More GOP Senators question Trump’s actions

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Now there are four: Are more wavering?

Ohio’a Rob Portman Monday became the fourth Republican Senator to admit president Donald Trump’s use of his office to seek help from Ukraine and China to investigate a political appointment is “inappropriate.”

Portman joins Mitt Romney of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Susan Collins of Maine to break from the Republican ranks in the Senate and raise questions about Trump’s actions that led to a formal impeachment inquiry against Trump.

“We now have cracks in the wall,” says one GOP senior staff member in the Senate.  “Will it start crumbling?”

While Portman admits Trump’s actions are “not appropriate,” he still claims he does not see them as “impeachable offenses” and feels the House “rushed to impeachment assuming things.”

But Trump is running into increasing questions from his one-solid wall of support from the GOP Senate.  Majority leader Mitch McConnell Monday joined a rare bi-partisan group of Republican and Democratic Senator in rebuking Trump’s plan to withdraw U.S. troopers from Syria.

“A precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime,” McConnell said in a statement. “And it would increase the risk that ISIS and other terrorist groups regroup.”

McConnell says it is time for Trump to “exercise American leadership” by reconsidering his plans to pull troops back from the Syrian-Turkey border.  Other Republicans in the Senate agree.

“This betrayal of the Kurds will also severely harm our credibility as an ally the world over,” Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) said. “President Trump should rethink this decision immediately.”

Democrats have also condemned the withdrawal plans but the growing Republican opposition shows a new area of concern from Republicans.

“The Trump has made a great administration has made a grave mistake that will have implications,” said Sen. GOP Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

“So sad. So dangerous” says usually staunch Trump ally Sen Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on Twitter. “President Trump may be tired of fighting radical Islam.  They are NOT tired of fighting us.”

At least one Republican says criticism of the Syria move wile standing fast with Trump on the Ukraine debacle that has resulted in formal impeachment probes is hypocritical, at best.

“The Ukraine issue is personal, it is a real threat to the president, and a lot of Republicans know they will face his wrath if they defy him,” former congressman Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), a critic of Trump who was ousted in the 2018 midterms, tells The Washington Post. “The issue of our presence in Syria is more obviously a substantive policy issue, where it’s safer to disagree with the president. If Republicans want to be consistent, they should speak out about both.”

“They can speak up, but they can’t so anything,” says former senator Judd Gregg (R-NH).

One thing it has done is bring Republicans and Democrats together in a rare bipartisan rebuke of Trump.

McConnell says 68 Senators voted to rebuke Trump in January when he threatened to withdraw troops from Syria — a majority that overrides a presidential veto.

“The conditions that produced that bipartisan vote still exist today,” he says.

A joint statement from Sen. Romney (R-Utah) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn) adds:

Barring a reversal of this decision, the Administration must come before Congress and explain how betraying an ally and ceding influence to terrorists and adversaries is not disastrous for our national security interests.

With four Republican Senators also now saying Trump’s actions with Ukraine and China in asking for help to discredit former Vice President Joe Biden are “inappropriate” and “out of line,” some wonder if Trump’s hold on the GOP is weakening.

__________________________________________________________
Copyright © 2019 Capitol Hill Blue

 

Is Congress ready to avert government shutdown?

The Capitol (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The House is set to pass a government-wide temporary spending bill to prevent a federal shutdown when the budget year ends Sept. 30.

The bipartisan measure would give lawmakers until the Thanksgiving break to pass and negotiate $1.4 trillion worth of annual agency spending bills. Those bills would fill in the details of this summer’s budget and debt agreement between President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Thursday’s House vote comes as the Republican-controlled Senate struggles to process its versions of the follow-up spending bills amid partisan skirmishing over the boundaries of the budget agreement and Trump’s moves to pay for the U.S.-Mexico border fence without approval by Congress.

The Senate is likely to adopt the stopgap bill with plenty of time before the deadline.

__________________________________________________________
Copyright © 2019 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

McConnell: Gun control ‘in a holding pattern’

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., joined at left by Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., speaks to reporters during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Six weeks after a pair of mass shootings killed more than 30 people, Congress remains “in a holding pattern” on gun control as lawmakers await proposals from the White House, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

While President Donald Trump has said he would veto a House-passed bill to expand background checks for gun purchases, McConnell said Tuesday he is hopeful there are other gun-related proposals that Congress can approve and Trump can support.

“I still await guidance from the White House as to what (Trump) thinks he’s comfortable signing,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters. “If and when that happens, then we’ll have a real possibility of actually changing the law and hopefully making some progress.”

