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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 1.23.19

01/23/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Today's mass shooting: "A suspected gunman was in custody Wednesday after five people were shot dead at a SunTrust bank in Sebring, Florida, according to police and local officials. The Highlands County sheriff's office said a SWAT team stormed the bank after negotiations failed and the suspect 'eventually surrendered.'"

* Crisis in Venezuela: "Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said his government was breaking relations with the United States and gave diplomatic personnel 72 hours to leave the country after President Donald Trump on Wednesday backed the country's opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, as interim president."

* He's likely to be subpoenaed: "Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former personal lawyer and fixer, is delaying his public testimony before Congress 'due to ongoing threats against his family from President Trump' and members of his legal team, Cohen attorney Lanny Davis said in a statement Wednesday."

* I assume the White House will ignore this, too: "House Democrats are prepared to support increased spending on border security, but not a wall, if President Trump agrees to reopen the government first, lawmakers and aides said Wednesday."

* This law would have prevented some women from getting abortions before they knew they were pregnant: "Iowa's 'fetal heartbeat' law, the most restrictive abortion ban in the United States, was declared unconstitutional Tuesday, as it violates the Iowa state constitution, a state judge ruled."

* Irony: "In the midst of a partial government shutdown stalemate over a border wall, the State Department has had to cancel, for now, an international conference focused on border security -- due to that very shutdown."

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Image: 58th U.S. Presidential Inauguration

Pelosi tells Trump what he doesn't want to hear about the SOTU

01/23/19 03:33PM

Under normal political circumstances, the congressional procedures surrounding a State of the Union address are routine and entirely ignored. This year, things are a little different.

In a typical year, following undramatic behind-the-scenes negotiations, the House leadership extends an invitation to the White House, the president accepts, and the House and Senate approve a concurrent resolution that formally establishes the schedule for the event. If none of this sounds familiar to you, that's because it's never important and no one ever covers it as news.

When a State of the Union address is scheduled during the longest government shutdown in American history, however, things inevitably get more complicated.

A week ago today, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wrote a letter to Donald Trump, asking that they "work together to determine another suitable date after government has re-opened for this address or for you to consider delivering your State of the Union address in writing." The president initially responded by derailing Pelosi's trip to Afghanistan to see U.S. troops.

This morning, Trump responded again, this time with another letter, telling Pelosi that he intends to stick to the original schedule and plans to deliver his address from the House floor on Jan. 29. A few hours later, Pelosi sent another letter of her own. It read in its entirety:

"When I extended an invitation on January 3rd for you to deliver the State of the Union address, it was on the mutually agreed upon date, January 29th. At that time, there was no thought that the government would still be shut down.

"In my further correspondence of January 16th, I said we should work together to find a mutually agreeable date when government has re-opened and I hope that we can still do that.

"I am writing to inform you that the House of Representatives will not consider a concurrent resolution authorizing the President's State of the Union address in the House Chamber until government has opened.

"Again, I look forward to welcoming you to the House on a mutually agreeable date for this address when government has been opened."

As a matter of procedure, if the House doesn't consider a concurrent resolution, there will be no event in the chamber.

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The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

To end the shutdown, one House Dem is prepared to pay Trump's ransom

01/23/19 12:52PM

Over the last few weeks, as the government shutdown has continued, intra-party fissures have been far more common among Republicans than Democrats. That wasn't especially surprising: the shutdown strategy and demands for a border wall are inherently divisive for the GOP, far less so for Dems.

But given the importance of this dynamic, it's only fair to note that one House Democrat has broken ranks. The Washington Post reported yesterday:

Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.) said Tuesday that Congress should agree to President Trump's demand for $5.7 billion to fund a U.S.-Mexico border wall, in one of the first public statements by a Democrat calling for his party's leaders to throw in the towel as the partial government shutdown drags on.

"Give Trump the money," Peterson said in an interview with Fargo, N.D.-based radio station KFGO. "I'd give him the whole thing ... and put strings on it so you make sure he puts the wall where it needs to be. Why are we fighting over this? We're going to build that wall anyway, at some time."

Why the congressman thinks Trump's wall will be built "anyway" is unclear.

Some context is probably in order. Peterson may come from a relatively blue state -- Minnesota is literally the only state to back the Democratic presidential ticket in each of the last 11 elections -- but he represents a conservative, rural district that heavily supported Donald Trump in 2016.

With this in mind, Peterson, a member of the conservative Blue Dog Caucus, voted with the Republican White House more than 60% of the time in Trump's first two years -- more than nearly any other Democrat in Congress.

It's also worth noting that Peterson represents a border district -- but not that border. There are nearly 2,000 miles between the Minnesotan's hometown and the Mexican border.

To date, Peterson is the only Democratic member of Congress taking a "give Trump the money" posture. Team Trump is no doubt pleased to see the break in Democratic unity, though Peterson will need a whole lot of intra-party allies before it starts to make a significant difference.

And at least for now, that appears unlikely.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.23.19

01/23/19 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.

* The field of Democratic presidential candidates grew again this morning, with South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg throwing his hat into the ring. If elected, Buttigieg, a 37-year-old Rhodes Scholar and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, would be the nation's first openly gay president.

