McConnell: ‘I don’t know’ how we get to 50 votes on health care bill

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday said the path forward for the legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare remains unclear, adding that he is unsure at the moment how such a measure will secure the requisite 54 votes from the GOP’s 54 senators.

"I don’t know how we get to 50 (votes) at the moment. But that’s the goal,” McConnell (R-Ky.) told Reuters in an interview. He said passing a repeal-and-replace measure, a campaign promise of GOP lawmakers for more than seven years and a key plank of President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, remains a top priority.

Work on repeal-and-replace legislation had already begun in the Senate well before the House managed to pass its own bill, dubbed the American Health Care Act. Multiple GOP senators have said that they do not intend to take up the House-passed measure but will instead work on approving their own bill.

McConnell told Reuters that he does not intend to reach out to any Democrats in order to pass the Senate’s version of the healthcare bill because the gulf between the two parties on the issue is too great to overcome.

Even in the House, where the Republican majority is greater than it is in the Senate, the issue proved to be a thorny one within the GOP caucus. Republicans were unable to strike a deal between arch-conservative and more moderate members in the House on their first try at healthcare legislation and were just narrowly able to do so on a second attempt. The bill cleared the House without a single Democratic vote.

The Senate’s other top priority, McConnell said, is tax reform, the forecast for which is “pretty good” according to the majority leader. Such legislation, he said, is "not in my view quite as challenging as healthcare."


Spicer left out of Vatican visit

ROME – President Donald Trump’s entourage at the Vatican on Wednesday included his wife, his daughter, and an array of staffers—but not White House press secretary Sean Spicer, a devout Catholic who told reporters earlier this year that he gave up alcohol for Lent.

Both sides, according to a White House official, agreed to limit the number of staffers who attended. Two other senior communications aides from the White House were included: Hope Hicks, who like Melania and Ivanka Trump wore a black veil over her hair, and Dan Scavino, the White House director of social media and a longtime Trump loyalist.

Also in attendance were State Department aide Brian Hook, security head Keith Schiller, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. Hicks, a loyal aide who has been at Trump’s side since before he announced his candidacy, was introduced to Pope Francis by the president as someone who has worked for him a long time.

Other members of the traveling Trump team who are not practicing Catholics said they gave up their spots to accommodate Catholic White House aides. But Spicer – a regular churchgoer who was mocked last year for appearing on CNN with ashes on his forehead in honor of Ash Wednesday – was notably absent.

That was in line with a lower-key role the press secretary has been playing during the president’s nine-day, five-country tour. Trump is considering scaling back Spicer’s public role behind the podium in the White House briefing room, POLITICO reported last week, as he weighs a broader shakeup of his communications team.

Spicer, who has loyally defended Trump even when it has meant damaging his own credibility with the press, is expected to stay in a senior administration role, albeit one that is more behind the scenes. He is not expected to continue the daily televised White House press briefing that has made him a household name and a viral sensation as a character on "Saturday Night Live" after Trump returns to Washington.

Spicer declined to comment about his role or the audience with the Pope.

Before Trump departed, White House aides said he expressed relief that the trip would provide a reprieve from the daily press briefing, which he believes has become more of a distraction than a tool to drive the White House’s message of the day.

Since day one of the trip in Riyadh, Spicer has not conducted a single on-the-record briefing with the traveling press. Instead, he has been trying to give reporters more access to senior administration officials to talk about the president’s objectives on the trip and to answer questions.

Spicer helped organize three briefings with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who seemed to warm up to the exercise after receiving criticism for not traveling with his own State Department press corps. “We have two press corps seats on the plane, and I do meet with whoever’s along,” he explained to reporters flying on Air Force One between Riyadh and Tel Aviv, about how he handles State Department travel. “I invite them back to my little office and we chat with the two people that are with me.”

Spicer has also organized multiple background briefings with senior administration officials involved in planning the trip, and overall appeared in good spirits during a busy, sleepless slog of a junket.

In a television interview during the transition, Spicer talked about his deep Catholic faith. “I’m going to look to God every day to give me the strength to do what’s right,” he said. “That’s all you can ask for is to get up and say, “Can I do this thing?” Help guide me and ask Him for strength.”


Shaheen seeks to revive Russia sanctions push

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen wants to put Russia sanctions back on lawmakers’ agenda, even if it means facing off with the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, is planning to introduce two amendments at a committee meeting Thursday in an effort to increase sanctions on Moscow. The sanctions are meant to punish Russia over its alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

One of the amendments would be tacked on to a bill to introduce new sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile program and other activities, according to Shaheen’s office. The other would be attached to a bill designed to help counter Russian meddling in Europe through means other than sanctions.

