As Senate Republicans prepare to chart their own course on health care legislation, leaders are facing opposition from an unusual source: Sen. Bill Cassidy.
Though not known as a centrist in his caucus, the Louisiana Republican quickly joined his party’s moderates in slamming House Republicans’ bill last week, criticizing what he called inadequate coverage for patients. He’s also proposed one of the most left-leaning replacement plans in his caucus, earning an appearance on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live! In doing so, the normally low-key, grey-haired gastroenterologist has raised his national profile, highlighting his years of experience treating the uninsured in his practice in Louisiana.
At the same time, Cassidy may also have just talked himself out of a seat at the top table. Despite representing some of the reddest territory in the country, his replacement plan has drawn criticism from members of his own party who say it’s not conservative enough. And as leaders this week assembled a team to craft their Obamacare replacement, Cassidy, who’s dedicated his political career to health policy, wasn’t on it.
If that oversight is bothering him, Cassidy isn’t showing it. Sitting before a table of scattered notes in his Senate office Wednesday morning, the first-term senator vigorously defended his plan’s conservative credentials, suggesting his colleagues would come around to the ideas with or without him in the working group.
“The fact is, President Trump made a contract with the American voter … and the only way you get there is through Cassidy-Collins,” he said of the bill he introduced in January with Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. Collins was also left out of leadership’s working group, though less surprisingly because of her moderate record.
Listing lower premiums, elimination of mandates, and coverage for preexisting conditions as must-have components, Cassidy said Republicans pushing the House plan would fall woefully short of the campaign promises they’d made for the past seven years.
“If you’re going to fulfill President Trump’s contract with the voter … it doesn’t have to be our bill, but it has to look like our bill,” said Cassidy.
So far, his GOP colleagues haven’t seen it the same way. While Cassidy wants his party to court Democrats on a replacement plan, GOP leaders hope to use the reconciliation process, which would require just 51 votes. (Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, for his part, panned Cassidy’s plan as “an empty façade.”) And while Cassidy wants states to have the ability to keep Obamacare if they choose, conservative leaders have said that idea wouldn’t pass “conservative muster.”
While Cassidy expects Louisiana would not keep Obamacare under his plan, states like New York and California that have praised its impact could.
“It’d be Albany and Sacramento; it wouldn’t be Washington D.C. dictating—a conservative principle,” Cassidy reasoned of the provision. “I can’t believe that some of my fellow conservatives are complaining about that.”
So how did Cassidy, a reliably conservative member who served three terms in the House, wind up so far apart from his colleagues? In part, he reasons, because of his experience with the realities of health care.
“Personally, I always looked at Obamacare and thought it was going to fail, but that was my insight,” said Cassidy, who was first elected to the House in 2008. “We thought health care was going to be reformed in the next eight years. … It turned out it was reformed in the next eight months … and I’ve been here throughout the beginning of the process.”
Asked why leadership would exclude Cassidy from the working group given that experience, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office pointed to comments the leader made after the group drew criticism for a lack of women.
“The working group that counts is all 52 of us,” McConnell said to reporters at a press conference. “Everybody will be at the table.”
In the meantime, Cassidy hasn’t faced much blowback for proposing a plan conservatives dislike. The Koch-backed group Americans for Prosperity, which spent big on Cassidy’s 2014 race and has pushed for a straight repeal bill, declined to comment on how the plan might affect its support.
Cassidy’s fellow Louisianan, Sen. John Kennedy, who hasn’t signed on to Cassidy’s plan, called his colleague a “creative thinker” and applauded him for working to solve their state’s problems.
In a floor speech Thursday, Cassidy framed the conservative argument another way. Next to a poster of a quote from Donald Trump, who won Louisiana by nearly 20 points, Cassidy lauded the president for “intuitive genius” on health care, while suggesting his own plan delivered on Trump’s promises.
Asked whether he thought his plan could become a political liability in bright-red Louisiana, Cassidy brushed off the possibility.
“I constantly spoke about replacing Obamacare with something that works for patients,” he said. “It’s not like I’ve been hiding this.”
It’s time for congressional Republicans and their strategists to start popping their blood-pressure meds. Even before President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, the potential for GOP problems in next year’s midterm elections were real. Obviously no one knows what will happen in an election almost 18 months away. But now is when incumbents start deciding whether they will run again. From a party perspective, it’s always easier to defend an incumbent’s seat than win an open one.
