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Republican senators ask McConnell to open Senate 24/7

Photo: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Nine Republican senators have signed a letter to Mitch McConnell calling on him to "turn the Senate on full time, 24/7, to advance the president's agenda." The senators write that "perversion of Senate rules" by Democrats, "designed to imperil" Trump's agenda, necessitates the step.
This comes after McConnell told Senate Republicans that he planned to keep them working more Fridays and weekends. It shows the pent up frustration Republicans are feeling after a series of legislative setbacks.

The letter

Dear Leader McConnell:

The 115th Congress is being disrupted by sustained, partisan obstruction. We believe our conference must be willing to change how the Senate operates both by tradition and by rule.

We appreciate your acknowledging our concerns and applaud your plan to work nights and weekends when necessary to overcome this gridlock. You have our full support to turn the Senate on full time, 24/7, to advance the president's agenda, including a meaningful health care solution, bold changes to our tax code, and funding the government by year's end.

As you know, one glaring example of this unprecedented obstruction is the minority party's perversion of Senate rules to undercut the confirmation process of the administration's nominees and judicial appointments. When new presidents are elected, they have always been given an opportunity to put their team in place in short order. Historically, this is not just a common courtesy, it is an expectation of Americans to have a seamless transition of power resulting in a functioning federal government.

It is abundantly clear that the tactics employed by the minority are designed to imperil the new administration and its agenda. Overcoming this obstruction will require a real commitment on our part. An aggressive work calendar, as you have proposed, which should include nights and weekends, will enable administration and judicial nominees to be confirmed more quickly.

You have our pledge to be available for voting day and night and we offer our time to preside over the Senate when necessary to keep us on track. Given the unprecedented obstruction by our colleagues across the aisle, we hope you will also take a renewed look at the rules governing executive branch nominations.

Our conference should always remember that we are fighting for hardworking Americans. In their daily lives, when there is work to be done – whether on assembly lines, in the fields of family farms, fishing in our bountiful waters, or standing in harm's way – everyday Americans do what it takes to get the job done. We owe them the same unrelenting effort in the job they gave us to do.

The senators: Daines, Ernst, Heller, Johnson, Kennedy, Perdue, Rounds, Strange, Wicker

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Don’t rush to judgment on Alexander-Murray

Alexander and Murray may have another chance in December. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Yes, the Senate's bipartisan Affordable Care Act bill ran into some political roadblocks yesterday. The White House said President Trump, who had taken several positions over the course of the day, is against it. House Speaker Paul Ryan is also against it. And conservatives are against it.

Why it doesn't matter: The story of the Alexander-Murray bill likely won't be over until December, when Congress has to take care of several must-pass bills, in negotiations where Democrats have a lot of leverage.

  • The December agenda already includes funding the government and raising the debt ceiling — must-pass items that can only pass with a lot of Democratic votes, just like Alexander-Murray.
  • If Alexander-Murray doesn't pass before then, it's pretty easy to see Democratic leaders insisting on some form of Affordable Care Act stabilization as part of the end-of-year package. And this bill, or something close to it, is likely the best Republicans are going to get.
  • As one senior GOP aide told to my colleague Caitlin Owens: "At some point McConnell and Ryan will need this."

The catch: The Alexander-Murray bill would guarantee funding for the ACA's cost-sharing subsidies, but it doesn't provide for retroactive payments. So if the bill did pass in December, insurers wouldn't get any help with the financial hit they'll take between now and then. And those losses alone could total $1 billion.

In the meantime, look for Alexander and Murray to roll out a new, bipartisan roster of cosponsors today, along with the official introduction of their bill.

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Why Amazon's new headquarters won't guarantee economic boon

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Cities across the country are falling over themselves to score the winning ticket in the biggest local lottery ticket — Amazon's second North American Headquarters. Today’s the deadline for them to submit proposals. But luring Amazon's promised 50,000 jobs comes with costs that may outweigh the benefits for some cities.

