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Fri Sep 8, 2017, 08:10 PM

Friday Talking Points (452) -- The Art Of The Steal

We cannot claim originality for that subtitle. It's taken from Republican Senator Ben Sasse, from when he was speaking out against the deal President Donald Trump cut this week with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi: "Yesterday we saw Washington's swamp continue to rise: Chuck Schumer wrote The Art Of The Steal by taking hurricane relief hostage to guarantee a December showdown that favors Democratic spending priorities." We thought it was the best description of the stunning events of this week in Washington, so we decided to use it (with attribution, of course). "The art of the steal" pretty much sums up how Trump and "Chuck and Nancy" brutally cut the legs out from under the entire Republican Party in Congress.

But we'll get to this earthshaking situation in a moment, because before this bombshell hit there was another major political announcement earlier in the week. President Trump seems genuinely conflicted about the issue, but he allowed Attorney General Jeff Sessions to make the announcement that all the people currently covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program will lose their deferments starting six months from now.

Technically, these folks were originally targeted for relief with the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act), but this legislation was never successfully passed by Congress. Originally "DREAMers," eventually editors got tired of all the capitals and they have now become "Dreamers" or even just "dreamers" instead (although we did see one amusing attempt to update the label -- "the DACAmented" ); these are the most sympathetic undocumented immigrants around, since they were brought here as children, through no fault of their own.

Trump seems to want to let the DREAMers stay, but he was convinced by the hardliners on immigration to end the program after a six month period. Trump himself undercut the announcement within hours, tweeting out that if Congress doesn't fix the problem, he might just extend that six-month deadline until they do. Later in the week, Nancy Pelosi even got Trump to tweet out a reassurance that nobody's getting targeted for deportation during that six-month period (more on this in a moment).

Trump really pleased nobody with the announcement, with the possible exception of Jeff Sessions (who always looks like a happy little elf, right?). The nationalist hardliners were disappointed that the DACA program didn't end immediately, and they're already wary that Trump will give the DREAMers "amnesty." The public is overwhelmingly on the side of allowing the DREAMers to legally stay, by enormous margins across the board: 84 percent of Democrats, 74 percent of independents, and 69 percent of Republicans. Even among Trump voters, a whopping two-thirds think the DREAMers should be allowed to stay.

Donald Trump has flip-flopped on the issue in a stark and notable way, and he's been moving towards helping the DREAMers out for a while, now. So this looks like a deal he could conceivably cut with congressional Democrats and Republican moderates before the six months is up.

Speaking of deals with Democrats, Wednesday will go down in Trumpian history as the day "Chuck and Nancy" (as he put it) began working with Trump -- to advance the Democratic agenda. Nobody saw this one coming (the people most shocked by it were quite likely Chuck and Nancy themselves), and in the aftermath a bill whipped through Congress faster than a speeding bullet. Wednesday, Trump shook hands with Chuck and Nancy; Thursday the bill cleared the Senate, 80-17; Friday the bill made it through the House, 316-90. Trump may have even signed it by now, or perhaps he'll sign it some time over the weekend. For Washington, that is beyond lightning-fast, it is a downright freakin' miracle.

The deal that got struck wrapped almost all the contentious issues that had been facing Congress in September into one bill that punts the whole debate three months down the road. Everything was attached to the must-pass Hurricane Harvey (and Irma) relief bill, as a goad to get Republicans to vote for it. This means a month that was supposed to be chock full of grandstanding and posturing and brinksmanship is now over before it even began. It's beyond breathtaking.

Donald Trump is now showing open contempt for Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and (for good measure) his own Treasury Secretary. Trump is now actively working to keep Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp in her seat, while he's been hostile to a number of Republicans who need to get re-elected next year (most notably, Jeff Flake). Trump has said more nice things about "Chuck and Nancy" in the past three days than he's said about most Republican leaders ever.

This has been such a stunning turn of events that virtually everyone is reacting with an abundance of caution. Nobody knows what the long-term implications are, or even if there will be any. Trump is nothing if not mercurial, so he could decide tomorrow that the whole thing was a bad idea. It's certainly happened before.

