Unfiltered Political News

5 things Trump did while you weren't looking: Week 3

The White House declared it “Tech Week,” inviting a group of CEO’s to repair the administration’s somewhat rocky relationship to the innovation industries. But for all intents and purposes, this turned out to be Healthcare Week in Washington.

The Senate GOP’s healthcare bill dropped with a bang on Thursday, drafted so secretly that even key Republican lawmakers didn’t know what was in it. The bill so dominated the Washington news that even Trump’s walk back of his Comey-tape threat got only a short ride in the spotlight.

Whether Congress really gets a health care bill done is anyone’s guess; for now, it’s a massive rethink of Medicaid and some significant changes to Obamacare. But away from Capitol Hill, the White House really is still getting stuff done, quietly continuing its broad rollback of Obama-era policies. As part of our weekly roundup of what’s really changing across the government, here are five big policy changes from the last week:

1. The Labor Department loosens a rule on beryllium exposure
You haven’t heard of it since chemistry class, but beryllium is a chemical toxic to lung tissue. The Department of Labor took years to finalize a rule protecting workers from exposure, and didn’t issue the final version until the tail end of Obama’s presidency—January 9, to be exact. It was always at risk of removal by the Republican Congress, which could have repealed it with just a majority vote, but it survived until now.

On Friday, the Department of Labor proposed a new rule on beryllium exposure; it doesn’t change the original exposure limits imposed by Obama but instead eliminates additional safety requirements for the construction and shipyard industries, such as conducting medical surveillance or providing training for those workers who are near, but not above, the exposure limits. Labor groups slammed the change, saying that it would lead to more lung disease and cancer among workers. Industry groups applauded the changes; the original rule, they argued, was too restrictive.

The DOL must still go through a full rule-making process, so the new beryllium rule won’t be finalized for months. In the meantime, the department said it wouldn’t be enforcing the Obama-era rule.

2. A new emergency alert for cops
We’ve all noticed the emergency warnings on television or radio, which alert audiences about a child abduction (the “Amber Alert”) or severe weather. Soon, there may be a new alert: a “Blue Alert” for when a police officer is missing, seriously injured or killed in the line of duty.

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission unanimously approved the first stage of rulemaking to add such a “Blue Alert” to the FCC’s Emergency Alert System (EAS), which was created in 1997 to enable the president to communicate quickly and directly with the American people in the case of an emergency. Stations are required to carry such presidential alerts but alerts for a child abduction or severe weather are voluntary.

A “Blue Alert” has already been implemented in 27 states; the FCC proposal would make it a national standard. The change has bipartisan support—it’s hard to see politicians taking a stance against showing concern for officer safety—but it also fits with the Trump administration’s focus on attacks on cops, and the Department of Justice’s pivot from Obama-era policies on police accountability toward a more protective stance on police.

3. The Yucca nuclear controversy re-opens
So … where is America supposed to put its spent nuclear fuel over the long term? A decades-old debate was reawakened this week when Rick Perry, the energy secretary, announced at a congressional hearing on Tuesday that he was reconstituting the Office of Civilian Radioactive Management, which ran a proposed Nevada site for long-term waste storage.

Throughout the Obama administration, with Nevada Sen. Harry Reid leading the Senate Democrats, plans to store nuclear waste in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain had no chance of actually happening. Now it’s back. This wasn’t exactly a surprise, since Trump’s budget included $120 million to restart the licensing process for the Yucca site; in fact, in May, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission took the first steps towards restarting that process. But Perry’s words nevertheless created a sharp backlash from Nevada politicians who have long fought any plan to store nuclear waste in their state.

Perry somewhat walked back his comments at a separate congressional hearing on Wednesday, saying that “no decision has been made at this time with respect to the timing or the location, for that matter, of waste storage.” But the Office of Civilian Radioactive Management is still set to reopen during fiscal 2018. The next Yucca fight is just beginning.

4. The White House gets tough with Russia
Amid multiple congressional inquiries and the investigation by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, the Trump administration hasn’t done much to distance itself from Moscow. So it may have come as a surprise on Tuesday when the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on more than three dozen individuals and organizations involved in Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The announcement coincided with Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko’s visit to the White House, but many observers wondered if the administration had a different motive: discouraging the House from taking up the Senate’s Russian sanctions bill. That legislation, which passed the Senate last week by a 98-2 vote, would limit Trump’s ability to ease sanctions on the Russian government. The White House has been working to water down or kill the Senate bill. The new sanctions can’t hurt those efforts.

5. Trump quietly releases another immigration executive order
It went almost entirely unnoticed: At 9:20 p.m. on Wednesday, the White House released a new executive order on immigration. Compared to Trump’s past orders on immigration, which have set off national protests and ongoing court cases, this one was minor. It makes a very small change to an Obama-era executive order, removing one section that directed the secretaries of state and homeland security to create a plan so that “80 percent of nonimmigrant visa applicants are interviewed within 3 weeks of receipt of application.”

So now, DHS and State can take more time to review nonimmigrant visa applicants. What’s the reasoning for this? Michael Short, a White House spokesperson, said in an email that the change was “a very straightforward step that removes an arbitrary requirement and ensures the State Department has the needed discretion to make real world security determinations.” He explained that the White House didn’t want to set an “arbitrary deadline” for reviewing and vetting visa applicants.

For people seeking nonimmigrant visas, which include everything from business travelers to foreign athletes to diplomats, this could mean longer waits as their applications are processed. But to the White House, any additional waits are simply a necessary step to keep the country safe.

