What to Know in Washington: Lawmakers Bid Sequestration Goodbye

Senators are set to vote as early as today on a budget caps bill that would avoid billions in spending cuts, but to many lawmakers, that’s not the most important part of the deal.

The bill (H.R. 3877) would indefinitely end the threat of sequestration by raising spending caps through fiscal 2021, the final year they’re in effect. That’s welcome news for most lawmakers, as both Republicans and Democrats have described the spending levels set in the Budget Control Act (Public Law 112-25) as arbitrary, damaging, and a blunt ax hanging over the budget and appropriations process.

“It’s a burden off our shoulders,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told reporters last week. “The uncertainty was dooming us to drastic cuts to defense among other things. In a troubled world, I think that was the wrong message.”

Democrats and military-focused Republicans describe sequestration as a bad idea from the start, while the most fiscally conservative lawmakers describe it as a fine idea that didn’t ultimately didn’t work.

“Sequestration made us weaker militarily, it put our nation at risk, it was not fair to our troops, it was ill-conceived, it didn’t do a damn thing to help the debt,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations State-Foreign Operations Subcommittee, said last week.

Even Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a cofounder of the House Freedom Caucus, offered a muted response to the end of the spending limits, saying they didn’t actually force lawmakers to take a more disciplined approach to appropriations.

“The bigger concern and the bigger issue is we have to be able to control spending,” Jordan said last week. “And if we can’t hold the line on discretionary, how are we going to tackle the really long-term drivers of the debt, which are making sure Social Security and Medicare are solvent long term?” Jack Fitzpatrick has more as lawmakers prepare to bid goodbye to sequestration.

Protester_Department_LaborPhotographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
A protester outside the Department of Labor in 2013.

Sanders and Warren Set Debate Pace

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) set the terms of debate in a crowded field of candidates last night, defending their progressive brand of politics against attacks from low-polling moderates.

On health care, immigration, trade and climate, Sanders and Warren staked out positions at the far left of the Democratic spectrum: Advocating Medicare for All, decriminalizing border crossings, tearing up trade deals and eliminating carbon emissions.

Appearing together at center stage by virtue of their higher poll numbers, Sanders and Warren acted chummy and refrained from attacking each other. Warren gave Sanders a half-hug when she was introduced, and the two frequently agreed with each other on policy. Read more from Gregory Korte and Jennifer Epstein.

Takeaways: Warren and Sanders stuck together, Pete Buttigieg took the middle path, Marianne Williamson took on racism and Beto O’Rourke faded into the background. From the opening question to the closing remarks of the debate, divisions in the party over health care, immigration and how to tackle climate change were on full display. Tyler Pager, Emma Kinery and Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou highlight the key takeaways.

More Debate Night Reads:

Trump’s Racial Attacks Stoke Base But Pose 2020 Risks: President Donald Trump has long tested the line between keeping his loyal base outraged and aggrieved while preventing mainstream Republicans from bolting his coalition, but his attacks on minority lawmakers risk upsetting the balance and imperiling his re-election. The president has kept controversy over his racially divisive attacks at a high boil into a third week by leveling criticism at Rep. Elijah Cummings, the House Oversight chairman, who represents a majority-black Maryland district Trump called a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”

More than half of registered voters now believe the president is racist, according to a poll Quinnipiac University released on Tuesday. That includes 80 percent of black voters, 55 percent of Hispanic voters and nearly six in 10 female voters. The survey was taken July 25-28, before the bulk of Trump’s remarks about Cummings and Baltimore. Read more from Justin Sink.

National Cathedral Rebukes Trump: The Washington National Cathedral’s religious leaders rebuked Trump for his racially divisive attacks on Cummings, an unusual step for an institution known for staying above the political fray. In a statement yesterday, church leaders called Trump’s rhetoric “dangerous” and said it amounted to a “call to action” for white supremacists, warning that “violent words lead to violent actions.” Read more from Jennifer Jacobs.

