Renewing America Series: What to Expect From the Lame-Duck Congress

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Founder and Contributor, Cook Political Report; CFR Member 

Chief Congressional Correspondent, CNN

Anchor and Senior White House Correspondent, CNBC; CFR Term Member


Executive Director, Women and Politics Institute and Executive in Residence, Department of Government, American University; CFR Member

Our panelists discuss the current lame-duck session of Congress, including debates over the spending and the debt ceiling, additional funds for Ukraine, and reforms to the Electoral Count Act, among other competing priorities.

With its Renewing America initiative, CFR is evaluating nine critical domestic issues that shape the ability of the United States to navigate a demanding, competitive, and dangerous world.

MARTIN: Thank you so much and welcome, everybody, to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting, “What to Expect from the Lame-Duck Congress.”

I am Betsy Fischer Martin and I will be presiding over today’s discussion, and we are pleased to be joined by three top political reporters and analysts who will help us make a little bit more sense of this mad legislative dash happening in the Capitol while Democrats still control the House.

So with us, Charlie Cook is the founder and contributor now to the aptly-named Cook Political Report; Manu Raju is the chief congressional correspondent at CNN; and Kayla Tausche is the anchor and senior White House correspondent at CNBC.

So welcome, all of you, and I think maybe we’ll just dive in with the latest political news and take advantage of having Charlie here for that and ask Charlie to give us your takeaways from the runoff in Georgia.

COOK: Yeah. The runoff results were so much—they looked so much like what happened in November, which, you know, looked a whole lot like what happened back in January of 2021 in the Georgia runoffs there.

But it’s a very good illustration of what was going on nationwide. We had, you know, two parties that are evenly divided nationally and guess what, in Georgia they’re very evenly divided. We hear people leading into elections, you know, they always—become almost a cliché to talk about which side gets their base out.

Bases have been motivated since Donald Trump was elected in 2016, and to the extent that there was any base problem earlier this year, the Dobbs decision fixed that on the Democratic side.

So it comes down to a very, very, very small number of pure independents because neither side had many defections at all, and the end of the day although people were—there was a lot of anger at President Biden and Democrats but that anger was overwhelmed by a fear of where former President Trump and sort of the MAGA movement is going and when you look nationally Republicans as a group or sort of normal legacy Republicans looked fine. In fact, Republicans actually won the national popular vote by 3 million votes, by about 3 percentage points.

But it was in competitive races candidates that were clearly identified, associated, as Trump people, those are the ones that took a beating, and there was just an enormous candidate problem. So those two things and the abortion issue rendered a decision that was an outcome that was in the House, you know, very surprising and sort of eyebrow raising but not a shock in the Senate because we kind of, you know, knew that this was a possibility. It was on the range of, you know, expected outcomes of D plus one all the way to R plus two. So that wasn’t a surprise.

MARTIN: Right.

Manu, what were your thoughts on Georgia and also what are on the Hill now the practical implications in the next Congress from this plus one that the Democrats have now in the Senate?

RAJU: Well, just on the first part, you know, I spent yesterday just talking to Republicans up and down about the—why things were as bad for them as they were and they’re just—the reaction spanned the gamut.

You know, there were some concerns among top Republicans that they did not do a better job in picking and choosing their primary candidates. In other words, getting involved, trying to defeat the lackluster candidates, support the candidates that they think are more electable in the primaries, and that would have forced them to go up against Donald Trump.

And that was one of the lessons learned heading into the next midterms. You’re hearing the national Republican Senatorial Committee already signaling that they plan to take a more aggressive approach in the primary season.

Also, things such as mail-in voting, not embracing early voting. That was a huge thing that a lot of Republicans said this is a—Trump has demagogued this issue for the last several years and they’ve come back—came back to bite them. They keep seeing Democrats bank votes early and now they need to figure out a way to fix that.

And then you just hear a lot of consternation about Trump getting involved late in the campaign. John Thune, the number-two Republican, told me that Trump created a presence in the campaign that allowed Democrats to create a contrast late in the campaign season when they wanted to focus exclusively on Biden. Suddenly it was a choice between Biden and Trump, and that hurt them in some key races.

So Trump’s involvement picking these candidates and all that just became an issue that Republicans are going to continue to grapple with as they head into 2024.

In terms of the implications, adding one Senate seat—look, next Congress they’re not going to be able to legislate much at all because we are headed into a divided House, which is going to have a hard time passing much of anything, and then a very narrowly divided Senate. You still need sixty votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster, which very—which means, essentially, most legislation will go to die.

Now, if this were all Democratic control, that will be much different because they could pass legislation through the budget reconciliation process that allows them to pass bills along straight party lines, which they did on two major pieces of legislation this past year, the Inflation Reduction Act and the COVID relief law, and that’s what gave Joe Manchin that outsized power to demand what he wanted. An additional vote if they were to go that route would eliminate Manchin’s influence in some ways.

But they can’t go that route anymore because the Republicans have the House. They’re not going to do the budget reconciliation process. But the reason why it is very significant is you never know if there’s a Supreme Court vacancy or any other key nomination votes, and those do get approved along straight party lines in the Senate, and if one Democrat, say, Joe Manchin, who’s up for reelection in ’24, John Tester also up for reelection in a red state in Montana, what if they decide to go another way?

Chuck Schumer now has an extra vote to play with and that could be hugely significant on a big nomination vote like a Supreme Court nominee.

And then we’ll have to see. Future Congresses could be fifty/fifty. Future elections could be—come down to the wire with one vote, and having Raphael Warnock there for another six years could help them in the next couple of election cycles.

