GOP’s Plan B for Obamacare — repeal first, replace later — began with quiet push from Koch network

President Trump’s surprise suggestion Friday that deadlocked Senate Republicans shift their focus to simply repealing Obamacare — and worry about replacing it later — has its roots in a Koch network proposal that has been shopped around Congress for months.

The influential Koch network, backed by the billionaire industrialists, floated the idea most recently at a retreat last weekend in Colorado Springs, Colo., where key conservative lawmakers heard an earful from frustrated GOP donors about the party’s failure to deliver on their signature campaign promise.

Among those attending the gathering at the luxurious Broadmoor Hotel was Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who has been working with the White House behind the scenes on the idea.

On Friday, as GOP leaders left Washington still unable to agree how to revamp the Affordable Care Act, Sasse went public with the proposal.

Sasse’s office said the senator did not discuss the healthcare plan when he attended the Koch seminar last weekend in Colorado, where he delivered a lunchtime speech on Sunday.

But the senator has been working with the administration, including Vice President Mike Pence’s office, for months on the healthcare plan.

Pence met privately June 23 with billionaire Charles Koch ahead of the weekend seminar.

Trump had once panned the two-step approach, disagreeing with McConnell and other congressional leaders who early on also preferred the repeal now-replace later strategy.

When Sasse floated it anew, the administration signaled its support.

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

@LisaMascaro

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Conservative groups unleash on Senate Republicans over repeal bill

Bob Corker is pictured.

“Bob Corker needs to find whatever shred of conservatism he has left in his soul,” said Jason Pye of FreedomWorks. | AP Photo

Frustrated conservative groups are escalating attacks on Senate Republicans over the stalled health care bill, targeting individual senators and threatening political consequences if the GOP falls short of fully repealing Obamacare.

The sharp opposition comes after Republican leaders signaled they may try to make health insurance subsidies more generous in hopes of appeasing the GOP’s moderate wing. That could further endanger Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s fragile bid to strike a compromise that will get him the elusive 50 votes he needs to pass a bill after the Fourth of July break.

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Senate Republicans agreed this week to add $45 billion to the bill to fight the opioid epidemic and even floated keeping more of Obamacare’s taxes intact. That wasn’t enough to win over the GOP’s centrist holdouts — but it inflamed conservatives upset at Republicans’ refusal to pursue the total repeal of the health law that they’ve been promising voters since 2010.

“Bob Corker needs to find whatever shred of conservatism he has left in his soul,”Jason Pye, director of public policy and legislative affairs at FreedomWorks, said in an interview, singling out the Tennessee Republican, one of the senators who now favors keeping Obamacare’s tax on investments. “The past votes they took apparently don’t matter anymore. … They’ve spent seven years lying to conservatives.”

Conservative groups piled on during a conference call with reporters on Friday, questioning Republican leaders’ commitment to keeping campaign promises and warning that failure to gut Obamacare could prompt a backlash from the right come 2018.

“If the Republicans do not repeal this in some reasonable, credible way, I think it will be very divisive to the party,” said former Sen. Jim DeMint, who was recently ousted as president of The Heritage Foundation. “This was a key promise to Republicans for years.”

Conspicuously absent from that call was the foundation’s sister organization, Heritage Action, which has tentatively backed the Senate bill after attacking the similar House legislation for months for being too soft on repeal. In a separate interview, Heritage Action Vice President Dan Holler said the goal is always to push for the most conservative policy solution possible, but with the understanding that that even chipping away at Obamacare is still a win. Even so, the organization’s pullback from demanding full and complete eradication of Obamacare has startled other conservative activists.

For other conservative groups, the vocal criticism on the conference call still marked an abrupt shift. Just a few days ago conservatives appeared content to let Senate Republicans tinker with their health care bill in relative peace. Outside groups planned to work quietly through allies like Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah to push the bill further right, while publicly trying to counter the liberal groups hoping to derail repeal altogether.

That strategy went out the window when GOP leaders offered concessions to moderate senators, while simultaneously resisting Cruz and Lee’s ideas for paring more Obamacare regulations.

Top Republicans protested that those proposals just wouldn’t pass muster under the Senate’s strict reconciliation rules. But conservative activists roundly reject that explanation.

“That Senate leadership is opposed or coming up with reasons not to support Sen. Cruz’s amendment tells you how far away we are from repeal,” said Chip Roy, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for the Tenth Amendment Action. “The Senate GOP seems hell-bent on leaving in place the Obamacare structure and most regulations.”

Conservatives got a surprise boost Friday morning, when President Donald Trump tweeted support for simply repealing Obamacare and passing a separate replacement bill down the road. Republicans had abandoned that strategy months ago over concerns it would abruptly leave millions uninsured and the insurance marketplace in tatters.

Outside groups — along with Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ben Sasse of Nebraska — quickly united behind Trump’s challenge, using it as ammo for a fresh round of attacks on McConnell and Republican moderates.

“The president and, I think, Sen. Sasse have their finger on the pulse a lot more than Senate leadership,” ForAmerica President David Bozell said.

McConnell has tried to shield his rank and file from outside attacks over Obamacare repeal, and limit damage to vulnerable members up for reelection in 2018, such as Nevada’s Dean Heller and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

Earlier this week, McConnell fumed over pro-Trump group America First Policies’ plan to run ads against Heller for opposing the health care bill — a campaign the group dropped. Other conservatives aren’t ruling out assailing moderates over their shakiness on repeal.

“All these members of Congress are on record supporting full repeal,” said Andrew Roth, vice president of government affairs at the Club for Growth, pointing to a 2015 repeal bill then-President Barack Obama vetoed. “We’ve already spent north of $1 million against moderate Republicans in the House on their bill, so we’re clearly supportive of the tactic.”

Heritage Action’s Holler drew a slightly different picture: The GOP sold voters on an idealistic conservative vision of full repeal. Now it’s time to take what wins they can, but keep trying for more.

“What you saw during that time was a drive to make the Republican Party a more conservative party so they could win an electoral mandate,” Holler said of the run-up to the GOP’s sweep into power. “But it’s with an acknowledgment that there has to be policy outcomes, and the goal is to use those opportunities to get as many wins on the board as possible.”

That doesn’t mean that Heritage Action doesn’t think Senate Republicans have left much to be desired.

“It would certainly be helpful if the moderates stopped complaining and stopped asking for more. It would be a little easier to explain to the base,” he said, calling the Senate bill just an “incremental” step toward tearing down Obamacare. “But Rob Portman, he just won reelection. If he is not willing to deliver on promises he made now, it’s hard to see how that gets better in the next couple years.”

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Trump administration wants to rally world to stop ‘four famines’

President Donald Trump is pictured.

In the coming days, the White House is planning to rally other governments to do more to prevent food and water shortages abroad. | Getty

But will other countries heed the calls of a president who has also proposed gutting U.S. foreign aid?

President Donald Trump has long insisted that other countries should share more of the financial burden in tackling global emergencies. Now, a crisis involving four potential famines in Africa and the Middle East may test whether foreign governments will heed his demands.

Food and water shortages, caused by conflict as well as climate, are threatening to tip parts of Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan into famine, risking at least 20 million lives.

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In the coming days, the White House is planning to rally other governments to do more to prevent the calamity, several Trump administration officials told POLITICO. The officials declined to offer details, but one likely forum for the president to make such a push is next week’s G-20 summit in Germany.

“This administration wants to demonstrate our global leadership,” said Garry Hall, senior director for international organizations and alliances at the National Security Council. “This is right in the president’s agenda. It makes America great because America is good. It’s in our national DNA.”

It’s not clear, however, whether other governments will listen to an American president who has proposed gutting the U.S. foreign aid budget and rattled even longstanding allies with his isolationist streak.

“It undermines our credibility as a global leader when President Trump pushes a budget that slashes our contributions to the United Nations, to refugee relief, to humanitarian assistance,” said Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who often deals with Africa-related issues. “To demonstrate America’s sustained global leadership, he’s going to have to take some stronger action.”

The possibility that four famines could descend on the world at once is thought to be unprecedented. In South Sudan, famine took hold in February and lasted about four months before conditions improved, but the country remains on the brink of a relapse.

That three of the potential famines are driven by manmade conflict also distinguishes the crisis. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia, with U.S. help, is battling Houthi rebels supported by Iran. South Sudan, a country created in 2011, has descended into civil war. And the fight against the Boko Haram militant group in northeast Nigeria has spurred hunger there. The fighting has limited people’s access to food, water and land that they could cultivate. Peace appears remote in all three cases.

Somalia’s struggle has been driven largely by a lack of rainfall and a drop in household purchasing power as food becomes more expensive. Aid workers, meanwhile, point out that even though the risk of famine appears limited to Yemen, Somalia, northeast Nigeria and South Sudan, food insecurity is a problem elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa.