Why cities care: Mayors see dollar signs in Amazon's pledge to bring 50,000 jobs that pay an average salary of $100,000 to the winning city. They know "HQ2" will instantly put even the most obscure city on the map as a tech hub that will attract more businesses and talent. But an influx of people brings higher costs, and probably only marginal increases in local taxes thanks to the tax breaks most cities are prepared to offer.

The cost of tax credits: As Axios' David McCabe reported last month, bids for Amazon's new HQ could reach upward of $10 billion in tax breaks and other incentives. That high price tag could undercut a locality's ability to fund good public schools, hospitals and infrastructure — the very qualities Amazon is looking for.

The cost of population growth: 50,000 high-paying jobs are attractive to any city council. But they sometimes don't factor in the associated costs of population growth.

  • In Seattle, home to Amazon's first headquarters, the population has grown by 20% in past 10 years, and median home prices went up 50%, Ethan Phelps-Goodman of the organization Seattle Tech 4 Housing told Marketplace.
  • Cities will have to prepare for that boom to make sure low- and middle-income people don't get priced out of the housing market.
Home-grown growth: Some experts say the Amazon sweepstakes will likely go to a community that's already doing pretty well, rather than helping to lift up a struggling town. That's because Amazon's criteria — more than a million people, proximity to higher education, strong public transportation — are the makings of places that are already succeeding in the modern economy.
  • To meet Amazon's criteria and to be able to afford to offer a big tax incentive, a city is likely to already be doing relatively well in today's economy, said John Lettieri, Co-Founder and Senior Director for Policy & Strategy at Economic Innovation Group.
  • "Economic development strategy can't be based on these once-in-a-lifetime location opportunities," he said. "Cities can understandably go crazy over something of this scale, but it's no substitute for the benefits of having home-grown growth. That's the foundation for stable growth in the longer term, not the lottery ticket."
Spearheading collaboration: Regardless of who wins, bidding will spur city leaders to talk about ways to get attract companies — both big and small.
  • Detroit, for example, pulled together close to 100 consultants who offered their time for free to develop the city's bid. "I've never seen a community come together like that," said Dan Gilbert, CEO of Quicken Loans who has been involved in reviving Detroit's business scene. "If we don't win this bid, we're going to die trying."
  • Gilbert said Detroit teamed up with Windsor, Canada, just across the border, which "gives Amazon a huge edge on immigration issues" and international talent recruitment. "You're not going to get that in another city."

Startup focus: Cities who don't win the bid could consider putting that money and incentives toward investing in startups that trigger more organic job growth. "So hopefully the losers will keep fighting and use this process to be winners," said Steve Case, CEO of Revolution, a venture capital firm.

  • "If you put a pile of cash in a city, we're all going to invest in technology," Gilbert said. "I think money follows, it doesn't lead."
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72% of Americans fear a major war in the next four years

A North Korean soldier looks south from the Demilitarized Zone. Photo: Lee Jin-man / AP

A new NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll finds that 72% of Americans are concerned that the U.S. will be fighting a major war in the next four years, with the majority of respondents saying North Korea poses the greatest threat. Meanwhile, 26% said they are not too worried or not at all worried.

  • The adversaries respondents are concerned about: North Korea (54%), ISIS (19%), Russia (14%), China (6%) and Iran (4%).
  • The threats causing concern: terrorist attacks (34%), nuclear attacks (32%) and cyberattacks (31%).

Worth noting: The share of Americans who perceive North Korea as a looming threat is up 13 percentage points since July. Of survey respondents, 94% see North Korea as unfriendly or as an enemy.

One more thing: A majority (53%) of respondents do not support the Iran deal, while 39% approve of the agreement. When asked to judge how President Trump is handling Iran, 55% said they disapprove or strongly disapprove.

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Who owns space?

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

We're standing at the starting line of a new space race, one that could trigger a gold rush-like hunt for resources. Companies are lining up to launch space mining missions, and countries are passing laws to allow them. There's just one problem: Under some interpretations of the 50-year-old Outer Space Treaty, which was signed by almost 100 countries, none of this is legal.

The bottom line: In the past, the answer to the question "who owns space?" was easy: everyone and no one. Soon, that might not be true.

