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Tierney Sneed

Tierney Sneed is a reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked for U.S. News and World Report. She grew up in Florida and attended Georgetown University.

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As Congress enters its final stretch before the August recess—the deadline the Senate has imposed on passing its Obamacare repeal bill—the next round of negotiations appears to be focused a proposal being offered by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) that would put in jeopardy some of the Affordable Care Act’s protections for pre-existing conditions.

At least one conservative senator, Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), has drawn a hard line in support of including the proposal in the final package, and outside groups are amping up the pressure to see it added. However, Republican rank-and-file and even GOP Senate leadership has hinted that tweaks to the amendment may be needed to get the broader conference to swallow it, amidst the other side deals being offered to earn 50 votes in support.

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President Trump’s latest addition to his sketchy elections commission is a former Justice Department official who accused the Obama administration of  “a lawless hostility toward equal enforcement of the law” and has spent the years since resigning in 2010 from the DOJ pushing restrictive elections laws and voter purges across the country.

The White House on Monday evening announced Trump’s appointment of J. Christian Adams, currently the president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation. Adams was hired to the DOJ’s civil rights division under President George W. Bush, and made a name for himself in his allegations that the Obama administration went too easy on two New Black Panther Party activists who were videotaped loitering outside a Philadelphia polling place during the 2008 election.

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The voting rights community isn’t holding its breath for a “report” expected out of President Trump’s sham election commission that advocates predict will be used as a cudgel for restrictive voting laws. They already have a good idea of how the Trump administration, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, will seek to scale back access to the ballot with an approach that has its antecedent in the scandal-plagued Justice Department of George W. Bush.

It was signaled clearly in a under-the-radar letter sent by the DOJ to most states late last month. The letter did not get as much as attention as the wide-reaching data request from the Trump election commission—which is being led by Vice President Mike Pence and hard-right Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R)—but voting rights advocates told TPM they find it just as concerning, if not more so.

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A Senate Republican who, so far, has not been seen as a stick in the mud as the GOP struggles to pass Obamacare repeal legislation said that a proposal currently being pushed by conservatives may be “subterfuge” to gut the Affordable Care Act’s pre-existing conditions protections, which many GOP lawmakers have vowed to protect.

“There’s a real feeling that that’s subterfuge to get around pre-existing conditions,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said, according to an Iowa Public Radio story posted Wednesday. “If it is subterfuge and it has the effect of annihilating the pre-existing condition requirement that we have in the existing bill, than obviously I would object to that.”

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In the latest sign that President Trump’s Justice Department, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is backing off the Obama administration’s aggressive defense of voting rights, the DOJ filed a motion Wednesday standing up for an exemption the Texas legislature recently passed to its 2011 voter ID law, which has been subject of a years-long legal battle.

The private plaintiffs in the case are arguing that the carveout does not go far enough to address court rulings that the law was discriminatory against minority voters. Following up on Texas’ filing late last month that defended the exemption, the DOJ argued that the carveout, coupled with the original law, “both guarantees to Texas voters the opportunity to cast an in-person ballot and protects the integrity of Texas’s elections.”

Under Obama, the DOJ was originally on the side of the challengers to the voter ID law, and the agency itself sued Texas in 2013 after it was implemented. Texas had previously been blocked from implementing the law by a provision of the Voting Rights Act that was gutted by the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder.

A federal district court has ruled that the law was discriminatory both in its effect and its intent. The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, the most conservative court in the nation, upheld that discriminatory effect ruling, while sending the intent ruling back down for further litigation.

Almost immediately after Trump’s inauguration, the DOJ signaled that the federal government would be switching positions in the case. In February, that reversal manifested in the DOJ backing down from the Obama-era claim that the voter ID law had been passed with the intent of discriminating against minority voters.

Texas and the challengers are now arguing over a law passed by the state’s legislature earlier this year that amended the original law, an amendment that the state had argued codifies the temporary remedy the federal court approved for the 2016 election. As part of the fallout of the appeals court ruling against the original voter ID requirement, the district court greenlit a system in which those without the required photo ID could vote with other forms of identification, such as a bank statement or a utility bill, if they sign an affidavit. The Texas legislature passed legislation outlining a similar system, which Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed.

The challengers now say that since the court has found that the ID law was passed with the intent to discriminate, the latest amendment “fails to eliminate either [the voter ID law’s] racially discriminatory origins or results.”

Furthermore, they object to the stiff penalties, with the potential for jail time, that the Texas carveout imposes on those who use the exemption by signing an affidavit declaring a “reasonable impediment” to obtaining one of the required forms of ID. The challengers are asking for the new carveout to be struck down, along with the original law.

