Senator Corker mocks White House as ‘public relations firm’ for Saudi Crown Prince

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE HILL NEWS)

 

Corker mocks White House as ‘public relations firm’ for Saudi crown prince

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) on Tuesday criticized the White House for acting like a “public relations firm” for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman after President Trump issued a statement defending U.S.-Saudi relations.

“I never thought I’d see the day a White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia,” Corker wrote in a retweet of Trump’s statement questioning whether the crown prince was responsible for the death of U.S.-based dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Corker, who is set to retire as chairman of the Foreign Relations panel at the end of the year, recently criticized the White House for not sharing intelligence about the details of Khashoggi’s murder. He was killed last month by a team of Saudi agents after entering the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.

The CIA recently concluded that Prince Mohammad was involved in the plan to kill Khashoggi based on an intercepted phone call and other evidence, according to multiple reports.

Trump, however, on Tuesday noted that King Salman and the crown prince have vigorously denied any knowledge of the planning or execution of Khashoggi’s murder.

“Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump said in his statement.

Corker was the third prominent Senate Republican to criticize Trump’s statement on Tuesday.

He called earlier this month for sanctions against Saudi Arabia that went beyond the punishments the Trump administration has leveled against the 17 Saudi agents found to be directly involved in Khashoggi’s murder.

Corker praised those individual sanctions as “a significant step in that process that hopefully will involve additional action as well.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the chairman of the Senate’s State Department and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, earlier on Tuesday issued a statement warning Trump not to look past Saudi Arabia’s behavior.

“It is not in our national security interests to look the other way when it comes to the brutal murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi,” Graham said in a statement released late Tuesday afternoon.

Graham argued Tuesday that the Senate should act by voting on sanctions legislation.

“I firmly believe there will be strong bipartisan support for serious sanctions against Saudi Arabia, including appropriate members of the royal family, for this barbaric act which defied all civilized norms,” he said in his statement.

“While Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, the behavior of the Crown Prince — in multiple ways — has shown disrespect for the relationship and made him, in my view, beyond toxic,” he added.

Graham is one of several Republican cosponsors of the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act, which would suspend weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, prohibit U.S. planes from refueling Saudi coalition aircraft involved in the civil war in Yemen, and require a report on human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.

The other GOP cosponsors are Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Todd Young (R-Ind.), members of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), another member of the Foreign Relations Committee, earlier on Tuesday criticized Trump’s statement as promoting a “Saudi Arabia First” policy instead of an “America First” doctrine, as the president claimed.

Paul has called for a vote on legislation blocking an arms sale to Saudi Arabia that Trump has valued at $110 billion.

 

Abortion Adds Obstacle as Republicans Plan to Unveil Health Bill

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES)

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, hopes to unveil the contents of Republicans’ health bill on Thursday and pass it next week. CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Abortion flared up Wednesday as the latest hot-button issue to complicate passage of a bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, which Senate Republican leaders hope to unveil on Thursday and pass next week.

The repeal bill approved last month by the House would bar the use of federal tax credits to help purchase insurance plans that include coverage of abortion. But senators said that provision might have to be jettisoned from their version because of complicated Senate rules that Republicans are using to expedite passage of the bill and avoid a filibuster.

If that provision is dropped, a bill that has already elicited deep misgivings among moderate Republicans — and stiff resistance from Democrats, health care providers and patient advocacy groups — could also generate concern among abortion opponents, as well as conservative lawmakers.

Further complicating the measure’s prospects, insurance companies, which took a leading role in the health care fights of 1993-94 and 2009-10 but have been conspicuously quiet this year, released a blistering letter objecting to Republican plans to remake Medicaid and cut its funding.

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The changes being considered in Congress could “amount to a 25 percent shortfall in covering the actual cost of providing care to our nation’s neediest citizens,” the top executives of 10 insurance companies wrote this week. “These amounts spell deep cuts, not state flexibility, in Medicaid.”

As senators struggle to develop a health care bill, their handiwork appears to be too moderate for some Senate conservatives and too conservative for some Senate moderates. The latest version, without the abortion-coverage prohibition and with steep Medicaid cuts, may prove unacceptable to some in both camps. To pass it, Senate leaders can afford to lose only two Republican votes of the 52 in the chamber.

Republican senators got a glimpse Wednesday of the highlights of the bill, which was drafted in secret by the majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and top aides. White House officials were granted a formal briefing, which risked irking many senators who had yet to see the actual bill.

The House abortion provision has sweeping implications because many health plans subsidized under the Affordable Care Act include coverage for abortion services. The provision has encountered outspoken opposition from officials in states like Oregon, where most health plans on the public insurance exchange cover abortion.

But senators said the provision might have to be dropped for a more prosaic reason: It may not comply with the Senate rules that Republicans are using to speed the health care bill through the Senate.

The bill is scheduled to go to the Senate floor next week under these procedures, which limit debate and preclude a Democratic filibuster.

“It’s one of the problems we have to work with,” Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah and the chairman of the Finance Committee, said of the abortion issue. “We’re not quite sure how that’s going to be resolved.”

Mr. McConnell is determined to get a vote on the bill by the end of next week, before a break for the Fourth of July holiday, but he still does not have enough committed votes to ensure passage.

Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, made clear on Wednesday that he was not on board with the Republican bill.

“I’m still hoping we reach impasse, and we actually go back to the idea we originally started with, which is repealing Obamacare,” Mr. Paul said, adding, “I’m not for replacing Obamacare with Obamacare lite.”

Document: Health Insurers Speak Out

The House bill and the Senate version, like the Affordable Care Act, would provide tens of billions of dollars in tax credits to help people pay insurance premiums.

