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►  Trump makes nice with Dems, leaving his party confused

Donald Trump was in the mood to celebrate after cutting a big deal with opposition Democrats.

Joshing with Northeastern officials in the Cabinet Room, Trump hailed New York Democrat Andrew Cuomo as “my governor” and traded banter with Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, another fellow New Yorker.

“If you just dropped in from outer space, you wouldn’t know what the last eight months have been like,” said Representative Peter King, R-N.Y., recalling the friendly exchanges between Trump and Schumer during the meeting with New York and New Jersey lawmakers.

That would be the same Schumer whom the president had previously slammed as a “clown” and “Cryin’ Chuck.”

And now?

“In some ways it’s almost like they were completing each other’s sentences,” King said.

On display at that chummy scene Thursday was the Trump who’s emerged in full this past week: Trump the independent.

A president who spent months catering to the Republican conservative wing now appears unbound by ideology and untethered by party allegiances.

It’s not a complete surprise to his fellow Republicans. They long have worried that Trump, a former Democrat, might shift with the political winds. But Trump’s overtures to Democrats have left Republicans in an awkward and perplexing position, undercut by their leader and unsure of what’s next.

“Our grass roots are very confused,” said Representative Mark Meadows, R-N.C., head of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, on MSNBC Friday. Meadows said he viewed the deal as a “unique situation because of the devastation in Texas.”

Trump’s deal with Democrats to raise the U.S. borrowing limit and keep the government running for three month months — all in the name of speeding relief to hurricane victims — quickly passed Congress and gave him the opportunity to savor a victory after months of legislative setbacks.

He’s now talking about possible future deals with Democrats — doing away with votes on the raising the debt cap, and shielding from deportation young immigrants living in the United States illegally who came brought here as children.

“I think that’s what the people of the United States want to see,” Trump said. “They want to see some dialogue.”

It’s unclear how much of Trump’s turnabout is a deliberate strategy to create space for his tax overhaul this fall or simply a deal-maker’s gut decision, bargained during an Oval Office session that left his fellow Republicans gobsmacked.

Trump has been frustrated by GOP leaders and blames House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for his inability to score big triumphs in Congress. He’s appeared unconcerned about dismissing their opposition to the debt ceiling deal, focusing instead on the fact that the move has him rare kudos with some television commentators.

Trump sprinkled salt on the wound Friday by reminding GOP leaders via Twitter about their failed efforts to overhaul former President Barack Obama’s health law: “Republicans, sorry, but I’ve been hearing about Repeal & Replace for 7 years, didn’t happen!”

In venting about Republican congressional leaders, Trump may just be channeling his supporters. Trump, who essentially hijacked the party two years ago, has positioned himself as the voice of voters who feel alienated from Washington and disdain both parties.

“The Republicans in the Senate did not follow through on their commitment in working with the administration to repeal Obamacare. So what’s he going to do?” asked Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council.

Perkins said he didn’t think Trump’s most loyal supporters would approve of extended dealings with Schumer and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California. But, he added, “They’re just as mad at the Republican leadership as they are the Democrats.”

Still, Trump’s startling agreement on the debt left Republicans wondering how far he’s willing to stray from party orthodoxy in pursuit of a deal.

Their frustrations spilled out during a closed-door meeting Friday with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney, a former South Carolina congressman, who were sent to Capitol Hill to defend the deal. At one point Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs executive and Democratic donor, drew hisses when he asked House Republicans to “vote for the debt ceiling for me,” said Representative Mark Walker, R-N.C.

From the start of his presidency, Trump has repeatedly labeled Democrats as obstructionists, and few expect his budding alliance with Schumer and Pelosi to be long-lived. Trump is loathed by the Democratic base, many of whom talk more openly about impeachment than cooperation.

But there’s little doubt that Trump’s talk of “dealmaking” may occasionally open up possibilities for Democrats.

“I think the president, when it comes to making deals, is an enigma,” said Representative Steve King, R-Iowa.

King said he will continue to work with Trump, but acknowledged that the past week had been a “little unsettling” and noted that “conservative allies have been leaving the West Wing at a fairly regular pace.”

One of the top aides King was referring to was Steve Bannon. The strategist was ousted in August but remains a vocal proponent of the president’s agenda.

Trump announced the deal with Democrats while Bannon was sitting for an interview with CBS News, but the Breitbart executive chairman saved his most pointed remarks for McConnell and Ryan, accusing them of trying to “nullify” the results of the 2016 election.

The headlines on the Breitbart website Friday reflected the anti-establishment wing’s distrust of some of Trump’s New York allies, as well as party leadership — but not of Trump himself.

Other Republicans are willing to give Trump a pass, for now. “Of course I view him as a Republican,” said Representative Darrell Issa, R-Calif. He said that when Republicans can’t solve a problem by themselves, “then the president has that obligation to be that neutral arbitrator.”


