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D.C. Memo: Senate immigration debate sets downhill record

REUTERS/Aaron Bernstein
It was the Big Immigration Debate Week, which was promised by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell when Democrats agreed to end the brief government shutdown back in January.

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This week in Washington, Congress did what it does best: setting up, then derailing, the prospect of substantive debates in good faith on major issues of importance to the country. Meanwhile, the White House did what it does best: thrash around without any apparent strategy to put out an ongoing scandal that keeps getting worse.

This week in Washington

On Wednesday, in South Florida, the country suffered its worst school shooting since Sandy Hook: a 19-year old former student of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, near Fort Lauderdale, opened fire at his former school on Wednesday, killing at least 17 people.

This is the deadliest mass shooting event in the U.S. since October 2017, when a gunman killed 58 people at a country music festival in Las Vegas. Via Twitter, President Donald Trump sent his thoughts and prayers to the victims, and spotlighted reports of the perpetrator’s mental instability, deflecting a discussion of gun control policy. Though outlets had initially reported the shooter harbored links to white nationalist groups, but law enforcement later cast doubt on that reporting.

In Washington, it was the Big Immigration Debate Week, which was promised by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell when Democrats agreed to end the brief government shutdown back in January. Republicans devoted a whole several days of debate to an issue that has vexed the Capitol for years, and it went about as well as you’d think.

After a week mostly bereft of the “free-wheeling debate” McConnell predicted, the Senate considered three proposals related to immigration centering around the status of the Dreamers, the 800,000-some young undocumented immigrants brought here as children, who face imminent deportation after Trump terminated the Obama-era program, DACA, which granted them legal status.

In a huge blow to the prospects of compromise on immigration — or compromise in general — none of the proposals brought to the floor on Thursday received the 60 votes necessary to advance. 

The so-called “Common Sense Caucus” of Republicans and Democrats who negotiated out of January’s shutdown — and of which Sen. Amy Klobuchar has positioned herself as a central member — came together again to propose a compromise that sought to thread the needle between the demands of congressional Democrats, Republicans, and Trump. It provided a path to citizenship for Dreamers, granted funds for Trump’s border wall, and offered a compromise on thorny issues like the visa lottery, which Republicans wanted to curb.

That amendment was seen as the best chance for compromise, but it fell short, earning 54 votes. (Klobuchar and Sen. Tina Smith were both yes votes.) Another amendment, from GOP Sen. John McCain and Dem Sen. Chris Coons, offered a more straight-up exchange between Dreamers’ legal status and border wall funding. That earned 52 votes.

Notably, the White House-backed plan — which offered the DACA compromise immigration hard-liners were most comfortable with — tanked on the floor, earning only 39 votes. (Fourteen Republicans voted against it.)

So, with just a few weeks to go before hundreds of thousands of young people face deportation, Congress has failed to get anything done. Recall that in January, Trump proclaimed that he’d sign “anything” on immigration and “take the heat” if it wasn’t what his base wanted. This week, the White House mobilized against a bipartisan agreement that could’ve passed — at least in the Senate — even when funding for the border wall, perhaps Trump’s key campaign promise, sat on the table.

Senate GOP leadership maintained on Thursday that they kept their word to Democrats and allowed an immigration debate. Most Republicans are now interested in moving on from the issue. The House of Representatives could do something, but as Politico explains here, the dynamics there are just as fraught, if not more so.

Assorted links: Politico has a play-by-play of the immigration train wreck here. The Los Angeles Times on the next likely venue for doing something on DACA — the courts. WaPo’s James Hohmann has a good analysis of how the immigration hard-liners in the White House kept moving the goalposts on the issue.

I didn’t have much in last week’s memo about Rob Porter, the top-level Trump aide who resigned after two of his ex-wives came forward with evidence he physically abused them. The fallout from this scandal — which, like a good old-fashioned Trump White House tire fire — continues to burn this week.

Some good links: NBC News pulls on a thread from the Porter episode — that the aide, who handed sensitive documents to POTUS, did not have a security clearance — and finds that over 130 (!) White House officials lack security clearances, a year into this presidency. BuzzFeed zeroes in on the bizarre, unprecedented disconnect between the official accounts of Porter’s ouster offered by Chief of Staff John Kelly and Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

There’s discussion that Trump may move to replace Kelly, not because he worked to protect an abuser of women, but because the episode has made him appear weak and lacking in credibility. (Vanity Fair’s Gabe Sherman dishes on possible Kelly replacements.)