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said McConnell and Trump were blocking meaningful action on gun violence, adding, “This is the moment for the president to do something different and courageous.”

The New York Democrat said he wonders whether Trump will “rise to the occasion, or will he squander this opportunity as he always has done in the past?”

Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned Trump on Sunday that any proposal on gun control must include the House-passed bill to expand background checks. Pelosi and Schumer spoke with Trump by phone and said they made it clear any proposal that does not include the House legislation “will not get the job done” because dangerous loopholes will be left open.

Schumer said Tuesday he was “not encouraged by what the president said” but remained committed to pushing for stricter gun control measures. Senate Democrats planned to speak for hours on the Senate floor to urge passage of background checks and other measures in the wake of mass shootings in Texas and Ohio last month that left dozens of people dead.

Trump and White House aides have discussed a number of gun control measures with members of Congress, including steps to go after fraudulent buyers, notify state and local law enforcement when a potential buyer fails a background check, issue state-level emergency risk protection orders, boost mental health assistance and speed up executions for those found guilty of committing mass shootings.

Trump hopes to reveal something on gun control to the American public “very soon,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Tuesday. The White House expects the gun proposal later this week or early next week, according to a person familiar with the administration’s thinking.

Attorney General William Barr and White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland met with GOP senators Tuesday to talk about a path forward. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said background checks remained under discussion, but it was not clear whether progress was being made.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said background checks did not come up during a lunch meeting Tuesday between Senate Republicans and Vice President Mike Pence.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., cautioned against overinterpreting the relative silence by the White House. “My guess is they’re still vetting ideas, proposals and kind of putting together their plan,” he said.

Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who has helped lead a bipartisan push to expand background checks, said he had not spoken to Trump since late last week. Manchin said he considers a proposal he is offering with Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey a starting point for legislative action.

“You can’t water it down because that’s the bedrock,” Manchin said, adding that senators and the White House haven’t agreed on anything yet. “We’re just going to see where it goes,” he said.

___

Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro, Zeke Miller and Alan Fram contributed to this report.

__________________________________________________________
Copyright © 2019 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Abortion, border wall tie up spending bills in Senate

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., arrives for a news conference following a Senate policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Fights over abortion and President Donald Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall have thrown Senate efforts to advance $1.4 trillion worth of agency spending bills into disarray, threatening one of Washington’s few bipartisan accomplishments this year.

A government shutdown remains unlikely, but agencies face weeks or months on autopilot while frozen at this year’s levels if the logjam isn’t broken.

At issue are 12 annual budget bills to fund the day-to-day operations of the government. The bills are needed to fill in the details of this summer’s budget and debt deal — which reversed cuts scheduled to slash the Pentagon and domestic programs and increased the government’s borrowing cap so it won’t default on its payments and Treasury notes.

Sweeping votes on July’s budget blueprint were a kumbaya moment in Trump’s polarized capital. But the Senate Appropriations Committee, tasked with filling in the details, has been beset by infighting in advance of a bill drafting session on Thursday.

Democrats complain that panel chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., following the lead of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is shortchanging the popular health and education measure to fund Trump’s $5 billion request for his border wall. They are also furious about Trump’s moves to raid $3.6 billion in military base construction projects to pay for 11 additional border fence segments totaling 175 miles (282 kilometers) in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

“That’s created a real problem,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the most senior member of the Appropriations Committee. “To take money from substandard schools for children of military people … that’s left a very bad taste.”

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is poised with an amendment to an almost $700 billion Pentagon funding bill to block Trump’s unprecedented fiscal maneuvers, and he has several potential GOP allies on the committee.

Durbin’s threat doesn’t seem to have Republicans on edge, but Republicans say that Democrats such as Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a savvy panel insider, are breaking summertime promises to avoid adding “poison pills” to the measures that could bog them down or attract Trump veto promises.

In particular, Murray is pressing to overturn a Trump executive order that takes away federal family planning funds from organizations like Planned Parenthood that counsel women about their abortion options.

The stakes were raised last month when Planned Parenthood announced it would stop accepting Title X federal family planning funds rather than comply with a Department of Health and Human Services edict to comply with the abortion counseling ban. Two Planned Parenthood clinics in Ohio closed this week.

Murray’s amendment would likely pass the Appropriations panel, where two pro-abortion rights GOP women would likely side with her. Facing that prospect, Shelby dropped the health funding measure from the agenda, along with a foreign aid bill that also faced an abortion controversy.

“His gag order changed Congress’ intent” to award family planning grants to organizations such as Planned Parenthood, Murray said. “Title X has had bipartisan support forever.”

