Democrats' Texas rift shows difficulty in retaking Congress

Published: Thursday, March 08, 2018 @ 12:22 PM
Updated: Thursday, March 08, 2018 @ 12:21 PM

            In this March 6, 2018, photo, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher and her husband, Scott Fletcher, walk out of the polling place at St. Anne's Catholic Church after voting in the primary election in Houston. Democrats are salivating at the prospect of flipping a wealthy Houston enclave that has been solidly Republican since sending George H.W. Bush to Congress in 1967 _ the kind of race they need to win for any hope of retaking the House in the 2018 midterm. But now that means navigating a potentially bruising intraparty battle of Democrats’ own making. The party’s runoff underscores the lingering 2016 presidential primary rift between Bernie Sanders progressives and Hillary Clinton establishment. (Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP)
In this March 6, 2018, photo, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher and her husband, Scott Fletcher, walk out of the polling place at St. Anne's Catholic Church after voting in the primary election in Houston. Democrats are salivating at the prospect of flipping a wealthy Houston enclave that has been solidly Republican since sending George H.W. Bush to Congress in 1967 _ the kind of race they need to win for any hope of retaking the House in the 2018 midterm. But now that means navigating a potentially bruising intraparty battle of Democrats’ own making. The party’s runoff underscores the lingering 2016 presidential primary rift between Bernie Sanders progressives and Hillary Clinton establishment. (Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Democrats are salivating at the prospect of flipping a wealthy Houston enclave that has been solidly Republican since sending George H.W. Bush to Congress in 1967 — the kind of race they'll have to win for any hope of retaking the House in the November midterms.

But their new opportunities, here and in other states, sometimes have them going after each other instead of the Republicans, and that could spoil their chances. Aside from the normal conflicts of ambition and personality, there's a more significant Democratic rift lingering from the 2016 presidential primary between the party's Bernie Sanders progressive wing and its Hillary Clinton establishment.

The tensions clouding the upcoming runoff between the party's top two candidates in the Houston district — corporate attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher and activist Laura Moser — could shadow other House races nationwide. Party leaders believe frustration with President Donald Trump, coupled with a surge of energized female candidates, could spell a banner midterm election season. But with so many Democratic candidates in so many districts, party power brokers may try and tip the scales, sometimes with clumsy results.

In Houston, Moser advanced to the May 22 runoff despite opposition from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The national campaign group published an opposition research memo calling her "a Washington insider who begrudgingly moved to Texas to run for Congress" and targeted her for once joking that she'd rather have "my teeth pulled out without anesthesia" than live in small-town Texas.

Sanders, whose Our Revolution group endorsed Moser, called the party's attack "appalling."

Such tactics go beyond the 2016 fallout to the kind of negative campaigning that is why "so many people are disgusted with politics," Sanders said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"The party is becoming more progressive," said Sanders, the progressive, and "part of the old establishment who are not enthusiastic about that kind of change" will resist it. He said he understands that, "but I hope that resistance does not come in the form of ugly, negative advertising. It should come in the form of debating the issues."

National Democrats say the problem in Houston isn't that Moser is too liberal. It's that she doesn't match the congressional district where the party has set its sights on picking up the seat that Republican John Culberson has held since 2001. Every seat is important as the Democrats try to win majority control in Washington.

Even though Moser is a Houston native, they worry her time in Washington and flip comment about Texas will become ready-made ads against her in a general election, and could make her unelectable. They don't want to miss their chance in a district that re-elected a Republican to Congress yet voted for Clinton over Trump in 2016 — one of 23 nationwide to do so.

Meredith Kelly, a spokeswoman for the DCCC, said the organization "has long recognized and appreciated the unprecedented influence that the grassroots have in these races. As we've indicated all cycle, the DCCC is keeping all options on the table to work with our allies and ensure that there's a competitive Democrat on the ballot for voters to elect in November."

But the move drew the ire of another wing of the same national party. Democratic National Chairman Tom Perez criticized the DCCC, pointing to lingering resentments against party leaders from Sanders' supporters still angry over the 2016 nominating process.

"When voters, whether it's Texas or elsewhere, perceive that someone from Washington, from the outside is trying to put their thumb on the scale, they don't take kindly to that," Perez said.

Still, he said he has no problem with House or Senate Democrats' campaign committees choosing favorites, adding that they should involve only "the high road" of boosting a preferred candidate.

Progressive groups point to more intraparty showdowns to come, including in Illinois, where moderate Democratic Rep. Daniel Lipinski, who is backed by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, faces a primary challenge from Our Revolution-endorsed Marie Newman in a safely Democratic district.

