Monday, September 23, 2019

The Man Democrats Loathe More Than Trump

Sen. Mitch McConnell is in charge of a vital firewall

If you think Donald Trump is the Democrats’ Public Enemy No. 1, get one of them started on the Senate majority leader. “I would never want us to be as malevolent or cynical as Mitch McConnell is,” Sen. Michael Bennet (D., Colo.), a relatively moderate presidential candidate, told The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board this week. Underlying that hostility, Mr. Bennet immediately acknowledged, is a grudging respect for Mr. McConnell’s effectiveness: “I think we need to be as strategic as Mitch McConnell is.”

The central example is Mr. McConnell’s refusal in 2016 to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. “The worst thing that’s been done in the last 10 years, and maybe in our history, in terms of judges is what he did on Merrick Garland, ” Mr. Bennet said. (Worse than what his party did to Brett Kavanaugh, he added in response to a question.)

Mr. McConnell agrees on the significance of what he did in 2016, calling it the “biggest accomplishment of my career.” On the day Scalia died in February, the Kentucky Republican declared that no Supreme Court nomination would reach the floor that year. The next president would fill the vacancy. It was a gamble. He needed at least 50 of the other 53 Republican senators to stick with him.

They did, and one of them attributes Donald Trump’s victory to it. “That call, in a close presidential race, tipped the race,” says Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming. It clarified the choice for conservative voters who found Mr. Trump’s character appalling.

Mr. McConnell, 77, has been instrumental in Mr. Trump’s successes on Capitol Hill, too. He delivered tax reform in 2017 with a 51-48 majority and no help from Democrats. He allowed the First Step Act of 2018, a criminal-justice reform bill that he had opposed, to come to the floor and pass with bipartisan support—including his own vote. And he’s pushed through judicial confirmations at a record clip. “We intended to take full advantage of the opportunity to continue to transform the courts for as long as we have the ability to do so,” he says. His motto is “leave no vacancy behind.”

Not that Mr. Trump always appreciates his efforts. The president blamed the majority leader for ObamaCare’s survival after the late Sen. John McCain bolted. “Can you believe,” Mr. Trump tweeted in August 2017, “that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years, couldn’t get it done.” But the two men put aside their differences the following month at a White House lunch. At an October 2018 rally in Richmond, Ky., Mr. Trump called Mr. McConnell “the greatest leader in history.”

In some ways Mr. McConnell is Mr. Trump’s opposite—a taciturn insider rather than a bombastic outsider. From the start of his Senate career in 1985, his ambition was to be majority leader. He begins discussing it on page 5 of his 2016 memoir, “The Long Game.” He made a name for himself by defending Kentucky’s tobacco industry and opposing campaign-finance regulations. Outside the Senate, those stances brought more opprobrium than popularity. But inside, Mr. McConnell quietly built support as he rose in the ranks to majority whip in 2003, minority leader in 2007, and majority leader in 2015 after Republicans took the Senate.

The Senate has changed dramatically in the 35 years since Mr. McConnell’s arrival. “There’s been a kind of realignment of the two parties to the point where almost every Republican is more conservative than every Democrat and almost every Democrat is more liberal than almost every Republican,” he says. Some observers bemoan this polarization, but not Mr. McConnell: “I don’t think that’s necessarily a condemnation of today’s Senate.”

It does, however, lead to condemnations from whichever party isn’t in charge. “We have the least effective Senate,” Mr. Bennet told the Journal, accusing his colleague of hypocrisy. Five years ago, then-Minority Leader McConnell inveighed against the “tyranny” of Harry Reid, who led the Democratic majority, “and the fact,” in Mr. Bennet’s words, that Mr. Reid “never let anything go through regular order, and the fact that we never had amendments.” Mr. McConnell is doing the same, Mr. Bennet said: “You’ve got all these theoretically grown-up people down there who literally never vote on an amendment.”

Some Republican senators echo these criticisms, albeit in private. Mr. McConnell declines to answer them, but an aide tells me the majority leader doesn’t plan to change course: “When he has tried open debate, it fizzles out pretty quickly because individual members block each other’s opportunities to offer amendments.”

Mr. McConnell usually manages to hold his caucus together despite the grumbling. In 2017 he rallied all 52 Republican senators to abolish the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, allowing the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch—something he probably couldn’t have done had Mr. Reid not done the same for lower-court nominations in 2013.

Most bills still require 60 votes to reach the floor, and Mr. McConnell believes this is as it should be. “The legislative filibuster is one of the key safeguards of American government,” he says. “It makes persuasion necessary and makes policy less likely to swing wildly with every election. America doesn’t need a second House of Representatives. America needs the Senate to be the Senate.” He says he’ll fight to retain the legislative filibuster if Democrats take the Senate in 2020 but declines to discuss his strategy.

