The House, the Senate and President Trump are all about to leave Washington for a Thanksgiving break — members of Congress to their districts, the president to his Mar-a-Lago resort.
When they return, a year’s worth of work awaits them: a tax bill, immigration issues, children’s healthcare, and the strong possibility of a partial shutdown of the federal government, all vying for attention with a wild Senate race in Alabama, which features allegations that the Republican candidate, as a younger man, committed sexual misconduct with teenagers.
For Republicans, whose congressional majority currently seems very much at risk, December could be a final opportunity to show voters that they can effectively govern.
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 and highlight some particularly insightful stories.
TAX CUT TAKES ONE STEP FORWARD, HALF STEP BACK
The House passed its version of the tax cut on Thursday, as Lisa Mascaro and Jim Puzzanghera reported, with only a handful of Republican members from New York, New Jersey and California defecting.
The Republicans who voted no come from suburban districts with high real estate costs — places where the tax bill’s limit on the mortgage interest deduction and elimination of the deduction for state and local income taxes will cause a lot of families to see a tax increase, not a cut.
Already, as Mark Barabak found in Orange County, the tax bill has become a serious problem for Republicans going into next year’s midterm elections.
Some of the California Republicans who voted for the bill said they hoped the Senate — or a House-Senate conference — would fix provisions that would raise taxes on some of their constituents. That’s possible.
First, though, the Senate has its own problems to solve.
Pushed by conservatives, including Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and by Trump, Senate leaders agreed to wrap into their version of the tax bill a repeal of the Obamacare requirement that people buy insurance.
The attraction for Republicans was three-fold: Repealing the so-called individual mandate would remove the most unpopular element of the Affordable Care Act. It would partially reverse the sting from the GOP’s repeated failure to keep its promise to repeal the law entirely. And the repeal would save the government money by reducing spending on insurance subsidies. That helps pay for the tax cut.
But that money has to come from some place. The politically uncomfortable fact, according to the non-partisan congressional scorekeepers who provide the guideposts for the tax debate, is that it mostly comes out of the pockets of people earning less than $30,000 a year.
Republican leaders insist that the official estimate overstates the harm to low-income Americans. There’s a good chance that they’re right — even the people who do the forecasts concede the estimate may be too big.
The problem for the GOP is that if they’re right, it also means that repeal of the mandate would save less money than they’re claiming, meaning that the tax cut would cause an even larger increase in the deficit.
All that has GOP senators raising doubts about the bill. When it comes to the floor, it faces a squeeze: Some Republicans, including Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona, worry about swelling the deficit too much. Others, including Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have concerns about the impact on healthcare. Friday morning, Murkowski said she would agree to repeal of the Obamacare mandate only if a separate, bipartisan healthcare bill by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) had been signed into law.
There’s also the worry, as Noam Levey explained, that the deficit increase will trigger automatic, big Medicare cuts, which would be politically painful.
That sounds very much like the scenario that led to the defeat of the Obamacare repeal earlier this year. The difference is that on healthcare, many Republicans really didn’t want to see the repeal pass, even some of those who voted for it. On tax cuts, Republicans do want to get to yes. Finding a pathway, however, remains hard.
THE BATTLE OF ALABAMA
Complicating the picture even further, Republicans could lose the Senate seat from Alabama, which would reduce their current two-vote majority in the Senate to one vote. That’s a big reason why Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is extremely eager to get the tax bill through the Senate before the Alabama election on Dec. 12.
The latest polls mostly show the Democrat, Doug Jones, holding a lead over Roy Moore, the Republican, who has made repeated, but non-specific, denials of the accusations against him. With the GOP holding such a slim margin in the Senate, Trump’s agenda could be at stake.
Moore could still win; Alabama is among the most Republican states in the country, and polling a special election is always hard since turnout is hard to predict. A Democrat has not won a Senate election in Alabama since 1992, when Sen. Richard Shelby won — only to switch parties two years later.
But the parade of national Republican figures who say they believe the allegations are true has clearly taken a toll. This week, as new women continued to step forward with sometimes graphic accusations, including assault, Shelby joined the chorus of GOP leaders saying Moore should quit the race. Republican leaders in Washington even said that if Moore won, they might move to expel him.
Moore has remained defiant, and the Alabama GOP has stuck with him. So, too, have many of the conservative evangelical voters who have long seen him as a champion. But in upscale, suburban Republican precincts, lawns have begun sprouting Jones signs.
As Jennie Jarvie found, the allegations against Moore have posed a tough controversy for Alabama Baptists.
Republican leaders in Washington had hoped that Trump would bail them out by pushing Moore to quit. He hasn’t.
HARASSMENT ON CAPITOL HILL
Trump did find his voice to criticize a Democrat, Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota. As Cathy Decker wrote, Franken apologized and agreed to an ethics investigation on Thursday after he was accused of harassment by a woman who joined him on a USO tour in 2006, when he was still a professional comedian.
The allegations hit after a week in which women shared stories of sexual harassment and assaults on Capitol Hill, as Sarah Wire wrote.
Franken is almost certainly not alone in having some credible allegations of misconduct in his past. An Ethics Committee proceeding could give Senate Democratic and Republican leaders a chance to figure out how they’re going to handle such cases and what punishment will be considered proper, at least in situations where the misconduct happened before a lawmaker was elected.
In a male-dominated institution like the Senate, expulsion seems unlikely, and Franken doesn’t have to face voters until 2020. His accuser, Leeann Tweeden, a news anchor on KABC in Los Angeles, said she doesn’t think he needs to resign.
So, unless more allegations surface, his career may survive, although this fall’s boomlet of “Franken for President” talk is probably over. But there are surely many powerful men on Capitol Hill who looked at the morning’s headlines and shuddered.
OTHER NOTABLE STORIES
The bribery trial of Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) ended with a deadlocked jury and a mistrial, a severe blow to the Justice Department. It was the first trial of a sitting senator in nearly a decade. The last one ended in a conviction that was later overturned because of misconduct by prosecutors.
The Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks are hitting California hard, Evan Halper wrote. Despite state officials’ vows to resist, the state lacks the ability to pick up a lot of the regulatory work the federal government is abandoning.
Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions angrily denied lying to Congress about Trump campaign Russia contacts.
Elsewhere on the administration personnel front, Trump picked a new Health and Human Services secretary, Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical executive and a high-ranking Health and Human Services official during George W. Bush’s second term. His background sharply contrasts with Tom Price, who was forced to resign after he billed taxpayers for unnecessary and expensive charter flights.
And Richard Cordray, one of the last Obama administration holdovers in a key post, announced he is resigning as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
TRUMP’S ASIA TRIP SEEMS SO LONG AGO
But it just ended Tuesday. As Brian Bennett and Noah Bierman wrote, the president was flattered across Asia, and flattered back, but returned with little.
Trump, of course, saw matters differently and proclaimed the trip a great success in a speech Wednesday that cited no major breakthroughs, but was memorable for his awkward swigs of imported Fiji water.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S TWEETS
Toward the end of the trip, Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, insisted, “I do not follow the tweets.” But we do. 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.
That wraps up this week. We’ll take a break next Friday for the holiday. But my colleague Christina Bellantoni will be back Monday 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.
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