Skip to Content

Support MinnPost

Great River Energy generously supports MinnPost's D.C. Memo.

D.C. Memo: Democrats hold the line for two days, a new record

REUTERS/Aaron Bernstein
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer faced fury from Democrats’ activist base over the deal to end the shutdown.

You can get the D.C. Memo delivered to your inbox on Thursdays. Sign up here.

This week in Washington, the government shut down for three days until the magical powers of Bipartisan Decency and Civility — embodied by a Republican senator’s talking stick — compelled Democrats to punt on their negotiating demands, ending the shutdown until there is another shutdown in a few weeks.

This week in Washington

Well, that was fun: for 69 hours, the federal government shut down for the first time since 2013, providing a fitting marker of the one-year anniversary of the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

I’ve got a longer explanation of the shutdown and where it came from here, but the short version of the story is that Democrats would not support a spending bill that did not have a resolution to the status of 800,000 undocumented youth, or Dreamers, whose immigration status has hung in the balance since Trump moved to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program last year.

D.C. has been talking about a DACA deal for weeks — one that would potentially combine legal status for the Dreamers with funding for Trump’s border wall and other immigration measures — but those talks went down in flames last week. GOP leadership didn’t put any DACA fix on the spending bill, and with Democrats and some Republicans holding the line, the shutdown took effect at 12:00 AM on Saturday morning.

Through the weekend, though, it became clear that Republicans were content to stick to blaming the shutdown on Democrats, and they hammered the minority for staking the functioning of the federal government on undocumented young immigrants.

There’s a pervasive (and self-flattering) notion that Democrats are just temperamentally more averse to weilding a shutdown for leverage, since they generally believe in what the federal government does. Due to that — and probably some bad-looking field polling for 2018, too — Democrats quickly came around to a deal to end the shutdown to get themselves out of a bind that got worse by the day.

On Monday, 81 senators, including 33 Democrats, voted on a deal to extend government funding through February 8 and and to fund the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program for six years. On DACA — the thing Dems went to the mat over — all they had to show for the shutdown was the word of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that the Senate would soon take up comprehensive immigration reform, and a solution for the Dreamers.

If you had, “Sen. Amy Klobuchar leads bipartisan group of senators to end impasse” on your Shutdown Bingo, well, congratulations! I reported this week that Klobuchar, working with about 20 of her colleagues, played a central role in getting Democrats to yes on a deal that would have been a non-starter just days earlier. (They dubbed themselves the Common Sense Coalition. There was a talking stick. Yay, bipartisanship!)

Not everyone was feeling the kumbaya vibes as the shutdown came to an end: the progressive base of the Democratic Party is furious that the majority of their senators voted to break the shutdown and in their view, surrender whatever leverage they had in exchange for McConnell’s word.

How angry, you might ask? Iraq War angry: a progressive activist told me that voting yes on this compromise is as bad as a yes vote on the Iraq War authorization was back in 2002. Activists anticipate protests inside congressional offices, and even outside homes, of Democratic senators who they believe caved to the GOP and abandoned the Dreamers.

Meanwhile, the stocks of those Democrats who voted no on the compromise — including Sens. Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker — skyrocketed in the progressive base. (Note: all these people are thinking about being president. So, too, potentially, is a certain Minnesota senator who voted the other way.)

The Daily Beast has a good roundup of the fury coming Senate Democrats’ way, particularly Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, from the activist base. Politico talked to angry and upset House Democrats, 145 of whom voted against the Senate’s deal. Rep. Keith Ellison is in there, saying the deal left Dreamers twisting in the wind. (Reps. Collin Peterson and Rick Nolan were the only Minnesota House Dems to vote yes on the continuing resolution.)

So, what next? On DACA and immigration, then, it comes down to McConnell’s word. But even if he allows immigration debate to proceed, and even if the Senate passes some kind of compromise, there’s no guarantee that House Republicans would pick it up. In fact, it’s pretty unlikely they would: the Majority Whip, Rep. Steve Scalise, told Politico on Tuesday that “There are things that would anger our base that I don’t see us passing in the House.”

