Alan Fram

GOP keeps Senate control in win for Trump

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans retained Senate control Nov. 6 after ousting Democratic incumbents in Indiana, North Dakota and Missouri, delivering a victory to President Donald Trump by preserving the chamber as a showplace for his conservative priorities for two more years. “Donald Trump went out and worked his tail off,” Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who heads the Senate GOP’s campaign committee, said in an interview. He cited Trump rallies that drew thousands in crucial states during the campaign’s closing weeks and added, “The president was THE factor.” The significance of the Republican victory in the Senate, which the party has dominated for the past four years, was magnified because Democrats wrested House control from the GOP. That’s a sure-fire formula for two years of legislative gridlock and positioning for the 2020 presidential and congressional elections. Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, the only GOP incumbent seeking re-election in a state Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won in 2016, became the only Republican senator to lose. First-term Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen ousted him, attacking him for backing last year’s Republican effort to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law. Republicans retained Senate seats in the South, Midwest and West and ensured at least a 51-49 majority, equal to their current margin. With three races unresolved early Nov. 7, Republicans stood a chance of expanding their majority with wins possible in Florida, Arizona and Montana. They paved their path to victory by defeating Democrats Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Missouri’s Claire McCaskill. They kept competitive seats in Texas, where Sen. Ted Cruz fended off Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the well-financed liberal darling, and Tennessee, where Rep. Marsha Blackburn prevailed. Trump called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., “to congratulate him on the historic Senate gains,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said. It was just the second midterm election in over three decades when the party holding the White House gained seats. The Republican Senate win was especially significant because that chamber confirms nominations, including for Supreme Court justices and federal judges, a top GOP priority. The GOP agenda includes tax and spending cuts, trade, immigration restrictions and curbs on Obama’s health care law. Short of compromises, perhaps on infrastructure, its initiatives will go nowhere in the House. Even passing many bills will be difficult for the Senate. The GOP will fall short of the 60 votes needed to break Democratic filibusters, procedural delays that kill legislation. Though Republicans entered the night commanding the Senate only narrowly, a crucial piece of math worked for them: Democrats and their two independent allies defended 26 seats, Republicans just nine. “Senate Democrats faced the most difficult political map in 60 years,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., chairman of Senate Democrats’ political arm. He lauded his party for winning at least half the 10 seats they were defending in states Trump carried and preventing Republicans from capturing a filibuster-proof majority. Blackburn, a conservative and ardent Trump backer, defeated former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, 74. Bredesen had promised a bipartisan approach if elected. Heitkamp lost to GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer, whom Trump persuaded to seek the Senate seat. McCaskill was denied a third term by Josh Hawley, 38, Missouri’s attorney general, who called McCaskill too liberal for the state. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin was re-elected in West Virginia, which Trump captured by 42 percentage points. Democratic incumbents prevailed in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, which Trump carried narrowly. Democrats hoped their supporters’ would surge to the polls. Fueling their intensity were Trump’s anti-immigration stances, his efforts to dismantle health care protections enacted under Obama and the #MeToo movement’s fury over sexual harassment. “Ever since President Trump has been in office, it has just been not the country that I am used to or that I thought I would be in,” said Sarah Roth, 22, a Democratic voter from Minnetonka, Minn. “And so this really was my opportunity to help this country in changing who is making the decisions.” AP VoteCast, a national survey of the electorate conducted by The Associated Press, highlighted Trump’s impact. Nearly 4 in 10 said they were casting ballots to express opposition to him, while just 1 in 4 said their vote was an expression of support. “I believe he values immigration, but he wants to make sure we’re safe,” said Tina Newby of Wetland, Michigan, a GOP voter. “I like the fact that he is not a politician, and I forgive some of the socially incorrect or politically incorrect things that he says.” Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and Democrats Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar were easily re-elected. All three and Sherrod Brown, a pro-labor senator victorious in Ohio, are considered potential 2020 Democratic presidential contenders. Democrat Sen. Bob Menendez won a third Senate term in New Jersey, despite a federal bribery indictment that prosecutors dropped this year after a mistrial. Also victorious was Republican Mitt Romney, the vanquished 2012 GOP presidential candidate, who grabbed an open Utah seat.

