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The Joe Manchin of the House GOP?

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/6/2023 Leigh Ann Caldwell, Theodoric Meyer, Tobi Raji

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In today’s edition … Congress takes aim at Biden’s handling of balloon … Schumer works to keep Democrats united as debt ceiling talks begin … Americans aren’t feeling the impact of Biden’s agenda, poll finds … but first …

On the Hill

The Joe Manchin of the House GOP?

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) could be one of the more consequential House Republicans this Congress. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images) © Drew Angerer/Getty Images Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) could be one of the more consequential House Republicans this Congress. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Stop us if this sounds familiar.

A moderate lawmaker who is loyal to his party while maintaining a stubborn independent streak becomes a barometer of whether legislation can pass a chamber narrowly controlled by his party. The press closely focuses on where he stands or which way he’s leaning to determine if there is legislative trouble ahead or if a bill is ready to pass.

That’s the role Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) is playing in House Republicans’ new majority, in an echo of the one Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) played in the 50-50 Senate during President Biden’s first two years in office.

Let’s get this out of the way: The two situations aren’t identical, and Bacon, an Air Force veteran, has a long way to go before he achieves Manchin’s ubiquitous Hamlet status, which also earned Manchin scorn from his party. Also, Bacon doesn’t live on a house boat.

But the kind-of-moderate but more pragmatic Republican is shaping up to be one of the more consequential House Republicans. Like Manchin, he is not a creature of the party’s base, but he is key to determining which parts of its agenda can make progress when there are so few votes to spare.

When asked about the Manchin comparison, Bacon chuckled and said, “I don’t know if I compare myself with that or not.”

But he added, “I enjoy talking to him.”

‘Voice of reason’

Bacon’s emergence as a key player this Congress comes as Republicans have a slim four-seat majority (at full attendance) and as the far-right faction of the party is using its leverage to push an agenda sometimes with uncompromising tactics.

Bacon, whose district includes Omaha and some of its suburbs and who is one of 18 House Republicans who represent districts that Biden won in 2020, said he is positioning himself as the “voice of common sense.”

During a nearly hour-long interview, Bacon’s focus was about being the “voice of reason” and reaching across the aisle, but also about ensuring things get done, even when that involves challenging some elements in his party.

  • “We have so many folks that demand 100 percent and we get zero,” Bacon said. “We got to be realistic about how the system works.”

Bacon, who is starting his fourth term, said the fight to elect Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as House speaker last month was instructive. He said he insisted to like-minded pragmatists that they employ similar tactics as the far right, which he called the “chaos caucus” and the “Taliban 20.” He later apologized for that comment.

  • “I never been a guy that is ‘my way or the highway,’ that I demand, you know, hold things hostage, extort for our support,” Bacon said, referring to some members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus. But he added: “We had to help show that we had a stronger will power.”

Bacon’s impact so far

In the first few weeks of the Congress, Bacon has helped to stall some of the Freedom Caucus’s agenda.

Incensed that a border security bill and legislation to replace the income tax with a national sales tax — both of them controversial — seemed like they might bypass committee consideration and go straight to the floor after a speaker fight where some hard-right members demanded regular order, he urged McCarthy to send the bills to committee.

“You got to have a discussion about this,” Bacon said.

Bacon helped relaunch a group of moderate House Republicans during the last Congress, known as the Republican Main Street Caucus. He’s also a member of the moderate Republican Governance Group and belongs to the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, working closely with its co-chairs, Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.).

  • “I think you’ll see him front and center on a lot of the negotiations that are coming up on key critical issues like the debt ceiling,” Gottheimer said.

Bacon is conservative in his voting record, but he has broken with his party several times.

During the last Congress, he voted to certify the 2020 election results and was one of only 13 House Republicans who voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill. He also voted for Democratic immigration proposals, such as the Dream Act, and the same-sex marriage bill.

Bacon votes with House Republicans 89 percent of the time, according to the conservative Heritage Foundation, and he has said he would support a 15-week abortion ban.

Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), who represents a much redder district than his friend Bacon, said he expects Bacon to play the same role he always has: “Letting us know, who come from more conservative districts, what it’s going to take to make sure we maintain — not only get agendas passed in this majority, but also maintain the majority.”

A debt limit compromise

Bacon is already in the middle of conversations with a bipartisan group of members to forge a deal to lift the government borrowing limit this summer to avoid a debt default.

  • “I mean, we can maybe push us in the right direction, I think, but I think we got a lot of work to do,” Bacon said of his conversations.

Bacon said he would like to see an agreement where spending is kept under inflation, but he acknowledged that many workable ideas exist.

He also said he is open to collaborating with Democrats on a discharge petition — a mechanism Democrats are discussing to force a vote to lift the debt limit if McCarthy won’t bring a bill to do so to the floor — but not without concessions from Democrats.

“We’re willing to do a discharge petition if there’s a good-faith effort by Biden to compromise and to come up with a good solution,” he said, going further publicly than other Republicans.

At the White House

Congress takes aim at Biden’s handling of balloon

The balloon was shot down on Saturday. (Randall Hill/Reuters) © Randall Hill/Reuters The balloon was shot down on Saturday. (Randall Hill/Reuters)

Congress has a lot to say about the Biden administration’s handling of the suspected Chinese balloon that flew over the United States last week. 

  • A gang of eight briefing of Congressional leaders and top members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees on the balloon is expected later this week, most likely on Thursday, according to two people familiar with its planning. 
  • Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called for an all-senator briefing February 15. 
  • House Republicans are considering voting on a resolution criticizing President Biden’s handling of the balloon on Tuesday, ahead of the State of the Union, according to two senior Republican aides. 

