In it, but not of it. TPM DC

As Republicans continue their relentless march to undo former President Barack Obama's regulations—on labor rights, climate change, online privacy and more—the Senate held a contentious vote Thursday to unwind one of his last actions in office: a rule that barred states from discriminating against Planned Parenthood and other reproductive health care providers when distributing federal grants under Title X.

To overcome a 50-50 stalemate on advancing a resolution to roll back the rule, which was implemented in February, Republicans took the rare step of bringing in Vice President Mike Pence to cast a tie-breaking vote.

Senate Democrats blasted the move as "wrong and dangerous," warning that it would encourage states to cut funding to Planned Parenthood in areas where no other women's health clinics exist.

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Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) on Thursday signaled that Republicans have no intention of dropping an Obamacare-related lawsuit that could cripple the individual health insurance market, but he confirmed that the subsidies to insurers at the heart of the legal challenge would continue while the lawsuit proceeds.

"We don't want to drop the lawsuit because we believe in the separation of powers. We believe in Congress retaining its lawmaking power," Ryan said at a press conference Thursday, while adding that the Trump administration is "exercising their discretion" in continuing the subsidies to insurers.

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A mass amnesia has fallen upon Republican senators.

They seem to have forgotten about that time they refused to give President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court an up-or-down vote – or even a hearing – last year. Now they are claiming that Democrats are the norm-breakers for threatening to filibuster President Trump’s own Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch.

Republicans are in a full-scale pressure campaign to convince 41 Democrats not to vote against invoking “cloture” on the debate over Gorsuch, which would prevent him from moving to a floor vote, where he would need only a simple majority to be confirmed.  GOP leaders have suggested, if that occurred, they would move to “nuke” the filibuster on Supreme Court nominees.

They’re correct in that typically a cloture vote is not called for a Supreme Court nominees, having occurred only four times in the modern era, according to the Washington Post. Most nominees were able to go directly from committee to an up-or-down simple majority vote on the Senate floor. Democrats’ current rhetoric about a 60-vote standard is a twisting of how things have usually happened.

But Republicans are wrong that Democrats are somehow entering new territory that wasn’t previously broken by the GOP’s blockade of Merrick Garland, the judge put forward by President Obama to replace the late Justice Scalia, whose seat will now likely be filled by Gorsuch.

On the dubious argument that a Supreme Court vacancy that opens in a presidential campaign year should be filled by whomever wins the election, Republican senators, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), refused to even move forward with confirmation hearings. Many Republicans wouldn’t even agree to meet with Garland, the usual first step in the formal and highly scripted process. It was an outright power grab — and one that worked.

Without irony or self-awareness, GOP senators are now bashing Democrats for preparing to launch “the first partisan filibuster” of a Supreme Court nominee and most aren’t even acknowledging that their blockade achieved the same goal through different means. They have plenty of ammo when it comes to touting Gorsuch’s qualifications and temperament, and yet they haven’t resisted making a process argument that claims a “moral high ground” when it comes to confirming nominees of another party.

McConnell, in the first week of the new Congress, said with a straight face that “the American people simply will not tolerate” Democratic efforts to block Gorsuch.

And he hasn’t backed down from arguing that Democrats are doing something materially different than what Republicans did under Obama.

This argument focuses on procedural hair-splitting. The efforts of a bipartisan group of senators has sunk at least one nominee, Judge Abe Fortas, and a few other times, nominees had to first pass a 60-vote cloture vote before being confirmed by the majority. Democrats previously attempted a partisan filibuster of Justice Samuel Alito, but fell well short. But no nominee, so far, has faced the level of obstruction that Republicans waged against Garland.

McConnell is not the only Republican acting like Democrats are unprecedented breakers of Senate confirmation norms.

At Gorsuch’s confirmation hearings, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) browbeat Democrats for their tough questioning of the judge, while pointing out that Republicans confirmed the Obama nominees who were not named Garland.

