President Donald Trump delivered his second State of the Union address Tuesday night to a Congress that remains bitterly divided on political issues that span generations, including the nation’s immigration policy and abortion.
The wall and dreamers
Once again, Trump promised to build a wall on the southern border.
“This is a smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier – not just a simple concrete wall. It will be deployed in the areas identified by border agents as having the greatest need, and these agents will tell you, where walls go up, illegal crossings go way way down.”
The region’s Democratic lawmakers are among the calls from the left in Congress against taxpayer money to fund a physical border with Mexico. Trump has asked for $5.7 billion to keep a 2016 campaign promise to build a wall, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers has said that the new Democratic-controlled House of Representatives should use that figure as the start of negotiations for concessions on the legal status of so-called “dreamers,” the children of immigrants who entered the country illegally and who were granted a deferment of deportation by President Barack Obama in 2012.
If all that sounds familiar, it’s because those discussions were at the heart of a similar government funding standoff before Trump gave his address in January 2017.
Sen. Patty Murray tweeted Tuesday that her party would not budge on funding for the wall.
“Democrats have made it clear that we don’t support using taxpayer dollars to pay for President Trump’s wasteful wall,” she tweeted.
Trump offered in mid-January a deal that would have included money for the border wall, but also grant additional protections to existing dreamers for three years. Democrats rejected the deal, noting that Trump had chosen to end the program in the first place.
A long-term solution for beneficiaries of the Obama-era deportation deferrals would affect thousands of residents in Washington and Idaho, according to statistics collected by the Department of Homeland Security. New applications for the program were delayed for portions of 2018 while the courts weighed legal challenges to the Trump administration’s decision to end it. As of the end of September 2018, the most recent date for which data is available, initial applications for protected status have been approved for 18,474 Washington residents, and 3,209 residents of Idaho, up slightly from the same time last year.
Agriculture and trade
Trump spoke little about agriculture in his speech, but he used the new farm bill, which expanded some subsidy programs to encourage more people to take up farming and provided permanent funding for some local food programs, as an example of Democrats and Republicans working together successfully.
Trump has signaled he wants a trade deal in place with China by March 1, an agreement that would bring certainty to an Asian wheat market that had been shut off from U.S. wheat exports as part of the trade dispute beginning last March.
In his speech, Trump said he is working for a new deal with China because it has stolen American intellectual property and taken “American jobs and wealth.”
“But I don’t blame China for taking advantage of us – I blame our leaders and representatives for allowing this travesty to happen,” Trump said.
China imported $60 million worth of U.S. soft white wheat in the 2017 to 2018 marketing year, said Scott Yates, director of communications for the Washington Grain Commission. That qualified them as a significant trade partner, but not one as dependable as Japan and other countries that buy more Washington-grown wheat, he said.
More important to the region’s wheat growers, however, is a potential bilateral deal with Japan to counter the multilateral agreements that country has with growers in Canada and Australia, which will be selling to the Asian country with a high demand for Washington’s fluffy white wheat at a cost some $14 per ton cheaper than the U.S. come later this spring, said Yates. That discrepancy would grow to $70 a ton by 2027.
Deals with Japan weren’t mentioned by Trump, but he did urge Congress to pass a replacement to NAFTA, United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement
Trump said approving the new deal with Mexico and Canada would “bring back our manufacturing jobs in even greater numbers, expanding American agriculture, protecting intellectual property and ensuring that more cars are proudly stamped with the four beautiful words: Made in the USA.”
Trump highlighted legislation in Virginia and New York seeking to ease restrictions on a woman seeking an abortion. That legislation prompted Bishop Thomas Daly of the Spokane Diocese to pen a letter late last week urging local Catholic politicians to seek reconciliation with the church before receiving Communion if they support abortion-enabling legislation, a suggestion that was met with skepticism by some local lawmakers.
“To defend the dignity of every person, I am asking Congress to pass legislation to prohibit the late-term abortion of children who can feel pain in the mother’s womb,” Trump said. “Let us work together to build a culture that cherishes innocent life. And let us reaffirm a fundamental truth: all children – born and unborn – are made in the holy image of God.”
