THE MORNING PLUM:
All it took was a handful of Donald Trump tweets. When Trump declared he wasn’t crazy about congressional Republicans’ timing on killing an independent ethics oversight office, this whole town showered him with credit for the abrupt GOP reversal that followed — never mind that he hadn’t even condemned the GOP move, just its timing.
Are we about to see a rerun on Obamacare? Perhaps! When Trump holds his news conference tomorrow, he will likely be asked whether he still thinks that Republicans should repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act “simultaneously,” as he said in a post-election interview. If he answers in the affirmative, it could throw the current GOP strategy — repeal on a delayed schedule with no guarantee of any replacement later — into further doubt.
This morning, multiple reports tell us that anxiety is rising among Senate Republicans over the current GOP strategy. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who holds an influential position as chairman of the health and education committee, is now saying more explicitly than before that Republicans should not repeal the ACA until they have a replacement ready.
“We have to take each part of it and consider what it would take to create a new and better alternative and then begin to create that alternative and once it’s available to the American people, then we can finally repeal Obamacare,” Alexander said.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that five GOP senators have introduced an amendment to the budget resolution (the first step laying the groundwork for repealing much of the law via “reconciliation”) that would push the deadline to write repeal legislation back from Jan. 27 to March 3. As Bloomberg notes:
The step is the latest sign of some Republicans’ growing uneasiness about their leadership’s plan to repeal the law with no consensus on a replacement. … the amendment reflects the deep divisions, which persist nearly seven years into Republicans’ promises to repeal and replace Obamacare, within the party on what kind of system to set up.
By the Huffington Post’s count, some nine GOP senators have now expressed reservations about going forward with repeal without an agreed-upon alternative. As HuffPo notes, it’s still unclear whether these senators would oppose repeal on its own in the end, but it’s now obvious that “repeal is unlikely to go as smoothly or as quickly as GOP leaders once hoped.”
Sen. Rand Paul, another voice urging caution, is now claiming that Trump privately told him that he supports doing repeal and replace at the same time. This would seem to be in line with Trump’s unequivocal declaration, in a post-election interview with “60 Minutes,” that Obamacare will be repealed and replaced “simultaneously.” Trump also declared that “we’re going to repeal it and replace it,” and “we’re not going to have a two-year period where there’s nothing.” In other words, he envisions a smooth transition in which no one loses coverage in the interim. And if his adviser Kellyanne Conway is to be believed, no one who currently has coverage under Obamacare will be left without it when the whole process is over, either.
If only there were some way of determining Trump’s views on the topic right at this crucial moment. Oh wait, there is — we can ask him! At tomorrow’s press conference he is likely to field this question.
It’s unclear how congressional GOP leaders would react if Trump did reiterate his insistence that Republicans don’t vote to repeal the ACA without also voting on a replacement at the same time. But it’s worth noting that some of those who are urging caution are openly asking Trump to restate his position, and explicitly saying they’ll take their cues from him if he does. As Sen. Bob Corker recently put it: “If it is his view, it would be really good if he would consider tweeting it out very clearly.”
If Trump were to reiterate his call for a “simultaneous” repeal and replace approach, more GOP senators who are inclined toward caution might use it as cover. Of course, it’s easy to see Republicans delaying just a bit and putting out a few white papers spelling out the basic principles driving the GOP replacement, rather than doing the hard work of reaching consensus behind legislation. You could easily see Trump going along with that. Alternatively, though, it’s at least possible that a firm declaration from Trump — that he really wants a replacement ready to go before the law is repealed — could upend the current GOP strategy.
If Republicans do end up having to do a replacement first, the entire process of wiping Obamacare off the face of the planet could end up being a lot harder than expected. Given that some congressional conservatives may not support a replacement no matter what, because it would spend and regulate beyond their liking, Republicans may need Democrats to pass that replacement. (Any replacement would also presumably need 60 votes to get past a Democratic filibuster.) That would allow Democrats to use that leverage to press hard for a replacement that does not represent a major backslide in human welfare, something Chuck Schumer has vowed Dems will do.
