Bipartisan Health Care Work Taking Shape in Senate

By Mary Ellen McIntire

The Pentagon and other security agencies’ outsize consumption of federal research money would grow further under Republican plans, while nondefense research spending would drop, sometimes dramatically, a new congressional report shows.

The Defense Department’s research and development budget would consume 56 percent of the federal R&D total in President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal, according to the Congressional Research Service report. That’s an 18 percent increase above the fiscal 2016 enacted level. When military research at the National Nuclear Security Administration and other agencies is included, the defense share of the federal research budget is closer to 61 percent.

Defense research spending would balloon by several hundred million dollars more still in the coming fiscal year if some in Congress get their way. But the current budget law will probably limit the extent to which Trump and company can realize these spending ambitions.

Assuming Congress does not alter Trump’s budget request, it would give defense programs their biggest share of total federal research funds in a decade. By comparison, the military research budget’s peak share of federal spending since 1980 occurred at the end of the Reagan-era buildup, when defense research devoured 69 percent of the federal research budget, according to historical figures.

The fact that Trump has proposed boosting defense spending at the expense of other federal programs is well-known. But the CRS report, first publicized by the Federation of American Scientists, lays bare the precise dimensions of that shift for the subset of the federal budget devoted to turning technology into applications and science into systems.

Besides the Pentagon, the only other federal department with an increasing research budget in Trump’s fiscal 2018 blueprint would be the Department of Veterans Affairs, with an 11 percent increase compared to fiscal 2016, the latest year available for the CRS analysis, which is titled “Federal Research and Development Funding: Fiscal 2018.”

Not only would R&D spending by all other nondefense departments and agencies drop in Trump’s fiscal 2018 plan, in some cases it would dip precipitously. For example, the EPA’s R&D budget in fiscal 2018 would be fully 46 percent lower than in fiscal 2016, while the Agriculture Department’s spending on such programs would be 25 percent lower for the same period.

Under Trump’s spending blueprint, the Pentagon’s R&D budget for fiscal 2018 would be $84.9 billion, including war spending, compared to $76.4 billion in fiscal 2017.

The House passed last week a Defense spending bill for fiscal 2018 that would boost overall Pentagon spending — and spending on military R&D — even further still. The House spending bill would add nearly $1.6 billion to the Pentagon’s requested R&D total, including $36 million tacked on via floor amendments last week.

The GOP-run House’s relative lack of support for nondefense spending — research and otherwise — is dramatized by the fact that, 10 months into the fiscal year, the chamber has passed only the security package, which includes three other spending measures besides Defense: Military Construction-VA, Energy-Water and Legislative Affairs bills.

Despite the largesse the administration and the House have shown for defense in general and military research in particular, it is likely that Congress will ultimately not give full rein to these lavish plans.

First, Congress will resist the cuts to nondefense R&D programs, which have drawn flak from both parties.

Secondly, Trump’s plan to boost defense spending, while more popular than the cuts, still must be reconciled with the budget law, which caps defense and nondefense spending. Democrats have said they will continue to insist on a dollar increase in nondefense spending for every dollar boost in the defense budget. That Democratic push will limit the size of the defense increase Trump and others want.

Despite the downward pressure on defense spending from Democrats, both the defense and nondefense budget caps are likely to be raised. It’s just that the defense cap is probably not going to go up as high as Trump and many other Republicans would like, experts have said. And so the GOP’s ambitious R&D spending plans are likewise unlikely to come to full fruition.

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The man who could act on President Donald Trump’s behalf to slash health care benefits for members of Congress does not want the job.

Trump’s nomination of George Nesterczuk to be director of the Office of Personnel Management was withdrawn Wednesday, according to a formal notification sent to the Senate.

The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee had not considered the Nesterczuk nomination, and Democrats said last month that all the paperwork had not yet been received.

FedSmith.com, a news site for federal employees, reported Tuesday that Nesterczuk was requesting to no longer be considered, citing “partisan attacks.”

The withdrawal means that the acting director Kathleen McGettigan, a career OPM veteran, will likely be staying in the position for the foreseeable future.

The most efficient way for Trump to undermine congressional member and staff health care benefits would be for the OPM to move ahead with rescinding the Obama-era order allowing employer contributions toward health insurance premiums to be paid through the D.C. small business exchange.

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Senate Republicans introduced legislation Thursday that would authorize $15 billion for new border wall construction and technology, the hiring of thousands more Border Patrol and interior enforcement agents, and measures to withhold federal funds from so-called sanctuary cities.