GOP advances tax overhaul; shutdown still a threat

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans held together and shoved their signature tax overhaul a crucial step ahead Nov. 28 as wavering GOP senators showed a growing openness. But its fate remained uncertain, and a planned White House summit aimed at averting a government shutdown was derailed when President Donald Trump savaged top Democrats and declared on Twitter, “I don’t see a deal!” “It’s time to stop tweeting and start leading,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer retorted after he and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi rebuffed the budget meeting with Trump and top Republicans. Trump lunched with GOP senators at the Capitol and declared it a “love fest,” as he had his previous closed-doors visit. But the day underscored the party’s yearlong problem of unifying behind key legislation — even a bill slashing corporate taxes and cutting personal taxes that’s a paramount party goal. The Nov. 28 developments also emphasized the leverage Democrats have as Congress faces a Dec. 8 deadline for passing legislation to keep federal agencies open while leaders seek a longer-term budget deal. Republicans lack the votes to pass the short-term legislation without Democratic support. In a party-line 12-11 vote, the Senate Budget Committee managed to advance the tax measure to the full Senate as a pair of wavering Republicans — Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson and Tennessee’s Bob Corker — fell into line, at least for the moment. In more good news for the GOP, moderate Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said it was a “fair assumption” that she was likelier to support the bill after saying Trump agreed to make property taxes up to $10,000 deductible instead of eliminating that break entirely. But the fate of the legislation remained uncertain as it headed toward debate by the full Senate, which Republicans control by a slender 52-48. GOP leaders can afford just two defectors, and a half dozen or more in their party have been uncommitted. They include some wanting bigger tax breaks for many businesses but others cringing over the $1.4 trillion — or more — that the measure is projected to add to budget deficits over the next decade. “It’s a challenging exercise,” conceded Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. He compared it to “sitting there with a Rubik’s Cube and trying to get to 50” votes, a tie that Vice President Mike Pence would break. Corker, who’s all but broken with Trump over the president’s behavior in office, is among a handful of Republicans uneasy over the mountains of red ink the tax measure is expected to produce. He said he was encouraged by discussions with the White House and party leaders to include a mechanism — details still unknown — to automatically trigger tax increases if specified, annual economic growth targets aren’t met. “I think we’re getting to a very good place on the deficit issue,” Corker said. But other Republicans are wary of backing legislation that would hold the hammer of potential future tax cuts over voters’ heads. “I am not going to vote to automatically implement tax increases on the American people. If I do that, consider me drunk,” said Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana. Collins said she’d also won agreement that before completing the tax measure, Congress would approve legislation restoring federal payments to health insurers that Trump scuttled last month. That bill has had bipartisan support, but it’s unclear if Democrats would back it amid partisan battling over the tax bill. McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., met with Trump at the White House despite the top Democrats’ no-shows. Trump highlighted their absence by appearing before reporters flanked by two empty chairs bearing Schumer’s and Pelosi’s names. Trump said Democrats would be to blame for any shutdown, despite GOP domination of government. “If it happens it’s going to be over illegals pouring into the country, crime pouring into the country, no border wall, which everyone wants,” he said. He also said North Korea’s launch of a ballistic missile Nov. 28 should prompt Democrats to renew negotiations over the spending legislation, which includes Pentagon funding. “But probably they won’t because nothing to them is important other than raising taxes,” Trump said. Democrats noted that in May, Trump tweeted the country “needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!” In a tweet of her own Nov. 28, Pelosi said Trump’s “verbal abuse will no longer be tolerated,” adding in reference to the empty-chairs show, “Poor Ryan and McConnell relegated to props. Sad!” A temporary spending bill expires Dec. 8 and another is needed to prevent a government shutdown. Hurricane aid to help Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands is also expected to be included in that measure, as well as renewed financing for a children’s health program that serves more than 8 million low-income children. Democrats are also pressing for legislative protections for immigrants known as “Dreamers.” Conservative Republicans object to including that issue in the crush of year-end business. But GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida joined Democrats in saying he won’t vote for the spending bill unless the immigrant issue is resolved. AP reporters Matthew Daly, Kevin Freking and Stephen Ohlemacher contributed.

