Jul. 28

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The War Is Over, 51-49

"Repeal and Replace" failed. A straight repeal failed. That left Senate Majority Leader Mitch Connell (R-KY) with one possible path forward for slaying Obamacare; a "skinny repeal" that would have killed the mandate to buy insurance along with one of the Obamacare taxes, and would otherwise have left the ACA intact. Such a bill would have achieved very little of what the GOP has promised constituents, and at the same time would have cost 16 million people their insurance coverage. However, to most Republicans, passing even a terrible plan still represented a victory. Knowing that the bill would still have to go to conference, they hoped and expected that a joint House-Senate committee would come up with something better. This may have been a tad unrealistic, given that nobody in the GOP has been able to come up with "something better" in seven years, but that was the thinking. So, early on Thursday, it looked like McConnell might actually get his 50 ducks in a row. Then, the drama started.

The first twists and turns happened in the afternoon, when it occurred to several senators that—wait a minute—this thing might actually become law. Their concern was that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) would persuade his conference that their only options were skinny repeal or keeping Obamacare intact, and that the House might pass the Senate bill lock, stock, and barrel without making modifications. At least four GOP Senators—Ron Johnson (WI), Lindsey Graham (SC), Bill Cassidy (LA), and John McCain (AZ)—said they would withhold their votes unless Ryan promised not to do that. You read that right; four U.S. Senators announced that they would not vote for the law unless they had 100% certainty that it would not, you know, actually become law. Such is life in Washington today, where up is down, black is white, losing is winning, and covfefe is covfefe. Ryan got on the phone with the senators, and assured them—cross his heart, hope to die—that he would make sure their law never actually became law. The Speaker was cautiously optimistic that his pitch was successful, but nobody knew for sure.

After a few more hours of discussion, debate, and maneuvering, it was time for a roll call vote. Starting just before 1:00 a.m. Washington time, the senators registered their preferences, in alphabetical order. The first defector was Susan Collins (R-ME); no surprise there. In fact, the first 59 votes went exactly as expected. And then the bombshell: John McCain did what he's been hinting at all week, and gave a (dramatic) thumbs down. When Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) joined Collins and McCain in voting no just moments later, that was it. McConnell kept the floor open for an extended period after the vote was over, in case anyone wanted to change their minds, but eventually he was forced to concede that the motion was defeated, 51-49. Vice President Mike Pence exited out the back door shortly thereafter, his tiebreaking vote no longer needed. And Obamacare thus remains the law of the land.

McConnell was deeply upset. He spoke on the floor of the Senate shortly after the defeat, and his remarks were a mix of profound sadness, petulance, and directing the evil eye at Collins, Murkowski, and especially McCain. There are reports he was in tears, and while that wasn't evident on camera, it's entirely believable. Most importantly, however, he officially admitted defeat, and said, "it is time to move on." Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer followed McConnell on the Senate floor, and was considerably more magnanimous, as he could afford to be. He accepted responsibility for the Democrats' role in the partisan rancor of the last decade, and was himself near to tears when he pleaded for his colleagues on both sides of the aisles to heed the words and actions of McCain and to return to normal order and a spirit of cooperation. Perhaps this will all be forgotten by Friday morning, but on Thursday night he really meant what he was saying. There may even be reason for optimism.

Naturally, the question of the evening was: Why did McCain defect, especially since he was the deciding vote in allowing debate to proceed in the first place? His own explanation was that, "I thought it was the right thing to do." That's probably true, at least in part. But one has to suspect that there was probably more to it. His time in the Senate is likely short; it's not out of the realm of possibility that he does not return after the recess. So, he may have been thinking of his "maverick" legacy. The other possibility, one that's on everyone's lips, is that he wanted to take this last, best chance to stick it to Donald Trump. Perhaps it was unwise for The Donald to question the Senator's status as a war hero, and to say, "I like people who weren't captured."

Speaking of Trump, this is of course a huge defeat for him. Sorry, a YUUUUUUUGE defeat. Someone must have awakened him, because it was only an hour after the vote (aka, 3:00 a.m. local time) that he was on Twitter pointing fingers:

3 Republicans and 48 Democrats let the American people down. As I said from the beginning, let ObamaCare implode, then deal. Watch!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 28, 2017

First of all, what Trump actually said from the beginning was that he would come up with something better than Obamacare. More importantly, though, he has a great deal of power to make Obamacare fail if that is what he wants to do. But by publicly announcing that is his goal, he takes ownership if it happens. If Trump thinks that people won't notice that Obamacare was working under Obama, and then failed under Trump, he's delusional. For now, however, brace for the further storm of tweets that's surely coming later today. Maybe he can find a way to blame Hillary Clinton. Did she delete an e-mail with his secret health care plan?

