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Tuesday
Jun202017

Democrats hold talkathon on Senate floor to protest GOP health care bill secrecy

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Democrats took the Senate floor on Monday night to protest closed-door negotiations by the Republican majority to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

In a slew of lengthy floor speeches throughout Monday night, Democrats accused GOP lawmakers of drafting its Obamacare replacement bill in secret and called for more time to consider the bill, which could see a vote as early as next week.

“Republicans are drafting this bill in secret because they’re ashamed of it, plain and simple,” minority leader Chuck Schumer, D, NY, said Monday. “If Republicans won’t relent and debate their health care bill in the open for the American people to see, then they shouldn’t expect business as usual in the Senate.”

Schumer said the “shameful Trumpcare bill” would provide tax breaks for the country’s most wealthy people and make middle-class citizens pay more for less health care.

Schumer also asked the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, R-KY, if the lawmakers would get more than 10 hours to debate the Senate bill before voting on it. McConnell responded: “I think we will have ample opportunity to read and amend the bill.”

McConnell accused Democrats -- who on Monday threatened to use a series of procedural motions to slow down the Senate's work -- of preventing Congress from acting.


“Obamacare continues to collapse,” McConnell said. “Republicans are working to implement better ideas. Democrats are still trying to prevent Congress from acting.”

Schumer said his party’s actions were “merely the first steps we’re prepared to take in order to shine a light on this shameful Trumpcare bill.”

Senate Republicans have been racing to draft the bill since May when the House narrowly passed its version. Both chambers would have to agree on the language in order for the repeal measure to become law.

“When President Trump said that the House bill was mean he was not kidding around,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI, said in a speech from the Senate floor Monday night. “And if you think the one on the Senate side is gonna be any better there's one little phrase I'd like to bring to your attention. We're not stupid.”

Democrats, who oppose the bill but lack the necessary votes to block it, have vowed to block GOP procedural requests in an attempt to increase transparency in the drafting process. They have also tried to force the bill into committee and delay a potential vote.

Democrats also noted that before the ACA was passed, the bill’s text had been public for weeks, and it had seen at least 100 Senate deliberations, while the current bill hasn't seen any.


McConnell told President Donald Trump earlier this month that a vote on the bill could come before Independence Day, but Senate leaders have held back from divulging details about the bill.

However, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-WI, a vocal critic of the Affordable Care Act, said last week that his party would need more time to pass a viable replacement for Obamacare.

“We need enough time to really fully understand it. It's going to take time,” Johnson told reporters last week. “This is complex. I really don’t want to see us vote before the July 4th break. I think it'd be too soon.”

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Tuesday
Jun202017

How Jon Ossoff became the insurgent candidate in Georgia's special election

Monkey Business/Thinkstock(ATLANTA) -- A special election in Georgia's sixth congressional district to replace Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price concludes Tuesday with national attention focused on the northern suburbs of Atlanta, viewed as a bellwether for the Trump presidency.

Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel emerged from a crowded field of 18 primary candidates in April, after Ossoff fell just shy of the 50 percent of the vote needed to capture the vacant seat. Handel garnered over 19 percent of the vote, beating out 10 other Republican candidates.

Before the primary, President Donald Trump singled out Ossoff, a former film producer and ex-congressional aide who gained traction in the crowded field thanks to support from prominent legislators and a strong fundraising effort. The traditionally red suburban Atlanta district just barely tipped for Trump in November and Democrats are seeking to capitalize on backlash against the president.

Ossoff, 30, is a first-time office seeker who was raised in the district just north of Georgia's largest city, but has faced criticism for currently living outside the area he hopes to represent -- a situation he claims is temporary. He holds a bachelor's degree from Georgetown University and a master's from the London School of Economics.

For five years, Ossoff worked as a staffer for Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., who represents the state's fourth congressional district. It was in this position that the Democrat says he "held a top-secret security clearance while working with [the] military and intelligence community on counterterrorism, naval, air, and cybersecurity programs," according to his campaign website. Johnson and fellow Atlanta-area Congressman John Lewis, whom Ossoff interned for, have been vocal supporters.

Republicans have attacked the Democrat for his inexperience and youth. In one advertisement, produced by the conservative super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund, Ossoff's national security bona fides are called inconsequential -- some of his work experience took place when he was still an undergraduate at Georgetown -- and he is shown singing with his college a capella group and dressed as "Star Wars" character Han Solo while discussing beer kegs.

Prior to his run for Congress, Ossoff owned a small business that produced investigative documentaries. His campaign website touts that the company's work "has taken down human traffickers, exposed dozens of corrupt officials around the world and uncovered atrocities committed by ISIS in Iraq."

Trump, who didn't endorse a particular Republican candidate during the primary, tweeted in April, "Dems failed in Kansas and are now failing in Georgia. Great job Karen Handel! It is now Hollywood vs. Georgia on June 20th."


The president took specific aim at Ossoff earlier in the year, writing that he would be "VERY weak on crime and illegal immigration," "bad for jobs" and "will raise your taxes."


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Tuesday
Jun202017

Georgia voters to choose new representative in special election

iStock/Thinkstock(ATLANTA) -- Voters in Georgia’s sixth congressional district will head to the polls on Tuesday in a runoff to elect a new representative in a race that has attracted national attention. The election comes following a vacancy left by former Rep. Tom Price, who left his post in February to join the Trump administration as secretary of health and human services.

In what has become the most expensive House race in U.S. history, Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel are expected to go down to the wire in the district. Recent polls have the two neck and neck.

The race comes following an April primary, where no one secured a simple majority of the vote to win the seat outright, promoting the runoff Tuesday.

Democrats across the country see Ossoff's candidacy as an opportunity to win back a seat in the Republican-dominated House. The 30-year-old documentary producer and former congressional aide hopes to mobilize anti-Trump sentiment seen in millennial voters, minorities and women. Handel, who formerly served as Georgia's secretary of state, seeks to maintain her party’s hold on the district's seat, which ranges back to 1979.

Donors from across the country have shown an outpouring of support for Ossoff, with fundraising efforts totaling well over $20 million, not including an additional $6 million in donations from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Ossoff's campaign claims that their average contribution is $42.52. Over 95 percent of donations have come from outside of Georgia -- a point of contention for Republicans.

Handel’s fundraising efforts pale in comparison, totaling at approximately $4.2 million. While individual donors may not have shown Ossoff level support for Handel, she has benefited from support from outside groups. Outside money from Super PACs and the National Republican Congressional Committee total at about $18.2 million in support of Handel, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Both candidates have expanded their efforts greatly since the April primary, at which time totals only amounted to $8 million for Ossoff and $476,000 for Handel.

President Donald Trump has been an active participant in the race, tweeting frequently in the run-up to April's primary and posting Monday to urge residents of the district, which encompasses parts of Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton Counties north of Atlanta, to vote for Handel.


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Monday
Jun192017

Health care bill deadline looms while Senators on both sides wait to see draft

Stockbyte/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- While Senate Republican leaders say they plan to vote on their health care bill by the end of the month, their rank-and-file members still have deep divisions over major parts of the legislation -- and virtually none of them have seen a draft of the bill.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., voiced feelings many rank-and-file Republicans share about the process during a Sunday show appearance. Rubio said he didn’t have a problem with a small group working on the first draft, but that "the Senate is not a place where you can just cook up something behind closed doors and rush it for a vote on the floor."

Most Senate Republicans have attended meetings to discuss the health care bill that have been open to all members, in order to register their views with leadership. But they have not yet seen a copy of the bill, which Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appears to be drafting on his own.

"Sooner or later the leader has to pull it together," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told reporters Friday. Hatch is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, one of the panels with ostensible jurisdiction over the bill.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., himself a member of Senate leadership, insisted that Republicans were on track to meet their June deadline, pinning the responsibility for that vote back on McConnell.

"Sen. McConnell said there’d be a vote," he told reporters. Asked to clarify whether that meant before July, Barrasso said, "That’s what he said."

But it’s not as easy as simply summarizing the priorities of the 52-member Senate Republican conference. The members are deeply divided on key issues, the most intractable of which seems to be the Obamacare expansion of Medicaid coverage. Republicans from states that accepted the expansion want a much more gradual rollback of the expansion. There are enough of those senators, including Ohio’s Rob Portman, West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito and Colorado’s Cory Gardner, to tank the bill outright if the Medicaid language does not satisfy them.

