Politics ESSENTIAL WASHINGTON

Here's our look at the Trump administration and the rest of Washington

CongressObamacare

Senate healthcare overhaul hits trouble as Republicans hesitant to proceed to vote

The Senate Republican healthcare bill ran into serious trouble late Monday when key GOP senators indicated they may block  the Obamacare overhaul from proceeding to a vote this week.

Political turmoil has been building over the bill for days. But GOP tension burst open after the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported that 22 million more Americans would lose insurance coverage under the plan and that out-of-pocket costs for many of those buying policies on the Affordable Care Act marketplace would rise.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hoped to start procedural votes by Wednesday, and President Trump called key senators over the weekend as support splintered.

It's the same political dynamic that stalled the House Republican bill last month, as conservative and centrist factions wrestle for dominance. Conservatives want a more complete repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which they hope will lower premium costs, while centrists are trying to avoid leaving millions of Americans without health coverage.

"Senate bill doesn't fix ACA problems for rural Maine," tweeted Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). "I will vote no on mtp," she said, referring to the "motion to proceed" to the bill.

Conservative Sen. Mike Lee of Utah is also working to change the bill so that he can vote yes on the procedural motion.

"We are not there yet," Lee's spokesman said. 

Senators have bristled at what they viewed as McConnell's secretive and rushed process, and several other senators said they wanted more time before voting. 

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was among those Republicans who shared concerns in weekend calls with Trump.

“We continue to make progress,” Cruz told reporters Monday, as Democrats, who oppose the bill, planned an almost-all-night protest session.

Cruz is part of the gang of four conservatives -- including Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky -- who have said they cannot vote for the bill as is. Among the changes being pursued is one provision that would allow insurers to offer cheaper policies that do not meet ACA’s requirements and another to let consumers sock more money into health savings accounts 

“We can get there and I’m hopeful we will get there,” Cruz said. However, he declined to say whether he would agree to Wednesday’s procedural vote.

Also hesitant to proceed was Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, who has strongly criticized undoing Obamacare's Medicaid expansion that has enabled about 200,000 people to gain coverage in his state.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, for example, wanted changes to help residents in her geographically far-flung state where healthcare costs are particularly high.

Some senators, though, dismissed the budget analysis and said keeping the ACA would be worse.

"It’s clear the CBO cannot predict the purchasing patterns for millions of Americans," said Georgia Sen. David Perdue, a Trump ally, in a statement. "This bureaucratic analysis will do nothing to prevent Obamacare from failing."

Others are weighing their votes.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker, whose office is receiving thousands of daily calls, spent part of Monday on the phone with health officials in Tennessee as he assesses the fallout in his state of 22 million more people in the country without healthcare.

“I kind of figured it was going to be a pretty big number,” said Corker, who remains undecided. “There’s a lot of incoming.”

ImmigrationSupreme Court

Supreme Court puts off decision in three pending cases about borders and immigration

 (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Amid its flurry of decisions Monday about Trump's travel ban and cases involving religious liberties and guns, the Supreme Court put off final rulings on three pending cases involving immigration and the U.S. border.

In Hernandez vs. Mesa, the court in an unsigned opinion told the U.S. appeals court in New Orleans to take a second look at a border shooting case. The parents of a 15-year-old Mexican boy sued a U.S. border patrol agent who shot and killed the teenager when he was standing a few feet from the border on the Mexican side. The 5th Circuit had thrown out the parents’ suit.

“The facts alleged in the complaint depict a disturbing incident resulting in a heartbreaking loss of life,” the court said in sending the case back for a further hearing.

The court said it would rehear in the fall a Los Angeles case involving whether immigrants awaiting deportation can be jailed indefinitely, or instead have a right to a bond hearing after six months. The court’s action suggests the eight justices were evenly split in Jennings vs. Rodriguez.

The court also said it will rehear the case of Sessions vs. Dimaya to decide whether non-citizens can be deported for an offense like breaking into an empty home because it may be deemed a “crime of violence.”