It’s also the time when challengers and open-seat candidates start making decisions. Several of the strongest potential Republican challengers to vulnerable Democratic senators expressed concerns to me about the political environment next year—and that was before Trump’s controversial dismissal of Comey.
The Republican majority in the Senate is not much in danger because Democrats are defending 25 seats in 2018, 10 of which are in states that Trump carried last year, to just nine for the GOP. Even so, the difference between a level playing field for Republicans and one with stiff headwinds is the difference between gaining three to five seats versus just breaking even or perhaps suffering the loss of a seat. So it’s a big deal whether Republicans come out of 2018 with as many as 57 Senate seats, or just stay at 52, or even drop to 51.
But it’s the House that’s on the knife’s edge. Midterm-election history, combined with Trump’s dismal job-approval ratings, already put the House in play. The Comey firing added to Republican miseries, and buttressed the Democratic Party’s argument that at least one chamber of Congress should be taken out of Republican hands in order to keep Trump in check. But more than that, the firing is enough to make quite a few Republicans wince—not a good thing when the mood in the GOP already seemed downbeat. The firing also lifted the already high enthusiasm of Democrats.
Many political analysts were focused on the special-election runoff on June 20 in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, to fill the seat previously held by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. Handicappers were calling that contest a toss-up before the Comey mess.
An earlier special election, on May 25, to replace Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in Montana’s at-large seat, is increasingly being seen as another canary in the coal mine. While Trump carried the Big Sky State by 21 points last year, Republican nominee Greg Gianforte was leading Democrat Rob Quist by just 8 points, 45 to 37 percent, in an independent survey by Gravis Marketing and by 6 points in a survey by one of the top Democratic polling firms, Garin-Hart-Yang Research. The Gravis poll was taken in the first week of May, and the Garin-Hart-Yang poll was conducted April 25-27. The Democratic poll’s respondents said they voted for Trump by 22 points, marginally better than the actual vote in Montana last year. Among respondents most interested in the race, Gianforte’s lead was just 1 point, 48 to 47 percent.
I remain somewhat skeptical about the Democrats’ chances in Montana. The path to a Democratic majority is more likely to go through upscale, urban, and suburban districts than rural districts with large white populations. But if the Montana vote is close, it will send tremors through a lot of Republican members who may not have felt vulnerable.
It is certainly a presidential prerogative to fire an FBI director, but this is more complicated than that. My view is that at every point in the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email use, Comey did what he thought was right. He acted with the best of intentions, and did what he thought was in the best interest of preserving the integrity of his agency, even though in hindsight these decisions turned out to be mistakes.
His actions in the closing weeks of the campaign made the election almost exclusively about Clinton and ultimately helped determine the outcome of the election, though there were certainly plenty of other factors that were important as well. Arguably an FBI or Justice Department inspector general might have recommended that Comey be dismissed, but given the expanding nature of the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in last year’s election, Trump’s firing of Comey was a huge mistake, both in terms of policy and politics. It was a rash act entirely consistent with the worst fears that many had about a Trump presidency, and it certainly will not help his party next year.
The Federal Communications Commission’s comments section is getting out of hand.
The commission’s Electronic Comment Filing System is the statutorily required venue through which citizens can provide their take on any and all active commission proceedings. It is normally a sleepy place, but Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s new proposal to roll back the 2015 net-neutrality order has deluged the system with hundreds of thousands of comments.
And since last Sunday, after HBO’s John Oliver directed his viewers to express their displeasure with Pai’s net-neutrality plans, this exercise in civic participation took a series of nasty turns.
It’s not just the racist and abusive language being hurled at Pai, an unfortunate hazard whenever an organization solicits comments online. Depending on who you talk to, the comments section has also been victimized by either a crippling cyberattack or—for the conspiratorially minded—a false-flag operation conducted by the FCC itself. And identical bot-generated comments—most in favor of Pai’s proposal—appear to be flooding the system, threatening to drown out legitimate consumer feedback.
All this has flung the FCC’s comments-filing system into chaos just days before a scheduled May 18 vote on Pai’s net-neutrality proposal. For progressive tech groups hoping to mobilize public opinion against both that plan and any eventual legislative compromise on net neutrality, the discord seems deliberate.
