border wall

Historically Significant Leaders Guide Senate, House

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have already cemented their congressional legacies. Now those legacies may be tested as they face another deadline to forge a border security compromise that can pass Congress and President Trump will accept, avoiding another potential government shutdown.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have already cemented their congressional legacies. Now those legacies may be tested as they face another deadline to forge a border security compromise that can pass Congress and President Trump will accept, avoiding another potential government shutdown.

We may be witnessing historically significant congressional leaders in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. What they do next in response to continuing demands by President Trump to fund his controversial border wall may affect their legacies.

History-making by McConnell, the Republican, and Pelosi, the Democrat, is as different as night-and-day and as the Senate and the House. Pelosi is known for muscling major legislation on health care and consumer protection through Congress. McConnell’s legacy is laying the groundwork for a GOP agenda outside Congress in the scores of conservative judges he has ushered through the Senate. 

The New York Times Magazine featured McConnell over the weekend, noting he recognized the parliamentary obstacles in the Senate to passing any kind of major legislation, so he turned his focus on federal judgeships. He has steered through two new Supreme Court justices and 83 lower-court judges. And he famously blocked the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland during President Obama’s last year in office.

“When Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court on October 6, after McConnell played a key role in ushering him through a month of arguments over and investigations into allegations of sexual assault, the scope of the majority leader’s influence on American governance snapped into focus.”

A similar epiphany occurred when Pelosi stared down Trump over his demand for funding for his border wall that led to a record-shattering five-week partial federal government shutdown. Pelosi was hailed by supporters and critics alike as the most powerful female elected official in America.

McConnell is following in the tracks of legendary Senate majority leaders such as Lyndon Johnson, who passed the first modern-day civil rights bills in 1957 and 1960 and Mike Mansfield, the longest-serving majority leader who steered through the more famous Voting Rights and Civil Rights legislation, as well creation of Medicare and Medicaid as part of Johnson’s Great Society.

While McConnell admires Mansfield, NYT magazine says, “McConnell is the first majority leader whose career has been built on the assumption that the Senate could produce the great legislative works of his predecessors is a thing of the past.” 

He is partially responsible for his own view. As minority leader and then majority leader during the Obama presidency, McConnell was a fortress of obstruction. Or as NYT Magazine described it, “He fashioned himself as the essential impediment to Obama’s vision of a sequel to the Great Society, using tactics that were once the province of Senate factions as a strategic blueprint for the entire Republican caucus.” 

McConnell admits to being an obstructionist. “Far be it from me to complain about obstruction when I’ve been involved in it,” he said. McConnell justifies his obstruction by adding, “There was a point to it.”

His obstruction stretched beyond Obama-backed legislation to include blocking a pre-2016 election warning about Russian interference. Armed with US intelligence about Russian meddling, Obama said he would only release the information if all four of the Senate and House caucus leaders agreed to avoid any appearance of politicizing the intelligence data. House Speaker Paul Ryan, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed. McConnell said no. 

McConnell may seem an unlikely obstructionist-in-chief. Not especially photogenic or charismatic, McConnell has used “this blankness to his advantage, made it a carrier for designs greater than himself.” NYT Magazine reports McConnell was willing to take positions viewed as politically distasteful such as opposing campaign finance reform with a “shrugging willingness to play a villain when a villain was required.”

Pelosi is a more electric figure. She is the first woman elected House Speaker, the first woman to lead a party in Congress and the first Speaker to lose, then win back the position since Sam Rayburn in 1955. Her leadership in the 2018 midterm election resulted in a record-setting number of women winning election to Congress. All that cements her legacy as a historical congressional figure.

She is best known – and most often demonized – by her leadership in passing the Affordable Care Act without a single Republican vote. A Republican congressional observed her effort “as masterful a piece of legislating as I have ever seen.”

Her relentless drive to push a progressive agenda, which included a climate change bill, gets part of the blame for the GOP congressional takeover in the 2010 midterm election. 

Pelosi became Speaker in 2007 toward the end of President George W. Bush’s second term and growing public frustration with the Iraq war, which she opposed, and deepening economic recession. In the face of potential economic collapse, Pelosi mustered the needed votes for a Wall Street bailout plan in the House. 

Her steadfast opposition has posed an insurmountable obstacle, at least so far, to Trump’s border wall. Her hardball tactic of denying Trump a congressional stage during the prolonged government shutdown underscored her image as a “force of nature.” Or as Pelosi herself observed about Trump that he may unfamiliar dealing with “women in power.” [After the shutdown ended, Pelosi extended an invitation to Trump to give his State of the Union speech on February 5.]

