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September 18, 2023
Headlines this morning said that “Congress” is in crisis. But that construction obscures the true story: the Republicans are in crisis, and they are taking the country down with them.
The most immediate issue is that funding for the government ends on September 30. The Senate, controlled by Democrats, is moving forward on a strongly bipartisan basis with 12 appropriations bills that reflect the deal President Biden hammered out with Speaker Kevin McCarthy in May to get House Republicans to agree not to default on the United States debt. That deal, the Washington Post editorial board pointed out today, was a comprehensive compromise that should have been a blueprint for the budget.
But extremist House Republicans reject it, and there is no sign that House Republicans can even agree among themselves on a replacement, let alone on one that can make it through the Senate and past the president’s desk. Extremists in the Freedom Caucus insist they will not agree to any budget that accepts the deal McCarthy cut with Biden. In addition, although appropriations bills are traditionally kept clean of volatile issues, the extremists have loaded up this year’s appropriations bills with so-called poison pills: rules that advance their attempt to impose their ideology on the country but are unacceptable to Democrats. McCarthy had to pull back the Pentagon spending bill on Thursday before the House went home for the weekend, leaving without any plan in place for funding the government.
Over the weekend, six Republicans from five different party factions offered a plan for a short-term continuing resolution to fund the government and avoid a shutdown. Designed to appeal to the extremists, the plan goes back on the deal McCarthy struck with Biden. It proposes a 1% cut to the federal budget, but that 1% is not applied evenly: the defense budget and the budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs would not take any cuts—Republicans have learned how voters react to hurting veterans—requiring an 8% cut to everything else. It includes the border measures the extremists want, and provides no money either for Ukraine or for disaster assistance.
It’s not clear that Republican House members will vote for the bill, and if they do, the bill is unlikely, encumbered as it is, to make it through the Senate.
What the House Republicans have managed to do recently is to try to appease the extremists by launching an impeachment inquiry into President Biden, claiming that he enriched himself through his son Hunter’s business dealings when he was vice president. McCarthy had to open the inquiry himself, without a House vote, because lacking any evidence, he didn’t have the votes to set such an inquiry in motion. On the Fox News Channel on Sunday, Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX) said McCarthy has given him the role of assisting in the inquiry, but admitted: “We don't have the evidence now, but we may find it later."
To try to get at the president, the Republicans have hammered at his son Hunter, who has begun to push back, today filing a lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service for failing to keep his tax information private as the law requires. He is referring to the two men who testified before House committees trying to find dirt on Hunter Biden and who made the rounds of reporters with their allegations that the IRS did not adequately pursue charges against him.
Meanwhile, video has emerged of the conditions under which extremist Representative Lauren Boebert (R-CO) was kicked out of a kid-friendly Beetlejuice concert last weekend. Boebert has repeatedly accused those protecting LGBTQ civil rights of “grooming” children for sexual activity. Not only was she vaping, she and her date were groping each other quite intensely. Boebert is in the process of getting a divorce, and her date, it turns out, is co-owner of a gay-friendly bar that has hosted drag shows.
Things are not all ducky with Republicans in the Senate, either. Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) refuses to lift his hold on more than 300 military promotions until the Pentagon changes its policy of allowing service members leave time and travel expenses to obtain abortion care. While he insists he is doing no damage to the military, actual military officers, as well as members of his own party, disagree. They say the holds are hollowing out our military leadership and that the damage will take years to repair, since the promotion holds also stop junior officers from moving up. Those holds mean lower pay and retirement, tempting junior officers to move out of the military to higher-paying private sector jobs.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) today wrote a public letter to Tuberville asking him to remove his hold and warning that “harming American service members as leverage in Washington political battles” set a “very dangerous precedent.” They also noted that in a survey of VFW members, including those in Alabama, “VFW members strongly conveyed that politicians should not be able to harm the troops over political disputes and that political decisions that harm the troops would affect the way they would vote in upcoming elections.”
And now Trump, who leads the extremists, has suddenly changed course on abortion, the leading issue for most of his base, in order to weaken his rival for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, Florida governor Ron DeSantis. After packing the Supreme Court with three extremists who helped to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision by which the Supreme Court recognized the constitutional right to an abortion, Trump yesterday said the six-week abortion ban DeSantis signed, which would ban abortion before most women know they’re pregnant, was “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake,” although he also appeared to endorse abortion bans in general. Trump’s vice president Mike Pence, in contrast, is calling for a federal ban on abortion.
Republicans have finally recognized that about 63% of Americans think abortion should be legal in “all or most circumstances,” according to a new poll by 19th News jand SurveyMonkey. But only 9% believe it should be illegal in all cases, although 14 states have enacted such extensive bans. The survey also found that support for abortion rights has increased since the June 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that overturned Roe v. Wade.
Trump has suddenly also become more problematic for the Republicans. On Sunday night, Trump doubled down on his past antisemitism by sharing a Rosh Hashanah message that celebrated the Jewish New Year by accusing “liberal Jews” of voting to “destroy” America and Israel.
Then, today, Katherine Faulders, Mike Levine, and Alexander Mallin of ABC News reported that long-time Trump assistant Molly Michael told agents investigating Trump’s mishandling of classified documents that he wrote to-do lists for her on the back of documents with classified markings.
Meanwhile, the administration continues to go about the daily work of governance.
On Sunday, U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan met in Malta with China’s top diplomat to keep communications between the two countries open. Today, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Vice President Han Zheng of China on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. "The world expects us to responsibly manage our
relationship," Blinken said. "The United States is committed to doing just that.”
Also on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly today, 32 coastal Atlantic countries from Africa, Europe, North America, South America, and the Caribbean launched the Partnership for Atlantic Cooperation. This new multilateral forum echoes regional organizations the administration has backed elsewhere and seeks to establish a mechanism for implementing “a set of shared principles for the Atlantic region, such as a commitment to an open Atlantic free from interference, coercion, or aggressive action,” as well as coordinated plans for addressing issues including climate change.
Finally, five Americans who have been imprisoned in Iran are home tonight, along with two of their spouses. In exchange, the U.S. freed five Iranian citizens who were imprisoned or were about to stand trial, although three of them declined to return to Iran (two have chosen to stay in the U.S., and another went to a third country). The Republic of Korea has released $6 billion of Iran’s money to Qatar for use for humanitarian aid to Iranian citizens suffering under the sanctions that prevent medicines and food from coming into the country.
Brett McGurk, the National Security Council’s coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, told the Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian that the funds had not previously been frozen; they were held up in South Korea because of that country’s own regulations. Under Trump, Iran spent heavily from similar accounts in China, Turkey, and India. Now that they are released, the funds will have more legal restrictions than they did when they were in South Korea.
The Biden administration has prioritized bringing home wrongfully detained Americans. Today’s events bring the number of those the administration has brought home to 35.