So it has long-term and short-term implications.

MARTIN: And, Kayla, let me bring you in here, too, on your vantage point covering the White House, your thoughts on Georgia, how the White House is feeling about that, and then, you know, what—just, you know, refer to as the nominees and, certainly, there are situations right now where there’s, you know, several ambassadorships that are still pending—I mean, India, Italy, Brazil. I mean, will this help move some of those nominees forward as well?

TAUSCHE: It will, and I think starting from a big picture standpoint, I mean, talking to White House officials back in July, even though inflation was a top concern for voters, even though there was general discontent about where the economy was, the White House really seized on this us versus them message.

If you were for Republicans then you were against social issues like a woman’s right to choose, and they really wanted to make the election about that, and they view the results in Georgia and just the ability of Democrats to hold the Senate and to avert, you know, the worst case red wave that they were preparing for in the House is really just a vindication of that.

I mean, normally, when voters are as discontented with a president in office as they were, according to polls with President Biden earlier in the year in the lead up to the election, you see a massive swing in the other direction, and the fact that that didn’t happen gives them some confidence going into these next couple of years in a lead up to 2024 as President Biden considers what he’s going to do about if the economy goes into a recession, if inflation sticks around for longer than, perhaps, economists once believed that it would, that they can still manage to get a message across that lands with voters. And so that’s really what they’re thinking right now.

I think the nomination question cannot be overstated here because normally you have massive defections from a Cabinet and from an administration after a midterm election regardless of who’s in office—

MARTIN: Right.

TAUSCHE: —just because the jobs are so demanding, they’re so grueling, and a lot of these jobs are viewed as things that people can only do for a limited amount of time. And so there was a view that if you had a vacancy at Treasury, if you had the Council of Economic Advisers chair, who’s expected to leave in the spring, you know, there were sort of plan A, plan B, plan C being evaluated at the White House based on the makeup of the Senate.

Do you need to put a more progressive economist—can you pass a more progressive economist in a role like CEA or do you need to go with someone more moderate?

Now they’re, basically, going with their plan A and saying our people can, by and large, get the votes that we need them to and they’re viewing that as a very good thing in advance of what’s expected to be a lot of potential vacancies perhaps not right at the beginning of the year but later on in 2023.

And then, I think, oversight is going to be a huge issue because there’s been a lot of talk about how once Republicans retake the chairmanships of the committees in the House that they’re going to be launching a wide variety of investigations into the Biden family, into the Biden administration.

But I think it’s safe to say that Democrats are planning something similar in the Senate. Now that they will have majorities in committees they will be able to issue subpoenas much more easily and I think that—what I’m hearing is that you can expect something of a tit for tat in the House and the Senate when it comes to some of these investigations that are being planned as well.

MARTIN: So moving over to the—this lame-duck, this mad dash here in the next couple of weeks, Manu, give us an overview from the Capitol of what has to pass in the lame duck and what else can catch a ride on some of this must-pass legislation.

RAJU: Yeah. I mean, just to put it very succinctly, it is a total mess right now, as it usually is in the lame duck. I mean, they put this upon themselves. They have—they’re supposed to pass the appropriations bills one by one—there are twelve appropriation bills funding all federal agencies—get them done by September 30th.

But what do they always do? They roll all of the twelve appropriations bills into one gigantic, massive omnibus bill and just trying to jam it through Congress in a matter of days and no one has a chance to read it other than the top appropriators in the House and the Senate and the leadership in the House and the Senate.

They’re the only ones who really have input in this process, and so it’s really an open question right now exactly what will get in there. It’s also an open question about whether or not they will pass a funding bill. They have a December 16th deadline to get legislation through to keep the government open.

Right now, the negotiations are not going well. They do not have an agreement on a top line dollar figure and there are whole sorts of issues that can hitch a ride to that. There’s the Electoral Count Act changes. Those, of course, were significant policy changes, just make some changes to the law to, essentially, prevent another effort to have the vice president try to overturn the electoral result as Trump tried to do on January 6th, among other issues, and the changes that they were looking to add that to the omnibus bill.

There are some—there’s $37 billion dollars in aid to Ukraine, so significant that they’re trying to agree to here and fold that into the overall spending package and there are a lot of policy issues that they’re still haggling on behind the scenes.

It’s unclear exactly what will get in, and this will have massive ramifications for the new Congress because Mitch McConnell earlier this week signaled that they may not be able to get a deal on a large-scale spending bill and they may have to punt and do a short-term Continuing Resolution kicking it into next year, and that will just be a bigger mess with Republicans and the narrow majority in the House.

Who knows if Kevin McCarthy will get the votes to become speaker? And even if he does get the votes, getting a spending package through with divisions in the House Republican Conference, getting Democrats on board, getting the Senate Democrats on board with enough Republicans aboard, getting Joe Biden on board, that’s going to be really, really complicated.

So the hope among senators is that they will pass this bill, get it done, and not worry about a funding fight till next fall. But the possibility remains that it gets kicked into next year. Right now at the moment it looks like there’ll be a one-week Continuing Resolution to keep the government open until December 23 and then they’ll just still try to haggle over the big bill. That’s what it looks like at the exact moment, and then we’ll see if they get this bill—

MARTIN: Right in the middle of the holidays, right?

RAJU: Exactly. They always—they ruin everyone’s holidays and this is a perennial issue. My family members—(inaudible)—me in December. I blame Congress.

But, you know, there’s—so they’ll have to deal with that, and then the National Defense Authorization bill, of course, they’ve passed this for more than a half century every single year. It authorizes spending programs across the military, increases troop—pay increases for troops. This proposal also nixes the vaccine mandate for the military, something Republicans had demanded.