►  Toxic sites in likely path of Irma

Dozens of personnel from the Environmental Protection Agency worked to secure some of the nation’s most contaminated toxic waste sites as Hurricane Irma bore down on Florida. The agency said its employees evacuated personnel, secured equipment and safeguarded hazardous materials in anticipation of storm surges and heavy rains.

The Associated Press surveyed six of the 54 Superfund sites in Florida before Irma’s arrival, all around Miami in low-lying, flood-prone areas. There was no apparent work going on at the sites AP visited this past week. The EPA said that if there was no activity, a site should be considered secured but would be closely monitored. The sites were in various stages of federally directed, long-term cleanup efforts.

At the Miami-Dade Emergency Operations Center on Saturday, Republican Senator Marco Rubio said the EPA workers he’s spoken with seem “generally positive” about the prospects for toxic sites remaining secure in the coming hurricane. But “they can’t guarantee it 100 percent,” he told AP.

“EPA feels they got a handle on it.” he said. “They think that the risk is real but certainly not as severe as some other places. Not to minimize it — it’s something to think about.”

AP was not able to fully evaluate each site’s readiness for the hurricane.

“If any site in the path of the storm is found to pose an immediate threat to nearby populations, EPA will immediately alert and work with state and local officials and inform the public — and then take any appropriate steps to address the threat,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said Friday. “So far no sites have risen to this level that we are aware of.”

A risk analysis by EPA concluded in 2012 that flooding at such sites in South Florida could pose a risk to public health by spreading contaminated soil and groundwater. Flooding could disturb dangerous pollutants and wash it onto nearby property or contaminate groundwater, including personal wells, said Elizabeth “Betsy” Southerland, who retired last month as director of science and technology in EPA’s Office of Water after 30 years at the agency.

“The agency needs to quickly respond with careful monitoring after the storm,” said Southerland.

A recent analysis for the Government Accountability Office by two researchers at American University found that a storm surge in South Florida of just 1 to 4 feet could inundate the half-dozen sites visited by AP in recent days. Irma was predicted to push in a wall of water up to 12 feet high.

Of particular concern was the one-acre Miami Drum Services site. It is located over a drinking-water aquifer in a heavily industrial area of Doral, in west Miami-Dade County. The site was once home to more than 5,000 drums of various chemicals, some of which were dumped onsite after the metal containers were washed with a caustic cleaning solution. That solution, mixed with the chemical residues in the drums, leaked into the Biscayne Aquifer, a drinking water source.

The EPA’s community involvement coordinator for the site, Ronald Tolliver in Atlanta, told AP he was not sure what the agency was doing to prepare the site or contact residents whose drinking water could be affected by serious flooding from Irma. Bowman said Tolliver was a new employee and may not have been familiar with the EPA’s hurricane procedures for Superfund sites.

At the Homestead Air Reserve Base Superfund site south of Miami, it would take only about a foot of storm surge to swamp the nearly 2,000-acre Superfund site. Numerous apartments and a shopping center with a supermarket are nearby.

The EPA needs to do a better job helping people who live near Superfund sites stay informed with accurate information, said Stephen Sweeney, a former graduate fellow in EPA’s office of policy and one of the American University researchers who conducted the Superfund flooding study.

“These residents need to be aware of their surroundings, and what could be in their water and the floodwater,” said Sweeney, now a private consultant. “There needs to be some sort of public communication. Either mass distribution of information or evacuating residents — it’s up to the agency to make that call.”

At the Anodyne site in North Miami Beach on Friday, the AP found three sealed steel drums labeled as being filled with “IDW” soil and water in the open, weed-covered field behind a building. IDW is the designation for “investigation derived waste.” The drums were labeled, “Do not disturb.” Bowman said the barrels were low-risk to human health.

A worker from a nearby building, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said he saw workers putting soil and water into the drums weeks earlier. The EPA said soil and groundwater at the former industrial site was contaminated with a brew of toxic chemicals, including pesticides, solvents and heavy metals.

Bowman said the private contractor overseeing the site would remove the drums before Irma made landfall.

The EPA has made significant efforts over the last week to publicize its response to flooding at Superfund sites in Texas and allay concerns about similar sites in Florida. That followed an August 26 report by AP that at least seven Superfund sites in the Houston region had flooded during Hurricane Harvey. AP journalists on the scene in Texas surveyed the sites by boat, vehicle and on foot.

Hours after AP’s story last week, the EPA said it had reviewed aerial imagery confirming that 13 of 41 Superfund sites in areas affected by Harvey had flooded and were experiencing possible damage due to the storm. The EPA also confirmed that its own personnel had not yet visited the Houston-area sites.

