Ted Cruz Archives - Florida Politics
SD 16 - Hooper vs. Murphy

Ed Hooper buys ads through former Roy Moore campaign consultants

Florida Senate candidate Ed Hooper paid $200,000 to the same campaign consulting group that worked on President Donald Trump’s campaign and for former U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore.

A consultant working for Hooper’s campaign insisted that the payment was a pass through media buy and that the consulting group was not directly doing work on the campaign.

Still, Murphy’s campaign fired back at the media buy.

“We generally do not comment on another’s campaign vendors, but in this case it is appropriate to make an exception.  For Ed Hooper to go out-of-state to hire the firm that worked for the disgraced pedophile, Roy Moore, is a bridge too far,” Murphy said in a statement. “Ed Hooper should immediately fire the firm and apologize to the voters of Pinellas and Pasco County for bringing these vermin to our state.”

The Strategy Group Company worked on Moore’s successful Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice campaign. Moore lost a contentious Special Election to a Democrat last year after allegations of assaulting underage girls plagued his campaign. The Special Election was held to replace now Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Moore’s district is heavily conservative.

Hooper reported the expense in his most recent campaign finance filings with the Florida Division of Elections covering contributions and expenditures from September 1-14.

The Delaware company also worked on high profile campaigns for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Congresswoman Michelle Bachman and former House Speaker John Boehner.

The GOP campaign shop’s resume reads like a who’s who of conservative victories, according to its website.

A video on the company’s home page shows a reel of candidates including Trump and Pence.

Hooper did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The former state Representative is running against another former Representative, Democrat Amanda Murphy, for the Senate District 16 seat covering parts of north Pinellas and Pasco County.

Campaign filings show Hooper, like other GOP legislative candidates, massively out-raising his Democratic opponent.

Hooper raised $17,000 during the first two weeks of September bringing his total campaign contributions to date to $500,000. Murphy raised just $15,000 during the most recent campaign reporting period bringing her total contributions to $89,000.

Murphy did not have any notable campaign expenses in her latest campaign finance filing.

Contributions to Hooper rolled in from a host of conservative groups and special interest groups including Working Together for Florida, the political action committee associated with Southwest Florida Senator Kathleen Passidomo.

Groups representing lawyers, the pool industry and agriculture industry also contributed to Hooper’s campaign.

Murphy received contributions from Ruth’s List, a liberal organization that supports female Democratic candidates, the SEIU, the Plumbers and Pipefitters PAC and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman’s Sunrise PAC.

Murphy lost her previously held House district by fewer than 700 votes to Republican Amber Mariano. The race was considered a huge loss for Democrats despite the narrow majority in a district that went against Hillary Clinton in 2016 by double digits.

Hooper left the house to run for Pinellas County Commission in 2014 where he lost to Democrat Pat Gerard.

The two are running for the seat formerly held by Jack Latvala who resigned amid allegations of sexual impropriety with a female lobbyist.

The district covers Clearwater, Dunedin, New Port Richey, Oldsmar, Safety Harbor and Palm Harbor.

The race is considered competitive. A St. Pete Polls survey in June put the race at 45-43 percent with Hooper holding a slight advantage, though that edge is within the margin of error.

It is a red district. Republicans make up about 38 percent of the district’s electorate while Democrats account for about a third. The district went plus 12 for Trump in 2016.

Jim Eltringham: Defunding space station is a bad idea, costing more in long run

The International Space Station (ISS) is one of the world’s most important laboratories and one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments. It has played a crucial role in our understanding of the impact of living and working in space, and provides a vital stepping stone for studying nearby neighbors such as the moon and Mars.

Since launching in 1998, the space station has housed 230 brave astronauts from 18 nations, all while orbiting 250 miles above the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour.

But the ISS faces an uncertain future.

NASA is considering ending federal support of the space station. The agency’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year halts funding by 2025, and NASA leaders are scheming ways to turn over the operation of the ISS to private companies in the expectation of saving a few bucks.

