The Senate on Wednesday confirmed Alex Azar as secretary of the Health and Human Services Department, entrusting a former pharmaceutical executive to tamp down drug prices and steer President Trump’s attempts to reshape Obamacare. A handful of Democrats joined all but one Republican in approving the nominee, 55-43, brushing aside liberal voices who said Mr. Azar’s track record of raising prices at drugmaker Eli Lilly made him the wrong man for the job. Republicans said Mr. Azar’s resume was an asset, not a liability. A sharp lawyer who served in the Bush administration, Mr. Azar is said to have an encyclopedic knowledge of how HHS works and a firm grasp on how perverse market incentives are driving drug prices upward. “His distinguished record – including prior HHS service as deputy secretary and private-sector work – shows he is the right man for the job,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnnell said. “It is vital that this department be headed by a leader with Mr. Azar’s extensive qualifications and excellent reputation.” Mr. Azar will fill a secretary chair that’s been occupied by acting boss Eric D. Hargan for several months. President Trump’s first pick for the job — former congressman Tom Price — resigned amid revelations he used expensive charter planes for business travel. Once installed, Mr. Azar will oversee a sprawling, $1-trillion agency that regulates and approves drugs, combats disease and runs public health programs such as Medicaid and Medicare.
Senators delivered a show of confidence in Jerome Powell, President Trump’s pick for chairman of the Federal Reserve System, voting overwhelmingly Tuesday to confirm him to the position. Mr. Powell, who’s been part of the Fed’s board of governors, will replace Janet Yellen, whom Mr. Trump declined to nominate for a second term. As chairman, Mr. Powell will be the most important voice in deciding how the Federal Reserve moves forward with the economy appearing to be humming yet again, even as banks chafe against restrictions imposed in the wake of the 2008 Wall Street collapse. Tuesday’s 85-12 vote saw just four Republicans and eight members of the Democratic Caucus vote against Mr. Powell, who had enjoyed bipartisan support before. “He has served as a steady voice and thoughtful leader,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in urging his confirmation. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce called Mr. Powell the “right man at the right time.” The Federal Reserve is an independent government agency charged with keeping inflation in check and supporting job growth. It took on an outsized role in the Wall Street collapse, sparking criticism from some quarters that it had overstepped. More recently the Fed has raised some key interest rates, hoping to keep the economy growing without overheating. Mr. Trump had criticized Ms. Yellen’s performance during the presidential campaign, but in office he changed his tone, even calling her tenure “excellent.” But he did not give her a second term, making her the first chair in decades to be ousted after one four-year period. Her predecessor, Ben Bernanke, served for two terms, and before that Alan Greenspan served for nearly two decades.
Senate Republicans will add the repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate to the tax bill, Senate leaders said Tuesday afternoon. President Donald Trump urged the Senate in a tweet Monday to add the repeal. Sen. Rand Paul said on Tuesday morning that he would push for the move. Sen. Tom Cotton also indicated that he supported putting the repeal in the bill. Now, Republican leaders are confirming that the repeal will indeed be part of the bill and that they have enough votes for it to pass through the Senate. “We’re optimistic that inserting the individual mandate will be helpful,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn and Sen. John Thune also told reporters that the repeal would be included. The savings from the repeal would “be distributed in the form of middle-income tax relief,” Thune said. Thune also said that the bill had 50 votes in the Senate, enough to pass with a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence if done under rules that allow for the passage of certain bills by a bare majority. A repeal of the individual mandate would save $338 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis. “Repealing the mandate pays for more tax cuts for working families and protects them from being fined by the IRS for not being able to afford insurance that Obamacare made unaffordable in the first place,” Sen. Cotton said in a statement, according to the Hill.
Senate Democrats called for the passage of gun control laws within hours of the November 5 church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The senators include Bob Casey (D-PA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Chris Murphy (D-CT). All five expressed their gun control desires via Twitter. Casey called for Congress to “take action” but did not explain what gun control could have stopped the Sutherland attacker. Sen. Durbin also tweeted that “Congress must act,” but he did not explain what those actions should be. Sen. Blumenthal also called for action without providing any explanation as to what that action ought to be. Sen. Feinstein struck a similar tone, tweeting: “When will we decide that we can’t accept massacres in our places of worship, schools, or at concerts? When will we actually DO something?” Sen. Murphy used his tweets to hurl invectives at senators and House members who oppose punishing law-abiding gun owners over the heinous actions of a criminal: “Can you sleep tonight, colleagues, when the price of gun lobby goodwill is this – blood soaked church and school floors, city streets?” Following the October 1 Las Vegas attack, Sen. Murphy called for universal background checks. Such checks already exist at all retail points of sale, and Murphy wanted to expand them to all private sales too. Ironically, the Vegas attacker passed background checks repeatedly in order to acquire his firearms.
