Judge’s ruling on ‘Obamacare’ poses new problems for GOP
By RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR
Monday, December 17
WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal judge’s ruling that the Obama health law is unconstitutional has landed like a stink bomb among Republicans, who’ve seen the politics of health care flip as Americans increasingly value the overhaul’s core parts, including protections for pre-existing medical conditions and Medicaid for more low-income people.
While the decision by the Republican-appointed judge in Texas was sweeping, it has little immediate practical impact because the Affordable Care Act remains in place while the legal battle continues, possibly to the Supreme Court.
HealthCare.gov , the government’s site for signing up, was taking applications Saturday, the deadline in most states for enrolling for coverage next year, and those benefits will take effect as scheduled Jan. 1. Medicaid expansion will proceed in Virginia, one of the latest states to accept that option. Employers will still be required to cover the young adult children of workers, and Medicare recipients will still get discounted prescription drugs.
But Republicans, still stinging from their loss of the House in the midterm elections, are facing a fresh political quandary after U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor said the entire 2010 health law was invalid.
Warnings about the Texas lawsuit were part of the political narrative behind Democrats’ electoral gains. Health care was the top issue for about one-fourth of voters in the November election, ahead of immigration and jobs and the economy, according to VoteCast, a nationwide survey for The Associated Press. Those most concerned with health care supported Democrats overwhelmingly.
In his ruling, O’Connor reasoned that the body of the law could not be surgically separated from its now-meaningless requirement for people to have health insurance.
“On the assumption that the Supreme Court upholds, we will get great, great health care for our people,” President Donald Trump told reporters during a visit Saturday to Arlington National Cemetery. “We’ll have to sit down with the Democrats to do it, but I’m sure they want to do it also.”
Economist Gail Wilensky, who oversaw the Medicare program for President George H.W. Bush, said the state attorneys general from GOP strongholds who filed the lawsuit really weren’t very considerate of their fellow Republicans.
“The fact that they could cause their fellow Republicans harm did not seem to bother them,” said Wilensky, a critic of President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement.
“The people who raised it are a bunch of guys who don’t have serious election issues, mostly from states where saber-rattling against the ACA is fine,” she added. “How many elections do you have to get battered before you find another issue?”
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, top policy adviser to Republican John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, said he was struck by the relative silence from top Republicans after the ruling issued.
A prominent example: “The House was not party to this suit, and we are reviewing the ruling and its impact,” said AshLee Strong, spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Republicans are “going to have to figure out what to do,” Holtz-Eakin said. “If it’s invalidated by the courts, it’s not … ‘We’re going to do it our way.’ They’re going to have to get together with the Democrats in the House.”
The GOP’s failed effort last year to repeal the law showed there’s no consensus within the party itself.
Trump tweeted Friday night that “Congress must pass a STRONG law that provides GREAT healthcare and protects pre-existing conditions.”
“Get it done!” he told Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who is expected to be speaker in January. But Trump had no plan of his own to offer in the 2017 “repeal and replace” debate.
Two top House Republicans issued diverging statements.
Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California said “Obamacare is a broken law,” but added, “I am committed to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to make sure America’s healthcare system works for all Americans.”
The third-ranking GOP leader, Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, praised the judge’s ruling and made no mention of working with Democrats, whom he accused of “running a fear-mongering campaign” to win control of the House last month.
The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said that if the law is ultimately overturned, then members of Congress from both parties should start over, working together. He urged maintaining provisions such as protections for pre-existing medical conditions, no lifetime dollar limits on insurance coverage, and allowing young adults to stay on parental coverage until age 26.
Democrats were united in condemning the ruling.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said voters will remember. “What will stand is Republican ownership of such a harmful and disastrous lawsuit,” Schumer tweeted.
The next chapter in the legal case could take months to play out.
A coalition of Democratic state officials led by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra will appeal O’Connor’s decision, most likely to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans.
“The legal merits of the case are frivolous,” said University of Michigan law professor Nicholas Bagley. “The notion that the unconstitutionality of an unenforceable mandate somehow requires toppling the entire ACA is bonkers.” Bagley supports the law generally, but has been critical of how it has been put into effect.
Wisconsin, Michigan Republicans enact lame-duck limits
By SCOTT BAUER, DAVID EGGERT and TODD RICHMOND
Monday, December 17
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republicans in Wisconsin and Michigan enacted last-minute limits on Democratic power Friday, with outgoing GOP governors in both Upper Midwest states signing measures protecting their priorities before leaving office in less than a month.