It’s not a bad idea for government programs to look for ways to partner with the private sector. But that’s not what’s happening here; in fact, plans to prematurely end government funding of the ISS are penny-wise and pound-foolish. Defunding the space station would redirect money and opportunities to America’s most menacing adversaries and may ultimately cost taxpayers more in the long run.

In fact, NASA’s “plan” to end ISS funding isn’t a plan at all – it’s just a blind hope that an unknown private investor will step in before the largest single structure humans have ever put in space is seized by the Russian government or goes unused, creating a vacuum for China’s planned space station.

NASA officials working with the Trump administration say the funding cuts could generate greater commercial opportunities for the space station. Prospects for such commercial opportunities are dim, according to NASA Inspector General Paul Martin.

“We question whether a sufficient business case exists under which private companies can create a self-sustaining and profit-making business using the ISS independent of significant government funding,” said Martin. “The scant commercial interest shown in the station over its nearly 20 years of operation gives us pause about the agency’s current plans.”

Martin believes any cost savings by slashing the roughly $3.5 billion the space station annually costs NASA would be lost because the agency would be forced to pay to use the ISS even after turning it over to a private business. “Consequently,” Martin said, “any assumption that ending direct federal funding frees up 3 to 4 billion dollars beginning in 2025 to use on other NASA exploration initiatives is wishful thinking.”

Cutting federal funding of the space station would also leave several vital research goals unfinished. Martin estimates at least 10 of the major experiments taking place on the ISS won’t be concluded when funding is scheduled to end. Since these research projects are largely funded by American taxpayers, bailing out on the experiments before they are concluded would waste the millions of dollars that have already gone into the research. It also prevents us from receiving the knowledge and benefits the experiments would produce.

Turning the space station over to private hands also violates the spirit of cooperation that the U.S. has forged with Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency, who share the cost and responsibility of operating the space station with NASA and the federal government. According to Frank Slazer, the vice president of space systems for the Aerospace Industries Association, those international agreements make the idea of privatizing the space station ludicrous.

“It will be very hard to turn ISS into a truly commercial outpost because of the international agreements that the United States is involved in,” he said. “It’s inherently always going to be an international construct that requires U.S. government involvement and multinational cooperation.”

Not surprisingly, the idea of leaving the ISS with an uncertain future for no good reason isn’t proving popular on Capitol Hill. Even some of Congress’ most fiscally conservative members are speaking out against the wrongheaded proposal.

In a recent Senate hearing, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas remarked that hastily canceling the ISS program would cost jobs and waste billions of dollars, comparing eliminating space station funding to prematurely retiring the Space Shuttle – a move that has forced America astronauts to hitch rides to space on the tips of 1960s-era Russian rockets.

The budget hawk went so far as to label the people behind the scheme “numskulls.”

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, who served as a payload specialist on a Space Shuttle mission in 1986, also blasted the plan to end ISS funding.

“Abandoning this incredible orbiting laboratory where they are doing research when we are on the cusp of a new era of space exploration would be irresponsible at best and probably disastrous,” Nelson said.

The ISS remains vital to American research and space exploration objectives, and it’ll still be decades before a private company is prepared to manage the space station in a way that makes sense from an economic, international relations, national security or scientific standpoint.

Fortunately, Congress still has time to reject the ill-advised effort to end ISS funding. As Cruz pointed out to NASA and administration officials, “it will be Congress that is the final arbiter of how long ISS receives federal funding.”

For the sake of America’s space program and our scientific community, lawmakers should continue ISS funding well beyond 2025.

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Jim Eltringham is a grassroots organizer with 15 years of experience working in center-right advocacy.

Bill that would keep space station aloft until 2030 clears U.S. Senate panel

A new space bill sponsored by Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, with a key provision from Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, cleared its last committee Wednesday with stipulations to expand business options at Kennedy Space Center and keep the International Space Station operating an additional five years.

Senate Bill 3277, or the Space Frontier Act, includes a number of provisions, many of them offered by Nelson, which would streamline and clarify the roles played by NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies in promoting the commercial space business, and extend and expand NASA’s program to work with private space companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin at facilities like Kennedy Space Center.

