The Road to Election 2018 – primaries for Congress start today in Texas

Published: Tuesday, March 06, 2018 @ 1:53 AM

The road to the new Congress begins today in the state of Texas, where voters are going to the polls to cast ballots in the first 2018 primaries for the U.S. House and Senate which will be seated in 2019, as even before today, a number of lawmakers on Capitol Hill had opted to hang up their legislative cleats, and leave their jobs in the U.S. Capitol.

While no members of Congress Texas seem to have a life-or-death primary fight on their hands today, this voting is officially the beginning of what Democrats hope will result in enough wins to carry them back to majority status in at least the U.S. House, as they look to capitalize on their party’s backlash to President Donald Trump’s election in 2016.

The primary calendar starts today in Texas, and stretches into September, when New Hampshire and Rhode Island wrap up voting with their primaries for the Congress.

So, what might we see in the months ahead?

1. In Texas, some familiar warnings signs for GOP. We have seen it play out in a number of special elections for the U.S. House and Senate since Donald Trump became President – Democrats have had a big edge in enthusiasm about voting. That was true in a number of House races, and was certainly true as the Democrats won an upset in a Senate race in Alabama last December. So far in the Lone Star State, some of the same clues are appearing, as the Democrats are more excited about voting. Think back to the 2010 Tea Party wave, and it was the exact opposite back then, when GOP voters were the ones who would walk over broken glass to get to the polls.

2. Primaries usually don’t cause much turnover. While voters go to the polls today in Texas, it would be surprising for the voters to knock off incumbents from either party. In the last seven election years for the Congress, the average number of lawmakers who lose a primary is just five – and that’s skewed because of a large number – 13 – who lost in the 2010 Tea Party wave year. Much of what’s going on in Texas right now seems to be more about setting up races for November, rather than booting out someone who is already in office. And President Trump has been trying to convince GOP voters that is their best course as well.

3. Change in the House is already taking place. I know I sound like a broken record about this stuff, but there has been a rather constant turnover in Congress in recent years, which I think most people don’t think is happening. As of today, 52 House members won’t be back in January of 2019 – that’s already a 12 percent turnover in the House, and this is the first day of primary voting. The House is averaging a 14 percent turnover since 2004 – that’s a lot of new people and a lot of new faces cycling in and out of the Congress on a regular basis. And right now, Democrats think they will be able to defeat a number of GOP lawmakers in November to increase those turnover numbers even more. Here is my current breakdown of where we stand in terms of change in the Congress:

4. Some key special elections also on the horizon. The Texas primaries are just a palate cleanser for the big battle that will take place next week in Pennsylvania, with a special election for a U.S. House seat that was held by the GOP. Recent polls have shown a very tight race – and that enthusiasm gap as discussed above – could play a big role in the outcome of this race in the 18th district of Pennsylvania. President Trump will hold a rally in the Pittsburgh area on Saturday, a reminder of just how important these elections are for his administration. The GOP candidate there is not running away from him, but the Democrat seems to have a lot of momentum. That’s next week.

5. Senate turnover much smaller – for now. If you notice one thing from the graphic above, while the House is already assured of a number of new faces in 2019, that’s not guaranteed for the Senate, where only three Senators have decided not to run for re-election. There was news about change on Monday, as veteran Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) announced that he would resign in coming weeks, because of health problems that have obviously plagued him in recent months. That will set up dual Senate races in two states this year – Minnesota and Mississippi – where voters will vote for both a full 6-year Senate term, and then for someone to fill out the rest of an unexpired term. If there is going to be change in the Senate, it will most likely come in November.

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With retirement of acting chief, NASA finds itself in leadership limbo

Published: Saturday, March 17, 2018 @ 1:00 AM

After operating for more than a year with a temporary chief, NASA faces an unprecedented leadership bind as its acting Administrator announced this week that he would retire at the end of April, with no hint that the Senate will vote by then on President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the space agency.

“It has been a long process but we are optimistic that the vote will come soon,” said Sheryl Kaufman, the Communications Director for Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK).

“We hope that happens soon,” said Rep. Bruce Babin (R-TX), as House Republicans and Vice President Mike Pence pressed the Senate for action on Bridenstine.

