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11/14/2014 08:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Friday Talking Points -- The Calm Between The Storms

What walks like a duck and quacks like a duck but seems to have serious mobility problems?

That's right -- we have entered the season of the lame duck! So far, it's shaping up to pretty spec-quack-ular. OK, I apologize. I'll stop, now.

Lame jokes aside, the lame-duck Congress has a lot on its plate. Other than passing a flurry of bills with precisely zero chance of becoming law, the Senate has a whole bunch of confirmations they need to get through before the end of the year (since pretty much nobody's going to be confirmed in the next two years). But the heavy lift for both houses of Congress is going to be passing a budget bill. They have to do this before December 11, if reports are correct, because that is precisely how far Congress kicked the can the last time they put off regular budgeting -- conveniently beyond the election, in other words. Well, that time has now come, and it will be interesting to see what is the result.

There are really only three possible outcomes, and which one is chosen will be instructive as to how much control Republican congressional leaders can be expected to have over their own fractious caucuses. In other words, it'll be pretty easy to see who is in the driver's seat soon -- Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, or the Tea Party.

The first possibility is they could pass a budget which takes us all the way through the end of the federal fiscal year (next October). The second possibility is they could punt only a few months, by passing a continuing resolution which takes us only to March or maybe April. And the third possibility is that they can't manage to pass anything, and we have a government shutdown fight before the end of this year.

Now, mind you, we are going to have another government shutdown fight. Bet on it, no matter how many times Boehner or McConnell lies about it to the press right now. It is inevitable. The Tea Party will, indeed, demand it sooner or later. The only question is when it will happen -- sooner, later, or much later.

If it happens next September and October, this is (believe it or not) a solid win for the Establishment Republicans over the Tea Party. If it happens in early Spring, it will signify that the Tea Party and Establishment Republicans are both about equally as powerful. But if it happens in the next few weeks, then the Tea Party will be driving the Republican bus for the next two years, and we are in for a wild ride indeed.

The Establishment Republican faction, which includes most of its leadership (but not all), wants to put off the budget battle for as long as possible, because they already know the Tea Partiers are going to demand that Republicans paint themselves into the shutdown corner once again -- and they remember how badly it went for them last time around. The Tea Partiers, on the other hand, are convinced they have a mandate from the voters to shut the government down as soon as possible, because they retain the fantasy that doing so will give them the upper hand with President Obama. Those who do not remember history, in other words, will be the ones begging for a replay. But if the Establishment Republicans can't even get a continuing resolution that takes us to the next Congress, then it will mean that Ted Cruz is essentially de facto Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader. Like I said, buckle your seatbelts.

Of course, this struggle isn't happening in a vacuum. Democrats are showing some fractures in the party lines as well, as evidenced by the tense vote for Harry Reid to become Senate Minority Leader next year. While the Republicans battle Tea Partiers in their own ranks, it seems that there was somewhat of a revolt among Senate Democrats over the direction Reid is leading them in. Reid did emerge victorious, but at least six Democrats didn't vote for him (possibly more, those are just the ones who went public with their vote). To assuage the grumbling in the ranks, Reid created two leadership positions out of thin air, and handed one to a moderate Democrat from a purple state (Jon Tester of Montana), and one to a liberal darling (Elizabeth Warren). They will both "have a seat at the table" and thus help set Democrats' direction in the Senate. This is the only time Reid has faced such pushback from within his own caucus, it's worth noting. Whether Tester and Warren have any actual power and input in the coming years remains to be seen, but at least their voices will be heard on a regular basis by the likes of Reid, Charles Schumer, and Dick Durbin. Hopefully, this will improve Democratic tactics and priorities for the coming two years.

What's really riling up Republicans in Congress, however, isn't a leadership scuffle by Senate Democrats, but rather fears of President Obama's newfound resolve to get some things done. This is somewhat pent up, since Obama didn't want to rock Democrats' boat during election season, but now that that is over, he has been freed up to move independently once again. He began with a new nomination for Attorney General, and then surprised everyone by unveiling a climate change agreement with China. This weekend will mark the start of the second open enrollment period on the Obamacare exchanges -- which will go much better than last time around, because it would be almost impossible not to be better than the initial rollout disaster, really. Add to this the possibility that Obama may soon have a big announcement on a deal with Iran to curb their nuclear program (they'll either cut a deal or the talks will fall apart in the next two weeks), and you can see November is going to be a productive month for the president.