The optimists say that Senate passage of an immigration bill would ramp up pressure on Speaker Paul Ryan to bring something to the floor — if he didn’t, the thinking is that blame for the situation would shift to him, and strengthen Dems’ hand in another shutdown. (Privately, a lot of Democrats believe that whoever puts forth that line is naive or just being dishonest.)

In the end, any immigration deal will need buy-in from the House GOP and the White House. On Thursday, news broke that the president will offer Democrats a path to citizenship for 1.8 million young immigrants — DACA recipients and those who were eligible to apply, but didn't — in exchange for $25 billion in funding for the wall, and some other concessions, such as ending the visa lottery program and curbing the ability of immigrants to bring family members to the U.S. The White House called this offer “the bottom line,” but Democrats hated it. Off to a good start!

Politico reports that Senate Democrats are willing to decouple DACA from government funding, a big change from the strategy they’ve been pursuing for months, in order to secure a long-term budget deal that raises caps on government spending. That is supposed to be in place by February 8 — when government funding is next scheduled to run out.

As senators got back to work this week, they confirmed Alex Azar as the new secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday, by a vote of 55 to 43, with six Dems crossing the aisle to push his nomination over the hump without a tiebreaker.

Azar was formerly an elite executive in the pharmaceutical industry — he most recently did a stint heading up the U.S. division of Big Pharma giant Eli Lilly — which raised questions among Democrats about his ability to impartially lead the agency with jurisdiction over Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, and a host of other important health policies and programs. (Sen. Klobuchar and Sen. Tina Smith both voted no on Azar’s confirmation.)

Beyond Azar, the Senate overwhelmingly confirmed Jerome Powell to head up the Federal Reserve bank, replacing the popular Janet Yellen, who was picked by Obama and ran the Fed (and pretty well!) for the last four years. The Senate also confirmed Sam Brownback — you might be familiar with his work ruining the state of Kansas — for something called “ambassador at large for international religious freedom.” VP Mike Pence had to trudge up to the Hill on Wednesday to break a tie on behalf of the lightning-rod Kansas guv.

There were some developments on the Russia front this week: the president raised many eyebrows — and alarm in his camp — when he said on Wednesday, apparently off-the-cuff, that he’d be willing to meet with the special counsel, Robert Mueller, who is investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Such a meeting would probably be a disaster for Trump, who fashions himself a master smooth talker who can get out of anything, but he has not acquitted himself well in these settings before. Even close allies concede he’s a loose cannon and would probably perjure himself, so they did what anyone with a message to POTUS does — go on Fox News.

Bloomberg reports Mueller’s probe is moving quick, particularly in its investigation of whether the president or any of his aides have obstructed justice. WaPo’s James Hohmann connects some other dots in Trump-Russia stuff this week.

A development with huge implications for redistricting battles and for the 2018 midterms: the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the state’s congressional map as an illegal gerrymander that benefits Republicans. Though Pennsylvania has been more or less reliably blue on the presidential level in recent cycles, the GOP holds 13 of the state’s 18 U.S. House districts.

Pennsylvania justices ordered totally new districts to be drawn by February 9 (!) which could blow open U.S. House races in the state, which was already a battleground, and give Democrats a big boost as they look to retake control of the House.

Complicating Dems’ quest to take back Congress: a seemingly never-ending spell of party infighting lingering from the 2016 presidential debacle. That infighting got put in the spotlight this week with a big piece in the Intercept on Democrats’ House recruitment strategy — specifically, how establishment Democrats are shutting the door on scrappy progressive candidates in favor of corporate-friendly Democrats who can raise money.

The story focused heavily on Minnesota’s 2nd District, where Bernie-backing candidate Jeff Erdmann is trying to edge Angie Craig, the DFL candidate in 2016 who lost to Rep. Jason Lewis. Erdmann and his camp put forth some pretty explosive anecdotes damning Craig’s campaign and House Dems’ campaign arm, the DCCC — it’s worth a read, if only to understand what’s happening within the party right now. (Republicans in Minnesota and in D.C., meanwhile, are loving this.)

