Jul. 26

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Senate Votes to Begin Debate on Health Care

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) flew in from Arizona to vote on the motion to proceed despite his having an aggressive brain tumor. Without his vote, the motion would have failed and the ACA would have remained the law of the land for years to come. With McCain's vote, the senators split 50-50, so the deciding vote was cast by President of the Senate Mike Pence.

Because the vote without Pence was 50 to 50, with Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) being the only Republicans voting "no," every senator who voted "yes" was the deciding vote. No matter what happens next, in 2018 Democrats are going to run ads saying that Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) was the "deciding vote" in the Republicans' fight to take health care away from tens of millions of people. Same goes for Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ). Oops, it was wrong to use future tense—the ads have already started. This puts Heller and Flake in a difficult position: Do what the party leadership wants or do what your constituents want. If they vote against the actual bills, the Democrats will say: "They were for killing health care before they were against it."

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has to decide what to do next. There are probably half a dozen bills he could bring up, including a new one dubbed skinny repeal. This one ends the mandate to buy insurance, one of the ACA taxes, and little else. If it passes, a House-Senate conference committee will draw up the actual bill and then McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) will put guns to their members heads and say: "It's this or nothing.

McConnell already took a shot at moving forward with repeal and replace Tuesday evening, introducing his Better Care Reconciliation Act along with amendments from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH). The two amendments, respectively, would allow insurers to offer "junk" insurance policies, and would allot an additional $100 billion to Medicaid to help people who lose their Obamacare insurance. Because the two amendments have not been examined by Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, the proposed bill would have needed at least 60 votes to proceed. McConnell came up just a bit short. As in, 17 votes short. Not only did all the Democrats vote "no," but so too did most of the Republicans who have been unhappy with the current health-care bill(s), including Collins, Murkowski, Heller, Rand Paul (KY), Mike Lee (UT), and Jerry Moran (KS). Interestingly, Flake and Shelley Moore Capito (WV) were not among the GOP "no" votes despite previous and loudly-announced opposition. That could be seen as good news for McConnell, but for the fact that there were also some surprise noes, including from Lindsey Graham (SC) and Tom Cotton (AR). It's a bit unclear why McConnell took a vote that he knew he would lose badly; either he wanted to assess where he's at with the caucus, or he wanted to have "Hey, we don't have the support for 'repeal and replace' so you better vote for a straight repeal" available as a threat.

Today, the Senate will begin the process of proposing, discussing, and debating amendments to the American Health Care Act, a.k.a. Ryancare. There is zero chance that the process does not get ugly. GOP senators have been unable to agree on key points for seven years, and those disagreements have just gotten more pronounced as McConnell and Donald Trump put the pressure on. There's no reason to think they will be breaking into a chorus of kumbayah now, and as the Republicans argue with one another, the Democrats will be happy to egg them on and to add their two cents. And then, once the general debate period (up to 20 hours) has passed, it will be time to offer amendments. There could be dozens or hundreds of them, coming from both sides of the aisle. Some GOP senators will try to squeeze their pet ideas into the bill, while others will offer "cover my ass" amendments, so they can tell their constituents, "Hey! I tried really hard to get funding for opioid addiction/health care for the elderly/medicine for coal miners/prosthetic limbs for those injured in harpoon accidents/free Slurpees for everyone!" The Democrats, meanwhile, will be proposing all manner of "gotcha!" amendments, so they can stick Republicans with responsibility for all manner of unsavory positions. "Did you know Sen. Heller voted against money for handicapped orphans with puppies to get cancer treatment? Apparently he hates the handicapped, orphans, and puppies and loves cancer."

