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Takeaways from the first hearing in Congress on election meddling by Russia

Published: Monday, March 20, 2017 @ 3:45 PM
Updated: Monday, March 20, 2017 @ 3:45 PM

The House Intelligence Committee held the first public hearing on questions involving actions taken by Russia to interfere with the 2016 elections in the United States, as both parties used starkly different strategies as they asked questions of the heads of the FBI and National Security Agency about that probe.

Here are some of the highlights:

1. FBI confirms Trump-Russia investigation for the first time. Many had long assumed that the FBI was investigating meddling by Russia in the 2016 U.S. elections, but today was the first time that it had been publicly announced by the FBI Director. “Our practice is not to confirm the existence of ongoing investigations,” Comey said. But the FBI Director said that he had been authorized by the Justice Department to confirm that the U.S. does have a counter intelligence probe of Russia. And that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and the Russian Government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts,” Comey added.

2. FBI and NSA reject Trump “wiretap” tweets. Adding their voices to those of top members in both parties on the House and Senate Intelligence committees, both FBI Director Comey and Admiral Mike Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency, said that they had found no evidence to support the March 4 tweets of President Trump, which charged that he had been subjected to wiretaps by President Obama. “I have no information that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully inside the FBI,” Director Comey told lawmakers. There was no ambiguity involved.

3. The White House doesn’t back down on Trump “wiretap” tweets. Just a few hours after the FBI Director bluntly said there was no evidence to back up Mr. Trump’s charge that he was wiretapped during the Obama Administration, the Trump White House refused to back down from the charge. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said there was still time for more information to come out from the investigations of the House and Senate Intelligence committees, so there was no reason to say the President had been wrong in making that claim.

4. Republicans focus not on Russia but on leaks. Republicans used most of their time in this first public hearing to zero in on who leaked information about top Trump aide Michael Flynn, and his conversations with the Russian Ambassador to the United States. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) pressed the heads of the NSA and FBI repeatedly on who knew about incidental collection of Flynn’s phone calls, and who might have leaked them, naming a number of Obama Administration officials as possible suspects. The White House then used that hearing exchange to seemingly make the case that former President Obama might even have been the source of the information. It was another new theory from the White House – that did not seem to have any evidence behind it.

5. One Republican drills down into Russia efforts. While many of her colleagues focused on leaks, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) – who did not support President Trump during the election campaign – pushed for examples from the FBI and NSA on what the Russians actually did to upset the U.S. elections, and how it was different from the past. “We never saw in previous Presidential elections information being published on such a massive scale that had been illegally removed,” said the NSA chief. FBI Director Comey said it was almost like the Russians didn’t care if their actions were uncovered. “They were unusually loud,” Comey said, labeling the Russian intrusions, “very noisy.”

6. Comey admits the FBI kept Congress in the dark. In his testimony, FBI Director Comey said the counter intelligence investigation into Russian election meddling began back in July, but that Congressional leaders were not told of it before the elections – or even immediately after Election Day. “Why was the decision made not to brief senior Congressional leadership until recently,” asked Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY). “Why was that decision made to wait months?” Comey said it was because of the “sensitivity of the matter.” Asked who made that decision, Comey indicated it would have been made by the head of the FBI Counter Intelligence division.

7. Republicans grumble about Comey’s “no comments.” Members of both parties tried repeatedly to get Comey to respond to hypothetical questions that might shed some light on the investigation, but didn’t get far. “I’m not going to answer,” Comey said. “I’m not going to comment,” he said when asked about a number of different people that Democrats wanted to talk about. Rebuffed a number of times in a quest for information, Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) bluntly told the FBI chief that his reluctance to discuss the probe was only helping Moscow, by putting a cloud over U.S. democracy.

8. Democrats use the hearing to lay out broader questions. While Democrats did go after the Russia-meddling matter with much more direct gusto, they also had clearly decided to use this hearing to put a number of matters on the table, to make sure they were aired to a broader audience. For example, the top Democrat on the panel, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), used a chunk of his opening statement to refer to matters in the ‘Steele Dossier,” which emerged just before the election, a document that some had said was all false. But the fact that it received more attention today made others wonder whether parts of it had been verified along the way.

