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House Approves Biden’s Social Spending Plan

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WASHINGTON — 

House Democrats on Friday approved their sweeping measure to strengthen the nation’s social safety net programs and begin to respond to the climate crisis, a sorely needed show of progress for President Biden’s legislative agenda even as it faces more hurdles.

The bill passed 220 to 213, with support from all but one Democrat and no Republicans.

Democrats’ attempt to pass the bill Thursday night was foiled by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), who held control of the House floor by speaking for more than eight and a half hours, preventing a vote from occurring until Democratic leaders finally decided to reschedule it for Friday morning.

The House Republican leader used his speech to attack the bill, Democrats and Biden’s agenda. He spoke continuously from 8:38 p.m. (Eastern) Thursday until 5:11 a.m. Friday, beating the record for the longest House floor speech, set by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) in 2018.

The surprise last-minute hitch capped months of delays and negotiation among House Democratic moderates and progressives, Senate Democrats and the White House over the bill. During that time, the total price tag was halved to roughly $1.7 trillion, and some of its most progressive policies were cut or trimmed to win the support of centrists.

Still, the social spending bill — which Democrats call “Build Back Better” — would advance numerous priorities that progressives have been seeking for years, including expanding Medicare coverage to include hearing aids, allowing the federal government to negotiate some Medicare drug prices, implementing universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds and providing child-care subsidies for most Americans.

Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) called it “the most consequential legislation for American families since the New Deal,” promising that it will “overhaul and reimagine entire sectors of our economy and society so that everyone, not just those at the top, will benefit from a growing economy.”

But that overhaul — as well as the cost — has drawn strong rebukes from Republicans.

“This is an absolute disgrace,” Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.) said of the bill. He said some provisions being considered, such as paid family leave and reinstating part of the federal deduction on state and local taxes, would benefit the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. “It will change America as we know it.”

McCarthy said he thinks that the policy is so unpopular, Democrats could lose over 63 seats in next year’s midterm election if they enact it.

“For the first time in the country,” McCarthy said, previewing his party’s midterm election messaging, “this generation doesn’t believe they’ll be better off than the generation before them. This bill almost guarantees it. They’re guaranteed they’re going to have to pay more and get less.”

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His speech, which aroused support from his fellow Republicans, came as McCarthy was facing questions about his leadership from some members of his caucus, including allies of former President Trump like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, for not punishing members of his party who supported Biden’s infrastructure bill.

After passage in the House, the bill will go through a gantlet in the Senate, where it will likely be changed, perhaps significantly, to get the support of all 48 Senate Democrats and the two independents. House Democrats would then have to vote again, which could push final passage into late December.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the Senate would take up the bill as soon as technical preparations are completed.

Several policy issues remain unresolved and will need to be addressed before a Senate vote. After the House vote, Pelosi and other Democrats tried to play down the policy differences between the two chambers as the normal process of enacting sweeping legislation.

The Senate is expected to strip the House’s provision for four weeks of paid family and medical leave due to opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), a key centrist.

The House bill would provide deportation protection to immigrants who have been in the country illegally since before 2011 — a much less ambitious immigration policy than Democrats had hoped for. It is unclear whether the proposal can get through the Senate.

The bill is also expected to expand the federal deduction on state and local taxes — scaling back a Trump-era policy that has affected many Californians — but there is significant conflict between the House and Senate about how to do so.

The House plan would raise the so-called annual SALT cap from $10,000 to $80,000 through the end of the decade, and revert it back to $10,000 for one year in 2031. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) have a separate plan that would merely exempt people from a cap if their income falls under a certain amount, possibly $400,000.

But the idea of lifting the cap has already become a political cudgel for Republicans and even one Democrat, who say it is a reward for the wealthy. Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) opposed the bill because of the “SALT giveaway.”

Despite the unfinished business, House Democrats were eager to make a show of progress after weeks of uncertainty over Biden’s agenda. Moderates who held up a vote on the social spending bill two weeks ago as they awaited the final cost estimates quickly fell in line once the figures were released on Thursday.

Earlier this month, Democrats abandoned plans to keep the social spending bill tied to another effort — a measure to address the nation’s crumbling roads and bridges. Biden signed the infrastructure bill into law earlier this week after progressive Democrats relented on their insistence that the two bills be voted upon together.

Progressives said they would place their trust in Biden to deliver the vote in the Senate, where Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have already negotiated the bill down significantly from the $3.5-trillion plan Democrats once envisioned.

The political futures of both the president and congressional Democrats are tied up in the two pieces of legislation. Biden told congressional Democrats in a closed-door meeting last month that his presidency and their control of Congress may hinge on how the public views the measures. That thought took on even greater urgency as Democrats watched the Virginia gubernatorial election go for Republicans and as Biden’s approval ratings have fallen.

