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Montana's wild special election: 6 things to watch

MISSOULA, Mont. — The closer-than-expected Montana special election is destined to be picked apart for clues about how voters feel about Donald Trump’s young presidency.

Like the record-breaking Georgia special election that will be decided next month — already the most expensive House race in history — the Montana contest between Republican businessman Greg Gianforte and Democratic musician Rob Quist is awash in money, nearly doubling the price tag of the state’s previously most-expensive campaign.

The outcome of the at-large House race won’t just serve as an early look at Trump’s standing with voters in a red state he carried easily. It will also provide insight into the conditions Republicans are likely to face in the midterm elections, when the House majority could be in jeopardy.

But complicating matters, a bizarre election-eve incident Wednesday night drew national attention as Gianforte allegedly body-slammed a reporter who was asking him about the GOP’s health care plan, sparking an investigation from the local sheriff just hours before polls opened. Gianforte was subsequently cited for “misdemeanor assault.”

Here are POLITICO’s six things to watch as Montana votes Thursday:

THE TRUMP (AND PENCE) EFFECT

This is the rare special election in which Trump hasn’t been a flash point.

With the White House stuck in turmoil and the president’s approval ratings plummeting nationwide, Democrats have been eager to tie Republicans directly to the president — just not in Montana, where Trump won by 21 points in November.

Quist rarely mentions the president on the stump, while Gianforte hugs him close, adorning his events with Trump stickers and peppering his standard speech with mentions of the president. He’s also received in-person visits from Donald Trump Jr. and Vice President Mike Pence. In the past three days, the White House has even chipped in with separate robocalls from the president and vice president, urging voters to support Gianforte.

“I’m actually kind of surprised that Trump hasn’t been an issue on either side,” said former GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg, who held the congressional seat from 2001 through January 2013.

Democrats are hoping Trump’s constant controversies will prove costly, even if Quist isn’t explicitly making the race a referendum on the president. “With all the stuff going on with the president right now, there’s a lot of buyers’ remorse,” said Montana Democratic Party Chairman Jim Larson. “Now there’s a real worry that we’re going to send in another Donald Trump.”

“The Trump factor is different in different states, but Democrats despising Trump is the same everywhere,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, a Montana native. “It unites the Democrat Montanan, Alaskan, and in Manhattan.”

JUST HOW ENERGIZED IS THE DEMOCRATIC BASE?

No one here has any idea what the turnout will be because of the timing of the election: a Thursday before a long weekend in May.

An especially high figure in the Democratic portions of the state would bolster party hopes of a surge of grass-roots energy that could sweep races all over the country.

“It’s going to be a lot closer than people think,” predicted Lake. “Turnout is going to matter a lot, but the mail-by-vote program helps [Quist] a lot, too.”

Republicans fought successfully against changes to the state’s vote-by-mail program that would have helped Quist and other Democrats, but more than one-third of registered voters had submitted their ballots — including some by mail where that was permitted — by the end of Monday.

Republicans believe Quist has a small lead in the already-submitted votes but that Gianforte will overtake that at the ballot box on Thursday.

Most eyes will be on Billings, the largest city in the state, where operatives expect most undecided voters will be. Quist will also be relying on a high turnout in Missoula, home to the University of Montana, and Gianforte will need a large GOP turnout in the Bozeman area, where he lives. The Republican will also need to do better in rural counties than he did during his failed gubernatorial run in 2016, and early-voting turnout in those places is already up.

Longtime Democratic strategist Matt McKenna, who is working with Quist, noted that the Democrat’s rallies sometimes overflow, so enthusiasm appears to be high. But, he said, “The same people who tell you they know what turnout is going to be are the people who try to get you to buy a time share in Panama City, Florida.”

THE GOP FREAK-OUT WATCH

Republicans have been on high alert since Democrats came far closer than expected to picking off the suburban Wichita, Kansas, seat vacated by now-CIA Director Mike Pompeo in April. Now, with Gianforte’s long-expected win in question and a June vote in a suburban Atlanta congressional district looking tight as well, national GOP leaders could face a panic in the ranks if Quist wins.

Most still think that won’t happen — Rehberg predicted that Quist won’t break 42 or 43 percent — but they still acknowledge that anything could happen after the state was flooded with $17 million in spending just over two months.

While there’s been little reliable public polling on the contest, internal GOP polls have shown a tighter-than-expected finish, and national Republicans have accordingly thrown extra resources at Gianforte.

The GOP understands the stakes in the race and the election’s potential to unnerve members of Congress. That’s why Trump, Pence and other high-profile Republicans have gotten involved.

“Across the country, Democrats and the liberal Left are looking to win Special Elections, hoping to show that the conservative movement can be defeated — and embarrass President Trump,” wrote Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in a fundraising email on behalf of Gianforte.

Sens. John McCain and Marco Rubio also joined Cruz in emailing on the candidate’s behalf in the final hours, and the National Rifle Association chipped in with its own phone banking.

“It’s behaving like a high-profile, nationalized Senate race. If this race had been a conventional race, with 435 seats up, this race would have been over a hundred days ago,” explained Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican who held the seat from 2013 through January 2015. “Look at the money coming in. Clearly it’s been elevated, so it’s created a dynamic that’s a bit unusual.”

THE POLITICS OF REPEAL AND REPLACE

If Gianforte’s closing message has been to tie himself to Trump, Quist’s has been to talk nonstop about the GOP’s health care plan.

The Democrat is relying on a national playbook that his party has adopted in the wake of the House passage of the Affordable Health Care Act, directly reminding voters how much the unpopular law’s adoption would affect their coverage. He’s even tried turning some of the GOP’s toughest hits against him — that he’s dodged his taxes — into a broader narrative about how much health woes can weigh on individual lives.

Gianforte, meanwhile, hasn’t been able to escape the health care talk ever since he was caught praising the AHCA in a private call with Washington lobbyists the same day he had refused to take a stance on it publicly. That wasn’t his only unforced error on the issue: Gianforte’s election-eve scuffle with a reporter was sparked by questions surrounding the health care bill.

Now, the final result could hinge on whether Montanans buy Quist’s health care argument. As he says in one of his two final ads — both of which focus on the issue — “Greg Gianforte says he’s thankful for the new health care bill, the one that eliminates protections for pre-existing conditions and raises premiums on every Montanan who has one. I think Greg’s thankful because he gets another tax break at our expense.”

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR 2018 … AND 2020?

Since it’s a statewide race for Montana’s lone seat in the House, Thursday’s results could send major messages about the House and Senate midterms in 2018 — and perhaps even the Democrats’ presidential primary two years later.