* The mess in North Carolina's 9th congressional district remains unresolved, and a state judge ruled yesterday that the investigation into alleged election fraud will continue. Mark Harris (R) and his team asked Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway to certify his election victory, and that did not go well.

* In Virginia yesterday, the Washington Post  reported that a federal court settled on "a Virginia House of Delegates redistricting map that appears to heavily favor Democrats, redrawing the lines of 26 districts and moving several powerful Republicans into unfavorable configurations."

* A new national poll from CBS News shows Donald Trump's approval rating sinking to just 36%. More than 7 in 10 Americans agree that the president's proposed border wall is not worth shutting down the government over.

* Sen. Sherrod Brown's (D-Ohio) political action committee, America Works, recently hired Zach Fang, an Iowa-based organizer who, in 2016, worked for Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) campaign.

* Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who'll be on the show tonight, raised an extremely impressive $1.5 million in the first 24 hours after announcing her presidential candidacy.

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The White House grounds are covered in snow after a winter storm hit Washington, DC on Feb. 17, 2015. (Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty)

Former lobbyist poised to head Trump's Domestic Policy Council

01/23/19 11:20AM

The White House's Domestic Policy Council, ostensibly charged with overseeing a president's domestic policy agenda, has been without a leader for several months. Politico  reported yesterday, however, that Donald Trump and his team have settled on a new director.

The White House is expected to soon name Joe Grogan as the next head of its Domestic Policy Council, two sources with knowledge of the decision told POLITICO.

The move would elevate Grogan, a top Office of Management and Budget health care official and ally of acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, to a role that could give him broad new influence over the Trump administration's major policy priorities, including lowering drug prices and efforts to unwind Obamacare.

This wouldn't ordinarily be especially notable, but Grogan's name stands out for a reason. Politico also reported last May that Grogan was tasked with shaping the Trump administration's drug-pricing plan, despite the fact that he was a drug industry lobbyist in 2017.

The article added, "Joe Grogan -- who has sweeping authority over drug pricing, entitlement programs and other aspects of federal health policy at the Office of Management and Budget -- didn't obtain a waiver from a directive Trump issued during his first week in office that imposed a two-year cooling-off period between lobbying and regulating on the same 'specific issue area.'"

He'll join the former oil lobbyist who's currently leading the Interior Department, and the former coal lobbyist whom Trump nominated to lead the EPA.

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US uninsured rate climbs in first two years of Trump's presidency

01/23/19 10:40AM

There was a fairly long list of reasons to overhaul the nation's health care system, but the principal goal of the Affordable Care Act's advocates was to bring down the nation's uninsured rate. On this front, the law's proponents have been able to brag about the ACA's results: in the years following the implementation of "Obamacare," the United States' uninsured rate dropped to the lowest point on record.

Over the last couple of years, that rate has moved in a discouraging direction. Gallup reported this morning:

The U.S. adult uninsured rate stood at 13.7% in the fourth quarter of 2018, according to Americans' reports of their own health insurance coverage, its highest level since the first quarter of 2014. While still below the 18% high point recorded before implementation of the Affordable Care Act's individual health insurance mandate in 2014, today's level is the highest in more than four years, and well above the low point of 10.9% reached in 2016.

The 2.8-percentage-point increase since that low represents a net increase of about seven million adults without health insurance.

At a certain level, an increase of 2.8% may seem quite minor. But as we discussed a year ago, if you or people close to you are among those who've lost coverage, the uptick in the uninsured rate probably doesn't look that small.

I put together the above chart based on Gallup's data, and readers might notice that the latest rise in the rate began in early 2017. That's probably not a coincidence.

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President Donald Trump talks with reporters as he reviews border wall prototypes, Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in San Diego.

With his back against a wall, Trump crafts a slogan, but not a plan

01/23/19 10:03AM

He's responsible for the longest government shutdown in American history. His approval rating is falling. Economic anxieties are rising. His party is anxious, divided, and feeling uncertain. No one seems to have any idea when, or how, the shutdown might end.

It's against the backdrop that Donald Trump this morning unveiled something new. A plan to re-open the government? No, a new slogan the president is apparently quite excited about and eager to share. Here's what he published to Twitter:

"BUILD A WALL & CRIME WILL FALL! This is the new theme, for two years until the Wall is finished (under construction now), of the Republican Party. Use it and pray!"

Two minutes later, just to reiterate the phrase he likes, Trump again tweeted, "BUILD A WALL & CRIME WILL FALL!"

To the extent that reality still has any role to play in the debate, Trump's pitch is strikingly dishonest. His wall, for example, is not "under construction now." For that matter, the idea that a wall is necessary to reduce crimes rates is ridiculous: on average, immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans.

But more interesting than the president's seemingly uncontrollable dishonesty is the fact that he's more interested in sloganeering than policymaking.

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Image: SWITZERLAND-DAVOS-POLITICS-ECONOMY-DIPLOMACY-SUMMIT

Maybe Trump wants a mission to Mars a little too much?

