17 US Missionaries, Families Kidnapped in Haiti

A group of 17 U.S. missionaries including children was kidnapped by a gang in Haiti on Saturday, according to a voice message sent to various religious missions by an organization with direct knowledge of the incident.The missionaries were on their way home from building an…

Social Security Increases Accelerate Insolvency Timeline

The Social Security Administration’s plans to increase recipients’ benefits by 5.9% next year could lead the Social Security Trust fund to run out of money by 2032, one year ahead of previous estimates, according to the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Is Biden Doing Enough to Protect Democracy?

As a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer in the early 2000s, I once received a call from a couple of Republican campaign operatives who said they had something to show me. We met at their office in Washington, D.C., a few days later. They presented printouts of recent election records and pointed to a few cases of what they suspected were people voting illegally. One after another, their examples of voter fraud turned out to be nothing. They had flagged, for instance, a voter named John Smith who might have cast ballots on the same day in two different precincts­—discounting the possibility that more than one person named John Smith might be living in the region. Their motivation was obvious enough: They were attempting to plant stories that would delegitimize elections that the GOP risked losing. It didn’t work.

With the rising bloc of younger, more diverse voters who skew left, Republican efforts like this in recent years have mushroomed into a full-blown campaign, undercutting the bedrock notion that American voters are the ones who decide elections. Whether GOP-controlled states are drawing new district lines that would disenfranchise Hispanic and Black voters for the next 10 years or “auditing” 2020 election results that have already shown that Donald Trump lost, the goal is the same: By any means necessary, win.

Fiona Hill worked on Trump’s National Security Council and later provided compelling testimony in his first impeachment trial. I asked her if she feared for democracy’s future should Trump win again. “We’re already there,” she told me. “I’m worried about it now. Millions of people are showing they don’t want any criticism of Trump. Democracy is becoming a dirty word, something that’s anti-Trump.”

“These are direct assaults on the basic underpinnings of the democratic system,” Wendy Weiser, who directs the Brennan Center for Justice’s democracy program, told me. This year, 19 states have passed 33 laws creating obstacles to the most fundamental American right, part of a “multipronged effort to sabotage elections,” she added. As the 2022 midterm elections approach, and with the 2024 presidential election not far behind, Democrats believe that President Joe Biden needs to fiercely combat the illiberal forces at work this very second in the country. And those fearing the loss of a two-century tradition of self-government in America are asking, with a hint of desperation, Where is he?

[Read: Why Biden is patient as Democrats panic]

Certainly, Biden has been busy. He’s struggling to pass a historic multitrillion-dollar economic plan that he seems determined to make the centerpiece of his presidency. “I think the Biden administration’s more immediate priority is these infrastructure bills,” Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who serves on the select committee investigating the January 6 insurrection, told me. “And I really think that [voting rights] need to be pursued with equal vigor. Efforts to interfere with election officials at the state level are foundational to a democracy. And if the foundation becomes infirm, the whole edifice comes crashing down.” What good is expanded broadband, after all, if it only helps an autocratic government spread democracy-destroying disinformation?

When it comes to GOP attempts to subvert elections, Biden has at times been eloquent, and at other moments conspicuously silent. In July, he gave an impassioned speech in Philadelphia in which he shamed Republicans for not working to uphold “the sacred right to vote.” As my colleague Ronald Brownstein noted at the time, Biden didn’t mention the one step that’s absolutely necessary to protect voting rights: doing away with the Senate filibuster rule that is blocking passage of electoral reforms. In a recent speech, Biden found time to talk about renewable energy, tax credits, early-childhood education, climate change, the debt limit, and the growing number of Americans getting vaccinated. He touched on everything, it seemed, except voting rights. If the nation faces “the most dangerous threat to voting and the integrity of free and fair elections in our history,” as Biden warned in Philadelphia, isn’t that as worthy of a mention as plug-in charging stations?

Ask the White House what it’s doing to defend voting rights and the stock reply is “Plenty.” One aide sent me a spreadsheet illustrating Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’s attention to the issue. (The breakdown showed nearly three dozen speeches, meetings, and events for Harris, and six for Biden.) Attorney General Merrick Garland has set up a criminal task force to crack down on intimidation of election employees, a growing problem. (In Georgia, a state that Biden narrowly won, an election worker was emptying trash from a warehouse one day when hecklers surrounded him and told he would be going to jail, Gabriel Sterling, an official in the Georgia secretary of state’s office, told me.) Even Biden’s allies worry that the progress is too slow. Is the president doing enough to spotlight the perilous state of American democracy? I asked Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat. “No, of course not,” he said.

