Trump, Abe Split on Goal for New Trade Talks

By John T. Bennett

Bruce Evans may be one of the last remaining staffers of a Senate that is slowly fading into the rearview mirror of history.

His list of influencers reads like a checklist of the chamber’s all-time most prominent Republican members. Evans learned tenacity from the late Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, tried to keep up with the intellect of former Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington, and was taught how to connect to constituents by former Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana.

That’s not even to mention the household he grew up in. His father, Republican Daniel J. Evans, served as a state representative in Washington from 1956 to 1965 and governor from 1965 to 1977. In 1983, he was appointed to fill the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Democrat Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson. He went on to win a special election that November and served out the remainder of Jackson’s term, leaving in 1989. 

As the departing staff director for the Senate Appropriations Committee under Chairman Thad Cochran — who left Congress earlier this month amid health issues — Evans got to witness firsthand the decline of one of the most important powers bestowed upon Congress by the Founding Fathers.

In many ways, the issues that have plagued the government spending debate for decades are a microcosm of the larger dysfunction that has crippled Congress as a whole, a culture that Stevens, Gorton and Burns were largely able to avoid.

“We’re just the symptom that presents itself every year,” Evans said in a recent interview.

The bitter political environment has made it nearly impossible for Democrats and Republicans to pass legislation without partisan policies creating major roadblocks. Senators looking to earn accolades with their respective political bases or score momentary fame are routinely exercising their ability to slow — or even halt — legislative work in the chamber.

And as leaders in both the House and Senate seek to limit the more open, freewheeling debate of years past, the opportunity to amend legislation once it reaches the floor is becoming the exception as opposed to the rule.

Without votes on amendments, Evans said it becomes more difficult for rank-and-file members to try to put their “thumbprint” on the bills, ultimately making it harder to pass spending measures.

“As long as I’ve been involved in appropriations, it was never easy,” he said. “What I don’t think would really serve the institution well is if folks decide it is just all too difficult and that we should give up on it or do it every other year … instead of doing the hard work of making all the thousands of individual choices about funding individual programs.”

Talk to any lawmaker about an omnibus and they are quick to cite the litany of problems that a massive spending bill presents.

Members are given a short amount of time — sometimes days or hours — to review a thousand-page bill, which lawmakers say makes it nearly impossible to adequately oversee the trillions of dollars in federal spending each year.

As fewer measures make it to the Senate floor, advocacy and special interest groups routinely view an omnibus as the last opportunity to move sometimes-critical legislation. Similarly, members on both sides of the aisle try to hitch their pet project bills to a vehicle viewed as a must-pass measure.

“The more the authorizing process … happens on a regular basis, the more it would enable us to do what we do without onboarding every single policy dispute and focusing on allocation of money, which is how the system was designed,” Evans said. “The fewer opportunities advocates have elsewhere to advance their policies … the more they’ll come to the appropriations process because at least they’ve got a slugger’s chance of getting something into a bill that gets across the president’s desk.”

But the growing trend presents deeper problems.

Appropriators — who once held the most coveted position on Capitol Hill — complain privately that their roles are undermined by leadership’s involvement in the process of crafting an omnibus bill. And staffers, particularly in the Senate, are increasingly lacking the necessary skills gained through navigating the chamber’s complex floor procedures.

“When we did get bills to the floor, our muscle memory both as bill managers on the floor and as staff is a little weak, just based on the lack of repetition,” Evans said. “The more we do it, hopefully, the more trust builds that we can, in fact, have some votes on amendments on appropriations bills on both sides.”

Watch: The Nuclear Option — Decoding Senate Jargon

While it’s easy to pinpoint the problems, it’s much harder to find a solution. Lawmakers and aides say until the political environment improves the “legislate by omnibus” mentality will continue.

But the rise in prevalence of the more extreme wings of both parties is overpowering practical-minded lawmakers who are often relied upon to help advance legislation, as well as undermining a process that requires a basic commitment from all 100 senators to function properly.

“It’s tough to legislate restraint,” Evans said. “Members [and] staff think you can get rewarded more quickly, at least in the short term in this day and age, by really taking a relatively modest issue to the mattresses.”

“There are always folks who are willing to leverage their full senatorial rights for certain things appropriately. I just think there’s more of that that happens on issues that maybe don’t warrant it,” he added.

Like many staffers, Evans first arrived in Washington, D.C., eager to enter the often less-than-glamorous world of congressional work but more enticed by the social benefits it afforded the many 20-somethings that inhabit it.

“There were young people from all over the country here and I’ll be darned if you couldn’t go to the beach house every weekend and have a good old time and play softball on the [National Mall],” he said. “Frankly, it was a lot of those things that were particularly important early in life that kept me here.”

