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Power crisis puts Texas small-government policy choices in the spotlight

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: People wait in line to fill propane tanks Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, in Houston.
People wait in line to fill propane tanks Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, in Houston.David J. Phillip / AP

WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, we wrote about how the likely California recall has shined a spotlight on progressive governance in the Golden State.

And today, we turn our attention to how the power outages in Texas have kicked off a debate about conservative governance in the Lone Star State.

As it turns out, most Texans are on a completely different power grid from the rest of the country, and it’s by design — to avoid regulation by the feds.

And by the way, that philosophy of evading regulation still runs strong in the state’s Republican Party to this day. Former Texas Gov. (and Energy Secretary!) Rick Perry said that “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.”

“Texas’ deregulatory philosophy has caused them to put much less stringent rules on generators and system operators to be prepared for cold weather than other systems, where extreme cold is more common,” one energy expert told NBC’s Kevin Collier.

Yes, this was a “perfect storm” weather event. Yes, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Yes — just like with the pandemic — there are nuanced policy debates to have about which problems to fix and how.

But none of that changes this fact: This wouldn’t be happening without the state’s decades-long energy policy choice to focus on cost rather than reliability — and to avoid federal oversight by making its own rules.

Gov. Greg Abbott (who’s in cycle, don’t forget) and his GOP predecessors will have to answer for that choice.

And — no matter where else he tries to place blame — that philosophy of small government will be a big part of what’s on the ballot after this storm.

Data Download: The numbers you need to know today

2.7 years: The drop in life expectancy for Black Americans during first half of 2020, according to new government study. (It was a drop of 1.9 years for Latinos and 0.8 years for whites.)

Nearly 12 million: The number of Texans facing water disruptions amid the continuing winter storm and blackout.

27,948,973: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials. (That’s 68,968 more than yesterday morning.)

492,592: The number of deaths in the United States from the virus so far, per the most recent data from NBC News. (That’s 2,416 more than yesterday morning.)

63,398: The number of people currently hospitalized with coronavirus in the United States.

338.6 million: The number of coronavirus tests that have been administered in the United States so far, according to researchers at The COVID Tracking Project.

56,281,827: Number of vaccine doses administered in the U.S.

15,471,536: People fully vaccinated in the U.S.

70: The number of days left for Biden to reach his 100-day vaccination goal.

Tweet of the day

Talking Policy with Benjy

Biden’s public option? Remember the Democratic primaries, when the presidential candidates spent 11 debates arguing about whether to pursue Medicare for All or a public option?

It was somewhat overshadowed by the subsequent year of national turmoil, but with Democrats now back in power in the middle of a pandemic, a bill could potentially pass within months. That means there’s going to be a high-stakes fight to define what, exactly, Democrats’ stance on a public option means.

On Wednesday, Senators Michael Bennet, D-Col. and Tim Kaine, D-Va. launched a push to enact their version of a public option, which they call “Medicare X.” Relative to other Democratic public option proposals, it’s a modest reform: The new “Medicare X” option would only be available for people who get insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

Kaine and Bennet introduced similar bills in the past, but this time they’re aggressively trying to market it as the go-to choice for President Biden to endorse and sign ASAP.

Kaine and Bennet deliberately tweaked their legislation to more closely match Biden’s campaign proposal, which called for a public option, but also increasing subsidies for ACA plans and capping premiums for higher earners at 8.5 percent of income (a two-year boost is in the upcoming Covid-19 bill). They’ve also already started talking to potential swing votes, like Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va. and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and to potential critics on the left, like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. And they structured their plan to be able to pass via reconciliation, making it an off-the-shelf option for the next big bill after Covid-19 relief.

It’s worth keeping an eye on the reception “Medicare X” gets. Can progressive lawmakers muster support for an alternative that’s more far reaching in a 50-50 Senate? Will conservatives, who have almost exclusively focused on attacking Medicare for All, be able to mount a convincing challenge to a smaller public option? And how will the moderates react if hospitals and doctors raise objections to a public plan that pays them less than private insurance?

Here comes the immigration bill

The White House is releasing details of its immigration plan this morning, and the full plan will be presented to the House today and to the Senate when it comes back from recess.

Here are the highlights:

  • An eight-year path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants
  • Undocumented immigrants will be able to hold temporary status for five years and can apply for a Green Card
  • DREAMers who held temporary status as of Jan. 1, 2017 will be able to receive a Green Card without a wait
  • Repeals the three and 10-year unlawful presence penalty, which prohibits undocumented immigrants from coming back to the U.S. for between three and 10 years
  • Gives DHS the authority to regulate the number of employment Green Cards based on “macroeconomic conditions”

The immigration plan adds an additional proposal to Congress’ lengthy to-do list from the Biden administration. Congress is planning on moving Biden’s Covid-19 relief package through before the second week of March.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

A U.S. attorney and the FBI have started an investigation into how the Cuomo administration handled data about Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes.

What does the timeline look like for the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill? (And what are the looming fights over a second spending measure?)

On March 11, Biden will mark the one-year anniversary of the nation’s initial coronavirus lockdown.

Here’s the latest on the immigration bill Biden is backing — and what activists and some skeptics are saying about it.

GameStop is back in the spotlight today.

It’s not just David Perdue — Doug Collins may be looking for a Georgia comeback, too.