GOP repeal foes face blowback after health care loss

The anger commenced not long after Tuesday’s collapse of the Senate GOP bill to replace Obamacare. The Senate Conservatives Fund promised to “identify, recruit, and fund conservative challengers” to GOP lawmakers who vote against a clean repeal.

It’s no empty threat in a Republican Party that’s seen a handful of incumbents defeated — or nearly-defeated — in primaries in recent years.

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Senior GOP officials spent much of Tuesday surveying the anger and frustration within their own party and taking calls from bitterly disappointed contributors, some of whom threatened to turn off the cash spigot. Senators who refused to support the bill, the party officials predicted, would see their fundraising take an immediate hit.

Texas businessman Doug Deason, a Trump backer and the son of billionaire Darwin Deason, said he and other major GOP donors were warming to the idea of funding primary challenges to senators who had opposed the health care bill. There was growing frustration, he said, over the failure to advance the president’s agenda.

In a text message referring to three senators — Sens. Susan Collins, Jeff Flake and Shelley Moore Capito — who played a role in sinking the bill, Deason ripped “the spineless Republican members from Maine, Arizona and West Virginia who seem to believe that Obamacare is actually succeeding.”

He added: “It will be disappointing to see these three lose their reelection campaigns to Democrats — unless we can find better candidates to run in the primary races against them.”

Arizona’s Flake is one of two Republicans up for reelection in 2018 who have been on the wrong side of President Trump since the fall. Along with Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, he appears likely to draw stiff primary competition next year.

The White House has already been in contact with potential challengers to Flake, who’s facing serious pressure from the right. Former state Sen. Kelli Ward has already announced her challenge and former state GOP Chairman Robert Graham and state Treasurer Jeff DeWit, both from the Trump wing of the party, are considering jumping in.

Heller, another critic of the health care measure who sought to inoculate himself from political pressure by aligning himself with his state’s soon-to-retire Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, found himself in the White House cross-hairs weeks ago.

An outside group led by the president’s top campaign advisers threatened a massive advertising campaign against Heller over his stance, and right-wing activists in the state have talked about fielding a primary challenger against the first-term lawmaker, though none has yet declared any intention to run.

An even larger group of Republicans could face blowback back home from this week’s events when they are up for reelection in 2020.

Tops among them are South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, who have frequently been at odds with Trump and have alienated his closest supporters. Both have been openly critical of the president, and have drawn the ire of fellow Republicans in states where Trump won easily in November.

But Graham — now serving in his third term — has survived tough primary challenges before. And much of the criticism of the freshman Sasse hinges on frustrated Republicans’ perception that he might mount a primary challenge of his own against Trump in 2020.

Another GOP senator from a pro-Trump state, Bill Cassidy, also face a more tenuous primary situation after joining with Graham to try and create an alternative to the Senate’s health care proposal.

“The Republicans really haven’t had the president’s back,” said Jeff Crouere, a conservative New Orleans radio host who served as a co-chair of Trump’s efforts in Louisiana in 2016. “I got involved in the Tea Party movement in 2009 and this was one of our big issues: repealing and replacing Obamacare. And we’ve been sending people up there for eight years pledging to do it, and now that we have the power we don’t do it? It’s very, very disappointing.”

Crouere added that while it’s still early, Cassidy’s attempt to find an alternative to the initial Senate plan could come back and bite him ahead of 2020. “He ran as a conservative, and he’s been acting much more moderate since his election. And I think there’s a disconnect between his votes and the people of Louisiana,” he said. “I would certainly like to see much more enthusiastic support for the president from Senator Cassidy.”

The moderate Collins has also been a thorn in the White House’s side on occasion, but much of the speculation about her political future revolves around whether she will jump into Maine’s open gubernatorial race in 2018 — not on the shape of her 2020 re-election bid. In 2014, despite persistent conservative grumbling, she had no primary opposition at all.

Capito — who represents West Virginia, a state Trump won by 42 points — was one of the most front-and-center critics of the measure. But as the state’s first GOP senator in decades, she appeared to face limited pushback at home from conservatives.

“She’s extremely popular, and it’s an extremely complicated subject,” said former West Virginia GOP chairman Mike Stuart, the president’s campaign chair in the state. “I don’t think there’s any weakening of support for Senator Capito. She’s doing what’s best for West Virginia.”

In any case, some Republicans asserted Tuesday, Capito and her fellow Obamacare repeal skeptics will have an opportunity to smooth things over in the weeks to come, when the chamber tackles other items on the Trump agenda.