GOP fails again on Obamacare repeal

WASHINGTON (AP) — Facing assured defeat, Republican leaders decided Sept. 26 not to even hold a vote on the GOP’s latest attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, surrendering on their last-gasp effort to deliver on the party’s banner campaign promise. “The bill is dead as a door nail,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., leaving a luncheon where GOP senators decided against holding a futile roll call. The decision marked the latest stinging rejection on the issue for President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. In July, the Republican-controlled Senate rejected three similar GOP measures. The latest was proposed by Sens. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., late last week. McConnell, R-Ky., and other Republicans characterized the decision as a short-term setback. They needed to vote on the measure this week because procedural protections against a bill-killing Democratic filibuster expire Sept. 30, though they could revisit the issue in future months. “We haven’t given up on changing the American health care system,” McConnell told reporters. “We aren’t going to be able to do it this week.” Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was one of three Republicans who voted against three other repeal measures that failed in July, did not reveal a definitive opinion on the bill but said that while changes in the law are needed, “substance matters.” Alaska has extremely high health care costs, in part because of its many remote communities. “I appreciate the efforts of my colleagues, Sen. Graham and Sen. Cassidy, but they have run up against a hard deadline and a lousy process,” Murkowski said in a news release. “Time has not been on their side. The U.S. Senate cannot get the text of a bill on a Sunday night, then proceed to a vote just days later, with only one hearing — and especially not on an issue that is intensely personal to all of us.” Numbers matter for a state that suffers the highest healthcare costs and lowest population density, Murkowski said. But she hasn’t given up search for solid answers to problems weighing down the ACA. With the help of fellow Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, she feels good headway was made educating colleagues in Washington, D.C., through committee work and testimony from Alaska Insurance Division Director Lori Wing-Heier Sept. 6 before the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Sullivan said he was disappointed that Congress hasn’t been able to replace the ACA with a system that works for Alaska. He liked provisions in the Graham-Cassidy bill that would have sent federal healthcare dollars and decision-making back to the states to decide how to meet the needs of their constituents. “The Graham-Cassidy bill, which I’m convinced would have brought more funds and more flexibility to Alaska, was compelling,” Sullivan said. “Unfortunately, the process was rushed and we ran out of time to fully vet the data.” Alaska’s Gov. Bill Walker, who joined nine other governors in opposing the Graham-Cassidy bill last week, also weighed in his hope that revisions to the ACA don’t end with the latest bill’s demise. He intends to convene with other state governors to work on a bipartisan option. He sent a team to Washington, D.C., this week to meet with administration officials. “As governor of Alaska, the state with the highest health care costs in the country, I have been working with members of the Trump Administration, our congressional delegation, and other governors to ensure that any health care bill is not only good policy, but also protects Alaskans,” Walker said Sept. 26. He appreciated that the Trump Administration made several proposals that considered Alaska’s needs. “These concepts are sound policy for all high-cost, low-population states and we hope these concepts will be incorporated in future health care discussions,” Walker said. McConnell made it clear that it was time for Republicans to turn away from trying to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care. They’ve been promising to erase that law since its 2010 enactment but have never rallied behind a plan to replace it. “Where we go from here is tax reform,” he said, citing the next big GOP goal. Rejection became all but inevitable Monday after Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins announced she opposed the legislation. She joined Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Texas’ Ted Cruz who’d already said they opposed the measure. Cruz aides said he was seeking changes that would let him vote yes. Because of their narrow majority and unified Democratic opposition, Republicans could lose just two GOP votes and still push the legislation through the Senate. The retreat left