Other daunting races will be in California, particularly for two seats now held by Republicans that are coming open in Southern California districts where Clinton won. There are so many Democratic hopefuls that the party might have to choose front-runners to make sure one of them makes the general election. Under the state's unusual primary system, the top vote-getters face off, even if they are from the same party.

Former DCCC official Jesse Ferguson said when he was at the committee, "we would have begged to have even one candidate in some of these districts."

"Now we have multiple candidates and it's evidence of enthusiasm to take control of Congress away from Trump," said Ferguson, who went on to work for Clinton. "Ultimately, it may fuel some healthy internal debates and some awkward moments, but it's a fundamentally good problem to have."

Some activists see the 2018 primary contests as a continuation of the long-running progressives-versus-establishment conflict from a decade ago between former DCCC chairman Rahm Emanuel and then-Democratic National Committee head Howard Dean.

"The DCCC just has to stay out of these races," said Neil Sroka, spokesman for Democracy for America, the group founded by Dean. "Part of the reason why Democrats have been stuck in this cul-de-sac of loss over the past 10 years is we are not running the candidates who can inspire and turn out the new American majority that is essential to winning elections."

The party's opposition to Moser in Houston may have backfired, since it focused national attention and helped spike her fundraising. She produced an ad before Tuesday's Texas primary in which she talked about "rejecting the system where Washington party bosses tell us who to choose."

"Texans don't like being told what to do and I think that was the biggest miscalculation," Moser said by phone.

Pannill Fletcher is trying to focus on other issues in the race than the DCCC's action.

"My opponent is and has always been John Culberson," she told supporters at her victory party Tuesday night.

Voter Michelle Umengan, a pediatrician who cast her ballot for Moser, said the candidate's comments were "insensitive" but not a deal-breaker.

"It's definitely more offensive to have the DCCC spend time and money smearing one of their own," she said. "Moser was born and raised in Houston. I think her Houston upbringing is well balanced with the perspective of her worldly career. That's more important than any distaste she might have for small town living."


Follow Weissert on Twitter at and Mascaro at

Trending - Most Read Stories

Defense gets major increase, pay raise for troops in budget plan

Published: Thursday, March 22, 2018 @ 5:42 PM
Updated: Thursday, March 22, 2018 @ 5:42 PM

            Air Force Research Laboratory headquarters at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base could benefit from budget plan that passed the U.S. House Thursday. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
Air Force Research Laboratory headquarters at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base could benefit from budget plan that passed the U.S. House Thursday. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

Congress has passed a massive spending bill which includes $700 billion for defense, spends billions more on aircraft, ships and tanks and provides a 2.4 percent pay hike for troops.

The $60 billion increase in military spending is the biggest in 15 years.

The budget plan also includes $300 million to continue cleaning the Great Lakes, $400 million for cleanup at a closed uranium enrichment plant in Piketon, and millions of dollars for Ohio to combat opioid addiction.

The $1.3 trillion measure, which was passed by the House on Thursday and the Senate on Friday, keeps the federal government open until the end of September. But Friday morning, President Donald Trump signed the bill Friday after he threatened to veto it because it did not include money for a resolution for those in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and failed to fully fund a wall across the country’s southern border.

The Air Force share of defense spending is $183.6 billion, which also aims to add 4,000 airmen by 2020, Air Force officials have said. It includes nearly $25 billion for procurement of aircraft, space vehicles, missiles, and ammunition and more than $49 billion for operations and maintenance, budget documents show.

RELATED: Top AF leader: ‘You have to say, that’s not good enough’

“For the Air Force, the higher level of spending in the budget bill offers an opportunity to fix nagging readiness problems while moving forward with long delayed plans to replace Cold War aircraft,” Loren B. Thompson, a senior defense analyst with the Virginia-based Lexington Institute and a defense industry consultant, said in an email. “It also provides seed money for a transformation in how the Air Force will assure U.S. air and space superiority in the future.”

The spending bill includes $1.08 billion to upgrade the Abrams M-1 tank. Most of that money will be spent at the JSMC plant in Lima.

Across all research, testing and technology accounts, it adds $25.6 billion, documents show.

Impact at Wright-Patterson

The influx of dollars is a particular windfall for research spending at the Air Force Research Laboratory headquarters at Wright-Patterson, observers said.

“For Wright Patterson, the impending budget increase signals a surge in research spending to unprecedented peace time levels,” Thompson said. “This could be the beginning of a golden age for the Air Force’s premier research and modernization site if Washington can find a way of keeping spending levels high in the years ahead.”

AFRL’s budget could exceed last year’s level of $4.8 billion, which was nearly split between government appropriations and sponsored research.

EXCLUSIVE: AF leader: total dominance not a ‘birthright’

This time, about $1.2 billion of that in government appropriations is headed to Wright-Patterson, according to spokespersons in U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown’s office.