The panel has a long history of smoothing over its differences on abortion in the interest of getting its legislation passed, however, and both sides want to press on and work out the challenges. House members like Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., are eager to start House-Senate conference committee talks aimed at legislation both chambers can pass, as is McConnell.

“We’re hopefully going to get past this little rough patch and get back to the agreement we all signed onto,” McConnell said Wednesday.

“We’ll get it done because there’s a desire to get it done,” Leahy said. “We know how to do it.”

__________________________________________________________
Copyright © 2019 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Franken regrets resigning from Senate

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., second from right, holds hands with his wife Franni Bryson, left, as he leaves the Capitol after speaking on the Senate floor on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Former Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota told The New Yorker magazine in a story published Monday that he “absolutely” regrets resigning from the Senate after several women accused him of unwanted kissing or touching.

In the same article, seven current or former senators say they regret calling for Franken’s resignation in December 2017. Franken resigned his seat after conservative talk radio host Leeann Tweeden and seven other women accused him of sexual harassment.

The article, Franken’s first interview since leaving the Senate, calls into question some of the assertions against Franken and quotes several female former staff members and close friends who described him as physically clumsy but not predatory.

Franken said at the time that the allegations were false, and he repeats that in The New Yorker article. A former comedian who made his name on “Saturday Night Live,” Franken resigned amid a national wave of sexual harassment allegations against men in powerful positions as the #MeToo movement was gaining momentum.

Both Franken and Tweeden had called for an independent investigation at the time, but none was conducted before fellow Democrats forced Franken to resign three weeks after Tweeden made her claims.

Asked by The New Yorker whether he regretted stepping down, Franken said: “Oh, yeah. Absolutely.”

“I can’t go anywhere without people reminding me of this, usually with some version of ‘You shouldn’t have resigned,’” he told the magazine.

Tweeden alleged in 2017 that Franken told her during a USO tour to entertain soldiers in 2006 that he had written a comedy skit with her in mind that required her to kiss him. She said Franken forcibly kissed her and stuck his tongue in her mouth during a rehearsal of the sketch before they performed it in Afghanistan.

The New Yorker cited two actresses, Karri Turner and Traylor Portman, who had played the same role as Tweeden on earlier USO tours with Franken. Both told the magazine that they had performed the same role as Tweeden on earlier tours with Franken and that there was nothing inappropriate about his behavior.

Tweeden also released a photo showing Franken, who was then a comedian, reaching out toward her breasts, as if to grope her, as she slept in a flak jacket while on a military aircraft during the USO tour. The New Yorker reported that the pose echoed another USO skit in which a “Dr. Franken” approaches Tweeden’s character with his hands aiming at her breasts.

Tweeden, during her KABC-AM radio show in California on Monday, briefly reacted to The New Yorker article by saying she wishes she had been among the women who performed the kissing skit with Franken and didn’t feel like they had been harassed.

“I wish I was in that group,” she said.

Seven senators who had called for Franken’s resignation said they’d been wrong to do so. They are Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, now-former Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico and now-former Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida.

Leahy said that seeking Franken’s resignation without first getting all the facts was “one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made” in his 45-year Senate career.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York was among the first to call for Franken’s resignation. Some Democratic donors have turned away from Gillibrand because of that, hurting her 2020 bid for the presidency.

“I’d do it again today,” Gillibrand said in the article. “If a few wealthy donors are angry about that, it’s on them.”

Asked at an event in New York late Monday if she regretted calling for Franken’s resignation, Gillibrand said she “could have told” any of the senators who are now expressing remorse that “there is no prize for someone who tries to hold accountable a powerful man who is good at his day job. But we should have the courage to do it anyway.”

“So no,” Gillibrand added. “I do not have any regrets.”

She also noted that female senators like herself were hounded every day about whether they would call for Franken’s resignation while their male colleagues were not.

“Let’s be clear, there is absolutely a double standard,” Gillibrand said. “Women are asked to hold accountable their colleagues; the men are not. Who is being held accountable for Al Franken’s decision to resign? Women senators, including me. It’s outrageous. It’s absurd.”

Franken was replaced in the Senate by Tina Smith, a Democrat appointed by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton who had been serving as his lieutenant governor. Smith won a special election in 2018 and is running in 2020 for a full six-year term. Several Republicans are weighing bids to challenge her.

__________________________________________________________
Copyright © 2019 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Trump bypasses Senate while Republicans say nothing

Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

President Donald Trump’s latest anointment of an acting head of a major federal agency has prompted muttering, but no more than that, from Republican senators whose job description includes confirming top administration aides.