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Heller comes out against Senate GOP health care bill

Sen. Dean Heller said Friday that he won’t support the Senate’s Obamacare repeal bill without significant changes to prevent major coverage losses, a potential blow to the GOP efforts to roll back the health care law.

“This bill that’s currently in front of the United States Senate is not the answer. It’s simply not the answer,” said Heller, the most vulnerable Senate Republican in the 2018 midterm election. “It’s going to be very difficult to get me to a yes.”

Heller is now the fifth Republican to go public with a threat to vote against the bill, which is the culmination of seven years of GOP campaign promises. On Thursday, four conservatives — Sens. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Ron Johnson — said they aren’t ready to support the draft bill because it preserves too many of Obamacare’s regulations but said they’re open to negotiations. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can lose only two of his 52 members for the bill to pass when he holds a vote in a week.

Shortly after Heller’s announcement, America First Policies, a group started by some of President Donald Trump’s campaign advisers, said it would launch an advertising blitz against Heller for his opposition.

Heller did leave the door open to supporting the bill if changes are made.

“Both Republicans and Democrats can agree the [Affordable Care Act] does need some fixes,” the Nevada Republican said. But he said he wouldn’t support rolling back Medicaid unless payment rates for a state like Nevada are boosted.

“This is all about Medicaid expansion. … You have to protect Medicaid expansion states,” Heller said.

However, he acknowledged that conservatives will oppose his request to expand funding, pointing to “the Ted Cruzes and Mike Lees and them because they’re not in expansion states,” he said.

Heller made his remarks in Las Vegas, standing next to Gov. Brian Sandoval, a moderate Republican who defied party orthodoxy to set up an Obamacare exchange and expand Medicaid and who strongly opposes repeal of the ACA.

For that reason, the law’s rollback of Medicaid expansion — as well as major cuts and restructuring of the entire program — have become huge issues in Nevada. More than 200,000 Nevadans are covered through the Medicaid expansion, and nearly 90,000 people signed up for Obamacare plans through its exchange.

Heller told several reporters in the Capitol earlier this month that he would support phasing out the Medicaid expansion over seven years. But his office later pushed back on that statement to local reporters.

Heller has previously said that he would vote based on what he determined to be the best interests of his state.

“The current bill as written is something that needs to change,” said Sandoval, who is term-limited in 2018. “I think we can do better.”

America First Policies is readying more than $1 million in anti-Heller ads, according to a source familiar with the planning. For the group, the ad blitz is an opportunity to show that groups aligned with Trump’s base are ready to go to bat for the president.

“You do not want to mess with Donald Trump’s base in a primary, particularly in a place like Nevada,” said the source. “This kind of money in Nevada is real. … This is a beginning.”

The ad campaign, which features digital, TV and radio components, will paint Heller as a “typical politician,” the source said, and will characterize him as standing with Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi against the White House. The source said America First views Heller as more solid in his opposition than the other Republicans who have come out against the Senate bill.

But Heller has backup in Nevada. Sandoval issued a statement immediately following the release of the Senate bill Thursday saying its contents caused him “great concern.”

He also recently penned a letter, along with six other governors (two other Republicans and four Democrats), urging Congress to prioritize fixes that would stabilize the individual market, rather than making major changes to Medicaid that would end the program as an open-ended entitlement.

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Pro-Trump group to target GOP Sen. Heller over health care bill

A pro-Trump outside group is launching an advertising blitz against Republican Sen. Dean Heller over his opposition to the health care repeal bill — a bold act of political retaliation against a member of the president’s own party.

Heller, a Nevada Republican, is up for re-election in 2018 and is seen as one of the most vulnerable incumbents up for reelection this cycle.

The barrage, which will be orchestrated by America First Policies, a group run by many of President Donald Trump’s top campaign advisers, is backed by more than a million dollars, according to multiple sources familiar with the planning. Digital ads are set to begin running on Friday, and television and radio spots are set to launch early next week.

A Heller spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The offensive was announced just hours after Heller declared that he would oppose the Obamacare repeal bill. Heller, said several officials with America First, has indicated privately to the White House that he is unlikely to get to “yes” on the current Senate version of the bill.

“This bill that’s currently in front of the United States Senate is not the answer. It’s simply not the answer,” Heller said during his public announcement on Friday. “It’s going to be very difficult to get me to a yes.”

In attacking a vulnerable Republican senator, Trump allies are telegraphing that they’re willing to play hardball in order to advance the president’s stalled legislative agenda. Yet it is also certain to anger senior Republicans who are already worried about the party’s prospects in the 2018 midterms.

Allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is keeping a close watch over midterm planning, were rankled by the anti-Heller campaign, saying they did not receive a heads-up before it was announced.

Those involved with America First say the offensive is simply a ramped-up effort to keep Republicans in line – a role it has been hesitant to play until now.

“You do not want to mess with Donald Trump’s base in a primary, particularly in a place like Nevada,” said one America First official. “This kind of money in Nevada is real. … This is a beginning.”

The ad campaign will paint Heller as a “typical politician,” one of the sources familiar with the planning said, and will characterize him as standing with Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi against the White House.

Another person involved in the planning, however, said it was possible that the commercials would ultimately be less hostile toward Heller depending on whether he softens his opposition to the bill. If the senator were to demonstrate a willingness to negotiate, for example, the group could air ads that simply encourage him to back the repeal bill rather than attack him so directly.

While Heller is one of a group of GOP senators that has voiced wariness about the GOP repeal bill, people close to America First say other senators have shown more willingness to move to yes than the Nevadan has.