The measure also would extend the American commitment to operate the International Space Station until 2030. President Donald Trump‘s administration had proposed retiring the station in 2025.

The bill, co-sponsored by Nelson and U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, unanimously cleared the Commerce Committee Wednesday and heads to the Senate floor. There is a similar bill, House Resolution 2809, in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“This bill aims to further grow U.S. commercial space ventures and the jobs they create,” Nelson, who serves as the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the nation’s space programs, stated in a news release Wednesday. “Streamlining regulations for private companies and extending the life of the space station is good for the thriving space industry at the cape.”

Among the bill’s provisions:

— It calls for the U.S. to support full use of the space station through at least 2030, and expresses support for maintaining a national lab to benefit the scientific community and promote commerce in space.

— It would extend, through December 2020, authorization for NASA to lease agency property, such as land and facilities at Kennedy Space Center, to private space entities, and put the revenue back into improving infrastructure at NASA’s various centers. Such authorization is set to expire at the end of this year.

— It would expand existing authority to allow NASA to accept contributions toward lease payments in the form of space infrastructure improvements.

— The Office of Commercial Space Transportation would be spun out from under the FAA to be a stand-alone division within the U.S. Department of Transportation.

— DOT would be required to overhaul existing regulations by February 2019, to focus on clear, high-level performance requirements for both reusable and expendable space flight systems.

— It would repeal the current legal framework for Earth observation regulations, and create a new structure that focuses on managing risk to national security and preventing harmful interference to other space activities.

Blake Dowling: Latest in political campaign tech

Last week, I had an opportunity to visit Pebble Beach outside Carmel, California.

Pretty gal and some clown at Pebble Beach.

As I basked in the glory of the extraordinary West Coast scenery, I just couldn’t stop thinking about Cambridge Analytica and its micro-targeting techniques, as well as the disruptive and deceptive Internet Research Agency and the trail of havoc and misinformation created in the last presidential election. (The sarcasm button is on, clearly.)

For a couple of days, I didn’t even check email. It was a grand escape, indeed.

If you have never visited Carmel/Big Sur, get there ASAP.

In fact, the only political thought on my trip was when John Dailey called to discuss his campaign for Tallahassee mayor.

“Can’t talk now, how about next week?” I replied.

Anyway, I am back in the swing of things and thought we could look around the political landscape and see what tech folks are using to get themselves into office – without fake ads and stealing/borrowing data.

During his last run, Ted Cruz used a very innovative suite of mobile apps called uCampaign. The app actually makes campaigning a game (to some, it already is) and you are awarded points for reaching specific achievements.

“Political Pokémon,” I call it.

Apps like uCampaign can really change how a supporter engages with those they support. His fans were (literally) all tied together in a digital community. Very cool.

Here in Florida, Sen. Bill Nelson is doing great things with his digital presence. Last year, I gave him a hard time about his website in a column; I just retook a look and it is actually pretty slick. He integrates a photo album, videos and several other calls to action right on the home page.

The past two presidential elections have been outstanding examples of tech usage. President Barack Obama was the first to use Social Media (Twitter – 102 million followers) aggressively in a campaign. President Donald Trump’s use of social media and firms like Cambridge Analytica during the election was also aggressive. And we all know about his use of Twitter in the White House.

Also, doing the little stuff, like making sure to send out e-newsletters is a strong way to keep your constituents and or supporters in the loop during and after an election.

In 1812, Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed into law legislation redistricting his state to help his party with an election. With that, the term “Gerrymandering” was born, describing the activity of redistricting areas.

Some experts argue that the fact the U.S. is the only democracy on earth where the politicians are involved in the process of drawing boundaries is terrible – causing even more party division.

For example, England has a “Boundaries Commission” which claims to be “independent.”  Which I am sure it bloody is, mate (British accent).

Even more interesting is throwing “big data” into the gerrymandering equation to see what that looks like. There is a ton of information here on that. However, this also might veer back into the shady side of things vs. cool. But it is a reality.

