It’s no accident that President Donald Trump will travel Thursday to an equipment manufacturing plant outside of Pittsburgh. And it’s no accident that Pennsylvania Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone will be there too.
The visit is an official one, but with a political backdrop. H&K Equipment is located in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, where Saccone will face Democrat Conor Lamb on March 13, the first special election of the year.
On paper, the 18th District in the southwestern corner of the Keystone State should be firmly in the GOP column. Democrats acknowledge it will be a tough race to win, but Lamb’s background and moderate profile have given them some hope that it could be competitive.
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Democrats didn’t even have a candidate here the last two election cycles against GOP Rep. Tim Murphy, who was first elected in 2002. Murphy resigned last year amid a sex scandal, after reports that the anti-abortion congressman encouraged his mistress to terminate her pregnancy.
Lamb, a former Marine and prosecutor, is giving local and national Democrats hope that he can appeal to white, working-class voters in the district who tend to be more conservative.
He has attempted to walk the line on thorny issues such as gun control and abortion, saying he is personally against abortion but supports the rule of law. He has also said he would not support Nancy Pelosi for House Democratic leader.
Democrats say the challenge for Lamb is keeping the focus on local issues, such as highlighting his work combating the opioid crisis as an assistant U.S. attorney. They also say he needs to focus on the economic issues in the district, home to many old manufacturing and coal mining towns. Another coal mine in the district announced last week that it would be closing.
The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO has endorsed Lamb, which could help boost his credibility among union workers. But a source with Saccone’s campaign countered that the Republican nominee has also won support from union workers, pointing to his assembly seat located in the 18th District.
Republicans are already tying Lamb to the national party, casting him as too liberal and a Pelosi ally — a message they think will resonate.
Trump carried the district by 20 points in 2016. Previous GOP presidential nominees Mitt Romney and John McCain also did so by double digits.
Democrats have roughly 24,000 more registered voters than Republicans in the 18th District, according to statistics from November from the Pennsylvania secretary of state’s office. But strategists in both parties say that tally could include former Democrats who now support Republicans but have not changed their party affiliation.
“I really don’t think this race is a harbinger of 2018,” said one national Democratic strategist, noting the district’s Republican slant.
Democrats this year are targeting GOP districts that aren’t as heavily Republican, including those that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, as well as districts that voted for Trump but previously supported Democrats for president. The 18th District is not listed among the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s 91 targets.
National Democrats are monitoring the race, but have yet to jump in. Unlike other special elections in 2017, which attracted millions in outside money, the Pennsylvania race comes in an election year when groups are allocating resources for the rest of the country.
Democrats made similar comments about hesitating to spend resources on the Alabama Senate race, which Democrat Doug Jones later won in December.
But strategists caution that the unique circumstances of the Alabama race (including a GOP nominee accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls) are not replicable. And they point out that the largely rural makeup of the 18th District, and its lack of racial diversity, makes for tougher terrain for Democrats.
Whether or not outside groups will play in the race is the “$10 million question,” said Pennsylvania Democratic consultant Mike Mikus.
“They shouldn’t unnecessarily invest just to invest,” said Mikus, who lives in the 18th District. “That said … if internal polling shows it’s winnable, of course, they should.”
Mikus said the district does have suburban, affluent sections that could be more inclined to support a Democrat. And he said a Democrat could also win support from the working-class voters who support more populist economic policies.
“I don’t think so much time has passed that these people are gone from the Democratic Party permanently,” Mikus said.
Democrats are also hoping those voters will reject Saccone, who has said he was “Trump before Trump was Trump,” as too extreme.
Saccone’s previously lackluster fundraising did raise some concerns among Republicans, but a source close to his campaign said any rumors that he raised less than $100,000 are not true. The campaign is expected to release fundraising numbers by the end of the month.
The source noted that Saccone, an Air Force veteran who was first elected to the state House in 2010, has typically been outspent in state legislative races.
One national GOP strategist characterized concerns about Saccone’s fundraising as “a little overblown,” and said to expect a respectable fundraising number.
But the strategist did say it was probable that Lamb would raise more money. The candidates have until March 1 to file their pre-general election fundraising reports.
Lamb’s campaign did raise enough to start airing a television ad highlighting his biography Thursday. A source with knowledge of the ad buy said $100,000 was allocated for the first week, with the ad airing on broadcast and cable.
The concerns over Saccone’s fundraising prompted some GOP outside groups to jump into the race.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, opened two field offices in the district, with 50 staffers knocking on doors. The group’s national data director is on the ground. And it also plans to air television ads, according to a source with knowledge of its plans.
The conservative Ending Spending Inc. also plans to spend $1 million in ads on the race, according to The Washington Post. And the pro-Trump 45Committee is expected to spend $500,000 on the race, according to Politico.
Mikus saw the activity as a sign that Republicans were concerned they could lose the GOP-leaning district.
“I’m certain that these Republican independent expenditures would not be coming into the district, Donald Trump would not be coming to this district, if they were not very worried,” Mikus said.
