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Senators Reminisce on What Remains of Republican Power as Nancy Pelosi Sworn in as House Speaker

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Former Arizona senators, the late John McCain and Jeff Flake, and then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney, in April 2012/Gage Skidmore

WASHINGTON, January 3, 2019 — Most people would not be happy to know they’d be unemployed within the hour, but with minutes left in his Senate tenure, Jeff Flake was all smiles.

The outgoing Arizona senator, who’d become a leading voice in the small movement of Republicans with objections to how President Donald Trump has conducted himself in office, moved about the Senate floor Thursday morning with the easy demeanor of a man who no longer felt the responsibility of standing up for a party that now largely reviled him.

After Vice President Mike Pence gaveled the 115th Congress’ Senate into recess for the last time, Flake chatted at the back of the chamber with Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and exchanged words with both of his state’s new senators, Republican Martha McSally and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema.

McSally joins the Senate after being appointed to fill the seat vacated by Sen. John Kyl, who returned to the upper chamber after the death of his longtime colleague, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

But Sinema, who will be the state’s senior senator despite being sworn in on the same day as her Republican counterpart, arrived in Washington the old-fashioned way — by defeating McSally in a hard-fought midterm election battle.

Though the onetime rivals will be serving together, they did not exchange words as they waited for Flake to escort them in separate groups of five to the well of the Senate chamber, where they were sworn in by the vice president.

Other outgoing or former senators seen in the chamber Thursday were former Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., Richard Bryan and D-Nev., Larry Pressler, R-S.D, as well as former Senator and Secretary of State John Kerry, D-Mass.

As the Senators-elect were led by their colleagues and predecessors to be sworn in, another outgoing Republican known for his distaste for the president, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., shook hands with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Meanwhile, Senator-elect Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the former GOP standard-bearer, stood quietly at the back of the chamber alone.

Though the now-Senator and former Massachusetts governor was once considered the leader of the Republican Party, he may have to become accustomed to being one of 100.

While Thursday’s swearings-in did not result in a change from Republican control in the Senate, other side of the Capitol welcomed a new era of divided government as Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was sworn in as Speaker of the House, becoming the first person since the late Sam Rayburn to hold the speakership more than once.

With Washington in the throes of a partial government shutdown, it is yet to be seen when or whether the new reality will make an impression on President Trump. Until late Thursday, he remained ensconced in the White House issuing tweets about his proposed wall along the border with Mexico. Trump, who precipitated this now-13-day government shutdown after rejecting a bipartisan deal over a lack of funding for the wall, appeared briefly in the White House briefing room.

Trump congratulated Pelosi on her election as House speaker, although his appearance may well have been an attempt to redirect news coverage away from her.

Although House Democrats plan to move a measure to reopen the government on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader McConnell has indicated that he won’t take any action to move the exact legislation the Senate approved by voice vote before Christmas, with Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., warning reporters that the shutdown could go on for “months and months.”

But as Flake left the Capitol after seeing his successors sworn in, he told reporters that things could be “easier” with divided government.

“When one party controls, there’s an illusion that you can muscle your way through things, and you usually can’t,” Flake said. “That illusion is gone now.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been modified to add additional news about the White House press conference with President Trump.

 

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Andrew Feinberg covers the White House, Capitol Hill, and anything else you can think of for BeltwayBreakfast.com and BroadbandBreakfast.com. Andrew has reported on policy and politics in the nation's capital since 2007, and his writing has appeared in publications like The Hill, Politico, Communications Daily, Silicon Angle, and Washington Business Journal. He has also appeared on both daytime and prime radio and television news programs on NPR, Sirius-XM, CNN, MSNBC, ABC (Australia), Al Jazeera, NBC Digital, Voice of America, TV Rain (Russia) and CBS News. Andrew wishes he could say he lives in Washington, DC with his dog, but unfortunately, he lives in a no-dogs building in suburban Maryland.

Eyes on 2020

As Democrats Battle to Challenge Trump, Do Senators Have a Newfound Advantage?

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Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Cory Booker at "March to Save Our Care" Rally at the U.S. Capitol on June 28, 2017/Mobilus In Mobili

WASHINGTON, January 31, 2019 — Nine Senate Democrats have either announced a 2020 presidential campaign, launched an exploratory committee, or are mulling whether to seek a promotion from the Senate to the White House that the American people have granted only three times in one hundred years.

Experts are divided over whether, the age of Donald Trump’s precedent-shattering victory, old norms about presidential expectations still apply.

