EU dismisses Netanyahu’s Jerusalem prediction

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a press conference at the European Council in Brussels on December 11, 2017 | Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

Prime minister defends Trump’s embassy move despite concern from EU foreign policy chief.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini rejected a suggestion Monday by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that most EU countries would follow Donald Trump’s lead and ultimately recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Netanyahu made his prediction at a news conference with Mogherini in Brussels, ahead of a meeting with EU foreign ministers.

“I believe that even though we don’t have an agreement yet, this is what will happen in the future — I believe all or most EU countries will move their embassies to Jerusalem, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” Netanyahu said.

Speaking after the foreign ministers’ meeting, Mogherini stated plainly that Netanyahu’s expectations were misplaced.

“He can keep his expectations for others because, from the European Union member states’ side, this move will not come,” Mogherini told reporters.

Trump’s decision has ratcheted up tensions in the Middle East and nearly all EU governments condemned it.

Meeting on Sunday in Paris with Netanyahu, French President Emmanuel Macron declared the move a “threat to peace.” Netanyahu, however, defended the decision in Brussels on Monday.

“For 3,000 years, Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people,” he said. “What President Trump has done, is to put facts squarely on the table. Peace is based on reality. Peace is based on recognizing reality.”

Mogherini, by contrast, stressed the European view that the move was unhelpful.

“We believe that the only realistic solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine is based on two states with Jerusalem as the capital of both, the state of Israel and the state of Palestine,” she said. “This is our consolidated position and we’ll continue to respect the international consensus on Jerusalem.”

She also warned of the danger of an escalation of violence and condemned “in the strongest possible way all attacks on Jews everywhere in the world” stressing that “we’ll have a similar conversation with [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmoud] Abbas in January.”

Netanyahu addressed EU foreign ministers on Monday at the invitation of Lithuania. One diplomat said the discussion was “pretty tense” at certain moments but Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas  Linkevičius took issue with that description.

“It was not confrontational, it was very rational and very concrete. There were arguments provided, everyone knows that positions are different on many aspects — on settlements, two-state solution, or the role of Iran,” Linkevičius told POLITICO.

The Israeli premier used the visit also to remind Europeans of Israeli efforts to prevent terrorist attacks in Europe. “Israeli intelligence has prevented dozens of terrorist attacks many of them on European soil,” he told reporters, stressing that the EU and Israel are partners in three main areas: security; peace; and prosperity.

And Netanyahu warned that “the greatest problem facing Europe is the flow of the people who are escaping the battle-torn areas in the Middle East” as “Israel is the strongest power in the Middle East that is preventing the spread of militant Islam.”

Israel does that to protect itself, he said, but in doing so it “serves a very important security function for the people of Europe in ways that are not always understood but increasingly are appreciated by the relevant governments.”

Ahead of the meeting, EU diplomats had expressed concern about EU unity on the issue of Jerusalem after Hungary broke ranks and refused to take part in joint declaration against the U.S. embassy’s move, according to two senior diplomats. Budapest also asked other Central European countries to join in supporting, but they denied it, one diplomat said.

Still, while Hungary remained isolated, many diplomats were angered by the defection. “The EU is not any more united against Trump,” said one upset senior diplomat.

Yet the Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó said Friday that Budapest did not veto anything since there was not a text on the table, according to a diplomat briefed on the Hungarian position. Still, Budapest confirmed that in its view the member country should issue their own statements, and not a common one, added the diplomat — a departure from customary practice on such a weighty global issue.

This article has been updated.

Amid the rush to finish GOP tax bill, a sudden slowdown for second thoughts

The rush to finish the GOP tax overhaul has hit a snag as Republicans grapple with substantial differences between the House and Senate bills, and pause to consider unintended consequences of the most massive rewrite of the tax code in a generation.

Lawmakers are eager to pass the bill, President Trump’s top domestic priority, by Christmas. But they are also increasingly wary of political fallout from the hurried process and want to prevent embarrassing moments, such as the scribbled text hastily added to the margin of the final Senate bill.

The end of any major legislative undertaking is often a sprint. But the final stretch of the GOP tax plan is being complicated by an accelerated process like none other in recent history.

“Republicans have made a decision, which I can’t fault them for, that the longer this bill hangs out there, the more barnacles attach,” said Jonathan Traub, the former Republican staff director at the House Ways and Means Committee and now managing principal at Deloitte’s tax policy group.

As the final bill takes shape, GOP leaders must balance the votes of centrists, such as Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), whose support is contingent on healthcare votes to ease the tax bill’s repeal of the Obamacare requirement that all Americans have insurance, with deficit hawks such as Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who opposed the earlier version for adding too much to the deficit.

