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Politics

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By Bridget Bowman
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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is hoping to close out 2018 with a bang and silence the skeptics who just a few short months ago were ramping up calls for his ouster following a brutal defeat on the Republican effort to overturn the 2010 health care law.

But after creating an intricate web of promises to get the GOP tax legislation past the Senate, the Kentucky Republican must now juggle the difficult task of keeping those commitments.

Work between the House and Senate on a compromise tax bill is nearing completion — with some GOP aides speculating that a final package could be ready by early next week. Passing the first major overhaul of the tax code in decades would be a high point for the careers of McConnell and Speaker Paul D. Ryan.

But should Republicans succeed in getting the legislation to President Donald Trump’s desk before the upcoming holiday break, the victory lap could immediately be overshadowed by the need to cut a deal to keep the government funded beyond Dec. 22, the new deadline after last week’s passage of a short-term extension to avert a shutdown.

Watch: David Hawkings’ Whiteboard: How Two Bills Become One Law

The stakes are high for Republicans, who control the White House and both chambers of Congress for the first time since 2006. McConnell is used to negotiating in tight situations, something he became familiar with in talks with a Democratic White House over the prior eight years.

But this time will be different, as it will be members of McConnell’s own party applying most of the pressure.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins is touting the commitment she received from McConnell to advance two bills by the end of the year intended to help stabilize the insurance markets created by the health care law.

The prevailing thought among Republican and Democratic aides is that both measures would need to be added to a pending bill to fund the government in fiscal 2018 in order to pass.

But that is easier said than done.

House GOP members are already questioning the promise McConnell made — something he can do little to push back on from his perch atop the Senate. And Ryan is not making his job any easier, as the Wisconsin Republican makes promises to his own conference that run counter to those from the Senate majority leader.

Collins said she remains optimistic, but that optimism is not shared among some GOP senators, Republican and Democratic aides, and health care lobbyists who remain doubtful McConnell can follow through on his pledge.

“I have had a lot of conversations, not only with my colleagues in the Senate, but with my colleagues on the House side and with the White House. I’ve talked to the president three times about this issue, and once again, I have no reason to believe that that commitment will not be kept,” Collins said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Whether she would vote for a final tax bill — which could be considered by the Senate prior to whatever spending bill Congress opts to pursue — without that commitment met remains to be seen.

And while McConnell succeeded in bringing his party on board with the Senate’s version of the tax bill (only Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee voted against it), the outcome of this week’s tax conference could create new headaches.

For instance, Sen. Ron Johnson, who has emerged this year as a thorn in the side of leadership, seems ready to pursue the leverage he has on McConnell for his vote.

The Wisconsin Republican succeeded in pushing for changes to the treatment of pass-through entities in the tax bill. Leadership had to raise a deduction for those businesses from an initially proposed 17.4 percent to 23 percent, a change that required billions of additional dollars in offsets.

Johnson also received a commitment from McConnell to have a “seat at the table” on negotiations with the House on the pass-through provisions. What that means is still unknown, and Johnson was not included as one of the eight GOP senators selected for the conference committee.

How that conference opts to bridge the gap between the two distinct proposals to address pass-through businesses could draw a rebuke from Johnson, although the senator has largely ended up toeing the party line despite protests on health care and taxes this year.

Johnson said he has spoken with GOP members of the tax conference about how they are considering treating pass-through businesses in a still unreleased compromise bill.

“I’m more than willing to be flexible. It sounds like they’ve got some interesting ideas” he said Monday.

Johnson declined to say whether the House and Senate conferees were discussing combining each chamber’s respective proposal into one.

Then there are the Democrats, who relish making McConnell’s path more perilous.

The minority party is gunning for major policy riders in the upcoming spending bill, including legislation to address the pending expiration of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

While GOP congressional leaders and Trump continue to maintain a hard-line position against including any permanent solution to the program that oversees undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children in a spending bill solution, support from Democrats will be necessary in the Senate, where Republicans hold only 52 seats. (Funding legislation requires 60 votes to pass.)

“We don’t want to see the government shut down. We want to move forward in a bipartisan fashion to solve our problems. We believe that DACA is central,” Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said Sunday on “Face the Nation.”

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Heard on the Hill

Nuts About Nutcrackers

By Alex Gangitano
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Several veteran Democratic lawmakers were flabbergasted last week by 48 hours that were among the wildest so far of Donald Trump’s presidency. And in private conversations, they say many of their Republican colleagues share similar concerns.

Trump appears to embrace a certain amount of chaos. After all, it generates media coverage — and the president is a voracious consumer of cable television and print news. But the 48 hours between last Tuesday and Thursday caused a spike in concerns among longtime Democratic members about Trump’s mindset and competence.

“This is a continued display of unstable behavior and a continued display of tweets that cannot help America’s security,” Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said.

Like Durbin, most members interviewed for this story seized on Trump’s retweets of several anti-Muslim videos that either misrepresented the facts or were posted without context.

