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D.C. Memo: The perfect gift for the millionaire who has it all

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President Donald Trump is touting the GOP’s tax plan as a gift to the American people that’ll be ready in time for Christmas.

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This week in Washington, Republicans are hurrying to do holiday shopping, trying to find stylish tax cuts that fit their budget. We’re looking at that, more Al Franken news, and a big week for mining in Minnesota in this week’s D.C. Memo:

This week in Washington

Hope you had a good Thanksgiving. Here’s what lies ahead for Congress this December: Funding the government through next year, agreeing on spending levels for the government, a big fight over taxes, a looming deadline on the Iran nuclear deal, and a potential repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate for insurance coverage.

And you thought you had a long pre-holiday to-do list.

First, I’ll get into our biggest local story: the ongoing sexual misconduct story surrounding Sen. Al Franken. Two new allegations on Thursday: CNN reports that a woman, then serving in the Army in Iraq, says Franken groped her in a photo during a USO tour in 2003, and Jezebel reports a former elected official in New England accused Franken of trying to give her an open-mouthed kiss at an event in 2006.

Franken’s office issued a statement this morning that basically functions as a blanket response to future allegations. “As Sen. Franken made clear this week, he takes thousands of photos and has met tens of thousands of people and he has never intentionally engaged in this kind of conduct.”

The drip-drip of allegations is testing the patience of Franken’s allies. A few DFLers told me the senator is on increasingly thin ice. The shoes just seem to keep dropping.

Thursday saw a first call from a high-level Democrat for Franken’s resignation. Rep. Joe Crowley, a New York Democrat seen as a possible successor to Nancy Pelosi, told Politico “it’s time for Sen. Franken to go.” 

In rounds of interviews with media over the past week, Franken has sounded apologetic, but he has not apologized for doing any of the things these women have accused him of doing. The sum of his statements, basically, has been, “I’m sorry I made women feel uncomfortable or disrespected.”

The senator is walking a fine line. He is trying to appear contrite and understanding, speaking over and over again about “respecting women’s experience” this week. At the same time, by saying he “remembers differently” his encounter with Leeann Tweeden — and by saying he does not recall groping any of these women in photos — he’s casting doubt on the accounts of those who have come forward.

At his press conference on Monday in D.C., I asked Franken to explain how his recollection of these encounters differ from those of the women, and to what extent he denies their accounts. He simply recalled the Tweeden allegation, repeated his defense, and threw out the respect line again.

This is called trying to have it both ways. Dave Orrick at the Pioneer Press had an exchange with Franken that gets to the heart of this contradiction — one that Franken either can’t resolve or refuses to. It’s really worth your time.

The U.S. Senate is in the middle of a major battle over the Republican plan to overhaul the tax code. The sweeping legislation cleared procedural hurdles earlier in the week; as of Friday morning, the situation remains very much in flux as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and company work to sway reluctant senators and get to 51 votes. You can follow the latest updates at the New York Times' useful liveblog.

GOP leadership found a way to nab the vote of Sen. John McCain, previously a question mark on the legislation, but holdouts remain.

Deficit hawks in the GOP are wary of a bill that could raise the federal debt by as much as $1.4 trillion over 10 years. To get them on board, lawmakers are talking about a so-called “trigger” mechanism — some kind of provision that would put into place automatic tax increases on individuals and corporations if the economy does not grow as much as expected under the tax plan.

The idea would be to stave off a catastrophic hit to the deficit, but it’s unclear exactly what this would look like, or if it would even be allowed under budget reconciliation rules, which mean the bill can pass with a simple majority in the Senate.

Even if the Senate does pass the bill, the finish line is a ways away, and there are significant differences between the bill the House passed and whatever the Senate will pass. President Donald Trump is already touting the plan as a gift to the American people that’ll be ready in time for Christmas. (Not a Holiday gift, mind you.)

Assorted stuff on tax: the New York Times has a smart look on the varied ways the plan could reshape life in the U.S., far beyond how your taxes work. Also in the NYT, a brutal dismembering of Trump’s repeated claims that the tax plan will not benefit him personally.

Elsewhere, Inside Higher Ed reports on how grad students are protesting a plan that could really make life more difficult for them. Quartz explores whether the GOP tax plan would actually make the act of filing taxes simpler.

In the midst of the tax reform push, the president has maintained a laser-like focus on advancing what could be a signature achievement for his administration. Nevertheless, he has found the time to do some of the most prolific tweeting of his presidency: this week, he has shared misleading, anti-Muslim videos from a extreme-right party in the U.K., suggested sexual impropriety by a top NBC executive, and typed the words “favorite president (me).” This guy! He just calls it like he sees it.