Democrats are already discussing an expansive campaign to sell the package and ensure that voters know it was Democrats who enacted the policies, some of which are expected to be popular.

In order to reduce costs, most of the policies would be in effect for only a few years. That would leave a future Congress — which could be run by Republicans — and White House with the question of whether to renew them or allow them to expire, setting the provisions up as 2024 presidential campaign issues.

The bill may also mark the last major legislative efforts for Pelosi, who said in 2018 that she would not serve as speaker beyond 2022. The universal pre-K and child-care provisions — as well as enhanced subsides in the Affordable Care Act — provide a capstone to her decades-long focus on children and universal healthcare. She rebuffed questions about her own political future on Friday morning, saying the day was not about her.

Other major pieces of the bill include a one-year extension of the monthly child tax credit, which the White House estimates would reach the parents of 90% of children in America. It would provide health coverage to low-income people in states that did not expand Medicaid under Obamacare, closing the so-called Medicaid coverage gap.

The bill also attempts to address homelessness by funding repairs to public housing and helping low-income people afford housing, although large cities with major public housing projects are more likely to benefit than a low-density public housing state like California.

Much of the bill would be funded through a higher tax on Americans who make more than $400,000 a year, plus an additional 5% tax for those making more than $10 million — a policy the White House estimates would apply to 0.02% of Americans. Large corporations would face a new 15% minimum tax on the profits they report to shareholders.

The Congressional Budget Office, which provides nonpartisan economic analyses for Congress, said the bill would add $160 billion to the deficit over a decade.

The White House has encouraged Democrats to use its own estimate of the savings from a new Internal Revenue Service policy, which the administration says would generate $400 billion in revenue, rather than the CBO’s $207-billion estimate. Under the White House estimate, the bill would reduce the deficit.

The IRS provision — the agency will get $80 billion over the decade to beef up enforcement of tax evasion — is controversial in more ways than one. Republicans predict that conservative groups and ordinary people will be more likely to have their taxes audited under the policy.

Democrats plan to pass the social spending bill through the Senate using a fast-track legislative process that prevents a GOP filibuster. But the process, called reconciliation, requires that all provisions adhere to Senate rules requiring that all provisions relate to the budget. The process of reviewing the bill for violations could result in more cuts or rewrites.

Democrats quickly found that even without Republicans, crafting the social spending bill was difficult and time-consuming. Disagreements between centrists and progressives bogged down the negotiations. Sinema and Manchin, who voiced concerns about the cost and expansiveness of the plan, became frequent guests at the White House to negotiate with Biden or his staff.

In a 50-50 split Senate, Democrats need every vote to pass the measure, giving Manchin and Sinema extraordinary leverage. Progressives faced pressure to give up many of their long-sought priorities or risk passing nothing at all.

Sinema objected to rolling back President Trump’s cut in the corporate tax rate and allowing Medicare to negotiate a full slate of drug prices.

Tuition-free community college fell by the wayside as the overall price tag was forced to come down.

Manchin rejected the Clean Electricity Performance Program, which would have encouraged utilities to increase their use of renewable energy through a combination of payments and fines.

The climate provisions that remain would invest about $500 billion into tax incentives and grants that would attempt to move the country away from fossil fuels. While supporters they say it is the most ambitious climate policy ever enacted, it has few competitors, and is far less expansive than they had originally envisioned.

In a comparison that causes unease among some moderates and fiscal hawks, many Democrats have likened the bill’s expansive scope and funding to legislation from the New Deal era.

Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) called the measure “an extraordinary investment, as the president says, a ‘generation-changing’ investment in the lives of average working men and women in this country, and their access to healthcare, their access to education and access to opportunity.”

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Original Article: latimes.com

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Why Mexico’s President Is Promoting a Recall Against Himself

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MEXICO CITY — 

Standing before hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters in downtown Mexico City’s central square, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador saved his most striking comment for the end of his speech.

He urged the Mexicans packed into the Zócalo to participate in an April referendum to decide whether they want to boot him from office more than two years early.

“None of, ‘They chose me for six years and I can do whatever I want,’” López Obrador said at the rally Wednesday to mark his midterm. “If one who governs is not up to the task and obeying the people, revoke their mandate and out!”

The president, 68, likely believes he has nothing to worry about.

Recent polls show that about two-thirds of the public approve of his performance since taking office in 2018 on a platform that promised a radical transformation of Mexican society to combat corruption and inequality and to roll back free-market economic policies.

Families and marching bands making their way to the Zócalo passed vendors hawking gray-haired López Obrador dolls and posters with the hashtag #QueSigaAMLO, or “may AMLO continue,” referring to the president by his initials. Many said they view a referendum, authorized by a 2019 constitutional reform spearheaded by the president, as proof of his honest character when compared to decades of presidents accused of corruption.

