House Republicans have abruptly backed off after making a lot of noise about passing a resolution condemning President Joe Biden’s handling of the Chinese surveillance balloon. Since “House Republicans backed off of attacking Biden”—let alone backing off of a plan to make headlines on the day of the State of the Union address—is not a story you hear very often, this is fascinating.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is trying to play statesman. “I think you could see that this week,” he told reporters, referring to a China-focused resolution. “I think our greatest strength is when we speak with one voice to China.”
The question is what changed their minds about this.
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One answer seems to be that some House Republicans balked. And McCarthy definitely did not want to go into the State of the Union, with the headlines being that he tried and failed to pass a resolution criticizing Biden. Spending the evening sitting on national television behind the guy he couldn’t get the votes to publicly rebuke would not be fun, and you know Biden’s speechwriters would have raced to get a reference to that failure into the speech.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul is getting much of the credit for getting Republican leadership to change direction. “We want it to be a bipartisan resolution about China, not about us fighting each other,” McCaul told reporters. “It’s too important of an issue, you know. We want to stand strong together against China instead of having our internal fights.”
McCaul is also talking to Rep. Gregory Meeks, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, about making the resolution bipartisan.
But given that the Biden administration is sending signs that it has significant intelligence on this and previous balloons, and that White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in her Monday press briefing that they’d “even briefed Congress this past August” about Chinese surveillance balloons, you have to wonder if McCarthy concluded that in addition to the possible embarrassment of losing an anti-Biden vote, he might end up with serious egg on his face after more information comes out.
That would have to be a lot of egg, because Republicans are so very good at pretending that inconvenient information doesn’t exist. But the Biden administration has steadily made the case that it knew what it was doing all along with this balloon, and that it knows more than it has told to this point. All senators are due for a classified briefing on the issue on Thursday, and McCarthy may be nervous about getting out too far on a limb attacking Biden ahead of that.
The Biden administration is emphasizing that it has been way ahead of the former administration on this issue. According to national security adviser Jake Sullivan, under Biden, the U.S. “enhanced our surveillance of our territorial airspace, we enhanced our capacity to be able to detect things that the Trump administration was unable to detect.”
Whatever the reason, it’s kind of delightful that Republicans made public noise about a resolution criticizing Biden on the balloon and are now backing off so swiftly that it’s within the realm of possibility for them to end up with a resolution condemning China that turns into one of the more bipartisan votes of the opening weeks of this Congress.
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We're chatting with one of our favorite fellow election analysts on this week's episode of The Downballot, Kyle Kondik of Sabato's Crystal Ball. Kyle helped call races last year for CBS and gives us a rare window inside a TV network's election night decision desk, which literally has a big button to call control of the House—that no one got to press. Kyle also dives into his new race ratings for the 2024 Senate map, including why he thinks Joe Manchin's unlikely tight-rope act might finally come to an end.
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