The upshot of an extraordinarily hectic week in Washington was that, in essence, nothing happened. Republicans remained divided amongst themselves on a number of key issues, even as no faction of the party was prepared to break the deadlock by working with Democrats. Consequently, it was a week of maneuvers, threats, and shadowboxing more than action — with the poor health of John McCain likely making action impossible even if consensus was reached.
The backdrop for it all, of course, was the idiosyncratic behavior of the President of the United States, who once again proved himself to be both the dominant political figure of the moment and also oddly detached from the specifics of the affairs of state. On Russia, too, the dominant news of the week was not that something had happened but that Trump was considering doing something — firing the special counsel, pardoning aides in advance of indictments — that, if it happened, would be entirely unprecedented.
Here’s what you need to know.
The Obamacare repeal push died, then came back
A joint announcement by Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Jerry Moran (R-KS) that they would not vote for Mitch McConnell’s Better Care Reconciliation Act, coming on the heels of earlier defections by Rand Paul (R-KY) and Susan Collins (R-ME), prevented the bill from passing this week as Republicans had hoped. But the repeal drive isn’t over.
- Republicans can’t reach an agreement: The bottom line is that with Paul and Collins both essentially off the bus for opposite reasons (Paul says he wants full repeal, Collins says she wants fewer uninsured), Republicans have zero margin for error and are having trouble reaching unanimity on the details.
- Obamacare repeal is still very alive: The key reality, however, is that as of yet, no other Republicans have pulled the plug on the effort to write a partisan health care bill. If two or three Republican senators crossed the aisle and sat down to work with Democrats on a bipartisan approach, that would change the game. But for now, repeal keeps shambling forward.
- Republicans feel stuck: A key issue is that Republicans currently feel stuck between public opinion that’s hostile to their replacement plans, and a sense that the political cost of failing to deliver on a core promise could be high. A bipartisan bill could offer the best of both worlds, but so far nobody in the GOP wants to try it.
John McCain has brain cancer
Initial word that John McCain needed surgery to deal with a blood clot was seen primarily as a minor impediment to the timing of a health care vote. Subsequent information, however, has revealed that while McCain is expected to recover in the short-term, he’s also suffering from a cancerous tumor in his brain.
- Short-term prognosis is good: By all accounts, McCain is recovering well from his surgery and will be back at work soon, providing Republicans with a critical extra vote in the Senate.
- Glioblastoma is a very grave diagnosis: McCain’s tumor, known as a glioblastoma, is generally regarded as a very bad diagnosis. It’s an aggressive cancer that can be difficult to treat due to its location.
- A final maverick run? While convalescing, McCain has been way off-message for the GOP, accusing the Trump administration of “playing right into the hands of Vladimir Putin,” tweeting a call for more immigrant workers, and even seeming to suggest that the leadership-driven health care process should end and the Senate should start over under regular order.
Donald Trump said some things
In a wide-ranging interview with the New York Times, Donald Trump offered ambiguous and often false remarks on a variety of subjects, most notably including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who he said made a serious error in recusing himself from the Russia investigation, and special counsel Robert Mueller, who he charged with conflicts of interest. Later, Trump’s on-the-record remarks were followed up by a flurry of leaks suggesting Trump was preparing to go hard negative on Mueller and maybe even thinking about firing him.
- Why it matters: There’s no indication that Trump has imminent plans to fire Mueller, but he’s clearly maintaining a rhetorical posture that implies a firing would be warranted. According to Trump, Sessions’s recusal was a mistake, appointing a special counsel was a mistake, and Mueller was a bad pick. If you believe that, why not fire him?
- Trump also made a bunch of stuff up: Trump’s oft-puzzling remarks also included the notion that health insurance costs $12 a year (or maybe that it should), that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is from Baltimore (he’s from Philadelphia and lives in Bethesda), that James Comey leaked classified information (he didn’t), and that Napoleon redid the Paris street grid (that was his nephew, Napoleon III).
- What’s next? For now, at least, Sessions and Rosenstein and Mueller are all still on the job, notwithstanding the president’s various critical remarks about their decision-making. And Christopher Wray is in line to take over as FBI director after clearly committing himself to the independence of the FBI — independence that the president pretty clearly doesn’t believe in.
House Republicans released a budget plan
While the Senate debated health care, House GOP leaders moved on to the pressing matter of writing a fiscal year 2018 budget resolution — the critical first step to passing a tax plan under 50-vote budget reconciliation rules.
- Why this matters: Most Senate legislation needs 60 votes to pass, and there are 52 Republican senators. The GOP wants to do tax reform via a special budget reconciliation bill that they can pass with 50 votes. But to do that, you need to pass a budget first: top line spending targets for every congressional committee plus revenue targets for the tax writers.
- What the budget says: To meet competing demands for higher military spending and no cuts to Social Security or Medicare, the House budget calls for draconian cuts in social services for the poor — food stamps come in for an especially harsh hit, but so does Medicaid and a passel of more obscure programs.
- The Freedom Caucus says it’s not good enough: The most conservative House members think that this plan isn’t aggressive enough. It calls for revenue-neutral tax reform; they would like to see lower revenue. And to match the lower revenue, they want spending cuts that are about twice as big. Without Freedom Caucus support, the budget can’t pass (Democrats definitely won’t vote for this), but if the Freedom Caucus really does sabotage the leadership’s budget, they might end up with no tax cuts at all, which nobody wants.