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.