Back to cool tech, have you heard of Nation Builder? It’s software to run every facet of an election.

Check out the story of Alabama’s Randall Woodfin Nation Builders to help capture the Mayor’s office in Birmingham. Nation Builder puts social media, finances, emails all in one place.

Also, check out ActBlue, it is an exciting fundraising platform that gathers together small donors all in one place to support Democrats.

“ActBlue is an invaluable tool not only to the DCCC but to the whole party,” says Julia Ager, Chief Digital Officer of the DCCC. “They make it easy for supporters to give with a single click.”

So, there you have it – some cool tech to help get you or your favorite aspiring politician elected.

Keep in mind, all the tech in the world can’t replace a phone call or face to face dialogue.

Nice work, Mr. Dailey, pounding the phones, and best of luck with your campaign. I hope everyone is having a wonderful day and thank you for reading.

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Blake Dowling is CEO of Aegis Business Technologies. He can be reached at dowlingb@aegisbiztech.com.

Darryl Paulson: Political purges in American politics

Steve Bannon, a former Donald Trump political adviser and the head of Breitbart News, has declared a “season of war” against the Republican establishment.

Bannon is recruiting challengers to all Republican senators except Ted Cruz of Texas.

He is requiring all of the challengers to oppose the nomination of Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky as party leader. Bannon said the candidates he recruits must “play Brutus to your Julius Caesar.”

President Trump gleefully cheered the announcements this week that Republican senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee will not seek re-election in 2018. Flake was facing a difficult re-election bid, but Corker was favored to win re-election even though Trump said Corker “couldn’t get elected dogcatcher in Tennessee.”

President Trump supports Bannon’s effort to a degree but has promised Republican senators Roger Wicker of Mississippi, Deb Fischer of Nebraska and John Barrasso of Wyoming that he will support their 2018 re-election’s.

Trump has also noted that some of the people Bannon is seeking to purge are “great people” and he will “see if I can talk him out of that.”

Some purges have succeeded. Conservatives ousted House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia in 2014 after accusing him of being too moderate and too willing to compromise with Democrats.

Tea Party activists were able to purge several Republicans in 2010, including their support of Marco Rubio over Governor Charlie Crist in the Senate race. Some purges were embarrassing, such as the Tea Party support for Christine “I am not a witch” O’Donnell over proven Republican vote-getter Mike Castle. O’Donnell won the primary and got trounced in the general election.

Most purges have been dismal failures. The most famous political purge in American history was Franklin Roosevelt’s 1938 attempt to defeat Democratic opponents of his New Deal policies.

Roosevelt preferred an ideologically based party system, with a liberal Democratic Party and a conservative Republican Party. He used one of his “fireside chats” to encourage voters to throw out any members of Congress opposing his policies.

Roosevelt was operating from a position of strength. He won re-election to a second term in 1936 with 61 percent of the vote and lost only two of the 48 states.

In addition, FDR’s approval ratings were sky-high.

Key targets of the purge were Democratic senators Walter George of Georgia, Millard Tydings of Maryland and Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith of South Carolina, along with a half-dozen other members of Congress.

How successful was Roosevelt? The purge failed. All the targeted senators won re-election and only one House member, John O’Connor of New York, was defeated.

Voters resented Roosevelt’s attempt to influence state elections. The use of the term “purge,” was a direct reference to the purges taking place in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Presidential historian Robert Dallek called the purge “a serious failure.” FDR failed to remove a single senator, and 60 percent of the voters disapproved of the purge/.

If one of the most popular presidents in history could not succeed in purging opponents, how will Trump and Bannon succeed? Trump barely won the election and his approval ratings are at an all-time low for a president in his first year in office.

As Roosevelt discovered, purges not only fail, but they can backfire. Purge targets became more embolden after beating back Roosevelt’s challenge.

More recently, the Tea Party challenged incumbent Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. The Tea Party candidate won the primary, but Murkowski won the general election as a “write-in” candidate. Trump was powerless to try and win her support in Republican efforts to “repeal and replace” Obamacare.