“AMLO is the first president that dares to put himself to the test before the people,” said Debanhi Andrea Garcia, 22, who drove 14 hours from the state of Nuevo León with her boyfriend. “Because he’s like that, we support him.”

Supporters of López Obrador hold banners in support of the president at Mexico City’s Zócalo.

(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

Mexicans have until Dec. 25 to sign a petition supporting the referendum, which can move forward only with the signatures of at least 3% of eligible voters, among other caveats.

So far, the initiative has received more than 703,000 signatures from Mexicans who have valid voting credentials, or 25% of the required total, according to the National Electoral Institute, an independent agency overseeing the process. (That tally includes signatures that will be discarded because they are duplicates or have other irregularities.)

Officially called the “revocation of mandate,” the measure follows other efforts by the president to increase citizen engagement in public policy. López Obrador has also backed referendums to decide whether former Mexican presidents should be prosecuted for alleged crimes, on the construction of a new airport near Mexico City and on the development of a tourism train line that would run through the Yucatan Peninsula.

“He does conceive his power as being a function of people reiterating their support actively,” said Francisco González, a professor of Latin American politics at Johns Hopkins University. “He wants it officially confirmed to give him that comfort of being the popular leader who is doing the right thing for Mexico.”

Since taking office, López Obrador has also expanded social welfare programs while introducing sharp austerity measures. He has halted renewable energy projects, promoted a constitutional reform to increase the country’s control of the electricity market, and given more power to the military — putting it in charge of projects such as the tourism train.

President López Obrador gives an address to mark the midpoint of his term.

(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

His critics say that he hasn’t done enough to reduce high levels of homicides, including many killings of women and attacks against journalists and public officials. Dozens of candidates across the country were assassinated ahead of last spring’s midterm elections for governorships and legislative and mayoral seats.

Critics also are concerned about López Obrador’s attacks against democratic agencies that could check his power, notably the National Electoral Institute. He has repeatedly disparaged the independent agency, which last May sanctioned him for making statements in at least 29 news conferences that it said could be considered government propaganda that could influence the midterm elections. In Mexico, such statements by public officials are generally barred during the election season.

But the president’s vision of transformational change continues to resonate among many voters who view him as a paternal figure. López Obrador is in constant dialogue with his electorate, holding press conferences every morning that last hours.

“The figure he has constructed of an honest man, an honorable man, an incorruptible man — that helps him in a society that is used to seeing terribly corrupt politicians,” said René Torres-Ruiz, a political scientist at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.

Even if enough signatures are gathered, hurdles to a referendum remain. The National Electoral Institute’s members have said that the agency doesn’t have the budget to carry out the vote and at least 40% of eligible voters must participate for the referendum to be binding. The referendum on former presidents last August fell far short of the 40% voting figure.

Ariadna Gomez, left, and another volunteer collect signatures for a referendum on whether Mexico’s president should continue.

(Leila Miller / Los Angeles Times)

Stephanie Brewer, the director for Mexico and migrant rights at the D.C.-based Washington Office on Latin America, said that winning a referendum would increase López Obrador’s perception that he could move forward freely with his agenda.

“What he wants is to come out of the vote, supposing there is one, politically strengthened with this renewed and amplified popular mandate,” she said.

Opposition parties have accused the president’s supporters of twisting the stated purpose of the referendum into a tool to promote López Obrador’s agenda. The 2019 reform called for a referendum to “revoke” a president’s mandate rather than “ratify” it and a complaint before the National Electoral Institute by the National Action Party referenced how volunteers have registered voters next to posters that advertise the referendum as a means of promoting the president rather than recalling him from office.

Luis Cházaro, a congressman from the Party of the Democratic Revolution, told The Times that the referendum “has been transformed into a promotional tool for the party.” He does not plan to participate.

In Coyoacán, a cobblestoned neighborhood in Mexico City known for Frida Kahlo’s home, volunteers last Sunday gathered signatures at a plaza in front of posters of the president that said “may AMLO continue.”

Ariana Garcia, a 24-year-old volunteer, said she uses the term “ratification” for people she senses like the president and “revocation” for those she thinks oppose him.

“People tell you, ‘But I don’t want my president to leave,’ so we tell them, ‘OK, then in this case you can ratify your support for the president,’” she said.

A supporter of López Obrador listens to his speech at a rally to commemorate the president’s midterm.

(Marco Ugarte/Associated Press)

Roberto Garcia, a systems engineer in Mexico City, said that he would vote against the president, uncomfortable that the federal government recently issued a decree that requires federal agencies to automatically approve infrastructure projects that are deemed to be of interest to the public or national security. He also sees the referendum as “a type of manipulation,” suspicious of why the president has contradicted the National Electoral Institute, saying it has enough funding to hold a vote he himself has fought for.