“It is very difficult for a Republican who could not get to yes to explain why they were not able to do so in the time they were allotted when there were senators who were able to do that,” said Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “But if they can come off this experience and get tax reform done, and hopefully revisit health care at some point, they mitigate some of the problems that some of this debate caused.”

Others suggested that those who opposed the bill might be safer than they appear at the moment. In the days leading up to the legislation’s collapse, senior party officials reviewed polling indicating that the conservative base wasn’t enthusiastic about the replacement bill. Plus, outside efforts like Senate Conservatives Fund have failed in the past to mount serious primary challenges.

Even in the states where support for Trump remains strongest, the Senate’s failure to pass a health care overhaul is not yet major cause of concern among his most prominent supporters.

“Everybody’s view on health care is based on their personal circumstances,” said Stuart. “This is really the toughest issue facing America, and I have to give the Trump administration tremendous credit for taking on such a weighty subject.”

Tax reform becomes a must-win issue for the White House

With President Donald Trump’s effort to undo Obamacare derailed by opposition from Republican senators, the White House has turned its attention to its next big shot at a big win: tax reform.

The long-held GOP goal of re-engineering the U.S. tax system has now become a political imperative for the Trump administration, which has yet to deliver any major legislative victories despite Republican control of the White House and both houses of Congress.

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“They know they could really use a win,” said Larry Kudlow, an informal economic adviser to the Trump campaign, who met with Trump last week. “The president, from the get-go, has been much more comfortable with tax cuts than health care.”

Donors and influential Republicans are particularly eager to see tax reform completed before the 2018 midterms — both for their own bottom lines and because it will be harder for Republicans to hold on to Congress without policy accomplishments, White House advisers and outside supporters fear.

“If Republicans fail to repeal or at least substantially roll back Obamacare, it raises the stakes dramatically to pass into law a big, bold tax-reform plan,” said Tim Phillips, who leads Americans for Prosperity, the political group backed by the Koch brothers.

“On the political side, the biggest problem that Republicans could face in 2018 is not a partisan battle. It’s a sense of incompetence and inability to govern that will be most painful,” said Josh Holmes, a longtime McConnell adviser and former chief of staff.

“Unless they can figure out how to reverse this quickly, you can see where this cascades into more issues past health care,” Holmes added.

But consensus on the political value of achieving tax reform ahead of the 2018 midterm elections does not equal agreement on the policy details — and that could bedevil Trump’s next big policy push, just as the health care effort was undermined by insurmountable differences between moderates and conservatives in the Republican Caucus.

At issue still is how low Trump can cut tax rates as well the best way to pay for those cuts, according to interviews with 10 people including senior administration officials, Republican congressional aides, lobbyists and close advisers to the president.

“They might be coalescing around something, but when you have not decided how to pay for the tax cuts, you are still a long way from a plan,” said one Republican lobbyist.

In the past few days inside the White House, there has been an eager pivot toward pursuing tax reform, according to two White House officials — especially since the businessman-turned-president feels more conversant in tax do’s-and-don’ts than in the weeds of health care.

Press secretary Sean Spicer said on Monday that the White House has held hundreds of tax reform “listening sessions” in anticipation of doing tax reform. The White House is also hopeful that a good tax package would give officials something to talk about other than the various Russia investigations, said one adviser close to the White House.

Administration officials have been working toward a proposal for months, with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, neither of whom has deep expertise on tax policy, meeting behind closed doors with CEOs, businesses and tax experts.

“We are trying to actually be organized here. There are lots of internal strategy meetings on communications and policy,” said one senior White House official. “The administration has been working with outside groups, CEOs and businesses and has met frequently with conservative activists, who too could kill a plan.”

“We know this is even more important now, and the president is engaged on it,” the White House aide added.

In the absence of a confirmed assistant secretary for tax policy at Treasury, the NEC’s Shahira Knight has been acting as the face of the administration’s tax push. Recently, she spoke to groups such as the Tax Council, National Association of Manufacturers, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s tax committee on the administration’s path forward on tax reform, according to lobbyists present at those sessions.

Although Knight did not offer a specific time frame for when the administration would release its tax blueprint, she told attendees at the recent Tax Council session that the White House wanted Congress to use its template for a tax bill.

The senior administration official said the White House hopes to start rolling out a tax blueprint in August and then “build on it.”

Meanwhile, GOP tax principals, known as the Big Six — Cohn, Mnuchin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch, and House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady — have been meeting since the springtime once a week for roughly one hour to work out their own differences on taxes.

Their meetings are, in part, an effort to show more coordination between the White House and the Hill on taxes — even if, for now, the sessions are symbolic photo-ops.