Montana Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock is occasionally mentioned as a potential White House hopeful after being elected statewide three times in a Republican-leaning state. He’s been traveling the country telling Democrats about how to compete in rural areas, and even though he hasn’t been front-and-center in this race, a surprise Quist win would likely give him an even larger platform.

But the results will be most telling for Sen. Jon Tester, the Montana Democrat up for reelection with a huge Republican target on his back in 2018. A large Gianforte win might increase the size of that target, indicating that Montana has turned away from Democrats like Tester.

But Tester is well-known — and likely to be well-funded — and a close result Thursday would suggest he is in better position than expected. Why? Because a Quist overperformance would be a sign of an energized Democratic base.

And local operatives are also starting to wonder whether a Gianforte loss might clear Tester’s path even further. Many Democrats expect Gianforte to run for governor in 2020 if he wins Thursday, but he would likely not be able to do so if he loses. That might clear the path for Republican Attorney General Tim Fox, who is currently mulling a Senate run against Tester that would likely be tight. But if Fox could have a clearer shot at the governorship, some now wonder, might he opt out of the Senate race?

BONUS: BODY-SLAM EDITION

The race was turned on its head Wednesday night by the confrontation in Bozeman, and after an overnight injection of investment from national Democrats and anger from Montana’s press, Thursday’s day-of voting has grown all the more important.

After Gianforte was cited for a misdemeanor assault, three of the state’s biggest papers withdrew their endorsements, and each opened the day with large headlines about the altercation. Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, super PAC Priorities USA and liberal group MoveOn all rushed to push out digital ads featuring an audio recording of Gianforte pushing the reporter.

Gianforte had been counting on quietly skating through the end of the race, and operatives have long expected him to win on the back of in-person voting on election day after most votes were banked earlier. Roughly two-thirds of the votes were cast before election day, though it was unclear which candidate was leading.

But voters across the state woke up Thursday to a cacophony of chatter about the incident, both in print and on talk radio, where it was described as both the biggest local and national story.

Elena Schneider contributed to this report.

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All eyes on Montana special election results after body slam incident

Election Day is almost over in Montana, where voters are casting the final ballots in their wild special House election less than 24 hours after Republican candidate Greg Gianforte was charged with assault for allegedly attacking a reporter covering his campaign.

Polls close at 8 p.m. local time (10 p.m. Eastern) in the race between Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist, a campaign that captured national attention this week after Gianforte’s on-tape blow-up with The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs, which was described by him and three other journalists who witnessed the episode as a “bodyslam.”

Private polling indicated the campaign was getting closer, with Gianforte’s lead shrinking, even before the incident threw an extra dose of unpredictability into the unusual Thursday election. Gianforte, a former technology executive who lost a run for governor in 2016, and Quist, a folk singer and first-time candidate, are running to fill Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s old seat in Congress.

Though President Donald Trump carried Montana by 20 percentage points in November and remains popular there, the state has become a battleground in the last few months. Energized Democratic activists have poured more than $6 million into Quist’s campaign, trying to push back against Republicans in Washington.

“I remember talking to people when it first started who said this was a slam dunk, Gianforte’s it. And it’s not there anymore,” Montana Democratic Party chairman Jim Larson told POLITICO recently. “It is a lot closer than people ever thought it would be.”

Over a quarter-million voters had already cast absentee ballots by the time of the Gianforte incident, which will limit its impact on the final results. But the story led local newscasts throughout Montana on Wednesday night and Thursday morning as the remaining voters prepared to go to the polls.

Gianforte’s campaign blamed Jacobs on Wednesday — but that account was directly contradicted by Fox News reporters who witnessed the altercation. Gianforte “grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him,” Fox News’ Alicia Acuna wrote. “Faith, Keith and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the man, as he moved on top the reporter and began yelling something to the effect of ‘I’m sick and tired of this!’”

Before that, Republicans had been growing concerned about Gianforte’s performance for weeks, noting that the GOP has underperformed its usual margins in a number of special elections so far this year — and that Gianforte was still damaged from the negative ads he faced while running for governor in 2016.

Gianforte’s personal wealth helped fund his campaign, but it also became a point of attack for the populist, cowboy hat-wearing Quist, whose campaign also criticized Gianforte as an out-of-stater. (He is originally from New Jersey.) And Quist’s big, late fundraising helped him go on offense with more blistering TV ads.

But while small-dollar donors have invested heavily in Quist’s underdog campaign, Democratic groups were more wary about the race — a point of contention with activists who want to see the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee investing more money in more campaigns in red states and districts. The party has been much more involved in another special House election in Georgia, where Democrat Jon Ossoff is locked in a tight race with Republican Karen Handel for a longtime GOP district in the Atlanta suburbs.

The DCCC and House Majority PAC, the Democratic super PAC, did put some cash into Montana, but Republicans ultimately spent $7 million on advertising there versus about $3 million from Democrats.

Quist also faced a slew of damaging attacks on his financial, medical and tax history, including a series of ads featuring contractors who said Quist had stiffed them. Quist also faced ads tying him to unpopular national Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Quist tried to turn the tables on Gianforte on health care in the final weeks of the race, after Gianforte was taped telling lobbyists he was “thankful” that House Republicans passed their health care bill earlier this month, even as he publicly claimed he wasn’t sure whether he would support the legislation. Gianforte was facing questions on health care from the reporter on Wednesday before allegedly assaulting him.

Before that, Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr. visited Montana to hold rallies with Gianforte and increase Republican enthusiasm for the special election. Pence and President Donald Trump also recorded phone calls supporting Gianforte before Election Day.

Quist got outside help from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who endorsed him and visited Montana to rally Democratic voters.

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How Obama not so subtly undercuts Trump

When they realized former President Barack Obama was going to be in Berlin the same day President Donald Trump was going to be in Brussels, Angela Merkel was the one who called the White House to break the news.

The German chancellor invited Obama to the event in front of the Brandenburg Gate last year, before the election. Officially part of a multi-day gathering sponsored by the Protestant church in Germany, focused on youth and highlighting an exchange program between Berlin and Chicago, it was really about letting Obama boost his friend ahead of her fall reelection campaign and begin the international phase of his own post-presidency.

But, as soon as he accepted earlier this year, it also became an integral piece of Obama’s approach to Trump: present the contrast by continuing to pop up, push back on the sense that Trump’s winning while barely saying a word explicitly about Trump.

The only request the former president’s aides made of the organizers of the Berlin event was it not be structured as an Obama versus Trump debate. Other than that, they said, “the conversation can go where it will.”

“In this new world we live in, we can’t isolate ourselves. We can’t hide behind a wall,” Obama said Thursday, in the closest he came to directly taking on his successor.

Obama is aware how much people are searching for Trump attacks in every word he says. He’s just as opposed to Trump’s presidency as he was on the morning of Election Day. How he’s doing this is deliberate.

