Senate Republicans’ effort to ‘repeal and replace’ Obamacare all but collapses

Via The Washington Post:

Senate Republicans all but admitted defeat Tuesday in their seven-year quest to overturn the Affordable Care Act, acknowledging that they lacked the votes to make good on their vow to “repeal and replace” President Barack Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment.

Hours after GOP leaders abandoned a bill to overhaul the law known as Obamacare, their fallback plan — a proposal to repeal major parts of the law without replacing them — quickly collapsed. A trio of moderate Republicans quashed the idea, saying it would irresponsibly snatch insurance coverage from millions of Americans.

“I did not come to Washington to hurt people,” tweeted Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who joined Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) in opposing immediate repeal.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who spent weeks trying to knit together his fractious caucus in support of the original GOP legislation, said he would nonetheless schedule a vote “early next week” on the repeal plan. But he appeared to acknowledge that it seemed doomed.

“This has been a very, very challenging experience for all of us,” McConnell told reporters. “It’s pretty obvious that we don’t have 50 members who can agree on a replacement.”

The collapse of the effort marks a devastating political defeat for congressional Republicans and for President Trump, who had pledged to roll back the Affordable Care Act on “Day One” of his presidency.

It also leaves millions of consumers who receive health insurance through the law in a kind of administrative limbo, wondering how their care will be affected now that the program is in the hands of government officials who have rooted openly for its demise.

On Tuesday, Trump told reporters in the White House’s Roosevelt Room that he now plans to “let Obamacare fail. It will be a lot easier.” That way, he said, his party would bear no political responsibility for the system’s collapse.

“We’re not going to own it. I’m not going to own it,” the president said. “I can tell you the Republicans are not going to own it. We’ll let Obamacare fail, and then the Democrats are going to come to us” to fix it.

But Trump’s comments appeared to ignore the many Republican lawmakers who are anxious about depriving their constituents of federal benefits on which they now rely. The president invited all 52 Republican senators to join him for lunch Wednesday at the White House to try to get the repeal effort back on track.

Senate leaders have been struggling to devise a plan to overhaul Obamacare since the House passed its version of the legislation in May, a flawed bill that some House members openly invited the Senate to fix. With just 52 seats, McConnell could afford to lose the support of only two members of his caucus — and even then would rely on Vice President Pence to break the tie.

The measure he produced would have scaled back key federal insurance regulations and slashed Medicaid deeply over time. But it did not go far enough for many conservative Republicans, who wanted to roll back more of the ACA’s mandates on insurers.

And the bill went much too far for many moderates, especially Republicans from states that had taken advantage of the ACA’s offer to expand Medicaid eligibility. The bill would have cut Medicaid funding and phased out its expansion in 31 states and the District of Columbia. Some senators worried that their states would be saddled with the unpalatable choice of cutting off people’s health coverage or shouldering a massive new financial burden.

“This is the Senate. Leadership sets the agenda, but senators vote in the interests of their states,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) offered a blunt assessment of why the effort fell short: “We are so evenly divided, and we’ve got to have every Republican to make things work, and we didn’t have every Republican,” he said.

Two Republicans — Collins, a moderate, and conservative Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) — declared late last week that they could not support the latest version of the bill. Late Monday night, as six of their colleagues talked health-care strategy with Trump over dinner at the White House, conservative Sens. Mike Lee (Utah) and Jerry Moran (Kan.) announced that they, too, would oppose the bill, and the measure was dead.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.), whose job is to count votes, said he had “no idea” Lee was defecting until he left the White House meeting — though he had gotten a heads up from Moran.

Much more here.

 

Two more Senate Republicans oppose health-care bill, leaving it without enough votes to pass

Sean Sullivan and Lenny Bernstein, reporting for the Washington Post:

Two more Senate Republicans have declared their opposition to the latest plan to overhaul the nation’s health-care system, potentially ending a months-long effort to make good on a GOP promise that has defined the party for nearly a decade and been a top priority for President Trump.

Sens. Mike Lee (Utah) and Jerry Moran (Kan.) issued statements declaring that they would not vote for the revamped measure. The sudden breaks by Lee, a staunch conservative, and Moran, an ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), rocked the GOP leadership and effectively closed what already had been an increasingly narrow path to passage for the bill.

They joined Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Susan Collins (Maine), who also oppose it. With just 52 seats, Republicans can afford to lose only two votes to pass their proposed rewrite of the Affordable Care Act. All 46 Democrats and two independents are expected to vote against it.

In a pair of tweets Tuesday morning, Trump decried the defections, called for letting the Affordable Care Act “fail” and vowed to keep pushing for a GOP plan.

“We were let down by all of the Democrats and a few Republicans. Most Republicans were loyal, terrific & worked really hard. We will return!” he wrote in the first tweet.

He followed that with: “As I have always said, let ObamaCare fail and then come together and do a great healthcare plan. Stay tuned!”

Republicans, who have made rallying cries against President Barack Obama’s 2010 health-care law a pillar of the party’s identity, may be forced to grapple with the law’s shift from a perennial GOP target to an accepted, even popular, provider of services and funding in many states, which could make further repeal revivals difficult.

