Dating back to the days of Walter Winchell, there was a standard photo display that newspapers used when celebrity couples headed to Splitsville. Tabloids would feature an earlier picture of the couple frolicking on a beach or walking down the aisle with the caption, “In Happier Days.”
The odds are high that Monday’s buddy-movie Rose Garden press conference with the odd couple of Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell will soon invite similar “In Happier Days” nostalgia. For did anyone believe Trump’s hyperbolic claims that the two men are “closer than ever” and that “the Republican Party is very, very unified”?
Of course, the cause that brought Trump and McConnell together is the never-ending quest for lower taxes, the one constant in GOP ideology since the rise of Ronald Reagan.
Over the last four decades, the Republicans have gone from the party of balanced budgets to one that believes that the numbers will automatically add up if you say the magic words “economic growth.” In this century alone, the GOP has undergone head-spinning turnabouts on immigration and free trade.
And of course, Russia has been transformed from Reagan’s “Evil Empire” to the world’s only nation so perfect that the president never has reason to utter a syllable of criticism. Trump regards Vladimir Putin with the same sense of awe that American Communists once reserved for Joe Stalin.
Through it all, in good times and in bad, the Republicans have always worshipped at the altar of tax cuts. As McConnell said Monday, “It’s about both reduction and reform. It’s been 30 years since this kind of effort was undertaken successfully, and we’re going to succeed this time.”
This week’s budget resolution — which is essential if McConnell wants to avoid a Democratic filibuster on taxes — is a daunting challenge by itself.
With Rand Paul threatening a “no” vote on spending issues, an ailing Thad Cochran and John McCain dropping all pretense about his disdain for Trump, McConnell risks legislative embarrassment at every turn. And we haven’t even factored in the retiring and increasingly independent Bob Corker, who keeps insisting that the tax cuts should not increase the deficit.
Remember, the actual tax bill hasn’t even been written yet. All we are dealing with is a nine-page framework rather than a complex piece of legislation.
These days, talk of fissures and fractures in the Republican Party usually refers to Steve Bannon’s threat to primary every GOP senator who has ever sent a Christmas card to McConnell. But even without Bannon’s efforts to remake the GOP in his unshaven image, the tax issue underscores the cleavage in the party between the donors and the voters.
The Koch Brothers and their network of Super PAC contributors have announced plans to spend as much as $400 million on the 2018 elections to ensure that the Republicans retain control of Capitol Hill. But this massive political investment appears to be partly contingent on Congress passing tax legislation to the liking of the donor class.
What matters to the GOP’s super PAC brigades is eliminating the last vestiges of the inheritance tax; dramatically lowering the top corporate tax rate from its current 35 percent; trimming the top individual tax rate; and embedding various tax favors in the fine print of the eventual legislation.
Even if such alms-for-the-rich tax legislation actually provides tangible trickle-down benefits to middle-income Americans (an iffy proposition), voters are unlikely to see these benefits before the 2018 elections. As a result, the way that most families are going to judge the Republican tax cut — if it passes — will be to look at their own take-home pay.
This is the dilemma for Trump and McConnell: The donors don’t care about the middle class. And the middle class doesn’t care about the donors. Yet pulling off a major tax bill that satisfies both groups is key to the Republicans 2018 prospects.
Complicating everything are the lobbying groups and trade associations ready to pounce on every clause in the tax bill that might cost their clients and members money. Take as an example the concerns of two Republican-leaning groups with clout on Capitol Hill: the Realtors and the home builders.
The Trump tax framework explicitly protects as sacrosanct the mortgage interest deduction. That, in theory, should satisfy the real estate industry. Except, as Wall Street Journal reporter Laura Kusisto points out, the proposed doubling of the size of the standard deduction would mean that fewer taxpayers would save money by deducting their mortgage interest payments.
Already, the National Association of Realtors is touting a study that predicts that the Trump tax bill would initially cut house prices across the country by 10 percent. The Journal reports that, in contrast, the National Association of Home Builders might support the Trump bill, but only if other sweeteners for the real estate industry are added.