Democrats are wary, but hopeful. After the initial bombshell story, further details leaked out about what Trump had also agreed to discuss with Democrats in the future, including doing away with debt ceiling votes altogether, and passing a DREAM Act so the DACA kids won't wind up getting deported. Chuck and Nancy will be following through on both of these, you can be sure. Will this mean there will be other openings for making deals with Trump on Democratic legislative priorities? Nobody knows, but so far the signs are at least somewhat encouraging.

Republicans, on the other hand, are still experiencing shell-shock. While a few have openly denounced the "Pelosi-Schumer-Trump deal" (as they call it), most are grumbling from the sidelines, at the most. All 90 of the "nay" votes in the House were from Republicans, but few prominent Republicans have come out strongly against Trump for striking such a deal.

The funniest thing we read from a Republican reacting to the deal was a bit of unintentional irony from Representative Barry Loudermilk from Georgia, who laughably claimed that Trump "is a businessman" who "understands you can't continue to go into debt." Um, you might want to check Trump's actual business record before making such a claim, to put it politely (cough, cough... multiple bankruptcies... cough).

But there was some snarking heard from the Republican side of the aisle as well, including that "art of the steal" quip we began with. Representative Mike Simpson from Idaho got pretty caustic towards Trump, saying: "A three-month debt ceiling? Why not do a daily debt ceiling? He's the best deal-maker ever! Don't you know? I mean, he's got a book out!"

An anonymous Republican operative emailed an Axios reporter: "Democrats got more done in a single Oval Office visit in one afternoon than the congressional Republicans have achieved all year," which is a pretty good overview of the situation. In the same article, a "senior GOP official" was a lot more blunt: "He fucked us."

Spirits apparently ran high this morning, as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mike Mulvaney arrived to convince the House Republicans to vote for the deal. They were met, at times, with "groans, boos, and hisses" from the GOP membership. Neither was spared any anger, either. First, Mnuchin:

Mnuchin, in particular, drew jeers after asking Republicans to support the measure for him personally rather than for the policy, then leaving the meeting early by explaining he had other pressing matters to attend to.

"His last words, and I quote, was, 'Vote for the debt ceiling for me,'" said Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), who leads a group of conservative members. "That did not go over well in the room at all... His performance was incredibly poor."

Mnuchin's closing went so poorly, Walker said, that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had to remind members afterward hundreds of thousands of hurricane victims were counting on their votes.


Mulvaney wasn't treated any better:

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) rose to ask Mulvaney if he had 42 openings for deputy directors at the Office of Management and Budget.

A bewildered Mulvaney replied he had only one vacancy.

Issa replied that was unfortunate, because he could hire his former Freedom Caucus colleagues so they could reverse their positions on raising the debt limit just like Mulvaney had -- a response that prompted a roar in the room and caused Mulvaney, in several members' telling, to turn red.


Ouch. By week's end, the Tea Partiers were even strategizing how they could get rid of Paul Ryan -- although their master plan seems pretty far-fetched, because it involves electing either (are you sitting down?) Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum to be speaker. Probably not going to happen, but it sure would be interesting to watch that power struggle.

Democrats, for the most part, kept the gloating to a minimum. One bedrock rule in handling Trump is to never seem to be suggesting that Trump himself didn't come up with every idea, so keeping this low profile is probably pretty smart right now.

Next week will be a rather interesting one for Democrats, since two big fights within the party will get the spotlight. First, Bernie Sanders will introduce a newly-drafted single-payer healthcare bill in the Senate. He's already got Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris signed on as cosponsors. The fight for single-payer is becoming a definitional one within the party, but there are other plans being floated as well. Senators Chris Murphy and Brian Schatz are both reportedly readying a "Medicare buy-in" plan that would essentially bring back the "public option." This wouldn't go as far as whatever Bernie unveils, but might be a whole lot more politically viable, so both efforts bear watching.

The other big fight that may erupt next week is a rematch of the whole "Bernie versus Hillary" fracas, as Hillary Clinton's new book What Happened will be released. A rehash of the 2016 election cycle is not exactly what Democrats need right now, but the book will doubtlessly spark many of the "Bernie-versus-Hillary" battles across the Democratic spectrum, once again. Bernie's also got a new book out, but it looks forward to the future, not back, so it probably won't be part of the argument over Hillary's take on what went wrong.

