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A critical month looms for the Trump administration

A critical month looms for the Trump administration
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Usually, these newsletters look back at the events and coverage of the past week. But with a turbulent summer drawing to a close, let's start this time by looking ahead.

President Trump, who has few accomplishments for his initial seven months in office, is about to plunge into a crucial period. The next four weeks will test whether his White House, with new discipline installed by John Kelly as chief of staff, can effectively work with Congress to pass critical legislation.

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I'm David Lauter, Washington bureau chief. Welcome to the Friday edition of our Essential Politics newsletter, in which we look at the events of the week in Washington and elsewhere in national politics, highlight some particularly insightful stories and, this week, look ahead a bit.

A CRUCIAL MONTH

Within days, perhaps as soon as Friday afternoon, Trump is expected to make a decision on the future of DACA, President Obama's program that shields from deportation some 800,000 young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally.

Trump pledged in his campaign to rescind DACA, but since the inauguration, he has avoided a decision. Administration hard-liners, with the help of conservative Republican state attorneys general, have maneuvered to try to force Trump to make up his mind. Here's Brian Bennett's rundown of where the issue stands.

Ultimately, some administration officials think Trump could announce an end to DACA and then reach a compromise in which he would continue the program in exchange for concessions on other immigration-related issues. So far, however, the administration has not shown much skill at striking such compromises, and Democrats haven't shown much interest in making deals with him.

But horse-trading, or at least efforts at it, will dominate the congressional agenda when lawmakers return to work on Tuesday.

Major items that need to be dealt with by the end of the month, in addition to DACA, include a measure to keep federal agencies running in the new fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, that could include funds to start building Trump's border wall; efforts to stabilize health insurance markets under the Affordable Care Act; legislation to set priorities for the military, which could include a debate on Trump's announced ban on transgender service members; renewal of the National Flood Insurance Program; relief for people in Texas and Louisiana hit by Hurricane Harvey; and, above all, raising the federal debt ceiling.

Cramming all that work into a few, short legislative weeks will test the ability of congressional leaders to keep their members in line and the ability of the White House to keep Trump focused on the tasks at hand, rather than picking renewed fights with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan.

The need to raise the debt limit will drive much of the rest of the agenda. The century-old law that sets a ceiling on federal debt has never really worked to keep federal red ink in check. For most of U.S. history, the government's legal obligations to pay bills, including Social Security checks, salaries of troops in combat and money for hurricane relief, almost always have exceeded its tax receipts. The government makes up the difference by borrowing. That means the total debt grows, and Congress periodically has little choice but to keep raising the debt ceiling.

The alternative — the federal government defaulting on its debt — would risk chaos in the financial system worldwide, possibly causing a new recession, according to business leaders and economic experts of both parties.

Because the legislation is crucial, it becomes a point of leverage. In recent years, conservative Republicans threatened to block debt ceiling increases unless the Obama administration and Democrats made concessions on spending. Many of them will continue to refuse to vote for any debt increase, meaning that Trump and Republican leaders will have to cut a deal with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and her Senate counterpart, Chuck Schumer, to win Democratic votes to get the legislation through. The Democrats will want something in return for their support.

The bazaar is about to open. Stay with us all month as we track the action.

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SOME MAJOR STORIES FROM THIS WEEK

The week's news was dominated, of course, by the massive storm that dropped four feet of rain on Houston and neighboring cities. For comparison's sake, that's more rain in four days than Los Angeles had in five years from 2011 through 2016 — drought years, to be sure.

Trump visited Texas on Tuesday. He hailed officials' response and promised "costly" federal aid. He also got criticism for failing to show any sympathy for the storm's victims. He'll get a chance for a do-over this weekend on a return visit.

On Wednesday, Trump flew to Missouri, where he launched the administration's push for tax cuts with a speech devoid of details on the actual policies he wants Congress to enact. As Jim Puzzanghera wrote, the lack of specifics reflects the reality that the administration and congressional Republican leaders have yet to agree on a plan. They have some tough decisions ahead.

