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Poll: Most Americans Want To Fix Obamacare — Not End It

IMAGE: Supporters of the Affordable Care Act celebrate after the Supreme Court up held the law in the 6-3 vote at the Supreme Court in Washington June 25, 2015. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

In Congress, Republicans Are Starting To Fret

IMAGE: (L-R) U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan and U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell listen to Vice President Mike Pence address the media during the 2017 “Congress of Tomorrow” Joint Republican Issues Conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. January 26, 2017. REUTERS/Mark Makela

Congressional Budget Office: Economy Grows, But So Does Deficit, Thanks To Tax Breaks

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. economy is on track to expand “solidly” this year, but the federal deficit is creeping up again, thanks in large part to a package of tax breaks enacted by Congress last year, officials said Tuesday.

Rising consumer demand is expected to boost the economy this year and next, potentially encouraging growth in both wages and employment, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said. The unemployment rate is expected to dip to 4.5 percent by year’s end.

“CBO anticipates that the economy will expand solidly this year and next,” according to the report. “Increases in demand for goods and services are expected to reduce the quantity of underused labor and capital, or ‘slack,’ in the economy — thereby encouraging greater participation in the labor force by reducing the unemployment rate and pushing up compensation.”

The official budget scorekeeper released the annual budget and economic summary one week ahead of schedule to give lawmakers a head start in drafting federal budgets. A full report is due next week.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) wants to launch the budget process early this year. As the architect of the GOP’s previous austerity plans, Ryan says he wants to give voters a clear alternative to Democrats heading into the 2016 election.

While the economic outlook is gradually improving, deficits — which had been declining since the Great Recession — will rise again in 2016 to $544 billion, CBO said.

That’s a $105 billion increase over last year, and $130 billion higher than what had been forecast in August.

“Much of that amount stems from the extension of tax provisions,” the report said.

Overall, revenues are expected to rise by 4 percent, but spending is increasing by 6 percent in 2016, leading to the imbalance.

The rising deficit, to 2.9 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, is the first jump in years and comes after deficits had been falling under President Barack Obama from a peak of 9.8 percent in 2009, the report said.

Increasing deficits will pile on to the nation’s already sizable $18 trillion debt load, leading to higher interest costs in the years to come. CBO said interest payments will double over the decade.

Congress and the White House are about to launch the annual budget process, producing blueprints that often serve more as inspirational documents outlining party priorities than actual fiscal plans.

Already, spending levels for this fiscal year and next are set under a budget accord reached between Congress and the administration last year.

As part of last year’s budget deal, Congress also extended or made permanent dozens of tax breaks for individuals and corporations — including those for business expenses and the working poor, as well as others for specialty industries like racetracks. It was a rare bipartisan compromise.

Congress has until Sept. 30 to approve legislation to fund the government at the already-approved spending levels or risk a shutdown.

©2016 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) holds a weekly news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington January 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

For 2016, House Speaker Paul Ryan Sets Sights On Crafting A GOP Campaign Vision

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — He has a new job, speaker of the House, but Rep. Paul D. Ryan has stuck with a longtime routine, sequestering himself on a hunting stand in Wisconsin, picking off deer that he will turn into jerky, brats and links to sustain him through the year.

Making sausage, literally, is a hobby of the new speaker — he grows an annual beard for deer hunting season — but it’s one he’ll have less time for as of Monday, when he gavels a new session of Congress to order in an election year.

As his party struggles to coalesce around a presidential nominee, Ryan plans to use his majority on Capitol Hill as an incubator for Republican ideas on the campaign trail.

“My goal is to help unify the conservative movement so we can unify the Republican Party so we can give the country a really clear choice,” Ryan told reporters recently at his office in the Capitol.

“The members, together, are going to come together and assemble an agenda that we present to the country,” he said. “We owe people the right to decide if they want to stay on this path or not … . That’s our obligation.

“We can’t wait around until July when we have a convention” and pick a presidential nominee, he added. “We’ve got to get going now.”

Moving quickly would allow Ryan to try to define the GOP along his preferred lines — the “confident America” agenda he has talked about in recent speeches. That would enhance his influence as a leader who is already quite popular in his party.

It also could give Republican House and Senate candidates something to hold onto if the presidential nomination goes to a candidate unpopular with general-election voters. Many Republican officials worry that a Donald Trump candidacy, for example, could prove disastrous to the party’s candidates in close Senate elections.

Ryan has long been the party’s big thinker, rather than its heavy-lifter — he has proposed many big plans over the years, but not passed much substantive legislation until recently. With few must-pass bills pending in 2016, he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky have a wide-open canvas on which to sketch the party’s agenda without having to worry too much about actually turning bills into laws.

Republican senators and representatives will meet jointly for a mid-January retreat to begin setting priorities — repeal Obamacare, lower taxes, cut spending — not as bills that President Barack Obama would sign into law, but as measures that set out a clear contrast with Democratic proposals.

But the day-to-day output from Congress may not be as inspiring to voters as the lofty pronouncements Ryan has been making: “We need to raise our gaze,” he said in a recent speech.

One area of common ground between the Republican Congress and Obama could be criminal justice reforms, but no votes have been scheduled.

The top 2016 goal of both Ryan and McConnell is to return Congress to “regular order” — the step-by-step process of passing bills through the congressional committees and then each chamber.

First up, the House is set to vote Wednesday to repeal Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood, sending the measure to Obama’s desk, where a swift veto has been promised. Congress does not have the votes to override the veto, and so the bill is not expected to become law.

The Senate will consider legislation to ban Syrian refugees from resettling in the United States, following an earlier bill approved by the House. But Obama is likely to veto that, too.

Those votes may be merely symbolic, but going through the motions matters to conservative activists who have accused GOP leaders of caving in during past fights rather than seeing them through to a conclusion.

For much of the remainder of the year, the Republican leaders plan to devote floor time to dispatching with the spending bills needed to fund the government.

Their hope is that since Congress already has agreed with the White House on an overall budget blueprint for this year and next, they can avoid a year-end scramble and the threat of another government shutdown — showing voters that under GOP control, government can function.

“Some thought the Senate could never be cured of its dysfunction and its gridlock,” McConnell said recently. “But the new majority you elected didn’t agree. We believed the Senate could be restored to a place of high purpose again, and we’ve made great strides over the past year proving that it can.”

That’s the kind of message that resonates in Washington and among conservative activists, but may prove a tougher sell among voters. Americans give Congress dismal approval ratings, barely breaking into double-digits.

Without a hefty legislative agenda ahead, Ryan, who was the midseason replacement after former Speaker John A. Boehner called it quits, can focus on forming the party’s vision for the next president. And that means he may end up doing more sausage making at home this year than on Capitol Hill.

(c)2016 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) holds a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington December 17, 2015. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

Ryan Faces His First Big Test As House Speaker: Avoid A Government Shutdown

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul D. Ryan faces his first big test as Congress stares down a deadline to do something that has become increasingly difficult: pass a bill to fund the government.

With just seven workdays remaining before the Dec. 11 deadline, the new speaker will aim to leverage his political honeymoon into a strategy that will avoid another federal shutdown.

But already Ryan is under pressure to tack on a host of GOP policy provisions to the $1.1 trillion spending bill — among them efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, halt the entry of Syrian refugees into the U.S. and repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Forcing any of those extras into the bill might bolster support from Republican conservatives, but it would also unleash a backlash from Democrats, setting up a showdown in Congress and with the White House.

“We obviously have difference of opinions on all of these big issues,” Ryan said Tuesday, declining to explain how they might be resolved. “Those negotiations are ongoing right now.”

The Wisconsin Republican received an assist from House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, the No. 2 Republican, who suggested Monday that the Dec. 11 deadline to pass a spending bill might slip to Dec. 18, allowing more time to get rank-and-file Republicans on board.

Leaders need to tamp down GOP dissent over what will likely be a compromise with Democrats.

“Our first principle starting out is to get the most conservative bill we can,” McCarthy told reporters Monday in the Capitol, saying he was “hopeful” the voting could be wrapped up by the 11th, but noting that Dec. 18 is the final workday before lawmakers break for the Christmas holidays.

“I wish it would go a little faster,” he said. “If not, we’re here until the 18th, and it won’t make any difference. We’ll get it done.”

He added: “I do not see a shutdown happening.”

President Barack Obama previously said he would not sign another temporary funding bill beyond the one that runs out Dec. 11, but the White House softened that Monday, opening the door for a stopgap measure for just a few days.

Both sides had hoped that the two-year budget accord reached this fall would create a smoother landing for the year-end spending bill. But staff negotiators have struggled over working nights and weekends to try to reach a compromise.