It is likely to pass the House today even though there are some progressives who were pushing to change it. There are some members of the Congressional Black Caucus who wanted to try to add voting rights legislation to it, which doesn’t—not going to happen.

But it looks like it’ll pass the House today and then it should pass the Senate next week. So that’ll get done. Then we’ll see what they do about spending.

But those are pretty much—that should be the end of the road of this Congress. And, of course, today they’re also passing a bill to protect same-sex marriages. That passed the Senate last week. It will pass the House today and then Joe Biden will sign that into law.

MARTIN: Right. And that’s been, you know, this lame duck a success story in terms of when you think about, you know, bipartisan success, really, in terms of getting that bill passed with the twelve Republicans they’re joining, you know, every Dem in the Senate to get that supported, right?

RAJU: Yeah, no question about it. I mean, a sea change, too, in this view. I mean, two decades ago, I mean, you would not have expected this and, look, this bill what it would do is repeal the Clinton-era law, the Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to, essentially, deny recognizing other states’ same-sex marriages that they may have allowed.

And Bill Clinton signed that into law. Democrats supported that in Congress and, obviously, there’s been a sea change among Democrats, some Republicans, too.

So yeah, significant. They were able to get some changes. It does not set a national standard for allowing same-sex marriages. It denies—prevents states from denying another state’s legally valid marriage.

It also allows—you had some religious exemptions. It allows churches to sort of deny the performing of those same-sex marriages and not face repercussions of losing their tax exempt status.

So there’s some negotiation that had to happen to pass this. But still significant, given how these views have changed dramatically in the last couple decades.

MARTIN: And, Kayla, what are the priorities in the administration? I mean, Manu just outlined, you know, so many different potential pieces of legislation floating out there, priorities for some people.

What does the White House see—in addition to the must-pass bills, what do they see as a priority in the next couple of weeks?

TAUSCHE: Well, when the president met with the big four—the top congressional leaders in recent weeks, he made very clear his desire to get that big kahuna spending bill that Manu was just talking about. He wants that done. He does not want to punt this either to the holidays or to next year when Republicans are in charge of the House.

He really wants to get this done and so he’s been pressuring Democrats behind the scenes. I know Majority Leader Chuck Schumer talks to Ron Klain several times a day on this very issue of because they view this as sort of the hail Mary, the last-ditch effort to try to get their priorities across the board.

They want that Ukraine funding that Manu was just talking about. They also have requested about $10 billion dollars in aid to continue funding COVID testing and vaccines, which in this winter season with the tripledemic of flu, RSV, and COVID has been a very high priority for them.

Some sort of voting rights element is also a high priority for the White House, and whether it is just the elements of the Electoral Count Act or whether, you know, they will go to try to, you know, include more elements of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which does not have Republican support, remains to be seen.

And I’m told by officials who are involved in negotiations that they feel like they have, you know, at least three to five days before they know whether or not a deal is within reach. Certainly, there are some elements that Republicans want as well. They want extensions for favorable treatment for research and development for corporations. They’ve been lobbied very hard by the business community on that.

And on the tax front, Democrats also want to expand the child tax credit, an invention by the Clinton administration by an aide that is still currently working for President Biden, Gene Sperling, when he was Clinton’s top economic official in the late ’90s. They want to expand that.

That appears to be, you know, a one for one deal. It’s whether some of these other social elements are added on to the package and whether they can reach an agreement on top lines, which the top line spending number at this date remains about $26 billion of daylight between the two parties.

They feel like they still have a few more days. Of course, they always take this right up until the deadline.

MARTIN: Right.

TAUSCHE: But Democrats still really want to try to get this bill because the options for them are much dimmer the longer that you let this go.

MARTIN: Charlie, let me turn to you and I just wanted to pick up on—you know, Kayla and Manu both mentioned that Ukraine—U.S. aiding the Ukraine war effort and Biden calling on Congress to pass this—I think it’s 37 billion (dollars) in aid before that deadline—but there’s, like, there seems to be—and there was a new poll out last week that public opinion, especially among Republicans, shifting a bit on this aid.

How do you see the political dynamics at play, specifically, when we’re thinking about aid to Ukraine?

COOK: You know, as a general rule in this lame duck, you know, you ask what can happen and my answer is the lowest common denominator, you know.

MARTIN: Right.

COOK: What will everybody go along with, more or less, or all four—the leadership on all four corners, or at least three out of the four corners.

But in terms of Ukraine, it’s—given how incredibly partisan things have gotten it surprised me that support has stayed as high as it did and that Republicans—you know, certain kinds of—hung in there as long as they did.

But there’s a temptation to—for someone to oppose something just because the president of the other party is for it and I think we are seeing some along the edges because this is a heck of a lot of money going. I think we are seeing some fraying of support publicly and I think while Mitch McConnell is all in, you know, I think Kevin McCarthy, if he’s the speaker, he’s—I think he’s going to, basically, go whatever—sort of the Trumpian members of his conference whatever they want to do and, you know, I think they saw a different election result than what the rest of us saw and I don’t think they’re going to change their ways at all.

But I think that Ukraine is going to start being a lift—a heavier and heavier lift as it goes along, bottom line.

MARTIN: Manu, I want to get your thoughts specifically on the Ukraine bill, but also Charlie mentioned McCarthy and we may have thought the elections were over but they’re not, right, because you’ve got this leadership races and the—how much of some of these prospects are going to be shaped by McCarthy’s need to kind of placate those far-right elements of his caucus ahead of the speaker vote in early January?