The bill, authored by Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., is a companion measure to a House bill introduced last month by Johnson’s counterpart, House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas.

“This is just the beginning of this conversation, but it’s a plan that Congress can implement through the appropriations process rather than appropriating money, without a plan in place, on a piecemeal or ad hoc basis,” Cornyn said.

Cornyn said the bill is aimed at showing the American people that Congress has a comprehensive plan to secure the border over the next four years, the authorization period for the bill. The funding would still have to be allocated through the appropriations process.

The bill, which Cornyn said was written with input from the Homeland Security Department, includes numerous provisions mirroring President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, including wall construction and the end of so-called catch-and-release practices.

“We need to regain the public’s confidence and trust,” Cornyn said. “With this president in the White House, we think we have an ally who will help us.”

Cornyn’s bill also includes legislation offered by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that would increase criminal penalties for undocumented criminals who enter the United States illegally despite previous deportations. Cruz’s bill is named for Kathryn Steinle, a San Francisco woman shot and killed in 2015 by a Mexican national with prior felonies and multiple deportations. The House passed its version of that bill in June.

The legislation also includes a bill by Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., to cut off certain federal funds for cities and counties that bar local police from cooperating with federal immigration agents.

The bill is the second major piece of immigration legislation introduced by Republicans in as many days. Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue of Georgia on Wednesday introduced a sweeping overhaul of the legal immigration system that would drastically reduce the number of green cards issued to extended family members of U.S. residents in order to attract more highly qualified immigrants.

Both measures would require a heavy lift by Congress, needing at least eight Democratic votes in the Senate in order to overcome a filibuster. Democrats say they will oppose construction of a border wall, which Trump promised in the campaign. They consider it ineffective and too expensive.

The White House requested $1.6 billion to begin wall construction in San Diego and southern Texas in fiscal 2018. The House has approved the funding as part of the so-called security minibus appropriations package, but the defense spending in the measure busts budget caps. It’s unclear if the package will be taken up by the Senate, where it would face stiff opposition from Democrats who are opposed to the border wall.

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Majority Leader Mitch McConnell likened his search for 50 senators willing to vote for the same repeal-and-replace legislation to solving a Rubik’s Cube, a task not helped by many GOP skeptics getting besieged back home this July 4 recess. Roll Call reporters Bridget Bowman and Niels Lesniewski see no reason to predict the health care impasse is about to be broken.

Show Notes:

Let's not forget that Sen. McConnell still refuses to hold one hearing on the health care bill that would throw 22 million off insurance.

.@SenateMajLdr talked in E'town Friday on figuring out "how to twist the dials” to get health care bill passed https://t.co/yHdT9oFh5V pic.twitter.com/u8XCqvCPZO

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The House and Senate Armed Services committees took significantly different approaches in their annual Pentagon policy bills on everything from space operations to Army manpower, lining up what could be a tough conference negotiation later this year.

Among the biggest differences in the bills is how each approached space defense programs. The House panel advanced legislation that would create a new military service focused on space and operated by the Air Force called Space Corps. The proposal, which has the backing of committee Republicans and Democrats alike, would amount to a historic restructuring of the military, if it becomes law.

The Senate panel, however, chose only to lengthen the required term of the commander of Air Force Space Command to six years. The goal according to a Senate committee aide, is to give the commander enough time to put more of a strategic focus on space.

“There’s nothing in the [Senate Armed Services Committee] report dealing with Space Corps,” the aide said. The committee will not release the full text of the bill until after the July Fourth recess.

While Space Corps advanced out of the House committee with bipartisan support, the program also faced bipartisan scrutiny Wednesday during the House’s marathon markup session, and is opposed by Air Force Secretary Heather A. Wilson.

The committees also disagreed over troop level increases, with the House bill adding 17,000 soldiers to the Army while Senate legislation would add just 6,000 additional troops.

“I think the belief was that adding 17,000 soldiers to the Army in one year … couldn’t be done while maintaining the standards,” the Senate aide said. “The belief was that 6,000 is a responsible rate for the Army to grow in one year.”

The aide went on, however, to suggest that the panel would be open to further increases to the size of the Army down the road, opening a possible area for compromise with the House.

The House panel has said the plus-up matches the increases in the Army’s budgetary wish list.

The two committees are also divided on funding for the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program, known for its frequent technical difficulties, cost hikes and schedule delays. Senate authorizers approved funding for just one of the shore-hugging vessels while the House approved funding for three ships. The LCS program has long been targeted for cuts by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz.