Congress faces a three-week deadline to resolve the border security issue. Trump has resumed his demand for $5.7 for the border wall, threatening to block any legislation without it and declaring a national emergency. 

There is a bipartisan consensus in the congressional shadows that would agree to $5.7 billion or more for border technology, additional border agents, modernized ports of entry and increased Coast Guard drug interdictions. A sliver of money might even be included for physical barriers where appropriate, but not the full-fledged border wall Trump wants. 

That presages another showdown and potential shutdown, even though the one that just ended cost the nation an estimated $11 billion in lost economic activity and $3 billion in federal revenue, not to mention stress and loss of morale for federal workers who went without pay for a month. 

The odds in the showdown may be in favor of Pelosi whose approval rate has soared while Trump’s have sagged.

This time around, the fate of border security and heading off another punishing government shutdown may revolve around the historically significant figures who lead the Senate and the House. It could boil down to a battle between a skilled obstructionist and an equally skilled legislative tactician with their legacies on the line. Or, it could blossom improbably into a bicameral, bipartisan push-back for a troubled President. That certainly would be history-making for both.

 

Brexit, Border Wall Throttle Leading Democracies, Delighting Putin

Britain’s inability to negotiate an exit from the European Union and President Trump’s inability to win funding for his promised border wall have left the world’s two largest democracies in political limbo, to the apparent delight of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite enormous economic consequences, a smooth Brexit and an early end of the partial US government shutdown seem out of reach.

Britain’s inability to negotiate an exit from the European Union and President Trump’s inability to win funding for his promised border wall have left the world’s two largest democracies in political limbo, to the apparent delight of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite enormous economic consequences, a smooth Brexit and an early end of the partial US government shutdown seem out of reach.

Maybe it is coincidence or a case of bad karma extending across the pond as the United States and United Kingdom find themselves in shutdown mode – with seemingly no clue how to escape, despite enormous economic consequences.

The partial federal government shutdown is simple to understand. President Trump wants $5.7 billion for a border barrier and Democrats refuse, calling it wasteful spending on an ineffective deterrent to illegal immigration.

Trump has said the budget stalemate could be resolved in 15 minutes, which is true. The Democrat-led House has passed a nearly identical spending bill to what the Senate approved unanimously last year after Trump signaled his support. Then Trump changed his mind and demanded border wall money. He has refused to budge, other than to acquiesce to a steel instead of concrete barrier.

Federal employees and contractors caught in the cross-hairs of the border wall fight have been furloughed, forced to work without pay, not paid or encouraged to find new jobs. National parks have closed, airport security lines have lengthened and farmers haven’t gotten their subsidies to compensate for losses they incurred from the Trump trade war. Pre-season forest thinning and hurricane forecasting has been disrupted. A workplace training session for Oregon lawmakers was postponed. Federal income tax refunds could be delayed. 

As bad as all that is, it may pale in comparison to Britain’s predicament. The British Parliament on Tuesday rejected the Brexit deal that took Prime Minister Theresa May two years to negotiate with her reticent European Union counterparts. The 432-202 parliamentary defeat of the May Brexit plan is the most lopsided loss for a sitting government in British history.

Britain faces a March 29 deadline to withdraw from the EU. May, who survived a no-confidence vote by her own Conservative Party last year and faces another one by an opposition party, was given until next Monday to come up with a plan.

Unlike the US government shutdown that is stuck on a single issue, the UK is trying to disengage from an alliance. It is similar to a state like California trying to secede from the United States.

May faces a Rubix Cube of options, none of which is very promising. EU leaders have shown little inclination to grant further concessions to Britain. Asking the British people to vote a second time on Brexit risks having a second vote in favor of the pullout, with no more clarity on how to achieve it. Extending the deadline for the EU exit without a consensus game plan would be like a prisoner asking for more torture.  

That leaves Britain with the somber prospect of slipping out of the EU without a deal and without substitute bilateral trade deals with key trading partners such as the United States. The plan-less exit also would pose serious internal problems, such as how to manage the border between Ireland, which would still be in the EU, and Northern Ireland, which wouldn’t. This is a border that has a troubled history as a true humanitarian crisis. Many worry it could return to that troubled history.

From a wider angle, this is an awkward time for the world’s two leading democracies to indulge in self-inflicted combat. As one veteran traveler told a news reporter, this is bad time to visit either the United States or Britain because both appear to be in the middle of civil wars. Add to that the yellow vest protests that have rocked France and what you see is not a pretty picture of economic, social or political stability.

British unrest stems from a nationalist drive to maintain Britain’s sovereignty. French discontent pivots on restive attitudes about persistent income inequality. The US stand-off centers on an unmet campaign promise.