“We’d like to do the process differently than health care and have it as more of a joint effort,” said one House leadership aide. “With health care, there was so much criticism and not a lot of support.”

Key policy differences still dominate the various discussions. One major open question is how much Republicans can cut tax rates on both the individual and corporate side of the tax code. The president has publicly indicated that he wants to get the corporate rate as low as 15 percent — a feat that tax wonks, including those in the administration, believe is far-fetched.

“The president set out the 15 percent as an ambitious goal post,” said another senior administration official, acknowledging that the final number could wind up significantly higher. The intent was to start negotiations from a very low rate and hope to wind up somewhere close to 20 percent.

Too high a tax rate, such as 25 percent, would be seen as a loss for the business community, said one Republican lobbyist.

The adviser close to the White House said that “frankly, it’s too early to even be talking about the rates.” He added that Republicans first have to create a legislative process that members and outside groups buy in to and that can create enough momentum to get a tax package done.

Another major issue is the best way to pay for tax cuts, since the White House is not keen on Ryan’s and Brady’s idea of a border adjustment tax. They could cut the interest deductibility for businesses, or disallow taxpayers from deducting state and local taxes — just a few of the ideas floated in the past several months with no resolution.

Other major unresolved questions include the best rates on the individual side of the tax code and the way a Trump plan would tax small businesses that currently file under the individual side of the code.

Outside economic advisers, such as Steve Forbes, are pushing the president to pursue a package of simply cutting Americans’ and businesses’ tax rates without overhauling the tax code itself.

That idea, however, will not fly with the Republican policymakers on the Hill who want to avoid adding to the deficit, said one Republican congressional aide — as well as pursue a once-in-a-generation chance to clean up the federal tax code.

“The heck with the Congressional Budget Office, we’ve got to get something done,” Forbes told POLITICO. “Then, we could leave the heavy lifting for another day.”

Ben White contributed to this report.

Judge airs fight over making Justice Department legal opinions public

The Justice Department is Pictured.

Lawyers battled during a courtroom argument session that stretched to nearly two full hours. | AP Photo

A federal judge is mulling whether the Justice Department is defying the law by ignoring an obligation to proactively release legal opinions to the public.

U.S. District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson gave an extensive airing to the issue Tuesday as lawyers battled during a courtroom argument session that stretched to nearly two full hours.

Jackson seemed skeptical about aspects of the lawsuit filed last year by the liberal group Campaign for Accountability. However, she issued no formal ruling and her comments left open the possibility that the organization might get a chance to repackage its case in order to press forward with its demand for access to opinions issued by Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel.

Campaign for Accountability attorney Alex Abdo argued that the Justice Department is failing to comply with a rarely litigated provision in the Freedom of Information Act that obliges agencies to make public “statements of policy and interpretations which have been adopted by the agency.”

While a better-known portion of FOIA requires agencies to disclose records upon request, official statements of policy are supposed to be affirmatively released by the agencies even in the absence of any request.

In the 50 years FOIA has been on the books, that has never happened with regard to any Office of Legal Counsel opinion. Instead, since the mid-1970s, OLC has published about 1300 opinions following what it calls a “voluntary” process of deciding which issuances to make public and which to keep under wraps.

“It is instead publishing a subset of…opinions under criteria that have nothing to do with the statutory criteria,” Abdo complained.

OLC also sometimes releases opinions in response to FOIA requests, but it insists those releases are “discretionary” and not required by the statute.

Justice Department attorney Daniel Schwei said OLC hasn’t ruled out the possibility that its opinions might qualify for proactive disclosure under FOIA, although he was unable to cite any instance where it had actually occurred. He said this wasn’t surprising since OLC’s opinions did not reflect policy decisions, but offer views on the interpretation of various federal laws, regulations and executive orders.

“That legal advice is still just one of the predecisional impacts,” he said.

However, Abdo said the government’s contention that it doesn’t have a policy against affirmative disclosure was a kind of contrivance—in his words “a fiction” — aimed at trying to head off legal challenges like the suit filed last year after the government rebuffed Campaign for Accountability’s request for access to any such records.

Aside from that issue, Jackson seemed troubled by some procedural aspects of the case. Her biggest hang-up appeared to be a lack of specificity in the CFA suit which seeks all legal opinions issued by OLC, without regard to time or subject matter.

“Don’t you have a little bit of a ripeness issue?” Jackson said to Abdo. “It’s up to you to tell me which ones” you’re asking for, she suggested.

Schwei agreed with the judge that the vagueness might present an obstacle to the case moving forward since it wasn’t clear what concrete harm CFA was alleging. “They haven’t identified any actual opinions that have been unlawfully withheld,” he noted.

“How can they know that?” Jackson asked, observing that it was a bit bizarre to ask the plaintiffs to provide a list of documents the government is keeping secret.

The judge suggested that categories of records might be good enough. Indeed, Abdo offered some Tuesday. He said some OLC opinions sought by independent agencies are issued only after the agency pledges in advance to abide by the Justice Department’s ultimate view on the point. Others are explicitly issued as resolutions of interagency disputes and are binding on the agencies under an executive order.

Abdo also insisted that CFA’s request was no broader than others adjudicated by the courts, including the Supreme Court, in similar disputes over the line between deliberative legal advice that is entitled to protection and official agency positions which could amount to a body of “secret law” if the public cannot access them. He noted that the courts have previously ruled that some legal opinions issued by the Internal Revenue Service, the National Labor Relations Board and the Energy Department must be disclosed.

Towards the end of the protracted hearing, Schwei rolled out the big rhetorical guns. He warned that requiring the disclosure of the legal opinions “would really threaten OLC’s role in the executive branch, as well as raise Article II constitutional concerns.”

He did not elaborate, but in legal briefs the Justice Department argues that allowing the suit to proceed could “threaten the rule of law” by imperiling executive officials’ ability to receive confidential legal advice, inclduing the president’s ability to get advice covered by executive privilege.

Jackson signaled no timeline for ruling in the case, which was filed last June. The issue before her at the moment is the government motion to dismiss the suit. One possibility is that she could do that, while leaving open the possibility for CFA to narrow its case to certain categories of documents like the ones Abdo identified Tuesday.

However, one thorny issue is the group’s insistence that it is entitled to an index of all opinions that serve as binding policy. Abdo argued Tuesday that the plain text of the law requires OLC to make that information public. Publishing a complete index of simply the title and date of opinions would be a major departure from the agency’s current practice. At the moment, FOIA requests for lists of opinions issued in specific years are often met by page-after-page of blacked out titles, with only an occasional heading left for public consumption.

Josh Gerstein is a senior reporter for POLITICO.

US military spending $130K a month to rent Trump Tower space: report

The U.S. military is spending $130,000 a month to rent space in Trump Tower in New York City for the White House Military Office, despite the fact that Trump hasn’t stayed at the property in months.

The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the military agreed to pay $180,000 for the last 20 days of April 2017 and $130,000 a month thereafter, according to the contract released by the General Services Administration (GSA).

The lease rate being paid by the military is far above the typical rate for such a space, making it one of the most costly real estate rentals in Manhattan, the Journal reported.

A spokesman for the agency said that the owner of the space was a private individual who is unaffiliated with the Trump Organization, suggesting that Trump is not financially benefitting from the lease. The name of the individual was redacted by the GSA.


The White House Military Office is a part of the U.S. military that provides vital services that are required by law to be near the president at all times, including the so-called nuclear football. It is unaffiliated with the Secret Service.

In May, the Pentagon moved forward with obtaining the lease in Trump Tower despite objections from Democrats over the “appearance” of renting from one of President Trump’s properties.

“The space is necessary for the personnel and equipment who will support the [president] at his residence in the building,” a spokesman said in February.

In a letter to Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), the Pentagon assured Democrats that the deal would not financially benefit the president.

“We are not aware of any means through which the president would personally benefit from a government lease of this space,” the letter read. The lease negotiations, the Pentagon said, “have been with the owner’s representatives only.”

Why Health Care Drives Presidents Insane

I can’t prove this happened, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Bill Clinton and Barack Obama placed a conference call to President Trump, where they began by proclaiming: “Welcome to the club!”

Once again, a new American president has received a significant shock by daring to touch what is now the reigning third rail of American politics: health care. Do I exaggerate? Let’s take a trip down memory lane.

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In 1993, Clinton entered the presidency with a Congress firmly in the grip of the Democratic Party—57 seats in the Senate and 258 seats in the House, which had been Democratic for some 35 years. He proposed a sweeping plan to provide universal health care. It called for employer mandates, regional health alliances, subsidies for the poor and a National Health Board to measure the quality of health care. Fatefully, he put his wife in charge of the effort, saying, “she’s better at organizing and leading people from a complex beginning to a certain end than anybody I’ve ever worked with in my life.”

It was a miserable failure. After withering criticism from conservatives, the health-care industry (with its “Harry and Louise” ads) and prominent Democrats—Sen. Pat Moynihan said, “anyone who thinks [the plan] can work in the real world as presently written isn’t living in it” —the bill died in 1994 without even coming to a vote. That fall, Democrats lost both the House and the Senate in an historic midterm landslide directly linked to the health-care debacle.