These what’s-in-it-for-us calculations will be conducted by every industry in America as they scrutinize every line in the tax bill with the avidity of a classical scholar examining a new ancient Greek manuscript. That is why it is hard to predict what will be left of the middle-class tax cut when all the special-interest deals are cut on Capitol Hill.
What is virtually certain is that Trump will berate and bait McConnell over the slow tempo of the dance of tax legislation in the Senate. But, at least, the majority leader can take comfort that he and the president were close friends on one Monday afternoon in October.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.
Most Americans disapprove of President Donald Trump’s decision to end Obama-era federal subsidies to insurers that lower costs for low- and middle-income families, a new poll found.
Fifty-three percent of respondents to an Economist/YouGov poll conducted Oct. 15 and 16 said they disapproved of the executive move, compared to 31 percent who were in favor. Sixteen percent declined to give an opinion.
Publicly, the administration claimed it was closing the executive payment schedule because it was unconstitutional. It is also part of a broader effort to completely roll back the 2010 health care law, a GOP promise seven years in the making.
“The bailout of insurance companies through these unlawful payments is yet another example of how the previous administration abused taxpayer dollars and skirted the law to prop up a broken system,” the White House said in a statement.
But Trump’s decision was politically motivated, too. He has been upset with Congress’s creeping pace of operations and hopes this will prompt Congressional Republicans to reboot their repeal-and-replace effort.
“Congress needs to repeal and replace the disastrous Obamacare law,” the statement said.
In the meantime, Congress can restore the cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments through legislation. The president has signaled he could support such a stopgap measure.
Fifty-two percent of respondents to the Economist/YouGov poll said Congress should indeed restore the subsidies. Just 21 percent thought Congress should not restore the CSR payments.
The plan would provide funding for the rest of the year, 2018 and 2019 for the cost-sharing subsidies to insurers, which are required to help lower-income consumers cover their bills under the 2010 health care law. It would give more flexibility to states seeking Section 1332 waivers, which allow states to bypass the health care law’s rules under certain conditions.
That flexibility would make it easier for states to obtain the waivers and easier for federal officials to approve more types of waivers, Alexander said. The law’s requirements on health care benefits and banning insurers from charging more for pre-existing conditions would not be touched, he said.
Instead, the proposal would allow for “comparable affordability,” Alexander said. In addition, individuals over age 30 would be eligible to purchase catastrophic plans offering basic coverage.
An overwhelming majority — 81 percent — of Americans are at least somewhat concerned about health care reform, the poll found.
Forty-five percent said they believed their coverage costs would increase as a result of the administration halting CSR payments.
It is unclear whether the Murray-Alexander proposal can navigate its way to the oval office for Trump’s signature, despite an endorsement from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y..
Senate Republican leaders were noncommittal.
“It could get attached to some vehicle or it could move freestanding,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the third-ranking Senate Republican. “I guess it depends on if there’s a bipartisan agreement and the Democrats and Republicans agree on a path forward.”
Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, wrote on Twitter, “The GOP should focus on repealing & replacing Obamacare, not trying to save it. This bailout is unacceptable.”
But only 30 percent of respondents think Trump has a plan to replace Obamacare, compared to 48 percent who say he doesn’t.
The web-based poll gathered responses from 1,500 U.S. adults and has a sampling error of plus or minus 3.1 percent. The sample was weighted based on gender, age, race, education, 2012 and 2016 Presidential votes (or non-votes).
The legal troubles for New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez might be about to get much less severe.
And it’s clear that if that happens the New Jersey Democrat, who has been on trial in a Newark federal courtroom on a slew of public corruption charges, can thank former Virginia GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell.
Senior Judge William H. Walls was expected to rule as early as Monday on tossing out many of the serious charges against Menendez before even being heard by the jury.
Walls had indicated last week that he viewed the opinion by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., overturning McDonnell’s corruption conviction as nullifying the “stream of benefits” theory presented by the federal prosecutors in the Menendez case.
