What to Know in Washington: Trump Speech to Underscore Divides

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Donald Trump’s second State of the Union speech promises to be one of the most dramatic moments in recent memory for the annual address to Congress.

The president will speak tonight to a House chamber full of Democrats jostling to challenge his re-election, with many female lawmakers planning to dress in suffragette white and his chief antagonist  Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) seated at the dais behind him. The appearance will be shadowed by the threat of another government shutdown.

He has hinted that he may make news — a national emergency declaration on the U.S. southern border, a proposal on drug prices or on AIDS, or dates and locations for summits with the leaders of China and North Korea.

Hanging over it all will be Robert Mueller’s investigation, which has so far resulted in indictments or guilty pleas from six Trump associates and has inched closer to the president with the recent indictment of longtime ally Roger Stone.

Aides previewing the speech portrayed it as optimistic and unifying — the theme is to be “choosing greatness.” But the president’s entreaties to Democrats to date have been tactical and divisive rather than bridge-building. Trump’s case for a border wall is likely to figure prominently and he may turn to anti-abortion rhetoric to further rally his supporters.

The very timing of the speech underscores the rancor in the room. Trump is delivering the address a week late, after Pelosi rescinded an earlier invitation in the midst of the 35-day government shutdown. Legislation that re-opened the government will expire 10 days after Trump’s speech, raising the prospect of a second shutdown if the president can’t reach an accommodation with Democrats on border security.  Margaret Talev previews what to watch tonight.

Democratic Response: For some politicians, providing the official State of the Union response has been career gold. For others, not so much.

Democrats this year chose recent Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who lost a remarkably close election in the red state, to address the nation immediately following Trump. The speech gives Abrams a big platform and a chance to introduce herself to a national audience. But there are tales of caution.  Lauren Leatherby and Marie Patino look back at past response givers and their political trajectory post-speech.

Listen Now: Bloomberg Government White House reporter Cheryl Bolen previews the speech alongside BGOV legislative analyst Michael Smallberg on this week’s episode of BGOV’s “Suspending the Rules” podcast.  Listen here.

Also Happening on the Hill

Syria Vote: The Republican-led Senate last night adopted an amendment by Majority Leader  Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) urging Trump not to exit military conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, an unusual rebuke of the president by GOP lawmakers.

Senators added the majority leader’s amendment to a national security measure yesterday that the chamber also advanced, 72-24, toward a final vote today. McConnell, who stood by Trump during the 35-day partial government shutdown and is usually reluctant to criticize the president, pursued the measure after Trump declared victory against Islamic State and began peace negotiations in Afghanistan.  Read more from Daniel Flatley.

Judicial Picks: Neomi Rao’s past writings on date rape, race and gender will draw scrutiny from Democrats at today’s confirmation hearing on her nomination to replace Brett Kavanaugh on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, arguably the nation’s second-most powerful court. Justices Kavanaugh, John Roberts, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Clarence Thomas all rose to the Supreme Court from the D.C. Circuit, and some believe Rao could be a high court short-lister if she clears the confirmation hurdle as expected.

Rao likely will be asked at the hearing about writings dating back as far as college on a wide range of controversial issues. Progressives have  criticized  her as an unsuitable nominee. But she is likely to win Senate confirmation with Republicans holding a larger majority at 53-47. Read more from Patrick L. Gregory.

Pension-Fix Ideas: Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said he hasn’t made up his mind on what kind of legislation to take up this year as part of a bipartisan effort to resolve the U.S. multi-employer pension crisis. “We’ve got to do something in that area,” he told reporters yesterday.

Grassley said he will meet today with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who’s the the new head of the subcommittee overseeing the retirement policy, to discuss potential solutions, Nancy Ognanovich reports.

Pensions in Peril for 1.3 Million Americans: BGOV OnPoint

Abortion Bill: Senate Republicans tried and failed to pass a controversial bill by unanimous consent that supporters say protects infants who survive legal abortions, but opponents warn deny women the right to an abortion. Sen.  Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) called for unanimous passage of his bill in response to pro-abortion measures recently passed in New York. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) objected, saying there are already protections against infanticide.

The measure Sasse attempted to pass was a “born alive” protections measure that passed in several states. Many seek to define broadly the term “born alive infant,” which opponents warn can be used to ban abortion procedures, Alex Ruoff reports.