While senators have won their parties’ nominations regularly, only three — Warren Harding, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama — have gone directly from the Senate to the Oval Office by prevailing in a general election. 

According to presidential historian Allan Lichtman, the reason so many well-credentialed senators have stumbled on the path between the legislative and executive branches is the nature of a senator’s job.

“You have a voting record, which inevitably is going to have elements in it that open you up to attack and criticism, and if your experience is solely limited to the legislature, you don’t have the executive experience that at least traditionally has been considered an important part of the credentials to run for president,” Lichtman said.

But Lichtman, an American University professor known for his presidential election prediction model, cautioned BeltwayBreakfast that in light of the last presidential election, past may no longer be prologue.

“In the era of Trump, all this may be obsolete,” he said, explaining that the 45th president’s brand of “anything goes kind of politics” renders old measures of qualification and disqualification meaningless. “The credentials may make no difference whatsoever anymore.”

As a result, he posits that holding a governorship — once a far more reliable springboard to the presidency — may no longer be the best career path for those who aspire to the highest office in the land. Governors, he said, seem to have a much harder time getting the attention one needs to mount a run.

The ability to get on television excites the base more than pragmatic governing at the state level

“We’re in an era of politics where your ability to get on television, get a national profile and excite the base of your party has become most important,” he said.

Lichtman added that in an era when executive experience “doesn’t seem to matter very much” to voters –   the nationalization of American politics and the ubiquity of cable news gives senators, whose jobs give them the ability to appear on TV to discuss the televised speech or hearing statement they delivered earlier that day, a built-in advantage.

One veteran politico who seconded Lichtman’s suggestion of a new senatorial advantage is Mark McKinnon, who helped shepherd then-Texas Governor George W. Bush to a narrow win in the 2000 election. 

“I think governors are at a greater disadvantage than they used to be,” said McKinnon, who is currently a co-executive producer of Showtime’s “The Circus.”  “It used to be that all politics was local, now all politics are national.”

Senators, McKinnon added, draw a significant advantage from being located in the “media hub” that is the nation’s capital.

“The entire focus of the media universe is in Washington right now,” he said.

As many as nine Senate Democrats could eventually look to prove Lichtman and McKinnon right by showing the Senate to be a viable launchpad for a White House run.

First-term Californian Kamala Harris officially jumped into the race on Martin Luther King, Jr. day, an auspicious date for a campaign that is banking on a young, diverse emerging majority to make 2020 the year demographics finally become destiny for Democrats.

New Yorker Kirsten Gillibrand is counting on her years of advocacy for women to help her finally break through the glass ceiling Hillary Clinton allowed to emerge unbroken from 2016, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren hopes her history of economic justice advocacy will let claim the mantle of the candidate who best represents the hopes of the “99 percent.”

Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is reportedly close to announcing a second bid for the Democratic nomination, and Ohio veteran Sherrod Brown recently announced his own “Dignity of Work” listening tour of early primary states. Also contemplating White House runs are Sens Cory Booker, D-N.J, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. 

Democrats’ control of governorships at lowest level in a century

Though Democrats’ control of governorships has been at the lowest level in a century, there are a few whose names have been floated as potential entrants into a field crowded enough to put the GOP’s 2016 primary slate to shame. 

Washington Governor Jay Inslee, a former member of the House of Representatives, has sought to boost his name recognition with TV appearances over the past month, and the name of Democratic Governors’ Association Steve Bullock, of Montana, has been on the lips of some as a potential contender as well.

Also considering a run is former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who emerged as a possible member of a speculated “unity ticket” with now-former Ohio Governor John Kasich (R).

One of McKinnon’s colleague from the George W. Bush campaign, Republican strategist Michael Turk, agreed the way political parties have nationalized most issues precludes states attempting the kind of policy experimentation that once let governors distinguish themselves in presidential primaries.

“The two political parties have tried to nationalize most issues, so it kind of precludes that sort of policy formation at the state level,” he said. “The more they do that, the less you’re going to have governors rise up because they don’t have the wiggle room to implement different policies at the state level.”

But not everyone is declaring governorships dead as a presidential stepping-stone. Democratic consultant Joe Trippi, who ran then-Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s groundbreaking 2004 primary campaign, predicted that the public’s low opinion of Congress means the trend of senators not being successful at the presidential level is not likely to change.

