President Trump, White House Apprentice

Via New York Times Editorial Board:

It’s with a whiff of desperation that President Trump insists these days that he’s the chief executive Washington needs, the decisive dealmaker who, as he said during the campaign, “alone can fix it.” What America has seen so far is an inept White House led by a celebrity apprentice.

This president did not inherit “a mess” from Barack Obama, as he likes to say, but a nation recovered from recession and with strong alliances abroad. Mr. Trump is well on his way to creating a mess of his own, weakening national security and even risking the delivery of basic government services. Most of the top thousand jobs in the administration remain vacant. Career public servants are clashing with inexperienced “beachhead” teams appointed by the White House to run federal agencies until permanent staff members arrive.

Mr. Trump lost his national security adviser this week in a scandal involving ties to Russian intelligence. Robert Harward, a retired vice admiral, refused the job on Thursday, rattled by a dysfunctional National Security Council and a president who has alienated Mexico, Australia and even the British royal family, while cozying up to Moscow.

When Mr. Trump’s assistants can keep the edge of panic out of their voices, they insist that Mr. Trump has gotten more done in the early going than most presidents. And Mr. Trump is so adept at creating smoke that Americans might be forgiven for thinking that’s true. But at this point in the Obama presidency, which did inherit a mess, Congress had passed laws aimed at dragging the economy back from the brink of depression while committing $800 billion in Recovery Act spending to projects ranging from housing to roads to advanced energy technologies.

* * *

“Everything he rolls out is done so badly,” Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian, marveled recently. “They’re just releasing comments, tweets and policies willy-nilly.”

If there is any upside here, it is that the administration’s ineptitude has so far spared the nation from a wholesale dismantling of major laws, including the Affordable Care Act, though he may yet kill the law through malign neglect. In the meantime, however, as Mr. Harward’s retreat on Thursday suggests, the chaos carries other risks. A Navy SEAL turned corporate executive, Mr. Harward cited family and financial considerations for refusing the national security job, but privately he was reported to be worried about the effect of a mercurial president on national security decision making. As Gen. Tony Thomas, head of the military’s Special Operations Command, said this week: “Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon, because we’re a nation at war.”

More here.

G.O.P.’s Grand Visions for Congress Now Look Like a Mirage

Jennifer Steinhauer, writing in the New York Times:

Congressional Republicans, who craved unified control of the government to secure their aggressive conservative agenda, have instead found themselves on a legislative elliptical trainer, gliding toward nowhere.

After moving to start rolling back the Affordable Care Act just days after President Trump was sworn in last month, Republican lawmakers and Mr. Trump have yet to deliver on any of the sweeping legislation they promised. Efforts to come up with a replacement for the health care lawhave been stymied by disagreements among Republicans about how to proceed. The same is true for a proposed overhaul of the tax code.

The large infrastructure bill that both Democrats and Mr. Trump were eager to pursue has barely been mentioned, other than a very general hearing to discuss well-documented needs for infrastructure improvements. Even a simple emergency spending bill that the Trump administration promised weeks ago — which was expected to include a proposal for his wall on the Mexican border — has not materialized, leaving appropriators idle and checking Twitter.

At this point in Barack Obama’s presidency, when Democrats controlled Washington, Congress had passed a stimulus bill totaling nearly $1 trillion to address the financial crisis, approved a measure preventing pay discrimination, expanded a children’s health insurance program, and begun laying the groundwork for major health care and financial regulation bills. President George W. Bush came into office with a congressional blueprint for his signature education act, No Child Left Behind.

But in the 115th Congress, the Senate has done little more than struggle to confirm Mr. Trump’s nominees, and Republicans ultimately helped force his choice for labor secretary, Andrew F. Puzder, to withdraw from consideration on Wednesday in the face of unified Democratic opposition.

The House has spent most of its time picking off a series of deregulation measures, like overturning a rule intended to protect surface water from mining operations. For his part, Mr. Trump has relied mostly on executive orders to advance policies.

The inactivity stems from a lack of clear policy guidance — and, just as often, contradictory messages — from the Trump administration, which does not appear to have spent the campaign and transition periods forming a legislative wish list. Democrats have also led efforts to slow the confirmation of nominees to Mr. Trump’s cabinet who might otherwise be leading the charge.

“When you spend a lot of time talking about policy and debating policy in the presidential campaign, it is far easier to be specific about legislation when you get into office,” said Austan Goolsbee, who served as the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration. “President Trump spent the campaign fleshing out nothing in detail, so it’s not really a surprise that they can’t even agree on priorities, much less on actual legislative detail.”

House Republicans say slow and steady was always the plan. “We are 100 percent on pace with the 200-day plan we presented to President Trump and to members at our retreat,” Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker Paul D. Ryan, wrote in an email. “Budget first (check), then regs (check), then Obamacare bill (in process and on schedule), and then tax (after Obamacare).”

