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The Senate just approved Trump’s pick for NASA chief. You can probably guess what he thinks about climate change.

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The Senate just approved Trump’s pick for NASA chief. You can probably guess what he thinks about climate change.

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Tensions rise between the Trump administration and Alaska.

Trump’s ire fell on Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, who on Tuesday voted “no” to moving a health care repeal bill to the Senate floor for debate. After the vote, Trump tweeted (of course) that Murkowski had let the country and her party down. Then, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reportedly called Murkowski and the state’s other Republican senator, Dan Sullivan, to inform them Murkowski’s move would not be forgotten.

According to the Alaska Dispatch News, Sullivan said the call sent a “troubling message.” Murkowski didn’t comment, but Sullivan appeared unnerved by the conversation. “I fear that the strong economic growth, pro-energy, pro-mining, pro-jobs and personnel from Alaska who are part of those policies are going to stop,” Sullivan said.

At a rally on Tuesday night, Trump implied there would be repercussions: “Any senator who votes against repeal and replace is telling America that they are fine with the Obamacare nightmare, and I predict they’ll have a lot of problems.”

The Interior Department has input over several issues important to Sullivan and Murkowski, like energy exploration and drilling in parts of Alaska. Murkowski, as chair of two committees related to the Interior, has say in several issues important to the department, like its budget.

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Tensions rise between the Trump administration and Alaska.

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The Blue-Slip Rule Is On Its Last Legs

Mother Jones

The Washington Post confirms what we’ve already heard about Senate Republicans doing away with the blue-slip rule:

Leaders are considering a change to the Senate’s “blue slip” practice, which holds that judicial nominations will not proceed unless the nominee’s home-state senators signal their consent to the Senate Judiciary Committee….Removing the blue-slip obstacle would make it much easier for Trump’s choices to be confirmed. Although Trump and Senate Republicans have clashed early in his presidency, they agree on the importance of putting conservatives on the federal bench.

….The Senate acted Thursday on Trump’s first appeals-court nomination, elevating U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar of Kentucky to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.

….“Eliminating the blue slip is essentially a move to end cooperation between the executive and legislative branch on judicial nominees, allowing nominees to be hand-picked by right-wing groups,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, wrote in a memo this week. She pointed out that the vacancy for which Thapar is nominated exists only because McConnell refused to return a blue slip for Obama’s nominee, Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Lisabeth Tabor Hughes. The seat has been vacant since 2013, and Tabor Hughes never received a hearing, because blue slips were not returned.

Christopher Kang, who advised Obama on judicial nominations, said that was the reason 17 of the president’s picks did not receive hearings, killing the nominations. But the impact was even greater than that, because Obama gave up on trying to find nominees in some states, such as Texas, with two Republican senators. One vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which covers Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, has been open for five years.

Were Republicans snickering in private for six years because Democrats continued to be Boy Scouts during the Obama presidency, respecting the blue-slip rule despite blanket Republican opposition of the kind that Republicans now say will prompt them to kill it? Probably. Was it the right thing to do anyway? I guess I’m still unsure. But it sure doesn’t look like it.

The Brookings table above shows the effect of all this for circuit court vacancies. The absolute numbers aren’t huge, but both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama simply gave up nominating judges in states where there were any Republican senators. They would object as a matter of course and their objections would be honored. George Bush, by contrast, continued nominating judges everywhere. Democratic senators sometimes objected, but not always—and Republicans often ignored their objections anyway when they controlled the Senate.

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The Blue-Slip Rule Is On Its Last Legs

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CBO Agrees: Trumpcare Wipes Out Protections for Pre-Existing Conditions

Mother Jones

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Earlier this month I passed along a note from Matthew Fiedler of the Brookings Institution. Long story short, he suggested that the Republican health care bill would do more than eliminate community rating only for folks who failed to maintain continuous coverage.1 He theorized that once a separate set of rates was set up, insurers could open it up to anyone. Since this second rate schedule would be medically underwritten—i.e., based on health status—it would be very cheap for young, healthy folks. In the end, healthy consumers would all gravitate to the medically-underwritten rates while unhealthy consumers would be stuck with the higher community-rated prices. Over time, the difference between these rates would grow, which means that anyone with a pre-existing condition would end up paying much higher rates than similar healthy people.

This was an interesting suggestion, but since then I haven’t heard anyone else support Fiedler’s argument. Until today, that is. AHCA allows states to apply for waivers from two provisions of Obamacare. The first is the requirement to provide essential health benefits. The Congressional Budget Office describes the other waiver:

A second type of waiver would allow insurers to set premiums on the basis of an individual’s health status if the person had not demonstrated continuous coverage; that is, the waiver would eliminate the requirement for what is termed community rating for premiums charged to such people. CBO and JCT anticipate that most healthy people…would be able to choose between premiums based on their own expected health care costs (medically underwritten premiums) and premiums based on the average health care costs…(community-rated premiums).

