Judge denies injunction against Trump voter fraud panel

People vote on election day at Brooklyn Avenue Elementary School on Nov. 8, 2016 in Los Angeles, CA. | Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

People vote on election day at Brooklyn Avenue Elementary School on Nov. 8, 2016 in Los Angeles, CA. | Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

A federal judge has turned down an effort to force President Donald Trump’s controversial voter fraud commission to open its first official meeting to in-person, public attendance and to force disclosure of more records about the group’s work.

U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said there wasn’t enough indication that the panel planned to defy a federal sunshine law, particularly after the commission published thousands of pages of information online and announced plans to make more data public in a timely fashion.

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Kollar-Kotelly’s ruling said there was no indication that the commission’s procedures were impeding public debate about its actions, particularly a hotly-debated request that states turn over public voter registration data for study by the panel.

“There is no doubt that the Commission and its request for voter roll information have generated substantial public interest and debate. Nonetheless, Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that, absent preliminary injunctive relief, its ability to engage in this public debate would be substantially impaired in a manner that is both ‘certain and great,'” wrote Kollar-Kotelly, an appointee of President Bill Clinton.

The panel is planning to meet Wednesday in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in the White House complex. Commission chair Vice President Mike Pence is expected to attend, which officials said presented security concerns that preclude attendance by the general public—at least for this session..

Kollar-Kotelly said the Trump administration’s plan to stream the commission meeting over the internet was sufficient to meet the requirement for public access, according to federal rules interpreting the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

“The regulations anticipate that some advisory committee meetings will be made publicly accessible via internet access, and that this is permissible so long as this method is ‘reasonably accessible to the public,’ and can accommodate ‘a reasonable number of interested members of the public,” the judge wrote. “Based on Defendants’ representations, the livestreaming service offered for the July 19 meeting appears likely to satisfy both of these requirements, and indeed will offer more members of the public the opportunity to observe proceedings than had only physical access been permitted.”

The suit challenging the panel’s public comment and public access procedures was brought by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The group did not immediately respond to a a request for comment on the decision.


Corker: Russia sanctions could move before August recess

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 10: Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) speaks to reporters about President Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey, on Capitol Hill May 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, DC – MAY 10: Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) speaks to reporters about President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, on Capitol Hill May 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) | Mark Wilson/Getty

The implosion of Senate Republicans’ Obamacare repeal push could clear space for a bipartisan deal on long-stalled sanctions against Russia to make it to President Donald Trump’s desk as soon as this month, a key GOP chairman said Tuesday.

The Russia sanctions package has been mired in the House after passing the Senate with 98 votes, as House Democrats protest a change that would yank their power to block Trump from easing penalties against Vladimir Putin’s government. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) added a new wrinkle last week by urging that popular North Korea sanctions get attached to the legislation, but Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said his chamber could handle that addition if the likely failure of Obamacare repeal creates extra floor time.

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“I was a little worried about adding North Korea to it because of floor time,” Corker told reporters. “But it seems we have a gap in the floor.”

Corker said that a possible joint sanctions bill addressing North Korea as well as Russia and Iran — which were already joined by the Senate last month — could return to the Senate floor before the chamber leaves for its abbreviated August recess.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “schedules floor time, but certainly there are important issues that we have to deal with,” the Tennessee Republican said. “And hopefully one of those is going to be a [sanctions] bill coming back from the House pretty soon.”

Corker added that Senate and House negotiators have already begun talking about potential tweaks to a North Korea sanctions package that the House passed 419-1 in May. “Things are gee-hawing pretty well,” he said, employing a southern colloquialism for working together.

Left unaddressed are concerns the White House has pressed for weeks with House Republicans about elements of the sanctions bill that would restrict Trump’s ability to warm relations with Moscow and allow Congress to block the president from easing or ending sanctions against Putin. But GOP insiders have questioned whether Trump can persuade Republican lawmakers to let him go easier on Russia, particularly after the party’s high-profile stumble on health care.

On the House side, Democratic negotiators say they’re waiting for a signal from the Senate about whether it’s feasible to add the North Korea sanctions to the larger package. But House Democrats also insist they haven’t given up in pushing for a change to the procedural language that prevents the minority from forcing a vote to punish Trump if he attempts to ease sanctions against the Kremlin.

“I’m sure Mr. Putin would be very pleased that on the House side bringing up that resolution would be severely restricted,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Tuesday.