The days ahead will be pivotal for Ryan, who has enjoyed mostly positive reviews since he took over for beleaguered House Speaker John A. Boehner this fall.

But Ryan’s leadership has not yet been seriously tested.

“I say with some confidence that the newly elected speaker of the House doesn’t want to preside over a government shutdown six weeks into his tenure,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

Just two months ago, the funding fight over GOP efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, led in part by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the GOP presidential candidate, helped push Boehner out of office. Conservatives rallied opposition to Planned Parenthood after secretly recorded videos showed officials for the family planning organization discussing the use of fetal tissue for research.

Boehner decided to resign after conservatives threatened to oust him for refusing to engage in a protracted fight that could have resulted in a shutdown.

Hoping to avoid a similar outcome and unite the fractious GOP majority, Ryan vowed to change the culture of House leadership, mainly by meeting the Republican lawmakers’ demands to be more involved in the decision-making process.

Ryan has tapped the chairmen of the Appropriation Committee subcommittees — the leaders responsible for the spending bill — to sit down with rank-and-file lawmakers to craft priorities in the pending legislation.

And the new speaker launched a second weekly conference meeting — the private GOP sessions in the Capitol basement — as a forum to discuss the thorny details of various policies.

“Our challenge that Paul has set out for himself — doing a little more regular order, doing bigger issues — you see us working toward that,” McCarthy said. “They feel they’re being listened to.”

©2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Speaker of the House Paul D. Ryan via wikimedia commons

 

White House And Republican Leaders Reach Budget Deal

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The White House and congressional Republican leaders reached a budget agreement late Monday that would resolve the stalemate over paying for federal programs and could end the threat of another government shutdown for the rest of President Barack Obama’s term.

The $80 billion, two-year budget accord would increase spending somewhat on defense and domestic programs, rolling back some of the automatic cuts known as sequesters that Obama repeatedly has denounced.

The deal is likely to face opposition from both right and left. Earlier in the evening, as news of the possible accord spread, some conservative groups denounced the additional spending as a betrayal, while some liberal groups warned against the possibility that trims in benefits would be agreed upon to pay for parts of the agreement.

The package also would raise the nation’s borrowing limit and avert the risk of a credit default, which could come as early as Nov. 3. In addition, the deal is expected to block price increases on seniors who use Medicare Part B, halting forthcoming boosts in their premiums and deductibles.

A vote on the deal could come as early as Wednesday.

Progress came as a surprise; many had doubted the White House and Republicans could come to terms. It would be one of the final legislative acts of House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who is preparing to retire this week after repeated confrontations with his party’s hard-right flank.

Boehner met with his leadership team Monday afternoon and convened rank-and-file lawmakers for a hastily called private evening session.

“Fiscal negotiations are ongoing,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as he opened the Senate. “As the details come in, and especially if an agreement is reached, I intend to consult and discuss the details with our colleagues.”

After abruptly announcing his retirement last month, Boehner had vowed to “clean up the barn” for his successor. Resolving the budget standoff would clear one of the most divisive issues from the agenda of Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., who is expected to be elected the next House speaker this week.

The more legislation Boehner can muscle through the testy GOP-led House in the days ahead, the smoother the transition will be for Ryan.

The measure to lift the nation’s debt limit, currently at $18.1 trillion, through March 2017 would be tacked on to the budget deal, according to congressional aides, who did not want to be identified speaking about the sensitive negotiations.

Boehner’s critics on the right quickly sought to galvanize Republican opposition, and conservative lawmakers left the evening meeting fuming that the speaker was cutting a last-minute deal before stepping aside.

“The only reason you negotiate in the dark is because Republicans won’t accept it,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan. One lawmaker stood up during the private session and asked why Boehner, not Ryan, was at the negotiating table. Ryan, according to those in the room, did not address the issue.

“In Washington, cleaning the barn is apparently synonymous with shoveling manure on the American people,” said Heritage Action Chief Executive Michael A. Needham. “John Boehner is clearly a rogue agent negotiating on behalf of well-connected special interests, not the voters that gave him the gavel.”

Liberal groups voiced their own concerns.

“The White House needs to know that any budget deal that cuts Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid benefits, or eligibility for those benefits, is unacceptable to the American people and roughly equivalent to declaring a holy war on struggling working families,” said Jim Dean, chairman of Democracy for America.

For weeks, aides to congressional leaders and the White House have been meeting behind closed doors on a possible budget deal. The aim has been to roll back some of the steep sequester cuts that were agreed to after a 2011 debt ceiling showdown. Both parties have wanted to undo the sequester cuts, for different reasons.

Republicans have wanted to halt cuts to the Pentagon, while Democrats have sought to ease reductions to domestic programs.

Talks had dragged, though, as the two sides tried to figure out how to pay for the increased spending.
The deal probably would be paid for with a combination of budget cuts elsewhere, new fees and partial reliance on an overseas contingency fund set aside for military operations.

The deal would adjust spending caps for two years by a total of $80 billion — $50 billion the first year and $30 billion in the second — equally divided between defense and nondefense spending, according to a person familiar with the negotiations.

An additional $32 billion in spending over the two years will come from the overseas contingency account, which brings the total package to $112 billion. Republicans had suggested tapping that account before to boost military funding, but Democrats and even some Republicans argued it was an accounting gimmick because the emergency war fund was not intended for such a purpose.

The bulk of the costs would be paid for by clipping government programs and raising fees on others in ways that would cause political discomfort on both sides of the partisan line.

Democrats probably will object to cuts in the Social Security Disability Insurance program that would lower part of the benefits individuals receive based upon any wages they earn. Republicans probably will pan new tax-filing fees.

The GOP will score a victory with another provision that would do away with an Affordable Care Act requirement that larger companies automatically sign up workers for health care unless the workers specifically opt out. Businesses have fought the requirement.

Passage is a multi-step process, giving opponents ample opportunity to derail the deal. Even if the deal is approved this week, Congress still would need to pass a separate spending bill to keep the government running after the Dec. 11 deadline. If it fails to do so, the specter of a government shutdown could reappear.

This final effort by Boehner could result in a politically heroic act to resolve looming crises despite deep resistance from the GOP majority in the House — or it could cement his reputation among hard-right Republicans that his willingness to compromise with Obama makes him insufficiently conservative.

“Listen, this is not about us,” Boehner said last week. “Our job is to do the right thing for the American people every day. You have heard me say this multiple times, and I will say it one more time: If you do the right things for the right reasons every day, the right things will happen for our country.”

Also Monday, the House advanced legislation to salvage the Export-Import Bank, a Depression-era financing entity that big business says is vital for exports but conservatives deride as crony capitalism.

This year, conservatives succeeded in beginning to close the bank by failing to authorize new lending. A brutal lobbying campaign over the bank has been underway on both sides of the issue.

A bipartisan majority in the House that wants to revive the bank pushed the vote forward with a rare “discharge petition” procedure, which hasn’t been fully deployed since the 1970s. Boehner did not stand in the way.
___
(Staff writer Christi Parsons in Washington contributed to this report.)

Photo: This is the last thing House Speaker is dealing with. For reals. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Paul Ryan’s Risky Road Ahead As House Speaker

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Poised to become the next House speaker, Republican Rep. Paul D. Ryan finds himself in a position he once seemed eager to avoid: leading an unforgiving GOP majority that is not completely sure it wants him.

Risks loom large for the boyish Wisconsin congressman, who until recently had enjoyed a lengthy run as a popular GOP figure, but who nevertheless failed to secure all the conditions he demanded as trade-offs for taking the leadership job.

Instead, Ryan now appears willing to settle for less than full-throated support from the conservative base as he tries to steer the GOP away from dysfunction and redefine the speaker’s office _ a potential career-killer for someone with presidential aspirations _ on his terms.

Late Thursday, Ryan in a letter to colleagues made it official, “I am ready and eager to be our speaker.”

The road ahead will not be easy. But if Ryan can emerge intact from the next few weeks of budget and debt battles, he could potentially transform the job into one he wants _ allowing him to spend more time at home with his children and utilizing his skill set as the party’s visionary spokesman during a presidential election year.

“What Ryan has created is this window of opportunity that may allow him to be a little bit flexible,” said Matthew Green, a professor of politics at Catholic University. “First and foremost, he’s got to find a way to avoid crises or resolve them. Then he’s got to find a way to reunify his party. It’s possible. But so much of what happens in Congress is based on the unexpected.”

Ryan has always done well as the party’s deep thinker, the architect of the steep austerity cuts to Medicare and other safety net programs in the GOP budget.

