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Wake Up To Politics - November 15, 2017

I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP World HQ in my bedroom. It’s Wednesday, November 15, 2017. 356 days until Election Day 2018. 1,085 days until Election Day 2020. Have comments, questions, suggestions, or tips? Email me at gabe@wakeuptopolitics.com. Tell your friends to sign up to receive the newsletter in their inbox at wakeuptopolitics.com/subscribe!

Senate Republicans Combine Health Care, Tax Reform

Senate Republicans will include a repeal of Obamacare's individual mandate in their tax reform plan, according to revised legislation released by Senate Finance Committee chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) on Tuesday night. The modified tax plan will also make a number of tax breaks temporary to ensure compliance with the Senate rules. Here are the changes:

The last-minute combination of health care and tax reform comes after Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) announced he would offer an amendment to the Senate legislation repealing the individual mandate; instead, Finance Committee Republicans voted unanimously to change their plan to include this modification. The individual mandate is an Affordable Care Act provision requiring individuals to have health insurance and enacting a fine on those who remain uninsured. President Donald Trump had also pushed for repeal of the individual mandate to be added to tax reform; Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) was another top proponent of the change. The repeal would begin taking place in 2019.

According to Bloomberg, the revised plan would also "sunset key middle-class tax cuts starting in 2026 to comply with Senate rules -- including income tax rate reductions, the doubling of the standard deduction and an increase in the child tax credit," doing the same for "a tax break for partnerships, limited liability companies and other so-called pass-through businesses." starting on Jan. 1, 2026. However, major provisions, such as the corporate rate reduction from 35 percent to 20 percent, remain permanent.

These changes would avoid adding more to the long-term deficit than legislation can under the reconciliation process (which allows a bill to pass with just a simple majority); repealing the individual mandate also helps with this goal, saving an estimated $338 billion in 10 years. According to the Congressional Budget Office, repealing the provision would also lead to 13 million Americans losing health insurance.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the new GOP plan would use the money saved by the repeal to increase middle-class tax cuts, increasing the child tax credit and dropping the tax rates in three brackets.

Senate Republican leaders remain confident that the Senate plan could pass with 50 votes, despite the chamber's rejection of a plan to repeal Obamacare in July. At the time, Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), John McCain (R-AZ), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) voted against the repeal legislation; McCain appeared open to combining the two GOP priorities on Tuesday, while neither Collins nor Murkowski seemed supportive to the idea in comments to reporters. They both noted the possible increase in premiums that would be caused by healthy individuals exiting the insurance market.

Repealing the individual mandate could also trigger passage of the bipartisan health care compromise between Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) to help stabilize insurance markets. "Republican support for the Alexander-Murray bill will be very strong" if the mandate is repealed, the former said. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) signaled Tuesday that the Alexander-Murray legislation is expected to be included in negotiations ahead of the December 8 government funding deadline, although passing the bill in the House would likely be an uphill battle.

The Senate's changes could also have an effect on the House tax reform legislation, which the chamber is set to vote on Thursday. House conservatives are urging leaders to repeal the individual mandate in their bill, but such a change is unlikely before a vote. Republican Study Committee chairman Mark Walker (R-NC), a conservative leader who offered an amendment to include repeal of the mandate in the House bill, has already pledged his support for the tax reform proposal. Most of the expected "nay" votes on the House plan hail from high-tax states of New York, New Jersey, or California, where lawmakers are protesting the repeal of the state and local tax (SALT) deductions.

Senate Democrats immediately announced their opposition to the revised tax bill. "Rather than learning the lessons from their failure to repeal health care, Republicans are doubling down on the same partisan strategy that would throw our health care system into chaos," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said in a statement. "If the American people weren't already outraged by this bill, injecting health care into it will certainly do the trick."

Health care industry groups, representing doctors (the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Family Physicians), hospitals (the American Hospital Association and the Federation of American Hospitals), and insurers (America's Health Insurance Plans and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association), penned a joint letter to lawmakers on Tuesday underlining their opposition to a bill removing the individual mandate.

McConnell pushing Sessions as alternative to Moore

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that Alabama Republican Senate nominee Roy Moore's campaign is "collapsing" at a Wall Street Journal event on Tuesday, repeating his call on Moore to withdraw from the race.

McConnell said that the party was in a discussion "about how to salvage this seat if possible," including the possibility of another Republican waging a write-in campaign in the December 12 special election. McConnell even named a potential candidate who he would support: Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the former occupant of the Senate seat in question whose January move to the Justice Department triggered this election in the first place.

Adding that a write-in candidate would need popularity and name recognition, McConnell said: "The Alabamian who would fit that profile would be the Attorney General. He's totally well known and extremely popular in Alabama." McConnell said that he has discussed the situation with White House chief of staff John Kelly and Vice President Mike Pence.