Refugee advocates says even partial reinstatement of travel ban will cause hardship

 (Olivier Douliery)
(Olivier Douliery)

Immigration and refugee advocates expressed disappointment Monday with the Supreme Court’s partial reinstatement of President Trump’s travel ban, saying even limited implementation could cause hardship to refugees and others seeking to travel to the United States from six affected Muslim-majority countries.  

However, organizations taking part in the months-long legal fight against the revised travel ban expressed hopes that the high court ultimately will reject the restrictions after arguments are heard in October.

And they welcomed what they described as an implicit rebuke of the White House’s assertion that Trump has unfettered powers to exclude arrivals based on purported national security concerns.  

The initial rollout of the ban, days after Trump took office in January, caused pandemonium at airports across the United States and overseas as tens of thousands of visa-holders arriving from seven affected countries were turned away without warning or detained.

After courts blocked that order, Trump issued a revised travel ban that took Iraq off the list.

A replay of January’s travel chaos was unlikely Monday because the court’s action will allow visa-holders with “bona fide” ties to people or entities in the U.S. to enter, meaning students, employees and family members can still get in. 

But refugee advocates said the court's limited ruling, which the administration can move to implement on Thursday, could leave many would-be arrivals in limbo pending the finalizing of new vetting procedures.

The administration had originally said a three-month travel ban was needed in part to review the checks to which would-be entrants are subjected.

David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, said the partial reinstatement of the ban particularly threatens “vulnerable people waiting to come to the U.S.,” including those with urgent medical conditions.

“We urge the administration to begin its long-delayed review of the vetting process and restart a program which changes lives for the better,” said Miliband.

The National Immigration Law Center, one of the groups that challenged the ban, said that as of this week, approximately 50,500 refugees from the six affected countries had been approved for travel and resettlement in the United States — all having already undergone intensive checks.

The Middle East Studies Assn., one the groups contesting the ban in the lower courts, said many students and academics were ensnared by the original order.

Even though Monday’s court move should allow entry to those studying or working at American academic institutions, many from the affected countries remained wary of leaving and then attempting to re-enter the United States, the group said.

Iran — along with Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Syria and Libya — is one of the affected countries, and Southern California is home to a large Iranian American community that was hit hard by the original ban.

Some advocates said even with Monday’s limited action, there has already been a chilling effect on movement.     

“Today’s Supreme Court decision immediately places the status of many Americans’ families into question again,” said Shayan Modarres, legal counsel for the National Iranian American Council.

The group said that visas issued to Iranian passport-holders had fallen by nearly half since the legal battle over the ban began, and that obtaining a U.S. visa was becoming so onerous that many would not even try to get one.

“The Trump administration’s new idea is to make it so hard on Iranians and Muslims to get a visa that visa officers will have the unrestricted discretion to reject visa applications,” Modarres said.

He added that grounds for rejection could be social media postings critical of Trump or not being able to produce airline boarding passes that could have been issued and used more than a decade ago.

Advocacy groups reiterated their position — which was argued in a number of the lower court cases that propelled the issue to the high court — that the travel restrictions run counter to core American traditions and values.  

Mark Hetfield, president of the refugee resettlement agency HIAS, said the group considered the court’s move “an affirmation that the president does not have unfettered, unchecked authority to bar refugees from the U.S. without evidence to justify such action.”

But he added that the executive order’s partial resurrection would “once again cause irreparable damage to refugees, immigrants, and America's reputation as a welcoming country."

The initial ban prompted large nationwide protests, and advocates suggested they would again seek to marshal popular opposition to the restrictions.

“When the first order went into effect, tens of thousands of Americans showed the world that this is not who we are and not what we want,” said Becca Heller, director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, another of the groups involved in the legal challenge. “We will never give up defending the rights of those who are affected by this discriminatory executive order.”

White House

Trump says Supreme Court action on travel ban gives him 'important tool'

President Trump celebrated the Supreme Court's decision Monday to allow a curtailed version of his travel ban to take effect, calling it a "clear victory for our national security."

In an official White House statement, the president said he was "particularly gratified" that at least part of the ruling was 9-0; three conservative justices said they would have let the president's revised executive order take effect completely.