It wouldn’t be a week of scandal at the White House without the familiar backdrop of yet another Infrastructure Week. Thankfully, this week has maybe been the biggest Infrastructure Week yet, because the administration finally rolled out an actual proposal related to rebuilding U.S. roads, bridges, highways, etc., which people have been waiting on for the better part of a year.

The White House says this is an ambitious $1.5 trillion plan — but it only contains $200 billion in federal funds to invest in infrastructure over the next 10 years. It aims to leverage that number into something like $1.5 trillion by shifting funding burdens for projects to states and cities, and by incentivizing private investment.

Few people actually believe this would happen the way the White House says it will, and CityLab says that infrastructure spending may actually decrease significantly under Trump. Interesting wrinkle: WaPo reports that Trump is trying to get the congressional GOP behind a hike in the gas tax to pay for infrastructure, something that’s anathema to most of the party.

Other stuff to pay attention to in here: Politico reports that the plan would disproportionately benefit the rural areas that supported Trump, with 25 percent of funds going to places where 14 percent of Americans live. Wired also finds that smaller cities will be left behind under the plan.

In short: Trump wants to build lots, but pass along the tab to other governments and the private sector, and then take credit. (Fittingly, this was basically his approach to business.) The infrastructure plan is more or less a non-starter on the Hill, reports Bloomberg, and with the midterm elections rapidly approaching, the topic may not get a whole lot of airtime this Congress.

Another long, useless document the White House released this week: on Monday, administration officials rolled out the president’s budget request to Congress for the upcoming fiscal year. Presidential budgets are not binding and are routinely ignored by lawmakers, but they can reveal what an administration’s priorities are.

What does this fresh budget tell us about this administration’s priorities? Well, the $4.4 trillion budget jacks up spending for the military and veterans by hundreds of billions, and proposes deep cuts to social programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, two things Trump promised he wouldn’t cut while a candidate.

Other things in the budget that reflect the administration’s priorities: cutting heating assistance for seniors, implementing deep cuts to a federal HIV/AIDS program, and — I promise you this is not the Onion — replacing much of the federal food stamp program with a “Blue Apron-style” boxed food delivery system.

So, yes, this budget is absolutely stone-dead on arrival on Capitol Hill, but Vox has an explainer of it here if you want to learn more.

Congress stuff that mattered more this week: the Senate Intelligence Committee heard from the nation’s top intelligence and national security officials — including the directors of the FBI and the CIA — who testified that Russian operatives will continue to use the tactics they employed in 2016 to influence the 2018 midterms. The Atlantic spotlights the disconnect between the intelligence community and the president on the threat Russia poses to U.S. elections.

Administration news: the NYT reports that the Trump administration is moving to strike yet another climate change regulation put into place by the Obama administration — one restricting emissions of methane, a major driver of climate change, by companies drilling for energy on federal lands.

Speaking of hot air and the administration, WaPo reports that EPA chief Scott Pruitt has been doing a whole lot of traveling in first class. In June of last year, Pruitt dropped $1,600 of taxpayer money to sit in first on a puddle-jumper from D.C. to New York City. The EPA paid for close to $100,000 in travel for Pruitt and aides in early summer 2017 alone.

After that story broke on Monday — and criticism ensued — Pruitt was spotted flying in first class again on a flight from D.C. to Boston. (Pruitt, who dropped $25,000 to install a soundproof booth in his office last year, cited security issues in explaining his travel budget.)

VA Secretary David Shulkin, the one Obama Cabinet official that Trump chose to renominate, also misled ethics officials about his travel, reports WaPo. Shulkin’s office made it look like the secretary was receiving an award in Denmark so the VA would pick up a $10,000 tab for his and his wife’s travel.

In big Minnesota political news, Rep. Rick Nolan, 8th District Democrat, surprised politicos in D.C. and Minnesota by announcing last week his intent to retire at the end of this term. Read me from Friday with the quick story on his decision, and also me from Monday on how it fundamentally shakes up the political landscape in Minnesota heading into a crucial 2018 midterm. (I’d suggest getting rid of your TV while you can.)

We’re only two (!) years out from the Iowa presidential caucuses! Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois, went on a Politico podcast and said she wants Amy Klobuchar to run for president in 2020. (She also mentioned Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown.) This is the first time I’ve noticed a Senate Dem calling so explicitly for Klobuchar — or anyone for that matter — to run for prez.

Because I love the Olympics: BONUS OLYMPICS LINKS! The NYT reports on what’s behind low attendance at the PyeongChang games. Also the NYT on the Norwegian team’s ski wax wizard. The Detroit Free Press with a fun, sceney read on the ragtag U.S. men’s hockey squad.

