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D.C. Memo: Congress gains a Smith and a Jones; Democrats up 13 points on generic ballot

Lt. Gov. Tina Smith
Office of the Governor
Lt. Gov. Tina Smith

This week in Washington, Republicans closed on a deal to overhaul the tax code — a huge political gift for President Donald Trump — sparing them from having to brave the mall and get some cuff links for a POTUS who has everything, except a signature legislative achievement.

This week in Washington

Happy fourth night of Hanukkah, folks. Much like the ancient Maccabees, you’ll have to make this memo last through the upcoming week. Thankfully, we’ve got a lot of news to cover.

We will soon have a new Democratic U.S. Senator from Minnesota: Tina Smith, the Lieutenant Governor since 2015, has been selected by Gov. Mark Dayton to replace Sen. Al Franken, who will leave office in the wake of allegations from eight women that he groped or forcibly kissed them.

Smith is slated to take office in time for the new year. Franken has not set a final date yet for his departure, but next week — when lawmakers wrap up the year with a tax bill and spending resolution — is likely the last Congress will see of Sen. Franken.  

That Dayton would appoint his trusted deputy to the Senate was a foregone conclusion by the time the governor made his announcement. Smith confirmed she’ll be running for election to this seat in 2018, officially quashing any rumors of a “placeholder” appointment.

But a lot of question marks lie ahead: what kind of niche will Smith, relatively new to elected office, carve out in the Senate? Will Democrats accept her like an incumbent, or will they be consumed by a nasty endorsement/primary fight? How much will anger and grief over Franken’s ouster within the DFL affect their chances of holding the seat next fall?

Read me from this week on the Dems defending Franken, and on how Minnesota’s House Democrats are quickly jumping on the 2018 Smith for Senate train. Also, read my colleague Briana Bierschbach with the big story on the announcement, and check out her good profile of Smith from 2015.

Franken’s imminent departure dovetails with a major defeat on a topic he held dearly: net neutrality. On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3 to 2, as expected, to undo internet regulations put in place by the Barack Obama administration. (Read me from November on this, a big holiday gift to telecom companies and anti-regulation crusaders.)

Surely, you noticed the other political earthquake this week: for the first time in 20 years, the state of Alabama will send a Democrat to the U.S. Senate, narrowing Republicans’ majority in the U.S. Senate, 51 to 49.

Former U.S. attorney Doug Jones won a close contest on Tuesday against Roy Moore, a right-wing extremist and former judge whose candidacy was derailed by allegations from numerous women that he sexually pursued, harassed, and assaulted them while they were minors. The New York Times has a nice look at who this Jones guy is, anyway.

Jones won on the strength of overwhelming turnout from Alabama’s black population, willingness of moderate and business-minded Republicans and centrists to vote Democrat, and the fact that a lot of conservative-inclined voters either stayed home or wrote in someone else. Though President Donald Trump and Steve Bannon made a big push for Moore down the home stretch, it wasn’t enough, delivering Team #MAGA its most high-profile electoral humiliation to date. (HuffPo rounds up the barely-concealed schadenfreude that Republicans are feeling over Bannon’s miscalculation.)

What does it all mean? Democrats are split: they want to believe that this unlikely win in the Deep South could portend an electoral wave in their favor next year, and a groundswell of anti-Trump sentiment. At the same time, there’s a sense Republicans snatched defeat from the jaws of victory: their competition had a documented affinity for teenage girls, and a record of remarkably incendiary homophobic and Islamophobic statements. He still only lost by two points. (CNN’s Chris Cillizza looks at some numbers from Alabama and says they offer plenty of reasons for Rs to be scared of 2018.)

Moore’s loss saves Republicans the headache of figuring out what to do with him in the Senate, and averts what could have been a tough vote to expel him. But one less Republican vote seriously imperils their policy agenda for 2018: they can now only lose one Republican senator on any bill with unanimous Democratic opposition. They frequently couldn’t make their two-vote cushion work this year. Will Sen. Jeff Flake and Sen. Bob Corker be getting fruit baskets from 1600 Penn this holiday?