Also in outsider Dems looking to make things happen, HuffPost profiled Leah Phifer, who is challenging Rep. Rick Nolan for the DFL endorsement in Minnesota’s 8th District.

The week’s essential reads

A group of activist Christians inside the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is on the rise, reports Politico’s Dan Diamond, amassing influence and connecting the world of evangelical politics deeply to the federal agency. The evangelical leaders at HHS are working hard to enshrine anti-abortion principles in the agency’s agenda and operations, and are aiming to roll back Obama-era regulations aimed at benefiting transgender individuals. The story is a timely one, now that HHS has a new sheriff in town:

The agency's devout Christian leaders have set in motion changes with short-term symbolism and long-term significance. One of those moves — a vast outreach initiative to religious groups spearheaded by Shannon Royce, asking how to serve them better — came in October 2017 while the health department reeled from the resignation of former Secretary Tom Price and congressional Republicans struggled to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

That outreach initiative began a rulemaking process that could culminate in a rollback of Obama-era protections for transgender patients and allowing health providers more protections to deny procedures like abortion. It worried abortion rights and LGBT advocates, who acknowledge that while abortion laws and other regulations remain mostly intact, the groundwork is steadily being laid to revise them.

"This administration is focused on recognizing one set of religious beliefs," said Gretchen Borchelt of the National Women’s Law Center. "It’s going to do whatever it can to reshape or violate the law to do that."

The October effort surprised Royce's own staff, many of whom weren't aware that the center's request for information — a key tool in rulemaking that lets agencies solicit comments that they can use to revise or introduce regulations — was even being developed until it was publicly posted. The reason: Royce, the center's director, didn't tell them.

Earlier this month, the Trump administration terminated a temporary program — which had been in effect since 2001 — that allowed 200,000 immigrants from El Salvador to remain in the U.S. legally. Many of the country’s Salvadorans live in the Washington area, and many of those facing deportation make a living cleaning up after the lawmakers and officials who orchestrated, or are cheering, the administration’s move that is upending their lives. HuffPost’s Dave Jamieson with a story worth your time:

“I have never asked anything of the government,” said Guzman, who came to the U.S. in 2000. Seated at a Senate cafeteria table after a recent shift, she spoke in Spanish through an interpreter and at times wiped tears from her face. “We have just worked the whole time. We’re not doing any harm to anybody.”

The Washington area is home to an estimated 32,000 TPS holders from El Salvador ― the largest such concentration in the nation. Low-wage Salvadorans with TPS protections serve members of Congress and White House officials every day, whether the latter realize it or not. These workers bus the tables at fancy K Street restaurants. They park the cars in expensive garages. They vacuum the downtown office buildings long after dark. And they pick up the mess left behind at the Senate salad bar.

So while the imminent end of TPS has left Salvadorans around the country with wrenching decisions to make, the federal government’s about-face comes with a dose of painful irony for Washington-area workers like Guzman: They’re being given the boot by the political elite for whom they’ve labored many years.

Trump’s presidency is unprecedented in many ways, including its ethical implications: how might a person with such sprawling business interests extricate himself from them while doing the business of the presidency? How could he possibly avoid conflicts of interest? A year into Trump, the Associated Press takes a deep and broad look at those questions — and finds that the would-be swamp-drainer has done very little to fulfill his ethics promises. The story:

Since his inauguration a year ago, the Trump Organization has secured dozens of trademarks from foreign governments, pursued possible projects in Scotland and the Dominican Republic, enjoyed free publicity from Trump’s frequent visits to his resorts, raked in big profits from lobbyists and power brokers at his Washington hotel, and launched two hotel chains.

“My overall ethics grade for the Trump administration is an F,” said ethics lawyer Kathleen Clark of Washington University School of Law in St. Louis.

To be sure, ethics experts didn’t like Trump’s pledges from the start. As promised, Trump resigned from positions at hundreds of companies, set up a trust to hold his assets, handed day-to-day management responsibilities to two sons and hired an ethics lawyer to vet business deals.