The tax bill passed with a simple majority through a process reserved for budget bills, but even that requires near-unanimity among Republicans, who now hold 53 seats. Mr. McConnell follows the Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule. “You wear 20% of your ties 80% of the time,” he says, “meaning 80% of your ties, you only wear 20% of the time. It applies to a group too. You spend 80% of your time with 20% of your members. Most of the time is spent with the people who are high-maintenance or who like to create challenges.” Usually, he adds, “I do things one-on-one—for a number of reasons. Because it doesn’t embarrass somebody in front of somebody else.”

The foremost member of the 20% club is Maine’s Susan Collins. Her vote is often the hardest to get and the most needed. Ask Republican senators who won the most favors in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, and they’ll invariably answer Ms. Collins. It was worth it, Mr. McConnell says. Her vote was critical, and she really wanted to vote yes, so long as the bill helped Maine. “Mitch’s strength is understanding that each of us represents a state that may be different from Kentucky,” says Ms. Collins, one of only two GOP senators from states Hillary Clinton carried in 2016.

Ms. Collins also saved Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination last year after he was accused of youthful sexual misconduct. “Mitch didn’t know how I was going to vote,” she says. “He did not ask and I didn’t volunteer.” She told him over lunch immediately before announcing her “yes” vote in a speech that methodically dismantled the case against Justice Kavanaugh. The vote to confirm was 50-48.

In May a constituent in Paducah asked Mr. McConnell what he’ll do if a high-court vacancy arises in 2020. “Oh, we’d fill it,” he replied. When I ask him to elaborate, he says he’d do it even at the 11th hour. Mr. McConnell allows that “it would be hard to process even a noncontroversial Supreme Court nominee”—perhaps by now an oxymoron—“in under two months. But certainly we would try if that happened.”

The left finds that prospect alarming. “If there is a SCOTUS vacancy next year and @senatemajldr carries through on his extraordinary promise to fill it—despite his own previous precedent in blocking Garland—it will tear this country apart,” David Axelrod, a top White House aide during President Obama’s first term, tweeted last month.

Mr. McConnell scoffs at the charge that he’s hypocritical and points to his statement on the Senate floor nine days after Scalia’s death. “Of course, it’s within the president’s authority to nominate a successor even in this very rare circumstance,” he said then. “Remember that the Senate has not filled a vacancy arising in an election year where there was divided government since 1888, almost 130 years ago. But we also know that Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution grants the Senate the right to withhold its consent, as it deems necessary.”

Mr. Axelrod’s histrionics are mild compared with other attacks on Mr. McConnell. At a Louisville restaurant last October, a man snatched the takeout box from his table and emptied it on the street. Also in Louisville, a mob assembled last month outside his house, and Twitter suspended his campaign’s account after it posted a video of their obscene shouts.

He shrugs off most of it; aides describe him as impervious. “I learned a long time ago that the higher you go up in politics, the more criticism you get,” he says, “and that just sort of goes with the job. I’m largely unaffected by the criticism of those who have a totally different agenda. I get up every day hoping I can advance a right-of-center agenda. . . . And to the extent that we’ve succeeded in doing that, and I think most would concede that I have, I’ve got my share of enemies who don’t like that.”

He did respond indignantly in July to being called “Moscow Mitch” for opposing two bills intended to thwart Russian interference in the 2020 election. In a speech on the Senate floor, he called the smear “modern-day McCarthyism.” He says he opposed the bills because Democrats had stuffed them with provisions having no connection to Russia.

What got to him, he says, was being “called unpatriotic, un-American, and essentially treasonous by a couple of left-wing pundits on the basis of boldfaced lies.”

Mr. McConnell has served longer than any current senator except Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy and Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley. He arrived on Capitol Hill in 1968 as an aide to then- Sen. Marlow Cook and later worked as a Justice Department lawyer and returned to Kentucky for a stint in local government. In 1984 he challenged Democratic Sen. Dee Huddleston, known for missing votes to give paid speeches. Roger Ailes, then a GOP consultant, produced ads for Mr. McConnell featuring bloodhounds searching for Mr. Huddleston. Mr. McConnell won by 5,269 votes.

He is now in his sixth term and seeking a seventh, which he is strongly favored to win. But he worries about the majority come 2020. “Colorado is a competitive state for us, and so is Arizona, and so is North Carolina,” he says, referring to the seats now held, respectively, by Sens. Cory Gardner, Martha McSally and Thom Tillis. “On the other hand, we think we’re going to win the Alabama seat back”—the one Democrat Doug Jones holds by virtue of beating Roy Moore in a 2017 special election. Republicans will hold their majority if they lose no more than three seats, or two if a Democrat wins the White House.