01/23/19 09:20AM

At a conference last May, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross described the administration's vision for using Earth's moon as "a type of gas station" for ships en route to other destinations, including Mars. When Ross was asked whether a gas station on the moon would happen in the next decade, the cabinet secretary said it's coming "a lot sooner than that."

It wasn't altogether clear what he was talking about. In fact, Ross' comments came on the heels of NASA cancelling its only lunar rover in development.

The most likely explanation is that the Commerce secretary was echoing his boss' thoughts on the subject.

A few months earlier, Donald Trump boasted to an audience that the United States would reach Mars "very soon." Apropos of nothing, the president added, "You wouldn't have been going to Mars if my opponent won, that I can tell you. You wouldn't even be thinking about it." (Hillary Clinton has long described herself as "an enthusiastic supporter of human space flight," and during her candidacy, she committed her administration to investing in the endeavor, including a Mars mission.)

Trump's interest in the subject was apparently quite intense. In April 2017, he participated in a video call with astronaut Peggy Whitson, who'd just broken the record for the longest amount of time in space for any American. The two had this exchange:

TRUMP: Tell me, Mars — what do you see a timing for actually sending humans to Mars? Is there a schedule? And when would you see that happening?

WHITSON: Well, I think as your bill directed, it will be approximately in the 2030s. As I mentioned, we actually are building hardware to test the new heavy launch vehicle, and this vehicle will take us further than we've ever been away from this planet. Unfortunately, spaceflight takes a lot of time and money, so getting there will require some international cooperation to get it to be a planet-wide approach in order to make it successful, just because it is a very expensive endeavor. But it so worthwhile doing.

TRUMP: Well, we want to try and do it during my first term or, at worst, during my second term. So we'll have to speed that up a little bit, okay?

WHITSON: (Laughter.) We'll do our best.

It now appears he may not have been kidding.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, May 17, 2016. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

As shutdown drags on, Senate readies first votes on doomed bills

01/23/19 08:40AM

Yesterday afternoon, the New York Times published a headline that briefly sparked some optimism for those hoping to see the government shutdown end. It read, "Senate Leaders Reach Deal That Offers Possible Path to Reopen Government." Alas, that wasn't quite right.

Democratic and Republican Senate leaders did reach an agreement yesterday, but it was a procedural deal on this week's legislative calendar. The upper chamber will hold votes tomorrow on bills to end the shutdown -- these will be the first votes the Senate has held on the issue since before the shutdown began -- but neither bill is expected to pass.

The Senate is scheduled to vote Thursday afternoon on two competing bills that aim to re-open the federal government, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced Tuesday, the 32nd day of the partial government shutdown.

While the 2:30 p.m. ET vote will mark the first time the Senate will take action to end the shutdown since it began on Dec. 22, both pieces of legislation are expected to fail.

The first bill will be the Republicans' proposal, crafted by Donald Trump's White House, which would allocate $5.7 billion for a border wall, while offering Democrats temporary protections for some vulnerable immigrants.

After the GOP's legislation was formally unveiled, many discovered that it also includes some "poison pill" provisions, including harsh new asylum restrictions. The New York Times  reported overnight, "White House officials conceded privately on Tuesday they had tacked on controversial proposals anathema to Democrats that would block many migrants from seeking asylum."

It is, in other words, a bill that will not only fail, but is in fact designed to fail. In a White House address on Saturday, the president said, "Both sides in Washington must simply come together, listen to each other, put down their armor, build trust, reach across the aisle, and find solutions."

Evidently, he didn't mean a word of it.

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Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., arrives at the Virginia Democratic "Victory for Virginia" election party, in Tysons Corner, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013.

Dem senator unveils 'Stop STUPIDITY Act' to prevent all shutdowns

01/23/19 08:00AM

Congressional offices often invest considerable time and energy into crafting the perfect name for legislation. Bills that have memorable acronyms tend to get more attention, while hopefully conveying the purpose of the underlying idea.

One of my personal favorites was an infrastructure bill from a few years ago called the Generating Renewal, Opportunity, and Work with Accelerated Mobility, Efficiency and Rebuilding of Infrastructure and Communities throughout America Act (the GROW AMERICA Act). I can almost picture Capitol Hill aides giving each other high-fives after coming up with that one.

Yesterday, a new gem was unveiled when Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who represents a whole lot of federal workers adversely affected by the government shutdown, introduced a bill called the "Stop STUPIDITY Act." The Washington Post reported:

The measure ...would automatically keep all of the federal government running in the case of a future funding standoff -- with the exceptions of the legislative branch and the Executive Office of the President.

"The Stop STUPIDITY Act takes the aggressive but necessary step of forcing the president and Congress to do the jobs they were elected to do," Warner said in a statement. "Workers, business owners and tax payers are currently paying the price of D.C. gridlock and my legislation will put an end to that."

In this case, the "Stop STUPIDITY" in the bill's title stands for "Stop Shutdowns Transferring Unnecessary Pain and Inflicting Damage in the Coming Years Act." (Some might quibble about leaving out the "c" in "coming," but let's be generous and say Warner and his team were close enough.)

Of course, far more important than the name is the substantive point behind the bill, and in this case, the Virginia Democrat's proposal has real merit.

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