Ryan, the party’s former vice presidential nominee, was mentored during his early years in Washington by former Housing Secretary Jack Kemp, one of the masterminds of Reaganomics. Ryan modeled his rise on President Ronald Reagan’s sunny optimism in pursuit of small-government principles.

At 45, Ryan would be the youngest speaker since 1869, in the aftermath of the Civil War, when 39-year-old Rep. James G. Blaine, R-Maine, took the gavel. (Another 45-year-old, Republican Rep. Warren Keifer of Ohio, was a couple of months older than Ryan when he became speaker in 1881.)

Historically, speakers have been an older and grayer sort, veterans of the halls of power. But Ryan is expected to try to shift away from the era of backroom deal-making and toward more big-picture thinking.

The most recent model for the visionary speaker was Newt Gingrich, who wowed voters in the GOP until his top-down style resulted in an internal coup that did him in.

Ryan’s backers, though, are counting on the nine-term congressman’s ability to maneuver through the next few weeks of crises so he can focus on articulating a conservative message for the 2016 campaign.

“His ability to speak to people who aren’t necessarily conservative will be vital going into the election,” Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., said.

Ryan wanted to become speaker only if he could have some assurances that the conservative forces that pushed Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, to early retirement would give him a chance to lead.

On Wednesday, two-thirds of the members of the House Freedom Caucus agreed to back Ryan, but that fell short of the full endorsement he sought, making him vulnerable to the same risks of internal insurrection that doomed Boehner.

Some conservatives are concerned about Ryan’s reluctance to fight for the speaker’s job, questioning whether he might prefer they withhold their support.

“The impression I got speaking to Paul Ryan is that he would be somewhat thankful if he did not have to be speaker of the House,” said Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., a member of the Freedom Caucus.

Ryan also is giving up the natural power base that Boehner amassed by becoming a fundraising juggernaut. Ryan has said he does not want to spend time on the road courting donors when he could be home with his wife and three children in Janesville, Wis.

Some conservative colleagues welcomed this balance between professional and family responsibilities, but others have already begun using it against him.

Democrats, meanwhile, easily spotted an opening for criticism, alleging that Ryan’s conservative record has failed to support the kind of policy that benefits working families.

“I’m glad to see @PRyan understands the importance of work/life balance for his next job,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said on Twitter. “Millions of hardworking moms & dads want work/life balance too @PRyan but can be fired just for asking for time off to care for a sick kid.”

Said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.: “I hope he will not take weekends off until we do something to solve the debt crisis and to fund the government.”

(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) (C) leaves a meeting about his bid to be the next Speaker of the House with moderate members of the House Republican caucus on Capitol Hill in Washington October 22, 2015. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Analysis: Who Will Blink First In House Speaker’s Race?

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — A core group of House conservatives is likely to withhold its support for Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to become the next speaker, creating a political standoff between the GOP’s favorite son and the renegade newcomers who have established their own new power center.

Ryan, once considered the Republicans’ only hope for uniting their frayed party, has spent a recess week away from Washington without any fresh indication that he is seriously lobbying for a job he would accept only if the party’s warring factions agreed to stop the infighting and give it to him without conditions. That stance reflects not only his own reluctance to assume the difficult job, but also the reality he may not be able to easily win it.

At the same time, the 40-or-so Republicans who make up the House Freedom Caucus, a ragtag, somewhat secretive group of influential conservatives, appear to feel little pressure to consent to Ryan’s rise after they successfully toppled House Speaker John A. Boehner and thwarted the aspirations of the next-in-line, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

The stalemate has devolved into a political staring contest that could determine who controls the largest House Republican majority in generations, and neither side appears ready to blink.

The Freedom Caucus is still pressing to extract procedural reforms from the next leader that will decentralize power away from the marbled speaker’s office and spread it through the rank-and-file trenches, a change its members hope will make it easier to pursue the group’s small-government, socially conservative agenda.

Congress resumes Tuesday with Republicans no closer to replacing Boehner than they were almost a month ago when the Ohio Republican suddenly announced he would call it quits rather than continue fighting with the right flank.

Though Boehner is set to retire at the end of the month, the party’s inability to rally around an alternative speaker could leave him in charge indefinitely, albeit weakened, which both sides may ultimately prefer to testing the limits of their power struggle.

Vin Weber, a former congressman, said his party is “adrift” and should turn to Ryan, whom he has mentored and counts as an ally.

“If the House of Representatives wants to be a defining institution in articulating a message, they have a golden opportunity in making Paul Ryan speaker,” Weber said. “If all they want is a weak speaker and chaos in the House, then he’s the wrong guy.”

While there is no shortage of aspirants for the job, some more viable than others, none has the political panache of Ryan, the party’s former vice presidential nominee.

Ryan, though, has shown nothing but disinterest in the tangled mess of the speaker’s job. He made virtually no overtures to the conservatives for their votes during the break. Instead, Ryan is waiting for the Freedom Caucus to decide if they want him, signaling that he will not be pressured to make the kinds of assurances or promises about rule changes and conservative principles that they are demanding in exchange for their endorsement.

Boehner and Ryan chatted midweek, but it is increasingly clear Ryan will consider the promotion only if he is confident that he won’t be undermined by the right flank rebellion that doomed Boehner’s tenure. Supporters say Ryan is smart to send the message that he would be speaker on his terms or not at all. But he’s unlikely to receive such deference.

“We need Paul; Paul doesn’t need us,” acknowledged one senior GOP leadership aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the crisis.

But the Freedom Caucus is in no mood to cave on its demands. The group is looking for its own guarantee that the new GOP leadership will open committee assignments and return to “regular order” — a process by which bills are brought to the floor and are more open to amendments.

“Anybody, Paul included, who wants to be speaker has to address the fact that a large percentage of a majority of the conference wants to see changes,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, said in an interview. “If Paul gets up and says, ‘I’m going to be the exact same speaker John Boehner was,’ he’s going to have a problem.”

“There are no shoo-ins,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., who was booted from the House Budget Committee in 2012 as punishment for being at odds with leadership. “It can’t be a John Boehner 2.0 or 3.0.”

Founded in January after an earlier failed attempt to oust Boehner, the Freedom Caucus has become a driving force within the House Republican majority simply because of its power as a voting bloc.

Even though its membership is not public, the group formed with an eye toward a roster of 40 — the number of lawmakers it would take to stop the 247-seat Republican conference from being able to comfortably pass bills in the House, where 218 votes are needed.

Often referred to as “dissidents” and “crazies” — Boehner called them “knuckleheads” — the group in many ways formalized a rebellious conservative wing that grew from the 2010 tea party election that gave Republicans the House majority.

The Freedom Caucus includes newer lawmakers swept into power that year, as well as more veteran conservatives. They come from every region in the nation, with strongholds in the South and inter-mountain West. One of them, Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., has taken to carrying an inches-thick rules book under his arm.

“Those of us who wanted John Boehner to leave, what we wanted was the institution to change, for the process to be more bottom up,” said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., who is aligned with the Freedom Caucus but not a member. “Let’s make this the people’s House, go back to regular order. Everybody may not be satisfied with what comes out at the end of the day, but at least you would have some say.”

Members of the Freedom Caucus insist theirs is not a struggle over ideological differences, but procedures; and some note that the group’s own choice for speaker, Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida, is not the most conservative among them, but a process-driven former House speaker in his state.

“To those who say we’re trying to hold up the conference, nothing could be further,” said Mulvaney. “We want the same thing the other Republicans in the conference want. I can’t tell you the number of people who’ve walked up to me and said, thanks for what you’re doing. We’re not going away.”

Cloaked within their We-the-People-view of governance, however, is both a shrewd grasp at power and an attempt to bend the GOP majority toward their more conservative positions.

In many ways, withholding their support from Ryan — as they did with Boehner and McCarthy — gives the group a powerful tool to force the majority to yield to their demands.

The times that Boehner abandoned the Freedom Caucus and relied on Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to deliver Democratic votes often strengthened the group’s arguments against him.

In fact, some in the Freedom Caucus had preferred to keep Boehner in power as a hobbled speaker. They initially resisted a motion filed against him by one member, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C.

To that end, the Freedom Caucus may get its wish. Boehner has said he will remain until a new speaker is elected.
If the group blocks Ryan from ascending to the speaker’s office, it will have achieved perhaps a more powerful victory than forcing out Boehner.

It may force him to stay.

Photo: Speaker of the House John Boehner might be forced to stay due to intractability among House Republicans. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Rubio’s Childhood In Las Vegas Shaped And Tempered His Politics

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

LAS VEGAS — He was known as Tony back then, a young boy so persuasive and self-assured that he helped persuade his family to ditch Catholicism for the Mormon Church, and he marched in a union picket line with his dad, a casino bartender, to demand better wages.