….CBO and JCT expect that, as a consequence, the waivers in those states would have another effect: Community-rated premiums would rise over time, and people who are less healthy (including those with preexisting or newly acquired medical conditions) would ultimately be unable to purchase comprehensive nongroup health insurance at premiums comparable to those under current law, if they could purchase it at all….As a result, the nongroup markets in those states would become unstable for people with higher-than-average expected health care costs.

So the CBO expects precisely the result that Fiedler predicted. This is genuinely big news and deserves wider reporting. For all practical purposes, AHCA eliminates the requirement that insurers charge the same rates to everyone, even those with pre-existing conditions. They still can’t flatly turn you down, but they can do the next best thing: make insurance so expensive for those with pre-existing conditions that most people can’t afford it. That’s especially harmful since the subsidies under AHCA are so skimpy.

This provision of AHCA has no direct budgetary impact, so it ought to get tossed out by the Senate parliamentarian.2 We’ll have to wait and see how that turns out.

1“Community rating” is the requirement that everyone pays the same price for insurance, even if they have a pre-existing condition.

2AHCA is being passed as a reconciliation bill. These bills are only allowed to address issues that directly affect the federal budget.

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CBO Agrees: Trumpcare Wipes Out Protections for Pre-Existing Conditions

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Trumpcare Still Hasn’t Been Sent to the Senate

Mother Jones

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As we all know, the Republican health care bill can’t survive a Democratic filibuster, so it’s being considered via reconciliation, which requires only 51 votes in the Senate. That means the bill has to obey reconciliation rules.

Normally, this is not a big problem. If some aspect of the House bill violates the rules, it gets removed in the Senate and life goes on. But what if the bill violates the prime rule of reconciliation—namely that it reduce the deficit? Then it’s dead and everyone has to start all over. This means the House has to be pretty careful that their bill does indeed reduce the deficit.

But how do they know if it reduces the deficit? Easy: the CBO scores the bill and tells them. But Paul Ryan famously rushed passage of the bill in the House before CBO had time to deliver a score, so no one knows for sure if it still reduces the deficit. Bloomberg reports on what this means:

House Speaker Paul Ryan hasn’t yet sent the bill to the Senate because there’s a chance that parts of it may need to be redone, depending on how the Congressional Budget Office estimates its effects….”I had no idea,” Dennis Ross of Florida, another member of the vote-counting team, said Thursday, adding that the prospect of another vote “does concern me.” GOP leaders never said publicly they were planning to hold on to the bill for two weeks or longer.

In the end, I imagine the bill will get scored as a deficit reduction and then be sent to the Senate. But the fact that Ryan is still holding onto the bill shows that he knew perfectly well how irresponsible it was to force a vote before the CBO delivers a score. In addition to being callous and malignant, the whole thing is also a massive FUBAR.

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Trumpcare Still Hasn’t Been Sent to the Senate

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Senate Republicans Are Arguing About How Badly to Screw the Poor

Mother Jones

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Medicaid doesn’t get a lot of attention in the debate over Trumpcare, but it’s likely that more people would be affected by Medicaid cuts than by any other single part of the bill. However, the Wall Street Journal reports that Senate conservatives still aren’t satisfied:

Some conservative Senate Republicans, such as Mike Lee, want to immediately start phasing back federal money for expansion enrollees, a process that would take 10 years….Conservatives also hope to use a different formula to calculate federal Medicaid funding that would mean less money for states. The House bill would slash an estimated $839 billion from Medicaid over the next 10 years, according to the CBO. Senate conservatives want to change federal funding of Medicaid in part by pegging it to a different inflation measure, which long term would mean less generous payments to the states than under the House GOP bill.

….Centrist GOP senators are on board with some Medicaid cuts but disagree over how best to implement them. Some say the House plan to halt federal funding for new expansion enrollees in 2020 is too harsh and want a longer sunset of the program.

Nearly a quarter of all Americans depend on Medicaid as their primary (or only) source of health coverage. That’s the American health care system for you. Nonetheless, of course Republican centrists are on board with “some” Medicaid cuts. They only want to quibble over whether 10 million poor people should be tossed out of the program by 2026 or if it would be more humane to toss out 9 million poor people by 2028. Decisions, decisions.

