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Washington braces for a December to remember

We’ve seen plenty of busy news cycles and jam-packed months in this Trump Era. But the next four weeks could top them all.
Image: House Republican Conference On Tax Reform Bill
President Donald Trump speaks to the media as House Speaker Paul Ryan, D-Wis., left, and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, right, look on.Tom Williams / Zuma Press

First Read is your briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

President Trump today heads to Capitol Hill and then meets at the White House with congressional leaders — all ahead of what promises to be a December to remember, with key upcoming battles over taxes and keeping the government open. Oh, and there’s that December 12 special Senate election in Alabama, too.

Battling over taxes in the Senate

Senate Republicans are hoping to pass their tax plan this week, but it won’t be easy, as the Wall Street Journal identifies three blocs of wavering GOP senators. “One group, including Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) and Steve Daines (R., Mont.), wants deeper tax cuts for so-called pass-through businesses such as partnerships and S corporations that pay taxes on individual rather than corporate tax returns... Another group, including Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) and James Lankford (R., Okla.), is concerned about the $1.4 trillion addition to budget deficits the bill would cause... A third group, including Susan Collins (R., Maine) and John McCain (R., Ariz.), helped kill the Republican health-care bill earlier this year and could pose resistance over a variety of provisions, including plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act's health-insurance mandate as part of the tax bill.”

To pass, Republicans need 51 votes, meaning they can afford only two defections with their 52-48 majority.

Setting the spending levels

Today, per NBC’s Alex Moe, the Big 4 congressional leaders (Speaker Paul Ryan, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer) head to the White House to try and work out a caps/spending level deal with President Trump. This sets the spending parameters before Congress can pass the legislation to fund the government after December 8, when the previous spending deal expires.

Avoiding a government shutdown

Speaking of… The smart money is that Congress will pass a short funding bill that will set up a government-spending showdown right before Christmas. Unlike the tax bill, this measure needs 60 votes in the Senate – and thus votes from Democrats. And here’s where we can expect big fights over funding for Trump’s border wall, over DACA (with Senate Democrats saying they won’t fund the government without protecting the DREAMers) and maybe over raising the debt limit, too.

Determining who will be Alabama’s next senator

And complicating all of these stories is the December 12 race in Alabama between Republican Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones. If the Senate doesn’t pass its tax plan before then – or if it enters conference negotiations to reconcile its version with the House’s – a Jones victory would mean Senate Republicans could only afford one defection instead of two. Bottom line: Democrats winning here COULD imperil the tax bill as well as the rest of the GOP’s legislative agenda.

And then there’s the story of how quickly Jones could get seated if he wins. (For perspective, Scott Brown won his Massachusetts Senate race on Jan. 19, 2010 and he was sworn in on Feb. 4 – so two weeks later.)

We’ve seen plenty of busy news cycles and jam-packed months in this Trump Era. But the next four weeks could top them all.

A meeting of five weakened American leaders

When President Trump meets at 3:00 pm ET with Ryan, Pelosi, McConnell and Schumer, you could argue that all five leaders are in a weakened state — for different reasons.

Trump’s job approval rating is in the 30s, and he stepped in another controversy yesterday (more on that below); Ryan’s reputation as a policy wonk and deficit hawk has taken a hit with the tax plan; progressives criticized Pelosi’s performance on “Meet the Press”; Trump’s open warfare with McConnell has hurt the GOP leader; and Schumer might be in the best shape of all, but that isn’t saying much.

Roy Moore is being outspent over the airwaves by a 10-1 margin

Turning to the race in Alabama… “Democrat Doug Jones is outspending embattled Republican Roy Moore by nearly 10 to one in Alabama’s closely watched Senate race, but his message on the airwaves over the past three weeks hasn’t completely focused on the sexual misconduct scandal that has enveloped Moore,” one of us writes.

“According to the ad-tracking group Advertising Analytics LLC, Jones’ campaign has shoveled $5.6 million into television and radio ads during the general election, compared to about $600,000 by Moore’s team. That 10-to-1 advantage for Jones is almost unchanged from two weeks ago.”

Meanwhile, in his first public campaign appearance in two weeks last night, Moore denied the allegations against him. “These allegations are completely false,” he said, per NBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald. “They’re malicious. Specifically, I do not know any of these women. Nor have I ever engaged in sexual misconduct with anyone.”

“Pocahontas”: Trump accused of using racial slur in event honoring Navajo code-talkers

NBC’s Ali Vitali: “President Donald Trump revived his derogatory nickname for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., on Monday, referring to her as ‘Pocahontas’ during an event honoring Native American veterans at the White House. Trump told the veterans: ‘You were here long before any of us were here. Although we have a representative in Congress who they say was here a long time ago. They call her Pocahontas.’”

“After making the crack, Trump turned to one of the Navajo code talkers, who served in World War II, and said: ‘But you know what? I like you. Because you are special. You are special people, you are really incredible people.’ He spoke under the watchful eye of a portrait of President Andrew Jackson, known for his forceful removals of Native Americans from their ancestral lands.”

“Moments later, Warren fired back. ‘Donald Trump does this over and over thinking somehow he's going to shut me up with it,’ Warren said on MSNBC. ‘It is deeply unfortunate that the president of the United States cannot even make it through a ceremony honoring these heroes without having to throw out a racial slur,’ she added.”

Minnesota Star Tribune: Franken’s apology fails the candor test

A stinging editorial from the Minnesota Star Tribune on Sen. Al Franken's, D-Minn., apology yesterday: “Franken's apology is less a statement of accountability and more akin to ‘I'm sorry for what you think I did.’ Franken may just be trying to ride out the storm, as is the case too often these days.”

The paper’s editorial concludes, “Franken is right — he has much to do to regain Minnesotans' trust. It may not be possible. As he continues his reflection, we urge the senator to consider what is best for Minnesota and to weigh that more heavily than what might be best for his political career.”