But it's not what Obama has done in the past week that is causing Republican rage, but what he's about to do. Because the major issue Obama postponed until after the election is his big change in deportation policy. We're kind of in the calm between two storms right now. The election cloudburst is over, but there is another storm about to break (and this doesn't even count the storm the media will soon be egging on in Ferguson, Missouri, either).

President Obama is going to be announcing a new executive policy on immigration before the end of the year. He might do it as early as next week, he might do it right around Thanksgiving, he might wait until after the budget issue is resolved in December, and he might just push it back until Christmas. But whenever he acts, it's pretty clear by now that there is no question that he is indeed going to act. The only remaining question really is how big he will go -- how many millions of people will be affected, in other words.

The other remaining question is precisely how apoplectic Republicans get while reacting. They're already quivering with barely-repressed rage as it is, and once the announcement is made, the lid is going to blow off this seething cauldron of pique. They have a few options, and the Tea Partiers will be howling for the most radical, of course. John Boehner could actually sue the president instead of just talking about it on the campaign trail. That's the mildest reaction possible, really. Republicans could begin impeachment proceedings -- right-wing commentators are already calling for this option to be deployed. Or they could just do what they do best, by hostage-taking in budget negotiations. One way or another, though, this volcano's going to blow.

OK, I think we've mixed up enough metaphors for now as we wait for the next storm to hit (whoops, I just did it again...), so let's instead move along to the awards, before we present some rather forward-looking talking points this week.

 

President Obama had a pretty good week, especially when he announced his surprise deal with China on global warming. But he's about to have a much more prominent week soon, so we'll just give him an Honorable Mention this week for now. The one term I haven't heard used since the election (when it normally would have been): "lame-duck president." To put this another way, nobody's now arguing whether Obama is still "relevant" or not, as they did when Clinton found himself in a similar situation.

But the real Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week was none other than Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is now the Senate Leader Of Figuring Out What Progressives Want And Reporting Back To Us, or something (since the position's new, the title is new, and since nobody can figure out what to call her, we thought we'd make our own suggestion). Warren is on track to becoming a major player in the Democratic Party, if she already wasn't. She is a rising star in the party, to put it another way. Few Democrats with her years of experience get elevated to leadership positions, to put it in some context.

We feel pretty confident that Warren can take an ill-defined role and carve it into being a real voice for what some used to call "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." Hopefully, she can speak up when people like Reid get far too caught up in the mechanics of the Senate, and yank them back to refocus on what is important in average people's lives. Here's hoping, anyway.

Many are now pointing out that Warren's elevation pretty much assures she won't be running for president in 2016, but then we never really believed she would run in the first place. At this point, she'll be much more effective within the Senate Democrats, tuning the agenda and the message towards a Democratic platform for 2016 that voters can enthusiastically embrace. Elizabeth Warren may at some future date run for national office, and when she does this new leadership position will be one of the steps towards it she will have taken. Being so nebulously defined means she can define the position herself -- and she'll do so knowing that she's got an absolute army of supporters behind her. That's "her, personally," and not "Senate Democrats" or "the Democratic Party" -- an important distinction. This should give her a great deal of leverage, and we're confident that she'll know what to do with it in the years to come.

For now, we congratulate her on her next step upwards, and hereby award her the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week (for the eighth time, we should mention). Warren now has a seat at the table, and we wish her well in the upcoming discussions at that table.

[Congratulate Senator Elizabeth Warren on her Senate contact page, to let her know you appreciate her efforts.]

 

We considered giving Mary Landrieu some sort of award for her desperation move in Congress to force President Obama to give the green light to the Keystone XL pipeline. Landrieu faces a runoff election in a few weeks, and she is desperately hoping that standing up for gas and oil and breaking with Obama will give her a better chance to keep her job. She is wrong, if the polls are correct -- she's going to lose, and lose badly. Even if Landrieu does manage to put a bill on Obama's desk, he'll veto it, meaning that the entire exercise is nothing more than Landrieu grasping at straws. But we find the whole thing more pathetic than disappointing, if truth be told.