Their reluctance to confront Trump comes as veterans of the confirmation process and analysts say he’s placed acting officials in key posts in significantly higher numbers than his recent predecessors. The practice lets him quickly, if temporarily, install allies in important positions while circumventing the Senate confirmation process, which can be risky with Republicans running the chamber by a slim 53-47 margin.

The latest example is Ken Cuccinelli, who last week was named acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. He is an outspoken supporter of hard-line immigration policies and his appointment was opposed by some key Senate Republicans.

Definitive listings of acting officials in Trump’s and other administrations are hard to come by because no agency keeps overall records. Yet Christina Kinane, an incoming political science professor at Yale, compiled data in her doctoral dissertation, “Control Without Confirmation: The Politics of Vacancies in Presidential Appointments.”

Kinane found that from 1977 through mid-April of this year — the administrations of President Jimmy Carter through the first half of Trump’s — 266 individuals held Cabinet posts. Seventy-nine of them held their jobs on an acting basis, or 3 in 10.

Under Trump, 22 of the 42 people in top Cabinet jobs have been acting, or just over half.

And though Trump’s presidency has spanned only about 1 in 20 of the years covered, his administration accounts for more than 1 in 4 of the acting officials tallied. Kinane’s figures include holdovers from previous administrations, some of whom serve for just days.

“This is not a new thing,” Kinane said of presidents’ use of acting officials. “It is, however, a considerably higher number” under Trump, she said.

While Republicans widely blame Democratic opposition to Trump’s nominees for his use of acting officials to fill some posts — a characterization Democrats reject — many also say his reliance on that alternative is costly.

“It has the potential to spill over into other nominations that the president’s prioritized,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said of Cuccinelli’s appointment. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said acting officials have “tenuous footing” for overseeing their agencies, while Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she wants confirmed department chiefs because she “wants to know who’s on point” for the administration on issues.

Yet no Republicans said they had challenged Trump’s use of acting officials. Many of them complained openly when President Barack Obama named special White House advisers informally called czars. And a year after President Bill Clinton named civil rights lawyer Bill Lann Lee acting attorney general for civil rights in 1997, Congress passed a law limiting the time acting officials can serve, generally to no more than 210 days.

“I don’t know who spends their day worrying” that their acquiescence was fraying the Senate’s constitutional power to advise and consent on nominees, said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Democrats and experts disagree on the importance of the Senate’s role.

“They’re almost like they’re willing to act as staff members (of the White House) rather than independent senators,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a senator since 1975.

“They’re not standing up for their own institution,” said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a nonresident scholar at the Brookings Institution who has studied White House staffing.

Cuccinelli, a former attorney general of Virginia, has taken hard-line positions on immigration, such as opposing citizenship for American-born children of parents living in the U.S. illegally. He once led a conservative group that considered Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., too moderate, and many Republicans doubt Cuccinelli could win confirmation.

“That’s probably the only way they could get him in there,” the No. 2 Senate GOP leader, John Thune of South Dakota, said of Trump’s naming Cuccinelli acting director.

Also in an acting position are two Cabinet secretaries, Kevin McAleenan of the Homeland Security Department and Patrick Shanahan at the Defense Department. Others in the acting roles are Director Russell Vought of the Office of Management and Budget, U.N. Ambassador Jonathan Cohen and White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. All but Mulvaney would need Senate approval to become permanent, and Trump has sent the Senate a nominee for just one of those jobs: Kelly Craft to be the ambassador to the U.N.

A White House spokesman did not provide a list of acting officials or comment on why Trump was relying on them, despite requests over several days. Trump has said he likes naming acting officials, telling reporters in January, “It gives me more flexibility.”

But one explanation is that under Trump, the process of filling jobs has been slow and riddled with missteps.

Trump has withdrawn 63 nominees so far, doubling the 31 Obama retracted at this point in his first term, according to the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, which studies ways to improve government effectiveness. He’s also decided against nominating some candidates after realizing the GOP-led Senate would reject them, including two would-be picks for the Federal Reserve: businessman Herman Cain and conservative commentator Stephen Moore.

In addition, Trump’s 568 nominations during his first year in office were more than 100 fewer than Obama submitted during that period, partnership figures show.

Max Stier, the group’s president and CEO, said Trump’s use of acting officials is partly because his campaign’s preparations for its transition into power were “the worst of any recent president.” But he said a desire to avoid difficult or rejected Senate confirmations “does appear to be one element, and the most obvious example of that is Ken Cuccinelli.”

___

AP news researcher Jennifer Farrar contributed to this report.

__________________________________________________________
Copyright © 2019 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved