Sessions says grants to be withheld from sanctuary cities

“Such policies cannot continue. They make our nation less safe by putting dangerous criminals back on the streets,” Sessions said during a surprise appearance in the White House press briefing room. 

“Today, I am urging states and local jurisdictions to comply with these federal laws.”

It comes as the White House is seeking to get its agenda back on track after suffering an embarrassing defeat last Friday when Republicans were forced to scrap their long-awaited healthcare plan due to lack of support. 

Sessions said that compliance with federal immigration laws will be a prerequisite for states and localities that want to receive grants from the department’s Office of Justice Programs. The office provides billions of dollars in grants and other funding to help criminal justice programs across the country. 

Most recently, its Office for Victims of Crime announced a grant of almost $8.5 million in support for victims of last year’s mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando. 

Sessions also called on Maryland to scrap any movement toward becoming a sanctuary state. Legislation is making its way through the state legislature. 

“That would be such a mistake,” he said. 

“I would plead with the people of Maryland to understand this makes the state of Maryland more at risk for violence and crime, that it’s not good policy.” 

Just days after his inauguration, the White House issued a broad executive order on interior law enforcement that, among other things, ordered the government to study what grant monies are being received by sanctuary cities and states. It also gave the administration the power to limit grants to sanctuary cities.  

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Senate Democrats to meet with Homeland Security chief on immigration

Key Senate Democrats will meet this week with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to discuss their objections to the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown.

The meeting between Kelly and about a dozen Senate Democrats who work closely on immigration policy will be held Wednesday afternoon, an aide confirmed, and was primarily organized by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

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Democratic lawmakers have been furious over enforcement tactics coming from the Trump administration, which have included raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and detention of some young immigrants who have been granted work permits and deportation deferrals under an Obama-era initiative for so-called Dreamers.

The private meeting will follow the Homeland chief’s contentious meeting with House Democrats over the issue earlier this month. Behind closed doors, Kelly pushed back at criticism from Democratic lawmakers, telling them that he’s the “best thing to happen” to young undocumented immigrants and urging Democrats to rewrite immigration laws if they don’t like the current ones.

Senate Democrats had been asking for a meeting with Kelly for weeks. DHS officials initially responded to their request by offering a sit-down with Thomas Homan, the ICE acting director, and Kevin McAleenan, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.

Since President Donald Trump assumed office in January, his administration has enacted new policies that give immigration enforcement officials broad discretion to arrest and deport immigrants in the United States illegally, as well as legal immigrants with criminal records.

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Trump approval hits new low

President Trump’s approval rating has hit a new low in the wake of the GOP’s failure to pass its ObamaCare replacement legislation.

According to Gallup’s job approval tracker, only 36 percent of adults polled approve of the job Trump is doing, against 57 percent who disapprove. 

The survey was conducted March 24–26.

The Republican healthcare plan, known as the American Health Care Act, fell apart on Friday, when Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanThe Hill’s 12:30 Report House GOP insists: We’re not giving up on ObamaCare repeal Ryan: Don’t tie Planned Parenthood to government funding fight MORE (R-Wis.) canceled a planned vote in the face of increasing opposition from Republican lawmakers. Trump whipped furiously on behalf of the bill, warning lawmakers that the rest of his agenda would be in peril if it failed to pass.

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Trump’s previous low in the Gallup survey was 37 percent approval, recorded only 10 days ago.

The president registered his highest approval rating of 46 percent just days after his Jan. 20 inauguration. He has been underwater on job approval ever since, averaging 42 percent approval over the course of his two months in office.

Gallup’s three-day rolling average of 1,500 U.S. adults has a 3 percentage point margin of error.

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Republicans learn to love a regulation

The GOP Congress hasn’t had much luck getting big policies passed under President Donald Trump, but it’s been very efficient at repealing them—quietly using its powers under the 1996 Congressional Review Act to roll back Obama-era regulations on oil companies, coal companies, and workplace injury tracking, among others. It’s all part of the Republican campaign promise to roll back nuisance rules that impose burdens on states and private companies.

But in a twist, the next two rules to get the axe might do just the opposite. As soon as this week, the Senate is poised to overturn two Department of Labor rules that concern retirement savings. But instead of tying firms in red tape, the rules actually reduce the burden of regulations on states and businesses trying to help people save for retirement. So repealing them would put the obstructive regulations right back in place.

The disagreement stems from laws passed in five states—California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland and Oregon—that require employers without 401(k)-style retirement plans to automatically enroll their workers in state-run retirement accounts. The idea is to create a new, automatic retirement-saving option for the millions of workers who don’t have access to any kind of retirement plan that deducts from their paycheck. (Though auto-enrolled, workers could opt out.)