More broadly, all of this goes to larger questions about the true nature of Trumpism — about what Trump really promised his voters, and whether he will honor those promises. Anecdotal reporting suggests that a lot of Trump voters who stand to lose out from Obamacare repeal didn’t really think that’s what they were voting for. As I’ve argued, it was reasonable of them to conclude that, because Trump sent them strong and repeated signals that he is not ideologically aligned with congressional Republicans who are hostile to a broad government role in expanding health care to poor and sick people.
During the campaign, many pundits saw this as evidence that Trump’s success lay in his ideological heterodoxy, which was also on display in his repeated vows not to cut Medicare and Social Security. If Trump really intends to govern in keeping with that heterodoxy, Trump will have a chance at tomorrow’s presser to prove it.
* SESSIONS TO FACE TOUGH QUESTIONS ON IMMIGRATION: Today Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general, has his confirmation hearing, and here’s one area where the questioning could be very illuminating:
In the Senate, he has fought efforts to reform immigration in any way that might benefit those in the country illegally, and he has advocated moderating the flow of those coming to the U.S. legally. He could, as attorney general, increase enforcement of the illegal entry statute and help the Trump administration abandon an Obama executive action that allows people who came to the United States as children to receive work permits and a reprieve from possible deportation.
Questions on these topics could help preview what Trumpism will look like in practice, and provide hints as to whether Trump’s draconian immigration program will become a reality.
* BIG FIGHT COMING AMONG REPUBLICANS ON RUSSIA: The New York Times reports that Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick as national security adviser, is a big proponent of improving relations with Russia. But:
Any shift toward Moscow would very likely put the new administration in direct conflict with senior military commanders and intelligence officials, as well as powerful Republicans, like Senator John McCain of Arizona, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee. It may also rankle some of Mr. Trump’s own cabinet nominees — Gen. James N. Mattis, his choice for defense secretary, and Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas, the nominee for C.I.A. director, pushed the Obama administration to take a harder line on Russia.
This could very well continue to split Republicans — and even Trump’s top people — for the foreseeable future, especially if Vladimir Putin tests this schism, which he likely will.
* REPUBLICAN SENATORS CHALLENGE TRUMP ON RUSSIA: The Huffington Post reports that a bipartisan group of 10 senators — including five Republicans, such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham — are set to unveil a new measure stiffening sanctions on Russia:
Lawmakers, angered by Moscow’s alleged interference in the U.S. election process, have been discussing retaliatory action for weeks. But the legislation on sanctions that will be unveiled Tuesday goes beyond responding to Russian cyber-activity. It also mandates new measures related to Russia’s 2014 military incursion into Ukraine and its ongoing support of President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. The bill would codify some of the sanctions put in place by outgoing President Barack Obama as well as impose new punitive measures.
This will put new pressure on Trump, who continues to dismiss anyone concerned about Russian meddling in our election as stupid for not wanting better relations.
* TRUMP’S NOMINEES LAG ON ETHICS DISCLOSURES: The Post reports:
Key disclosure reports for four out of nine of Donald Trump’s nominees subject to Senate confirmation hearings this week had yet to be made public by late Monday, underscoring concerns from the Office of Government Ethics that it is being rushed to approve the documentation. … The reports focus on potential financial conflicts of interest and agreements to divest certain holdings.
Among those still not public: Trump’s picks to head the Department of Education; Homeland Security; Commerce; and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Drain that swamp!
* TRUMP UNLIKELY TO DIVEST: With Trump set to hold a presser Wednesday on what he’ll do about his welter of conflicts, The Post also reports:
It has become clear that Trump’s approach is unlikely to eliminate all of the potential pitfalls stemming from the complex web of real estate holdings, partnerships and merchandising agreements that make up the Trump Organization. Trump has largely resisted calls by ethics experts for full divestiture, saying his sons Don Jr. and Eric and company executives will manage the business but not committing to giving up his financial stake.
Shocking, just shocking. And remember, this is all being enabled by congressional Republicans who can be counted on to look the other way.
* GOP SENATOR SAYS REPLACEMENT WILL COVER JUST AS MANY: The Washington Examiner reports that Sen. John Cornyn is now saying that the GOP replacement will cover just as many people as Obamacare does. According to Cornyn, the goal of the replacement “would be to ensure that those people who are covered now would be covered afterwards.”
Of course, we still have to find out what Cornyn means by “covered.” Other than that little detail, sounds great!