Odds and ends: read Vox on what Jones’ win means for business in the Senate — particularly the imminent tax vote — and whether it will have any impact. (Short answer: probably not.) The Washington Post’s James Hohmann has a good roundup of the key takeaways from Alabama. WaPo also checks in with relieved Europeans, in case you had doubted how closely the world was watching this one U.S. Senate election.

Because it seems we now need a weekly, Hunger Games-style cannon notice of politicians felled by sexual misconduct: in the last week, Arizona GOP Rep. Trent Franks resigned over allegations he tried to pay an aide $5 million to carry his child, Texas GOP Rep. Blake Farenthold is set to “retire” from Congress next year over some very lurid harassment allegations, and Nevada Democratic Rep. Ruben Kihuen is under pressure to step down over allegations made by former aides.

About that tax thing: Republicans are scrambling to get this baby home by Christmas. (And by home, I mean Donald Trump’s home, the White House, where he’d sign it into law.)

For the past week, Republicans in the House and Senate have been meeting to hammer out differences between their chambers’ bills. These differences are not trivial, but most Republicans seem hell-bent to keep on track a bill they desperately want to pass, at the end of a year with few legislative victories to tout back home.

As of today, we know the parameters of a broad agreement: the corporate tax rate, a moving target so far, would be set at 21 percent, down from 35 percent currently. The highest income tax rate for individuals would be 37 percent, down from 39.6 percent now. They’ve worked on a compromise for the thorny state and local tax deduction: people can deduct up to $10,000 in either local property taxes or state income tax.

If nothing goes wrong — and it certainly could, so be wary — Trump could be signing the agreement as early as next Wednesday. The final details of the compromise bill are expected to be made public on Friday.

A few odds and ends: this tax bill continues to poll in the toilet, despite the fact that tax cuts are usually pretty popular with the public. Republicans got a nice 2000s blast from the past attached on this bad boy, via former MinnPoster Devin Henry: expanding oil drilling in protected parts of Alaska’s Arctic! Vox on the bill’s impact on health care, and what it means for states.

Some breaking buzz in D.C.: several well-sourced Capitol reporters have new stories suggesting Speaker Paul Ryan is mulling retirement at the end of his term next year. HuffPost’s Matt Fuller and Politico’s Tim Alberta and Rachel Bade have your news.

TL;DR: Ryan is feeling hemmed in, and as he closes in on a signature legislative achievement and personal white whale, the tax overhaul, leaving office is starting to look more appealing. Next year, the speaker could spend his political capital on an entitlement reform package, and then head back to Janesville to watch the Packers and read Ayn Rand. Watch this closely because it could have huge implications, from the Hill to the campaign trail.

#localangle: conspicuously absent from tax discussion, to this point, has been Obamacare’s medical device tax. Getting rid of the 2.3 percent sales tax on medical devices is of utmost importance for medical tech companies, many of which have deep roots in Minnesota. It is also a personal quest for 3rd District GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen, who has close ties with the industry.

It’s been a tough year for medical device tax repeal: Republicans tried and failed to repeal Obamacare, and as they discussed tax reform, it was unclear what they would do with the device tax, which was suspended for two years back in 2015 but is slated to kick in again at the beginning of 2018. The Star Tribune reports the industry is not so happy at the moment.

Paulsen and five other Republicans have introduced legislation to suspend the tax for five years, and it could get easily picked up on bigger legislation moving before the end of the year. Critics of the tax are disappointed there is no permanent repeal on the table, but they’ll take what they can get. Note that Paulsen is on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, is a reliable ally of GOP leadership and has made nary a negative peep about a tax bill that could potentially be an albatross in his district come 2018.

Your reminder that amid all of this, the U.S. is still at war, and the administration is giving the public less information about the extent of our military’s involvement in those wars. Yahoo’s Oliver Knox reports that in a recent report to Congress, the White House left out the number of troops committed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria; earlier in the year, it had provided that information. (A “senior administration official” said it was to give the U.S. a strategic advantage.)

