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D.C. Memo: It’s Al over

REUTERS/Aaron Bernstein
Sen. Al Franken said he will resign his seat in the “coming weeks.”

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This week in Washington, Sen. Al Franken resigned over allegations he groped and forcibly kissed women, officially ending Congress’ sexual misconduct problem once and for all. In other news, Alabama voters go to the polls next week to decide if Roy Moore should become a U.S. Senator.

This week in Washington

Thursday morning, Sen. Al Franken gave a speech from the floor of the U.S. Senate and announced his intent to resign his seat in the wake of allegations from eight women that he sexually harassed or engaged in sexual misconduct with them.

Franken said he will resign his seat in the “coming weeks.” DFL Gov. Mark Dayton will appoint someone to take his place. A Franken aide said he will continue to carry out his duties as senator until his departure date is determined. (Notably: Franken referred to his unnamed successor as “her” in his speech.)

Here’s my comprehensive story recapping the speech. I also traced Franken’s fall, which took place over a three-week period, and tried to explore, at this early stage, the complicated legacy the one-time progressive hero might leave behind.

The resignation of a senator under circumstances like these is a once-in-a-generation event, and the shockwaves from this one will reverberate for a long time. Read my colleague Briana Bierschbach on the immediate implications of Franken’s resignation for an already-wild 2018 election cycle in Minnesota. We’ll continue to be following this news closely, so keep it here.

In other news — and there was other news — funding for the government is slated to run out tomorrow. On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed a short-term extension — the dreaded, so-called continuing resolution — to keep the lights on in the federal government until December 22. The Senate quickly followed suit.

The Freedom Caucus, a group of hard-line House conservatives that often cause problems for Speaker Paul Ryan, set aside its reservations for the most part to vote for a short-term funding extension. That kicks fights about government spending levels to later in the month, after Congress has presumably passed a tax bill.

Crisis averted, for now. But D.C. could see an explosive pre-Christmas spending fight. Democrats, whose votes are needed to pass a spending bill in at least one chamber of Congress, feel they have leverage, and could push Republicans on ensuring that defense spending increases are matched with increased spending for social programs, or on getting a fix for the “Dreamers,” undocumented youth brought to the U.S. as children. On Thursday, Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi said Democrats won't leave for the year without passing a solution for the Dreamers.

On to tax: last week, the Senate narrowly passed its tax overhaul legislation at 2 o’clock in the morning on Saturday by a vote of 51 to 49. Republican leadership managed to get every one of their members, save Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, to vote for the package.

Now that the House and Senate have passed versions of the bill, both chambers will form a conference committee, where members from both parties will meet to hash out differences between the two versions of legislation.

There are significant differences between the two bills: the most contentious one could be over the state and local tax deduction, or SALT, which is prized in higher-tax states like California, New York, and Minnesota. (You can read me from earlier this fall on SALT and its implications in Minnesota.)

The House version of the bill totally eliminates the ability of tax filers to deduct state and local income and property taxes, which would generate a lot of revenue for tax cuts elsewhere. The Senate version lets filers deduct up to $10,000 in property taxes — a provision that helped secure passage in the upper chamber. In the House, Republicans from high-tax states, California in particular, are vowing to fight to preserve the SALT deduction as the process moves forward, an idea that is not exactly popular in other corners of the GOP caucus.

To be sure, this isn’t a done deal. Both chambers will need to vote to approve that compromise bill before it is sent to the president. But Republicans have gotten this far, and fast, and failure at this stage would be an enormous blow. Now’s the time to look at which lawmakers are compromising in service of the broader goal, and what they’re being promised in return. (The Daily Beast reports that some promises to one-time holdout senators, like Susan Collins, are already in the process of being broken. Womp.)

Last Friday, which somehow seems like several million years ago, former Trump national security adviser and campaign official Michael Flynn pled guilty to one count of lying to the FBI about his communication with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign.

Some initial reporting overstated the news — ABC’s Brian Ross said Flynn was prepared to testify against President Donald Trump, a story that later was retracted. Still, this is a big deal — thanks to a deal with Flynn, special counsel Robert Mueller now has the cooperation of the former general. Trump tweeted prolifically about this, taking aim at the Department of Justice and the FBI. (POTUS may have exposed himself legally in his tweetstorm, some critics are saying. 2017!)

