In today's edition, Washington is yelling at each other over the Chinese balloon. Plus, a look at N͏ ͏ ͏ ͏ ͏ ͏
with Steve Clemons
| Washington|| Beijing|| Columbia|
I’ll be honest: The way Washington has hyperventilated over a Chinese spy balloon feels silly, and a little depressing, to me. Chinese, American, and Russian satellites orbit earth every day, carrying out intelligence gathering with incredible photographic precision. The balloon isn’t much different, yet it’s sparked an uproar that’s forced Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel his trip to Beijing.
That’s unfortunate. The U.S. needs to keep a dialog open with China, which is still one of our largest trading partners, on global issues like climate, even if parts of our relationship become tense. That was how American leaders approached the Soviet Union during the Cold War, yet I fear we’re losing the ability to manage such a complex diplomatic relationship. Semafor’s Morgan Chalfant has more on the politics of balloon-gate.
On other fronts, Shelby Talcott takes a deep dive into why Nikki Haley’s team thinks she might have a shot in the GOP primary. A daughter of Indian immigrants who had a successful run as governor of a major southern state and then a perch at the United Nations, she has a compelling life story. But is it the story the current GOP wants to hear?
Also, please join me for a virtual fireside chat with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va. tomorrow at 10:45 AM on America’s economic and environmental priorities. You can sign up here.
PLUS, Kadia Goba has One Good Text with Senator Bill Cassidy, R-La. on the quickly spreading avian bird flu and whether America is ready or not for another pandemic.
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☞ White House: The country will get a primetime taste of Biden’s re-election message during the State of the Union this week. Relatedly, new polling shows that despite his pile of legislative accomplishments and recent good news about the economy, Democratic voters still aren’t enthusiastic about their 80-year-old POTUS running for a second term.
☞ Chuck Schumer: It’s time to brag: The Senate majority leader’s office says it will use the SOTU as an opportunity to remind everyone about the bills Democrats passed in the last two years.
☞ Mitch McConnell: It’s a day that ends in “y,” which means McConnell is calling for more military spending. The Senate Republican leader says the defense budget needs a boost to address threats from China following the takedown of its alleged spy balloon. “Last year President Biden proposed an absurd budget that would have cut defense funding after inflation,” he said. “Let’s hope his budget proposal this year is more decisive, serious, and strong than the embarrassment that just played out in our skies.”
☞ Kevin McCarthy: The Speaker is holding a vote on Washington D.C’s revised criminal code that would eliminate life sentences, reduce maximum sentences on certain offenses like carjacking, and give the right to a trial by jury to people charged with misdemeanors, among other revisions. Mayor Muriel Bowser opposes the criminal code revisions too, but has asked Congress not to interfere with the district’s self-governance.
☞ Hakeem Jeffries: The minority leader spent Sunday with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. and other members of the New York delegation at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York denouncing antisemitism.
The Koch network of conservative advocacy groups is planning to get involved in the 2024 primary to support a candidate other than former President Trump, according to a memo released by the network’s primary advocacy group Americans for Prosperity. “To write a new chapter for our country, we need to turn the page on the past. So the best thing for the country would be to have a president in 2025 who represents a new chapter,” reads the memo, which does not mention Trump by name. Is it a sign of other mega-donors turning on him? “More and more Republicans see hitching a wagon to Trump is a political loser and don’t want to relive those electoral disappointments,” Doug Heye, a former RNC spokesman, told Semafor.
Congress is expected to receive a classified briefing on those Trump and Biden classified documents this week, according to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Turner, R-Ohio. An aide said that the administration is expected to brief the so-called “Gang of Eight” — which consists of the four House and Senate leaders and the four leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.
Embattled Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y. faces sexual harassment accusations from a prospective staffer who filed a complaint about the incident with the House Ethics Committee late last week. The man — Derek Myers — is the same person who was subject to news reports last week after he secretly taped conversations with Santos and his staff that were then released to Talking Points Memo.
In a sign of strengthening ties between Russia and Iran, the two countries are planning to build a factory in Russia for manufacturing Iranian drones that have already been used by Moscow in its military assault on Ukraine, according to the Wall Street Journal. Also in WSJ this weekend, a report on China bypassing sanctions to provide key technology to Russia’s military. Meanwhile, Ukraine is preparing to replace its defense minister as the country braces for an impending Russian offensive — and plans a counteroffensive of its own. The Biden administration just unveiled another $2 billion Ukraine security aid package that includes longer-range bombs.
— Morgan Chalfant
Punchbowl News: The bank lobby is gearing up for a “serious fight” over credit card late fees, after the Biden administration proposed a new rule aimed at slashing the amount credit card companies can charge.
Playbook: China’s balloon is a distraction from Biden’s State of the Union address that “Democrats aren’t exactly thrilled about.”
The Early 202: Is Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb. the House’s Joe Manchin? The moderate Republican told the Washington Post he’s not sure about the comparison but wants to be a “voice of reason” who reaches across the aisle.
Why Nikki Haley's fans think she could win
Most Republicans don’t seem to be taking Nikki Haley’s run for president very seriously.
The two-time South Carolina governor, who served as Donald Trump’s United Nations ambassador, is starting with little backing from GOP voters — early primary polls put her at just 3 percent nationally, and fourth place in her home state. Pundits have politely said she faces an “uphill climb,” speculated that she’s effectively campaigning for vice president, and suggested it’s not even worth profiling her.
Haley’s old boss doesn’t sound too threatened, either. Trump has snarked that Haley is “overly ambitious” but that she needs to “follow her heart, not her honor” after previously promising not to run if he did. On Sunday, he shared an American Conservative article about Haley titled “The Born Loser.”
