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March 12, 2021
Positively Dreadful
98 Percent Great

In This Episode

This week on Rubicon, Brian Beutler talks to Sen Brian Schatz (D-HI) about the passage of the American Rescue Plan, the provisions in it that address poverty and healthcare, and whether its passage will be the high-water mark of the Biden era, or just the beginning.

 

Transcript

 

[voice clip] The yeas are 50, the nays are 49. The bill as amended is passed.

 

Brian Beutler: It took Joe Biden about half of his first 100 days in office to lodge the first legacy defining achievement of his presidency.

 

[clip of President Biden] This plan puts us on a path to beating the virus.

 

Brian Beutler: Last Saturday, Senate Democrats passed the 1.9 trillion dollar American Rescue Plan, almost exactly as Biden proposed it, without a single Republican vote.

 

[clip of President Biden] This plan gives those families who are struggling the most, the help and the breathing room they need to get through this moment. This plan gives small businesses in this country a fighting chance to survive.

 

Brian Beutler: The House of Representatives followed suit on Wednesday, and on Thursday, Biden signed it into law.

 

[clip of President Biden] And one more thing. This plan is historic. Taken all together, this plan is going to make it possible to cut child poverty in half.

 

Brian Beutler: Most of you listening probably know the big top lines by now: that the bill extends pandemic unemployment benefits until September, issues $1400 checks to the vast majority of Americans, salvages state municipal budgets, and devotes billions of dollars to vaccinating people against coronavirus, and helping schools reopen safely. The bill’s other provisions have received less attention, but they help explain why all factions of the party are so satisfied. It increases Affordable Care Act subsidies to make health insurance more affordable for people on the individual market. And it offers to pay GOP-run states to expand Medicaid. It also dramatically expands eligibility for, and increases the size of, the child tax credit. By deciding to forge ahead without Republican support, Democrats are able to avoid gutting the bill or larding it up with corporate giveaways. And that may be why, despite passing on a party line vote, over 70% of the country supports it. But there are also some catches. These latter benefits are temporary, and they only became law at all because Democrats used a special process that allowed them to pass the whole thing at once without having to overcome a Republican filibuster. So the ultimate reach of this bill, whether it meets its full potential, is an open question. And the answer may turn on what becomes of the filibuster itself. On Sunday, Senator Joe Manchin lifted Democratic hopes for victories to come when he acknowledged that the filibuster, as it currently exists, might have to change.

 

[clip of Senator Joe Manchin] The Senate is the most unique body of government in the world. And now if you want to make it a little bit more painful, make him stand there and talk, I’m willing to look at any way we can.

 

Brian Beutler: But we still don’t know when or even if Democrats will take that fateful step. My guest this week is Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz. He supports abolishing the filibuster and has urged the party to take a more clear-eyed view of the GOP in general. We discussed whether the American Rescue Plan will be the high watermark of the Biden era, or if Democrats are just getting started. I’m Brian Beutler. Welcome to Rubicon.

 

Brian Beutler: Senator Brian Schatz, great to have you on the show.

 

Senator Brian Schatz: Happy to be here. Thanks for all your work.

 

Brian Beutler: Of course. So by the time people hear this, I think the American rescue plan will probably be law. Bernie Sanders called it the most significant piece of legislation to benefit working people in the modern history of this country. I take it you agree with that description?

 

Senator Brian Schatz: I do, and Sherrod Brown, whom I’ve worked with for many years and who I respect a lot, said it was his best day in the Senate. He’s been pushing for the child tax credit, I think, since he got to the Senate. And he’s been pushing for this pension fix for hundreds of thousands of people in the industrial Midwest. And both things are in the bill. We have a sort of an embarrassment of riches in terms of how much we’ve accomplished in one piece of legislation. And then we have the problem of all of us liking to talk about all of it, which can muddle the message. But the good news is that there’s just so much, there’s just so much positive to talk about. And you know, usually big bills like this are kind of a mixed bag and you have to kind of swallow hard on some ugly stuff in order to enact the stuff you like. This is not that bill. This bill is 98% great. Directionally, it’s almost exactly what I would have wanted to do. You know, if I write the bill myself, would I tweak the policy here and there? Sure. But to be so focused on economic justice and health care is an extraordinary testament to our unity. You know, from Joe Manchin to Bernie Sanders and everybody in between. It’s really a big accomplishment. I’ve never been so proud to be a Democrat.

