What to Know in Washington: Where Democrats’ Dreams Go to Die

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The Senate threatens to become the graveyard of progressive Democrats’ dreams.

The sweeping liberal ideas backed by many of the party’s candidates — “Medicare for All,” a “Green New Deal,” and a $15 federal minimum wage — would struggle to get past a Senate where Republicans are likely to retain powerful influence over what legislation becomes law, even if a Democrat defeats President Donald Trump and takes office in January 2021.

Some Democrats are sounding warnings about the expectations being raised among the progressive voting base that helped the party gain control of the House and who’ll be crucial to any chances of winning the White House.

“The Senate is going to make or break the progressive agenda in 2021, regardless of how well we do at the top of the ticket,” said Adam Jentleson, a former spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

The problem is math and congressional procedure — which has prevented presidents of both parties from getting their way on signature policy items, including Trump’s unfulfilled pledge to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act despite Republican control of the White House and both chambers.

In the best case scenario for Democrats — another wave election that consolidates the party’s hold on the House and wins them a majority in the Senate — any far-reaching changes still would struggle to get 50 votes in the Senate, let alone the 60 votes needed to advance most legislation.

Democrats would need to gain a minimum of three Senate seats to have a majority. But even then, the chamber’s structure allows for a minority to block most legislation unless the filibuster is eliminated, a step that many Senate Democrats say they’re unwilling to take.

The electoral map gives Democrats some Senate pickup opportunities, but none will be easy.

Just two Republican senators face re-election in states won by Hillary Clinton in 2016: Colorado’s Cory Gardner and Maine’s Susan Collins. From there it gets tougher. Arizona’s Martha McSally and Georgia’s David Perdue are on the ballot in once solidly Republican states where Democrats have been making gains. North Carolina’s Thom Tillis and Iowa’s Joni Ernstrepresent swing states where Democrats have struggled in recent years. Given the results from the 2018 election, Texas’s John Cornyn is seen as a long-shot target for Democrats.

At the same time, Democratic Senator Doug Jones will face a very difficult re-election in deep-red Alabama. Read more from Sahil Kapur and Steven T. Dennis.

Democrats Escalate Trump Oversight

Democrats Demand Mueller Full Disclosure: House Republicans spent almost two years forcing the Justice Department to turn over internal documents about the investigation into Hillary Clinton. Now that Democrats control the House, they’re ready to do the same thing to crack open Robert Mueller’s probe.

Democrats plan to seize on the GOP’s successes, including in obtaining extensive material related to the origins of the Russia probe, as precedent for full disclosure of Special Counsel Mueller’s impending final report — and the evidence behind it.

“Devin Nunes, Bob Goodlatte and Trey Gowdy spent a ton of time digging out investigatory material from the DOJ,”’ said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), who sits on the Intelligence Committee, referring to Republican House chairmen who led a campaign to discredit the Russia probe that Trump routinely calls a “witch hunt.” For the Justice Department to turn around and withhold details of the Mueller probe from Congress and the public, Himes said, would be “hypocritical and inconsistent.”

It’s an urgent question because Mueller is almost done writing the report that will close his 21-month investigation. Attorney General William Barr has indicated he may send Congress only a synopsis that’s sparse on details and might exclude any discussion of possible wrongdoing by the president. Read more from Billy House and Chris Strohm.

House Panel to Summon Trump Associates: Meanwhile, the House Intelligence Committee plans to call hearings or interviews with several associates of Trump. The panel intends to summon Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, for a hearing, but a date hasn’t been set, an official familiar with the decision said.

Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen told the House Oversight panel on Wednesday that Weisselberg was involved with Cohen in paying hush money to an adult film actress in the days before the election — with Trump’s blessing. Lawmakers said that Cohen’s seven-hour private interview with the Intelligence Committee yesterday went even deeper into aspects of his testimony.

House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said the panel also is scheduling a March 14 public hearing with Felix Sater, an associate of Trump involved in negotiating a possible business deal in Moscow. Read more from Billy House and Shahien Nasiripour.