Also Happening on the Hill

McConnell Says ‘Maybe’ On Election Security Deal: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who’s been derided as “Moscow Mitch” for blocking Democrats’ efforts to hold votes on election security legislation, said yesterday that an agreement is “maybe” possible. McConnell said criticism he’s received over election security amounts to “modern day McCarthyism,” claiming he’s been the subject of “absurd smears” after he blocked an effort by Democrats to strengthen election security he said was so partisan that it only had one Republican supporter in the House. Read more from Kathleen Miller and Laura Litvan.

Border Agency Sexual Assault Allegation: Accusations of sexual assault and abuse of child migrants by border agents has spurred almost two-dozen new investigations at the Department of Homeland Security, as well as an overhaul of reporting protocols. The goal is to ensure allegations of agents’ misconduct toward unaccompanied children flow in real-time so U.S. Customs and Border Protection can take the immediate steps to correct them, acting Commissioner Mark Morgan told the Senate Homeland Security Committee in response to a question from Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). “There is definitely an area where we can improve the flow,” Morgan said. Michaela Ross has more.

The Trump administration is defying a federal judge’s order by continuing to split up families of migrants seeking asylum in the U.S., the American Civil Liberties Union said in a request to block the practice. “The government is systematically separating large numbers of families based on minor criminal history, highly dubious allegations of unfitness, and errors in identifying bona fide parent-child relationships,” the ACLU said in a filing yesterday in San Diego federal court. Over 900 children, including babies and toddlers, have been separated from their parents in the past year over infractions, like minor traffic violations, the ACLU said. Read more from Edvard Pettersson.

Graham Eyes Migrant Measure: Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham told reporters he still plans tomorrow to mark up legislation (S. 1494) he says aims to curb and better manage the surge of migrants crossing the southwest border, even if the Senate leaves for its recess early and can’t take up the legislation before September, Michaela Ross reports. “I promised people at the border I would take up their cause and try to make the changes that would fix the problem and I will keep my promise to them,” Graham said.

The measure includes provisions that would lead to child migrants being held in detention longer as their families await court proceedings, and make it easier to deport unaccompanied minors back to their home countries, both of which are unpopular with Democrats. Top Democrat Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has asked Graham to reconsider his decision to force a vote on the bill. Graham said he would disregard committee rules and go forward with the markup after most Democrats on the panel skipped last week’s meeting to prevent a vote. “I very much regret that he would do that,” Feinstein said yesterday, adding that Democrats will offer amendments. “I still hope we will be able to work together in a bipartisan way.”

Moran Tees Up Privacy Bill Empowering FTC: A bipartisan pair of senators has drafted a data privacy bill that would give the Federal Trade Commission more enforcement tools, while preempting state laws. Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) were working with other Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee members to draft a bill, but that effort stalled in recent months. Moran said he and Blumenthal are now writing their own bill in a bid to see if they can attract the support of other lawmakers as the August recess looms.

Senate Commerce Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who’d been part of that working group, switched to developing a bill with Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the committee’s ranking member. Cantwell is circulating a legislative framework of her own, according to sources familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the work. Daniel R. Stoller and Rebecca Kern have more.

Self-Driving Car Bill Talks With Industry: Self-driving vehicle legislation could get new legs this Congress as House and Senate committee staffers reached out to industry groups yesterday to revive talks on how a federal framework for the transportation technology could look, a Senate committee aide said. Staffers at the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee have been meeting in recent months to come to an agreement on priorities and principles for a new autonomous vehicle push in this Congress. Now largely on the same page, they are turning outwards for the first time in this Congress to gather feedback on issues including the necessary vehicle standards and addressing cybersecurity concerns, the Senate aide said. Read more from Shaun Courtney.