 

Brian Beutler: OK, so let’s sell the doubters and the haters on that. What distinguishes the rescue plan from either the CARES Act, which I think had a larger price tag, or the big bills that Democrats passed in 2009 and 2010?

 

Senator Brian Schatz: Well, listen, the previous coronavirus bills had some pretty significant corporate subsidies. And, you know, there was an argument to be made at that time that you had to stabilize markets. I’m not sure if I buy it or don’t buy it, but that was the argument. And just statistically speaking, a substantial portion of that money went to people who were already wealthy, and institutions that were already profitable. This bill doesn’t do that. This bill tests the proposition: what if we just helped people who were vulnerable, and what if we just helped the institutions that were vulnerable, and let that money percolate up? We’re not going to make the mistakes that we made during the last economic downturn when we sort of assemble all these titans of industry to tell us how to stabilize markets. Right? Instead, we’re going to listen to people and help them to stabilize their personal financial situation.

 

Brian Beutler: [The 2009 stimulus had a lot to speak for it. In addition to the immediate relief it provided struggling Americans, it also made huge—in some cases, transformative—investments in energy, health care and education. And as you might have heard, it prevented the Great Recession from turning into another Great Depression. But it wasn’t big enough. Democrats decided to contend with the filibuster that time, which meant they needed 60 votes, including from a couple of Republicans, and that required trimming its ambitions. When they weren’t attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies to claim credit for the projects it funded, Republicans railed against it as a bailout and a huge waste of money. And when the ensuing recovery proved to be slow going, Democrats more or less stopped talking about it.]

 

Brian Beutler: So what should Biden and Democrats and their allies do to make sure that specific history doesn’t repeat itself?

 

Senator Brian Schatz: Well, I think we’re on our way here. I mean, because for one thing, we’re just proud of the bill. We’re actually personally proud of the bill. Forget this as a kind of electoral strategy. We’re stoked. I think this thing is going to start to sell itself as people see the benefit personally. You know, the unemployment insurance, the RESTAURANTS act, the money to prevent layoffs in state and local government. Those are all things that people can see in three dimensions, as opposed to a bunch of money that goes to state government and then is to be deployed for, quote unquote “shovel-ready projects.” I mean, that was all great, you know, and I’m glad they passed it. But, you know, the sort of higher pace of road paving, right, is not going to motivate someone to the polls. But money in your pocket during the worst emergency we’ve ever experienced is.

 

Brian Beutler: I hear you on that. I also feel like one lesson of the last 10, 15 years is that, assuming that policy that is good will turn into good politics kind of on its own, is belied by how messy things get after implementation starts. Even for something as simple as sending out more money to people, you’re going to have Republicans a) claiming credit for things that they voted against, but b)  trying to nit-pick evidence here and there of failure or of something politically unpopular that materializes because of, of the new law, and that gets turned into political chum and it affects how people perceive the legislation.

 

Senator Brian Schatz: Yeah, and then we’re off to the races, right?

 

Brian Beutler: Yes. So how did how do you prevent that from happening?

 

Senator Brian Schatz: I just think we have to talk about the bill. And I guess what I’m saying is not so much that we shouldn’t be aware of having a communications strategy and learn the lesson of last time—which is to be relentless and to be willing to brag and to not assume that, hey, let’s just do the work and the voters will know. Right? I think it actually can—because this bill is so straightforward and so different than other pieces of legislation, we need to lean into that and have the confidence that right now we’re not even fighting with the Republicans about this because they know we have a winning hand. And so I just, I don’t want to overlearn the lessons of the last war and find ourselves in some sort of like, kind of overdone PR effort. This bill is good. Every single Republican voted against it. It will help us through the pandemic. And we’re going to win that argument because—I mean, I do watch Fox News every evening, just so you know, just so I know what’s going on, and there’s there are quite literally still on cancel culture and Dr. Seuss. And by the way, it’s not because they have some magical strategic formula. It’s because they don’t know what to talk about right now, if they can’t find a grievance in this bill.

 

Brian Beutler: But why did you guys cancel Dr. Seuss then?

 

Senator Brian Schatz: I like Dr. Seuss so much.

 

Brian Beutler: [laughs]

 

Senator Brian Schatz: I really like Dr. Seuss a lot. And I had never heard of the six books, just for the record. Had you? I hadn’t heard of any of those.

