D.C. déjà vu

It may be politics and parties as usual again, but after a pandemic, that's a good thing

What’s that in the air? Cicadas? Yes — that’s them making a kamikaze dive bomb toward your car. Humidity? Yes — remember, D.C. is a literal swamp. Political maneuvering and recriminations on the Hill? A given.

But on a brighter note, D.C. is emerging from its pandemic hibernation as restaurants, museums, hotels and stores slowly come back to life.

That means receptions and in-person networking are back as well.

The city’s social circuit often gets a bad rap, and while it can at times be mind-numbingly superficial, it also has its virtues — namely bringing people together in a casual setting to break the polarization that’s become so embedded in our lives.

And while everyone mocks that quintessential D.C. cocktail question — “what do you do?” — I’ll admit that I like asking it. Why? Because people in this town do all kinds of things.

Biophysicists, stay-at-home mom (and dad) bloggers, Pilates studio owners, cyber-security specialists, interns for local sports team — you name it. This town is not just politicians, lobbyists and the media.

Even among those politicians, lobbyists and journalists, you’ll find fascinating back stories (the number of former Peace Corps volunteers in this town always impresses me). And now, the question is even more interesting because so many of us have made pandemic career pivots.

The Brits, Danes, Irish and Italians are among the embassies that have hosted in-person receptions recently. The Washington Ballet held a (non-virtual) gala. Plenty of restaurants and hotels are showing off post-pandemic makeovers.

What does all this mean? Photos, of course!

Because, let’s face it, we all like seeing pictures of people at parties.

So I thought I’d deviate from the usual format and feature some photos of me venturing out for the first time since the pandemic began.

But because this is a political newsletter, I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer my breakdown on the debate du jour: President Biden’s infrastructure roller-coaster. (If you just want to see photos, now’s the time to scroll to the bottom.)

The Infrastructure Two-Step

After weeks of talks between Republicans and the White House failed to produce a bipartisan deal on President Biden’s infrastructure plan, the media was quick to pronounce the effort dead.

Now that a bipartisan group of 20 senators has announced its own framework, the media has been quick to declare the talks resurrected, while also framing Biden’s next move as a binary choice between taking the bipartisan deal or going it alone via budget reconciliation, which would only require 51 Democratic votes in the Senate as opposed to 60.

None is accurate.

President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo take off their masks and join a group of Republican senators, led by Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, during infrastructure talks on May 13 at the Oval Office. (Official White House photo by Adam Schultz)

While the latest breakthrough in the Senate does put more pressure on the president, the fundamentals haven’t changed: Biden is going to pursue a parallel track of bipartisan talks and, if those fail, he’ll turn to reconciliation.

And “failure” could be a victory for Biden if it guarantees every single Democratic senator — we’re looking at you Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema — is on board with reconciliation, which would keep the president’s American Jobs Plan largely intact. That in turn could blunt progressive opposition in the House to a slimmed-down bipartisan bill.

The alternative is passing that slimmed-down bipartisan bill, which focuses on “hard” infrastructure and not other Democratic priorities like climate change, which in turn would likely doom its chances in the House.

The only hope then for the American Jobs Plan would be that Manchin, Sinema and other centrist Democrats promise to support Biden’s more progressive American Families Plan, ensuring its passage through reconciliation. That’s a tall order for a mammoth bill that hasn’t even been written yet.

That’s why my suspicion is that Biden, despite his bipartisan instincts, is quietly hoping the Senate talks collapse.

Give the Man Some Credit
We’ve heard ad nauseam that Biden is an old-school dealmaker who seeks political consensus. But he’s often not given credit for being a shrewd negotiator (in part perhaps of his age and the perception that he’s not as sharp as he used to be).

Do we really think Biden is somehow blind to the fact that Republicans are not going to gut the 2017 corporate tax cuts — their signature legislative achievement under Donald Trump — to pay for a multi-trillion-dollar liberal agenda that would boost the popularity of a Democratic president?

Or do we really think Biden is just now waking up to the fact that Republicans, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have embraced a policy of obstructionism since at least the Obama years?

Let’s not forget this man was literally in the room when Obama spent months cajoling and compromising with Republicans to get them on board with his Affordable Care Act — only to have McConnell torpedo the whole thing.