Finally, the Trump administration is officially directing NASA this week to plan missions to the moon, and ultimately send American astronauts to Mars. Trump said that the U.S. will stay the space leader and “we’re going to increase it many fold,” but Bloomberg reports Trump is likely to preside over a drawback at the space agency. Anyone else feel like a trip to Mars?

This week’s essential reads

When a years-old vulgar brag from Donald Trump, caught on a hot mic, was released to the public in October 2016 — and multiple women accused the GOP candidate of sexual assault or harassment — it shocked America but, ultimately, Trump was elected president. Now, amid a national reckoning over sexual assault that has brought down many powerful men, the president’s accusers are wondering: could these allegations against Trump stick now? The Boston Globe’s Matt Viser:

During Trump’s campaign, more than a dozen women came forward to detail allegations of various forms of sexual assault over a period spanning many years, but he survived the graphic disclosures and was elected. The accusations mostly faded during his first year in office.

“I put myself out there for the entire world, and nobody cared,” said Samantha Holvey, a Miss USA contestant in 2006, told NBC’s “Megyn Kelly Today” Monday, describing an incident when she said Trump walked into her dressing room and ogled her and other contestants.

“Let’s try round two. The environment is different,” Holvey added. “Let’s try again.”

Doug Jones’ win over Roy Moore on Tuesday was, obviously, a big win for Doug Jones, Alabama Democrats, and the DNC. But members of the Washington establishment — notably Republicans — could barely conceal their glee on Wednesday over Moore’s defeat. WaPo’s Ben Terris on D.C. “dodging the bullet:”

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), hopped around like he’d just kicked a winning field goal as he disembarked the Senate tram Wednesday morning with Sen. Richard C. Shelby, who’d made a rare appearance on the Sunday talk shows to tell his fellow Alabama Republicans they need not vote for their party’s nominee. “Way to go, Shel!” Corker bellowed to Shelby. “Whoo!”

“Since November 8, 2016, I’ve adjusted my inner political forecasting machine to be in abysmal pessimism mode,” said Ben Wikler, D.C. director of MoveOn.org, who just last week had attended the doleful resignation speech of his former boss, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). And now, after Alabama? “It takes a lot to warm the permafrost of my soul at this point,” Wikler said, “but the Jonesquake of 2017 has made it extra hard to adhere to my commitment to expect the worst.”

Regular readers of this memo may be aware that the Trump White House is lagging behind in its pace of appointing officials to key administration posts. As we reach year one of the Trump presidency, a lot of those posts still sit vacant, and Bloomberg reports that the shelf lives of interim or acting federal officials are nearing their ends — opening up D.C. enforcement actions to legal challenges. Josh Eidelson with the story:

Enforcement actions as well as policy decisions on a variety of topics, such as easing restrictions on methane emissions from oil wells or permitting schools to offer 1 percent milk, could be challenged on the grounds that they were enacted by officials who had been in acting roles too long or were improperly delegated authority.

Trump is nearing the one-year mark of his term but has yet to name permanent appointees for about 250 of the roughly 620 key government positions that require Senate confirmation, according to the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. That’s left acting officials in as many as a dozen positions for which no one has been nominated, including an assistant secretary of state and the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, being occupied by acting officials, according to agency websites or representatives.

In short order, the idea of fake news has become a ubiquitous presence in America’s discussion of politics and the media, an indispensable piece of vocabulary for Trump and his foes alike. Politico finds, however, that the idea of fake news has been exported beyond America’s borders, and that authoritarian-minded leaders around the world are weaponizing the term to discredit legitimate reporting in environments with a weaker free press than ours. A sobering read from Jason Schwartz:

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has complained of being “demonized” by “fake news.” Last month, with Trump laughing by his side, he called reporters “spies.” And in a meta-moment in July, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro complained to RT, the Russian propaganda outlet, that the world media had “spread lots of false versions, lots of lies” about his country, adding, “This is what we call 'fake news' today, isn't it?”

