If a law funding the government isn't passed by midnight tonight, it will start to shut down. The chances of that happening increased yesterday because Republicans just want to kick the can down the road again, with a short-term continuing resolution to provide funds for a few weeks, but Democrats apparently have had enough delay and want an actual budget for 2018. That is easier said than done because (1) Democrats and Republicans are far apart on what they want in the budget, (2) Republicans and Republicans are far apart on what they want in the budget, and (3) Donald Trump previously said he would sign any deal Congress agreed to, but when a bipartisan gang of senators presented him with a deal, he said "no." No matter how many times the can is kicked down the road a few more yards, the fundamental problem remains that there is no consensus to which large majorities in each chamber can agree.
Nonetheless, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) got out his whip on Thursday, and managed to squeeze a continuing resolution through his chamber that would fund the government through mid-February. The 230-197 vote was largely along party lines, with just 6 Democratic 'yeas' and 11 Republican 'nays.' In addition to another month of paying the bills, the measure would also fund the low-income children's health insurance program (CHIP) for six years. The latter element is an attempt to curry Democratic votes, and was a big part of the reason that the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus did not sign on until the last minute.
Now the bill is on to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will have his work cut out for him. He needs 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, and finding them won't be easy. On the Democratic side, there is widespread weariness with can-kicking, and enormous pressure from the base to hold the line. Further, there's also DACA-related time pressure, since the program is scheduled to end in March. Consequently, at least 20 members have already said they are "no" votes, and the number will surely grow today. McConnell will do everything he can to put pressure on senators who face difficult re-election campaigns in red states—Joe Manchin (WV), Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Joe Donnelly (IN), etc. However, there are only half a dozen of those folks, give or take, and even if they all flip, the bill is not home free.
On the GOP side, things are also grim for the Majority Leader. Many Republican senators are also weary with can-kicking, and roughly half a dozen of them, including Lindsey Graham (SC), Rand Paul (KY), and Jeff Flake (AZ) have also indicated that they are "no" votes. On top of that, John McCain (AZ) is back home, currently too ill to participate in Senate business. Put another way, McConnell can afford to lose only 39 votes, and 25-30 of those already appear to be gone, even before we've heard from most of the senators.
In short, the current plan does not look like it can pass. However, experience shows that around a quarter to midnight, when the shutdown is no longer an abstract concept, heads can be banged together, which often causes minds to change. Further, McConnell has already told his fellow senators to clear their weekend schedules. Thus, despite all the posturing, we won't know what is really going to happen until much later in the day, or perhaps until later in the weekend. Most likely, the Republicans will give ground because most of them realize they control the whole show and it is hard to convince people that a shutdown is the Democrats' fault.
Whatever happens, there is going to be one loser in the situation: Donald Trump. He infuriated his fellow Republicans on Wednesday, first by issuing forth with a tweet about CHIP that undermined the Party's ongoing negotiations, and then by doing very little in terms of getting on the phone and trying to get a bill passed. So, the President has further strained his relationship with the GOP members of congress, still apparently unaware that he needs them more than they need him. And their aggravation is great enough that if he tries to claim success for whatever compromise is ultimately reached, they are likely to be frank in correcting him for reporters. (V & Z)
A new initiative from the Trump administration would protect workers who don't want to provide medical or other services that violate their religious principles. The goal is to allow health-care providers, including doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and others to refuse to perform abortions, give fertility treatments to lesbian couples, do gender reassignment surgery, dispense the morning after pill, and more. Eric Hargan, the acting secretary of HHS, said that the new initiative merely carries out an executive order that Donald Trump signed last year. He said that the new program would prevent people of faith from being bullied or silenced.
Of course, once the government says a worker can refuse his or her work on religious grounds, it opens a big can of worms. What happens when a Quaker refuses to do a job that entails planning for a war because the worker has a religious objection to wars? Or a Hindu in the Dept. of Agriculture doesn't want to work on a project involving beef cattle management because he has a religious objection to killing cows? If the answer to the latter two is "go find another job," why isn't that also an answer to the Christian who has religious objections? Once you go down that road, it is very hard to draw clear lines, and although Trump would love to have a regulation saying only evangelical Christians can have religious objections, the courts tend not to like that so much. (V)
Chief of staff John Kelly told Fox News on Wednesday that Donald Trump's views on a border wall have changed. He also told the House Hispanic Caucus that "a concrete wall from sea to shining sea is not going to happen" and Mexico is not going to pay for it. Yesterday, Trump started fuming and claimed that his views have not changed. This is the first time that Trump and Kelly have gotten into a major spat on policy. Trump did clarify his position somewhat, though, by admitting that parts of the wall can be left out where there are natural barriers, such as mountains, wastelands, tough rivers, or water. Actually, that applies to nearly the entire almost 1,000 mile border in Texas. If no wall were built there, then the wall would only be present in California, Arizona, and New Mexico, where much of the border already has fencing (or more). Here is a map of a small piece of the Texas-Mexican border.