The US political stalemate would seem the easiest to resolve, but has been elevated to a larger political battlefield. Supporters have warned Trump, who brags about his deal-making prowess, that his presidency could effectively end if he fails to get money for the border wall. The newly elected Democratic majority in the House is disinclined to toll over to Trump demands. Trump’s threat of a presidential declaration of emergency that would go around Congress to find the money to build the border wall could trigger a constitutional crisis.

What seems missing in the United States and Britain is a sense of the bigger picture – a more aggressive Russia, China’s ascendancy as a world power and the rise of right-wing authoritarian governments. Any one of these could be the tinder box that sparks a major conflict engulfing the bickering and compromised democratic powers. It has happened before when there have been voids in international leadership.

Commentators are beginning to point to Russia as a culprit in both seasons of discontent. Sowing division among the major world democracies is a much cheaper foreign policy than a military build-up, and perhaps a defter strategy to undermine NATO, a major objective for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The shadow of Russia will grow longer as Special Counsel Robert Mueller moves to wrap up his investigation into Russian election meddling and potential collusion with the Trump campaign in 2016.

Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt Brexit and the border wall stalemates are causing economic pain, with little relief in sight.

 

Some Hate, But Most Love the FY 2018 Spending Spree

Overriding fiscal hawks and rebuking President Trump, the bipartisan congressional FY 2018 spending package sweetens a lot of federal funding pots and will set up a shopping spree to get the money spent before the fiscal year ends this fall.

Overriding fiscal hawks and rebuking President Trump, the bipartisan congressional FY 2018 spending package sweetens a lot of federal funding pots and will set up a shopping spree to get the money spent before the fiscal year ends this fall.

Fiscal hawks hated it. President Trump said he would never sign another bill like it. Pundits said it was a rebuke to President Trump’s priorities and reflected poorly on his reputed negotiating prowess. Just about everyone else thought it was great.

The $1.3 trillion Fiscal Year 2018 spending bill gave new meaning to the word “omnibus.” Not only did it cover the waterfront of federal activity, it sweetened most of the federal spending pots, which is expected to energize efforts to get the money out the door by September 30, the end of the fiscal year, with the eager assistance of Members of Congress facing tougher-than-usual re-election battles.

Defense spending went up sharply, but there also were significant spending bumps for a variety of programs from community development block grants to funding for buses, a priority for The Bus Coalition. Rural areas will benefit from a tripling of grant money for rural TIGER projects, nearly $1 billion for rural water and sanitary waste projects and $685 million for rural broadband. The Secure Rural Schools program, almost given up for dead, was extended for another two years, benefiting Pacific Northwest interests.

Despite giddiness over the spending spree anticipated by passage of the spending package, there is a sober recognition this could be the last significant action by Congress until after the mid-term election in November. Results from special elections and President Trump’s lagging popularity have excited Democrats while alarming Republicans that control of one or both houses of Congress could flip, creating even more roadblocks to Trump’s agenda.

The combined fiscal effects of the GOP tax cut and the FY2018 spending measure may pour cold water on what will likely be equally generous FY2019 appropriations. In February, Congress agreed to similarly large topline spending levels for both defense and domestic discretionary spending for FY2019. A budget in hand this early typically greases the wheels of the appropriations process, but some congressional observers predict Congress will punt major spending decisions until after the November election to avoid defending an unpopular vote on the campaign trail.

The President complained the omnibus spending package contained a lot of “giveaways” to gain Democratic votes. In addition, the measure didn’t include a lot of Trump priorities, from his border wall to steep cuts in the Environmental Protection Agency, State Department and National Institutes for Health. It did include provisions blocking private school vouchers and increasing the budget for after-school programs and student mental health services and violence-prevention initiatives. And several regional projects were salvaged, such as $300 million to remove toxic sediment from the Great Lakes and $73 million to restore Chesapeake Bay, both of which were Target administration targets.

Major policy issues, including action on the tenuous situation for so-called “Dreamers,” were notably absent. The package managed to sneak in two provisions related to gun violence, presumably to forestall a more public discussion of the issue. One provision will increase incentives for federal agencies and the military to upload records into the background-checking system used for gun purchases. The second lifts the ban on Centers for Disease Control conducting research on gun violence, but provides no funding for it. Such research has been blocked by the Dickey Amendment, named after a GOP congressman who sponsored it, but later changed his mind.

The negotiations that led to the spending package became a focal point for criticism. Conservative commentator Ann Coulter ripped Trump for failing to achieve his primary priorities even though he touted his negotiating skill in his presidential campaign. Coulter’s criticism was echoed by Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer who clucked that Trump had been out-negotiated. Earlier, he compared negotiating with Trump to Jell-O.

