What to Know in Washington: Congress Won’t Thwart 2020 Democrats

Many of the Democrats running for president are vowing to use executive action to deliver on campaign promises from gun control to raising the minimum wage, breaking with a tradition of paying lip-service to bipartisanship on the stump.

Commitments to unilateral action have become a go-to campaign tool this year in response to a political landscape where congressional gridlock and GOP threats to thwart Democratic proposals have all but ended any hope of bipartisan cooperation on contentious issues.

“There’s a lot a president can do herself — it just takes having the courage, the ideas, and the team in place to do it,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has promised to use executive authority to halt new oil drilling leases offshore and on public land.

Although presidents have routinely relied on executive authority to advance policy goals once in office, the emphasis at this early stage of the campaign “is new and it reflects the changed context of American politics,” said William Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution. The promises, he said, are “intended to signal the unswerving determination to get the job done one way or another.”

Of the top-tier candidates, only the front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, has yet to roll out policy proposals or promises of unilateral action. Instead, he has taken an optimistic approach, presenting himself as a president who could overcome partisanship. If Republicans “become part of a coalition that can win on important things, they will begin to vote their conscience,” he said at a fundraiser in Brentwood, California, on Wednesday. Read more from Sahil Kapur.


Photographer: Joe Buglewicz/Bloomberg
Biden speaks during a campaign stop in Henderson, Nevada on May 7.

Happening on the Hill

Democrats’ Pending Spending Fight: Democrats wary of showing weakness on national security but intent on boosting domestic spending are confronting a schism that may hamper their ability to pass defense spending measures in the House.

Lawmakers representing the Progressive Caucus want to spend less for national security in fiscal 2020 than the $733 billion party leaders are supporting as they seek to pass defense legislation by the end of next month. But House Democratic leaders view their work on the defense bills as the opening shot in larger negotiations over federal spending. They view the only path to getting Republicans on board for more domestic spending is to keep higher spending for defense programs. Roxana Tiron takes a look at the potential fight ahead.

Trump Barred From Some Border Funds in Bill: Trump would be barred from using military construction money to fund his border wall under a fiscal 2020 appropriations bill advanced by the House Appropriations Committee yesterday in an early sign of difficult spending negotiations to come.

The move could stymie the administration’s plan to use an additional $3.6 billion in funds meant for military construction to build more fencing along the border. The president pursued the additional funds after requesting $5.7 billion in fiscal 2019 and receiving only $1.4 billion. Read more from Jack Fitzpatrick.

Today, House appropriators plan to mark up a $56.4 billion State and Foreign Operations spending bill. The bill would prohibit the use of funds to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Bipartisan Agreement to Extend Flood Insurance: House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and ranking member Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) struck an agreement to extend the National Flood Insurance Program another four months, the 11th short-term extension of the financially troubled program in less than two years. The pair cosponsored a bill introduced yesterday that would keep the program running through the end of the current fiscal year.

The bill is identical to language that was inserted into a larger disaster relief bill that is scheduled to come up for a vote on the House floor today. However, both the White House and Republicans in the Senate have said they would not support the disaster bill because they believe it is too costly. The introduction of the stand-alone bill by Waters and McHenry signals their concern that pinning the future of the flood insurance program to a larger, more complex bill may cause it to lapse. Read more from David Schultz.

Republicans Split on Trump Jr. Subpoena: Senate Republicans fractured over news that the Senate Intelligence Committee subpoenaed the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., for another round of testimony in its long-running Russia investigation. Trump Jr.’s allies waged a Twitter campaign against the subpoena, aimed at pressing Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) to end his investigation. Burr appeared unmoved, declining to comment to reporters.

Republicans including Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) opposed the subpoena on Twitter, with Tillis saying it’s “time to move on.” They aren’t members of Burr’s committee, which has been investigating Russian meddling for more than two years under Burr’s leadership. All the members of the Senate Intelligence panel have known about the subpoena since it was issued weeks ago, according to a person briefed on the committee’s process. Read more from Steven T. Dennis.

Democrats Send ACA Warning With Vote: The House voted mostly along party lines to reverse the Trump administration’s attempts to give states more leeway in altering rules for health insurers, something Democrats view as undermining Obamacare’s popular consumer protections. The vote was largely symbolic; the White House has threatened to veto the bill and the Senate has shown no signs of taking it up. Democrats will continue their messaging push, with more ACA-related measures moving to the floor next week. Read more from Alex Ruoff.

Movers and Shakeups

Trump to Tap Shanahan for DOD Head: Trump plans to nominate Patrick Shanahan, his acting Pentagon chief and a former Boeing executive, as defense secretary to succeed Jim Mattis, Jennifer Jacobs and Tony Capaccio report. Shanahan has been acting defense secretary since Mattis quit in December over Trump’s abrupt announcement that he was withdrawing all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. He’s backed Trump’s efforts to tap Pentagon funding for a border wall over bipartisan congressional opposition, and has worked to scale back American forces in Syria.

One Republican congressional aide said Shanahan will likely be confirmed, but that process could be contentious, partly because of his support for shifting Pentagon funds to help pay for Trump’s border wall.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) had strong words about Shanahan’s nomination just hours after it was announced, calling it a “disappointing replacement for Secretary Mattis” and said he may be “the least qualified nominee for Secretary of Defense that the Senate Armed Services Committee has considered during my time in the Senate.”

