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Negotiators are closing in on a possible debt ceiling agreement, Ron DeSantis is picking a COVID fig͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
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May 26, 2023


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Steve Clemons
Steve Clemons

They don’t have a debt ceiling deal yet, but we may be close. Word is leaking that while science, health, transportation and other non-defense discretionary spending may be frozen, military and veterans spending will remain untethered. Joseph Zeballos-Roig and Jordan Weissmann have more on the emerging outline. Some members of the House Freedom Caucus are predictably upset, and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries is warning not to take Democratic votes for granted, but when I asked former Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer yesterday if he thought a deal would be achieved he said: “My gut feeling is yes.”

An interesting way to start a presidential run is to frame it around COVID restrictions and mandates and a former director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases when most Americans have simply moved on and no longer simmer over past frustrations, but that’s what Ron DeSantis did on the first day of his campaign. Shelby Talcott has more on how DeSantis seems to be running for president against Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Plus, on the topic of Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes getting an 18 year sentence for seditious conspiracy around the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol, Morgan Chalfant gets a sobering text from former assistant U.S. attorney Randall Eliason.

Have a great Memorial Day Weekend from all of us at Semafor!

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White House: President Biden vetoed a GOP-led bill that would have overturned police reforms in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, the president is staying at Camp David this weekend, perhaps a sign of the need to keep him close amid ongoing talks on the debt ceiling.

Senate: Majority Leader Chuck Schumer criticized a Supreme Court ruling that rolled back the power of the EPA to regulate U.S. wetlands, dismissing the body as the “MAGA Supreme Court.” Failed GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano said he would not be running for Senate in Pennsylvania, much to the relief of national Republicans. The federal investigation into Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. that Semafor first reported is looking at whether he or his wife received unreported gifts (like an apartment) from a halal meat company, according to the New York Times.

House: House lawmakers left town but they’ve been told to keep relatively close so they can come back with 24 hours notice as debt ceiling negotiations grind on toward a resolution. China select committee Chair Mike Gallagher, R-Wis. was forced to postpone a bipartisan trip to Taiwan. Meanwhile, House Democrats have been grumbling about Biden needing to get more involved in the debt ceiling conversation; some urged him to give a national address or a “fireside chat” about the stakes.

Outside the Beltway: A unanimous Texas House committee voted to impeach the state’s Republican attorney general, Ken Paxton, after accusing him of committing multiple crimes and of abusing his power while in office. Paxton was previously indicted on state-level securities charges in 2015, which has remarkably not gone to trial, and is facing a corruption investigation by the FBI.

Need to Know
REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/File Photo

The leader of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, was sentenced to 18 years in prison after being convicted of seditious conspiracy in connection with the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol. “I dare say, Mr. Rhodes, and I’ve never said this about anyone who I’ve sentenced: You, sir, present an ongoing threat and peril to this country, to the republic and the very fabric of our democracy,” Judge Amit Mehta said while handing down the longest sentence so far of anyone ensnared in the post-Jan. 6 federal investigations.

In related news, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told a pair conservative radio hosts that his administration would “be aggressive at issuing pardons” to victims of government “weaponization,” potentially including Jan. 6 rioters. Asked about pardoning Donald Trump should he be convicted of a federal crime, he said: “I would say any example of disfavored treatment based on politics or weaponization would be included in that review, no matter how small or how big.”

DeSantis’ campaign said he raised $8.2 million in the 24 hours since he officially announced his presidential campaign in a botched Twitter conversation. That’s quite a bit more than the $6.3 million Biden raised in the first day of his 2020 campaign, and not too far off of the $9.5 million Trump raised in the first weeks of his third presidential campaign launch at the end of last year.

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo met with her Chinese counterpart in D.C. yesterday and raised concerns about Beijing’s recent actions against U.S. companies operating in the People’s Republic, according to the Biden administration. The two also talked about trade and areas of “potential cooperation.” The View from Semafor’s Morgan Chalfant: Expect much more of this. The White House’s John Kirby told reporters earlier this week that the administration is trying to get back to the “spirit of Bali,” referring to the meeting between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping last year when they agreed to improve communication channels. That may well mean trips to China by cabinet officials. That doesn’t mean the conversations will be all friendly, but the White House wants to make sure the U.S. and China are talking more.

