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Politics

Is Washington headed for another government shutdown? One week to the deadline

Some 800,000 federal workers have only just been made whole for the paychecks they missed in the last government shutdown, and already the deadline looms for the next one.

Congress and President Trump must agree by midnight next Friday on a measure to fund government agencies, or else the lights will go out again.

A bipartisan committee of lawmakers likely will come up with a deal in the next few days, perhaps over the weekend. Whether Trump will accept it remains the big unknown.

Read more about California politics here »

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A FENCE BY ANY OTHER NAME

The emerging congressional deal would funnel more money into border security but probably also put new limits on the number of people immigration enforcement agents could keep in detention.

It would not include as much money as Trump has demanded to build his proposed border wall, but would include funds to build some additional barriers along parts of the border. Democrats could call that a fence, Republicans could call it a wall.

But would Trump call it acceptable?

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That remains unclear as the president continues to send mixed signals, much as he did in December before precipitating what became a 35-day shutdown.

In recent days, Trump has backed away from threatening to declare a national emergency on the border and use it to shift money from other government programs to wall construction. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has warned him against that plan, which would face widespread opposition from lawmakers and almost certain legal challenge.

White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney has said the administration has unspecified other ways to shift funds to the border.

But perhaps a better indicator is a shift in Trump’s language. Rather than demanding money to “build” a wall, he’s increasingly been talking of the need to “finish” it.

More and more, Trump has claimed credit for fencing built by previous administrations. He did so recently when he implied that his administration had built the border fence in the San Diego area that was started under President Clinton and upgraded during the George W. Bush administration.

The reality, of course, is that fences finished under Bush and President Obama already line most of the border from the Pacific through New Mexico. Even in Texas, where most of the border along the Rio Grande remains unfenced, barriers exist in cities such as El Paso.

If Trump decides to claim credit for that, he could tell his followers that the promised wall is already well under way, declare victory and avoid another shutdown.

Will he take that route? One good indication will be his rhetoric when he travels to El Paso for a visit to the border on Monday.

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NEW TRUMP THEME: STOP SOCIALISM

Trump’s State of the Union speech came up short on memorable lines. As Eli Stokols and Noah Bierman reported, it veered between calls for unity and jabs at the Democrats.

As Janet Hook wrote, the speech had two conflicting missions, which accounted in part for why it lacked any thematic unity: One part sought to lay out a governing agenda for the next year and, perhaps, attract some Democratic support; the other kicked off Trump’s reelection bid.

To take the place of “Make America Great Again,” the Trump 2020 campaign seems to have a new theme, as he declared in Tuesday’s speech: “Tonight, we resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”

Calling the Democrats socialists fits two key aspects of Trump’s political situation: He has become ever more dependent on his conservative base, and given his widespread unpopularity, his most likely path to reelection has to involve convincing swing voters to cast ballots against his opponent, rather than for him.

Since Trump almost certainly has a low ceiling on his own vote, he would also benefit from a strong third-party candidate. That’s why so many Democrats are angry over the possibility of an independent bid by Howard Schultz, the billionaire former chief executive of Starbucks, as Mark Barabak explained.

AS DEMOCRATS MOVE LEFT

No question Democrats have moved left. The leading candidates’ economic plans, for example, which I wrote about, provide a deliberate contrast to the caution of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

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Sen. Kamala Harris’ plan would represent a big expansion of government income support for working- and middle-income families, enough to move millions out of poverty, but with a big price tag.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposals wouldn’t cost as much, but would fundamentally restructure large parts of the U.S. economy.

Sen. Cory Booker’s “baby bonds” idea would take a huge step toward narrowing the racial gap in wealth.

On Thursday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced her Green New Deal plan, which each of those senators, as well as other presidential hopefuls, have signed onto.

As Evan Halper wrote, the Green New Deal is shaping the race for the nomination — again in a significant move to the left.

At the same time, however, as Harris told me, if a Democrat wins, there will need to be a “triage” of priorities. A Democrat needs to acknowledge all the needs in the country, Harris said, and must make people feel their concerns have been listened to. But not every need can be met, she said.

THE OPPOSITION AGENDA

Speaker Nancy Pelosi set the tone for Democrats during the State of the Union speech, with carefully calibrated eye rolls and a polite but dismissive mien, as Jennifer Haberkorn and Sarah Wire wrote.

The next day, Democrats rolled out their agenda for the House, unveiling a series of bills they plan to vote on and beginning the first of many investigative hearings.