But that's for next week. Let's move right along to the awards for the current week, and then we'll have a special set of talking points at the end -- an agenda of items that might also (with some luck) lead to more Democratic deals with Trump, in the next few months.





There's really no competition at all for the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award, this time around.

Both Senate Minority Leader Charles "Chuck" Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy "Nancy" Pelosi deserve the MIDOTW award for stealing Trump's first big congressional deal away from the Republicans. It's hard to even find the words for how breathtaking a victory they just scored, in fact. It has shifted the entire landscape in Washington, and even now, days later, many inside the Beltway are wandering around in a daze, wondering what just happened.

Both Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have been operating under what has turned out to be a delusion -- that they would set the agenda, move bills through Congress, present them to Trump, and he'd sign whatever they put in front of him just so he could brag about all the "winning." The only problem with this scheme was that they couldn't deliver. The schism within the Republican Party goes so deep that even when they control all the levers of power, they are patently unable to accomplish anything.

Trump got tired of this, and saw how impressively cohesive Democrats have been. He knows that with all Democrats voting in a solid bloc, he only needs a smattering of Republicans to pass bills, and there are still enough of them out there who are terrified of bucking Trump's popularity among the Republican base. So they'll probably vote for anything Trump supports. With this coalition in place, Ryan and McConnell become all but irrelevant to the process.

In other words, Trump is now pulling Ryan's and McConnell's strings, not the other way around. Which is why their grand strategy has been shown to be mere illusion, with just one deal cut with "Chuck and Nancy."

That's a pretty impressive and far-reaching deal, folks.

Nancy Pelosi has a long history of being able to hold her caucus together on key votes (unlike Paul Ryan), and Chuck Schumer has an "in" with Trump -- as Pelosi reportedly put it, Schumer "could speak New York to the president." This is a bromance worth cultivating for the future, obviously. Although, obviously, it'll have its ups and downs, as Senator Chris Murphy warned: "Take advantage of it -- but do it with the full knowledge that Trump will be calling, you know, Chuck Schumer names on Twitter within the fortnight."

Pelosi also seems to be getting along with Trump swimmingly. Trump called her up yesterday morning, and she asked him to tweet out a message that the DACA kids won't face deportation for six months. Trump immediately did so, as requested. As Pelosi put it later: "This is what I asked the president to do and, boom boom boom, the tweet appeared." How many Republicans in Congress can make such a claim, on any issue?

Democrats walked into that meeting with Trump prepared. They had their plan ready to go, they made their case (which assumably included "we can pass this quickly in Congress if floor votes are allowed" ), and they convinced Trump to take their initial offer, with no compromises and no strings attached. The art of the steal, indeed.

Who knows if this will be a one-time thing, or if a real legislative relationship will blossom? As we lay out in the talking points, below, Democrats should be ready with all the next items on their list, just in case.

But this week was indeed a good one for "Chuck and Nancy," and for Democrats everywhere. This is an almost-unprecedented level of power for a political party in the minority in both houses of Congress to be enjoying. And the lightning speed of the bill from a handshake deal to Trump's desk has got to have impressed Trump.

The equation is a simple one. Work with the Republican leadership, get nothing but high drama, delays, and failures, for months on end. Work with the Democrats, and you get to sign a bill within days. Which one do you think Trump really enjoys more? Perhaps he can be reminded of this later.

Whether such long-range plans work or not, Chuck and Nancy certainly deserve this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award. The deal they struck has shaken Washington to its foundations. Whether or not it bears any legislative fruit later on, that is a worthy accomplishment all by itself.

{Congratulate Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on his Senate contact page House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on her House contact page, to let them know you appreciate their efforts.}





Some might consider this premature, but just for the possible outcome we have to award the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week to Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, whose corruption and bribery trial opened this week.

Now we do understand innocent until proven guilty and all of that, but even if a court of law finds him innocent, the underlying conduct is pretty disappointing nonetheless. It represents cronyism of the worst kind, whether or not it is found technically illegal. After all, it's always tough to be in the position of arguing: "Hey, it's sleazy, but it's not illegal!"

