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Alice Ollstein

Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.

Articles by Alice

There have been no hearings, the public has not yet seen the final bill text, the Congressional Budget Office has not yet released its score, and several prominent Republicans are calling for a delay. Still, the Senate is barreling towards a vote on the GOP bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act by the end of this week.

With a much slimmer majority than Republicans enjoy in the House, and much of their caucus publicly criticizing the bill from the right and from the center, the vote could come down to just a handful of lawmakers—who are right now being inundated with calls, protests, and attack ads.

Here are the senators to watch:

The hardliners

Four staunch conservatives—Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY), Ted Cruz (R-TX),  Mike Lee (R-UT) and Ron Johnson (R-WI)—announced last week that they oppose the bill in its current form, saying it fails to fulfill “the most important promise that we made to Americans: to repeal Obamacare and lower their health care costs.” But the senators left themselves plenty of wiggle room, signaling they would be open to supporting the bill with certain tweaks.

Cruz has proposed an amendment that would allow insurers to sell cheap, skimpy plans that don’t include the essential health benefits—like prescription medicine and maternity care.

Lee released his own long diatribe against the bill and called for an amendment allowing states to opt out of all federal health care regulations—particularly community rating—and design their own systems.

Johnson wants the bill to gut Obamacare’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

Paul has derided the bill in its entirety as “Obamacare-lite” but left the door open to holding his nose and supporting it if Republicans cannot muster the votes.

The moderates

The Senate’s moderate Republican women—who were at first excluded from the back-room negotiations around the bill—have emerged as a potential formidable force against the legislation. Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) all represent states with many elderly and rural residents and high levels of additions whose access to health care would be devastated by the bill. The three have voiced serious concerns about the deep cuts to Medicaid, the complete defunding of Planned Parenthood for one year, and the expectation that premiums and deductibles would sharply increase for many Americans. 

Murkowski’s vote, however, may be influenced by a special carveout for her state in the text of the bill—dubbed the “Klondike Kickback”—that would cushion Alaska and other sparsely populated states from a formula in the cuts that otherwise penalizes blue states for spending generously on their programs.

The swing votes

Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), who just happens to be up for reelection next year, voiced his opposition to the bill in fairly strong terms last week. The only changes he outlined that would win his vote—preserving the Medicaid expansion or increasing Medicaid spending to make up for phasing out the expansion—are extremely unlikely to be adopted.

Another vulnerable member up for reelection from a Medicaid expansion state, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), has been more coy about where he stands, saying he needs more time to review the bill.

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), a longtime critic of both the bill’s secretive drafting process and draconian Medicaid cuts, and the author of an alternative health care bill that has gone nowhere in the Senate, is similarly on the fence. He said, vaguely, that his vote could be won by removing “things in this bill that adversely affect my state.”

Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) also remains non-committal even as his governor, John Kasich (R), has come out in vocal opposition.

Meanwhile, freshman Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), who has kept his vote and views close to his chest throughout the health care negotiation process, said over the weekend that he remains uncommitted. He criticized the bill for not fully repealing Obamacare’s regulations and noted, not inaccurately, that it is “largely a Medicaid reform package.”

Appearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee under oath this week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was asked whether he had “any contacts with any representative, including any American lobbyist or agent of any Russian company” during the 2016 campaign. Sessions, one of Trump’s earliest supporters, answered: “I don’t believe so.”

On Thursday, an American lobbyist for several major Russian interests, including a state-run energy company and a private equity firm with the state-run Alfa bank, told the Guardian that Sessions in fact hosted him at two dinners during the presidential campaign. The dinners occurred around the time time that the American public learned of Russian efforts to influence the presidential election.

