Alice Ollstein

Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.

Articles by Alice

When the final gavel came down Thursday afternoon, marking the Senate’s failure to pass any one of four immigration bills up for debate, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) left the chamber with a spring in his step.

Asked by reporters what Congress will do now for nearly 700,000 young immigrants at risk of losing their work permits and legal protections after March 5, the anti-immigration hardliner grinned and replied: “We move on to confirming judges and banking reform.”

But many other senators on both sides of the aisle say Congress should and must keep trying to find a solution for the DACA program President Trump terminated last year, and pointed to a few possible avenues to create a new bill from the ashes of the four voted down on Thursday.

Meanwhile, GOP leaders in the House of Representatives are whipping a bill even further to the right than President Trump’s which may not even pass the House and would be dead on arrival in the Senate, while ignoring calls from Democrats to follow the Senate in holding a series of votes on competing bipartisan plans. Looming over the legislative scramble are federal courts, which could decide at any moment the fate of President Trump’s attempt to end the DACA program, and President Trump himself, who may for a second time torpedo Congress’ hopes of passing a bill by threatening a veto.

Trump signaled his disinterest in working toward a solution Friday morning, releasing a statement slamming “the Schumer Democrats” for the failed votes and characterizing the minority party whose votes he needs to pass any bill as “the open border fringe.” 

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Early Monday morning, after President Trump reportedly spent the weekend watching the moving television appearances of the young survivors of last week’s deadly school shooting, the White House announced that Trump was encouraging senators to revive a stalled bill to modestly strengthen background checks for gun purchases.

“The President spoke to Senator Cornyn on Friday about the bi-partisan bill he and Sen. Murphy introduced to improve Federal Compliance with Criminal Background check Legislation,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “While discussions are ongoing and revisions are being considered, the President is supportive of efforts to improve the Federal background check system.”

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On Wednesday night, a group of Republican and Democratic senators nailed down a difficult compromise on immigration that has been weeks in the making—a bill that provides a 12-year path to citizenship for young immigrants known as Dreamers, allocates the full $25 billion President Trump has demanded for the U.S.-Mexico border, bans the parents of DACA recipients from ever receiving citizenship, and bars legal permanent residents from sponsoring their adult, unmarried children.

But before the bill could even come to the floor for an expected vote Thursday, the Trump administration was working to undermine it.

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Senate Republican leaders are only giving the chamber Wednesday and Thursday to pass an immigration bill that would help the 700,000 young immigrants known as Dreamers whose protections President Trump terminated last year. As lawmakers scramble to whip votes on a growing pile of competing proposals and are frantically negotiating behind closed doors, the White House has once again thrown a wrench into the process.

In a statement Wednesday morning, President Trump suggested, as he did two weeks ago, that he would veto any plan other than a GOP-sponsored bill based on his own list of demands, including controversial provisions slashing legal immigration.

“I am asking all senators, in both parties, to support the Grassley bill and to oppose any legislation that fails to fulfill these four pillars – that includes opposing any short-term ‘Band-Aid’ approach,” he said, referring to discussions in Congress about a one-year punt should all other options fail to pass.

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As of late Tuesday afternoon, the Senate had yet to even begin a long-awaited debate on immigration. Hanging in the balance are the lives of 700,000 young DACA recipients who will soon lose their work permits and protection from deportation.

What lawmakers originally expected to be a robust, freewheeling, open debate on the half-dozen-plus competing proposals on the table is currently at a standstill, held up by partisan disagreements about which policy to vote on first.

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When the Senate voted Monday night to open the floor up to consider proposals to protect 700,000 DACA recipients at risk of losing their legal protections, Democratic senators gushed that they were finally going to have the freewheeling debate they had long craved. Many on both sides assumed the contentious, complicated issue could drag out for weeks.

“I’ve been here seven years and never seen anything like it,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) marveled to TPM Monday night. “Who knows? Democracy may very well break out in here.”

That excitement quickly turned to frustration as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) confirmed Tuesday morning that he wants the entire debate — on the half-dozen-plus competing proposals put forward so far by lawmakers — to be over by the end of the week.

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All presidential budget requests are largely meaningless, because Congress holds the power of the purse, but the budget that the White House released Monday morning matters even less than usual. Last week’s two-year budget bill — passed after a brief overnight government shutdown — will control government spending throughout 2018.

Still, it’s worth noting that, in the White House budget, President Trump is requesting a 21 percent cut to the Department of Health and Human Services — $17.9 billion less than the agency received for 2017. Many of the proposed cuts would be to Medicare and Medicaid, and while the budget request will have little real world effect, it signals where the Trump administration’s priorities lie and what it may attempt in the future.

There was also quite a lot of health care policy in the budget Congress put together that, unlike the White House budget, will dictate government spending for the next two years. The bill included two years of funding for Community Health Centers, which Congress had left by the wayside for months as the rural clinics went into crisis mode. It also provides four additional years of funding for CHIP (which actually saves the government money), and allocates $6 billion to combat the opioid epidemic. (That $6 billion is a lot less than the $45 billion for opioids that was in Republicans’ unsuccessful Obamacare repeal bill last year. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has not steered any money toward the opioid crisis so far.)

The budget also repealed Medicare’s caps on certain types of outpatient therapy, and Obamacare’s never-implemented Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB). The IPAB aimed to keep Medicare’s costs down, but GOPers successfully held the program up by making false claims about it, including that it would create “death panels.”

It was also interesting what health care measures did not make it into the bill — namely, a much-debated set of policies to stabilize Obamacare’s individual market. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) traded her vote for the GOP tax bill in exchange for a promise from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to attach her ACA stabilization policies to a must-pass spending bill. That promise wasn’t kept in 2017, and though some lawmakers thought it might go into the two-year budget bill, it was cast aside in favor of other priorities.

Meanwhile, Republican attacks on Medicaid continue to ramp up on the state level. The Trump administration is not only moving to approve states’ requests to impose work requirements on their Medicaid recipients, it is weighing whether to approve waivers allowing states to impose lifetime limits for Medicaid. At least five states — Arizona, Kansas, Utah, Maine and Wisconsin — are seeking such a policy, which would hit both those too sick to work and low-wage workers whose employers do not offer health insurance. Some states are seeking to kick people off the program after three years, while others are considering a five-year cap.

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Every Senator save Ted Cruz (R-TX) voted Monday night to begin debate on the fate of 700,000 young immigrants soon-to-be stripped of their legal protections by the Trump administration, but what Congress will be able to pass, if anything, remains a mystery.

After March 5, unless Congress can pass a bill or a federal court intervenes, more than 1,000 DACA recipients per day will begin to lose their work permits and be at risk of deportation.

“People’s lives are hanging in the balance, and I’m not being dramatic,” a somber Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) told reporters. “Whether they can stay in school, whether they can keep their jobs, whether they’ll be separated from their families—these are as gut-wrenching as decisions in life as anyone might face, and I just don’t know if we’ll have 60 votes.”

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