But what drew their ire is what he didn’t do: sell off his assets completely. They argued that as long as he continues to profit off his sprawling business empire, with branded hotels, golf courses, licensing deals and other interests in more than 20 countries, Trump remains vulnerable to those seeking to influence his policies.

This month, President Trump just called off his first visit to the United Kingdom, citing the new U.S. embassy, which he didn’t like. But most people plugged in on both sides of the pond know the truth: the British didn’t much want him there. Trump is pulling off the diplomatically unthinkable — straining the sacred “Special Relationship” between America and Britain. Bloomberg’s Tim Ross and Margaret Talev examine that by exploring the dysfunctional bond between Trump and the British PM, Theresa May:

In that time, the alliance first coined by Winston Churchill and famously nurtured by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s has become increasingly dysfunctional and at its least cordial in decades.

The transatlantic ties are critical to May’s administration, while just convenient for Trump. The U.K. needs to forge new trade partnerships after leaving the European Union. The U.S. wants to reconfigure some of its relationships to protect American companies.

Rather than a tighter bond, a promised state visit and a future trade deal, Trump and May have clashed repeatedly in public—over intelligence leaks after a terrorist attack in Manchester, the Iran nuclear deal, and most dramatically after the president tweeted a message from a British far-right anti-Muslim campaigner.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

The United Nations has a reputation as a staid bureaucracy that stifles itself from getting anything done. Conservatives believe it is hopelessly biased against the U.S. and Israel, while virtually everyone has been disgusted at recent revelations of a deeply-ingrained culture of sexual harassment in the New York-based international organization.

The U.N. has had a succession of high-profile leaders. The new guy, Antonio Guterres, is not — at least not yet. The a former Portuguese prime minister, who was elected as Secretary-General at the same time as Trump's election, was considered a longshot to chair the organization. Now, he’s faced with the task of leading the U.N. into a new era, in the shadow of a U.S. president who is openly hostile to the U.N. and its mission. Politico Magazine’s Janine DiGiovanni with a look at Guterres’ tough job:

Trump would, over the course of the next year, trigger a series of international dustups, seemingly reckless provocations—from the puerile taunting of North Korea’s nuke-craving dictator to his abrupt withdrawal from the Paris agreement in August to the widely decried decision in December to officially acknowledge Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, over the objections of the overwhelming majority of U.N. member states. Last week, in the middle of negotiations over immigration reform, Trump reportedly disparaged the entire continent of Africa as “shithole countries,” prompting outrage in the halls of U.N. headquarters in New York. “There is no other word you can use but ‘racist,’” said Rupert Coleville, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

But for all the obvious points of friction between two men whose dispositions and personalities could not be further apart—Guterres, a fierce advocate for international refugees who is fluent in four languages and likes to quote German philosophers, and Trump, the border-wall promoting nationalist who spends hours a day watching cable news and has sought to ban refugees from Muslim countries—close observers of the U.N. say Guterres’ signature accomplishment over the past year may well have been his pacification of the globalist-baiting provocateur in the Oval Office.

What to look for next week

With the shutdown debacle behind him for now, President Trump — the populist economic nationalist for the Working American — is in Davos, Switzerland, for the world economic forum, rubbing elbows with the globalist elite. Somewhere, Steve Bannon is trembling with anger beneath several button-down shirts. He will return Friday night.

On Tuesday, POTUS will address a joint session of Congress for his first real State of the Union address. In his speech to Congress last year, Trump struck a collegial and conciliatory tone — unclear if he’ll repeat that, or how well such a message might be received after a long year of acrimonious politics in Washington. Bet on this: Trump will take a massive victory lap over the passage of the GOP tax plan, and tout the effects it’s already having.

Talk is that Trump will also roll out — finally! — the details of a infrastructure package that could total as much as $1.7 trillion. (Infrastructure Week is BACK!)

I’ll be at the speech and will be chatting with Minnesota’s members of Congress for their post-game reactions, so look for that coverage from me next week.

That is, thankfully, it for this week. Send me your thoughts, concerns, etc. — sbrodey@minnpost.com.

Get MinnPost's top stories in your inbox

About the Author: