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The latest political news and analysis from the campaign trail:

Elizabeth Warren wants to cancel student debt — without Congress. Can she do that?

WASHINGTON — Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren made a policy splash ahead of Tuesday night’s debate, announcing that she would cancel hundreds of billions of dollars of student debt as president — without approval from Congress. 

In this case, it’s a new wrinkle on an old plan. Warren had already put out a proposal to cancel up to $50,000 in debt for individuals with incomes up to $250,000, financed by a proposed wealth tax on fortunes over $50 million. 

“I will start to use existing laws on day one of my presidency to implement my student loan debt cancellation plan that offers relief to 42 million Americans,” Warren said in a letter announcing her plan. 

The vast majority of student loans are issued by the federal government, and Warren cited experts at the Legal Service Center of Harvard Law School to argue the Higher Education Act grants the Department of Education the authority to modify or cancel that debt. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks at a campaign event in Iowa on Jan. 12, 2020.Patrick Semansky / AP

The concept of using executive power to cancel large swaths of debt gained a burst of attention in left-leaning policy circles last September when The American Prospect published a series of “Day One Agenda” items that academics argued a Democratic president could tackle even if Republicans managed to block legislation. Warren and Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders told the publication they were open to the idea at the time, but this is the first formal commitment from any candidate to the approach. 

Gregory Cespi, a law professor at Southern Methodist University who specializes in student debt policy, told NBC News that Warren’s plan was legally plausible even as he disagreed with her overall approach. 

“Given how the Trump Administration has shown how ineffective Congress has become in challenging executive action, I think that Republican congressional opposition to her plan would be ineffective, and litigation to block these actions would grind slowly through the courts, with uncertain results,” he said. “Bottom line, I think President Warren could pull it off.”

While Warren’s call for mass debt cancellation via executive action is new within the field, she’s argued for forgiving some loans based on similar legal reasoning in the past, albeit on a smaller scale. 

Alexis Goldstein, a senior policy analyst at the left-leaning Americans for Financial Reform, noted that Warren joined other progressive Democrats in 2014 in urging the Department of Education to issue a blanket cancellation of debt for students who had gone to a defunct for-profit college. The Obama administration instead pursued an alternate approach that let students apply individually for relief, which the Trump administration then reversed. 

“Now she’s taking it further and saying to use this authority to cancel debt for everyone,” Goldstein said.

Student debt, which has surged in recent years, has been a major issue in the Democratic race so far.

Sanders has proposed canceling all $1.6 trillion in outstanding loans. The rest of the field has called for more targeted relief programs and new reforms to student debt repayments rather than mass cancellation, with some rivals criticizing Warren and Sanders for providing too much aid to relatively well-off graduates.  

Never Trumper group expands to take aim at vulnerable allies of the president

WASHINGTON — A small but growing group of Republican strategists and thought leaders is escalating efforts to deny President Donald Trump a second term, and is now even going after the president's allies in Congress. 

The Lincoln Project, which debuted last month, was founded by several well-known “Never Trumpers” who became his fiercest and most vocal critics in the first years of the administration. Now, the group is gearing up for an 11-month fight against an incumbent who they argue presents a “clear and present danger to the Constitution and our Republic.”

The project released its first digital ad last week, questioning the president's support from the evangelical community by highlighting some of his more controversial public statements.

This week, the group expanded to target a vulnerable GOP Senator up for re-election this fall, Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., releasing a digital ad that criticizes him for siding with Trump over his home state.

The group has plans to the give the same treatment to other GOP senators like Maine's Susan Collins and Martha McSally in Arizona. The group will continue to use digital ads for the time being, with plans to expand to other mediums dependent on fundraising.

“The Republican Party has flopped over and played dead. Donald Trump did not have the ability to take over the party by himself. This happened because Republicans in the Senate handed it over,” said Jennifer Horn, a Lincoln Project adviser and former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party.

“This is just the beginning,” Horn said, touting a significant response from voters so far, who have backed up their support with donations. “We have the receipts to prove it,” she said.

While President Trump continues to enjoy very strong support from the Republican Party, the Lincoln Project is also expanding, naming several new senior advisers Tuesday who will help amplify their message, including national security expert Tom Nichols.

“Defeating Donald Trump is not a partisan campaign issue,” Nichols said in a release announcing the additions. "It is a call to all Americans to defend our Constitution. That is why I am proud to be a part of the Lincoln Project in this critical effort.”

The undertaking is twofold: help voters oust Trump in November; and also hold those Republicans who have supported him along the way accountable at the ballot box.

The founding members include outspoken Trump detractor and lawyer George Conway, national political strategists like Steve Schmidt and John Weaver and Horn. Many say have abandoned the Republican party in the age of Trump, citing a “lack of integrity” and acknowledging their mission may “cost them” the traditional conservative establishment as it exists now.

Squaring policy discrepancies with Democrats are a concern, said Horn, but “that’s a fight for another day.”

“We have to put differences aside for this one election,” she said.

For its part, the Trump campaign remains unfazed by the effort.

“This is a pathetic little club of irrelevant and faux ‘Republicans,’ who are upset that they’ve lost all of their power and influence inside the Republican Party,” communications director Tim Murtaugh told NBC News. “When President Trump got elected on a promise to drain the swamp in Washington D.C., these establishment charlatans, who for years enriched themselves off the backs of the conservative movement, were the very swamp he was referring too.”

Still, former Trump adviser Steve Bannon seemed to take notice of the anti-Trump organization and recently posited that “if these guys can peel off 3% or 4%, that’s going to be serious,” he told the Associated Press earlier this month.

The group says it will not endorse or get too involved in the Democratic primary, though the general election may be different.

Clyburn's grandson cuts radio ad backing Buttigieg

WASHINGTON — The grandson of House Democratic Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., has cut a radio ad invoking his grandfather’s legacy and calling former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg “a leader of uncommon decency.”

The elder Clyburn is a major political force in South Carolina and one of the most prominent African Americans in Congress. He's not endorsed anyone in the Democratic primary race, as the ad makes clear right at the start. But his grandson, Walter A. Clyburn Reed, is organizing for Buttigieg. 

"Mayor Pete works so hard for people in need, no matter where they live or what they look like, harder than anyone I’ve ever met," Clyburn Reed says in the ad. 

"Whether the issue is lifting wages or expanding healthcare, ending gun violence or battling racism, Mayor Pete is someone our community can trust. Someone we can believe in."

The Buttigieg campaign says the ad featuring Walter Clyburn Reed will air in South Carolina throughout January.

Months of efforts by Buttigieg to improve his standing among black voters have largely failed to yield any dividends. A Washington Post-Ipsos poll of black Democratic-leaning voters conducted last week found Buttigieg at 2 percent nationally. The most recent poll of South Carolina, a Fox News poll in early January, had Buttigieg at 4 percent.

—Jordan Jackson contributed.

Biden tops new Iowa poll as race remains in flux

WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Joe Biden tops a new Monmouth University poll of likely Iowa caucusgoers as the state's pivotal contest remains a toss-up with less than one month to go. 

Biden wins support from 24 percent of likely caucusgoers in the new poll, followed by Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders' 18 percent. Former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg has support from 17 percent of caucusgoers and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren from 15 percent. 

The margins between all four of those candidates are within the poll's plus-minus 4.9 percent margin of error. 

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, with 8 percent, is the only other Democrat to poll above 5 percent. 

Iowa's caucus is run differently than a typical primary — Iowans assemble at a precinct where they split off into groups supporting each candidate. Only candidates who have support from 15 percent of a precinct's caucusgoers are considered "viable," and eligible for delegates. Those who are caucusing with candidates who aren't viable have to realign or declare as uncommitted. 

The Monmouth poll found only Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg and Warren hitting 15 percent across the state. And in a separate question, where caucusgoers are asked who they'd support if only those four candidates were viable at their caucus site, Biden leads with 28 percent, followed by Buttigieg at 25, Sanders at 24 and Warren at 16 percent.  

With just three weeks until the Iowa caucus, the poll also suggests Iowans are beginning to make up their minds. Forty-three percent of likely caucusgoers say they're "firmly decided" on their candidate, compared to 28 percent in November. 

For those still wavering, Warren could be in a decent position — she's the second choice of 23 percent of caucusgoers. The next closest candidate is Buttigieg, who is the second choice of 15 percent of caucusgoers. 

Monmouth polled 405 likely caucusgoers between Jan. 9 to Jan. 12.

With the caucus just weeks away, polling has underscored the unpredictable nature of the caucus. Late last week, the Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa poll found a similar four-candidate pile-up, this time with Sanders in the lead with Biden in fourth-place. The margins between the four top candidates were all within the poll's margin of error. 

Trump seeks to undo protections for pre-existing conditions, despite tweets

WASHINGTON — President Trump has misrepresented his position on pre-existing conditions protections in the past, but even by previous standards his tweet on Monday stands out by falsely taking credit for the protections existing in the first place, saying he “saved” them, while actively trying to remove them. 

The current pre-existing protections were enacted under the Affordable Care Act, which President Obama signed in 2010 while Trump was a private citizen.

Trump's Justice Department is currently backing a lawsuit by Republican state officials to throw out the entire law — including those protections. The president has also previously urged Congress to pass a bill that would roll back some of the law’s protections for pre-existing conditions and his administration has expanded access to plans that do not cover pre-existing conditions, which critics deride as “junk insurance.” 

If the courts agree with the White House’s legal arguments, the lawsuit would end the ACA’s landmark requirement that insurance companies take on all customers regardless of any pre-existing conditions and charge them the same premiums as healthy customers.

That change would not be incidental to the White House’s broader objection to the health care law. In fact, it’s central to their case: The Trump administration’s initial legal position directly targeted the law’s protection for patients with pre-existing conditions, arguing they should be removed while most of the law remained. Only later did they expand their legal argument to demand the entire law be thrown out. 

There’s a real chance the lawsuit succeeds. The case is currently pending after a Texas judge ruled the entire law unconstitutional in December 2018. Last month, the conservative-leaning 5th Circuit Court issued an opinion that supported the judge’s underlying argument, but sent the case back for further review as to which parts of the law should stand. 

The Supreme Court is expected to eventually weigh in, but the White House is asking them to delay a request by Democratic state officials for an expedited ruling. If the White House argument holds, the decision will likely occur after the presidential election. That means the courts could potentially throw out protections for pre-existing conditions after the president campaigned for re-election on championing them. 

Democrats made the lawsuit, along with Republican efforts in Congress to undo some of the ACA’s protections, a central part of their 2018 midterm campaigns. 

In response, Trump and a number of GOP candidates said they would maintain some protections for pre-existing conditions if the lawsuit succeeded, but there is no party consensus as to what would replace them and many existing proposals still contain fewer protections coverage than current law.  

Key conservative lawmakers object to the current protections for pre-existing conditions on ideological and policy grounds and Republican leaders and the White House sided with their demands to loosen them in their attempt to repeal and replace the ACA. 

Had the House repeal bill backed by Trump become law, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicted that “less healthy individuals (including those with pre-existing or newly acquired medical conditions) would be unable to purchase comprehensive coverage with premiums close to those under current law and might not be able to purchase coverage at all.” 

There are longstanding policy debates surrounding all these issues. Critics of the law’s protections for pre-existing conditions argue that they drive up premiums too high for healthier customers and there are potentially other ways to provide sicker patients health care, though none of the Trump-backed legislative proposals have been found by the CBO and other independent analysts to cover nearly as many people. 

But Trump’s statements largely ignore that debate. Instead he’s asked his supporters, many of whom have expressed concern in polls about the issue, to believe he holds a position in direct opposition to his actual policy.

 

Bloomberg calls for changes to presidential primary calendar, warns against focus on 'homogeneous' states

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called for changes in the Democratic presidential primary calendar Monday in an op-ed representing a reversal of sentiments he expressed just five days ago on the campaign trail.

“[A]s we Democrats work to protect democracy from Republicans who seek to exclude voters, we must also look inward, because our own party's system of nominating a presidential candidate is both undemocratic and harms our ability to prepare for — and win — the general election,” Bloomberg wrote in an op-ed for CNN.

Bloomberg, who made a late November entry into the 2020 race, has chosen to skip the first four early states altogether, focusing instead on delegate-rich Super Tuesday while other contenders fight for position just 21 days out from the Iowa caucus.  

Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg opens his Tennessee 2020 campaign headquarters in Nashville on Dec. 19, 2019.Harrison McClary / Reuters file

In his op-ed, the former mayor warned that by focusing on the most “homogenous [states] in the nation,” the Democratic Party risks “repeating 2016.” The Iowa caucus represents the first contest on the Democratic presidential nominating calendar, with the New Hampshire primary one week later. 

The need to place more emphasis and channel resources into “Blue Wall” states is an idea Bloomberg often highlights on the trail. But before Monday, Bloomberg has been hesitant to call for a reordering of the primary calendar.

Just last Wednesday, reporters pressed Bloomberg on this issue after a campaign stop in Akron, Ohio.

“I think we've got a tradition here of four states,” he said. “The system has gotten used to it, and I guess the Democratic Party probably shouldn't take it away.”

Bloomberg said then that the decision should ultimately be made by the Democratic Party.

But in the days since the Akron event, the former mayor reversed course, pointing to action he would take if elected: “As president, I will ensure the DNC works with state party leaders at every level to re-order the primary calendar in ways that better reflect our diverse electorate and channel more resources into the states we actually need to win in November.”

“Don't get me wrong: I have enormous respect for the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire. Both states are full of devoted citizens,” Bloomberg wrote. “But so are the other 48. And we need a system that both better reflects our country and puts us in a better position to defeat a candidate like Donald Trump." 

Prominent New Hampshire union backing Bernie Sanders

MANCHESTER, NH -- New Hampshire’s second-largest union is set to endorse Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders on Monday, the Sanders campaign confirmed to NBC News. 

SEA/SEIU Local 1984 contains over 10,000 private and public sector members, and will be making the announcement alongside Sanders’ national co-chair, former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner.

“I’m honored to receive SEA/SEIU Local 1984’s support today,” said Sen. Sanders in a statement shared first with NBC News.

“The labor movement helped build the middle class in this country, and strong unions are key to reviving it today. As president, I’ll continue to stand on the side of workers and unions like SEA/SEIU 1984 in the fight for a fair and just economy that works for all of us.” 

Rich Gulla, the president of SEA/SEIU Local 1984 praised Sanders in a statement, arguing that he's "represented the interests of workers all across this country" as well as workers in his union. 

“Just recently, when he learned of the struggles that New Hampshire state employees who are without a contract are facing he called a press conference to tell Governor Sununu to treat workers with respect. We know American workers can count on him. We are proud to endorse Sen. Sanders for president," Gulla said. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, speaks to supporters at a rally in Denver on Sept. 9. 2019.Michael Ciaglo / Getty Images file

The notable endorsement does not break with recent precedent, however. During the 2016 primary, the local New Hampshire chapter broke from the national organization’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton to endorse Sanders, and many members have remained loyal to Sanders since 2015.

Julia Barnes, who served as Sanders' state director in 2016 but is now working for a New Hampshire gubernatorial candidate, said the endorsement comes at a good time for a campaign looking to mobilize volunteers one month before the New Hampshire primary. Barnes, while no longer working for Sanders, is a Sanders supporter. 

“It’s very validating in terms of the union making a choice to come out during such a crowded primary,” she told NBC. “They were a really big part of our on the ground operation in terms of sending their members, and it’s validating in the community to have that union support on their side.” 

Throughout the 2020 primary, the union hosted member town halls with all the major presidential candidates except former Vice President Joe Biden.

“From a labor standpoint, we’re looking for candidates who not only talk the talk but walk the walk,” Gulla told NBC News last month. “Have they ever walked a picket line? Have they belonged to a union themselves? What did they do on sponsored legislation?”

The events were part of the endorsement process, which also included a 10-question survey sent to candidates and a recommendation by the political education committee to the chapter’s board of directors. Gulla told NBC News the union chapter is equally divided into thirds ideologically – Democratic, GOP and independent.

Bennet: Senate impeachment trial will be 'disruptive' to presidential campaign

WASHINGTON — Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, one of the five Democratic senators running for president, said Sunday that the upcoming Senate impeachment trial is going to be “disruptive” to the presidential campaign, but that it’s part of his “constitutional responsibility.” 

“It is going to be disruptive and there’s nothing that I can do about it, so I choose not to worry about it. We have, all of us, a constitutional responsibility we have to fulfill here. And I take my oath seriously, and I will,” he said.  

“The stakes are really high and I think the framers of the Constitution would demand of the people that are sitting in judgment that they put the Constitution in front of the president and use this as an opportunity to remind the American people why the rule of law is so important.” 

With House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expected to transmit the articles of impeachment passed by the House late last year, the specter of a Senate trial looms over the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.  

During the impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton, the Senate regularly worked long hours and six-day weeks, a heavy workload that would limit the ability of senators like Bennet to hit the campaign trail.  

Bennet acknowledged the strain impeachment will likely put on his schedule.  

“I'm spending every single second I can in New Hampshire, trying to fulfill my commitment to hold an additional 50 townhalls here,” he said.   

“I've already spent more time here than any other candidate. And I'm just going to continue to do that.” 

And he said he doesn’t necessarily expect Republicans to join Democratic demands to get former National Security Adviser John Bolton to testify as part of the trial, although he said he doesn’t “think it’s impossible.”  

“I hope my Republican colleagues will be open to having witnesses. The American people want witnesses. And they want to see the records from the White House, as well,” he said.  

John Kerry: Democratic primary is a "circular firing squad", and it's time to "coalesce" around one candidate

DAVENPORT, IOWA — Former Secretary of State and 2004 Democratic nominee for president, John Kerry bemoaned the nature of the “traditional circular firing squad of the Democratic party” while urging Iowa voters in Muscatine to “coalesce” around former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign on Saturday.

Kerry, who's campaigning for Biden on a week-long swing through Iowa, said that the longer it takes for the party to support one candidate, the more the eventual nominee will be hurt. 

“The sooner we can coalesce around a candidate, the sooner we eliminate the traditional circular firing squad of the Democratic party, where we just pop away,” Kerry said. “That hurt Hillary last time, where Bernie went on and on and on and on, so we gotta end this thing and we have a chance to do it.”

And Kerry, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2004, said that Biden, despite trailing Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Ind Mayor Pete Buttigieg in the latest Iowa poll, can still win the Iowa caucuses because he'll be less of a target. 

“I like the way this is tee'd up to be honest with you,” Kerry said. “You know, when we were coming in the last weeks we didn't want to be a target.”

Kerry took the moment to compare Sanders to one of his 2004 rivals, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. Dean, who was a leading progressive voice during the 2004 Democratic primary. A day before the 2004 Iowa caucuses, a Des Moines Register poll showed Kerry, Dean and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in a virtual tie with Kerry leading the pack but within the margin of error. 

“You know, Howard Dean was out there, and now Bernie is out there, it's the same thing. Bernie, Howard Dean, da da da da. But Joe Biden can drive a Mack truck right through the hole.”

Kerry endorsed Biden in December and has since campaigned with Biden and alone as a surrogate. 

New poll shows Joe Biden far ahead of 2020 pack in support from black Democrats

WASHINGTON — A new Washington Post/Ipsos poll found that 48 percent of black registered voters who lean Democratic support former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential run. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders came in second, but 28 points behind Biden, with 20 percent support.

The poll is further evidence that black Americans continue to favor Biden despite campaign gaffes, and other candidates attacking Biden’s record on race — like California Sen. Kamala Harris’ criticism of Biden’s stance on busing, and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s attacks on Biden’s 1994 crime bill.

The new poll also shows the steep drop off in support candidates have after Biden and Sanders. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren garnered only 9 percent support, followed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Booker tied with 4 percent support. Businessman Andrew Yang had just 3 percent support, and former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg and philanthropist Tom Steyer garnered 2 percent support. All other candidates had less than 1 percent support of black Democrats in the poll.

Buttigieg has consistently fended off concerns that he would not be able to build a strong coalition as the Democratic nominee because of his lack of support in the black community — one of the strongest Democratic voting blocks. On Thursday, Buttigieg received her first endorsement from a member of the Congressional Black Caucus when Maryland Rep. Anthony G. Brown endorsed him.

Brown said that he expected black support for Buttigieg to “increase dramatically” as communities got to know him. However, this new poll shows that 15 percent of black registered voters who lean Democratic would “definitely not consider supporting” Buttigieg. The only two candidates to register higher than him were Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard at 23 percent, and Bloomberg at 17 percent.

Biden’s support in the black community is not just wide, but also strong. Biden has a 69 percent favorable view among black adults and 44 percent of that favorability is “strongly” favorable. While Sanders had a net favorability of 63 percent, only 29 percent of that support was strongly favorable.

Furthermore, 61 percent of those polls said the next president should “generally continue President Obama’s policies.” Only 21 percent said the next president should have “more liberal or progressive policies” than former President Obama’s.

As Biden continues to push his more moderate agenda, that he says adds on to the successes of Obama’s years in office, this support in the black community could buoy him through Iowa and New Hampshire which have less diverse voting demographics than Nevada and South Carolina.

Tom Steyer says lack of military experience doesn't hinder judgment in national security

WASHINGTON — Presidential candidate and philanthropist Tom Steyer has pitched himself to voters as an outsider. On Friday he said that his outsider experience wouldn't hinder his ability to act in a national security crisis because his decisions would come down to "judgment", and "experience alone isn't nearly enough."  

"I don't have military experience and I give people credit for that. But this is a question to me of having judgment, of having clear strategy and then consulting the experts in making your decisions," Steyer said on MSNBC. "At the experience over the last 20 years of the American government and how we've proceeded in the Middle East, in the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War that implies that experience alone isn't nearly enough." 

After this week's events in the Middle East when first President Trump authorized a strike that killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, and then Iran's response which included a rocket strike at an American military base in Iraq, Democratic candidates have been positioning themselves as better suited to handle a military crisis. 

Two candidates, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg are veterans and both have criticized those who voted for the war in Iraq. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has reaffirmed his vote against the war in Iraq and said on Friday that President Trump's decision to "assassinate a high-ranking official of foreign government" could "unleash anarchy." 

The only candidate in the 2020 race who voted to support the Iraq war is former Vice President Joe Biden who voted for the war when he served in the Senate. During the third Democratic debate in September, Biden said he regretted his vote for the war

"I should have never voted to give Bush the authority to go in and do what he said he was going to do," Biden said.