Hoyer said the Senate — which approved the language change weeks ago with unanimous consent — should also be alarmed by the restriction, because it would “undermine the Senate’s action” by subjecting any upper-chamber action against Trump to the whims of Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

But Hoyer would not rule out relenting on Democrats’ insistence that the language be changed, echoing similar comments last week by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“We’ll have to discuss it,” Hoyer said when asked if Democrats would agree to a sanctions package that includes penalties for Pyongyang but continues to limit the minority party’s rights. “I frankly think the Senate shares the concern of the fact that only the speaker could bring a resolution from the table.”

Pelosi suggested on Friday she would drop House Democrats’ insistence on restoring the language if the bill was ready to move otherwise.

“I want to protect the prerogatives of the minority in the House, but weighing the equities, what was more important was passing the Russian-Iran sanctions bill, ” Pelosi said. “So we are on board to just proceed.”


McConnell’s straight repeal strategy collides with reality

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is pictured. | AP

The blueprint that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is offering his party would partially repeal Obamacare, with a two-year delay built in to give Congress time to come up with a new replacement plan. | Alex Brandon/AP

What worked as a symbolic vote in 2015 is riskier when Republicans control Washington.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s latest health care gambit risks spooking hospitals and doctors, destabilizing insurance markets and ripping coverage from more than 30 million people — and after all that, it still won’t fully eliminate Obamacare.

GOP leaders want to speed a straight repeal bill to the floor in the wake of the sudden collapse of their bid to replace Obamacare, in a last-ditch attempt to deliver on their long-held pledge to tear down the law.

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The strategy revives a proposal to dismantle large parts of Obamacare that nearly all Republican senators voted for in 2015 — secure in the knowledge it was a symbolic gesture since it would be vetoed by then-President Barack Obama.

But times have changed. And with Republicans now in control of Washington, it’s a lot more risky to set changes in motion that policy experts warn would lead to a massive collapse of the nation’s Obamacare markets.

Already, several moderate Republicans from states that benefited from Obamacare are throwing up opposition to repealing it without a replacement plan.

“There’s been all this talk about possible death spirals,” said Larry Levitt, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “This would be an actual, real, death spiral.”

The blueprint that McConnell is offering his party would partially repeal Obamacare, with a two-year delay built in to give Congress time to come up with a new replacement plan.

The bill would scrap key parts of Obamacare, including the subsidies that help low-income Americans afford coverage, Medicaid expansion and all the taxes designed to help pay for those coverage programs. It would also effectively wipe out the individual and employer mandates — a top priority for Republicans — by eliminating the penalties for failing to offer or obtain coverage.

But just as significant is what the legislation would leave in place: all of the Obamacare insurance regulations and coverage rules that the GOP blames for skyrocketing premiums, and that drove conservatives’ revolt against the Senate Republican health care bill.

The 2015 bill needed to retain those regulations to pass muster with the Senate’s strict reconciliation rules, and Republicans will likely need to do the same this time around. That means that the GOP is left with legislation that would only partially eliminate Obamacare, while rendering its surviving provisions unworkable.

Absent a mandate, patients would have no incentive to purchase insurance until they got sick. Insurers still obligated to cover all enrollees under Obamacare’s regulations would flee the market for fear of steep losses, and the worry that Congress may never agree on a replacement. And the Obamacare markets — which are just starting to show signs of stabilizing — would devolve into a chaotic mix of skyrocketing prices and dwindling options.

The Congressional Budget Office in January estimated that a straight repeal without a replacement would leave 32 million more people without insurance over a decade. Premiums, the CBO said, would spike by as much as 25 percent.

“It kind of defies human nature, and it certainly defies political nature,” said Joe Antos, a health care finance expert at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “I would say it’s a very poor strategy.”

Those perils prompted the GOP to abandon their brief flirtation with a straight up repeal plan soon after President Donald Trump’s election, concluding it would create too much uncertainty for the health care sector. And already, moderate Republicans who balked at rolling back benefits like the Medicaid expansion over several years are questioning the wisdom of pursuing a bill that would end those programs even faster.

Sen. Susan Collins — the only remaining senator to vote against the 2015 bill — immediately came out against McConnell’s latest idea and was joined soon after by West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito.

“I did not come to Washington hurt people,” said Capito, who voted more than 40 times in the last seven years to repeal Obamacare. “With that in mind, I cannot vote to repeal Obamacare without a replacement plan that addresses my concerns and the needs of West Virginians.”