 

Brian Beutler: I think I had heard of the one that—and now I can’t even remember its name so I guess it didn’t make that big of an impression on me when I was a kid. I think it was Jamelle Bouie who said that when Joe Biden came out to congratulate Senate Democrats for passing this bill, that he hoped that Biden was sort of explicitly partisan about what had just happened. And, you know, without being too specific, essentially remind people that zero Republicans voted for this. And I think the idea is, as these benefits roll out, people should remember that if it was up to the other party, none of it would be happening. And I’m wondering how you anticipate the party writ large accomplishing that in a sort of forward-looking way? Because I do imagine that whether it’s Ron DeSantis in Florida or Greg Abbott in Texas, they’re going to get state and local funding from the bill and it’s going to do good things for their states. And then they’re going to show up and say it’s because of them. How do you kind of fight that ongoing war so that people realize that they’re sort of . . . bullshitting, I guess?

 

Senator Brian Schatz: Yeah, I don’t know the answer to that. I mean, I wish I had a sort of quick answer, but you’re very good at asking the toughest strategic and tactical questions. I don’t know the answer. On the one hand, Joe Biden is not polarizing, and that’s one of the reasons he’s extraordinarily popular, at least when compared to the previous two presidents and given polarization. But it also means that he’s very unlikely to take a hard line just rhetorically on some of this stuff. Like he might mention that he got no support from Republicans, but that won’t be his point of emphasis because he’s not a partisan warrior, that’s not where his head is at. But I do think that he’s—I think it was Andrew Young or somebody who said he’s got a sort of Midas touch.

 

[voice clip] The magic of Joe Biden is that everything he does becomes the new reasonable.

 

Senator Brian Schatz: And I think that’s where we are with a lot of progressive policy, is that he presents things in a way that sound matter of fact and sound like he’s not just putting on his blue state uniform and trying to crash into the other side. And I think we have to roll with that, not because there are no moments where that frustrates me, because he’s the President of the United States and we’re doing pretty well.

 

Brian Beutler: All right, let’s drill down into some of the under-appreciated provisions of the bill. You sort of glancingly mentioned a few of them, but I don’t think we’ve talked about how the Rescue Act improves the Affordable Care Act’s insurance subsidies and Medicaid expansion.

 

Senator Brian Schatz: Yeah, well, I mean, we’ve been [laughs] we’ve been trying to increase subsidies for Medicaid under ACA for many, many years and it has been blocked. And I think that, you know, this is another pretty significant policy that will actually help people when they’re shopping for insurance. And so, you know, we won the argument on the Affordable Care Act. And I think likewise with the child tax credit, we’re going to win that argument and people are going to realize that it helps families. There is, I think, a fundamental shift in the way people are viewing public policy, whether it’s cash assistance, or UI, or the child tax credit, or increased subsidies for health care. We’re starting to realize that is not the case that if government provides you a basic level of support, that suddenly you find yourself de-motivated to live your life or make more money or be entrepreneurial. That was the kind of premise of: hey if you give these people, too much money, they’re just going to sit around. And that was probably based on racism and some other thing. But it seems to me that one of the most exciting aspects of the progressive movement besides jettisoning the deficit scold, is this understanding that actually people can transcend their poverty if they have cash in the bank. And I think that’s a huge shift on the policy side and on the politics side, because mass poverty in the United States is a policy choice. And I think Democrats are saying that we should, as aggressively as possible, try to eliminate mass poverty.

 

Brian Beutler: I guess my understanding of the way the bill changes health care policies—sort of automatically increases the subsidies for people buying insurance on the private market. But it also changes the amount of money the federal government kicks in for the Medicaid expansion program.

 

Brian Beutler: [As originally written, the Affordable Care Act effectively required states to expand their Medicaid programs to people who earned a bit more than federal poverty wages. But it also promised to pay for the overwhelming majority of the expansion cost. In 2012, the Supreme Court made that provision optional, and Republican-run states rejected the expansion en masse. Over time, as rural hospitals suffered and poor citizens found themselves unable to obtain health insurance, many of those states relented. The deal was just too good to turn down. But some of those states, including huge ones like Texas and Florida, have continued to reject these federal dollars out of spite. Biden has responded by sweetening the deal even further. The American Rescue Plan offers not just to cover the full cost of the expansion, but to pay these states a bonus, which means leaving their poorest residents uninsured will now require them to turn down free cash.]