RAJU: Yeah. This is a really delicate balancing act. Look, the view on Capitol Hill is that Kevin McCarthy wants the spending bill—the big spending bill to pass without his fingerprints. He’ll probably vote against it.

But he could get this mess off of his lap assuming he becomes speaker and not be seen as supporting it, and, you know, that goes for Ukraine aid, too, because he does not want to be seen as supporting it because that could hurt him with some of those elements on the right that he’s courting right now. Get that off of his lap, too.

If this big spending bill does not pass, I should just add, he probably will still try to pass the 37 billion (dollars) as a supplemental package and tie it to the stopgap resolution to keep the government open. So that is something to look out for. And then McCarthy will probably oppose it. But this isn’t around McCarthy.


RAJU: You know, his focus exclusively right now is getting the two hundred and eighteen votes to become speaker on January 3. That is all he cares about. He’s doing—taking all sorts of steps to show that he will take—be aggressive towards the Biden administration, that he will fight them, that he will push a very conservative agenda and it’s all aimed at that faction within the House Freedom Caucus who are threatening to vote against him on January 3, and it’s a serious threat. Right now—

MARTIN: Right. Right. Isn’t it, like, four, that have come out—Republicans so far and said that they’re not going to vote for—

RAJU: Yeah. So—yes, there are four and, you know, there are probably maybe five even and maybe even more. They’re the people who are in four, including Bob Good of Virginia has told me repeatedly there are more people. He thinks there are twenty or thirty. We’ll see. A lot of this is determined by negotiation.

But he can’t lose more than four. There are two hundred and twenty-two seats in the new House for Republicans. They need two hundred and eighteen votes to become speaker and that’s a real math problem because he’s facing up against a conservative challenger, Andy Biggs, who won thirty-one votes during—when he lost the internal race to be nominated to become speaker last month.

So that is the real challenge for Kevin McCarthy right now. So, behind the scenes, he’s trying to placate them, negotiate, give them key committee assignments, all of the favors that he can dole out, perhaps, make some changes to the rules to give them more power.

One of the things to look out for is the demand among the right to, essentially, wield a sword over his head and the new Congress, what’s called vacate the chair. Give them more power to oust a sitting speaker by calling up a vote—a no confidence vote of sorts—and then that could, essentially, kick McCarthy or the speaker out at any given moment, assuming one member wants to call up that vote.

That is something Nancy—a rule Nancy Pelosi changed after conservatives, essentially, threatened to use that against John Boehner that led to his resignation. McCarthy does not want to give the Freedom Caucus that power over him. But he may have to because of the fact that right now he is struggling to get the votes.

So all those negotiations are happening behind the scenes. They’re going to pick up up until January 3rd when, if it goes to multiple ballots and he doesn’t get two hundred and eighteen the first time he can go to a second ballot, a third ballot, and that—multiple ballots hasn’t happened since 1923.

So, you know, it will be really—it could be a high drama moment and, really, no one really knows what, ultimately, will happen if McCarthy can’t get the votes.

MARTIN: Kayla, you know, thinking about the economy and, you know, what—you know, the bargaining and the things that are going back and forth and leadership drama every which way, the dynamics in Congress, how could they complicate sort of a response to a recession? For example, when you think about House Republicans demanding the spending cuts, how did that all play when we think about the economy and the importance of keeping the economy on track?

TAUSCHE: Well, it’s of huge importance and Republicans, as you say, have already said that they will not write blank checks to Ukraine. They will not be willing to issue the type of fiscal response that they did, say, in 2020 with the CARES Act when the Treasury secretary went to the Hill and said unemployment could reach 20 percent—we have to do as much as we possibly can—and trillions of dollars flowed from there.

Republicans have said that absolutely will not happen again, and so I think the question remains when could a potential recession happen at this point. No matter what survey you look at, a hundred percent of CEOs say that they expect some form of recession, mild or otherwise, by the end of 2023, and if it is mild what type of fiscal response is even necessary?

Are there other levers that lawmakers and the administration can pull or the Federal Reserve can pull to try to unleash a response without needing, you know, the big checks that they’ve had in the past?

I think there are two questions on a policy front in terms of, you know, what could, potentially, cause a recession or avert a recession. In terms of causing a recession, the debt ceiling is going to be the big priority next year.

I mean, the administration has suggested that, you know, they have probably until the middle of the year, although some economists say maybe it would come in the first—at the end of the first quarter, before they really need to address the question of whether they can pay the bill.

The administration believes that they could, essentially, do a repeat of 2021 where Republicans are talking a big game about needing these massive and deep spending cuts in order to authorize an increase in the debt but then when it really comes down to it they’re not willing to put in question the full faith and credit of the United States. That’s where the White House is right now.

But it remains to be seen what the economy looks like when they reach that moment and what else then becomes on the table because we’ve seen in the past much more drama around raising the debt ceiling, and if Republicans feel like the Democrats are flat footed then they could ask for much more.

In terms of averting a potential recession, I keep hearing about immigration reform. Yes, it’s been elusive in the past. But, at this point, you have visa applications and processing reaching or exceeding, in some cases, pre-pandemic highs—a 40 percent increase in visas for agricultural workers, a hundred and forty-five percent increases in visas for health care workers.

And, you know, Democrats are looking at this as a way to, potentially, ease inflation. You get more workers into the economy. They’re producing more things. The cost of goods ends up going down.

And while you might think conventional wisdom would tell you that Republicans would not be on board for fixing inflation or reducing the traffic and apprehensions at the southern border because it’s been such a strong message for them, you also have the fact that there are many big industries that have simply not been able to access the workers they need to get their business done.

