Senate Democrats

Senators Seething in DC Humidity and Heat

GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has annoyed Democrats, especially those facing tough re-election bids in states carried by Donald Trump in 2016, by shrinking the traditional August recess to one week, tying his colleagues to their desks in the DC heat and humidity.

GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has annoyed Democrats, especially those facing tough re-election bids in states carried by Donald Trump in 2016, by shrinking the traditional August recess to one week, tying his colleagues to their desks in the DC heat and humidity.

While members of the House of Representatives are enjoying their normal full month of August recess, the Senate is being forced to work in the festering hot swamp that is Washington DC.

GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell eliminated the time-honored August recess for all but one week despite 90-degree-plus temperatures and drenching humidity and the annoyance of Democrats who would prefer to be home to campaign. 

McConnell wants to use the extra floor time in August to press senators to confirm pending judicial nominees, make progress on appropriations bills and set the stage for Brett Kavanaugh’s eventual confirmation to the Supreme Court.

There is a political reason, too. McConnell is forcing Senate Democrats to stay in DC so they can’t campaign in their home states for the November election. It’s another savvy move by the seasoned Senate leader in this lopsided year where the Senate map strongly favors Republicans. Democrats are defending 26 Senate seats this November, while Republicans only need to defend nine seats. 

All 26 of those Democrats would much rather be back in their states solidifying their electoral support and raising money to build momentum for the general election. In particular, Democratic incumbents in Montana, Missouri, West Virginia and North Dakota are feeling especially constrained running for re-election in states that Trump won in the 2016 presidential election.

McConnell’s tactic will build momentum for a busy fall congressional schedule. Republican Leaders in the House and the Senate are looking to avoid a government shutdown and both chambers are ahead of schedule in passing FY19 appropriations bills. The Senate has passed seven of 12 appropriations bills, while the House has passed six. This is the best progress made on the appropriations front since 2000.

With the Senate in town, Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh can meet with senators in August and lay the groundwork for a relatively quick nomination process in September.

Democrats are trying to slow confirmation by insisting on seeing the millions of pages of documents Kavanaugh wrote during his time in the George W. Bush White House, but the delay tactic could come at their own peril. Many pundits believe the closer the Kavanaugh confirmation vote is to the November election, the better it is for Republicans to motivate their political base. Democrats will have to decide between an all-out political fight with a slim chance of blocking Kavanaugh versus getting the vote over with in September. 

One more major item on the fall legislative schedule will likely be on a provision dubbed “TaxCut 2.0.” Republicans are trying to set a trap for Democrats by bringing up legislation that will permanently extend the individual tax cuts passed last December, which will expire in five years. Corporate tax cuts were all made permanent. Republicans want to get vulnerable Democrats on record on taxes close to the election. There also is a potential trap for Republicans who would be voting to deepen the federal deficit and remind voters about the tax cut, which hasn’t been as widely popular as GOP advocates predicted – or hoped.

A wild card McConnell cannot control is what Special Counsel Robert Mueller will do before the November election. His team is engaged now in a high-profile trial of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and conducting ongoing negotiations to schedule an interview with the sitting President.

One possibility is Trump’s team declines Mueller’s terms for a face-to-face interview and Mueller follows through on his threat to subpoena Trump. The subpoena could trigger a court case by Team Trump challenging whether a sitting President can be compelled to testify. Depending on timing, questions surrounding a presidential subpoena could engulf the Kavanaugh nomination in the Senate because of his previous defense of expansive presidential powers, his reflections on the role of special prosecutors and the reality he could be sitting on the Supreme Court when and if the case gets that far.

Mueller is not politically tone deaf, so he may cut off any public actions on the Russian meddling investigation after Labor Day. However, it is unlikely he will wrap up the investigation before the November election.