 

Brian Beutler: The theory is that you can get these mostly Republican state governments to drop their sort of 10-year protest of the Medicaid expansion by saying: we’re not asking you to kick in anything, we’re saying we’ll pay you to do this. Do you think that they will agree to do that?

 

Senator Brian Schatz: No.

 

Brian Beutler: I mean, given that their opposition so far has been about spite, right, and culture war, and if not, how do you end up making them pay a political penalty for it? Because if, you know, if there’s been a sea change in how the people in the country view federal support, shouldn’t there be a sort of political cost to refusing it?

 

Senator Brian Schatz: Yeah, I mean, I listen, I think Rafael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are very likely in the Senate—I mean, for a number of reasons, they’re really extraordinary people—but it wasn’t just the checks. It was also Medicaid expansion.

 

[clip of Rafael Warnock] When Georgia refused to expand Medicaid in the state, I went to the governor’s office and I said, Mr. Governor, you must expand Medicaid.

 

[clip of Jon Ossoff] We’re going to get out and vote Georgia because we believe that health care is a human right and not just a . . .

 

Senator Brian Schatz: And lots of, certainly House candidates, but also Senate candidates talked a lot about Medicaid expansion in purple and red states and with a lot of success. I think you’re making an important point that Democrats have to be better at connecting the dots. I mean, the number of states where minimum wage was passed and then our Senate candidate gets blown out, it’s sort of embarrassing, right? Marijuana legalization, criminal justice reform, tends to win on these ballot initiatives and our Democratic candidates don’t.

 

Brian Beutler: Can you provide a bit of a rundown for the child tax credit expansion: how it works, how much it increases the child tax credit per child per family, so that people can kind of get their hands around the scale of the change?

 

Senator Brian Schatz: It’s a $3,000 credit per child, and what a difference that will make, right? As so many people— let’s say your total assets are like $3000 or $4000. You live in an apartment, you have an OK job, but that’s it. Right? And then you got to take time off work, and then there’s a pandemic, and then you have a baby, and suddenly you find yourself like eight grand in debt. And someone like that will get—let’s say you’re married and you have a kid, you get the $1400 three times plus a $3,000 child tax credit. And so it’s not about overpaying people to not work. It’s about enabling people to literally survive. Right? To literally survive. And I think there’s plenty of evidence, not just anecdotal, but now sort of scientifically collected, that when you help people out of debt, they do things to better their circumstances.

 

[voice clip] Universal basic income. In Stockton the program gave $500 per month, for two years, to 125 randomly-selected low income residents. And it paid off. Recipients were less anxious and depressed over time, and they obtained full time employment at more than twice the rate of non-recipients.

 

Senator Brian Schatz: And when they are in a sort of spiraling situation of being always behind on rent and utilities and credit card payments, you know, they can never—I shouldn’t say never—but it’s extraordinarily difficult to get out of that hole. Sherrod talks to me about, you know, the Democrats understand the impact of luck on one’s financial circumstances, right? Of just bad fortune, you know, twisting your knee and not being able to be a sous chef, or catching COVID, or maybe your parent needs eye surgery and you’ve got to drop out of graduate school. And I do think there’s just an understanding among Democrats that the best thing we can do for the private sector economy and for capitalism itself, is to help people to have at least a basic floor so they can feel secure and pursue their dreams.

 

Brian Beutler: Coming up, what happens in a year or two when these health care and child care provisions expire? And we look back at Biden’s first 50 days and ahead to the midterms when we return.

 

Brian Beutler: Welcome back to Rubicon. My guest is Senator Brian Schatz, whose vote was one of the 51 needed to pass the American rescue plan.

 

Brian Beutler: My understanding is that because this bill passed through the budget process and had a hard cap at 1.9 trillion dollars, that those provisions—specifically the health care expansions and the child tax credit expansion, expire automatically. I think the child tax credit in a year, and the health care provisions in two. Is that correct?

 

Senator Brian Schatz: Yes. But I mean, every year, just to be clear, every year there’s a bunch of tax provisions, most of them corporate subsidies that fly in December and get renewed. Right? There’s a bunch of things that get renewed year over year that are corporate tax subsidies, and that’s called the so-called extenders package. Right? And I think Sherrod Brown and others have been pointing out like where the extenders for people? Right? As opposed to the extenders for corporations. And so, yes, it’s true that this thing expires but now this this ends up in a pile of tax credits and tax subsidies that expire at the end of every fiscal or calendar year that we’re going to have to include. And so we will fight like hell to include them, especially now that we’re in charge of the Congress.