Even if the purgers fail, they often claim a moral victory. When progressive Democrats opposed the nomination of former long-term Republican Senator Arlen Specter as the Democratic nominee, they challenged Specter in the primary. Specter won, but was so weakened that he lost to conservative Republican Pat Toomey. Purgers ousted the liberal Specter who was replaced by the conservative Toomey, but they claimed victory for ousting a political opportunist who had grilled Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings.

The ideological parties that Roosevelt desired came to pass due to natural events and not due to FDR’s attempts to cleanse the party. Roosevelt would likely be pleased that ideological parties have come to pass in America.

The unanswered question is: Are we better off with our ideological parties, or were we better served by our former party system where both parties had a mix of liberals, conservatives and moderates?

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Darryl Paulson is Emeritus Professor of Government at USF St. Petersburg specializing in Florida politics and elections.

Julian Castro ‘absolutely not’ closing the door on 2020 plans

 A little more than a year after he didn’t become Hillary Clinton‘s running mate, Julian Castro remains a hot political entity.

The former San Antonio Mayor and Barack Obama‘s Housing and Urban Development Secretary told reporters in South St. Petersburg Friday that his only immediate political plans are helping out as many good Democrats as possible for the 2018 midterm elections.

Castro is getting a head start, though, coming to town to help St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman‘s re-election bid.

“It’s not too often that you have a mayor who has gotten as many things done as Mayor Kriseman has and created greater opportunities for the city,” Castro said. “So, when they called I was glad to come out and help.”

“They” would be the Democratic National Committee.

DNC Chair Tom Perez said Friday that the national party cares very much about Kriseman’s battle with former two-term Mayor Rick Baker, a Republican.

“The new DNC is about electing Democrats from the school board to the Oval Office, so we are doubling-down on our commitment to re-elect Mayor Rick Kriseman and electing Democrats up and down the ticket,” Perez said.

“St. Petersburg deserves the proven leadership of Mayor Kriseman, who will continue to tackle the big challenges facing Floridians and who has worked to reduce poverty and provide [an] opportunity to every citizen of St. Pete,” Perez continued. “Unlike Rick Baker, there’s no one Mayor Kriseman won’t stand up to — including Rick Scott and Donald Trump.

Democrats in Texas had recruited him to consider a run against Ted Cruz in the Senate or Greg Abbott for governor, but Castro said he turned those opportunities down. Instead, he is focusing on writing a book and teaching at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs.

“I’m going to be out there basically helping great candidates and leaders in different parts of the country, and then we’ll see after that,” Castro said, adding that he is definitely considering a 2020 White House run.

“I’ve said very clearly I’m not going to take that off the table,” he said.

With Latinos becoming a larger portion of the U.S. population, the Mexican-American Castro emerged as a serious vice presidential possibility in 2016; he also could be a contender for either side of a Democratic ticket in 2020.

Castro and Kriseman (joined by Florida Democratic Party Chair Stephen Bittel) visited the offices of the Pinellas Ex-offender Re-entry Coalition (PERC) 16th Street South, part of the Southside CRA. Afterward, he joined Congressman Charlie Crist for a private fundraiser for Kriseman.

On Saturday, Castro will appear in Orlando as the lunchtime speaker at the Florida Democratic Party statewide conference.

(Photo by Kim DeFalco).

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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Donald Trump signs NASA bill, ponders sending Congress to space

President Donald Trump signed legislation Tuesday adding human exploration of Mars to NASA’s mission. Could sending Congress into space be next?

Flanked at an Oval Office bill-signing ceremony by astronauts and lawmakers, Trump observed that being an astronaut is a “pretty tough job.” He said he wasn’t sure he’d want it and, among lawmakers he put the question to, Sen. Ted Cruz said he wouldn’t want to be a space traveler, either.

But Cruz, R-Texas, offered up a tantalizing suggestion. “You could send Congress to space,” he said to laughter, including from the president.