Democrats derided the moves as desperate power grabs, while Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder downplayed the scope of their actions while defending their rights to do it.
“There’s a lot of hype and hysteria, particularly in the national media, implying this is a power shift. It’s not,” Walker said before signing bills that weaken powers of the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general and limit early voting to two weeks before an election.
The push in both states mirrors tactics employed by North Carolina Republicans in 2016.
Snyder signed measures to significantly scale back citizen-initiated measures to raise Michigan’s minimum wage and require paid sick leave for workers, finalizing an unprecedented Republican-backed legislative maneuver that opponents blasted as shameful.
To prevent minimum wage and earned sick time initiatives from going to voters last month, GOP lawmakers approved them in September. That allowed them to more easily alter the measures with simple majority votes rather than the three-fourths support that would have been needed if voters had passed the proposals.
The tactic — never done before — was pushed by the business community as necessary to avoid jeopardizing the economy. But it was criticized as an unconstitutional attack on voters’ will at a time Republicans in Michigan are trying to dilute the powers of incoming elected Democrats.
Snyder signed the bills in private and issued a statement calling them a “good balance” between what the ballot drives proposed and what legislators drafted initially.
“They address a number of difficulties for job providers while still ensuring paid medical leave benefits and increased minimum-wage incomes for many Michiganders,” he said.
Walker traveled 130 miles from his Capitol office to sign the bills in Green Bay, a more conservative city far from the liberal capital of Madison where protesters converged on the Capitol to voice opposition to the lame-duck legislative session two weeks ago.
Just two hours later, a group run by former Democratic U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced it planned legal action to block the limitation on early voting.
Members of both parties, including Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers and former Republican Gov. Scott McCallum, urged Walker to reject the legislation. Evers accused Walker of ignoring and overriding the will of the people by signing the bills into law.
“People will remember he took a stand that was not reflective of this last election,” Evers said. “I will be reviewing our options and do everything we can to make sure the people of this state are not ignored or overlooked.”
Walker, speaking after he signed the bills, brushed aside what he called “high-pitched hysteria” from critics of the legislation. He said his legacy will be the record he left behind that includes all-but eliminating collective bargaining for public workers, not the lame-duck measures.
Walker’s signing of the bills came a day after he announced a $28 million incentive package to keep open a Kimberly-Clark Corp. plant in northeast Wisconsin. One of the lame-duck bills would prevent Evers from making such a deal, instead requiring the Legislature’s budget committee to sign off.
In Michigan, Democratic state Rep. Christine Greig blasted Snyder.
“With a flick of his lame-duck pen, Gov. Snyder chose to rob the people of Michigan of the strong paycheck and good benefits they deserve,” she said in a statement. “It is shameful that this governor, who is just counting down the days to the end of his tenure, would use this opportunity to hurt the people of Michigan one last time.”
Eggert reported from Lansing, Michigan.
PAUL RYAN’S LEGACY: HE CARED ONLY ABOUT THE RICH
By Negin Owliaei
Institute for Policy Studies
It feels like a million years have passed since Paul Ryan was Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential candidate. But a story from back then speaks volumes about his legacy today.
On the campaign trail, Ryan took some heat for “ramrodding” his way into an Ohio soup kitchen — without permission — for a staged photo op. All the patrons had been served and the kitchen had been cleaned, so the Romney team snapped some pictures of Ryan washing a couple dishes. They left after 15 minutes.
There’s no better anecdote to sum up Paul Ryan’s career in politics — masquerade as an advocate for poor people for the chance to pass policies that would hurt them most.
Still, Ryan managed to cement a reputation as a “deficit hawk” — an earnest but ultimately compassionate policy wonk making the shrewd budget choices that would allow people across the country to prosper. But nothing could be further from the truth.
There is, of course, the issue of Ryan’s obvious hypocrisy on the national debt. The 2018 deficit ballooned under his supposedly watchful eye, thanks in large part to the disastrous tax cuts passed last year.
But it wouldn’t be fair to the millions of people harmed by Ryan’s political choices to assess his legacy based on his faux concern over the federal budget alone.
Time after time, Ryan has let his “moderate” mask slip to show the real motives for his policies — to further enrich the wealthy while pretending to have the poor’s interest at heart. He adopted the mantle of fiscal responsibility to advocate slashing social programs designed to protect the most vulnerable, while offering bigger and bigger handouts to the wealthiest.
Take those tax cuts. Just months after they passed, Ryan tried his hand at selling the hugely unpopular legislation to the American public by tweeting about a Pennsylvania secretary receiving an extra $1.50 a week in her paycheck.