But Evans was soon thrust into the harsh reality of working in the federal government. About a month after he started as a staffer to Alaska Sen. Frank H. Murkowski in 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker crashed in the Prince William Sound, spilling millions of gallons of oil into one of the state’s most picturesque locations.

Evans traveled to Alaska with Murkowski and traversed the state, hearing from constituents whose livelihoods were affected by the incident.

“It was a good wake-up call that there are fancy speeches and nice lunches and that sort of thing around here, but some very important, difficult work that these folks do and try to be responsive to their constituents,” he said.

Evans would go on to hold a number of other positions in the chamber, including several on the Appropriations Committee. He eventually came to serve under Cochran and since 2015 has held the top staffer position on the panel.

Senators and aides are quick to tout his influence. While Cochran was battling ongoing health problems last year, senators say they routinely met with Evans and trusted that his word was as good as if it came from the chairman himself.

“It was my job to reflect his priorities, his way of being — something I tried to do from the beginning and hopefully got better at it over time as I got to know him better and he got to trust me more,” Evans said. “He’s a pretty easy guy to follow, just because of who he is and how he treated people.”

He said Cochran taught him how to listen — a trait the senator was famous for among his colleagues and one that is particularly crucial as an appropriations staffer.

“Our job is to ask sharp questions … but you’re duty bound to listen to the answer as well,” Evans said. “I’ve had some experience with folks who love to ask tough questions but didn’t want to stick around to hear the answer. They just wanted to get on with the next one. That’s not an attitude that Sen. Cochran would ever want to develop on this committee.”

And while Evans is still undecided on his next move, one interaction that may stick with him is a discussion with a constituent he spoke with during the trip to Alaska after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

“It was his biannual trip to the city, this city of ten people and a general store to pick up a couple 100 pounds sacks of flour and go back,” Evans recounted. “Things that were early eye-openers about the diversity of the American population and the diversity of interests. Somehow you’ve got to represent all those people interests.”

“The ability to get out and travel and see different constituencies over time, I wish I’d been able to do more of it, frankly,” he added.

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Bipartisan bills that aim to improve the government’s response to cybersecurity attacks on the electric grid advanced out of a House Energy and Commerce panel Wednesday. The action was the latest sign of heightened awareness on Capitol Hill that malicious hackers might be able to turn out the lights.

Four pieces of legislation — all focused on putting into statute coordination within the Department of Energy to prevent cyber attacks on the grid and other energy infrastructure — were advanced by the Energy Subcommittee by voice votes. The votes showed unusual unity on the often-partisan panel.

That divide was apparent, however, in the subcommittee vote on a measure to speed up the export of liquified natural gas from small-scale export facilities. That bill advanced along party lines, 19-14, as Democrats criticized the legislation as harmful to the environment. They also complained that the bill was an earmark for a Florida-based export project, the only pending facility that would meet the requirements. 

Recent high profile attempts by foreign actors, including groups linked with Russia, to probe nuclear facilities and pipeline control systems across the country since 2016 have raised awareness of committee members of the evolving cyber threat.

“As we’ve learned in classified briefings, and recently through the testimonies of Secretary Perry and our FERC Commissioners, cyber-attacks are a real and growing threat,” said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the chairman of the subcommittee, in a statement.

One of the security bills would codify a recent departmental reorganization announced by Energy Secretary Rick Perry in his fiscal 2019 budget request that creates a new assistant secretary position devoted to cybersecurity issues. The bill would ensure position remains part of department leadership in future administrations.

Two of the cyber bills would establish voluntary programs to encourage the private sector and the Energy Department to share research and cybersecurity implementation plans. The fourth bill requires the department to adopt pipeline and LNG export facility cybersecurity plans. 

“The four bipartisan cybersecurity bills before us today will enhance the Department of Energy’s efforts to strengthen the cybersecurity of our nation’s electricity grid and pipeline network,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., the top Democrat of the full committee. “It is critical that we ensure our nation’s energy infrastructure is sufficiently protected from cyber threats.”

The bipartisan vibe evaporated with the small-scale LNG export bill. That legislation would streamline the approval process for small-scale facilities that support exports to the Caribbean, Central America and South America, defined as those that ship no more than 140 million cubic feet per day. 

Republican backers argued the measure would ensure speedy gas exports to Western Hemisphere nations, which they said would provide a steady energy supply that would burn cleaner compared to other fossil fuel sources — a benefit to carbon reduction goals.

