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Driving the week: infrastructure, immigration, budget, Porter fallout
Here's what's driving the week ahead in Washington...
Infrastructure: It's Infrastructure Week! (Again.) President Donald Trump will unveil his long-awaited infrastructure plan today, laying out his initiative to stimulate $1.5 trillion in new spending on public works projects. The plan would invest $200 billion in federal money on infrastructure, while calling for the remaining $1.3 trillion to come from state or local governments and the private sector.
“Every federal dollar should be leveraged by partnering with state and local governments and — where appropriate — tapping into private sector investment to permanently fix the infrastructure deficit,” the President said in the State of the Union address, previewing his plan.
The $200 billion in direct federal spending would be split four ways, CNN reports: $100 billion "would be parceled out as incentives to local government entities," $20 billion "would go toward 'projects of national significance' that can 'lift the American spirit,'" $50 billion would be given to states as "rural block grants," while the remaining $30 billion "would support other infrastructure-related undertakings."
According to the Associated Press, the plan features two key components: "an injection of funding for new investments and help speed up repairs of crumbling roads and airports, as well as a streamlined permitting process that would truncate the wait time to get projects underway." The initiative finalizes one of Trump's top campaign promises; he would frequently refer to the U.S.' "crumbling" roads and bridges when running for president, and has spoken of his hope to attract Democratic support for the bipartisan priority.
However, the plan's future on Capitol Hill is uncertain, especially because the White House will not be laying out how the plan will be paid for. Instead, the Trump Administration is leaving finding a funding mechanism up to Congress. One potential idea that the White House expressed openness to is raising the federal gas tax for the first time since 1993, which has been proposed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The White House also suggested that Congress make room for the infrastructure investment by making cuts to existing infrastructure projects or other expenses in the budget.
Immigration: The Senate begins an open-ended debate on immigration today, the result of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)'s promise to Democrats at the end of the government shutdown last month. McConnell is taking the rare step of allowing a free-for-all to take place on the Senate floor, signaling that he will allow a vote on any plan that has the support of a filibuster-proof 60 senators.
McConnell hasn't tipped his hand to anyone — not the press, not his top deputies, not the White House; instead, he says, the will of the Senate will prevail, promising unlimited amendment votes until the chamber settles the issue. The Senate debate comes as 800,000 "Dreamers," undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as minors, remain in limbo ahead of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program's expiration on March 5.
A number of plans have already begun circulating among senators, with more expected to come as the debate drags on. Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley (IA), Tom Cotton (AR), Joni Ernst (IA), John Cornyn (TX), Thom Tillis (NC), David Perdue (GA), and James Lankford (OK) announced plans on Sunday to introduce legislation based on the White House immigration framework. The framework includes a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million "Dreamers," as well as boosting border security by $25 billion, fully funding the President's proposed border wall, ending the diversity visa lottery program, and limiting family-based immigration, known as "chain migration." Since it has the President's support, Cotton said theirs "is the only bill that has a chance of becoming law."
Bipartisan proposals on the table include the proposals by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Chris Coons (D-DE) and another by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-IL), both of which would provide legal status to "Dreamers" while providing enhanced border security funding, without allocating funds specifically for a border wall. The White House has blasted both bills, especially McCain-Coons, which would not make changes to the legal immigration system, leaving the visa lottery and "chain migration" unchanged.
According to Politico, "a bipartisan group of senators believes it is close to clinching an immigration plan that has significant support in both parties"; Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who is currently backing Durbin-Graham, is also working towards a simpler plan extending DACA for three years in return for border money.
Budget: President Trump's budget request is set to be released at 11:30am today, a blueprint for the White House's spending priorities that is unlikely to make an impact in light of the $300 billion budget agreement Trump signed into law on Friday, which set funding levels for the next two years.
According to Politico, the President's budget calls for a $716 billion increase in defense spending while making cuts to many domestic programs. Other priorities in the budget include border security, which receives $23 billion in Trump's proposal; combatting opioid addiction, which receives $17 billion; and veterans' health care, which receives $85.5 billion.