Marco Rubio’s life might have turned out very differently had he stayed in this working-class neighborhood off the Las Vegas Strip, where service workers like his father and mother, a hotel maid, dreamed of a better life while providing the labor to power the gambling industry’s economic engine.

But the Rubios returned to Miami after six short but formative years in Nevada. Rather than coming of age in the small “l” libertarianism of the West, where most Latinos skewed toward the Democratic Party, Tony began high school amid South Florida’s conservative Cuban-American exile community. And that’s where Marco Rubio, early tea party favorite and Republican presidential hopeful, was forged.

All that Rubio left behind in Las Vegas points to a world view once considered, but ultimately rejected, a time he tried on new political and cultural ideas he later would shed.

His childhood enthusiasm for the powerful Las Vegas unions has been replaced by a pro-business economic sensibility. He abandoned the Mormon faith in favor of a mash-up of his wife’s evangelical Christianity and his own Catholic roots. He has publicly criticized the gambling industry.

As he drove his weathered Prius recently through the residential streets Rubio roamed as a kid, Mo Denis, Rubio’s cousin and the former Democratic leader of the state Senate, reflected on how Rubio had changed and how his time in Nevada influenced the kind of politician he became.

“We’ve talked about it on occasion,” said Denis, who still lives in the Nevada neighborhood where Rubio arrived in 1979 as an 8-year-old and lived until he was 14. “His time here was part of who he is.”

Denis said Rubio’s years in the diverse neighborhood of working-class white and Latino families exposed him to lifestyles and socioeconomic conditions he wouldn’t have seen in the more insular and politically conservative Miami. That may have helped broaden and temper his views on some topics.

“I don’t know that he’s rejected it,” Denis said of Rubio’s experience in Las Vegas. “He’s incorporated it, added to it. … As a president, I think that would be helpful to him — that experience he had here — because he really does have that insight. Whether he chooses to (act on it), that’s up to him.”

As Rubio’s campaign builds momentum following a strong debate performance last month the candidate returned to the Silver State on Thursday to highlight his time there and stump for votes. Supporters are positioning Rubio as a more compassionate, optimistic alternative to Donald Trump and others who have dominated the field.

On Saturday, Rubio tried to reconnect with Nevada’s Latino voters at St. Christopher Catholic School in North Las Vegas, which he briefly attended as a child. (He begged his parents to enroll him in the Catholic school, but then quit after finding it too strict).

Rubio likes to joke that he has more relatives in Vegas than in Miami, but he remains a relative unknown in the city.

“Most people still have no idea he spent time here as a kid,” said longtime Nevada political guru Jon Ralston. “Whether that creates any special nexus for him in Nevada remains to be seen.”

Some of his current positions risk alienating the same Nevada voters he’ll need for the state’s early Republican nominating caucus and, if he becomes the party’s nominee, the general election.

His past criticism of gambling, in particular, appears out of step with conservative casino moguls, such as billionaire GOP donor Sheldon Adelson, and the army of unionized Strip workers who turn out working-class voters. Nearly 400,000 Las Vegas residents are employed by casinos and related tourism.

So far, however, Rubio’s views do not appear to have damaged his relationship with the high-rolling executives who loom large in Republican politics. In recent months, nevertheless, he has fine-tuned his criticism of the industry.

Rubio continues to be a favorite of Adelson’s. The billionaire is more interested in Rubio’s positions on national security issues and support for Israel, according to those familiar with Adelson’s thinking.

And Rubio is aligned with Adelson’s campaign against efforts to legalize online gaming. The two are said to talk regularly as Adelson, who bankrolled Newt Gingrich’s 2012 campaign, assesses the current field.

When Rubio first stepped off the plane in Las Vegas in 1979, his family was a minority among a growing Mexican-American minority. Their branch of the family did not flee Fidel Castro’s Cuban regime; they came to the U.S. before Castro’s revolution, for a better life. As Miami’s crime rose and opportunity withered, they headed west.

The Rubios stayed with relatives before buying a modest two-bedroom cinder-block home in the College Park neighborhood, an older tract of houses with mid-century angles.

Rubio became interested in politics at an early age. He initially backed Edward Kennedy’s 1980 campaign for president, but his Cuban grandfather instilled in him conservative values; during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, young Rubio embraced the Republican Party.

Even so, he threw himself into the Culinary Union’s landmark 1984 labor strike in Las Vegas. He made protest signs and joined the picket at Sam’s Town, where his dad worked. The work stoppage, remembered as the longest in Las Vegas labor history, left both sides bruised.

Rubio’s support for the strike was so strong he lashed out at his father — calling him a “scab” — when the man eventually crossed the picket line to go back to work, Rubio wrote in his autobiography, “American Son.”

As a senator, Rubio has come down squarely against organized labor. He voted against extending unemployment benefits as the economy showed signs of improving in 2014 and helped filibuster legislation aimed at preventing employment discrimination of gay workers.

In his book, Rubio, now 44, called it a “charmed” childhood. He played quarterback on a Pop Warner football team for Caesar’s Gladiators and swam in the family’s above-ground backyard pool, which was a hand-me-down from relatives.

“Las Vegas is not often the first place that comes to mind for people looking to raise their children in a wholesome environment,” he wrote. “Yet in many respects, it would prove to be the family-friendly community my parents hoped it would be.”

In Sin City, it remains to be seen whether candidate Marco Rubio will be welcomed as a native son. Despite the election of Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, Nevada’s first Latino governor, the Latino electorate is overwhelmingly Democratic.

Back in the old neighborhood, Yesenia Castaneda, a mother of three, is the new owner of the former Rubio home, and she is exactly the kind of voter Rubio is hoping to sway. A Mexican immigrant, she’s a stay-at-home mom and is open to the Republican Party.

But she said she isn’t sure who will get her vote. She also likes Hillary Rodham Clinton.

(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate and Senator Marco Rubio laughs while speaking during the Heritage Action for America presidential candidate forum in Greenville, South Carolina on September 18, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Keane

Under Pressure, Ryan Weighs House Speaker Post

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — After repeatedly insisting that he had no interest in becoming speaker of the House, Republican Rep. Paul D. Ryan was seriously considering the job Friday.

He had little choice. The wonkish Wisconsin congressman and former vice presidential nominee is seen as the GOP’s best hope to calm the chaos in the GOP-controlled House after Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., abruptly pulled out of the race to replace retiring Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, amid a conservative backlash.

As House Republicans met privately Friday in the Capitol basement to assess the fallout, the hard sell to recruit Ryan spilled into open pleadings that he run. Some even suggested he should simply be made speaker without a vote — by acclamation.

“Paul’s looking at it, but it’s his decision,” McCarthy said after the session. “If he decides to do it, he’d be an amazing speaker.” But McCarthy, who was considered next in line for the post, also offered a caution: “It’s a big job.”

It’s not hard to understand Ryan’s hesitation. Taking over the gavel could be a political loser for Ryan, who would inherit the same dysfunction fueled by a rebellious conservative minority that forced Boehner to announce his early retirement just two weeks ago and then doomed McCarthy’s bid to replace him.

Behind the usual protestations against spending time away from his family and three small children, Ryan’s reluctance is rooted in a more realistic calculation of the political damage the speaker’s job could do to his promising career.

Now in his ninth term in office, Ryan is often mentioned as presidential material, even though he passed on the 2016 campaign to remain at his perch as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. He is thought of as one of the GOP’s brightest thinkers and the economic guru who crafted the “Ryan Budget” that would turn Medicare into a voucher system to deeply cut costs.

At the same time, Ryan has enjoyed unusual popularity among Republicans without the messy challenges of leadership or the time-consuming job of fundraising. Among other duties, the modern speaker must spend much of his or her time traveling the country to raise money for the party’s candidates.

But Ryan’s conservative credentials have not been fully tested in the day-to-day wrangling required of a leader, and a bruising turn as speaker risks dimming his star-power. Outside conservative groups have already begun to attack.

“I know Paul’s getting a lot of pressure today,” said Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash. “I don’t care who the speaker is, he’s going to have the same battles.”

Ryan did not address the closed-door session Friday, but Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, a committee chairman, said he thought Ryan would agree to run.

“We’re going to need a leader who can bring all these factions together instead of being at war with each other, and that’s very difficult to do,” McCaul said. “I think he’s leaning toward it. I know the speaker’s been putting a lot of pressure on him. I know various members of the conference and chairman — they want him to get in.”

Ryan’s former 2012 running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has also called to encourage the congressman to take the post.

