House finally passes overdue disaster relief funding

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

A long-delayed $19.1 billion disaster aid bill has sailed through the House and headed to President Donald Trump for his expected signature, overcoming months of infighting, misjudgment and a feud between Trump and congressional Democrats.

Lawmakers gave the measure final congressional approval on Monday by 354-58 in the House’s first significant action after returning from a 10-day recess. It was backed by all 222 voting Democrats and 132 Republicans, including the GOP’s top leaders and many of its legislators from areas hit by hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and fires. Fifty-eight Republicans voted “no,” including many of the party’s most conservative members.

Trump hailed passage of the bill, tweeting, “Farmers, Puerto Rico and all will be very happy.” The Republican president also suggested, incorrectly, that the bill would now see action in the Senate. That chamber had already passed the bill by a sweeping 85-8 vote on its way out of Washington May 23, a margin that reflected a consensus that the bill is long overdue.

But conservative Republicans in the House held up the bill last week, objecting on three occasions to efforts by Democratic leaders to pass the bill by a voice vote requiring unanimity. They said the legislation — which reflects an increasingly permissive attitude in Washington on spending to address disasters that sooner or later hit every region of the country — shouldn’t be rushed through without a recorded vote.

Along the way, House and Senate old-timers seemed to outmaneuver the White House, though Trump personally prevailed upon Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., to drop a bid to free up billions of dollars for dredging and other harbor projects.

The measure was initially held up over a fight between Trump and Democrats over aid to Puerto Rico that seems long settled.

“Some in our government refused to assist our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico who are still recovering from a 2017 hurricane. I’m pleased we’ve moved past that,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. “Because when disaster strikes, we shouldn’t let a ZIP code dictate our response.”

The measure also faced delays amid failed talks on Trump’s $4 billion-plus request to care for thousands of mostly Central American migrants being held at the southern border. The sides narrowed their differences but couldn’t reach agreement in the rush to go on recess, but everyone agrees that another bill will be needed almost immediately to refill nearly empty agency accounts to care for migrants.

“We must work together quickly to pass a bill that addresses the surge of unaccompanied children crossing the border and provides law enforcement agencies with the funding they need,” said top Appropriations Committee Republican Kay Granger of Texas. “The stakes are high. There are serious — life or death — repercussions if the Congress does not act.”

The measure is largely the same as a version that passed the House last month. Republicans opposed it for leaving out the border funding.

Among the reasons was a demand by House liberals to block the Homeland Security Department from getting information from federal social welfare authorities to help track immigrants residing in the U.S. illegally who take migrant refugee children into their homes.

As the measure languished, disasters kept coming — with failed levees in Arkansas, Iowa and Missouri and tornadoes across Ohio just the most recent examples. The measure is supported by the bipartisan party leadership in both House and Senate.

The legislation is also being driven by Florida and Georgia lawmakers steaming with frustration over delays in delivering help to farmers, towns and military bases slammed by hurricanes last fall. Flooding in Iowa and Nebraska this spring added to the coalition behind the measure, which delivers much of its help to regions where Trump supporters dominate.

The bill started out as a modest $7.8 billion measure passed in the last days of House GOP control. A $14 billion version advanced in the Democrat-led chamber in January and ballooned to $19.1 billion by the time it emerged from the floor last month, fed by new funding for community rehabilitation projects, Army Corps of Engineers water and flood protection projects, and rebuilding funds for several military bases, including Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.

Many Republicans opposed funding to mitigate future disasters as part of rebuilding projects when Superstorm Sandy funding passed in 2013, only to embrace it now that areas such as suburban Houston need it. Democrats, for their part, held firm for what ended up as roughly $1.4 billion for Puerto Rico, letting Trump feud with the U.S. territory’s Democratic officials for weeks and deflecting political blame for stalling the bill.

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Is Trump ‘self-impeaching’ as a political ploy?

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has introduced a new concept into the debate over President Donald Trump’s actions: “self-impeaching.”

As Trump all but goads Democrats into impeachment proceedings, viewing the showdown as potentially valuable for his 2020 re-election campaign, Democrats are trying to show restraint. Their investigations are both intensifying but also moving slowly as Democrats dig into the special counsel’s Trump-Russia report and examine Trump’s finances and governance.

The more they push, the more Trump resists, the president making what Pelosi says is his own case for impeachment with his stonewalling of Congress.

“The president is self-impeaching,” she told her colleagues last week during a private caucus meeting, echoing comments she also aired in public. “He’s putting out the case against himself. Obstruction, obstruction, obstruction. Ignoring subpoenas and the rest.”

She added, “He’s doing our work for us, in a certain respect.”