In an odd postscript to the spending deal, Trump has privately pressured the Pentagon to divert some of its enlarged budget to build his border wall.

 

 

Prospects for Bipartisanship in an Election Year

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said 2018 should be a year of bipartisan compromise, but that may be easier said than done after the GOP-controlled Congress shoved through a massive tax cut at the end of 2017 and ideological differences in the House threaten to blunt deals with Senate Democrats. [Photo Credit: AP/Susan Walsh]

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said 2018 should be a year of bipartisan compromise, but that may be easier said than done after the GOP-controlled Congress shoved through a massive tax cut at the end of 2017 and ideological differences in the House threaten to blunt deals with Senate Democrats. [Photo Credit: AP/Susan Walsh]

Will 2018 be the year of congressional bipartisanship or a retreat to political trenches before the November general election? It is a critical question that could determine the shape of spending, immigration, pension protection, defense, foreign policy and border security legislation.

It is also a question of time as the Senate returns to work this week and the House comes back next week.

The next Waterloo date for Congress is January 19 when the current short-term spending measure expires. Reconciliation rules don’t apply, which means whatever legislation emerges must pass the 60-vote cloture hurdle in the Senate. Christmas has passed, so GOP congressional leaders can’t rely on Democratic reluctance to allow a holiday federal government shutdown.

Before the holiday break, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled a need to seek bipartisan approaches in 2018. House Speaker Paul Ryan has focused more on trimming spending on so-called entitlement programs, which is unlikely to attract much bipartisan support. Congressional Democrats can be expected to weigh compromise against electoral advantage.

There is no better example of the political watershed than Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Democrats want a clean bill to secure their place in America and a path to citizenship. President Trump plopped the issue in the lap of Congress with a March 5 deadline as leverage to gain Democratic support for his promised border wall. Congressional Republicans may stop short of the Trump wall, but want fortified border security as part of any deal.

Trump gave Congress until March to reach a compromise. Latino interest groups expressed displeasure at Democratic failure to force the DACA issue in the pre-Christmas spending showdown, which foreshadows a more aggressive stance by Democrats in January negotiations. Conservative Republicans equate protection for children brought to America by their parents illegally as amnesty, which they have pledged to oppose.

There aren’t any obvious silver-bullet issues to inspire bipartisanship. The closest no-brainer issue is continued funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Before heading home for Christmas, Congress ponied up $3 billion to sustain CHIP for three months. Democrats want CHIP to continue while House Republicans appear to view it as a vehicle to dismantle additional parts of the Affordable Care Act.

During the holiday break, Democrats floated a new issue that could be a wrench in the works or a possible bargaining chip. On “Face the Nation,” Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Dingell and New York Congressman Joe Crowley called for government-backed private pension protection. Even though the recent run-up in the stock markets have boosted retirement accounts, Dingell and Crowley argued many Americans remains under water because of the Great Recession and pressure on private pensions continues to mount. The proposed solution involves government securitization of pension benefits, much like protection for savings accounts in banks, through some form of bonding. Democrats figure this issue would especially appeal to middle-class Americans.

Republicans, supported by Trump, want to boost military spending. The price for Democrats is increased social spending – or avoiding cuts in Medicaid. There eventually will be a deal on spending and an increase on the debt ceiling, but the deal that Senate Democrats would support may splinter the GOP majority in the House.

How forceful each side remains could depend on public reaction to the GOP-passed tax-cut legislation. Backers of the $1.5 trillion tax cut are counting on bolstered take-home pay as early as February to start changing American opinion about the legislation, which Democrats branded as heavily benefitting corporations and wealthier taxpayers.

If fatter paychecks turn heads, it may embolden Republicans. If the tax cuts seem insignificant, then Democrats may become more obstinate.

The congressional agenda is chocked full of other issues, including an extension of FISA court orders required to conduct domestic surveillance and additional disaster relief for states and territories hit hard by hurricanes, flooding and wildfires. Both offer some glimmer of hope for bipartisan cooperation.

Another possible bipartisan topic is stabilization of health insurance markets. Maine GOP Senator Susan Collins voted for tax-cut legislation on promises by here Republican colleagues to address the issue by agreeing to give insurers as much as $10.5 billion to compensate for coverage for high-cost and poor people. The conservative wing in the House has given that idea a cool reception as it warns about more spending driving up the federal deficit.

On philosophical grounds, the most likely bipartisan target is increased funding on infrastructure. Trump has promised to submit his plan to Congress this month and congressional leaders also have been working on proposals. Again, the pain point may be more spending and a higher deficit. That argument inevitably will revive the debate over the GOP-backed tax cut and whether it starts paying off in 2018.