Meanwhile, Trump and other Republicans will confront a Republican base that, despite fervent support for the president, still seeks a smaller federal government and fewer regulations.

All of these forces remained vexing factors Monday as senators bailed on the bill. And no evident solution was offered by the White House — which has been limited in its sale of the GOP plan — or from McConnell, for how to bring together a party in which moderates and conservatives are still deeply divided over the scope of federal health-care funding and regulations.

McConnell did announce late Monday that he plans to push for a vote in the coming days anyway, but with a catch: senators would be voting to start debate on the unpopular House-passed bill. McConnell has promised to amend the bill to a pure repeal, but with no guarantee that such an amendment would pass.

“In addition to not repealing all of the Obamacare taxes, it doesn’t go far enough in lowering premiums for middle class families; nor does it create enough free space from the most costly Obamacare regulations,” Lee said in a statement.

Moran said the bill “fails to repeal the Affordable Care Act or address healthcare’s rising costs.”

The two senators timed the release of their statements and made clear that modest tinkering around the edges of the legislation drafted by McConnell would not be enough to meet their demands.

They joined a pair of GOP colleagues in calling for a complete redrawing of the legislation that would take many months, short-circuiting McConnell’s wish to end the debate this month.

The news threw the effort to pass the legislation into turmoil, with additional Republicans weighing in on Twitter about a flawed process that must take a new direction. Trump tweeted that “Republicans should just REPEAL failing ObamaCare now & work on a new Healthcare Plan.”

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) called for a “new approach” while Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.) tweeted, “Time for full repeal.” White House aides, meanwhile, said they still plan to press ahead.

Much more here.

By a 2-to-1 margin, Americans prefer Obamacare to Republican replacements

Philip Bump, writing in the Washington Post:

Republicans racing to pass a bill that would overhaul the Affordable Care Act (better known as Obamacare) certainly understand that their efforts aren’t polling well. In survey after survey, a majority of respondents view their legislative proposals unfavorably. At the same time, survey after survey shows Obamacare as more popular than not.

In the new Post-ABC News poll released Sunday, we decided to ask the question directly: Which do you prefer, Obamacare or the Republican replacement plans?

By a 2-to-1 margin — 50 percent to 24 percent — Americans said they preferred Obamacare.

There’s a split by party, as you might expect, with Democrats broadly favoring the existing law and Republicans the latter. But that split wasn’t even, with 77 percent of Democrats favoring the legislation passed in 2010 by their party and only 59 percent of Republicans favoring their party’s solution. Independents in this case came down on the side of the Democrats, with 49 percent favoring the existing law vs. 20 percent backing the GOP alternative.

What’s more, roughly 6-in-10 Democrats and a third of independents strongly prefer Obamacare. Only 43 percent of Republicans strongly prefer their party’s proposal.

Some respondents, unprompted, said they preferred some other proposal, or neither. One-in-10 Democrats offered one of those responses, while about 2-in-10 Republicans and independents did.

More worrisome for Republicans hoping to pass a new bill is how the support broke out by demographic. Only among Republicans, conservatives, white evangelicals and white men without college degrees did more Americans support the GOP bill than Obamacare. In every other group analyzed, including older respondents and white women without college degrees — an important part of President Trump’s voting base in 2016 — backed the existing law by some margin.

Much more here.

Republicans thought they could force 2018 Democrats to cut deals, but Trump keeps sliding in polls

Paul Kane, reporting for the Washington Post:

Senate Republicans began this year thinking that they had leverage over some Democrats, particularly the 10 up for reelection next year in states that President Trump won in the fall.

Those Democrats, some GOP strategists believed, would want to work with the president to appeal to enough Trump voters to win their states in November 2018.

That didn’t happen. Instead, Trump’s standing has slipped in many of these states. The president has faced legislative gridlock and a deepening investigation of his campaign’s connections to Russia. His focus, in public appearances and on social media, has regularly drifted away from the policy agenda on Capitol Hill.

That’s left Senate Democrats feeling stronger than they expected to be eight months after their highly disappointing showing in 2016, which left them in the minority and heading into 2018 defending 25 seats compared with Republicans’ eight.

If Trump had spent his first six months increasing or even maintaining his popularity in these states, he might have struck enough political fear in these 2018 Democrats to compel them to support some of his initiatives.

That’s looking more and more like the sort of negotiation that will happen only if Democrats can command a good deal in return.

The dynamic is sure to test Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the months ahead, particularly if Republicans fail to muster the votes solely from their side of the aisle to repeal chunks of the Affordable Care Act. McConnell has warned that such an outcome will force him to work with Democrats to shore up imploding insurance markets.

“No action is not an alternative,” McConnell said Thursday while in Kentucky.

Beyond the health-care fight, McConnell has also made clear that there are many other agenda items that will require the traditional 60-vote threshold to choke off filibusters, meaning he needs at least eight Democrats to move legislation such as annual government funding bills and an increase in the government’s borrowing authority.

But the bargaining table is different now.