America First Policies is led by a group of Trump loyalists including Brian Walsh, former White House official Katie Walsh (no relation to Brian), Brad Parscale and Pence allies Nick Ayers and Marty Obst.

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Intelligence officials worry State Dept. going easy on Russian diplomats

Intelligence officials and lawmakers are concerned that the State Department is dragging its feet in implementing a crackdown on Russian diplomats’ travel within the U.S., despite evidence that Moscow is using lax restrictions to conduct intelligence operations.

The frustration comes amid bipartisan concern that the Trump administration is trying to slow down other congressional efforts to get tough on Russia. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told a House committee last week that a new Senate sanctions package designed to punish Russia for its interference in the 2016 election would limit Trump’s “flexibility” and impede possible U.S. “dialogue” with Moscow.

At issue separately is a provision already signed into law, as part of Congress’ annual Intelligence Authorization Act, approved in May, which requires the State Department to more rigorously enforce travel rules for Russian diplomats inside the U.S. The Kremlin’s U.S.-based diplomatic corps, according to several U.S. intelligence sources, has been known to skip notification rules and use the lax restrictions to roam around the country, likely engaging in surveillance activities.

The law includes a requirement that the State Department work with the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to ensure that Russian diplomats notify the State Department of their travel plans and actually go where they say they’re going.

But intelligence officials say there are early indications that the State Department, which is trying to avoid an escalation in tensions with Russia that might prevent friendly dialogue, is resisting the new measure, which formally goes into effect on Aug. 2. The officials wouldn’t give specifics, but said there has been little forward progress on actually implementing the new policy, which also includes notifications between the State Department and Congress, and is relatively easy to put into place.

While the State Department still has time before the deadline, much of the officials’ frustration comes from months of perceived inaction by State as Russian diplomats traveled freely throughout the last year and a half, and there’s little optimism that will change.

The State Department said it is taking the new requirement seriously.

“The Department is aware of the mandate in Section 502 of the Intelligence Authorization Act and is discussing it internally and with other U.S. government agencies,” A State Department official said. “The Department understands the importance of strict enforcement of travel protocols and procedures applicable to Russia’s accredited diplomatic and consular personnel.”

Russia hawks in Congress are already publicly voicing concern that the State Department is not doing enough ahead of the deadline to start cracking down on Russian diplomats’ movements inside the U.S.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) pressed the FBI on the subject at a recent open hearing, and asked whether the State Department was being more cooperative with the agency, which also plays a role in tracking foreign diplomats’ whereabouts.

“I’d rather not comment on that here,” Bill Priestap, the head of the FBI’s counterintelligence division said. “We’re still working through the implementation.”

The new restrictions were proposed in Congress last summer after it was found that the Kremlin’s diplomatic corps frequently waited until the last possible moment to notify the State Department of their travel plans, as required by law, if they notified the State Department at all. Often, the diplomats wound up in places they hadn’t disclosed they were going.

Priestap declined to discuss specifics of the travel notification issue, but said the notion of Russian diplomats wandering around the country unchecked would be a concern for the bureau.

“If that were to happen, that would absolutely complicate our efforts,” Priestap said, declining to comment on the existence of the problem.

But U.S. intelligence officials tell POLITICO that the burgeoning issue has absolutely affected U.S. counterintelligence efforts at home. And there is tangible frustration that the State Department is fighting implementation of an overall easy fix of ensuring the Russians adhere to basic travel guidelines.

One frustrated U.S. official complained the State Department has mistakenly assumed its mandate is to keep foreign governments happy. “That’s not their job,” the official said, adding that the State Department is too worried about “rocking the boat.”

The new requirements aren’t stringent, nor completely new — instead, they underscore procedures that are already supposed to be in force. For example, Russian diplomats are allowed to travel with appropriate notification. Rules require that diplomats notify the State Department 48 hours before they travel, if they intend to travel more than 25 miles outside their posting. The State Department is then supposed to notify the FBI.

Still, intelligence officials say the State Department has shown little appetite for actively cracking down on Russian personnel, fearing backlash from Moscow.

With the departure of former Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama’s State Department ranks, there was guarded optimism among the intelligence community that new leadership might be more willing to crack down where Kerry — hopeful for counterterrorism cooperation with the Russians — wouldn’t. But Tillerson’s comments and State’s apparent lack of interest in enforcing the travel restrictions has effectively muted that.

For years, there has been tangible frustration among intelligence officials and even some foreign service officers at the Obama administration’s reluctance to undertake aggressive counterespionage methods at home, especially as the Kremlin aggressively goes after U.S. diplomats based in Russia. In a well-publicized incident last year, Russia’s internal security agency, the FSB, beat up a CIA officer returning to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, hurting him so badly he was immediately flown from the country for medical treatment.

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The GOP’s one-man fire brigade

Karen Handel wasn’t the only big winner in Tuesday’s special election. Republican operative Corry Bliss, who heads the super PAC officially blessed by House GOP leadership, arguably had just as much riding on the outcome.

He had never managed a House race before he took the helm of the Congressional Leadership Fund, which poured more than $10 million into the recent special elections. But now Bliss is coming off four straight victories, and he’s credited with quelling Republican fears that President Donald Trump will drag down the party’s prospects in the 2018 midterm elections.

“He’s on a hot streak,” said Mark Isakowitz, chief of staff to Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, whose reelection campaign Bliss led to a 21-point victory last year.

Sitting in his office the day after Handel’s win, he says the special election wins mean “probably nothing” about the party’s fortunes in next year’s midterm elections.

