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Cruz control: Texas Republican keeps his distance from 2024 White House hunt

Politico -


Ted Cruz's presidential ambitions were no secret even before he became the first Republican to jump into the 2016 race. As 2024 approaches, though, he's playing it uncharacteristically cool.

The Texas senator isn’t explicitly ruling out another White House run. But asked about his considerations, Cruz described the Senate as “the battlefield right now," with his seat up next year and a closer margin in his last reelection bid than is typical for the red state.

“I have no doubt that Democrats will dump a whole lot of money into it,” Cruz said in an interview. “In 2018, it was the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history … And there are a lot of national Democrats who want to do everything they can to try to defeat me. I don’t think they’re going to succeed.”

Should Cruz ultimately bow out of a GOP presidential primary, he'll likely have plenty of company among fellow senators. Both Sens. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), also seen as potential 2024 White House contenders, say they plan to run for reelection in their states. And Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said he's also taking a pass.

It's a notable divergence from 2016, when four Republican senators jumped into the primary. As GOP lawmakers contend with the tricky dynamics of a polarizing former president's third White House bid, many in their party are also eager to see an alternative candidate — and there's a growing awareness that a crowded GOP field could clear the way for Donald Trump. Potential presidential candidates are also watching what other prominent GOP figures like Ron DeSantis will do, letting the Florida governor absorb Trump's early attacks.



Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who recently endorsed Trump and attended a South Carolina campaign rally with him, suggested that Cruz may be among the crew of potential candidates who will make a call after more deeply assessing the former president’s strength, especially among the party base.

Cruz "has a lot of support, he’s a strong conservative voice in the body,” Graham said. “I think he’d be one of the people who will sort of look and see how Trump does and see what happens.”

Cruz’s focus on his Senate bid follows a tough 2018 reelection fight against former Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who lost by 2.6 points. Combined, the two candidates raised close to $115 million, with O’Rourke bringing in more than $80 million. And Cruz may face another fight in 2024, with Texas and Florida the only conceivable pick-up opportunities for Democrats in a cycle that will have them mostly on defense — 23 of the party's seats are up next year.

O’Rourke did not respond to a request for comment on whether he was considering a second Senate run against Cruz. After losing his gubernatorial bid against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in 2022, he told the audience in his concession speech that "this may be one of the last times I get to talk in front of you all.”



But plenty of others are considering a Cruz challenge. A person close to former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro said that he is weighing a run. Democrats in the state are also watching Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas); state senator Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde, the town devastated by a school shooting; and state Rep. James Talarico, who sparred with Fox News host Pete Hegseth in 2021, according to a Texas Democratic strategist.

A senior adviser to Cruz, granted anonymity to speak candidly, said he plans to make his formal Senate run announcement within the first half of the year. They added that Cruz would make additional staff hires during that period and that he's already started raising money, including “revamping completely the small-dollar operation.” Cruz currently has $3.4 million cash on hand.

Democrats acknowledge that Texas has not been an easy state for the party. But they argue that Cruz is more vulnerable than his other GOP counterparts, citing the close 2018 race and his castigated 2021 trip to Cancun while Texas underwent a power-grid emergency due to a winter storm.

“We look forward to our Democratic nominee retiring Ted Cruz from the U.S. Senate and finally allowing him some time to finally relax at his preferred Cancun resort,” said Ike Hajinazarian, a spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party. “That is, of course, should he even choose to run for reelection, which would be strange considering his newly-introduced legislation to limit U.S. senators to two terms.”

Cruz, who would be running for a third term, told reporters this week that he doesn’t support unilateral term limits, but would “happily comply with them if they applied to everyone.”

When he first came to the Senate in 2013, Cruz quickly started causing trouble for GOP leadership. That year, he infuriated his Senate colleagues over a joint effort with House Republicans to defund Obamacare, which led to a government shutdown. More recently, he supported Sen. Rick Scott's (R-Fla.) challenge to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell amid frustration over the GOP’s disappointing midterm performance.

This Congress, his allies say he’s focused on his role as the incoming top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, his first stint as a panel's party chief. His Democratic counterpart, Chair Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), said Cruz will be “hopefully productive.”

As the Texan hones in on his Senate race, his adviser indicated Cruz still has the infrastructure — if needed — for a future presidential run. Under Texas' so-called LBJ law, the senator could technically run for both reelection and the White House at the same time.

“Unlike some names that are being floated, he has a built-in organizational strength, national name ID and the conservative bona fides where" he doesn't need to be one of the first names to enter the race to be competitive, the adviser said.

Still, Cruz’s colleagues say his approach to a White House run is notably different than eight years ago, when he rolled out his first presidential bid in March 2015. Cruz campaigned as a political outsider and invested heavily in his ground game in Iowa. He went on to win the Iowa caucus and stayed in the GOP primary until May of 2016, after it essentially became a two-person race with Trump.

While Trump and Cruz had a bitter rivalry during that campaign, with the New Yorker nicknaming his foe “Lyin’ Ted” and Cruz calling Trump a “pathological liar,” they eventually became allies.

Trump campaigned for the Texan during his 2018 Senate race; Cruz challenged President Joe Biden's win in 2020 and later was among the senators who advised Trump’s lawyers during his second Senate impeachment trial.