Where it stands: Goldman Sachs thinks we should prospect asteroids for platinum. Companies like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries hope to launch space mining missions before 2030. Luxembourg passed a law legalizing such operations this past summer, as did the United States in 2015.

The Outer Space Treaty's primary goal is to keep weapons of mass destruction out of space. But it also declares there will be no military bases in space, that there will be free access for all countries to all parts of space, and — this is key — bans "national appropriation" of parts of space.

"The outer space treaty is one of those treaties that's so ambiguous, the debate isn't about what it says. It's what we want it to say," says Michael Listner, an attorney and founder of the think-tank Space Law and Policy Solutions.

The details: "The trillion dollar question" is what qualifies as national appropriation, says Listner. The United States believes individuals can extract materials from space without violating the spirit of the treaty. But other countries, like Russia, disagree.

Right now, says Listner, there is no consensus on the legality of prospecting space resources. Countries like the United States and Luxembourg are "posturing" by passing laws legalizing space mining.

The Outer Space Treaty essentially sets up space as a global commons. There are two ways to interpret that in Earth terms:

  • Space as the ocean: Frans von der Dunk, a professor of Space Law with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says the Outer Space Treaty sets up space to be regulated like international waters. No one owns it, no one can colonize it, but anyone can fish in it. His position is supported by the United States and Luxembourg.
  • Space as a park: But Listner disagrees. "The ocean replenishes itself. If you mine an asteroid, it's gone." His interpretation of the law views space as a sort of park, where it belongs to everyone in that everyone can visit it, but at the same time they can't cut down trees, because then none would be left for anyone else.

Yes, but: The debate currently focuses on whether or not corporations and individuals can extract resources — a question Listner says is still legally murky. But if NASA were to go mining, "that would be an entirely different story," says Listner. That would constitute national appropriations.

Ethical considerations: Asteroids can be vastly mineral-rich resources. Could space mining exacerbate existing gaps between mineral-rich, space-capable countries and those without? It's a concern that's been raised regularly at the U.N.'s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

Two ethical models: the moon and Antarctica

  • Signed in 1979, the Moon Agreement aimed to address the issue of equality in space. Several countries proposed laws allowing resource extraction from the moon, but at a price: a portion of the revenue would have to go to countries incapable of space exploration on their own, and countries need to share the intellectual property necessary to go to space.
    • Additionally, any corporation would need the approval of an international body before extracting space resources. However, the United States, Russia and China, all of whom dominate space exploration, have chosen not to sign the Moon Treaty.
  • There is one place on Earth somewhat analogous to the moon: our southernmost continent. Although several countries technically claim territory on the frozen landmass, the Antarctic Treaty prohibits them from using that land in a way that inhibits the access of others.
    • Knowledge gained from Antarctic research must be freely shared, and in 1991 the signatories to the Antarctic Treaty agreed to cease mining operations on the continent unless they're first approved by an international body.

Although the circumstances surrounding space and Antarctica are different, it stands as an example of how the countries of Earth can act cooperatively in such a way. Indeed, when Eisenhower first proposed the Outer Space Treaty, the Antarctic Treaty was the inspiration. And people inhabit Antarctica year-round, in the same way they might one day inhabit the extraterrestrial bodies.

Over decades, voyages into space have become trans-national efforts. From the ISS to Cassini to China and Europe's joint moon mission, we hold space exploration as an example of what humanity can accomplish via cooperation. As privatized, commercial space exploration becomes more common, the question is whether we'll still see it that way.

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The Hepatitis C epidemic following the opioid crisis

Cases of Hepatitis C have almost tripled in the past few years, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention — an effect of the opioid crisis and the unsanitary use of needles by drug users. There were 2,436 reported cases of the liver disease in 2015, up from 853 cases in 2010.

Data: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Chart: Chris Canipe / Axios

Why it matters: Hepatitis C can be deadly if not treated, and treatment can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Americans will be paying for the opioid crisis for years to come, with the total tab coming to an estimated $100 billion.