“The reason Senators don’t do well is the American people don’t have a very high regard for Washington, D.C., and they certainly don’t have one now,” said Trippi, who helped guide now-Senator Doug Jones, D-Ala. to a special election win last year.

He added that governors usually have an easier time of pointing to ways in which they got things done while in office.

“People respond to people who can actually run governments and know how to turn the light switches on,” Trippi said. “Particularly if the current office holder couldn’t find the chair in the Oval Office.”

With a large and crowded field, social media may be more important than television coverage

While Lichtman, McKinnon, and Turk pointed to senators’ easy access to television as a game-changer, Trippi predicted that the sheer size of the Democratic field will preclude most media from covering them all, meaning social media — not television — will be more of a factor for 2020. 

Governors can fight whatever advantage senators can get with constant TV exposure by drawing contrasts and stressing their experience dealing with often-raucous state legislatures.

“It’s not that you have to be at the hearings standing up to Trump’s nominees,” he said. 

“Do not underestimate how people despise anyone who’s gone to Washington and become part of the problem. It’s hard to get that off of you [to longer] have that whiff over the campaign if you don’t have accomplishments.”

One of the masterminds behind President Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory added three more hurdles to the list of those facing the Senate Democrats running for the 2020 nomination.

James Carville predicts failure if Democrats following a ‘base strategy’

In a phone interview with BeltwayBreakfast, veteran strategist James Carville said the difficulties stemming from minority status in the Senate, the Republican president in the White House, and the relatively short time to distinguish themselves from a field already crowded with their own colleagues will hamper any Senate Democrat’s presidential ambitions. 

“How are you in the minority in the Senate going to prove to people you can govern? The truth of that is you probably can’t in the time left,” Carville said, noting the slim odds of either Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., allowing a vote on a Democrat-supported bill or President Trump signing one. 

“I doubt any…Democratic senator is going to come up with a brilliant policy initiative that is going to be signed into law between now and the election.”

Carville, who retired from domestic political consulting after the 1992 election, predicted that the memory of 2016 will factor heavily into how Democrats vote in 2020.

“The trauma that 2016 inflicted on the Democratic party cannot be overestimated,” he said, citing recent polling data that shows Iowa caucus goers prefer a “seasoned candidate” by a double-digit margin.

“To the extent we know what Iowa caucus-goers are thinking, they’re very much in a mood that we need a seasoned candidate who can win the election,” he said. 

Carville suggested the adage that Democrats fall in love while Republicans fall in line behind their chosen candidate may not apply with a Democratic party chastened by 2016 and a Republican party that has largely become a personality cult devoted to President Trump.

Normally Democrats love someone who can excite them, who can make them feel good about themselves and the party,” he said. “But the Republicans are not in any kind of line other than the Trump line, and I’m not sure the Democrats are not in a more pragmatic mood and are ready to cue up as opposed to melt down.”

That pragmatism, Carville predicted, could lead Democrats to look once more to a governor who can connect with a broader swath of the American electorate, rather than following a mirror-image of Trump’s “base strategy” by appealing to urban voters and minorities. 

While he acknowledged that a strategy focused on core Democratic constituencies can win more votes, Carville warned that unless Democrats get better at “math and maps” be recognizing that an “emerging majority strategy” is neither guaranteed to deliver the electoral college to Democrats nor ensure Democratic control of the Senate.

“There’s a certain segment of the Democratic party that would rather lose with that coalition than win with a broad-based appeal,” he said, adding that national Democrats should remember that most of freshman House Democrats who won in 2018 did so with pragmatic campaigns tailored to voters in their districts.

Additionally, Carville stressed that a potential candidate’s coattails are going to be an important variable when calculating who is most likely to win the presidency. He suggested that governors with a record of balancing progressive beliefs with pragmatic governance — particularly someone like Scott Bullock of Montana, who can appeal to middle Americans — could bring that broad-based appeal to the campaign trail.

“As long as 18 percent of the country controls 50 percent of the Senate, there’s a limit to what the emerging progressive majority can do. Without North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Arizona, or Maine, how are you going to field a national campaign?” he asked.

“You can get all the votes you want, but if you don’t control the Senate, you’re SOL in half of one branch of government and SOL in another whole branch of government [the courts].

It’s the senators-versus-governors theories of presidential politics

Carville’s contention that a governor has the best chance of winning the nomination put him odds with Lichtman, the professor who predicted Donald Trump’s shocking victory.

To Lichtman, neither of the two predominant notions of “electability” have any basis in history.