There is no actual process for self-impeachment. It’s a thought bubble more than a legal term. A pure Pelosi-ism, one that an aide says she coined herself.

But as a device, it’s a way for Pelosi to frame the often complicated idea of the White House refusing to engage with Congress in the traditional process of checks and balances.

“Sometimes people act as if it’s impeachment or nothing,” Pelosi told reporters. “No, it’s not that. It’s a path that is producing results and gathering information.”

In the aftermath of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, the slow drip of congressional oversight also serves a dual purpose politically. It allows Democrats to keep impeachment proceedings at bay, despite calls to push ahead by the liberal flank, while stoking questions about Trump going into the 2020 presidential election.

They note the Watergate investigation dragged on two years before the House Judiciary Committee opened impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon. By the time articles of impeachment were drawn up, the third entry was Nixon’s obstruction of Congress.

Rather than viewing Mueller’s report as the end of the debate, Democrats in Congress have taken his findings as a green light to dig in with their oversight role.

So far, House committees have issued multiple subpoenas for executive branch information, including for an unredacted version of the Mueller report and some million of pages of underlying evidence; for testimony and documents from former White House counsel Don McGahn; for information on Trump’s business dealings; and for Trump’s tax returns.

Others subpoenas have been issued over the administration’s policies on migrant children and on citizenship questions on the census.

“My Democratic colleagues seem to be publicly working through the five stages of grief,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell mused in a floor speech. The Kentucky Republican scoffed at their “laughable threats of impeachment.”

As McConnell declared the “case closed,” he noted that the final stage of grief is acceptance. “For the country’s sake, I hope my Democratic friends get there soon,” he said.

Except Mueller’s 448-page report left Congress with questions. While the special counsel found no evidence the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to swing the 2016 election, Mueller did not render a decision on the question of whether the president obstructed justice in the investigation. “It also does not exonerate him,” the report says.

At least one Republican, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, appears to have questions, too. His committee issued a subpoena for testimony from one of the president’s sons, Donald Trump, Jr. The move sparked fierce blowback among allies of the White House and divided Senate Republicans into two camps: those who backed his oversight role and those who panned it.

Trump, during remarks at the White House, said he was “very surprised.”

What his supporters want to know, the president said, is how the whole question of Russian interference first started. A top Trump ally in Congress, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is starting his own investigation into the investigation, picking up where House Republicans, when they controlled the committees before the lost he majority last year, left off.

House Democrats want Mueller to testify. His report notes that Congress has the ability to “apply the obstruction laws” as part of “our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.” The Democrats want Mueller to more fully explain what he found and what, if anything, he intended for them to do about it.

“Our strategy right now is just to get to the truth and the facts,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

Raskin said he kept a little chart on his notepad during a hearing last week, when the committee voted to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over the full Mueller report, and it was the Republicans who most mentioned impeachment.

“The Republicans would love us to begin impeachment process,” he said. “If we get to impeachment, we’re going to get there on our own schedule and for our own reasons, not because they need to throw some red meat to their base.”

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Barr escalates standoff with House Democrats

Attorney General William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 1, 2019, on the Mueller report. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Attorney General William Barr has informed lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee that he will skip a Thursday hearing on special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, escalating an already acrimonious battle between Democrats and the Justice Department.

Barr’s decision — he cites a disagreement over the questioning — comes the same day the department missed a committee deadline to provide the panel with a full, unredacted version of Mueller’s Russia report and its underlying evidence. Those moves are likely to prompt a vote on holding Barr in contempt, and possibly the issuance of subpoenas — bringing House Democrats and the Trump administration closer to a prolonged battle in court.

Even though Barr informed the panel he isn’t coming, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said he will still hold the hearing Thursday morning, raising the prospect of an empty witness chair.

“I hope and expect the attorney general will think overnight and will be there as well,” Nadler said.

As Barr refused to testify, Democrats sought to speak to Mueller himself. Nadler said the panel hoped the special counsel would appear before the committee on May 15 and the panel was “firming up the date.”

The attorney general’s cancellation meant he would avoid another round of sharp questioning after testifying Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Democrats on the panel charged that Barr was protecting President Donald Trump after he assessed Mueller’s report on his own and declared there wasn’t enough evidence that Trump had committed obstruction of justice. Mueller didn’t charge Trump with obstruction, but wrote that he couldn’t exonerate him, either.

The standoff with Justice Department is one of several fights House Democrats are waging with the Trump administration. Trump has vowed to fight “all of the subpoenas” as multiple committees have sought to speak with administration officials or obtain documents relevant to his policies and finances. Democrats have signaled they won’t back down and will take the steps necessary — including in court — to get the White House to comply.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she’s not interested in impeachment, for the moment. But she told The Associated Press on Wednesday that “the threat of impeachment is always there.”