"My number one responsibility as Commander in Chief is to keep the American people safe. Today's ruling allows me to use an important tool for protecting our Nation's homeland," he said. 

The White House has long maintained that the president was acting within his authority in seeking to temporarily restrict travel to the United States. They most often point to a provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act that states a president can suspend or limit entry of individuals "whenever the president finds that the entry ... would be detrimental to the interests of the United States."

CongressObamacare

Rival Senate factions push competing agendas as healthcare bill hangs in balance

Heading into a week of intense jockeying and arm-twisting over the Senate’s polarizing healthcare plan, the rift appeared to widen Sunday between moderates who consider the measure too punitive and conservatives who want to see the sweeping bill toughened up before agreeing to back it.

President Trump, who made the repeal of his predecessor’s signature Affordable Care Act a campaign centerpiece, expressed optimism about chances for Senate passage, but declared again that he wanted to see a plan with “heart” — suggesting he might undercut Republican efforts to bring recalcitrant conservatives on board.

With Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) seeking to push ahead with a vote this week, the bill’s prospects hung in the balance. Five GOP senators have said publicly they oppose the measure as written; the defection of only three Republicans would be enough to sink it.

Politically, Trump and Modi have much in common, but sticking points loom

 (AP)
(AP)

When President Trump hosts Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House on Monday, the two leaders will share much in common.

Both are political outsiders who champion a muscular, country-first nationalism. They enjoy feverish support from their voter bases while their governments assail critics and ignore — or encourage — hostility toward minority groups.

A senior White House official briefing reporters ahead of the visit on Friday said that Trump has visited Mumbai, India, in his business career and noted that the two men have more social media followers than any other world leaders, making sure to point out that Trump is slightly ahead of Modi.

But beyond the personalities, there are signs that the U.S.-India partnership — which grew closer under the Obama administration on issues such as climate change — could be headed for rougher waters.

When Trump withdrew from the Paris climate change agreement, he lashed out at India directly, accusing it of exploiting the deal to secure “billions and billions of dollars of foreign aid.”

Trump has vowed to curb trade deficits, a direct threat to India’s $150-billion outsourcing industry. And he has railed against the visa program that brings tens of thousands of Indian workers to the U.S. every year, saying companies should hire more Americans.

“On the major priorities on the Trump agenda, the things that he assumes his voters put him in office for, there’s not a lot of overlap with what India considers its tier-one interests,” said Richard Rossow, the Wadhwani chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

All this could make for a tepid first encounter between the two leaders during a visit that includes an afternoon meeting, a cocktail hour and a working dinner at the White House.

Here are some of the issues that could arise, and some more difficult topics that both men might try to skirt.

Support for same-sex marriage has grown steadily since Supreme Court ruling

 (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

The Supreme Court agreed Monday to consider a case next fall about the rights of people who oppose same-sex marriage — a group that has steadily shrunk in recent years.

Public opinion on same-sex marriage appears to be following the same pattern as views of marriage between people of different races — something that was illegal in many states, controversial when the Supreme Court ruled in its favor in 1967 and now accepted by all but a fairly small minority.

As recently as a decade ago, more than half of Americans said they opposed allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally. Today, two years after the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution requires states to allow same-sex marriages, opposition has fallen to about one-third of the population, according to a new survey released Monday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

Nearly two-thirds now support equal marriage rights for same-sex couples, the survey showed. Other recent surveys have shown similar trends.

Public support for same-sex marriage reaches new milestone

Opposition to same-sex marriage remains strongest among white, conservative evangelical Protestants, like the Colorado baker, Jack Phillips, who has brought his challenge to his state's civil rights law to the Supreme Court. He argues that his cakes are an artistic expression protected by the 1st Amendment and that requiring him to produce them for couples he disapproves of violates his rights.

Among white evangelicals, 35% support same-sex marriage rights, and 59% are opposed. Even among that group, however, support for same-sex marriage rights has grown, the survey showed. The numbers suggest that trend likely will continue.

Among white evangelicals born after 1964 — millennials and members of Generation X — 47% support same-sex marriage. By contrast, among white evangelicals in the baby boom generation and older, just over 25% support same-sex marriage.