Morgan Chalfant, Shelby Talcott, and Jordan Weissmann

Beltway Newsletters

Punchbowl News: House Democrats weren’t happy with what they were hearing about an emerging deal between the White House and Speaker McCarthy as of yesterday afternoon. How unhappy? Punchbowl reports that Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and other top Democrats called White House negotiators before yesterday’s caucus meeting to warn that they can’t count on getting 100 Democrats to vote in favor of any deal brokered with the speaker.

Playbook: The negotiators have “all but finalized” the spending caps portion of the debt ceiling deal in a sign of how close it is, but Politico warns that talks could still get blown up by unhappy progressives or conservatives.

The Early 202: The Washington Post assesses the emerging Republican presidential field, including three not-yet candidates who they’re watching closely: Mike Pence, Chris Sununu, and Chris Christie.

Joseph Zeballos-Roig and Jordan Weissmann

Deal with it: Negotiators may be zeroing in on a debt ceiling agreement

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst


The details aren’t final, and the parties are still clashing on a few major issues, but the contours of a potential debt ceiling deal are finally coming into view.

So far, it looks little like the bill House conservatives dreamed of passing earlier this month, which would have drastically cut back parts of the federal budget while forcing a repeal of President Biden’s signature climate law.

What’s on tap instead? The New York Times first reported on Thursday night that negotiators were close to an agreement on lifting the debt limit for two years — i.e. until after the election. In exchange, it would use some creative accounting to effectively freeze non-defense discretionary spending programs for that period, affecting a bucket that includes health, science, transportation, and more. However, the Pentagon and veterans’ budgets would be allowed to grow.

The deal may also cut as much as $10 billion of funding from the IRS funding, clawing back some of the $80 billion Democrats provided in the Inflation Reduction Act to improve the agency’s service and raise revenue by chasing down tax cheats.

A bargain on energy is also in the works, according to Bloomberg. It would trade reforms making it easier to build new transmission lines needed for renewable power in exchange for speeding up permitting for pipelines and other oil and gas projects.

Lawmakers emphasized that nothing is final yet. “We do not have an agreement yet. We knew this would not be easy,” Speaker Kevin McCarthy said shortly before leaving the Capitol on Thursday evening. “It’s hard, but we’re working. And we’re gonna continue to work till we get this done.”

Rep. Garret Graves, his top lieutenant, said work requirements on safety net programs were still a sore point in the discussions. “The White House continues to prioritize paying people to not work over paying Social Security benefits and Medicare benefits,” Graves told reporters. “I mean this is just a crazy calculation on their part. So that’s the major hang up at this point.”


A few days ago, Massachusetts Rep. Richard Neal, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, predicted to us that negotiators would “reach a narrower agreement with some face-saving measures and no triumphalism.” That feels more or less like what’s shaping up.

The spending changes are reportedly designed so that Biden will be able to describe them as a freeze, while McCarthy will be able to claim they are a cut. Rolling back a portion of the IRS funding that Republicans have spent months attacking will give the party a partial policy win, while sparing Democrats the need to make major reductions to cherished programs.

And fundamentally, the deal’s early outlines don’t look all that different from something you’d see come out of a normal budget negotiation in Washington.

This could still all fall apart. But if it holds, the agreement seems guaranteed to lose a large number of conservative Republicans, who’d set their hearts on using the debt ceiling as leverage to force massive cuts.

“You think that after what we passed, I should, in good faith, go back to the American people and say, yeah, let’s increase the debt ceiling another two and a half trillion dollars?” Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas told reporters.” Virginia Rep. Bob Good warned that McCarthy’s rumored concessions could “collapse” the GOP majority.

Democrats also spent much of Thursday raising concerns over a potential deal: Appearing on CNN, Sen. Bernie Sanders once again urged Biden to ignore the debt ceiling by invoking the 14th Amendment. If the final version includes significant new work requirements for federal aid recipients, it could drive away as many progressives as conservatives.

Could McCarthy and Biden run into a math problem? Possibly. But so far, everything seems to be driving towards a moderatish compromise.

“I think the coalition opposed to this will be like ‘the squad’ and the Freedom Caucus, and it’ll rocket through the Senate after it passes the House,” Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of McCarthy’s best known Republican antagonists, said during a Twitter Spaces event Thursday. “And I think there’s no serious threat to McCarthy’s speakership.”