Over the weekend, a state official in Myanmar attracted notice when he said, “There is no such thing as Rohingya. It is fake news,” referring to the persecuted ethnic group. Those are hardly the only examples of Trump’s phrase being deployed internationally: In March, Chinese state media dismissed a prominent rights activist’s account of torture as “fake news.” And in May, the People’s Daily ran an op-ed with the headline, “Trump is right, fake news is the enemy, something China has known for years.”

The week in takes

  • Minnesota GOP: Dayton’s appointment of Smith was an underhanded move out of “House of Cards”

  • Rep. Peter King, R-NY: Steve Bannon is a “disheveled drunk” who wandered onto the national stage and needs to leave, ASAP

  • U. Oregon history professor Joseph Lowndes: Roy Moore may have lost his battle, but he’s winning the war to define southern conservatism

  • CNN’s Chris Cillizza: Democrats believed Moore’s accusers, and Republicans did not believe them, which somehow is a both-sides-do-it thing, I guess — I don’t know, I’m just getting paid so much at this point, really

  • USA Today Editorial Board: Trump isn’t fit to clean toilets at Obama’s presidential library

Your weekend longread

It’s been almost a year since Donald Trump became president. The New York Times’ White House team, perhaps the best in the business, published last Sunday what looks to be the authoritative story on Trump’s West Wing, and on Trump’s approach to the presidency. The early morning tweets, the TV, his rapport with aides and officials, the Diet Cokes, the dinner-time gossiping — it’s all in this story, which traces a day in the life of the Trump White House. It’s worth your time:

His approach got him to the White House, Mr. Trump reasons, so it must be the right one. He is more unpopular than any of his modern predecessors at this point in his tenure — just 32 percent approved of his performance in the latest Pew Research Center poll — yet he dominates the landscape like no other.

After months of legislative failures, Mr. Trump is on the verge of finally prevailing in his efforts to cut taxes and reverse part of his predecessor’s health care program. While much of what he has promised remains undone, he has made significant progress in his goal of rolling back business and environmental regulations. The growing economy he inherited continues to improve, and stock markets have soared to record heights. His partial travel ban on mainly Muslim countries has finally taken effect after multiple court fights.

Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, has told associates that Mr. Trump, deeply set in his ways at age 71, will never change. Rather, he predicted, Mr. Trump would bend, and possibly break, the office to his will.

That has proved half true. Mr. Trump, so far, has arguably wrestled the presidency to a draw.

What to look for next week

This season of “Congress” is careening toward an exciting season finale next week.

The Senate could vote on a compromise tax bill as early as Monday, the House as early as Tuesday, and the bill could be at Trump’s desk by Wednesday. The writers this season have relied heavily on plot twists, so we’ll see if there’s any more in store down the home stretch.

Beyond that, funding for the government runs out next Friday, December 22nd. (A shutdown two days before Christmas is a very bad look.) Talk on the Hill is that lawmakers will do another short-term continuing resolution to fund the government and kick the can into January, but some Republicans hope to pass a pre-Christmas bill that authorizes funding for the military through the end of fiscal year 2018. They’re calling this the “Puntagon.” (I hate this town.)

That’s all for this week. Until next week, send your comments, questions, hot Star Wars takes, to me at sbrodey@minnpost.com. (NO SPOILERS!)

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Comments (2)

Math Check

With a 51-49 majority, the Mitch McConnell can lose two from his side, owing to the tie-breaking vote of Mike Pence. Unless Pence were to divert Air Force Two to make a show of leaving the Colts game early.

Check your math again

A defection of 2 means a 51-49 vote against and Pence doesn't vote at all. Actually it is worse than that. John McCain has serious health issues and can't be counted on to vote. That means in January it will essentially be 50-49 and ANY defection by the majority means a bill won't pass. Remember, Pence only breaks a 50-50 tie. 50 against, 49 in favor, 1 abstain means the bill fails.

This should promote an reduced agenda for 2018 that both sides agree on but I'm doubtful this Congress desires to find common ground on anything.