The Boys Are Back in Town
Plus: Why nothing is probably going to happen as a result of the Thomas-Crow affair
Good afternoon, Press Pass readers! Jim Swift here; I’m filling in for Joe Perticone, who is away this week. The Senate and House are both back after some time off, and a lot happened while they were out.
The government continues to trundle toward default. Some estimates put it as early as June. Yesterday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy visited the New York Stock Exchange, where he said, “a no-strings-attached debt limit increase will not pass.” He also called the country’s debt a “ticking time bomb.” And unless President Joe Biden decides to heed those calling on him to just ignore the debt ceiling, which seems highly unlikely, avoiding a default will require the passage of a bill in Congress. McCarthy claims the House will vote on such a bill “in the coming weeks.”
Even though he talks a big game, McCarthy has been practically begging Biden to negotiate with him so as to avoid a repeat of the mess of his speakership vote. The House has been in disarray since he took the gavel, and the Senate and the White House are waiting to see what McCarthy will be forced to concede to the Freedom Caucus. Case in point: Ultra-MAGA Rep. Chip Roy wants the House debt-limit bill to repeal Biden’s signature legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act. We’ll see how far McCarthy lets them carry that ball up the legislative field—but unfortunately for McCarthy, it’s starting to sound like Roy’s no-win position is that of the whole Freedom Caucus.
Apart from the ultraconservatives, few Republicans seem to know what they want to get out of the coming negotiations. They have taken a high-value hostage, but they keep telling the police surrounding the building that they’ll call them back once they reach agreement on their demands. McCarthy frames things in a slightly different way, of course: When asked if he leads a unified House GOP, he replies that “I think I have the support of America.” Sure, Kevin. Good luck with that bill.
Senate Gets Closer to Full Strength
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman came back to Capitol Hill this week. McConnell, 81, had tripped and fallen at a dinner in March, which left him with a rib fracture and a concussion. He was seen shuffling into his offices last Friday, and reporters were told he’d be back on a full-time basis on Monday. He’ll be 86 years old when he next comes up for re-election in 2028. McConnell has led Senate Republicans since 2007. This is not his first experience of medical hardship: Among other things, he survived a childhood bout of polio, an experience that he cited when asked why he used campaign funds to pay for an ad encouraging Kentuckians to get the COVID-19 vaccine a couple years ago.
It’s clear that Senate Republican leadership will continue to belong to McConnell, provided he still wants the job and nothing further happens to him that could damage his grand strategist brain. If you don’t believe me, ask Sens. Rick Scott or Mike Lee what happens when you try to oust the Turtle. That said, his job is not at its peak importance right now, given that the chamber’s Republican minority is not under pressure to pass anything. McConnell’s health scare could lead to closed-door conversations about the future of Republican leadership in advance of the next election, when the party stands a good chance of returning to a majority in the chamber.
Unlike elections for House speaker, which are conducted through roll call votes held in the chamber for all to see, Senate leadership elections involve the party meeting in the Old Senate Chamber (across from McConnell’s office) and casting secret ballots. That means that when the time comes, McConnell could give up his leadership role without a public fight.
Fetterman’s return is welcome news for Democrats, who are struggling to get judicial and political nominees confirmed in light of several recent absences that have taken away the advantage of their 51-49 majority. Returning yesterday after concluding treatment at Walter Reed for clinical depression, Fetterman told reporters “It’s great to be back” before ambling into the Senate portico wearing his customary outfit of shorts and a hoodie.
Still unresolved is the question of what will happen with long-serving California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who will turn 90 this summer. In February, she announced she plans to retire at the end of her term in 2024, although when she was asked about her decision by reporters, she appeared confused that the announcement had already been released. Feinstein is currently recovering in California from shingles and hasn’t cast a Senate vote since around Valentine’s Day.