Mr. McConnell credits Democrats for helping. “Our people are very energized by all this left-wing socialist talk on the Democratic side,” he says. “Not only do our voters but our donors believe that the Senate is a firewall against the very worst that could happen if the Democrats get the entire government back.”



Administration considers plan to divert billions of dollars in additional funds for barrier

WASHINGTON — Senior Trump administration officials are considering a plan to again divert billions of dollars in military funding to pay for border barrier construction next year, a way to circumvent congressional opposition to putting more taxpayer money toward the president’s signature project, according to three administration officials.

The president has pledged to complete nearly 500 miles of new barrier by the 2020 election — stirring chants of ‘‘Build the Wall!’’ at his campaign rallies. But that construction goal will require a total of $18.4 billion in funding through 2020, far more than the administration has publicly disclosed, the administration’s latest internal projections show.

Planning documents obtained by The Washington Post show the cost of building 509 miles of barriers averages out to more than $36 million per mile. The documents also show that the government would need to obtain — either by eminent-domain claims or purchases — land that lies under nearly 200 miles of proposed barrier.

At a Sept. 11 meeting at the White House led by adviser Jared Kushner, senior officials discussed a plan that would press lawmakers to backfill — or reimburse — $3.6 billion of Pentagon funds that the administration diverted this year to pay for fence construction, the officials said.

The White House also has requested $5 billion for barrier funding in 2020 through the Department of Homeland Security budget, but if that money is not approved, the administration plans to dip into the Pentagon’s construction budget for the second consecutive year to get another $3.6 billion, said the officials familiar with the plan.

The Democratic majority in the House is adamantly opposed to providing additional funding for the project.

If the administration carries out the plan, the White House will have defied Congress to divert a total of $7.2 billion of Defense Department funds over two years, money that would otherwise pay to repair or upgrade US military installations.

When the White House was asked about the plan Thursday, a senior official responded that the discussion was ‘‘a typical project-management meeting where administration officials discussed border wall progress’’ and that the goal was to ensure that border security priorities were being fulfilled ‘‘and that additional needs were being assessed in the event more funding became available.’’

Trump’s urgency about barrier construction has unnerved top aides responsible for the project’s completion, and it also has raised new concerns about potential shortcuts in contracting and procurement procedures.

Two days after the White House meeting, the head of the House Oversight and Reform Committee sent a letter to Lieutenant General Todd Semonite, the head of the US Army Corps of Engineers, asking for a briefing on border barrier procurement, saying the committee was investigating whether regular contracting processes were being bypassed to build the structure more quickly.

Committee Chariman Elijah Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, said lawmakers also were troubled by revelations in The Post that President Trump had urged the Corps of Engineers to steer contracts to North Dakota-based Fisher Industries, a company whose top executive is a GOP donor and frequent guest on Fox News.

Cummings’s letter cited concerns that the Corps of Engineers ‘‘is being pressured to bypass regular contracting processes in order to complete construction more quickly.’’

The committee gave a Friday deadline for Semonite to provide the briefing, according to the letter.

The Corps of Engineers also has been directed to hand over information about border construction bids to Senator Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota, who has promoted Fisher Industries to Trump. Cramer has said he has been ‘‘deputized’’ by the president to ensure that barrier construction remains on track.

A spokeswoman for the Corps of Engineers said the agency awards contracts through competitive procedures that provide ‘‘the best value to the government for the particular procurement action being undertaken.’’

The House this week voted down a Republican motion to ‘‘backfill’’ the military construction funds. The money has been diverted from child-care facilities and schools on military bases, as well as from maintenance and repairs on US bases.

Trump has pushed aides to build the border fencing as quickly as possible, brushing off concerns about property ownership and contracting procedures while reassuring others worried about wrongdoing that he will issue pardons if they are targeted for prosecution.

The administration has not said publicly how it plans to obtain funding next year to meet its ambitious construction targets, which will require the government to dramatically accelerate the pace of work and make aggressive use of federal authority to seize private land.




Trump tax-return victory

 According to CNBC, "A federal judge has sided with the Trump campaign's request to halt a California law that's aimed at forcing the president to release his tax returns. ... The ruling marks a major victory for Trump, who is fighting multiple Democratic-led efforts to force him to reveal the returns. California is expected to appeal." Meanwhile, NBC News adds that "Trump filed a lawsuit Thursday against Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, who subpoenaed Trump's accounting firm for eight years of Trump's personal and corporate tax returns earlier this month."

Fake hate groups targeted

"House Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee said on Thursday that over 60 alleged hate groups, mostly socially conservative organizations, anti-immigration entities, and religious groups should be stripped of their tax-exempt status," according to the Washington Examiner, which further notes, "The groups were designated as 'hate groups' by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that itself is controversial and whose founder was fired this year for misconduct." The SPLC is the biggest hate group of all, and yet Democrats are relying on it to destroy conservative institutions.


The triplets


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