Around the Block June 16, 2017

The Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly passed legislation imposing new sanctions on Russia and giving Congress the ability to block President Trump from lifting current penalties.

Senators voted 98-2 on the bill, which also includes new sanctions targeting Iran’s ballistic missile development, support for terrorism, transfer of weapons and human rights violations. Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) voted against the measure.

The legislation marks the Senate’s most significant check on the Trump administration’s foreign policy, which has flirted with lifting sanctions in a bid to entice Moscow into an agreement.

The bill now heads to the House, where it faces an uncertain future amid signs of pushback from the administration.

Go to the profile of Sen. Lamar AlexanderGOP chairman pushes for ObamaCare payments: A top Senate Republican is calling for critical payments to insurers to be funded through 2019 either by administrative action, legislation or both.

At a hearing Thursday, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) — the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — made the recommendation for making the payments to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price.

Alexander has been urging Congress to temporarily “repair” ObamaCare as Republicans work to dismantle and replace it.

“The payments will help to avoid the real possibility that millions of Americans will literally have zero options for insurance in the individual market in 2018,” Alexander said at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the HHS budget request.

He and Bernie must get along pretty well…………

SANDERS SLAMS IRAN SANCTIONS: Following the vote, Sanders criticized the Senate’s decision to levy new sanctions on Iran, saying that the penalties could put the 2015 nuclear deal at risk.

He said in a statement after the vote that, while he fully supported penalties against the Kremlin for its efforts to meddle in the 2016 election, the Iran sanctions could have dangerous consequences.

“That is not a risk worth taking, particularly at a time of heightened tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia and its allies,” Sanders said in a statement. “I think the United States should play a more even-handed role in the Middle East and find ways not only to address Iran’s activities, but also Saudi Arabia’s decades-long support for radical extremism.”

PRUITT FACES CONGRESS: Both Republicans and Democrats made it clear they aren’t big on President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) budget request Thursday.

During a hearing with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Appropriations Committee members of both parties said they have major problems with the proposed 31 percent cut to the EPA’s budget and pressed Pruitt to defend it.

Pruitt argued in favor of the budget, saying the cuts would still allow the EPA to carry out its “core” missions.

“I believe that we can fulfill the mission of our agency with a trimmed budget, with proper leadership and management,” he told members of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees EPA funding.

“We will continue to focus on our core missions and responsibilities, working cooperatively with the states to improve air, water and land.”

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), the subcommittee’s chairman, said he had problems with plans to eliminate a local air quality grant program, slash a program to reduce diesel emissions and big cuts to the Superfund budget.

Democrats, led by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) said they rejected spending cuts that move the agency away from the climate change focus imbued by the Obama administration.

In response to most concerns about programs that lawmakers want to keep, Pruitt promised to work with them on it.

“This is our approach presently, but we look forward to your input on how, maybe, this can be restored, and/or addressed in a different way,” he said.

DEFENSE APPROPS CHAIR EXPECTS TO SURPASS TRUMP BUDGET: The chairwoman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee said Thursday she expects to give national security funding more money than the $603 billion requested by the Trump administration.

Asked by The Hill after a hearing with Defense Secretary James Mattis whether she expects to appropriate more than the administration’s request, Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) said, “Yes.”

“We’re still trying to put things together with the Budget Committee,” she said. “It’s just a very difficult year. I will keep fighting for the highest number I can.”

Thursday’s hearing before the House Appropriations defense subcommittee capped a week of hearings in which Mattis defended a budget request that has pleased few on Capitol Hill.

GOP brushes off Trump’s ‘mean’ remark

House Republicans are publicly brushing off comments from President Trump about the House’s healthcare bill being “mean.”

Several lawmakers said they do not regret voting for the legislation and questioned whether Trump even made such a remark.

That comment, first reported by the Associated Press and confirmed by The Hill, came Tuesday during a private meeting between Trump and Republican senators. Trump also said during the meeting that he wanted the Senate’s version of the bill to be more generous.

The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the private meeting.

Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.), a key proponent of the ObamaCare repeal bill from the moderate wing of the House Republican conference, questioned the accuracy of the news reports.

