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Published: Wednesday, February 07, 2018 @ 2:21 PM
WASHINGTON — Senate leaders Wednesday forged a two-year budget agreement that boosts defense spending by $80 billion this year while providing for increased federal spending for hurricane disaster relief and domestic programs dealing with opioid addiction and community health centers.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announced the agreement shortly early Wednesday afternoon, a move that could end a protracted series of temporary spending bills that have kept the federal government open since the end of September.
The deal, which provides an additional $85 billion for defense in the second year, is a major relief for Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. If Congress approves the agreement, not only would defense spending be increased, but thousands of workers at the base would not face the threat of being furloughed by a partial shutdown of the federal government.
Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, said called the budget deal “a huge win for our men and women in uniform, including those at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. We are finally delivering them what we’ve promised: stable funding they can rely on to address this readiness crisis and rebuild our military.”
The bill also includes an additional $6 billion during the next two years to deal with the opioid crisis and $20 billion for roads, bridges, waste-water treatment and rural broadband.
Budget hawks may balk at the deal. The two-year agreement would increase federal spending by as much as $400 billion at a time when budget deficits are already expected to dramatically increase, in part because of a $1.5 trillion tax cut approved late last year by congressional Republicans and signed into law by President Donald Trump.
“This budget compromise is a terrible deal,” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, said in a statement. “Hiking spending 13 percent and ballooning the deficit is irresponsible and not what we were elected to do.”
Senate approval seems almost certain, however, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle Wednesday were touting various aspects of the spending plan. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said the $6 billion over two years to battle opioids “is a good start for Ohio communities in desperate need of resources.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said he was “pleased to see” both parties come together on a plan that increases military funding and makes “key investments to address this opioid crisis while keeping our government running.”
Speaking on the Senate floor, Schumer called the budget deal “a genuine breakthrough. After months of fiscal brinkmanship, this budget deal is the first real sprout of bipartisanship. And it should break the long cycle of spending crises that have snarled this Congress and hampered our middle class,” he said.
The agreement breaks the restrictions on federal domestic and defense spending established by a 2013 law. That law limited defense spending this year to $549 billion and domestic spending to $516 billion. The law did not restrict federal spending for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
Many Democrats and Republicans have objected to the spending restrictions, with GOP lawmakers calling for more defense dollars and Democrats insisting on more spending for domestic programs. Both sides seemed to get some of what they wanted in the deal announced by McConnell and Schumer.
In addition to the $165 billion boost in military spending over two years, domestic spending would increase by $63 billion in the 2018 federal spending year and $68 billion in the 2019 spending year.
In a floor speech, McConnell said in “the face of continuing and emerging threats,” spending for national defense under the old caps “have left us unable to realize the potential of our missile defense capabilities. They whittled down our conventional forces … and shrunk our fleet to its lowest ship count in nearly three decades.”
A government shutdown looms if both houses don’t vote by midnight tonight or pass another temporary extension.
One of those most unhappy with the deal was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. For hours Wednesday, Pelosi stood on the House floor and blasted the fact that the agreement does not include legal protection for Dreamers, the undocumented immigrants brought to the United States when they were children.
Pelosi and other House Democrats are pushing for a commitment for a vote to extend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which is set to expire next month. Without an extension, the roughly 700,000 people with DACA status nationwide could lose protection under the law and face possible deportation.
Published: Saturday, May 26, 2018 @ 4:07 PM
While the Trump Administration has hailed economic and job gains over the past year and a half, the price of gasoline has jumped sharply in recent months for consumers and businesses, adding to the cost of everything from a daily commute, to a summer vacation, and the amount of money companies pay to ship their products around the country.
And it’s starting to used by Democrats on Capitol Hill to take aim at the White House.
“Gas prices have risen more than 25% since Trump took office,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR).
“Overall world crude oil prices have increased over 75 percent in the past year,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), as Democrats wrote President Donald Trump a letter earlier this week, asking him to do something about the rising cost of gasoline .
Those numbers at the pump aren’t unusual for the Washington, D.C. area as just the ohter day, this reporter filled up on the way to work, and ha the pump shut off before the tank was full, when the total hit the $50 credit card limit at that station for a single transaction.
Figures released in recent weeks by the Trump Administration clearly show the increase, with gas prices up on average by over 52 cents a gallon from the same time a year ago, at an average of $2.92 per gallon.