But national Republicans also see the district as a place to prove they can still win on Trump’s agenda.
“I think it’s an opportunity for Republicans to show that our base is still motivated, still energized from the Trump election,” the national strategist said.
And Saccone isn’t shying away from GOP priorities, including the recent tax overhaul.
“We’re already experiencing the tremendous impact of tax reform in the 18th District — and Rick will work tirelessly to continue advancing President Trump’s bold agenda in Congress,” Saccone consultant Bob Branstetter said.
All eyes will be on the Senate on Friday as lawmakers there race against the clock to avert a government shutdown. But over in the House, Republicans are happy they were able to pass a four-week stopgap measure without turning to the Democrats for help.
It wasn’t an easy task for House GOP leaders to cobble up the 216 votes within their conference needed to pass a continuing resolution. (The bill ended up passing Thursday, 230-197.) Yet throughout the negotiations, leadership remained confident its members would get there, given the urgency of the deadline and the political consequences if they failed to meet it.
“I have confidence we’ll pass this because I think members understand, ‘Why on earth would we want a government shutdown?’” Speaker Paul D. Ryan told reporters Thursday morning as his leadership team was still whipping support for the bill. “That is not in anyone’s interest.”
By the time the Wisconsin Republican held his weekly press conference at 11:30 a.m., the makings of the deal that led to the breakthrough about six hours later were well underway.
On Wednesday, Ryan had told House Armed Services members — many of whom were reluctant to vote on a fourth CR given that such funding measures hamstring the military — that he would hold another vote on a bill to fully fund the Defense Department at levels above the fiscal 2018 sequestration cap. That funding was included in a GOP omnibus spending bill the House passed in September.
House Chief Deputy Whip Patrick T. McHenry discussed the same idea later Wednesday with the House Freedom Caucus, another key opposition bloc leadership had to work on.
By Thursday morning, things were moving in a positive direction so Ryan’s confidence before the press was not totally unfounded.
But Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows told reporters right after the speaker’s news conference that more than 22 Republicans remained opposed to the CR and that it couldn’t pass in its current form.
“We’ve offered a number of different options, so it would take the leadership putting forth a different proposal than they currently have,” the North Carolina Republican said around noon.
Early Thursday afternoon, Ryan held his weekly cross-sectional lunch with members representing different GOP caucuses. Meadows and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan were present, as were members from other groups, including Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker and Tuesday Group Co-Chairman Charlie Dent.
After the CR had passed, Walker dismissed the idea that the Freedom Caucus had secured a deal in exchange for a vote on the defense bill, saying Ryan had already expressed his commitment to the defense vote during the afternoon lunch.
“I’m not going to put any kind of motive on what they did, but that was something that was discussed at [the] cross-sectional lunch today, so I’m not sure why the afternoon was spent trying to … yeah,” he said, stopping just short of criticizing his colleagues.
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Negotiations briefly took a turn away from spending midday Thursday as House Republicans were given an opportunity to view a classified memo obtained by the House Intelligence Committee on information related to the Russia investigation.
A source familiar with the Freedom Caucus’ discussions with leadership said Meadows asked for the immediate public release of the memo in exchange for his group’s support on the CR.
Jordan, a former caucus chairman who joined Meadows in the negotiations, told Roll Call several things were discussed.
“Of course, we talked about the memo today because it’s on everyone’s mind. We just read it,” the Ohio Republican said. The document prompted a “holy cow” reaction from members who read it, Jordan recalled, adding that the caucus believes it should be released to the public.
While Jordan couldn’t share details of the classified memo, he said it was “related to the FBI and the Russian probe.” He said releasing it would simply take a vote of the House Intelligence Committee and approval by the executive branch. If the latter objects, the full House could vote to overrule that decision, Jordan said.
Initiating a process to release the memo “was certainly part of what we talked about needs to happen over the next several weeks,” he said when asked if it was a request for their support on the CR. “We stressed to leadership how important it was that that happened.”
Ryan deferred to Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes in rejecting the Freedom Caucus’s request, the source familiar with the discussions said.
Once the classified memo was off the table, negotiations continued around a vote on the defense funding bill. GOP leaders had no problem promising that vote to the Freedom Caucus since they had already made the same commitment to defense hawks on Armed Services, the source said.
“Armed Services was pushing for it; they had come and talked to us about it,” Jordan confirmed. “But I think where the Freedom Caucus was key was we had enough votes to — we’re the group that can stop things, so we had the votes to stop [the CR].”
That, along with a commitment for a vote on a hard-line immigration bill, is ultimately what swayed the caucus to vote for the CR, he said.
Specifically, the group was told there would be a vote within 10 legislative days on a measure to raise the $549 billion sequestration spending cap on defense funding for fiscal 2018 to the level Congress approved in the National Defense Authorization Act — a roughly $80 billion increase — and to then appropriate that money, Meadows said.