“We haven’t heard a lot from him,” said one Senate Republican, granted anonymity to speak candidly about a colleague. “By this point, in 2015, I think he was fairly open about what he was doing. But there are a lot of things about this time that are different.”

With Biden widely expected to seek reelection, all eyes are on the GOP primary. Senate Republicans aren’t sure how many members of their conference will end up running, with many noting that it’s still early in the cycle. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) is widely seen as the most likely of them to run.

Cruz, for his part, only observed that the 2024 presidential cycle is “unusual” because “neither side has any idea who their nominee will be.”

“I don’t think Joe Biden’s going to run,” Cruz said. "Donald Trump has announced he’s running. I think it’s clear there are a number of people who are preparing to jump in, and I don’t know what will happen in that race. I feel confident it won’t be boring.”

'Not a gang discussion': Debt crisis still seeking a savior

Politico -


Even before Joe Biden and Kevin McCarthy held their first debt limit meeting, many lawmakers were already thinking about a backup plan to avoid a devastating default.

The president and the speaker’s Wednesday sitdown started what may prove a long Biden-McCarthy dance over averting fiscal disaster by the time the nation hits its “drop-dead” deadline to lift its borrowing limit. But as the duo sized each other up in their first one-on-one under divided government, there are already real doubts on Capitol Hill that the two-man talks will pay off.

Which leaves inquiring minds in Congress, on Wall Street and across the country wondering: Who’s going to steer the car away from the cliff?

“If they can’t get anywhere, there are a number of choices, right?” Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) said of Biden and McCarthy. But he’s not ready to put on his bipartisan gang gear yet: “I’m a little bit more fiscally conservative than some Democrats. But this isn’t where you negotiate that.”

If McCarthy and Biden’s talks flounder, that would seem to leave centrists in a strong position. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sidelined himself and indicated that McCarthy’s in the lead for their party, however, which means his moderates are also taking themselves out of the game to avoid undercutting the speaker. In short, don’t expect one of the Senate’s often-active bipartisan groups to swoop in just yet.

Still, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has met with McCarthy and a handful of senators are informally chatting about possible debt-limit solutions. Other centrists are moving more formally: A group of House moderates met for the first time last week to discuss escape hatches if Congress gets too close to busting through the debt limit, expected to potentially hit in June.

Their discussions, according to three people familiar with them, included the long-shot option known as a discharge petition — which requires a majority of the House to force a debt-limit vote against the speaker’s wishes.

“The goal is to not have that,” Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.) said of any potential fallback plans, before adding: “We're in a dire situation.”

It will only grow more dire as the weather heats up, and with it the risk of default. And don't put it past Congress to kick the can a little further, possibly tying the debt deadline to the expiration of government funding at the end of September.

But when it comes time for a deal, plenty of players are waiting in the wings to assist or supplant the president and speaker.

The Senate Gang

During the last Congress, a roving group of Senate centrists cut a series of seemingly improbable deals on same-sex marriage, infrastructure and gun safety. Right now, there’s no such movement on the debt ceiling.

But that may well change. And some senators are open to establishing a group to wrestle weighty fiscal issues — once the debt ceiling is raised.

“I’d be more than happy to do that, truthfully. That’s what it’s going to take. Take the debt limit stuff off the table, because it’s playing with fire,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “I am more than fine with deficit reduction. It has to be separate from the debt ceiling.”

Though there's a real possibility that's where Congress ultimately ends up, few want to admit it now. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a frequent member of the chamber's bipartisan policymaking gangs, said “the Senate is not really talking about getting involved at this point.”

“This is not a gang discussion,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a member of her chamber's Democratic leadership. “Not on the question of whether or not we’re going to crash the economy.”

The big reason there’s no gang right now: Most Democrats argue that a debt ceiling increase shouldn’t be subject to negotiations, period. And Republicans believe that their position will erode if centrists start breaking ranks with the current GOP position of leaving things to McCarthy.

Rogue House dealmakers

House moderates have eyed a possible major role in the volatile debt talks ever since the GOP’s flimsy four-vote majority was sealed in November.

Now that there's an empowered bloc of deal-making moderates in both parties, the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus is edging its way into the talks. While the full group has yet to meet, a smaller band of its leaders gathered last week to begin preliminary discussions.

People familiar with the meeting made clear that the Problem Solvers have no intention of getting ahead of their respective party leaders, but pointed to early conversations about possible spending caps or broader fiscal reform that could prove valuable when negotiations kick off in earnest.

“We should just do a clean debt limit. That may not be realistic given where Republicans are,” said Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), who drafted a bill in recent years with now-Budget Chair Jodey Arrington (R-Texas) that proposed several ideas for Congress to avert semi-annual debt brinkmanship.

And if the McCarthy-Biden talks flame out, Peters said this bipartisan House cohort wants to be prepared: “There’s a group of people here who want to be prepared.”

Some Problem Solvers expect the group will ultimately launch a dedicated internal effort to tackle the debt, as they previously have with other policy ideas, such as infrastructure. One big topic likely to be discussed — how to force a debt ceiling bill to the floor that doesn’t have uniform GOP support.

