Firings at CAP...AOC hunts down Mitch...Reading at Politics and Prose tonight

Four freshmen House members ventured to the Senate chamber today, looking for Mitch McConnell. First they tried the Senate floor, then McConnell’s Capitol office, then the Russell Senate Office Building, where he also has a desk. No sighting of McConnell. The women -- Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jahana Hayes, Katie Hill and Lauren Underwood -- were looking to deliver a letter asking McConnell to kindly re-open the government.

The attention is all on Trump for shutting it down, but the freshmen are right that it’s entirely in McConnell’s power to put a bill on the floor and override a Trump veto. The votes are there. Why won’t he do it? He’s up for re-election in 2020. Here’s Dave Dayen and Akela Lacey on how McConnell’s own election is factoring into the shutdown.

If you’re unfortunate enough to be in the Washington, DC area this evening, come to Politics and Prose on the Wharf -- the one by the waterfront, not the one uptown! -- for an event I’m doing with Gregory Jaczko for his new book Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator, at 7 pm. It’s sort of a book reading, but I’ll be interviewing him, which hopefully will be more interesting than somebody just reading from their book. I wrote a long story about his battle with the industry as chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission back in 2011, a battle that ended with him being pushed out of the agency.

I have a scoop up today with Clio Chang on a very strange turn of events at the Center for American Progress. A little before Christmas, we reached out to them for comment on a story, asking about a particular email chain. That inquiry sparked a leak investigation, which led to two people being fired, neither of whom had leaked anything to us or spoken to us. It’s a wild story, and tragic for the two people caught up in it, one of whom was on paternity leave.

And we just published a piece by Richard Ojeda, the West Virginia state senator who helped spark the teacher strikes there, on the new teacher strikes in LA. It’s a really good read, promise.

Tulsi 2020 and the Committee kerfuffle

Last weekend, Glenn Greenwald and I reported that in the midst of the shutdown, the first bill the U.S. Senate was planning to vote on -- a bill given the symbolically important title S.1 -- would be on Middle East policy and include a measure aimed at protecting Israel from boycotts by Americans. I don’t use the word “optics” much, but man, the optics of that one were bad, and once it was public, it began to fall apart, with Senate Democrats, even some who are sponsors of the bill, saying publicly that the Senate should first reopen the government before doing anything else.

Mitch McConnell is not one to take no for an answer. Though Democrats are now opposing it, he brought it to the Senate floor this week not once, not twice, but three times, and Democrats blocked it each time. Here’s our original story on that. (And if you want a primer on the boycott movement it’s targeting, here’s a short video by Mehdi Hasan.)

Tulsi Gabbard, a House Democrat from Hawaii, announced she’s running for president on Friday. She’s an enigmatic politician, and this story on her links to right-wing Hindu nationalists is just part of that story.

Meanwhile, House Democrats are now organizing themselves into committees, and Nancy Pelosi announced the winners of much-sought-after new seats on the three most powerful committees, Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, and Appropriations. Next week we’ll learn who got on Financial Services, and I’m told many of the rising-star freshmen will get seats there, including Katie Porter (an Elizabeth Warren colleague/protege and a banking expert), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and possibly Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley as well.

Ocasio-Cortez had wanted a seat on Ways and Means, but it went to sophomore Tom Suozzi instead. Tom Brune, the very good Newsday reporter who has sat near me for the last decade in the Senate press gallery, reported that Hakeem Jeffries and the New York delegation made sure Suozzi, and not AOC, got the key spot on the panel, which had previously been held by Joe Crowley.

The fight for committee seats might seem boring, but it’s a fascinating window into House Democratic caucus politics and dynamics. Here’s my story on it with Dave Dayen and Aida Chavez, which I do think is worth reading if you have time this weekend.

PROGRESSIVES FOUGHT FOR KEY COMMITTEE SPOTS, BUT CENTRIST NEW DEMS CAME OUT ON TOP

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez failed in her long-shot bid for a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, according to an announcement from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Wednesday evening. Pelosi named a member of the New Democrat Coalition, the centrist wing of the party, to the seat instead, part of a sweeping set of wins by the Wall Street-friendly caucus.

However, Ocasio-Cortez is in line to get a solid consolation prize — a seat on the House Financial Services Committee, with jurisdiction over Wall Street. Sources close to the process said that it is also likely that Progressive Caucus member Katie Porter, D-Calif., a financial services expert, will get tapped for the committee, and that Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., are in the running. This would put a strong bloc of progressives on an important committee headed by Rep. Maxine Waters of California.

Democrats have struggled to find many members to serve on Financial Services, leading to speculation that the party would actually shrink the size of the committee. Alternatively, that quandary could result in progressives being added as a last resort.

The imminent Financial Services Committee announcement would take some sting out of several disappointments for the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s high-profile rising stars, who on Wednesday were largely shut out of new assignments to three critical committees where they sought expanded representation.

