News Sips 3/24: House Healthcare Endgame, Trump Reportedly Right on Spying, Nuclear Gorsuch, and the Maryland General Assembly Comes Unhinged

Here are the four things you need to know before your coffee gets cold, the March 24, 2017 edition:


Healthcare Showdown

As we predicted on this site yesterday, House Republican leaders scuttled a Thursday vote on a semi-revised version of their Obamacare repeal plan, the American Healthcare Act (AHCA). Negotiations on the plan continued late into the night and the White House, this morning, seems to have decided to put its foot down on the issue. The President has called for a vote today on the Republican plan to repeal parts and modify other parts of President Obama’s signature law. This is a huge political gamble for the new Administration, but it is a show of faith in Speaker Paul Ryan and his team (who have not always been Donald Trump fans).

The final version of the bill is still emerging and will be, almost assuredly, blown up in its entirety by the Senate, reworked, and pushed through Conference Committee later, but the current version has drawn sharp criticism from conservatives. The principal concern is a principle concern: the bill really doesn’t repeal Obamacare. In fact, at least in the version of the bill that was originally put forward, it winds the entitlement deeper into the fabric of Federal spending. Overtures have been made to conservatives, mainly in the House Freedom Caucus, centered on making changes that would be palatable for passage. However, some of these changes, including mandates for women’s health coverage, may be too much for moderate Republicans who fear a backlash in the 2018 midterm elections.

So, if the vote takes place today, which it appears will happen (at least from indicators this morning), there are really only two potential outcomes. The first is that the Freedom Caucus bows to the will of the President with only a few holdout defections and the bill passes with a razor-thin majority (right now, given that one Democrat is not present and there are a few open seats, that number looks like 215). The other is that, seeing the bill going down, Republicans rush to change their votes and the bill fails enormously with over-50 Republicans voting “no” in order to go back to their constituents with a win. Note that most conservative think-tanks have keyvoted “no” on earlier drafts of the bill. This impacts funding and endorsements (and even funding primaries) in the future.

We will know later in the day what the House decides, but what we can see now is that the President has wagered a lot of political capital on backing the Speaker. It’s been reported on several news sites this morning that the President has expressed, privately, that they should have taken on tax reform before Obamacare. However, having now put his reputation as a negotiator on the line, the President has a lot to lose if the House can’t whip together a majority. Without being too melodramatic, a spectacular failure on a floor vote would also sound an early note of concern over whether Paul Ryan’s Speakership should be called into doubt.


Trump Reportedly Right on Surveillance

FoxNews is reporting that the NSA will provide at least some evidence to the House Intelligence Committee that backs-up the assertions made by the President and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes that then-candidate Donald Trump and some of his campaign team were the subject of, at least, incidental surveillance by clandestine services in the United States. What remains unclear this morning is just how far that this surveillance went. Though the unmasking of Americans caught in surveillance of foreign targets is illegal, it’s not as bad as the former Administration surveilling political opponents.

Chairman Nunes, who raced to the White House to brief the President on early revelations about the surveillance yesterday, has noted that the apparent collection of information on the Trump team did not appear to be in connection with alleged investigation of Trump team ties to Russia. This could indicate that there was a political purpose in the surveillance. However, the Chairman noted that it was still too early to know whether the collection was done at the behest of political appointees of President Obama or whether it was done as part of a larger investigation of foreign officials.

The FoxNews report, which uses unnamed sources (something we routinely criticize other media outlets doing), states that the intelligence that is set to be produced to the House Intelligence Committee today by the NSA leaves no doubt that the Obama Administration was using the cover of legitimate surveillance to unmask Americans and damage the Trump transition. Certainly, if this is the case, there will be a huge investigation.


Nuclear Gorsuch

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer from New York announced yesterday that Democrats would filibuster the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. Despite the fact that Judge Gorsuch is eminently qualified, made mincemeat of “gotcha” questions, and generally sailed through the Senate Judiciary Committee, Schumer has decided that this is a hill where Democrats are willing to, metaphorically, die.

The logic is fairly simple: there’s an election next year where the Democrats face long-odds at taking back the Senate. This isn’t just a partisan assessment, it’s a numbers thing. Currently, the Senate stands at 52-46-2. The two independents, Bernie Sanders and Angus King, caucus with the Democrats, so that means the real totals are 52-48. In 2012, Democrats rode a big wave on President Obama’s reelection and picked up Senate seats. As the wave flows, so too does it ebb. In 2018, Democrats are defending 23 seats. Republicans are defending 9. Both independents are up for reelection as well.