New York’s and Virginia’s legislation also prompted U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, to introduce a measure on the chamber’s floor that would create criminal penalties for a health care provider that did not provide medical assistance to an infant that survived an abortion procedure. Murray, a Catholic and the only Democrat on the floor when Sasse introduced the measure Monday night, objected, arguing the measure wasn’t necessary.
“We already have laws against infanticide in this country,” Murray said. “This is a gross misinterpretation of the actual language of the bill that is being asked to be considered, and therefore I object.”
One area where Trump appears not to have the support of Congress is his administration’s efforts to remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan. News last week that Trump’s diplomats were negotiating an end to hostilities with the Taliban drew a rebuke from Ryan Crocker, a Spokane Valley native and former ambassador to the Middle Eastern country.
One of Trump’s most memorial lines of the night highlighted his approach to Afghanistan.
“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” Trump said.
He said his administration is having “constructive” talks with the Taliban.
“Our troops have fought with unmatched valor – and thanks to their bravery, we are now able to pursue a possible political solution to this long and bloody conflict.”
Trump tweeted late last week that he “inherited a total mess in Syria and Afghanistan,” citing a $50 billion annual expense in Afghanistan alone in his assertion that troops should return home. Opponents, among them Crocker and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have argued that a full troop withdrawal now would embolden remaining extremists in the region.
The U.S. Senate voted 70 to 26 on Monday night in favor of a non-binding agreement calling for troops to remain in both countries to protect national security. The senators from Washington and Idaho all voted in favor of the measure.
According to the Military Times, 12 U.S. service members from Spokane and three from Coeur d’Alene have been killed in Operation Enduring Freedom, the military’s designation for the action in Afghanistan that began in 2001.
Health care costs
Trump said one of his priorities is to lower the cost of healthcare and prescription drugs.
“It’s unacceptable that Americans pay vastly more than people in other countries for the exact same drugs, often made in the exact same place. This is wrong, this is unfair, and together we will stop it,” Trump said.
In October, the president signed a pair of bills allowing pharmacists to offer paying cash for prescriptions to their customers rather than going through insurance.
Murray has been a critic of Trump’s efforts to reduce drug prices, arguing the Democratic position that Medicare should be allowed to directly negotiate with pharmaceutical companies and sponsoring legislation that would allow that. Trump had expressed interest in the idea as a candidate for president.
The Trump administration also has pushed for the posting of hospital procedure prices online in an effort to promote transparency. The region’s health care and insurance providers say the measure is well-intended, but the system is not yet user-friendly and doesn’t reflect the actual costs of care. Trump asked Congress to create more “price transparency” so patients can know how much they will be charged.
The Republican-backed tax reforms are more than a year old, and the GOP is continuing to push strong job and stock market numbers as measures of its success.
Trump stressed many positive economic numbers during the speech.
“The U.S. economy is growing almost twice as fast today as when I took office, and we are considered far and away the hottest economy anywhere in the world.”
Ahead of the State of the Union address, McMorris Rodgers shared on Twitter the results of a U.S. Labor Department report last week that showed wages increased 3.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2018, the largest such jump in a decade. Over the entire year, average hourly earnings among U.S. workers increased 1.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Rising wages have led to fears that interest rates may be increased by the U.S. Federal Reserve to combat inflation, but the panel said last week it intended to take a cautious approach to any revisions of its current benchmark rate.
The unemployment rate in Spokane County stood at 5.8 percent in December, the most recent month for which data is available. That’s up slightly from 5.7 percent in December 2017, and from historic lows this summer around 4.5 percent.
Complicating matters for the president could be the economic effects of the 35-day shutdown, estimated by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office to reach $3 billion in costs to the U.S. economy, a number Trump’s advisers have disputed. The Washington Employment Security Department reported processing close to 2,300 applications for unemployment from federal workers they believe were tied to the shutdown in mid-January.
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