The idea of a discharge petition is getting floated, though some Hill aides and budget experts see that route as too slow and unwieldy to accommodate a rapidly-changing default deadline. Some members are also discussing procedural gambits that would take less time to bring a bill to the floor, such as a House motion for a “previous question,” which has far more flexible rules.

Mitch McConnell

The Senate GOP leader successfully negotiated a debt ceiling detente with then-Vice President Biden more than a decade ago, yielding a decade of spending caps that squeezed both defense and domestic spending. McConnell also struck a 2021 deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that allowed Democrats to advance a $2.5 trillion debt ceiling hike with a simple majority.

But his work on that debt deal, as well as December's government funding agreement, spent big political capital and earned him some criticism. So despite McConnell's vaunted pedigree of negotiating with Biden, he is currently declining to step into negotiations and leaving things to McCarthy — who criticized several bills that McConnell supported last Congress.

“There’s no way that the House is going to accept something that 60 senators vote on on a bipartisan basis,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “That’s [McConnell’s] position.”

Some believe that, as Republicans float a variety of fiscal concessions with no clear plan or unifying potential — including another set of spending caps and debt-to-GDP spending targets — that the GOP leader may once again have to step in. McConnell and Biden have maintained their uniquely productive relationship through this year, appearing together at an infrastructure event last month in Kentucky.

“I cannot imagine there’d be a major deal here and Mitch McConnell isn’t going to be part of it,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). “I suspect he’ll be involved in negotiations when he thinks it’s appropriate.”

But not yet. Even talking about McConnell’s involvement “would be damaging to" McCarthy during talks with the president, Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said: “I think we’re better off sticking with him as the lead sled dog.”

House GOP looks to prove whipping mettle on Omar ouster

Politico -


After a flip-flop-filled struggle, the House GOP's whip operation appears poised to pass its first major test: booting progressive Ilhan Omar from a prized committee spot.

Just days ago, it seemed like a real possibility Speaker Kevin McCarthy — despite his projected confidence — could lose his long-threatened vow to remove the Minnesota progressive from the Foreign Affairs Committee. Then Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), who initially said he would vote against kicking her off, switched to yes on Wednesday, after Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.) flipped the same way the day before.

That leaves Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) as the sole GOP member indicating she'll still vote to allow Omar on the committee.

“We've watched what she has done,” McCarthy said Tuesday morning to reporters. “I just think she can serve on other committees. It would be best if the Democrats didn't put her in the position of Foreign Affairs. If they do, she will not serve on Foreign Affairs. They can choose another committee for her.”

The House Rules Committee held an “emergency meeting” Tuesday night to push through the resolution on Omar, and a procedural vote to move forward passed the House Wednesday along party lines. That teed up a full House vote on whether to officially kick Omar off the committee as early as Thursday, though Republicans could be forced to punt the vote into next week due to a handful of expected absences.

The resolution to remove her was introduced by first-term Rep. Max Miller (R-Ohio), who is Jewish and says he has not spoken with Omar personally. He cited various comments she has made with antisemitic overtones, while also arguing that Democrats watered down a resolution to condemn her for those remarks in 2019 when they held the majority. Omar, for her part, has largely apologized for her previous comments.

“As an American Jew and as somebody who served in the Marine Corps, I believe that her comments are vile. And while she may have apologized in the past, she continues to erect a pattern of antisemitic rhetoric,” said Miller in an interview about his motivations for leading the resolution.

Miller added that he put forward the resolution ”in conjunction” with McCarthy, and that he ”obviously expressed interest in wanting to carry this resolution as one of two Republican Jewish individuals within the conference.”

Democrats, meanwhile, blasted the move as political revenge and are set to unanimously back Omar against the effort to remove her from the panel. She was set to become the top Democrat on a subcommittee on African policy.

“Kevin McCarthy is acting out of revenge instead of focusing on the real issues,” said No. 2 House Democrat Katherine Clark (Mass.) in the caucus' weekly whip meeting Wednesday morning, according to a person in the room. “How does he speak of ‘integrity’ while packing committees with election deniers?” she added.

And Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), a fellow member of the progressive “squad,” praised Omar as an “incredible legislator” and said “the Republicans are full of shit.”



Just days ago, three GOP lawmakers were vowing to oppose the resolution, and party leaders could only afford to lose four votes assuming full attendance. And that was far from guaranteed, as they'd expressed concerns over potential absences, including one GOP member who is recovering from serious injuries.

Those concerns were mostly assuaged by Wednesday. Spartz (R-Ind.) said Tuesday she would back the measure after it was tweaked to include language about an appeal to the Ethics Committee, despite it containing in a nonbinding “whereas” clause with no legal teeth. And Buck also changed his position Wednesday, saying “the commitment is that [McCarthy] will work with me on clarifying what the standard here is" on removing members from committees, as well as making the process "more transparent and consistent."

Generally, Republicans argue Omar can serve on other committees and say this is a watered-down resolution compared to a Democratic-led votes to remove Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) from their committees. Democrats took those actions, with some Republican support, over threatening comments and social media posts made by both lawmakers — statements GOP lawmakers are quick to point out that, in Greene's case, were made before she was sworn into Congress.