Funding for the government runs out on December 8, and keeping the lights on past that date is looking really messy at the moment. Speaker Paul Ryan and Republicans are working on a short-term spending bill which would extend funding through Christmas, giving D.C. more time to work on a deal.

Talks between the GOP and Democrats broke down earlier this week, when the president tweeted that he didn’t see a path for a deal. (Trump had a nice little photo op with empty chairs at a White House negotiating table, where old pals Chuck and Nancy were supposed to be.)

Democrats are pushing hard for a fix to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, in any year-end spending bill. Some Dems, like the Senate’s #2, Sen. Dick Durbin, may not even come to the negotiating table unless a DACA fix is on it.

Republicans have demands of their own, like spending cuts to offset this year’s hefty spending on disasters.

A busy week of Minnesota environmental news at the Capitol: on Thursday, the House approved a bill from Rep. Tom Emmer that would make some significant changes regarding rights to minerals in Minnesota. The so-called MINER Act, which passed 216 to 204, would reverse an Obama administration decision to withdraw a quarter-million acres of Superior National Forest from mining consideration.

It would also allow the government to reissue mineral leases to Twin Metals, which had long retained rights over copper and nickel deposits near the Boundary Waters. (You can read me from September with more details.)

Emmer’s bill, which faces an uncertain path in the Senate, has put various Minnesota lawmakers in tough spots. Rep. Rick Nolan, who represents Minnesota’s mining region, has been caught between a rock and a hard place in particular, and had been quiet on his views on the Emmer bill. He ultimately voted yes on Thursday — a move that won’t be popular environmentally-minded DFLers in his district who have grown more critical of Nolan recently. Nolan’s DFL primary challenger, Leah Phifer, was out with a statement quickly afterward hammering him for the vote.

The other Democratic yes on the bill was Rep. Collin Peterson, who usually votes with Republicans on land-use stuff. Rep. Tim Walz, DFL candidate for guv, joined the two Twin Cities Dems in voting no. Expect GOP groups with “jobs” in their names to have some fun with that.

Notably, Rep. Erik Paulsen voted no on the Emmer bill. It’s a smart play that likely aligns with where most of his district (the suburban, BWCA-loving 3rd) is at, and it’s a vote he can point to in making the case that he is not always in lock-step with his Republican colleagues.  

On Tuesday, the House also advanced a bill from Nolan that would complete a land swap between the mining company PolyMet and the U.S. Forest Service, giving USFS 2,000 acres of wilderness and giving PolyMet a smaller parcel with valuable rocks. 

This week’s essential reads

The tax overhaul that could be signed into law by the end of the year, obviously, will have huge implications on the economy. As Vox reports, though, the GOP tax plan could have an immense impact on the U.S. health care economy, too — affecting almost every corner of the sector. Sarah Kliff:

First, the bill repeals the individual mandate, a key piece of Obamacare that requires most Americans get covered. Economists expect its elimination to reduce enrollment in both the Affordable Care Act’s private marketplaces and Medicaid by millions. The money saved will be pumped into tax cuts for the very wealthy.

The bill also includes tax cuts so large that they would trigger across-the-board spending cuts — including billions for Medicare. The last time Medicare was hit with cuts like this, patients lost access to critical services like chemotherapy treatment.

This tax bill deserves a broader name. Its policies will cause millions of vulnerable Americans to lose coverage, disrupt care for the elderly, and potentially change the health care system in other ways we can’t fully predict.

The drama over who’s in charge at the CFPB is the most headline-grabbing example of the debate over Wall Street and financial policy in Washington. But as two reporters from the New York Times explain, Trump’s antagonism of the CFPB is just one of the ways the new GOP regime in Washington is trying to reshape financial sector policy, to Wall Street’s benefit. The details on the “deregulatory charge:”

Less visible are the subtle but steady efforts at the White House, in federal agencies and on Capitol Hill to lessen the regulatory burden on banks and financial firms since President Trump took office.

At the Treasury Department, officials are trying to make it easier for financial firms to avoid being tagged as “too big to fail,” a designation that subjects them to greater oversight. A major banking regulator, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, has become more forgiving of big banks when it comes to enforcing laws. And the Securities and Exchange Commission is reining in the power of regional directors to issue subpoenas.

In Congress, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing legislation to reduce regulation on small financial institutions. The proposal contains “targeted, common-sense fixes,” said one of the bill’s sponsors, Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who now supports a handful of changes and exemptions to rules he voted to impose after the financial crisis.