A breakdown of other budgets at Wright-Patterson was not yet available, spokeswoman Marie Vanover said Thursday.

But in some research accounts, such as materials and aerospace vehicles, spending could rise as much as 20 percent, said Michael Gessel, vice president of federal programs at the Dayton Development Coalition.

The budget boost bodes well for the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, also headquartered at Wright-Patterson, with money beyond the president’s request to procure more aircraft and will jump start new contracts that had been on hold without a permanent budget, Gessel said.

“The larger, overall funding level provided by this bill, which is accompanied by additional flexibility on spending authority, will relieve many budgetary pressures as the funding makes its way from Washington to field operations, including Wright-Patterson,” Gessel said in an email.

“There are provisions which give more flexibility in personnel management of civilian defense workers. This is important to Wright-Patterson because of the large percentage of civilians who work on the base.”

RELATED: Rep. Turner: Committee report won’t dispute Putin tried to help Trump

Non-defense spending

The bill provides $3 billion to reduce opioid addiction, of which $1 billion is set aside for grants that will go directly to the states. Fifteen percent of the state grant money has been earmarked for states which have been hardest by opioids, such as Ohio.

“This is good news for Ohio and good news for the millions of Americans who continue to struggle with addiction,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. “I’m particularly pleased that the bill includes $60 million for states to develop an infant plan of safe care to help newborns exposed to opioids and their families.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said “while we know there is more work to be done,” the money in the bill “is a meaningful step forward for Ohio.”

The money for the Great Lakes was inserted into the bill after the White House did not include any money for the program, known as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The program has strong bipartisan backing from lawmakers from both parties, such as Portman and Brown.

Both Brown and Portman pushed for more money to continue the cleanup at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, about 65 miles south of Columbus. The $400 million, Brown said, should guarantee no additional layoffs at the facility.

RELATED: Memphis Belle towed into Air Force museum for first time

How Ohio lawmakers voted

The House passed the measure by a vote of 256-to-167 with local Republicans Mike Turner of Dayton and Steve Chabot of Cincinnati voting yes.

Republicans Jim Jordan of Urbana and Warren Davidson of Troy voted no.

In an interview on Fox News, Jordan complained that the 2,200-page bill “grows the government at a $1.3 trillion price tag which will lead to a trillion dollar deficit,” adding “this may be the worst bill I have seen in my time in Congress.”

By contrast, Columbus-area Congressman Steve Stivers said the measure “provides critical funding for our military and veterans, resources for opioid addiction prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation, and resources for our schools to keep our kids safe.”

The Senate must approve the bill because lawmakers from both parties were unable to agree on a budget for the 2018 spending year which began on October 1 and ends on September 30. By passing the bill, the Senate guarantees the government will remain open for next seven months.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


Get the latest news from our team on our Ohio Politics Facebook page and on Twitter at @Ohio_Politics

Trending - Most Read Stories

Trump backs off veto threat, signs giant federal spending bill

Published: Friday, March 23, 2018 @ 9:43 AM

Creating a bit of legislative drama, President Donald Trump threatened on Friday to veto a massive $1.3 trillion spending bill, and then after a few hours of leaving Congress in limbo, Mr. Trump backed off and signed the bill into law, expressing his frustration over limited funding for his campaign vow to build a wall along the border with Mexico.

"There are a lot of things that I'm unhappy about in this bill," the President told reporters, as he vowed, "I will never sign another bill like this again."

The 2,232 page plan had been unveiled by GOP leaders in Congress on Wednesday night, and then rushed through the House and Senate – with bipartisan support – but the President made clear he didn’t like the final product, stacked high on a table next to him.

“Nobody read it and it’s only hours old,” the President fumed.

In expressing his frustration, the President called on Congress to give him line-item veto authority, so he could strike out specific items in spending bills – but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that power can only be given to the President by an amendment to the Constitution.

The President also turned his ire on the rules of the Senate, demanding again that Senators end the requirement to get 60 votes to end filibusters – that does not have the support of a number of GOP Senators.

The Friday drama was a complete surprise to Republicans on Capitol Hill, as the White House had made clear that the President would sign the bill – no matter some of his reservations – as lawmakers left town yesterday and today for a two week Easter break.

And then, the President tweeted just before 9 am.

On the issue of DACA and the border wall, Mr. Trump has accused Democrats of not helping resolve the status of illegal immigrant ‘Dreamers’ in the United States, while Democrats say he’s at fault.

“DACA was abandoned by the Democrats,” the President said in an earlier tweet. “Would have been tied to desperately needed Wall.”