Take Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), whose state delivered a critical victory for Trump, the first by a GOP presidential nominee since 1984.

A staunch liberal, Baldwin began the year expecting her 2018 reelection bid to be a 50-50 prospect. Her state had voted Republican three straight times for governor and in two of the past three Senate races.

Trump has used the presidential bully pulpit to focus on the Badger State, making three trips there since November. But his visits have done little to boost his standing.

Just 41 percent of Wisconsin voters approved of Trump’s job performance in late June, while 51 percent disapproved, according to a poll by Marquette Law School.

On basic popularity, Trump is easily the most disliked politician among Wisconsin voters, with 54 percent holding an unfavorable view of him and 40 percent a favorable one.

Baldwin’s image is not great, but it is far better in Wisconsin’s eyes than Trump: 38 percent have a favorable view and 38 percent unfavorable.

It’s the same in Michigan and Pennsylvania, both states Trump narrowly won. In Michigan, just 35 percent of voters approved of his job performance in a late May poll conducted by EPIC-MRA, with 61 percent disapproving. In Pennsylvania, 37 percent supported his job performance while 49 percent did not, according to a May poll by Franklin & Marshall College.

More here.

‘Repeal and replace’ was once a unifier for the GOP. Now it’s an albatross.

Dan Balz, reporting for the Washington Post:

For Republicans, Obamacare was always the great unifier. In a fractious party, everyone agreed that the Affordable Care Act was the wrong solution to what ailed the nation’s health-care system, with too much government and too little freedom for consumers.

Replacing Obamacare has become the party’s albatross, a sprawling objective still in search of a solution. The effort to make good on a seven-year promise has cost the Trump administration precious months of its first year in office, with tax restructuring backed up somewhere in the legislative pipeline, infrastructure idling somewhere no one can see it and budget deadlines looming.

Republicans have been here before on health care, on the brink and scratching for votes. The House eventually found a way through this political and substantive maze. Now it’s left to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to find the puzzle pieces and President Trump, perhaps, to supply some muscle, lest the GOP be forced to admit failure on the party’s top legislative priority.

Was it only Monday that Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) boldly declared there would be no turning back this week, that the Senate health-care bill would be put to a vote before lawmakers leave for the July 4 recess? “I am closing the door,” he tweeted. “We need to do it this week.” So much for that.

If it was a bluff by the leaders, other Republican senators called it. McConnell, a shrewd legislative poker player, quickly folded Tuesday. Instead of moving forward, the bill is now on ice. The original Senate leadership plan called for negotiations in secret by a small group, springing the results on the other members and forcing a quick vote before outside opponents could mobilize. Instead, the calculation that time was of the essence crashed into the reality of vote counting. The new calculus is that delay is better than defeat.

But will more time help to melt away the opposition? It did in the House, after the sudden and spectacular collapse of the leadership’s bill hours before a scheduled vote in late March. By early May, after weeks of negotiations between Freedom Caucus conservatives and members of the less-conservative Tuesday Group, the House approved a bill. The president was so hungry for even a partial victory that he held a ceremony of celebration with House members in the Rose Garden. Later, he privately and then publicly called that House bill “mean,” and it was left to the Senate to make amends.

In a worst-of-all-worlds environment, Republicans continue to struggle with what they’re selling, beyond the stated goal of repealing or revising the Affordable Care Act. Whatever overarching arguments they hope to make on behalf of their legislation have been lost in a welter of competing claims and demands among senators with different priorities and dissimilar ideological viewpoints.

Much more here.

Who’s afraid of Trump? Not enough Republicans — at least for now.

Philip Rucker, Robert Costa and Ashley Parker, reporting for the Washington Post:

Scrambling to line up support for the Republican health-care bill, President Trump got on the phone Monday with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and urged him to back the measure.

The president’s personal plea was not enough. On Tuesday, Lee said he would vote against the bill. Senate GOP leaders later postponed the planned health-care vote because too many other Republican senators also opposed — for now, at least — legislation that would deliver on Trump’s campaign promise to scale back the law known as Obamacare.

Trump had hoped for a swift and easy win on health care this week. Instead he got a delay and a return to the negotiating table — the latest reminder of the limits of his power to shape outcomes at the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

History suggests that presidents who have governed successfully have been both revered and feared. But Republican fixtures in Washington are beginning to conclude that Trump may be neither, despite his mix of bravado, threats and efforts to schmooze with GOP lawmakers.

The president is the leader of his party, yet Trump has struggled to get Republican lawmakers moving in lockstep on health care and other major issues, leaving no signature legislation in his first five months in office. The confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch is his most-cited achievement to date.

“This president is the first president in our history who has neither political nor military experience, and thus it has been a challenge to him to learn how to interact with Congress and learn how to push his agenda better,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who opposes the current health-care bill.

The Senate could pass a revised version of the bill once lawmakers return from their July 4 recess and pick up deliberations. Still, some Republicans are willing to defy their president’s wishes — a dynamic that can be attributed in part to Trump’s singular status as a disrupter within his party.