But even Democrats, who had been gearing up for fights and compromises on health care, a tax overhaul, infrastructure and other policy matters, are bored and frustrated. “It’s painful for someone like me who was excited about infrastructure and tax reform,” said Representative Jim Himes, Democrat of Connecticut. “It seems like the administration and the majority are nowhere.”

Much more here.

A gift and a challenge for Democrats: A restive, active and aggressive base

David Weigel and Karen Tumulty, writing in the Washington Post:

A super PAC formed to reelect Barack Obama in 2012 is driving activists to congressional town halls. Veterans of Bill Clinton’s administration are joining marches and plotting bigger ones for the spring. Democratic senators who had befriended Jeff Sessions in the Senate voted — 47 to 1 — against his nomination for attorney general.

Three weeks into President Trump’s term, the Democratic Party and progressive establishment have almost entirely adopted the demands of a restive, active and aggressive base. They are hopeful that the new activism more closely resembles the tea party movement, which embraced electoral politics, than the Occupy Wall Street movement, which did not.

The pace of the activists, and the runaway-train approach of Trump’s administration, have given them little time to puzzle it out.

“He has a strategy to do so many things that he overwhelms the opposition,” Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) said of Trump, “[but] he’s creating the largest opposition movement I’ve seen in my lifetime in the United States.”

After previous defeats, the modern Democratic Party typically plunged into a discussion between a moderate wing and a liberal wing. George McGovern’s 1972 loss led to an internal party battle against the New Left. After Walter Mondale’s 1984 defeat, a group of moderate strategists formed the Democratic Leadership Council. After the 2004 defeat of John F. Kerry, a new generation of like-minded strategists launched Third Way, with a focus on lost moderate voters.

There is nothing like that in 2017. Democrats, taking cues from their base, have given Trump’s key Cabinet nominees the smallest level of support from an opposition party in history. They have joined and sometimes led protests, organizing more than 70 rallies against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and joining activists at airports to help travelers affected by Trump’s executive orders on immigration and refugees. The scale has even impressed some Republicans.

“The march the day after the inauguration probably exceeded any of the tea party marches,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told The Washington Post in an interview for C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” series. “But like Occupy Wall Street, it’s not real focused, as far as what exactly they want.”

Moderating forces, increasingly, are being held at arm’s length. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), seen as the most potentially endangered senator in the upcoming midterm elections, is derided on social media for meeting with Trump. Manchin was the sole Democratic senator who voted to confirm Sessions for attorney general. Progressive groups protested the very presence of Third Way at the House Democratic retreat in Baltimore. At a briefing with reporters, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) insisted that Third Way was only attending to give a “data analysis” presentation — and denied a well-traveled rumor that progressives had walked out.

“What’s organizing people is that they’re fearing for the country they grew up in,” said Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, which was founded by Clinton administration exiles to emulate the successful think tanks of the right. “People are definitely seeing the purpose of working through the political process to oppose him. . . . It’s a primal scream, but the truth is, since Election Day, it has been growing.”

CAP Action, the political arm of Tanden’s think tank, is one of several progressive and center-left groups urging activists to attend congressional town halls. Elected Democrats, while stopping short of that, have egged on activists in person and on social media. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the youngest member of the party in the Senate, has also led a brusque change of tone in messaging, from defending his colleague Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) from Trump attacks (“As a prosecutor, Dick used to put guys like u in jail”) to mocking the president’s Cabinet picks (‘The chances you will be watching [C-span] are bested only by the chances a grizzly bear walks into your kid’s school today”).

“We lost. Now we fight,” Murphy tweeted after Sessions was confirmed. “Nothing is inevitable. Any anxiety or fear you feel can be cured by political action.”

Less clear is how Democrats will convert political action into electoral results. Much has been said about the failures of 2016 — chief among them the flawed belief that bashing Trump was enough, and the absence of a coherent economic message.

Yet even now, at every level of national Democratic politics, the discussion of how the party can win back voters it lost is subsumed by the argument about how to oppose Trump. The answer is always: as much as possible. And for the moment, that does seem to be engaging a broad, new population of activists. In the race for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, even Thomas Perez, the former secretary of labor viewed skeptically by some supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), has said that Democrats should hit Trump “between the eyes with a two-by-four and treat him like Mitch McConnell treated Barack Obama.”

That tone is widespread among Democrats, who were bitter about the rise of the tea party — a combination of grass-roots energy and well-funded conservative organizing — and are enamored with the idea of their own version. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who is term-limited out of office early next year, said that the new energy was manifesting in the recruitment of candidates ahead of schedule — a reversal from previous years when Republican primaries were packed with candidates, while Democrats left some state legislative seats uncontested.

Much more here.