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Senate Republicans Are Arguing About How Badly to Screw the Poor

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Why Trump’s Firing of Comey Should Be Investigated

Mother Jones

There are multiple investigations of the Trump-Russia scandal underway, including two conducted by the House and Senate intelligence committees, one by a Senate judiciary subcommittee, and one (or more) by the FBI. They cover a range of issues: Vladimir Putin’s secret operation to subvert the 2016 campaign to help Donald Trump win, interactions between Trump associates and Russia, ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador (and how the White House handled that controversy, as well as Flynn’s acceptance of foreign payments from Russia and other nations and his other business dealings), and, possibly, the business- and lobbying-related actions of Paul Manafort, who managed Trump’s campaign, and other people close to Trump. Now there is a need for a new investigation that focuses on Trump’s firing of FBI chief James Comey.

This could well be the most serious inquiry of all because it would raise the sensitive issue of impeachment.

When Trump pink-slipped Comey on Tuesday, his Justice Department released a three-page letter with reasons why Comey should be booted. The justifications were all related to how he managed the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails at the State Department. The criticisms were familiar and old: Comey had gone too far when he first held a press conference in July to declare the investigation was over but harshly criticized Clinton and then informed Congress days before the election that his agents had revived the investigation to review a newly found cache of Clinton emails (which turned out to hold essentially no new information). Of course, Trump enthusiastically praised Comey for his October surprise, because it dealt Clinton a blow in the final days and conceivably helped Trump win. But now, suddenly, Comey’s conduct in that episode is supposedly the grounds for Trump showing Comey the door.

The initial news reports tell another story. Various insider accounts—yes, based on anonymous sources—indicate that Trump’s firing of Comey was motivated, at least in part, by Trump’s anger over the ongoing Russia investigation. Politico reports:

Trump had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said.

And who was the best target for his anger? Comey.

Last month, Comey appeared before the House intelligence committee, and his testimony put Trump in a bad spot. Comey noted that the FBI had no information to support Trump’s baseless charge that President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump before the election. He was practically calling Trump a nut or a liar. Then Comey, in an unprecedented move, revealed that the FBI had been investigating interactions between Trump associates and Russia since last July. It was a stunning moment: the FBI chief disclosing his bureau was running an investigation that could lead to his boss, the president. All of this showed the Trump-Russia scandal was still on fire.

Naturally, Trump was enraged. He has dismissed the Russia story as fake news and a hoax. Comey said it was nothing but.

If Trump fired Comey to impede the Russia investigation, he possibly engaged in obstruction of justice. That is a crime. That is a case for impeachment. In fact, the first of the three articles of impeachment filed by the House judiciary committee against Richard Nixon in 1974 was for obstruction of justice. That article listed as one reason for impeachment: “interfering or endeavouring to interfere with the conduct of investigations by the Department of Justice of the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the office of Watergate Special Prosecution Force, and Congressional Committees.”

Trump certainly appears to have tried to interfere with the Russia investigation by dismissing Comey.

A congressional investigation of Trump’s action is warranted. There are White House and Justice Department officials who can be questioned on this subject. They can be asked how the firing was discussed and handled by administration officials. (Congress might also want to ask Comey about the President’s claim, in his termination letter to the FBI director, that Comey had assured Trump on three occasions that he was not a target of the bureau’s investigation.) There may be documents to subpoena. (One side issue: how could Attorney General Jeff Sessions participate in this decision, as he did, if he recused himself from anything to do with the Russia investigations because he had lied about his own meetings with the Russian ambassador?)

This is not simply a personnel matter. Trump does have the right to fire Comey. But if this was done to smother an investigation, Trump may have violated the law, defending himself and not the Constitution. He knows why he did this—and presumably so do Sessions and assorted White House and Justice Department officials. Congress needs to step in and guarantee for the American public that the president has not abused his power and obstructed justice to protect himself. And there are several committees in the House and Senate that could assume this critical mission. With Trump’s firing of Comey, the Trump-Russia scandal has moved from a tale of a foreign power undermining American democracy to the story of a president possibly doing the same.

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Why Trump’s Firing of Comey Should Be Investigated

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News Report Undermines Trump’s Claim About Michael Flynn

Mother Jones

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With the Senate hours away from hearing testimony about former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to preempt the testimony with his own version of events:

Unfortunately for Trump, news broke later on Monday morning that undermined his argument. NBC News reported that President Barack Obama had warned Trump against hiring Flynn during their meeting in the Oval Office on November 10—two days after Trump was elected and months before he appointed Flynn as his national security adviser.

Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates is set to testify before a Senate subcommittee today about her warnings to the White House about Flynn’s ties to Russia. Yates is expected to tell the committee that she warned White House Counsel Don McGahn several weeks before Flynn was forced to resign that Flynn had lied when he denied discussing US sanctions in his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

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News Report Undermines Trump’s Claim About Michael Flynn

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The Senate Has a Working Group to Repeal Obamacare. It Apparently Includes Zero Women.