“It’s like any of these hacking attacks—like there was during the French election, like there was in our election—where the whole point is just to undermine the legitimacy of the system,” said Harold Feld, a lawyer and the vice president of progressive tech group Public Knowledge. By “pulling a Putin” and muddling the conversation, Feld believes, unidentified opponents of the FCC’s net-neutrality rules hope to defang any grassroots opposition to a rollback.
“I think the chairman has a responsibility to get out there and make it very clear that he does not support people trying to hack the process,” Feld told National Journal.
Then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s 2014 net-neutrality proceeding eventually attracted around 4 million public comments. The majority supported some form of additional regulation on internet service providers, and in 2015 the commission adopted rules to govern ISPs like public utilities. At the time, Wheeler touted the massive number of comments as proof that consumers wanted the commission to enact tough net-neutrality regulations.
The new chairman’s attempt at a net-neutrality rollback has so far attracted around 730,000 comments. But while this is just a fraction of the comments collected last time around, the process has already proven more chaotic.
Pai, a second-generation Indian-American, has been the target of multiple comments using racially charged language. One suggested he was a “disgrace to all Indians,” while another called for his deportation. He also received at least two comments cheering for his death.
Several conservative groups and media outlets, as well as Pai’s chief of staff, Matthew Berry, have publicly called out the charged rhetoric. Even the Internet Association, a D.C.-based trade group opposed to Pai’s proposal, released a statement on Thursday condemning the “use of hateful or threatening language” by neutrality advocates.
But while Pai’s defenders and his staff push back against the attacks, they’ve spoken less about several other problems facing the FCC’s comments section.
When the comments-filing system repeatedly stuttered on Sunday night, many attributed it to a surge of pro-neutrality traffic in the wake of Oliver’s HBO show that had just aired. But on Monday, the commission released a brief statement claiming it had been the target of a distributed denial-of-service attack, making it “difficult for legitimate commenters to access and file with the FCC.”
Conspiracy theories sprang up instantly. Evan Greer, the campaign director for net-neutrality activist group Fight for the Future, said the group was concerned that the commission’s story was “intentionally misleading,” and suggested the FCC was trying to hide behind a made-up cyberattack as an excuse for allowing its website to crash under the weight of Oliver’s audience.
Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Brian Schatz sent a letter to Pai on Tuesday demanding a full accounting of the alleged cyberattack. Schatz told National Journal that, for now, he won’t comment on whether he believes the commission is being entirely forthcoming. “I’ll withhold judgment until I hear from the FCC,” the senator said, adding that “people need to be able to file comments no matter what” and that it was important to determine how the cyberattack took place so it could be prevented in the future.
FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield did not respond to questions on whether the commission would release more evidence of the attack. Wigfield told The Washington Post earlier this week that the commission had updated to a cloud service that should prove more resilient.
Adding to the turmoil is a sudden surge of hundreds of thousands of identical comments in favor of Pai’s proposal. So far around 130,000 comments—nearly one-fifth of the total—lament the “unprecedented regulatory power the Obama Administration imposed on the internet” and urge the FCC to enact “light-touch” rules as Pai has suggested. Tech outlet ZDNet reached out to several of the alleged commenters, all of whom said they did not send the remarks in question. That suggests the use of a spam bot to flood the FCC with illegitimate comments.
Brent Skorup, a research fellow at the free-market Mercatus Institute and a member of the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, said he was “surprised” that the FCC’s comment system didn’t prevent bot activity. But, he added, it’s not unusual for federal agencies to move slowly on IT upgrades.
The war over net-neutrality comments may have little practical impact on the commission’s decision to move ahead with the rollback. In a press call last month, FCC officials said they wouldn’t take the total volume of comments for or against into account, focusing instead on legal and technical arguments.
For Skorup, that’s a welcome change from what happened under the last chairman. “It’s a fiction that these form comments signify anything that the FCC is ever going to read,” he said. “I think the previous FCC making a big deal about the number of comments encourages this sort of gaming of the system.”
Feld admits that there’s little chance of changing Pai’s mind through a storm of pro-neutrality comments. But he dismisses the notion that the comments don’t matter, particularly given the express interest by Capitol Hill Republicans to craft a legislative net-neutrality compromise in tandem with the FCC’s actions.
