McConnell’s “nuclear option” after health care failure - Axios
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McConnell’s “nuclear option” after health care failure

Andrew Harnik / AP

Obamacare remains the law of the land. And the White House didn't even get a courtesy call.

The West Wing was blindsided last night when two Republican senators — Mike Lee of Utah and Jerry Moran of Kansas — came out against repeal-and-replace. Either of them would have killed it.

But there's one more act in this drama: At 10:46 p.m., Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell announced that he was calling the bluff of his finicky GOP colleagues and planning a repeal-only vote, putting them on the line to act on the promise they had repeatedly made in their campaigns, with no excuses.

"Regretfully, it is now apparent that the effort to repeal and immediately replace the failure of Obamacare will not be successful," said McConnell. "So, in the coming days, the Senate will vote to take up the House bill with the first amendment in order being what a majority of the Senate has already supported in 2015 and that was vetoed by then-President Obama: a repeal of Obamacare with a two-year delay."

Axios' Jonathan Swan says this "the nuclear option": "This is leadership saying: 'If you're not going to come around on a "replace" bill, [forget] you. We'll do repeal without replace — which you voted for before, when Obama was president, and you knew it wouldn't take effect. What was that, a fake vote?'"

The outlook: It'll probably lose. But this is McConnell trying to get the issue fully off his plate so he can move on to tax reform, while showing the base he tried everything he could.

The takeaway: Top Republicans sources believe that the failure of health reform would make tax reform more likely — because of political desperation by Republicans, who'll need something to run on.

Be smart: We emailed one of the GOP's sharpest vote counters with the repeal-only news and the subject line: "Hail Mary?"

The quick reply: "Incomplete pass."

Quote du jour, per Politico: "At a dinner with GOP senators on Monday evening, Trump said the party would look like 'dopes' if they couldn't pass [a repeal-only] bill after passing a repeal bill in 2015."

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Ex-Google exec: Sun may be setting on Silicon Valley

Section 32 founder Bill Maris

Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images

Former Google Ventures CEO Bill Maris, who currently runs a San Diego-area VC firm called Section 32, offered some words of warning today during a Wall Street Journal tech conference:

It wouldn't surprise me if the sun is setting on the golden age of Silicon Valley.

Maris added that he also wouldn't be surprised if federal regulators try breaking up tech giants like Google or Facebook, saying that such companies "are more powerful than AT&T ever was."

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Forest degradation makes Amazon vulnerable to mega-fires

Smoke billows from the Amazon Rainforest. Photo: Dado Galdieri / AP

This year is on track to be the worst on record for forest fires in the Amazon, per the Brazilian government. The fires are doing the most damage in the areas of the forest already hit by human-caused forest degradation, Mongabay reports.

  • Distinct from deforestation, forest degradation is the process of felling just the valuable trees in a forest and leaving behind flammable tree limbs and debris, creating a ground zero for wildfires.
  • Why it matters: Climate change, deforestation and forest degradation are causing mega-fires that are devastating large swathes of the Amazon rainforest. Carbon emissions from the fires have the capacity to impact climate around the world.

The details:

  • The Amazon is currently experiencing a prolonged drought — lasting up to four months in some parts — which is contributing to the spread of the fires. And "the dry seasons in Brazil seem to be becoming drier and more frequent," scientist Luiz Aragão told Mongabay.
  • As of October 5, 208,278 hot spots have been seen in the region using thermal sensing. Fire brigades lack the manpower and resources to control them.
  • Forest degradation has transformed the Amazon from a carbon sink to a carbon source. Meanwhile, the uptick of carbon emissions around the world are contributing to bigger fires globally. The concurrent trends comprise a recipe for more mega-fires, scientists say.
  • "If Brazil is to have a chance at controlling the intensity of fires in the Amazon, it needs all countries — including the U.S. — to successfully reduce carbon emissions," Mongabay reports.
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Puerto Rico, by the numbers

A boy accompanied by his dog watches the repairs of Guajataca Dam, which cracked during the passage of Hurricane Maria. Photo: Ramon Espinosa / AP

Exactly one month after Hurricane Maria first made landfall in Puerto Rico, the island is still far from resembling any sense of normalcy. 81% of the island is still without power, 28% is without potable water, and 10% of grocery stores are still closed.

The official death toll is still 48, but the actual number is expected to be much higher as several parts of the island remain cut off from communication. A recent Vox report, which cross-referenced what the government had been saying with reports on the ground, puts the real number of casualties much closer to 450, with another 69 people still missing.