Widening generational divide over gay marriage among white evangelicals

That's in keeping with the trend in society as a whole, in which large majorities among the younger generations support equal marriage rights.

Majorities of Millennials, Gen X and Boomers now favor same-sex marriage

With support growing among evangelicals, who make up a large share of Republicans, the party's followers are now evenly divided on the marriage issue. Democrats, who were closely divided a decade ago, now overwhelmingly support same-sex marriage. 

By contrast, the public is almost equally divided on the issue coming before the high court -- pitting equal rights for same-sex couples against the assertion of religious rights by those who oppose them.  A Pew survey nine months ago found 49% of Americans felt that people who offer wedding-related services should be required to treat same-sex couple equally, while 48% said that those with religious objections should exempt. 

The latest Pew survey was conducted June 8 to 18 among a national sample of 2,504 adults, it has a margin of error of 2.3 percentage points in either direction for the full sample. 

CongressObamacare

Top GOP leader says Senate on track for healthcare vote, but 'it's going to be close'

 (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Senate GOP Whip John Cornyn said leaders are working over weekend to bring five Republican senators who oppose the healthcare overhaul on board.

The Senate remains on track to start Wednesday's procedural votes in hopes of passing the bill next week.

“But it’s going to be close,” the No. 2 Republican told reporters Sunday at the wealthy Koch network’s donor summit.

Cornyn said Trump is "important in the process" but acknowledged hopes for a Fourth of July bill signing expressed by one Republican lawmaker were “optimistic.”

The Texas senator also downplayed criticism from fellow Republicans of a rushed process, saying consumers need relief from spiking premiums.

“It’s not going to get any easier,” he told reporters. “We don’t have the luxury of waiting around.”

Analysis: Atop 2017 losses, a sobering challenge for Democrats aiming at Trump next year

Republican Karen Handel, winner of last week's special House election in Georgia. (Bob Andres / Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Republican Karen Handel, winner of last week's special House election in Georgia. (Bob Andres / Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Democrats have hoped that President Trump’s deep unpopularity would propel them to gains in next year’s midterm election as they fight to take control of the House and improve their position in the Senate.

But last year’s contests and this year’s special elections suggest a complication: Trump is so distinctive a politician that it’s hard to persuade voters that other Republican candidates are carbon copies of the president. Trump’s outsized persona makes even those Republicans who share his views seem more moderate, an important attribute to swing voters.

That presents a problem for the party out of power.

Midterm elections traditionally serve as referendums on the president, but voters’ complicated views of Trump may give Republicans more running room than his popularity figures suggest. The votes cast by individual Republican incumbents may be more important to their survival than any linkage with the president.

ObamacareWhite House

Conservatives at Koch summit outline changes to Senate healthcare bill to win their support

Tim Phillips, who heads Americans for Prosperity, the largest of the Koch network's advocacy groups, speaks to the media at the White House in Washington on March 8. (Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)
Tim Phillips, who heads Americans for Prosperity, the largest of the Koch network's advocacy groups, speaks to the media at the White House in Washington on March 8. (Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

Conservatives floated two amendments for toughening up the Senate's Obamacare overhaul this weekend at the influential Koch network's confab of wealthy donors, as Republicans seek ways to win over detractors and tip enough GOP votes for passage.

That the Koch network quickly panned the Senate bill is no surprise. The organization of deep-pocketed conservative advocacy groups similarly rejected the House GOP bill this spring until party leaders tacked on tough amendments to appease right-leaning Republicans.

"We've been disappointed that movement's not been more dramatic toward a full repeal or a broader rollback of this onerous law Obamacare," said Tim Phillips, who heads Americans for Prosperity, the largest of the Koch network's advocacy groups.

"But we are not walking away," he said. "We worked to make the House bill better and it did get better…. We're doing the same thing on the Senate front."

One key lawmaker attending the weekend summit at the luxurious Broadmoor Hotel, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus and a chief negotiator on the House bill, outlined two key changes to the bill that he said could likely win enough conservative support for passage.