The problem for Bridenstine is that just one Republican has refused to support him for the job as NASA Administrator – that being Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) – and with only a bare majority, and the absence of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Bridenstine does not have the votes to win.

Since President Trump took office in January of 2017, NASA has been led by Robert Lightfoot, a well-respected NASA veteran who has drawn bipartisan praise.

But with Lightfoot announcing this week that he is retiring – effective April 30 – it’s possible that NASA could be forced to dig deeper down the depth chart for another temporary leader at the space agency.

“Robert Lightfoot has served NASA exceptionally well for nearly 30 years,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the head of the House Science Committee.

Apart from a couple of major issues, Bridenstine in 2017 did not cast votes on regular legislation in the House – while waiting for his Senate confirmation.

This year has been different – Bridenstine is voting on most legislation in the House, except for measures that deal with NASA.

“He will represent his constituents as fully as possible while awaiting the confirmation vote by the full Senate,” said his spokeswoman.

But without enough support, there’s no hint of a vote on Bridenstine in the Senate.

“The facts of this nomination have not changed,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) back in January – and two months later, that statement is still true.

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Russia investigation: Special counsel Mueller subpoenas Trump Organization

Published: Friday, March 16, 2018 @ 3:57 PM
Updated: Friday, March 16, 2018 @ 3:48 PM

Robert Mueller - Fast Facts


Special counsel Robert Mueller has subpoenaed the Trump Organization for documents as part of his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and its possible ties to President Donald Trump and his associates, according to multiple reports.

>> Read more trending news

The subpoena is the first directly connected to one of Trump’s businesses, The New York Times reported Thursday. The newspaper was the first to report on the subpoena, citing two unidentified sources briefed on the situation.

The breadth of the subpoena was not immediately clear, although some documents sought were related to Russia, the Times reported. According to the newspaper, the subpoena was served “in recent weeks.”

>> More on Robert Mueller's investigation

The Trump Organization has already provided investigators with a range of documents, most focused on the period between when Trump announced his candidacy for president, in June 2015, to his inauguration, in January 2017, CNN reported in January. Citing an unidentified source familiar with the situation, the news network reported that the recently issued subpoena was meant “to ‘clean up’ and to ensure that all related documents are handed over to the special counsel.”

In a statement released to several news outlets Thursday, Alan Futerfas, an attorney representing the Trump Organization, said reports of the subpoena were “old news.”

>> Related: Former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates to plead guilty in Mueller investigation

“Since July 2017, we have advised the public that the Trump Organization is fully cooperative with all investigations, including the special counsel, and is responding to their requests,” Futerfas said. “This is old news and our assistance and cooperation with the various investigations remains the same today.”

The decision to subpoena the Trump Organization, which is owned by the president and managed by his children, appeared to mirror the strategy employed by Mueller with the Trump campaign, The Wall Street Journal reported. The newspaper noted that the campaign “voluntarily gave documents to the special counsel for months before receiving a subpoena in October.”

>> Related: Mueller indicts 13 Russians, 3 Russian entities in election meddling probe

Mueller, who headed the FBI from 2001 to 2013, was appointed by the Justice Department in May 2017 to oversee the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. His investigation has thus far led to several indictments and a handful of guilty pleas from people connected to Trump.

Mueller indicted 13 Russians and three Russian entities last month on accusations that they interfered with American elections and political processes, starting in 2014. On Twitter, Trump claimed that information in the indictments proved his innocence on allegations of colluding with Russia to win the election.

Five people have pleaded guilty to charges levied against them in Mueller's investigation. Most recently, former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates pleaded guilty to making false statements and conspiring against the United States.

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Ohio lawmaker wants military to assist Puerto Rico cleanup

Published: Thursday, March 15, 2018 @ 10:07 AM

            Volunteers are instructed on how to assess damaged trees in the El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico, Jan. 17, 2018. Researchers are studying the damage wrought by Hurricane Maria to this lush, 28,000-acre tropical rainforest to better understand how forests could be changed permanently as the world continues to warm. (Erika P. Rodriguez/The New York Times)
            ERIKA P. RODRIGUEZ
Volunteers are instructed on how to assess damaged trees in the El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico, Jan. 17, 2018. Researchers are studying the damage wrought by Hurricane Maria to this lush, 28,000-acre tropical rainforest to better understand how forests could be changed permanently as the world continues to warm. (Erika P. Rodriguez/The New York Times)(ERIKA P. RODRIGUEZ)

In the aftermath of a whirlwind two-day trip to Puerto Rico, Rep. Brad Wenstrup will push for but the active duty and reservists to help assist in the rebuilding of Puerto Rico.

