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.”

Well, maybe.

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.

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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.

Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee struck a bipartisan deal Tuesday to stabilize the insurance markets for at least two and a half years.

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).

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Capitol Ink | Opioid Hill

By Robert Matson

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.

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On Climate Issues, House GOP Warms Gradually

By Elvina Nawaguna

The Democratic senator from a state ravaged by opioid abuse wants President Donald Trump to pull back the nomination of Rep. Tom Marino to be the nation’s drug czar.

Citing reporting from the Washington Post, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III said in a letter to Trump that he had concerns that Marino, a Republican from Pennsylvania, could be too favorable to the opioid industry if he were to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The Post reported that Marino spearheaded legislation that has made it more difficult for the Drug Enforcement Administration to go after distributors.

“Congressman Marino no longer has my trust or that of the public that he will aggressively pursue the fight against opioid abuse,” Manchin wrote. “Congressman Marino led the effort in Congress to move through a bill that has made it significantly harder for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to enforce our nation’s anti-drug diversion laws. For years, wholesale drug distributors were sending millions of pills into small communities — far more than was reasonably medically necessary.”

The Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, which was signed into law in 2016, passed the Senate and House without objection. The Justice Department said the law has effectively tied the hands of investigators by making enforcement more difficult when it comes to the wholesalers.

While no senator objected to passage of the legislation, Marino’s efforts were crucial, according to an investigation conducted by the Post and the CBS News program “60 Minutes.”

“His advocacy for this legislation demonstrates that Congressman Marino either does not fully understand the scope and devastation of this epidemic or ties to industry overrode those concerns. Either option leaves him unfit to serve as the head of the ONDCP,” Manchin wrote in the letter to Trump. “I am grateful for the work that you have been doing to raise awareness and to promote solutions to address this deadly epidemic.”

The DEA, which is under the Justice Department, has a more enforcement and interdiction oriented approach to drug use than the ONDCP, which is under the Executive Office of the President. During the Obama administration, ONDCP became more focused on treatment.

In a separate effort, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri is planning a move to repeal the 2016 law.

“Media reports indicate that this law has significantly affected the government’s ability to crack down on opioid distributors that are failing to meet their obligations and endangering our communities,” McCaskill said in a statement. “I’ll be introducing legislation that repeals this law and continue my work investigating the role pharmaceutical distributors played in fueling this public health crisis.”

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., followed suit with legislation in the House.

“This crisis demands immediate action. The Opioid Immediate Suspension Order Act will help restore one of the most effective tools the Department of Justice had in stemming the most egregious distribution abuses,” he said in a statement.

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Trump Keeps Adding to the Congressional To-Do List

By John T. Bennett, D.A. Banks, Thomas McKinless

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

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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.

Show Notes:

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.

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The Iran nuclear deal is (not quite) dead. Long live the Iran nuclear deal (maybe).

After dubbing the 2015 nuclear pact the Obama administration and five other world powers inked with Tehran as the “the worst deal ever,” President Donald Trump on Friday will announce he is keeping the United States in the agreement. For now, at least.

“The intent is that we will stay in the JCPOA,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters Thursday evening at the White House, using shorthand for the Iran pact’s formal name: Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “But the president is going to decertify” the pact, he added.

Trump’s decertification decision is rife with a bit of the kind of Washington insider bureaucratic jujitsu he harshly derided as a candidate, and has continued to criticize as president. His move comes not within the actual framework of the seven-country agreement, but under a U.S. law passed in 2015 by lawmakers who were skeptical of the deal and eager to exercise oversight.

That means, for now, the Obama administration’s deal remains in place.

By opting against simply taking steps within his powers as president — such as slapping on sanctions removed by the pact — to rip up the deal, Trump’s move puts on hold a major campaign promise. And, somewhat paradoxically, the same president that his chief of staff on Thursday described as having developed a “great frustration” with Congress will hand its 535 members a major role in deciding the fate of the Iran deal.

Trump is expected to describe why instead of scrapping the deal, he is plunging its fate into the uncertainty that is Capitol Hill, via a process set up under the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, or INARA. In a rare move, a sitting U.S. president is essentially giving up some of his executive authorities, a move that will allow Congress to potentially terminate an agreement among the United States, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom on one side and Iran on the other.

After a months-long internal administration review of the Iran deal that prompted crafting of the new strategy, “the president has come to the conclusion that he cannot certify under INARA that the sanctions relief that was provided is proportionate to … the benefit that we are seeing from that agreement,” Tillerson said.