And while Tuesday's vote was a victory for the red team, it's just one (small) battle they've won. The war is far from over, and things are not looking good on that front. Among the things for them to be worried about:

For all of these reasons, it remains doubtful (see below) that wholesale changes to Obamacare are coming, despite the small amount of progress that McConnell & Co. made on Tuesday. (V & Z)

Boehner Says Republicans Will Never Repeal Obamacare

Although Mitch McConnell managed to get 51 votes to begin debate on health-care bills, he's far from home free yet. Former House Speaker John Boehner told a business meeting last week that the GOP will fail in its efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare. He gave several reasons:

Best case, according to Boehner, is some minor tweaks like ending the mandates and some of the taxes. Boehner was not optimistic about Republicans' chances in 2018. He said if they fail to pass legislation on health care, taxes, and infrastructure "they're going to get annihilated in next year's midterm elections."

Boehner was also discouraged about how Trump has handled his job. He said that battling the media was a bad idea, adding: "Never get into a p***ing match with a skunk." He also said that bipartisan deals are impossible now because any Republican who talks to the Democrats is portrayed in conservative outlets as a traitor. He said that when he visited Barack Obama in the White House, he had to sneak in to avoid the right-wing media condemning him and the left-wing media condemning Obama. (V)

Trump Continues to Bash Sessions

Loyalty is a one-way street with Donald Trump. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump during the campaign and has been one of his most loyal allies ever since. Yet Trump went after him again yesterday for failing to prosecute Hillary Clinton. Trump is either unaware of the fact that the FBI thoroughly investigated her and concluded she has broken no laws, or doesn't care. The only thing he cares about is getting rid of special counsel Robert Mueller and since Sessions recused himself from the case, there is no easy way to fire Mueller. So it appears that Trump's strategy is to hound Sessions until he resigns, which would give the President some cover for the "need" to appoint a new AG. If that doesn't work, Plan B is to fire him and nominate an attorney general who will fire Mueller.

Trump is playing with fire here. Sessions was popular among Republicans when he was a senator and the GOP senators don't like Trump attacking him. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) said: "I don't understand it. There's no more honorable person I've ever met in my life than Jeff Sessions." Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) expressed his "deep respect and unwavering support" for Sessions. Sen. Lindsey Graham called Sessions "a rock-solid conservatives" who "believes in the rule of law."

If Trump fires Sessions in order to appoint a more pliant AG who will fire Mueller, he is going to have to deal with a number of angry Republican senators who like Sessions and don't like Trump. And in case Trump was thinking of replacing Sessions with a recess appointment, that won't work (see below).

Reportedly, it is not just the members of Congress who are unhappy with The Donald's behavior. According to CNN's Jeremy Diamond, high-ranking White House officials—including Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus—are doing everything they can to get the President to stop attacking the AG. Of course, Bannon and Priebus are (reportedly) on thin ice themselves, so their approach is more "carrot" than it is "stick." They, or their subordinates, make a point of reminding Trump several times a day about how loyal Sessions has been and how helpful he's been in trying to advance the President's agenda. That said, insiders agree that the tensions will not actually be diffused until Trump and Sessions work it out themselves. And given how irritated the two men are with each other (not to mention their outsized egos), it does not seem probable that detente is in the immediate future. (V)

Senate Won't Formally Recess in August

Although the senators are all going on vacation in August, the Senate won't formally recess because Democrats will filibuster a vote to adjourn in order to prevent Donald Trump from making any recess appointments. If the Senate were to formally adjourn before everyone takes off, then Trump could fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions and install former New York city Mayor Rudy Giuiani in his place. If the Senate holds a pro forma session every 3 days, then it is not formally in recess and no recess appointments are allowed.

This issue came up in 2014 when Barack Obama made three appointments to the National Labor Relations Board while the Senate was out of town. Republicans took the case, NLRB v. Noel Canning, to the Supreme Court, which clarified when a recess appointment can be made. The case turned on what exactly a Senate recess was, and the decision was fairly straightforward: The Senate is in recess when it says it is.