It should be abundantly clear from the map that putting up a concrete wall anywhere near the actual border will be extremely difficult. Putting it up 5 or 10 miles inside the U.S. would be easier, but that would require seizing a large amount of private land using eminent domain, with the resulting court battles over the value of the land. It would also create a fairly large piece of no-mans-land in the U.S. south of the wall. In short, the idea of a concrete wall along the entire border was never feasible. (V)
Jennifer Rubin has suggested that special counsel Robert Mueller, having issued a subpoena this week, may want to question former White House strategist Steve Bannon about events that occurred after the election, not before it. She gives a long list of questions Mueller may have for Bannon, including these:
Bannon won't be allowed to assert executive privilege because Mueller works for the Justice Dept., which is part of the Executive Branch. Bannon may not have answers to all these questions, but he may have clues that can help Mueller, anyway. Of course, a key point is whether Bannon intends to rat on the president or to protect him by claiming he knows nothing. Unlike Flynn and Paul Manafort, Bannon may not have committed any crimes that Mueller can use as leverage to extract testimony. (V)
It is widely believed that the Russians tried to influence the 2016 elections by hacking voting registration databases and posting fake news on social media websites. But it is also possible that their influence was much more direct. The FBI is investigating whether deputy governor of the Russian central bank Alexander Torshin, a close confident of Russian President Vladimir Putin, illegally funneled money to the NRA to use in the election. If this is true, it would certainly break new ground and suggest that Russia tried to influence the election in many other ways.
The FBI is suspicious because the NRA spent $30 million to support Trump, triple what it spent to support Mitt Romney in 2012. Most of the money was spent by an arm of the NRA that is not required to disclose where the money came from. A report obtained by McClatchy links Torshin to money laundering, as well as to the Russian Mafia. Torshin has also been linked to Alexander Romanov, who pleaded guilty to money laundering in 2016 and was sentenced to nearly 4 years in prison. Torshin also has close ties to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who is often regarded as Putin's best friend on the Hill. (V)
Back on January 2, Donald Trump announced that he would be giving out "fake news" awards on January 8:
I will be announcing THE MOST DISHONEST & CORRUPT MEDIA AWARDS OF THE YEAR on Monday at 5:00 o’clock. Subjects will cover Dishonesty & Bad Reporting in various categories from the Fake News Media. Stay tuned!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
The "awards" are now out, and it would be hard to imagine a clumsier, more ham-fisted execution of the concept. To wit:
When Trump first announced the awards plan, it certainly seemed like a bad idea. Turns out, it was. (Z)
Donald Trump threw a big wrench into budget negotiations (see above) when he tweeted his opposition to the GOP plan to trade CHIP funding in exchange for Democratic votes. Inasmuch as the author of The Art of the Deal had already signed off on this particular deal, the members of his party were naturally miffed when he changed course, with the result that the White House had to change course a second time, announcing that when Trump tweeted his opposition to a CHIP deal, he actually meant that he still supports a CHIP deal. If you didn't understand that, well, then that's your covfefe.
This wasn't the only instance on Thursday of Trump undermining GOP strategy via an ill-considered tweet, either. There was also this:
Will be going to Pennsylvania today in order to give my total support to RICK SACCONE, running for Congress in a Special Election (March 13). Rick is a great guy. We need more Republicans to continue our already successful agenda!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 18, 2018
It's true that there will be an election on March 13, to fill the seat of Tim Murphy (the conservative Republican who vehemently opposed abortions for everyone except his mistress). So, what is the problem with Trump's tweet? Well, the staffs of the White House and the RNC have spent days declaring that the President's trip to Pennsylvania is for official U.S. business. If that is true, then the U.S. government has to pick up the bill, and the RNC gets a free campaign appearance. On the other hand, if Trump is just in Pennsylvania to campaign, then the GOP has to bear the cost. Given that the President's purpose, as he himself just announced, is to give Saccone his total support, it's going to be a bit hard to argue this isn't a campaign trip. So, out comes the RNC credit card. (Z)
Donald Trump and Barack Obama chatted once or twice before the inauguration, and then they spent much of the day together on January 20. In the "letter to my successor" that has become customary, #44 made clear that he was available whenever #45 might need him. Apparently, that need has never arisen, because with one year in office under his belt, Trump hasn't once contacted his predecessor.
This choice can be described with a number of different adjectives. It is, first of all, almost unprecedented. Nearly all chief executives consult their predecessors at least once or twice (and sometimes far more often, as was the case with Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, and William Howard Taft, among others). Beyond that, it is very arrogant to assume that the past guy(s) who occupied the office have nothing useful to offer. And, perhaps most of all, it is foolish. At any given time, there are less than half a dozen people who truly understand what it's like to sit in that chair. They have experience that is invaluable and they are, pretty much by definition, smart and talented folks. Not tapping into that is a needless waste of valuable resources.
There is, of course, no reason to expect this behavior to change. The Donald has a grudge against and a rivalry with #44, and could never bring himself to ask for Obama's help. Trump also has an ongoing feud with the whole Bush family, entirely instigated by himself, which means #43 and #41 are off the table. The President hates the Clintons, of course, so #42 is a non-option. The only living president that Trump does not appear to despise is Jimmy Carter, though he is elderly, and a Democrat, and left the White House nearly 40 years ago. Plus, when he builds housing, it's for poor people, and not rich New Yorkers (Sad!). If any ex-president does get the call, it will presumably be the peanut farmer, but he probably shouldn't hold his breath. (Z)
Do you believe any of these things?
If you said yes to any of the above, you might consider putting your name into consideration for Chief of External Affairs at CNCS, the person who serves as the public face of AmeriCorps, because you would be on exactly the same page as outgoing Chief Carl Higbie. You'll want to keep your opinions on the down-low, however, because the widespread publication of these sentiments is the reason that Higbie is now on his way out.
All of these remarks were shared on radio, and the audio is easily found online. That means that there are really only two possibilities: (1) The Trump administration agrees with these views, or (2) The Trump administration has far and away the worst vetting process of any presidential administration in recent memory, and it's not even close. Of course, it could be that both things are true. (Z)