And so when they pick up the phone and they call members of Congress and they call Republicans, in particular, and they threaten their donations in 2024 over this issue, you could see the scales tipping toward, you know, some sort of deal being brokered at some point in this Congress.

MARTIN: Well, we are at halftime in our discussion so this is the time that we would like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions.

Just a reminder that the meeting is on the record and the operator, otherwise known as Sam, will remind you how to join the question queue.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question will be from Edward Cox.

Q: Yeah.

Charlie, I’d like to have your comments on the disappearance of the big red wave that we all expected. We had our own little one here in New York but, nationally, it didn’t happen and particularly on the economic factors underneath, the fact that we went from zero growth in two quarters to 3 percent growth, the fact that the price of gasoline was going down because oil—the price of oil was going down.

So people felt, yeah, while inflation was hurting them it was going in the right direction and how much those—you know, it’s the economy, stupid. What did those factors lean on the—deadening the red wave?

COOK: Sure. When we talked about six weeks ago, I—well, I never used the term wave and, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t hear anybody else using the term wave before Election Day. There were good reasons to believe that Democrats were going to have a very challenging election, and it wasn’t just history. It was the president’s approval rating. It was the attitudes towards the economy.

I mean, it was layer after layer after layer were there. And that we knew that abortion was—be a(n) issue. We knew that. Did we understate it a little bit? Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Did we overstate the importance of inflation? Yeah, I think we did a little bit.

But, I think, the candidate thing we knew that but because Americans have been voting so parliamentary in recent years that candidate quality, quite frankly, had started meaning a lot less.

But you also had regional things. For example, in New York State, the whole cash bail thing that was a huge, huge issue there and, actually, I would say crime had an impact on the Wisconsin Senate race as well. So you had sort of pockets where things were different than other places.

But, you know, the fact that Republicans got the votes they needed, they just didn’t get them where they needed them, you know, where they sort of joined a club with Al Gore and Hillary Clinton.

But the normal run of the mill, you know, legacy Republicans they actually did fine. But it’s these other guys that had horrible—you know, that had problems and where, I think, people were afraid—they were angry at Biden but they were afraid of what Trump and the MAGA people would do.

TAUSCHE: And I’ll also just add, on the economic element there was a key disparity underneath some of the polling that I know was the source of confidence for the president’s political team and that is that, generally, there was dissatisfaction about where the economy was headed and inflation overall but when you asked people about their personal finances, because the job market was so strong they still felt really good about their own personal job security.

They felt good about their ability to find another job and they felt optimistic about their own personal finances even as they acknowledged that the cost of everyday goods was going up.

So the fact that people at a very personal individual level still felt generally OK even though when they watched the news and they saw the headlines about where things were going they felt it was going in a bad direction but that wasn’t really felt by them at a personal level.

MARTIN: OK. Next question.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Leslie Samuels.

Ms. Samuels, if you can unmute yourself.

(No response.)

We seem to be having technical difficulties with her. So we’ll take our next question from Fred Hochberg.

Q: Hi, Charlie. Hi, Betsy. Question—

MARTIN: Hi, Fred.

Q: A number of Republicans have vied to be chair of Ways and Means. They’re talking about trade promotion authority. The president can negotiate trade deals. The White House doesn’t seem terribly interested.

Is this going to be an agenda for the next two years or is it just a lot of flag waving and motions?

COOK: I don’t see a lot. Well, I’ll defer to the more policy-oriented substance people on the call.

But I think China is—I don’t think big trade issues are going to happen, for the most part. But I think China is going to be a dominant topic and not necessarily on policy. But, you know, this is where you have the far left and the far right coming around and meeting each other and both pushing—you know, playing the China card in terms of getting their base all wrapped up.

But, you know, any company or Wall Street firm that’s doing any new investment or current investment in China they are at risk of being said to be, you know, investing in the Chinese Communist Party, and I think it’s going to be yet another, you know, sort of new source of demagoguery that’s going to be out there and that—I think that’s going to chew up a lot of hot air but not really any policy change.

RAJU: Yeah. And, you know, I think on the issue of trade, that is—it’s not as cut and dried for Republicans as it used to be like under the Bush years. Now we have seen a lot of these Republicans align themself where Trump was on this issue.

So, you know, this—if the Republicans in the House wanted to advance trade promotion authority, if there was a deal that they needed to get approved, that is going to be incredibly complicated. So I would have a hard time seeing that as being a big part of the agenda, going forward, regardless of who ends up chairing Ways and Means.

TAUSCHE: And I would just add on that, I mean, even if there were a push to reinstitute trade promotion authority, that’s not to say that there would actually be any deals that get done underneath that authority because remember, even in the first half of the first year of the Biden administration you had six months where that existed and there was a lot of talk about a potential bilateral trade deal between the U.S. and the U.K. happening during that time, and it didn’t. It, simply, wasn’t a priority.

I think that there’s also been a viewpoint from the U.S. Trade Representative at this stage in the game where free trade deals are not something that works for this administration.

Now, if you saw a change in personnel at USTR and there were a more moderate ambassador in that role then, perhaps, the conversation could change a little bit.

But, I mean, given what Manu was talking about, you know, the nuances within the Republican Party on the Hill and then just it not being a direction that the Biden administration wants to go, it feels pretty difficult to see that getting done.

MARTIN: OK. Next question.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Robert Dilenschneider.

Mr. Dilenschneider, if you can unmute yourself.