But, to these self-righteous, agenda-driven Senate Dems using this horrific event to shamelessly grandstand, the facts do not matter. They have no real solutions. They’re just emoting, and playing on the emotions of the low-information voters (i.e. their constituents), to support their extreme liberal, anti-gun agenda. That’s all this is. It’s all from their worn-out playbook. Seize on a tragedy, and play on people’s emotions to further their liberal agenda. Sad, but not surprising…
The Senate confirmed a Catholic woman Tuesday to sit on an appeals court seat over the opposition of Democrats, sparking complaints from Republicans who said they fear some in the chamber are imposing religious tests that would deny faithful Catholics a chance at judgeships. Amy Coney Barrett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, was cleared on a 55 to 43 vote, with all of the opposition coming from members of the Democratic Caucus. Just three Democrats joined the GOP in backing her nomination to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals: Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia. She was the first of three women, and four appeals court nominees total, that Republicans intend to confirm this week. “I assume that all three of these impressive women will receive strong support from our Democratic colleagues, who never seem to miss an opportunity to talk about a ‘War on Women,’” Senate Majority Leader Mitch Mr. McConnell on Tuesday. Ms. Barrett, a devout Catholic, drew questions about her faith during her confirmation hearing last month. Sen. Richard Durbin, Illinois Democrat, asked her if she was an ‘orthodox Catholic’ while Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, told Ms. Barrett ‘the dogma’ lives loudly within her. And on Monday, Republican senators alleged Democrats of ‘Catholic bigotry’ in their refusal to support Ms. Barrett’s confirmation, saying their attempt to mount a filibuster against her was proof. But Mr. Durbin said he was only asking Ms. Barrett about her academic writing where she used the term ‘orthodox Catholic’ and he wondered what she meant by that. He also said his opposition to her wasn’t because of her faith, but rather because she hasn’t spent enough time in a courtroom. “I’ll let my record speak for itself about the numbers of Catholic nominees that I have appointed to the bench,” he said on the chamber floor Tuesday. “I don’t believe she has sufficient experience to be a circuit court judge.” Progressive groups didn’t say Ms. Barrett was unqualified based on her faith, but worry she will rule against women’s right to abortion access and gay rights. “Professor Barrett’s past statements and writings show a strong, personal bias against reproductive freedom and LGBTQ rights. And more broadly, her record demonstrates a dangerous lack of deference to long-standing precedent and judicial restraint,” said Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “If Donald Trump succeeds in packing the courts with judges who share his hostility to civil rights, we will lose one of the only remaining checks our nation has on his virtually unlimited powers, and the consequences will be felt for decades to come,” said Sharon McGowan, strategy director for Lambda Legal. Mr. Durbin also said he will reject the other three circuit court judges this week. One of those, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Joan Larsen, who is nominated to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, overcame an attempted filibuster by Democrats on Tuesday in a 60 to 38 vote. Mr. Durbin said he rejects Justice Larsen because she was on the list of 21 judges suggested to Mr. Trump during his campaign as potential Supreme Court nominees by the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation to fill the vacancy after the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in 2016. “Clearly, those right wing organizations are confident that they will like her rulings if she is confirmed,” he said. Colorado Supreme Court Justice Allison Eid for the 10th Circuit and Stephanos Bibas for the 3rd Circuit are also set to receive confirmation votes by the end of the week, according to Mr. McConnell. The Senate confirmed Trevor McFadden for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Monday.