9. Not just the Trump tweets, but the British Intel story as well. Not only did today’s witnesses completely reject President Trump’s assertion that he was wiretapped in 2016, but the head of the National Security Agency also ridiculed the story – promoted last week by the White House – that British Intelligence had been used by the Obama Administration to wrongly monitor Trump Tower as well. Asked directly if the NSA had asked the British GCHQ to monitor Trump, Admiral Mike Rogers did not mince words. “No sir,” Rogers said. “Nor would I.” Rogers went on to say that agreed with other assessments that such a plan would be “ridiculous.”

10. Another finger pointed at Wikileaks. While U.S. Intelligence has never publicly spelled out why it feels that Wikileaks is directly connected to Russia, there was no doubt left today that the FBI Director and others fully believe there is a link. Asked how leaked emails and more were delivered to Wikileaks, FBI Director Comey said there was an intermediary, a “cut-out” as he described it, to send information to the website, which many U.S. officials believe is nothing more than a front for Russian Intelligence. Still, others will rightfully point out that no direct links have been shown – but there is a lot of smoke.

U.S. House moves to bolster lawmaker security in wake of baseball shooting

Published: Saturday, June 24, 2017 @ 8:00 AM
Updated: Saturday, June 24, 2017 @ 8:15 AM

Responding to concerns about personal security for lawmakers after last week’s gun attack at a Congressional baseball practice, U.S. House leaders are moving to provide extra money to members for protection back home, as well as new funding to bolster the work of police and security officials on Capitol Hill.

Under a plan approved by a House spending subcommittee on Friday, the Congress would provide an extra $7.5 million next year to the Capitol Police for an “increased security posture” around the Capitol, along with $5 million to the House Sergeant at Arms to help with security for lawmakers back in their districts.

“We are taking a new fresh look at security,” said Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-KS), the Chairman of subcommittee that deals with funding for the Legislative Branch.

“The tragic events of June 14 weigh heavily on these deliberations,” said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which could vote on the extra money as early as this next week.

Also being put into motion is a separate plan to funnel an extra $25,000 to each member of the House – about $11 million in all – to help them increase security back in their districts.

“The scariest part for us is there used to be this impression by the public that we all had security everywhere we went,” said Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH).

“Now, everyone knows that isn’t the case,” Ryan added, as he lent his support to the extra funding for security as well.

The money in this budget bill would not take effect until the new fiscal year – which starts October 1 – so, House leaders are ready to okay extra money immediately for members worried about security back in their districts.

Roll Call newspaper reported that could be approved in coming days by the House Administration Committee.

Yoder said Congressional leaders are also waiting to see if money raised in campaign contributions for House elections could be put to use for security as well.

“Pending an FEC (Federal Election Commission) decision, we’re also looking at whether campaign funds could be used to continue to support security upgrades at personal residences,” Yoder added.

Trump signs new law to allow VA to more quickly fire workers for poor performance

Published: Friday, June 23, 2017 @ 12:33 PM
Updated: Friday, June 23, 2017 @ 12:33 PM

With strong bipartisan support from both houses of Congress, President Donald Trump on Friday signed into law a plan to make it easier for the Veterans Affairs Department to get rid of employees for poor performance or misconduct, all in an effort to improve veterans health care and other services.

“We’re taking care of our veterans and we’re taking care of them properly,” said the President, as he signed the bill at a White House ceremony.

“Those entrusted with the sacred duty of serving our veterans will be held accountable for the care they provide,” Mr. Trump said.

New legislation was needed from Congress mainly because previous efforts to make it easier to fire employees at the VA had become bogged down in the courts, even preventing the VA from getting rid of people like the former head of the Phoenix VA health care director, where a health care scandal broke out in 2014.

“We won’t be able to accomplish any of the reforms we need to in the VA if we don’t get the right people in place,” said VA Secretary David Shulkin, who with the support of the President, has pressed ahead with internal changes.

Shulkin said this new law would “make it easier and quicker to hold our employees accountable.”

Among the changes in the bill:

+ A streamlined VA process to fire, suspend or demote workers for misconduct or poor performance

+ The Secretary would have the power to reduce the pension of a VA worker if that person is convicted of a felony crime that influenced their job performance

+ The VA would be allowed to claw back bonuses given to employees who are later found to have engaged in misconduct

The new law also includes provisions to protect whistleblowers from retaliation inside the VA, and gives greater authority to the VA Secretary to fill top positions more quickly inside the VA health care system.