the GOP’s next steps on health care unclear, especially with a president who in recent weeks has reached out to congressional Democratic leaders on high-agenda items like the budget and immigration. Trump said in a meeting Sept. 26 with Republican and Democratic House members that he would work with Democrats on health care if the Republicans “didn’t get repeal done,” according to Rep. Richard Neal, R-Mass. Neal quoted Trump as saying, “You get a better deal if it’s bipartisan.” It was unclear what compromise Trump could strike with Democrats between his stated desire to uproot the health care statute and Democrats defending what was perhaps Obama’s proudest domestic achievement. Democrats rejoiced over the GOP’s retreat. “Today, Americans breathe a sigh of relief because the health care of millions has been protected and preserved,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. He and other Democrats called on Republicans to join a bipartisan effort aimed at buttressing Obama’s law and stabilizing individual health care markets. Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., have been working on a bipartisan bill that would continue federal subsidies to insurers for reducing costs for lower-earning consumers. Trump has threatened to block those payments. In choosing whether to hold the roll call, McConnell faced some Republicans arguing that lawmakers can’t be seen as abandoning a pledge that Trump and countless GOP have run on. Others challenged the value of shining a fresh spotlight on their inability to pass the bill. “Putting it out on the floor and forcing a lot of people to make a vote that maybe they don’t want to make isn’t the best, in my view, long term pathway to success,” No. 3 Senate Republican leader John Thune of South Dakota said before the decision was announced. The abandoned bill would transform much of the ACA, or “Obamacare,” spending into $1.2 trillion worth of grants through 2026 that states could spend on health programs with few constraints. It would also give states far more power — without federal approval — to loosen strings on insurers, letting them charge seriously ill people higher premiums and sell low-cost, low-coverage policies. It was sponsored by Graham and Cassidy. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said “millions” of Americans would lose coverage under the bill and projected it would impose $1 trillion in Medicaid cuts through 2026. GOP leaders revised the measure several times, adding money late Sept. 24 for Alaska, Arizona, Maine, Kentucky and Texas in a clear pitch for Republican holdouts. Earlier Sept. 26, Trump lashed out at GOP lawmakers for deserting the measure, telling reporters, “We are disappointed in certain so-called Republicans.” Associated Press congressional correspondent Erica Werner and writers Ken Thomas and Marcy Gordon contributed to this report. Comments from Alaska elected officials were added by Journal reporter Naomi Klouda.

Senators split over Obamacare vote

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump accused Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a fellow Republican, of disappointing the country by opposing the GOP effort to demolish the Obama health care law, after initial votes demonstrated the party will be hard pressed to make any sweeping changes in the statute. Senators planned to vote July 26 on a Republican amendment to repeal much of President Barack Obama’s law and give Congress two years to come up with a replacement. But that was expected to be rejected by a combination of solidly opposed Democrats and Republicans unwilling to tear down the law without a replacement in hand. “Now we have to keep working hard,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “We’re determined to do everything we can to succeed. We know our constituents are counting on us.” In an initial GOP setback, the Senate voted 57-43 on July 25 to block a wide-ranging amendment by McConnell. Those voting no included nine Republicans, ranging from conservative Mike Lee of Utah to Alaska moderate Murkowski, in a roll call that raised questions about what, if any, reshaping of Obama’s law splintered Republicans can muster votes to achieve. Trump took to Twitter early July 25 to single out Murkowski. “Senator @lisamurkowski of the Great State of Alaska really let the Republicans, and our country, down yesterday. Too bad!” he wrote. Murkowski, a senator since 2002, was re-elected last fall and has criticized the GOP’s proposed cuts in the Medicaid health insurance program for the poor, the disabled and nursing home patients. During the presidential campaign last October, she said she would not support Trump after tapes were released of him making crude comments about women in 2005. “I have repeatedly said that healthcare reform, and especially