The Progressive Caucus had cut a deal with Pelosi for increased representation on the so-called money committees that handle most domestic legislation. They sought membership on the Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, Appropriations, and Financial Services committees equal to their roughly 40 percent membership in the Democratic caucus.

Progressive Caucus members did receive several new assignments announced Wednesday night, but only hit 40 percent on Ways and Means, on which progressives had already achieved a 40 percent threshold in the previous Congress. As of now, the total averages out to 38.3 percent across all three, but those numbers will rise to 41.8 percent if three committee members join the CPC as expected.

According to numbers provided by the Progressive Caucus, membership increased on Ways and Means from 42 percent to 54 percent. Energy and Commerce moved from 29 percent to 31 percent, and Appropriations held steady at 36 percent.

Progressives have also asked for increased representation on the Financial Services Committee, with jurisdiction over Wall Street, whose makeup is still to be determined. So far, though, the caucus’s most prominent figures have not been given new committee assignments on the three major committees. Ocasio-Cortez; Tlaib; CPC co-chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.; and vice chair Ro Khanna, D-Calif., all vocally pushed for inclusion on the money committees. Justice Democrats waged an outside campaign on their behalf, and other organizations engaged in petition drives and marched on Pelosi’s office. None of that was successful, showing the limits of an outside campaign on an insider issue like committee assignments.

BY CUSTOM, Ways and Means, the tax-writing committee, reserves one seat for a member who represents one of the five boroughs of New York City. The previous holder of that slot was former Rep. Joe Crowley of Queens, whom Ocasio-Cortez defeated in a primary election. Ocasio-Cortez sought to replace her predecessor, but House leaders instead chose Tom Suozzi, a New Democrat who represents the “Gold Coast” of Long Island and a few blocks of Queens.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., third from left, poses during a ceremonial swearing-in with Rep. Tom Suozzi, D-N.Y., second from right, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, during the opening session of the 116th Congress. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

It’s extremely rare historically for a freshman to win a seat on the committee, and indeed, none did this time around, leaving people to cite Ocasio-Cortez’s lack of seniority, rather than her politics, for the snub. But it’s also rare for a man from Long Island to claim a seat reserved for New York City. What’s more, Suozzi is just a sophomore, which drains a bit of the punch from the seniority argument. (While New York City got no representation, Philadelphia picked up two new members.)

Regional politics played a key role. “The regional structure is the heart of the committee seat distribution process. So I think what we learned on the Progressive Caucus is that it’s not about getting the leadership of the Progressive Caucus to go to Nancy Pelosi to ask for seats,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a CPC member who won a position in the lower ranks of House leadership in November, and sits on the committee that that divvies out committee seats. “Like everything else, it’s an organizing operation where you need to organize a movement within each of the regions, because that’s where the action is. Having said that, I think that progressive members did pretty well across the board, and I think are going to do increasingly well in this process,” he said, a reference to the likelihood that several of them will make it onto Financial Services.

Any major piece of legislation — whether it’s “Medicare for All,” a Green New Deal, or free public college — would involve some level of revenue, putting it squarely in the domain of Ways and Means, which makes it a key spot for a legislator looking to have an impact. The seat is also traditionally sought after for its fundraising potential, as every industry in the country is concerned with federal tax policy, meaning that members of the committee are more likely to get their fundraising calls returned. (Suozzi told The Intercept that he had no interest in the committee for that purpose and that he was attracted to it because of his prior career in accounting.)

The contradiction Ocasio-Cortez and her allies will need to resolve

At today’s swearing-in ceremony in the House, Jahana Hayes and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were seated next to each other, while I watched from the gallery. Doesn’t get a lot better than that. To refresh your memory, Hayes was the candidate who came up in Connecticut housing projects, struggled to graduate as a teen mom, and then was robbed of the party endorsement at a rigged convention. She overcame that, won the primary, and won the general. You probably know who the other is.

I walked part of the way to the swearing-in with Ocasio-Cortez and caught this poignant moment with the Capitol guard who often greets members of Congress warmly and enthusiastically, but not like this.

Perhaps the most un-poignant moment I witnessed was this one: Republican Rep. Ben Cline brought his two daughters to the ceremony. When one of them, who looked to be about 4 years old, began clapping for Pelosi’s nomination as Speaker, he gently stopped her, then whispered into her ear, presumably explaining why the occasion was not to be applauded.

On Wednesday morning, after it became clear that the House rules package for the 116th Congress would include a conservative measure known as PAYGO, a spokesman for Bernie Sanders called for progressives in the House to oppose it. Rep. Ro Khanna was the first out of the gate, calling it “terrible economics” and promising to vote down the rules package.  

Ocasio-Cortez announced her opposition to the rules package shortly after Khanna did, and it looked like a rebellion was brewing among the newly energized and organized left. Except it wasn’t.