But Bliss has proselytized relentlessly about the declining importance of television, which Trump used to great effect, and the rising importance of ground game, something Barack Obama and Democrats were quicker to exploit than their Republican counterparts. He was bitterly critical of what he regarded as the Republican National Committee’s weak field program last year in Ohio, where he built an independent field operation on Portman’s behalf — a move that ruffled feathers at the Republican National Committee.

The senator waltzed to victory, but Bliss clashed repeatedly with then-RNC chairman Reince Priebus and his chief of staff, Katie Walsh, over Portman’s field program; and Priebus and Walsh later waved off Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan from hiring Bliss to run the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee. Sources close to Bliss and Priebus say they have a cordial relationship now.

“[Bliss] is very intense, and he is outspoken and unafraid of saying what he thinks, and he doesn’t care if people are offended or not,” said famed GOP ad-maker Larry McCarthy.

The results in Georgia appear to have validated Bliss’ unconventional approach. While super PACs rarely invest in field programs, CLF poured more than $2 million into the one in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, a risky strategy that allowed Democrats to outspend Republicans on television.

“The traditional mindset is: You can’t be outspent on TV,” Bliss says. “We made the determination that was not necessary to win and that we could be more impactful doing data and field work.”

One example: In liberal DeKalb County, CLF targeted 8,100 voters whom it had identified as “reluctant Republicans” and saw a marginal shift in Handel’s direction as a result. Overall, while Democratic turnout in the district was high, Republican turnout was even higher.

Bliss’ reputation as a crisis manager preceded this year’s special elections. He was dispatched at the last minute to save Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts’ flailing campaign in 2014 and showed up at campaign headquarters with one sheet of paper on which he’d printed “Harry Reid, Harry Reid, Harry Reid,” according to Chris LaCivita, who ran the campaign with him.

“This is your strategy for the debate,” Bliss told Roberts.

Dating back to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president’s party loses an average of 27 seats in the midterm elections, a number that would cost the GOP its House majority in 2018. Bliss recognizes that the challenge next year is to defy history at a time when the major battle is likely to be over control of the House — and the Democratic Party is highly motivated by deep animosity toward the president.

“The House is center stage and every one of these difficult races where we’re going to have to defend incumbents is going to get a lot more attention than it would have in previous cycles,” said John Ashbrook, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and a longtime Bliss friend. “He brings a new aggressiveness to House races that they have not really adopted compared to Senate races.”

Bliss thinks he can protect the Republican majority with his relentless focus on ground game, which has become something of an obsession for him. “When you’re having a discussion with him, his eyes are like lasers and they burn right through you. He could’ve played the George C. Scott role in the movie ‘Patton,’” said McCarthy, who worked with Bliss on the Portman campaign as well as on the recent special election in Montana.

That intensity and bluntness have earned Bliss respect — mostly from his clients, including Portman, Roberts and 2012 Connecticut Senate candidate Linda McMahon — and enmity from his foes. Red-faced and relentlessly disciplined, his dark hair cut like a Roman centurion’s, Bliss’ demeanor has led to a reputation as a straight-talking operator who can get his clients to do what needs to be done to win.

He is also is fiercely competitive, a quality honed on the horse farm in upstate New York where he grew up. His father is a legendary horse breeder and his mother was an accomplished equestrian. Horse racing remains his favorite hobby. “The guy is like a savant on horse betting,” said Ashbrook. “He could teach a graduate-level class on betting the track.”

Bliss was a latecomer to politics, which he says is essentially like sports for grownups. “When I was in college, I didn’t know there was such a thing as the College Republicans,” he says. In law school, he gained a disdain for liberal administrators and professors and learned that he didn’t want to be a lawyer — though he remains a member of the New York, New Jersey and D.C. bars.

Like any sports fan worth his salt, Bliss is a legendary trash talker, and his office is festooned with his victory trophies. Framed newspaper articles that recount his political victories are the only decorations on his office walls. A report about the Kansas Senate race carries the headline “Roberts fends off Orman,” a reference to Roberts’ opponent, Greg Orman, whom the incumbent defeated by 10 points.

“Fend, my ass,” Roberts scrawled on the page. On another newspaper report, Roberts wrote, “I will try to be the bad ass you are.”

After Bliss helped McMahon defeat former Connecticut GOP Rep. Chris Shays in a 2012 Senate primary, Shays blasted McMahon and her campaign aides in an interview. Bliss shot back in a local paper: “Congressman Shays is a classless, bitter sore loser who should do the people of Connecticut a favor and keep his mouth shut and move back to Maryland.’’

“However,” Bliss continued, “I would like to offer a portion of my salary to be used to pay for the psychiatric care that Congressman Shays desperately needs. And lastly, I know that Congressman Shays has dreams of running for governor, and I will keep my opposition research book under my pillow with the hopes of being able to use it, pro bono, if he launches another failed campaign.’’

Even if Bliss doesn’t attribute much meaning to the recent spate of special elections, it doesn’t mean that he won’t spike the ball. “Jon Ossoff is officially the biggest loser in the history of Congress,” he wrote in a memo distributed to donors the day after Handel’s victory. Shortly after Handel’s victory was announced, he dropped a hockey analogy: “The Democratic Party has become the Washington Capitals: Every time it matters, they lose.”

That trash talking extends to Republicans, too. Bliss took a lot of heat for deriding Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte, who was convicted of assaulting a reporter the night before his election, as a “C-minus” candidate, and has warned the party that candidates like Gianforte aren’t going to cut it in next year’s environment.