 

Brian Beutler: You know, to me, when you have these super important provisions, but in theory, you set them up on a cliff where they might expire, it means that the bill’s ultimate legacy is kind of up for grabs, where you have this best case scenario that it fixes the economy and these provisions kind of become permanent somehow in future legislation. Or, as you’re suggesting, they just get continuously renewed with all the other expiring tax provisions. So is the idea that Democrats will intentionally yoke them to other provisions in the tax code that Republicans insist on renewing every year? And what beyond that, both inside Congress and on the outside needs to happen for them to not sort of disappear after a year or two?

 

Senator Brian Schatz: I mean, obviously, if we could have made this feature a permanent law, we would have. But given polarization and a 50-50 Senate and a pretty thin margin on the House, you know, we got as much as we could get. And I and I just think that we’re in an era where, you know, nothing is going to be given, right? And nothing is going to be permanent if the Republicans can prevent it. And so we made enormous progress with the possibility of it being just a two-year thing. Which would still be an excellent piece of legislation, but not nearly the kind of historic progressive change that it can be if we choose to extend a few of those other provisions.

 

Brian Beutler: I mean—I don’t want to tar them for a level of opposition that I’m not sure they’ve shown yet—but one of the lessons from the Obama years is that one of the ways Republicans resist a Democratic administration is to intentionally set these cliffs with the threat of going over them so that they can sort of extort demands from Democrats in Congress and the president.

 

[clip of President Obama] So far, the Republicans in the House of Representatives have threatened a government shutdown or worse, unless I gut or repeal the Affordable Care Act. Some Republicans have suggested that unless I agree to an even longer list of demands, that they would push the button, throw America into default for the first time in history, and risk throwing us back into a recession.

 

Brian Beutler: Can you tie the plan for preventing these provisions from expiring to the broader conversation Democrats are having among themselves now about what to do about the filibuster. Like what happens if in December, Republicans say: sorry, you need 60 votes for the extenders and we’re not going to give you any?

 

Senator Brian Schatz: First, the Republicans have a choice to make in terms of whether or not they actually want to work on any of these issues with us. But let’s stipulate for the sake of this conversation that they are likely not to, then we’ve got choices to make as a as a legislative body. And I’m obviously for eliminating the filibuster. It was not enshrined in the Constitution. It was, it came up by accident and now we treat it like—not just law, but there’s something above law, right? I mean, it’s sort of considered sacred in the sort of Morning Joe crowd scene over here. But the truth is that no other legislative bodies work like this, where you need 60 votes for anything except for—you know, I think Pete DeFazio talked about you need to perform a séance to understand what Bob Byrd would have done. It’s just bananas. So I’m for eliminating the filibuster. I guess the thing I would say about this is that, you know, we’ve got to get smart about our strategy here and just sort of like yelling at Joe Manchin about it, it doesn’t hurt Joe Manchin and doesn’t help our cause. Right? And Kyrsten Sinema as well, they come from different states, they have different views and different personas. And they as much as Ossoff and Warnock as much as anyone are majority makers. And so is it frustrating that not everybody agrees with me on the filibuster? Sure. But we have to have a strategy other than sort of always assuming that our inability to make all of the progress all at once is just because we’re like feckless corporatists. Right? Sometimes this stuff is hard and it’s going to take a bit.

 

Brian Beutler: With everything that we’re seeing from Republicans in state governments right now trying to make it impossible for people to vote—I’ve kind of lumped in the For the People Act with all the big hinge point moments that came before it. Right? Like it was absolutely essential that Democrats beat Trump in the election, and then it was essential that they win back the Senate. And if either one of those two things doesn’t happen, it’s hard to see how you dig yourself out of the hole that leaves. And in a weird way, I kind of see doing what it takes to pass the For the People Act, or to prevent the extenders package that we’re just talking about from expiring—it’s almost hard to see a future without that working out in a promising way. Is that how it feels inside the Senate Democratic caucus, that people are just working towards figuring out how to get this thing that needs to happen, to happen?