Several other GOP moderates have yet to commit to supporting the start of floor debate on health care — a sign that McConnell’s bid could quickly tank. That’s likely to further anger the party’s right-most flank, which has pushed Republicans to follow through on their pledge to eliminate Obamacare “root and branch.”

Sen. Mike Lee, who’s opposition to the Senate GOP’s latest health care bill doomed its chances, is now planning to vote to open debate with the intention of moving towards a straight repeal. Sen. Ted Cruz also said he’d back a motion to proceed, even though the bill retains many of the Obamacare regulations he’s made it his mission to kill.

“What is critical is that we deliver on our promise,” he said. “I continue to believe we can get this done. We can honor our promises and repeal Obamacare.”

But after spending months in vain trying and failing to coalesce around a replacement that can get just 50 Republican votes, there may be less confidence within the health care industry and even among GOP senators that Congress can come together on a health care overhaul — whether it’s in the next two months, or the next two years.

“The meandering about for the past four months probably strengthens the view that if you can’t get an agreement on what a replacement is, then a repeal is going to be politically a bad idea,” Antos said. “It’s a political loss for Republicans in the Senate and in the House.”

Paul Demko and Brent Griffiths contributed to this report.


House Republicans struggle to rally around spending plan

House leaders have so far fallen woefully short of the support needed to pass a massive spending package without having to rely on Democratic votes.

After launching a whipping operation Monday night to gauge interest, GOP leaders walked away with a tally of dozens of Republican lawmakers who say they can’t commit right now — as well as several hard “no’s” — to voting for the partisan bundle of federal funding measures, according to Republican lawmakers and aides.

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The survey underscores GOP leadership’s ongoing difficulty in appeasing the party’s most fiscally conservative wing while still holding onto support from moderates, and serves as a reminder that ideological differences within the House Republican conference are likely to force the majority to continue making deals with Democrats to keep the government funded.

The initial vote count was so dismal, in fact, that Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) told Republican lawmakers in a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning that the tally sets a record for the most “undecided” responses, according to people who were in the room.

Although House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) instructed his members to read up over the weekend on the fiscal 2018 funding proposals crafted so far in committee, several Republican appropriators have said their colleagues didn’t do their homework and are withholding support because they aren’t familiar enough with the spending bills, which are each more than 100 pages long.

“I think people like the concept,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said. “But if you’re not on the Appropriations Committee, you haven’t seen any of the approps bills. I think it’s mostly an informational thing.”

Cole said one of his Republican counterparts asked him Monday night what the spending committee ended up deciding on funding for the National Institutes of Health — a spending level that was announced, and highly publicized, five days before. Getting enough GOP lawmakers up to speed and on board for passing an all-GOP government funding package before the August recess would be a heavy lift, he said.

“I think the real problem they’re going to have is time — time to educate the members, time to allow the amendment process to work out,” added Cole, who chairs the spending subcommittee in charge of funding the departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services. “But I think people, again, like the idea. Getting people to commit to a huge number when they haven’t seen the bill is pretty hard. Only the appropriators commit.”

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) noted that the whipping operation began before the House spending panel even approved all 12 of the spending measures — a task that’s expected to wrap up Thursday.

“You’ve got to see the product first, and right now it’s still in the works,” Dent told POLITICO.

While Dent supports the passage of a conservative, all-GOP omnibus spending bill, which would advance the measure he oversees for military construction and Veterans Affairs funding, he has expressed concern that laying down a marker that will be so far off what can be passed in the Senate could complicate negotiations later on.

Many GOP lawmakers and aides have said privately that advancing a security-focused spending package — with funding for the Pentagon, veteran programs and homeland security agencies alone — could be a better option in the interim. Democrats have seized on that idea to highlight their Republican counterparts’ struggles after years of promising “regular order” through the spending cycle.

“I don’t think Republicans on their own can pass any budget but the national security bills,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Tuesday.

Even though many of the spending levels in the 12-bill package are too low to clear both chambers, the strategy is alluring to House Republicans who yearn to return home for August recess with the ability to say they successfully passed a government funding bill that includes major GOP priorities.

A spokesman for Rep. Tom Graves, who came up with the idea of passing a partisan spending package before August, told POLITICO Tuesday that the Georgia Republican has been trying to win his colleagues’ support by highlighting “the big conservative wins like border wall, increasing funds for military, cutting spending, slashing regulations.”

“There’s a lot of undecideds at this point, but that’s to be expected,” Graves spokesman Garrett Hawkins said Tuesday morning. “A lot of the members haven’t really tuned into the details of the 12 different bills.”

Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.