Trump, who faces a crucial House vote later this week on legislation long promised by Republicans to overhaul the Obama-era Affordable Care Act health law, readily agreed. The health care bill is facing resistance from some conservative members of the party.

“What a great idea that could be,” Trump said, before turning back to the space exploration measure sponsored by Cruz and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

The new law authorizes $19.5 billion in spending for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for the budget year that began Oct. 1. Cruz said the authorization bill is the first for the space agency in seven years, and he called it a “terrific” achievement.

Trump last week sent Congress a budget proposal that seeks $19.1 billion in spending authorization for the agency next year.

“For almost six decades, NASA’s work has inspired millions and millions of Americans to imagine distant worlds and a better future right here on earth,” Trump said. “I’m delighted to sign this bill. It’s been a long time since a bill like this has been signed, reaffirming our commitment to the core mission of NASA: human space exploration, space science and technology.”

The measure amends current law to add human exploration of the red planet as a goal for the agency. It supports use of the International Space Station through at least 2024, along with private sector companies partnering with NASA to deliver cargo and experiments, among other steps.

After signing the bill, Trump invited several lawmakers to comment, starting with Cruz. When Trump invited Vice President Mike Pence to speak, he suggested that Nelson be allowed to say a few words. Nelson traveled into space when he was in the House.

“He’s a Democrat. I wasn’t going to let him speak,” Trump quipped, to laughter. Nelson ultimately got a chance to briefly praise his bill.

Pence also announced that Trump plans to re-launch the National Space Council, with Pence as chairman, to coordinate U.S. space policy. The council was authorized by law in 1988, near the end of the Reagan administration, but ceased to operate soon after Bill Clinton took office in January 1993.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

GOP pushes 2 top Cabinet picks through to full Senate

Republicans jammed two of President Donald Trump‘s top Cabinet picks through the Senate Finance Committee with no Democrats in the room Wednesday after suspending a rule that would have otherwise barred them from taking the vote. The tactic seemed a warning shot that they might deploy brute political muscle in the upcoming fight over the Supreme Court vacancy.

With a near-toxic vapor of divisiveness between the two parties across Capitol Hill, nasty showdowns broke out elsewhere as well. One Senate panel signed off on Trump’s choice for attorney general only after senators exchanged heated words, and another committee postponed a vote on the would-be chief of the Environmental Protection Agency after Democrats refused to show up.

Busting through a Democratic boycott of the Finance panel, all 14 Republicans took advantage of Democrats’ absence to temporarily disable a committee rule requiring at least one Democrat to be present for votes.

They then used two 14-0 roll calls to approve financier Steve Mnuchin for Treasury secretary and Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., to be health secretary, ignoring Democrats’ demands that the two nominees provide more information about their financial backgrounds.

All the nominations will need full Senate approval.

Underscoring Congress’ foul mood, Finance panel Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Democrats should be “ashamed” for staying away from his committee’s meeting.

“I don’t feel a bit sorry for them,” he told reporters, adding later, “I don’t care what they want at this point.”

Trump won one major victory, as the Senate confirmed Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state. The mostly party-line 56-43 vote came with Democrats critical of Tillerson’s close ties to Russia as former Exxon Mobil CEO.

But the prospects that GOP donor Betsy DeVos would win approval as education secretary were jarred when two GOP senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, said they opposed her. Both challenged her support for public education, and their defections meant Vice President Mike Pence might need to break a tie in a Senate that Republicans control 52-48.

Congress’ day was dominated by confrontation, even as lawmakers braced for an even more ferocious battle over Trump’s nomination of conservative federal judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the Supreme Court vacancy.

Democrats were already furious over Republicans’ refusal to even consider last year President Barack Obama‘s pick for the slot, Judge Merrick Garland. Trump fueled the fire by urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to “go nuclear” — shorthand for a unilateral change in the chamber’s rules so Democrats can’t block Gorsuch with a filibuster.

Without a rules change, Republicans will need at least eight Democrats to reach the 60-votes necessary to halt filibusters, or endless procedural delays.