“The president remains an entity in and of itself, not a part of the traditional Republican Party,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), a moderate who represents a district Trump lost by 16 percentage points. “I handle the Trump administration the same way I handled the Obama administration. When I agree, I work with them. When I oppose, I don’t.”

In private conversations on Capitol Hill, Trump is often not taken seriously. Some Republican lawmakers consider some of his promises — such as making Mexico pay for a new border wall — fantastical. They are exhausted and at times exasperated by his hopscotching from one subject to the next, chronicled in his pithy and provocative tweets. They are quick to point out how little command he demonstrates of policy. And they have come to regard some of his threats as empty, concluding that crossing the president poses little danger.

“The House health-care vote shows he does have juice, particularly with people on the right,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said. “The Senate health-care vote shows that people feel that health care is a defining issue and that it’d be pretty hard for any politician to push a senator into taking a vote that’s going to have consequences for the rest of their life.”

Asked if he personally fears Trump, Graham chuckled before saying, “No.”

More here.

Trump likely to break many of his health-care promises — no matter what happens

John Wagner, Abby Phillip and Jenna Johnson, reporting for the Washington Post:

Donald Trump set himself apart from other Republican presidential candidates when it came to health care. Before taking office, he vowed “insurance for everybody” that would be “much less expensive and much better” and explicitly promised not to touch Medicaid, which millions of his working-class supporters rely upon to cover doctor’s visits and medication.

But as Republicans in the Senate press ahead with legislation that would dramatically cut Medicaid and scale back the Affordable Care Act marketplaces, it is increasingly clear that President Trump is almost certain to fall well short of fulfilling those promises.

Trump and congressional Republicans will likely hail any bill that reaches the president’s desk as the fulfillment of a long-standing pledge to “repeal and replace” the ACA, former president Barack Obama’s signature health-care law. But if the House and Senate agree on legislation along the lines of what is now being debated, millions — including some of Trump’s most ardent supporters — are projected to lose coverage, receive fewer benefits or see their premiums rise.

And if the health-care push stalls or falls apart, the president who campaigned for the White House as the ultimate dealmaker will be dealt a serious political blow — another example of Trump’s inability to move major legislation through Congress.

“He’s going to own it either way, whether he signs a bill or doesn’t get a bill,” said Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee. Steele said passage of the legislation could hurt Trump politically as much as its failure. “You’re going to have a whole generation of people who had health care losing health care, and in many instances, they’re Trump voters. I think that’s a very risky play.”

* * *

“Conservatives should embrace the goal of universal coverage, and this bill makes enormous progress towards that goal,” said Avik Roy, a health-care expert who was critical of the House bill but supports the Senate’s version.

“Does this bill have heart?” Roy asked, citing a standard Trump recently articulated. “It absolutely does.”

Polls suggest Trump has a long way to go to make that case to voters.

Only 16 percent of adults believe that House bill is a good idea, while 48 percent say it’s a bad idea, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released last week. Even Republican respondents are lukewarm, with 34 percent viewing the bill positively and 17 percent viewing it negatively.

Doug Heye, a Republican consultant, argued that the president badly needs a legislative victory and that achieving a high-profile win should override concerns about the legislation’s impact.

“Those who are strong Trump supporters have remained so despite the controversies,” Heye said. “They still see Trump as someone willing to take on their fights.”

Interviews with Trump supporters who attended his campaign rally in Cedar Rapids suggest that many of them are dissatisfied with their health care — and many suspect Trump won’t fully deliver on his promises. But so far, they don’t seem inclined to blame him.

Much more here.

From Worse to Bad on Health Care

Ross Douthat, writing in the New York Times:

THE Obamacare replacement that the House sent to the Senate might as well have had a note scrawled across its pages: Save us from ourselves.

And the Senate bill, which just emerged from Mitch McConnell’s underground laboratories into the light of day, does indeed improve uponthe House’s bill in several important ways. But is that enough to make the new version an electoral winner for Republicans? Probably not: At best one might say that it’s a political suicide attempt that’s somewhat less likely to succeed. Is it enough to make it sound public policy? Again, I think not: There are good ideas worked in, but still too much needless callousness.

The best argument for the bill is twofold. First, it officially reconciles the Republican Party to the idea that the government should provide support for working-class health insurance — a necessary and overdue reconciliation. Second, it takes part of Obamacare’s basic structure — tax credits, pegged to income, to enable the lower-middle class and near poor to afford coverage — and uses it to further two of the more compelling conservative health policy objectives: higher-deductible plans (which tend to reduce health care cost inflation) rather than comprehensive ones (which exacerbate it), and subsidies for private insurance rather than Medicaid for the near-poor, because private coverage may deliver better health.

So far, so reasonable. Also reasonable: a loosening of age-based price controls to make the exchanges more viable, and the fact that the Senate’s bill’s income-based credits are less stingy than the House bill’s flat credit, and thus less likely to leave the poor and old with impossible premiums to pay.

But stinginess is still the essential problem for the Senate’s alternative. High-deductible insurance plans make less sense the poorer you get, which is why they should ideally be encouraged from the top of the income ladder down — through a cap on the tax subsidy for employer-provided insurance, ideally, a sound conservative idea left at the altar by this bill.

