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Associated Press

Veteran activist from Florida chosen as NOW’s new leader

A long-time feminist activist whose campaign resume noted that she had an illegal abortion in 1968 has been elected as the new president of the National Organization for Women.

Toni Van Pelt, 69, who has been active for decades in NOW’s Florida affiliates, was elected Saturday night at the organization’s national conference in Orlando, Florida. Elected as vice president was her running mate, Gilda Yazzie, a Navajo Indian from Durango, Colorado.

They defeated a ticket headed by China Fortson-Washington, a longtime advocate for victims of domestic violence who would have been NOW’s first African-American president since 1971. Her running mate was a 29-year-old daughter of Cuban immigrants, Monica Weeks.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Florida Supreme Court throws out 4 death sentences

The Florida Supreme Court is ordering new sentencing hearings for four inmates currently on the state’s death row, including one of three women residing there.

The high court on Thursday threw out the sentences because a jury did not unanimously recommend the death penalty in the cases. The Court ruled last year that death sentences have to be unanimous, and anyone sentenced after a 2002 ruling could be eligible for a new sentence.

Among those getting a new hearing is Tiffany Ann Cole. She was convicted for her role in the 2005 murders of a Jacksonville couple that was buried alive.

The court also ordered a new sentencing hearing for Michael Bargo, who was convicted for taking part in 2011 the murder and torture of a Marion County teenager.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

 

GOP ponders whether Donald Trump helps sell health care

It was a platform most politicians can only hope for: A captivated, 6,000-person crowd and more than an hour of live, prime-time television coverage to hype the Republican vision for a new health care system.

But when President Donald Trump got around to talking about the Republican plan — about 15 minutes into his speech — he was wildly off message. Instead of preaching party lines about getting the government out of Americans’ health decisions and cutting costs, he declared: “Add some money to it!”

The moment captured a major dilemma for Republicans as they look for ways to jumpstart their stalled health care overhaul. A master salesman, Trump has an inimitable ability to command attention, and that could be used to bolster Americans’ support for Republican efforts and ramp up pressure on wavering lawmakers. But some lawmakers and congressional aides privately bemoan his thin grasp of the bill’s principles, and worry that his difficulty staying on message will do more harm than good.

“You know, he’s very personable and people like talking to him and he’s very embracing of that, so there will be certain people he’d like to talk to,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. “But I’d let Mitch handle it,” he continued, referring to the lead role Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has played thus far.

McConnell delayed a vote on the health legislation this week after it became clear he couldn’t muster enough Republican support to offset the unanimous opposition from Democrats. GOP leaders are now hoping to pass a bill in the Senate and reconcile it with an earlier version approved by the House before lawmakers head home for their August recess.

Trump has largely ceded the details to McConnell, deferring to the Kentucky lawmaker’s legislative expertise. He has spent some time talking privately to wavering senators, including Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, testing his powers of persuasion. But he’s invested no significant effort in selling the American people on the impact the Republican bill would have on their health care coverage, beyond making sweeping declarations about how wonderful he expects it to be.

“We’re looking at a health care that will be a fantastic tribute to your country,” Trump said during a White House event Wednesday. “A health care that will take care of people finally for the right reasons and also at the right cost.”

His approach is a contrast to former President Barack Obama, who delivered an address to Congress on health care and held town halls around the country about the Democrats’ legislation in 2009. The Obamacare measure barely cleared Congress and became a rallying cry for Republicans, something Obama blamed in part on a failure by his party to communicate its virtues clearly to the public.

At times, even Trump’s largely generic health care commentary has left Republicans fuming. Some lawmakers were particularly irked by Trump’s assertion that the House bill — which he robustly supported and even celebrated with a Rose Garden ceremony — was “mean.”

One Republican congressional aide said that comment left some lawmakers worried that the president — who had no real ties to the GOP before running for the White House — could turn on them if a bill passes but the follow-up becomes politically damaging. The official insisted on anonymity in order to describe private discussions.

Newt Gingrich, the former GOP House speaker and a close Trump ally, said Republicans have struggled to communicate about the complexities of health care policy because “nobody has served as a translator.” He said Trump is well-positioned to take the lead, but acknowledged that the real estate mogul-turned-politician would need some help from policy experts in formulating a sales pitch.

