Monday, October 25, 2021

International, Domestic Crises Provide a Week of Tests for Biden

President Joe Biden speaks Tuesday to world leaders who are variably angry about a U.S.-Australian nuclear submarine pact, upset about the killing of Afghan civilians by an American drone or mad about soon-to-change rules banning many foreigners from traveling to the United States because of pandemic worries.

That’s still less of a headache than what faces the president at home in Washington, where the clock is ticking on a list of domestic issues that could result in either a commanding win for Biden or fiscal disaster for the nation.

Biden will deliver his first address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday morning, when, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, he will lay out his vision for how the global community can prevent war and address climate change.

I think he will be a very welcome change from [former President Donald] Trump, says Matthew Schmidt, a professor at the University of New Haven who specializes in national security and national politics. After Trump – who was laughed at by world leaders during one of his addresses to the U.N. – people will be happy to have a sane and rational American leader step up to the odium, Schmidt says.

But Biden’s visit has some built-in bumps. French President Emanuel Macron is still furious over a deal the U.S. made, without involving the French, to sell nuclear submarines to Australia. That not only deprives France of many billions of dollars in arms sales but appears to cut France out of the effort to keep China in check – though France is almost certain to be included in the strategy, Schmidt says. The White House is working to arrange a call between Biden and Macron to soothe feelings with America’s oldest ally.

The disclosure by The New York Times – confirmed by an apologetic Pentagon – that one of the drone strikes in Afghanistan during the evacuation killed civilians instead of suspected terrorists also gives a black eye to the U.S. president as he stands before the world stage. Foreign leaders were also unhappy with the U.S. ban on visitors from many countries, including those which allowed Americans in if they were vaccinated or showed a negative COVID-19 test. That policy will change Nov. 1, when the U.S. will let in vaccinated foreign nationals, the White House announced Monday.

And when Biden gets back to the nation’s capital, he faces an overlapping series of domestic political problems.

The House is set to consider a key Biden priority, a bipartisan infrastructure funding bill totaling nearly $1 trillion. But that could be felled by an intra-party fight, with progressives saying they won’t vote for the package until another, more sweeping and more expensive, budget bill is passed.

Moderate Democrats, meanwhile, are balking at the budget bill’s $3.5 trillion price tag and are threatening to deprive Biden of the critical votes he needs to pass that package, which includes human infrastructure items like support for child care, college tuition, health care and immigration.

That bill – which can be approved in the Senate without being filibustered – hit another snag Sunday night, when the Senate parliamentarian ruled that language putting immigrants in the country illegally on a path to citizenship violated Senate rules about what can be made part of a budget blueprint.

Meanwhile, the deadline for passing a 2022 appropriations bill – or just continuing the current spending – looms on Sept. 30. That is followed soon afterward by the debt ceiling, the point at which the United States government can no longer borrow money to pay its bills. Failing to raise or suspend the debt ceiling – which Republicans are saying they won’t do – could spur an economic catastrophe, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen wrote in an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal.

In a matter of days, millions of Americans could be strapped for cash, Yellen wrote. We could see indefinite delays in critical payments. Nearly 50 million seniors could stop receiving Social Security checks for a time. Troops could go unpaid. Millions of families who rely on the monthly child tax credit could see delays. America, in short, would default on its obligations.

Democrats are scrambling to keep the competing crises under control. In the Senate, Democrats will find another way to provide protection for immigrants in the country illegally in the budget bill, Sen. Bob Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, told reporters in a conference call Monday.

This is not an end, and I certainly intend to keep working until we get to a ‘yes’ from the parliamentarian, a staff lawyer assigned to determine whether items are appropriately attached to the budget bill, Menendez said. We’re not going to take no for an answer.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders said Monday they will attach the debt ceiling provision to the spending bill needed to keep the government open. As recently as last month, that spending bill was not appealing to Republicans, but the current version includes aid to hurricane-hit states represented by Republican members of Congress.

In a joint statement, Democratic leaders Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California noted that the debt was run up by Republicans as well – including Trump, who got through a $2 trillion tax cut law as well as a coronavirus relief bill.

The American people expect our Republican colleagues to live up to their responsibilities and make good on the debts they proudly helped incur in the December 2020 … package that helped American families and small businesses reeling from the COVID crisis, Schumer and Pelosi said in the Monday statement. Furthermore, as the Administration warned last week, a reckless Republican-forced default could plunge the country into a recession.

The result of the mutual stare-down and political brinksmanship on the Hill could give the embattled Biden a huge boost in achieving his promised policy agenda. Or it could collapse, taking the country’s economy and Biden’s approval rating with it.

His goal is not to make news at the U.N., Schmidt says. His goal is to get there, (tend to) relationships, and go home and work on domestic issues.

There will be much waiting for Biden when he returns.


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