If you can believe Trump tweets, indictments are possible for members of his family in connection with the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, which Trump has now acknowledged was scheduled to get dirt on his opponent from Russian sources. That could scramble McConnell’s well-laid legislative schedule, adding to the irritation of his Senate colleagues who spent their summer recess tied to their desks in DC.

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Joel Rubin is a partner and leader of CFM’s federal affairs team based in Washington, DC. He has worked on Capitol Hill and now represents Pacific Northwest interests in Congress and with federal agencies.

Clinton Joins in Zika Finger-Pointing

After a newborn child died from a Zika-related illness in Texas, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton joined the chorus of critics bashing Congress for not yet providing money to fight the disease.  

After a newborn child died from a Zika-related illness in Texas, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton joined the chorus of critics bashing Congress for not yet providing money to fight the disease.  

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton joined the Zika blame game as she condemned Congress for failing to provide funding to combat the deadly disease after a Texas infant died from Zika-related complications.

In Februrary, President Obama requested $1.9 billion in emergency funding to respond to the spread of the Zika virus abroad and prepare for its feared arrival in the United States. Despite multiple proposals from both chambers in the following months, Congress left town in July without an agreement on Zika funding. 

Negotiations came to a screeching halt when Senate Democrats blocked a last-ditch, $1.1 billion package to fight the virus. Democrats were on board with the funding level, but pulled their support when provisions were added in conference to relax EPA regulations, protect the flying of the Confederate flag and prevent Planned Parenthood clinics in Puerto Rico from receiving money to fight the virus.

With Congress in the middle of its seven-week summer recess, a newborn baby in Texas with Zika-related birth defects has died. The news comes alongside four new Zika cases reported in Florida.

While both parties have spent the past few weeks blaming one another for inaction, Democrats have taken a new approach. Several top Democrats, including President Obama, have urged Republican leadership to cut the recess short and return to Washington to pass a bipartisan measure at the funding level requested by the administration.

After the news in Texas broke, Clinton joined the blame game. In a speech in Florida, Clinton urged Republicans to come back to Washington and “pass the bipartisan funding package the Senate passed.” Clinton was referring to the original $1.1 billion compromise package reached by Senators Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Patty Murray (D-WA), absent the controversial policy riders that emerged in the conference report.

Republicans have yet to budge and repeatedly point to the proposals Democrats rejected. In a recent op-ed, House Speaker Paul Ryan writes, “[Democrats] blocked our plan not once, but twice – a blatant ploy in an election year.” The Speaker added, “Because of their actions, this funding is in limbo. It shouldn’t be.”

Although the recent Zika cases may not cause Congress to trim its recess, Zika funding will certainly remain a hot topic when members return.

In the meantime, the Obama administration has shifted $589 million, most of which came from Ebola resources within the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of State/USAID, to be used for Zika-related prevention and treatment.   

Michael Skipper is CFM’s Federal Affairs Associate. Before joining the team in Washington, D.C., Michael worked on state affairs in Oregon, where he also studied political science and environmental policy at OSU. In his free time, Michael enjoys traveling, reading and spending time with friends and family. You can reach him at michaels@cfmpdx.com

 

Democrats Miss Chance to Tell Success Story

Democrats had a great story to tell, but they failed to tell it and lost their majority in the Senate. 

Democrats had a great story to tell, but they failed to tell it and lost their majority in the Senate. 

Republicans nearly swept all competitive Senate races to take control of the Senate. In the House, the GOP majority enlarged to 243 members, giving Republicans the biggest majority since Harry Truman – and, as returns are still tabulated, possibly the biggest majority since 1930. So the results are clear. What's less clear is how Democrats flubbed in telling their story.

Why did Democrats run away from arguably some of the most compelling domestic successes for which they could claim a share of responsibility?

In any other decade, if I were to tell you:

  • The stock market has more than doubled and continues to push all-time highs;

  • Gas prices have plummeted to the lowest level in a decade;

  • The country is closer to energy independence than at any time in 40 years;

  • Unemployment has fallen from 10 percent to less than 6 percent;

  • Crime is relatively low; and

  • Welfare, food stamps and unemployment benefits are quickly coming back to normal levels, you would think that the economy was moving in the right direction.