The Freedom Caucus had initially been pushing for the defense funding bill to be included in the CR, but knowing that was a long shot, Meadows had been working on backup plans. A “Plan B” to add to the CR defense anomalies — a pay increase for servicemembers and funding for equipment and maintenance — had gained some steam early Wednesday but was off the table a day later.
Meadows said he always knew it would likely come down to a “Plan C” that he declined to detail. (Around noon Thursday, he confirmed the negotiations had reached that point.) It’s hard to say how close the eventual deal matched what he had envisioned, given that he never disclosed the details of the plan.
After the cross-sectional lunch Thursday, heading into a vote on the rule that set up debate on the CR, McHenry told reporters he was confident the House would pass the measure Thursday evening with Republican votes and without changes. (The North Carolina Republican led the whip operation.)
Meadows pushed back, saying there were still enough votes to defeat the CR as he headed to a Freedom Caucus meeting to discuss their next tactical play. During that confab in Jordan’s office, Meadows and Jordan spoke with President Donald Trump by phone. Timing suggests the call took place while the president was on Air Force One, returning from a trip to Pennsylvania.
When Meadows and Jordan left just before 5 p.m. to meet with GOP leaders in Ryan’s office, they wouldn’t reveal what was discussed but Meadows suggested Trump was supportive of his next move.
“There’s no distance between our positions,” he said.
On his way to meet with leadership, Meadows stopped by CNN’s TV crew set up outside the House chamber for a 15-minute interview with Wolf Blitzer. He then joined Jordan in a huddle with Ryan, McHenry and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy that lasted roughly 30 minutes.
Ryan “put forth a few things for our caucus to consider that would actually be beneficial to the military and our focus on the military needs going forward,” Meadows said after the meeting, hinting at the commitment on the defense bill.
Meadows and Jordan returned to the latter’s office for another caucus huddle to pitch the deal. At 6:23 p.m. a tweet from @freedomcaucus confirmed the breakthrough had won the hard-line conservatives’ votes on the CR.
The majority of the @freedomcaucus has taken a vote to support the CR effort this evening
Moments later, Meadows emerged from Jordan’s office, telling reporters support for the CR was based on securing commitments for two votes, one on the defense bill and one on a hard-line immigration measure.
Meadows said he expects the latter vote to occur by Feb. 16, the end date in the House-passed CR, and it would largely mirror a bill by House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte but with some changes related to visas for agricultural workers.
The Goodlatte bill would fund Trump’s requested border wall, end the diversity visa lottery and terminate green cards for extended family. It would also provide a three-year renewable status for current recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which protects some 700,000 young undocumented immigrants from deportation.
Ryan only agreed to a vote on the Goodlatte bill by the end of February if they could get the support of 218 Republicans by then, the source familiar with the discussions said. He did promise the Freedom Caucus he’d put a whip team together to work that bill harder.
Meadows expressed confidence that sufficient votes could be corralled for the measure, but Dent, a leading GOP moderate, was doubtful.
“Some members are operating under the illusion, or the fantasy, that House Republicans will pass a Republican-only DACA bill. It’s not going to happen,” the Pennsylvania Republican said in an interview Thursday night. “And even if it did, to what end? The Senate will not take it up.”
Meadows and Jordan believe that passing the immigration bill would strengthen House Republicans’ hand in bipartisan, bicameral negotiations.
“That sends a strong message,” Jordan said. “This is sort of a mark in the sand. This is the kind of bill that Republicans know is what the election was about.”
A vote on the Goodlatte bill would be rough for GOP moderates, but Dent said if leadership did bring it up, those who’d need to vote against it because of their districts would do so.
Even so, he said it was “absurd” that leadership was willing to make concessions to members on bills that will ultimately die in the Senate, referring to both the Goodlatte bill and defense funding measure.
“We give cover to members in deep red districts at the expense of members in marginal districts,” Dent said.
That’s all a vote on the Goodlatte bill is about — “to give political cover to the members who will be voting no on the final bipartisan DACA agreement,” he added.
Such an agreement will likely come from the Senate and “will not be able to garner a majority of the majority of the House Republicans,” he predicted.
Dent, an appropriator who supports increased funding for the military, also panned the decision to allow another House vote on the defense appropriations bill.
“We can send another defense bill over, but it won’t move until the others move,” he said of the 11 other appropriations measures that with defense make a 12-bill omnibus. “As Mitch McConnell says, ‘What wisdom is to be gained from the second — and in this case third, fourth, fifth — kick of the mule.”
Dent quoting the Senate majority leader is apt because McConnell remains the House Republicans’ biggest obstacle to accomplishing their goal of steamrolling Democrats on spending and immigration negotiations.
One idea some House GOP members discussed Thursday as they pondered whether the Senate would push a vote on the defense bill was McConnell getting rid of the filibuster for appropriations bills — an unlikely scenario.
“We were hoping that maybe even … if the Dems try to shut down the government, that would give Mitch McConnell enough ammunition to pull the [60-vote] cloture [threshold] and just say, ‘Let’s go nuclear here.’ So maybe that’s a path,” Walker said.