 

Senator Brian Schatz: Yes, the answer is yes. I mean, the only quibble I would make is that sometimes—and I love Twitter, I’m on Twitter, you and I have interacted on Twitter—but sometimes on Twitter and elsewhere, there’s kind of a tendency to use a certain bill as a sort of shorthand for “are you courageous or not, are you for all the good things or not?” And all I would say is that as it relates to the For the People Act in particular, what we’re really talking about is democracy reforms and voting rights. And so if we have to amend some portions of it, that doesn’t again turn all the Democrats into feckless corporatists. Right? Like the idea is to protect democracy itself. And let’s be clear, most people haven’t read the whole damn bill. Right? And so I just want to make sure that we’re not so literal in our interpretation of what it means to be brave and determined and strategic, that we get to the point where if someone removes a section and puts it into a different bill, or says: hey, there’s another way to do this. Or frankly has to make a concession to get to 51, that maybe that’s what we need to do, right? Like the voting rights, civil rights, all of those things were not one piece of legislation and then we moved on. They were iterative.

 

[old news clip] Five hours after the House passes the measure, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is signed at the White House by President Johnson.

 

[clip of President Johnson] In less than 48 hours I sent the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to the Congress.

 

[clip of President Johnson] Members of the Congress, on an April afternoon in the year 1966, I asked for the enactment and I quote “of the first effective federal law against discrimination in the sale and the rental of housing in the United States of America.” We did not get it in 1966. We pled for it again in 1967. But the Congress took no action that year. We asked for it again this year, and now at long last this afternoon, its day has come.

 

Senator Brian Schatz: We should feel an absolute sense of urgency, but that urgency shouldn’t turn into despair if the bad guys win a few, right? I mean, the bad guys are going to win a few and we’re going to win a few. And we’re going to have to just keep working harder and smarter and with more determination than the other side. But I don’t think we need to sort of raise the emotional stakes to the point where, you know, let’s say we try to eliminate the filibuster sometime in April and then we didn’t, it is not time to give up. It’s time to say: OK, we have 47 votes for that, how do we get the other four? Right?

 

Brian Beutler: There was obviously a lot of consternation about the minimum wage falling out of the bill and about the late changes to the unemployment insurance provision. But then the bill passed, you know. 95% intact, at least 98% intact and it seems like people are pretty happy about it. Has your experience been that on the other side of a successful vote that it kind of washes away the, you know, immediate anxiety people feel when they’re losing the small battles in the fight?

 

Senator Brian Schatz: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think winning begets winning, right? And getting a hugely successful bill through takes the sting out of losing on the minimum wage. So I’m not making an argument about the minimum wage not mattering, I’m making an argument that we just made the biggest investment in Native communities in American history, that we’re going to cut child poverty in half, that we’re going to fund vaccine distribution, that we’re going to prevent people from being evicted—I’m talking about all the great stuff in the bill. I rarely vote against a bill because of what’s not in it, right? Because I’d like to see climate action in that bill. Right? I’d like to see criminal justice reform in that bill. But there’s always another day. And so, I mean, I guess my own point of view on all of this is that there’s a, I think, shrinking part of the Democratic Party that is always telling the activists: hey, we can’t do anything unless we win.

 

Brian Beutler: [Let me break in for a moment and explain what Senator Schatz is getting at. Party actors often have a tense relationship with the activists who push them to take bold steps. Doing big things doesn’t just require power, it also comes with risk. So when Democrats win and activists demand action, the response is often: take it to the ballot box. But there’s a growing faction within the party that understands that power is fleeting. Doing the safe thing doesn’t guarantee victory either. So Democrats should use their power while they have it, and be legends. If not now, when?

 

Senator Brian Schatz: And so let’s do big and bold things because, a) it’s probably a better strategy to win and b) if we’re going to lose a midterm anyway, why don’t we kick ass and make our majority worth something? On the other hand, I think there’s some people who sort of actually affirmatively don’t believe in electoralism. Right? Like, if there’s a candidate or a pundit saying: hey, this election is very important, it’s important that the Senate is in Democratic hands, they say: well, no, not really, we didn’t do minimum wage. And it’s sort of like, that’s true, but also none of the things that we just did would have happened under Mitch McConnell, and none of the cabinet would have been confirmed under Mitch McConnell. And so I just think we need to calibrate ourselves and not get to the point where we don’t understand that hey, elections very much matter, and if we had 53 seats in the Senate, that is materially different than 50. And so, you know, I’m going to, I’m going to keep working, drag the Democratic Party into the future, but also understand that, you know, we have institutional imperatives that are not trivial. And losing the Senate would be an abject disaster for everything that we care about.