Two top Republicans open to repairing Obamacare ahead of repeal

Via The Washington Post:

Two top Republicans long expected to lead the Senate’s role in repealing the Affordable Care Act said publicly this week that they are open to repairing former president Barack Obama’s landmark health-care law ahead of a wholesale repeal, which has been a GOP target for eight years.

Coming one week after a closed-door strategy session in which Republicans expressed frank concerns about the political ramifications of repealing the law and the practical difficulties of doing so, statements this week by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) brought into public view the political and policy challenges the GOP is facing.

Alexander, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said at a hearing Wednesday: “I think of it as a collapsing bridge. . . . You send in a rescue team and you go to work to repair it so that nobody else is hurt by it and you start to build a new bridge, and only when that new bridge is complete, people can drive safely across it, do you close the old bridge. When it’s complete, we can close the old bridge, but in the meantime, we repair it. No one is talking about repealing anything until there is a concrete practical alternative to offer Americans in its place.”

And Hatch, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee — another panel with a crucial role in the effort to repeal the ACA — said Thursday that he “could stand either” repealing or repairing the law. “I’m saying I’m open to anything. Anything that will improve the system, I’m for,” he said.

The comments come one month after Republicans in Congress first set out to immediately repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. While an increasing number of them have expressed concern about how feasible it is, many others, including House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), remain committed to a wholesale repeal and replacement.

More here.

Koch network could serve as potent resistance in Trump era

Via The Washington Post:

The weekend gathering of wealthy donors who help finance the conservative Koch network was supposed to serve as a celebration of the policy victories within reach now that Republicans control Washington: a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, a rollback of environmental regulations, perhaps even a corporate tax overhaul.

But with President Trump already embroiled in chaos and controversy, the conservative financiers assembled at a desert resort here were also forced to contend with a new uncertainty: whether the new president will be an ally or an obstacle.

In their first formal break with the administration, top network officials on Sunday condemned Trump’s travel ban on some refugees and immigrants, calling it “the wrong approach.” Some here expressed alarm that Trump has staked out positions anathema to the network’s libertarian principles, targeting individual companies that produce goods abroad and indicating possible support for a border tax on imports. And the network’s chief patron, billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, who pointedly declined to back Trump in the presidential campaign, warned in stark terms of the potential perils of the anti-establishment mood that gave rise to Trump.

“We have a tremendous danger because we can go the authoritarian route . . . or we can move toward a free and open society,” he told a packed ballroom Sunday afternoon.

The mixed emotions on display here reflect a provocative role for the Koch network in the age of Trump — as a potent resistance movement within the GOP, well-positioned to fight the president and his allies on Capitol Hill when they push policies that run counter to the group’s libertarian credo.

Network officials made it clear throughout the weekend that their allegiance is not to the GOP. They have already criticized House leaders, including House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), for backing the idea of a border adjustment tax and are contemplating intensifying the pressure through digital ads and grass-roots lobbying.

“We’re not limiting ourselves on our ability to go out and fight on this,” said James Davis, a spokesman for the network.

The network could present a political dilemma for many GOP lawmakers ahead of the 2018 midterm elections as they choose between two influential forces within the party, a populist wing buoyed by Trump’s “America First” call and the well-organized, well-funded Koch-aligned activists who embrace open trade.

In the next two years, the network aims to spend $300 million to $400 million on policy and political campaigns, officials said — up from $250 million during the 2016 elections.

The Koch operation counts several highly placed allies within the Trump administration, including Vice President Pence; Scott Pruitt, the nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency; and Marc Short, a former top Koch official who is now serving as the White House legislative liaison.

Nonetheless, network officials made it clear that they intend to deal with Trump and congressional Republicans as they have every other administration — which could mean an impending confrontation with GOP leaders.

“Our secret sauce, so to speak, is the accountability play,” said Mark Holden, general counsel of Koch Industries and co-chairman of the weekend conference. “We’re principled, and if we can’t get comfortable with the policies that are in place, then we’re not going to support them.”

This could get quite interesting.

Repeal of Obamacare now a turn-off to voters

Via The Washington Post:

Republicans are getting very worried about repealing Obamacare, and tensions have begun to boil over, as The Post’s Mike DeBonis reports.

A new poll shows exactly why they should be concerned.

The Quinnipiac University poll shows that just 16 percent of Americans want Congress to repeal all of Obamacare, while 51 percent say it should repeal only parts and 30 percent say it shouldn’t repeal anything. This echoes other polling showing the Affordable Care Act rising in popularity and that full repeal has fallen out of favor — even as the GOP prepares to repeal the law one way or another.

Even more illustrative in the new poll, though, is this: Voters indicated they’ll actually punish those who vote for repeal. Quinnipiac asked them whether they would be more likely or less likely to vote for a senator or member of Congress who votes for repeal, and by nearly a 2-to-1 margin, they said less likely.