This week’s essential reads

The Trump presidency has presented so many possible conflicts of interest and tangled business dealings that it’s often hard to keep track. Dan Alexander of Forbes — a mag that has reported extensively on Trump for decades — unearths a shocking one I’d not yet heard of: occupying an entire floor of Trump Tower in Manhattan is a bank owned by the government of China — and their rent checks are cashed by the organization the president still owns in full. The story:

Trump Tower officially lists the tenant as the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, but make no mistake who’s paying the rent: the Chinese government, which owns a majority of the company. And while the landlord is technically the Trump Organization, make no mistake who’s cashing those millions: the president of the United States, who has placed day-to-day management with his sons but retains 100% ownership.

This lease expires in October 2019, according to a debt prospectus obtained by Forbes. So if you assume that the Trumps want to keep this lucrative tenant, then Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. could well be negotiating right now over how many millions the Chinese government will pay the sitting president. … It’s a conflict of interest  unprecedented in American history. But hardly unanticipated.

Bill Clinton used to be the most sought-after Democratic campaign surrogate there was: the 42nd president combined a way with words and an ability to connect with crowds, all packaged in that folksy Bubba charm. If you wanted to win, you called Bill. Now, in the era of #MeToo, Clinton’s phone is falling silent: as his legacy is being re-evaluated in the party, most Democrats don’t want to be seen anywhere near him. Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere:

In a year when the party is deploying all their other big guns and trying to appeal to precisely the kind of voters Clinton has consistently won over, an array of Democrats told POLITICO they’re keeping him on the bench. They don’t want to be seen anywhere near a man with a history of harassment allegations, as guilty as their party loyalty to him makes them feel about it.

“I think it’s pretty tough,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), vice chair of the House Progressive Caucus and one of the leading voices in Congress demanding changes in Washington’s approach to sexual harassment. His presence “just brings up a lot of issues that will be very tough for Democrats. And I think we all have to be clear about what the #MeToo movement was.” …

It’s a huge change from eight years ago, when Clinton made over 100 appearances for Democrats during the 2010 midterms as the most in-demand presence on the campaign trail. In his reelection campaign two years later, former President Barack Obama anointed Clinton his “explainer-in-chief.”

The #resistance is in vogue among Democrats, and for many involved, that means hating Trump, and often his supporters, with unfettered passion. Other liberals are offering a different path: soften up the way they approach Trump and his movement — kill them with kindness — and, these liberals argue, they’ll stand a chance to knock him out of power. The New Republic’s Graham Vyse:

Several prominent liberals spent the first year of Trump’s presidency calling for exactly the opposite as an antidote to Trumpism: more love and empathy, more civility and collaboration. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker talked about a “conspiracy of love,” which Politico dubbed “a combination of a guiding-light mantra and a permanent political slogan.” CNN host Van Jones toured the country to enlist young people in his #LoveArmy, and wrote a book, Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together. Fellow CNN commentator Sally Kohn will soon publish a book, too: The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity.

These two pundits want liberals to help heal a bitterly divided nation by softening their rhetoric about Republicans, even die-hard Trump supporters. But they also believe it’s sound politics.

They also argue that civility is no impediment to selling ambitious progressive ideas like Medicare for All. “The question is: Do you mix big solutions with small-minded, nasty rhetoric?” Jones said. “That’s what I oppose.”

Trump’s presidential inauguration, for many, will be always be a day they’ll never forget — for whatever reason. However, the Daily Beast reported this week that there’s some expensive forgetting going on regarding the inauguration: Trump’s inaugural committee, which raised over $100 million for the event, and the public has no idea what it’s doing with roughly half of that money, which was not spent. Lachlan Markay with the story:

The committee smashed the record for inauguration fundraising, bringing in about $107 million, double the sum raised for Barack Obama’s first inauguration, which held the previous record. But Trump’s inaugural committee only spent about half of that money. The rest, it said, would go to philanthropic ends.

More than a year later, no one knows what those ends will be. A spokesperson for Tom Barrack, Trump’s personal friend and the chairman of the committee, told The Daily Beast on Dec. 8 that it would be filing an annual report detailing its charitable giving with the Internal Revenue Service “in the next several weeks.” It is now Feb. 12, and it still hasn’t done so and there is no indication of when it will. …

“Tom Barrack said the inaugural committee would disclose charitable contributions in Fall,” Fischer added, “then pushed the deadline back to November, and now here we are in February and the public still has no idea how the inaugural committee spent $107 million.”