Q: Charlie, thank you very much. You’ve always been the best and we should always listen to you at all times.

My question is about Donald Trump. I believe over five hundred of the candidates for very different offices—governors, House people—that Trump supported one. What does that mean for Trump in 2024? Will he run? Will he be elected? Can he beat whoever the Democrats put up?

COOK: Well, I think that number was about winning Republican primaries and I think that—you know, that was probably true or close or whatever.

But when you look at the—at key Senate races, when you look at key gubernatorial races, secretary of state races, the Trump—you know, his—the endorsed or aligned with candidates did not do well at all and they were, you know, rejected on, you know, almost every level.

So I think that there was a very clear delineation in a lot of these pure independents’ minds between a—the MAGA Trump party and the other Republican Party. They didn’t seem to have much of a beef with the other party but the MAGA folks did not have a good night. They really didn’t, and I think that with where things are going I think there will be a disincentive for more to go that route in the future.

RAJU: Yeah. I mean, it’s just so early to say what his prospects are going to be like, given the fact that he’s—all these investigations that he’s facing right now are incredibly serious and could lead to an indictment, you know, whether it’s the Mar-a-Lago case or the Justice Department’s—and the special counsel also looking into the January 6th situation, the Georgia investigation, what’s happening in New York. I mean, the problems for him go on and on and on.

Now, what does that mean for him politically? You know, he, of course, will try to spin it and say that this is a—he’s a victim and maybe that can rile up some elements in his base.

But you are seeing some real concern within the party and among rank and file Republican voters about the fact that they don’t believe he can win and that is going to be his biggest challenge in selling to his voters. You know, he’ll still have that same contingent of voters that will be unflinching in their loyalty.

But there will be others in the Republican base who are concerned that—they saw what happened in 2022. They saw him losing in 2020. They saw what happened 2018—they lost the House—and that he could lose again in 2024, and that is going to be his real challenge, going forward.

Even Lindsey Graham, who is one of his, of course, closest allies told me yesterday that he’s—Trump has to prove to folks that he can win because right now a lot of people don’t believe that and that’s going to be a huge hurdle for him.

But if there’s a big field, a splintered field, maybe that, ultimately, helps him because he can win with a plurality of votes.

COOK: But I think—I think the president—

MARTIN: Yeah. I mean, the loser stamp on him is significant, right, Manu?

RAJU: Yeah. No question about that. That’s the—that may be even bigger than, you know, anything that he—all the controversies that he has endured for Republican voters.

MARTIN: Go ahead, Charlie. Sorry.

COOK: I didn’t address the second half of Bob’s question.


COOK: The thing is that the Republican—he’s got 35 or so percent of the party of the, you know, primary voters that are going to be with him no matter what, and there’s 10 (percent), 15 percent that are either Never Trumpers—or call it 20 (percent)—either Never Trumpers or are over him.

They’ve moved on, and that leaves the pool that are—you know, they voted for him twice. They approved of the job. They agree with him on most things. But they’re—they have doubts about whether he’s the right way to go or not.

But the key is that the Republican delegate selection procedure is—it’s not entirely winner take all but almost entirely winner take all so that if it was a two-way race somebody could beat him.

But the more alternatives to or more non/anti-Trump candidates are in that the harder and harder and harder it is to beat him, you know, if he stays in the race and goes the distance. I’m still kind of skeptical whether he goes the distance.

But, you know, if I were him I’d be more worried about, you know, staying out of jail and keeping my company from going belly up. But, you know, nobody ever accused him of acting like, you know, the way a lot of us would handle something like this.

TAUSCHE: There’s also a quality versus quantity argument that’s being made in the aftermath of the midterms.

I mean, the big numbers make the headlines and, certainly, the former president himself touched on that when he announced his intent to run in 2024 on November 15th and he talked about how—you know, his record of endorsements. He had two hundred and thirty-two wins and twenty-two losses.

But almost immediately after he said that you have Mick Mulvaney, his former acting chief of staff, tweeting the losses included Senate races in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada, and New Hampshire and governors in some of those states as well. The wins included a dog catcher in Pahrump, Nevada. It’s not the same thing and people know it.

So, you know, there is this wheat from the chaff thing happening right now where, you know, the president wants to—the former president wants to focus on just the sheer volume while, you know, you’re going to have strategists picking apart, you know, exactly what some of these districts look like and how they may have been turning in recent years against the MAGA movement themself.

MARTIN: Well, and, Kayla, let me just pick up. You know, when we’re talking about Trump the White House must be watching all of this very carefully, and how does some of this play into the president’s decision to run again or not run again?

TAUSCHE: Well, the president is huddling with his top advisors, his family members, and he said that he has an intention to make a decision in the coming weeks. Of course, you know, that could be six weeks. It could be twelve weeks. The coming weeks is a pretty wide window.

That being said, I mean, the former president does figure, you know, pretty prominently in that decision because if there will be another Republican running instead of former President Trump, then I think it’s probably easier for President Biden to cede the reins to the next generation of Democrats and let someone else take the mantle on that campaign.

If it’s, essentially, just a refrain of 2020—and President Biden feels very strongly about the fact that he already beat him once. He beat him with a record number of votes being cast during the middle of the pandemic and, despite all of the headwinds for the administration, he still believes that very strongly.

And so I think even though publicly they will say it doesn’t matter—you know, it doesn’t matter who’s running—it does when it actually comes down to the conversation and the fact that voters have already had their say on that matchup once, and President Biden believes that he would have a strong hand going into that again.

MARTIN: Charlie, I will note that you’re coming to us today from Iowa—

COOK: Yeah.

