The Back Booth: ‘It’s Still the Economy, Stupid’

The Back Booth will be hosting a weekend edition, The D.C. Brief. Here each Saturday, TIME’s politics newsletter will host a conversation between political professionals on the right and the left, pulling back the curtain on the conversations taking place in Washington when the tape stops rolling. Get The D.C. Brief Click here.

It’s only April in Washington, but to watch D.C. start posturing you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the end of October and the last leaves were turning.

That’s because the remaining agenda for lawmakers is fast being consumed by talk of the midterm elections. With control of the House and Senate up for grabs, strategists in both parties are trying to game out how best to use the balance of the 117th Congress to position themselves for the back end of President Joe Biden’s first term. His budget was released this week. The Russian tanks were withdrawn from Kyiv and Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is set to be confirmed next week. There are many opportunities for legislators to become a peacock.

To dissect the week’s news, The D.C. Brief chatted by email with two veterans of the Senate. Democratic strategist Maura Kife spent more than a decade as New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s chief of staff, chairing the Democrats’ chief of staff luncheons and serving as a leader of bipartisan confab of top Senate aides. She was the Hillary Clinton campaign’s liaison to Congress during the 2016 race and previously ran floor operations for Rep. Rosa DeLauro.

All along the aisle Matthew Bartlett He was a senior advisor to Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. His resume includes stints as a political hand at ONE, the global health advocacy organization most commonly associated with Bono, as a staffer on Jon Huntsman’s presidential bid and rising to a director of public affairs at the State Department during the Trump era.

Both of them now run their own consulting companies and the conversation was lightly edited.

Philip Elliott: Hello, friends. The President is digging right in PublishedHis budget will be presented to Congress pretendIt is obvious that things have gotten worse in Ukraine over the past two months. marc. If you’re advising policy makers right now, what is the message they need to be hitting? Is it important to focus on Ukraine or to pivot towards the domestic budget debate? Are there ways to connect them? You’ve both worked for foreign policy-minded adults. Is that the kind of leader who can get to the top before everything is consumed by midterms?

Matthew Bartlett: How do Senate staffers respond? “The President proposes and the Senate disposes.” Typically the budget gets used as a doorstop and the Senate is happy to do the budgetary work they are charged with.

Maura Keefe says budget week is similar to finals week in policy circles. Smarty pants all over D.C. are putting in the long hours and getting into the details. They will have plenty to like and loathe, depending on where they are located. More than anything else, the President’s budget is a statement of values. What are your values and the causes you will fight for? Biden has been pretty clear about fighting for tax fairness, climate funding, and money for Ukraine, and that’s all reflected in his budget.

Bartlett, Other than the budget issue, it seems like some of Build Back Better’s embers may start to burn. With Manchin signaling he may be open to a deal, I think people are lining up what they would like to see—and not see—in this potential vehicle. I’m also hearing some are already looking at a potential lame-duck session post-midterms, too.

Elliott: It’s always fun to spend December in Washington, with all the legislators packing up their offices.

Bartlett Both chambers of Congress and the parties involved will pay more attention to their local newspapers, local radio, and local television back at home. They may also tune out some Beltway noise. It seems like the constituent voice has more power now than it did a few months back. It will be important for Senators and Representatives to have their fingers on the pulse of what their constituents want or don’t want, and then figuring out what is the priority.

All domestic problems could easily be overshadowed by any unexpected geopolitical events, as I suppose is what we have come to expect these days.

Keefe: In terms of domestic versus international priorities, when you have the big job, you don’t get to choose. Although elections are not always fair (9/11 is an exception), the domestic tends to win. So, getting involved in the economy should be number one. The Administration is focusing on consumer prices, as evidenced by the fact that oil reserves were released today. It’s still the economy, stupid!

Biden, despite his international leadership, stood up to Russia, and had a cohesive foreign policy, is a reminder for Americans that stable leadership is essential. It is not important if this shows up at the polls. It’s a big moment where U.S. leadership is required and performing well is crucial for the President, the country, and the world. Joe Biden was designed for this moment.

Elliott: Maura, I think everything here is spot-on, although I do wonder if the steady-as-she-goes presidency—regardless of person—can actually stabilize the world right now. This seems to be a huge dumpster fire in other countries and a predictable funding issue for COVID at home. Plus, the whole infrastructure question is one that I’m still not certain I can wrap my head around.

Bartlett: This sounds like there’s a need for a COVID Preparedness Deal. They are looking into both inventory and fund accounting and trying to ensure that the nation is better equipped for another wave. This also shows how they’re working to combat COVID worldwide. This is good news for Schumer and Romney. This would save lives and money. We have discovered that it is cheaper to prevent another health crisis than address one. What if each variant were more fatal and transmissible? I don’t know what our world would look like.

Elliott: Speaking of the world…

Bartlett: What can you think about Russia and Ukraine? A madman invades a neighboring country, kills innocents, women and children, and sends hit squads to assassinate Zelensky—and there is some D.C. bedwetting when President Biden says Putin should not be in power? Let me take a breath. Although I can understand the need to avoid escalating this conflict into WWIII and I do so fully, I also don’t care about offending a dictatorial invading nation. This was the result of Putin. This is why Putin should not be afraid. We are not.

Zelensky used to ignore U.S. warnings, and sometimes even defy U.S. intelligence. I don’t think we have ever seen such a historic shift in posture and a rising to the occasion. He shines brightly in the fog of battle because his courage is a beacon.

Keefe: Stable U.S. leadership does not solve all problems, but it’s a heck of a lot better than the alternative.

Two problems exist on the Hill. The first is spending fatigue, the second is fast approaching silly season. The clock is ticking, but I do think there’s a deal to be had on portions of BBB.

Bartlett: I was a bit surprised again last night when progressives in the House and Senate seemed to throw a bucket of cold water on Manchin’s possible BBB proposals. I thought at this point they would be open to passing whatever Joe can do—either Joe, Biden or Manchin—but progressives look like they may dig in again. Then again, it’s always darkest before the light, or as McCain would joke, “always darkest, before it’s entirely pitch black.”

Biden Administration seems to be purely reactive right now. It reacts to Russia’s virus, inflation, Manchin and gas prices. It is difficult to manage an administration, and even more so when you are not able to control it.

Keefe: The Congressional leadership is more positive about a COVID agreement, however, how they do that before next week’s recess is not clear, since there are a lot of procedural hurdles and confirming Judge Jackson as the first priority.

Bartlett: KBJ is historic and it will pass. However, it will be very interesting to observe her voting. Ich believe that the current liberal wing votes in sync with one another. Is that the right side? But not so much. They are always there to surprise you.

Elliott: I appreciate all of your thoughtfulness and generosity this week, Folks. This will be done in person next time we visit Manchester, N.H.

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