Restricting Saudi Nuclear Power Projects: U.S. Export-Import Bank financing of Saudi Arabian nuclear power projects would need to meet certain conditions, according to a bipartisan Senate proposal. The conditions would require Saudi Arabia to have agreements in place for nuclear cooperation and comprehensive safeguards. The Saudis wouldn’t be able to have sensitive nuclear facilities in its territory or engage in nuclear enrichment under the bill. The measure will make sure U.S taxpayers do not “bankroll a Saudi nuclear bomb,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said in a statement. Along with Van Hollen, the legislation is sponsored by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Lindsey Graham and Moran. Read more from Giovanna Bellotti Azevedo.

Trump Said Halting Child Nutrition Work: The Trump administration’s recent move to limit eligibility for federal food assistance has complicated the Senate’s efforts to negotiate a reauthorization of government child nutrition programs, a key committee chairman said. “There are some things that are happening from an executive standpoint that affect directly child nutrition that are problematic,” Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said in an interview.

Last week, USDA proposed a rule to eliminate “broad-based categorical eligibility,” a voluntary standard that states can use automatically to qualify recipients of non-cash welfare for food aid. While more than 3 million Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients would lose aid eligibility under the proposal, the House Education and Labor Committee in a letter said USDA left out its own estimate that 500,000 low-income students could also be cut off from free school meals. Read more from Teaganne Finn.

Trump, Democrats, N.Y. Make No Headway on Tax: Trump, House Democrats and the State of New York remained at an impasse over how to proceed on Trump’s request for an emergency order preventing the turnover of his state tax returns. U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols on Monday told them to come up with a plan in 24 hours, after hearing almost two hours of argument over the issue in federal court in Washington. In a joint report yesterday, the three parties said they can’t agree on a plan, leaving it up to the judge to grapple with Trump’s demand for a two-week notice of a House request for the documents and defendants’ claims that the court has no jurisdiction over either of them, Andrew Harris and Laura Davison report.

More in Elections & Politics

Rep. Conaway of Texas to Retire: Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee, is retiring after 15 years in Congress, Politico’s Jake Sherman said in Twitter post last night, without citing anyone. Conaway’s spokespeople didn’t immediately return a call from Bloomberg News seeking comment.

DNC Suit Against Trump Campaign Dismissed: Trump scored a win yesterday when a federal judge in New York dismissed a suit by the Democratic National Committee against Russia, WikiLeaks and the 2016 Trump campaign claiming a conspiracy to hack its emails before the presidential election. The DNC claimed the defendants, which didn’t include Trump himself, violated U.S. racketeering, computer fraud and other laws by conspiring to hack emails from committee computers and leak them in a “brazen attack on American democracy,” reports Bob Van Voris.

Pierluisi to be Puerto Rico Governor’s Successor: Outgoing Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello will name Pedro Pierluisi, the commonwealth’s former representative in Congress, as his successor, according to an island lawmaker. Commonwealth House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Mendez told members that Rossello will nominate Pierluisi, Rep. Jose “Quiquito” Melendez said in a telephone interview last night. The House is set to hold a special session at 1 p.m. Friday regarding the appointment of the island’s Secretary of State — next in the line of succession — according to a notice of the session. Read more from Michelle Kaske.

Movers & Shakeups

Norquist Confirmed, Craft Advances: The Senate by voice vote yesterday confirmed Pentagon Comptroller David Norquist to be deputy secretary of defense. The chamber also advanced Trump’s pick for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, setting up a full confirmation vote as early as today.

Former Obama Picks in Confirmation Surge: Up to four of former President Barack Obama’s judicial selections could be confirmed before the week is out as the Senate plows through a long list of nominees heading into its August recess. The Republican-led chamber yesterday confirmed one of them, James Hendrix, 89-1, with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) voting no. Read more from Jake Holland.

Manchin Says He Won’t Back Ratcliffe: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said he won’t support Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) to be Trump’s next director of national intelligence because he’s too political, CNN reported, citing comments by Manchin. “You have to get to the most non-political, non-partisan person you can find,” Manchin said. “Why bring in someone who is so toxic?” Manchin’s opposition is significant as he’s often seen as one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress and has a record of bipartisanship.

Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) said she supports Trump’s choice of Ratcliffe. “I think he’ll do great,” said McSally, a former House member who was appointed to fill Sen. John McCain’s Senate seat and will face voters next year in a key race. While she noted Ratcliffe will have to go through the Senate’s confirmation process, McSally said she got to know him when they worked together on the House Homeland Security Committee and praised his “experience, his intellect,” and his “devotion to service,” Steven T. Dennis and Giovanna Bellotti Azevedo report.

Acting BLM Chief Set to Ease Development: The Bureau of Land Management is opening the floodgates to oil and gas, mining, and road construction on public land as an outspoken opponent of federal land ownership takes the helm of the agency, former Interior Department officials and advocacy groups said. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt this week named William Perry Pendley as the acting director of the agency at least through Sept. 30. As the former 29-year president of the private-property rights group Mountain States Legal Foundation , Pendley fought the federal government to gain greater access to federal land for oil and gas development and mining. Read more from Bobby Magill.

Trump Cheers Bolsonaro Son as Ambassador: Trump welcomed the prospect of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s son becoming the new ambassador to the U.S., highlighting his strong personal ties with Bolsonaro and saying the U.S. has been pushing for a trade deal with the Latin American nation. Trump described the pick of Eduardo Bolsonaro, a federal lawmaker, for Brazil’s senior diplomatic posting as a “great appointment.” But the proposal alarmed even some of Bolsonaro’s allies, who are concerned about the suitability of the move. Eduardo is head of the lower house’s foreign relations committee, but has no diplomatic experience. Read more from David Biller and Justin Sink.

What Else to Know

Trump Courts Mongolia as a Trade-War Ally: Trump today plans to meet with Battulga Khaltmaa, the president of Mongolia, a land-locked nation that the U.S. views as strategically important as tensions rise with the nations sandwiching it, China and Russia. Trump will discuss a free-trade pact with Mongolia, as well as U.S. investment in mineral deposits including rare earths, according to a senior administration official. The elements are important to the American technology industry and now mostly sourced in China. Read more from Jennifer Jacobs.

China, U.S. Conclude Shanghai Talks: China and the U.S. concluded a new round of trade talks in Shanghai today following a hiatus of almost three months, with little immediate evidence of progress being made toward ending their year-long dispute. U.S. delegates including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer wrapped up talks with their Chinese counterparts including Vice Premier Liu He this afternoon at the Xijiao State Guest Hotel. The two governments may release statements on the talks late r. The talks took place against a backdrop of a fresh outburst by Trump, who criticized China’s perceived unwillingness to buy American agricultural products and said it continues to “rip off” the U.S. Read more.

North Korea Fires Multiple Projectiles, South Korea Says: North Korea fired multiple unidentified projectiles off its east coast early Wednesday, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said, the second such launch in less than a week. The projectiles were launched from the Hodo Peninsula in South Hamgyong Province. The South Korean military was monitoring the situation on watch for additional launches, Jihye Lee reports. The White House is aware of reports of a missile launch and will continue to monitor the situation, a senior administration official said.

Middle East Peace Plan: Trump plans to outline his “deal of the century” Middle East peace plan to Arab leaders at a summit before Israel’s Sept. 17 election, Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reported today. Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to Trump, will invite the leaders to the summit at the Camp David presidential retreat during his swing through the Middle East beginning today, the newspaper said, citing an unidentified person in Washington. Kushner will hold talks in Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, it said. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was involved in planning the summit, but won’t attend in an effort to make it easier for Arab leaders to come, the newspaper said. The president will present the plan in general terms, without going into details, it added. Read more from Alisa Odenheimer.

Trade Group Targets Federal E-Commerce Bid: A trade association representing wholesale distributors is pressuring lawmakers not to approve increased government spending on a highly lucrative e-commerce contract the group says favors Amazon. The National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors argued in a letter addressed to a dozen lawmakers that Congress should reject a proposal to raise the maximum threshold for federal agencies to make purchases on a new digital marketplace for off-the-shelf products. Read more from Naomi Nix, Chris Cornillie and Jennifer Jacobs.

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