China Tariffs Take Effect

Trump boosted tariffs today on $200 billion in goods from China and was preparing more in his most dramatic steps yet to extract trade concessions, further roiling financial markets and casting a shadow over the global economy.

China immediately said in a statement it is forced to retaliate, though hadn’t specified how as of 3:55 p.m. in Beijing. The move came after discussions between President Xi Jinping’s top trade envoy and his U.S. counterparts in Washington made little progress yesterday, with the mood around them downbeat, according to people familiar with the talks. The negotiations were due to resume this morning Washington time.

Ahead of the talks yesterday, Trump said the U.S. would go ahead with preparations to impose 25% tariffs on a further $325 billion in goods from China, raising the prospect of all of China’s goods exports to the U.S. — which were worth about $540 billion last year — being subject to new import duties. Such a move would take weeks to deploy. But it would have significant repercussions for the U.S., Chinese and global economies. Read more from Shawn Donnan, Jennifer Jacobs and Kevin Hamlin.

Equipment Makers See Tariff Hike Costing 400,000 Jobs: Trump’s higher tariffs on Chinese imports will have “dire consequences” for U.S. equipment manufacturers and worsen prospects for American farmers and others already reeling from lower commodity prices, an industry trade group warned today. The tariffs will “drive down exports, and suppress job gains for the industry by as much as 400,000 over 10 years. It will also invite China to hit back at American businesses, farmers, communities, and families,” said Kip Eideberg, vice president of government affairs for the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, which represents more than 1,000 U.S. makers of farm, construction and mining machinery. Read more from John Harney.

Effect on Farmers: Trump’s trade war will have a long lasting impact on agriculture, farmers from across the country told lawmakers yesterday. “If the trade war ends tomorrow this dispute will not be resolved,” Matt Huie, a farm owner in Texas told the House Agriculture subcommittee on general farm commodities and risk management, Teaganne Finn reports. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue issued payments to farmers hurt by trade disruptions last year and has said there won’t be a second tranche.

“I think we need to be talking loudly about another MFP type program whether it be done through administration or this committee,” said Huie. The USDA launched the Market Facilitation Program in September 2018 to provide farmers relief payments from China’s retaliatory tariffs. As of April 1, more than $8 billion had been paid to farmers.

House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) ruled out the possibility for Congress to step in. “I don’t think there’s any way for something to come out of us,” he said. “It’s going to have to have to get really bad.”

What Else to Know

North Korea Pushes Trump’s Boundaries: North Korea is once again pressing the boundaries of what it can get away with, returning to missile tests this week in violation of international sanctions championed by Trump. So far, the reaction has been muted. Trump dismissed Kim Jong Un’s move to launch two short-range missiles yesterday, six days after the North Korean leader supervised a military exercise in which he fired off several projectiles, including what non-proliferation experts believed was another short-range ballistic missile. “They’re smaller missiles,” Trump told reporters. “Nobody’s happy about it.” Read more from Youkyung Lee and Glen Carey.

Turkey Rebuffs U.S. Sanction Threats: Turkey won’t be derailed by sanctions and threats “as long as we trust ourselves,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday, a clear reference to the long-running dispute with the U.S. over his country’s plan to buy a Russian missile system. The U.S. has threatened to sanction Turkey and expel it from the F-35 fifth-generation fighter jet program if it continues with its planned purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia. Washington says the missiles, if deployed in Turkey, could collect critical information on the stealth capabilities of the F-35, which Turkish companies helped to develop. Read more from Cagan Koc and Firat Kozok.

Breaking Up (Facebook) is Hard to Do: Facebook critics who want the social-media giant broken up gained an unexpected ally in one of the company’s co-founders — but antitrust enforcers face long odds in taking that approach to rein in its dominance. Chris Hughes, who founded Facebook with Mark Zuckerberg when they were students at Harvard University, argued in a column yesterday that the best way to curb the company’s power is by breaking it up, an approach that’s been floated by policy advocates and lawmakers, including Sen. Warren.

That authority rests with antitrust officials at the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department, who would have to prove their case to a federal judge. That’s a process that could take years, including appeals, and potentially go to the Supreme Court. Winning that fight would face steep challenges and could be all but impossible given legal precedents that have significantly curbed the power of antitrust enforcers to go after monopolies, according to experts. Read more from David McLaughlin and Ben Brody.

Unfair Labor Practice Filings Drop: Two-plus years into the Trump administration, labor unions are more often choosing to forego one of the primary tools they use to push back against companies they feel are mistreating workers or failing to bargain in good faith. Union filings of unfair labor practice charges to the National Labor Relations Board have fallen by nearly 11 percent since Trump took office, according to NLRB data obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request. Some unions have withdrawn unionization petitions as well as cases pending before the board, including some cases where an agency judge initially ruled in their favor.

The pullback comes at least in part because unions are worried the GOP-majority board will rule against them or that their case could even become a vehicle for the NLRB to establish new legal precedents that would disadvantage workers with a similar case down the road. Read more from Andrew Wallender and Hassan A. Kanu.

Teaganne Finn in Washington also contributed to this story.

To contact the reporters on this story: Zachary Sherwood in Washington at zsherwood@bgov.com; Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com

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