This year's budget request is titled "Efficient, Effective, Accountable: An American Budget." The plan would reduce the deficit by $3 trillion over the next decade, but it would not aim to achieve the longtime Republican goal of balancing the federal budget, according to the Washington Post. Such a goal would likely be made more difficult after the GOP tax cuts bill and last week's bipartisan budget deal, both of which are expected to increase the federal deficit.
Porter fallout: It's a new week, but the White House continues to face questions over its handling of former staff secretary Rob Porter's exit amid allegations of spousal abuse. The situation has raised questions on national security, after the revelation that Porter was one of dozens of White House aides working in high-level posts without permanent security clearance, as well as on chief of staff John Kelly's management skills, as Kelly was reportedly aware of the allegations for months but only accepted Porter's resignation once photographs of his ex-wife's black eye became public.
Kelly's timeline has repeatedly shifted in recent days, now claiming that he took action to remove Porter within 40 minutes after learning the full extent of the allegations last week, which is contradicted by his public statement defending Porter in face of the accusations and his reportedly urging the staffer to stay on.
According to the New York Times and other outlets, Kelly has told White House colleagues that he is "willing to step down" over the allegations. Trump has reportedly floated potential replacements for Kelly to associates, such as White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and businessman Tom Barrack.
Despite his anger towards Kelly and White House communications director Hope Hicks, who helped draft the initial response defending Porter despite her romantic involvement with him, Trump is not currently expected to remove either aide. "I spoke to the president last night," White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Sunday on CNN's 'State of the Union.' "I told him I would be with you today. And he said, 'Please tell [host] Jake [Tapper] that I have full faith in Chief of Staff John Kelly and I'm not actively searching for replacements.'" Other aides defended Kelly on the Sunday shows as well, including Mulvaney, who said he had no interest in the position.
President Trump has also publicly weighed in on the Porter allegations, tweeting on Saturday that "lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation." He added: "There is no recovery for someone falsely accused - life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?" On Friday, Trump praised Porter in comments in the Oval Office and cited his aide's denials of the allegations, but notably didn't express sympathy to the women who have accused him of abuse.
A second White House aide, speechwriter David Sorensen, resigned on Friday, amid abuse allegations. Like Porter, he denies his ex-wife's accusations.
Weekend Review: Other news from Friday... President Trump blocked release of a Democratic memo countering Republican allegations of FBI abuses, calling for redactions of classified information (what's next, via the Wall Street Journal)... Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand, the No. 3 official at the Justice Department, is stepping down after just nine months on the job, taking a prominent post at Walmart amid turmoil at DOJ (the details, via CBS News).
Corker's second thoughts: Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) has discussed with colleagues whether he should reconsider his decision to retire from the Senate next year. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell view, according to the report, is that Corker would need the President's blessing; Trump and Corker have feuded extensively in the past, with the Tenessee Republican calling the White House an "adult day care center." (CNN)
Nunes' news site: House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) has created his own partisan news outlet, "The California Republican," paid for by his campaign committee. (Politico)
Recommended read... "Has Anyone Seen the President?" (Bloomberg)
The President's Schedule
At 11am, President Trump hosts a meeting with state and local officials about his infrastructure initiative.
At 11:45am, he receives his intelligence briefing.
--- Related: "Breaking with tradition, Trump skips president’s written intelligence report and relies on oral briefings" (Washington Post)
At 12:15pm, Trump meets with Vice President Mike Pence.
Finally, at 12:30pm, the President has lunch with Vice President Pence and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Today in the Senate
The Senate meets at 3:30pm today. Following Leader remarks, the chamber will begin its open-ended debate over immigration legislation. At 5:30pm, the Senate will hold a vote to begin debate on the vehicle for the eventual immigration bill.
Today in the House
No votes are expected in the House today.