What they're saying

  • Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday that the Trump administration is "continuing to do everything that we can to help the people of Puerto Rico," and announced that Gov. Ricardo Roselló will at the White House tomorrow.
  • Gov. Roselló said his visit is timed to press the Senate to quickly pass the $4.9 billion relief package that's been proposed. "Time is of the essence and we need quick action," he said. "If we are not considered in equal terms to Florida, the Virgin Islands, Texas and so forth, Congress will have to deal with a worsened humanitarian crisis, massive exodus from the island, health care problems and more."
  • Celebrity chef José Andrés launched a relief effort, #ChefsForPuertoRico, through his nonprofit World Central Kitchen. Together, Andrés, his team and hundreds of volunteers have served more meals on the island than the Red Cross."When we go to a place, we take care of that place until we feel it has the right conditions to sustain itself. That's what a relief organization should be," said Andrés.

The facts

The latest on what we know from Puerto Rico, per FEMA and the PR government site:

  • Boots on the ground: More than 20,000 federal civilian personnel and military service members, including more than 1,700 FEMA personnel, are on the ground in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • State help: 31 U.S. states are helping in PR, and 20 in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • Electricity: 19% of the island has power, up from 14% Monday. Roughly 46% of cell towers have been restored.
  • Food: Approximately 90% of grocery stores are open (410 of 456).
  • Gas: Roughly 79% of retail gas stations are operational (873 of 1,100).
  • Shelter: 4,702 people remain in shelters across the island, down from 5,037 Monday. 100 shelters are open and operating.
  • Transportation: Only 392 miles of Puerto Rico's 5,073 miles of roads are open. All commercial airports and federally maintained ports are open, some with restrictions.
  • Water and waste: Approximately 72% of Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) customers have potable watey. 56% of waste water treatment plants are working on generator power, the same as Friday.
  • Medical care: 95% (64/67) hospitals are open, down from 97% Friday. Many remain on backup power systems, and are without air conditioning. 95% (46/48) of Dialysis Centers are open, the same as Friday.
  • Banks: 65% of bank branches (203 of 314) are open and operating.
Go deeper: Puerto Rico Mayor Javier Garcia Perez delivers food and finds desperation (CNN); Puerto Rico faces a demographic disaster (Washington Post); FEMA Chief Blamed for Katrina Response Says Same Problems Are Happening in PR (TIME)
This post is being updated with the latest information on the Puerto Rico recovery efforts.
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Sanders: Kelly is 'disgusted' by politicization of his son's death

Sarah Sanders said in today's White House press briefing that Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly is "disgusted and frustrated" by the way his son's death has become politicized.

Why it matters: It was President Trump who first mentioned Kelly's son, when he told Brian Kilmeade on Fox News Radio to ask Gen. Kelly if he ever got a call from President Obama after his son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

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New AlphaGo AI learns without help from humans

A game of Go. Photo: Baona / iStock

DeepMind's latest iteration of AlphaGo — the artificial intelligence that beat world champion Go player Lee Sedol in 2016 — can learn to play the ancient game without feedback from humans or data on their past plays, researchers report today in Nature. Instead, the new AlphaGo Zero started with just knowledge of the rules and learned from the success of a million random moves it made against itself.

The score: After three days of training, the AI beat the original AlphaGo 100 to 0 — and was also able to create new moves in the process. This demonstrates a decades-old idea called reinforcement learning, suggesting that "AIs based on reinforcement learning can perform much better than those that rely on human expertise," writes computer scientist Satinder Singh in his accompanying article.

What it means: If AI can utilize reinforcement learning, that could be important in cases where large amounts of human expertise isn't available. But, it isn't clear how much this strategy will generalize to other applications and problems, says the University of Washington's Pedro Domingos. Go, though more complex than chess, offers a problem with defined rules unlike a busy street with unpredictable pedestrians and ambiguous shadows that a robot-controlled car might operate in.

What's new: AlphaGo's initial iteration was trained on a database of human Go games whereas the newer AlphaGo Zero's artificial neural networks use the current state of the game as input. Through trial and error and feedback in the form of winning, the AI learned how to play.

It then used that same network to choose its next move whereas AlphaGo used a separate network. This reinforcement learning strategy, which was used extensively by AlphaGo as well, has its roots in psychology: the neural network learns from rewards like humans do.

The DeepMind researchers wrote: "the self-learned player performed much better overall, defeating the human-trained player within the first 24h of training. This suggests that AlphaGo Zero may be learning a strategy that is qualitatively different to human play."

How they did it: AlphaGo Zero uses less computing power than earlier versions but Google's immense computing power was still key. The sheer number of games the AI can play against itself is an advance, says Domingos, who is the author of a book called The Master Algorithm.
He points out though that the roughly 5 million training games of self-play it took for AlphaGo Zero to beat AlphaGo is "vastly more" than the number of games Sedol had played to become a champion.