"The foot-dragging on Russian sanctions has gone on long enough," said Ryan Nickel, a spokesman for Shaheen. "There’s bipartisan agreement that it’s past time for the Senate to deliver a strong message to the Kremlin."

The amendments incorporate previous Russia sanctions legislation that Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker has been hesitant to take up, and Corker is expected to block Shaheen’s efforts.

The Tennessee Republican has said he’d rather wait until the Senate Intelligence Committee finishes its investigation into the alleged Russian malfeasance before going after Moscow using sanctions.

A few weeks ago, Corker reached an agreement with Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the committee, to avoid Russian sanctions measures for now. That decision irked Democrats as well as some Republicans who are eager to move against Moscow.

It also came amid growing concern about President Donald Trump’s views on Russia. The president has dismissed intelligence assessments that Russia helped swing the 2016 election in his favor and has tried to mend fences with the Kremlin.

Corker aides did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday. A Cardin aide declined to comment on Shaheen’s plans but reiterated that Cardin strongly supports sanctioning Russia over its destabilizing activities.


Poll: Americans don’t think Trump is draining the swamp

Less than a quarter of Americans surveyed in a new Monmouth University poll released Wednesday said President Donald Trump is making progress on his promise to “drain the swamp” of Washington corruption.

Thirty-two percent of those polled said Trump is actually making the "swamp” worse, while just 24 percent said he is draining it. Thirty-five percent of respondents said the president has done nothing to change Washington’s culture.

Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” was one of his most popular campaign speech bits, a line that evolved into a call-and-response at many of his rallies. And while he has instituted some limitations on future lobbying for those working for his administration, Trump has also taken some steps that seem at odds with his anti-corruption message, including removing from public view the list of White House visitors and installing well-connected individuals within his administration, including several from Wall Street megabank Goldman Sachs.

Among those polled, 35 percent said the president has paid “a lot” of attention to the most important issues to average Americans, while 30 percent said he had paid “a little” attention and 32 percent said he had not been attentive to those issues. Sixty-two percent of participants said they wished the president would pay more attention to the issues that matter most to them, while 34 percent said Trump had paid adequate attention to their preferred issues.

On the White House-backed plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, 55 percent of respondents said they disapprove of the bill, while 32 percent said they approve of it. Forty-six percent said the measure, dubbed the American Health Care Act, was passed by the House “largely to give Republicans a political victory.” Twenty-one percent said the bill is a genuine attempt to repair the nation’s healthcare system, and 27 percent said thought it was a mix of both.

Forty-four percent of respondents said they expect healthcare costs to go up under the AHCA, if it becomes law, while 13 percent said those costs would go down and 36 percent said healthcare prices would remain roughly at their current levels.

The Monmouth University poll was conducted from May 13-17 in English among 1,002 adults nationwide, half of which were reached on landlines and half on cell phones. The poll’s margin of error was plus-or-minus 3.1 points.


Trump won’t make Paris decision until he returns to U.S.

President Donald Trump likely won’t make a decision on the Paris climate treaty until he returns to the U.S., Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters today.

The Vatican Secretary of State pressed Trump on climate change today and asked the president to keep the U.S. in the Paris climate agreement.

"But we had a good exchange [on] the difficulty of balancing addressing climate change, responses to climate change, and ensuring that you still have a thriving economy and you can still offer people jobs so they can feed their families and have a prosperous economy," Tillerson said, according to a pool report. "And that’s a difficult balancing act to take, and so I think we had a good exchange there, and we look forward to having further talks with them on climate policy."

Pope Francis had welcomed Trump to the Vatican by handing Trump a signed copy of his encyclical calling for action on climate change. Tillerson said he did not know if the Pope discussed the issue with Trump.

When asked about the meeting on Air Force One, Tillerson said Trump "hasn’t made a final decision" on the Paris deal and likely will not until "after we get home."

That means Trump will likely spend two days starting Friday getting pressure to stay in the deal from the heads of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom. The Trump administration has left its options open in the preparation for the G-7 meeting, refusing to offer clear positions on climate change as part of the advance preparations typical for high level meetings.

Trump will meet with G-7 leaders, and possibly make a decision after he returns home next week.