Though GOP leaders say the tax cuts will pay for themselves through economic growth, the Joint Committee on Taxation has concluded that both versions would add about $1 trillion to the deficit, even after accounting for expected growth.

A Treasury report Monday sought to assure lawmakers that the cost of the $1.5-trillion package would be more than paid for by future economic growth. But the one-page report was widely criticized because it relied heavily on separate and as-of-yet unannounced future initiatives for infrastructure development and welfare reform.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the report “fake math.”

Meanwhile, staffers continue going through the bill text, trying ​​​​​​​to make the needed changes to hold together the sometimes fragile GOP majority, while making sure the long-term policy proposals will be sound.

“You’d think it would easy to hand out $1.5 trillion in tax cuts,” said Traub. “It turns out to be quite difficult.”

Twitter: @LisaMascaro


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Looming pension shortfalls to complicate next shutdown fight

Sherrod Brown is pictured. | Getty Images

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said in a Monday interview that he sees the pensions fix as a “moral appeal” for action. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

Key Democrats want a government funding bill to maintain the solvency of pension plans for hundreds of thousands of workers.

The next potential sleeper cause of a government shutdown? Pensions.

Congress barely averted a shutdown last year amid a fight over miners’ health care. Now the looming collapse of pension plans for the miners — as well as thousands of Teamster truck drivers and food service workers — is fueling another, even more expensive, round of brinkmanship.

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Key Democrats are vowing to fight for a fix as part of any forthcoming deal to fund the government. And they warn that if Congress doesn’t step in soon to forestall the insolvency of several key pension plans — including the massive Central States plan, which covers an estimated 400,000 union workers and retirees — taxpayers risk ending up on the hook for an even bigger multi-billion-dollar rescue for the government’s pension guarantee agency.

But it’s far from clear the workers will get their rescue. Conservative Republicans will be loath to provide anything that looks like a bailout, particularly for union workers. And one of the Senate’s leading Democratic advocates for relief, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, is one of the GOP’s top targets ahead of his reelection next year.

Brown said in a Monday interview that he sees the pensions fix as a “moral appeal” for action, along the lines of the Democrats’ push to help the young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers.

“There are tens of thousands of Teamsters and mine workers and bakery and confectionery workers and carpenters that will see huge cuts in their pensions, and they start pretty soon” if a long-term solution isn’t reached, Brown said. “It’s not just fixing it and getting it done because the economics and the math get worse and worse. It’s because of what it does to families.”

Last year at this time, Brown joined West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and other Democrats in a standoff over adding long-term health care and pension help for retired miners to must-pass government funding legislation. Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) ultimately included a rescue for retired miners’ health care in a $1 trillion spending deal earlier this year, but addressing their pensions wasn’t part of that package.

This winter, it’s more than retired miners who are facing potentially steep pension cuts if their plans aren’t shored up by early next year. The Teamsters are dispatching retirees to the Hill this week to lean on Congress to back a pensions rescue plan.

“We’re still going to do everything we can,” Manchin said in a Monday interview. “I’m pushing as hard as I can.”

Manchin underscored, however, that “it has to be a bipartisan fix.” His proposal to keep miners’ pensions afloat is backed by West Virginia’s GOP senator, Shelley Moore Capito, and GOP Rep. David McKinley, but Brown’s bill that would rescue other so-called multi-employer pension plans has yet to attract a Republican backer.

“We’re working with a lot of Republicans — some that are listening,” said Mike Walden, a retired Teamster who serves as president of the National United Committee to Protect Pensions. “So we’re trying to get them on board to at least get this passed or attached to the spending bill.”

Senators in both parties have been in talks for weeks about a way forward on the pension funding, one source in the upper chamber said. But the prospects for a deal by year’s end are highly uncertain, even though Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) listed “Americans’ endangered pensions” alongside aid to Dreamers as one of their key priorities in a year-end spending deal after a meeting last week at the White House.

And while Brown said he wants a fix included in a funding bill, he did not threaten to withhold his vote if the at-risk pensions aren’t addressed. Lawmakers likely have until the spring to act before certain beneficiaries begin to face lost benefits. “The Republicans are always the ones to shut the government down,” he said. “They’re always the ones threatening.”

Another obstacle, beyond the number of other high-profile priorities on Congress’ year-end to-do list, is the price tag of a broader pensions fix.

Brown’s proposal would empower the Treasury Department to make loans to the at-risk pension plans, which would use the money on safe investments to backstop the retirement plans that are currently at the greatest risk. Beyond those loans, the at-risk plans are expected to require as much as $25 billion in long-term assistance from the government-backed Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation in order to avert insolvency.

But the PBGC is already projected to reach insolvency by 2025, and staving off that worst-case outcome would cost $101 billion over 20 years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Theresa May unites Tories on Brexit (for now)

LONDON — First Theresa May secured a deal in Brussels, then she had to land it at home.

