval, Biden is currently enjoying a 63% job approval rating. 

We’ll see how these two themes play out. Today, Biden released a proposed $6.01 trillion budget, tying together three plans he’s already proposed—the $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan, the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, and $1.5 trillion in discretionary spending—and adding more to invest in education, health, science, and infrastructure. The proposal increases defense spending by 1.7% and nondefense spending by 16%. Overall, it increases federal spending to levels like those of WWII. By 2031, it would peg spending at $8.2 trillion. Deficits would run higher than $1.3 trillion for the next ten years but then would begin to decrease.

The president proposes to pay for the additional spending by increasing revenue by $4.17 trillion through taxes on individuals who have an annual income of more than $1 million and by revising the top capital gains rate to 39.6%, plus a 3.8% Medicare surtax, bringing the rate to 43.4%. (The current rate is 20% plus the Medicare surtax, making it 23.8%). The White House figures the capital gains tax reform should raise about $322 billion over the next decade. 

The budget shows Biden aiming to rebuild the middle class and make America globally competitive again. Acting director of Office of Management and Budget Shalanda Young said that the administration had earlier called for such investment because, “The country had been weakened by decades of underinvestment in these areas.” The 2022 budget would, she said, “grow the economy, create jobs, and do so responsibly by requiring the wealthiest Americans and big corporations to pay their fair share.”

Doubling down on the 2017 Trump tax cuts, which funneled money upward even as corporate tax revenues fell 31%, Republicans have vowed to oppose all tax increases and want no part of Biden’s proposed spending. 

Today, McConnell responded to the budget proposal with words that were somewhat unfortunate coming, as they did, on the same day the Republicans refused to create a bipartisan commission to investigate an attack on our government. “If Washington Democrats can move beyond the socialist daydreams and the go-it-alone partisanship,” he said, “we could get a lot of important work done for our country.”