Special elections are notoriously unreliable indicators of midterms, and it has been 15 years since the incumbent party did not lose seats in a midterm year. So on a whiteboard in his office, Bliss has a list of names — Bacon, Knight, Valadao, Denham, Royce — all Republican members of the House in whose districts CLF is setting up or has already set up formal offices from which to run field programs.

Bliss, who’s behind his desk every morning by 7 a.m., spent most of the day after Handel’s victory calling donors and explaining his approach in Georgia.

“It worked,” he told them. “Give me more.”

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Blind Autistic Teenager Becomes Homecoming King at South Plantation High School

Robert Woodruff, 17, also known as “Dr. Bob” and “Dr. Cookies,” was recently crowned homecoming king at South Plantation High School, school which is located in Florida.


When the administrators from South Plantation High announced the 17-year-old as the winner, his classmates became excited and deeply moved. Robert, who is autistic and blind, enthusiastically “campaigned” at his school. He passed out fliers, pasted posters around the school and urged students to support him. Robert, who is also an exceptional student with a GPA of 3.9, hopes that he has motivated other students with disabilities. The teenager has also participated in famous plays. For example, he recently played the “Pied Piper of Hamelin”, which was part of South Plantation High’s “Shrek the Musical.”


Robert has a very prominent reputation in his school. Students love him because of his personality and his merits. According to James Woodruff, Robert’s father, he dreaded the times when his son was going to start high School. James thought that Robert would suffer from bullying, but he was wrong. Christy Henschel, the principal of South Plantation High School, thinks that Robert represents what it is to be homecoming king. Isaac Sankersingh, a very good friend of Robert, sees his friend as an icon. Sankersingh also thinks that Robert is the epitome of South Plantation High School. He represents this school in very aspect.


Robert is definitely a character, and he has earned his reputation. Sankersingh, for example, says that he encountered Robert during a bad day. It was his birthday, and he was forced by his instructors to attend a play after school. Robert, in order to console his future friend, congratulated him for his birthday and gave him cookies. Hence, this is how Robert obtained the nickname of “Dr. Cookies.” The nickname “Dr. Bob” derives back since Robert was a freshman. His science teacher named him like this. Also, Robert attends every single event from his school, whether athletic or artistic.


Life has not been easy for Robert and his parents. Robert had to prove that he was fit for conventional classrooms. Thus, he had to take a lot of exams, and his parents had to deal with a lot of meetings and with administrators. According to Henschel, Robert is very independent. He has actually exceeded her expectations and is doing very good in school. But he does need some assistance, like in mathematics. Robert has an aid that accompanies him to his math class. He reads for him. Since Robert cannot rely on photographs, he has to record conversations. Robert wants to go to college. He will go to Florida Gulf Coast University in order to study broadcasting. Robert’s passion is broadcasting; he loves the radio. The teenager is also fond of music from the 1960s and 70s. Frank Sinatra is one of his favorite musicians.

Winners and losers from the Senate repeal bill

The Senate’s Obamacare repeal bill, which touches all parts of the health care system and beyond, creates new sets of winners and losers. Here are a few:


The wealthy: The bill would strike Affordable Care Act taxes on high earners, particularly a levy on investment income that fell on married couples with more than $250,000 of adjusted gross income and single filers with more than $200,000 of adjusted gross income. It also nixes a Medicare Hospital Insurance tax on incomes above $250,000.

The young and healthy: The plan focuses on lowering premiums by allowing states to cut some of Obamacare’s major insurance rules that help protect sicker patients but also drive up the cost of coverage. For instance, states could cut mandated coverage of emergency care and substance abuse treatment. Younger and healthier people with fewer health care needs would be able to buy skimpier health insurance.

GOP governors who fought Obamacare: Republican governors who sought less federal oversight and more state control over their insurance markets will get tremendous leeway under waivers in the Senate bill. The Senate plan would roll back requirements about what insurers must cover and expedite state applications seeking more flexibility. For instance, governors would no longer need permission from their legislatures to obtain waivers.

Some health industry groups: Medical device makers, health insurers and tanning establishments, among others, would see the eventual elimination of ACA taxes on their products or services — although some of those taxes may be kept temporarily to pay for parts of the plan. Major provider groups, however, including the American Hospital Association, have come out forcefully against the Senate bill, while many other industry groups were still reviewing the plan Thursday afternoon.


Poorer, older insurance consumers: The Senate plan, like the House bill, would allow insurers to charge their older customers up to five times as much as younger customers for the same health plan. That’s an expansion of the so-called age band in Obamacare, which allows insurers to charge older customers no more than three times as much as younger ones. In two years, the Senate plan would also eliminate a key subsidy program that helps cover out-of-pocket medical bills for low-income consumers.

People struggling with addiction: The bill rolls back the federal government’s generous funding for Medicaid expansion, which has been a major source of substance abuse treatment amid the opioid epidemic. The Senate draft earmarks $2 billion for opioid treatment in 2018 — compared to the House’s provision of $15 billion over 10 years for mental health, substance abuse and maternity care. The Senate bill does loosen some restrictions on Medicaid funding of long-term treatment for people with substance abuse and mental health issues.

Planned Parenthood and its clients: The women’s health organization, a frequent GOP target for defunding, would be cut out of the Medicaid program for one year. However, this provision could be problematic for moderate Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Republicans can’t afford to lose more than two votes.

Public health agencies: The draft kills the ACA’s $1 billion Prevention and Public Health Fund in 2018, one year earlier than the House-approved health bill. The fund makes up roughly 12 percent of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s budget and has been used to address public health threats, including the Zika virus outbreak, as well as for preventive health services and immunization programs.