In addition, leaders have committed to having the bill analyzed by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office to assess its budgetary and real-world effects before they vote on it, which will push back the vote date even further.

Rubio indicated that Senate Republicans will need to work on revising the bill together; the won't simply accept and vote on McConnell's draft.

"Everyone's going to get to weigh in," he said Sunday. "And it's going to take, it's going to take days and weeks to work through that in the Senate."

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are planning to highlight the secrecy surrounding the Republican bill, saying they will debate the issue "late into the evening" in a series of floor speeches Tuesday.

"Republicans are drafting this bill in secret because they’re ashamed of it, plain and simple," Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement. "These are merely the first steps we’re prepared to take in order to shine a light on this shameful Trumpcare bill."

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Monday
Jun192017

Georgia Republican calls ad tying race to congressional shooting 'disgusting'

Joe Raedle/Getty Images(ATLANTA) -- The Republican candidate in Tuesday's special election in Georgia called a super PAC advertisement featuring images of last week's shooting at a Republican congressional baseball practice "disgusting," despite its message to vote for her.

The ad, released by Principled PAC, a political action committee supporting Karen Handel, includes video of Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., one of the victims of the shooting in Alexandria, Virginia, being stretchered away from the baseball field as the voiceover says "the unhinged left is endorsing and applauding shooting Republicans."

"When will it stop? It won’t if Jon Ossoff wins on Tuesday, because the same unhinged leftists cheering last week’s shooting are all backing Jon Ossoff," continues the ad, referencing Handel's Democratic rival.

In comments to reporters Monday, Handel called the commercial "disgusting," echoing a statement released by her campaign Saturday, and added that it "absolutely" should be taken off the air. Ossoff previously called for Handel to "disown" the ad.

"The video is disturbing and disgusting," said Handel's spokesperson Kate Constantini Saturday. "For any group to use the shootings this week for political or personal benefit is shameful. This group should be ashamed."

Political action committees, such as Principled PAC, are legally prohibited from coordinating with candidates and do not need approval to run advertisements on their behalf. Principled PAC did not respond to ABC News' requests for comment.

At least one local Republican official interpreted last week's shooting as a potential positive for Handel's candidacy. Brad Carver, the chair of the Republican Party in Georgia's 11th congressional district, said Saturday he thinks "the shooting is going to win this election for us," according to The Washington Post.

“Because moderates and independents in this district are tired of left-wing extremism," Carver added.

The race between Handel and Ossoff to replace Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price has become one of the most expensive in history as Democrats seek to turn the state's sixth congressional district, a traditionally red area that only narrowly chose President Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in November.

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Monday
Jun192017

Where things stand with Special Counsel Mueller's Russia probe 

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Department of Justice-appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller is conducting what is generally called a preliminary inquiry into possible obstruction of justice involving President Donald Trump, as it pertains to his broader investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election.

Mueller, who was tasked with overseeing the investigation last month, and his team are currently assessing former FBI Director James Comey's recent testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, reviewing Comey’s memos documenting his encounters with the president, and preparing to interview certain administration officials—like Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers regarding press accounts of comments the President allegedly made to them about the Russia probe.

At some point, Mueller may wish to interview FBI senior leadership about their meetings with Comey regarding President Trump, though it's unclear if this has already taken place.

A full-scale investigation has not yet been launched, although clearly preliminary work is being done, according to sources familiar with the process.

An assessment of evidence and circumstances will be done, before a final decision is made to launch an investigation of the President of the United States, regarding potential obstruction of justice.

Fired FBI Director James Comey said under oath, during his much-anticipated Senate hearing earlier this month, that he believes he was fired because of the Russia investigation.

"Guess I don’t know for sure. I believe the — I take the president at his word, that I was fired because of the Russia investigation. Something about the way I was conducting it, the president felt, created pressure on him that he wanted to relieve,” Comey told the Senate Select Intelligence Committee.

Comey also told the Senate that he intentionally leaked his contemporaneous memos written detailing his conversations with Trump in order to prompt the appointment of a special counsel.

Any kind of alleged effort to interfere in an investigation could potentially lead to an obstruction of justice investigation targeting the president and his aides.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has oversight authority over the special counsel investigation, has told colleagues he may have to recuse himself, but he has not yet made a decision.

Nor is a decision on recusal is imminent, according to sources familiar with his thinking.