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

The eyes of the world have centered on the Korean peninsula over the last week, as athletes from around the globe compete in the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. The games come at a time of heightened tensions on the peninsula, and an especially acrimonious point in the relationship between North Korea and the U.S.

As the media dissects supposed warming ties between North and South — some of their athletes are competing alongside one another, and they marched into the opening ceremonies as a unified Korea — it’s worth considering this piece from Vox that outlines the significant and horrific stakes if war were to break out on the peninsula.

As Yochi Dreazen reports, another Korean War is likelier than we think — and if it happened, it’d be worse than anyone has imagined.

I covered the Iraq War from Baghdad. I saw the aftermath of a conflict built atop sunny scenarios and rosy thinking. I’ve seen the cost of wars that the American people were not prepared for and did not fully understand. The rhetoric around North Korea is raising those same alarm bells for me. For all the talk of nuclear exchanges and giant buttons, there has been little realistic discussion of what a war on the Korean Peninsula might mean, how it could escalate, what commitments would be required, and what sacrifices would be demanded.

So I’ve spent the past month posing those questions to more than a dozen former Pentagon officials, CIA analysts, US military officers, and think tank experts, as well as to a retired South Korean general who spent his entire professional life preparing to fight the North. They’ve all said variants of the same thing: There is a genuine risk of a war on the Korean Peninsula that would involve the use of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Several estimated that millions — plural — would die.

Even more frightening, most of the people I spoke to said they believed Kim would use nuclear weapons against South Korea in the initial stages of the fighting — not just as a desperate last resort.

“This would be nothing like Iraq,” Flournoy told me. “It’s not that the North Korean military is so good. It’s that North Korea has nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction — and is now in a situation where they might have real incentives to use them.”

What to look for next week

Congress is back home next week for the President’s Day recess, before convening again on February 26. Trump was scheduled to head to Orlando on Friday to tout his infrastructure plan, but canceled in light of the shooting in Parkland on Wednesday.

The president had reportedly been talking with his team about visiting Parkland, the site of Wednesday’s shooting, while at his Mar-A-Lago club, which is about 40 miles away in Palm Beach. Trump tweeted on Friday morning he’ll be heading to Florida to meet with “some of the bravest people on earth” and proclaimed he is “working with Congress on many fronts.”

That’s all for this week — thanks for sticking with me. As always, send your takes and comments my way, at

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/16/2018 - 10:10 am.

    This was so unpredictable.

    Someone needs to introduce these “bipartisans” to the concept of leverage and the fact that these Republicans and guys like Trump will take what they want if you give it to them, and leave the rest behind.

    The was predictable and it was predicted. I may never vote for Klobuchar again.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/17/2018 - 08:19 am.


      Senator Klobs is bi-partisan! She reaches across the aisle! Besides, since Sen. Klobs and other “moderates” sold out the Dreamers, look what’s happened in the polls. Why the Democrats have increased their advantage in the generic ballot, and Don Trump’s approval/disapproval numbers have gotten worse.

      Oh wait, forget that. The numbers for Dems have gotten worse. I guess talking tough and collapsing isn’t a winning strategy.

      But I’m sure Klobs will get a spine in time to protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Maybe she’ll work a deal to “only” cut SS by 25% instead of 50%.

      God help us.

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 02/16/2018 - 12:08 pm.

    Americans want a merit based

    Immigration policy. Americans want a secure border and to deport illegal aliens that have committed crimes while being here illegally. Those things are on the table along with taking care of DACA recipients. It’s being held up because, unfortunately, many politicians in DC use immigration as a wedge issue to raise money and gather votes.

  3. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 02/17/2018 - 11:49 am.

    There is a lot of merit in the food delivery idea.

    There are stacks of studies that conclude that welfare families eat very poor diets. Poor choice making, and a lack of access to nutritious food weigh in heavy as reasons.

    Also, despite receiving food assistance we are often told that many kids wouldn’t eat at all if schools didnt offer free meals. That is simply not acceptable.

    Boxing up a nutritious pantry would solve many of those problems, and the economy of scale should allow taxpayers to provide high quality meals to our needy neighbors at much lower costs, and we could rest assured that there is food at home for those hungry kids.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/19/2018 - 06:21 am.

      Here’s an Idea

      Let’s put Michelle Obama in charge of it. Then maybe the kids will get nutritious fresh fruits & veggies instead of canned junk.

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