The House Freedom Caucus is looking for a debt ceiling increase by August and it’s willing to lend votes to pass one — with some caveats.
According to a source familiar with the group’s plans, the Freedom Caucus could soon take an official position saying they will provide votes for a debt ceiling increase conditional on two things — that the measure includes structural changes designed to give Treasury borrowing authority for specific obligations, known as debt prioritization, and that a vote occurs before Congress leaves for the August recess.
The caucus began discussions on the idea during their weekly meeting Monday and those talks are continuing this week.
A formal position from the Freedom Caucus, which requires support of at least 80 percent of their roughly three dozen members, would be significant because it would mean House Republicans would have an opportunity to pass a debt ceiling increase without Democratic votes.
Conservatives inside and outside the Freedom Caucus have typically voted against “clean” debt ceiling increases, which has given Democrats leverage on the issue. But conservatives have supported separate legislation to prioritize specific debt payments and make other structural changes designed to prevent a continually increasing debt limit. With Republicans now in control of Congress and the White House, conservatives feel they have an opportunity to couple the two and get legislation to the president’s desk.
The Freedom Caucus has not yet settled on a specific proposal it would push for on the structural changes, but the source familiar with the plans said Reps. Tom McClintock of California and Dave Schweikert of Arizona have worked on language that is an option being considered.
The Freedom Caucus’s plans are timely as Office and Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, a founding member of the conservative group, suggested on Wednesday during a House Budget Committee hearing that Congress may need to act more quickly than expected to raise the borrowing limit because tax receipts are coming in “a little bit slower than expected.”
The debt ceiling suspension lifted in March but Treasury has been using so-called extraordinary measures, like the use of tax receipts, to continue making payments.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, speaking at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing Wednesday, urged Congress to raise the debt limit before the August.
The Freedom Caucus’s urgency, however, is not tied to Mulvaney’s admission or Mnuchin’s request. According to the source familiar with it’s plans, the group wants to push for a vote by August because it feels Congress needs to stop governing by crisis and address issues in advance of the deadlines lawmakers have created for themselves.
Paul M. Krawzak and Alan K. Ota contributed to this report.
Freshman Rep. Andy Biggs, 58, an Arizona Republican, talks about his love of music, old movies, and friendships in the Freedom Caucus.
Q: What has surprised you about being in Congress so far?
A: It’s pretty much like I thought it would be, to be honest with you: same legislative dynamics that you have in any self-governing or legislative body. I think that it’s somewhat more chaotic, since it’s so big. So I guess that would be the thing that’s surprised me, it’s a little bit more chaotic than I thought it would be.
Q: Tell me about your love of music. [Editor’s note: Biggs plays the piano.]
A: I had a music project studio. I did music and sound for a nationally distributed — though not nationally sold — computer game. That’s important. I don’t even know how they sound anymore, I’d have to go back and listen to the sound. I was essentially classically trained and for a period of 10 years, I didn’t play at all. I’m not very serious about [my playing] anymore at all. I’ll sit down and play what I feel, play some jazz-type stuff, that’s what I do.
Q: What do you like to do when you find downtime in D.C.?
A: I play the piano and music and so on. Music’s a hobby. I read a lot, so reading’s a hobby. And I like old movies. We really like “Nacho Libre” [laughs]; “North by Northwest” is a big one; “The ’Burbs” — I can’t believe nobody has seen “The ’Burbs.” Tom Hanks and Carrie Fisher, for Pete’s sakes. Bruce Dern’s in “The ’Burbs,” even. Nobody’s seen “The ’Burbs” and it’s kind of a classic.
Q: You won the American Family Publishers sweepstakes, netting the $10 million jackpot, in 1993. What was the first thing you bought?
A: I think we took our family to Disney World is what we did. I don’t do lotteries [anymore]. My wife sometimes enters Publishers Clearing House or something like that. But no, I don’t.
Q: How did you learn how to speak Japanese?
A: I served a church mission in Japan for two years and I used to be pretty good, but it’s real rusty now. I’ve been back to Japan a few times. When I’ve gone back, it comes back, but right now, it’s real rusty.
Last book you read: “The Continental Op,” by Dashiell Hammett
Last movies you saw: “North by Northwest” is probably my favorite movie. [Last movie seen: “Sahara” on the plane.]
Favorite song of all time: Classical, I would say, Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude.” Jazz, virtually anything by Duke Ellington.
Role model: Religiously, Jesus Christ. Politically, James Madison.
Closest to in Congress: Reps. Dave Brat, R-Va., Ken Buck, R-Colo., Mike Johnson, R-La., Ted Budd, R-N.C., Jodey C. Arrington, R-Texas. Freedom Caucus guys, those would be my guys. The Arizona delegation are the people I talk to the most. I talk to Kyrsten [Sinema, D-Ariz.] every day.
President Donald Trump on Tuesday released his first full budget proposal, a sweeping tax and spending outline for fiscal 2018 that would balance in 10 years, hike military spending and forecast booming economic growth.
The ambitious fiscal blueprint now heads to a bitterly divided Congress, which has the authority to adopt or reject the White House spending plans. Trump’s budget chief, Mick Mulvaney, will visit the Capitol this week to try to sell the $4.1 trillion outline to top budget writers in the House and Senate.
Those hearings will officially kick off the fiscal 2018 budget and appropriations cycle in Congress, a process that has been on hold for months as lawmakers waited for Trump’s full budget proposal and as they finished up last year’s spending work.
At a White House news briefing Tuesday, Mulvaney framed the proposal as a “taxpayer first” budget that would trim needless federal spending and reinvigorate the economy with massive tax cuts and deregulation.
“We looked at this budget through the eyes of the people who were actually paying the bills,” he said.
But large portions of the White House budget are unlikely to gain traction in Congress. Democrats on Tuesday slammed Trump’s plans to bulldoze domestic discretionary spending and cut social safety net programs like food stamps and health care for kids.
Republicans largely praised Trump’s efforts to balance the budget and bolster economic growth, but many GOP members have been quick to point out that the power of the purse ultimately lies with them, not the administration.
“I hope that people don’t panic over the president’s — any president’s — budget,” Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., said last week. “They’re just suggestions.”
Enzi echoed those remarks in a statement Tuesday, while praising Trump for writing a budget that would trim government spending and balance within 10 years.
House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., didn’t comment on Trump’s budget proposal in a statement Tuesday, instead laying out how Congress will analyze the request and “put forward our own plan to fund the federal government.”
Mulvaney acknowledged the tradition of Congress ignoring presidents’ budgets, but he said the document still sends a message about what Trump wants to do with the budget and the economy in the big picture.
“If Congress has a different way to get to that end point, God bless ‘em,” he told reporters at a budget briefing on Monday.
Congressional inquiries and special counsels can productively coexist, serving complementary purposes because of their reciprocal approaches, unless they’re unable to settle inevitable fights over the same documents and star witnesses.
That may be the best response to a question many on Capitol Hill started asking as soon as Robert S. Mueller III was appointed to run the government’s probe of Russian interference in last year’s election and whether Moscow collaborated with President Donald Trump’s campaign:
What’s left for lawmakers to do — indeed, what’s appropriate for them to do — now that the Justice Department has given the former FBI director broad latitude, independence of judgment and an open budget for getting to the bottom of Russia’s role?
As Congress left town following the most tumultuous week of the nascent Trump administration, which turned four months old on Saturday, lawmakers were of two minds. Beyond their effusive bipartisan praise for Mueller and his above-reproach reputation, sentiment fell decidedly along party lines when talk turned to the special counsel’s impact on the Hill’s work.
Republicans heaved a collective sigh of relief, hoping a sustained and in-secret investigation lasting months would create a bad news blackout in which the Capitol’s attention could be refocused on conservative legislating. But, even if that doesn’t materialize, Mueller’s probe has given them ample justification for saying absolutely nothing more about the Russia-Trump imbroglio — not to reporters or their constituents and, in the view of many, not at Hill hearings that could complicate Mueller’s work.
“Congress has been pretty much sidelined, because we’re going to have to be very leery about steering into Mr. Mueller’s lane,” said GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has been spearheading one of four congressional committee inquiries on Russia, after a closed-door briefing where Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein detailed his reasoning for naming a special counsel.
Democrats declared that broad Senate and House inquiries into counterintelligence and other aspects of the Russia story should continue while Mueller pursued his more narrow assignment of searching for criminality.
“They are very different investigations,” Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said moments after Graham spoke. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
There does seem to be plenty Congress can tackle, through its own committees or by empaneling an independent commission, without getting in Mueller’s way.
This is because the two have fundamentally different roles to play, often divergent ways of going about their work, and ultimately, dissimilar objectives.
At the core, the House and Senate have oversight responsibilities to carry out as part of their constitutional brief, while Mueller has the exclusive responsibility of law enforcement.
The elected officials can draw a satisfied sense of accomplishment by focusing the nation’s attention on incidents and rhetoric that don’t pass the smell test — behavior by government actors that’s maladroit, ethically suspect, morally reprehensible, professionally bone-headed or palpably unpatriotic.
But the appointed counsel will get a “mission accomplished” badge only if he persuades a grand jury to return indictments alleging provable crimes, those charges produce guilty verdicts and those convictions are upheld on appeal.
The politicians, using the guaranteed publicity at their disposal, will be all about turning poor behavior into breaking news alerts and headlines — preferably in plenty of time for the next campaign.
The prosecutor, using the expectations of confidentiality at his disposal, will be all about turning bad behavior into violations of U.S. Code, Title 18 — whether that takes several months or several years.
The preferred venue for Congress to do its most consequential work is the court of public opinion. The only place where Mueller might win is the federal courthouse. Their job is fundamentally political, while his is entirely legal.
At a minimum, lawmakers can use investigations to inflict public embarrassment on foolish actors. At a maximum, they can persuade the electorate to get behind efforts to secure resignation of poorly behaved senior officials — or, in the most extreme case, to support their drive for impeachment. An impeachable offense, after all, is whatever a majority of the House and two-thirds of the Senate says it is.
In the end, special counsels have a binary choice. They can file criminal charges and lay out their case, or they can close up shop after offering their rationalization for why charges were not warranted. A criminal offense, after all, is whatever a dozen ordinary Americans are persuaded it is.
The job is to decide “whether government agents had engaged in bad acts, not whether they exercised bad judgment,” is how former GOP Sen. John Danforth of Missouri said it when his own assignment ended in 2003, without any criminal charges stemming from the fatal raid on the Branch Davidian sect compound in Waco, Texas.
All that said, as Congress and Mueller maintain their interest in Russia, they will inevitably be hoping to make use of the same original source material — and that is where each has the potential to hobble if not ruin the work of the other.
For example, several Republican committee chairmen have already asked for the contemporaneous notes that James B. Comey kept of his encounters with Trump in the months before he was fired as FBI director — particularly the memo he reportedly wrote, after a February dinner in the White House, recounting the president’s request that he quash the investigation of Michael Flynn’s connections to Russia and other countries before his brief run as national security adviser.
But it’s unclear whether compliance with those congressional requests, even if they become subpoenas, would complicate the FBI’s efforts to help Mueller decide how to handle that same evidence.
The same will be the case when it comes to Comey’s own future appearances. He’s been asked by the GOP to appear before a handful of Hill panels, and his testimony could make for blockbuster political television.
But accepting the invitation to illuminate the nation about his version of events could create legal or strategic problems down the line for Mueller. And since the two have been close colleagues in the ranks of premier federal prosecutors for two decades, it’s very likely Comey will put working with the special counsel behind closed doors ahead of sharing his own narrative on television.
Most important of all, though, will be whether Congress and Mueller can come to a shared agreement for handling witnesses more hostile than Comey — because they might be in career, if not criminal, jeopardy.
The lawmakers, since they’ll be putting a premium on getting credit for explaining any malfeasance to the public, will be intent on getting the central players in the Russia probe to tell the whole truth on camera. But such appearances could prejudice juries or otherwise hobble a special counsel’s case later on.
And if Congress secures key witnesses with grants of immunity, promising that nothing they say on the Hill can be used against them in court, that would likely shield some of the worst actors from ever contemplating prison time.
That is the lasting consequence of the biggest power tussle ever between Congress and a special prosecutor.
Iran-contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh could not prevent a special House-Senate investigative committee in 1987 from partly immunizing the testimony of John M. Poindexter, President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, or Oliver L. North, who, as a National Security Council staffer, helped coordinate arms sales to Iran and the diversion of some profits to the Nicaraguan rebels.
Walsh won their convictions after trials where what they said on the Hill was not repeated, but both saw their guilty verdicts thrown out by appeals courts that ruled other evidence had been tainted by testimony given under promise that it wouldn’t be used against them.
The lobbying and political network of Charles and David Koch, bogeymen to Democrats for years, is poised for a significant policy win — but it will come at the expense of fellow conservatives on Capitol Hill.
Their victory also could derail a policy goal they share with those same Republican lawmakers: a permanent comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s tax code.
Koch Industries and the network of conservative advocacy groups funded by the billionaire brothers, such as Americans for Prosperity, have spent months working to tear down a crucial element of the House GOP leaders’ tax blueprint, which would impose a new levy on imports. The tax is best known as a border adjustment, and it would help raise more than $1 trillion over 10 years to fund a big corporate tax cut.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady of Texas say their proposal to tax imports but exempt exports would lure more companies to manufacture in the United States. Though the House committee will hold its first hearing on the border adjustment tax Tuesday, it may already be dead.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said just days ago that the proposal probably wouldn’t pass his chamber, though the Kentucky Republican noted that talks continued. The Trump administration hasn’t maligned the idea, and even Ryan conceded lawmakers are discussing alternatives. Brady has talked of phasing in the border adjustment tax over time.
The Koch network, along with a robust, multimillion-dollar opposition campaign from the retail industry, has helped convince a number of Republicans that the BAT would result in higher prices for U.S. consumers. In short, the Kochs have successfully divided members of the party they are most closely associated with politically.
Retailers say the conservative groups, led by the Koch network, give their cause a boost and complement their own intense effort that has included multiple trips to Washington with CEOs of Wal-Mart, Target and other stores. The broader business lobby in Washington, meanwhile, is largely silent because of internal conflict.
“They have an approach to this that is more ideological or more philosophical,” said David French, the top lobbyist for the National Retail Federation, which considers fighting the border adjustment proposal its No. 1 issue. “They bring a healthy skepticism to the growth of government spending.”
In an effort to be for something, rather than just against border adjustments, Koch-affiliated groups announced a new advocacy effort this month to buoy a tax overhaul effort that does not include the centerpiece of the House GOP plan.
The Koch network is not new to the tax debate. It has been working to tear down the BAT since late last year after the November election results catapulted the House GOP tax blueprint from the realm of legislative fantasy to being the plan itself.
“Our policy team understood very quickly that it was, in fact, a tariff on imported goods,” said Tim Phillips, who runs Americans for Prosperity.
Proponents of the border adjustment concept strongly disagree with that characterization and say it would end tax incentives for moving production abroad or keeping offshore profits out of the United States. Brady, for one, said it would reverse current policies that favor foreign products and hurt Americans by driving “businesses and jobs overseas.”
It’s also a way to pay for a sweeping tax overhaul, which aims to lower the average corporate rate to 20 percent, without ballooning the deficit.
The influence of the Koch advocacy nonprofits comes largely from an organized grass-roots operation around the country, as opposed to paid K Street lobbying. Americans for Prosperity reported a sharp uptick in its federal lobbying tab in the first quarter of 2017, but it still was only $40,000.
Both Koch Industries and the outside groups have shared or produced studies that aim to show the downside of the border adjustment proposal, specifically the projected higher costs to consumers, even if those costs might eventually even out with an expected higher value of the dollar.
Koch Industries, which imports crude oil, may see some of its costs rise under the proposal, but a spokesman for the company said its own internal analysis found that, overall, the company’s bottom line would actually benefit from the BAT. The company has a problem on ideological grounds.
“We are opposed because we think it’s bad policy,” said company spokesman David Dziok. Koch Industries was one of the first major companies to come out in strong opposition to the BAT with a statement on Dec. 7.
Dziok said the for-profit corporation was in agreement with the advocacy groups, such as Americans for Prosperity, but were not working in collaboration.
For its part, AFP has run cable and digital ads against the border adjustment proposal. “It’s safe to say it’s been a seven-figure effort in total, so far,” Phillips said. “It’s been more than just ads. Our state directors and activists back home have met with a number of House members.”
AFP’s activists have also come to Capitol Hill. They’ve met with lawmakers from Ohio, North Carolina, Florida and Virginia, among others.
The Libre Initiative, the Koch affiliate that focuses on Hispanic outreach, has done interviews and ads in Spanish and English, said group spokeswoman Marilinda Garcia.
Generation Opportunity, the millennial-focused advocacy arm of the Koch network, too, made its own pitch against the border adjustment tax with a Facebook Live event on Valentine’s Day where it featured imported chocolate, wine and other staples of the holiday that it said would be more expensive under the proposal, said David Barnes, director of policy engagement.
The free-market Mercatus Center at George Mason University was also an early and vocal font of opposition to the BAT. Charles Koch is a member of the Mercatus board.
“For me, it was completely independent of the retailers or even that of Koch,” said Mercatus’ Veronique de Rugy, who has written extensively against the proposal, including a National Review article from Nov. 30. “The pro-BAT side wasn’t prepared at all. They didn’t think about the optics.”
A longtime supporter of the border adjustment proposal, academic Alan Auerbach of the University of California, Berkeley, admits to being caught off guard by the intense opposition.
“I must say, as someone who has favored this idea for a long time, I was quite surprised,” the economics professor said. “I guess I shouldn’t have been because there’s a lot of money at stake.”