“I still haven’t seen the source, so I’m not going to comment on somebody, two unnamed sources who’ve said two different things,” MacArthur said. “I was with the president on Sunday [at a fundraiser] and he thanked me for my work on the healthcare bill, so I don’t know what these other people are saying he said or what the context was, I just don’t know.”

Rep. John Faso (R-N.Y), who hails from a swing district Democrats are targeting in the 2018 election, sounded a similar note.

“Those are unconfirmed reports so until someone puts their name behind that statement, I don’t give it a lot of credibility,” he said.

DOE SHUTTERS INTERNATIONAL CLEAN ENERGY OFFICE: The Energy Department (DOE) has closed an agency office that focuses on developing clean energy technology with international allies.

An agency spokesperson said DOE is “looking for ways to consolidate the many duplicative programs that currently exist within DOE,” and that the Office of International Climate and Technology would close.

The office opened in 2010 as a way for the U.S. to work with international allies on energy sector technology to reduce greenhouse gases.

But DOE spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes said that, in the face of potential spending cuts from the Trump administration, other offices within the department could pick up the work of the closed office.

“The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) has an International Affairs team, while the International Affairs Office has a renewables team,” she said.

“The Department is looking for ways to eliminate this kind of unnecessary duplication — just like any responsible American business would.”

DEM ASKS IF TRUMP KNOWS ABOUT QATARI JET SALE: One of President Trump’s most vocal critics in the House questioned Thursday whether the president was aware of a deal to sell Qatar up to 36 F-15 fighter jets.

“I don’t mean to be facetious about this, but does the president know that?” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) asked Tina Kaidanow, acting assistant secretary of State for political-military affairs, at a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing.

On Wednesday, Qatar and the Pentagon announced the completion of the $12 billion deal to sell the country the Boeing-made jets. The deal has been in the works going back to the Obama administration.

The finalization of the deal comes after several Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia, moved to isolate Qatar this month, cutting off diplomatic ties and closing all land, sea and air borders.

OZONE, YUCCA BILLS ADVANCE: A House panel approved three environmental bills on Thursday, including controversial measures on nuclear waste storage and ozone pollution.

Democrats on an Energy and Commerce subcommittee broadly opposed those two bills. The nuclear waste measure, they said would fast-track permitting decisions for the Yucca Mountain waste repository in Nevada despite the state’s longstanding objections to the project.

“States, especially western states, are incredibly protective of these rights and I would recommend caution before going down this road,” Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) said.

Members also reiterated their opposition to a bill that would change the timetable for EPA reviews of ozone rules. Supporters of the measure say the EPA’s five-year review schedule for the pollutant moves too fast for states and cities that are out of compliance.

“This bill creates a path to move forward on air quality,” Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas) said.

“It fixes the mess of the last eight years by giving long overdue reforms to the process of how EPA sets new ozone standards. … This is about improving air quality in a manner that doesn’t allow states to duplicate paperwork requirements.”

The bills advanced alongside a bipartisan measure to reauthorize the EPA’s Brownfields program. All three bills now go to the full Energy and Commerce Committee on their way to the floor.

MARINES NUDE PHOTO SCANDAL COULD LEAD TO COURT-MARTIAL: Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller on Thursday said one service member could face a court-martial and another has been discharged following the military branch’s nude-photo-sharing scandal revealed in March.

Neller told Senate Armed Services Committee lawmakers that 65 individuals were identified in the scandal — in which service members allegedly shared nude photos of female Marines and veterans in the private Facebook group “Marines United,” — and that 59 were sent to their commands for possible disciplinary or administrative action.

Of the 59 individuals, seven have received non-judicial punishment, 20 have received “adverse administrative actions,” and one Marine has been administratively separated.

The New York Times: Saudi Arabia tries to ease concerns over civilian deaths in Yemen.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a bill to revive the state’s rooftop solar industry, Nevada Public Radio reports.

A North Dakota coal group is presenting a four-day seminar on the coal sector for teachers, the Bismarck Tribune reports.

Arizona is bracing for record heat next week, with temperatures topping 120 degrees Fahrenheit in parts of the state, the Arizona Daily Star reports.

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