“On Kagan and on Sotomayor, Republicans respected the president’s authority to appoint a Supreme Court justice, and Republicans did the right thing by moving forward and allowing the confirmation,” he said. “So I think that we have a moral high ground here that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle should take note of.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), likewise, said that Gorsuch had a “super legitimacy” because he was chosen by the candidate who won the 2016 presidential election, overlooking that the President that nominated Garland won two elections of his own and obstructing his final Supreme Court pick allowed for the nomination of Gorsuch in the first place.

With a floor vote on Gorsuch set for next week, the full Republican conference is engaged in a public campaign to discourage a Democratic filibuster. Senator after senator has taken to the chamber floor to decry the prospect of a “partisan filibuster,” with only a few even attempting to explain how their blockade of Garland was, on a consequence level, any different.

“It really is unprecedented what the Democratic leader, Senator Schumer, has suggested: that for the first time in the history of the United States Senate, a partisan filibuster will be used to attempt to defeat the nomination of a Supreme Court justice and to deny the Senate the opportunity to have an up-or-down vote,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), the majority whip, said in a floor speech Wednesday.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) raised the partisan filibuster claim to “urge my colleagues to give Judge Gorsuch a chance.”

Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) remarked that it was “so important — and this body has historically treated it in such a solemn manner — that in over 230 years of our history, no nominee to the United States Supreme Court has ever been denied a seat through the use of a partisan filibuster.” He didn’t mention nominees denied seats because they weren’t given a hearing in committee.

“Unfortunately right now, members, colleagues from the other side of the aisle are threatening that very precedent,” Perdue said.

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) said he “would hope” that “step up and do a process that’s been consistent with this country for the last 230 years of how we process through judges.”

“That is, we have an up-or-down vote, they’re not blocked by a cloture vote to try to keep them from getting to a final vote. The judges here get an up-or-down vote. That’s the way that we’ve done it,” Lankford said.

Just a handful of Republicans have acknowledged the awkward position their treatment of Garland has put them in, and bothered to address why what Democrats are doing now is different.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a press conference Wednesday, called Garland an “incredibly qualified man” who was a “victim of nothing other than the Biden rule,” referencing a 1992 floor speech then Sen. Joe Biden arguing hypothetically President George W. Bush should refrain from naming a Supreme Court nominee in an election year unless that nominee was a moderate.

But a year ago, after Republicans committed to blocking whomever Obama nominated to replace Scalia, Graham admitted they were setting a “new precedent.”

“We are setting a precedent today. That in the last year of a lame-duck eight-year term that you cannot fill a vacancy in the Supreme Court,” Graham said at a Judiciary Committee meeting then. “Based on what we’re doing here today. That’s going to be the new rule.”

One thing was made crystal clear in a Wednesday press briefing on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election: this investigation is a very big and very serious deal.

In an hour-long appearance, committee Chair Richard Burr (R-NC) and Vice-Chair Mark Warner (D-VA) framed their probe as one of most ambitious investigative efforts ever taken on by a congressional committee. Burr, a 22-year veteran of Capitol Hill, framed the investigation as “one of the biggest” he’s seen in his tenure in Washington, D.C.

Warner concurred, saying, “When we started this, we saw the scope, what was involved, I said it was the most important thing I have ever taken on in my public life. I believe that more firmly now.”

Their solemn assurances to investigate the full scope of Russia’s involvement, to look into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russian officials, and to produce a truly bipartisan report on their findings offered a stark contrast from the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation, led by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA). The House’s probe came to a standstill this week over Nunes’ overly close relationship with the President, and he and ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) haven’t appeared together publicly in days.

Here are the key takeaways about the Senate committee’s investigation from Wednesday’s press conference:

Whether Trump was involved is the probe’s core question

Asked if there was evidence of “direct links” suggesting the President played any role in Russia’s interference, Burr said that was the ultimate question the committee would seek to answer.

“We know that our challenge is to answer that question for the American people in our conclusions to this investigation,” said Burr, who noted that he voted for Trump in November.

He and Warner also said it was too early to definitively reject coordination between Trump’s campaign team and Russian officials, saying they would “let this process go through before we form any opinions.”

The White House hasn’t interfered in or coordinated with the probe

Warner said he has seen “no evidence” to suggest that the White House is “interfering in the integrity of this investigation,” pointing to Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner’s offer to be interviewed by the committee as a “good sign.”