But while the White House accused Democrats of standing in the way of a DACA deal, they argued Mr. Trump had multiple chances to accept an agreement, as Democratic leaders had offered him $25 billion to build the wall, in exchange for a plan that would put the Dreamers on a 10-12 year path to possible U.S. citizenship.

The President rejected that, leading to the negotiation of the $1.3 trillion funding bill, which gave $1.6 billion to work on the wall.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats blasted the President.

“One of the best things we Democrats have going for us is that Trump really has no idea what he’s doing,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA).

Trending - Most Read Stories

Frustrated by funding for border wall, Trump threatens veto of giant spending bill

Published: Friday, March 23, 2018 @ 5:17 AM

A day after top White House budget officials said the President supported a massive $1.3 trillion spending bill approved by the Congress, President Donald Trump threw Capitol Hill into turmoil on Friday morning, saying he was thinking about issuing a veto against the plan, because it did not include enough money for his plan to build a wall along the border with Mexico, and no deal on what to do with illegal immigrant “Dreamers.”

Unable to reach a deal in the past two months with Democrats on DACA, the President again blamed that on Democrats, expressing frustration with the $1.6 billion in the bill that would go to his border wall.

“Please do, Mr. President,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) said of the President’s veto threat against the Omnibus funding bill, which combined all 12 spending bills for the federal government, along with a series of unrelated legislative measures.

“I am just down the street and will bring you a pen,” Corker added, who last night labeled the budget process, “juvenile.”

Trending - Most Read Stories

Congress sends giant government funding bill to President Trump

Published: Thursday, March 22, 2018 @ 8:40 PM

Just over 24 hours after GOP leaders unveiled the details of massive plan to fund the federal government, the House and Senate gave easy bipartisan approval to the $1.3 trillion spending measure, even as members in both parties grumbled about the actions of their leaders, the process, the size of the bill, the amount of money involved, and the specifics.

The final Senate vote – which took place soon after midnight – was 65 to 32 in favor of the over 2,000 page bill, which no lawmaker claimed to have read from start to finish.

“Washington has reached a new low,” complained Sen. David Perdue (R-GA), who ridiculed the increase in spending agreed to by both parties.

“This is beyond pathetic. It is irresponsible, and a danger to our Republic,” Perdue added.

“Our congressional budget process is badly broken, and this Omnibus bill is just another symptom of Washington’s sickness,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-OK).

Among the many items in the final bill:

+ A big boost in defense spending, giving the Pentagon $700 billion in 2018, an increase of over $60 billion.

+ A substantial increase in domestic spending, highlighted by money for infrastructure, medical research and more.

+ Two bills pressed in the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida school shooting – the “Fix NICS” bill that would funnel more information into the instant background check system for gun buyers, and the “STOP School Violence Act,” which would help schools better recognize possible threats of violence in the future.

A rush to a final vote in the Senate was first delayed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who spent hours going through the bill, tweeting out what he found – but after about 600 of the 2,232 pages, the Kentucky Republican called it quits.

“I will vote no because it spends too much and there’s just too little time to read the bill and let everyone know what’s actually in it,” Paul tweeted.

“Every Republican would vote against this disgusting pork bill if a Democrat were President,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE).  “This spending kegger is a wildly irresponsible use of the taxpayers’ money.”

At the White House, officials acknowledged that if the GOP had 60 votes in the Senate to stop a filibuster, they would have designed a much different bill to the fund the operations of the federal government through the end of September.

But they still argued the measure funded a number of the President’s priorities.

“It funds national defense,” said White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney. “It funds opioids, it funds school safety.”

Earlier on Thursday, the House approved the bill on a vote of 256-167, as the two parties switched arguments from several years ago – when it was Republicans complaining about Democrats bringing a big bill to the floor with little time for review.

This time, it was Democrats echoing the Tea Party line of, “Read the bill!”

When the bill reached the Senate, Senators were ready to quickly approve the plan, and head out of town on a two-week break for Easter.

But the fine print caused some troubles, as Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID), reportedly objected to a provision put in the bill that would rename a park in his state after a former Governor, Cecil Andrus, described in home state press reports as a past rival.

In the hallways off the Senate floor, Risch was not interested in discussing the Idaho dust up with reporters.

The hours of waiting, which included a procedural vote that called on the Sergeant At Arms to request the presence of absent Senators – left one short-timer aggravated.

“This is juvenile,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who is not running for re-election this year.

“This is a ridiculous process that we go through where people extort us, until we get so tired, that we are willing to do whatever it is that they wish for us to do,” said Corker just before the clock struck midnight.

Corker said it would have been better to come back at 8 am and vote, but he backed off that threat, and allowed Senators to finish work on the Omnibus, which funds the government only through September 30.



Trending - Most Read Stories