Meadows said he believes Ryan had a discussion with McConnell regarding Senate action on the defense bill. “My understanding is it’s different this time,” he said.
In a sign that may be true, South Dakota Republican Sen. Mike Rounds said Thursday that Senate GOP leaders told him they’d bring up the defense bill within four weeks of it passing the House. With that commitment, Rounds said he would support a Senate procedural vote Friday to move forward with the CR.
Even if the Senate does take up the defense measure, it’s likely to fail since Democrats won’t support it. And the Goodlatte bill, if it can even pass the House, also has no future in the other chamber. That means Freedom Caucus members have effectively won nothing.
Meadows said he believes they negotiated the best deal they could “under the current circumstances,” but alluded to other concessions they might have been offered.
“There are certainly a lot of subplots that I am not articulating right now that we did get, that I don’t — well, I will not be mentioning in terms of other things,” he said.
Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.
With just hours to go before his government will shut down, President Donald Trump started the day by using that prospect to make the case for Republican candidates in November’s midterm elections.
And he teased the possibility of a shutdown in his showman style — Shutdown coming?
The House on Thursday night passed a four-week government funding bill that would also extend the Children’s Health Insurance Program by six years and further delay taxes under the Obama-era 2010 health law. It now moves to the Senate, where nearly 10 Democrats will be needed to avert a federal shutdown after the clock reaches midnight on Friday night.
But the GOP president is not so sure they will help Republicans keep the federal lights on.
Democratic leaders in the chambers, backed by a large portion of their conference, have insisted the stopgap include a fix to the Obama-era program that protected individuals brought into the United States illegally by their parents; in recent days, Democrats also have criticized the House GOP stopgap, saying it excludes crucial items for defense and domestic programs.
Watch: Pelosi and Ryan Discuss Possibility of a Shutdown
Trump tweeted that Senate Democrats “want illegal immigration and weak borders. Shutdown coming? We need more Republican victories in 2018!”
Government Funding Bill past last night in the House of Representatives. Now Democrats are needed if it is to pass in the Senate - but they want illegal immigration and weak borders. Shutdown coming? We need more Republican victories in 2018!
White House officials have been coy when asked if Trump is working the phones trying to convince Republicans to hold the line and enough Democrats to join them when the Senate votes with a 60-vote threshold to stop debate on the continuing resolution then a simple-majority vote on whether to send it to Trump’s desk.
The president might not be calling members, but he has been sending mixed signals about his view of the stopgap measure and a shutdown.
Trump tried clarifying the muddy situation he created 12 hours earlier by tweeting he wants the House to pass a Republican leadership-crafted stopgap spending bill.
“House of Representatives needs to pass Government Funding Bill tonight. So important for our country - our Military needs it!” Trump tweeted minutes before the House passed the spending measure.
House of Representatives needs to pass Government Funding Bill tonight. So important for our country - our Military needs it!
Earlier Thursday, Trump appeared to undermine the bill only to have his White House staff issue a cleanup statement expressing his support. And even as White House aides were in the process of doing just that, Trump entered the Pentagon for a briefing saying a shutdown “could very well be.”
“The odds are greater than half we will take back the Senate.” — Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” on Monday night
Democrats ought to temper their optimism about the fight for the Senate this year.
Yes, Doug Jones’ victory in Alabama’s special election gives their party a path to a Senate majority in November. But at this point, it remains an unlikely path, despite the official party line.
Even assuming Senate seats in both Arizona and Nevada fall to Democrats — not a certainty, but more likely than not — Republicans can maintain control of the Senate by swiping a Democratic seat in West Virginia, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota or one of the half-dozen other states carried by Donald Trump in 2016.
Republicans don’t need to win all those states or most of them or even some of them. They need only one, unless another GOP-held seat comes into play.
While Democratic strategists are trying to flip the House by targeting districts Hillary Clinton carried and seats where minorities, younger voters and suburbanites are anti-Trump, Senate Democratic strategists must hold on to a handful of rural, religious, conservative and very white states to have any chance of flipping the Senate. That’s quite a challenge.
Democratic incumbents in Michigan and Pennsylvania, two states with diverse electorates, appear to be in good shape. Trump carried both states very narrowly, and greater Democratic unity and enthusiasm during the midterms should help the party retain those Senate seats.
Watch: Four Things to Watch as 2018 Election Season Officially Nears
The outcome in Wisconsin is less certain, since Republicans and Democrats disagree about Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s vulnerability.
On one hand, Trump carried the state very narrowly (with 48 percent of the vote), and Baldwin has proved her mettle.
On the other hand, the state is certainly competitive, Baldwin is among the most liberal Democrats in the Senate, and Gov. Scott Walker and the state GOP know how to win nasty, hard-fought statewide races. One Republican insider praised his state party effusively, calling it among the best in the country.
My own view is that the state’s battle lines are already drawn and a relatively small number of persuadable voters in the middle will decide the election’s outcome.