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What's in the Senate's Obamacare repeal bill

The Senate’s sweeping Obamacare repeal plan released Thursday would strike the biggest parts of the health care law, end Medicaid as an open-ended entitlement and give states the ability to waive the health law’s insurance requirements. Here are key features:

Pre-existing conditions: The plan would keep the Affordable Care Act requirement that insurers accept everyone and charge the same rates, with few exceptions. But it would allow states to waive other insurance requirements, including rules for what benefits insurers must cover, that could weaken protections.

Insurance tax credits: Obamacare’s premium subsidies, or tax credits, which are available to people between the poverty level and four times that threshold, would be continued for two years. Eligibility would then be scaled back slightly to 350 percent of the federal poverty level and extended to more low-income people who don’t qualify for Medicaid. Similar to Obamacare, the subsidies would be pegged to income. But the benchmark plan for determining subsidies would be less generous than Obamacare’s.

The bill would also extend for two years Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies, which help insurers pay medical bills for low-income customers. President Donald Trump has threatened to cut off those payments, which health plans said could destabilize the individual insurance marketplaces.

Individual and employer mandates: The health law’s mandate that most people buy insurance or pay a penalty would be eliminated. So would the requirement for mid-sized and large companies to provide coverage to workers.

Older customers could be charged more: Insurers would be allowed to charge older customers five times more than younger ones for the same health plan. Under Obamacare, that ratio is three-to-one.

Medicaid expansion: Boosted federal payments to states that expanded their programs to low-income adults would continue for three years. Starting in 2021, enhanced federal payments would then be rolled back over three years to traditional Medicaid funding rates. Thirty-one states and Washington, D.C., have expanded their Medicaid programs under Obamacare.

Traditional Medicaid: The program covering low-income kids, pregnant women, the elderly and people with disabilities would no longer be an open-ended entitlement. Starting in 2020, states could choose between receiving a block grant from the federal government or a set payment based on the number and type of enrollees. The payments would slightly increase each year, but starting in 2025, the growth rate would be lower than what the House bill prescribes. Certain populations would be carved out from the payment caps. Like the House plan, this would permit states to impose work requirements on able-bodied adults as a condition for receiving benefits.

Taxes: The bill would eventually repeal most of Obamacare’s taxes, including the surtax on high earners investment income and a Medicare Hospital Insurance surtax on the rich. It would also end some industry taxes, such as those on medical devices and health insurers.

Abortion: Subsidies could no longer be used to purchase health plans that cover abortion. Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood would be cut off for one year.

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Inside McConnell’s plan to repeal Obamacare

As Mitch McConnell unveiled the Senate’s long-anticipated Obamacare repeal bill at a closed-door briefing Thursday morning, he urged GOP senators to withhold statements announcing outright opposition to the proposal and remain flexible, according to people familiar with the matter.

About four hours later, a quartet of McConnell’s most conservative members said in a joint statement that they are “not ready to vote for this bill.”

But notably, GOP Sens. Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Ron Johnson and Ted Cruz left themselves plenty of room to eventually support it after further negotiation and persuasion — a critical nod to the Senate majority leader’s request.

The Kentucky Republican still has much work to do to get his health care overhaul across the finish line and may have to offer those senators some concessions that move the bill to the right. And somehow while doing so, he also must keep on board a pair of moderates and a half-dozen stalwart defenders of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.

Right now, McConnell is far away from having a commitment for the 50 votes needed for passage, according to senators who spoke on anonymity to discuss internal politics of the 52-member caucus. But no one on Capitol Hill seems to be betting against the wily majority leader as he plans for one of the most critical roll call votes of his career next week.

“He is extremely talented in cobbling together coalitions of people who disagree,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a moderate Republican skeptical of the GOP’s direction. “I never underestimate his ability to pull something off.”

McConnell’s strategy has been a slow burn, allowing his members to vent in private party discussions while gradually writing a bill that takes in their considerations over the past six weeks. He’s had more than 30 meetings with his members about taking down the 2010 health law, intended to give his members more input and get them comfortable with the product.

Johnson, for example, doesn’t even serve on the two committees who oversee healthcare policy, so the process has empowered him more than he might have been through regular order. People close to McConnell believe Lee’s staff has been read in more than any other member on the chamber’s complicated parliamentary procedures that constrain what is possible under reconciliation.

“He believes that given the amount of input we’ve had from everybody, we’ll get to 50. Because everybody’s had a seat at the table,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a close McConnell ally in leadership. “If you get 80 percent of what you want in a circumstance like this, it’s going to have to be a victory because we’re not going to get 100 percent.”

The most immediate concern is certainly the four Republicans who’ve banded together to enhance their negotiating position.

Republican leaders believe that McConnell can probably convince Johnson (R-Wis.) to eventually support the bill, either through persuasion or an amendment. Republicans hope that positive comments from insurance companies and health care experts in Wisconsin could sway the senator to the yes column.

Cruz (R-Texas) is a tougher task: He and Lee (R-Utah) have been working together on several conservative proposals. Cruz’s biggest ask is to allow insurance companies that offer Obamacare policies to be able to offer non-Obamacare policies as well, arguing that it would provide consumers an additional option and likely drive down prices.

Adoption of such a proposal could win the votes of those two conservative stalwarts, as well as other Republicans, but there’s a problem: The parliamentarian may not allow them under the Senate’s strict budget reconciliation rules — in fact, it might pose a big enough problem to kill the whole bill. McConnell may be able to win those conservatives over, said a Republican senator, but a “little help from the parliamentarian would be nice.”