After a weekend of apparent pushback from Brexiteers — in which Brexit Secretary David Davis suggested the deal agreed with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker Friday was not “legally enforceable” — the U.K. prime minister appeared back in command Monday.

May began the day chairing a meeting of her Cabinet and ended it with an outbreak of peace on the Conservative benches in the House of Commons as one Tory after another stood up to welcome the prime minister’s breakthrough agreement to move Brexit talks on to the next phase of discussions in Brussels.

Her responses to MPs revealed not only that she has achieved a compromise all sides seem prepared to live with — for now at least — but also gave a taste of the kind of pragmatic Brexit she plans to deliver. Whether the truce can survive contact with the eventual reality of what that compromise entails is less clear.

All hail Theresa May

May’s position was, perhaps, best summed up by straight-talking Brexiteer Edward Leigh.

“When people like me — Brexiteers — look at the alternative,” he said, “namely a Labour government staying in the single market forever and having no control over immigration, it’s amazing how our minds are concentrated in support of the prime minister.”

Tory MPs laughed in recognition of a truth revealed.

Accolades ricocheted around the House, with both Remainers and Brexiteers on the Tory benches lining up to praise the prime minister.

Ken Clarke — the only Tory MP to vote against the triggering of Article 50, who has spent his life campaigning for closer integration with the EU — declared Friday’s deal “a triumph.” Shortly after, long-standing Euroskeptic Iain Duncan Smith said he wanted to join his “right honorable and learned friend” in congratulating the prime minister on what he said was “an improved agreement.”

British Brexit minister David Davis and and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier | Emmanuel Macron/AFP via Getty Images

Anna Soubry, the pro-European former Conservative minister, claimed there was “complete unanimity” on Tory benches in favor of the agreement struck by the PM.

On the £35 billion-£39 billion divorce bill there was barely a whimper of protest. Complaints about the continuing role of the European Court of Justice were also notable by their absence.

The two-hour debate made clear that the Tory truce rests on two words: “full alignment.” Agreed as the “last resort” fall-back position by Britain and the European Union should questions relating to the Northern Irish border not be resolved in the second phase of Brexit negotiations, to Brexiteers these words were the path to a future freedom to diverge from EU rules, whereas to those on the left of the party, they signaled a softer Brexit was still possible.

By postponing discussion about where Britain is headed after Brexit, May has delivered a compromise all sides can live with — for now.

In the words of Brexiteer Leigh, while the deal agreed with Brussels was a “compromise” it was good enough in the circumstances.

The fight to come

What unites the prime minister, a reluctant Remainer, with her Euroskeptic right is her belief that Brexit is about “bringing back control.”

This was “the whole point” of Brexit, May told MPs in the most revealing remark of the debate.

“Once we are outside the European Union we will be able to determine our regulations and where we wish to diverge from the regulations of the European Union,” May told the House of Commons.

What has yet to be agreed is the cost of divergence — something the U.K. government considers to be the heart of any future discussion on a free-trade deal with the EU.

“In any trade agreement there’s an agreement about the rules and regulations and standards on which both sides will operate,” May said. But free trade deals also include “an agreement about what happens when you want to diverge” from these rules, May added. “The important point is that this parliament will be the body deciding those rules and regulations.”

May was clear that from the U.K.’s perspective full alignment meant “achieving the same objectives” through independent means.

With such an answer there can be little doubt as to the type of Brexit May is pursuing — it is, in effect, an enabling Brexit which provides the opportunity for harder or softer turns as governments chop and change in the future.

May’s aim is to agree the terms of trade with the European Union — but also the costs of ignoring those terms. It will largely be for prime ministers after her to decide whether to take the punishment of divergence for greater spoils elsewhere or to accept the benefits of alignment.

It was a message also pushed by David Davis in his interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show Sunday, but which was overshadowed by his claim that the deal struck last week was not legally binding, a claim he reversed early on Monday morning.

“What parliament will decide in the future is what’s actually good for both the market in Europe and the market in the rest of the world,” Davis told Marr. “They will make those decisions independently and with full sovereignty and in the light of what the consequences will be.”

On the £35 billion-£39 billion divorce bill there was barely a whimper of protest | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

May was clear that from the U.K.’s perspective full alignment meant “achieving the same objectives” through independent means. This is, in effect, the position of the hard Brexiteers from Liam Fox to Michael Gove — and certainly Davis’ Brexit department.

Quizzed on the alignment she had promised to maintain between Northern Ireland and the Republic, May played down the offer. She said there were just six policy areas which affected the border — not the 142 cited by shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer Sunday — and two of these were not part of EU law, namely education and health.

The four areas which are affected by EU law, May said, were environment, electricity, agriculture and transport.