The White House requested one of the shore-hugging vessels for next year, but later revised the request to say they wanted to buy a second LCS. On Thursday, the White House finally explained how they would pay the $500 million needed for that ship, by making cuts elsewhere in shipbuilding and other Navy accounts.

The committees did find common ground, however, by authorizing billions of dollars in defense spending above the legal limit allowed by the Budget Control Act, with the House and Senate panels boasting funding levels of $696 billion and $700 billion, respectively. (Both of those figures include $8 billion outside the committees’ jurisdiction and thus not included in the bill itself, according to a Senate Armed Services document.)

For either proposal to pass, legislators would need to eliminate spending caps, pour unprecedented amounts of funds into the war budget or raise spending levels.

Senate Armed Services aides are hoping for the latter, believing their bill will “help to influence” discussion between legislative leadership on raising the established caps.

But they have a steep climb ahead of them, with Democrats, who can block spending bills from moving forward in the Senate, insisting on similarly generous increases to nondefense accounts.

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Senior White House policy adviser Stephen Miller clashed sharply with reporters over an immigration overhaul bill President Donald Trump endorsed Wednesday — but Miller was now advocating an immigration policy that he disparaged just a few short years ago when he was a senior Capitol Hill aide.

During a heated exchanged that featured raised voices and name-calling, the senior White House official referred to veteran CNN reporter Jim Acosta as “ignorant” and “foolish.” Miller also referred to Acosta’s line of questioning about the bill, which would overhaul U.S. green card policies, as “outrageous.”

Acosta and other reporters asked tough questions a few hours after Trump appeared with GOP Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia in the Roosevelt Room to roll out legislation that would impose a skills-based criteria on individuals hoping to obtain U.S. citizenship. Miller appeared at the top of the daily White House press briefing Wednesday to discuss the bill.

However, while Miller made a pitch for increasing visas for immigrants with specific skills, he was opposed to such an approach in his Capitol Hill days. In a 2014 email while he was a staffer for Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., Miller appeared to oppose that idea.

“As has been widely documented, there is already a very slack labor market in the IT and STEM fields, pushing down wages and salaries for American workers,” he wrote in a blast email ahead of an immigration-themed address by President Barack Obama. “In fact, universities graduate twice as many STEM students each year as there are openings to fill, and [three-fourths] of Americans with STEM degrees don’t have STEM jobs.”

Asked to comment about the two different positions, a White House spokeswoman did not respond.

Miller kept taking questions even as Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders inched closer to him. After taking what was to be his last question, which turned out to not be about the Trump-Cotton-Perdue bill, he called on Acosta.

The CNN reporter asked whether the Trump-backed immigration bill would, if it became law, render an inscription on the Statute of Liberty null and void. That poem reads, in part: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses …”

[Trump Makes Russia Sanctions Law, Then Savages Congress]

The White House policy adviser reacted sharply.

“The poem that you’re referring to was added later,” Miller told Acosta, referring to the Emma Lazarus-penned 1883 sonnet below Lady Liberty’s feet.

The Trump-Cotton-Perdue legislation would also impose an English-language requirement on immigrants. To that end, Acosta asked: “Are we just going to bring in people from Great Britain and Australia?”

That’s when things got really heated.

“I have to honestly say, I am shocked at your statement that you think that only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English,” Miller snapped. “It reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking agree. … This is an amazing moment.”

As the duo bickered, a remarkable scene played out that left even veteran White House correspondents slack-jawed.

“Have you honestly never met an immigrant from another country who speaks English outside of Great Britain and Australia?” Miller asked Acosta. He called the reporter’s question “one of the most outrageous, insulting, ignorant and foolish things you’ve ever said.”

[White House Acknowledges Trump Helped Craft Son’s Statement]

The CNN reporter took umbrage with Miller’s comments several times, and Trump’s policy adviser apologized — but not for his comments, just if he thought things got too “heated.”

Trump has harshly criticized CNN for months, often declaring it “fake news.” His spokespersons have sometimes avoided calling on its reporters during briefings.

The exchange followed another tense one between Miller and New York Times scribe Glenn Thrush over immigration statistics.

The Miller-Acosta exchange lasted around seven minutes and left most in the room shaking their heads.

“That was exciting,” Sanders said with a wry smile as she took over from Miller at the podium.

Reporters in the room reacted with gasps, groans and comments about whether it was a new low in briefing room decorum.

What just happened! We hit a new low today! Lawd!

Emma Lazarus is fake news!

Turns out Miller v. @GlennThrush was just the undercard. Miller v. @Acosta is the main event.

And now Steve Miller accuses @Acosta of "cosmopolitan bias" for suggesting that only Brits and Aussies speak English.

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