Staffing Conflicts: An attorney’s work for House Judiciary Committee Democrats investigating the Trump Organization likely doesn’t pose a conflict for his law firm, Kramer Levin, even though it’s done work for the real estate powerhouse, ethics experts say. The Trump Organization is demanding that the panel stop investigating it because Barry H. Berke, a partner at the New York-based firm, is now a “consulting counsel” with the panel. Read more from Melissa Heelan Stanzione.

Kushner Security Clearance: Trump ordered his former chief of staff John Kelly to grant Jared Kushner a top-secret security clearance in May last year, the New York Times reports, citing four people briefed on the matter. Kelly wrote an internal memo about how he had been ordered to give Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, the top-secret clearance, according to the report. The New York Times says Trump told the newspaper in January that he had no role in Kushner receiving his clearance.

Also Happening on the Hill

Pesticide Reauthorization Legislation: The Senate yesterday cleared a bill by by voice vote that would reauthorize the Pesticide Registration Improvement Act through fiscal 2023. The program collects industry fees to expedite new EPA registrations for insecticides, weed killers, disinfectants, and other pesticides. The House passed the bill by unanimous consent on Monday.

GOP House Climate Panel Members: Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), a former coastal protection official in an oil-producing state, will lead Republicans on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) also announced yesterday the appointments of five other GOP lawmakers to the panel: Morgan Griffith (Va.), Gary Palmer(Ala.), Buddy Carter (Ga.), Carol Miller (W.Va.), and Kelly Armstrong (N.D.). Read more from Tiffany Stecker and Abby Smith.

Tuition-Free College: The ranking Democrat on the Senate’s committee that deals with education called for college to be more affordable for more students, but stopped short of requiring a higher education law update to include debt-free or tuition-free college. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) took a pragmatic approach in a speech yesterday outlining her vision for a reauthorization of the higher education law. Murray called proposals for tuition-free or debt-free college “worthy of consideration,” but didn’t go as far as to call for their inclusion in a higher education rewrite. Read more from Emily Wilkins.

Gaetz Reprimand: Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) faces a number of potential consequences for his tweet at Michael Cohen on the eve of his congressional testimony, including public reprimand, disbarment, and a congressional ethics investigation. Or the whole thing could blow over. The vocal supporter of Trump so far faces a Florida Bar Association investigation and a congressional ethics complaint filed by a Democratic political action committee. Gaetz also faces public accusations of witness tampering lodged by law professors and others after he asked Cohen publicly via Twitter whether his wife and father-in-law knew about his girlfriends. Chris Marr explores the disciplinary outlook for Gaetz.

Trump-Kim Summit Fallout

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to meet again with Trump to continue nuclear negotiations after a two-day summit between the leaders collapsed amid discord over sanctions and conflicting accounts of Pyongyang’s demands.

Kim’s pledge was released today through North Korea’s state-run news agency KCNA in a report that presented a more optimistic outlook than the regime’s top diplomats gave in a rare news conference hours earlier. Kim expressed appreciation for Trump’s “active efforts toward results” and called the summit talks “productive.”

In comments later to reporters traveling with Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, a senior State Department official said the North Koreans were unwilling to impose a complete freeze on their weapons program, and the sanctions relief would have given North Korea “many, many billions of dollars.” The official, who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations, said North Korea was asking for relief of all sanctions except those covering its weapons. Read more from Jihye Lee, Youkyung Lee, and Nick Wadhams.

Pentagon Chief Sees U.S. Forces at Ideal Levels in South Korea: Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan said American troop levels in South Korea are right for their current mission and the U.S. wouldn’t “unnecessarily erode the readiness we need.” The comments, in an interview at the Pentagon, were the most definitive response so far from Trump’s administration to speculation the president might agree to reduce the roughly 30,000 U.S. troops in South Korea as part of a broader agreement with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Read more from Tony Capaccio and Bill Faries.