Ryan once aligned himself with a new generation of Republicans. “Young Guns” was a political manifesto he wrote with McCarthy and former Majority Leader Eric Cantor just five years ago.

But the Young Gun era has already been pushed aside by an even fresher group of hard-line conservatives that has thrown the party into disarray. Virginia’s Cantor was the first to fall, toppled in a surprise 2014 primary loss to a tea party newcomer, Rep. David Brat, who is now part of the influential House Freedom Caucus. With an estimated 40 members, the caucus is hoping to play a key role in selecting the next speaker, and many members do not see Ryan in same gauzy light as their colleagues.

“Everyone’s waiting to see what Paul does,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who led the fight against Boehner. Some predicted Ryan would not necessarily glide into the job and could face resistance if he declined to endorse the kinds of procedural changes backed by the caucus.

But demands or dissent from the conservatives will almost certainly push Ryan away from a run. In fact, the congressman is not expected to campaign for the job at all.

On Friday, he began his day like most others — waking up in the office where he sleeps while in Washington, then hitting the gym for a workout before settling in for eggs and sausage at the closed-door meeting.

For the budget wonk who finally has the chairmanship he set his sights on almost since arriving in Congress 17 years ago, he is hesitant to give up the job he always wanted for one he doesn’t.

Some supporters predict he would only take the speaker’s gavel if he had the full support of the House GOP, and such unity is a tall order.

As lawmakers adjourned for a week’s recess, at least a dozen other Republicans have emerged as possible candidates, but none have broad appeal among the severely divided majority. Those being considered, or hoping to be, reflect the vast differences within the House GOP majority.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who made a last-minute play to run as an alternative to McCarthy, said Friday he would not run against Ryan. Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida, a member of the Freedom Caucus, is also running.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the hard-charging former chairman of the House Oversight Committee, tossed his name forward, but then immediately said he would instead back Ryan.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who rebuffed Boehner’s earlier calls to run for majority leader, could still emerge, as could a hard-right conservative candidate.

In the meantime, Boehner’s scheduled Oct. 30 departure could be delayed. He has vowed to stay on until a new leader is chosen, which he predicted would take place by the end of the month.

“Time for us to take the walls down, open up our ears and listen to each other,” Boehner told lawmakers Friday, according to a person in the room. “But while we go through this process, we’ve got to continue to address the people’s priorities. This institution cannot grind to a halt.”

(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) gestures at a news conference on “Taxpayers Protection Alliance on Trade Promotion Authority” on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 10, 2015. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Highway Funds In Jeopardy As House And Senate Differ On Way Forward

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — A congressional standoff over how to renew an expiring highway-funding bill pushed the Senate into a rare and heated Sunday session, but the legislative path forward remains unclear, leaving federal transportation projects hanging in the balance.

Adding to the complication were votes Sunday on several unrelated amendments to the Senate highway bill. One to repeal the Affordable Care Act was rejected and another to resuscitate the Export-Import Bank advanced toward approval.

But the fate of the six-year, $337 billion Senate bill, which could face a final vote later this week, remained in doubt since it is starkly different from a stopgap House bill passed earlier this month, which would extend transportation funding for five months while a broader compromise is negotiated.

The stalemate over authorization for the nation’s highway program, which expires July 31, is not so much a traditional partisan divide, but rather a tussle between the House and Senate. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans, but they’ve taken different approaches to the problem.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx warned that billions of dollars in transportation projects and thousands of jobs across the nation are at risk if a compromise is not reached. Only days remain before House members leave for the summer recess, and money runs out at the end of the month.

“This country is hungering for robust transportation,” Foxx said Friday. “The problems of congestion that have gotten worse over the last several years — the potholes in the roads, the bridges that need to be repaired — I could go on and on.”

“I’ve just been to so many places around the country where traffic is getting worse,” he said. “People are beginning to draw the line, follow the bread crumbs back to Washington.”

Transportation funding problems have been building for years, partly because the 18-cents-a gallon federal gas tax has remained flat while vehicle fuel efficiency has increased, leading to repeated shortfalls in the highway account.

Congress has repeatedly patched the highway trust fund, but has been unable to agree on new revenue to cover the costs of repairing and upgrading the nation’s old infrastructure.

Senators have devised a far-reaching bill that would revamp transportation policy over the next six years, and provide funding for road, freight and public transit projects for half that time.

But the bipartisan Senate plan, championed by Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, the top Democrat on the committee, and Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the chairman, would be paid for by revenue cobbled from various federal sources.

The House dismisses this approach, and approved its own stopgap bill that would replenish the highway fund through December — a temporary fix while a bipartisan group led by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., works on a longer-term solution.

Ryan, with backing from a key Democrat, Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, wants to overhaul the international tax code and use taxes generated on overseas corporate profits for the highway fund.

“The House has passed a responsible bill,” said Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio. House members have “a lot of concern” about the Senate legislation, he said.

The House’s approach, though, faces uncertain odds because the politics of rewriting tax policy is complicated. It is also one rejected by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who prefers a broader review of the entire corporate tax code.

On Sunday, the consideration of the transportation bill was complicated further by McConnell’s decision to tack on an unrelated measure resurrecting the Export-Import Bank onto the legislation.

The leader had bucked his conservative flank led by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and promised a vote on the 81-year-old bank, which provides financing for foreign buyers of U.S. exports but has been unable to make new loans since Congress allowed its authority to lapse last month.

Conservatives backed by powerful groups aligned with the billionaire Koch brothers oppose the Export-Import Bank as an example of corporate welfare, but it is supported by business leaders, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. President Barack Obama and most Democrats also back the bank.

On Sunday, senators agreed 67-26 to advance an amendment to reauthorize the bank through 2019, virutally ensuring the amendment would be the Senate transportation bill.

Tempers flared Sunday as McConnell and his top lieutenants tried to publicly tamp down a conservative rebellion over the bank, but Cruz doubled down on his earlier assertion that McConnell had essentially told “a lie” by allowing the vote.

In a speech Friday, Cruz, who is running for president, blasted McConnell for allowing the Ex-Im bank amendment but blocking other amendments that Cruz and others wanted to offer.

In particular, Cruz was prevented from offering amendments that would stop Obama’s immigration actions and halt the emerging nuclear deal with Iran unless Tehran frees U.S. hostages and recognizes Israel.

Cruz had publicly accused McConnell of telling “a lie” when McConnell denied earlier this year that he had agreed to give Ex-Im Bank supporters another chance to resuscitate the bank by attaching an amendment to must-pass legislation like the highway bill. Cruz said Sunday’s vote was proof of such a secret deal.

“Speaking the truth about actions is entirely consistent with civility,” Cruz said Sunday, quoting novelist George Orwell, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

The maneuver may not succeed in saving the bank since presumably now House and Senate leaders will need to negotiate some sort of compromise highway bill that may not include the Ex-Im Bank amendment.

Photo: Automobile traffic backs-up as it travels north from San Diego to Los Angeles along Interstate Highway 5 in California. REUTERS/Mike Blake

2016 Presidential Race Emerging As The First Uber Election

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The so-called sharing economy is fast emerging as a 2016 presidential battleground, exposing fundamentally different approaches over how to embrace new technologies without hurting American workers.

Eager to court millennial voters and deep-pocketed tech executives, Republicans have almost universally praised smartphone apps that allow consumers to hire drivers, rent apartments and buy or sell just about any service online, latching onto them as prime examples of free-market entrepreneurship and workplace deregulation.

But in what is shaping up to be the first Uber election, Democrats have been more cautious, struggling to avoid appearing resistant to the popular new ventures while highlighting their potential negative impact on workers’ pay and benefits.

Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton sparked the Uber debate last week by pointing to the risks such new business models pose for workers.

“This ‘on demand’ or so-called gig economy is creating exciting opportunities and unleashing innovation,” Clinton said, “but it’s also raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future.”

Top Republican opponents pounced on her skepticism, portraying her as out of touch. Within days, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush made a public show of ordering up an Uber car to deliver him to a tech firm in San Francisco.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) whose 2015 book American Dreams included a chapter called “Making America Safe for Uber,” focused on the generational divide, saying Clinton was “trapped in the past, and cannot understand how the world is changing.”

Rand Paul, the libertarian-leaning Republican senator from Kentucky, wrote dismissively on Twitter that voters shouldn’t listen to a candidate who’s been driven in a limousine for the last 30 years.

Clinton risks alienating Americans who are increasingly enamored with the convenience and efficiency of the “gig” economy, or aligning herself too closely with labor-backed liberals, such as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is fighting Uber’s push into his city.

“Progressive politicians are making a major error by positioning against the sharing economy,” Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior advisor to President Obama, warned in a tweet. “We need to be shaping the future, not opposing it.”