Pushing them from the bottom of society only makes sense if you’re also willing to pre-fund health savings accounts for the near-poor, so that they can actually hope to pay their out-of-pocket costs. But this costs money that Republicans prefer to reserve for tax cuts. So the bill’s attempted transition from Medicaid to private coverage would inevitably leave the people transitioning worse off, with deductibles that they couldn’t pay even if their choice of doctors were technically better.

Meanwhile the middle-class Americans most justifiably aggrieved by Obamacare — the people just above the subsidy cutoff, buying unsubsidized insurance that Obamacare made less affordable — will gain little from the bill, and because the subsidy ceiling is lowered (from 400 percent of poverty to 350 percent) their ranks will actually increase.

The House bill, flawed in so many respects, at least made an effort on this front, since its flat subsidy was available to the people currently getting hosed by Obamacare prices. But maintaining a smaller version of that subsidy would have, once again, cost money, so instead the health care law’s biggest losers will continue to lose out.

Politically, then, it’s very hard to see a clear constituency for this bill, apart from the mostly wealthy voters who will appreciate its rollback of Obamacare’s tax increases. Because it preserves more reasonable subsidies than the House bill and because its Medicaid drawdown happens in the distant 2020s — which is to say, perhaps never — it might not be an outright political catastrophe. But it’s still the act of a party dedicated primarily to rescuing the rich from their tax rates, rather than stewarding the common good.

The best conservative health policy analysis proceeds from the controversial but, I think, correct perspective that much health spending is wasted and that people do not value or benefit from insurance as much as liberal technocrats presume. That analysis lends support to some of the provisions in this bill. But a more holistic, less plutocratic conservatism would not stop there: In an environment where de-industrialization and social breakdown have driven the working class Trumpward, saying we should not oversubsidize their health insurance should be followed by saying so that we can find other ways to help them.

More here.

G.O.P. Senators, Pulling Away From Trump, Have ‘a Lot Less Fear of Him’

Jennifer Steinhauer, reporting for the New York Times:

Senate Republicans, increasingly unnerved by President Trump’s volatility and unpopularity, are starting to show signs of breaking away from him as they try to forge a more traditional Republican agenda and protect their political fortunes.

Several Republicans have openly questioned Mr. Trump’s decision to fire the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, and even lawmakers who supported the move have complained privately that it was poorly timed and disruptive to their work. Many were dismayed when Mr. Trump seemed to then threaten Mr. Comey not to leak negative information about him.

As they pursue their own agenda, Republican senators are drafting a health care bill with little White House input, seeking to avoid the public relations pitfalls that befell the House as it passed its own deeply unpopular version. Republicans are also pushing back on the president’s impending budget request — including, notably, a provision that would nearly eliminate funding for the national drug control office amid an opioid epidemic. And many high-ranking Republicans have said they will not support any move by Mr. Trump to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement.

So far, Republicans have refrained from bucking the president en masse, in part to avoid undermining their intense push to put health care and tax bills on his desk this year. And the Republican leadership, including Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, and the House speaker, Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, remains behind Mr. Trump.

But with the White House lurching from crisis to crisis, the president is hampering Republicans’ efforts to fulfill his promises.

“All the work that goes into getting big things done is hard enough even in the most tranquil of environments in Washington,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican operative who worked for John A. Boehner when he was the House speaker. “But distractions like these can become a serious obstacle to aligning the interests of Congress.”

When Congress and the White House are controlled by the same party, lawmakers usually try to use the full weight of the presidency to achieve legislative priorities, through a clear and coordinated vision, patience with intransigent lawmakers and message repetition. Mr. Trump’s transient use of his bully pulpit for policy messaging has upended that playbook.

“It does seem like we have an upheaval, a crisis almost every day in Washington that changes the subject,” Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, who has been trying to advance health care legislation, said in a television interview on Thursday night.

The latest subject-changing crisis has been the fallout from Mr. Trump’s sudden dismissal of Mr. Comey, who was leading the F.B.I.’s investigation into contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia. Mr. Trump suggested last week that he might have surreptitiously taped his conversations with Mr. Comey, and on Sunday two Republican senators, Mike Lee of Utah and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said the president should turn over any such tapes, if they exist.

* * *

In the days after Mr. Trump’s election victory, the mood was different, as Republicans expressed high hopes that they could move quickly on a conservative agenda that merged with Mr. Trump’s. “We’re going to be an enthusiastic supporter almost all the time,” Mr. McConnell said of Mr. Trump in November.

But Republicans have so far achieved few of their legislative priorities, like repealing the Affordable Care Act or cutting taxes. When Mr. Trump suggested this month that the Senate should change its rules to make it easier for Republicans to push bills through, Mr. McConnell firmly rejected the idea.

Lawmakers are also bucking the president by pushing ahead with bipartisan measures on sanctions against Russia. And this month, Republicans rejected many of the administration’s priorities in a short-term spending measure, including money for a wall along the border with Mexico.