Politics & Policy

Inslee Announces: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a proponent of dramatic action to reverse climate change and a vocal critic of Trump, said he’s running for the Democratic nomination to try to unseat the president in 2020. “We’re the first generation to feel the sting of climate change, and we’re the last that can do something about it,” said Inslee said in a video released by his campaign this morning. “I’m the only candidate who will make defeating climate change our nation’s number one priority.” Read more from Dina Bass.

Supreme Court Divide: Chief Justice John Roberts is showing a new willingness to side with the U.S. Supreme Court’s liberal wing after the divisive confirmation fight over Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Roberts joined the liberals Wednesday in two rulings that left the conservatives in dissent. Most notably, he cast the deciding vote to order a new look at the mental competence of a death row inmate who says he can’t remember the crimes he committed. The votes add to an unmistakable pattern, offering fresh indications that Roberts is in no hurry to oversee a conservative legal revolution. The chief justice has also joined 5-4 orders that blocked Trump from curbing bids for asylum at the Mexican border and stopped Louisiana from enforcing new abortion restrictions.

It’s too early to say whether the votes mark the beginning of a lasting shift, or merely a pause on the court’s anticipated move to the right after Kavanaugh’s confirmation to succeed the retired Justice Anthony Kennedy. Since being appointed in 2005 by Republican President George W. Bush, Roberts has established himself as a solid conservative, though usually one inclined toward incremental change. Read more from Greg Stohr.

“Green New Deal” and Jobs: A Democratic blueprint for helping to reverse the impacts of global warming could reshape construction work and other blue-collar jobs, as well as the training required for them, lawmakers and observers said. The “Green New Deal” draws up a 10-year plan with trillions in estimated government funding to help shift the U.S. to 100 percent renewable and zero-emission energy sources. The nonbinding resolution wouldn’t set policy but proponents hope it can fuel multiple bills on clean energy, green jobs, and climate change that would move in the 116th Congress.

Democratic backers of the green deal still face major obstacles with Republicans in control of the Senate and the White House, but also with the resolution splitting support from some influential unions. Its ambition aside, the deal’s call for a massive shift toward wind and solar energy as well as rail lines for expanding mass transit and high-speed rail suggests a potential windfall for construction workers and the green energy sector. Read more from Dean Scott and Tyrone Richardson.

HHS Secretary Pokes at “Medicare for All”: Trump’s top health official took shots at the Democratic “Medicare for All” proposal to create a universal federal health insurance program, calling it a “violation of the government’s commitment to seniors.”

“The threat is an immediate and compete government takeover of health care,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said yesterday at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. Azar said the plan would create a “two-tier system” like those seen in European and socialist countries where those who can afford to go outside the government system will do so. The logic behind his comments are that a full government program would be inefficient, in theory harming seniors already using the functional Medicare system. Read more from Madison Alder.

Trump’s Wealth Tax: Before Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) wealth tax, there was Trump’s wealth tax. It was 1999, and he was trying to get the Reform Party to run him as their presidential candidate for the 2000 campaign. Although Trump conducted a media blitz to get the wealth tax idea on the front pages, nobody could figure how it worked, why he proposed it or whose idea it was. It might have originated with Trump, or maybe it originated with longtime Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone, says Dave Shiflett, who co-authored a book with Trump.

The math just didn’t add up: Trump was off by trillions of dollars.

By the time he actually ran in 2016, he had re-purposed himself as a market-driven conservative to win the Republican nomination, and ultimately, the White House. The billionaire candidate said in 2016 that he tried to pay as little tax as possible, and since then has generally compared Democrats’ tax-the-rich plans to the socialist regime of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. Read more from Joe Light.

What Else to Know Today

U.S.-China Trade: U.S. officials are preparing a final trade deal that Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping could sign in weeks, people familiar with the matter said, even as a debate continues in Washington over whether to push Beijing for more concessions. The U.S. is eyeing a summit between the two presidents as soon as mid-March, said one of the people.