MARTIN: —and you mentioned the primary calendar. So give us a sense—if we do see President Biden deciding not to run again, there’s been a shakeup of the primary calendar on the Democratic side. What do we know about that, and then do we expect to see changes on the Republican side as well?

COOK: Well, first, just to echo what Kayla said, there’s—I think President Biden probably thinks, I’m the only Democrat that has beaten him. I’m the only one that can, and so he has an obligation to run almost if Trump appears likely to be the nominee. But he gets—he can get a pass if he doesn’t. So I agree with that completely.

You know, here in Iowa there’s just sort of a resignation that, well, we had a great run. (Laughter.) You know, they knew that the caucus was on thin ice, but the count really screwed things up. And also, when you have a president that has run for president three times and was never treated well in Iowa, came in fourth in the last one, he has no love lost for Iowa or New Hampshire in his mind.

MARTIN: Right.

COOK: And he runs the DNC. So I think a combination of those factors.

But the thing is that I’m surprised the DNC did not check out with the Georgia legislature and secretary of state’s office, all that, that they can’t—you know, they can’t move up unless the state goes along with it.

And then there’s New Hampshire where, you know, the secretary of state is authorized. They could have the New Hampshire primary on President’s Day, you know, two months from—three months from now. I mean, they can do anything they want.

And so they’ve taken on a pretty big one, but I think we are going to have a rearranged calendar but I wouldn’t—if I were running for president, I wouldn’t dis New Hampshire just yet because I don’t think they’re out of this, and I’m not sure Georgia is going to move up the way the DNC wanted them to.

MARTIN: Manu, do you want to weigh in on any of the 2024?

RAJU: I mean, I think the—I echo what both Charlie and Kayla said about Biden, and it’s interesting, you know, in talking to just a lot of the Democrats about the—Biden. I mean, the last year, this year, middle of the year, when things looked so bad for the party, talking to so many Democrats, they did not want him to run.

A lot of them still don’t want him to run. But there are fewer who don’t want him to run because they—things turned out better for them than they thought.

So there are a lot of them that I’m speaking to now are giving him space, are not saying he should get out of the race or he should not run. They’re saying that he will—you know, they’ll support him if he does.

So I think that he probably would have a clearer field if he were to jump in maybe. So I have a hard time seeing anyone challenging him—a serious challenger, if he were to run. But if he decides not to then it’s going to be—I mean, everybody is going to jump into this race. It is going to be an absolute mess, and that if South Carolina is the first state here that could—that will change the whole strategy of campaigning, which will be fascinating to see.

MARTIN: Exactly. We do have time for a few more questions. So, just a reminder, if any member has a question to please raise your hand.

Sam, do we have any other questions in the queue?

OPERATOR: We do. Our next question is from Peter Galbraith.

Q: Thank you for a very interesting analysis.

As you know, the Supreme Court yesterday heard arguments in Moore v. Harper, which they seem—seems quite possible, maybe likely, that they will uphold this so-called independent state legislature theory. Well, whatever. Let’s assume they do, and this is really to you, Charlie. And in that case then the decision would be that legislate—that courts and, presumably, nonpartisan commissions don’t do redistricting.

If that might enable the Republicans to pick up a seat in North Carolina but in New York, where the Republicans picked up three seats, presumably it goes back to the legislature. It would go to the legislature in California.

And so I’m wondering if the—if Republicans win this case, if the Republican Supreme Court members decide as they do many cases on a partisan basis, do you—how many seats do you think the Democrats might net from such a decision?

COOK: Well, first, a disclaimer. I’m not a lawyer and, you know, I didn’t sit in on the hearing yesterday. I got the impression that at least three of the conservative justices expressed considerable doubt about whether, you know, this would be a good idea. And so my assumption is it’s not going to happen.

But in terms of—it would be consistent where—you know, the court has ruled—has almost washed its hands about partisan gerrymandering, at least on the federal court side and so, you know, it’d, basically, be wild West if this thing—you know, if they did rule in favor of North Carolina, for example, it would be, you know, Katie bar the door. States could do whatever the hell they wanted and there’s not much oversight.

I don’t—I think that’s a bridge too far. I don’t think the court is going to go along with that. So I think they’re going to draw a line, you know, somewhere on this side of allowing legislatures just to have free rein to do whatever the heck they wanted regardless of the consequences.

But, again, I’m not a lawyer.

MARTIN: Kayla or Manu, either if you want to jump in on that?

RAJU: No, I’m good there. I think that’s the right amount. (Laughter.)

MARTIN: OK. Sam, do we have any other questions?

OPERATOR: We do. Our next question will be from Jeffrey Laurenti.

MARTIN: Great.

Q: Hi there. A year and a half ago when the Afghan final events occurred it took a big hit on President Biden’s credibility and approval rating and, yet, it seems to have disappeared from public consciousness, although Republicans in the House seem to be saying that they intend to dredge this up as a major topic of investigation.

What do you all see as the political salience of a retrospective on Afghanistan and how would it affect the congressional process, going forward? And let me couple that with what do you see the congressional and administration responses to the emergence of a very hard right government in Israel, which has traditionally had—punched much higher in American politics than most foreign policy issues?

COOK: Well, first, I agree with your premise that Afghanistan just had no effect whatsoever on the outcome. But that was the initial thread that got pulled, and when Biden’s approval rating started unraveling it started with Afghanistan in the middle of that summer of 2021.

But I think, you know, once again, unless there are U.S. casualties involved in a significant number, you know, Americans just don’t vote on foreign policy issues and—you know, and Ukraine had no impact on the election and, quite frankly, I don’t think Afghanistan did either.