Because of the Senate’s procedural and debate rules, time is a precious commodity in the chamber. Republicans are eager to eat up the clock so the Democrats can accomplish less, and they aren’t interested in helping their Democratic colleagues mitigate the problem: Feinstein suggested that another member of her party temporarily replace her on the Judiciary Committee to keep the judicial nomination process rolling, but Republicans have balked at the idea. Feinstein’s absence has become consequential enough that a couple House Democrats have called on her to resign.
Republicans would do well to be careful about how hard they press their advantage here, however. California Governor Gavin Newsom doesn’t want to be seen as picking winners and losers in a contested primary, so if the Senate Republican plan to keep the nomination process in limbo fails and Feinstein steps down, Newsom will almost certainly appoint a rubber-stamp replacement who will cast AYE votes for every Democratic pick who comes up for a vote. Is that better for Republicans than Feinstein’s proposal of a temporary replacement for her role on the Judiciary Committee? I don’t think it is.
Much Ado About Clarence
The bombshell ProPublica reporting about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and conservative billionaire Harlan Crow—the trips, the real estate—led the pundit universe down a very weird rabbit hole since Crow is, frankly, a little weird himself: He has statues of toppled authoritarian dictators, an autographed copy of Mein Kampf, and even Nazi napkins.
As strange as the luxury vacations seemed, the news that Crow bought Thomas’s childhood home with the supposed intention of someday turning it into a museum was even more disturbing (especially since the justice’s mother still lives there, paying no rent to the new owner). And if that didn’t raise enough questions about Thomas’s finances, over the weekend we found out that for years he has been reporting income from a firm associated with his wife’s family, except for one small problem: the firm he’s accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from no longer exists. He has been reporting income from “Ginger, Ltd., Partnership” that should have been attributed to “Ginger Holdings, LLC.” (The former entity was shut down in 2006; the latter still exists.) The Washington Post reports:
The previously unreported misstatement might be dismissed as a paperwork error. But it is among a series of errors and omissions that Thomas has made on required annual financial disclosure forms over the past several decades, a review of those records shows. Together, they have raised questions about how seriously Thomas views his responsibility to accurately report details about his finances to the public.
The question for Democrats is: How big of a deal do you want to make of this? The Republican-controlled House of Representatives certainly isn’t going to impeach Thomas, and even if he were impeached there sure wouldn’t be enough votes in the Senate to convict him. But that doesn’t mean that Democrats can’t draw attention to the series of red flags popping up at the Thomas household, perhaps including news about Ginni Thomas, whose salary at the conservative Heritage Foundation the justice failed to publicly disclose for several years.
One thing on the drawing board is a hearing. Dick Durbin, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he plans to hold a hearing “regarding the need to restore confidence in the Supreme Court’s ethical standards.”
Is there any chance that Justice Thomas himself might participate in a Senate hearing? Supreme Court justices, once confirmed, almost never go back to Congress except for the State of the Union. (Fun fact: The Supreme Court actually used to meet in the Capitol, in different rooms on the Senate side of the building, including the Old Senate Chamber mentioned above.) Almost the only times justices have come to testify have been on matters related to the budget and operations of the federal judiciary.
So if you had a hearing, and you invited Justice Thomas to voluntarily come . . . would he? It’s hard to imagine that he would, but that’s sort of where we are with this trial balloon.
And if he wouldn’t volunteer to come, could he be subpoenaed? Yes, in theory, you could subpoena a Supreme Court justice, but subpoenas are enforced by courts—meaning that this matter could well end up at the Supreme Court. You could imagine it taking years to resolve. None of which seems like it would be worth the effort.
All of which is to say that, unless there are further revelations so embarrassing that even Thomas’s conservative allies and his colleagues on the bench are forced to publicly speak out, or unless Thomas just gets sick and tired of the scrutiny, it is hard to imagine any kind of real accountability for him anytime soon.
Question for you in the comments below: How many of the eleven Democrats who supported Clarence Thomas’s confirmation back in 1991 can you name? And how many senators who voted to confirm him are still in office? Also, let me know what you’re interested in me covering for Thursday’s members-only edition of Press Pass.
We’ll see you then!