“Obama has a clear view on how countries, including the U.S., should confront the challenges we all face. He didn’t shy away from making that case as president and he’s not going to now,” said one person close to him. “But not everything needs to be said to be understood — as Woody Allen famously put it, 80 percent is just showing up.”

With his early post-presidency focused on inspiring more young people to get involved civically, he said Thursday of the kind of burn-down-the-establishment-down-politics that propelled Trump, those who believe “politicians are all corrupt, and institutions are all corrupt … if that’s your attitude, then yes, things will get worse. But it’ll get worse because you did not make the commitment to live out the values and the things you believe in most.”

Obama talked health care and immigration policy. He defended his cautious use of drones in response to a question from a German college student. He urged against militarism and the kind of bigger military budget that Trump has touted — “the national security budget shouldn’t just be seen as military hardware, it should be seen as development, it should be seen as diplomacy,” he said.

While Trump was meeting with European leaders, Obama was cautioning against absolutism and self-assurance.

“If I become so convinced that, ‘I’m always right,’” Obama said, “the logical conclusion of that often ends up being great cruelty and great violence.”

Berlin was Obama’s last foreign stop as president last November, as part of a trip the week after the election that was meant to be a warm send-off, but after Trump won, became a tough tour trying to explain to a startled Europe and the world what had happened and why he still believed he’d be proven right over time. As he did nonstop in those days after the election, on Thursday, he was back to quoting Martin Luther King Jr.’s “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

But Merkel, who was open about rooting for Hillary Clinton and now has been trying to manage a relationship with a president who bashed her on the campaign trail and famously didn’t shake her hand during her Oval Office visit, will live out the strange balance on Thursday: she had breakfast in Berlin with the former president before the event, and flies to Brussels to have dinner with Trump as part of the NATO summit.

David Axelrod, Obama’s former top adviser and a person who attended both Obama’s post-presidency debut at the University of Chicago in April and his speech at the John F. Kennedy Library earlier this month in which he called on Republicans to have the “political courage” to keep Obamacare in place, said the difference between Obama and Trump is so clear in politics, demeanor and appearance that the former president doesn’t need to do much to keep alive the sense of clear alternative.

“President Obama is acutely aware of the parameters of his role but also the power of the platform,” Axelrod said. “He’s not going to be the point of the spear in the political wars.”

But that doesn’t mean at all that Obama’s off the battlefield. After all, sitting in the audience in Berlin was Obama’s former deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, who’s still on the Obama payroll and is extremely close to the former president, and has become one of Trump’s most frequent and harsh critics through Twitter.

“When he sits down with Angela Merkel in Berlin to discuss the importance of civic engagement and democratic participation, the spirit of the event and warmth of their relationship will strike an unmistakable contrast,” Axelrod said. “Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.”

In America, many Democrats are desperate for Obama to be doing more against Trump, but he’s refusing to both out of a sense that he shouldn’t be so explicitly political as a former president and out of conviction that the more he speaks, the fewer new leaders will rise up. In Germany, he remains immensely popular — the crowd in front of the Brandenburg Gate was a sliver of the 200,000 who showed up to see him in 2008, but they were rapt, some holding signs like, “Welcome Home,” “You’re Looking Great,” and “Du Bist Ein Berliner.”

Trump is not popular in Germany and much of Europe at all.

Merkel was clearly happy to have Obama there, using him as both a buffer and explainer for some the issues she’s taken the most heat for, like welcoming tens of thousands of refugees. Smiling and bantering throughout, she even seemed to tease the cynical jokes that with Trump’s election, she’s now the leader of the free world: when the moderator directed a question toward Obama as “the most powerful man for a while sits next to me,” she interrupted, “I’m sitting next to you, not the president,” according to a simultaneous translation provided by the event.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer did not respond to questions about Obama’s comments, or Obama’s decision to do the event at all in the middle of Trump’s first international trip as president.

Beyond the basic deference of not engaging Trump directly, Obama isn’t going to let the current president define or limit what he does.

“When we found out he was going to be in Europe,” said one Obama Foundation aide, “it didn’t have any impact on what we were doing.”

“We’re not going to step into his space, but we have our own agenda,” the aide added.

At the same time Obama was onstage with Merkel, Trump was meeting with European Council Presidents Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, who’ve been critical of Brexit and the Trump worldview.

“Do you know, Mr. President, we have two presidents in the EU?” Tusk said as they posed for photographers who were briefly allowed into the meeting.

“I know that,” Trump replied.

“One too much,” Juncker chimed in.

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Obama in Berlin: 'We can’t hide behind a wall'

Barack Obama brought his post-presidency campaign for continued globalism and openness to Berlin on Thursday, urging youth leaders and others not to give up and turn in on themselves.

“In this new world we live in, we can’t isolate ourselves. We can’t hide behind a wall,” Obama said, sitting on stage next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel in front of the Brandenburg Gate at an event that’s part of “Kirchentag,” a multi-day meeting sponsored by the Protestant church in Germany.

Obama made the comment as President Donald Trump, in Brussels for his first NATO leaders summit, was meeting with European Council leaders Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker.
Obama addressed a rapt crowd of Germans lining the streets from blocks away, some holding signs like, “Welcome Home,” “You’re Looking Great,” and “Du Bist Ein Berliner.”

Obama attended the event at Merkel’s invitation—there’s no foreign leader that he was closer with during his time in the White House, and she’s hoping for a boost from his still sky-high popularity in Germany in her own re-election campaign in the fall.
Obama warned against leaders who don’t question themselves.

“If I become so convinced that ‘I’m always right,’” Obama said, “the logical conclusion of that often ends up being great cruelty and great violence.”

Merkel’s having to balance the line between the two presidents, one of whom she adores and the other of whom she does not: she had breakfast with Obama in Berlin before the event, and she’s set to fly to Brussels later Thursday to have dinner with Trump.

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House GOP leaders already plotting to avoid fall shutdown

House Republican leaders, facing a serious time crunch this fall, are already plotting ways to avoid a government shutdown at the end of September — a real possibility given partisan divisions over spending priorities.

Speaker Paul Ryan in a closed-door GOP conference meeting Thursday morning laid out the legislative calendar, showing lawmakers they’re approximately four months behind schedule in the appropriations process for 2018, in part because President Donald Trump’s budget landed later than usual.

The early discussion about salvaging the annual spending process underscores how much Trump, Ryan and other party leaders are struggling to govern now that they run Washington.

House Republicans can’t agree on their own budget blueprint for next year, clashing internally over cuts to entitlement programs and safety net initiatives such as food stamps and housing aid, all while trying to create space for tax reform and a big defense spending increase. In addition, they still have to find money for Trump’s priorities, including the hugely controversial border wall between the United States and Mexico.