It used to be that Big Food, like Big Oil and the other Bigs, was a relatively unified bloc in Washington that pushed a shared political agenda. But changing consumer attitudes about nutrition have sparked disagreement and dissent among food and beverage companies, particularly over issues like labeling of genetically modified products. Now, the industry’s trade group in Washington is facing discord and dwindling ranks, as some companies decide it’s better to go their own way in Washington. The story from Politico, which features Minnesota players like General Mills:

With each episode of discord, both internally and publicly, it becomes harder for GMA to convince its members to pay fees to belong to a trade group that’s rife with division and, at times, fights against issues they either don't want fought or don’t want to be associated with.

“Companies that get it have said, ‘Why are we paying GMA more than $1 million a year to lobby for things that our brands don’t support?’” said Jeff Nedelman, founder of the public relations firm Strategic Communications that works with health and wellness brands, and a former VP of communications at GMA during the 1980s and 90s.

“More than one food industry lobbyist has told me that they spend more time lobbying their industry association than they do Capitol Hill,” said Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group — a position he formerly held at GMA from 2007 to 2012. “It begs the question about whether associations like GMA are obsolete.”

As his presidency approaches the one year mark, Trump is mired in historic unpopularity, his former top aides are under federal investigation, and he can claim no major policy achievements so far. You’d think the mercurial Trump might be on edge. In fact, reports the Washington Post, the president seems to be constructing alternative facts — building a world where he’s popular, successful, and will emerge from the Russia probe scot-free. The latest from the West Wing:

Trump has dismissed his historically low approval ratings as “fake” and boasted about what he calls the unprecedented achievements of his presidency, even while chatting behind the scenes, saying no president since Harry Truman has accomplished as much at this point.

Trump also has occasionally questioned whether the “Access Hollywood” video of him crowing about assaulting women was doctored or inauthentic, asking confidants whether they think the sexual braggart on tape sounds like him, according to two people who have heard him make the comments.

In all these instances, as well as other setbacks, Trump has sought to paint the rosiest possible picture of his presidency and his character — and has tried to will others to see it his way, like the big-promises salesman he once was.

Takes of the week

  • Vox’s Matt Yglesias: Dems failing to call for Franken’s resignation ensures Roy Moore will win his election in Alabama

  • Comedian Elayne Boosler: Al Franken is a dick

  • WaPo’s Sonny Bunch: Getting excited about royal weddings is a betrayal of the American Revolution

  • Eric Trump: Reporters for ABC — the network owned by Disney — can’t say Trump’s “Pocahontas” crack was racist because Disney made millions off the movie “Pocahontas”

Your weekend longread

Melania Trump is probably the most enigmatic First Lady in modern U.S. history: she did not move to the White House until five months after her husband’s inauguration — preferring to stay in New York with their son, Barron — and she has left a light footprint in the East Wing, where she employs a personal staff half the size of those of her predecessors. Her relationship with her husband remains mostly a mystery, too, and the two appear to lead mostly separate lives.

Vanity Fair’s Sarah Ellison has the definitive deep dive to date on Melania as FLOTUS, drawing on interviews with Trumpworld confidants and East Wing experts to paint a picture of the Slovenian-born former model, and her place in a very public political life that she did not seek, and probably did not want:

To understand the First Lady and her East Wing operation, I spoke to current and former White House staffers, including former East Wing advisers, as well as friends and advisers to Melania and Donald Trump. Melania Trump declined requests for an interview, as did her press secretary. Taking stock of her role as First Lady is an exercise in subtraction. What she does not do is almost as telling as what she does. Her East Wing remains sparsely inhabited.

There may never have been a First Lady less prepared for or suited to the role. “This isn’t something she wanted and it isn’t something he ever thought he’d win,” one longtime friend of the Trumps’ told me. “She didn’t want this come hell or high water. I don’t think she thought it was going to happen.”

Melania Trump seems to be very much alone in her position. Her East Wing has only nine employees, fewer than half the number employed by Michelle Obama and Laura Bush. Public tours of the White House begin in the East Wing, through the glass triple doors of the Visitors Entrance. But despite her proximity to the public, much of Melania Trump’s life has remained in the shadows. She is the keeper of many of her husband’s secrets, and one can imagine that what binds the two of them together is that he may very well be the keeper of some of hers.

What to look for next week

The House has already scheduled a vote on Monday to move to conference on the tax plan. This thing is moving, people! Ten legislative shopping days left until Christmas — enough time for the perfect gift for the millionaire in your life.

As Congress keeps working away on taxes, the president will travel to Utah on Monday to talk about rolling back Obama-era regulations that established “national monuments” in the West, protecting vast swaths of land from development or resource exploration. POTUS and his Interior chief Ryan Zinke want to make moves to reverse those decisions.

That’s all I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for joining me. Until next time, send me your thoughts, comments, existential dread, to sbrodey@minnpost.com.

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