There is also some concern that the proposal would destabilize markets because the sickest people would end up in pricier Obamacare plans. Cruz and Lee also want to allow insurance to be sold across state lines but Republicans are confident that will not pass muster with the parliamentarian. It’s not clear what, if anything, McConnell can do to satisfy them if those measures are not included.

In addition to the joint statement with his colleagues, Paul also went on a media tour de force criticizing the bill as “Obamacare lite” on Thursday. He’s still viewed by GOP insiders as a likely “no” vote, but with a stronger hand as part of the conservative gang.

McConnell “said this morning that this is a draft and that he’s open to changes. But I think it’s more likely we get changes if there’s four of us asking for changes,” Paul said on Thursday afternoon. “The bill’s got to look more like repeal and less like we’re keeping” Obamacare.

In the past, Paul, Cruz and Lee have all defied McConnell. But they also all entered the Senate on campaigns to repeal Obamacare. McConnell’s message will ultimately boil down to: “It’s time to put up or shut up,” said the party’s chief vote-counter John Cornyn of Texas.

“I think he’s right. We could talk about this endlessly and never reach a conclusion,” Cornyn said in an interview.

Thune added that a more dire argument is beginning to circulate among Republican leaders.

“If we don’t get this done and we end up with Democratic majorities in ‘18, we’ll have single payer. That’s what we’ll be dealing with,” Thune said.

On the other side of the party’s ideological spectrum, Collins said Thursday she’s angling for a vote to strip the bill’s Planned Parenthood defunding provision, which could roil the rest of the conference’s social conservatives.

And senators from Medicaid expansion states like Rob Portman of Ohio and Dean Heller of Nevada raised “concerns” about future funding constraints, though they also did not come out forcefully against the bill as leaders had feared.

“I’m still up in the air,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, another backer of robust Medicaid funding.

Despite the public perception — partly pushed by Democrats — of a rushed process and closed-door negotiations, most Republican lawmakers say McConnell has done as much as he can to incorporate each senator’s wants and craft a bill that could satisfy a wide-ranging conference.

Rank-and-file lawmakers say they would want more time to review the bill, but they understand McConnell has to make the push now instead of letting the controversial plan twist in the wind or further stall the GOP’s agenda.

“We have 23 work days between now and the end of the fiscal year,” a second Republican senator said. “So what he’s saying is, ‘You know guys, if we talk about this for another month, we’ll still be bickering.’”

Now, the majority leader has one week before his self-imposed deadline to convince the parliamentarian on key legislative language and corral 50 votes — all while facing the risk that he’ll be held responsible if the GOP doesn’t repeal Obamacare, as the party has promised for four election cycles.

Republicans said their hope is that if the bill does fail, McConnell won’t be the one held responsible.

“I don’t think he’ll get the blame. I think he’ll get credit for trying,” said a third Republican senator. “It’ll be the people that vote against it that get the blame.”

Jennifer Haberkorn, Elana Schor and Rachana Pradhan contributed to this report.

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EPA staffers, Trump official clashed over new chemical rules

The Trump administration released the nation’s most important chemical-safety rules in decades Thursday — but only after making a series of business-friendly changes overseen by a former industry advocate who holds a top post at the EPA.

Career agency employees had raised objections to the changes steered by EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Nancy Beck, who until April was the senior director of regulatory science policy at the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s leading lobbying group. Those include limits on how broadly the agency would review thousands of potentially hazardous substances, EPA staffers wrote in an internal memo reviewed by POLITICO.

Such limits could cause the agency to fail to act on potential chemical uses “that present an unreasonable risk to health or the environment,” EPA’s top chemicals enforcement official argued in the May 23 memo.

The rules are meant to implement last year’s landmark rewrite of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, a major bipartisan achievement in a deeply divided Congress. Both parties agreed that the law needed an update — the original version didn’t even allow EPA to ban asbestos, a known carcinogen, and some states had begun to step in and create their own patchwork of regulations for chemicals.

But the Trump administration’s steps to implement the law, and Beck’s role in particular, are drawing alarm from environmental groups and congressional Democrats.

Melanie Benesh of the Environmental Working Group called Beck the “scariest Trump appointee you’ve never heard of,” and pointed to a 2009 Democratic congressional report that accused Beck of working to delay and undermine EPA’s chemical studies during her previous tenure at the OMB.

New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, argued in a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on Wednesday that Beck’s appointment “has the potential to undermine the scientific integrity of EPA’s TSCA implementation and the consumer confidence we sought to build with a reformed TSCA.” Pallone is seeking information about Beck’s involvement with the chemicals rules and the issues she is ethically allowed to work on.

Beck told POLITICO that she has been “very involved” with the rulemaking for the past two months at EPA. She also defended the changes in the rules.

“The development of a rule when you go from proposal to final, or even as you develop a rule, it just evolves over time,” she said in an interview Wednesday, before the rules came out. “So I think that this has been a moving target, and will continue to be a moving target until it gets through the OMB review process.”

A statement from EPA’s senior ethics counsel said Beck did not need to recuse herself from working on the TSCA rules because they are “matters of general applicability.” The counsel added that Beck was cleared to consider comments her former employer had submitted.

The American Chemistry Council spent more than $9 million on lobbying last year, and its employees and PAC donated $541,000 to federal candidates in the 2016 cycle, giving Republicans 2½ times as much as it gave Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

EPA officials told POLITICO that the issues raised in the memo from the agency’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance were part of a typical intra-agency consultation process.