More info about Flynn has come out since: CNN reported that Flynn texted a former colleague with business interests in Russia — during Trump’s inauguration — that sanctions on Russia would soon be “ripped up.” A summary of what’s going on, via USA Today.

The Trump administration made a few significant moves this week with respect to domestic and foreign policy.

On Wednesday, Trump moved to fulfill a campaign promise: recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This entails moving the U.S. embassy to Israel from the city of Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a city where no nation maintains its main embassy to Israel.

This move, which pro-Israel hard-liners have desired for decades, has significant consequences, particularly for this president, who has said one of his priorities is brokering a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and Palestine.

Both Israel and Palestine claim Jerusalem as their capital, so Trump’s move — as key U.S. allies had warned — deeply angered Palestine and its allies in the Arab world, while delighting Israel’s right-wing regime, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Vox has a good explainer of the dynamics and technicalities at play).

As for that Trump peace plan — of which embattled Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner is in charge, still, somehow — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas saw the U.S. move as an effective “withdrawal” from peace talks. This is a bad sign for that aforementioned peace plan.

Trump is said to have been spurred to act, in part, to satisfy his base, according to several reports. Evangelical Christians — a core component of the Trump coalition — have long wished for the U.S. to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as many see it as a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy of the end of the world, Israeli newspaper Haaretz explains. Trump’s move was also well-received by influential American Jews like Sheldon Adelson, a top GOP donor.

Some top Jewish Democrats in Congress welcomed Trump’s decision. Fourth District DFL Rep. Betty McCollum, a frequent critic of Republicans and the president on Israel policy, said the move kills any hope for a two-state peace solution and “further embarrasses the United States in the world.”

Closer to home, on Monday, Trump traveled to Utah to announce that his administration plans to dramatically shrink the size of two “national monuments,” vast swaths of Utah wilderness put under strict federal protection by the Barack Obama administration and the Bill Clinton administration before it.

The Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, which totaled 2.25 million acres of protected area, will be shrunk significantly, by over one million acres. Republicans hailed this move: Rep. Tom Emmer, whose bill undoing new federal protections on a quarter-million acres of Superior National Forest passed last week, cast it as a positive trend for an administration that is returning power to state-level officials.

Tribal nations, environmentalists, and progressives howled in protest, and many groups have filed lawsuits against the administration challenging the decision.

This week’s essential reads

The tax bills under consideration at the Capitol could bring the biggest federal tax cuts in years, and to hear GOP leaders tell it, an enormous boost to the U.S. economy across the board. But on the state level, Republicans in states like North Carolina have moved to implement similar tax cuts of their own recently — and the results there should make you skeptical of any big, bold claims about the broader economic effects of sweeping tax cuts. The Washington Post, from the Tar Heel State:

Conservative groups have hailed North Carolina as a model of a tax overhaul since it began slashing state corporate and individual tax rates four years ago. And one of the effort’s main architects, Thom Tillis, is now in the U.S. Senate, where early Saturday he joined 50 other Republican senators in voting for a $1.5 trillion federal tax overhaul — a plan that employs many of the same tactics already in use here.

But as Eric Henry drove through the conservative, rural county he’s called home all his life, he had trouble seeing many benefits of the tax cut. Business was good, but it wasn’t good enough that he could give his 20 workers significant raises.

And there were growing worries that the lost tax revenue — estimated at $3.5 billion this year alone — was beginning to significantly hurt core public services such as schools. “I don’t know the people who this benefits,” Henry said of the North Carolina tax cut.

2017 has been a year of unprecedented backlash against powerful men. 2018, reports the New York Times, could be the year that fired up and politically engaged women storm elected office across the country, from Congress to city council, and from coast to coast. The profile of some of the women seeking office, and what they’re hoping to accomplish in the era of Trump:

None of the women had seriously contemplated entering politics before. They had no money or organization. But they were dismayed with the direction of the country, they said, starting with the election of President Trump, and finally decided to act.

They have been joined by hundreds of other women across the nation, with the number seeking elective office rising at every level, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. They were angered by Mr. Trump’s election and energized by the Women’s March in Washington the day after his inauguration, and are now even more driven to get involved after the flood of sexual harassment allegations against powerful men.

Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List, the largest national organization devoted to electing female candidates, said that in the 10 months before the election in 2016, about 1,000 women contacted her organization about running for office or getting involved in other ways. Since the election, she said, the number has exploded to more than 22,000.

“We have never seen anything like what we have seen over the last 12 months,” Ms. Schriock said. “If you could underline that four times, that’s what I mean.”