The trial has already had some cringeworthy moments. The judge interrupted the prosecutor to complain about an inference that Menendez accepted a hotel room in Paris and was traveling with a women to mean something more salacious, which led to this amusing back-and-forth:

The exchange prompted Menendez's lawyer to interject: "This person is actually just a friend, and it is not anybody to be shacked up with." ... The prosecutor then insisted he was not trying to suggest to the jury Menendez "went to Paris in order to shack up with another person."


Who but a lawyer could ever utter the phrase: "it (!) is not anybody to be shacked up with"? But we digress....

The real reason Menendez is so disappointing is the prospect of what could happen if he is convicted. If he steps down from the Senate before January, then Chris Christie will get to appoint his temporary replacement. And Christie would likely appoint a Republican, which would swing the Senate to a 53-47 Republican majority. This would make it one vote harder for Democrats to do anything, or to block anything.

Of course, if Menendez does hang on until January, then the next governor will get to appoint his replacement, and the next governor is quite likely to be a Democrat (Christie has the lowest job approval rating ever recorded in the state, which has been true for some time now).

This could lead to a very ugly fight. If Menendez is convicted, he could always appeal his conviction, so he might not be headed to prison any time soon. But the Senate could vote to expel him in the meantime. The Senate hasn't taken this drastic step in over a century, but it's a possibility to contend with.

For creating this mess with all of its ugliness, Bob Menendez is easily the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week.

{Contact Senator Bob Menendez on his Senate contact page, to let him know what you think of his actions.}




Volume 452 (9/8/17)

First, a technical commentary: We must be slipping. We say this because last week was Volume 451, and we didn't make a single joke about book burning, Ray Bradbury, the Fahrenheit thermometer, or even Michael Moore for that matter. Oh, well, a lost opportunity....

OK, onward to this week's talking points. As promised, what we've put together is an agenda of possible deals Democrats might just be able to strike with Donald Trump. The first two are already being discussed with Trump, so they would have the highest chance of actually becoming reality. The next group are all things that Trump swore up and down on the campaign trail that he was for -- and that Democrats can actually support. And then we threw a couple of longshots in, at the end. Hey, why not? If Trump's in a deal-making mood, then you might as well toss everything including the kitchen sink at him just to see how he reacts, right?



DREAM a little dream with me...

This is already the highest priority on the Democrats' wish list.

"Democrats are ready to work with President Trump to legislatively solve the dilemma the DREAMers are now in. All the kids affected by DACA need permanent status rather than just temporary deferments. We've been trying to pass the DREAM Act for years, and we look forward to presenting the president with a version that could quickly and easily pass in Congress. Trump obviously is conflicted about this issue, so he should join our efforts to not only allow the program to continue, but to allow their status to permanently change rather than just getting a series of deferments. We think we can easily achieve this within a month or two, if Trump is truly willing to work with us."



End the debt ceiling showdowns for good

This one is already in the works.

"Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer reportedly spoke with the president about ending this silly brinksmanship game that Congress is repeatedly forced to play over the debt ceiling. The debt ceiling is nothing more than a legal fiction. Other countries don't have one -- when they appropriate money, the debt authority is built in. Getting rid of the debt ceiling altogether wouldn't change the budget by one penny, but it would make the budget process a lot easier. This would show some financial stability to the rest of the world, and forever remove the threat of the United States of America defaulting on its debt. Democrats want to get rid of the whole charade of voting to raise the debt limit for spending that has already been authorized, and it appears Trump is willing to work with us. Just this week he left no doubt of his position when he said: 'For many years, people have been talking about getting rid of debt ceiling altogether, and there are a lot of good reasons to do that.' Work with us, Mr. President, and we'll make it happen. Let's have December's vote be the last debt ceiling hike vote ever."



If you fund it, they will build

That takes care of what's already in the mix. Now it's time to add a few more issues from the Democratic wish list. Starting with the most obvious one.