Trump isn't the only one who took a beating on Thursday night. The 48 Democrats and Independents, along with Murkowski and Collins, did exactly what their constituents wanted, so they are in the clear. And McCain's not going to run for office again, so he is, too. The other 49 Republicans, on the other hand, have a double-whammy. They didn't get the victory they promised their constituents, and at the same time they will have to own their votes to take away health care from millions of voters. Not too much of a problem for bulletproof GOP senators like James Lankford (OK) or Mike Crapo (ID), but a Dean Heller (NV) or a Jeff Flake (AZ) might just have thrown their Senate careers away for no good reason.

At this point, Senate Republicans will try to regroup, and to find something they can make progress on after the recess. However, they still have a divided coalition, no windfall from health care cuts, an angry base, a president who is ineffectual and unhelpful, and a looming deadline to put together a budget for FY 2017-18. So, it's not surprising that McConnell is feeling a little depressed right now. (Z)

Tax Reform Just Got Harder

Although health care may seem messy (see above), in reality it is a piece of cake compared to tax reform. Health care doesn't affect many big companies other than insurance companies, drug companies, and a handful of others. It does affect consumers, of course, but few consumers are prepared to cough up tens of millions of dollars to get their way. Tax reform is not like that. Virtually every big company in the country is affected, all of them know it, and many of them are prepared to go all out to get what they want.

In order to make a permanent change to the tax code and still pass it using the Senate's budget reconciliation process, it must be revenue neutral over 10 years. If there are to be huge cuts in taxes for corporations and rich people, money has to be found to compensate for the lost revenue. Until yesterday, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Donald Trump had a plan: a border-adjustment tax (basically, a tariff on imported goods). Such a tax could raise a trillion dollars over 10 years, easily. Walmart and other big importers are wildly against such a tax and haven't been shy at all about telling this to members of Congress. Yesterday, Ryan conceded defeat and said there would be no border tax. This creates a new problem for Ryan: How to raise a trillion dollars in a way that can pass both chambers? Whoever or whatever is taxed is surely going to raise a big stink and try to kill it. If the missing revenue can't be found somewhere, the best Ryan can hope for is a temporary tax that automatically sunsets after 10 years. This is not what he wants, but may have to settle for it if he can't find more revenue somewhere. (V)

Paul Ryan Has Another New Problem: Moderates

So far this year, whenever House conservatives wanted to pull a bill to the right and moderates wanted to pull it to the center, the moderates caved and the conservatives got their way. Those days may be ending. The centrist Tuesday Group, which has enough members to torpedo legislation if it sticks together, is starting to exercise its clout. This week it killed an appropriations bill full of goodies for the base.

The Group, many of whose members represent districts that Democrats are targeting in 2018, are fed up voting for what they consider extreme bills that later get shot down in the Senate. The result is generally that Democrats get to make ads attacking them on their votes but the bill doesn't become law anyway, so why vote for it in the House?

If the Group can stick together, Paul Ryan is going to have a terrible time passing any controversial bill because the Freedom Caucus will threaten to kill it if it isn't conservative enough and the Tuesday Group will threaten to kill it if it is too conservative. There may not be any way to construct a bill that pleases both groups and if neither one caves, the bill will go down in flames. (V)

What Is Going on with Anthony Scaramucci?

Newly appointed White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci is openly gunning for Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. This is hardly surprising, as it is an open secret that Priebus and Scaramucci despise each other and that Priebus had argued strongly against hiring Scaramucci. It's a clash of agendas, but also one of personalities. Priebus, who formerly ran the RNC, is a by-the-books kind of guy who follows the rules and works within the system. Scaramucci is a Trump-style person who tries to get what he wants by dominating everyone he comes in contact with, Priebus included. Trump loves this, which is why he hired Scaramucci in the first place, despite his complete lack of experience doing communications work of any kind.

As part of his search and destroy mission, Scaramucci appeared on CNN on Thursday morning, and gave a wild interview that had everyone talking. Before that one could fully sink in, however, The New Yorker published an even wilder interview. It is full of statements that are simply shocking for a White House staffer, even one in the Trump White House. Among the lowlights (warning—adult language):

What on earth happened here? Already, Scaramucci has blamed the reporter that conducted the interview, saying that he (Scaramucci) assumed that the interview was off the record:

I made a mistake in trusting in a reporter. It won't happen again.

— Anthony Scaramucci (@Scaramucci) July 28, 2017

If this is really what Scaramucci thought then, quite frankly, he has no business working anywhere near the White House Communications office. That you are on the record unless you explicitly ask to be off the record is Politics 101. But, of course, this is a lie. Scaramucci spoke to the reporter twice, and was told the conversations were being recorded. If a conversation is being recorded it is, literally by definition, on the record.