Among them was Sen. Claire McCaskill, who said she was “very concerned about our international standing when he retweets something that is that offensive and that fringe.”

“It may play to a small percentage of Americans, but around the world, for us to stay safe, we have to have allies,” the Missouri Democrat said. “And when you have the prime minister [of the United Kingdom], who is the leader of the Conservative Party in Great Britain, calling out the president of the United States. That’s just a bridge too far.”

[Trump: FBI ‘Destroyed’ Flynn’s Life, But Let Hillary Walk]

Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Trump’s actions called into question his leadership capabilities.

“The tweets of the right-wing videos was absolutely unconscionable,” the Connecticut Democrat said. “My concerns are growing with every one of these bizarre and bullying tweets.”

The presidential dramatics began the morning of Nov. 28 with a tweet that blew up a meeting with congressional leaders over a year-end spending measure. Trump said Democratic leaders Charles E. Schumer and Nancy Pelosiwant illegal immigrants flooding into our Country unchecked, are weak on Crime and want to substantially RAISE Taxes.”

He then raised the odds of a government shutdown with this declaration: “I don’t see a deal!”

Meeting with “Chuck and Nancy” today about keeping government open and working. Problem is they want illegal immigrants flooding into our Country unchecked, are weak on Crime and want to substantially RAISE Taxes. I don’t see a deal!

That prompted Schumer and Pelosi to pull out of the meeting, saying they did not want to waste time if the president’s mind was already made up.

Later that day, Trump had harsh words for the very Democrats he will need this week to avert a shutdown during his first year in office.

The next morning, Trump retweeted the inflammatory videos, prompting a rebuke from British Prime Minister Theresa May.

He then tweeted out a call to investigate the July 2001 death of Lori Klausutis, a staffer to former congressman turned MSNBC co-host Joe Scarborough. (Medical authorities said she died when she collapsed due to heart problems and struck her head.)

Publicly, with a handful of exceptions, Republican members were still standing by Trump after the chaotic 48 hours.

One was Oklahoma Sen. James M. Inhofe, who defended Trump’s tweet that started the cascading dominoes and sunk the spending bill meeting. “I think, in that case, they’re using that as an excuse not to go and tried to attract attention to it so they could use it politically,” he said of the Democrats.

Asked about the president’s retweeting of the anti-Muslim videos, Inhofe first said, “Obviously, I’m not his adviser on tweets.” He then added: “I tell myself, ‘That’s just his style.’ He can be very effective sometimes. I’ve seen it work.”

Inhofe said Trump’s meeting last Tuesday in the Capitol with Senate Republicans demonstrated his effectiveness. Nothing erratic or troubling occurred during that session when Trump urged senators to pass a sweeping tax overhaul, the Oklahoma Republican said. “He just did a very good job in calming down the opposition and bringing everyone in,” Inhofe said.

Another Trump defender is the chamber’s longest-serving Republican, Orrin G. Hatch, who traveled home to Utah with Trump on Monday.

“I’ll say this for you, he’s been one of the best presidents I’ve served under,” Hatch said in a TV interview last week. “He’s not afraid to make decisions. He’s not afraid to take on the big mouths around here.” (Trump and his team noticed Hatch’s praise, with the president tweeting a video of the remarks along with thanks for the senator.)

Thank you @SenOrrinHatch. Let’s continue MAKING AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! https://t.co/PIv9OAVZcf pic.twitter.com/6egRvuwj1l

But several Democratic members, granted anonymity to speak candidly about private conversations, said GOP members regularly share their growing angst behind closed doors.

“They express concerns privately, absolutely,” one Democratic member said.

Another Democrat said of Republicans, “I think that they are really worried.” That second Democrat replied “yes” without hesitation when asked if GOP colleagues are growing more concerned in private, adding, “Privately, from Day One, I’ve heard serious concerns.”

When pressed, a third Democrat who has served in both chambers over the course of more than five administrations, had this to say when asked if Republicans are more worried about Trump’s mindset and competency after last week’s turbulent 48 hours: “Now what do you think? Of course, the answer is ‘yes.’”

So why are Republicans so reluctant to speak out publicly?

“I think Republicans are going to keep talking privately about the president, but I think it serves nobody to stand up and say, ‘I think the president's crazy,’” Danielle Pletka of the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

[Trump Executive Actions a ‘Disruptive’ Lot]

“He’s the president of the United States. … There is no political upside for Republicans because then the next question is, ‘OK, you think he’s crazy, you think he’s on drugs, you think there is something wrong with him?’” Pletka said. “Then the next question is, ‘So what are you going to do about it?’ And the answer from them is, ‘We don't want to do anything about it.’”

If GOP members’ private concerns reach a boiling point, their options would include formally reprimanding or even impeaching Trump. And even before that, they could speak out critically, as have a few of their colleagues, such as retiring Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

When asked if Republicans privately talk about taking any action against the president, the second Democrat replied, “No.”