"If we don't cure a significant number of the people who are injecting, in 20 years from now, the hospitals in this part of the world will be flooded with these people with end-stage liver disease, which has no cure," Judith Feinberg, professor at the West Virginia University School of Medicine, told the Washington Post.

Political solutions: There have been some state and local efforts to establish "syringe exchanges," which offer drug users clean syringes as a way to prevent the spread of Hepatitis C. These controversial programs are now legal in some states like North Carolina, New Hampshire and Vermont, but have recently been shut down in counties in Utah and Indiana.

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School named after Jefferson Davis renamed for Obama

Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

A Mississippi elementary school will be changing its name from Davis Magnet International Baccalaureate Elementary — after Confederate leader Jefferson Davis — to the Barack Obama Magnet International Baccalaureate Elementary.

Why it matters: PTA President Janelle Jefferson said Obama was the "number one choice" among the students. Jake McGraw, public policy coordinator of the University of Mississippi's Institute for Racial Reconciliation, told NBC News the students' choice "shows that we don't need to shy away from exploring these controversial topics."

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U.S. support of South Sudanese military may have broken the law

Madut Quat wears a T-shirt depicting Barack Obama as he stands in the overcrowded United Nations' protected camp in Wau, South Sudan. Photo: AP

The U.S. government may have broken its own law by providing support to the South Sudanese military, which has displaced over a million people in what the U.N. labeled "ethnic cleansing," according to an AP investigation. Per the AP, this is the "largest exodus of civilians in Africa since the Rwanda genocide in 1994."

Why it matters: A U.S. Defense Department official, Kate Almquist Knopf, told the AP this is happening "on America's watch." South Sudan's government received over $1 billion a year in support under both the Bush and Obama administrations. And in 2016, a letter from President Obama to Congress allowed training for the South Sudanese army, which "circumvented a law blocking U.S. support for countries that use child soldiers," the AP reports.

What happened:

  • The law in question says that the U.S. is prohibited from supporting "any unit that has committed a gross violation of human rights."
  • Obama sought a long-term relationship with the South Sudanese military, trying to "fix" it, the AP reports. That was after South Sudanese soldiers "killed a journalist, gang-raped women and beat people, including Americans, as they rampaged through a hotel."
  • The United Nations did not send requested peacekeeping troops to the region, and it is currently still considering sending a permanent peacekeeping force. There are currently 12,000 peacekeepers in the country, but there would need to be around 38,000 more to fully secure South Sudan, the AP reports.
  • Sen. Patrick Leahy called U.S. support a "red flag." A State Department spokesperson told the AP that those who received U.S. support were vetted.
The bottom line: A South Sudan researcher, Alan Boswell, told the AP that the U.S. stance was that America did not cause the problem, which meant "we were not going to try and stop it."
Why you'll hear about this again: U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, is visiting South Sudan next week to seek a solution to the ongoing, four-year conflict.
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Trump urging House GOP to pass Senate budget as shortcut to tax reform

Photo: Evan Vucci / AP

President Trump has begun calling House Republicans to urge them to pass the Senate budget without going to conference, according to three sources familiar with the calls.

The House passed a budget earlier this month that has more conservative wins, particularly on spending cuts, than the one expected to pass the Senate. But the budget process is primarily a vehicle to get to tax reform, and Trump doesn't want to wait for the House and Senate to work out a compromise. Paul Ryan has previously indicated that he plans to take the budgets to conference.
Why this matters: Trump needs a win urgently and wants to move on to tax reform as quickly as possible. But expect some consternation among fiscal conservatives in the House if Trump gets his way and they're asked to vote on the Senate budget.
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Blue Apron announces layoffs

A typical Blue Apron package. Photo: Bree Fowler / AP

Blue Apron, the meal kit company that went public earlier this year, announced on Wednesday that's its cutting about 6% of its staff company-wide, according to a new SEC filing. The layoffs will cost the company $3.5 million in expenses such as severance packages.

Background: Blue Apron, which ships individually packaged kits for preparing meals, has been struggling since it went public in June. Shortly after, Amazon announced its plans to start selling meal kits, and at last two groups of shareholders later filed lawsuits against Blue Apron, alleging it misled investors about its business before going public.