That said, any Democratic wave is likely to hurt GOP prospects here, so I’d be surprised if Baldwin loses. But the race certainly bears watching.
That leaves control of the Senate up to seven states, only one of them a 2016 nail-biter: Florida. Two-term Republican Gov. Rick Scott has personal wealth, and that would make him a threat to Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson, who is seeking a fourth term.
But Trump carried Florida with 49 percent, winning by just 1.2 points, and events over the last year are likely to cost the Republicans support, especially with suburbanites, African-Americans, Haitian-Americans, Puerto Ricans and other Hispanic voters. Scott is likely to run but has not yet announced his plans.
Trump carried Ohio with almost 52 percent, and his 8-point victory margin was large for the swing state. GOP Rep. James B. Renacci just jumped into the race after state Treasurer Josh Mandel dropped out.
Democrats can’t take this seat for granted, but incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown is a fierce campaigner. His blue-collar populism should win back some Trump voters, and likely strong Democratic turnout gives him the advantage.
Trump won Montana much more comfortably (with 56 percent), but the GOP field against Sen. Jon Tester is uninspiring.
Tester is another terrific campaigner, which gives him the edge.
Even if they hold all those seats, Democrats are left with four terribly difficult states to defend: Missouri, Indiana, North Dakota and West Virginia.
Those are huge mountains that Sens. Joe Manchin III and Heidi Heitkamp must climb, and each will have to attract thousands of Trump voters to win re-election in two increasingly polarized and partisan states.
Of course, those two Democrats, as well as Maine Republican Susan Collins, have run well ahead of unpopular presidential nominees before.
Collins ran 21 points ahead of GOP nominee John McCain in Maine in 2008, while in 2012 Manchin ran 25 points ahead of President Barack Obama in West Virginia, and Heitkamp more than 10 in North Dakota.
It’s also true that Heitkamp and Manchin are both strong campaigners who have built up personal relationships with voters in lightly populated states. (Democrats Byron L. Dorgan and Kent Conrad, who recently held both North Dakota Senate seats, did the same thing.)
The two final states, Missouri and Indiana, may be the most challenging tests for the Democrats.
Trump carried each with 57 percent of the vote. But these larger states are more difficult for incumbents to personalize. Indiana’s Joe Donnelly is a quality candidate, and Missouri’s Claire McCaskill has found a way to win twice when she was not expected to, but both are in office now because their 2012 opponents were inept.
This time, Republicans will have strong nominees in both states — Attorney General Josh Hawley in Missouri and one of three Indiana Republican hopefuls, Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita and former state Rep. Mike Braun.
A Democratic sweep of all 10 races would be remarkable. It’s certainly true that in wave elections all of the competitive Senate races tend to fall in one direction.
Democrats didn’t take away a single Republican seat in 1994 or 2010, and the GOP didn’t swipe a single Democratic Senate seat in 2006.
But none of those years had a Senate map like this one.
For Senate Democrats, the problem is clear — increased Democratic enthusiasm among younger voters, minorities and highly educated suburbanites will help their nominees nationally but not in states like West Virginia, North Dakota or Montana.
So, while the House of Representatives is increasingly at risk in November, the Republican Party’s Senate majority still looks very formidable. At some point this cycle, that chamber may well be “in play.” But it is not there yet.
House Republicans took a significant step Wednesday in an effort to overhaul the nation’s foreign lobbying disclosure regulations amid scandals in the influence sector.
The House Judiciary Committee advanced as amended, 15-6 along party lines, the measure that would give the Justice Department new subpoena-like investigative powers. That new authority sparked controversy among the panel’s Democrats.
Though the measure has two Democratic co-sponsors and most of the panel’s Democrats said they supported the idea of an overhaul, that still wasn’t enough to stop deep partisan divisions from emerging during debate.
Democrats complained that the majority party was moving too quickly on the bill, bypassing hearings. They chided Republicans for not taking on other high-profile matters such as immigration and criminal justice overhauls and examining Russian interference into the 2016 elections.
New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the committee’s top Democrat, said the foreign lobbying bill was not “yet ripe for markup, as it might raise several constitutional and policy questions that should give us some pause before we move forward.”
Louisiana GOP Rep. Mike Johnson, the bill’s lead sponsor, introduced the measure last fall after the indictments of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, two ex-lobbyists and onetime Trump campaign insiders.
Manafort and Gates were charged with violating the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, in an indictment stemming from the probe by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, whose investigation into potential Russian ties to the Trump campaign has helped put an unprecedented spotlight on a previously little-known law.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa also introduced a companion bill, but his spokesman did not respond to a request about whether any hearings or actions were forthcoming in that chamber.
Manafort and Gates’ trial is expected to start this fall, after a federal judge on Tuesday rejected prosecutors’ request for a spring trial date.
Another Trump insider, Michael Flynn, who briefly served as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, later filed retroactive foreign lobbying disclosures. Flynn signed a plea agreement last year as part of the Mueller investigation.
The probe also led to the apparent downfall of the Podesta Group, the lobbying firm of Democrat Tony Podesta.