“As you all know – all too well – for many years, the government failed to keep its promises to our veterans,” Mr. Trump said, saying “we are just getting started” on major changes to the VA, one of his central campaign promises in 2016.

Replacing Obamacare: Details released of Senate health care plan

Published: Thursday, June 22, 2017 @ 11:28 AM
Updated: Thursday, June 22, 2017 @ 5:49 PM

Senate Republicans on Thursday released their plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, including cuts to Medicaid and ending the so-called individual mandate.

GOP leaders face a daunting task to find the 51 votes they need to approve their own version of an overhaul of the nation’s health-care laws as both moderates and conservatives voiced objections.

Just hours after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made public the bill aimed at revising the 2010 health law known as Obamacare, four conservative Republican senators headed by Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas said “we are not ready to vote for this bill.”

“There are provisions in this draft that represent an improvement to our current health care system, but it does not appear this draft as written will accomplish the most important promise that we made to Americans: to repeal Obamacare and lower their health care costs,” the four senators said in a joint statement.

By contrast, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, one of the more moderate Republicans, said she would not support the bill because it eliminates federal dollars for Planned Parenthood, including money the organization uses for women’s preventative health such as mammograms and Pap smears.

The divisions expressed by Republicans Thursday were a sign that McConnell faces a difficult job persuading at least 50 of the Senate’s 52 Republicans to vote for the bill, which would allow Vice President Mike Pence to break a tie.

RELATED: Dayton Rep. Mike Turner votes ‘no’ on House health care bill

McConnell and his allies might have pushed for a more bipartisan approach which could have a number of Democrats. But any bipartisan bill passed by the Senate would be too moderate to win approval from the Republican-controlled House, which passed its own version last month. Republicans have set a goal of passing the bill by the time the Senate goes home for its July 4 recess.

Medicaid cuts

The bill does not scrap Obamacare, but it scales back the law’s efforts to provide health coverage for millions of low-income people. In particular, the Senate Republican leadership bill would end by 2024 an expansion of Medicaid, the joint federal and state program which provides health cover to low-income people.

Instead, the Senate bill would continue expanded Medicaid dollars through 2021 and then gradually phase out the program in 2024. By contrast, the House version ends expanded Medicaid in 2020.

Both bills would have a major impact in Ohio, where Gov. John Kasich took advantage of hundreds of billions of federal dollars to extend coverage to people who in the past had not qualified for Medicaid but did not earn enough money to qualify for federally subsidized individual insurance policies created by Obamacare.

RELATED: Sen. Portman criticizes health care deadline

Kasich – a Republican – expressed “deep concerns with details of the U.S. Senate’s plan to fix America’s health-care system and the resources needed to help our most vulnerable, including those who are dealing with drug addiction, and chronic health problems and have nowhere else to turn.”

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who is one of the key votes Republicans need to pass the health-care bill, earlier this month backed a plan to slowly phase out Medicaid expansion by 2027. It was unclear whether the faster phase out would cause Portman to oppose the bill.

In a statement late Thursday, he said he looks forward to examining the proposal carefully, but said he has “real concerns” about the Medicaid policies in the bill. The bill includes a one-year $2 billion provision to provide grants to fight the opioid epidemic.

“If the final legislation is good for Ohio, I will support it,” he said. “If not, I will oppose it.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, like all Senate Democrats, will oppose the bill.

“Instead of raising prices on people over 50 and working families, we should be working together to lower costs, fight the opioid epidemic and make healthcare work better for everyone,” he said.

Individual mandate

The Senate GOP bill also alters Obamacare’s requirement that people without insurance be required to buy a plan or face a fine. Obamacare provided tax credits for families of four earning between $34,000 and $98,400 a year to buy individual plans through federal and state marketplaces known as exchanges.

The bill also allows states to seek federal permission to allow insurance companies to offer individual plans that do not include Obamacare’s 10 essential benefits, such as hospitalization, maternity and newborn care, prescription drugs and laboratory services.