Republicans warned at the time that if Democrats wanted to change the longstanding precedent of allowing parties to decide panel assignments and removals internally, then they, too, would have those tools at their disposal when in power. Now, they're making good on that promise.



"We are taking an unprecedented rule that the Democrats put in place last Congress and using it effectively against them," Miller said.

Some Democrats have since expressed concern about how the Gosar and Greene situations were handled, with Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), the top Democrat on the Ethics Committee, saying in Tuesday’s Rules Committee meeting she didn’t think “it was the correct process" when the two Republicans were booted. Wild voted in favor of removing both at the time.

The lack of Democratic support for removing Omar, though, is in part a product of time. In her previous two terms, Omar faced intense pushback from some in the caucus over her controversial comments about Israel and Jews, and while some Democrats may have even supported a measure back then to condemn her remarks, one never came up on the House floor. The House instead passed a resolution generally condemning bigotry. Since then, she's worked to mend relationships with her fellow lawmakers.

The vote follows McCarthy's announcement last week that he would block two California Democrats — Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell — from the House Intelligence Committee. McCarthy can take unilateral action against members on that committee, due to the nature of the panel, while removing Omar requires a majority vote in the House.

But Republicans may not get total unification in booting Omar. Mace said Wednesday afternoon her opposition to removing Omar has not changed. When it was noted that both Buck and Spartz had flipped after receiving certain commitments from McCarthy, Mace distinguished that those promises regard "future" incidents, but the GOP leader is not "gonna use it for Omar."

North Korea warns of ‘toughest reaction’ to allies’ drills

Politico -


SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea on Thursday threatened the “toughest reaction” to the United States’ expanding joint military exercises with South Korea to counter the North’s growing nuclear weapons ambitions, claiming that the allies were pushing tensions to an “extreme red line.”

The statement by Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry came in response to comments by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who said in Seoul on Tuesday that the United States would increase its deployment of advanced military assets to the Korean Peninsula, including fighter jets and aircraft carriers, as it strengthens joint training and operational planning with South Korea.

South Korea’s Defense Ministry said the United States flew B-1B bombers and F-22 and F-35 fighter jets in an exercise with South Korean fighters on Wednesday above South Korea’s western waters in their latest show of strength. The United States and South Korea are also planning to hold a simulation exercise this month aimed at sharpening their response if North Korea uses nuclear weapons.

In a statement attributed to an unidentified spokesperson of its Foreign Ministry, North Korea said the expansion of the allies’ drills is threatening to turn the Korean Peninsula into a “huge war arsenal and a more critical war zone.” The statement said the North is prepared to counter any short-term or long-term military challenge by the allies with the “most overwhelming nuclear force.”

“The military and political situation on the Korean Peninsula and in the region has reached an extreme red line due to the reckless military confrontational maneuvers and hostile acts of the U.S. and its vassal forces,” the spokesperson said.

North Korea for decades has described the United States’ combined military exercises with South Korea as rehearsals for a potential invasion, although the allies have described those drills as defensive.

North Korea last year ramped up its own weapons demonstrations as the allies resumed their large-scale training that had been downsized for years. North Korea’s actions included a slew of missile and artillery launches that it described as simulated nuclear attacks on South Korean and U.S. targets.

“DPRK will take the toughest reaction to any military attempt of the U.S. on the principle of ‘nuke for nuke and an all-out confrontation for an all-out confrontation!’” the North Korean spokesperson said, invoking the country’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“If the U.S. continues to introduce strategic assets into the Korean Peninsula and its surrounding area, the DPRK will make clearer its deterring activities without fail according to their nature,” the spokesperson said.

Jeon Ha Gyu, spokesperson of South Korea’s Defense Ministry, said the ministry had no immediate comment in response to the North Korean statement. He said the allies’ latest aerial drills were aimed at demonstrating the credibility of the U.S. “extended deterrence,” referring to a commitment to use the full range of its military capabilities, including nuclear ones, to defend South Korea. He declined to reveal the exact number of U.S. and South Korean aircraft involved in the exercise.

Austin’s visit came as South Korea seeks stronger assurances that the United States will swiftly and decisively use its nuclear capabilities to protect its ally in face of a North Korean nuclear attack.

South Korea’s security jitters have risen since North Korea test-fired dozens of missiles in 2022, including potentially nuclear-capable ones designed to strike targets in South Korea and the U.S. mainland. North Korea’s elevated testing activity has been punctuated by threats to preemptively use its nuclear weapons in a broad range of scenarios in which it perceives its leadership to be under threat, including conventional clashes or non-war situations.

In a news conference following their meeting, Austin said he and South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-Sup agreed to further expand their combined military exercises, including more live-fire demonstrations. They pledged to continue a “timely and coordinated” deployment of U.S. strategic assets to the region.

They said that their countries’ resumption of large-scale military drills last year effectively demonstrated their combined capabilities to deter North Korean aggression. The allies had downsized their training in recent years to create room for diplomacy with North Korea during the Trump administration and because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

South Korea and the United States have also been strengthening their security cooperation with Japan, which has included trilateral missile defense and anti-submarine warfare exercises in past months amid the provocative run in North Korean weapons tests.