Even though, as of this writing, 11 Republicans have co-signed on the latest Senate infrastructure proposal, McConnell is still likely calculating that the bill will die in the House (more on that later).

Biden is well aware of this — and the main hurdles:

  • Agreeing on spending levels

  • Agreeing on how to pay for them

  • Agreeing on what counts as “infrastructure”

Meeting in the Middle on New Spending
On the first issue, spending levels, Republicans and the White House have actually made progress since a first round of talks, led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), collapsed in early June.

Biden initially called for $2.3 trillion in infrastructure spending, eventually going down to $1.7 trillion.

Capito came back with a counteroffer of $978 billion — but only about $300 billion of it constituted new spending on top of current spending levels, whereas Biden wanted roughly $1 trillion in new spending. The divide was too far to bridge and the talks ended.

Shortly afterward, though, a Group of 10 (five Democrats and five Republicans) emerged with a number more in the line with the White House’s math: $974 billion in infrastructure spending over five years (about $1.2 trillion over eight years) — that includes nearly $600 billion in new spending.

That group quickly swelled to 20, a more promising iteration because it could deliver the 10 Republican votes needed to exceed the 60-vote filibuster threshold in the Senate. This Group of 20 has released a statement supporting $1.2 trillion in spending, although the specifics are still being ironed out. (There’s also a Problem Solvers Caucus in the House, but let’s stick to the Senate for now.)

Red Lines and Roadblocks
Regardless, all of these groupings will run up against the same wall: how to pay for everything.

Biden has pledged to offset the spending so as not to increase the deficit, while also vowing not to raise taxes on anyone making less than $400,000.

That means he needs a corporate tax hike. Biden wants to raise that rate from the current 21% to 28%, although he’s signaled he’s open to 25%. (As an alternative, the president suggested a 15% corporate minimum tax, but that’s just a tax increase by another name.)

But touching corporate taxes — which were slashed from 35% in the 2017 tax cuts — is a red line for Republicans.

The bipartisan Senate grouping has floated alternative pay-fors. POLITICO obtained a leaked draft of the basic proposals:

Infrastructure financing authority to leverage private investment
Public-private partnerships, private activity bonds and asset recycling
Direct-pay municipal bonds for infrastructure investment
Reduce the IRS tax gap
Redirect unused UI relief funds
Repurpose unused Covid relief funds for infrastructure
Expand eligible uses of Covid state/local funds
Allow use of toll credit balances for infrastructure
Annual surcharge on electric vehicles
Index gas tax to inflation (“placeholder pending alternative non-tax offset from the Biden Administration”)
Adjust customs user fees

Some of these won’t pass muster with the White House. Repurposing unused COVID relief funds is a nonstarter for Biden (unless the amount is relatively small).

Other pay-fors are likely dead-ends as well. Indexing the gas tax to inflation may sound economically sensible, but at the end of day it would mean paying more at the pump — a no-go for any president who’d like to be re-elected.

Another no-go for Democrats is the somewhat counterintuitive GOP suggestion of imposing fees on electric vehicle drivers, i.e. punishing the very people who support Democrats’ climate change goals.

Raising revenue by strengthen IRS tax collection and a so-called federal “infrastructure bank” are all ideas Biden is likely open to, but even taken together, it’s questionable whether these pay-fors would foot the entire bill. So it’s hard to see how a bipartisan deal that does not touch the corporate tax rate could pay for itself without somehow taxing everyone else (or busting the deficit).

Gaming out the Different Scenarios
Even if Biden accepts a scaled-down bipartisan infrastructure bill, that’s the other problem: It’s been scaled down from the original $2.3 trillion plan that included climate change and “human infrastructure” such as elderly home care.

The bipartisan framework only focuses on physical infrastructure such as roads and bridges — a nonstarter for liberals who’ve already said they won’t support a bill that doesn’t include climate change.

To get around this roadblock, the president’s Plan B would be to take everything that’s not traditional infrastructure out of his American Jobs Plan and move it to his $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, which focuses on social safety-net programs such as education and child care.

The idea is that the American Families Plan would then be passed through reconciliation.

But this is a fraught strategy because every single Democrat would have to vote for it — a tall order for centrists wary of more deficit spending and liberal overreach.