Republicans’ path to retain their slim majority looks pretty good right now. They are defending seats in Texas, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama (the special election after Sessions became Attorney General)and Tennessee. With the exception of Nevada, almost all of the races would be characterized as “solid Republican” (Heller in Nevada won with 46% last time, so, we’ll call his a Lean-Republican).

Of the 23 Democrat defenses, 10 are in states carried by Donald Trump. These include Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Missouri, Florida, North Dakota, Montana, Ohio, and West Virginia. Now, each state has its own idiosyncrasies that we needn’t discuss in talking about Judge Gorsuch. However, this is the backdrop for Democrats’ opposing Judge Gorsuch now. They just don’t know if they’ll get another Supreme Court opportunity before the election next year.

Democrats want to show, for next year, that Republicans and Donald Trump are running roughshod over their rights in the Senate. By eliminating the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, Democrats will create the narrative that “Judge Gorsuch was too radical to get bipartisan support so the Republicans were forced to overturn the rules of the Senate to get him on the Court.” Toss in some rhetoric about how the public relations and ad buys in favor of Gorsuch’s confirmation had ties to billionaires, and you’ve created a storyline that Democrats can run with back in their home states.

There was a better option, of course, but it was fraught with uncertainty. Democrats could have gone along with Gorsuch and showed that they were principled in their opposition, but the President was allowed to have someone who is highly qualified to be put on the Court. This would have allowed them to look bipartisan. This is especially a good narrative if Justice Kennedy (or another Justice) decided to retire this year and President Trump got a second pick to go on the Court. In that case, regardless of the nominee, Democrats could fire up the spin machine and say “we let Gorsuch through because he was qualified and we play ball with people who are qualified, but Judge X is a radical and Republicans are changing the rules to force Judge X through.”

Unfortunately, unlike Mitch McConnell whose Supreme Court wage paid off in spades, Chuck Schumer is just not willing to take the risk that will be another Supreme Court vacancy in the next year and a half. He’s decided, and probability generally supports the conclusion, that spending all of his opposition capital now (at least as far as a Supreme Court nominee is concerned) is worth it. Again, given the unlikely happening of another vacancy, he’s probably right. However, remember when you’re watching this unfold: this is just political chess. Sure, there are political differences in play, but the procedural machinations and “outrage” is merely a byproduct of a deeper calculation aimed at reclaiming power next year.


Maryland General Assembly Coming Unhinged

It’s coming down to crunch-time for the Maryland General Assembly as it careens towards sine die. Democrats in the House of Delegates and the State Senate, who, when they all hold hands, can overturn the Governor’s veto, have decided to stake out convenient positions in advance of next year’s gubernatorial (and General Assembly) election.

In today’s continuing coverage of “what in the world are they smoking in Annapolis” file is the Maryland Trust Act, a bill than has nothing to do with trustworthiness, obviously. This is a piece of legislation aimed at making Maryland a so-called “sanctuary” jurisdiction. While there’s no statutory definition of what constitutes a “sanctuary,” it’s pretty clear that refusing to allow police to communicate with Federal immigration officers probably rises to that level. This comes on the heels of a brutal rape of a 14-year-old high school girl in Montgomery County that has gained national press attention (though, shockingly, very little coverage from Maryland’s own Baltimore Sun). The girl was attacked by two illegal immigrants who were in her freshman class at Rockville High School. The matter was further compounded by the fact that both illegals were older than freshmen, with one being an 18-year-old. However, because they can, reportedly, barely speak English, they were put in a class with the victim. On top of all of this, both of the accused were picked up on the border by the Obama Administration, but were released into the United States just last year.

Whether it’s frightening naiveté or just an unwillingness to see the danger posed by criminals in our midst, the self-proclaimed “social justice warriors” on the hard-left in the Maryland General Assembly have, instead of standing together with the victims of crimes, declared in favor of the perpetrators. Amidst rallies and sloganeering (as well as referring to Federal agents as Nazis), there is also a threat from the Trump Administration that “sanctuary” jurisdictions could lose Federal funding. Therefore, not only is this quest to protect criminal aliens baffling, it could very well take much-needed Federal assistance away from some of Maryland’s most vulnerable residents. But, hey, since Donald Trump is President, the left has just continued to spiral down the rabbit hole. The Governor has vowed to veto this bill if it makes it to his desk.



Of course, there are more things going on in the world, but these should be enough to get your day started.


Matt McDaniel

Attorney and Political Commentator

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