Fully 43 percent said they would be less likely to vote for someone who repeals Obamacare, while only 24 percent said they would be more likely.

This is in contrast to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from March 2014 that asked basically the same question. Back then, 47 percent said they would be more likely to vote for someone who votes to repeal Obamacare, while just 32 percent said they would be less likely.

So it’s basically been flipped. The bloom is off the repeal rose, it would seem.

Of course, this doesn’t mean repealing Obamacare is necessarily going to lose a whole bunch of Republicans reelection races come 2018 (if they actually wind up repealing it). In addition to the 24 percent who want their member to support repeal, another 29 percent say it makes no difference. That’s a majority combined.

But it’s also clear that we’ve seen a pretty demonstrable flip in voter desires when it comes to repealing Obamacare. What seemed like a good idea in the abstract for many voters no longer seems so; about half of those who once said they would be more likely to vote for a repeal advocate no longer say that. And even Republican voters aren’t terribly gung-ho about repeal; just 50 percent say a repeal vote would make them more likely to back a politician.

More here.

Behind closed doors, Republican lawmakers fret about how to repeal Obamacare

Via The Washington Post:

Republican lawmakers aired sharp concerns about their party’s quick push to repeal the Affordable Care Act at a closed-door meeting Thursday, according to a recording of the session obtained by The Washington Post.

The recording reveals a GOP that appears to be filled with doubts about how to make good on a long-standing promise to get rid of Obamacare without explicit guidance from President Trump or his administration. The thorny issues with which lawmakers grapple on the tape — including who may end up either losing coverage or paying more under a revamped system — highlight the financial and political challenges that flow from upending the current law.

Senators and House members expressed a range of concerns about the task ahead: how to prepare a replacement plan that can be ready to launch at the time of repeal; how to avoid deep damage to the health insurance market; how to keep premiums affordable for middle-class families; even how to avoid the political consequences of defunding Planned Parenthood, the women’s health-care organization, as many Republicans hope to do with the repeal of the ACA.

“We’d better be sure that we’re prepared to live with the market we’ve created” with repeal, said Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.). “That’s going to be called Trumpcare. Republicans will own that lock, stock and barrel, and we’ll be judged in the election less than two years away.”

Recordings of closed sessions at the Republican policy retreat in Philadelphia this week were sent late Thursday to The Post and several other news outlets from an anonymous email address. The remarks of all lawmakers quoted in this article were confirmed by their offices or by the lawmakers themselves.

“Our goal, in my opinion, should be not a quick fix. We can do it rapidly — but not a quick fix,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). “We want a long-term solution that lowers costs.”

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) warned his colleagues that the estimated budget savings from repealing Obamacare — which Republicans say could approach a half-trillion dollars — would be needed to fund the costs of setting up a replacement. “This is going to be what we’ll need to be able to move to that transition,” he said.

Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) worried that one idea floated by Republicans — a refundable tax credit — would not work for middle-class families that cannot afford to prepay their premiums and wait for a tax refund.

Republicans have also discussed the idea of generating revenue for their plan by taking aim at deductions that allow most Americans to get health insurance through their employers without paying extra taxes on it. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who has drafted his own bill to reform the Affordable Care Act, said in response, “It sounds like we are going to be raising taxes on the middle class in order to pay for these new credits.”

Much more here.

Hill Republicans want answers. On Wednesday, Trump gave them only more questions — and fresh headaches.

Via The Washington Post:

Republicans eagerly seeking answers from President Trump on how he plans to implement his agenda instead found themselves deflecting new questions Wednesday about the president’s latest controversial pronouncements.

House and Senate Republicans began the week expecting specific guidance on what will replace the Affordable Care Act, how quickly taxes might get slashed and how the government will pay for a new border wall and infrastructure plan.

But on Wednesday, Trump offered up a fresh set of distractions with a flurry of announcements and early-morning tweets.

He signed executive orders designed to jump-start construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and withhold federal funds to cities that do not comply with federal immigration laws. Word also came of a White House draft proposal to allow the CIA to reopen secret prisons overseas — and perhaps resume enhanced interrogation techniques. And Trump used Twitter to announce plans “for a major investigation” into his unproved accusations of widespread voter fraud.

That left Republicans scrambling with few details and fewer answers at a moment when they had intended to secure the opposite.

The first signs of trouble came at midday Wednesday, when Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) faced reporters in a hotel ballroom here at the start of a two-day party strategy session.

They came prepared to talk about health care and the tax code but were barraged with questions about Trump’s latest moves.

On voter fraud, Thune said he had not seen any evidence of widespread problems and declined to directly endorse Trump’s investigation.

“If they want to take that up, that is a decision that obviously he can make,” Thune said.

On the administration’s plans to rethink how terrorism detainees are interrogated, Thune was stronger, emphasizing that Congress had settled the issue.