Even if a deal is on track, some Washington wonks are warning that timing could still be an issue. McCarthy has vowed to give members 72-hours to review legislative text before scheduling a floor vote. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah is threatening to  slow down legislation that reaches the upper chamber if it doesn’t meet his standards.

“Timing is tight and getting tighter every minute,” Zach Moller, director of the economic program at the Third Way think tank, told Semafor. “Therefore the chance for an accidental default or some extra-extra-extraordinary measures is rapidly increasing.”

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DeSantis, Day One: Trump ‘turned the country over to Fauci’

Twitter @RonDeSantis/Handout via REUTERS

MIAMI, FL – If day one of Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign showed the country anything, it’s that COVID is here to stay.

At least in the Republican primaries.

On his first day in the ring, the Florida governor toured conservative media and threw some soft punches at Donald Trump, especially over the pandemic, where he gained a following among conservatives for pushing back on restrictions and mandates earlier than others.

“[Trump] did great for three years, but when he turned the country over to Fauci in March of 2020, that destroyed millions of people’s lives,” the Florida governor told Glenn Beck on Thursday. “I think when people look back, that 2020 year was not a good year for the country as a whole. It was a situation where Florida started to stand alone, so I think that that’s [an] important contrast.”

On Twitter, the governor’s team and allies spent the day litigating the early days of the virus in a back-and-forth with Trumpworld. The “DeSantis War Room” Twitter account posted a throwback video in the afternoon of Trump defending shutting down the country in March 2020, while the “Trump War Room” engaged in a contentious back-and-forth with DeSantis aide Christina Pushaw over the governor’s own early restrictions and mortality rate in comparison to New York, with allied pundits popping in to throw chairs.

“What specifically was the best aspect of Cuomo and New York’s Covid response?” Pushaw tweeted at one point, complete with a meme drawing of a masked figure with needles in its body asking to “govern me harder daddy.” Trump’s team response began: “First of all, nobody wants to be your daddy.”

DeSantis and his allies have been telegraphing COVID will be key to his campaign for months, so its appearance is not a surprise.

That he hit Trump with it so early is more notable: A number of other Republican presidential hopefuls have been more reluctant to offer up direct contrasts with the former president. DeSantis’ initial launch events on Wednesday largely ignored Trump. If today is any indication, things against the two front runners could heat up quickly, and certainly long before they meet on a debate stage (if Trump attends).

And while the COVID battle took center stage, DeSantis made clear Thursday he’d try to get to Trump’s right on other issues as well. In an interview with New Hampshire radio host Jack Heath, the Florida governor accused Trump of “moving to the left,” pointing to Trump’s attacks on him for not supporting a bill that would have traded legal status for DREAMers (an “immigration amnesty” as DeSantis put it) for a border wall. He also mentioned the “almost $8 trillion in debt in just four years” he racked up as president. In an interview with Dana Loesch, he criticized as “unconstitutional” Trump’s 2018 call for red flag laws that “take the guns first, go through due process second.”

Where was Trump during this campaign’s very online start? Touching grass, literally: He hit the greens at his golf club in Virginia.

“He’s very disloyal, but he’s got no personality,” Trump told reporters in between holes. “And if you don’t have personality, politics is a very hard business.”

Shelby Talcott

One Good Text

Randall Eliason is a former assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C. He teaches on white collar crime at George Washington University law school and writes the blog Sidebars.


Stories that are being largely ignored by either left-leaning or right-leaning outlets, according to data from our partners at Ground News.

WHAT THE LEFT ISN’T READING: Oprah Winfrey’s name has been floated as a potential replacement for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. should she leave the Senate early before her planned retirement, the Associated Press reports. California Gov. Gavin Newsom would make any decision to fill the seat.

WHAT THE RIGHT ISN’T READING: CPAC’s treasurer stepped down this week and in a brutal resignation letter accused the organization’s head, Matt Schlapp, of mismanaging its finances and employees. “I’ve come to think that the expectations for my role as a director and officer is much the same as that of a mushroom — ‘To be kept in the dark and fed a lot of manure.’ I no longer am willing to comply,” the letter said, according to the Washington Post.

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— Steve Clemons

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