“There’s a lot of shoulder-shrugging,” the member said, mimicking Republicans by making such a shoulder gesture and adding that GOP members’ general attitude can be summed up this way: “What can you do?”

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Ten years ago, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., was diagnosed with breast cancer. She spoke with Roll Call’s Heard on the Hill reporter Alex Gangitano about what she does to bring awareness to the disease and shares several items of support given to her by family and friends.

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One government shutdown may be narrowly averted, but another looms right around the corner. The stain of sexual misconduct at the Capitol continues to spread, and an alleged child predator is days away from possibly joining the Senate. Middle East destabilization seems assured as Congress gets its wish to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Public support dwindles daily for a loophole-encrusted, deficit-busting tax package that would be the year’s biggest legislative achievement. The push for presidential impeachment has gone far enough to necessitate procedural pushback in the House.

A week such as this one — already chockablock with headlines touching the Hill — seemed to the Republicans who run the place like an ideal time for making a bold hiding-in-plain-sight move.

And so it was that the House devoted more than two hours Wednesday to passing legislation that has no chance whatsoever of becoming law and is broadly unpopular with the electorate, but nonetheless fulfills the GOP’s commitment to doing the bidding of an extremely potent force in its political base.

The bill would effectively permit gun owners to conceal and carry their weapons anywhere in the country — which is nothing less than the “highest legislative priority” of the National Rifle Association. Under the bill, for example, people from several states who have violent felony convictions would be free to board the New York City subway with a semiautomatic pistol hidden in their overcoats.

The vote was 231-198. Only 14 Republicans, half of them facing very competitive contests for new terms next fall, voted against the NRA’s wishes. Just six Democrats, two of them expecting a tough 2018 campaign, voted for the bill.

In the debate, the blizzard of statistics about how the United States far outstrips the rest of the world in deadly gun violence was countermanded by a wave of passion about how the Second Amendment should guarantee people in the United States remain custodians of their own safety. Conservatives who profess faith in states’ rights argued that Hawaii should not be able to have concealed carry restrictions that make a transplant from Missouri feel unsafe.

Under normal circumstances, advancing the measure to certain death in the Senate, where there’s no chance it will overcome a Democratic filibuster, could be dismissed as the one of first of what will seem during the 2018 campaign season like an endless stream of “messaging votes” — designed not to advance changes in policy but to emphasize fealty to the conservative cause.

But this gun bill was something different. That’s because the poison pill language creating “reciprocity rights for gun owners” — the euphemistic NRA term for nationalizing the rules for carrying concealed guns that are in effect in the most permissive states — was combined in the House with something of a legislative unicorn: the first, albeit quite modest, gun control legislation in almost two decades that has drawn genuine bipartisan support on the Hill as well as the backing of both gun control advocacy groups and the NRA. The bill would compel federal agencies, and give incentives to state governments, to better report offenses under their jurisdictions that would prohibit offenders from buying firearms.

The aim is to shore up the reliability of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as NICS. Its limitations were laid bare last month after the massacre of more than two dozen worshipers inside a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, when it came to light that the Air Force never reported to NICS the domestic violence court-martial that would have kept the assailant from buying his weapons.

The seven Republican opponents of the bill in competitive re-election contests all represent swing districts that either supported Hillary Clinton last year or came within a couple of percentage points of doing so: Ryan A. Costello, Brian Fitzpatrick and Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania; Carlos Curbelo of Florida; Dan Donovan of New York; Leonard Lance of New Jersey and Peter Roskam of Illinois.

Roskam, Lance and Costello all won their current terms with the NRA’s endorsement after earning 93 percent approval ratings from the group in the previous Congress. The others had much lower scores.

Both Democrats in competitive races who voted for the bill, Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota and Ron Kind of Wisconsin, have mixed records in the eyes of gun rights groups.

A similar measure — without any concealed carry provisions attached to weigh it down — has the sponsorship of 13 Democratic and a dozen Republican senators. But its author, Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, openly doubts that he can get the narrow bill passed now that senators supportive of the NRA have the opportunity to push instead for the two-pronged House measure.

The House’s concealed carry bill has already bubbled up in at least one Senate race. Both leading candidates for the GOP nomination in West Virginia, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Rep. Evan Jenkins, are touting their support for the bill in contrast to the position of the incumbent, Democrat Joe Manchin III, who has become a leading Democratic gun control advocate in the past five years after decades on the other side of the issue.

The House bill also tells the Justice Department to study — but only study — the criminal use of “bump stocks,” the piece of equipment that transforms a semiautomatic weapon into a de facto machine gun. Such devices enabled a gunman in Las Vegas to kill 58 people and roughly 500 others at a concert in October. Legislation to outlaw bump stocks has been put on hold by GOP leaders while the Justice Department determines whether current laws allow the product to be pulled off the shelves because using them amounts to manufacturing a prohibited kind of gun.

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