Wenstrup, a Cincinnati Republican who serves on the House Veterans Affairs Committee and who is an Army Reservist, flew into Puerto Rico last Sunday for a field hearing on the VA’s role in the recovery effort. Puerto Rico is still reeling from two back-to-back hurricanes that struck the island six months ago and 11 percent of the island is out of power.

RELATED: Puerto Rican community here still battling the ‘monster’

Wenstrup said the VA plays an outsize role in the island – 72 percent of military veterans there who are eligible for VA care use it – nearly double the usage on the mainland United States.

Along with Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., who chairs the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, and Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez Colon, R-Puerto Rico, Wenstrup toured several VA clinics on the island and also met with representatives from Veterans Service Organizations. Their field hearing was aimed at determining how best to maximize VA resources in Puerto Rico.

RELATED: Ohio National Guard sends medical equipment to Puerto Rico

He said conditions on the island are still grim, with debris stockpiled along the roads and roofs still covered with tarps, but the people are working to recover. However, he said, a shortage of doctors is imperiling the recovery effort because the island’s lackluster economy has spurred many doctors to move away in order to seek better pay and opportunities.

Wenstrup, who chairs the VA Committee’s Health Subcommittee, said the island might be an ideal place for a reservist or guardsman who wants to practice his or her skills as well as provide a service. “This may be an opportunity for a win-win,” he said.

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No direct answer from White House on future of VA chief

Published: Thursday, March 15, 2018 @ 4:08 PM

The White House on Thursday refused to directly say if Veterans Secretary David Shulkin will stay in his post, as the VA chief tried to reassure lawmakers that he remains the right person to carry out Trump Administration plans to improve the quality of care at the VA.

“I’ve pubilcly acknowledged that the distraction that has happened is something I deeply regret,” Shulkin told a House panel on Thursday, as the first question at a budget hearing was about persistent news reports of palace intrigue at the VA.

“I do feel that I have to acknowledge the proverbial elephant in the room,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), who pressed Shulkin on reports that Shulkin’s own staffers were at times pitted against him in a fight with the White House over private care for veterans.

“I’ve come here for one reason, and that’s to improve the lives of veterans,” Shulkin said, saying ‘others’ were more interested in playing politics than getting the job done.

Both before the hearing on Capitol Hill – and after – Shulkin refused to answer questions from reporters about his future in the job.

When the question was posed to the White House a few hours later, there was not a direct answer on the VA Secretary’s job security.

“I don’t have any personnel announcements,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, as she stressed that the Trump Administration was looking for the right mix of people and policies at the VA.

For much of the President’s first year in office, Mr. Trump was a very public fan of Shulkin, and his efforts to foster change at the VA.

“I’d like to begin by thanking Secretary David Shulkin for the incredible progress that he’s making at the VA, tremendous strides,” the President said in August of 2017 at a veterans event in the White House.

But in recent months behind the scenes, Shulkin – who was a top holdover from the Obama Administration – has been in a pitched battle with officials at the VA, even reportedly fighting with his chief spokesman, mainly over the direction that the VA should go in how much health care for veterans should be shifted away from VA facilities and to private doctors, what’s known as Veterans Choice.

Add to that, an internal watchdog report criticized Shulkin for how he got the VA to pick up some of the travel costs of his wife, who joined Shulkin on a 10-day government trip to Europe last summer.

The inspector general report also found that Shulkin wrongly accepted a gift of tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament, that a VA employee was basically used by Shulkin as a “personal travel concierge to plan tourist activities,” and that not enough documents were ever turned over to investigators to figure out the true cost of the trip to the VA.

In a mid-February hearing, Shulkin defended the trip but admitted, “I do recognize the optics of this are not good.”

For now, Shulkin is still the Veterans Secretary – but there wasn’t much in the way of a public vote of confidence in him from the White House in recent days.

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