How much do, say, the Koch brothers stand to gain from that bill? $1.4 billion a year, as Americans for Tax Fairness pointed out.
Look at the so-called “opportunity zones” embedded in that same tax bill, which Ryan calls a critical part of his “poverty fighting agenda.” Ryan said he’d spent years trying to enact these tax breaks for developers building in low-income communities. But it’s a recipe for increased gentrification that could displace the very low-income people Ryan promises they’ll help. Goldman Sachs is already reaping the benefits.
And then there’s the time he misappropriated the story of a homeless young boy to argue against free school lunch programs, of all things, in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee. “What they’re offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul,” Ryan said in 2014 about people arguing for the very basics of a social safety net.
As Trump wages his war against migrants, sexual assault survivors and the poor, writers and analysts have pointed out that the spectacle of cruelty is at the heart of his politics. Ryan and his ilk have rightfully been criticized for enabling Trump, but being painted as a spineless coward is his best-case scenario of a legacy.
This is a man who casually noted that he’d dreamt about capping Medicaid since he was drinking out of kegs. He said he personally rejects a ban on Muslims coming into the United States, but then supported Trump’s executive order to do just that.
Ryan had no problem telling the country Trump’s “heart is in the right place” just weeks after his racist reaction to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, where Heather Heyer was killed.
Cruelty has always been the point for Paul Ryan, too.
At one time, Ryan’s viciousness seemed literally unimaginable to some members of the American public.
The Democratic super PAC Priorities USA asked a focus group about a proposed Ryan proposed budget back in 2012, letting them know that he wanted to defund programs specifically meant to help low-income people while slashing taxes on corporations and the wealthy. Participants “simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing,” the New York Times reported.
That was in 2012. Now, in 2018, as a politics of cruelty becomes more and more commonplace, we owe it to ourselves to be honest about the true intentions of Paul Ryan and the people like him who mask their ill intentions with wonky language.
The charade’s up. Good riddance.
Negin Owliaei is an inequality researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies and a co-editor of inequality.org.
For 76-year-old Joe Biden, age a factor as he mulls 2020 run
By THOMAS BEAUMONT, MEG KINNARD and BILL BARROW
Sunday, December 16
As he considers running for president, Joe Biden is talking with friends and longtime supporters about whether, at 76, he’s too old to seek the White House, according to several sources who have spoken with the former Democratic vice president.
The discussions suggest Biden is aware that his age may be the biggest hurdle to launching another bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, especially in an era when many in the party yearn for a new generation of leadership. He would be the oldest person to ever be elected president.
Past and current advisers to Biden have held frequent conversations about options to alleviate concerns about age, including teaming him with a younger running mate. One option that has been floated, according to a source with knowledge of the talks, is outgoing Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who at 46 has become the subject of intense 2020 speculation after nearly beating GOP Sen. Ted Cruz.
The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. Representatives for Biden and O’Rourke declined to comment for this story.
At a town hall Friday in El Paso, Texas, O’Rourke said he hadn’t made a decision about whether to seek the presidency.
The question of age has roiled Democratic politics since the midterms. At 78, Rep. Nancy Pelosi is on her way to regaining the House speaker’s gavel — but only after she agreed with mostly younger lawmakers to serve in the position for no more than four years. Other potential presidential contenders, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, 69, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, 77, and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, 76, face the prospect of competing against Democrats who are decades younger.
The younger set of the 2020 class includes Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota along with Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana and Obama housing secretary Julian Castro. They’re all in their 40s and 50s.
Iowa Democratic activist Dale Todd, who was an early backer of Barack Obama in 2007, said he has misgivings about potential candidates in their 70s, despite their experience.
“Can you mobilize younger voters with older candidates? Bernie showed us that you can, but can you effectively mobilize a winning coalition with an older candidate? That is our conundrum, and I would suggest you probably can’t,” said Todd, who has lent early advice to Booker. “We want freshness coupled with experience; we also want energy and passion in our candidates.”
Ronald Reagan was 73 when he won the White House a second time, making him the oldest person to win a presidential election. Donald Trump was 70 when he won the presidency in 2016.
Biden is expected to decide in January or February whether to seek the White House. He has done little to tamp down talk that his answer may be yes.
He touts his age as a sign of experience, pointing to 36 years in the Senate, eight years as vice president and a career deeply enmeshed in domestic, international and military policy. At an event in Montana this month, Biden described himself as “the most qualified person in the country to be president.”
