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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  The Fine Art of Getting Things Done, Part I: The Senate
      •  The Fine Art of Getting Things Done, Part II: The Senator
      •  The Fine Art of Getting Away With It, Part I
      •  The Fine Art of Getting Away With It, Part II
      •  The Fine Art of Getting Away With It, Part III
      •  Trump/???? 2024

The Fine Art of Getting Things Done, Part I: The Senate

The Senate is now in the thick of trying to get the Democrats' COVID-19 bill passed. The Democratic caucus has ironed out their differences over things like unemployment benefits (they will be set at $400/week, and will continue through August, barring an amendment), and have voted to advance the bill to the floor of the Senate. It was, of course, a 50-50 vote, with Kamala Harris dropping in to cast the tiebreaking vote.

Now the Republicans will do everything they can to drag the process out, with Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) taking the lead. As soon as the 628-page bill was advanced to the floor, he exercised his prerogative to have the whole thing read aloud by Senate clerks, arguing that he's "educating" the American public about what's in the bill. Riiiiight. Because the minority of Americans who follow politics closely are going to watch 10 hours of bill-reading on C-SPAN as opposed to watching/reading media coverage of the bill, or—if they're really devoted—just reading the bill themselves? Can you imagine anything more boring than watching a bunch of poor Senate clerks read a bunch of legalese? Ok, maybe listening to any speech by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), or watching any episode of "Jersey Shore," or reading any book by Ayn Rand. But it's not easy to come up with things. The good news is that at least one senator has to be on the floor for the exercise to continue, and Johnson's 99 colleagues—even the Republicans—have no interest in being that person. So, he's the one who gets to sit there and watch paint dry.

Sometime today, probably around lunchtime, the reading of the bill will be complete and the Senate can move on to the 20 hours of debate allowed for reconciliation bills. The Republicans will use all of that. Then, it's vote-a-rama time, where an unlimited number of amendments to the bill can be proposed. That can get boring quickly, so Johnson is organizing three "shifts" of Republican senators, who will take turns dragging the vote-a-rama out. Notice that what is going on, given that the modern-day filibuster cannot be used for reconciliation bills (of which the COVID-19 bill is one), is that the Republicans are effectively engaging in an ad-hoc Jimmy Stewart-style filibuster. So, if the filibuster is pared down even further (or killed entirely), this is a pretty good preview.

Eventually, the Republicans will run out of patience or energy, and the Senate will vote on the COVID-19 bill. Then it will be time for the House to approve the revised bill. Today is March 5, so the clear goal of Johnson (and his colleagues) is to drag this out beyond March 14. That is when the current round of extended benefits ends, and going beyond the 14th will thus cause at least some Americans to feel some amount of pain, which the GOP hopes to pin on the Democrats. Seems rather cynical to us. Not to mention risky, since if there is anyone who is following this closely, it's the people who are trying to figure out if they will or will not be able to make rent next month. But nonetheless, that is what the Republicans are going for. Well, and Johnson is specifically trying to get some publicity as a carrier of the Trump torch, either in advance of running for reelection, or possibly for a presidential/vice-presidential run in 2024.

This is just the first battle, though. What comes next? There are a lot of possibilities. As we've noted multiple times, including in last week's Q&A, Senate rules allow for up to three reconciliation bills per year—one for spending, one for revenues, and one for the debt limit. We're not sure which of these that the Democrats are using for the COVID bill—presumably spending—but whatever it is, they're not firing all three arrows in their quiver at once, as is often done with reconciliation bills. We know this because the blue team is already talking about using reconciliation later this year to (1) pass an infrastructure bill, and/or (2) pass an immigration reform bill. How the latter can be accomplished via reconciliation is anyone's guess, but undoubtedly Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough is already putting together the research in case she needs to make a decision. Anyhow, this month's battle could play out again in another month or two.

Another option—and make sure you're holding onto something firm before you read this—would be for the two parties to actually work together to hammer out legislation. Though we remain dubious, there is at least some possibility that the 50 Democrats in the Senate can find 10 Republicans to get some sort of minimum wage bill done. Already, at least eight Republicans have offered support for some sort of bill (usually one that they have themselves proposed). There are several additional Republicans who live in states where the minimum wage is already $10/hour or more, and so have cover for voting for something without irritating the business-owning types. And, at some point, "I got nothing done" is not a great platform to run for reelection on, particularly for senators who do not do culture-wars stuff very well, like Susan Collins (R-ME) or Ben Sasse (R-NE). All of this said, most or all of the Republicans whose votes on a minimum wage might be available are going to insist on some sort of new, and more aggressive anti-undocumented-immigrant provisions, like expanded use of the (somewhat problematic) E-Verify system. Such demands could be a dealbreaker for one or more Democrats, or for Joe Biden, which is one major reason not to count one's minimum wage chickens before they hatch.

Meanwhile, the specter of killing the filibuster will not die until the filibuster itself dies. Earlier this week, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) was asked (yet again) about that subject and he yelled: "Never! Jesus Christ, what don't you understand about 'never'?" That's all well and good, but never say "never." Perhaps Manchin (and other Democratic filibuster lovers, like Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-AZ) can be "persuaded" by some nice, juicy pork. Or maybe they will grow weary of never getting anything done. Or maybe they will consent to paring back the filibuster in a few areas, like voting-rights bills, or statehood bills. And on Thursday, a new possibility presented itself. The AFL-CIO would quite like to see a higher minimum wage, as well as the passage of other legislation, and they know that these things are not likely to happen as long as the filibuster is in place. So, the organization's leadership is thinking about coming out in favor of killing the filibuster. Inasmuch as organized labor is one of Manchin's key constituencies (namely, the coal-miners union), such a move could turn up the heat on him while also giving him cover to change his "views" on the issue. So, this bears watching. In particular, if the president of the United Mine Workers of America, Cecil Roberts, were to have a chat with the senator, who knows what might happen.

In any event, the one thing that is clear is that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), unlike his predecessor from Kentucky, is willing to bring legislation to the floor for a vote. So, it's certainly going to be an interesting term, regardless of what maneuvering comes to pass. (Z)

The Fine Art of Getting Things Done, Part II: The Senator

For politics-watchers, the Senate is going to be quite the show for the next two years, as that chamber either does or does not get things done. Meanwhile, though much of the focus is on Joe "The Most Powerful Man in Washington" Manchin, he may not be the most interesting story in town. After all, he's still a Democrat, and one who sticks with his party most of the time. Further, given the constituency he represents, as well as his past votes, it's pretty easy to predict when he will, or will not, break ranks.

For our money, then, the most interesting senator in town may prove to be...Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). She flirted briefly with switching to the Democrats earlier this year before deciding against it. Maybe she will revisit that decision, and maybe she won't. Either way, her basic political reality remains the same. As we've pointed out a few times, including earlier this week, Murkowski will face three opponents in the general election next year thanks to her state's new ranked-choice-voting rules. Some percentage of the Alaska electorate—maybe 30% or 35% or even 40%—is squarely with her. However, she's going to get a Trump-backed challenger from the right, and she'll get a Democratic or independent challenger from the left, along with (presumably) a Libertarian challenger. What she's gotta do is make sure that she's the second choice of some meaningful percentage of the other three factions. Further, it's improbable that—given her vote to convict in the impeachment trial—the Trumpers' votes are available to her, even as their third or fourth choice. So, her situation is that she has to be Republican enough to keep her base (the 30% or 35% or 40%) happy, but she has to break with the Party enough to curry favor with the Democrats and independents as their #2 choice.

Consequently, it's not all that surprising that she has been far and away more likely to buck her party this term than any other Republican in the Senate. There's the impeachment vote, of course. She was the last holdout on now-failed OMB pick Neera Tanden, and the Senator never actually took a public position on how she would have voted on that nomination. On Thursday, Murkowski was the only Republican to join with the 10 Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to advance the nomination of Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior to the full Senate. And the Senator is far and away the Republican most likely to vote in favor of the COVID-19 bill.

Alaska is also a state where a little pork goes a long way. And so given that, as well as Murkowski's political situation, Chuck Schumer is going to be knocking on her office door quite a lot this term, particularly when Joe Manchin has dug his heels in and appears intractable. (Z)

The Fine Art of Getting Away With It, Part I

On Wednesday, Maj. Gen. William J. Walker testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Rules committees, and shared some...concerning information about what happened on Jan. 6. The main revelation was that an emergency request for assistance came from then-chief of U.S. Capitol Police, Steven Sund, at 1:49 p.m., but that Walker did not get White House authorization to take action until 5:08 p.m. ("3 hours and 19 minutes later," the general pointed out).