Congress needs to pass a funding bill by Sept. 30 to keep the lights on at federal agencies. Yet with lawmakers out for the August recess, they only have 43 legislative days left to pass appropriations bills before they hit that deadline. Obamacare repeal efforts are likely to suck up much of that time in the Senate. Tax reform — or even a tax-cut package — would also take up more time and energy.

Aware of the looming deadline, Ryan raised the possibility of clumping appropriations bills together in an omnibus to save time. Passing a continuing resolution, that essentially maintains current spending levels and priorities in order to keep the government open, was also discussed.

The idea, GOP insiders say, was to manage expectations of what’s possible and what’s not. Republicans for years have vowed to bring back “regular order” if they were in charge, with Congress debating and passing 12 separate spending bills each year. But even having the White House and Congress is not enough for Republicans. Regular order, for now, will remain a memory from a bygone era.

“We talked about how we might move forward on appropriations at this juncture… Putting all the appropriations together in one package is one option,” said Rep Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee. “I think certainly, when you look at the calendar, you’ve got to say: It’s crunch time, and of course trying to do all these appropriations bills in that short period of time” would be difficult.

Under the Budget Control Act, Republicans in fiscal 2018 face $5 billion in across-the-board cuts to defense and non-defense programs unless they take action. Trump wants to increase defense spending and request new money to build a border wall with Mexico. That, however, would require Congress to raise spending caps put in place years ago.

In order to do that, Republicans would need the support of at least eight Democrats in the Senate, which is extremely unlikely at this point. Democrats typically demand dollar-for-dollar funding boosts for non-defense programs, such as transportation or housing, in order to support defense increases. They’ve also sworn to never support funding for Trump’s wall, something the White House wants to push for in earnest this fall — even at the risk of a shutdown fight.

During Thursday’s House GOP conference meeting, Republicans harped on Senate rules requiring 60 votes for passage instead of a simple majority. They discussed the possibility of convincing Senate Republicans to go nuclear on spending bills, as they did to confirm Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch — though that’s unlikely at best.

“We do our appropriations in the House… then, it goes over to the Senate and they say, ‘No, we have to work with Democrats,’” said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who often rants about Senate rules and wants Senate Republicans to eliminate the filibuster. “What will come out of this process is going to be a significantly, in large part, a Democrat omnibus … We don’t seem to have the courage to face the real problem head on.”

Republicans, however, can’t point to Democrats for all their budget problems: The conference faces a critical moment right now over how far they go in their own budget. Conservatives want drastically lower spending and are pushing GOP leaders to use reconciliation to cut safety-net programs. But that idea is sure to repel moderate Republicans, putting GOP leaders in the awkward situation of trying to find a way to garner 216 votes for passage. In the past, they’ve had to turn to Democrats to pass spending bills.

Defense hawks want dramatically higher spending. And all Republicans talk about balancing the budget, which is only possible if they raise taxes — an anathema — or cut entitlement programs. Trump has already said we won’t touch Social Security retirement funds or Medicare.

“This is gonna be a brutal battle,” said one GOP source. “Defense hawks want $640 [billion], appropriators want $516 [billion] for non-defense, moderates don’t want any changes to mandatory. And yet everyone says the budget still has to balance. Those numbers don’t add up. And a budget that doesn’t have serious deficit reduction isn’t going to make it out of committee.”

Much is at stake. If Republicans don’t agree on a blueprint, they will never get to tax reform. That’s because only after passing the budget can they unlock the fast-tracking tool known as reconciliation that allows them to pass tax reform without a single Democratic vote in the Senate.

When asked when — and if — House Republicans would unveil their own budget, Budget Committee Chairwoman Diane Black (R-Tenn.) was non-committal.

“We’re working on it, and we’ll let you know when we get to that point,” Black said. “We’re going to bring it out as soon as we get consensus and get all of our people together.”

And Black faithfully repeated that line several time no matter what question she was asked about the budget. “That’s all I’m gonna give you, that we’re working on it,” Black said. GOP insiders expect the budget to be released in June.

There isn’t much time to deliberate.

While the budget process typically starts in February, after the president releases his budget, Trump waited until the end of May to release the details of his fiscal blueprint. Even though the Trump budget — with huge spending cuts to domestic problems, big tax cuts and some fuzzy math to make it balance — was dead on arrival, the delay in sending it to Capitol Hill set lawmakers back, all while the issues dividing the Republican Conference are just becoming tougher and tougher.

“People know that we have an abbreviated timeframe for the appropriations process,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who sits on both the Appropriations and Budget panels.

Cole said Appropriations Committee Republicans met privately on Wednesday night to discuss the situation, but he acknowledged GOP lawmakers will miss the Sept. 30 deadline for passing spending bills.

“We’re prepared to work Saturdays, whatever we need to do,” Cole said. “We can get the bills ready to get all 12 bills out of committee. The real question is do you have the time to do them on the floor? Probably not. So you’re gonna have ‘minibuses’ or an omnibus. I think there’s just probably not the time given health care, given tax reform and everything else we’ve gotta get done.”

Kentucky Rep. John Yarmuth, top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, says the GOP infighting over spending priorities is par for the course.

“We’ve got a Republican majority that’s having a hard time governing,” Yarmuth said. “We saw it on health care. It doesn’t surprise that’s it happening on the budget as well.”

Yarmuth said his aides tried on Thursday to find out from their GOP counterparts whether a budget would be marked up in June.

“They clearly are undecided about what they’re going to do,” Yarmuth added.

Yarmuth, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) — ranking member on Appropriations — and party leaders want to get rid of any spending limits so they can boost funding for domestic programs.

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CBO: House Obamacare repeal bill would leave 23 million more uninsured

Roughly 23 million more people would be uninsured over a decade if the House-passed Republican Obamacare repeal bill becomes law, according to a long-awaited CBO analysis that could complicate GOP hopes of getting a companion measure through the Senate.

That’s nearly identical to the coverage losses that CBO forecast for an earlier version of the bill — despite the addition of new provisions and billions of dollars in funding aimed at keeping more people insured.

The nonpartisan scorekeeping office also forecast the GOP plan would cut the deficit by $119 billion over a decade, primarily because of its cuts to Medicaid and private insurance subsidies. That exceeds $2 billion of minimum projected savings the bill needed to hit, which should clear an important hurdle and help the bill’s prospects of getting to the Senate. Senate GOP aides are still checking the analysis to ensure the bill can travel safely across the Capitol.

“It improves the number of people who would be covered and premiums continue to come down even more,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Greg Walden (R-Ore.) told reporters. “This is the first big plan out there that really brings premiums down, or has the potential to bring premiums down.”