The fallout continued over the weekend as Republicans condemned Beijing for testing American leadership, pressed the Biden administration to respond aggressively and blasted the administration for waiting until the balloon was over the Atlantic Ocean to shoot it down. 

  • Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio): Turner, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, called the administration’s decision to wait “sort of like tackling the quarterback after the game is over” in an interview on NBC News’s “Meet the Press.”
  • Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.): “It’s not just the balloon,” Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “It’s the message they are trying to send the world: ‘We can do whatever we want and America can’t stop us.’”

In the days since the balloon’s existence came to the surface, several themes have emerged: 

This isn’t the first time: “The Defense Department has notified Congress of several previous incursions of U.S. airspace by Chinese surveillance balloons, with earlier sightings near Texas, Florida, Hawaii and Guam,” our colleagues Dan Lamothe and Azi Paybarah report. Officials say some of the balloons were flown during the Trump administration, but those previous occurrences were discovered during the Biden administration. Intelligence officials are prepared to brief key Trump administration officials about the balloon program, an official said.

Communication issues: “The entire incident speaks volumes about how little Washington and Beijing communicate” and “raises the question of whether the United States failed to set a red line years ago about the balloon surveillance, essentially encouraging China to grow bolder and bolder,” the New York Times’s David E. Sanger writes

Retaliation? Not likely: The Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it “retains the right to respond further” after the balloon was shot down. But Beijing may be limited in how it responds. “China is in a very tight geopolitical spot,” Evan S. Medeiros, a professor of international politics at Georgetown University who served as President Barack Obama’s top adviser on Asia-Pacific affairs, told the New York Times’s Chris Buckley. “They were caught red handed with no place to go. And during a moment when they want to improve relations with many big powers, principally the U.S.”

On the Hill

Schumer works to keep Democrats united as debt ceiling talks begin

Schumer said he’s in lockstep with Biden. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post) © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post Schumer said he’s in lockstep with Biden. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Lessons of fiscal fights past: Our colleague Liz Goodwin sat down with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in his office last week to discuss his role in the debt ceiling negotiations. Here’s an excerpt: 

“Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer remembers when his predecessor, Harry M. Reid, received the news that then-Vice President Joe Biden had cut a legislative deal with GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell without him,” Liz writes.

  • “‘No one knew what Joe Biden was actually doing in the Senate,’ Schumer said about one twist in the series of fiscal negotiations between Democrats and Congressional Republicans that began in 2011 and eventually culminated in a government shutdown in 2013.”
  • “But Reid’s former deputy doesn’t see a danger of the Democratic White House going around him as another fiscal showdown looms, saying he and President Biden are in lockstep on messaging and tactics so far.”
  • “I don’t think the president will cut me out because we’re unified,” Schumer told Liz. 

Poll Watch

Americans aren’t feeling the impact of Biden’s agenda, poll finds

President Biden delivers a State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on March 1, 2022. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post President Biden delivers a State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on March 1, 2022.

From our colleagues Toluse Olorunnipa, Scott Clement and Emily Guskin: “Two years into a presidency that the White House casts as the most effective in modern history, Biden is set to deliver a State of the Union address Tuesday to a skeptical country with a majority of Americans saying they do not believe he has achieved much since taking office,” according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll released today.

“The poll finds that 62 percent of Americans think Biden has accomplished ‘not very much’ or ‘little or nothing’ during his presidency, while 36 percent say he has accomplished ‘a great deal’ or ‘a good amount.’ On many of Biden’s signature initiatives — from improving the country’s infrastructure to making electric vehicles more affordable to creating jobs — majorities of Americans say they do not believe he has made progress.”

What we're watching

On the Hill: It’s another light week on Capitol Hill. The Senate is set to confirm another judge, bringing the total number of judicial confirmations for the Biden administration to more than 100. 

Monday: The House will vote on a bill to end the vaccine mandate for international travelers. 

Now that Republicans are back in charge in the House, they have resumed intervention in Washington, D.C.'s governance. It’s a long tradition of conservative House Republicans attempting to thwart the District’s liberal policies. (They can do that because the Constitution gives Congress a say in D.C.'s affairs.)

This week, they’ll vote on bills that would bar “illegal aliens” from voting in local D.C. elections and block updates to the District’s criminal code, which Republicans say would lead to more crime. Read our colleagues Meagan Flynn and Michael Brice-Saddler for more. 

Tuesday: The president will deliver the State of the Union address. 

  • As we reported early last week, members of the Congressional Black Caucus are pushing Biden to focus on police reform. Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) has invited Michael Brown Sr., the father of Michael Brown Jr., 18, who was killed by police in Ferguson in 2014. Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) is bringing Tyre Nichols' parents. 
  • Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders will deliver the Republican response.

Wednesday: Senate Democrats and Republicans (separately) will hold their annual retreats. 

The House Oversight and Accountability Committee holds its first hearing alleging government suppression of Hunter Biden’s laptop story on social media. Three former Twitter executives will testify. 

At the White House: Biden is heading back to Washington from Camp David this morning with a packed week ahead of him.

After delivering the State of the Union address on Tuesday, Biden will head to Wisconsin on Wednesday, to build off his SOTU with a speech on the economy. He’ll be in Florida on Thursday to talk Social Security and Medicare. On Friday, he’ll meet governors in town for the National Governors Association’s winter meeting before sitting down with newly elected Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva at the White House.

The Media

Early reeeads

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From across the web: 


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Thanks for reading. You can also follow us on Twitter: @LACaldwellDC and @theodoricmeyer.


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