And it gets worse. Nobody from the Trump White House has been able to provide a plausible explanation for the delay. Meanwhile, as Walker also testified, he got several "unusual" memos, the last of them on Jan. 5, completely restricting him from acting of his own volition. The General said that, absent those memos, he would have deployed at least a few hundred guard troops as soon as Sund called, and "that number could have made a difference." Oh, and finally, the 5:08 p.m. permission to take action came roughly 15 minutes after Donald Trump announced that his supporters should back down and leave peacefully.

The picture this paints is damning. At best, the then-president and the White House were paralyzed with indecision for multiple hours while people died and hundreds of members of Congress and their staffers feared for their lives. At worst, Team Trump deliberately sat on its collective hands for three hours, either because the President wanted the rioters to do their work, or he was afraid of offending his beloved base, or both. Given the memos that Walker testified to, not to mention the Trump rally on Jan. 6 where he actively encouraged the insurrectionists, the available evidence supports the latter theses.

That said, as per usual, the former president has left himself with just enough plausible deniability. He (or his lawyers, should it come to that) can argue that the White House's concern was to keep things from spiraling out of control, and that they feared the introduction of armed troops into a tense situation would just make things worse. Dubious, but hard to disprove. And so, while Trump might still pay a price for his rally, he's not likely to suffer any criminal consequences for (very probably) sitting in the White House and fiddling while the Capitol burned. (Z)

The Fine Art of Getting Away With It, Part II

William Walker's testimony was not the only story this week about shadiness in the Trump White House. Former Secretary of Transportation of Elaine Chao, who is a veteran grifter, engaged in all sorts of unethical behavior during her tenure. According to a report from the DOT Inspector General, she used staffers as her personal assistants and helped steer department resources to her father and other family members, who just so happen to be in the transportation business. The charges were serious enough, and backed with enough evidence, that the DOT IG forwarded the report to the Dept. of Justice for action. However, then-AG Bill Barr & Co.—surprise!—declined to take action.

In the end, the system is actually pretty well set up to discourage behavior like this. The key lines of defense, roughly in order:

  1. Shame: The thing that keeps most cabinet secretaries in line is their own sense of right and wrong. Most folks who enter public service, particularly in high-ranking positions, are civic-minded folks who want to do a good job and be able to look at themselves in the mirror when they get up in the morning.

  2. The President: Most presidents also insist on good behavior from their cabinet secretaries, either because the president is also a civic-minded person, or because they don't want the political damage that comes from a scandal, or both.

  3. The IG: When the secretary's own sense of ethics comes up short, and the president is either ignorant or is looking the other way, the IG is there to shine light on the situation and to put pressure on the administration (or to refer the matter for prosecution).

  4. The DoJ: The only cabinet department that (theoretically) works for the people, rather than the president, it's up to the AG and their underlings to make sure the laws are followed and that miscreants are punished.

  5. Congress: It's not common for a cabinet secretary to be impeached. In fact, it's happened only once (Secretary of War William W. Belknap in 1876). Still, the option is there if all else fails.

In Chao's situation, the third entry on the list—the IG—actually worked just as designed, but the four others all came up short. Famously, The Titanic was designed to handle flooding in four of its compartments, which was a great number right up until it hit an iceberg that exposed six compartments to the ocean water. Similarly, the federal government is not set up to simultaneously accommodate a cabinet secretary who is shameless, a president who doesn't care, a DoJ that is in the president's pocket, and a Senate whose impeachment votes are almost entirely along party lines. Chao, undoubtedly with more than a little bit of advice from her husband (who also knows a thing or two about the weak spots in the system), was aware that she would not be held accountable and proceeded accordingly.

It is, of course, possible that the current DoJ will pick up the dropped ball and will go after Chao. But don't count on it. Soon-to-be-AG Merrick Garland knows that he needs to pick his battles, for fear of looking like an anti-Trump avenging angel. And Chao's misdeeds are probably not serious enough to make it worth the investment of his political capital, especially given that the previous DoJ already decreed that there is nothing to see here. (Z)

The Fine Art of Getting Away With It, Part III

And finally we get to an item where actual consequences are a real possibility, including for Donald Trump. Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr. continues to play his cards close to the vest, such that it's not publicly known exactly what he's investigating. However, as of last week, Vance has Trump's tax returns. And, as of this week, he is putting the screws to Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg.