Rosenstein is overseeing Mueller's work since Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the investigation because of his ties and participation with the 2016 Trump campaign.

The deputy attorney general could become a witness, if the circumstances of Comey’s firing are considered part of an obstruction investigation.

All eyes will be on Rosenstein's actions, as well as evidence of a grand jury, subpoenaing of key White House aides with a focus on President Trump to indicate a full scale investigation has been launched.

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Monday
Jun192017

Flynn failed to report foreign trip to broker U.S.-Russia nuclear deal, House Democrats say

Mario Tama/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- In the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign, then-Trump adviser Gen. Michael Flynn made an unreported trip to the Middle East to work on a joint Russian-U.S. venture in Saudi Arabia, possibly having multiple contacts with Saudi officials that he failed to disclose when seeking renewal of his security clearances, according to Democrats who are seeking detailed records of Flynn’s travels.

“Most troubling of all, we have no record of General Flynn identifying on his security clearance renewal application – or during his interview with security clearance investigators – even a single foreign government he had contact with,” wrote Reps. Elijah Cummings and Eliot Engel, the ranking members of the House oversight and foreign affairs committees, in a letter published on Monday.

The Democrats have demanded documents related to all of Flynn’s work on the Saudi nuclear venture, which not only involved a joint Russian-U.S. effort to construct the nuclear reactors, but a plan to have Arab countries repay the Russians with the purchase of “Russian military hardware,” the letter says, citing internal documents from companies involved in trying to solidify the deal.

The allegations in the letter appear to compound the legal troubles facing President Trump’s first pick as national security adviser, a job Flynn was forced to give up after reports surfaced alleging he had lied to Vice President Pence about the nature of back channel discussions he was holding with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Flynn’s attorney told ABC News he would not comment on the new allegations. Neither X-Co Dynamics Inc./Iron Bridge Group nor ACU Strategic Partners, the companies reportedly involved in the venture, responded to requests for comment.

The lawmakers appeared to focus their interest on evidence they said suggested he repeatedly misled investigators about his overseas work during the period after 2014 when he left office as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and formed a consulting firm, the Flynn Intel Group. Already, Flynn made a late acknowledgement in filings to the Department of Justice that, immediately before joining the Trump White House, he was doing work that could benefit the government of Turkey.

This letter suggests that Flynn’s previously undisclosed foreign work extended much further than previously revealed. During the summer of 2015, while serving as an advisor to candidate Trump, the letter says Flynn traveled to the Middle East to pursue the nuclear venture – a trip he did not disclose.

He reported a second trip to Saudi Arabia in October 2015 on security clearance forms, but the letter says he omitted key details of that trip, including who paid for it. He said he traveled with a “friend,” whom he did not identify, had a speaking engagement that could not be confirmed by the agencies that booked his speeches, and stayed at the King Khaled International Hotel, the letter says. Congressional investigators could find no evidence that such a hotel existed.

Investigators believe his travels were related to a U.S.-Russian partnership financed by Saudi Arabia to build, operate and secure dozens of nuclear reactors throughout the Middle East, the details of which were outlined by internal company memos first published by Newsweek. Flynn was reportedly tasked with developing a security strategy for the network of reactors and calming the concerns of uneasy U.S. allies in the region, such as Israel and Egypt.

While proponents touted the potential security benefits of the arrangement, particularly the opportunity to secure radioactive waste that could be used to make a nuclear bomb, there is evidence to suggest that the U.S. might have been pursuing a more self-interested agenda. Designers of the venture, Newsweek reported, sought to not only jumpstart the sputtering U.S. nuclear industry but also drive a wedge between Russia and Iran, two powerful impediments to U.S. interests in the Middle East.

The letter notes that shortly after his trip, Saudi Arabia announced a $100 billion deal with Rosatom, Russia’s state atomic energy corporation, to build 16 nuclear power plants.

“Gen. Flynn failed to disclose these contacts with Saudi or other foreign officials on his security clearance application or during his interview with security clearance investigators,” wrote Reps. Cummings and Engel, “which could constitute further violations” of federal law.

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Monday
Jun192017

Sean Spicer says Trump has confidence in Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein

ABCNews.com(WASHINGTON) -- Facing increased scrutiny over his role in the ongoing investigation into Russian election meddling, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein still has the confidence of President Donald Trump, according to White House press secretary Sean Spicer.