That seems to be exactly what the GOP is banking on, as Politico Playbook noted on June 15:

[T]he GOP is happily saying the quiet part out loud.Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) mused to reporters Monday that a bipartisan package would likely include all the politically popular items for moderate Democrats, who may not want to support a Democrats-only reconciliation bill that includes tax hikes. “The stars are kind of lining up for an infrastructure bill,” he said. “And if you do do something bipartisan on that, then I think doing something partisan on reconciliation — in some ways, with certain Democrats — it gets a lot harder.”

That’s why some Democrats have said they would only support a “hard” infrastructure proposal if the Senate’s two most problematic centrists — Manchin and Sinema — guarantee they would support the “soft” plan afterward.

But it’s a huge leap of faith they would commit to a $1.8 trillion social welfare bill — a leap Democrats like Bernie Sanders aren’t willing to make.

Sanders has said he’s a “hard no” on a bipartisan deal. As Punchbowl News succinctly put it: “Every Democrat who says no means another Republican has to say yes.”

And if Bernie backs out, his progressive allies in the House, where Democrats also hold a thin majority, are likely to follow suit — along with other Democrats such as Sen. Ed Markey who insist that climate change be in the bill.

“It’s time for us to put on that classic song by Fleetwood Mac — it’s time for us to go our own way,” Markey said this week to reporters.

But where exactly are they going without 51 votes Senate? Nowhere. That’s why it’s time for Democrats, especially those in the House, to reconcile themselves to the fact that none of their plans are going anywhere without Manchin and Sinema.

Biden has.

All Roads Go Through West Virginia (and Arizona)
Having spent 36 years in the Senate, Biden understands better than anyone the cold hard calculus of securing votes in the chamber where bills go to die.

And it’s no secret that Joe Manchin is the Democratic kingmaker in a 50-50 Senate. The centrist West Virginia senator has made his position on reconciliation crystal clear: He will only consider it if all good-faith efforts at bipartisanship fail.

Manchin, along with the other critical Democratic swing vote, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have been just as clear about the filibuster. They’re not getting rid of it. (Other moderate Democrats hold similar views but are fine letting Manchin and Sinema take the heat).

So the constant progressive rhetoric that now’s the time for Democrats to do away with the filibuster is head-scratching. There wouldn’t even be a debate if it weren’t for Manchin and Sinema — because Democrats wouldn’t control the Senate without them.

And if Manchin and Sinema veer too far to the left and alienate their constituents, the Dems will almost certainly lose control of the Senate, and then nixing the filibuster will come back to bite them — hard — as Republicans would surely retaliate and ram their own conservative wish-list through the Senate (just look at how well nuking the judicial filibuster turned out for Democrats during Trump’s presidency).

And remember, Republicans hold an inherent advantage because they’re disproportionately represented in the Senate and the opposition party almost always performs well in the midterms, which means Republicans will probably regain control of Congress sooner rather than later.

Interestingly, in a tape recently published by The Intercept, Manchin said he’d consider making some changes to the filibuster, such as lowering the number of votes needed to cut off debate to 55, instead of 60.

(For a great explainer on lowering the filibuster to 55 votes, check out Ross Douthat’s article in The New York Times.)

This would of course thrill Democrats, but remember that the comments were made during a private call where Manchin was noncommittal on the issue. If anything, he repeatedly stressed that the filibuster must be preserved.

Manchin’s defense of the filibuster has sparked a barrage of progressive attacks against him. To put it bluntly, it’s all a bunch of self-defeating noise. What are progressives going to do? Threaten him with the loss of Democratic votes — in a state that went for Donald Trump last year by the second-largest margin in the country? At worst, they’ll alienate Manchin, who up until now has made good-faith efforts on polarizing issues like voting rights.

Biden, who pleasantly surprised progressives with his $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, surely knows that now is not the time to indulge his far-left flank. At the moment, he needs to appease Manchin.

It’s simple: No Manchin, no reconciliation.

Sinema is pivotal as well, and while she has her own political calculations (she recently said she’d like to be a maverick in the vein of John McCain), my hunch is that if Manchin goes the reconciliation route, she’d follow.

So Biden has not pressured either to abandon bipartisan talks. Just the opposite — he needs to exhaust all avenues to win them over.

That’s why despite repeated warnings by administration officials that time is running out for a deal, the president has blown past several self-imposed deadlines and is likely to give bipartisan negotiations as much time as he can.