“We deployed fifth-generation aircraft, F-22s and F-35s, we deployed a carrier strike group to visit the peninsula. You can look for more of that kind of activity going forward,” Austin said.

Tensions could further rise in coming months with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un doubling down on his nuclear ambitions.

During a political conference in December, Kim called for an “exponential increase” in nuclear warheads, mass production of battlefield tactical nuclear weapons targeting South Korea, and the development of more powerful long-range missiles designed to reach the U.S. mainland.

Experts say Kim’s nuclear push is aimed at forcing the United States to accept the idea of North Korea as a nuclear power and then negotiating badly needed economic concessions from a position of strength.

Nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea have been derailed since 2019 because of disagreements over a relaxation of U.S.-led economic sanctions against the North in exchange for steps by North Korea to wind down its nuclear weapons and missiles programs.

The North Korean spokesperson said Pyongyang isn’t interested in any contact or dialogue with the United States as long as it maintains its “hostile policy and confrontational line,” accusing Washington of maintaining sanctions and military pressure to force the North to “disarm itself unilaterally.”

Chicago Public Schools Is a Criminal Enterprise

Real Clear Politics -

by Erin Geary February 1, 2023 If you've ever watched an episode of Abbott Elementary, I was a white version of Janine. A passionate, naive, twenty-something teacher unleashed and ready to show my hard-work and dedication. I was going to be THE role model of a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teacher who was there to save young, untapped minds from ... Read More

Ukraine can’t retake Crimea soon, Pentagon tells lawmakers in classified briefing

Politico -


Ukrainian forces are unlikely to be able to recapture Crimea from Russian troops in the near future, four senior Defense Department officials told House Armed Services Committee lawmakers in a classified briefing. The assessment is sure to frustrate leaders in Kyiv who consider taking the peninsula back one of their signature goals.

It’s unclear what led the briefers to that assessment. But the clear indication, as relayed by three people with direct knowledge of Thursday’s briefing’s contents, was that the Pentagon doesn’t believe Ukraine has — or soon will have — the ability to force Russian troops out of the peninsula Moscow seized nearly a decade ago.

A fourth person said the briefing was more ambiguous, but the point remained that Ukraine’s victory in an offensive to retake the illegally annexed territory wasn’t assured. All four asked for anonymity in order to disclose details from a classified briefing.



The briefers included Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, and Lt. Gen. Douglas Sims, director of operations on the Joint Staff.

“We’re not going to comment on closed-door classified briefings nor will we talk about hypotheticals or speculate on potential future operations,” Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh said. “In terms of Ukraine’s ability to fight and take back sovereign territory, their remarkable performance in repulsing Russian aggression and continued adaptability on the battlefield speaks for itself.”

A House Armed Services spokesperson declined to comment.

The assessment from the briefers echoes what Gen. Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs chair, has alluded to in recent weeks.

“I still maintain that for this year it would be very, very difficult to militarily eject the Russian forces from all –– every inch of Ukraine and occupied –– or Russian-occupied Ukraine,” he said during a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group in Germany on Jan. 20. “That doesn't mean it can't happen. Doesn't mean it won't happen, but it'd be very, very difficult.”

Russian forces have occupied Crimea since 2014, and the peninsula is bristling with air defenses and tens of thousands of troops. Many of those infantry forces are dug into fortified positions stretching hundreds of miles facing off against Ukrainian troops along the Dnipro River.

The issue of retaking Crimea has been a contentious one for months, as American and European officials insist the peninsula is legally part of Ukraine, while often stopping short of fully equipping Kyiv to push into the area.

One person familiar with the thinking in Kyiv said the Zelenskyy administration was “furious” with Milley’s remarks, as Ukraine prepares for major offensives this spring. Ukrainians also note that U.S. intelligence about their military abilities have consistently missed the mark throughout the nearly year-long war.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, Zelenskyy adviser Andriy Yermak rejected the idea of a Ukrainian victory without taking Crimea.

"This is absolutely unacceptable," Yermak said, adding that victory means restoring Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders "including Donbas and Crimea.”


Ukraine has repeatedly asked for longer-range weapons, including rocket artillery and guided munitions fired by fighter planes and drones, to target Russian command-and-control centers and ammunition depots far behind the front lines in Crimea.

After the U.S. gave Ukraine the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System in the summer, Russia moved many of its most vulnerable assets out of its 50-mile range. The Biden administration continues to refuse to send missiles for the launcher that can reach 300 miles, which would put all of Crimea at risk.

House Armed Services Chair Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said in an interview Wednesday that the war "needs to end this summer," placing urgency on the U.S. to rapidly supply Ukraine for a coming offensive and on Kyiv to forge a clearer outline of how the conflict ends.

"There's a school of thought … that Crimea's got to be a part of it. Russia is never going to quit and give up Crimea," said Rogers, who did not address the contents of the classified briefing his committee received last week. Vladimir "Putin has got to decide what he can leave with and claim victory."

"What is doable? And I don't think that that's agreed upon yet. So I think that there's going to have to be some pressure from our government and NATO leaders with [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy about what does victory look like," Rogers added. "And I think that's going to help us more than anything be able to drive Putin and Zelenskyy to the table to end this thing this summer."