Richard Burt, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany who now lobbies on behalf a pipeline company owned by the Russian energy giant Gazprom, said he attended events with Sessions at least twice last year, and his ties to the Trump campaign were reported as early as last October. Burt made hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2016 alone lobbying Congress to exempt a proposed natural gas pipeline from U.S. sanctions, which would allow more Russian gas to flow to European markets—a key geopolitical goal of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Burt also serves on the board of the Center for the National Interest, a Russia-friendly D.C. think tank that hosted Trump’s foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel last April. Politico reported that Burt helped shape the address Trump delivered at that event, which Sessions attended as the chairman of the Trump campaign’s national security committee.

This is not the first time Sessions has failed, under oath, to recall a meeting with a Russian official or ally.

During his confirmation hearing in January, Sessions said without being directly asked: “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.” He also replied with a blanket “no” to the committee’s written question: “Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election?”

The Justice Department later admitted this was not true, that he met twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

 

Ousted FBI Director James Comey’s riveting testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week characterized President Donald Trump as a habitual liar who made wildly inappropriate demands, but the President and his allies immediately seized on what they saw as a victory: Comey confirmed publicly that Trump personally had not been under investigation as long as he was at the bureau.

Trump declared “complete vindication” following the hearing, despite Comey stressing that the question of whether the President was under investigation could change in the future, and dropping several telling hints that special counsel Bob Mueller was likely examining Trump’s conversations and actions since taking office. That victory cry sounds even more ridiculous in light of the Washington Post’s revelation Wednesday night that Mueller is, in fact, looking into whether Trump tried to obstruct justice—a criminal inquiry triggered by the President’s very decision to fire Comey.

Here are five people who beclowned themselves by triumphantly boasting too soon that the President was out of the legal woods:

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The annual Democrats-versus-Republicans Congressional Baseball Game at Nats Stadium in Southeast D.C. will go on Thursday night as scheduled, despite the tragic shooting at Republicans’ early morning practice Wednesday that wounded five people, including a member of Congress.

The decision was made just hours after the shooting, when even those who had been at the practice and narrowly survived stressed its importance as one of the only positive traditions left in a time of increasing partisan rancor.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), the manager of the Republican team, approached reporters Wednesday morning with a blank, numb expression on his face, still wearing his rumpled red uniform. “This is a charity baseball game. We’ve played it for almost 100 years,” he said, seemingly in disbelief of what he and his 10-year-old son had just seen. “In some ways, it’s what democracy is all about.”

This year, in addition to the usual beneficiaries of the proceeds of the game—the Boys and Girls Club, the Washington Literacy Center, and the Nationals Dream Foundation—ticket sales from Thursday’s game will go to the Fallen Officers Fund in honor of the two Capitol Police officers who were injured Wednesday while taking down the gunman who targeted the practice. One officer has already been treated and released, while the other remains in the hospital, but is expected to make a full recovery post-surgery.

Two others shot Wednesday—Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) and former congressional staffer Matt Mika—remain in critical condition. Lawmakers and staff plan to wear uniforms of Scalise’s favorite team, Louisiana State University, Thursday night in his honor.

Like Barton, Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA), the team’s relief pitcher, became overcome Wednesday talking about what the game means to him and other lawmakers and why its vital the tradition be continued.

“All of us want to play. We can’t let haters win,” he said.

“It’s one of the things that makes you feel more normal. The camaraderie we have in the mornings …” he trailed off, blinking back tears. “I’m sorry,” he said to the gaggle of reporters clustered around him as he took deep breaths and tried to compose himself. “When we’re out there, it’s such a change from the pressures we feel on a regular basis. Out there on the field, we treat each other like we’re back in high school again.”

Even though Democrats and Republicans face off against one another on opposing teams, lawmakers said, the friendly tone of the competition is a far cry from the bitter debates over health care, the budget, and the Trump-Russia investigation that have plagued Capitol Hill this year.

“[Ohio Democrat] Tim Ryan and I have a little thing going, because I struck him out on a curveball a couple of years ago,” Meehan recalled fondly. “Every time we see each other, we joke about that. He just came up and gave me a hug.” Meehan voice broke again. “It tells you how much we share that’s away from this,” he said, waving his hand to indicate the congressional meeting rooms around him.