PAYGO -- which requires that any new government spending be offset by tax increases or budget cuts elsewhere -- would hinder policy initiatives like “Medicare for All” or tuition free public college. Still, leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who extracted major concessions from Nancy Pelosi in exchange for their support of her speakership, chose to sit this one out. CPC co-chairs Reps. Pramila Jayapal, Wash., and Mark Pocan, Wisc., put out a statement in support of the rules package Wednesday, unwilling to risk the other gains they had won.

By the next evening, when the package hit the House floor, just three Democrats voted it down, with Khanna and Ocasio-Cortez joined by Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. The sudden burst of energy, and the just-as-sudden collapse, brought into relief in the starkest way yet the paradox that is Ocasio-Cortez’s position in the House -- she has as much influence outside of Congress as anybody else she serves with. Her every tweet is a potential news cycle, and the routine happenings of her high school and college life get turned into fodder for conservative faceplants on disturbingly regular occasions. She has used that platform to shift the broader political conversation in ways previously unthinkable. For nearly two decades, Democrats have quietly grumbled that it’s just not possible to get people interested  in doing something about climate change. Ocasio-Cortez, in a matter of days, got people interested.

But inside the building, she is heavily outgunned. Aside from her close ally Khanna, the only member of Congress to endorse her primary bid (after first endorsing the incumbent), Ocasio-Cortez is strengthened by her “squad,” which includes Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.

But even the squad broke with her on the House rules package and supported Pelosi. The gap between her power outside the Capitol and the display of it on day one inside of it could hardly have been greater, and it’s an imbalance that simply can’t hold long-term. Something has to give; one side or the other will need to break or bend. It remains to be seen which one it will be.

At the heart of the paradox is the House Democratic caucus’s resistance to political organizing, and Ocasio-Cortez’s grounding in it. On the way to the swearing-in ceremony, I asked Ocasio-Cortez how her view of politics and Congress had changed since she’d won her primary. “I think coming through this process from the background of organizing, and as an organizer, it really makes you think of the political process as -- it really opens what that field looks like, of what change is possible. So it’s not just about whipping votes or getting someone to a yes or no -- although all of those are critical elements of the job -- but the other part of it is really shaping the landscape of what we think is possible,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

Her most successful organizing effort so far began with the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats-led occupation of Nancy Pelosi’s office during orientation. Ocasio-Cortez and the activists demanded a select committee to craft legislation toward a Green New Deal. It sparked a national conversation that is still alive today, but the committee Pelosi ultimately created -- unveiled in Thursday’s rules package -- is weaker than one she created on the same issue in 2007.

“I think there are a lot of wins that we’ve had so far policywise,” Ocasio-Cortez said, referring to the gains made by the CPC in the rules package. “When you look at what’s considered a loss, whether it’s the select committee or whether it’s PAYGO, I see them as short term losses, because in the long run what we’ve accomplished is we’ve put these issues on the map.”

But getting them on the map came at a cost -- and here’s where the contradiction comes in -- in that it angered her colleagues, who furiously defended the turf of their own respective committees, seeing themselves in competition with the new climate committee. Indeed, incoming Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone flat-out refused to move an unrelated bill by Khanna, citing his public support for what he saw as a rival committee.

That hostility built upon already strong wariness on the part of her colleagues, who see in Ocasio-Cortez’s brand of people-powered, corporate-free politics a challenge to their own integrity or progressivism. She is a walking reminder to some Democrats of the space between their ideals and how they have come to practice politics -- and they don’t appreciate the reminder.

Some of the PAYGO collapse was specific to the moment. Pocan and Jayapal had been negotiating with Pelosi over rules changes and won significant concessions, including seats on powerful committees and the repeal of a rule that required a super-majoriy for tax increases. It was only at the last minute that Ocasio-Cortez realized PAYGO would still be in the package, and by then it was simply too late no matter her outside power or organizing skills, since the broader CPC was ready to move on.

Those types of communication kinks can be worked out over time, but if every win Ocasio-Cortez notches on the outside simply creates more distance between her and her colleagues on the inside, organizing an effective progressive majority will be impossible, and even getting the dozen to two dozen members needed for a solid progressive sub-caucus would be difficult. But it’s not that simple, as the groundswell of support Ocasio-Cortez has experienced on the outside has yet to be fully felt on the inside.

Congress is a place out of time -- or, more accurately, cultural and social movements outside of Congress can often take years to be felt inside the Capitol walls. Things eventually catch up, but the problem is just how long that might take -- as the U.N. has given humanity roughly a dozen years to turn its fossil-fuel based economy around, which climate scientists say can only be accomplished on a wartime footing. Politics have moved awfully fast the last few years, but perhaps not fast enough yet.