From here, the secretary of State described three possible outcomes:

It is the third option that Trump in his Friday afternoon remarks will formally recommend lawmakers choose. Uncharacteristically for Trump, that recommendation is a sign he and his team are eager to shift a large amount of responsibility for the Iran agreement’s ultimate fate off his shoulders and into a shared arrangement with the legislative branch.

Tillerson and White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster, both of whom briefed reporters on the heavily nuanced decision Thursday evening, made clear Trump has the legal authorities to both reinstate sanctions on Iran that were nixed under the 2015 deal and to simply withdraw the United States from the pact.

Tillerson tried to sell the decision to bring Congress into the process as one aimed at allowing lawmakers to act, which will express a “full sense” of the U.S. government that “we have to deal with this now rather than later.”

The move to keep the multinational agreement in place is somewhat surprising, given Trump as a candidate spent over a year on the trail lambasting then-President Barack Obama for cutting the deal with Tehran. A month before the 2016 election, candidate Trump said Iranian officials “should write us a letter of thank you” for agreeing to “the stupidest deal of all time.”

But candidate Trump sometimes slipped in a bit of nuance that was rare for his bombastic populist campaign style. For instance, in September 2015, when Obama’s Iran deal was just two-months old, Trump vowed to renegotiate the pact. It turns out those vows were a bit of foreshadowing.

Tillerson and McMaster were clear Thursday evening that the administration has now concluded that completely nixing the deal and opening talks toward a totally new one would be too heavy a lift. Instead, the duo told reporters the president is open to keeping the existing agreement in place with more forceful inspections and other implementation actions — while opening talks with all parties about a second agreement aimed at addressing a list of administration concerns.

That envisioned companion pact would address the Trump administration’s concerns that are not covered by the Obama-era agreement but would not replace it. Rather, Tillerson and Trump want a follow-on pact that “lays along beside” the initial one.

The chief U.S. diplomat told reporters he mentioned that desired second pact with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif when they met briefly during last month’s United Nations General Assembly summit in New York. “I don’t want to suggest,” Tillerson said, “that we give that a high chance of success — but there is an openness to talk about it.”

In a midday speech from the White House’s opulent Diplomatic Reception Room, Trump later Friday will spell out not only his decision on the nuclear deal, but also a new U.S. strategy for dealing with Iran.

“The JCPOA … deals with nuclear activities only,” Tillerson said. “And we talk about how that is only one piece of what concerns us about our relationship with Iran. And that we don’t think that nuclear agreement should define the entire policy, and quite frankly, it more or less has defined the Iran policy. … That is a big concern.”

Trump and his team also harbor concerns about what Tillerson called Tehran’s “destabilizing activities … in the region,” including “direct support” to terrorist organizations. The broader policy Trump will describe is aimed at also addressing those kinds of issues, “which, by and large, have gone unaddressed in the past,” he said.

The new strategy also will aim to put pressure on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for alleged destabilizing activities in the region, such as support for violent extremist organizations.

National security experts who closely monitor those issues appear split on Trump’s decision.

Elizabeth Rosenberg and Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for a New American Security view the move as an attempt to gain leverage over the other world powers involved in the nuclear pact. The former Obama administration officials contend that notion is “a very risky gambit that is unlikely to work.”

Rosenberg and Goldenberg, in a recent white paper, raised concerns about an Iranian response intended to test Trump — and bluntly predicted his plan wouldn’t work.

“The Trump administration appears to be pursuing a strategy that is unlikely to lead to any real near-term gains and over time appears most likely to destabilize and endanger an agreement that for the past two years has successfully contained Iran’s nuclear program,” they wrote.

But James Phillips of the conservative Heritage Foundation said the deal should be scrapped immediately.

“Iran has proclaimed it will not permit inspections of its military bases, which are permitted — indeed necessary — under the nuclear deal,” Phillips said. “The Trump administration should decertify and adopt a strategy to either fix or abrogate the nuclear deal.”

Bruce Riedel of the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution said the move will be welcomed by some of America’s closest allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia.

“While Riyadh would welcome broad international cooperation to isolate Tehran, it will settle for Washington going alone,” said Riedel, who has worked on national security issues for Presidents Bill Clinton and Obama. “Saudi foreign policy has long made cultivating Sunni opposition to Shiite Iranian influence a high priority.”

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