Two Republican senators who face potentially tough re-election fights next year — Dean Heller of Nevada and Jeff Flake of Arizona — have been unabashed in their criticism of Mr. Trump and his administration, which they have clearly begun to view as a drag on their political prospects.

“In Arizona, we grow them independent,” Mr. Flake said, noting the unpopularity in his state of Mr. Trump’s views on the border wall and Nafta. “I expect people want someone who will say, ‘I’m voting with Trump on the good stuff and standing up to him on the not good stuff.’”

Some Republicans, like Mr. Ryan, have preferred to keep the focus firmly on the good stuff. Mr. Ryan has remained in harmony with the president, last month calling him “a driven, hands-on leader, with the potential to become a truly transformational American figure.”

Much more here.

Congress at 100 Days: Frenetic Action but Few Accomplishments

Jennifer Steinhauer, reporting for the New York Times:

Owners of ancient water vessels are likely to be quite pleased with the Senate, which voted overwhelmingly this month to generally exempt them from a fire-retardant materials requirement. But that is about the extent of bipartisan legislation to emerge from Congress during the first 100 days of unified Republican governance.

A divisive election, the growing use of arcane rules that disenfranchise the minority party and a chaotic White House have combined to create one of the least productive opening acts by Congress in recent memory.

In the Senate, legislators have appeared to stop trying. Important cabinet appointments, a Supreme Court confirmation and a vast array of deregulation measures have all been passed without the 60-vote requirement that was once customary. Driven at once by haste and partisanship, Congress has been hampered from moving forward on the tax code, infrastructure and the health care law.

In the House, not even a healthy Republican majority has proved enough. On Thursday, House Republican leaders again failed to round up enough votes among their own members, leaving some in the party politically exposed in the process. A beloved House tax proposal appears to have been jettisoned by the Trump administration before it could even get going.

The net result is the appearance of frenetic action, and the reality is few accomplishments.

Senate committees, largely hamstrung by divisive fights over cabinet nominees, have barely moved forward with any bills. Most measures that have passed have done so through an obscure rule that allows Congress to overturn prior presidential orders, passing with little scrutiny and minimal support. The broad policy agenda that Republicans bragged would be forthcoming if they could only win control in Washington has eluded them.

“The only honest answer is that the election has made it difficult in the committees,” said Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, who longs for bipartisan solutions to at least some of the flaws in the health care law.

The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, recently told committee leaders like Mr. Alexander to “bring me bipartisan bills that are good for the country and I’ll put them on the floor,” Mr. Alexander said. But so far, they have not been forthcoming.

Mr. Trump has shunned Senate Democrats despite early flirtations about working with them. While President Barack Obama certainly pressed forward with a liberal agenda when Democrats controlled Washington during his first term, he spent time and energy trying — and failing — to woo Republicans to join in passing the health care and even the stimulus bills.

“We haven’t been consulted at all,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, who seems to have settled into implacable opposition. “I hope and really expect in the next several months that will change.” For congressional Republicans, he said, the result of shunning the minority and pursuing a strongly partisan agenda was, “They are not getting anything done.”

While the slow and steady slide to total partisanship is now a decade long, historians struggle to find a recent period of relative and comparable inaction.

“The only historical analogies I can think of are 19th century,” said Donald A. Ritchie, a historian emeritus of the United States Senate, referring to a time when the Whigs and the Democrats were at each other’s throats. Republicans and Democrats were also highly polarized during Reconstruction. And the late 18th and early 19th centuries featured nasty battles between the Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans.

Throughout most of the 20th century, Republicans and Democrats, while divided over the proper role and scope of government, generally managed to confirm nominees, fund the government and pass significant legislation together.

In some ways, Mr. Trump has caused the constriction. Although Republicans looked forward to reducing regulations and changing the tax code — and both parties were interested in fixes to the nation’s infrastructure — Mr. Trump pushed them to work to repeal the health care law after years of promising to do so.

He has also hampered their agenda by being remarkably disorganized in his nominations and by not putting forward important subcabinet nominees for a vote.

Much more here.

Senators from both parties pledge to deepen probe of Russia and the 2016 election

Via The Washington Post:

Top Republican and Democratic senators pledged Tuesday to deepen their investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election in the wake of Michael Flynn’s resignation as President Trump’s national security adviser, opening a new and potentially uncomfortable chapter in the uneasy relationship between Trump and Capitol Hill.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said such an investigation is “highly likely,” and the top two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), stood side by side Tuesday to announce that the committee’s ongoing probe must include an examination of any contacts between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government.

Flynn resigned late Monday after revelations of potentially illegal contacts with Russia last year and misleading statements about the communication to senior Trump administration officials, including Vice President Pence.

“We are aggressively going to continue the oversight responsibilities of the committee as it relates to not only the Russian involvement in the 2016 election, but again any contacts by any campaign individuals that might have happened with Russian government officials,” said Burr, the chairman of the intelligence panel.

Added Warner, the vice chairman, “The press reports are troubling, and the sooner we can get to the veracity of those press reports or not, then we’ll take the next appropriate step.”