This is a pretty important development, for two reasons. The first is that it makes clear that Vance's investigation is wide-ranging, and goes far beyond a couple of payments to Trump's one-night stands. If the Trump Organization is in the crosshairs, then it not only puts the former president at risk, but also Ivanka, Eric, and Donald Jr., among others. The second reason this is important is that Weisselberg knows everything, much more so than Donald Sr. or any other member of the family does. If there is something fishy in the tax returns, the CFO is aware of it. He's also surely aware of fishy stuff that may not be reflected in the tax returns.

So, the question is: Will Weisselberg flip? It's very possible. You don't stay employed by the Trumps for as long as he has without being a loyalist, but he's also 73 and is probably not too interested in spending his retirement years as a guest at Wende Correctional Facility, playing bridge with Harvey Weinstein and Mark David Chapman. He's also hinted in the past that he's willing to cooperate with the authorities. And finally, the current investigation from Vance isn't actually focused on Weisselberg himself, it's focused on shady behavior by...Weisselberg's son. Even if the CFO is willing to take the fall for his boss, he's rather less likely to allow his son to do so.

Nobody knows where this story ends, but it's sure looking like it will become a case study in why you shouldn't commit financial crimes—there are too many bodies buried, and too many people who know where the bones are, such that it's easy to get popped. (Z)

Trump/???? 2024

We're not so sure that this is even news, but it was all over the place on Thursday, so we'll go with it. As Donald Trump continues to prepare for an alleged presidential run in 2024 (we remain doubtful), his advisors are pushing him to dump Mike Pence as his running mate and to choose a person of color and/or a woman as his running mate.

Who knows what Trump is paying these advisors. Probably zero. Even then, they are still overpaid. Of course he's not going to run with Pence again. First of all, the former president owns the evangelicals, and no longer needs Pence's help in rallying them to the ticket. There was literally a golden idol version of him at CPAC last week for Trumpers to worship, and the evangelicals didn't even blink. Second, there is the small matter of Pence's refusing to overturn the election results. He is persona non grata with Trump these days, and that isn't going to change, no matter how much Pence kisses the ring (which he has been doing with gusto this week).

On top of that, as we pointed out just this weekend, this sort of identity politics works poorly at the presidential level. Anyone who thinks that Trump's having a person of color as a running mate will peel off some meaningful number of minority voters, or having a woman as a running mate will peel off some meaningful number of women voters, is fooling themselves. This is still the fellow who talked about sh**hole countries in Africa and pu**y grabbing, and all the running mates in the world can't change that.

That said, we're a full-service website, so here's a quick list of five potential running mates to replace Pence:

  1. Gov. Kristi Noem (R-SD): She's a woman, and a loyalist, so she's the favorite of Trump's cadre of advisors. However, Trump's Achilles heel in 2020 was his mismanagement of the pandemic. Does he really want a running mate who is a contender for the title of "governor who screwed up COVID-19 the worst"?

  2. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA): She's also a woman, and she's also a loyalist. Admittedly, she's mad as a hatter, but she thrills Trump's base. And, in case anyone missed it, he doesn't care about appealing to anyone else.

  3. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC): If Trump decides he must have a person of color, well, Scott is the only Senator who is both Black and Republican, he's remained consistently loyal to the ex-president, and he's a Southerner. That said, he's never expressed any interest in leaving his current job.

  4. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX): Trump and Cruz don't like or respect one another. However, Cruz is even more willing than Pence to prostitute himself in order to advance his presidential dreams. And Trump could plausibly decide that the Texas senator might be the difference between winning and losing the Lone Star State.

  5. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL): He's not a woman or a person of color, but he's clearly the base's favorite avatar of Donald Trump. If he ends up as the running mate, Trump will have to "move" back to New York to avoid the constitutional prohibition against electors casting votes for two candidates from their home state (in other words, Florida's 29 electors could not vote for both Trump and DeSantis).

There was a time when Nikki Haley was the obvious choice to replace Pence, but her chances are now as dead as his because she dared to criticize Trump publicly.

One other note, while we are at it, that is not directly related to running-mate questions, but is definitely related to a future presidential bid: Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump have disappeared from Donald's inner circle. The official story is that they are taking some "well-deserved time off" but the insider scuttlebutt is that they are sick of politics, and that Kushner in particular is sick of the former president's shenanigans. It is extremely improbable that Trump would run again without the services of his two favorite advisers. And it is extremely improbable that Jared and Ivanka would distance themselves if they foresaw another legitimate chance to suckle at the power teat. So, this is more evidence that Donald's presidential career is over. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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