Veteran GOP digital strategist Mindy Finn called Clinton’s comments a “huge misstep” that could backfire. “When I see Hillary Clinton kind of pushing back on the sharing economy … there’s nothing about that that I think will be appealing to younger voters.”

But the risks don’t flow one way. With some economists predicting the sharing economy could be as transformative as the Industrial Revolution, Republicans, too, may suffer with voters if they present too rosy or simplistic a view.

Just as the 19th-century backlash against industrialization and worker exploitation led to many of the labor rights and safety protections enjoyed today, a similar movement is building in support of “gig” workers forced to scrape together a hodgepodge of jobs that barely pay the bills and lack security, pensions and other workplace benefits.

“This happened during the Gilded Age,” said labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, comparing the vast wealth of the startups — 5-year-old Uber is now estimated to be valued at a stunning $50 billion — to that of the 19th-century industrialists. “That creates the inequality we talk about.”

It’s a conversation playing out not only on the campaign trail, but in legal battles against the companies in states across the country, including California. At issue is how to reap the economic benefits of the new technologies without losing the hard-fought protections and benefits for U.S. workers. Some policy experts envision a new category of workers, falling between independent contractors and traditional full-time employees.

Clinton’s team downplayed the partisan debate and stressed that she has “no beef” with Uber or other aspects of the sharing economy. At the same time, Clinton anticipates engaging in a broader policy discussion about the changing workplace environment.

“What she’s trying to do is start a very serious conversation about this important and growing part of our economy that is adding innovation and opportunity and excitement, frankly, but is also raising challenges and questions,” Jake Sullivan, a top Clinton policy adviser, told a group of journalists last week.

David Plouffe, Obama’s former top campaign strategist who now works as a chief adviser to Uber, said the reaction to Clinton’s July 13 speech was “overblown,” noting that she also said “very positive things” about the sharing economy. “My suspicion over time is you will see her embrace what this means,” Plouffe said Monday on “CBS This Morning.”

The bigger peril for Clinton, according to her party’s progressive wing, would be to retreat from Republican critics and fail to tackle the looming workplace issues raised in the new economy.

“It’s a phenomenal opportunity for Democrats to make clear they stand on the side of working people, even when they support innovation,” said Neil Sroka, communications director for Democracy for America, the organization founded by former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean.

At the same time, Republican candidates may find their Uber-loving stances get them only so far. Their positions on other issues — from immigration reform to net neutrality — are at odds with much of the tech-savvy and millennial audience they’re trying to attract. When Bush spoke last week in San Francisco, for example, some in the audience were more interested in his opposition to gay marriage.

“It looks so phony,” said one tech industry professional in Washington who was granted anonymity to frankly discuss the campaign. “If they’re trying to cater to Silicon Valley and people like me, we see right through this. … It’s a dangerous place to put yourself out there as the ‘new economy’ guy.”

While Uber and other startups have been careful to build bipartisan support for their budding industries and some leaders skew toward libertarianism, leading Silicon Valley-based executives have also made no secret of their reliance on Democratic mainstays. Uber Chief Executive Travis Kalanick, for example, recently praised Obamacare, saying that allowing people to obtain health insurance benefits outside of their job made it possible for people to adopt “more flexible ways to make a living.”

Uber is also well aware that the current debate is only the beginning of a long discussion about labor policy that will extend beyond the campaign trail.

“Layered on top of all of this is the important question: What’s at stake here?” said Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School. “Are the forms of protection and social welfare that we’ve provided since 1935 — are people going to just lose all of that because we have technological change? … How do we make sure that workers share in the sharing economy?”

(Los Angeles Times staff writers Seema Mehta in San Francisco and Michael A. Memoli in Washington contributed to this report.)

(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Scott L via Flickr

Obama’s Fast-Track Trade Bill Clears Key Senate Hurdle

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s fast-track trade bill cleared a key procedural hurdle Tuesday in the Senate, all but ensuring it will win final passage this week and be sent to the White House for his signature.

Despite deep reservations from many in the president’s party, enough Democratic senators appear ready to join most Republicans to finish the legislation, which has sputtered in Congress but is a top White House priority.

A last-minute flip-flop from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who announced Tuesday morning he would now oppose the bill because it had become tangled in Washington “deal-making,” did not upend the vote. Senators agreed 60-37 to advance the measure.

“With just a little more trust, a little more cooperation and simply voting consistently, we’ll get there,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said earlier this week. “We shouldn’t let this opportunity for significant bipartisan achievement slip past us.” A final vote is likely for Wednesday.

The politics of the trade vote have divided both parties, but especially Democrats, who worry it will cost American jobs. Earlier this month, in a rare rebuke of Obama, House Democrats blocked a version of the fast-track package from advancing. But days later, House Republicans passed a new fast-track bill and sent it back to the Senate.

Even though Republicans mostly support the trade agenda, McConnell needed at least a dozen Democrats to reach the 60-vote hurdle needed to break a filibuster blocking the bill. Thirteen Democrats joined the GOP to advance the measure. Five Republicans bucked the leader and voted no.

Pressure on members of Congress has run high in recent days on both sides of the issue.

The AFL-CIO has been running ads against the trade vote warning lawmakers that American workers will suffer. That put organized labor in an odd alliance with the conservative Heritage Action for America, which told lawmakers that they should vote no because the broader trade package is tarnished by deal-making and government pork.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and leading business interests urged senators to pass the trade legislation.

Fast-track, or trade promotion authority, would allow the president to assure potential trade partners that the deals they negotiate with the U.S. will be presented to Congress for a yes-or-no vote without amendment.

The administration is wrapping up talks on the emerging 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, the largest deal of its kind, and fast-track authority would cover it and future pacts for the next president.

Fourteen Senate Democrats voted last month for the fast-track bill as part of a broader package that also included funding to continue a worker retraining program for employees who lose their jobs to overseas trade.

But their support came into doubt after the worker retraining legislation was split off by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH), who faced resistance from Republicans who view the Trade Adjustment Assistance program as government waste.

At the same time, House Republicans gutted a related Senate bill that sought to punish countries that artificially inflate their currencies, and then loaded the measure with immigration and climate-change provisions that most Senate Democrats oppose.

McConnell has promised to work out the differences as he tries to nudge the package to completion after weeks of congressional debate. He and the White House each pledged to ensure that both the fast-track authority and retraining funds would pass both chambers, albeit separately.

Amid skepticism and distrust from some Democrats that the retraining program would stall in the House, Boehner stepped in early Tuesday to reassure senators “we remain committed” to sending the entire package “to the president’s desk this week and deliver this win for the American people.”

McConnell vowed that the worker assistance program will get a Senate vote Wednesday as part of a popular trade bill that gives preferences to goods coming from sub-Saharan African countries. And he has pledged to do his best to have a conference committee of House and Senate lawmakers resolve the currency bill and added a provision important to Ohio senators to protect the steel industry from illegally low-priced imports.

The worker assistance bill will still need to pass the House, where the outcome is uncertain because Republicans oppose the retraining program and Democrats have refused to support it as part of a broader strategy to halt the fast-track legislation. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus were particularly frustrated that the popular Africa bill they support was getting tangled in the political standoff.

Others remain concerned that an unrelated effort to extend the authority of the Export-Import Bank, which expires at the end of the month, is not being addressed.

Ultimately, those trying to strike a deal believe that once the fast-track bill clears the Senate, McConnell will keep his end of the deal and Democrats will agree to approve the worker training program.

By then, they say, there will be few options, because the fast-track bill will be on its way to the White House for Obama’s signature. Though Obama has said he prefers to sign both bills at together, he has not said whether he would sign the fast-track bill if the retraining measure fails.

(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

File photo: President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, right, leave the Gabriel Zimmerman room after a meeting with members of the House Democratic caucus to discuss his trade agenda on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Friday, June 12, 2015. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Fast-Track Trade Bill To Get Another Vote In Congress On Thursday

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Trying to salvage President Barack Obama’s trade agenda, Republican leaders in Congress plan to vote again Thursday on legislation giving the president fast-track negotiating authority, sidestepping House Democrats’ opposition and leaving the future of a worker-assistance program uncertain.

It’s a risky move for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH) but it is backed by the White House as one of the few options left if Congress is to provide Obama with the authority the administration says it needs to finish negotiations on a sweeping 12-nation Pacific Rim trade deal. Under the plan, a related worker-assistance program — seen as key to winning support from some key Democrats — would be handled separately.

Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) issued a rare joint statement late Wednesday pledging their support to ensure that both bills — Trade Promotion Authority and Trade Adjustment Assistance — reach the president’s desk.