Gina Hinojosa was one of dozens of Democratic Texas legislators who left the state over the summer to deny Republicans the quorum needed to pass legislation restricting voting rights. Hinojosa and her colleagues flew to Washington, where they met twice with Harris to discuss the urgency of the issue. “The last time we passed historic voting-rights legislation, in 1965, we had a president from Texas, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who used his skills and the power of the presidency to make voting-rights legislation happen,” she told me. “And we need that same kind of assertiveness from our current president.”

A new bill that Democrats have rallied behind, the Freedom to Vote Act, would beat back Republican attempts to manipulate elections for partisan purposes. It would set national voting standards that create a two-week early-voting period, make Election Day a public holiday, allow no-excuse voting by mail, and prevent the firing of election officials for political reasons. It also aims to prevent partisan gerrymandering, which some red states use to dilute the influence of minority voters. Biden has come out in favor of the bill, which is languishing in the Senate because of the filibuster rule.

An important thing to note about the Freedom to Vote Act is that it carries the support of the two moderate Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have balked at the cost of Biden’s $3.5 trillion infrastructure package.

That would give Senate Democrats a good shot at passing the measure—if it needed only a simple majority vote. But the filibuster rule calls for a 60-vote supermajority, and both Manchin and Sinema have so far refused to do away with it. Democrats have worked out an arrangement that gives Manchin time to find 10 Republican senators willing to support the bill and meet the filibuster’s high threshold for passage. “It’s never going to happen,” Representative Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat, told me. “He won’t get half of that. He won’t get half of half of that. If we find ourselves in an authoritarian state where there is no more freedom of speech, press, or worship, I don’t think people are going to say, ‘Well, at least we still have the filibuster.’” (Manchin’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)

Democrats are understandably antsy. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is planning for members to vote on the bill as early as Wednesday. A delay would be costly: Republican-controlled legislatures are already coming out with redistricting maps that would lock in their majority status for the next decade. “I wish Senator Manchin the best in his effort to round up some Republican votes, but we cannot have infinite patience,” Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland told me. “The clock is ticking here. We’ve got to get these protections in place right away.” Practically, that looks unrealistic unless Manchin and Simena relent and agree either to nuke the filibuster or carve out a specific exception for voting rights. Biden could pressure the duo to do just that. But with his party holding a one-vote majority in the Senate, he would risk antagonizing two people he can’t afford to lose. When I asked a White House official if Biden supports lifting the filibuster to pass voting-rights protections, I got a tepid reply: “I don’t think we can rule out anything,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

[Read: America is not ready for Trump’s second term]

Activists are growing more frustrated by the day. In July, Sister Quincy Howard and other faith leaders took part in a Zoom meeting on voting rights that included the senior White House adviser Cedric Richmond. She left feeling disheartened by the White House’s message, summarizing it as “‘We need all of you to help us get the word out that there’s a problem with voting rights.’ And I’m like, ‘What? We’re so far beyond that.’ It was jaw-dropping. The word is out!” Then, in August, Ben Jealous, the former president of the NAACP and now the head of the liberal group People for the American Way, sent a letter along with the League of Women Voters to Richmond warning that voting-rights legislation wouldn’t pass unless the filibuster rule is scrapped. They asked for a meeting with White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain and his deputy Bruce Reed, but got no reply. Feeling stymied, activists began holding demonstrations outside the White House.

Earlier this month, both Howard and Jealous were arrested on Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest. A Secret Service agent took off Howard’s veil while detaining her for crossing a police line. I called the agency and asked why this step was necessary—did they believe there was a concealed weapon beneath the nun’s garments? A spokesperson told me that Howard and four others had refused to “disperse,” and that “during the course of any arrest, the Secret Service employs consistent, standardized arrest protocols for the safety and security of all involved.” Jealous said he was handcuffed for hours and spent the night in a jail cell with “the most aggressive roaches you’ve ever seen.”