Paygo Pelosi and the austerity brigade

The new Congress gets sworn in on Thursday and the drama has shifted from whether or not Nancy Pelosi will have the votes to be Speaker (she appears to have plenty) to whether dissatisfaction with the rules package she crafted will bring it down. Underneath it all is a fundamental debate about spending, the debt and the deficit.

There are two pieces of the package  in particular that are facing objections from the left: a weakened climate change committee with no subpoena power, and the reinstatement of paygo, of which Pelosi has long been a champion.

Paygo -- short for “pay as you go” -- requires that any new government spending be offset either by tax increases  or by spending cuts elsewhere. The effect is to handcuff progressive legislation and even to tie up tiny measures that you wouldn’t think would cost government money. (A bill on DC voting rights was held up over paygo issues.)

One thing paygo does is centralize power in leadership and in committee chairs. There are only so many offsets and if you require that every piece of legislation have an offset, you need to go to leadership to get that offset. It’s also just bad economics and politics -- there’s nothing inherently wrong with running a deficit. A public deficit is just another way of saying private surplus. Cutting the deficit means you get a smaller private surplus and people lose jobs. Why do that on purpose?

As we scooped today, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will be voting against the rules package, as will Ro Khanna (he scooped himself on Twitter). Tim Ryan has joined them, but to block the rules package, opponents would still need 15 more no votes from Democrats. (All Republicans will vote no.)

Meanwhile, the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Reps. Mark Pocan and Pramila Jayapal, announced they are supporting the rules package even though it includes paygo. Here’s my take on why: Over the past several weeks, they fought Pelosi for several different things. They wanted proportional representation for CPC members on "A" committees and they won that. They wanted to overturn the stupid rule that required a 3/5ths vote for tax increases, and they won that.

They wanted to get rid of paygo and lost that. So they pocketed their wins and agreed to it, rather than risk what they'd gotten. They also said they were given assurances that paygo would be waived before it would block major progressive policy, which raises the obvious question: Then why the hell is it in there? (If you want to get into the weeds, a few former congressional aides discuss paygo and how it affects legislation in this twitter thread.)

Here's David Dayen’s story today.

Yesterday we published an adapted excerpt of the Steve Mnuchin book, by Rebecca Burns and Dave Dayen, helpfully headlined, Steve Mnuchin is a Dunce. If you bought it already, please leave a review, even if it’s just one sentence.

And a note of thanks below from Bad News copy editor Mimi Hook. In the last edition of this newsletter, I included a tip jar for her. We were both blown away by the absurd amount of generosity from readers of this newsletter, who collectively kicked in more than $800. (It seems like people have noticed the decline of typos and embarrassing sentences since Mimi starting going over it.) Mimi can be reached directly at hookmimi -at- yahoo.com.

Note from the copy editur.  I am thrill that there are so menny of you that appreshiate gud grammer and ponctuashun. I can’t thank you enough for your generosity. I was overwhelmed. I plan to make a donation to RAICES in support of their work at the border. I also plan to buy myself a really nice treat.

Christmas Eve edition of Bad News

Immigration stories always feel particularly apt for Christmas, so I wanted to share one by Maryam Saleh on a Georgia community that has been a haven to refugees for decades, but has been reeling since ICE swept through in the spring of 2017. The story is built around one Georgia man and his family; ICE tried to deport him to Somalia, flew most of the way there, then, due to mechanical difficulties, flew him back.

NSA whistleblower Reality Winner will be spending this Christmas in prison, for attempting to warn the public of Russian meddling in our election system. Her mother, Billie Winner-Davis, has written a piece for us about this injustice.

If you were so inclined, one way you could make her time in prison less burdensome is by sending her a note, either electronically or through the mail. Details on how you can do that are here. Her sentence is wildly out of proportion with what she did, and if there’s a Democratic president elected in 2020, pardoning her or commuting her sentence ought to be one of the first things they do.

And with Clio Chang, I wrote a piece about the complicated politics of war and peace on the left, as the Senate managed to pass a resolution that would end U.S. support for the Yemen war, even as major liberal groups in Washington sat on the sidelines.

Longtime readers of this email may recall that for years it was pockmarked by distracting typos and the occasional — or not so occasional — winding, confusing sentence. Unable to tolerate it any longer, my great aunt Mimi Hook volunteered to copy edit it, and she still does so to this day. Luckily for me, she’s a night owl, so I text her a link to the Google doc where I’m writing, she gets the alert on her Apple watch, and she jumps in. She saves me from embarrassment on a regular basis.

So I’ve set up a little Christmas tip jar for her here (and yes, don’t worry, I’m going to give too). She doesn’t know I’m doing this, so this email wasn’t copy edited, but hopefully I caught most of the typos. Have a wonderful holiday, and I’ll leave you with a recent pic of Aunt Mimi, plus one that was taken 80+ years ago.

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