According to Politico, McConnell is hoping that Trump will urge Moore to drop out of the race, clearing the field for another GOP candidate. Sessions would only be that candidate with Trump's approval; now that he has returned from Asia, the President is expected to become more involved in these discussions soon. While Sessions is reportedly set on keeping his DOJ post, a return to the Senate would be a graceful exit from his currently tenuous position amid criticism from Trump over his handling of the Russia probe.

McConnell joins five other Senate Republicans floating write-in alternatives for the seat, including Sessions and Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL), who holds the seat on an interim basis. More in my updated spreadsheet of how every Republican senator has responded to the Moore allegations... as of this publication, just two GOP senators have yet to respond publicly...

Sessions testifies on Russia, Clinton

Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, facing tough questions on the Russia probe and other issues. Despite testifying last month that he was "not aware" of Trump campaign officials communicating with Russians during the 2016 election, Sessions said on Tuesday that he does "now recall" a March 2016 meeting of the Trump campaign foreign policy team where adviser George Papadopoulos discussed his talks with Russian officials, as detailed in Papadopoulos' plea deal with Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

However, Sessions said he has "no clear recollection of the details of what [Papadopoulos] said during that meeting." Sessions also said he did not remember Trump aide Carter Page informing him of his trip to Moscow; Page has testified that he told Sessions about the trip in summer 2016. While Sessions says he does "not challenge [Page's] recollection," he has "no memory" of such a conversation.

Sessions also weighed in on the Alabama Senate race, saying he has "no reason to doubt these women" accusing GOP nominee Roy Moore, and on Republican calls on him to investigate Hillary Clinton, saying that there was "not enough basis to appoint a special counsel."

Sexual harassment in Congress

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) announced on Tuesday that the House will require all members and their aides to undergo anti-sexual harassment training. The announcement came after two female lawmakers accused sitting male colleagues of sexual harassment earlier in the day.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) testified before a House panel that two sitting members of Congress have "engaged in sexual harassment," while others have groped women on the House floor. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) said that she heard from a young female staffer quit her job after a male lawmaker exposed himself to her at his residence. Neither Speier nor Comstock named the men they were accusing.

The President's Day

After returning home from his lengthy, 12-day Asia trip last night, President Donald Trump has no public events scheduled today. Trump originally said earlier this week that he would be making a "major statement" on the results of his trip, on trade and North Korea, today, but it seems the announcement has been moved. The President tweeted yesterday, "I will be making a major statement from the @White House upon my return to D.C. Time and date to be set."

As of this publication, Trump has already tweeted five times this morning, thanking two pro-Trump accounts (@Capetown_Eagle and @Trumpfan1995) for their support, calling CNN "fake" and a "loser," praising "Fox and Friends," and tweeting that "you will see the fruits of our long but successful trip for many yers to come!"

Today in the Senate

The Senate continues its swift confirmations of a series of President Trump's executive branch nominees today. The chamber is scheduled to vote to confirm Mark Esper to be Secretary of the Army and David G. Zatezalo to be Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health today.

Esper's résumé includes stints as an officer in the U.S. Army, chief of staff at the Heritage Foundation, staffer on multiple congressional panels, an aide to former Sen. Chuck Hagel and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Negotiations Policy under President George W. Bush, adviser to Fred Thomposn's 2008 presidential campaign, and as vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Since 2010, he has been the vice president of government relations at Raytheon, a top defense contractor.

Esper is Trump's third nominee to lead the Army, following two withdrawals; he was tapped for the post in July, but Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain (R-AZ) initially delayed Eser's nomination due to other complaints about the Trump Administration's transparency on military issues. Esper was approved by McCain's committee in a voice vote last week.

If confirmed, Zatezalo will become head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). He has sparked opposition due to his four decades of experience in the coal mining industry, including as president of a company that received two notices that from MSHA during his tenure, "indicat[ing] a mine has had a recurring pattern of significant and substantial violations"; they "came after a miner’s death at one mine and allegations of interference in mine inspections at another," according to WVIK. Zatezalo was approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, 12-11, last month.

The Senate will also vote to advance the nomination of Joseph Otting to be Comptroller of the Currency, a Treasury Department post that oversees federally-chartered banks.

Today in the House

The House is scheduled to vote on ten pieces of legislation today:

  • the Connected Government Act, requiring new federal websites be mobile-friendly;
  • the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) in the House and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) in the Senate to take steps to integrate date and evidence into the government's policymaking process;
  • a bill allowing the Defense Department to request that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) "expedite development of medical products to prevent deaths on the battlefield," according to Bloomberg. The measure is the product of a bipartisan deal replacing a provision originally in the defense authorization bill that would have allowed the Pentagon to use the products (including freeze-dried plasma) regardless of FDA approval, which was removed after bipartisan protests threatening to hold up the $700 billion legislation (which the House passed on Tuesday);
  • and seven bills naming Post Offices across the country.

All times Eastern