Nadler, D-N.Y., and the Justice Department traded barbs shortly after Barr informed lawmakers of his decision on the hearing, with Nadler saying the attorney general is “trying to blackmail the committee” by setting his own terms. Barr had objected to the format of the hearing after Democrats decided to let staff attorneys conduct a round of questioning after lawmakers were done.

Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said the staff questioning is “unprecedented and unnecessary.”

Also weighing in on the matter of who would ask questions was Trump. “They want to treat him differently than they have anybody else,” the president told Fox Business Network’s Trish Regan on Wednesday night, adding, “You elect people that are supposed to be able to do their own talking.” Trump said he heard that Barr had performed “incredibly well” before the Senate panel.

It’s unclear whether Barr will eventually negotiate an appearance with the House panel. Nadler said he would not issue a subpoena for Barr’s appearance on Thursday but would first focus on getting the full Mueller report, likely including a vote holding Barr in contempt of Congress.

While a contempt vote would make a strong statement, it is unlikely to force the Justice Department to hand over the report. A vote of the full House on contempt would send a criminal referral to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia — a Justice Department official who is likely to defend the administration’s interests. But even if the U.S. attorney declines to prosecute, Democrats could pursue other avenues in court.

In a letter sent to the committee late Wednesday, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd laid out a list of reasons that the department won’t provide the full Mueller report or all the underlying evidence. Boyd said the special counsel’s investigative files include “millions of pages of classified and unclassified documents, bearing upon more than two dozen criminal cases and investigations, many of which are ongoing.” Boyd also reiterated that the department would not disclose secret grand jury material, another battle that could end up in court if Nadler decides to fight it.

The Justice Department has already made a less-redacted version of the report available for a small number of lawmakers, including Nadler and Pelosi, but Democrats have so far declined to read it, saying they want the entire report released to a wider audience.

Republicans have objected to Nadler’s demands and say the staff questioning is unnecessary. They argue that Democrats are trying to have impeachment hearings without going through the official process of impeachment.

“Chairman Nadler sabotaged his own hearing,” Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., said after Barr canceled. “That’s sad. Because now Republicans and Democrats are not going to be able to question Bill Barr.”

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Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Michael Balsamo, Eric Tucker and Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.

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Democrats saying ‘nada’ to Trump’s budget

House Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Democrats controlling the House are proposing to cut back President Donald Trump’s budget hikes for the Pentagon while significantly increasing spending on the domestic programs they favor.

Tuesday’s move ramps up a battle with Trump and puts the Democratic House on a collision course with the GOP-held Senate as the two chambers consider separate paths forward on the 12 annual spending bills. Work on the legislation is sure to consume lawmakers for months.

Trump’s budget promised a 5% defense budget increase to $750 billion next year, while cutting day-to-day operating budgets for domestic agencies by $62 billion, or 10%.

Trump’s proposal is a nonstarter with Democrats and Republicans alike, but there’s been no progress on forging a bipartisan agreement that would be required to stave off the return of automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.

The Democratic proposal is by Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth of Kentucky and powerful Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey of New York.

The plan would boost funding for nondefense agencies to $639 billion, up from $605 billion now, with $7.5 billion on top of that to cover costs for the U.S. Census.

Defense would get a boost from $716 billion now to $733 billion under the Democratic plan, cutting Trump’s planned Pentagon increase of $34 billion in half.

Yarmuth failed in his efforts to develop a more traditional — but nonbinding — congressional budget plan that would put lawmakers on the record on tax increases, Medicare and agency spending. Divisions among Democrats proved too difficult to overcome, and even the stripped-down plan released Tuesday exposed rifts between party liberals and more pragmatic lawmakers.

The bill is scheduled for a committee vote Wednesday, but liberal Democrat Ro Khanna of California announced Tuesday evening on Twitter that he would oppose the measure, saying it would fund “endless wars” while not adding enough to domestic programs.

At issue is the roughly one-third of the federal budget called discretionary spending that Congress passes each year, which is comprised of Cabinet agency budgets. Larger “mandatory” programs like Medicare and Social Security mostly run on autopilot.

Yarmuth said the plan is “a responsible framework for the country that ensures we make the needed investments for American families, our economy and our security.”

Without a deal signed into law by Trump, crunching budget limits — called spending “caps” in Washington-speak — would kick in, whacking the defense budget down to $576 billion and nondefense agencies down to $543 billion. Lawmakers set the painful limits back in 2011 as a deficit-cutting backstop in case a budget “supercommittee” failed to come up with an alternative.