 

Brian Beutler: So that’s a good way to tee up this question, which is in addition to marking the passage of the Rescue Plan, we’re also marking the sort of the approximate halfway point to President Biden’s 100th day. How do you think it’s going?

 

Senator Brian Schatz: I think it’s going great. I mean, I really do. I think Ron Klain is an excellent chief of staff. I think, you know, I was just on the phone with the person who’s going to be the President’s science adviser, who’s actually going to be elevated to the cabinet, like the science adviser in the Cabinet Room. You know, it’s kind of a—I wouldn’t say it’s a small thing, but it’s certainly not like leading the news—but what a pleasure to talk to a really sharp person who understands everything from like AI to climate science to scientific integrity and Section 230. Right? And just talked to the person who is going to lead the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. And so lots of extraordinarily accomplished and progressive and aggressive nominees to the Cabinet. And I just think Joe Biden is going to meet the moment. I mean, I was in the—this sounds like a brag—but, you know, we were brought into the Oval Office, the chairs of the various committees, to talk about the rescue plan and he’s very co—he’s reading history, he’s actually talking to presidential historians, and he understands the magnitude of this moment—both from the standpoint of the depths of the economic and health care crisis, but also the crisis of democracy itself. And he sees those things as one and the same. He sees—and I think correctly and so does Bernie, because they were vigorously agreeing on this point—that our ability to deliver, helps—and helps us with the election. But it also helps us to restore faith in the idea that the federal government is worth anything. And we’re facing a crisis of democracy and just talking to people about the creeping authoritarianism in the United States is mostly not compelling and mostly doesn’t stop the authoritarianism. The way to slow or stop the authoritarianism is to get in charge and then improve people’s lives.

 

Brian Beutler: So then what part of the first 50’ish days has most exceeded your expectations, and what’s the one part of it you think could use the most improvement?

 

Senator Brian Schatz: Two things on exceeded my expectations: my expectations were real high on climate, and I just think they’re really doing well, especially in terms of making sure the whole cabinet understands climate as their job, and not just know EPA and Interior. So that’s been really good. And they also just do their politics well. He is a Senate person and so they just you know—I still like the craft of politics and they’re just quite good at that. What hasn’t met my expectations? I’m not trying to be, you know schlep too much for the administration, other than to say that I think it’s too early to tell where the disappointments are because 50 days in is hard to know where they’re screwing up, because those things presumably will manifest themselves later.

 

Brian Beutler: All right. I think that’s a good place to end things. Senator Brown Schatz, thank you so much for joining us.

 

Senator Brian Schatz: My pleasure, Brian. Take care.

 

Brian Beutler: Keep sending us your questions. Our email address is Rubicon@crooked.com. Listener Matt writes “I had a question about legislative strategies: one thing that seems to have become relatively common in recent years is passing large bills with various components to them. While I realize the necessity of doing this for some legislation, such as for COVID relief packages, I have to wonder if this is the best strategy going forward. For example, would it be better for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to be passed as a bill covering various areas? Or would it be better to pass it with component parts as separate bills? Part of me thinks this prevents Republicans from voting against the entire bill with the excuse that they liked parts of the bill, but didn’t like others. It would force Republicans to own every vote they take.”

 

Brian Beutler: There’s a lot to Matt’s observation, and in many ways it’s a consequence of the filibuster. The filibuster makes it so hard for parties to pass their agendas, that they end up having to cram a bunch of items into critical government funding or budget bills. At the same time, with no incentive for opposition parties to cooperate on normal legislation, partisan majorities also feel compelled to bundle a bunch of priorities together to maintain unity within their own caucuses. I personally believe that abolishing the filibuster would allow parties to unbundle things, just as Matt describes. I also think we might see Democrats try exactly this. Instead of bundling a minimum wage increase into the stimulus, just put a clean minimum wage bill on the floor. Instead of trying to move a giant immigration bill, just to the DREAM Act. But Democrats won’t do this because they think these items will pass. They’ll do it in anticipation that Republicans will filibuster even simple popular things, and that’ll help them build a case for abolishing it.

 

Brian Beutler: Rubicon has written and hosted by me, Brian Beutler. It’s produced by Andrea Gardner-Bernstein. Veronica Simonetti is our audio engineer. Production support from Brian Semel. Thanks for listening and we’ll be back next week.