Those laws might not seem like they’d involve the federal government at all, except that a 1974 law, the Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), ties employers up in a number of rules if they establish or maintain a worker’s retirement account. ERISA is intended to protect workers, but it also makes retirement plans more costly to run, and is a big part of why many smaller employers don’t offer 401(k) plans. When the five states passed the new savings law, firms started to worry they’d be held liable to ERISA standards, making the new laws just as expensive as running their own 401(k)s, even though they only function as middlemen.

So last fall, the Department of Labor issued two rules—one for states and one for municipalities—providing a “safe harbor” so that auto-IRA plans will not fall under burdensome ERISA requirements. These “safe harbor” rules are the ones the GOP wants to roll back.

Republicans call the Obama rules a “regulatory loophole” and frame their campaign against these rules as a simple matter of consumer protection: States have a bad record of managing pension money, and new laws funneling money to state-run IRA programs could just invite new abuses of private sector pensions, as has happened with public sector pensions. (In this case, however, the states would simply act as administrators, and the actual IRA accounts contracted out to private firms like Vanguard and Fidelity.)

Critics suspect something else lies behind the GOP’s sudden affection for costly consumer-protection rules. “People have ascribed different motivations to why they are doing it,” said Justin King, a policy director at New America who supports the DOL rules. “Is it just because it’s an Obama thing? Is it a favor to the financial services industry?”

Republicans say that exempting the state-run auto-IRAs from ERISA won’t just eliminate consumer protections—it will give the state an unfair competitive advantage over the private sector. “They are put on the same footing with a 401(k),” Rep. Francis Rooney, a sponsor of one of the CRA bills in the House, said in an interview. “They have an administrator dealing with other people’s money and need the fiduciary protections of ERISA.”

“Our position is the following: The states should be able to offer anything to private sector employees that are subject to the same standards and requirements,” said Jill Hoffman, a vice president for government affairs at the Financial Services Roundtable, a banking lobby that supports repealing the rules. “If it’s good enough for the private sector, it should be good enough for the state.”

It’s true that IRA accounts don’t come with the exact same protections as ERISA-covered accounts. In particular, ERISA imposes a fiduciary duty on employers to act in the best interest of their employees, which is not the case with IRAs. But it’s also true that employers can already offer IRAs which, under certain circumstances, are not protected by ERISA. Those accounts aren’t unprotected; IRAs themselves have many ERISA-like protections, including rules that prevent self-dealing by their money managers. And supporters argue that states will pass additional consumer protections as well. “These state-run plans are not employer-sponsored plans,” said King. “They are IRA plans and exist in the private market already, and come with a bunch of protections that are not ERISA protections. Nobody has a problem with that.”

As for the argument about state money management: States underfunded their employee pensions for years, repurposing the money and passing the problem to future policymakers. As interest rates have fallen, these liabilities have become more imposing, and many states face major pension crises in the years ahead. Conservatives say the new IRA laws will lead to a repeat scenario. “[It’s] politicians playing politics with private sector workers’ retirement funds,” said Rachel Greszler, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation who has studied this issue. The funds, she warned, could even be used for political purposes, such as disinvesting from energy resources or propping up public pension accounts.

Democrats strongly disagree. “It’s complete bullshit,” said Joshua Gotbaum, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institute who chairs the board that is designing and running Maryland’s auto-IRA plan. He served as the head of the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation from 2010 to 2014. The better comparison, he said, isn’t to public pensions but to college-savings plans known as 529s, which have been extremely popular and have largely avoided scandal. “Dozens of states have college savings plans that use this exact model,” he said, “and no one has claimed that they are mismanaged.”

The idea of a state-run IRA isn’t totally without risk: in theory states could take over the management of the money and do it as poorly as they did with pensions. In practice, however, that appears unlikely: All five of the states that have passed the laws so far not only plan to outsource the management to private money managers, but have included a fiduciary requirement in their auto-IRA laws, meaning the state must act in the best interest of the employees.

The two CRA bills passed the House in February and received just one Democratic vote. Congressional staffers weren’t sure when they would reach the Senate floor, but it could be as soon as this week. The White House said it “strongly supports” the two bills.

When the bills do reach the floor, there’s no guarantee that they’ll pass. With a 52-seat majority, Republicans have just three votes to spare, and some Republicans could be tempted to oppose the bills. Sen. John McCain, for instance, actually supported a similar national law during his 2008 presidential run. And Sen. Marco Rubio hails from a state—Florida—that benefits when seniors have additional retirement savings. Neither office returned a request for comment on their position on the legislation.