Congress is reckoning with a pervasive sexual harassment and assault problem, and part of that problem is a fund, underwritten by taxpayers, to settle harassment claims made against members. Politico tells a powerful story of one of those settlements: an $84,000 award to Lauren Greene, a former aide to Texas Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold, who accused the lawmaker of sustained sexual harassment. Rachel Bade spoke with Greene about the significant price she paid for speaking out:

Longtime Hill friends of Greene’s told her even before she accused Farenthold that if she came forward, she would never work in Washington again. While Greene was optimistic at first about finding a new job in D.C., she said she noticed a shift in how people treated her. She decided to move south to Charleston, South Carolina, after a few months.

But putting 500 miles between her and the Beltway didn’t erase the stigma. Over the past three years, Greene said she’s applied to dozens, if not more than a hundred, jobs in communications to no avail. One person told her that she didn’t get one job because of her harassment claims against a congressman.

Greene used to keep an Excel spreadsheet of all the places where she applied — but she said, after a while, “I stopped updating it because it was so depressing.”

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

In an era of perpetual war waged by an all-volunteer military, the business of recruiting young men and women to enlist is of paramount importance to the U.S. military. Increasingly, however, would-be soldiers come from similar communities in similar parts of the country, giving rise to a national divide in which some portions of the population are a lot more familiar with the military than others.

In light of that, Adam Linehan has a profile of a team of U.S. Army recruiters working in New Jersey, which appears in Task and Purpose, a publication that covers military issues. Linehan renders very well the challenges they face in recruiting in hard-up corners of the Northeast, and the immense effort, time, and money that goes into keeping the U.S. military machine humming.

Headquartered in Fort Knox, Kentucky, U.S. Army Recruiting Command, or USAREC, manages the recruiting mission for the service’s active-duty and reserve components. It is a massive, ever-evolving operation involving approximately 12,500 military and civilian personnel spread across 1,400 recruiting centers in the United States and abroad, including in Europe and Guam. Roughly $4.6 billion of the Army’s $33.8 billion budget for fiscal year 2017 was allotted for recruiting and training new soldiers; $424 million of that was spent on bonuses alone. The Army also poured more than $289 million into television, radio, digital media, direct mail, and sports-related advertising campaigns. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears goes into keeping the ranks filled with qualified volunteers. The recruiting machine never stops.

The biggest factor in recruiting success is the health of the economy. Typically, when the unemployment rate goes up, so does the number of Americans wanting to join the military. Nonetheless, the more economically stressed, socioeconomic classes tend to be underrepresented in the armed forces. Although people in low-income neighborhoods are generally more inclined than their wealthier compatriots to enlist, fewer and fewer have the qualifications to serve. Rising standards are part of the reason. But so are a host of societal problems that tend to hit disenfranchised populations especially hard, such as increasing obesity rates and a public education system that disadvantages low-income zip codes.

Since the mid-aughts, when thousands of recruiters faced allegations of so-called “recruiting improprieties,” the Army has gone to great lengths to crack down on unethical recruiting practices — such as fudging paperwork, purposefully overlooking blatant disqualifiers, helping recruits cheat on the entrance test, and lying to enlistees (telling them, for example, “You’ll never go to war”). But the temptation to bend the rules persists, increasing whenever the pressure on recruiters to fill quotas becomes greater. That’s the case now.

What to look for next week

This coming Tuesday is a big day in Alabama: voters there will go to the polls to decide whether or not Roy Moore, the Republican accused of sexual harassment and assault by numerous women who were as young as 14 at the time, should represent them in the U.S. Senate. Polling has been all over the place for this race. It will not be over, as the saying goes, until it’s over, and all the votes are counted.

Trump has officially cast his lot in with Moore, giving him a full-throated endorsement this week. After cutting off funds to the Moore campaign, the RNC is back on board. A Moore loss would be humiliating for Trump and others who backed him, but a win would create headaches for the congressional GOP: McConnell has said the Ethics Committee would investigate Moore immediately if he wins. Al Franken’s resignation would, seemingly, give Dems freer rein to turn up the heat on Moore.

Beyond that, the congressional conference on the tax bill will be hard at work, and lawmakers will continue to negotiate over a shutdown deadline that is now scheduled for the Friday before Christmas. You know, no pressure.

It’ll be a photo finish before the holidays. Until then, find me at sbrodey@minnpost.com.

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