In 2009, Barack Obama, fresh off a decisive drubbing of Arizona Sen. John McCain, entered the presidency with Congress firmly in the grip of the Democratic Party—59 seats in the Senate, which would grow to 60 by the summer, and 256 seats in the House. He proposed a sweeping plan to expand health care; it called for individual and employer mandates, subsidies for the poor, the expansion of Medicaid and exchanges to provide a choice of plans for consumers. The eventual bill was subjected to withering criticism from conservatives, and from enough Democrats in the Senate—where every one of the 60 votes would be need to block a filibuster—and after significant compromises, the Affordable Care Act passed with just enough votes to become law.

It immediately garnered poor public approval ratings, and that unpopularity was one big reason why the Democrats lost the House in the 2010 midterms, dropping 63 seats and losing 5 Senate seats and thus its filibuster-proof majority. Four years later, with “Obamacare” still underwater in public opinion polls, Democrats lost 9 Senate seats, thus giving Obama the distinction of being the only president in memory to suffer two midterm disasters. That Senate loss, of course, also cost him a crucial Supreme Court appointment.

In 2017, Donald Trump came to the White House with a middling electoral majority (and a popular vote loss). But he had a solidly Republican House—240 seats and a narrow 52 vote majority in the Senate. Having embraced the seven year long Republican promise to “repeal and replace Obamacare,” he essentially took to the sidelines, while congressional leaders tried to hammer together a bill that would win majorities. After prevailing with two votes to spare in the House (on the second try!), Republicans tossed the bill into the circular file and cobbled together a piece of legislation in the Senate that achieved record-low public approval ratings, ultimately dying an unmourned death of a thousand cuts. Most intriguing, the more the pubic looked at the “repeal and replace” argument, the more they embraced the once-scorned Obamacare. Surveys say it is twice as popular as the now-dead replacement.

So what does this tell us? A few useful facts.

First, most Americans are reasonably happy with their health care. With elders covered by Medicare, most working people covered by their employers’ insurance, and Medicaid at least minimally protecting the poor, most people are more inclined to be wary of any change that could threaten what they have than they are welcoming about change. (This is in sharp contrast to the last genuinely popular health care change: Medicare threatened nothing, but only offered older people an easily understandable, highly significant benefit.)

Second, the popularity of a health-care measure falls when people see it as a gift to “them,” paid for by “us.” There are clear racial and class undertones to this belief—another reason why Medicare, enjoyed by everyone over 65, never suffered from that attack. It was the Republicans’ misfortune to assume that Obamacare would continue to be viewed through this us vs. them prism.

What happened instead was that millions of people, including millions of white working class people, came to realize that the Affordable Care Act actually provides them with benefits—or to put it inelegantly, “them” was “us”—and that the various Republican “repeal and replace” proposals threatened their health and their finances.

Third, if past is prologue, congressional Republicans are in for a rough ride. Like Clinton and Obama, Trump and the GOP tried to pass a significant health care bill with no pretense of bipartisanship—a move that should now be put into the “DO NOT TRY THIS AGAIN!” file.

Unlike Clinton and Obama, President Trump may not suffer personal political blowback, and for an odd reason: It is abundantly clear that, to put it politely, he is not deeply engaged in the particulars of the bill. To put it less politely, he had no clue about what was in wither the House or Senate bill, which is why is was able to celebrate the House passage and then denounce the bill as “mean,” and go on to declare that he would sign whatever he was sent.

This may however, be cold comfort. Trump’s most fervent supporters have little love lost for the GOP leadership in Congress, and the Drudge Reports and Hannitys of this world have shown every inclination of coming down hard on Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell for their fecklessness. If Trump voters stay home a year from November, or engage in internecine primary wars, the president’s party will suffer even if his most loyal supporters do not hold him personally responsible for Obamacare’s survival.

If you’re an optimist, you will hope that the congressional leadership of the two parties will sit down and see what kind of common ground they could plow. If you’re a pessimist, you will put your chips on a civil war within Republican ranks, a barely concealed outbreak of schadenfreude within Democratic ranks, and a serious argument in the White House about whether to strengthen Obamacare or strangle it and try to blame Democrats for its death.

And if you’re a future U.S. president, you will likely answer the call for health-care reform by saying: “Let me try something easier—like permanent peace in the Middle East.”

Jeff Greenfield is a five-time Emmy-winning network television analyst and author.