The $2.92 per gallon is the highest average price at the pump on Memorial Day in four years – in 2014, gas was at an average of $3.67 per gallon, as Republicans blamed the energy policies of the Obama Administration, arguing for more oil exploration in the United States.
Gas prices generally trended down the last few years, leading President Trump to proclaim where they stood on July Fourth of last year.
But since that tweet on July Fourth of last year, the price of gasoline has only gone up, and federal energy experts expect even more in the months ahead.
“Relatively higher crude oil spot prices, higher gasoline demand, and falling gasoline inventories are all factors contributing to higher gasoline prices,” the Energy Information Administration reported last week.
The EIA predicted an average of $2.90 per gallon for gasoline this summer.
Published: Friday, May 25, 2018 @ 2:55 PM
Updated: Friday, May 25, 2018 @ 2:59 PM
DAYTON — Veterans will have expanded private health care options under legislation passed by Congress, but some critics contend it could lead to more privatization of VA services.
The measure was part of a sweeping $51 billion VA bill that would institute reforms within the federal agency.
The Senate passed the measure in 92-5 vote this week, which continued funding of the VA Choice program due to be out of money as early as next week. President Donald Trump was expected to sign the bill before Memorial Day.
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, who backed the legislation, said in a Friday interview in Dayton with this news outlet he heard “spirited” complaints about VA health care in town halls throughout Ohio.
Veterans’ stories about VA health care have “gotten better” since then, but the senator still hears a common complaint.
“The problem I keep hearing about is, look I need to get a specialist in my community. I don’t want to drive from here to Cleveland or here to Cincinnati even. Why can’t I go to somebody here locally?”
The VA legislation will ease that issue with private health care options, he said.
“It says we’re going to help veterans get the care that they need where they want to get it at their convenience,” he said.
The legislation will eliminate the requirement veterans must wait at least 30 days or travel more than 40 miles to qualify for a private health care appointment, according to John W. Palmer, a spokesman with the Ohio Hospital Association in Columbus.
“We believe this is going to create stronger opportunities for access to care,” he said. “From a health care access standpoint, we definitely are equipped to handle patients that are coming in.”
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio and a member of the Senate Veterans Committee, voted for the legislation, but said he opposes any privatization meaures.
“Privatization means putting profits ahead of those who served our country, and I will fight any effort to use America’s veterans to line the pockets of wealthy corporations,” he said in an email. “Instead, we must all work together to strengthen and improve VA to better serve veterans.”
The bill also includes provisions to strengthen the VA workforce and make it easier to hire and retain more medical professionals, said Brown spokeswoman Jenny Donohue. His office said the bill streamlines, but does not expand private health care choices.
U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, voted for the legislation in the House.
“This bill preserves our commitment to quality of care of veterans at facilities like the Dayton VA, puts the needs of veterans first, and ensures our veterans’ service is honored,” he said in a statement.
The Dayton VA has spent $55 million on private health care for nearly 17,700 veterans authorizations in fiscal year 2018, according to spokesman Ted Froats.
Among changes, the legislation will expand caregiver benefits to veterans who served before Sept. 11, 2001; puts tighter practices on prescribing opioids to VA patients from private providers; and sets up a presidentially appointed commission to review under performing VA facilities for possible closure, among a list of changes. Dozens of veterans service groups, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, supported the bill.
The American Federal of Government Employees, which represents 260,000 federal VA employees, has had sweeping concerns with the wide-ranging bill.
The labor union says it could lead to outsourcing or the “amputation” of 36 health care specialties, such a primary care or mental health, outside the VA and force veterans into private health care if their VA facility is closed. The legislation would allow unrestricted use of private walk-in clinics and billions of dollars to be taken out of VA health care without federal data on how contractors spend the money, said Marilyn Park, an AFGE legislative assistant.
“We made a promise to veterans when they signed up to serve that they would be taken care of when they got home – not forced to wait in longer lines at private, walk-in clinics,” AFGE National VA Council President Alma Lee said in a statement.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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Published: Friday, May 25, 2018 @ 4:05 PM
A day after President Donald Trump scrapped a planned June 12 summit with Kim Jong Un, the President, White House, and State Department made clear that U.S. officials continue to be open to further contacts with their North Korean counterparts, seeing if there is a way to get talks back on track to rein in the nuclear weapons program of the Pyongyang regime.
“We always knew there would be twists and turns leading up to this meeting on June 12,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.
“We never expected it to be easy, so none of this comes as a surprise to us,” Nauert added.