“Trump will be able to repeat it with enormous effectiveness once somebody translates it,” Gingrich said.

The White House disputes that Trump isn’t steeped in the details of the Obamacare repeal efforts. Economic adviser Gary Cohn and other officials on the National Economic Council have convened several meetings with him to explain differences between the House and Senate bills. One senior White House official described the president as “fully engaged” in the process.

During a private meeting Tuesday with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who is strongly opposed to the current Senate bill, Trump said his priority was to increase the number of insurance choices available to consumers and lower monthly premiums, according to an administration official with direct knowledge of the discussion. The official said the president also specifically highlighted the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office’s projection that average premiums would be 30 percent lower in 2020 if the Senate bill took effect.

To some Trump allies, more public engagement on a substantive policy debate like the future of the nation’s health care system would also be a welcome reprieve for a president whose approval ratings have tumbled amid the snowballing investigations into possible collusion between his campaign and Russia.

“I think his numbers would go up if he had a couple of addresses,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign adviser. “If he communicates directly with the American people, he cuts through the noise.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Southwest drops 2 Cuban routes, citing performance, ban

Southwest Airlines Co. says it will drop flights to two Cuban destinations, citing its struggles to attract passengers and a tougher U.S. stance toward the island nation.

Dallas-based Southwest on Wednesday announced service to Varadero and Santa Clara, Cuba, will end Sept. 4. It will continue to fly to Havana from Fort Lauderdale and Tampa.

President Donald Trump this month announced he’s reversing some of the warmer ties with Cuba that were initiated by the Obama administration.

A Southwest vice president, Steve Goldberg, says the decision to drop Varadero and Santa Clara comes after an analysis of performance the past few months that leaves no clear path to sustainability in the markets. Goldberg also cited the continuing U.S. prohibition on tourism to Cuba for Americans.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Prosecutors seek to keep charge against Pulse gunman’s wife

Federal prosecutors are asking a judge to keep an obstruction charge against the wife of the Orlando nightclub shooter.

Prosecutors this week filed a response to a request from Noor Salman to dismiss a count she’s facing.

Salman was charged with aiding her husband, and obstruction for allegedly misleading investigators.

The obstruction charge was filed in a federal district that covers Orlando, but she’s accused of misleading investigators during an interview in Fort Pierce, which is in the Southern District of Florida.

Salman argued that the obstruction charge was filed in the wrong venue.

Prosecutors say Orlando is the proper place since that is where the investigation and court proceedings are taking place.

Forty-nine people were killed after Salman’s husband, Omar Mateen, opened fire at the Pulse nightclub last year.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Rick Scott, Aramis Ayala fight heads to state high court

Does Florida’s governor have the power to take away a prosecutor’s case if he disagrees with a decision not to seek the death penalty?

The state’s highest court will hear arguments Wednesday over that question in a legal fight between Gov. Rick Scott and State Attorney Aramis Ayala, whose district covers the Orlando area.

Their fight began in March when Ayala, a Democrat, said her office would no longer seek the death penalty, explaining the process is costly, it’s not a crime deterrent and it drags on for years for the victims’ relatives. Ayala announced her decision as her office was starting to build a case against Markeith Loyd in the fatal shooting of an Orlando police lieutenant and his pregnant ex-girlfriend. With her decision, Ayala, intentionally or not, thrust herself into the forefront of the anti-death penalty movement.

Scott, a Republican, responded by reassigning her office’s death penalty cases to a prosecutor in a neighboring district, and top Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee announced budget cuts to Ayala’s office.

A spokeswoman for Ayala this week said she wouldn’t be talking about the case before the hearing.

In court papers, Ayala argued that it was unlawful for Scott to take away her cases since she is independently elected by voters, and that he could only remove her from cases for “good and sufficient reason,” none of which were present in their disagreement over the death penalty.

“Removing an elected prosecutor from a case because of a disagreement over her exercise of discretion is unprecedented,” Ayala’s attorneys said in court papers. “Every day state attorneys here in Florida make important decision on who to charge, what to charge, and what to prioritize. Giving the governor the tremendous and unfettered discretion to interfere in that decision making, would be unprecedented and could undermine the entire justice system in Florida.”

Scott argued in court papers that Ayala is refusing to follow Florida law by making a blanket decision not to seek the death penalty, and that her decision sets a dangerous precedent.