“If we see any attempt to stifle us with information or cut off the intelligence professionals giving us the access we need, you’ll hear from us,” he added.

In response to a reporter’s question, Burr also said that he has not coordinated with the White House to define his investigation’s scope.

Russia’s election meddling goes beyond the U.S.

The senators stated Wednesday that Russia is actively working to undermine or interfere with election campaigns underway in several countries outside the United States, including Germany, Montenegro, the Netherlands and France.

“We feel part of our responsibility is to educate the rest of the world about what’s going on because it’s now into character assassination of candidates,” Warner said.

He pointed to France’s upcoming presidential election, in which Marine LePen, a far-right politician and ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a top contender.

“I think it’s safe by everybody’s judgment that the Russians are actively involved in the French elections,” he said.

This will be different from the House investigation

Burr and Warner went out of their way to put distance between their probe and that of the House Intelligence Committee.

“This investigation’s scope will go wherever the intelligence leads it,” Burr said in his opening remarks. “And contrary to maybe popular belief, we’re partners to see that this is completed and that we’ve got a product at the end of the day that we can have bipartisanship in supporting.”

The senators emphasized information sharing between all members of the committee and reiterated their agreement to issue subpoenas to desired witnesses if need be.

In perhaps the most pointed dig at the House’s investigation, Burr said he would always share sources with his Democratic counterpart.

“He usually knows my sources before I do,” the chairman said.

Nunes has vowed to “never” share his confidential sources, even with the rest of his committee.

The probe is looking at the role of “fake news”

Warner said one of the most alarming findings so far in his estimation is the use of paid Internet trolls who promote false news stories and target them to specific geographic areas.

Saying that those trolls could have targeted states where the margin of victory was razor-thin, like Wisconsin and Michigan, with negative stories about Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the election, Warner vowed the committee has “got to find this out.”

He also noted that searches for terms like “Google election hacking” in the days leading up to and following the election would result in stories from Russian propaganda sites.

The probe will not look at changes to the GOP platform

“That’s not in the scope of the investigation,” Burr said when asked if he would look at changes made to the 2016 Republican Party platform. Language in one GOP delegate’s proposal to have the U.S. provide “lethal defensive weapons” to Ukraine to push back against Russian military action was softened at the Republican National Convention to instead offer “appropriate assistance.”

Committee has more access to classified information than it had in previous probes

The senators said the classified information they have been able to access far exceeded what was available to them during their investigation of the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.

Seven committee staffers assigned to sift through thousands of intelligence documents have access to information typically only available to the most senior members of Congress, known as the Gang of Eight, the senators said.

“That is unprecedented in the history of the committee,” Burr said, adding that this makes it easier for the committee to determine who needs to be interviewed.

The committee will move slowly and deliberately

Burr said the committee would not release names of people who would be interviewed, nor ask them to come before the committee until the “appropriate time.”

Warner noted that the committee would not schedule its interview with Kushner, the only person named as an interview subject so far, until “we know exactly the scope of what needs to be asked” of him.

Both lawmakers emphasized the wide-ranging scope of the investigation, which will also look at Russian capabilities and previous influence campaigns.

The committee’s first open hearing on Russian election meddling, scheduled for Thursday, will take that broad, historical approach. No big intelligence names are scheduled to testify, but cybersecurity experts will speak to Russia’s methods and motivations.

A battle years in the making over the politicization of the Senate’s judicial confirmation process will come to a head next week with the final push to confirm federal appeals court Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

The stage is being set with floor speeches, press conferences, and a committee vote Monday to advance President Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The drama surrounding his floor vote, slated for next Friday, is not about whether Gorsuch will be confirmed, but if the opportunity for the minority party to filibuster Supreme Court nominees will be blown up in the process.

A press conference Wednesday hosted by Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans with former clerks of Gorsuch was ostensibly meant to highlight the judge’s resume, his decade on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, and his temperament. But just as prominent was Republicans’ pleas that Democrats don’t filibuster Gorsuch and put the onus on GOP senators to trigger, as it’s called, the “nuclear option.”

