By Ted Landau
The conference room in Senator Dianne Feinstein’s San Francisco office was packed — standing room only. In attendance at our December 6 meeting were over 20 members of Indivisible: a combination of members of the East Bay and San Francisco chapters, plus one brave South Bay commuter. At the head of the table was Sean Elsbernd, the Senator’s State Director.
After brief introductions, we dove into a 90 minute conversation where Indivisible members took turns sharing our positions and asking Sean about the Senator’s plans. He was both communicative and frank in his replies.
Top of agenda were the two looming topics of the day: the tax reform bill and the impending showdown over the budget.
When asked what we as Indivisible members could do to help block the passage of the tax bill, Sean stressed that we shouldn’t focus our attention on Representatives outside our own districts because our actions would be unlikely to affect those votes (a point already well-understood by Indivisible).
At the same time, he indicated that the Republican House members from California should be a primary target for any statewide action. Being from California, a state that will be hit especially hard by the tax reform bill, these GOP Representatives could be susceptible to a change in their vote. They did, after all, vote to raise taxes on their own constituents. Sean admitted it’s a long shot — but it’s the best we can do.
As for the budget, Sean informed us that the Senator’s priorities are health care and disaster relief (especially for California fires and Puerto Rico). We stressed that we want Senator Feinstein to vote no on any funding deal that doesn’t include immediate re-authorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and to again vote no if the bill does not include a solution for DREAMers.
Sean responded cautiously, noting that while the Senator supports these priorities, they have to be balanced against the damage to constituents that a government shutdown would cause. Similarly, he added, the Senator believes it is not in our interest to sound as if we are in favor of shutting down the government, as this opens us up to potentially shouldering the blame should a shutdown occur. All agreed that this is a delicate balancing act, although Indivisible’s position tilted more strongly to proclaiming the intent to vote no if these issues were not addressed satisfactorily.
The rest of the meeting covered a diverse array of issues, ranging widely from Temporary Protected Status visas to gun control to net neutrality to health care to sexual assault to the Russia investigation to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) reauthorization. In general, as you might expect, Sean indicated that the Senator agreed with and was supportive of our requests and concerns, although how this would translate into action was often less clear. A few highlights:
- Regarding Senator Feinstein’s Safe Environment from Countries Under Repression and Emergency Act, Sean informed us that this would not be taken up until next year.
- On the matter of net neutrality and the FCC’s plans to dismantle it, Sean indicated that he did not think there was much that could be done on this matter legislatively.
- When asked about reports on a major escalation in the privatization of intelligence work, separate from the CIA, Sean said Senator Feinstein will continue to oppose this.
- Sean predicted that removal of the ACA’s individual mandate will remain in the tax bill, and said he thought there’s no stopping it at this point.
- Regarding the Russia investigation, Senator Feinstein is sending out letters to various people requesting information regarding obstruction. However, her letters do not carry the force of a subpoena. On the plus side, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein’s tacit support for Mueller’s budget is a sign that Mueller will be protected from possible actions by Trump.
- When asked whether the Senator expects passage of an amendment to the FISA bill that would prevent warrantless searches, Sean replied that this is a top priority for her. She still thinks the amendment has a chance to pass when the bill hits the Senate floor.
Overall, everyone agreed it was a productive and worthwhile discussion. IEB looks forward to our next meeting with Sean, which will likely be held separately from the ISF contingent.
Ted Landau is a retired professor of psychology. He has also spent several decades as a tech journalist/author — writing primarily about Apple products. He has been politically active in the East Bay since moving here in 2004.