As acting attorney general in matters related to the presidential election -- due to Attorney General Jeff Sessions' recusal -- Rosenstein has oversight over Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who The Washington Post reported has expanded the Russia inquiry to include a probe of whether Trump obstructed justice.

At an off-camera briefing at the White House Monday, Spicer was asked about Rosenstein's standing in the administration.

"The president has confidence of everyone who serves for him in this administration," said Spicer.

Asked if that included Rosenstein, Spicer responded, "He serves in this administration."

In testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, Rosenstein pledged that Mueller would maintain his independence and said he would not follow orders to fire the special counsel unless he believes "those are lawful and appropriate orders."

Earlier in the week, Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, a close friend of Trump's, claimed that the president was considering ordering Rosenstein to fire Mueller.

In May, ABC News reported that Rosenstein was displeased with the White House portrayal of former FBI Director James Comey's firing as originating from him and was on the verge of resigning, according to an administration source.

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Monday
Jun192017

McCain says 'we have no strategy' to end Afghan stalemate

US Senate(WASHINGTON) -- Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. criticized military strategy in Afghanistan Monday, less than two weeks after three U.S. soldiers were killed in an attack for which the Taliban later claimed responsibility.

McCain cited the deaths, in which an Afghan soldier turned his gun on the Americans, as rationale to "turn the situation around in Afghanistan," in a statement Monday.

“After nearly 16 years of war, we are at a stalemate in Afghanistan," said McCain in the release. "Worse, we have no strategy to end that stalemate and achieve victory."

The senator, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, pointed to testimony given by Defense Secretary James Mattis last week, who said that the U.S. is not winning in Afghanistan.

There are currently 8,400 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan involved in training and advising the Afghan military, 2,000 of which are involved in counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda and the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan.

Last week, President Donald Trump authorized Mattis to increase the military presence in Afghanistan. U.S. military commanders have recommended 2,000 to 5,000 additional soldiers in the country, according to U.S. officials. Mattis has not yet made a determination on troop levels.

"We cannot keep going like this," said McCain. "If the administration fails to develop a strategy for success, Congress will need to play a greater role."

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Sunday
Jun182017

Newt Gingrich: Trump has a 'compulsion to counterattack' 

ABC News(NEW YORK) -- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said President Trump's tweet asserting that he's under investigation for firing FBI Director James Comey wasn't helpful to the president.

"Trump has a compulsion to counterattack, and is very pugnacious," Gingrich, a strong ally of Trump, told ABC News' This Week Co-Anchor Martha Raddatz in an exclusive interview Sunday. "I don't think it serves him well. I don't think that tweet helped him."

But the former GOP House Speaker added, Trump "is infuriated -- and legitimately, in my judgment -- by this whole Russian baloney.” Gingrich was referring to a tweet by Trump on Friday that appeared to confirm that the president is under investigation in the Russia probe.

“I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt," Trump tweeted.

The president seemed to be referring to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who wrote a memo detailing what he saw as concerns about Comey's leadership of the FBI immediately prior to Trump's firing him on May 9.

In the letter to Comey informing him of his dismissal, the president said he was acting on a recommendation from Rosenstein. A few days later, however, in a May 11 interview, Trump told reporters that he was thinking of the Russia investigation when he ultimately made the decision to dismiss Comey.

Raddatz asked Gingrich on Sunday if the president has lost confidence in Rosenstein who, after Comey's dismissal, appointed Bob Mueller as special counsel in charge of the FBI's investigation of Russian interference in the U.S. election and possible ties to Trump associates. Gingrich didn't directly respond.

"I think he's furious," Gingrich said of the president. "I think Trump sits there and says, 'Let me get this straight, I know I didn't do anything with the Russians. Comey has said three times I didn't do anything with the Russians. Nobody on Capitol Hill has any proof I did anything with the Russians. And now I get an independent counsel who is going to mess up at least the next year.'"

Referring to an ABC News report that Rosenstein has said he may need to recuse himself from having authority over the Russia probe, Raddatz asked Gingrich if the deputy attorney general should take that action.

"No," Gingrich said. "I think this whole game of recusal now is -- this is a nightmare."

See more of Newt Gingrich's interview on ABC's This Week below.

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