The biggest question is whether to push for actual tax reform — simplifying the tax code — or a more limited bill that would mostly just cut tax rates for corporations and wealthy individuals. Reform would require closing loopholes and other tax preferences to offset the cost of lower rates. It may be too heavy a lift for a relatively weak administration. If the decision is to go simply for tax cuts, the next question will be whether to include something for average families so that the bill is not solely a cut for the wealthy.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and White House economic advisor Gary Cohn say they want a bill voted on by November. With very little decided so far, that will be an ambitious calendar.

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Cohn is one of several Trump aides who have publicly distanced themselves from the president's remarks after the violence in Charlottesville, Va. That has angered the president and may have damaged Cohn's chances of succeeding Janet Yellin as head of the Federal Reserve. For now, however, Trump needs Cohn's help to get a tax bill through. After the failure of administration-backed efforts to repeal Obamacare, a crash of the tax bill would be a political disaster.

As some administration officials have openly criticized Trump, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis was recorded on a widely circulated video making remarks to U.S. troops that many interpreted as a veiled criticism. This week, Mattis disputed that interpretation and denied any rift with Trump.

The president got some slightly supportive words from an unlikely quarter: California Sen. Dianne Feinstein called for "some patience" with the president. Now Feinstein faces a liberal backlash as she ponders reelection, Seema Mehta reported. Some liberal Democrats, including state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León of Los Angeles have hinted at running against Feinstein in next year's primaries.

Feinstein's junior colleague, Sen. Kamala Harris, is making sure to avoid any challenges from the left. This week, Harris announced she would back "Medicare-for-all" legislation, a cause pushed by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Gregory Cheadle got a few unexpected days of fame in 2016 after he appeared at a Trump rally in Redding, Calif., where then-candidate Trump pointed him out and exclaimed: "Look at my African American over here…. Are you the greatest?" Mark Barabak caught up with Cheadle, who now condemns the president's treatment of black America.

Cheadle isn't the only Trump voter who has soured on the president. Trump's hard-core supporters still outnumber the disaffected, and those supporters get the lion's share of attention from the media. But this week, a focus group in Pittsburgh led by the veteran pollster Peter D. Hart turned into a forum for dismayed Trump voters to vent about feeling "disappointed" and "let down."

Notably, the unhappiness those voters expressed focused on Trump's behavior — his tweeting, the fights he picks, his bluster. Not one of the voters in the focus group directly mentioned the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. But the probe, headed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, continues to turn up new evidence, some of which has become public.

Trump's decision last week to pardon former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of contempt of court, was seen by some as a signal to potential witnesses in the Russia probe that the president could pardon them, too, if they remain loyal. But as David Savage explained, pardons in the Russia probe could backfire on Trump.

Meantime, some of Trump's foes, questioning his mental fitness, want to oust him from office using the 25th Amendment. It's a long shot, to say the least. Barabak looked at how that would work.

TECH INDUSTRY AND SEX TRAFFICKING

The website Backpage.com has long been a target of prosecutors and lawmakers who accuse it of profiting from sex trafficking. But the website has a powerful legal shield, a part of the federal Communications Decency Act that essentially says that Internet companies can't be held liable for what others post on their sites. Now, Congress is looking at amendments to the law that would weaken that shield.

As Evan Halper wrote, that prospect has alarmed many tech companies, which fear that in going after Backpage, lawmakers could cause much wider damage to the Internet economy. The debate has put Silicon Valley's allies in Congress in a tough spot as lawmakers try to balance Internet freedom against online sex trafficking.

Yet another item on a very crowded fall agenda for Congress.

ALL THE PRESIDENT'S TWEETS

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Twitter has long been Trump's favored means of pushing his message. We're compiling all of Trump's tweets. It's a great resource. Take a look.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. My colleague Christina Bellantoni will be back Tuesday with the weekday edition of Essential Politics. Until then, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

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

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