“We are committed to ensuring both TPA and TAA get votes in the House and Senate and are sent to the president for signature,” the two Republican leaders said.

Under the emerging plan, the House fast-track bill could be sent as soon as Thursday to the Senate, which would likely vote on it next week. But it faces a tough climb in both chambers amid Democratic opposition to the fast-track bill and fears that the worker-training program, which Republicans largely oppose, would be scuttled.

To allay concerns from Democrats who want to preserve the worker-training program, the Senate would separately attach the Trade Adjustment Assistance legislation, which provides the training funds, to a related trade bill and send it back to the House for final passage in that chamber.

Obama was personally calling Democrats on Wednesday to shore up support from the few members of the president’s party who back the trade package, and the administration summoned lawmakers to the White House for a hastily arranged series of afternoon meetings before the annual congressional picnic.

Most Democrats, including party leaders, continue to oppose the fast-track bill, and the administration has largely maneuvered around them in pursuit of a deal with Republicans and the small number of Democrats.

But some Democratic votes are still needed to ensure passage in both chambers, and those lawmakers were insistent Wednesday that if they lent their support to fast-track, the worker-training program would have to be approved before it expires on Sept. 30.

“We have to have an understanding: It has got to be both proposals,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) who fielded a call from the president. “Trust is the key. Trust wins the day. Lack there of destroys it.”

Trade policy was thrown into disarray last week when Democrats in the House, led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) delivered a surprise rebuke to the president by rejecting his trade package.

The original plan had been to pair the fast-track bill with an extension of the worker-retraining program as a way to build bipartisan support for the broader trade package.

But Democrats voted en masse against the worker-assistance program, which they traditionally have supported, because they saw it as their best opportunity to halt the broader fast-track bill.

The fast-track measure, similar to those passed during previous administrations, would allow the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership and future trade deals to come to a simple yes-or-no vote in Congress without amendment.

“I don’t think it’s even necessary,” Pelosi said about fast-track authority during an interview on CNBC. “It’s a convenience for the administration. It’s an advantage for the business community. But it’s a hardship for workers.” Democrats are worried that a trade deal will cost American jobs.

After last week’s setback, Republicans scrambled to save the deal. Many lawmakers were feeling increasingly confident Wednesday that Boehner and McConnell had engineered a path forward.

“As we say in the South: Get ‘er done,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) who backed the new strategy even before he fielded a call from the president, but acknowledged some anguish remained among his Democratic colleagues. “They need to get on their knees and get heavenly divine guidance.”

Republicans were hopeful Wednesday that many of the 28 House Democrats who supported fast-track would do so again. Boehner met privately with about a dozen of them this week. Afterward, one of them, Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., said he was optimistic the bills would be approved.

Less certain is whether Boehner or McConnell will be able to muster any additional Republican votes. More than 50 House Republicans oppose fast-track and getting them to switch their votes to make up for possible Democratic defections is proving difficult.

Although Republicans have 54 seats in the Senate, they must rely on Democrats to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to advance a fast-track bill.

Fourteen Senate Democrats had supported fast-track when it was bundled with the training program in that chamber’s version of the bill. Support from most of them still would be needed amid some GOP opposition.

Many of those Democratic senators needed a guarantee that the assistance program, which now would be attached to a separate bill designating trade preferences to some African nations, would become law.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest tried to calm concerns by insisting Wednesday that the president would sign the bills at the same time.

“The only legislative strategy that the president will support is a strategy that results in both TPA and TAA coming to his desk,” Earnest said. “It will require the support of Democrats in both the House and the Senate. And it will require the House and Senate to continue to operate in bipartisan fashion when considering this issue.”

Assurances that the bills will be signed together were key to many Senate Democrats. “That’s the guarantee that people want … and I’m one of them,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). “Everybody feels strongly about that, and I think the president feels strongly about it.”

(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

File photo: AFP Photo/Jim Watson

NSA Surveillance Programs Expire As Senate Stalls

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — After 14 years and hundreds of millions of records of Americans’ telephone calls, the National Security Agency stopped bulk collection of phone data Sunday, officials said, as legal authority for the once-secret program expired.

The move came as the Senate stalled on efforts to reform the agency’s authority. The portion of the 2006 Patriot Act amendments that the NSA has argued allows collection of telephone calling data and other records expired at midnight EDT in Washington.

Late afternoon Sunday, intelligence officials said they had started shutting down the system for scooping up and recording phone call data, which was put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The NSA collects what it calls metadata — records that include the numbers called from a phone and the length of calls, but not the content of the conversations.

Officials said they planned to shut down the program entirely at midnight, although their actions, which are classified, can’t readily be verified.

On Sunday evening, the Senate voted 77-17 to advance a House-passed bill that would reform NSA surveillance. That legislation would end the bulk collection of telephone data. Under it, phone companies, not the government, would hold the call data, and intelligence agencies would be required to have a warrant to search it.

Under Senate rules, no final vote on that measure can take place until later this week unless all senators agree. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., refused, arguing that the House bill does not go far enough to rein in the intelligence agencies. His move guaranteed that the NSA’s legal authority would end, at least for now. The Senate appears likely to pass the House bill as early as Tuesday.

The lapse in the NSA’s power marks an important moment in the evolving U.S. response to the threat of terrorism. It is the first major legislative rebuff of domestic surveillance operations in the post-Sept. 11 era, and the most direct impact to date of the disclosures made by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who revealed the existence of the data-collection program two years ago.

Paul conceded that the House bill ultimately would pass, but raised numerous questions about whether it goes far enough to curtail the NSA’s authority. Nevertheless, he declared a victory.

“Through my slowing the process down, talking about the Patriot Act, we now will end bulk collection of records,” said Paul, who has made opposition to surveillance one of the centerpieces of his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

“My concern is we might be exchanging bulk collection by the government (for) bulk collection by the phone companies,” he said.

Supporters of the NSA denounced Paul’s actions. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, accused him of acting “for his own political gain.”

“Holding critical national security programs hostage to raise political donations is outrageous, but that’s where we stand today,” Feinstein said in a statement.

The White House called the House bill a “reasonable compromise” and urged the Senate “to ensure this irresponsible lapse in authorities is as short-lived as possible.”

“On a matter as critical as our national security, individual senators must put aside their partisan motivations and act swiftly,” the White House said in a statement from press secretary Josh Earnest.

Debate over the program has sharply divided both the parties, but the split among Republicans has been the most vivid. The division has become a major element in the party’s presidential campaign and a key factor stalling Senate action.

As the process of shutting down the surveillance apparatus began, senators returned to the Capitol for a rare Sunday session facing a deadline, with no clear plan for meeting it.

Tensions spilled over quickly as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who is a strong supporter of the NSA’s surveillance efforts, tried to prevent Paul, his fellow Republican, from speaking.

“This is what we fought the revolution over,” Paul thundered once he was allowed to speak. “This is a debate over your right to be left alone.”

The Senate visitors’ gallery was packed with Paul supporters wearing red T-shirts.

“People say, ‘How will we protect ourselves?'” without surveillance, he said, responding, “Use the Constitution. … Get a warrant.”

Paul sought to pin the program on the current administration, saying, “President Obama set this program up.”

The program was established by the George W. Bush administration without congressional authorization late in 2001. In 2006, after passage of the Patriot Act amendments, the Bush administration won approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which meets in secret, to continue the program under the Patriot Act’s section 215.

Over the last two years, however, the Patriot Act has come under increasing criticism from a coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans. The Obama administration last year proposed ending the government’s collection of telephone data and instead having telephone companies hold the information. Obama said, however, that he would keep the current program intact until Congress acted on an alternative.

An effort last year to reform the NSA’s authorities also stalled in the Senate.

A federal appeals court this spring ruled that the Patriot Act did not provide legal authority for the collection of millions of telephone records. But noting that the law was about to expire, the judges said they would put their ruling on hold for a few weeks while Congress debated whether to renew it.

The House passed its bill, the USA Freedom Act, in mid-May to limit the NSA’s powers. That bill has support from the administration and a broad bipartisan swath of senators, but had been blocked in the Senate by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. He and other defense hawks in the GOP wanted to keep the program running as is, without changes.

McConnell reversed course Sunday and voted to advance the House bill.

On the other side, a group of senators led by Paul and Democrat Ron Wyden, D-Ore., have pushed to rein in the NSA.

“I believe that dragnet surveillance violates the rights of millions of our people every day,” said Wyden, who joined all Democrats in voting to advance the House-passed reform bill.