“With respect to torture — that’s banned,” he said, citing a 2015 law that was approved overwhelmingly.

Trying to get back on message, Thune added: “What we have to do is focus on the things that unite us,” including repealing Obamacare and revamping the tax code.

That is exactly what House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tried to do later in the afternoon. In a private gathering of lawmakers, the two GOP leaders laid out an aggressive legislative agenda calling for Congress to repeal major portions of the ACA, pass replacement measures and embark on a significant overhaul of the tax code — all within the first 200 days of blanket GOP control in Washington.

What they didn’t do is fully explain how these goals will be achieved, which is what most Republican lawmakers traveled to Philadelphia to learn.

Interviews with more than a dozen GOP lawmakers revealed a clash of expectations between rank-and-file lawmakers to get started in disassembling Obamacare and party leaders who are all too aware of the obstacles and difficult choices ahead.

“Exact, specific and detailed — that’s what people want,” said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.), the chairman of the House Rules Committee. “We’re going to own this stuff, and we better be able to explain it.”

“I don’t think you will see a plan,” said Rep. Patrick J. Tiberi (R-Ohio), chairman of a key subcommittee on health care. “I think you will see components of a plan that are part of different pieces of legislation that will make up what will ultimately be the plan.”

In the private session, Ryan and McConnell declared repealing and replacing Obamacare their first order of business, with a target date for action within the next three months. The lawmakers also said they plan to move quickly on a broad rewrite of the tax code that is expected to include deep rate cuts while maintaining current revenue through changes to the international tax code, according to multiple lawmakers in the room who requested anonymity to describe the meeting.

The leaders laid out a three-pronged plan to undermine Obamacare with a combination of new legislation, executive action by Trump and regulatory changes within his administration. They said a replacement law would require some Democratic support.

Tax restructuring would follow on an ambitious schedule, members who attended the briefing said, with an eye toward passing that overhaul, at least in the House, before Congress breaks for its summer recess in August. Ryan told members that they would work toward a tax overhaul that would cut rates while roughly maintaining current revenue levels.

Much more here.

The GOP is quickly discovering that there is more trouble with the changes they advocate. Especially with Donald Trump.

Trump issues executive order to scale back parts of Obamacare

Via The New York Times:

In his first executive order, President Trump on Friday directed government agencies to scale back as many aspects of the Affordable Care Act as possible, moving within hours of being sworn in to fulfill his pledge to eviscerate Barack Obama’s signature health care law.

The one-page order, which Mr. Trump signed in a hastily arranged Oval Office ceremony shortly before departing for the inaugural balls, gave no specifics about which aspects of the law it was targeting. But its broad language gave federal agencies wide latitude to change, delay or waive provisions of the law that they deemed overly costly for insurers, drug makers, doctors, patients or states, suggesting that it could have wide-ranging impact, and essentially allowing the dismantling of the law to begin even before Congress moves to repeal it.

The order states what Mr. Trump made clear during his campaign: that it is his administration’s policy to seek the “prompt repeal” of the law, which has come to be known as Obamacare. But he and Republicans on Capitol Hill have not yet devised a replacement, making such action unlikely in the immediate term.

“In the meantime,” the order said, “pending such repeal, it is imperative for the executive branch to ensure that the law is being efficiently implemented, take all actions consistent with law to minimize the unwarranted economic and regulatory burdens of the act, and prepare to afford the states more flexibility and control to create a more free and open health care market.”

The order has symbolic as well as substantive significance, allowing Mr. Trump to claim he acted immediately to do away with a health care law he has repeatedly called disastrous, even while it remains in place and he navigates the politically perilous process of repealing and replacing it.

* * *

The order does not direct the Department of Health and Human Services to ease any particular aspect of the 2010 law, but it could result in a substantial weakening of one of its central features: the so-called “individual mandate” that requires most Americans to have health insurance or pay a tax penalty.

While the Obama administration allowed “hardship exemptions” to the mandate, the Trump administration could conceivably interpret the requirement in a more lenient way, so that more people would not be penalized.

Likewise, federal officials could be more receptive to state requests for waivers under Medicaid, the federal-state program that covers more than 70 million low-income people. A number of Republican governors and state legislators would like to charge higher premiums or co-payments than are now allowed. Some states want to provide a less generous, less expensive package of benefits, or require some able-bodied adults to engage in work activities as a condition of receiving Medicaid.

Still, while Mr. Trump’s directive allows officials to take steps that increase costs for consumers, that result is not inevitable. Indeed, the order says officials should try to reduce costs and burdens on consumers.

Welcome to the Trump administration.

The worst cabinet picks of all time

Via The New York Times Editorial Board:

Viewers have been able to watch live as Senate Republicans indulge, and Democrats cross-examine, Donald Trump’s nominees for his cabinet. Within a 24-hour period Tuesday and Wednesday, three of the most controversial and quite possibly the least qualified of these nominees paraded across the screen in a cavalcade of misstatements, lapses of judgment, conflicts of interest and from time to time spectacular displays of ignorance and insensitivity.

Where to begin? Our pick is Betsy DeVos, the nominee to be education secretary, whose energies and considerable family wealth have been devoted to promoting privately run charter schools at the expense of traditional public schools in her home state, Michigan. She refused multiple times to agree that traditional public and charter schools should be held to the same level of accountability. She seemed unaware of some of the basic functions of the education department. She seemed surprised to learn, when Senator Al Franken brought up the matter, of a long-running debate over whether and to what extent to use test scores to measure student achievement or student growth.

She also won the tin ear award hands down. When Christopher Murphy asked whether she would agree that schools are no place for guns, she did not give the obvious right answer to a Democratic senator whose state suffered the horrendous Sandy Hook massacre (“Senator, there is no place for guns in schools”). Instead she said that localities should decide, and — in a transcendently odd moment — suggested that schools in places like Wyoming might need a gun “to protect from potential grizzlies.”

Next up, Scott Pruitt, who as Oklahoma attorney general initiated endless lawsuits against the Environmental Protection Agency, which he’s been asked to run, and who very nearly matched Ms. DeVos in the wrong answer department. One Democrat after another asked whether he would recuse himself in cases involving those lawsuits and cases involving companies that contributed copiously to his campaigns. The obvious response was, “Of course I will!” Instead, Mr. Pruitt would only say that he would do so if the agency ethics officer tells him to. Mr. Pruitt’s answer to climate change questions was equally depressing. Nearly all mainstream scientists say that human activities have been largely responsible for the rise in global atmospheric temperatures. Mr. Pruitt’s response was that the jury was still out.

Lastly, there was Mr. Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, a representative from Georgia. Mr. Price made the preposterous claim that repealing the Affordable Care Act really wouldn’t hurt people as long as they had bare-bones insurance policies that paid for treatment only in catastrophic circumstances. He couldn’t offer any convincing defense of his proposals to strip hundreds of billions of dollars from the budgets of Medicare and Medicaid. In response to questions by Senator Elizabeth Warren, he said that spending on the programs was the “wrong metric” to judge them by and argued that lawmakers should instead focus on the “care of the patients.” Quality of care is certainly the most important standard, but why would drastic cuts to those programs magically result in people getting better medical treatment?

More here.

Trump vows ‘insurance for everybody’

Via The Washington Post:

President-elect Donald Trump said in a weekend interview that he is nearing completion of a plan to replace President Obama’s signature health-care law with the goal of “insurance for everybody,” while also vowing to force drug companies to negotiate directly with the government on prices in Medicare and Medicaid.

Trump declined to reveal specifics in the telephone interview late Saturday with The Washington Post, but any proposals from the incoming president would almost certainly dominate the Republican effort to overhaul federal health policy as he prepares to work with his party’s congressional majorities.

Trump’s plan is likely to face questions from the right, after years of GOP opposition to further expansion of government involvement in the health-care system, and from those on the left, who see his ideas as disruptive to changes brought by the Affordable Care Act that have extended coverage to tens of millions of Americans.

In addition to his replacement plan for the ACA, also known as Obamacare, Trump said he will target pharmaceutical companies over drug prices.

“They’re politically protected, but not anymore,” he said of pharmaceutical companies.

* * *

Trump’s declaration that his replacement plan is ready comes after many Republicans — moderates and conservatives — expressed anxiety last week about the party’s lack of a formal proposal as they held votes on repealing the law. Once his plan is made public, Trump said, he is confident that it could get enough votes to pass in both chambers. He declined to discuss how he would court wary Democrats.

So far, Republicans have taken the first steps toward repealing the law through budget reconciliation, a process by which only a simple majority is needed in the Senate. The process would enable them to dismantle aspects of the law that involve federal spending.

The plan that Trump is preparing will come after the House has taken more than 60 votes in recent years to kill all or parts of the ACA to adopt more conservative health-care policies, which tend to rely more heavily on the private sector.

“I think we will get approval. I won’t tell you how, but we will get approval. You see what’s happened in the House in recent weeks,” Trump said, referencing his tweet during a House Republican move to gut their independent ethics office, which along with widespread constituent outrage was cited by some members as a reason the gambit failed.

As he has developed a replacement package, Trump said he has paid attention to critics who say that repealing Obamacare would put coverage at risk for more than 20 million Americans covered under the law’s insurance exchanges and Medicaid expansion.

“We’re going to have insurance for everybody,” Trump said. “There was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not going to happen with us.” People covered under the law “can expect to have great health care. It will be in a much simplified form. Much less expensive and much better.”