To those in the states, the stakes are high. About 13 million people could gain access to new retirement accounts through the laws. (Nationwide, around 40 million people lack access to employer-sponsored retirement accounts.) State leaders see the laws as an innovative new way to encourage Americans to save for retirement and, importantly, to help their own fiscal situation in years ahead. After all, they say, poor seniors eventually become the state’s costly responsibility. “This is a program that doesn’t cost taxpayers any money, enables people to exercise their personal responsibility to save for retirement in the same way that most professionals save for retirement,” said Ruth Holton-Hodson, a senior policy adviser with the California State Treasurer. “If we don’t allow states to do this, the back end is going to costs states a lot more.”

Even if Republicans do repeal the two rules, states say they still move forward with their plans, even though that could put their small businesses at risk of having to comply with ERISA. And whatever happens in Congress, the implications could soon be much broader: at least 10 more states are considering similar laws.

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Breitbart’s bid for congressional pass put off

The Capitol building is pictured. | Getty

Breitbart News began the process to secure permanent and official Capitol Hill credentials in November. | Getty

Standing committee members raise questions about its leadership, ties to the Mercers.

The congressional Standing Committee of Correspondents on Monday delayed a decision on whether to grant permanent credentials to Breitbart News, saying members were not satisfied with the information provided thus far regarding the right-wing website’s connections to the White House and the Republican mega-donor family the Mercers.

Breitbart News, the site once run by President Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, began the process to secure permanent and official Capitol Hill credentials in November. Within the process to secure credentials is a clause that states the person and organization holding the pass “must not be engaged in any lobbying or paid advocacy, advertising, publicity or promotion work for any individual, political party, corporation, organization, or agency of the U.S. government.”

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As a result, the site, which is known to keep information about its funding and ownership quiet, revealed in a past meeting that the owners are Breitbart CEO Larry Solov, founder Andrew Breitbart’s widow, Susie Breitbart, and the Republican megadonor family the Mercers, including patriarch Bob Mercer and his daughter Rebekah Mercer, who is close to Trump. Breitbart’s family owns the largest stake.

Breitbart News did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The congressional passes are often the first step to acquiring other important press passes, including for the White House and political events. Breitbart currently has temporary credentials, but permanent credentials would prevent them from having to go through a renewal process every few months.

In the previous meeting, the committee requested more information on Breitbart’s leadership, which is not readily available on its site, as well as more information on when and how Bannon left the site. In a letter to the committee that was shared with journalists attending the meeting, Solov said Bannon resigned from Breitbart “on or about” Nov. 13, 2016 and that he has “no editorial executive, financial or other role or interest” in the site. Solov, at the committee’s request, also provided a masthead of the site which is not available on its website.

Of concern to the committee was the presence on the masthead of at least two people, Senior Editor-at-large Peter Schweizer and Managing Editor Wynton Hall, who are both also both part of the Mercer-funded Government Accountability Institute founded by Bannon and Schweizer. The GAI and the work they produce, would not be in line with the committee’s guidelines for credentialing, the committee said.

“We can’t even get an exact date Bannon resigned, on or about Nov. 13, even so, some officers and top editors at Breitbart may or may not have continued relations directly with Bannon and another organizations, even being paid,” said the standing committee chairman, Billy House from Bloomberg News. “Even if Bannon is no longer involved in GAI, top editors are involved in this other group, an advocacy group.”

“It’s not that unusual that an Arianna Huffington, or Michael Bloomberg, these people are engaged in political activities. But it’s when the editorial masthead is full of people with dual roles who are also doing advocacy, that is a problem,” said committee secretary Joseph Morton of the Omaha-World Herald.

The committee also expressed concerns over the Mercers, who are not listed on Breitbart’s masthead. The committee noted recent news reports including a New Yorker article which said that Rebekah Mercer does not “dictate a political line to the editors, but often points out areas of coverage that she thinks require more attention.”

In the meeting on Monday, the committee, composed of five journalists, also expressed frustration that Breitbart submitted the requested information at the last minute and may have misled the committee on where their offices are located.

A Capitol Hill townhouse, known as the “Breitbart Embassy,” had been provided as the address of the company’s Washington office, and the committee was told Breitbart was leasing the space as a “mixed use” place for both corporate housing (often where Bannon stayed), events and office space. But the committee noted that the townhouse is not technically zoned for commercial use and that the owner of the house filed taxes as the sole occupant, meaning that a commercial lease would not even be legally possible. (Most Breitbart writers work remotely, and the site has said they are seeking new office space.)

Breitbart’s current credentials are temporary, though the committee agreed to extend their credentials for two more months while asking Breitbart to submit further information by April 18. That information includes further explanations on the two masthead members who are also part of GAI, further explanations into the Mercers role with the site, clarification on Breitbart’s office space and its past lease.

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