Attempts to muster a robust global response have largely fallen flat.

One United Nations push to raise at least $4.9 billion has drawn just $2.1 billion, or 42 percent, according to the world body. In recent days, the executive director of the U.N.’s World Food Program, David Beasley, has been making high profile pitches to the European Union and other institutions to step up their spending on the crisis. Beasley is a former South Carolina governor who supported Trump, raising hopes among aid groups that he can influence the president’s thinking.

Despite Trump’s seeming callousness on some humanitarian issues, he has at times shown a softer side. The same president who tried to bar Syrian refugees from U.S. shores launched airstrikes against the Syrian regime after being moved by pictures of children killed in chemical attacks. Others in Trump’s orbit, such as his daughter Ivanka, have taken up humanitarian causes. Beasley is reportedly hoping to use Ivanka Trump as a conduit to her father’s heart.

The U.S. has devoted more than $2 billion to anti-famine funding so far this fiscal year.

Trump administration officials, who in April set up an interagency coordination committee just to deal with the famines, acknowledge that the president’s proposed budget cuts for fiscal year 2018 have muddied their messaging efforts. But they stress that those cuts have not yet become a reality, and that even if they do, the United States would still top rankings of overseas relief spending.

The officials expressed frustration that the administration’s anti-famine efforts so far have received little attention. In May, as Trump met with Pope Francis, he announced that his administration would devote $329 million in additional funding to fend off the famines. But news of the $329 million was buried under an avalanche of coverage about other aspects of Trump’s trip, such as what Ivanka Trump and first lady Melania Trump wore when meeting the pontiff.

“If the president was really signaling that our commitment had waned and that we were no longer going to address the needs of people that were suffering, some in extremely dire circumstances, perhaps what we would have seen would have been let’s halt, let’s reduce what we’re doing now — and that’s not what we’re seeing,” one senior administration official said. “What he’s saying is ‘I have a commitment to alleviate human suffering. We know this is happening now. Folks should be coming together to solve the problem for us.’”

Trump’s proposed cuts to the foreign aid budget are not likely to become a reality given strong bipartisan opposition in Congress. Regardless, the administration officials stress said they are committed to finding ways to make U.S. foreign aid spending more efficient. On the famine front, the administration is looking at expanding programs that have helped make vulnerable countries more resistant to famines in the first place. One example: offering livestock insurance programs to help families protect their assets.

In deciding which programs to support where, the new Republican administration is also taking a closer look at which foreign governments have proved to be reliable partners — diplomatically sensitive conversations likely to take place in private.

“The new team came in, and it was really an approach of ‘Let’s take a look at what’s been working and what hasn’t been working, let’s scale up the things that have been working, and we need to either adjust the things that haven’t been working or we need to end them,’” a second administration official said.

Aid experts, former U.S. officials and members of Congress from both the Republican and Democratic parties sympathize with the goal of improving aid efficiency. Coons and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recently traveled to Africa to learn first-hand about the famine crisis, and both are promoting legislation to make overseas food aid delivery faster and cheaper for U.S. taxpayers.

Still, some question whether everyone in the Trump administration is on the same page when it comes to the importance of helping the world’s needy.

In mid-May, a bipartisan group of lawmakers sent a letter to Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, urging him to release $990 million in funds Congress appropriated specifically for famine relief in a fiscal year 2017 budget bill. Mulvaney is a budget hawk believed to be a major driving force behind Trump’s budget plans, and he has stridently defended its proposed cuts to foreign aid. The famine funds were eventually released.

“It shouldn’t have taken as long as it did. It shouldn’t have taken a letter from members of Congress,” a senior Democratic Hill staffer said.

The Trump administration’s slow pace in appointing people to key positions at the State Department and other agencies has undermined America’s ability to take a leadership role on famine relief as well as its hopes of bringing an end to some of the conflicts causing the hunger crisis, several stakeholders said. There is no senior director for Africa yet on the National Security Council; the leadership ranks of the State Department’s African Affairs bureau, too, have been dented.

“You go to these pledging events and you get low-level U.S. staffers reading talking points that are anodyne,” a senior official with a top aid organization said. “When you remove leadership from the occasion and don’t offer a substitute, how can we rally around that?”

“I can’t think of an example where the U.S. has laid down and played dead and others stepped onto the dance floor,” added Bill O’Keefe, a top official with Catholic Relief Services. “If we’re a wallflower, everyone else is a wallflower.”