The prosecution argument was, as the New York Times put it, that the continued gifts from Menendez’s relationship with South Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen amounted to a “retainer” for providing Melgen with improper assistance.
Walls was weighing whether the lack of a direct connection between an individual gift and an individual act was sufficient to prove bribery under the definition in the McDonnell decision.
The only thing Walls would say for sure last week after the prosecution rested its case was that the final counts in the 18-count indictment was going to be presented to jurors at the end of the process.
That final count deals not with alleged bribery or honest services fraud, but with paperwork.
The government argues that Menendez made false statements when he filed financial disclosures under the Ethics in Government Act that contained a variety of gifts from Melgen.
Menendez did not report chartered flights and first-class airfare that was provided by Melgen, nor did he report gifts of hotel rooms provided by Melgen in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, and in Paris.
Congress has blocked school choice proposals from the Trump administration, but Education Secretary Betsy DeVos may have found a way to make choice a priority by awarding grants.
While Congress sets the parameters on discretionary grant programs, the department has some wiggle room in what projects and proposals it can fund. And on Thursday, school choice was the first on a list of 11 priorities for federal grants the department published in the federal register.
The department said that its 11 initiatives would apply to about 80 competitive grants, amounting to an estimated $4 billion over the 2018 fiscal year.
But while it can’t roll out a brand-new school choice program allowing federal dollars to follow students to private schools, the department can encourage those applying for the grants to focus on specific areas, such as public school choice, said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Petrilli worked in the Education Department under President George W. Bush.
“It’s just a matter of nudging people in a particular direction,” he said, adding that the Obama administration prioritized school integration for their grants. “Basically, the way it works is the department says ‘Hey, you’ll have a better chance of winning the grant if you address these priorities.’”
However, the grant proposals still alarmed top Democrats in the House and Senate education committees.
“This is not aligned with the will of Congress nor taxpayers,” said Rep. Robert C. Scott of Virginia. “I urge the Secretary to heed the advice of the overwhelming majority of Americans and prioritize investment in public schools and the students they serve.”
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington echoed Scott’s sentiments.
School choice initiatives from the Trump administration have yet to gain traction in Congress. Two proposals in the White House’s fiscal 2018 budget to increase school choice were rejected by lawmakers in both the House and the Senate. But DeVos, a decades-long supporter of school choice, would be able to award grants though the department without congressional consent.
“The Secretary has made clear she will be an advocate for greater choice and innovation in K-12 education,” said John Schilling, chief operating officer with the American Federation for Children, which DeVos headed before she was confirmed as secretary. “We need more of both to create greater opportunity and improve outcomes for all students, and we’re pleased to see that federal grants will be directed to these areas.”
The grant priorities only apply to discretionary competitive grants, which the Trump budget proposed expanding as a way to encourage more school districts to allow students to choose their public school.
While school choice might be the first item on the list and the primary focus for DeVos, President Donald Trump asked the department to focus on giving grants to programs promoting STEM, or science, technology engineering and math programs.
In September, Trump signed a presidential memorandum requiring that DeVos devote $200 million in grant funding annually to STEM programs, with an emphasis on computer science.
With the directive to fund STEM programs and fulfill the requirements of specific grant programs, it could be difficult for the department to find funding for school choice, said Vic Klatt, a principal at the education lobbying firm Penn Hill Group. Klatt previously worked with the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
“It seems to me that it’s going to be very difficult for them to meet the President’s commitment to focus $200 million on STEM and computer science,” Klatt said, “while at the same time focusing on choice and some of these other items on their list.”
Whitehouse Conducts Science Experiment on Senate Floor
House and Senate Republicans are likely to wrangle over their competing budget resolutions to pave the way for a tax overhaul, says CQ budget reporter Ryan McCrimmon, who also explains why disaster aid is likely to increase.
Lowey, top Dem on Approps, says Congress should add funding to Trump request, for CDBG, repairing roads, ports, coastlines, etc.
Bob Corker, very excited about sitting in this budget markup right now.