As Haberkorn and Wire wrote, the legislative agenda largely avoids votes on topics likely to divide Democrats, like how far to go toward a single, government-provided health plan. Instead, it focuses on subjects that unite the party’s factions, including election and campaign-finance reform, background checks for gun purchases and action on climate change.

On the investigative front, the House Intelligence Committee announced its plan to significantly expand the scope of its inquiry into whether foreign governments have influence over Trump, looking at other countries beyond Russia.

As Chris Megerian wrote, the panel’s chairman, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), pledged to “investigate any credible allegation that financial interests or other interests are driving decision-making of the president or anyone in the administration.”

Friday morning, the administration got a taste of the hearings to come as the House Judiciary Committee grilled Acting Atty. Gen. Matthew Whitaker.

WHAT DO PRIMARY VOTERS WANT? ELECTABILITY

The boldly stated economic plans appeal to the party’s liberal base and also give candidates an opening to talk about their underlying values and aspirations.

But while more than half of Democrats now identify themselves as liberal in a recent Gallup survey, that doesn’t necessarily mean that party activists simply want to vote for the most progressive candidate in the mix.

The same polls that show Democrats increasingly identifying as liberal also show them singularly focused on finding a candidate who can beat Trump, even if that person doesn’t share all of their views on major issues.

A survey released Monday by Monmouth University is one of the latest to provide data on that point. Just one-third of Democratic voters said they would favor a nominee who shared their views on major issues if that person would have a hard time beating Trump.

That desire for electability could provide an opening for a candidate like Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown. As Hook wrote, Brown mixes a long, solid record of support for labor unions and liberal causes with a pitch that he can win back white working-class voters in the Midwest. He has avoided some progressive litmus tests — criticizing calls for Medicare for All, for example. He says he’ll decide in a few weeks whether to get into the race.

Another would-be candidate who might pursue a more moderate tack? Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the Texan whose campaign against Sen. Ted Cruz made him a darling of Democratic activists. Although O’Rourke appeals to millennial voters with his skateboarder image, his voting record is notably less liberal than those of Warren or Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is also likely to enter the race soon.

As Halper wrote, O’Rourke sought to rekindle some of his presidential mojo through an interview with Oprah Winfrey in which he pledged a quick decision about whether to enter the race.

That same pragmatic desire to find a winner could prove problematic for Warren, as activists nervously eye her continued trouble with her ancestry, as Bierman wrote.

Warren has tried repeatedly to shake questions over her disputed claims that her family was part Cherokee. Supporters say the attention to the issue is unfair, but even some backers concede that in a big field with lots of options, primary voters could watch Warren’s struggles and decide to move on to the next choice.

“The problem is there are a lot of very good candidates who are very close on the issues, so small differences get focused on,” said former Rep. Barney Frank.

SUPREME COURT MOVES CAUTIOUSLY

By 5-4 vote, the high court on Thursday night voted to block a highly restrictive Louisiana abortion law, at least for now. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joined the court’s four liberals. As David Savage wrote, the decision reflects Roberts’ desire that the court not move quickly to change the status quo on abortion and other divisive issues.

THE VIRGINIA DILEMMA

As Hook and Halper wrote, Democrats face a meltdown in Virginia with the state’s top three elected officials, all Democrats, each enmeshed in scandal.

Gov. Ralph Northam and Atty. Gen. Mark Herring have both admitted wearing blackface costumes as young men while Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax is fighting an allegation of a 2004 sexual assault.

A broad range of Democratic leaders has called on Northam to resign, but so far, he’s staying put. Meantime, the Republican leader of the state Senate also now faces accusations involving blackface.

SEE NO EVIL

The administration has approved a number of requests from Republican-led states to change rules that govern Medicaid, the safety-net program for the poor and disabled.

Federal rules require that Medicaid changes be studied to make sure they don’t harm patients. Increasingly, however, the administration has bent those rules to avoid asking key questions, Noam Levey reported. Advocacy groups say that such studies would show clear harms.

TRUMP BACKS DOWN ON FIRE AID

In an interview with The Times and other news organizations, Trump backed away from his threat to halt emergency funds for California fire victims. As Wire reported, that threat, levied in a tweet last month, had drawn criticism from both parties.

TO CATCH A THIEF

If you haven’t already, read this great yarn by Del Wilber about how federal agents caught up with one of the country’s most successful counterfeiters.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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