Recent work suggests simpler forms of learning could achieve similar goals. A paper published earlier this year by OpenAI showed how a technique similar to hill-climbing — in which the AI basically starts with a solution then makes small tweaks to optimize it — can solve Atari games, albeit simpler than Go.

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White House: Alexander-Murray bill needs to go "further"

Sarah Sanders calls on reporters for questions at a White House briefing. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said President Trump does not support the bipartisan Alexander-Murray health care deal in its current form. It's "a step in the right direction," but the president wants the bill to "go a little bit further" in reducing premiums and allowing flexibility, she said.

Sanders also addressed the controversy surrounding President Trump and calls to Gold Star families. Asked if Chief of Staff John Kelly knew Trump would raise his son's death in responding to the controversy, Sanders did not directly address whether Kelly knew, but said the retired general was "disgusted" that his son's death had become politicized.

  • On Trump's calls to gold star families: The president has made contact with all individuals presented to him by the White House Military Office, Sanders said.
    • Trump's "proof" of the contents of his call to gold star widow Myesha Johnson, disputed by Rep. Wilson, is the fact that staffers including John Kelly were present in the room when he made the call. Kelly thought the call was "respectful."
    • Rep. Wilson is "disgusting" for politicizing the call, Sanders said. (Note: Johnson has corroborated Wilson's account.)
    • Sanders did not deny that Trump, at some point during the call to Johnson's family, said the soldier "knew what he signed up for."
  • On NAFTA negotiations: Nafta is not dead "yet," but Trump has said it's a "bad deal."
  • Gov. Ricardo Rossello of Puerto Rico will visit the White House tomorrow.
  • On the liberation of Raqqa: "It is clear that Isis's so called caliphate is crumbling across Iraq and Syria."
  • On Mnuchin's comment that it's difficult not to give tax cuts to the wealthy: "That's not the focus" of Trump's tax plan.
  • On banning bump stocks: The ATF is reviewing bump stocks. There is no policy decision yet.
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NFL chief: "Everyone should stand for the national anthem"

NFL Chief Roger Goodell held a press conference Wednesday to address the ongoing political feud that has broken out as a result of players taking a knee during the national anthem, something President Trump has repeatedly condemned as disrespectful to the flag.

"We believe everyone should stand for the national anthem, that's an important part of our policy... We have about a half a dozen players that are protesting... We're going to continue to work to try to put that at zero. We're not afraid of the tough conversations. That's what we're having with our players."

The big picture: Goodell also said, "we're not looking to get into politics." That ship appears to have sailed.

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Mexico, Canada to stay in NAFTA if U.S. pulls out, Mexican pres. says

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico City. Photo: Rebecca Blackwell / AP

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto told El Economista that Mexico and Canada will continue to participate in NAFTA under bilateral terms even if the U.S. pulls out of it. Trade with the U.S. will continue and be governed by the World Trade Organization's general guidelines, he said.

The big picture: Mexico and Canada say they'll reject the Trump administrations hardline demands on NAFTA, and Peña Nieto is saying they have a plan B if Trump won't agree to something they can live with.

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OPEC and allies leaning toward extending oil supply cut

An oil pump in the desert oil fields of Sakhir, Bahrain. Photo: Hasan Jamali / AP

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), along with 10 other countries including Russia, are leaning towards extending an oil supply cut for another nine months, according to a Reuters report.

Why it matters: The deal, which was extended previously in May, planned to cut oil supply by around 1.8 million barrels daily until early 2018 in order to return oil stock levels to the five year average, which has not yet been accomplished. The purpose is to raise global prices, which have taken a hit due to excess supply.

What to watch for next: OPEC and allies could meet in early 2018 if a decision isn't reached this November, Reuters reports.

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Jobs are plentiful for rock-bottom pay across the West

For many years, the economic rules were supported by both common sense and the data: when unemployment falls, wages rise soon after. But since the turn of the century and before, that relationship has broken down across the developed world, according to data from the OECD (scroll over the chart below for detail).

Data: Unemployment and annual wage data from the OECD; Chart: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Stagnant wages aren't just an American problem: Workers in the wealthier nations are facing similar headwinds, like declining union membership, increased competition from foreign workers in a global marketplace, and slow productivity growth. But no one knows precisely why economics are failing to observe the traditional supply-and-demand rules.

The question is not academic: Frustrated by stagnant income, fears for their children's future, and the deterioration of their towns and cities, ordinary people in the U.S. and across Europe are taking it out on migrants and their traditional politicians, shaking up the western-led political system.