María de los Angeles Resendiz, a grandmother of 10 from the state of Mexico, will support López Obrador without hesitation.

Resendiz, 62, watches the president’s 7 a.m. news conferences each day with her husband while preparing breakfast and washing dishes. If she needs to skip one, she’ll track it down later on YouTube. She also listens to summaries in case she’s missed something.

Before López Obrador took power, Resendiz tried to stay as far away from politics as she could. She became disillusioned when she was a little girl after the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, in which soldiers killed as many as 300 people at a student protest in Mexico City.

She called López Obrador a “simple” man who has won her confidence with his anti-corruption platform. She eagerly described how his government has set money aside for youth job training and expanded welfare payments to the elderly.

“He’s given us back our dignity,” she said. “I am proud to say that I am Mexican and that he is my president.”

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Original Post: latimes.com

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Op-Ed: the U.S. Shouldn’t Ignore Mexico’s Ongoing Human Rights Catastrophe

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On Dec. 1, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador reached the halfway point of his six-year term. Since his election in 2018, López Obrador has not only failed to improve the country’s disastrous human rights record, he has worked to undo many of the hard-fought gains in transparency and the rule of law that rights groups, activists and campaigners have achieved since the end of one-party rule in Mexico in 2000.

The United States has been noticeably silent regarding the Mexican president’s accelerating attacks on democracy. President Biden has instead chosen to focus on enlisting López Obrador to prevent migrants from reaching the U.S. border.

López Obrador, a prominent anti-establishment figure in Mexican politics for decades, is the kind of populist leader that has become increasingly common in Latin America. He was democratically elected in a landslide on a promise to “transform” Mexico by taking back control of the country from the elites whose policies he blamed for economic inequality, social breakdown and growing violence.

López Obrador inherited a human rights catastrophe. When he came to office in 2018, 12 years of a military-led drug war had led to horrific abuses. Homicides hit staggering numbers. Thousands of people disappeared every year. But he has not addressed these problems. Soldiers continue to kill civilians. Homicides remain at historically high rates. And according to the government’s figures, more than 25,000 people have gone missing on his watch.

Even so, López Obrador has remained immensely popular with his base. He appears to believe that his continued popular support gives him the moral authority to concentrate as much power as possible in his own hands and to attempt to control every part of the state to bring about his promised transformation.

He labels anyone who criticizes him or stands in his way as a “neoliberal” or “conservative,” nebulous groups of supposed adversaries whom he describes as corrupt and morally bankrupt. Leveling this charge allows him to avoid responding to genuine concerns raised by journalists who question him, women’s rights campaigners upset at his lack of action on gender-based violence, Indigenous communities who oppose his megaprojects, environmentalists who disagree with his coal and oil-focused energy policy, and press freedom campaigners concerned about his government’s harassment of journalists, among others.

He has eliminated or proposed eliminating many government agencies not under his direct control, including the independent energy and telecommunications regulators, funds for protecting journalists and responding to climate change and natural disasters, the independent transparency agency and the independent electoral authority. He recently decreed that his government’s construction and infrastructure projects would be automatically granted permits without any review and that as matters of “national security,” would be exempted from transparency rules.

He has also gone after the judicial system, which has delayed or blocked a number of his projects and proposals as abusive or unconstitutional. His efforts to intimidate the judiciary have grown brazen. López Obrador has publicly singled out those whose rulings he dislikes and called for a judge who ruled against him to be investigated.

In April, his coalition in Congress passed a law — since overturned — to extend the term of the Supreme Court chief justice who has ruled in favor of the president. And in August, López Obrador held a referendum on whether the government should put five previous presidents on trial for alleged crimes such as “neoliberalism” and the “privatization of public goods.”

The U.S. policy of ignoring López Obrador’s attacks on the rule of law came into stark relief in June, when Vice President Kamala Harris visited Mexico and met with him. At the end of the trip, a journalist asked the vice president if the United States was concerned about López Obrador’s hostile attitude toward the media and civil society.

Harris initially responded that she had urged the Mexican president to respect the independence of the judicial system, the press and civil society. However, hours later, her spokesperson issued a correction to the Spanish wire service EFE, saying the vice president had been confused; she and the Mexican president had only discussed immigration and the economy, nothing else.

López Obrador will be in office for another three years. His coalition still controls both houses of Congress and he has made it clear that he is willing to amend the constitution if necessary to remove obstacles to achieving his goals. Unless the circumstances change, there are no signs he intends to alter his course.

José Miguel Vivanco is Americas director at Human Rights Watch. Tyler Mattiace is a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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Source: latimes.com

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Photos: As Roe Vs. Wade Challenged, Demonstrators Gather Outside Supreme Court

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Juanito Estevez, of Freeport, N.Y., holds a cross as he and abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

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Article: latimes.com

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