Aid workers aren’t necessarily counting on the administration to step up. Eight leading U.S.-based aid organizations, including Mercy Corps, are planning to launch a mid-July campaign to raise awareness among Americans of the potential famine crisis. The aid groups are working with tech firms and other partners to amplify their appeal.

Even if Trump’s appeals come across as half-hearted, the prospect of mass starvation in some of the poorest parts of the world could be enough for other nations to rally around him, said Jeremy Konyndyk, who oversaw major aid programs under Trump’s presidential predecessor, Barack Obama.

“There’s the potential for this to be a good news story for this administration,” he said, “And for millions of starving people.”

http://www.politico.com

White House releases salaries of top Trump staffers

The White House on Friday released a list of salary information for nearly 400 employees of President Trump’s executive office.

The 16-page document details the annual salaries of top staffers and advisors to the president. They are making slightly more in their positions than Obama administration staffers did, though salaries across the federal government get bumped up yearly for inflation. 

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Like his predecessors, the best-paid aides in Trump’s White House are those closest to him. 

The highest-paid White House appointees take in salaries of $179,700, but there is one employee making above that: Mark S. House, whom the White House is borrowing temporarily from another agency. House is earning $187,000.

Here are the 22 White House employees bringing in the top amount:  

• Stephen Bannon, chief strategist and senior counselor

• Thomas Bossert, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism

• Andrew Bremberg, Domestic Policy Council director

• Kellyanne Conway, senior counselor

• Ricky Dearborn, the deputy chief of staff for legislative, cabinet, intergovernmental affairs and implementation

• John DeStefano, director of presidential personnel

• Jason Greenblatt, special representative for international negotiations

• Joseph Hagin, deputy chief of staff for operations

• Hope Hicks, director of strategic communications

• Joseph Kellogg Jr., executive secretary and chief of staff for the National Security Council

• Omarosa Manigault, director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison 

• Kathleen McFarland, deputy national security adviser

• Donald McGahn, chief counsel 

• Stephen Miller, senior adviser for policy

• Robert Porter, White House staff secretary

• Dina Powell, deputy national security adviser for strategy

• Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff

• Lindsay Reynolds, chief of staff to first lady Melania Trump

• Dan Scavino, director of social media

• Marc Short, director of the Office of Legislative Affairs

• George Sifakis, director of the Office of Public Liaison

• Sean Spicer, press secretary

Other notable salaries include the director of communications for the first lady, Stephanie Grisham, who is being paid $115,000 per year, and national security aide Sebastian Gorka, who is bringing in $155,000.  

Keith Schiller, who served as Trump’s longtime bodyguard, has a $165,000 salary in the White House. He’s working as the director of Oval Office Operations. His job title includes managing the president’s personal schedule and managing access to him. 

First daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to the president, were listed with salaries of $0, reflecting their pledge to not receive income from Trump’s administration. 

Since 1995, the White House has been required to provide the Congress with a report of all White House Office employees’ titles and salaries.

http://thehill.com

Conservative outlets get more official seats in White House briefing room

White House press secretary Sean Spicer speaks during a the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, June 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

For the past two administrations the WHCA, not the White House, has determined the seating in the briefing room. | Getty

More conservative outlets have official seats in the White House briefing room according to a new seating chart the White House Correspondents’ Association unveiled on Friday.

Conservative television networks Newsmax and One America News as well as the British newspaper The Daily Mail now all have spots, though One America News’ is shared with the BBC. Other changes enacted since the last time the seating chart was adjusted in 2015 include the Huffington Post and the Spanish-language television network Univision getting shared seats. While the first row remains the same, populated by the major television networks and wires, USA Today has moved up to the second row, switching spots with AP Radio.

For the past two administrations the WHCA, not the White House, has determined the seating in the briefing room, though White House officials have previously suggested they may seek to make changes in the future.

“The board considered multiple criteria during this decision-making process, including regular briefing attendance and commitment to the White House beat, we did not want scarce real estate going unused,” WHCA President Jeff Mason wrote in an email to the association. “We also looked at news outlets’ audiences, both in terms of reach and in terms of preserving (or in some cases adding) diversity in the briefing room. We took stock of the changing landscape of our industry. Weighing these and other factors, we worked through what is always a difficult process affecting news outlets, colleagues and friends.”

Hadas Gold is a reporter at Politico.

http://www.politico.com