“This should not be a partisan issue . . .  neither side of the aisle can deny that American small-scale LNG exports provides geopolitical, economic and environmental benefits,” said bill sponsor Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio. 

Democrats complained that the bill’s requirements would essentially only apply to one facility owned by Houston-based Eagle LNG Partners Jacksonville LLC, according to the Congressional Research Service. That “sounds suspiciously like the kind of legislative earmark” Congress did away with, Pallone said. 

Democrats also said that by sidestepping some permits the bill would undermine environmental protections, more so than a separate Energy Department effort to hasten the pace of the permit reviews.

“In my opinion, that rule is already problematic, but this bill is even worse for the environment than the proposed rule,” Pallone said. 

Republicans promised to address Democrats’ concerns, but it remains to be seen how far that effort will extend.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that he would not be making floor time for legislation designed to shield Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III from firing.

McConnell’s determination that the action is not needed is apparently regardless of what happens in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I don’t think he should fire Mueller, and I don’t think he’s going to,” the Kentucky Republican said. “So, this is a piece of legislation that’s not necessary in my judgement.”

“I’m the one who decides what we take to the floor. That’s my responsibility as the majority leader. We’ll not be having this on the floor of the Senate,” McConnell said during a Fox News interview.

Watch: The Status of Legislation to Protect Robert Mueller

The Judiciary Committee has a bipartisan bill on its agenda for Thursday’s markup, which may be held over for a week before consideration. Republicans and Democrats alike have expressed concern that President Donald Trump may seek to fire Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

The measure being considered by the Senate committee is a hybrid of combines two separate proposals, each backed by Republicans and Democrats.

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Barbara Bush: Her Life in Photos

By Gillian Roberts
Heard on the Hill

Take Five: John Garamendi

By Alex Gangitano
Heard on the Hill

Meet the Dogs of the House, Round III

By Alex Gangitano

Capitol Ink | Rub A Dub Dub

By Robert Matson

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — At a recent Democratic candidate forum here in Pennsylvania’s 7th District, five hopefuls raised their hands to show their support for abortion rights. One candidate kept his hand down.

North Hampton County District Attorney John Morganelli said after the event that he supports abortion under certain circumstances, but described himself as “a pro-life Democrat like Sen. Bob Casey.”

The question for Morganelli is whether the Democratic Party still has room for candidates like him.

“I don’t know,” he said after the Thursday night forum. “I guess we’ll find out.”

Ahead of the May 15 primary, the intraparty contest in the newly drawn district comes at a time when Democrats are divided over whether to embrace moderate candidates or those who are stridently progressive.

And that debate is playing out in a seat that became more competitive for Democrats, first after Republican incumbent Charlie Dent decided against running for an eighth term, and then when the state Supreme Court imposed a new congressional map for midterms. Watch: How the Open Seats Are (or Aren’t) Creating Opportunities in the House

As district attorney and a failed candidate for statewide office, Morganelli has the advantage of high name recognition, operatives watching the race said. But his primary rivals argue it will take more than that to win.

“Name ID is good if it’s very favorable,” said Democrat Greg Edwards after the candidate forum hosted by NextGen America, a progressive group backed by billionaire Tom Steyer that aims to mobilize young voters.

Edwards, the founder and senior pastor of Resurrected Life Community Church in Allentown, said his own endorsements, fundraising and robust field operation make him the strongest candidate in the race.

He led his Democratic opponents in total cash on hand at the end of March, with $237,000 in the bank, according to Federal Election Commission documents. Morganelli had $191,000, while former Allentown City Solicitor Susan Wild had $105,000.

Edwards has also been endorsed by national groups such as the Service Employees International Union, and sitting lawmakers including Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Dwight Evans.

He made national headlines over a tussle with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The Washington Post reported last month that the DCCC asked local leaders if Edwards, who is African-American, and Wild, the only woman in the race, would consider running for the state Senate. The DCCC noted it did not ask the two to drop out, but was gauging potential options after the new district lines were drawn.

While Edwards noted that he is the only candidate of color in the primary, he stopped short of calling the DCCC’s actions racially motivated.

“I don’t know why they did it,” he said. “At least for me, it says that the Democratic Party may have a bit of an identity crisis and not understand where it’s strongest base lies.”

Edwards said he is building a diverse coalition of progressives, young people, African-Americans, Hispanic voters and people in the LGTBQ community.

Many Edwards supporters packed the Thursday night forum, including Marisa Ziegler, who was with her wife, Andrea. Both are volunteering for Edwards’ campaign. 

“He’s the most progressive candidate, in my opinion,” said Marissa Ziegler, who identified herself as very liberal. 

Wild said she is courting a similar group of voters to support her campaign, including women.