“The novel and extraordinary constitutional authority Ayala asserts, if accepted, will not just apply to prosecutors who decline to enforce the state’s death penalty laws. It will also apply to prosecutors who disagree with other kinds of criminal laws and penalties, including, for example, hate-crimes enhancements, laws that ban the open carrying of firearms and campaign finance regulations,” Scott’s attorneys said in court papers.

Florida’s death penalty has been in flux for the past year or so.

Executions in Florida ground to a halt last year after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the state’s death penalty sentencing law unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges. The Florida Legislature responded by overhauling the law to let the death penalty be imposed by at least a 10-2 jury vote. The state Supreme Court struck down the law and required unanimous jury decisions for capital punishment. Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a bill requiring a unanimous jury recommendation.

Ayala, who previously worked as a public defender and prosecutor, was a virtual unknown when she ran for state attorney last year. With an infusion of more than $1 million from a Washington-based political action committee with ties to liberal Hungarian-born U.S. billionaire George Soros, Ayala unseated the incumbent state attorney in the Democratic primary and became Florida’s first African-American state attorney.

In her campaign, she promised to listen to communities that hadn’t had a voice in the past. Given that Florida’s death sentence was in a legal holding pattern at the time, capital punishment never came up during Ayala’s campaign.

A host of civil rights activists and legal scholars have come out in support of Ayala. Lawmakers in the Republican-dominated Florida House, and other state attorneys, have denounced her decision.

“Ms. Ayala effectively abolished the death penalty … by implementing a hard-and-fast rule that removes her decision-making on a case-by-case basis, which is beyond the scope of her prosecutorial independence and discretion,” the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys said in court papers.

Ayala has also sued Scott in federal court, but asked it to wait until the Florida Supreme Court lawsuit is resolved.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Facing defections, Senate GOP leaders delay health care vote

In a bruising setback, Senate Republican leaders are delaying a vote on their prized health care bill until after the July 4 recess, forced to retreat by a GOP rebellion that left them lacking enough votes to even begin debating the legislation, two sources said Tuesday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delivered the message to GOP senators at a private lunch attended by Vice President Mike Pence and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus. The decision was described by a Republican aide and another informed person who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the closed-door decision.

All GOP senators were planning to travel to the White House later Tuesday to meet with President Donald Trump, one source said.

McConnell had hoped to push the measure through his chamber by this week’s end, before an Independence Day recess that party leaders fear will be used by foes of the legislation to tear away support.

The bill rolling back much of President Barack Obama’s 2010 health care law has been one of the party’s top priorities for years, and the delay is a major embarrassment to Trump and McConnell. At least five GOP senators — conservatives and moderates — had said they would vote against beginning debate.

Reprinted with permission of the Associated Press.

Man charged with threatening Jose Felix Diaz on Facebook

A Florida man has been charged with threatening to kill a state legislator in a Facebook post.

The Miami-Dade Police Department said in a news release Tuesday that 34-year-old Steve St. Felix made the threat on Sunday against Republican state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz. The post said St. Felix would kill the lawmaker if he appeared at a political meeting.

Police say St. Felix admitted making the threatening post after his arrest and that he is “fed up with the Republican Party.” Investigators also say St. Felix said he meant no actual harm and that he had failed to take unspecified medication at the time.

St. Felix is jailed on a charge of making written threats to kill or do bodily injury. Court records didn’t list a lawyer for him.

Reprinted with permission of the Associated Press.

These senators will make or break the GOP’s health care push

President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to repeal and replace “Obamacare” is now in the hands of a key group of GOP senators who are opposing —or not yet supporting — legislation Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is pushing to bring to a vote this week.

These lawmakers range from moderate to conservative Republicans, and include senators who were just re-elected and a couple facing tough re-election fights. Their concerns about the legislation vary along with their ideology, from those who say it’s overly punitive in ejecting people from the insurance rolls, to others who say it doesn’t go far enough in dismantling former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Satisfying one group risks alienating another.

Trump spent part of the weekend placing phone calls to a handful of these lawmakers, focusing on senators who supported his candidacy — Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky. The next several days will show whether the president’s efforts pay off and if those lawmakers and the others will ultimately fall in line on legislation that would impact health care for millions of Americans, while allowing Trump and GOP leaders to boast of fulfilling a campaign promise seven years in the making.