Grassley, Wyden Invite Drugmakers: Senate Finance Chairman Grassley yesterday invited seven drug companies to testify before a Feb. 26 committee hearing on drug prices. They include AbbVie, AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Pfizer and Sanofi.

It would be the first hearing of the new Congress to feature drugmaker executives as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle look to find ways to reduce prices. Several bills have been introduced to tackle the topic, but it’s unclear what would pass a House controlled by Democrats and a Republican-led Senate.  Read more from Anna Edney.

FCC Oversight: The House committee that oversees the Federal Communications Commission wants GOP FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to turn over detailed statistics about its actions since 2016. Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman  Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and Michael Doyle (D-Pa.), who chairs the panel’s Communications and Technology Subcommittee, asked Pai in a letter yesterday for information on open investigations, enforcement actions, and disputes the agency has resolved.

The letter offers a taste of the kind of attention Pai can expect during the next two years from the Democratic-controlled panel.  Read more from Alexis Kramer.

HHS Watchdog Asked to Probe Coca-Cola: Reps. Chellie Pingree  (D-Maine) and  Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) are asking HHS’s watchdog to investigate reports alleging that Coca-Cola “inappropriately influenced public health policy through relationships with high-level” CDC officials, including by pushing industry-backed research.

“Given that decades of peer-reviewed research has established links between soft drink consumption and negative health outcomes like obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes, it is clear that the Coca-Cola’s influence is inappropriate and must be probed further,” the lawmakers said in a letter to the HHS inspector general. Read more from Billy House and Kim Chipman.

Higher Ed Priorities: Allowing student loan repayments to be taken automatically from paychecks, addressing how colleges handle sexual assault allegations, and holding colleges accountable for graduates’ earnings and debt are among the top priorities for a new higher education law, a top senator said.  Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, is aiming for his panel to approve the legislation by spring, for the Senate pass it by summer, and for Trump to sign it by year’s end.

For Alexander, a former education secretary and college president who’s announced he’ll retire in 2021, an education law rewrite would be a swan song. He’s seeking to avoid a repeat of last year’s effort, which fizzled when negotiations between Alexander and ranking member Sen. Patty Murray  (D-Wash.) stalled. Read more from Emily Wilkins.

Money & Politics

Measuring Lobbying Industry: More than $3.4 billion was spent on lobbying in 2018 by about 12,000 companies, trade associations, nonprofits, state and local governments. Although hundreds of companies and associations report spending millions each year on their influencing efforts, the median lobbying expenditure in 2018 was only $68,000.

Bloomberg Government quantitative analyst Jorge Uquillas takes a look at the biggest lobbying spenders and entities that had the largest lobbying teams is part of a series highlighting the different metrics BGOV uses to assess the performance of firms and the organizations they represent.  Read the report here.

NRA Lobbying: The National Rifle Association, one of most powerful lobbying organizations in Washington, did little to advance its agenda over the past two years even with a gun-friendly president in the White House and a Republican-controlled Congress. The group spent a record $9.6 million lobbying lawmakers and federal agencies over the last two years, federal disclosures show, up from $5.9 million the previous two years. Yet it had few legislative victories to show for its efforts. None of its top five bil ls was signed into law. And now that Democrats control the House, the NRA will likely be playing defense for the next two years. Read more from Bill Allison.

Trump Inaugural Committee Subpoena: Trump’s inaugural committee is under scrutiny by federal prosecutors in New York, adding new legal woes for the president and his allies that stretch beyond the probe led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The committee, which disclosed raising a record-setting $107 million to celebrate his ascendance to the presidency, was subpoenaed by federal prosecutors in New York, according to a person familiar with the matter. The committee’s donors and potential foreign connections have drawn scrutiny, and questions have been raised about how the nine-figure donation haul was spent and how tickets for the slate of exclusive events were allocated.

“We have just received a subpoena for documents,” Kristin Celauro, a spokeswoman with Owen Blicksilver PR, which has long represented Thomas Barrack, a close friend of Trump’s who oversaw the inaugural committee, said in an email. “While we are still reviewing the subpoena, it is our intention to cooperate with the inquiry.” She didn’t say who had subpoenaed the committee. ABC News reported earlier that prosecutors in the Southern District of New York contacted the committee and intended to subp oena the organization for documents, citing sources the network didn’t identify.  Read more from Caleb Melby.