Instead, we're giving the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award to Charlie Rangel. Not so much for his original gaffe as for the ridiculous way he tried to justify it later.

Rangel caught some heat for using the term "white crackers" to liken Tea Partiers to segregationists of the Jim Crow era. When he heard about the complaints in an interview with Huffington Post, Rangel responded: "I thought ['cracker'] was a term of endearment. [The Tea Party is] so proud of their heritage and all of the things they believe in."

Wow. Now, just for one tiny minute, let's turn things around. If a Republican politician used an ethnic slur to describe African-Americans, what would Charlie Rangel have to say about it? Do you think Rangel would then agree with the excuse: "I thought [insert African-American slur] was a term of endearment"? I don't. In fact, I would be willing to believe Rangel has indeed heard that excuse before, in his time. Many times, in fact. I would be willing to bet he didn't buy the explanation back then, personally.

African-Americans have long held that language is important, and that not using age-old slurs about your political opponents is the modern standard we should all live up to. Perhaps he was making a lame attempt at a joke. Perhaps he was trying to brush the criticism off with another joke. If so, they fell flat.

When you walk the high moral road on an issue, you are simply not allowed to let the standards you're attempting to set for others slip, in any way. That's a hard fact, but it's true. Charlie Rangel knows full well there are negative associations with the term "white cracker." He has lived long enough to figure that one out. There is simply no excuse for his own lapse in language. Which is why he's this week's Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week. Do unto others, Charlie, as you would have them do unto you. Or you forfeit your right to complain about it when they do.

[Representative Charlie Rangel's official House contact pages seems to be having some problems loading right now, so instead we direct you to the page listing his Washington DC office's contact info, in case you'd like to let him know what you think of his word choice.]

 

Volume 327 (11/14/14)

This is a rather unusual week here in our talking points section, because what we have this week is mostly proactive rather than reactive. Since we're in this calm between two storms (to mix metaphors one last time), it's a good time to prepare ourselves for the deluge of Republican criticism and congressional shenanigans which are sure to erupt when President Obama makes his big immigration announcement.

Not knowing exactly what Obama's going to say, it's impossible to defend any one part of his plan yet. Instead, what Democrats should be doing is softening the ground for Obama in advance. So here are our seven suggestions for what Democrats should be saying this week, in advance of the coming blizzard of negativity from Republicans.

 

   Promises, promises

Hammer this one home for all it's worth, as it will come in handy later, as sure as night follows day.

"I'd like the media to pay particular attention to the promises now being made by Republican congressional leaders that they will not shut the government down again. Mainstream media, please take note, and be sure to save those video clips and soundbites of promises not to shut the government down now falling lightly from the lips of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. Save them, because these promises will quite likely be broken soon. Boehner already swore he wasn't going to shut the government down -- right before he did so, last year. Why should he be any more believable now than he was back then? The Republican leaders simply cannot control their Tea Party caucus, meaning a government shutdown is all but inevitable. When we get to that point, members of the media should be happy to re-run all the soundbites we're hearing now."

 

   Next year will be worse

A little taunting is in order, I think.

"John Boehner has until early December to pass some sort of budget bill with the Senate, or face an immediate government shutdown. Already, we hear that Republicans are squabbling over this crucial bill. Some Tea Partiers want to begin the hostage-taking early, it seems. The Republican leadership wants to pass a bill to carry us through to next October. If this bill does not appear, it will be a strong signal that the leadership is failing to lead their own caucus. If John Boehner and Mitch McConnell can't get this done in the next few weeks, then I shudder to think what things will be like next year, when the problems they have controlling their Tea Partiers are going to get even worse in the new Congress. Can Boehner get a full-year budget bill through, or will the Tea Party tail continue to wag the Republican dog?"

 

   Speaker Cruz

This is also a taunt, and it is becoming a common one.

"We saw last year that the person who was really in control of the House of Representatives was none other than Senator Ted Cruz. He personally led the House Republicans into the government shutdown, and then had no exit strategy whatsoever. He appears ready, willing, and able to do so again in the upcoming budget battles. The only difference this time around is that he may also become the de facto leader of the Senate Republicans as well, if he can exercise more control over the chamber than Mitch McConnell. Some people already call him 'Speaker of the House Ted Cruz,' and I wonder now if he'll add the title 'Majority Leader of the Senate' to that as well. Boehner certainly couldn't control him, and it's hard to see McConnell doing any better, really."