The consensus among lawmakers came at a tense moment, when congressional Republicans were already finding it difficult to defend Trump as the tempestuous start to his term has stoked frustration, fatigue and fear on Capitol Hill.

Many congressional Republicans have endured Trump’s unpredictability — including his criticism of the federal judiciary, and an immigration order that caught them by surprise and drew intense national blowback and a legal rebuke — because they think he holds the key to passing laws they have talked about for years.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the Freedom Caucus, a conservative group of House members, put it this way: “I would rather accomplish something with distractions than not accomplish anything with smooth sailing.”

Burr and Warner’s agreement is also striking given the partisan feuding that has characterized investigations into Russia and the election — and relationships on Capitol Hill generally. The two senators were initially at odds over whether the committee’s probe should include potential ties between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government, with Burr suggesting that it was outside the panel’s purview.

On Tuesday, Burr defended the committee’s right to look at those potential contacts, including any that may have occurred before Trump’s inauguration. And he has the support of Senate GOP leadership; in addition to McConnell, Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), the majority whip, and Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), the GOP conference vice chairman, also called for investigations into Flynn’s actions.

Their pronouncements contrasted sharply with remarks by Republicans in the House, who applauded Flynn’s resignation but for the most part stopped short of calling for further investigation.

“I’ll leave it up to the administration to describe the circumstances surrounding what brought [Flynn] to this point,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters.

Some took aim elsewhere. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said the most significant question posed by Flynn’s resignation is why intelligence officials eavesdropped on his calls with the Russian ambassador and later leaked information on those calls to the news media.

“I expect for the FBI to tell me what is going on, and they better have a good answer,” Nunes said. “The big problem I see here is that you have an American citizen who had his phone calls recorded.”

Democrats cautiously applauded plans to expand the Senate investigation, even though several of them had called for an independent probe run by a special prosecutor. McConnell and Republicans will certainly have more control over an in-house investigation, but even Warner said he favors that approach.

“Not only do we have oversight over intelligence and counterintelligence, but it works in a bipartisan basis,” Warner told reporters.

Many Democrats think the slow, painstaking but largely public process of an independent commission, such as the 9/11 Commission, is preferable to leaving the investigation in the hands of committees that work in secret, giving leaders more latitude to pull political strings.

More here.

Elizabeth Warren Persists

Gail Collins, writing in the New York Times:

It’s a dark and dismal time for American liberals. Except for the part where the opposition keeps shooting itself in the foot.

We will now pause to contemplate the fact that this week the Senate Republicans attempted to forward their agenda by silencing Elizabeth Warren while she was reading a letter from Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow.

In explanation, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell basically called Warren a pushy girl.

Talk about the gift that keeps on giving. Never has a political party reached such a pinnacle of success, and then instantly begun using it to inspire the opposition.

We’re less than three weeks into the Trump administration, and almost every day the people in power stop delivering the message of the day and veer off into a Strange Tale.

Which do you think the Democrats found most empowering — Trump’s first full day in the White House, when he marched off to the C.I.A. to deliver a rambling tirade about the inauguration crowd size? The Holocaust Remembrance Day proclamation that eliminated any reference to the Jews? Or the new Supreme Court nominee saying the president who named him was being “demoralizing” and “disheartening”?

Or this Senate-silencing moment? The subject at hand was the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions for attorney general. The debate was going to be endless. It was evening and nobody was listening. Warren was taking her turn and reading a letter Coretta Scott King wrote about Sessions in 1986.

That was when Sessions was rejected for a federal judgeship on the basis of an impressive record of racial insensitivity as a U.S. attorney in Alabama. The charges included referring to a black assistant U.S. attorney as “boy,” joking about the Ku Klux Klan and referring to the N.A.A.C.P. as “un-American.”

His supporters say he’s changed. Indeed, Sessions has evolved into a senator who is well liked by his peers and obsessed with illegal immigrants. Totally different person.

More here.

McConnell rebukes Trump’s judge attack

Isaac Arnsdorf, writing in Politico:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Sunday distanced himself from President Donald Trump’s positions on Russia, voter fraud and the travel ban, while criticizing the president for attacking a federal judge.

“It is best not to single out judges,” McConnell told Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union. “We all get disappointed from time to time. I think it is best to avoid criticizing them individually.”

McConnell was asked about Trump’s tweet on Saturday calling the George W. Bush-appointed judge who temporarily halted his travel ban a “so-called judge.”

The Kentucky Republican said he wouldn’t consider legislation to implement the travel ban, instead leaving it to courts to determine the legality of Trump’s executive order.

“The courts will decide whether or not the executive order of the president that is issued is valid or not,” he said. “I think proper vetting is important, but there is a fine line here between proper vetting and interfering with the kind of travel or suggesting a religious test.”

McConnell declined to directly comment on Trump’s statement in an interview with Bill O’Reilly comparing Vladimir Putin‘s killings with some past American actions. (“We’ve got a lot of killers,” the president said. “What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”) But McConnell made clear he does not share the president’s view of Putin.