But the prediction of coverage losses is expected to add more fuel to Democratic arguments that the people who signed up for coverage under Obamacare would be much worse off under the GOP bill. The CBO in March projected that an earlier version of the legislation would leave roughly 24 million more people uninsured over a decade, prompting a backlash that forced GOP leaders to abandon a planned vote.

House Republicans narrowly advanced a revised version of their American Health Care Act six weeks later, making a controversial decision to vote without waiting for a revised CBO score. The legislation now includes an additional $38 billion in funding aimed at keeping people covered — but also gives states the option to waive key Obamacare protections.

This new coverage prediction will likely re-energize opposition to the GOP plan, after CBO concluded those changes would barely make a dent in the long-term effect on coverage. Fourteen million more people are still likely to end up uninsured under provisions rolling back Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and enacting deep cuts to the program serving low-income and disabled Americans. The projected coverage number would also include roughly six million fewer people purchasing insurance on the nongroup market than under Obamacare, in large part because there would be less financial aid to help people buy coverage.

Those who remain insured would pay less than overall under Obamacare by 2026, an aspect that Republicans seized on soon after the report’s release. But the savings would largely benefit younger enrollees at the expense of older, more expensive Americans — the very demographic that helped President Donald Trump win the White House.

And much of the long-term reduction would be aided by provisions that allow insurers to sell less generous plans under the AHCA in states that choose to opt out of Obamacare’s minimum benefit requirements. CBO estimates that roughly one-third of the population resides in states that may eliminate at least some of Obamacare’s protections under new flexibility that the law grants states — leading to roughly 20 percent premium declines. Still, the agency warned that the lower prices would come with worse benefits — meaning people could be stuck with skyrocketing out-of-pocket costs.

CBO also warns the GOP’s health plan could jeopardize coverage for people with pre-existing conditions in states that opt out of Obamacare’s limits on charging certain people with pre-existing conditions higher premiums. That exposes a legislative weakness that could prove particularly troublesome in the Senate, and could make the market “unstable” for sicker individuals across several states.

“That instability would cause some people who would have been insured in the nongroup market under current law to be uninsured,” the report said.

The predictions of market instability, despite the GOP’s plan to earmark more than $100 billion to help keep coverage affordable and accessible, brings to life some of Republicans’ biggest political fears about the bill.

Senate Republicans quickly downplayed the CBO’s conclusions.

“Although our Senate bill will be different, we will carefully analyze this CBO report,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said in a Facebook post. “But nothing about this CBO score changes my approach to health care reform — we need a smooth transition from the Affordable Care Act to a better health care system and better coverage options for everyone.”

And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell earlier in the day called the score a simple “procedural step” that will allow the GOP to get on with its work.

Indeed, the CBO score’s main function is to clear the way for the Senate to take up the House’s legislation. The bill needed to save at least $2 billion to qualify for consideration under a reconciliation process that is filibuster-proof by requiring only 51 votes in the Senate, not the typical 60-vote threshold.

But the report highlights the central dilemma that Republicans are grappling with now — how to write a health care bill that preserves peoples’ coverage at a reasonable price, without resorting to government mandates and billions in federal spending. And it drops that problem right on the Senate’s doorstep. Despite weeks of work, GOP lawmakers remain split on fundamental, yet high-stakes, decisions like how quickly to roll back Medicaid expansion and the amount of financial aid older and sicker enrollees should receive.

The CBO score could jump start those talks by giving the Senate a concrete starting point. But it also threatens to ratchet up public scrutiny of a process that Democrats argue is bound to eliminate the major health gains achieved under Obamacare.

House Republicans, in a break with traditional brill-writing practices, jammed their bill through the chamber without waiting for CBO’s updated score — assuring both lawmakers and the health care community alike that their revisions would keep more people covered. But the coverage projections barely budged, leaving the Senate to shoulder whatever fallout is yet to come.

“It was irresponsible for the House to vote for the GOP health bill before a CBO analysis was available,” said Ron Pollack, the founding executive director of advocacy group Families USA. “Now that it exists, however, anyone still supporting the bill is probably a prime candidate for a conscience implant.”

Republican senators largely panned the House bill when it passed, emphasizing that the chamber planned to start from scratch on its own repeal proposal. Still, early discussions have centered more on potential tweaks to the AHCA rather than a wholesale renovation.

The GOP has largely coalesced around ending Medicaid’s entitlement status and capping its federal funding, despite sharp disagreements over how drastically to cut the program’s financing. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) is also heading up work aimed at tweaking the House bill’s tax credits, in a bid to better subsidize older Americans buying insurance in the individual market.

But in a sign of the broadly diverging viewpoints that still exist within the Senate GOP, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) used the CBO report as an opportunity to resume his call for holding off on replacing Obamacare until the current system fails completely.

“With today’s news, the ‘Collapse and Replace’ of Obamacare may prove the most effective path forward,” he tweeted. “After Obamacare collapses, we should challenge Democrats to work with us to fix the mess they created.”

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10 key points from the CBO report on Obamacare repeal

Here are some key facts and figures from the new CBO report on the American Health Care Act, the House-passed bill to repeal and replace Obamacare. CBO stressed the uncertainty of its estimates, given that it’s hard to know which states would take up the chance to opt out of certain key parts of Obamacare. All figures are for the decade spanning 2017-2026 unless otherwise specified.

14 million

14 million fewer people will be insured one year after passage.

23 million

23 million fewer will be insured in 10 years.

$834 billion in Medicaid cuts

AHCA would cut spending on Medicaid, the joint federal-state health program for low-income people, by $834 billion. The program would cover 14 million fewer people.

Premiums will go up in 2018 and 2019

Premiums will go up in 2018 and 2019. After that, there will be significant variation depending on whether someone lives in a state that opts out of key Obamacare insurance rules.

In some states, premiums would decline

In states that waive some Obamacare rules, premiums would decline by 20 percent over a decade compared to current law.

Relatively stable markets

One out of 6 Americans will live in an area with an unstable insurance market in 2020 where sick people could have trouble finding coverage. But 5 out of 6 would have access to relatively stable markets.

Older Americans face much higher premiums

Poor, older Americans would be hit especially hard. The average 64-year-old earning just above the poverty line would have to pay about 9 times more in premiums.

Twice as many uninsured

In 2026, 51 million people under age 65 would be uninsured — almost twice as many as the 28 million who would have lacked coverage under Obamacare.

Less savings

The bill will save $119 billion, which is $32 billion less than a previous version of AHCA.

$664 billion

It repeals $664 billion worth of taxes and fees that had financed Obamacare.