Mother Jones

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Now that Republicans in the House of Representatives have passed a bill to repeal Obamacare, the work is shifting to the Senate. Senate Republicans will need to cobble together a deal without losing more than two of their own members (Vice President Mike Pence could cast the tie-breaking vote if it’s tied 50-50). Because the legislation is what’s known as a reconciliation bill, it can’t be filibustered.

The House bill is unlikely to pass the Senate without significant changes, as a number of GOP senators have voiced displeasure with various aspects of it. Senate Republicans have formed a working group made of up various ideological factions—ranging from Republicans in swing states wary of Medicaid cuts to hardcore conservatives, such as Ted Cruz—to try to find a compromise.

On Friday, Bloomberg published the list of senators who are part of that working group so far, and one group is notably absent: women. All 13 of the GOP senators reportedly involved in crafting the new bill are men; none of the Senate’s five Republican women are members of the group. (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (Ky.) press office didn’t immediately respond to a request to confirm or comment on the membership of the working group.)

The House plan to repeal Obamacare would cut all federal funding to Planned Parenthood and would allow states to end Obamacare’s prohibition on discrimination against patients with preexisting conditions—allowing insurance companies to charge women more strictly because they are women. And yet apparently, none of the lawmakers involved in crafting the Senate’s initial legislation will be women.

This is particularly surprising since several female Republican senators have voiced skepticism about the House bill, and at least some of them will need to be brought onboard in order for the Senate to pass a health care bill. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) cosigned a letter earlier this year objecting to the House’s proposal to end Medicaid expansion, which has helped lower the uninsured rate for adults in her home state from 22 percent in 2011 to 8.7 percent in 2015. Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) have both objected to the bill’s provision defunding Planned Parenthood. Collins’ absence from the working group is particularly surprising, since the Maine senator has taken a leading role in crafting one of the few fully fleshed-out alternative proposals to the House’s bill.

Leaving women out of key spots is becoming a trend when it comes to health care decisions during the Trump administration. When Trump invited House members to the Rose Garden after Thursday’s vote, it was a sea of mostly men standing behind him. When the White House released images of Trump meeting with the conservative Freedom Caucus in March, Kellyanne Conway was the only woman in sight.

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The Senate Has a Working Group to Repeal Obamacare. It Apparently Includes Zero Women.

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How to Pass a Thousand-Year Tax Cut

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Republicans would like to pass a permanent tax cut. Sadly for them, Senate procedures prevent that. The only way to avoid a Democratic filibuster is to pass their tax plan via reconciliation, which requires only 51 votes in the Senate and can’t be filibustered. But thanks to the Byrd Rule, any reconciliation bill that increases the deficit beyond a 10-year window is once again subject to a filibuster, and that would doom any tax measure. This limits Republicans to tax plans that sunset in 2028.

But wait. Maybe there’s an alternative. The Wall Street Journal explains:

President Donald Trump has said he wants to cut taxes, big-league, and Republicans are having trouble squeezing his ambitions into congressional rules forbidding bigger deficits after a 10-year budget scoring window.

Some lawmakers are exploring a way around that problem: Make the window bigger. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) suggested last week a “longer horizon” to overcome obstacles posed by the process known as reconciliation….A 15-year, 20-year or 30-year budget window could let Republicans pass a temporary tax cut that is long enough to give companies confidence to invest but short enough so its fiscal effects peter out by the 2030s or 2040s.

Surprised? That’s because everyone always talks about the Byrd Rule forbidding deficit increases beyond a 10-year “budget window.” But that’s not what it says. Here’s the actual relevant language:

A provision shall be considered to be extraneous if it decreases revenues during a fiscal year after the fiscal years covered by such reconciliation bill or reconciliation resolution.

In this context, “extraneous” means it can be filibustered, and there’s nothing in there about ten years. That’s just custom. If Republicans felt like it, they could pass a bill that “covers” the next millennium and sunsets in 3018. Here is Daniel Hemel, an assistant professor of law at the University of Chicago:

“I don’t think there’s anything magical about the number 10, other than 10 has been the maximum number for long enough that 11 would seem like a break from Senate norms.”

But who cares about Senate norms? Not Republicans. So there must be something more to this or they’d just go ahead and do it. One possibility is that there are still a handful of old-school deficit hawks left in the party, and they won’t vote for a longer budget window. Or there might be some arcane technical issue involved. I would be fascinated to hear from a real budget expert on this.

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How to Pass a Thousand-Year Tax Cut

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