So, what really happened? This is so far outside the realm of normal political discourse, that it is difficult to answer that question. Here are a few wild guesses:

In any case, there is simply no way Priebus and Scaramucci can co-exist much longer. Before Thursday, there was no doubt that Scaramucci would win that battle. But can Donald Trump really keep someone who publicly slams one White House staffer as a fu*king paranoid schizophrenic, and slurs another (especially one as powerful as Bannon) as someone who sucks his own co*k? Presumably, we will soon learn exactly how much tolerance the author of pu**ygate has for such behavior in his underlings. (Z & V)

Lewinsky Prosecutor Tells Trump to Cut it Out

Kenneth Starr, who served as an independent prosecutor in the Whitewater and Lewinski affairs that led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton, has written an op ed in the Washington Post that starts with "Mr. President, please cut it out." Starr, who knows a thing or two about independent prosecutions, went on to tell Donald Trump point blank to stop threatening Attorney General Jeff Sessions with an eye to replacing him with a yes-man who will fire special counsel Robert Mueller. He also pointed out that the AG's job is not to serve the president but to serve the Constitution and to enforce the laws of the United States. Whether Trump will get the message remains to be seen. (V)

Attorney General Cruz?

Apparently, Donald Trump is close enough to cashiering Attorney General Jeff Sessions that lists of possible replacements are being compiled. Rudy Giuliani's name was already floating around, as was Gov. Chris Christie's (R-NJ). Now, however, a new candidate has apparently emerged: Ted Cruz. If that somehow comes to pass, then it will be hard to decide which man is more of a sell-out, given Cruz's performance at the Republican National Convention last year.

That said, Cruz shouldn't start packing up his Senate office quite yet. GOP Senators have been increasingly pointed in telling Donald Trump that he better not fire the AG. The latest was Lindsey Graham, who warned the President on Tuesday that, "If Jeff Sessions is fired, there will be holy hell to pay." Graham also said that he's working on a bill that will make it illegal to fire a special counsel—like, say, Robert Mueller—without approval from a judicial panel. It's worth asking whether such a measure would pass constitutional muster, since it seems awfully similar to the now-invalidated Tenure of Office Act. But even if it goes nowhere, there is no question that the relationship between the President and the Senate is souring.

To become a permanent AG, Cruz would have to be approved by the Senate. Unlike Jeff Sessions, who is a courtly southern gentleman and greatly liked by Republican senators, Cruz is quite unpopular in the Senate. All it would take is three defections to kill off his confirmation. Another factor here is that if Trump becomes even more unpopular, Cruz might run against him in 2020. That will be very hard to do as AG, but easy as a senator, so it is not clear that Cruz would even take the AG job if it were offered to him. (Z & V)

Murkowski Fights Back

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has not been very supportive of Donald Trump's plans for health care. Yesterday she was one of the three senators who voted to kill "skinny repeal." In return Trump has attacked her. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke joined in (possibly at Trump's urging) and threatened that the administration might not enact (oil exploration) policies that she supports and which benefit her state. There are reports that she was furious when Zinke called her to threaten her.

Murkowski isn't cowed easily, having won in 2010 as a write-in candidate with the Republican Party against her. After the call, she announced that the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which she chairs, was postponing a vote on six administration nominees. Zinke can threaten Murkowski all he wants, but her committee has jurisdiction over almost everything the Interior Dept. does. In addition, she is chair of the Appropriations Committee subcommittee that oversees all of its funding. Zinke and Trump know that they can pressure senators, but may be soon learning that those same senators can also push back. (V)

Record Number of Democrats Challenging Republican Incumbents in the House

It is an old saying in politics that you can't beat somebody with nobody. Judging by early filings, that is not going to be the Democrats' problem in 2018. Rather the opposite. As of June 30, 2017, 209 Democrats had registered with the FEC as challengers to incumbent Republicans in the House. They are spread over 105 districts, an average of about two challengers per district, although a few, such as John Faso's NY-19 district, have six challengers. Here is a comparison with previous elections, compiled by the Brookings Institution.

House challengers

As can be seen, nothing like this has occurred in recent elections. Of course, having a candidate who has raised $5,000 by June 30 the year before the election (the criterion for an FEC filing) doesn't mean the Democrats can knock off a sitting Republican. Some of the candidates may not be very good. There will be bloody primaries in some districts. Incumbents can generally raise more money than challengers. And even if the Democrats have a strong candidate running unopposed who is very well funded, he or she can still lose. Jon Ossoff raised $23 million in the recent GA-06 race and still lost. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that some Republican in a marginal district squeaks by because the Democrats couldn't find anybody to run there. (V)

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