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The Issue Democrats Wish Would Go Away

The progressive hope in Thursday’s special election to represent Montana’s at-large House district can be seen in an ad caressing a gun he lovingly calls “this old rifle.” In another spot, Democratic nominee Rob Quist pulls a shiny bullet from his barn coat pocket, locks and loads, and fires at a TV airing a spot questioning his Second Amendment bona fides. “I’ll protect your right to bear arms,” Quist pledges, “because it’s my right too.”

None of this is subtle, but Quist’s break with the Democratic Party platform hasn’t produced a peep from the activist left; the gun issue wasn’t even raised before MoveOn.org decided to endorse him. Are progressives knowingly practicing hard-headed electoral pragmatism? Or, as is more likely, are they ducking a divisive and frustrating issue for as long as possible, until another horrific mass shooting produces a fresh wave of outrage?

Quist is not an isolated case. Progressives celebrated the spirited run in Kansas’ fourth congressional district made by Democrat James Thompson, who brandished an assault weapon as he pledged to “fight for our personal freedoms.” They have not been bothered by Jon Ossoff’s avoidance of the gun issue in his bid to represent Georgia’s sixth congressional district. When asked about his gun control position during an online interview with a Democratic activist, Ossoff stressed that he “grew up with firearms” before airily offering his support for hypothetical legislation that would “help keep people safe and uphold the Second Amendment.” And he avoids the issue entirely on his website. (Ossoff did come out against Georgia’s new law permitting concealed weapons on public college campuses, however.)

The “big tent” mentality among progressives today only seems to apply to guns. Ideological flexibility was not on display when the Democratic National Committee and Sen. Bernie Sanders endorsed an Omaha mayoral candidate with an anti-abortion voting record. NARAL Pro-Choice America excoriated the move in a blistering statement, warning the party not to turn “its back on reproductive freedom.” In response, party chair Tom Perez hastily declared that reproductive rights are “not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state.”

(Quist and Ossoff have both backed abortion rights, but neither may be taking much of a political risk. Libertarian-flavored Montana has a solid pro-choice majority according to a 50-state Pew Research Center poll. Georgia’s sixth district is heavily college-educated, and there is strong correlation between college degrees and support for abortion.)

Sanders also wasn’t inclined to cut Ossoff any slack regarding his economic platform. To reach right-leaning voters in his district, Ossoff emphasizes his support for “cutting wasteful spending” and does not embrace single-payer health care or free tuition. When it came to Mello, Sanders defended the endorsement on the grounds of political geography, “If you are running in rural Mississippi, do you hold the same criteria as if you’re running in San Francisco?” But when it came to Ossoff,
Sanders sniffed, “He’s not a progressive,” before belatedly offering an endorsement under duress.

NARAL and Sanders have a strong incentive to protect their agendas from Machiavellian strategists. They want to prove that their platforms are not political albatrosses in the red-state districts Democrats hope to reconquer. And they don’t want their issues to become second-class priorities, easily sacrificed when the going gets rough.

Which is exactly what is happening to gun control, and not for the first time.

***

Democrats have been squeamish about gun control ever since they felt the backlash to President Bill Clinton’s enactment of a ban on assault weapons and “Brady Law” background checks, which shouldered some blame for the Democratic loss of Congress in 1994. But 2000 presidential nomine Al Gore doubled down. In the wake of the 1999 Columbine massacre and a liberal primary challenge from New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, Gore ran on a robust gun control package that included a ban on cheap handguns. When he lost gun-friendly states that Clinton had won—namely Arkansas, West Virginia and his own home state of Tennessee—guns were blamed again.

Soon after, Democrats began keeping their voices down about gun control, even when mass shootings occurred. The Republican Congress let Clinton’s assault weapons ban expire without a vote, but Democrats didn’t fight exceptionally hard. Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean touted his “A” rating from the NRA during the 2004 presidential primary. The nominee that year, John Kerry, futilely tried to pick off Ohio, and leaven his support for reinstating the assault weapons ban, with an October goose hunting expedition.

Downplaying gun control finally paid off for Democrats in the 2006 midterms, when four Senate candidates (in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Montana and Missouri) and more than a dozen House candidates used pro-gun rhetoric to win their seats and help the party take control of Congress. The results affirmed the strategy laid out in the 2006 book “Whistling Past Dixie” by political scientist Thomas Schaller, who argued that while “God, guns and gays” was too much for Democrats to overcome in the socially conservative South, tacking rightward on guns would earn Democrats a hearing from relatively libertarian voters in the Midwest and interior West.

Barack Obama took that cue in 2008. When the Supreme Court decreed that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms, Obama said the ruling tracked his views: “I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms … I know that what works in Chicago may not work in Cheyenne.” His path to victory ran through several states with significant gun ownership: Ohio, Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, Indiana and North Carolina.

The rhetorical strategy had real-world impact. Gun-shy Democrats did not pursue gun control legislation in Obama’s first term, even though those years were marked by the mass shootings at Fort Hood, Rep. Gabby Giffords’ Tucson constituent meeting and the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Seeing no reason to junk a winning game plan, Obama kept gun control out of the 2012 election, and he held on to most of his gains in the Midwest and interior West.

Then came the gut-wrenching horror of the December 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school massacre, and looking away became untenable. Obama made a fateful decision to temporarily shelve plans for a full-court press on immigration reform in favor of one on guns.

Still scarred by the past, Democrats set their sights low: They aimed to pass expanded background checks, not a fresh assault weapons ban and certainly not a handgun ban (even though 80 percent of gun deaths are from handguns.) Anti-gun activists “got smart,” according to The Atlantic, using the phrase “preventing gun violence” instead of “gun control” and showering praise on “law-abiding gun owners.” A bipartisan duo, both previously endorsed by the NRA, crafted the background check bill. Yet the effort still ran into a brick wall of NRA opposition, and four red-state Democratic senators joined most Republicans in a successful filibuster. Obama ended up with neither a gun control law nor an immigration reform law.

Republicans suffered no consequences from their obstruction, taking nine Democratically held Senate seats, mainly in red states, to win full control of Congress in the 2014 midterms. Undeterred, 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton ran on the most explicitly pro-gun control platform since 2000, calculating that it would help her against Sanders in the primary and betting that Sandy Hook had changed the political equation for the general election.

It did not. As OpenSecrets reported after the 2016 election, “the NRA’s investment, which was more than any other outside group, paid for a slew of ads that directly targeted the same voters who propelled Trump to victory.”

Committed gun control activists may not be inclined to attribute Clinton’s loss to her stance on guns—after all, there were a myriad of other factors behind her loss and polls show broad support for expanded background checks. Yet there have always been strong poll numbers for specific gun control proposals, and the NRA wins time and time again. Clearly, the polling data is not giving us the full picture.