The supercommittee collapsed in failure and lawmakers have been dealing with the hangover ever since, passing three different two-year deals to set more realistic caps. The most recent catchall spending bill, passed in February to end a 35-day partial government shutdown, marked the end of the most recent agreement.

Republicans immediately blasted Tuesday’s measure, which, unlike prior spending agreements, doesn’t included offsetting spending cuts elsewhere in the budget to limit its impact on the deficit.

“House Democrats are not focused on doing a budget, nor are they focused on addressing our nation’s mountainous debt,” said Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas, the top Republican on the Budget Committee. “This bill doesn’t include offsets or bipartisan input — key components of past caps deals.”

Both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would like to forge another bipartisan agreement to establish higher, more realistic spending levels.

“We have had some conversation about what we would do about the caps and where we go from here,” Pelosi said Tuesday at a Washington event hosted by Politico.

But no real progress has been made, lawmakers and aides say, in great part because the White House is hostile to the idea.

Once Democrats translate their proposal into spending legislation, it’s sure to attract a string of veto threats from the White House.

Instead, speculation has mounted that any measure to ease the automatic cuts may be tacked on this summer to must-pass legislation to maintain the government’s ability to issue bonds to cover its expenses.

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House votes 420-0 for public release of Mueller report

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, the special counsel probing Russian interference in the 2016 election, arrives on Capitol Hill for a closed door meeting before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The House voted unanimously Thursday for a resolution calling for any final report in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation to be made public, a symbolic action designed to pressure Attorney General William Barr into releasing as much information as possible when the probe is concluded.

The Democratic-backed resolution, which passed 420-0, comes as Mueller is nearing an end to his investigation. Lawmakers in both parties have maintained there will have to be some sort of public resolution when the report is done — and privately hope that a report shows conclusions that are favorable to their own side.

Four Republicans voted present: Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar and Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie.

The nonbinding resolution calls for the public release of any report Mueller provides to Barr, with an exception for classified material. The resolution also calls for the full report to be released to Congress.

“This resolution is critical because of the many questions and criticisms of the investigation raised by the president and his administration,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler. “It is important that Congress stand up for the principle of full transparency.”

It’s unclear exactly what documentation will be produced at the end of the probe into possible coordination between associates of President Donald Trump and Russia, and how much of that the Justice Department will allow people to see. Mueller is required to submit a report to Barr, and then Barr can decide how much of that is released publicly.

Barr said at his confirmation hearing in January that he takes seriously the department regulations that say Mueller’s report should be confidential. Those regulations require only that the report explain the decisions to pursue or to decline prosecutions, which could be as simple as a bullet point list or as fulsome as a report running hundreds of pages.

“I don’t know what, at the end of the day, what will be releasable. I don’t know what Bob Mueller is writing,” Barr said at the hearing.

The top Republican on the Judiciary panel, Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, said the vote on the resolution was unnecessary but that he would support it anyway. He said he has no reason to believe that Barr won’t follow the regulations.

But Democrats have said they are unsatisfied with Barr’s answers and want a stronger commitment to releasing the full report, along with interview transcripts and other underlying evidence.

In introducing the resolution, Nadler and five other Democratic committee chairs said “the public is clearly served by transparency with respect to any investigation that could implicate or exonerate the president and his campaign.”

Texas Rep. Will Hurd, a GOP member of the House intelligence committee, said before the vote that he believes the resolution should have been even broader to include the release of underlying evidence.

“I want the American people to know as much as they can and see as much as they can,” said Hurd, a former CIA officer. He added that “full transparency is the only way to prevent future innuendo.”

White House spokesman Hogan Gidley, however, called the resolution “ridiculous.”

“They came in and so many of them said they wanted to work with the president and get things done for infrastructure and health care and instead they’re moving on all these radical ideas,” Gidley said of Democrats in an interview on Fox News.

Gidley said he hadn’t spoken with Trump about whether the report should be made public.

If a full report isn’t released, House Democrats have made it clear they will do whatever they can to get hold of it. Nadler has said he would subpoena the final report and invite — or even subpoena — Mueller to talk about it.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been less eager to push Barr on the release of the report, despite some in his caucus who have said they want to ensure transparency.

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa introduced legislation with Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut that would require Mueller to submit a detailed report to lawmakers and the public at the end of the investigation. But both McConnell and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, have declined to say whether they would support the legislation.

Graham said he agrees “with the concept of transparency,” but stopped short of supporting Grassley’s bill, saying he disagrees with taking discretion away from the attorney general.

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Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report.

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