“The issues we face as a country today are the issues that have been in my wheelhouse, that I’ve worked on my whole life,” he said.
Speaking Thursday at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Biden spoke of a promise he made to his dying son that he wouldn’t withdraw from the world.
And yet, Biden has also said he could not re-enter the grueling race for the presidency unless he feels his family, still dealing with Beau Biden’s 2015 death, is fully on board.
The Utah event was expected to be Biden’s last public appearance of the year. He’ll spend the coming weeks deliberating with family over his next steps, according to multiple people familiar with his thinking. They requested anonymity because Biden is still weighing his options.
Despite questions about age, it’s hard to argue Biden is short on energy or passion.
In the span of just 24 hours this month, he jetted from an appearance in San Francisco back to his home in Delaware and back to California again. In the days leading up to the midterms, he followed a robust schedule intended in part to test his stamina for a national campaign. In late October, he was in three states — Wisconsin, Iowa and Missouri — over the course of one day.
Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa. Kinnard reported from Columbia, South Carolina. Barrow reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writers Will Weissert in Austin, Texas, and Lindsay Whitehurst in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.
Prosecutors charge 2 involved in Flynn’s Turkish lobbying
By MATTHEW BARAKAT and CHAD DAY
ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — Two men involved in a Turkish lobbying campaign led by former National Security adviser Michael Flynn have been charged with illegally lobbying in a case related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
An indictment unsealed Monday against Flynn’s former business partner, Bijan Kian, and Turkish businessman, Ekim Alptekin, accuses the two men of conspiring to “covertly and unlawfully” influence U.S. politicians on behalf of Turkey.
The new charges appear to shed light on the cooperation of Flynn, who last year admitted to lying about several aspects of the lobbying work. In recommending he serve no prison time, prosecutors said Flynn not only helped with the Russia probe but also an undisclosed — and separate — criminal investigation. Documents filed alongside that recommendation spend several paragraphs laying out the details of Flynn’s Turkish lobbying.
Flynn, a retired three-star general, also admitted to lying to the FBI about conversations he had with the then-Russian ambassador. Flynn’s sentencing is set for Tuesday.
Kian, whose full name is Bijan Rafiekian, was arrested and made an initial appearance Monday in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia. He is indicted on charges including failing to register as a foreign agent. Alptekin, a dual Turkish-Dutch citizen living in Istanbul whose full name is Kamil Ekim Alpetekin, remains at large.
According to the indictment, Kian was vice chairman of Flynn’s business group, the Flynn Intel Group. The two worked throughout 2016 to seek ways to have cleric Fethullah Gulen extradited from the U.S. to Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Gulen of directing a failed coup. Flynn is referred to in the indictment only as “Person A.”
Kian’s lawyer, Robert Trout, declined comment after Monday’s hearing. Kian was released on a personal recognizance bond pending an arraignment scheduled for Tuesday.
Alptekin is also charged with failing to register as a foreign agent and also making false statements.
The indictment describes Kian and Flynn as co-founders of Alexandria-based Flynn Intel Group, which is listed in the indictment only as “Company A.” It accuses Kian and Alptekin of illegally lobbying in the U.S. to discredit Gulen and have him extradited. According to the indictment, Alptekin worked at the direction of the Turkish government, but the defendants worked to conceal that fact.
In the summer of 2016, when Flynn was working as an adviser to the Trump campaign, the three initiated what they called a “Truth Campaign” that compared Gulen to Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini.
On Nov. 8, 2016 — Election Day — Flynn wrote an op-ed piece in The Hill newspaper titled “Our Ally Turkey Is in Crisis and Needs Our Support.” The column uses the same comparison between Gulen and Khomeini. The indictment notes that Flynn’s column uses identical or very similar language to that prepared by Kian in a draft op-ed.
“We all remember another quiet, bearded elder cleric who sat under an apple tree … in the suburbs of Paris in 1978,” Flynn wrote in the op-ed, mimicking language provided to him by Kian. “He claimed to be a man of God who wanted to be a dictator.”
Several days before the column was published, Kian crowed to Alptekin in an email about the advantageous timing of the pending op-ed piece coinciding with Election Day. “The arrow has left the bow!”
Alptekin, who had complained a week earlier that the Flynn Group had not done enough work to honor the contract, responded that Kian’s op-ed was “right on target.”
Kian and Alptekin’s prosecution is led not by the special counsel but prosecutors with the Eastern District of Virginia.
Day reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Eric Tucker and Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.