When the news of the shooting broke Wednesday morning, Democrats who were practicing at a field on the other side of the Potomac River, paused to pray for their colleagues.

“What makes this even more awful is that this game is one of the things that’s right with this town,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), the catcher on the Democrats’ team, told TPM. “This is a game where Republicans and Democrats come together, and put fellowship and bipartisanship ahead of party politics. It makes the shooter’s decision to target their practice even harder to understand.”

Tierney Sneed contributed reporting.

To enter the U.S. Capitol, one must walk through a metal detector, flash an ID badge, put any bags or purses through a scanner and pass several armed police officers. Outside those marble halls, however, hundreds of members of Congress and their staff have no security whatsoever—unless they hold one of a handful of leadership positions.

“When we’re off Capitol Hill, we don’t have anyone watching our backs,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) observed Wednesday. “It’s not hard for one person who is unhinged to do something pretty dangerous.”

The only reason Capitol Police officers were on duty at congressional Republicans’ baseball practice Wednesday morning at a public field in Alexandria, Virginia when a gunman opened fire was the presence of GOP Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), who was shot and remains in critical condition in a Washington, D.C. hospital.

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Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) left congressional Republicans’ baseball practice mere minutes before a gunman opened fire there, injuring several people including a member of House leadership. Duncan didn’t learn about what happened until after he had returned to the Capitol, showered, changed, and then got a call from a former member of Congress asking if he was among the wounded.

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Just a few hours after members of Congress, staffers and Capitol Police officers were reportedly shot at a baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia, the chair and ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee used their opening statements at a hearing on “violent extremism” to address the morning’s violence.

Committee Chair Ron Johnson (R-WI) opened by emphasizing that the committee’s priority is “countering extremism and violence in any form, including Islamist terrorism,” and added: “There’s no way anybody can deny we have a problem worldwide in terms of extremism and violence. We witnessed it just a few hours ago on a baseball field for a charity event.”

Republican lawmakers who were at the baseball practice described the suspected shooter, who was killed by police, as a middle-aged white male, and police say they have found no connection to international terrorism.

Yet Johnson continue to connect the morning’s tragedy to the hearing, which focused on Islamist terrorism specifically. “I appreciate those who stand up and tell the truth and describe reality in a world that is very, very dangerous, in a world that doesn’t want to hear the truth and reality,” he said, indicating the invited witnesses. Johnson then spent several minutes talking about how much the United States welcomes immigrants and how those immigrants must “accept constitutional law” and “assimilate.”

“We’ve got to get to the point where people feel free and safe to go practice in the morning on a baseball field, or walk a street, or raise their family,” he said.

In her own opening statement, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), the top Democrat on the committee, also referenced the shooting, but seemed to hit back at Johnson for appearing to draw a connection between the morning’s tragedy and Islam.

“Make no mistake about it: what we saw this morning was evil,” she said. “I hope that this hearing doesn’t stray from the fact that we should be focusing on the evil, on violence, on enforcing our criminal laws against evil and violence. We should be focusing on those people who twist and distort any religion, be it Islam or Christianity or Buddhism. They’re an exception to the rule, not the rule. We should not focus on religion and the freedoms our country embraces.”

“Our danger, at least to date, has not been from those who slip into the country unnoticed, who illegally cross our borders, or who are seeking refuge from a humanitarian crisis,” she added. “That’s not where the danger has come from. It has come from people who are Americans, or who are legally in this country, who have been radicalized. We face threats from a range of sources, including white supremacists, eco-terrorists, ISIS-sympathizers—there is a long list.”

The U.S. Capitol Police have increased security on Capitol Hill following a shooting just across the river in Alexandria, Virginia, that wounded lawmakers and staffers who were practicing for their annual charity baseball game.

“Out of an abundance of caution,” the Capitol Police wrote in an email alert, “the USCP has deployed a robust police presence throughout the Capitol Complex,” which includes the House and Senate office buildings and the visitor’s center. “However, all building within the Complex are open in accordance with routine operations.”

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