If he can follow through on these plans, without knuckling under to the drug companies, it might be a decent approach.

The GOP has “buyer’s remorse” over Obamacare repeal

Aaron Blake, writing in The Washington Post:

Politics can sometimes resemble a smoldering pile of broken promises. And the GOP‘s long-standing pledge to repeal Obamacare on Day One of a GOP administration is suddenly looking like it might be thrown on the heap.

Over the last week, 10 Republican senators have voiced concerns about the GOP’s plans to repeal the law immediately before a replacement can be crafted, and they’re now being joined by a group of very conservative House Republicans.

“I think when we repeal Obamacare we need to have the solution in place moving forward,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said on Chuck Todd’s MSNBC show. “Again, the solution may be implemented in a deliberate fashion, but I don’t think we can repeal Obamacare and say we’ll get the answer two years from now.”

Joining Cotton in this sentiment last week were Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). And this week, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is urging patience, as is Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). Corker and Collins, meanwhile, have joined with Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to file an amendment to the budget reconciliation process that would delay the deadline for repeal legislation from Jan. 27 — one week after President-elect Donald Trump is sworn in — to March 3.

While most of these senators are on the moderate side, they’ve also gotten some buy-in from the House Freedom Caucus — a group of tea-party aligned conservatives. “We just need to slow down the process so that we can understand a little bit more of the specifics, the timetable, replacement votes, reconciliation instructions, etc.,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C) said Monday.

Republicans have 52 senators, so nearly one-fifth of their members have now lodged this concern. Even more importantly, losing three of them could thwart any effort to repeal Obamacare in the near term.

It’s not clear how most of these members will actually vote — many of them have demurred on this question, likely because doing so could be cast as a vote against repealing a law the GOP base hates — but there appears to be a very real and growing possibility that Obamacare won’t be repealed right away.

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The best way to foreclose the possibility of repealing Obamacare and failing to install a good replacement, then, would seem to be to hold off on repealing it until you’ve got that replacement. And a poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that’s what the vast majority of Americans would prefer.

As Wonkblog’s Carolyn Y. Johnson writes, the poll shows that 49 percent of Americans support repealing Obamacare, but only 20 percent want instant repeal while working out the details of a replacement later. By contrast, 28 percent prefer Congress would do as these 10 GOP senators are urging and wait until there’s a replacement. Combine them with the 47 percent who don’t want repeal at all, and that’s a very healthy popular desire for Congress to leave the law in place, at least for now.

Only 1 in 5 Americans supports Republicans’ ‘repeal and delay’ Obamacare strategy

Via The Washington Post:

The Republican plan to immediately do away with the Affordable Care Act and come up with a replacement later is out of sync with what most Americans want, according to a new poll. Only 1 in 5 people supports repealing President Obama’s health-care law before the replacement is worked out.

Republicans officially began the work to unravel the law this week, but a Trump transition team member told The Washington Post they had six months to come up with a replacement. The poll suggests the likely “repeal and delay” agenda, in which a replacement plan is crafted months after a vote to repeal parts of the law, isn’t supported by most voters. Slightly more than a quarter of Americans wanted lawmakers to wait to repeal the law until the specific details of the replacement plan were announced. Nearly half of Americans oppose repeal of the law, which expanded insurance to more than 20 million Americans and dropped the uninsured rate to its lowest level since before the Great Recession.

“For me, the really pertinent question, the big question, is: Is there a mandate for repealing the ACA without a replacement plan?” said Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation. “What we see in our poll and what we see in our focus groups is: If there is, it is a very weak one. It’s not obvious there’s a mandate for repealing the ACA without putting a replacement plan on the table.”

More here.

Are Republicans blowing it already?

Jennifer Rubin, writing in the Washington Post:

We are not through the first week of the new Congress and already Democrats have jumped rather successfully on three issues, which just so happen to be strong ones both substantively and politically for them.

First, Democrats are making hay out of Republicans’ failure to take seriously their own drain-the-swamp promise. They jumped all over the plan to gut the congressional ethics office. Then on Wednesday, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) rounded up dozens of Democrats to sponsor legislation stating that “President-elect Donald Trump should comply with the Constitution and follow the precedent established by prior presidents and convert his assets to simple, conflict-free holdings, adopt blind trusts managed by an independent trustees, or take other equivalent measures.”

In their news release announcing the legislation, Democrats set the basis for a constitutional standoff. “The resolutions note that in the absence of such actions by the President-elect before he assumes office or without specific authorization by Congress, Congress will regard dealings by Trump-owned companies with any entity owned by a foreign governmental actor as potential violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause.” Cardin explained that voters “need to know that the President of the United States is making decisions based on what is in the public interest and not because it would advance the President’s private interests. This resolution is intended to send a clear message to the President-elect that he must take appropriate action and avoid any potential conflict with the Constitution before he takes an oath of office to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution in two weeks.”