The federal government is expected to spend more than $30 billion this year on tax credits to help lower- and middle-income people pay premiums. The Senate bill would provide more assistance to lower-income people than the House bill, which bases tax credits on a person’s age.

The Senate bill would also repeal most of the taxes imposed by the Affordable Care Act. It would delay the effective date of a tax on high-cost employer-sponsored health coverage, but Republicans plan to offer an amendment next week to eliminate this “Cadillac tax,” which is opposed by labor unions and employers.

Senators Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine, both Republicans, said they understood that the House restrictions on the use of tax credits for insurance covering abortion had encountered parliamentary problems.

“What I heard earlier from the parliamentarian is they didn’t think it would pass” muster under Senate rules, Mr. Tillis said.

Mr. Tillis and Ms. Collins said they understood that Senate Republican leaders were hoping to devise some kind of workaround to address concerns of anti-abortion lawmakers. But it was not clear whether those anti-abortion lawmakers would be satisfied with such a plan, which could involve separate legislation.

Republicans have been promising to repeal the health law ever since it was signed by President Barack Obama in 2010. On Wednesday, in the final hours before the Senate repeal bill was to be unveiled, members of Congress, consumer groups and health care executives engaged in frenetic advocacy in hopes of shaping the bill.

Women’s groups and at least two moderate Republicans, Ms. Collins and Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, continued to object to a provision of Mr. McConnell’s bill that would cut off funds for Planned Parenthood.

In a letter to Mr. McConnell on Wednesday, more than two dozen House members in the conservative Republican Study Committee listed several parts of the House bill they view as crucial, including cutting funds to Planned Parenthood and restricting the use of the tax credits. The bill, they wrote, fulfills “an important conservative commitment to promote life and protect the unborn.”

Leaders of the 10 insurance companies told Mr. McConnell that proposed caps on federal Medicaid spending would cause “an enormous cost shift to the states,” which could force them to raise taxes, reduce benefits, cut payments to health care providers or eliminate coverage for some beneficiaries. Among those signing the letter were top executives of AmeriHealth Caritas, Molina Healthcare, Blue Shield of California and Healthfirst, in New York.

But Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, said the Medicaid provisions were one of the bill’s chief attractions for him.

“In my state,” Mr. Kennedy said, “we are now spending 47 percent of our budget on Medicaid. That’s up from 23 percent in 2008. It’s crowding out money for universities and roads and public safety and coastal restoration, and it just keeps climbing.”

Even senators who might support the legislation said they did not want to be rushed.

Asked how he felt about the prospect of voting for a bill a week after its release, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said, “I feel terrible about it.”

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Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, said, “I need the information, I need to hear from constituents, and that’s going to take some time.”

Debate on the Senate bill will be shaped by an analysis from the Congressional Budget Office, which will estimate the impact on federal spending and the number of people without health insurance. Under the House bill, the office said, the number of uninsured would be 23 million higher than under the Affordable Care Act in 2026. And for some older Americans and sick people, it said, premiums and out-of-pocket costs could be significantly higher.

Montenegro has officially become the 29th member of NATO

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE HILL NEWSPAPER)

Montenegro officially joins NATO
© Getty Images

Montenegro has officially become the 29th member of NATO after a process that saw a failed coup attempt believed to be supported by Russia, and U.S. senators hurling invective’s.

The tiny Balkan nation on the Adriatic Sea officially joined the alliance in a ceremony Monday at the State Department, where officials hailed the strength of the alliance.

“Montenegro’s accession sends a strong message of strength to the region and makes clear to our allies that the United States remains as committed as ever to the principal of collective defense as enshrined in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty,” Thomas Shannon, undersecretary of State, said at the ceremony.

The growth of NATO comes as President Trump’s commitment to the alliance continues to be called into question.

During his first alliance meeting, Trump chastised allies for not paying enough for their defense. He also did not explicitly endorse Article 5, the mutual defense clause, despite such an affirmation reportedly being part  of his written speech.Administration officials have since said Trump is committed to Article 5, but Trump has yet to say so himself.

Trump also caused a stir when he appeared to push aside the prime minister of Montenegro so that he could be in the front of a photo of NATO leaders.

In March, the Senate approved Montenegro’s bid to join the alliance in a 97-2 vote.

Despite the strong support, the vote caused some turmoil in the chamber. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) had earlier blocked a vote on the treaty, arguing that allowing the country into the alliance would add to America’s military burden.

Paul’s move prompted Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to lament that his colleague “is now working for [Russian President] Vladimir Putin.”

Monday’s ceremony is the culmination of seven years of work for Montenegro.

The process endured a coup attempt in October 2016 that Montenegrin and U.S. officials have said was sponsored by Russia.

In Monday’s ceremony, Shannon commended Montenegro for joining the alliance in the face of “concerted foreign pressure.”

He also highlighted Montenegro’s commitment to spending, saying it will spend 1.7 percent of its gross domestic product on defense and envisions spending 2 percent by 2024.

Montenegro has also contributed to the wars in Afghanistan and against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Shannon added.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who was at the ceremony, said Montenegro’s accession sends a message to other countries hoping to join the alliance.

“Montenegro’s accession sends a signal to other states that seek membership,” he said, “that if a country truly reforms, if it promotes democracy, strengthens the rule of law, modernizes its armed forces and contributes to our collective defense, it too can join the alliance.”

Montenegro’s Prime Minister Duško Marković thanked the United States for its “staunch and continuous support” for his country’s NATO membership and pledged that his country will be a “strong advocate and partner” for NATO’s efforts in the region.

“I firmly believe that this is a historic day for NATO,” he said at the ceremony. “Facing the new and grave challenges, the alliance’s admitting the 29th member show increasingly that the open-door policy is alive and that it works well as a beacon of hope to all of those who want to share its values and standards.”

Updated at 3:45 p.m.