When I mentioned the alarm coming from activists, the White House official told me that the Biden administration is “pushing full force” to pass voting protections. “It’s fair for activists to continue to push,” the official said. “Every constituency has their issue. If you ask immigration folks, they’ll tell you their issue is a life-or-death issue too.” (Democracy’s preservation would seem more than a pet issue.) In one crucial respect, Biden has been holding back: He has yet to give a full-throated statement that Senate Democrats need to end the filibuster.

Manchin may never find the 10 Republican votes needed to break a filibuster, but the exercise gives him political cover to tell West Virginians that at least he tried. Having shown that Republican resistance was unwavering, Manchin could then join the dozens of Democratic senators who see the filibuster as a tool for minority obstruction and perhaps persuade Sinema to do the same. “I don’t believe arcane Senate rules should be allowed to turn back the clock on something as fundamental as voting in America,” Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, told me.

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Biden Cannot Declare Victory on Climate Without One of These Policies

In the past few years, a historic shift has occurred in American public opinion: For the first time ever, and across a variety of polling outlets, a majority of Americans say that they want to see the government take serious action on climate change. This shift has accompanied an eruption of climate-related disasters. Wildfires now paralyze the West Coast. Heat waves have killed elderly people in their homes. And record-breaking floods have destroyed farms, shut down cities, and drowned children in basements.

Since he entered the race for his current job, President Joe Biden has stressed the danger of climate change, naming it one of the “four historic crises” that the country faces now. He has promised to zero out carbon pollution from the electricity system by 2035, with 80 percent of U.S. electricity coming from zero-carbon sources by 2030.

These goals are the backbone of Biden’s climate agenda. He cannot meet his climate commitment without a realistic, trustworthy plan to hit these electricity goals. There are two different ways to achieve them: the Clean Electricity Program, which incentivizes utilities to increase the amount of zero-carbon power that they generate each year, or a carbon tax, which levies a fee on each ton of greenhouse-gas pollution released into the atmosphere.

If Congress can pass either of these policies, then Biden’s climate agenda will succeed, and the world will have a much better shot of avoiding the worst ravages of climate change by the middle of the century. If not, then Biden’s climate agenda will fall short.

The fate of these policies is being decided now. Last night, The New York Times reported that Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, opposes the Clean Electricity Program proposed in the reconciliation bill. But Manchin himself has not said so publicly, and House progressives, too, have some leverage left: If that bill does not address climate change to their satisfaction, then they can veto the bipartisan infrastructure bill.  

Today, remarkably, 60 percent of U.S. electricity is generated by fossil fuels. In order to meaningfully address climate change, that number must decline and rapidly reach zero. Building a zero-carbon electricity system isn’t some environmentalist fantasy; it is the first and most important step to actually managing climate change in the next two decades.

This is because of the basic restrictions of chemistry and technology. Right now, a huge portion of economic activity is powered by the controlled combustion of fossil fuels, which produce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Humanity knows how to generate energy without causing carbon pollution—using wind turbines, solar panels, nuclear plants, and more—but only in the flexible yet specific form of electricity. Nearly every plan to limit climate change in the United States follows a two-step process: First, the country must scale up the power grid, generating nearly all of its electricity from zero-carbon sources. Second, it must bring almost every fossil-powered industrial process onto the electricity grid.

Between the Clean Electricity Program and a carbon tax, the Clean Electricity Program is Biden’s best option. It would directly incentivize utilities to clean up their grid by offering federal grants for those that boost zero-carbon electricity production by 4 percent each year. Utilities that do not meet that standard can buy credits or pay a small penalty. The policy is designed to keep electricity rates low for consumers, has support from large utilities, and resembles clean-electricity programs that have been successfully implemented in 29 states. With this program in place, the U.S. electricity grid would generate 73 percent of its energy from zero-carbon sources within a decade, preventing at least 400 million tons of carbon pollution, according to the Rhodium Group, an energy-analysis firm. (Climate tax credits would bump zero-carbon energy’s share of the energy mix the rest of the way to Biden’s 80-percent goal.) Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan think tank, has found similar results.  