major entitlement reform, should go through the committee process where stakeholders can weigh in and ideas can be vetted in a bipartisan forum,” she said in a statement from her office. ““I voted ‘no’ today to give the Senate another chance to take this to the committee process. “I still believe that’s the best route, but we will now have this debate on the open floor. We all recognize that we have much work to do to address the healthcare concerns in this country. My commitment is to work with all of my colleagues in the Senate to find solutions that benefit all Americans by increasing access and reducing the cost of care.” Murkowski split with fellow Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, who characterized his vote as a promise kept. “I’m heartened that my colleagues in the Senate kept their promises to their constituents to begin the process to repeal and repair the Affordable Care Act,” Sullivan said in a statement. “Now, the Senate will start an open amendment process that will begin to consider various solutions to address the harm being done by this act. “Since December, I have met with and heard from thousands of Alaskans and I’ve taken their concerns into account throughout this process. While many Alaskans received coverage under Obamacare, more than 23,000 declined to buy outrageously expensive plans they can’t even use, many of them opting instead to pay a fine to the federal government. This is unacceptable. Sullivan outlined his goals for solutions including reducing insurance premiums in rural states with small populations like Alaska, reforming Medicaid and giving states more flexibility, and funds to address the opioid epidemic. The rejected GOP amendment July 25 was centered on language by McConnell erasing Obama’s tax penalties on people who don’t buy insurance, cutting Medicaid and trimming subsidies for consumers. It included a provision by Ted Cruz, R-Texas, letting insurers sell cut-rate policies with skimpy coverage plus an additional $100 billion — sought by Midwestern moderates including Rob Portman, R-Ohio — to help states ease out-of-pocket costs for people losing Medicaid. GOP defectors also included Sens. Dean Heller of Nevada, who faces a tough re-election fight next year, and usually steady McConnell allies Bob Corker of Tennessee, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jerry Moran of Kansas. Before that defeat, Trump and McConnell had gained a reprieve from what seemed a likely defeat and won a 51-50 vote to begin debating the GOP health care measure, which sits atop the party’s legislative priorities. In a day of thrilling political theater, Vice President Mike Pence broke a tie roll call after Sen. John McCain returned to the Capitol from his struggle against brain cancer to help push the bill over the top. There were defections from just two of the 52 GOP senators — Murkowski and Maine’s Susan Collins — the precise number McConnell could afford to lose and still carry the day. All Democrats voted against even starting debate on legislation to dismantle the 2010 statute that stands as President Obama’s landmark domestic achievement. Leaders were openly discussing a “skinny bill” repealing unpopular parts of the statute like its tax penalties on people not buying coverage — a tactic aimed chiefly at letting Senate-House bargainers seek a final compromise later. McConnell’s Democratic counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, saw the GOP’s path as bleak. “It seems the Republican majority is no clearer on what the end game is, because there’s no good way out of this,” he said. Senators were working their way through 20 hours of debate. At week’s end, a “vote-a-rama” of rapid-fire voting on a mountain of amendments was expected before moving to final passage — of something. Internal GOP differences remain over how broadly to repeal the law, how to reimburse states that would suffer from the bill’s Medicaid cuts and whether to let insurers sell cut-rate, bare-bones coverage that falls short of the requirements. While pressure and deal-making helped win over vacillating Republicans to begin debate, they remained fragmented over what to do next. Several pointedly left open the possibility of opposing the final bill if it didn’t suit their states. Even McCain, R-Ariz., who received a warm standing ovation and bipartisan hugs when he returned, said he’d oppose the final bill if it didn’t reflect changes to help his state and lambasted the roughshod process his own party was using. He accused party leaders of concocting a plan behind closed doors and “springing it on skeptical members, trying to convince them it’s better than nothing, asking us to swallow our doubts and force it past a unified opposition. I don’t think that is going to work in the end. And it probably shouldn’t.”