Senate Republicans confirmed one federal judge on Thursday and set the stage to confirm five more judges next week, including to federal appeals courts across the nation. While these are victories for President Donald Trump, conservatives caution senators that this week’s developments are a good start, but not enough to satisfy them when it comes to the federal courts. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) filed for cloture on five judicial nominees, one to the federal trial court in Washington, D.C., and the other four to the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Third, Sixth, Seventh, and Tenth Circuits. The federal appeals courts are just one step down from the U.S. Supreme Court. The appellate nominees are: Stephanos Bibas for the Third Circuit, Joan Larsen for the Sixth Circuit, Amy Coney Barrett for the Seventh Circuit, and Allison Eid for the Tenth Circuit. Larsen is currently a justice on the Michigan Supreme Court, and Barrett is a professor at Notre Dame Law School. They had confirmation hearings in September and made it through the Senate Judiciary Committee (SJC) on October 5, but had been stymied there for the past three weeks. Bibas is a professor at University of Pennsylvania Law School, and Eid is a justice on the Colorado Supreme Court. They both had hearings in SJC last week, and were voted out of committee Thursday morning These nominees are considered especially important because Larsen and Eid was two names on President Trump’s list of potential Supreme Court picks. These two—both women—are considered possible contenders for the seat of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, should her seat become vacant during the next three years. The trial court nominee for whom McConnell filed cloture is Trevor McFadden, slated for final confirmation on Monday to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The four appellate court nominees will then follow. Speaking on the Senate floor on Thursday, McConnell lamented that despite the fact that “the well-qualified men and women the president has nominated enjoy substantial bipartisan support, Democrats are abusing Senate rules and precedent to create “partisan procedural hurdles” that cannot deny the ultimate outcome of confirmation but can burn up hundreds of hours of time that could go to other priorities. Facing relentless pressure from Republicans to confirm President Trump’s nominees, McConnell promised on the Senate floor, “We will confirm these nominees. You can count on it.” Some nominees are still in limbo after today’s moves, most notably Minnesota Supreme Court Justice David Stras, who was nominated for the Eighth Circuit. Stras is still held hostage in the SJC because Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) refuses to return a blue piece of paper with a check mark to Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA). Conservative leaders insist, however, that they will not be fully satisfied until McConnell reinterprets Senate rules and changes Senate practice to remove the remaining roadblocks on President Trump’s nominees, mainly on the Senate floor rather than a committee. Judicial Crisis Network Chief Counsel Carrie Severino discussed the chief roadblock, pointing out that allowing 30 hours of post-cloture debate on every nominee is consuming massive amounts of Senate session time, slowing the confirmation rate of judges to a crawl. McConnell’s actions on Thursday do not fix that problem, and he will have to hold 50 of his 52 Republicans together to affirm any change to the 30-hour standard. Sen. James Lankford is pushing to reduce post-cloture debate to eight hours, while some conservatives argue that debate on all nominees—judicial and executive—should be limited to two hours. Thursday’s actions illustrated the post-cloture problem, as the Senate confirmed Judge Scott Palk to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma by a 79-16 vote, but only after consuming a couple days of the Senate’s debate time. Palk had actually first been nominated by Obama. With Senate Democrats using the 60-vote requirement to end filibusters as a tool for blocking some legislation and with moderate Republicans proving unreliable when it comes to passing all remaining legislation in the 52-48 Republican-controlled Senate, the White House and the president’s allies are increasingly looking to big wins in judicial nominations to give the president a series of accomplishments going into the 2018 midterms. The Senate had confirmed merely seven of President Trump’s 56 judicial nominees before today’s action. After these nominees, that number will stand at 13. The president still has another 89 judicial nominations to make to fill all current vacancies, with more coming soon.
Senate Republicans powered their budget through Thursday night, adopting a fiscal year 2018 plan that would clear the path to get a massive tax deal done relying only on GOP votes, setting the stage for Republicans’ next big-ticket agenda item. The budget passed on a 51-49 vote. While the vote is far from a guarantee of success for tax reform, it’s a crucial first step that GOP leaders had to clear. “Tonight we completed the first step toward replacing our broken tax code by passing a comprehensive, fiscally responsible budget that will help put the federal government on a path to balance,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Already months overdue — the fiscal year began Oct. 1 — the budget calls for about $1 trillion in discretionary spending this year, and envisions deficits of $641 billion. But even Republicans said those numbers were probably irrelevant, and it will take a bipartisan deal later this year to set actual spending levels for 2018. Instead, the goal of the budget was to set up what’s known as the “reconciliation” process, which allows big financial measures to pass the Senate by majority vote, without having to overcome a filibuster. Democrats used reconciliation to ease passage of Obamacare in 2010, and Republicans used it to pass tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. The GOP also tried to harness it for the Obamacare repeal effort earlier this year, but were unable to get enough support from within their own ranks.
This is a HUGE first step. But, only a step.