Add to this, the number of uninsured has fallen from 18 percent before the Affordable Care Act was implemented to 13.4 percent and budget deficits have been cut by two-thirds from $1.5 trillion to $500 billion. This seems like an incredible record to run on.

While the Obama Administration and Senate Democrats can't take credit for all of these indicators, it's dumbfounding that they would not scream these figures from the rooftops. Nearly every economic indicator suggests our country is heading in the right direction, yet no politician seems to have the guts to say it.

Why is that? The counter-argument to touting these numbers is you don't want to seem out of touch and a lot of Americans are still hurting. By referencing these positive numbers, it could highlight that one doesn't understand the obstacles that average Americans are facing on a daily basis. That is certainly true and Democrats could have qualified these messages by saying more needs to be done. However, ignoring these positive indicators seems like political malpractice.

By and large, Democrats ran on increasing the minimum wage and gender equality — and ran away from the President who was their partner in achieving economic and social policy success.

Looking back, it seems like these two issues pale in comparison to what could have been an extremely powerful message. Democrats won't be able to say two years from now, "We told you so," because they didn't.

The Real Hastert Rule

Thumb through the U.S. Constitution and you won't find the Hastert Rule, which says no bill can come to the House floor unless there are enough votes to pass it in the majority caucus. Turns out former Speaker Dennis Hastert, a former high school wrestling coach, said there never was a Hastert Rule.

This is relevant because current House Speaker John Boehner has invoked the Hastert Rule in blocking legislation that might attract enough Republicans and Democrats to pass, but doesn't have enough votes to pass with just Republicans.

Sound illogical? Perhaps, but it is the leverage exerted by the Tea Party faction of the House GOP conference. They have enough votes to deny Boehner the 218 vote-majority he needs of his fellow party members. This leverage is what has landed Congress in gridlock and led to a partial federal government shutdown, now entering its fourth day.

Republican spokesmen have made a lot out of President Obama and Senate Democrats refusing to negotiate to "find common ground" on defunding Obamacare. But another way to look at the stalemate is that the House is not letting is full membership exercise its collective judgment in deference to a minority that could be as few as 30 members.

Apart from the grandstanding and finger pointing on Capitol Hill, there is a valid question about whether the presumptive Hastert Rule is constitutional or at least in the spirit of the Constitution.

James Madison and other founding fathers detested what they called "factions." They worried that partisan considerations could overtake policy considerations. While senators have the right to filibuster any legislation of which they disapprove, no such privilege extends in the House.

Senator Cruz Does Custer

You know something must be wrong when a U.S. senator threatens to filibuster the bill he supports to win. That's exactly what Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, proposes to do to block implementation of Obamacare.

Cruz has been barnstorming the country to put the fear of God in his fellow Republicans to make one last stand to block the Affordable Care Act, President Obama's signature first-term achievement, before it goes fully into effect.

The vehicle for this derailment of a three-year-old law, which has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, is something called a Continuing Resolution, essentially a catch-all funding bill that will allow the federal government to continue to operate when its new fiscal year begins October 1.

Last week, the GOP-controlled House muscled through a Continuing Resolution that would defund Obamacare. Senate Democrats, who control the upper chamber, scoffed at the idea and plan simply to amend the House-passed Continuing Resolution by deleting the Obamacare defunding provision. No problem, you say, since Democrats hold 54 seats and the amendment only requires 51 votes to pass.

Here is where Senate procedures come into play. Senators reserve the right to filibuster. A filibuster can be halted by a cloture vote, which requires 60 votes. Cruz is gambling he can round up 41 of the 45 Senate Republicans to join him in blocking cloture. He believes Senate Democrats will have little choice but to yield and ultimately agree to the House-passed Continuing Resolution.