“I’m here to tell you he’s going to be on the Supreme Court because he’s earned the right to be there. The only question is ‘how,’ it’s not even ‘when,’” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said at the press conference, held in front of the Supreme Court, where an amateur chorus sang a pro-Gorsuch song and counter-demonstrators chanted, “Don’t change the rules, change the nominee.”

“To my Democratic colleagues, if he can’t get 60 votes, Neil Gorsuch, that tells me that you don’t care about qualifications any longer,” Graham said.

This moment is a longtime coming. Republicans will say it began with Robert Bork, the Reagan nominee that was defeated in an up-or-down Senate floor vote due to concerns of his far-right judicial record. (Six Republicans joined Democrats in voting against his confirmation).

Democrats point to the obstruction campaign that then-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) waged against President Obama’s lower court nominees, that culminated in the Senate’s Democratic majority going nuclear on the filibuster for non-Supreme Court confirmations.

But the fight reached new heights with Republicans’ treatment last year of federal appeals court Judge Merrick Garland, the nominee President Obama selected to fill the seat left by the death of Justice Scalia, where Gorsuch now seeks to sit. Claiming a dubious standard that vacancies opened in a presidential election year should be filled by whomever wins the election, Republicans refused to grant Garland even a confirmation hearing. While there are certainly concerns from the left about Gorsuch’s jurisprudence, his willingness to buck the Trump administration and the dark money groups supporting his confirmation, the fact that an unprecedented blockade allowed his nomination in the first place is an inescapable element of the current fight.

“I hope that [the Democrats] will recognize, regardless of what was done to Merrick Garland, and I believe he should have been given fair consideration, that we’re past that now,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), one of only a few Senate Republicans to question the Garland blockade, told reporters last week.

It’s worth noting that when Clinton was expected to win the election, a few Republicans were suggesting they’d continue their blockade, and it was the Democrats, including then-Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who were floating the nuclear option.

As more Democratic senators commit to mounting a filibuster, the game is now about who will get blamed for further eroding the Senate norms that are supposed to retain the upper chamber’s more collegial and cooler-headed tenor.

After Wednesday’s press conference, Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA) warned that it was a “slippery slope” if Democrats filibuster Gorsuch that could lead to the end of the filibuster on legislation as well.

“Then you’ve made the Senate from a deliberative point of view, just like the House, and you want to protect some place in our political system where minority views are considered,” Grassley said.

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has declared his desire for a Democratic filibuster of Gorsuch. Now Republicans’ hopes rest on enough defections from Democrats representing red-states where Trump found deep support in the presidential election, and particularly those whose seats are up again in 2018.

The decision announced this week by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) – a centrist third-term senator facing re-election next year – to support a Gorsuch filibuster may have been the tell that Republicans’ pleas for Democrats not to filibuster are falling on deaf ears.

In a contentious hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill, Democratic members of Congress tried to pin down Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price on whether he will try to gut the Affordable Care Act. Coming less than a week after the GOP's seven-year quest to repeal the law came to a crashing halt, the Price hearing offered an early window into whether the Trump administration will try to undermine the law administratively after failing to unwind it legislatively.

Democratic lawmakers asked Price again and again whether he will simply "follow the policies" of Obamacare, as he promised in his confirmation hearing, or if he will use the powers of his office to take apart the law. Price, dodging many of the questions aimed his way, gave few assurances he will administer all of Obamacare's regulations and programs going forward.

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The Trump administration announced this week that it will make good on its January threat to claw back funding from so-called sanctuary cities that limit information-sharing with federal immigration officials. Yet hundreds of legal experts say the move would itself be illegal—in part due to a court ruling Republicans cheered just a few years ago.

In 2012, the Supreme Court forced the Obama administration to make Medicaid expansion voluntary for states instead of mandatory, ruling that when the federal government “threatens to terminate other significant independent grants as a means of pressuring the States to accept” a federal policy, it is unconstitutionally coercive.

Conservative groups that celebrated this victory over "infringement on state sovereignty by the federal government" may now be dismayed to learn that it could throw a wrench into the Trump administration's current plan to punish sanctuary cities.

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