The main policy debate at House Judiciary was over the bill’s provision to grant new subpoena-like authority to the Justice Department’s FARA unit.
Rep. David Cicilline offered several amendments, all of which were rejected, including one that would have swapped the original bill for his own foreign lobbying overhaul. The Rhode Island Democrat said he was trying to restrict the bill’s new authority to civil matters only and not criminal ones.
Rep. Hank Johnson said he backed Cicilline’s changes and was concerned about giving more authority to government bureaucrats. The Georgia Democrat called for hearings to examine any potential impact the bill could have on civil liberties and constitutional protections.
“Why are we rushing forward to give this kind of power to the Department of Justice under the Trump administration which is abusing — showing disrespect for — the rule of law?” Hank Johnson said.
Outside observers said the back-and-forth showed how politics had seeped into the foreign lobbying debate, even as most lawmakers appeared to agree in theory that the 1938 law was in need of an update.
“DOJ’s career staff have long wanted the authority to investigate FARA violations more aggressively, and the Democratic-aligned government reform community has generally agreed,” said Rob Kelner, a partner at Covington & Burling, who heads the firm’s FARA practice and was once Flynn’s attorney. “So it was a bit of a role reversal to see Judiciary Committee Democrats opposing enhanced FARA enforcement authority.”
Most of the committee’s Democrats said they wanted to work with Republicans to overhaul the foreign lobbying law, but some of the partisan sparring took on a more overtly contentious tone.
For example, Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee offered an amendment to rename the bill the “No More Paul Manaforts or Michael Flynns Act.” Her amendment was rejected.
The measure, if enacted, could have sweeping consequences for lobbyists and other representatives of foreign governments and political parties as well as of foreign corporations and nonprofit organizations. The bill would scrap a longstanding exception allowing lobbyists for foreign corporations and nonprofits to register under the less burdensome congressional lobbying regime.
One of two amendments that the panel approved by voice vote was offered by its chief sponsor Mike Johnson and dealt largely with revising a schedule for the Justice Department to provide a report to Congress within one year of enactment. The other amendment, from Washington Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal, would compel the DOJ to update Congress on the steps it is taking to make the FARA database searchable and downloadable.
“One of the worst kept secrets in Washington is how frequently lobbyists violate our foreign registration laws by accepting millions of dollars from foreign principals without disclosing a thing about those relationships,” Mike Johnson said, while noting the bill is supported by watchdog groups such as Common Cause, Issue One and Public Citizen.
With early voting starting in less than a month, Illinois will be a testing ground for Democrats’ ability to nominate general election candidates they think can win out of crowded primaries.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting four Republican-held districts, but the committee is not explicitly picking favorites in all those primaries.
In two competitive districts — the 6th and the 13th — Democratic candidates who have won the primary before but fallen short in the general election are running again. Even though they’re not raising much money, there’s still fear among Democratic campaign veterans that they could sneak by in the primary.
“They’re almost like quasi-incumbents because Democratic primary voters voted for them before,” one Democratic strategist in the state said.
Watch: How the Open Seats Are (or Aren’t) Creating Opportunities in the House
Hillary Clinton won Illinois by 17 points in 2016. Democrats hold 11 of the state’s 18 House districts. The party failed to recruit candidates in the 12th and 13th districts last cycle — both of which Democrats drew to be competitive for themselves.
That’s why there’s so much attention on this year’s March 20 primaries.
“They’re huge,” the Democratic strategist said. “You could take two districts that we should win and almost take them off the table” if those previous nominees make it through the primaries.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC backed by House GOP leadership, has said it will play in Democratic primaries in 2018. But it hasn’t yet stepped into Illinois to help candidates who they see as weaker general election contenders.
“Illinois is incredibly important because you have the three kinds of districts Democrats need to compete in, plus the kinds they need to defend,” said Ian Russell, former deputy executive director and national political director at the DCCC. He’s working with two Illinois primary candidates backed by EMILY’s List.
“It’s one of those districts where we have to perform; it’s a part of our path,” a national Democratic strategist said.
Out of the four Illinois seats on the DCCC’s target list, it’s the only one Clinton carried — by 7 points.
Democrats plan to hit Roskam on the GOP tax overhaul, which the state’s Republican governor called “punishing” because of its cap on state and local tax deductions.
“It’s clear that [Roskam’s] voters wanted a conservative representative who was focused on cutting their taxes — and that’s exactly what Roskam did,” Maddie Anderson, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in an email.
“I’m a little confused by the notion that following through on what voters asked for would lead to being voted out of office,” she added.
Seven Democrats have filed the requisite signatures to run in the primary, including 2016 nominee Amanda Howland, who lost to Roskam by 18 points.
But the DCCC is not in a position to back any of the other candidates because members of the Illinois delegation are split.
Many national Democrats see Kelly Mazeski, a former financial adviser and local elected official, as the front-runner. The breast cancer survivor announced her candidacy the day the House voted to repeal the 2010 health care law, which earned her national attention. She raised $163,000 in the fourth quarter of 2017 and loaned herself another $100,000. She ended December with $510,000 in the bank.