Trump Org says singling out profits from foreign guests is ‘impractical’

President Donald Trump’s company says it will be “impractical” to single out individual foreign guests as part of its plan to donate foreign government profits to the Treasury Department, sparking a complaint from a top House Democrat who says the plan may violate a constitutional block on such payments to presidents.

Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee had pressed the Trump Organization in April for more information on the profit arrangement, and in return they got a copy of a nine-page pamphlet the company distributed to a range of senior Trump employees who handle everything from property management to sales, food and beverage and human resources.

The glossy pamphlet – which includes images of Trump-branded hotels in Washington and Chicago, as well as one of its iconic Miami golf courses – goes into detail about how the company would be using hospitality industry standards for accounting and financial reporting as it comes up with a total dollar figure for profits earned from foreign governments. As president, Trump—who remains owner of the Trump Organization—is prohibited from receiving such payments, known as emoluments.

But it also explains that there will be a limit on whose payments to Trump properties would go into the totals.

“To fully and completely identify all patronage at our Properties by customer type is impractical in the service industry and putting forth a policy that requires all guests to identify themselves would impede upon personal privacy and diminish the guest experience of our brand,” the Trump Organization said. “It is not the intention nor design of this policy for our Properties to attempt to identify individual travels who have not specifically identified themselves as being a representative of a foreign government entity on foreign government business.”

Trump and his lawyers didn’t mention the difficulty of breaking out such payments when they first outlined their ethics plan in January just weeks before the presidential inauguration. The concern also didn’t make it into a statement the company released in March when it first started publicly describing how it wouldn’t be making its first donation until 2018.

According to the pamphlet, the Trump Organization’s accounting of foreign government payments also won’t cover profits earned by owners of condominium-hotel units in Trump-managed properties because “those profits belong to the individual condominium-unit owners.”

Trump officials relayed details of its voluntary policy to its employees at each hotel, golf and social club, as well as its winery outside Charlottesville, Virginia, in an April 11 email from Chief Compliance Counsel George Sorial. They explained that the policy – with two follow-up training sessions for employees – went into effect upon Trump’s inauguration as president on Jan. 20.

“Please review and adhere to this important internal policy and be sure to share it only with your team members as appropriate. The policy makes very clear the scope and sources by which properties shall identify foreign government patronage,” Sorial wrote.

The Trump Organization’s donation policy has been under close scrutiny on Capitol Hill since Trump in January first outlined how he’d arrange his private business enterprise while serving in the White House – maintaining ownership but handing over daily duties to his adult sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, as well as longtime executives.

Senate Democrats last week sent their own letter to Trump company officials demanding more details of the company’s operations since January. But it was Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who led the request for information on the president’s profit donation policy that yielded the company sharing its pamphlet and other internal materials.

Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who plans to leave Congress next month, well before his term expires, didn’t publicly release the Trump Organization’s documents. Instead, Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat who had joined in the initial information request as the committee’s ranking member released the materials and sent his own letter Wednesday back to Trump Organization officials saying that he’s still not satisfied with the information it has shared.

“Unfortunately, your meager response does not include the vast majority of documents we requested in our letter,” Cummings wrote. Citing Trump’s own words when he announced the ethics plan at the January press conference in Trump Tower, Cummings added, “This pamphlet raises grave concerns about the President’s refusal to comply with the Constitution merely because he believes it is ‘impractical’ and could ‘diminish the guest experience of our brand.’”

“Complying with the United States Constitution is not an optional exercise, but a requirement for serving as our nation’s President,” Cummings added. “If President Trump believes that identifying all of the prohibited foreign emoluments he is currently receiving would be too challenging or would harm his business ventures, his options are to divest his ownership or submit a proposal to Congress to ask for our consent.”

Chaffetz and Cummings had also asked the Trump Organization for a more complete account of how it would track and publicly report the donations to the Treasury, as well as whether donations would be claimed by the company as tax deduction gifts. And they asked for documents showing which Trump properties would be donating profits from foreign government sources.

But in his May 11 reply to the lawmakers, Sorial explained that those details aren’t ready for release yet.

“We believe it is premature to respond at this time insofar as final determinations regarding these matters are dependent on many factors that will not be known to [the Trump Organization] until after the close of this year,” Sorial wrote.

Cummings also criticized the Trump Organization for failing to brief lawmakers on their profit policy by a May 19 deadline that the lawmakers originally gave. The Democrat asked the company to schedule that meeting by June 2.

The Trump Organization and Chaffetz’s office did not respond to requests for comment on Cummings’ letter.