As with so many things in politics, be careful what you wish for, because you might get it. Republicans cheered the ruling at the time because it blocked three of Obama's appointments. Now, with a Republican president, it works against them. Since Democrats can filibuster a motion to adjourn, the Senate will technically remain open during all of August, preventing Trump from making any appointments in this period. This situation illustrates why Mitch McConnell won't abolish the filibuster. He knows that some day the Republicans will be in the minority and may want to use it. Once it's gone, it is not coming back. (V)

Trump Holds Rally; Says He Can Be Presidential

The only part of being president that Donald Trump really enjoys is running for president. Consequently, he is set to become the first U.S. president to spend all of his first four years in office running for re-election (one wonders what he will do with himself if he somehow gets a second term; maybe play more golf). As part of his perpetual Trump 2020 campaign, he held a rally in Ohio on Tuesday. And in a week that he already raised eyebrows with his speech on the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford and also his speech to the Boy Scouts, he came up with another doozy. The general subject of the speech was how great a president Trump is. Of course, that's the subject of all his speeches; more specifically, this one was about how well Trump compares to other chief executives, and how "presidential" he is. The quote that's making all the headlines: "[W]ith the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that's ever held this office."

This assertion immediately raises all kinds of questions that a reporter might ask of The Donald if the President actually talked to the press after the speech. Here are a few of them:

That said, the crowd ate it up, so maybe Trump is onto something. There is one list where Trump, at 6'2", ranks in the top 10 presidents, and where he is in spitting distance of #1 Lincoln, at 6'4". With 1-1/2" lifts, Trump could vault himself up to #2. Maybe that's what he meant. (Z)

Scaramucci Threatens to Fire Everyone

The new White House director of communications, Anthony Scaramucci, said yesterday that in order to stop the leaks, he is prepared to fire everyone in the White House communications shop except for press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Last week, he said social media director Dan Scavino and strategist Hope Hicks would be retained. Scaramucci's first real move was to dump senior assistant Press Secretary Michael Short, although there is no reason to believe Short has leaked anything. Furthermore, the leaks may not be originating from the communications shop at all. And whether they are or not, threatening everyone in sight is unlikely to stop the leaks. It will just make the leakers extra careful that they won't be caught. (V)

Senate Judiciary Committee Has Subpoenaed Paul Manafort to Appear Today

As if there weren't enough fireworks in the Senate now, Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, has been subpoenaed and ordered to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee today. This will not be his last appearance before a Senate committee by any means. The hearing will be focused on the Foreign Agents Registration Act as well as his meeting with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton last June. The committee originally asked Manafort to appear voluntarily and he came up with a bunch of conditions that the committee rejected. So the chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), used his subpoena power to compel an appearance. (V)

Beware the Open Mic

Ronald Reagan had the occasional issue keeping track of when his microphone was live and when it wasn't. And it would seem he's not the only Republican with that problem, because Susan Collins got caught sharing a few choice thoughts with Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) that were presumably not for public consumption.

The entire transcript is available at the link, but the highlights from Collins include her description of Trump's budget team as "incredibly irresponsible" and her assertion that "I'm worried" about the possibility of a budget crisis. Reed was also picked up by Collins' microphone, and so ended up sharing with everyone his view that Trump is "crazy," and slamming his budget proposals, particularly the border wall.

It wasn't just Trump who came under fire, however. The most salacious part of the exchange involved Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX), who recently suggested that if Collins were male, they would have a duel over her lack of support for Trumpcare. Reed suggested that Collins could "beat the sh*t out of [Farenthold]," while Collins said that the Congressman is "so unattractive it's unbelievable" and made fun of the notorious photo in which he was pictured wearing rubber ducky pajamas while posing with a Playboy playmate.

Collins apparently had more to say, but someone finally realized what was going on and cut off the mic, so whatever it was is lost to posterity. The Senator and Farenthold have already exchanged public apologies, so the furor has died down on that front. Nonetheless this unexpectedly on-the-record exchange reveals that when the Senators express opposition to the President and/or vote against his initiatives, it's not all posturing or politicking. They have serious concerns, ones that would not be true with any other president, regardless of party. (Z)

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