 

   The Emancipation Proclamation argument

Moving along to Obama's upcoming announcement...

"Republicans are already calling President Obama's new deportation policy 'unconstitutional,' before they even know what is in it. I guess they've never studied either the Constitution or their own party's history, because executive action can be incredibly influential in nature, even on a limited basis. President Abraham Lincoln didn't get congressional approval for his Emancipation Proclamation, just to cite one example. While it was a monumentally important announcement, freeing the slaves also took more than one constitutional amendment to be fully realized. There are some things presidents can do, and some they can't. President Obama is free to prioritize deportations any way he chooses, and he is also free to give temporary relief to immigrants. He cannot, however, create a pathway to citizenship on his own, despite what Republicans are now saying. That is not going to happen until Congress acts -- if it ever does. But don't let anyone fool you into believing that presidents can't wield enormous executive power, as the example of the Emancipation Proclamation proves."

 

   Congress can act any time it wants to

This is getting lost in the debate, mostly because Republicans are trying to cloud the waters.

"Can anyone show me where, exactly, it says that Congress cannot act on an issue that the president is also acting upon? There is no such law, and you won't find it in the Constitution, folks. Congress is free to act at any time on any issue no matter what the president does or does not do. Congress has been struggling with immigration reform for over a decade. President Bush wanted it to pass, but Republicans in Congress said no. The Senate passed -- with an overwhelming 68-vote bipartisan majority -- its own bill last year which would have doubled the Border Patrol by now if the House had ever voted on it. House Republicans refused to act on it, promising they were going to create their own bills instead. They failed to do so, for a year and a half. Now Republicans are saying they might just get around to it next year, and that Obama should do nothing until the barest of possibilities for Republican action expires. Well, you know what? Obama's tired of waiting. So he's going to act. But just because he does doesn't change anything in Congress -- Republicans can still act if they choose to. At any time. Now, or after January. There's absolutely nothing stopping them from doing so, and don't let anyone convince you otherwise."

 

   What, exactly, do Republicans want?

This is a crucial question that Republicans have (so far) left unanswered. So press them on it!

"At this point, it is hard to figure out what Republicans want to do to solve the problem of 11 million immigrants living in the United States without documents. What, exactly, do they want to do with these people? Deport them all? Well, I wish they would just say so, if that's the case, and then we can have that political debate. Allow them to stay, but not ever qualify for citizenship? Again, if that is the Republican position, then please lay it on the table and we'll have that conversation. Just continue the status quo and pretend they don't exist in the shadows? That's not much of an answer, but at least it is an answer, of sorts. At the moment, nobody can tell what the Republican position on immigration reform is because they can't agree among themselves what to do. That is the real problem here, folks. If a Republican position on the issue existed, then we would now be debating the merits of both side's proposals. That is not the case. What is missing in that debate is a definition of what Republicans want to do. Until they figure that basic question out, Obama is going to act. He's waited years for them to come to a consensus, and their utter inability to do so is one big reason why he's now going to act on his own."

 

   Warren speaks for me

And, finally, an upbeat talking point to close on for the week.

"I am glad that Senator Elizabeth Warren will be rising to the ranks of the Democratic leadership in the Senate. My confidence in Harry Reid and Senate Democrats has slipped -- especially after that last election -- and knowing they'll be listening to Elizabeth Warren on a regular basis certainly goes a long way towards rebuilding that confidence. While I might not agree with every single thing Warren has to say, I trust her to at least put Main Street ahead of Wall Street on a continuing and ongoing basis. I am glad someone like Warren now has a seat at the leadership table, because perhaps it signals a change in direction for Democrats as a whole. During the Occupy Wall Street movement, an old argument was raised: should progressives work within the system to effect change, or should they reject the system entirely and try something new? We saw where rejecting all systems got the Occupiers. I'm putting more faith in people like Elizabeth Warren to change things from the inside, personally. More than just about any other politician around, I know that when Elizabeth Warren sits down at that table of power, she will speak for me. I'm glad she does have this seat, and I trust her to use her new power to convince other Democrats that populism and progressivism are the ways to chart a new path forward. Warren speaks for me -- that's the best way to put it."

 

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