Since then, EPA has been issuing daily updates about its efforts. On Monday, the agency organized a media tour of one of the Houston sites highlighted in AP’s reporting, though AP was not notified about the press event and was not able to attend. After AP informed the EPA in Washington that its reporters had been surveying Superfund sites in South Florida, the agency warned in a press release that “unauthorized entry at any Superfund site, either prior to or following the storm, is prohibited as these sites can be extremely dangerous and can pose significant threats to human health.”

Following his appointment by Trump, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has repeatedly said that cleaning up Superfund sites is among his top policy priorities. He appointed a task force to study the issue quickly, adopting 42 recommendations and saying he wanted to develop a “top-10 list” of the most dangerous sites.

Pruitt, who has questioned the severity of consequences from global warming, has been largely silent on the threat posed to Superfund sites by rising seas and more powerful storms.

A nationwide assessment conducted under the Obama administration in 2012 determined that more than 500 Superfund sites are located in flood zones. Nearly 50 are in coastal areas that could also be vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surge, including several located in Florida.


►  Trump sets emergency aid in motion in deal that upsets GOP

Donald Trump ignored seething Republicans and made good on his deal with Democrats, signing legislation that links $15.3 billion in disaster aid to an increase in the U.S. borrowing limit.

The law is a first installment in replenishing depleted federal emergency coffers. Trump signed it Friday as Hurricane Irma approached Florida and as Texas picks up the pieces after the devastation of Harvey. All 90 votes in opposition were cast by Republicans, some of whom hissed and booed administration officials who went to Capitol Hill to defend the package.

Conservative Republicans were upset that Trump cut the disaster-and-debt deal with Democratic leaders with no offsetting budget cuts.

“You can’t just keep borrowing money,” said GOP Representative Jeff Duncan of South Carolina. “We’re going to be $22 trillion in debt.”

The aid measure, which passed the House on a vote of 316-90, was the first injection of emergency money that could rival or exceed the $110 billion federal response after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, though future aid packages may be more difficult to pass. The legislation also finances the government through December 8.

In a closed-door meeting before the vote, more than a dozen Republicans stood up and complained about Trump cutting a deal with Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi instead of GOP leaders trying to deliver on the president’s agenda.

Budget chief Mick Mulvaney, a former tea party congressman from South Carolina who took a hard line against debt increases during his House tenure, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin faced a rough time in pleading for votes.

Mnuchin elicited hisses when he told the meeting of House Republicans “vote for the debt ceiling for me,” said Representative Mark Walker, R-N.C.

Republicans were in disbelief after Mnuchin argued that the debt ceiling shouldn’t be a political issue in the future, said Representative Mark Sanford, R-S.C.

Representative Ryan Costello, R-Pa., described a surreal scene with Mnuchin, a former Democratic donor, and Mulvaney, who almost certainly would have opposed the very measure he was sent to pitch, pressing Republicans to rally around the legislation.

“It’s kind of like ’Where am I? What’s going on here?’” Costello said. “If it wasn’t so serious it kind of would have been funny.”

Mulvaney was booed when he stepped to the microphone, though lawmakers said it was good-natured. He defended the deal and Trump.

“It was absolutely the right thing to do,” Mulvaney told reporters after the meeting. “The president is a results-driven person, and right now he wants to see results on Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma and tax reform. He saw an opportunity to work with Democrats on this particular issue at this particular time.”

But Mulvaney further upset Republicans when he wouldn’t promise spending cuts as part of a future debt limit vote.

Trump on Wednesday had cut a deal with Senator Schumer and Representative Pelosi to increase the debt limit for three months, rather than the long-term approach preferred by the GOP leaders that would have resolved the issue through next year’s midterms.

Conservatives disliked both options. Voting on the debt limit is politically toxic for Republicans, and the deal will make the GOP vote twice before next year’s midterm elections.

Fiscal conservatives have clamored for deep cuts in spending in exchange for any increase in the government’s borrowing authority. The storm relief measure had widespread support, but the linkage with the debt ceiling left many Republicans frustrated.

“Are we doing anything on fiscal sanity? No,” said tea party Representative Dave Brat, R-Va. “And so Mick (Mulvaney) came over today, the treasury secretary came over today, and we said, ‘Do you have a plan for fiscal sanity going forward?’ No. Crickets. So that’s the frustration.”

Democratic votes are invariably needed to increase the debt limit — and avert a potential market-quaking default on government obligations — and Schumer and Pelosi successfully pressed to waive the debt limit through December 08. Democrats are cautious about working with Trump, but hold out hope for legislation on the budget, health care, and shielding young immigrants brought to this country illegally from deportation.

Moderate GOP Representative Peter King, R-N.Y., said he’s been encouraging Trump to find ways to work with Democrats. King attended a meeting in the White House on Thursday with lawmakers when the president asked him “how did I feel the bipartisan deal was going. Did I think it was good?” I said, “‘Absolutely, we need more of it.’ I said, ‘You and Chuck. The two of you in the room. We can make some good deals.’”

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