But I think for Republicans for the purposes of—the nice word would be oversight, the other word would be towel snapping and harassment, oh, I think it would be a great topic for them to use to try to embarrass the hell out of the president and the administration, and I fully expect them to do it.

But it would be more partisan oriented rather than a discussion of—a serious discussion of the decision-making process and, you know, what would or should—what what they should or shouldn’t have done and how they should or shouldn’t have done it. I think it will be just more partisan attack.

RAJU: Yeah. I would agree with—

TAUSCHE: Before Manu talks about the congressional outcome there, I think I—if I could just offer a little commentary on why I think it hasn’t mattered as much in the last year, and I think that the situation in Ukraine has overshadowed the national memory on Afghanistan.

I mean, after an interview that the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, did on Afghanistan where there were comparisons being drawn to the fall of Saigon and the evacuation by helicopter there was also, you know, a lot of discussion over whether Sullivan would be replaced, whether he would be able to survive just how supremely the administration had botched that withdrawal.

And part of the issue internally in the administration was that they had a lot of intelligence that informed their decisions, for instance, not to keep an Air Force base open for a longer period of time and to stage the withdrawal in the way that they did.

But the public didn’t know about that and so there was a shift toward radical declassification of intelligence in Ukraine to, essentially, bring the public in to what the administration knows and that was a hundred and eighty-degree shift from the way that they had handled Afghanistan, and it meant that public opinion was really behind the Biden administration on the way that they were handling Ukraine.

Now, some of that support has, obviously, deteriorated in recent months. But it salvaged Sullivan’s job. It restored the reputation of the Biden administration on the world stage, and I think that that really contributes to the fact that—you know, that Afghanistan isn’t talked about in the way that it was back in 2021.

RAJU: Yeah. Just to add quickly, I mean, the House Armed Services Committee, among other committees, plan to investigate, hold new hearings about Afghanistan. They contend there has not been adequate oversight of the problems there.

You know, this is all clear and, obviously, an issue—an effort to go after President Biden’s credibility, which, of course, as Charlie noted, took a hit and has not fully recovered since last summer, and to continue that, going forward.

That’s just going to be one of a number of investigative plans for the new House Republican majority and they could—we’ll see what they—how successful they are in getting the information they are seeking.

They, of course, have unilateral subpoena power and they certainly plan to use it. But it is a big part of Kevin McCarthy as the new speaker, his focus for the Republican majority.

MARTIN: Yeah. Manu, what other oversight investigations might we see coming our way?

RAJU: Yeah. There’s a lot. I mean, there’s—and one of the big things that we’ll be watching is how aggressively they go after Joe Biden’s family.

MARTIN: Right.

RAJU: That has already been previewed in the week after—days after the House Republican majority was called James Comer, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, along with Jim Jordan, the Judiciary Committee chairman, announced that they plan to go after foreign business dealings involving Hunter Biden. They say this is an investigation into the president himself.

So we’ll see what they, ultimately, find out and what they decide to do with that. We expect a lot of focus on immigration, you know, at the border and Mayorkas is a big focus—Alejandro Mayorkas. Kevin McCarthy, as he pursues the speakership, has already contended that if Mayorkas doesn’t resign that they may move to impeach him and that was—we’ll see how that continues to play out.

And then they say they want to investigate the origins of the—of COVID-19. That is another focus. But McCarthy this week laid out an investigative roadmap and that’s all in an effort to show how aggressive they plan to use their majority and also to placate those on the right who are skeptical of him.

MARTIN: And, Kayla, quickly, how do you—what is the sense that you get in the White House of how they’re getting ready to respond to some of this? Who’s going to run point on some of these investigations, especially the ones that Manu referenced with, you know, looking into Biden’s family?

TAUSCHE: Yeah. Well, it’s going to come out of the White House counsel’s office and I think that they have had an issue with recruitment as there’s been some attrition from that office because, you know, there are many career officials and attorneys from the Department of Justice who would, you know, in another environment be rotating into those jobs and it’s a really hard sell to say, hey, come here and just be responding to subpoenas for the next two years.

So I think they’re trying to staff up in the counsel’s office. It’s been difficult for them. But that’s, certainly, where the responses would come from.

MARTIN: Well, I don’t want to end up going over, God forbid, on a CFR event, so I’m going to close it one minute early just in case. (Laughs.)

So I did want to thank you all for joining today’s virtual meeting and, of course, thank you to our panel—Charlie, Manu, and Kayla. Thank you all for being with us. And I also want to note that video and a transcript of today’s meeting is going to be posted on the CFR website.

So hope everyone has a great rest of the day. Thank you.




Top Stories on CFR

Genocide and Mass Atrocities

Thirty years ago, Rwanda’s government began a campaign to eradicate the country’s largest minority group. In just one hundred days in 1994, roving militias killed around eight hundred thousand people. Would-be killers were incited to violence by the radio, which encouraged extremists to take to the streets with machetes. The United Nations stood by amid the bloodshed, and many foreign governments, including the United States, declined to intervene before it was too late. What got in the way of humanitarian intervention? And as violent conflict now rages at a clip unseen since then, can the international community learn from the mistakes of its past?


The IMF and World Bank’s spring meetings will focus on the prospects for a soft landing after years of global economic turbulence. But major challenges remain, including growing climate finance needs and persistently high global debt levels.

South Korea

The center-left Democratic Party added to its legislative majority after the recent parliamentary election, which would deal a blow to President Yoon Suk Yeol’s domestic reform agenda and possibly his efforts to improve ties with Japan.