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By Benjy Sarlin
WASHINGTON — Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., announced Wednesday she would vote against her own party’s rules for the incoming Congress over restrictions on deficit spending, pushing long-simmering Democratic divisions into public view.
At issue is House leadership’s plan to include “PAYGO,” a rule Democrats have adopted in the past that requires them to offset any increase in the deficit by cutting spending or raising revenue elsewhere.
“PAYGO isn’t only bad economics…it’s also a dark political maneuver designed to hamstring progress on healthcare + other leg.,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on Wednesday. “We shouldn’t hinder ourselves from the start.”
She joined Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who came out against the rules package earlier while warning PAYGO “unilaterally disarms the incoming Democratic majority’s ability to govern.”
The rule is not ironclad and has been waived in the past. Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi’s spokesman Drew Hammill noted on Twitter that Congress is already governed by a stricter version of PAYGO that President Barack Obama signed into law in 2010. That legislation forces cuts to programs unless Congress overrides it, which they’ve done under President Donald Trump.
But the issue has also emerged as a stand-in for a larger divide between the party’s progressive wing and more centrist Democrats over the role fiscal responsibility should play in their agenda.
Likely 2020 contenders are currently proposing tens of trillions of dollars in new spending on health care, education, climate change and other progressive priorities. Given that Republicans passed a $1.9 trillion tax cut and boosted spending under Trump, some in the party argue Democrats shouldn’t let deficit concerns get in the way when they retake power. There’s also growing interest among activists in economic theories that put less stock in fears of a rising debt.
“It reinforces the notion that if you vote for Democrats, the first thing they’re going to do is prioritize budget outcomes over human ones,” Stephanie Kelton, a former adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who has criticized the PAYGO rule told NBC News.
While many in the party have rallied around pricier proposals under Trump, the midterms also featured a slew of Democrats who ran successful campaigns in swing seats attacking Republicans for spilling too much red ink. Their priorities could come into tension as Democrats take on more power.
“Such new House Democrats are likely to find it much harder to vote for major policy advances that progressives strongly support if those measures would add significantly to deficits and debt,” Robert Greenstein, president of the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, wrote in a piece defending the PAYGO rules.
Activism against PAYGO has been driven by the party’s left flank, but Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who led a largely centrist coalition against Pelosi’s speakership, also announced his opposition Wednesday.
“Critical investments in education, infrastructure, and health care should not be held hostage to budgetary constraints that Republicans have never respected anyhow,” he said in a statement. “We all believe we need to ultimately bring our budget into balance, but these investments are too important right now to pass up and will yield significant returns for the U.S. Treasury.”
His spokesman Michael Zetts told NBC News told NBC News he is undecided on the overall rules package.
Pelosi earned a key endorsement ahead of the rules vote, however, from Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Mark, Pocan, D-Wisc. In a joint statement, they said they had been “concerned about PAYGO for months,” but were satisfied with commitments from House Democratic leaders not to let it get in the way of progressive legislation.
“With the assurances that PAYGO can be waived, we do plan to vote for the House rules package and proceed with legislation to fix the statute,” they said.
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Mueller makes last-minute request for aide to appear with him during his testimony
One of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s longtime aides will appear alongside him during his highly-anticipated testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, a spokesperson said Tuesday, but is not expected to be sworn in.
Mueller’s team made a last-minute request that Aaron Zebley be sworn in and testify with him during his scheduled hearings before Congress on Wednesday, a congressional source familiar with the request told NBC News.
Mueller is slated to testify on his report into Russian interference in the 2016 election and the country’s influence on President Donald Trump for three hours before the House Judiciary Committee, take a break, then appear for at least two additional hours before the House Intelligence Committee.
For the first hearing, Zebley will sit alongside Mueller as his counsel, according to the Judiciary Committee spokesperson. The committee, however, is not updating its guidance to include Zebley as a witness. This means that Zebley will not be sworn in. Mueller can confer with him as he is questioned by the panel, according to committee rules, but cannot answer questions.
The ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, said Tuesday that GOP members had “not gotten assurances from the House Democrats on the committee that he [Zebley] will not speak.”
“He’s not supposed to speak in that role to anyone on the committee or asked questions. And we’re asking, and, frankly, that that be confirmed before the hearing. So we don’t have to waste time with it tomorrow,” Collins said.
Jim Popkin, Mueller’s spokesperson, disputed the idea that Zebley’s presence at the hearings amounted to an 11th-hour addition.
“Aaron Zebley was the Deputy Special Counsel and had day-to-day oversight of the investigations conducted by the Office,” Popkin said in a statement Tuesday. “He will accompany Special Counsel Mueller to the Wednesday hearings, as was discussed with the committees more than a week ago.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday during a conversation at the Center for American Progress that his panel was still working out what Zebley’s function might be.
Trump lashed out about Zebley’s role in Mueller’s testimony, tweeting Tuesday night that the decision “very unfair.”
“Just got back only to hear of a last minute change allowing a Never Trumper attorney to help Robert Mueller with his testimony before Congress tomorrow,” Trump said. “What a disgrace to our system. Never heard of this before.”
Zebley is especially close to Mueller, serving as his chief of staff at the FBI when Mueller was the director. Zebley is also an alumnus of the law firm WilmerHale, where Mueller worked after leaving the FBI.
Zebley followed Mueller to the Justice Department when he was tapped to be special counsel in 2017. Zebley is also a former FBI agent who was involved in an international hunt for al Qaeda terrorists before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In June, Mueller agreed to testify before Congress about his Russia investigation after he was subpoenaed by Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Judiciary, and Schiff.
Popkin said Monday that the former special counsel will make a brief opening statement when he testifies about his 22-month investigation, and will offer his 448-page report as his full statement for the record.
In May, Mueller stressed at a press conference that if he were called to testify he would stick closely to his written report. “Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report. It contains our findings and analysis, and the reasons for the decisions we made,” he said.
“We chose those words carefully, and the work speaks for itself. The report is my testimony. I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress.”
In a letter on Monday, the Justice Department also issued stern guidance to Mueller, stating that “any testimony must remain within the boundaries of your public report because matters within the scope of your investigation were covered by executive privilege.”
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