Trump tells GOP to keep its promises to replace Obamacare

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump on July 19 stepped up the pressure on reluctant Republicans to erase much of Barack Obama’s health care law, tweeting, “They MUST keep their promise to America” and vowing the measure would improve at his White House lunch with senators. In a last-ditch effort to revive the bill, Trump invited all 52 Republicans to the White House, a day after the GOP’s seven-year quest crashed and burned in a humiliating defeat for the president, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the GOP. Trump tweeted ahead of the session, “The Republicans never discuss how good their healthcare bill is, &it will get even better at lunchtime. The Dems scream death as OCare dies!” and “I will be having lunch at the White House today with Republican Senators concerning healthcare. They MUST keep their promise to America!” Trump stayed largely on the sidelines as McConnell struggled unsuccessfully to round up support to make good on the GOP’s years of promises to repeal and replace Obama’s health care law. But with McConnell’s third and final effort — on a repeal-only bill — looking like it, too, had collapsed, Trump urged McConnell to delay a make-or-break vote until early next week. Trump’s lunch echoes a similar move in June after McConnell fell short on his first health care effort, and it yielded no apparent results. Indeed Trump seated himself between two GOP senators — Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — who announced Tuesday they would oppose McConnell’s efforts to move forward with the latest bill. Along with opposition from a third GOP senator, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, that was enough to kill the legislation. McConnell can lose only two votes and still move forward in the closely divided Senate. Still, speaking on the Senate floor July 19, McConnell continued to call on his caucus to support the repeal-only bill, and thanked Trump and other members of the administration for their support. “The Obamacare repeal legislation will ensure a stable two-year transition period, which will allow us to wipe the slate clean and start over with real patient-centered health care reform,” McConnell said. “Now we thankfully have a president in office who will sign it so we should send it to him.” Despite the rhetoric from Trump and McConnell, it looks like after seven years of campaigning on repealing “Obamacare,” Republicans have discovered they can’t deliver. Their own divisions are blocking them. McConnell was ready to hold the showdown vote July 19, to get senators on record on the issue and move on to other priorities like overhauling the tax code. But in a closed-door GOP lunch on July 18, fellow Republican senators urged him to wait, according to Republicans present who demanded anonymity to discuss the private issue. McConnell announced late July 18 that the vote would occur early next week, “at the request of the president and vice president and after consulting with our members.” Yet with Murkowski, Collins and Capito already on record as “no” votes, and others harboring private reservations, it’s not clear what can change over the next several days. On Tuesday, Trump himself had sounded ready to move to other issues. “I think we’re probably in that position where we’ll just let Obamacare fail,” the president said. “We’re not going to own it. I’m not going to own it. I can tell you that the Republicans are not going to own it. We’ll let Obamacare fail and then the Democrats are going to come to us and they’re going to say, ‘How do we fix it?’” Despite the current law’s problems, most health care experts do not believe it is at immediate risk of outright failure, and Democratic cooperation to adjust the law is far from assured. Nor does it appear likely that Republicans can escape owning the problems with the law and the health care system overall, now that they control the House, Senate and White House, partly on the strength of campaigning against the law. McConnell had been hunting for votes to open debate on a revived version of legislation Congress sent to Obama’s desk in 2015 that would have repealed major portions of Obamacare, with a two-year delay built in. Many Republicans support the repeal-only approach, and they questioned how senators who voted for the legislation two years ago could oppose it now. But for others, the implications were too severe now that the bill could actually become law with a Republican president in the White House ready to sign it. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that more than 30 million people would lose insurance over a decade under the legislation. Murkowski told reporters that repealing the Affordable Care Act without the promise of a replacement would cause uncertainty and chaos. She suggested a better approach might be to go back to the committee room and work on a bipartisan basis “in a way that the public feels that we are really working toward their best interests.” Indeed Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of a Senate health panel, subsequently announced he planned hearings on the issue in the next few weeks, a step Senate Republicans have not taken to date.