Operatives have described Morganelli, Wild and Edwards as the three front-runners. The other Democrats in the race include retired social services worker David Clark, college professor Roger Ruggles, and Rick Daugherty, an executive director of a community center who twice unsuccessfully challenged Dent.

Wild has been endorsed by EMILY’s List, although the group’s independent expenditure arm has not yet spent in the primary. She and most of the other Democrats have taken progressive positions like supporting universal health care and banning assault weapons.

“I really believe that we are going to have … not just a blue wave, but a progressive blue wave this year,” Wild said. “And I want to be part of that.”

But she said she could appeal to moderates by emphasizing her ability to compromise and be “the grown-up in the room.”

Both Wild and Edwards said they can overcome Morganelli’s name recognition by outworking him on the campaign trail.

But one Pennsylvania Democratic consultant noted that it’s not clear if the other candidates have enough resources to simultaneously boost their own name ID and highlight Morganelli’s positions that could hurt him in a primary, such as his November 2016 appeal to President-elect Donald Trump, expressing interest in working for him.

One issue that clearly divided the candidates Thursday night was immigration.

Morganelli is known for his hard-line stances on illegal immigration. The liberal crowd groaned when he said he would not support so-called sanctuary cities. He quickly gave up trying to explain his position, saying later that he did not want to fight with the audience.

The topic could play a key role in the primary, especially in the increasingly diverse district. Lehigh County has the highest percentage of Hispanic residents in the state — roughly 23 percent, an increase of more than 4 points from 2010 — according to estimates from the Pennsylvania State Data Center.

Edwards suggested the issue could boost turnout in the primary among voters who are “fearful” of a candidate who does not support sanctuary cities, or jurisdictions that do not comply with federal immigration law.

“I mean, they’re literally voting for their lives and their families,” he said.

A boost in turnout could shake up the primary, especially with such a crowded field. (Pennsylvania does not have runoffs.) Strategists suggested a candidate could win the primary with about one-third of the vote.

The winner of the Democratic primary will face either Dean Browning, a former Lehigh County commissioner, or Marty Nothstein, who currently serves on the county commission. Nothstein is well-known in the district for winning a gold medal in cycling in the 2000 Olympics.

The candidates and voters at Thursday’s Democratic forum were optimistic about flipping the seat, which Dent has held since 2005. The new lines shifted the district from one that Trump took by 8 points to one that Hillary Clinton would have carried by 1 point. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Tilts Democratic.

[Roll Call’s 2018 Election Guide]

But the Pennsylvania Democratic consultant was concerned about Morganelli’s prospects if he wins the primary. He’s already lost two races for state attorney general — falling in the Democratic primary in 2016 and in the general election in 2008. 

“Every time John Morganelli’s run for higher office, it’s ended in failure,” the consultant said. “That does not inspire tremendous confidence.”

Even though liberal voters like Marisa and Andrea Ziegler won’t support Morganelli in the primary, they said they would support him if he is the nominee. 

But, Andrea Ziegler said, it would be “through gritted teeth.” 

Watch: Democrats Have At Least 20 House Takeover Opportunities in These 4 States

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President Donald Trump set wildly opposite expectations in one sentence for his possible summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, including that it could never happen.

He first said his one-on-one meeting with Kim could happen “very soon,” before saying he expects negotiations will allow an “early June” summit to take place. But the president then moved up the possible date to “before that” before backpedaling.

[White House Has Tepid Response to Corker-Kaine AUMF]

“It’s possible things won’t go well and we won’t have the meetings and we’ll just continue to go on this very strong path we have taken,” Trump told reporters as he welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to his South Florida resort for their own summit.

Trump said his administration has had talks with the North Korean government at "very high levels." He also noted five locations are under consideration; none are inside the United States.

The Trump-Abe meetings come as experts warn the United States and Japan have drifted apart on issues like North Korea and trade since Trump feted Abe at the White House followed by a joint trip to his Florida compound last February.

The U.S. president did not shy away from a sense the two days of talks and swanky meals are about, in large part, mending fences. “Japan and ourselves are locked and we are very unified on the subject of North Korea,” Trump said.

[White House Provides No Internal Assessment Backing Mueller Firing Claim]

Trump contradicted his staff even during the brief remarks. A senior administration official told reporters Friday the two leaders would not play golf like they did last year at his nearby resort.

“We’re going to sneak out tomorrow,” he said, “and play a round of golf, if possible.”

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Podcast: Use of Force vs. Use of Power

By David Hawkings
Heard on the Hill

Meet the Dogs of the Senate, Round III

By Alex Gangitano