No-Win, or Win-Win?
He has no choice. Biden’s entire agenda essentially hinges on two scenarios. One, the bipartisan talks in the Senate break down and Manchin and Sinema agree to reconciliation. Or two, they support a narrow bipartisan bill but assuage House Democrats by pledging to back a secondary progressive bill through reconciliation.

There’s a lot that has to fall into place for Biden, but he’s shown time and again (whether it’s with the pandemic or winning the presidency) that he shouldn’t be underestimated.

Likewise, skeptics underestimate House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at their own peril. Progressives didn’t get everything they wanted in the COVID relief bill but swallowed it anyway. And even if there are progressive dissenters, Pelosi could theoretically wrangle enough Republican votes to push a bipartisan infrastructure bill through the House and onto Biden’s desk.

It’s an unlikely scenario because Pelosi also wants to go big on climate change, but it’s not out of the question because Pelosi knows how to play the long game.

Let’s just assume a modest bill squeaks through Congress. What does that mean for Biden? It means he notches a win on both infrastructure and bipartisanship — boosting the party’s chances of keeping Congress in the 2022 midterms because while the move would anger progressives, it could win over moderate voters in swing states.

Then there’s the fact that just because Manchin and Sinema haven’t committed to passing the Americans Families Plan yet, doesn’t mean they won’t do so down the line. Manchin has already put forth a serious proposal on voting rights, which McConnell rejected. If Republicans continue to spurn his efforts, that could push Manchin into the reconciliation camp.

As for the possibility of bipartisan talks in the Senate collapsing, given the recent momentum, there’s a semi-decent chance they won’t. There’s also a good chance that McConnell won’t stand in their way in the hopes that a bipartisan deal will die in the House, so he can blame Democrats for the failure.

But if history is any indication, something will go wrong — and that means everything could go right for Biden.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is already prepping a big reconciliation bill. He’s just waiting on Manchin and Sinema, who’d need political cover (and lots of sweeteners for their states) to come on board.

Ironically, the progressive furor directed at Manchin could help him with voters in his red-leaning state. And Manchin and Sinema wouldn’t exactly be going out on limb by ditching bipartisan talks to raise corporate taxes, which plays well with voters of all political stripes.

Both senators would demand concessions in a reconciliation bill that progressives probably wouldn’t like, but they’d still get a lot of liberal goodies like clean energy that they’d never get in a bipartisan bill. That could temper progressive opposition in the House, assuming Pelosi can keep her caucus together like she did with COVID relief.

If — and it’s still a colossal “if” — all these moving parts come together, we’d be back to where we started: Biden’s pledge that he would work across the aisle but would move on if that didn’t work.

So while bipartisanship has always been a goal, it’s also been a means to an end — and if the windy road leads to reconciliation, perhaps “failure” was part of Biden’s plan all along.

OK, NOW THE FUN STUFF…

Art and Soul in Capitol Hill has weathered a lot, having been in business for 14 years — a lifetime in restaurant years. It was originally opened by Art Smith, Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef, in the then-Liaison hotel.

Neither Smith nor the Liaison are there any more, but the restaurant and hotel still are — and both recently underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation (fortuitiously done during the pandemic) and now sport a fresh look and flavor.

The new Art and Soul, located in the YOTEL Washington DC hotel, boasts a 5,100-square-foot dining space, three private dining areas and a 1,900-square-foot patio.

Chef Danny Chavez has focused the menu on seasonal, locally sources dishes from the Chesapeake Bay watershed communities.

We got a sneak peek and can confirm that the dishes are both beautiful and tasty.

Restaurants took a major hit during the pandemic, but other industries thrived. That includes home renovations. One of the beneficiaries has been AJ Madison, a family-owned business that’s been the number-one online kitchen appliance retailer in the country for over 18 years.

On June 10, it hosted a summer kickoff (with a good turnout despite a summer downpour) at its Tysons showroom, the company’s second brick-and-mortar location.

In the U.K., June 18 kicks off a five-day social and sporting event known as the Royal Ascot. With pandemic travel down, Washingtonians who wanted to experience this British tradition could go to the Fairmont hotel, which hosted its own Royal Ascot Garden Party — complete with royal-inspired afternoon tea and picnic baskets, Pimm’s Cups and scenes from the party across the pond.