The DOJ, meanwhile, argued in its brief for the newly amended law to stand and for the court not to consider any new remedies.

Looming over all of this is the question of whether the district court’s discriminatory intent finding should put Texas back under the so-called “preclearance” process: The federal approval requirement for any changes to a state’s election practices that initially prevented Texas from implementing its ID law before the Shelby decision.

As University of California-Irvine Law School professor Rick Hasen noted on his Election Law Blog, the DOJ said that it “reserves the right” to take a position on whether the state should be placed back under preclearance.

“[P]retty clear from this that the U.S.’s answer will be ‘no,'” Hasen wrote.

From the outset, voting rights advocates warned that President Trump’s creation of a shady “elections integrity”commission would be used as cover for his bogus claims that 3-5 million people voted illegally and exacerbate overblown allegations for voter fraud.

Trump himself removed any remaining doubt about the commission’s true purpose over the July 4 holiday weekend when he called it the “VOTER FRAUD PANEL.”

Since its unveiling, the commission has also managed to elevate some of the most notorious vote suppressors in the country, put usually under-the-radar state elections officials in political crosshairs and trample over the privacy rights of millions of voters. It’s also living up to and exceeding the expectations by election law experts that the stage was being set for a push for more restrictive voting laws.

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President Trump is appointing Heritage Foundation scholar and voting restrictions proponent Hans Von Spakovsky to the sketchy new presidential “elections integrity” commission, the White House announced Thursday evening.

Von Spakovsky served in President George W. Bush’s Justice Department during an era when the agency came under fire for politicizing voting rights issues. Von Spakovsky approved Georgia’s voter ID law, over the objections of career DOJ employees. Since leaving the federal government, he has continued to be an advocate for restrictive voting laws and has fanned the unsubstantiated fears about voter fraud.

He will be a member of  the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which is being led by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is also a prominent pusher of voter restrictions. The commission was created by Trump in light of his baseless claims that millions voted illegally in the 2016 election and civil rights groups fear it will be used as a trojan horse to promote more restrictive voting laws.

A Congressional Budget Office analysis released Thursday found that if the draft Senate Obamacare repeal bill became law, federal spending on Medicaid would be a third lower in 20 years.

“In the Congressional Budget Office’s assessment, Medicaid spending under the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017 would be 26 percent lower in 2026 than it would be under the agency’s extended baseline, and the gap would widen to about 35 percent in 2036,” the CBO said.

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Caitlin MacNeal contributed reporting.

Senate Republicans wrapped up their work week in Washington Thursday without a clear deal on how to move forward on their stalled Obamacare repeal legislation. Instead, they were entertaining a set of new proposals that a week ago would have been unthinkable, but now appear to be their Hail Mary pass to break the impasse within the conference that is keeping the bill, the Better Care Reconciliation Act, short of the 50 votes Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) needs to pass it.

When McConnell delayed plans for a procedural vote earlier this week, the hope among Republicans was that a few days more of negotiations would get the conference towards some sort of agreement by Friday, so a revised bill could be sent to the Congressional Budget Office to be scored in time for them to vote on it soon after they returned from their 11-day July 4 recess.

Now it appears they’ll be heading home—where they’ll be facing the pressure of their constituents and the governors who have come out against a bill—with a few more ideas to chew on, but no clear sign they have found the magic formula to overcome their disagreements.

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House Freedom Caucus Chair Mark Meadows (R-NC) was spotted on the Senate side of the Capitol Thursday to take part in the discussions around the Senate Obamacare repeal bill. His hope is that the bill that the Senate eventually passes – assuming GOP leadership breaks the current impasse and gets 50 senators to support it – can be brought up for a quick vote in the House, Meadows told reporters, even though some conservatives so far have been skeptical of the draft Senate legislation released.

If the tweaks to the Senate bill that GOP leadership is currently making to legislation also put it in line with what House conservatives are demanding, Republicans can avoid a messy conference process where differences between the House and Senate bills would typically be hammered out. That means, the Senate’s repeal bill could be law in a matter of days after it passes the Senate, once the House votes to approve it and it gets President Trump’s signature.

Meadows said he is supportive of an amendment being pushed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to let insurers sell plans not compliant with the Obamacare market reforms Republicans have kept in their draft bill. Such an amendment could replace the waiver provision in the House bill pushed by Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ) to win over House conservatives, Meadows suggested. He added that he is open to other ideas that lower premiums.

“If the Cruz consumer choice amendment gets there, yes i can support it without the McArthur amendment in there,” Meadows said.

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