THE VIEW FROM NIKKI HALEY'S FANS
But those in Haley’s orbit say they see a path.
While governor, Haley was often touted as a future Republican star who, as a woman and child of Indian immigrants, could put a cosmopolitan spin on tea party conservatism and defuse culture war conflicts, like when she famously removed the confederate flag from South Carolina’s capitol after a white supremacist gunman attacked a historic black church in Charleston.
Her backers still believe in that appeal, especially after another election cycle of Republicans struggling in the diversifying suburbs. Katon Dawson, former chair of the South Carolina GOP, told Semafor he’s been getting calls for six months from Republicans who say they like Haley. “She’s different, she helps the ticket,” he said. “If she was on the top of the ticket, it would be a game changer for us as a party.”
According to a person familiar with Haley’s thinking, she plans to remind voters of her conservative achievements as governor: In 2011, she signed a hardline anti-immigration bill allowing police to look up an individual’s documented status if they’d been pulled over or arrested, as well as legislation requiring a photo ID to vote.
Haley also plans to emphasize her fiscal conservatism and contrast herself with the current president.
“She's running against Joe Biden,” the person familiar with Haley’s thinking said. “She’ll focus on a proud and strong America. We’re seeing a generation being taught to hate America. This is the greatest country on Earth. That’s her message, and her personal story is proof of that.”
As for the polls? Fans say not to worry, arguing Haley thrives as an underdog, having won her first race for governor after starting with little name recognition. Alex Stroman, a former executive director of the South Carolina GOP, said Haley used to joke about how often voters would ask “Nikki who?”
“When Nikki Haley starts getting to know the people of Iowa and New Hampshire, watch out,” he said, noting that Haley was well-positioned in the Granite State; a recent poll there gave her 8% of the vote.
Haley’s long history of vacillating on her support for Trump — she linked his rhetoric to the Charleston church shooting in 2016; then became a loyal cabinet member and campaign surrogate; then blamed him for January 6th and declared his political career dead; then said she’d support him in 2024 just months later — is seen as a major hurdle that could alienate both wings of the party. Stroman said it represents her willingness to call “balls and strikes” when her party is wrong.
But the biggest question for Haley isn’t why voters would pick her over Trump. It’s why they’d choose her over Trump’s more popular rivals, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to run. Some suggested her foreign policy experience at the U.N. could be key.
“Certainly that was a great opportunity for her to glean some of the national experience on global issues that she would not have gotten as a governor of a state,” Mark Smith, a South Carolina Republican state representative who grew up with Haley and was her junior prom date, told Semafor.
THE VIEW FROM MAR-A-LAGO
Trump’s team argues that, if it decides to go all-in against Haley, they’ll have plenty of fodder to show she’s out of step with the party’s conservative base, partly because she sometimes uses softer rhetoric on social issues — such as when she tweeted that George Floyd's death "needs to be personal and painful for everyone.”
For now, though, Trump’s campaign seems to be taking an even more brutal approach: Shrugging.
As one person close to the Trump campaign texted me: “I guess the audition for Trump’s VP starts now.”
Get ready for investigations into the balloon
Joe Biden may have finally shot down China’s alleged spy balloon, but Republicans say they have more questions that could keep the controversy afloat.
GOP lawmakers spent this weekend lambasting the White House for failing to blow up the craft before it could drift across the country. Now, House Republicans are eyeing investigations into how the president dealt with the dirigible, according to a staffer familiar with the matter.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s office is also working with the chamber’s national security committees on a potential resolution criticizing the administration’s handling of the incident, the staffer said.
“The White House must provide answers about why they decided to allow a CCP spy balloon to cross the United States and what damage to our national security occurred from this decision,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala. said in a statement over the weekend.
To be sure, members of both parties are eager for more information. Biden’s team is likely to provide the “Gang of Eight” as well as House members a classified briefing on the balloon this week. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. said all senators would receive a classified briefing on China on Feb. 15.
The balloon incident has rocked Washington’s debate about China — at least temporarily.
In Congress, where getting tough on Beijing has become a rare point of bipartisan agreement, the two parties are at odds. While Republicans say the administration should have fired on the balloon sooner, Democrats say Biden’s choice to wait until it was over the Atlantic ocean was a responsible decision to prevent deadly debris, which were spread across seven miles after the balloon was downed, from potentially hurting civilians.
Schumer said Sunday that Republicans “were breathless, political, and premature” in their criticism. Democrats pointed out that alleged Chinese spy balloons had crossed over U.S. territory during the Trump administration, but for a shorter duration, according to defense officials. Information about those instances wasn’t known until after Donald Trump left office, according to Biden officials who have offered to brief former Trump officials on the details.
And the Biden administration, which has sought to tamp down U.S.-China tensions, finds itself embroiled in a new fight with Beijing that forced Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a trip to China. The Chinese Foreign Ministry, which claimed the balloon was studying weather, reacted angrily on Saturday after it was shot down and hinted at potential retaliation.
— Morgan Chalfant
Bill Cassidy, a Republican, is the senior U.S. senator from Louisiana. He's the ranking member on the HELP Committee, which has been working on pandemic safety issues.
Stories that are being largely ignored by either left-leaning or right-leaning outlets, according to data from our partners at Ground News.
WHAT THE LEFT ISN’T READING: House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio subpoenaed the Justice and Education Departments over a 2021 memo about threats to school boards, which conservatives argue unfairly targeted parents.
WHAT THE RIGHT ISN’T READING: Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas introduced a bill to impose two-term limits on senators but is still running for a third term himself. He tried to explain it in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
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— Steve Clemons