One amendment from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) would allow companies that offer insurance policies on the Obamacare marketplace to also offer plans that do not meet the ACA's strict requirements.

Such a change would in essence allow insurers to offer cheaper, though skimpier, policies that may help achieve the GOP's goal of lowering premiums for consumers.

Another amendment would broaden the ability of those who buy insurance on the marketplace to sock away more money in tax-free Health Savings Accounts to help them pay for their premiums.

Cruz is one of four Senate conservatives who have said they would not support the bill unless changes are made, positioning them for negotiations in the days ahead.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) needs to win back some of their votes to pass the bill with his slim 52-seat Republican majority. One of the conservatives, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), was among those feted Saturday night at a reception with Charles Koch, the billionaire industrialist who funds the conservative network.

Koch told those gathered for an outdoor cocktail reception on a breezy Colorado Springs evening about how far his team has come over the years at promoting what is a libertarian-leaning conservative agenda.

"Now when I look at where we are, at the size and effectiveness of this network, I'm blown away," he told donors. Koch met Friday with Vice President Mike Pence. 

But the politics in the Senate remain difficult as McConnell continues to negotiate behind closed doors and rushes the bill to a vote expected this week.

On Sunday, one key centrist, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, doubted a swift resolution.

"It's hard for me to see the bill passing this week," she said on ABC's "This Week."

Another crucial vote, Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, a physician who had offered his own proposal, also criticized the rush.

"I frankly would like a few more days to consider this," Cassidy said on CBS's "Face the Nation."

But Republicans are anxious to resolve the healthcare debate, which has created a logjam in their legislative agenda.

Meadows also told reporters if the Senate passes the bill this week, the House could quickly follow with a weekend session -- ahead of a Fourth of July bill signing by the president.

Schiff: Obama should have acted on Russian interference, but Trump shouldn't complain

 (Associated Press)
(Associated Press)

A top House Democrat says President Obama should have reacted more forcefully upon learning of Russian election-meddling, but also asserted that it was illogical for President Trump to levy such criticism against his predecessor.  

"I think the [Obama] administration needed to call out Russia earlier, needed to act to deter and punish Russia earlier,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), said in an interview aired Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Failure to do so, he said, had been “a very serious mistake.”

But Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump’s criticism of Obama made little sense in light of the current president’s own inaction in the face of decisive U.S. intelligence conclusions about Kremlin efforts to tip the 2016 race to Trump.

Trump, Schiff said, "is in no position to complain here" in light of the fact that as a candidate, he openly urged the Russians to hack Clinton’s emails.

“To criticize Obama is now a bit like someone knowingly receiving stolen property blaming the police for not stopping the theft," said Schiff, a former prosecutor.

On Saturday, Trump issued a statement on Twitter referencing a Washington Post report a day earlier detailing the previous administration’s wrestling with how, when and whether to make public the degree of Russian interference.

"Since the Obama Administration was told way before the 2016 Election that the Russians were meddling, why no action? Focus on them, not T!" the president tweeted.

The Post report said Obama was worried about the appearance of improperly using mounting intelligence reports about Russian activities to aid Clinton’s candidacy. The subject was particularly inflammatory because at that point in the race, Trump had complained repeatedly about the “rigged” political process and even suggested he might not respect the election outcome.

Trump says he's optimistic about Senate approval of GOP healthcare measure

 (European Pressphoto Agency)
(European Pressphoto Agency)

President Trump says he believes that backers of a sweeping GOP healthcare measure are “going to get there” and pass the measure despite the refusal of five Republican senators to endorse the bill as written.

“Healthcare is a very, very tough thing to get, but I think we’re going to get it,” Trump said on “Fox and Friends” in an interview aired Sunday that he had touted beforehand on Twitter.

“We don’t have too much of a choice because the alternative is the dead carcass of Obamacare,” the president said, referring to the Affordable Care Act, his predecessor’s signature piece of legislation.

Opinion polls have indicated low public support for the version of the healthcare bill passed earlier by the House of Representatives. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), wants to bring the Senate version, unveiled days ago, to a vote this week.   