DeSantis builds conservative resume with new $114B-plus budget

Politico -


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Ahead of his likely 2024 presidential bid, GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis is proposing a nearly $115 billion budget that funds some of his most politically divisive policies — including millions of dollars for election police and more state funds to transport migrants from the southern border to blue strongholds.

DeSantis’ budget, which he released Wednesday, also requests $15 million for New College, the small public liberal arts college that the governor is trying to transform into a conservative learning institution. He also wants to remove sales taxes on purchases of gas stoves, a nod to the GOP outrage over some liberal cities pushing to ban gas stoves in new construction.

Taken together, the proposed budget outlines conservative themes and priorities that DeSantis routinely uses to excite the GOP base in Florida — but with an eye toward the Republican voters nationally.

“If we were here four years ago and people said we would be able to propose what we are proposing today, most people probably would have said that would not have been possible,” DeSantis said Wednesday during a press conference at the state capitol.

“But if you told them everything that happened in the last four years, they definitely would have said it would not have been possible,” he said.

The Florida Legislature has the ultimate authority to write the state budget, but DeSantis’ growing clout within the national Republican Party has given him great power over the GOP-dominated Legislature, which in recent years has generally handed him everything he wanted. Any budget wins will give DeSantis more talking points if he jumps into the 2024 presidential race, further fueling the impression that he can use public funds to enact a conservative agenda.

Before the Wednesday press conference began, an administration staffer told state workers at the event to applaud and be “high energy.” Moments later, they cheered and clapped loudly when DeSantis entered the Florida Cabinet room, where he announced the budget plan. The workers broke out into applause three times during DeSantis’ presentation.

DeSantis framed much of his remarks around not just a single-year budget proposal but rather a recap of his entire first term. He compared the state of Florida’s overall economy with four years ago when he first took office. During that time, Florida’s main state reserve fund increased by $12 billion, the unemployment rate has dropped to 2.5 percent, and Florida has become the fastest-growing state in the country — changes that occurred while the state was grappling with a global pandemic that helped make DeSantis a national star with the conservative base.

Some of the governor’s more controversial programs would get significant increases if ultimately approved. DeSantis wants $31 million and 27 positions for the Office of Election Crimes and Security, which he created last year to investigate election fraud. DeSantis lauded the office and, in August, held a high-profile press conference highlighting 20 arrests made by his agents. Several of those defendants, however, had the charges against them dropped, and the office has yet to secure a conviction.

The governor is also seeking another $12 million for his controversial program that uses state funds to transport asylum-seeking migrants from the southern border to other parts of the country,

The program drew swift backlash when, in September, DeSantis transported 50 mostly Venezuelan asylum seekers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, in Massachusetts, a move he said was done to highlight the Biden Administration’s border policies. Democrats, including President Joe Biden, widely condemned the flights.

“We have had a deterrent effect, and people are sick of having an open border with no rule of law in this country,” DeSantis said Wednesday when asked about the funding.

The migrant flight program is facing several lawsuits, including from state Sen. Jason Pizzo (D-Miami), who argued that the DeSantis administration violated state law because the original funding was earmarked to remove “unauthorized aliens from this state” while the September flights originated in Texas. This year’s proposed budget broadens the scope of the language to say the funds would be used to remove “unauthorized aliens within the United States.”

House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell approved of some budget proposals, like making diaper purchases tax-free, but said that, overall, it represents a political stunt.

“Governor DeSantis’s budget proposal is a financial wish list of recommendations to influence decisions made in the Capitol,” she said in a statement. “While I am encouraged to see recommended allocations that will benefit Floridians … I am also concerned to see troubling recommendations like the ‘Unauthorized Alien Transport Program,’ which I worry could lead to further political stunts like when the Governor previously used taxpayer dollars to lure unsuspecting individuals seeking political asylum from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard.”

Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book (D-Plantation) took a slightly different tone, saying the “devil is in the details,” but praised tax breaks in the plan and said she sees “much common ground at first glance.”

DeSantis’ proposal also relies on more than $400 million in Biden administration Covid-19 aid money. The biggest single chunk from that funding is $220 million to pay for $1,000 bonuses for first responders. Over the past two years, state budgets have included nearly $10 billion from the federal pandemic assistance, money that has been used to pay for some of DeSantis’ most politically divisive proposals heavily criticized by Biden and other Democrats, including the migrant flights.

Florida GOP Sen. Rick Scott last month sent a letter asking state leaders to return their pandemic relief money in order to help pay down the federal debt. DeSantis said, however, that returning the money would not have a huge impact on the nation’s debt.

“If you look at how much money that is … it’s like $100 million, $200 million, a few hundred million,” DeSantis said Wednesday. “How much dent would that make in the debt?”

DeSantis also wants $2 billion in tax cuts, including permanently removing state sales taxes on baby and toddler necessities like cribs and strollers — as well as for gas stoves. Gas stoves have become the newest wedge issue after some liberal cities have sought to ban them in new construction to reduce carbon footprints and for health reasons. The Biden administration does not support banning gas stoves.