“The grassroots folks and the public have a real seat at the table and real power in this—not so much in what Pai and [Republican Commissioner Michael] O’Rielly are going to do, but in how this debate is going to evolve,” Feld said. “That’s why you have people who are motivated to try to hack the process and delegitimize it. Because if you’re a Republican in Congress, it’s a lot easier to dismiss this stuff if you think, ‘Well, who knows who the real commenters are?’”
Caity Weaver, writing for GQ
“In a moment of political ridiculousness, there’s even the suddenly not ridiculous question of whether Dwayne Johnson might actually be headed for Washington.” He admits it’s a “real possibility,” and a checklist of his various attributes only serves to tease it more. He’s the most bankable star on the planet, possessed with unnatural personal magnetism and likability. His “uncommon ethnic background means that, in the right light, he can read as Pacific Islander, Latino, Middle Eastern, Native American, Southeast Asian, undead Scorpion King from an ancient civilization.” He has a rags-to-riches story. He frequently thanks members of the military on social media and in person, evidence of his “industrial-strength patriotism. … He’s got a politician’s warm, deep voice, which projects authority, capability, and strength. And he possesses a startling steel-trap memory. … The cold, hard truth is that if Donald Trump can be elected president, Dwayne Johnson can be elected president. Easily. He probably has better odds of winning an election than Trump, and Trump did win.”
The Editors, writing for The Economist
Trump’s economic policy—comprising tax cuts, deregulation, and “fair trade”—is not conventional Republican supply-side policy at all. Rather, it’s something more mercantilist, infused with his kingly whims. “His approach to the economy is born of a mindset where deals have winners and losers and where canny negotiators confound abstract principles. Call it boardroom capitalism”—a “business wishlist” compiled by Trump’s “courtiers.” Some of these impulses could unleash “pent-up energy” in the economy and lead to short-term growth, but it’s “a poor recipe for long-term prosperity. America will end up more indebted and more unequal. It will neglect the real issues, such as how to retrain hardworking people whose skills are becoming redundant. Worse, when the contradictions become apparent, Mr Trump’s economic nationalism may become fiercer, leading to backlashes in other countries.”Jeff Spross, writing for The Week Donald Trump’s Rose Garden celebration last week following the House’s passage of Obamacare replacement legislation was exceptionally “premature.” For any legislation to reach his desk, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will have to walk an incredibly thin tightrope and craft legislation on which nearly ever Republican senator must agree. There is only one conclusion: “TrumpCare is basically doomed.” While House Speaker Paul Ryan could afford to lose more than 20 Republicans in the House, McConnell can afford two defections. “[T]he split in the House between GOP moderates and hard-core right-wingers that sunk the first version of TrumpCare, and almost sunk the second, will appear again in the Senate” and “the divide will be even deeper.” So while supporters of Obamacare shouldn’t breathe any sighs of relief, “TrumpCare is simply unlikely to become law.”
With few vulnerable incumbents up for reelection and little chance of losing the upper chamber, Republicans’ top Senate strategists are eyeing other opportunities in 2018.
A host of open governor’s races have already attracted talent such as veteran Senate adviser Justin Brasell, who ran campaigns for Mitch McConnell and Tom Cotton, but this cycle will run South Dakota Rep. Kristi Noem’s (R) gubernatorial bid. Florida gubernatorial hopeful Adam Putnam (R) rolled out a campaign team this week that includes former NRSC Executive Director Ward Baker as a senior adviser. Baker is also a long-time adviser to Tennessee Rep. Diane Black (R), who’s eyeing a bid for her state’s open governor seat in 2018.
In a nod to the more-competitive House landscape this cycle, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman’s (R) Campaign Manager Corry Bliss, who was praised for one of the best Senate campaigns of 2016, is instead leading the House GOP’s main super PAC this cycle. Bliss brought with him Portman’s Deputy Campaign Manager William Inman, who will now serve as deputy executive director for American Action Network, and Portman Field Director Patrick Lee, who will serve as national field director for Congressional Leadership Fund. Two other communications operatives from 2016 Senate races, Jack Pandol and Jesse Hunt, moved over to the National Republican Congressional Committee earlier this year.
An offense-heavy Senate map chalked with competitive primaries also means less job certainty for campaign manager gigs in 2018. Notably, Sen. Ron Johnson’s (R) campaign manager, Betsy Ankney, who spent three years in Wisconsin for his race, will shape this year’s contest and others from a perch at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
— Andrea Drusch