RELATED: Senate GOP would halt Obamacare penalties, taxes

The Senate bill, however, differs from the House on pre-existing conditions. Their bill would maintain Obamacare protections for those with pre-existing conditions, while the House would’ve allowed states to remove such protections and given insurers more pricing flexibility.

Like the House bill, the Senate Republican bill would sweep away most of the tax increases approved in 2010 to finance the expansion of health care. 

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office concluded the bill approved last month by House Republicans would decrease the number of people without insurance or government health coverage by 24 million by 2026. A CBO analysis of the Senate version of the bill is expected to be released sometime early next week.

Although health care amounts to about one-sixth of the nation’s gross domestic product, neither the House nor Senate bill does not directly impact employer-based health care, which is how most Americans receive health care. But should the Republicans pass a bill, it could become a model for future employer health-care plans, with employer plans offering benefits that mirror what is offered under the bill.

About 155 million Americans are insured by their employers, 55 million by Medicare, which pays health costs for the elderly, and another 74 million by Medicaid, the joint federal and state program that provides health care for low-income people and the disabled.

Even as senators such as Paul and Cruz released statements opposing the bill, Barry Bennett, a former senior adviser to President Donald Trump’s campaign, predicted the bill would pass, saying “my money is always on Mitch McConnell. He doesn’t lose a lot of these.”

“Now the buy-offs begin,” Bennett said. “Some people will want more money for opioids. Some people will want more money for Medicaid. They probably are all going to get it.

“You are going to lose two,” Bennett said. “My guess is Murkowski is one of them and Rand Paul is the other. And then it passes.”

(Catherine Candisky contributed to this report.)

Obama denounces 'fundamental meanness' of Senate GOP health care bill

Published: Friday, June 23, 2017 @ 10:44 AM

Former President of the United States Barack Obama after a discussion about democracy at Church Congress on May 25, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Steffi Loos/Getty Images)
Steffi Loos/Getty Images

Former President Barack Obama criticized a Republican Senate bill proposed Thursday that would repeal and replace parts of his signature Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, calling the measure bad for Americans and saying that it has “fundamental meanness” at its core.

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“Simply put, if there’s a chance you might get sick, get old, or start a family – this bill will do you harm,” Obama wrote Thursday in a lengthy Facebook post. “It would raise costs, reduce coverage, roll back protections, and ruin Medicaid as we know it.”

Senate GOP leaders unveiled the 142-page proposed ACA replacement Thursday. It would repeal the ACA’s individual mandate to purchase health insurance, make deep cuts to Medicaid and withhold federal funding to Planned Parenthood for a year.

“The Senate bill … is not a health care bill,” Obama wrote. “It’s a massive transfer of wealth from middle-class and poor families to the richest people in America. 

Our politics are divided. They have been for a long time. And while I know that division makes it difficult to listen...

Posted by Barack Obama on Thursday, June 22, 2017

“It hands enormous tax cuts to the rich and to the drug and insurance industries, paid for by cutting health care for everybody else. Those with private insurance will experience higher premiums and higher deductibles, with lower tax credits to help working families cover the costs, even as their plans might no longer cover pregnancy, mental health care or expensive prescriptions. Discrimination based on pre-existing conditions could become the norm again. Millions of families will lose coverage entirely.”

He acknowledged that Republicans have long promised to repeal the ACA, but urged lawmakers to put aside partisan politics while working to address America’s health care system.

>> Related: Senate health care bill: What is in it? Read it here

“I hope that our Senators, many of whom I know well, step back and measure what’s really at stake and consider that the rationale for action, on healthcare or any other issue, must be something more than simply undoing something that Democrats did,” he wrote.

As he has multiple times since the ACA’s passage in 2010, Obama conceded that the bill was less than perfect and vowed to support any Republican-backed bill that “is demonstrably better than the improvements we made to our health care system, that covers as many people at less cost.”

“I still hope that there are enough Republicans in Congress who remember that public service is not about sport or notching a political win, that there’s a reason we all chose to serve in the first place, and that hopefully, it’s to make people’s lives better, not worse,” he wrote.

He called on citizens to pressure lawmakers into working with each other by calling and visiting members of Congress and sharing their stories about how the proposed bill will affect them.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said he hopes to bring the GOP bill to a vote before Congress breaks for its Fourth of July recess.