Biden’s other option is to support a carbon tax. Such a policy has traditionally been a favorite of economists, and it would reduce carbon pollution. A carbon fee of $15 per ton, rising 5 percent each year and exempting gasoline (as any Biden plan reportedly would), promises to eliminate 45 percent of U.S. carbon pollution by 2030 compared with its all-time high, according to Resources for the Future. That makes it roughly comparable to the Clean Electricity Program, and it would make Biden’s goal of halving carbon pollution by 2030 feasible.

But there are good reasons to be skeptical of a carbon tax. A carbon tax is, by design, intended to raise fossil-fuel prices, which strikes me as politically unwise amid a global spike in energy prices and an ongoing producers’ strike in the Texas oil patch. Taxing carbon also turns fossil fuels into an enduring source of government revenue, when the goal should instead be to eliminate them.

Yet for all these quibbles, a carbon tax would undoubtedly work. And the passage of either a carbon tax or the Clean Electricity Program would amount to a colossal political achievement, finally allowing the United States to sit among its peer countries that have passed significant climate policy.

Manchin is the greatest opponent of both these policies. He has reportedly told Biden that he cannot accept the Clean Electricity Program, even though he seemed to accept it in a secret agreement that he signed with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer this summer. Senate Democrats respect Manchin and understand his unusual political acumen—he has, after all, found a way to win elections as a Democrat in a state that Donald Trump won by 39 points last year. Although Manchin’s family owns a coal-brokerage company from which he might still draw an income, he may have broader goals as a politician. He seems determined to ensure that the roughly 31,000 fossil-fuel workers in his state can envision a future for themselves in a decarbonizing economy—much as climate activists are desperate to see a safe and prosperous future for themselves in the hot years ahead.

If the Times is wrong that Manchin has categorically rejected the Clean Electricity Program, there is plenty about these policies that Manchin and Biden can and should negotiate about. They could slow the Clean Electricity Program’s pace of change (should utilities go zero-carbon at 3 percent a year, rather than 4?) or adjust the amount of carbon capture permitted (should natural-gas plants that capture 80 percent of their pollution count?). They could exempt certain states from the program during its early years. The Clean Electricity Program would supercharge one of Manchin’s own provisions in the bill—a tax credit that would help companies build clean-energy technologies in America—by creating 15 to 30 percent more jobs than the policy would alone.

These details matter—they will decide how fast America’s significant share of global carbon pollution falls—but ultimately either the Clean Electricity Program or a carbon tax would allow the U.S. to further drive down the cost of producing zero-carbon energy. That benefit would redound worldwide, shaping a far larger share of global climate pollution.

Is there a third option here? According to the Times, White House staff is now “trying to cobble together a mix of other policies that could also cut emissions,” and they could plausibly find some provisions that are acceptable to Manchin that would also encourage utilities to replace some of their fossil-fuel generation with renewables. But barring a miracle, the administration would be forced to fall back on using Environmental Protection Agency rules to reduce carbon pollution, a potentially costly and arduous process that would be vulnerable to challenges at the conservative Supreme Court or rollbacks from future presidents. And there is no guarantee that it would become settled law by the 2024 election.

These political concerns may seem quotidian, and they are—but how and whether any of these policies pass is a question of world-historical importance. Lawmakers, the press, and Americans of good character must understand that the U.S. has more at stake than the particular makeup of its electricity system. Over the past few years, some of the most famous institutions in the country—the biggest companies, universities, states, and cities—have pledged to act on climate change. Leading diplomats have flown around the world to proclaim the seriousness of America’s commitment.

But what have they concretely accomplished? For all its climate-destroying coal plants, China still installs more solar power than any other country, sells more electric vehicles than any other country, and operates a weak but expanding carbon market. Trans-Atlantic strategists worry that the European Union, which also maintains a carbon price, could eventually fuse its system to that of its largest trading partner, China. For the U.S. to fail to follow through after so much blabber would suggest, as China’s leaders reportedly believe, that our democracy is too sclerotic to meet the current crisis. That is a mortifying conclusion for the country, and a potentially dangerous one for the world order. If the U.S. cannot pass one of these policies, cannot bring itself to actually reduce carbon pollution, then it will strengthen the perception that American democracy is fundamentally sick, dying, unable to act on an issue on which its leaders’ credibility and its international stature rides. We will look like a decadent, soul-sick nation, too feeble to govern our basest instincts. And, well, aren’t we?

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