In addition to support from EMILY’s List, she has endorsements from Illinois Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Cheri Bustos and several of Bustos’ closest female allies in Congress, who have been politically active across the country.
But some members of the delegation prefer lawyer Carole Cheney, a former district chief of staff to Rep. Bill Foster. She has the backing of Foster and Rep. Robin Kelly. She had $90,000 at the end of the third quarter.
Clean energy entrepreneur Sean Casten raised $335,000 in the fourth quarter, including $250,000 of his own money. One national Democrat described the primary as a race between Mazeski and Casten, both of whom he thinks would be strong general election candidates.
But Howland’s team thinks she has the connections to take advantage of an energized electorate since she’s run before without national backing.
Russell, the former DCCC political director, is working with Mazeski. He acknowledged that Howland probably started as the front-runner — she led seven candidates with 46 percent of the vote in her own campaign’s poll from last August.
But he’s less worried about Howland as a primary threat now since she hasn’t amassed the resources to communicate in such an expensive media market. She had $50,000 at the end of September. End of the year fundraising reports are due to the FEC at the end of January.
Having the backing of national Democratic leaders, though, doesn’t always guarantee electoral success. When Tammy Duckworth, now the state’s junior senator, first ran for Congress in 2006, she had money and the backing of EMILY’s List, then-DCCC chairman Rahm Emanuel and then-Sen. Barack Obama.
She defeated the 2004 nominee, who had strong local support, 44 percent to 40 percent in the primary. But despite outraising Roskam, Duckworth lost in the general by about 5,000 votes.
The 12th District, held by two-term GOP Rep. Mike Bost, is the only pickup opportunity in which the DCCC is showing their cards.
The committee courted St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly for years. This cycle, he finally said yes and quickly earned a spot on the committee’s Red to Blue list.
Democrats failed to land a candidate in this downstate district in 2016. “Oh god, it was awful,” Russell recalled. “We went through four or five candidates in the 12th. There was a lot of skepticism about the viability of the seat.”
On paper, the 12th District is trending away from Democrats. Former President Barack Obama carried it by double digits in 2008 but by less than 2 points in 2012. Trump won it by 15 points in 2016.
But Duckworth carried the seat in her 2016 Senate victory, and Democrats are optimistic that Kelly, who they see as a moderate, can compete in the general election.
“I just hope the demographics don’t overcome good candidate quality,” Russell said.
The 13th District was another recruiting miss for Democrats last cycle.
Obama carried the district by double digits in 2008, and lost it narrowly four years later. But in 2016, the 13th swung to Trump, who carried it by about 6 points. Davis won a third term by 19 points. This year’s race is rated Likely Republican.
As in the 6th District, there’s a Democrat running who’s won the primary before — David Gill, who beat the DCCC’s recruit in 2012. Since then, though, he’s alienated many in the local and national party establishment. He had $4,000 at the end of the third quarter.
Betsy Dirksen Londrigan has the backing of EMILY’s List, Schakowsky and Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, for whom she used to be a fundraiser. Londrigan ended the third quarter with $129,000. Erik Jones could also be competitive here; he ended the third quarter with $195,000.
Trump carried the 14th District by only 4 points. The DCCC has included this exurban Chicago district on its target list, but Democratic strategists who’ve worked in the state are skeptical.
“That’s a very tough one,” Russell said. Another Democratic strategist called it “a bridge too far.” GOP Rep. Randy Hultgren won a fourth term by 19 points in 2016.
Still, national Democrats are hoping to have a candidate who makes the general election competitive. Seven Democrats are running. Nurse and former Health and Human Services official Lauren Underwood had the most cash on hand at the end of the third quarter. Engineer Matthew Brolley wasn’t far behind, with $51,000. He’s backed by Schakowsky and just secured the endorsement of the state AFL-CIO, which should boost his ground game.
But Republicans scoff at Democratic chances in the district.
“That’s Republican delight,” said one Republican from the state. “Waste your money on that one.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin was forced to cancel an event with mental health experts on Donald Trump’s mental fitness to be president after the congressman’s office received a string of threats.
The event was scheduled for Thursday at a senior center in Maryland and intended to cover issues such as Trump’s perceived tendency to inspire violence.
But Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, called it off just 24 hours before its start time due to “significant safety risks” to attendees, Dr. Bandy X. Lee, an associate professor at Yale who was scheduled to speak at the event, told the Daily Beast.
“Sorry about tomorrow night — we’ve been getting so many threats,” Raskin said, according to Lee, a psychiatrist who has led the charge among mental health professionals publicly decrying the president's mental fitness for office.
Raskin has been one of the Democratic House caucus’ most vocal critics of the White House over the past year. Trump supporters were furious when he submitted a bill last April to form an 11-member panel of physicians and psychiatrists to examine the president's physical and mental fitness to serve.