"Donald Trump campaigned on revitalizing America's infrastructure. He used to promise his crowds that he would rebuild all the airports, and make America's infrastructure great again. But since he got elected, he's done nothing towards this goal at all. The establishment Republicans tried to talk him into a fake infrastructure plan that would have done nothing more than sell off bridges, highways, and other infrastructure to private companies so they could charge everyone tolls. This is not what Democrats believe in, and we think President Trump should return to his original promise of a trillion-dollar infrastructure spending program that would create millions of good, well-paying jobs across this country. We have always been willing to talk about infrastructure investment, and we strongly urge the president not to listen to the ideologues on the right and instead make good on his original promise. We're ready to work with him if he does. We could get people working on these construction projects by next spring, if we move quickly enough."



Take on the drug companies!

Bernie Sanders has been pointing this one out, but other Democrats should pick up on it as well.

"Democrats are also willing to work with President Trump on another issue he campaigned on -- bringing down the cost of prescription drugs. Right now, the big drug companies can charge whatever they feel like, hiking their prices hundreds or sometimes even thousands of percent overnight. We want to use the collective power of Medicare to bargain for cheaper prices -- something that was expressly forbidden when the Part D plan was passed. This is such an easy fix and would save so many billions of dollars that it's really a no-brainer. If Trump wants to score a quick legislative victory that would directly help the people who voted for him almost immediately, then he should work with Democrats on using the buying power of the federal government to bring down the cost of prescription drugs for all Americans."



How about those hedge fund managers?

Yet another campaign pledge it'd be good for Democrats to remind Trump of, right about now.

"Remember all that talk about how Trump was going to stick it to the hedge fund managers, who are making out like bandits with the current tax system? Haven't heard much of that talk lately, but we are about to discuss tax reform so it seems like a good time to bring it up again. Democrats would fully support getting rid of the 'carried interest loophole' that allows these millionaires to pay a small fraction of the tax rate that everyone else has to pay. Remove this loophole! Trump promised over and over that he would do so, and Democrats certainly can support that effort in the tax reform discussions."



Medicare buy-in for all

These last two will be a lot trickier, since Trump didn't ever explicitly back the ideas on the campaign trail. But they would fit in with his philosophy, so perhaps if Chuck Schumer can corner Trump in the Oval Office (yes, I know this is actually an oxymoron or a flat-out physical impossibility, but whatever...) and convince him it's the right thing to do, he'd be for it? It's worth a shot....

"The Democratic Party is moving more and more towards solid support for a single-payer healthcare system, but we know how opposed to this Republicans are, so we know it won't happen any time soon. But in the meantime, we think that all those campaign promises Trump made on health care -- covering everyone, cheaper insurance, better insurance -- can be addressed by bringing back the idea of the 'public option,' or 'Medicare for all who want it.' Anyone at all should be able to buy in to the Medicare system on the insurance exchanges, so they have a solid option they can compare to whatever else is on offer -- other private plans, the group plan they get through work, whatever. The key word is 'option,' because this means that nobody would have to sign up who didn't want to. If people want to sign up, then let them. If they don't, no big deal and nothing changes for them. As I said, this would go a long way towards fulfilling all the promises Trump made on healthcare, so I think there's a real possibility he would consider the idea. We'll even agree to call it the 'Donald J. Trump Medicare For All Who Want It' system, how's that?"



$15 an hour

OK, this is the longest of the longshots, but hey, who knows what Chuck and Nancy will be able to talk him into if the mood is right?

"President Trump has always said he wants middle-class wages to rise. But he's never actually proposed anything to make that happen. Democrats, on the other hand, know the best first step to take, and we'd be more than willing to work with the president to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. We even think it'll save the government a bunch of money. Think about it -- current minimum wage is so low that a full-time worker has to rely on getting benefits like SNAP (or food stamps). If you raise the minimum wage to a livable amount, people would no longer need the government to subsidize their salary. In fact, this is a giant form of corporate welfare, because by allowing Big Business to pay peanuts, it causes more people to need subsidies. If the companies paid their workers enough, this public help wouldn't be as needed any more, saving some money in the budget. Plus, it's the right thing to do, because by raising wages at the bottom, a ripple effect will travel upwards through the whole salary scale of the middle class. Pay will improve for everyone as the rising tide lifts all boats (as J.F.K. put it). We are ready and willing to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and we would welcome the president's support. Tens of millions of working people would thank him for making their lives better."



Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com
Follow Chris on Twitter: ChrisWeigant
Full archives of FTP columns: FridayTalkingPoints.com
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