On Friday afternoon, officials said that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had spoken by phone with the South Korean Foreign Minister, to discuss what the next steps might be – after the June 12 Trump summit with Kim Jong Un was cancelled.
Earlier in the day, the President expressed hope that talks could resume on the effort to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, as allies of Mr. Trump argued he made the right move in walking away from the summit at this point in time.
“I don’t know where we will meet, when we will meet, or even if we will meet…..but I do believe President Trump is going to end the North Korean nuclear program,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
But as Graham and others acknowledged on Friday, it wasn’t clear whether progress might be made, or how.
From both the U.S. side, and the North Korean side, there was no resumption on Friday of some of the more bellicose rhetoric that had marked the long distance relationship between Mr. Trump and Kim Jong Un, as Pyongyang officials said they were open to further talks and the President said he was not giving up.
“Everybody plays games,” the President told reporters in talking about the art of negotiation.
“We weren’t getting the right signals previously, so hopefully we will in the future,” Nauert told the White House Pool reporter, as President Trump gave the commencement address at the Naval Academy on Friday.
“But we didn’t want to go to a meeting just for the sake of going to a meeting,” Nauert added. “There had to be something to come out of it. so we weren’t getting the right signals.”
Published: Friday, May 25, 2018 @ 2:45 PM
Updated: Friday, May 25, 2018 @ 3:00 PM
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Friday warmly welcomed North Korea’s promising response to his abrupt withdrawal from the potentially historic Singapore summit and said “we’re talking to them now” about putting it back on track.
“Everybody plays games,” said Trump, who often boasts about his own negotiating tactics and skill.
The president, commenting as he left the White House for a commencement speech, said it was even possible the summit could take place on the originally planned June 12 date.
“They very much want to do it, we’d like to do it,” he said.
Earlier Friday, in a tweet, he had called the North’s reaction to his letter canceling the summit “warm and productive.” That was far different from his letter Thursday to North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, blaming “tremendous anger and open hostility” by Pyongyang for the U.S. withdrawal.
The tone from both sides was warmer on Friday. First, North Korea issued a statement saying it was still “willing to give the U.S. time and opportunities” to reconsider talks “at any time, at any format.”
Ohio leaders react
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, was in Dayton Friday and said he was not surprised President Trump called off the summit with North Korea, but was hopeful direct negotiation would happen to cause the regime to disarm its nuclear capability.
“I’ve been one of those people calling for direct negotiations with North Korea, not because they are a country that we should reward or that we can trust, but because we should have direct negotiations with any country that has this nuclear weapons capability,” said Portman, R-Ohio.
He said global sanctions imposed on North Korea were a “good news” story that worked.
“It’s a good example of where if you can get the international community (together) on something, and it really is a diplomatic effort, you can put enough pressure on a regime, even a regime as evil as this one where they say, ‘OK, we want to come to the table and talk,’” said Portman, who also noted North Korea’s recent release of three American detainees.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said he was “disappointed” that the talks would not take place in June, but is hopeful groundwork can be laid for a future summit.
“We all agree a denuclearized North Korea must be our goal,” he said.
Democratic Ohio House members, meanwhile, were more critical of Trump’s approach.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Toledo said North Korea “is not an honest broker” and said that “rushed attempts to deter that nation from its decades-long tradition of brutal and unstable dictatorships will not be effective.”
“Validating Kim Jong Un with the direct involvement of the President may well be premature when dealing with an immature dictator,” she said, but urged Trump to continue to pursue high-level diplomatic talks.
North Korea, U.S. Defense leaders respond
Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan called Trump’s withdrawal “unexpected” and “very regrettable,” and said the cancellation of the talks showed “how grave the status of historically deep-rooted hostile North Korea-U.S. relations is and how urgently a summit should be realized to improve ties.”
Then Trump, in his response to that response, said it was “very good news,” and “we will soon see where it will lead, hopefully to long and enduring prosperity and peace. Only time (and talent) will tell!”
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called the recent back-and-forth between Trump and North Korea the “usual give and take.”
The president’s surprise exit from the planned talks on Thursday had capped weeks of high-stakes brinkmanship between the two unpredictable leaders over nuclear negotiating terms for their unprecedented sit-down. The U.S. announcement came not long after Kim appeared to make good on his promise to demolish his country’s nuclear test site. But it also followed escalating frustration — and newly antagonistic rhetoric — from North Korea over comments from Trump aides about U.S. expectations for the North’s “denuclearization.”