“These are just completely bogus notions that cannot be sustained, and yet people absolutely seem to cling to them,” Lichtman said.

“Nobody knows who’s electable — you never know who’s going to catch the imagination.”

This story has been updated to reflect the fact that  Joe Trippi did not work with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign. We regret any confusion and invite readers to speculate on whether or not former Rep. O’Rourke would now be Senator O’Rourke had Mr. Trippi been in his employ.

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Sen. Mitt Romney’s Criticisms of Donald Trump Highlight New Political Culture for Mormons

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Mitt Romney and then Pres.-Elect Donald Trump in November 2016/CNN

WASHINGTON, January 7, 2019 – Without even trying very hard, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney has set off new questions among Republicans about Donald Trump.

But with his OpEd in the Washington Post on New Year’s Day, the re-emergence on the national stage of the nation’s Most Prominent Mormon will also inevitably set off new questions about Mormonism’s place in America.

Most political observers know at least something of the back-and-forth relationship between these two more-than-multi-millionaires. Call them both self-made men, with a little help from their fathers.

Trump endorsed Romney in 2012. When the tables were turned, though, Romney excoriated Trump in March 2016. But upon Trump’s victory, Romney issued a congratulatory Tweet. Then Trump embarrassed Romney by dangling an unoffered secretary of state-ship. Then last year, when Romney ran for Senate, he again accepted Trump’s endorsement, avoided all talk of Trump, and appeared to be running a Utah-based campaign.

Except for this tip-off: Romney promised to “bring Utah’s values to Washington.”

What exactly are “Utah values”? You can be as politic as you want, but everyone in Utah knows that means “Mormon values,” or at least the values of a state heavily influenced by (and still 60 percent-inhabited-by) Mormons.

Remember that Utah began its life as a theocracy, with Brigham Young, the second prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ruling spiritually and also politically as the territorial governor.

Before we get too far into “Mormon values,” let’s back up and make something clear. According to the current prophet of the church, we’re not supposed to use the word “Mormon” anymore, even in referring to the church’s members.

The church’s media relations web site goes so far as to say that “the term ‘Mormonism’ is inaccurate and should not be used.” It even downplays the use of the term “Latter-day Saints,” a long-approved secondary name.

This vigorous and even challenging new linguistic emphasis came personally from Russell M. Nelson, the faith’s 94-year-old chief. And it isn’t even among the top three most dramatic changes initiated by Nelson in the year since he was anointed as the faith’s prophet on January 14, 2018.

In April, Nelson presided over his first general conference, an assembly in Salt Lake, and transmitted to millions more gathered over television, radio and the internet. In it, Nelson and the church’s other leaders, the apostles, officially ended a decades-old practice called “home teaching.” The old program heavily relied upon obligation, and called for every male member of the church to visit a set number of congregants each month. A new, replacement program called “ministering” includes women as well as men, girls as well as boys. Mandatory monthly visits are gone, making ministering more of a “spirit of the law” service.

Another big change followed at the October conference. Henceforth, church hours would be reduced. Instead of three hours at church on Sunday (meetings to which both members and non-members are allowed to attend), everyone would now spend only two hours at church. The stated goal is to use that extra hour of time to study religious scriptures in the home.

A third major change, announced January 2, 2019, right as it went into effect, shortened and otherwise modified the faith’s sacred rituals in its members-only temples.

The key message threaded throughout this pace of dizzying changes by church leaders is a loosening of the “letter of the law,” and also a greater emphasis on equal opportunities for women and men, girls and boys.

Nelson’s second-in-command among the church’s apostles, Dallin Oaks, and others have encouraged these and other changes. At a June 2018 celebration commemorating the 40th anniversary of the end of the church’s historic ban on black members receiving the priesthood, Oaks delivered a blunt message to “abandon attitudes of prejudice against any group of God’s children,” particularly racism, “probably the most familiar source of prejudice today [of which] we are all called to repent.”

Also, at roughly the same time as Donald Trump’s political ascent, the LDS church began to place a greater priority on the need to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees through its “I Was a Stranger” program, which itself was bolstered by Utah Republican Gov. Gary Herbert’s offer that the state take in more refugees, not less.

While the church doesn’t take partisan stances, it’s impossible not to see that the political culture which Mormons inhabit is becoming – by the standard of today – more liberal, not more conservative.