“Whenever my boss talks about the 25th Amendment there will be an uptick in comments on social media, or phone calls, or emails, that contain either explicit threats or generally violent and hateful language,” Lauren Doney, Raskin’s communications director, told The Daily Beast.
Lee is the editor of “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,” an essay collection that argues Trump has an affinity for violence that endangers the public. She has become a political target for right-wing and alt-right news curators such as Mike Cernovich, "Pizzagate" conspiracist Jack Posobiec, and Breitbart News.
Proclamations against the president by her and others in her field have also been scrutinized by the American Psychiatric Association for tiptoeing around the “Goldwater Rule,” the ethical standard for psychiatrists that bars them from issuing diagnoses of public figures without a face-to-face examination or a subject’s consent.
Last March, the APA broadened the Goldwater Rule’s language to forbid its members from even offering statements about a public figure’s fitness and behavior.
State officials are dismayed that the Trump administration has stalled the process for applying for new family planning money the states are counting on. Abortion advocacy groups worry that the delay may mean the administration is planning to target abortion providers or rewrite family planning policies.
The funding announcement was expected by November, with states’ applications for 2018-19 due Jan. 3. But the announcement still isn’t out. The funding is provided by the Title X program, through the only federal grants focused on family planning.
Abortion advocacy groups fear the administration could use this funding opportunity to reinstate the domestic gag rule — a Reagan-era rule that prohibits Title X-funded health centers from counseling patients on abortion or referring them to abortion clinics — or to prioritize fertility awareness programs over other birth control methods.
“We think it’s quite possible that the administration is using this funding announcement as its first real opportunity to transform the program and undermine its integrity,” said Audrey Sandusky, director of advocacy and communications at the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association.
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“By delaying the funding opportunity announcement, the Trump administration is playing politics with women’s health,” said Dana Singiser, vice president of public policy and government affairs at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “By failing to meet the deadline, this could cut off Title X-funded care for the thousands of people in states where they have nowhere else to turn.”
At the helm of the Title X program is Teresa Manning, deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Population Affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services. She previously worked for anti-abortion groups like the Family Research Council and National Right to Life and has said contraception is ineffective.
The Office of Population Affairs hosts yearly competitions for the Title X grants. Historically, these grants have been for longer stretches. However, in July, HHS wrote letters to funding recipients stating that all grants would end in 2018, either at the end of March or June.
States whose grants end March 31 could be in a bind if the funding opportunity isn’t announced soon. The typical timeframe to apply is generally 45 to 60 days, according to Emily Yeatts, reproductive health unit supervisor with the Virginia Department of Health.
“Typically if a grant were to start in April, we would have applied already. We would probably have submitted it by December,” she said. “Right now, the funding is the same, but our federal funding for family planning ends at the end of March, and we don’t have any knowledge of what will come after that.”
Virginia officials are not alone. Maine Family Planning, the sole Title X grantee in the state, also has concerns with the delay.
“This is causing some stress. It’s a little destabilizing,” said George Hill, CEO of Maine Family Planning, which provides funding for 47 health centers across the state.
As the March 31 deadline approaches, Hill said, “We have prepared as much as we can imagine we can prepare without seeing the requests.” However, the application itself is usually 180 pages, which is “not something that you can turn around overnight,” he said.
Hill, however, seemed confident that the upcoming funding opportunity would not be used to institute any of the major changes that some advocacy organizations are worried about.
“I think in order for them to issue a major policy change, they would very likely have to go through an administrative review process,” he said. “That would require publishing the policy change in the Federal Register and giving respondents at least 30 days to respond. They don’t have time to do that.”
Vermont is another state whose three-year Title X grant was truncated to two years, requiring the state to apply for the grant cycle originally set to begin April 1, 2018, a year earlier than planned.
“The Office of Population Affairs has not yet formally begun the application process — which typically starts in September or October, with an application deadline at the end of December,” said a spokesperson for the Vermont Department of Health, referring to the timeline for previous years. The current period’s expected release date was Nov. 1. “We are hopeful that OPA will cover the gap in its timing by providing a funding extension for these critical public health services to Vermont and the other states whose grant ends March 31.”
“Uncertainty — especially when it regards funding for programs important to the public’s health — is always a cause for some concern,” added the Vermont spokesperson.
Sandusky said there’s contingency planning going on nationwide, such as “identifying how and when to shut down services” in a worst-case scenario. This could mean health centers could be forced to scale back operations, limit staff and services provided or potentially shut down clinics in their networks.
“It’s an incredibly uncertain time for providers,” she said.
Hill also speculated that if the funding announcement does not come through soon, some grantees may experience problems with staff retention.
“If you’re recruiting to replace that provider, and the word is out that this is a program that is high on the target list for the current administration, that makes it all the more difficult,” he said.
HHS did not provide any information on when the announcement would be available.
“The information requested is not public at this time. The agency will provide public notice at an appropriate time,” according to an HHS spokesperson.
“Unfortunately we’re just waiting for information on what our next steps will be,” said Yeatts.