In addition to the five Republican senators who have publicly aired their opposition, several others have declined to explicitly endorse the bill, which would overhaul the U.S. healthcare system and set the stage for  massive tax breaks that would primarily benefit the wealthiest Americans.

With a 52-seat Republican advantage in the 100-member chamber, only three GOP defections would be sufficient to derail the measure, since Vice President Mike Pence could cast a tie-breaking vote.

RussiaWhite House

Pro-Trump group launches new attack ad against special counsel Robert Mueller

A Southern California group backing President Trump is out with a new ad attacking special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, criticizing the investigation into the Trump  campaign's possible cooperation with Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The ad, called "Witch Hunt," features conservative favorite Tomi Lahren reflecting Trump's own language to complain about the probe. The more than $400,000 ad buy is expected to start running Sunday. 

"Only in Washington could a rigged game like this be called independent," Lahren says, using air quotes in the ad to emphasize her point. She is now a senior advisor to Great America Alliance, which backs Trump. 

The ad's chief complaint echoes Trump's criticism that Mueller's team has ties to Democrats, because some of the lawyers have given campaign contributions to the party. Trump has also complained of the relationship between fired FBI Director James B. Comey and Mueller, who was once his boss.

Mueller is a registered Republican. Among the members of the legal team he is assembling for the Russia probe -- which is also looking into whether the president obstructed the federal investigation by firing Comey -- four have donated to Democrats. One who gave the maximum donation to Trump rival Hillary Clinton also donated to Republicans.

Both Republicans and Democrats have praised Mueller's credentials and ability to handle the Russia probe as an independent investigation.

The group, which ran a similar attack against Comey ahead of his testimony earlier this month on Capitol Hill, has emerged as a key pro-Trump organization.

Amid probe into his campaign's links to Russia, Trump accuses Clinton of 'collusion' against Sanders

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

President Trump, in a return to campaign-style rhetoric, on Sunday accused Hillary Clinton of engaging in “collusion” in order to win last year's Democratic presidential nomination.

The presidential statement, issued on Twitter, did not refer directly to a broad-ranging investigation by a special counsel as to whether his own campaign had colluded in the Russian election meddling documented by U.S. intelligence agencies.

But the tweet implied -- as Trump has repeatedly insisted in recent months -- that he is being unfairly maligned over events during and after the 2016 campaign.

In keeping with another of his online habits, Trump coupled a personal attack on an individual with a claim of support. In this instance, he referred to Clinton’s rival for the nomination as “Crazy Bernie Sanders” but also asserted that the Vermont senator had not been allowed to fairly contest the Democratic nomination.

Aides, GOP lawmakers and legal advisors have reportedly implored Trump to stop talking about the Russia investigation on Twitter, even indirectly. Last week, the president walked back a suggestion – made in an earlier tweet – that there might have been “tapes” of his conversations with fired FBI Director James B. Comey.

Trump said Thursday on Twitter that he possessed no such tapes, while vaguely implying that such electronic surveillance might in fact exist. The White House characterized that as its formal response to a demand by congressional investigators that the president produce any existing recordings made by the White House of Trump’s conversations with Comey.

Koch brothers' political network says Senate GOP healthcare bill is insufficiently conservative

 (Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

Chief lieutenants in the Koch brothers' political network lashed out at the Senate Republican healthcare bill on Saturday, becoming a powerful outside critic as GOP leaders try to rally support for their plan among rank-and-file Republicans.

“This Senate bill needs to get better,” said Tim Phillips, who leads Americans For Prosperity, the Koch network's political arm. “It has to get better.”

Phillips called the Senate's plans for Medicaid “a slight nip and tuck” over President Obama's healthcare law, a modest change he described as “immoral.”

The comments came on the first day of a three-day private donor retreat at a luxury resort in the Rocky Mountains. Invitations were extended only to donors who promise to give at least $100,000 each year to the various groups backed by the Koch brothers' Freedom Partners — a network of education, policy and political entities that aim to promote small government.

No outside group has been move aggressive over the years-long push to repeal Obama's healthcare law than the Kochs', which vowed on Saturday to spend another 10 years fighting to change the healthcare system if necessary. The Koch network has often displayed a willingness to take on Republicans — including President Trump — when their policies aren't deemed conservative enough.

Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions wants to get tough on crime. These people think he's got it all wrong

 (Olivier Douliery / TNS)
(Olivier Douliery / TNS)

Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions has vowed to crack down on crime by sending more criminals to prison for longer periods of time.

“Every one of our citizens, no matter who they are or where they live, has the right to be safe in their homes and communities from the scourge of criminal gangs, rapists, carjackers and drug dealers,” Sessions said in an address to law enforcement officials in Memphis, Tenn., last month.

In his view, imprisoning more criminals would make families safer, and fewer people would break the law if there were more severe punishments for crimes such as drug offenses.

In a recent memo to federal prosecutors, Sessions instructed them to pursue the harshest punishments legally allowed, a reversal of an Obama-era move giving federal lawyers more leeway to reserve such prosecutions for repeat offenders and people who had committed the worst of crimes.

Department of Justice officials hope the changes at the federal level — where a sliver of crimes across the country is prosecuted — will trickle down to a similar approach to crime in states.

CongressWhite House

Vice President Mike Pence stops in for an unscheduled chat with billionaire Charles Koch

Vice President Mike Pence popped in for a visit this weekend with Charles Koch, the billionaire GOP donor hosting his semi-annual confab of like-minded business leaders assessing their priorities for the White House and Congress.

The meeting was not listed on Pence's official schedule for the day.

President Trump never much enjoyed backing from Koch ’s sprawling, secretive, political enterprise, which has emerged as a libertarian-leaning power center, sometimes overshadowing the traditional Republican Party apparatus with its high-dollar donors and vast operations. Koch’s group did not endorse the GOP presidential nominee.

But the network has always had close ties with Pence. The vice president had previously attended the exclusive gathering of donors, held this weekend at the luxurious Broadmoor hotel. And his top staff was plucked from a key Koch organization, Freedom Partners. 

Pence and Koch and their top aides spoke for nearly an hour late Friday, according to a Koch spokesman. They discussed tax reform, the GOP’s healthcare overhaul and other heavy legislative lifts that have run into resistance in the Republican-controlled Congress. The aide described the talks as casual.

Pence was in the area making other stops, including at the Air Force Academy and an evening fundraiser for GOP Sen. Cory Gardner. 

Even without investing in Trump, the Koch network has made impressive strides in advancing its agenda this year. Congress swiftly rolled back more than a dozen regulations, including some intended to protect the environment, that Koch-backed groups complained were too rigorous and invasive in industry operations.  

The Koch network groups, including Freedom Partners, a free market-oriented, chamber of commerce-type organization, is pushing the Trump administration and Congress to pass tax reform and overhaul healthcare.

Both those efforts have stalled in Congress amid Republican infighting, but the Koch groups is able to put their army of resources – money, staff and volunteers in the states – to pressure lawmakers to act. 

Kris Kobach fined for misleading court and refusing to produce previously exposed Trump memo

 (Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has been fined $1,000 for misleading a federal court in an effort to keep two documents private.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit last year against Kobach arguing that his state's proof of citizenship law violates the National Voter Registration Act. ACLU lawyers asked Kobach to produce two documents they said pertained to the case.

One of those documents was a draft of a proposed amendment to the National Voter Registration Act. The second was a document that had been photographed and widely shared in late November after Kobach met with then-President-elect Donald Trump. The power of a zoom lens exposed certain details of his proposal to Trump to deport potential terrorists.

 (Close-up of memo.)
(Close-up of memo.)

In a 24-page ruling made public Friday, U.S. Magistrate Judge James O'Hara wrote that Kobach did not accurately represent the contents of the documents when he argued against producing them.

"Defendant refused to produce these documents, asserting that they are beyond the scope of reopened discovery, do not seek relevant information, and are protected by the attorney-client, deliberative-process, and executive privileges," the judge wrote.

The court took Kobach at his word, O'Hara wrote, but upon review of the documents – produced under a court order – found that they did relate to the voting rights case. 

The judge wrote that while the court could not say that Kobach "flat-out lied," the "defendant’s statements can be construed as wordplay meant to present a materially inaccurate picture of the documents."