“He is a former KGB agent, a thug, not elected in a way that most people consider a credible election,” McConnell said of the Russian leader. “No, I don’t think there is any equivalency with the way the Russians conduct themselves and the way the United States does.”

More here.

Senators Push to Broaden Inquiry on Election Hacking

Via The New York Times:

Pressure mounted on Sunday for a broader congressional investigation of Russian cyberattacks aimed at influencing the American election, even as a top aide to President-elect Donald J. Trump said there was no conclusive evidence of foreign interference.

The effort was being led by a bipartisan group of senators, including John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate Democratic leader, who called on Sunday for the creation of a Senate select committee on cyberactivity to take the investigative lead on Capitol Hill.

“Recent reports of Russian interference in our election should alarm every American,” the senators wrote on Sunday in a letter to Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, who has said a select committee is not necessary. “Cybersecurity is the ultimate cross-jurisdictional challenge, and we must take a comprehensive approach to meet this challenge effectively.”

The developments served to deepen the fissures between high-ranking lawmakers of both parties who see American intelligence reports implicating Russia as the basis for additional inquiries and Mr. Trump, who continues to reject the conclusions of those reports.

But the developments also put new strain on Mr. McConnell. He now faces calls from Mr. McCain and Lindsey Graham, two Senate Republicans considered well versed on national security issues, to form a select committee. If he were to reject that appeal, he would be subject to criticism that he was trying to avoid a spotlight on an issue that senators in both parties believe is worthy of more focused scrutiny.

Mr. McConnell said last week that while he respects the intelligence agencies’ conclusions, the Senate Intelligence Committee is “more than capable of conducting a complete review” itself. He also acknowledged that Mr. McCain could conduct an investigation on the Armed Services Committee, an option that remains open should Mr. McConnell decide against a select committee.

Those divisions, coming as the Electoral College prepares to meet on Monday to ratify Mr. Trump’s election and the president-elect completes his cabinet choices, all but ensured that the issue would cloud the first months of Mr. Trump’s presidency, when he will be asking Congress to approve an aggressive legislative agenda.

Several permanent congressional committees have already been tasked with examining various aspects of the Russian interference, which has been largely accepted as fact by most members of Congress.

But in their letter on Sunday, the lawmakers argued the issue was too important and complicated for an existing committee to take on properly.

“We share your respect for, and deference to, the regular order of the Senate, and we recognize that this is an extraordinary request,” the senators wrote to Mr. McConnell. “However, we believe it is justified by the extraordinary scope and scale of the cyber problem.”

In addition to undertaking a “comprehensive investigation of Russian interference,” the senators recommended that such a committee also develop “comprehensive recommendations and, as necessary, new legislation to modernize our nation’s laws, governmental organization, and related practices to meet this challenge.”

Select committees, which are typically created to examine a particular issue for a limited time, are rarely formed. The most prominent recent example is the House Select Committee on the attacks in 2012 on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, an inquiry that Democrats have denounced as unduly partisan.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan said last week that the House Intelligence Committee would continue its own examination of Russian hacking.

Senate Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, was also part of the effort. “We want to find out what the Russians are doing to our political system and what other foreign governments might do to our political system,” he said. “And then figure out a way to stop it.” 
 

Mr. Schumer said in a news conference on Sunday that they intended to avoid such charges of partisanship.

“We don’t want it to just be finger pointing at one person or another,” Mr. Schumer said. “We want to find out what the Russians are doing to our political system and what other foreign governments might do to our political system. And then figure out a way to stop it.”

A spokesman for Mr. McConnell, David Popp, referred to Mr. McConnell’s earlier comments and said the majority leader would be reviewing the latest letter.

The letter was also signed by Mr. Graham, Republican of South Carolina, and Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, two members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that Mr. McCain leads. It follows a signed statement from the lawmakers, released last week, warning that any congressional investigation into the hacks “cannot become a partisan issue.”

Mr. Trump, for his part, has sought to paint the intelligence community’s conclusions about the matter as just that — a partisan attack against him. He said last week that the reports were “just another excuse” by Democrats frustrated with the election results that might be used to try to undermine his victory.

Asked on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday what information Mr. Trump had received that led him to reject intelligence assessments, Kellyanne Conway, one of Mr. Trump’s top advisers, insisted that the reports about the hacking were groundless.

“Where is the evidence?” Ms. Conway asked, turning the question around. “Why, when C.I.A. officials were invited to a House intelligence briefing last week, did they refuse to go?”

Robert M. Gates, the former defense secretary under President Obama and President George W. Bush who has offered counsel to Mr. Trump, speculated on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the president-elect “felt the way this information came out through newspaper stories and so on was somehow intended to delegitimize his victory in the election and that he’s reacting to that rather than ‘the facts on the ground,’ as it were.”

But Mr. Gates also said the Russian hacking was aimed at discrediting the American electoral process.

“Whether or not it was intended to help one candidate or another, I don’t know,” said Mr. Gates, who also served as C.I.A. director under President George Bush. “But I think it clearly was aimed at discrediting our elections, and I think it was aimed certainly at weakening Mrs. Clinton.”

Much more here.