If there is no deal and the U.S. imposes the threatened 25 percent tariffs on $200 billion of imports from China, it will damage the economies of both nations. The International Monetary Fund estimates that would cut 0.2 percentage point from U.S. growth this year and 0.6 percentage point from China’s expansion. Read more from Jenny Leonard, Andrew Mayeda and Saleha Mohsin.

Separately, Japan economy minister Toshimitsu Motegi said he wanted to start bilateral trade talks with the U.S. as soon as possible, a day after Trump turned up tension by complaining about years of “unfair” trade. Motegi gave no specific date for talks when speaking to reporters in Tokyo today. His U.S. counterpart, Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, told U.S. lawmakers this week that talks were a matter of urgency because U.S. farmers risk losing market share to Pacific and European nations that have already sealed trade deals with Asia’s second-largest economy. He said he planned to visit Japan in March. Read more from Isabel Reynolds and Emi Nobuhiro.

Defense Secretary Warns Turkey: Acting Defense Secretary Shanahan said he’s working to persuade Turkey to drop plans to buy a Russian missile defense system, saying that would imperil prospects to sell the NATO ally the next-generation F-35 jet it’s helping to build. Shanahan has spoken with his Turkish counterpart, Hulusi Akar, five times since becoming acting defense secretary on Jan. 1, he said in an interview yesterday in his Pentagon office.

While some of those talks have centered on Syria policy as Trump seeks a “significant” drawdown of U.S. forces there, Shanahan said the S-400 missile defense system has also been a key topic. “My position is that the S-400 and F-35 are incompatible — meaning that they don’t go together,” Shanahan said. “We want to find a solution that makes the F-35, for a strategic partner, a critical asset in their military,” he said of Turkey. Read more from Tony Capaccio and Bill Faries.

South China Sea: Secretary of State Pompeo assured the Philippines that a defense treaty would apply if its vessels or planes are attacked in the South China Sea, sparking a debate within the Southeast Asian nation over whether it should drop plans to review the 1951 agreement. “China’s island-building and military activities in the South China Sea threaten your sovereignty, security and therefore economic livelihood, as well as that of the U.S.,” Pompeo said at briefing today with Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin in Manila. “As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels will trigger mutual defense obligations” under the treaty. Read more from Claire Jiao and Nick Wadhams.

EU Dirty-Money List Objections: A planned European Union list that identifies foreign jurisdictions with insufficient controls against illicit financial flows is being held up by the bloc’s national governments, said three officials familiar with the matter. All but one of the EU’s 28 member states oppose the list and have raised a number of objections, said the officials, who asked not to be identified because the decision isn’t public. Proposed by the EU’s executive arm, the list includes Puerto Rico, Guam and other U.S. territories, as well as Saudi Arabia. The next steps are scheduled to be discussed at a meeting today in Brussels, the officials said. Read more from Alexander Weber and Stephanie Bodoni.

New York and Amazon: New York’s Amazon dreams aren’t dead yet, at least not in the minds of some of its leading executives and politicians. James Gorman, the chief executive officer of Morgan Stanley, Mastercard CEO Ajay Banga and former Mayor David Dinkins were among those who signed an open letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, urging him to reconsider his decision to walk away from a deal to build part of the retail giant’s second headquarters in Long Island City, Queens. The letter promises that Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) “will take personal responsibility for the project’s state approval.” Cuomo himself didn’t sign the letter, but The New York Times reported that he had made a personal pitch to Bezos in an effort to revive the deal. Read more from Henry Goldman.

Harper’s Tax Savings: Bryce Harper is about to become Major League Baseball’s first $330 million-dollar man. Depending on where he claims his residence, he could save tens of million of dollars in income taxes by signing with the Philadelphia Phillies over competing offers. The 2015 National League MVP signed a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Phillies after spending six years with the Washington Nationals, multiple news sources reported yesterday. His income tax bill is up for a serious overhaul. Ryan Prete has the details.

With assistance from Giuseppe Macri

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; Brandon Lee at blee@bgov.com

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