For now, the documents will remain classified, as Kobach designated them. But, O'Hara wrote, that status could change. 

Trump tapped Kobach last month to serve as vice chairman of a presidential commission that would oversee a voter fraud investigation.

Number of refugees admitted to U.S. drops by almost half

 (Patrick T. Fallon / For the Los Angeles Times)
(Patrick T. Fallon / For the Los Angeles Times)

The number of refugees admitted to the United States was cut by nearly half in the first three months of the Trump administration compared with the final three months of the Obama presidency, reflecting the new president's skepticism toward immigration.

Government statistics released Friday showed that more than 25,000 refugees were permitted to enter and reside in the United States at the end of the Obama administration. In the initial months under President Trump, the number fell to 13,000.

The statistics were released by the Department of Homeland Security, based on information supplied by the State Department.

Countries of origin were largely unchanged. In both periods, two-thirds of the arrivals came from five countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Myanmar.

Refugees from two of those countries — Syria and Somalia — would have been banned under Trump's executive order against entries from certain Muslim-majority nations, but federal courts have blocked the order. Trump's original order covered Iraqis as well, but he omitted Iraq from his revised order.

The data suggest that the Obama administration, as it was about to turn over power to Trump, significantly stepped up the number of refugees admitted. Arrivals in its final three months reflected an 86% year-over-year increase compared to the same period the previous year.

In Trump's first three months, arrivals were 12% lower than for the same period in the previous year.

Trump has sought to limit the number of refugees to 50,000 this year. But adverse rulings in the courts could work against him.

The United States already has one of the lowest quotas of refugee admissions among major receiving countries. Nations closer to conflict zones such as Syria have taken in millions of refugees.

More people have been displaced from their home nations, because of violence and poverty, than at any time since World War II.

Nevada Sen. Heller -- a key swing vote -- says he opposes Senate healthcare bill

 (Andrew Harnik / AP)
(Andrew Harnik / AP)

Nevada Sen. Dean Heller said Friday that he planned to vote  against the Republican healthcare bill, a potentially key defection.

Although the White House and Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky have said they plan further negotiations over the bill, "it's going to be very difficult to get me to a yes," Heller said at a news conference in Nevada with Gov. Brian Sandoval (R).

The bill unveiled Thursday by McConnell is "simply not the answer,” he said. "In this form, I will not support it."

Given the unified Democratic opposition to the bill, McConnell can afford to lose only two Senate Republicans, so Heller's announcement is significant.

A no vote by Heller would not seal the fate of the bill, however. Heller is widely viewed as the most vulnerable Republican senator up for reelection in 2018 -- the only one running in a state that Hillary Clinton carried last year -- and Republican leaders have been hoping to avoid having to count on his vote.

Heller cited several reasons for opposing the bill, but the chief one was its deep reductions in federal support for Medicaid.

"This bill will mean a loss of coverage for millions of Americans and many Nevadans," he said.

Nevada, under Sandoval, has used its authority under the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid, which has given health coverage to more than 210,000 additional state residents, Sandoval said.

"These are folks who are worth fighting for," he added.

The cutbacks the Senate bill, which would end Medicaid expansion, would cost the state $120 million a year by 2022, with the cost rising sharply after that the governor said. "That's a cost that the state cannot sustain."

Heller also cited the bill's impact on treatment for opioid addiction and the likelihood that the plan would fail to reduce premiums.

"There isn't anything in this piece of legislation that will lower your premiums," he said, contradicting one of the main arguments that supporters of the bill have made.

Heller's announcement increases the pressure on McConnell to find ways of persuading several other reluctant senators to support the bill.

Four conservatives, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, said Thursday they were opposed to the bill in its current form because it does not go far enough to roll back the Affordable Care Act.

Several more centrist senators, including Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, have voiced concerns similar to Heller's about the depth of the bill's Medicaid cutbacks and its impact on opioid treatment.

Collins and Portman have both said they want to review the analysis of the bill from the Congressional Budget Office before making up their minds. The budget office has said it will release that assessment early next week.

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