Jeff Morris, director of EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics — the division charged with writing the rules implementing TSCA — said chemical safety officials met with the enforcement office “and talked through their comments, and based on that discussion, we moved forward with the rule. At the end of the day, OECA concurred on our approach.”

That doesn’t mean the final rules necessarily incorporated OECA’s suggestions, he added, but in the end it produced a rule “that we could all support.”

Thursday marked the anniversary of the 2016 revamp of the 40-year-old TSCA, which regulates the tens of thousands of chemicals used in the United States. It took Congress two years to hash out the compromise, ultimately winning support from chemical makers and some environmental groups for legislation that beefed up EPA’s power to regulate harmful chemicals.

Rather than relying on EPA to prove that a substance was dangerous, the law shifted some of the burden to industry to show a chemical’s safety. But TSCA also gave EPA latitude to determine how to go about examining thousands of chemicals — effectively setting the scope of the review for substances ranging from corrosive chemicals used in refining to the paints and plastics in children’s toys.

EPA’s plans to implement TSCA came out Thursday in the form of three final regulations known as the “framework rules.” One rule lays out how EPA will set priorities for its assessments of chemicals, dividing them into high- and low-risk categories. Another rule details methods for studying the health and environmental risks of each chemical. And the third culls from EPA’s list any substances not used commercially since 2006.

That last change will ultimately shrink the inventory from 85,000 chemicals to around 30,000, once companies weigh in on which chemicals they still use, according to a recent estimate from Jim Cooper, a senior petrochemical adviser at American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers. Future use of those chemicals will be prohibited until the agency reviews them.

Pruitt has made TSCA a top priority under his “back to basics” strategy, which has been marked by the rollback of several Obama-era environmental regulations, especially major rules on climate change. Funding for TSCA implementation would be increased under the Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposal, while other chemical safety programs and nearly every other aspect of EPA would be cut sharply.

“The activities we are announcing today demonstrate this Administration’s commitment to providing regulatory certainty to American businesses, while protecting human health and the environment,” Pruitt said in a statement releasing the rules.

EPA’s political leaders have pressed the agency’s staff to meet the law’s aggressive deadlines for writing new rules and evaluating individual chemicals, but environmentalists say they are more concerned with the substance of the implementation rules. Congressional Democrats and green activists were already worried about the approach an anti-regulatory administration might take to toxic substances, especially given President Donald Trump’s past support for asbestos, which he once complained got a “bad rap.”

Those fears rose with the arrival of Beck, who worked as an OMB analyst for a decade before joining the American Chemistry Council. She represented the council at a March Senate hearing where she criticized the Obama administration’s proposed TSCA implementation.

EPA career employees, in turn, have expressed concern about the changes the implementation rules have taken since Beck arrived.

The staff memo reviewed by POLITICO was sent by the head of EPA’s Waste and Chemical Enforcement Division to Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, the acting assistant administrator for EPA’s chemical office, on the same day part of the final rules package was sent to the White House for review. It laid out a number of concerns about changes the Trump administration made to a section of the Obama EPA’s January proposal governing which chemicals warrant the most thorough safety evaluation.

Among those concerns was that EPA would consider only a limited set of uses for a chemical when deciding whether it warrants further scrutiny and then determining the risks to human health, rather than examining all the ways people could be exposed to it. For instance, while most Americans think of asbestos as a building material, its largest use by far in the U.S. today is in equipment used to make chlorine gas. Chemicals manufacturers have argued that that use needn’t be considered, saying humans are highly unlikely to come in contact with the asbestos during that process, but environmentalists contend that EPA shouldn’t ignore it when deciding how risky the chemical is for human health.

In an interview, Cleland-Hamnett said EPA is aiming to set the highest priorities for the chemical uses that present the greatest risk, and that it wasn’t prohibiting a broader analysis.

“Not that those are the only uses we would evaluate, but we do want to make sure that we’re evaluating those uses,” she said. “So I think we’ve addressed the concern that we might not evaluate the uses that could prevent unreasonable risk.”

This issue has been a chief sticking point among environmentalists, public health advocates and the industry. Chemical manufacturers may produce a substance for a specific use, said Richard Denison, lead senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, but once it’s put on the market, it can end up being used in a wide variety of ways.

“That chemical that the company may intend to use solely in industrial settings may very well be bought by another company that decides to put it in a consumer product that is sold at your local hardware store,” he said.

But Mike Walls, vice president of regulatory and technical affairs at the American Chemistry Council, said the process should differentiate among various uses of each chemical to determine specific restrictions for each.

“Risks can be managed along a spectrum of measures, running from a ban at its most extreme, to things like labeling or warning requirements,” he said. “So that risk-evaluation process is really critical.”

EPA also released a decision on the scope of its first 10 chemical reviews, which include asbestos, several dry-cleaning chemicals and a purple dye thought to hurt fish and other aquatic life. Industry groups are closely watching whether EPA decides to review those chemicals for all possible exposures, or whether it will limit its review to narrow, specific uses. Further study of those chemicals will take years.

But even as greens have raised alarms about the efficacy of the new chemicals law under the Trump administration, both sides say industry has an interest in making sure it works. After all, it was lack of public trust in the old system that brought everyone to the table a year ago to fix it, said Dimitri Karakitsos, who negotiated the chemicals overhaul measure as a staffer for Senate Republicans.

“Industry and Republicans care very much about a credible system that works, and so does EPA,” said Karakitsos, now a partner at the law firm Holland & Knight. “If implementation isn’t happening, states ramp up activity again, and that can result in an inconsistent patchwork of regulations and significant impediments to interstate commerce.”

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