“They want your gas stove, and we are not going to let that happen,” DeSantis said.

Other provisions in DeSantis’ proposal:

  • $65 million for a state worker pay increase, including a 5 percent across-the-board increase and 10 percent increases for positions deemed “hard to hire" for.
  • The budget unveiled Wednesday by DeSantis would put a record $25.9 billion in the Florida Education Finance Program, the state’s central pot of education funding, which represents an increase of $1.4 billion, or 5.8 percent, compared with current-year spending.
  • On the environment, the governor said his proposed budget provides $1.1 billion for Everglades restoration and water quality programs, including $200 million for replacing septic tanks with sewer system hookups. And he said the proposal includes $406 million for coastal resiliency projects and planning. And it includes $75 million for land acquisition at the Department of Environmental Protection in addition to $25 million for local park grant programs through DEP. The budget proposal does not include money through the agriculture department for conservation easements.
  • The proposal also calls for a health care budget of $47.3 billion, which is a decrease from the $48.9 billion budget that took effect in July. 

Biden administration is caught between California and its neighbors in Colorado River fight

Politico -


SACRAMENTO, Calif. — After months of behind-the-scenes negotiations, California has an answer to six other western states sharing the Colorado River: Get lost.

The proposal California offered Tuesday makes no significant concessions to demands from its neighbors — asserting higher priority senior water rights to the largest share of the river that have been enshrined in an agreement dating back decades.

That leaves it to the federal government to try to find a resolution.

“The states are not going to reach an agreement. We are just too far apart,” said Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.), who represents the Phoenix area. “Now is the time that we need this administration to come up with a solution to this dilemma, and we need it now.”

California is insisting on its legal claims under a compact dating back to 1922 as the river faces unprecedented strain because of climate change and population growth in the Southwest. The standoff thrusts the Biden administration into the position of deciding how to resolve competing claims on water shared among 40 million people from Wyoming to Mexico.

The Interior Department, which asked the states to come up with a joint plan to reduce use by roughly 30 percent, is expected to impose cuts as early as this summer.



On one side are six states, including Arizona and Nevada, where growing cities such as Las Vegas and Phoenix are in an existential battle to avoid exhausting their supplies from the Colorado River. On the other is California, where farmers could go to the courts to protect their water rights.

Decisions taken by California in this most sensitive of battles could one day hurt Gov. Gavin Newsom if he runs for president and needs political support in Nevada and Arizona, two battleground states.

A bipartisan group of Western representatives, excluding officials from California, urged President Joe Biden to support the proposal offered by the six states in a letter Wednesday morning.

California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot, a Newsom appointee, as well as the state's two senators have criticized the six-state plan, saying it would disproportionately burden California cities and farmers.

Western senators are planning to meet to discuss the issue Thursday.

The Interior Department is keeping up talks with states and tribes and wants “as much support and consensus as possible,” said a spokesperson on Wednesday.



The proposal from the six states would impose additional cuts to every user, including California and Mexico.

Their plan relies on a new tool to preserve some water for Arizona and Nevada users by accounting for evaporation and leaks along the river as it flows downstream to California.

That infuriated California’s farmers, who see the concept as a way to cut into their legal claims to the water.

Instead, California’s proposal would alter operations at the river’s two main dams, forcing states to take modest cuts to which they’ve already agreed. If that’s not enough it would then force cuts using the priority system, effectively drying out central Arizona cities and tribes before the Golden State takes additional mandatory cuts.

“We agree there needs to be reduced use in the Lower Basin, but that can't be done by just completely ignoring and sidestepping federal law,” said J.B. Hamby, the chair of the Colorado River Board of California and an Imperial Irrigation District director.

California, he said, already volunteered additional reductions back in October to ease the burden on other states.

The Interior Department said it plans to release a draft analysis of the options it is considering this spring. It could step in as soon as this summer to slash deliveries.

New York's massive budget surplus gives Hochul money to spend

Politico -


ALBANY, N.Y. — Gov. Kathy Hochul kicked off her first term with a $227 billion budget proposal that she says will prep New York for an economic revival, thanks to a budget surplus and an aim of building more affordable housing in the New York City suburbs.

There will be no “whimpering and complaining” about the way things are, the newly elected Democrat said during an address Wednesday at the state Capitol, in which she acknowledged that barriers to housing, health care and public safety are causing New Yorkers to question the viability of living in the state — which leads the nation in population loss.

“We make progress by implementing ideas,” she said, in reference to a quote from the first Black woman elected to U.S. Congress, Shirley Chisholm.

“This is a pivotal moment for our state,” Hochul said. “We can’t just sit on the sidelines and wish things were different. If we want to make real progress for our people, we can.”

She described the nuts and bolts of a series of proposals aimed at achieving the New York Dream that were broadly outlined in her State of the State address last month. And she's benefiting from an $8.7 billion surplus thanks to higher-than-expected tax revenue to fund projects and programs to appease a wide variety of constituencies.



Hochul wants record increases in education and Medicaid spending — to $34.4 billion and $27.8 billion respectively. Hochul’s plan would set aside more than $1 billion to help New York City pay some costs of providing social services to new asylum seekers.