GOP sets goal for Obamacare repeal by Feb. 20

WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump's "first order of business" will be to repeal President Barack Obama's health care law and replace it, but Republicans must avoid hurting consumers as they do that, Vice President-elect Mike Pence said Jan. 4. Sixteen days before leaving the White House, Obama championed his landmark overhaul before Democratic lawmakers and urged them to remind voters of how the statute has helped them. "Look out for the American people," Obama said as he left the meeting in response to shouted questions. "Keep up the fight," Obama told congressional Democrats at a strategy meeting in the Capitol visitors' center, according to Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio. "Tell the stories about the people who have benefited from it. The more you can get that message through, the better off we're going to be." Pence spoke to reporters after holding an hour-long session with House Republicans in the Capitol. Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., said Pence told them the goal was to get legislation dismantling the health care law to Trump for his signature by Feb. 20. "The first order of business is to repeal and replace Obamacare," Pence said, using the overhaul's nickname. He said Americans "voted decisively for a better future for health care in this country, and we are determined to give them that." Pence said Trump's team was already working with GOP congressional leaders on plans to undo Obama's law with both legislation and executive action the president and federal agencies would be able to take. Pence did not specify what those actions would be. But House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters that they would involve "transition relief." That phrase has been used to describe help for consumers and insurers while Obama's law is being phased out and replaced with a GOP alternative, a process expected to take years. Republicans are discussing delaying when the repeal of major provisions of that law would actually take effect, perhaps in 18 months or more. It is expected to take at least that long for GOP lawmakers to rally behind a plan to replace it. Minutes before Obama and Pence met with lawmakers, Trump tweeted that voters are faulting Democrats for the health care law and its rising premiums, deductibles and other problems. "Massive increases of ObamaCare will take place this year and Dems are to blame for the mess. It will fall of its own weight — be careful!" he wrote. Pence told reporters that the president-elect was referring to the need to protect consumers during the transition period. "Look, we're talking about peoples' lives, we're talking about families," Pence said. Trump pledged during the presidential campaign to erase Obama's law, though he's said he wants to retain popular provisions like ensuring coverage for people with pre-existing medical problems. Obama's and Pence's strategy sessions came on the second day of the new, GOP-led Congress. When Trump enters the White House, it will put the party's longtime goal of annulling much of the 2010 health care overhaul within reach. Plenty of questions remain, including the repeal bill's details, costs and when it would take effect. Republicans also face divisions over the next step — replacement legislation — that will likely take months or years to resolve. Republicans eager to show quick action against Obama's health care law took an initial procedural step Tuesday, introducing a budget bill that would have to be considered under a parliamentary procedure that would prevent Democrats from using a Senate filibuster to protect the health care law. Republicans control the Senate by a 52-48 margin, but it takes 60 votes to end a filibuster, a procedural roadblock that can kill legislation. The Senate was expected to complete the budget by next week. House approval would follow. The budget legislation gives congressional committees until Jan. 27 — a blink of an eye for lawmakers — to write legislation repealing major parts of the health care law. Likely targets include the law's tax penalties for people who don't obtain insurance, its requirement that many companies cover workers and tax increases on higher-earning individuals and many health care firms. Aware they have no chance of quickly agreeing on replacement legislation, Republicans plan to delay when their repeal would actually take effect. A range of 18 months to three years — perhaps longer — has been under discussion. Trump has provided few specifics about how he would revamp the nation's $3 trillion-a-year health care system. Steps he and congressional Republicans have mentioned include greater reliance on tax credits to help people afford coverage. Republicans don't want to abruptly end health care coverage for millions of voters who live in GOP-represented districts and states, or cause chaos in health care markets and prompt insurance companies to stop selling policies. So they are considering including provisions in their repeal bill to protect consumers and insurers during the transition period. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., a member of the GOP Senate leadership, said that could include money to temporarily continue helping people afford to buy coverage and language letting the Department of Health and Human Services help stabilize insurance markets. ___ Associated Press reporters Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Erica Werner, Mary Clare Jalonik, Richard Lardner, Stephen Ohlemacher, Kevin Freking and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.