McConnell has scant margin for error given united Democratic opposition, and can afford to lose only two Republicans from his 52-member caucus.

A look at the key Republican lawmakers:

___

THE CONSERVATIVES

Cruz, Paul, Johnson and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah jointly announced their opposition to the legislation as written last Thursday, the same day it was released. They said it did not go far enough to dismantle “Obamacare,” and Johnson also complained of a rushed process.

“They’re trying to jam this thing through,” Johnson complained Monday to conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.

Yet Johnson, like many other congressional Republicans, was elected in 2010 on pledges to repeal Obamacare and has been making that promise ever since. While looking for tweaks that can satisfy the conservatives, Senate GOP leaders are also arguing that any Republican who fails to vote for the leadership bill will be responsible for leaving Obamacare standing.

Few Senate Republicans expect Paul to vote with them in the end, because of opposition he’s long expressed to government tax subsidies going to pay for private insurance, but many expect Cruz could be won over, especially since he’s running for re-election.

___

THE ENDANGERED

Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, the only Senate Republican up for re-election next year in a state Hillary Clinton won, surprised Senate GOP leaders by coming out hard against the health legislation at a news conference Friday. Standing next to Nevada’s popular Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, Heller said he could not support a bill that “takes away insurance from tens of millions of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Nevadans.”

Nevada is one of the states that expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The GOP bill would unwind that expansion and cap Medicaid payments for the future. Nevada also has a disproportionate share of older residents under age 65 — when Medicare kicks in — who would likely face higher premiums because the GOP bill gives insurance companies greater latitude to charge more to older customers.

Heller’s fellow moderate Republican, Sen. Jeff Flake, faces similar issues of an aging population in neighboring Arizona. He is viewed as the second-most-endangered GOP incumbent next year after Heller.

Flake has not yet taken stance on the bill but is facing a raft of television ads from AARP and other groups that are opposed.

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, a Democrat seen as a possible Flake challenger next year, said Monday the Senate bill “doesn’t make anyone healthier. It doesn’t make anyone safer.”

But Flake, who was outspoken against Trump during last year’s campaign but has grown quieter since his election, also faces a potential primary challenge from the right.

Both Heller and Flake face the uncomfortable prospect of angering their party’s base if they don’t support the GOP health bill — but alienating general election moderate and independent voters if they do.

___

THE MODERATES

Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska are fellow moderates who’ve raised concerns about the Senate health bill for a variety of reasons.

On Monday, after the release of a Congressional Budget Office analysis that the bill will leave 22 million more people uninsured over a decade, Collins announced she would oppose an important procedural vote on the legislation this week. Along with potential opposition from Johnson, Paul and Heller on the vote, that could leave leadership struggling to even advance to a final vote on the health care bill.

Collins said that the bill’s Medicaid cuts hurt the most vulnerable and that it doesn’t fix problems for rural Maine.

Murkowski has not taken a position but has also expressed concerns about the impacts on a rural, Medicaid-dependent population, as well as funding cuts to Planned Parenthood.

___

THE TWO-ISSUE SENATORS

Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia are generally reliable votes for GOP leadership. In this case, both have two specific, and related, concerns causing them heartburn on the health bill: The prevalence of opioid addiction in their states, and their constituents’ reliance on Medicaid.

In many cases, voters with addiction problems rely on Medicaid for treatment help, and Portman and Capito both represent states that expanded Medicaid under Obama’s law.

Last year about 100,000 low-income West Virginia residents with Medicaid coverage had drug abuse diagnoses, according to state health officials.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Education funding, other bills OK’d by Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott has signed a bill making it easier for parents and residents to challenge school textbooks and school library books.

The legislation, which was one of 29 bills signed on Monday, allows parents and residents to review instructional materials and then challenge them as inappropriate before a hearing officer.

It was one of five education bills signed by Scott, including increasing funding by $100 per student in the state budget.

Scott also signed the bill establishing the $85 million Florida Job Growth Grant Fund along with $50 million in repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike at Lake Okeechobee.

That bill “also fully funds VISIT FLORIDA at $76 million and implements new accountability and transparency measures to VISIT FLORIDA and Enterprise Florida (EFI),” the governor’s office said in a statement.

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