She proposed new funding streams for the beleaguered Metropolitan Transportation Authority, including raising payroll taxes on downstate businesses, using revenue from planned casinos and setting aside $300 million in one-time aid. She also rejected any income tax increases.

She laid out various provisions of her plan for 800,000 new homes over the next decade, which would require municipalities around the state to meet housing production targets or make zoning changes.

And she announced a four-year extension for completing projects covered by the expired 421-a tax break, but did not suggest a specific replacement for the incentive program that builders say will be necessary for the kind of housing growth she is seeking.

Many of Hochul’s ideas carry broad conceptual support among Democrats looking to expand opportunities for communities that have historically been passed over, and Hochul will spend the next two months attempting to build consensus among members of the state Legislature for the fiscal year that starts April 1.

But she begins that process on rocky terms, at least in the Senate, where she’s threatened legal action after a Senate panel rejected her pick for chief judge last month. Leaders are downplaying any potential stalemates amid the acrimony. Hochul made a point to greet just two people — both Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie — before taking the podium Wednesday.

She also cracked open the door to some historically contentious debates in the Legislature, including permitting more charter schools across the state by lifting a regional cap in state law and expanding the amount of discretion that judges would have to set bail for more serious offenses.

She characterized both bail and charter school expansion as measures to provide clarity in otherwise odd implementations of the current status quo, rather than the political grenades they’ve become. Much of her election battle last year centered on rising crime and criticism of the state's bail laws.

“Let’s just simply provide clarity,” she said of her bail law proposal. “Let's ensure judges consider factors for serious offenders. And let's leave the law where it is for low level offense and move forward to focus on two other public safety challenges.”



Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, during an availability with reporters following Hochul’s address, said he was briefed the previous evening but was still, “wrapping his arms around” Hochul’s proposals.

He did note that charter school expansion has typically been “tough” for his conference; the powerful teachers unions oppose an expansion. And he’s skeptical of any suggestion that the state’s bail laws are the solution to increases in crime, instead suggesting that the Legislature should take a more holistic approach.

“We’ve got to get off that focus on those four letters [B.A.I.L] and start looking at the entire totality of public safety,” he said.

The state is on sound financial footing this year, and officials project the $8.7 billion surplus can be used to help the state build its reserves to 15 percent of state operating funds by 2025.

Progressive groups analyzing Hochul's proposal were quick to point out what they saw as missed opportunities when the state has the cash to take aggressive action, including affordable housing advocates who say tenants rights should take precedence in trying to make New York more affordable.

“Governor Hochul’s plan prioritizes deregulation and luxury housing production. It is for real estate moguls, not working families,” tenants rights activist Cea Weaver said in a response from the Housing Justice for All coalition she represents.

Hochul said that political dynamics surrounding her election and legislative relationships did not play into how she chose to craft the budget proposal when asked about a proposed expansion of an MTA payroll tax that would affect suburban counties. She did not largely do well in the suburbs last November.

“Nothing I do in the budget is driven by politics, elections, outcomes," she said. “I'm guided by what is best for New Yorkers.”

House Dem laments ‘friendly fire’ after losing a plum panel seat

Politico -


Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell got evicted from the House Intelligence Committee by the GOP. Their fellow Democrat, Mike Quigley, lost his perch there thanks to his own party.

The Illinoisan, who's served on the panel's Democratic roster since 2015, said he found out Wednesday that he did not make the cut. While he indicated in an interview that he's "honored to have served on the committee,” Quigley admitted he was “disappointed to be hit by friendly fire.”

Quigley's loss of his intelligence panel seat comes as House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries named Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes as its new top Democrat to replace Schiff (D-Calif.), whose appointment had been blocked by Speaker Kevin McCarthy, along with Swalwell's (D-Calif.).

A Jeffries spokesperson noted that Quigley had already served for four full terms on the Intelligence Committee, but otherwise declined to comment.

The Intelligence Committee limits members to four terms on the panel, though members can receive waivers. Chairs and ranking members are exempt from the term limit.

Quigley's exit also follows that of several other senior Intelligence Committee Democrats due to retirement or election to higher office, such as Reps. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.). That turnover is leading some Democrats to worry about a loss of expertise — among them former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), spotted speaking to Jeffries on the House floor Wednesday evening about the need to maintain institutional knowledge on the panel through its longer-serving members like Quigley.

Asked Wednesday about Quigley, Pelosi said she "thought there was still an opportunity" for him to serve on the panel.

Another wrinkle to Quigley's intelligence panel departure stems from Jeffries' ascension atop the caucus. Quigley had privately backed Schiff when he was sounding out a potential leadership bid that would have pitted him against Jeffries, prompting some Democrats to theorize that the Illinoisan's removal from the committee was linked to leadership maneuvering. Schiff ultimately decided against running for leadership in favor of pursuing a Senate bid, and Jeffries ran unopposed for minority leader.

As the minority party, Democrats' allotted number of seats on the committee shrank, forcing tough choices about appointments to the sought-after panel. To replace departing members, a half-dozen Democrats were added to the Intelligence Committee, including Reps. Ami Bera (Calif.), Josh Gottheimer (N.J.), and Abigail Spanberger (Va.).

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