Budget compromise includes lifting of oil export ban

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional leaders girded Wednesday to push a Christmas compromise on tax cuts and spending through the House and Senate by week's end, extending dozens of tax breaks for businesses and families and financing 2016 government operations. "In divided government, you don't get everything you want," House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters about the 2,200-page matrix of wins and losses for both parties, which bargainers completed overnight. He predicted that the tax and spending bills would get bipartisan support, saying, "I think everybody can point to something that gives them a reason to be in favor of both of these bills." Even so, House Democratic leaders were urging their rank-and-file members to oppose the package of tax breaks for businesses and individuals, which they considered too heavily weighted toward corporations and was estimated to cost $680 billion over the next decade. They said they were still studying the spending measure. "In my view it is practically an immorality in terms of how it damages the future," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said about the tax bill. Republicans were likely to strongly support the tax measure but lean heavily against the $1.1 trillion spending bill, which they consider too costly, meaning it will need Democratic votes to pass. The House will vote on the tax package Thursday and the spending bill Friday. Senate passage of both measures, which the chamber's top Democrat said he would support, would be Congress' coda to a tumultuous 2015 that often saw Republicans at each other's throats and the forced retirement of former Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "This compromise isn't perfect, but it's good," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "It's good for the American people." The accord, which includes victories for everyone from oil companies and working-class families to 9/11 emergency workers and biomedical researchers, seems assured of getting President Barack Obama's signature. White House spokeswoman Jen Friedman said the legislation "bolsters our security, grows our economy and reflects our values." With temporary financing of federal agencies expiring Wednesday at midnight, the House by voice vote approved a stop-gap bill preventing a government shutdown through next Tuesday, giving lawmakers time to finish the long-term spending legislation. Senate passage was also expected. The two-part compromise included a measure funding federal agencies in the 2016 federal budget year that started Oct. 1. A separate bill renews around 50 business and individual tax breaks that have expired or are about to lapse. Flung between the measures were wins and losses for both parties. As their top triumph, Republicans cited a lifting of the nation's ban on crude oil exports, imposed 40 years ago during chronic oil shortages. GOP lawmakers mocked it as a relic that ignored today's burgeoning U.S. supplies enabled by new drilling methods, while critics called the move an environmentally damaging windfall for big oil companies. In exchange, Democrats won five-year extensions of credits for wind and solar energy producers and a renewal of a land and water conservation fund. They also blocked GOP proposals to thwart Obama administration clean air and water regulations, but many still found the lifting of the oil export ban a bitter pill. After years of trying, Republicans claimed wins by making permanent business tax breaks for research and development and for buying new equipment. People in states without income taxes could also permanently continue deducting local sales taxes on their federal returns. Democrats got permanent extensions of tax credits for college costs, children and lower-income families. Taxes imposed to help pay for Obama's 2010 health care overhaul, which Republicans have long sought to unravel, were curbed — to the applause of the GOP and many Democrats. These included a tax on high-cost health insurance whose scheduled 2018 start was delayed two years, a win for unions, and a suspension in 2016 and 2017 of the 2.3 percent levy on many medical devices. Language limiting reimbursements to insurance companies losing money on the federal and state health insurance exchanges was retained, despite Democratic efforts to erase it. Many expired tax breaks were renewed temporarily, including reductions for some companies on Indian reservations, race horses and some film and TV productions. Omitted were two major GOP goals: Language dismantling much of Obama's health care law and blocking federal money for Planned Parenthood, which would be certain to draw vetoes. Eager to enact the tax changes and federal funding without a veto fight that could prompt a government shutdown, Republicans have put those provisions in separate legislation to be voted on in January. Democrats said they blocked over 150 GOP-sought provisions. That included one making it much harder for Syrian and Iraqi refugees to enter the U.S., which the House approved after last month's terror attack in Paris. Surviving was widely supported language tightening curbs on foreign tourists visiting without visas. An expired program providing treatment and health monitoring to 9/11 emergency responders was included. Republicans said the bill held the Environmental Protection Agency's budget to 2008 spending levels. They also said they prevented increases in most Internal Revenue Service operations, though that agency's overall $11.2 billion budget was $1.1 billion more than the GOP-run House approved earlier this year. Medical researchers at the government's National Institutes of Health would get $32 billion for 2016, a $2 billion increase. ___ AP Congressional Correspondent Erica Werner and reporters Andrew Taylor, Mary Clare Jalonick, Matthew Daly and Josh Lederman contributed to this report.  
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