Although McConnell backs the presidential bid of Paul, his fellow Kentucky senator, the two are at odds on the surveillance issue. Speaking Sunday, McConnell referred bitterly to “demagoguery” and a “campaign of misinformation” regarding the NSA program, although he did not identify anyone as responsible.

Tension ran high at a closed-door party meeting Sunday evening, which Paul said he purposefully avoided.

Obama has warned against taking away what his national security team contends is a vital tool needed to root out terrorist threats at home and abroad.

Speaking on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday morning, CIA Director John Brennan decried “political grandstanding” and said Congress should extend the program. “These tools are important to American lives,” Brennan said.

Paul and other opponents of the NSA argue the collection of telephone data is not worth the infringement on civil liberties and believe the nation can be better protected if the program is scrapped and redone.

Paul’s stance has drawn sharp rebuke from several rivals for the Republican nomination. On Sunday, Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, said that the nation’s security would be at risk if the Senate failed to reauthorize the law, which his brother enacted as president.

“There’s no evidence, not a shred of evidence, that the metadata program has violated anybody’s civil liberties,” Bush said, speaking on “Face the Nation.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., joined Paul in opposing the House-passed bill Sunday. Fellow Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas voted in favor, as did Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who is running for the Democratic nomination.

Two other parts of the Patriot Act that are set to expire would limit other aspects of the NSA’s surveillance operations that have been less contested. Those include the “lone wolf” provision, which allows the government to apply for court permission to wiretap an individual suspected of terror activities who is not part of a larger group, and another that allows the government to conduct “roving wiretaps” as suspects switch phones.

———

(Times staff writer Brian Bennett contributed to this report.)

Photo: Rand Paul for U.S. Senate, via Flickr

Rand Paul’s Anti-NSA-Spying ‘Filibuster’ Lasts 10½ hours

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Whether it was technically a filibuster or not hardly mattered Wednesday, as Sen. Rand Paul seized the Senate floor to fight renewal of a controversial domestic surveillance program by doing what he has come to do best: talking.

At 1:18 p.m. Eastern time Wednesday, Paul (R-KY), the libertarian-leaning presidential contender, stood at his Senate desk before an otherwise empty chamber and began to speak out against a National Security Agency spying program that will expire at the end of the month if Congress fails to act.

“There comes a time in the history of nations when fear and complacency allow power to accumulate and liberty and privacy to suffer,” Paul said as a few tourists in the gallery looked on. “That time is now.”

The 52-year-old Kentucky senator wrapped it up at 11:48 p.m., his speech clocking in at 10 1/2 hours. His aides had said he planned to hold forth until he could talk no longer, but the outcome didn’t quite match his 13-hour filibuster in 2013 against the Obama administration’s drone program.

It was uncertain whether his maneuver could be accurately described as a filibuster, whether it would do anything to shut down the domestic surveillance program, and whether the talk-a-thon would result in any meaningful delay of Senate business, which is the traditional definition of the legislative tactic.

Though civil libertarians heralded Paul as a hero, skeptics dismissed his move as symbolic at best, largely aimed at boosting fundraising for his nascent presidential campaign.

Paul’s speech came as Congress raced against a June 1 deadline over what to do about an NSA program that collects and stores records of Americans’ telephone calls.

The House overwhelmingly approved a measure last week that reins in some aspects of the surveillance program by requiring the government to rely instead on the phone companies to keep the data, which would then be accessible to the government only with a court order. But the Senate’s Republican leadership under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky opposes the House measure and wants to extend the NSA program as is.

Paul rejects both approaches and advocates ending the program entirely. Though few of his fellow lawmakers are willing to go that far, a steady stream of senators from both parties joined him on the floor in support of restraints on domestic surveillance.

If Congress fails to extend the program in the coming days, the NSA will have to begin shutting down its data-collection process by Friday, according to a Justice Department memo sent to lawmakers on Wednesday.

Though the program would not technically expire until June 1, the NSA would need to start the process to close it down sooner “to ensure that it does not engage in any unauthorized collection” of phone records, Justice Department officials warned.

FBI Director James B. Comey has said in recent days that congressional inaction would put at risk other crime-fighting tools the bureau needs to fight terrorism.
He said the current NSA program allowed the FBI to get court orders for data on individual suspects, and to conduct surveillance of so-called lone-wolf suspects who are not linked to foreign terrorist groups — both of which would be barred if the program ends. Losing those tools, Comey said in a speech Wednesday at Georgetown University, would cause “a big problem.”

Paul’s maneuver Wednesday has little immediate effect on the spy bill itself, instead interrupting proceedings on an unrelated trade measure that is a priority for the Obama administration.

The trade bill, which would give Obama broader powers to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership and similar accords, is scheduled for a vote Thursday, and it was doubtful that Paul would talk long enough to stop it.

If Paul were to speak until past midnight Wednesday, he would cause only a minor delay in a procedural vote on the trade bill.

As his filibuster two years ago did, Paul’s speech prompted a robust debate — not on spying or drones, but on what exactly constitutes a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”-style filibuster.

The answer, it turns out, is subjective. “Whether a filibuster is present is always a matter of judgment,” wrote the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service in a 2014 report to lawmakers.

For Paul, though, there was no doubt about his intentions.

“I’ve just taken the Senate floor to begin a filibuster of the Patriot Act renewal. It’s time to end the NSA spying!” he said on his Twitter account.

He appears to have determined that the political rewards of holding true to his civil libertarian sensibilities overpower any risks he faces as a presidential candidate trying to appeal to a wider swath of Republicans and other voters who may not support his actions.

But perhaps in an effort to avoid antagonizing his Senate colleagues, Paul carefully timed his protest for Wednesday, when it would fill a lull in proceedings and not delay important votes on the NSA program or the trade bill, which leaders hoped would happen on Thursday before Congress adjourns for the holiday break.

Several senators joined Paul on the floor as early reinforcements, giving the senator a chance to rest his voice while they asked questions that sometimes lasted for 30 minutes or more. Otherwise, he paced at his desk, flipping through an old-fashioned three-ring binder of notes, and kept talking.

After his 2013 filibuster, which temporarily blocked the confirmation of a new CIA chief, Paul complained that he had not properly prepared, and should have done a few things differently, including wearing more comfortable shoes.

On Wednesday, he sported sensible-looking soft-soled dress-casuals.

(Staff writer Richard A. Serrano in Washington contributed to this report.)

(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Screenshot via

Rand Paul Takes To Senate Floor To Block NSA Surveillance Measure

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., seized the Senate floor Wednesday in what he said would be a filibuster to block renewal of a controversial domestic-surveillance program.

At 1:18 p.m. EDT Wednesday, Paul, the libertarian-leaning presidential contender, stood at his Senate desk before an otherwise empty chamber and began to speak out against a National Security Agency spying program that will expire at the end of the month if Congress fails to act.

“There comes to a time in the history of nations when fear and complacency allow power to accumulate and liberty and privacy to suffer. That time is now,” Paul said as a few tourists in the gallery looked on. “And I will not let the Patriot Act, the most un-patriotic of acts, go unchallenged.”

It was unclear how long Paul expected to hold forth on the Senate floor or whether his maneuver could be accurately described as a filibuster against the NSA program.

His speech actually interrupted proceedings on an unrelated trade measure that is a priority for the Obama administration. That trade bill is scheduled for a Thursday vote, and it was doubtful Paul could talk long enough to stop that, raising questions about whether his plan was to embark on a true filibuster, or merely a long speech.

“I’ve just taken the senate floor to begin a filibuster of the Patriot Act renewal. It’s time to end the NSA spying!” Paul said on his Twitter account.

Whether he can break his previous nearly 13-hour effort remained unclear. In 2013 Paul launched a filibuster against the Obama administration’s drone policies, temporarily blocking the confirmation of a new CIA chief.

An aide said Wednesday that Paul planned to speak until he no longer can. One clue of his plans: He was not wearing sneakers, but instead sensible-looking dark dress shoes.

The Kentucky Republican appears to have determined that the political rewards of holding true to his civil libertarian sensibilities overpowered any risks he now faces as a political candidate trying to appeal to a wider swath of Republicans and other voters, who may not support his actions.

He had previously canceled a scheduled Thursday evening event at a tea party group in Florida, organizers said on their website, so he could fight in Washington against the surveillance program.

Congress is racing against a deadline to resolve a standoff over what to do about an NSA program that collects and stores Americans’ telephone dialing records. The House overwhelmingly approved a measure last week that reins in some aspects of the surveillance program. The Senate’s Republican leadership under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky rejects that approach and wants to extend the program as is.

Paul rejects both approaches, and has vowed to do away with the program if he becomes president.

Photo: Rand Paul for U.S. Senate via Flickr