Democrats boycotted Wednesday’s abruptly called Finance Committee meeting, as they’d done for a session a day earlier. They say Price and Mnuchin have lied about their financial backgrounds and must answer more questions.

“It’s deeply troubling to me that Republicans on the Finance Committee chose to break the rules in the face of strong evidence of two nominees’ serious ethical problems,” said the panel’s top Democrat, Ron Wyden of Oregon.

Democrats say Price had special access to low-priced shares in an Australian biomed firm, even though he testified the offer was available to all investors. They say Mnuchin ran a bank that processed home foreclosures with a process critics say invites fraud.

The two men have denied wrongdoing and have solid Republican backing.

The Senate Judiciary Committee used a party-line 11-9 vote to sign off on Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., for attorney general. That came after Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had misrepresented remarks he’d made about Sessions weeks ago.

Cruz wasn’t present as Franken spoke. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, interrupted Franken twice, calling it “untoward and inappropriate” to disparage the absent Cruz.

Franken said Cruz “personally went after me, he personally impugned my integrity.” Angrily pointing at Cornyn, he asked, “You didn’t object then, did you?”

Cornyn said he wasn’t sure he was there when Cruz spoke.

At the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Democrats boycotted a planned vote on Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s state attorney general in line to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. The vote was postponed.

Pruitt has questioned the scientific consensus that human activities are contributing to global warming and joined lawsuits against the agency’s emission curbs.

Another panel postponed a vote on Trump’s pick to head the White House Budget Office, tea party Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., as Democrats asked for more time to read the nominee’s FBI file.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson team up on bill to counter BDS movement

Both of Florida’s U.S. Senators are teaming up on a bipartisan bill to push back on the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

The new legislation (s. 170) is an update of a bill proposed last year by West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and former Illinois Republican Mark Kirk. It would increase protections for state and local governments in the U.S. that opt to divest from, prohibit investment in, and restrict contracting with companies knowingly engaged in commerce-related or investment-related BDS activity targeting Israel.

The BDS movement has had most of its growth on college campuses in recent years, though there have been fewer such resolutions passed at major universities in recent years.

“This legislation supports efforts by state governments and local communities to use the power of the purse to counter the BDS movement’s economic warfare targeting Israel,” said Rubio. “This bipartisan bill is all the more timely after the United Nations Security Council’s passage of Resolution 2334, a deplorable one-sided measure that harms Israel and effectively encourages the BDS movement’s campaigns to commercially and financially target and discriminate against the Jewish state.”

Rubio is co-sponsoring the bill with Manchin. Other original cosponsors like Rubio’s partner in the U.S. Senate from Florida, Democrat Bill Nelson.

The bill also includes a mixture of Democrats and Republicans. Other Democrats signing up as cosponsors include New Jersey’s Robert Menendez, Oregon’s Ron Wyden and Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow.

Original GOP sponsors include Idaho’s Mike Crapo, Texas’ John Cornyn and Ted Cruz and Arkansas’s Tom Cotton.

A number of states have passed similar legislation, including Florida, which did so a year ago. That bill requires the State Board of Administration to identify all companies that are boycotting Israel or are engaged in a boycott of Israel in which the public fund owns direct or indirect holdings by a specified date; requiring the public fund to create and maintain the Scrutinized Companies that Boycott Israel List that names all such companies; prohibiting a state agency or local governmental entity from contracting for goods and services that exceed a specified amount if the company has been placed on the Scrutinized Companies that Boycott Israel List.

The federal bill would clarifiy that state and local governments have the legal authority to identify and divest public funds from, prohibit investment in, and restrict contracting with entities engaged in BDS conduct when the designations are based on “credible information available to the public.” The bill’s non-preemption safe harbor for asset managers will also give them an offensive capability against entities seeking to economically harm Israel.

Last year’s bill was opposed by the Council on American Islamic Relations, which claimed it would violate the constitutionally-guaranteed free speech rights of businesses and institutions that participate in the international boycott of Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank.

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