Bill Clinton delivered that warning weeks after Sandy Hook to a room of Democratic donors: “All these polls that you see saying the public is for us on all these issues — they are meaningless if they’re not voting issues.” The Arkansan further explained the cultural significance of guns in rural America, “A lot of these people … all they’ve got is their hunting and their fishing. Or they’re living in a place where they don’t have much police presence. Or they’ve been listening to this stuff for so long that they believe it all.” North Carolina’s John Edwards summed it up more succinctly during his 2004 presidential bid: “Where I come from guns are about a lot more than guns themselves. They are about independence.”

If you thought that the urbanization of America would lead to a decline in hunting culture and a loosening of our attachment to guns, you’re half right. The percent of American households with a gun has ticked down in the last 20 years from 25 percent to 22 percent. And hunting is no longer the primary reason why people buy firearms.

But the gun industry and its allies have merely changed strategies. As the New York Times explained, following a landmark study of gun ownership by Harvard and Northeastern universities last fall, “A declining rural population and waning interest in hunting have pushed gun companies to look for new customers. Industry groups have heavily marketed the idea of concealed carry and personal protection.” Now 63 percent of gun owners, gripped by fear of criminals and terrorists, cite personal protection as their rationale for exercising their Second Amendment right. There’s scant evidence that owning guns actually makes them safer. But when the NRA says even the littlest gun control measure is a step toward taking away their guns, their protection, their independence, they believe it.

Democratic operatives eager to expand the political map, and economic populists hungry to build a broad coalition, are tempted to jettison gun control all over again. And if Quist and Ossoff win, they’ll have a strong case. But are Democrats across the board really resigned to sweeping America’s gun violence problem under the rug?

The gubernatorial primary in Virginia, an increasingly suburban and diverse state with memories of the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting, suggests otherwise.

In a mirror image of the 2016 presidential primary, the establishment Democrat, Lt. Governor Ralph Northam, is trying to fend off a progressive insurgent, former Rep. Tom Perriello, by hitting him for past flirtations with the NRA. In 2008, Perriello was one of those pro-gun rights Democrats when he ousted a Republican incumbent in a right-leaning district. But his NRA rating didn’t protect him from his Obamacare vote and he was quickly sent home. Now running statewide, Perriello has turned on the NRA, while Northam argues his efforts for gun control measures in the wake of the Virginia Tech killings prove his credibility on the issue.

It has been easier for Quist and Ossoff to keep their distance from gun control without angering progressives because America hasn’t suffered a major mass shooting since last June’s Orlando nightclub massacre. (Public mass shootings are far from the main cause of America’s gun deaths, but they are what grabs the public’s attention.) When a mass shooting is fresh in the public mind, Democrats feel a sense of urgency. But memories can be short.

However, the lull won’t last. America didn’t go a year between public mass shootings of more than five people throughout the entire Obama presidency (including the 12-and-a-half month span between the misogynistic Isla Vista rampage of May 2014 and the racist Charleston murders of June 2015). It’s been almost a year since Orlando. There will be another.

At that point, Democrats won’t be able to sweep the gun issue under the rug. They will have to make a choice: to be or not to be the party of gun control. And if they are still going to be party committed to reducing gun violence, they had best not waste time figuring out how to do it.

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Health care or Russia? Democrats divided on 2018 focus

The Democratic Party is embroiled in a debate over where they should focus their efforts to win back political power: health care or Russia.

The party’s campaign committees and many of Democrats’ leading super PACs have spent virtually all their energy this year on shaming Republicans for their push to repeal Obamacare, an issue that clearly touches voters’ daily lives.

But on the other side of the split, American Bridge — the party’s outside-group research arm run by David Brock, the well-known Hillary Clinton ally — is among those convinced the investigation into possible collusion between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russian officials is one Democrats would be foolish to downplay or wait to take advantage of.

A raft of data has already tabbed the House Republican health care bill as highly unpopular. But after last week’s explosive developments related to the Russia investigation, Democratic groups have commissioned polling to gauge just how damaging the probe could be to Republicans in the 2018 midterms. They’ve also begun testing theories on how to make Trump’s Russia problem into House and Senate Republicans’ Russia problem.

The debate in some ways reflects the post-mortem from the presidential election, in which some Democrats felt Clinton did not focus enough on the economy and other pocketbook issues, while Clinton’s own team invested more resources in painting Trump as personally unfit for the presidency.

Strategists on both sides of the Democratic divide downplay the extent of the split. They argue the party has an embarrassment of riches to use against Republicans, and they note that different groups fill different niches in the party’s ecosystem — Bridge deals with day-to-day rapid response, while the party committees are already focused on individual races in November 2018.

But they also whisper about motivations, with some strategists speculating the Brock-led American Bridge may have more of an eye on wooing donors intensely interested in the Russia investigation than picking winning issues for 2018.

“Democrats have to talk about Trump’s Russia scandal, which has revealed that congressional Republicans are more concerned with protecting an ineffective and reckless president than the interests of the American people,” said Doug Thornell, a Democratic strategist at SKDKnickerbocker who previously led communications for the DCCC. “But you’ve also got to remind folks that this scandal is paralyzing the government and impacting their lives. The round-the-clock chaos has prevented any progress on health care, jobs, or education. Voters thought they were getting a manager, instead they got a mess.”

Other strategists are also wary of focusing too narrowly on the investigation, fearing that complicated Russia chatter will drown out what they believe is a potent package of health care messaging, with a Republican plan that hits older voters especially hard.

“We should focus on the issues that affect people’s lives, not just on what the media in the D.C. bubble is talking about,” said Symone Sanders, the press secretary at Priorities USA.

Some Democrats are also concerned an overtly political stance on the investigation into Russian meddling in U.S. politics early on could make the findings less politically potent later.

Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who leads the DSCC, noted approvingly that his party has placed health care at the center of its messaging in this year’s special elections. And he said it can’t just be Democrats pushing the Russia news at voters.

“My view is, the whole issue of the Russia investigation needs to be discussed on a bipartisan basis,” Van Hollen told POLITICO. “It’s important for us to call upon our Republican colleagues to work with us to get to the bottom of this. So I think we need to discuss that in that frame.”

Elements of the Democratic base are still tuned into the Russia investigation, even if Robert Mueller’s appointment as a special prosecutor fulfilled one of their major asks. Republicans are wrong to “think it’s going to die away just because there’s a special prosecutor in place now,” said Murshed Zaheed, the policy director at the liberal group CREDO Action and a former Senate Democratic aide. “If anything, intensity is going to rise in the districts and pressure is going to only mount on the House side.”