The Mormon Romney may once have been a “conservative.” But, when asked on CNN why he choose to articulate his character-driven criticisms of Donald Trump, he cited the occasions in which he had already publicly weighed in:

“The Charlottesville response by the President was something that gave me great concern. The support for Roy Moore in the Senate race was something I was very, very concerned about. His attack on the media, I wrote an entire piece about that.”

There you have the reasons for Romney’s core critique of Trumpism: Racism, sexism, and authoritarian impulses. None of those are “conservative” concerns, or at least concerns of Trump-world. Indeed, these liberal democratic norms are all well in keeping with where Romney’s Mormon constituency is increasingly finding itself.

Certainly this politico-religious realignment is no more complete than is the stereotype that Republicans are gun-toting church-goers, and Democrats are tree-hugging agnostics or atheists. There’s even some movement among other Latter-day Saint senators. (And this analysis doesn’t even consider the most powerful Latter-day Saint senator ever: Former Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada.)

Utahns consider outgoing Sen. Orrin Hatch to have been Mormonism’s “ambassador” to all things Trump. They indulged his over-the-top support of The Donald as being more in keeping with his inner Republican than any other inner voice.

And Mike Lee, Utah’s other senator – and who, like Romney, refused to vote for Trump – is edging closer by the day to Donald Trump. Even this, though, may be driven by the exception, rather than the rule: Trump’s sudden willingness in December to support the landmark criminal and sentencing reform package long championed by Sen. Lee.

If Romney is stepping into any other Mormon senator’s shoes, it’s those of outgoing Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, whose criticisms of Trump have arguably cost him his political career in the state. Arizona, which is only  5 percent LDS, was more wary of immigration than Utah. And yet – as with last November’s senate victory by the Democrats – even Arizona is increasingly having second thoughts about Donald Trump.

The fight is clearly on for the soul of the conservatism within the Republican Party. And with Mitt Romney’s once again raising the stakes on the unsavory parts of Trumpism, we should see greater discussion about the role that Latter-day Saints are playing in opposition to it.

 

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Senate

Late Senate Confirmation on Wednesday Brings FCC Back to Five Commissioners, a First Since 2017

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WASHINGTON, January 3, 2019 – The Senate on Wednesday night confirmed Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr to another term at the agency, and confirmed Geoffrey Starks, a Democratic appointee, to begin serving as a commissioner at the agency.

The move means that the agency will finally have a full house of five commissioners, a first since the beginning of the Trump administration in early 2017.

While it was uncertain if the Senate would be able to act before the conclusion of the 115th Congress at Noon on Thursday, the two senators who had been objecting to the appointments – Sens. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, and Joe Manchin, D-W.V. – had previously lifted their objections, or “holds,” on the nominations.

If the Senate had not acted on Wednesday or Thursday morning, President Trump would need to make re-appointments to the position.

Manchin had previously stated that he released his hold after obtaining a commitment from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai regarding the mobility fund auction of the agency’s Universal Service Fund. Sullivan stated that he had received reassurances from Pai about the Rural Health Care Program.

After the Senate’s action late Wednesday, Pai congratulated Starks on his appointment:

“He brings a wealth of experience and expertise, including having served most recently as Assistant Chief in the Enforcement Bureau.  During his confirmation hearing, I was excited to hear him highlight the need to expand rural broadband and the power of telemedicine.  I look forward to working with him and having a fellow Kansan on the Commission.”

He also congratulated Carr, a fellow Republican, on his work at the FCC on wireless infrastructure modernization, precision agriculture and advancements in telemedicine.

Industry groups weighed in with praise. Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of the NTCA, the Rural Broadband Association, said of Carr and Starks: “Both have deep experience in telecom policy issues that can help tackle thorny challenges and identify innovative, practical solutions as we strive for a more connected nation.

“Commissioner Carr has already demonstrated in his time on the FCC his willingness to roll up his sleeves and examine issues thoroughly through field visits and conversations with stakeholders of all kinds. Meanwhile, Commissioner Starks’ long-standing commitment to public service and his family’s own connections to rural America and telemedicine applications will suit him well in his new role. NTCA and its membership look forward to working with Commissioners Carr and Starks, as well as the other members of the FCC, to advance the statutory mission of universal service, protect consumers, and promote competitive markets and common-sense rules of the road wherever possible.”

The Internet Industry Association stated: “At a time when the nation is beginning the transition to much faster and more versatile 5G networks, we look forward to working with them on critical policies to accelerate broadband deployments and meet the country’s broadband needs.”

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