Democrats are on solid footing, according to Hart Research Associates’ poll in 14 battleground states conducted for the left-leaning Center for American Progress Action Fund:

When asked to rate the importance of 13 potential priorities for the new president and Congress, voters in the Senate battleground states put an exceptionally high premium on “cleaning up corruption and financial conflicts of interest in the government”—rating it only slightly behind “protecting Medicare for senior citizens,” the number one item. . … It is significant to note that only 34% of voters say that Donald Trump is doing enough to avoid conflicts of interests between his business holdings and his role as president, while 52% say he should be doing to more to avoid conflicts of interests. … Voters may not be constitutional experts on the emoluments clause, but they believe that Donald Trump should not be allowed to receive payments from foreign governments through his business holdings while serving as president (71% agree, 18% disagree). Trump voters agree by 53% to 31%. Moreover, a 54% majority of all voters want Congress to take action to prevent Donald Trump from receiving payments from foreign governments while serving as president, while 17% say that President-elect Trump should not be allowed to accept foreign government payments, but do not think that congressional action is warranted at this time.

No wonder Democrats are pushing the issue.

Then there is the issue of repealing Obamacare with no replacement in sight. Republicans are already getting weak in the knees, and for good reason. The Los Angeles Times reported, “After demanding for six years that the Affordable Care Act be gutted, Republican leaders refused Wednesday to outline concrete steps to repeal and replace it, even as members of their party voiced growing reservations about rolling the law back without a viable alternative.” The report continued:

The lack of detail underscored the complexities of undoing the biggest expansion of the social safety net in decades without interfering with healthcare for tens of millions of Americans. Republicans’ wavering just a day after the start of a new Congress also may give opponents additional time to shore up support for preserving Obamacare in some form. …

This week alone, leading physician groups, including the American Medical Assn., joined the push to slow the repeal campaign. Others urging caution include the American Diabetes Assn. and the advocacy arm of the American Cancer Society.

A growing number of Republican senators are also voicing reservations about the lack of a clear plan, jeopardizing GOP leaders’ vision for swift repeal in a chamber where just three Republican defections could torpedo legislation.

“We’re not sure exactly what direction we’re going to go to have a full and careful transition period,” said West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, whose state has seen a dramatic drop its uninsured rate thanks to Obamacare.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) piped up to argue (accurately) that a full repeal would increase the debt, something he was not prepared to do.

Maybe both sides are eyeing the polling. By one poll, only about 25 percent of Americans want to repeal Obamacare. Moreover, only 52 percent of Republicans (a severe drop from 69 percent last month) want it totally repealed. “More Republicans now say they want the law ‘scaled back’ under Trump and the Republican-controlled, with that share more than doubling from 11 percent before the Nov. 8 election to 24 percent after.” The Hart poll found that by a margin of 59 percent to 32 percent, battleground voters don’t want to repeal Obamacare without a replacement. Even a majority of Trump voters feel this way. Again, it is not hard to figure out why Democrats have seized on Republicans’ inability to tell voters what their replacement plan is.

Finally, Democrats are vociferously attacking Trump for sidling up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, denigrating (and now threatening to slash) our intelligence agencies and citing Julian Assange favorably. (Most Republicans are rejecting a pro-Putin line, but few are criticizing Trump for taking one.) A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found: “Fifty-five percent of Americans say they are at least quite a bit concerned about the Russian hacks. … Broadly, at 31%, more Americans said Trump is ‘too friendly” toward Russian President Vladimir Putin than the 24% who said he’s ‘not too friendly.’ Another 44% had no opinion.” Once again, Democrats (and in this case, some Republicans) are on firm ground; Trump is not. If Republicans are not sufficiently resolute in the confirmation hearings in rejecting pro-Putin nominees or nominees not prepared to deal sharply with the Russian autocrat, you can bet that Democrats will pounce.

In sum, we see three key issues — corruption, Obamacare and Russia — all of which are important to voters and on which Trump is on shaky ground even with his own supporters. Republicans would be a whole lot safer to demand that Trump divest himself of his businesses, come up with an alternative to replace Obamacare before repealing it and denounce Trump’s efforts to cozy up to Putin and disable our intelligence agencies. (It remains to be seen whether sounding anti-Putin but supporting Trump and his nominees is a workable strategy for straddlers such as Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas.)

The Trumpized GOP is fumbling on these three issues, essentially disasters of their own making. Republicans could have demanded (even before the nomination) that Trump divest his business holdings. They could have been ready to go with an Obamacare plan alternative. Republicans could have rebuked Trump during the campaign for his pro-Putin rhetoric. If they now find themselves in a corner, with an untenable repeal-and-delay plan and tied at the hip to a conflict-ridden Russian sympathizer in chief, they have only themselves to blame.