American Bridge and the Center for American Progress, both of which have anti-Trump war rooms, have been the center of Russia messaging so far. CAP has pushed the so-called Moscow Project, which aims to be a one-stop shop for research and messaging on the scandal.

“I think something everyone can agree on is that accountability will be a major theme of the midterms,” said Adam Jentleson, a senior adviser at CAP who was previously a top staffer for Sen. Harry Reid. “And Russia will be a top issue in the accountability discussion.”

Last month, Bridge released a poll conducted by the Democratic firm Anzalone Liszt Grove arguing the Russia mess could harm GOP incumbents. The poll found 71 percent of persuadable voters in GOP-held districts supported an independent commission to investigate Russian interference in the election.

“By highlighting the links between Trump’s top campaign aides and the Russian government and the concerns such links have created among U.S. intelligence officials, Democrats can make GOP opposition to an independent commission an even bigger vulnerability for Republican incumbents than it already is,” the pollsters wrote.

American Bridge has also spent on digital ads pressuring Nevada Sen. Dean Heller and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, the two most vulnerable Republicans on the 2018 Senate map, to support an independent investigation.

But the group has also spent money on digital ads focused on the health care debate, and strategists at American Bridge emphasized Democrats should be able to make more than one argument at a time.

“Democrats need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time if we’re going to be successful in the future,” said American Bridge vice president Shripal Shah. “That means we have to make a comprehensive argument against Trump and the GOP that’s multifaceted. Russia needs to be a part of that, just like health care, taxes, defunding Planned Parenthood, and broader economic issues. No one is saying we should only focus on one, and we certainly aren’t.”

Meanwhile, the schism among Democratic strategists has yet to seep into the network of liberal activists who have bombarded Republican lawmakers at town halls in a bid to turn Obamacare repeal into a politically toxic issue ahead of the midterms. Grassroots anti-Trump groups are elevating their focus on Russia, but most also say health care remains their biggest issue.

“For us, the ACA has been our top priority and continues to be,” Angel Padilla, policy director at the protest group Indivisible, said in an interview.

But “Russia continues to be a priority,” he added, and one that more local activists have been pushing as “a little bit of attention has fallen away” from Obamacare after the House narrowly approved its repeal bill.

Just because health care has gotten more attention from activists thus far doesn’t mean Russia will get short shrift, Progressive Change Campaign Committee co-founder Adam Green said in an interview.

“Democrats have to be disciplined enough to continue speaking to economic populism issues that are bread and butter for everyday working families while figuring out how much to lean into Trump’s impeachable offenses,” Green said, describing the left’s focus as “60/40 one way or the other” between Russia and pocketbook issues like Obamacare.

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Peril for Republicans if they push forward with Obamacare repeal

Obamacare repeal is in trouble in the Senate, and a nonpartisan analysis of the House’s repeal legislation issued Wednesday only reinforced that reality.

Within minutes of the release of the report showing 23 million fewer Americans would be insured over a decade, two Senate Republicans blasted the estimate and the House bill, underscoring just how much the legislation will have to change to get through the upper chamber.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), one of the few Senate Republicans expected to face a tough re-election contest next year, said the House bill “does not do enough to address Nevada’s Medicaid population or protect Nevadans with pre-existing conditions.”

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) also criticized the House bill for failing to adequately protect Americans with pre-existing medical conditions.

“Congress’s focus must be to lower premiums with coverage which passes the Jimmy Kimmel Test,” Cassidy said in statement, referencing the late night talk-show host who garnered national attention last month with his tearful monologue about his newborn’s heart surgery. “The AHCA does not. I am working with Senate colleagues to do so.”

While the new CBO analysis didn’t appear to pinpoint any fatal procedural flaws with the House bill — which would require another tumultuous vote in the lower chamber — there’s still a chance that it could run afoul of the arcane rules that would allow it to be passed in the Senate with a simple majority of votes. And many Republican senators, already critical of the House legislation, vowed after the CBO findings to come up with a better version — but it won’t be easy for them to bridge the divides among themselves and pass it.

The CBO analysis wasn’t all bad news for Republicans. It also found that it would reduce spending by $119 billion and would lower premiums starting in 2020. But those glimmers of good news will undoubtedly be overshadowed by projection that millions would not have coverage. And the Senate has little room to maneuver. Republicans need 50 votes — and there are only 52 Republicans in the Senate.

Democrats and their allies have pilloried the American Health Care Act as a massive tax cut for the rich paid for by ripping away coverage from low-income Americans. Polling has shown the bill to be deeply unpopular, and Republicans have weathered combustible town hall meetings filled with angry constituents,

Democrats immediately blasted the bill in response to the much-anticipated CBO findings.

“No wonder the Republicans were afraid of the CBO analysis,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic Whip. “Trumpcare 2.0 will still force millions of Americans to lose their health insurance, raise premiums, and put critical health care services beyond the reach of hard-working families. All of this to give a GOP tax cut to the wealthiest.”

“Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans want to bring us back to the days when health care was only for the healthy and wealthy,” echoed California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, in a statement. “This is President Trump’s and House Republicans’ brave new world. Less health care, less money in their constituents’ pockets.”

In response to the ugly coverage projections, Republicans have cast aspersions on the credibility of the CBO. They point out that the budget analysts were way off the mark in their predictions for how many people would sign up for Obamacare. Less than half as many Americans are enrolled in those plans at this point than was predicted by CBO.

“History has proven the CBO to be totally incapable of accurately predicting how health care legislation will impact health insurance coverage,” said one White House official.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was downplaying the score’s coverage number before it even came out.

“It’s a technical, procedural step likely reiterating things we already know, like fewer people will buy a product they don’t want when the government stops forcing them to,” McConnell said Wednesday morning on the Senate floor. “Whatever the CBO says about the House bill today, this much is absolutely clear: the status quo under Obamacare is completely unacceptable and totally unsustainable.”

But Senate Republicans clearly see the peril of passing a bill that’s projected to lead to 23 million fewer Americans having coverage. They have stressed that they’re going to write their own repeal package and promised that it will be a significant improvement over the House version. A working group of 13 GOP senators has been holding thrice-weekly meetings to try and build consensus on a path forward. One of the biggest fissures remains around how to wind down Medicaid expansion in a way that won’t hurt constituents in states that took advantage of the Obamacare provision.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) blasted that working group on Wednesday for failing to include any female senators. “That is just unconscionable, added to the fact that it’s all being done behind closed doors,” she said on the Senate floor.

Several Republican senators on Wednesday afternoon declined to comment on specifics in the score, saying they hadn’t had a chance to read it yet.

“We needed to get to today so we can start having a little bit more serious effort on this,” said Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who represents a state that expanded Medicaid. “This will help it move forward.”

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