What Else to Know Today

Trump and Powell Meet: Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell met Trump at the White House for dinner last night to discuss recent economic developments and the outlook, but the central bank said the Fed chief did not share his expectations for monetary policy. Powell’s comments were “consistent with his remarks at his press conference of last week,” the Fed said in a statement. “He did not discuss his expectations for monetary policy, except to stress that the path of policy will depend entirely on incoming economic information and what that means for the outlook.”

Meetings between a president and Fed chief are rare but not unprecedented. This one, though, took place against a background of public criticism by Trump of Powell over Fed rate increases that culminated with Bloomberg News reporting Dec. 21 that Trump had discussed firing the man he picked to lead the central bank.  Read more from Craig Torres.

U.S.-China Trade Talks: One of Trump’s most persistent economic promises has been to rewrite the U.S. relationship with China. Yet as he approaches a potential deal, some of the very hawks who have cheered on the president’s trade war already fear he may end up falling short. With less than a month before a March 1 deadline for either a deal or an increase in U.S. tariffs, hardliners inside and outside the administration fret Trump is being outplayed by Chinese President Xi Jinping and seduced by what they see as empty promises.

After Trump hosted Chinese Vice Premier Liu He at the White House last week, one administration official privately likened the direction of negotiations to the president’s caving to Democrats in the shutdown battle over funding for a border wall. Another person close to the talks said Trump appeared determined to turn a pile of crumbs offered by China into what at best might turn out to be a slice of bread.

Trump is likely to hail his own trade fight with China in his State of the Union address. But the concerns are driven by what some aides and others see as the president’s appetite to strike a deal to calm financial markets. They are also — as seems to almost always be the case with the China trade conflict — embodied by soybeans.  Read more from Shawn Donnan and Jenny Leonard.

World Bank Nominee: Trump will nominate senior Treasury official David Malpass to lead the World Bank, according to two administration officials, moving to place at its helm a critic of the development lender and its internationalist principles. The announcement will be made this week, after Trump delivers his State of the Union address, according to the officials, who asked not be identified before the the nomination was made public. The administration yesterday started reaching out to World Bank member countries to rally support for Malpass’s nomination, one of the officials said.

Malpass has portrayed the World Bank as too big, too inefficient and too reluctant to wean developing countries that have become engines of growth. His public record suggests Malpass may scale back the bank’s ambitions at a time when China has escalated lending to the developing world. The lender’s executive board, which represents the 189 member nations, has the final say in choosing the leader.  Read more from Saleha Mohsin and Andrew Mayeda.

Interior Pick: Trump is nominating David Bernhardt to be Interior secretary, a move that puts a former oil lobbyist on track to take over the Interior Department. Bernhardt has been acting secretary since Zinke left the Trump administration in January amid mounting federal investigations into his travel, political activity and potential conflicts of interest.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) delivered a blistering criticism of Trump’s choice last night. “David Bernhardt might be the most ethically-challenged, special-interest-driven nominee the president could have selected for this position – and that’s saying something, considering he would be following former Secretary Ryan Zinke,” Schumer said in a statement. “Mr. Bernhardt’s nomination is a serious threat to our nation’s public lands, wildlife and natural resources.”

But the move drew immediate applause from ranchers, cattle producers and oil developers. Read more form Jennifer A. Dlouhy.

Manafort Sentencing Rescheduled: Paul Manafort, who was supposed to be sentenced for conspiracy to obstruct justice March 5, will now be sentenced at a later date, a federal judge said yesterday. Manafort, former campaign chief for Trump’s 2016 run, also faces sentencing in a related case in Virginia,  David Glovin reports.

Ginsburg Makes Public Appearance: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made her first public appearance since undergoing cancer surgery in December, attending a concert in her honor in Washington last night,  Greg Stohr reports. Ginsburg had two cancerous growths removed from a lung on Dec. 21 and missed the court’s two weeks of arguments in January. She has been working from home and participating in cases by reading briefs and transcripts, the court has said.

The 75-minute concert, titled “Notorious RBG in Song,” is a tribute to Ginsburg’s personal and professional life. It was written and performed by her daughter-in-law, soprano Patrice Michaels, along with other musicians.

To contact the reporter on this story: Zachary Sherwood in Washington at zsherwood@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com;Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com

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