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Posts tagged ‘Jeff Merkley’

GAO to Probe Flawed State Obamacare Exchanges.


Image: GAO to Probe Flawed State Obamacare ExchangesRep. Greg Walden

Spurred on by House Republicans, the investigative arm of Congress is looking into problems with state health exchange websites around the country. The U.S. Government Accountability Office will try to determine how $304 million in federal grants was spent on the Cover Oregon website, which has yet to enroll a single person online without special assistance.

The agency said due to similar requests from several members of Congress and congressional committees related to the rollout of online health care exchanges, it would broaden the investigation and issue several separate reports on its findings.

GAO spokesman Charles Young said just which states will be included with Oregon will be determined as the investigation goes forward. But 14 states and the District of Columbia opted to create their own exchanges and accepted federal funding to do so.

Republicans have been stepping up their attacks on troubled health exchanges during this election year, but Rep. Greg. Walden, R-Ore., said it was a non-partisan issue.

He noted Oregon Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley made their own requests for the GAO to investigate a day after the Republicans — Walden, House Committee on Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan, and Reps. Joe Pitts and Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania — filed theirs last month.

“The politics will play out where they may, good or bad,” Walden said. “That doesn’t mean you don’t ask questions. We need to get answers.”

Merkley said in a statement that he looked forward to the GAO’s recommendations “about how to fix the system and avoid this happening in the future.”

Cover Oregon spokesman Michael Cox said, “We will participate fully with the GAO as they conduct their work.”

Walden added that the probe of state websites would “piggyback nicely” on another GAO look at the federal health exchange website, which has already begun.

Separately, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has asked for an inspector general’s investigation into problems with the rollout of the health care law.

Some of the state exchanges have outperformed the federal exchange website, but others have trailed behind and faced significant challenges, including expensive fixes to glitches and lower projected enrollments.

In addition to Oregon, where residents on their own still can’t sign up for coverage in one sitting, the exchanges in Maryland, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Minnesota have faced major problems.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, called the investigation a political stunt.

“With House Republicans voting today for the 50th time to repeal the Affordable Care Act, it is disappointing but not surprising that Republicans are now using federal government resources to investigate state health exchanges instead of finding a productive way to help Americans access health care,” Schatz said in an emailed comment.

States with successful exchanges include Connecticut, Rhode Island, Kentucky and New York. Connecticut, which has far exceeded its enrollment goals for the open enrollment period, is setting up a consulting business and marketing an “exchange in a box” to other states.

Cover Oregon’s online enrollment system was supposed to launch in October, allowing individuals and small businesses to compare insurance plans and qualify for federal tax credits to subsidize the premiums. It wasn’t ready, however, forcing people to fill out a lengthy paper application that would have to be processed by hand. Pieces of the website are now working and some portions of the processing are automated, but significant problems still exist.

Republicans have contended problems were known for months before the launch. Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, has acknowledged mistakes were made but denies having prior knowledge of problems that kept the website from launching on time.

Other questions raised by the Republican request, crafted in consultation with the GAO, include:

  • What capability does the federal government have to reclaim those funds if Oregon abandons the state-run exchange and joins the federal one?
  • What other costs has Oregon incurred because of the website’s failure?
  • Did Cover Oregon’s status as a state organization play a role in its failure?
  • What steps could federal agencies have taken to assure state and federal oversight of projects like this in the future.

The Wyden-Merkley request asks more questions:

  • How were the federal funds used, including job creation, public and private contractors, software developers, and consumer education?
  • What efforts to enroll people outside the website have been successful, and what can be done to expand enrollment ahead of the March 31 deadline?
  • If taxpayer funds were mismanaged, can the federal government reclaim grant funds from contractors?
  • Was there anything in the Affordable Care Act that Cover Oregon did not respond to in its creation?
  • What can Oregon do to most quickly and efficiently overcome Cover Oregon’s problems and enroll more people?

© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Source: Newsmax.com

GOP Launches Major Push to Capture Blue State Senate Seats.


Republicans are targeting blue states with competitive races in an effort to win back a majority in the SenatePolitico reports

The GOP currently holds 45 seats in the Senate to the Democrats‘ 55, so it needs to win only six of those elections. Seven states currently represented by Democrats were carried by Mitt Romney in 2012, but Republicans want to increase their chances, so they are also targeting other close elections in purple states, and even some blue ones.

Republicans hope to capitalize on anti-Obamacare sentiment as the program has suffered glitches in its website and in trust in a White House that promised people they could keep their insurance and that premiums would not rise.

Even if a GOP hoped-for backlash against Obamacare doesn’t pan out, Politico notes that Democrats could be forced to pull money from bigger races to spend money on less-consequential contests.

Republicans already hold a majority in the House of Representatives.

New York Times statistician Nate Silver has been predicting a possible GOP turnover of the Senate since early this year. Silver’s predictions were made months before the disastrous rollout of Obamacare.

Among the states Politico sees as most likely GOP prospects are Michigan, Iowa, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Colorado, Oregon and Hawaii.

With Sen. Carl Levin retiring in Michigan, Republicans there have rallied behind state Sen. Terri Lynn Land. In Iowa, Sen. Tom Harkin also announced his retirement. No clear leader has emerged there.

In New Hampshire, Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen won in 2008 with only 52 percent. Former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown has now moved his primary residence to the Granite State and has been toying with challenging Shaheen.

In Minnesota, Democrat Al Franken won after a heated recount, which Republicans called a stolen election. Finance executive Mike McFadden appears to be the most likely GOP contender.

Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado has low approval numbers, with only 47 percent saying he should be re-elected. His strongest GOP opponent is Ken Buck.

In Oregon, Sen. Jeff Merkley could face Republican Monica Wehby, a neurosurgeon making her first run at public office.

Hawaii is considered a GOP longshot, but Republicans hope former Rep. Charles Djou could beat the winner of a tough Democratic primary between incumbent Brian Schatz, appointed by the governor to fill the seat of the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, and Rep. Colleeen Hanabusa, who is backed by Inouye’s widow.

© 2013 Newsmax. All rights reserved.

By Greg Richter

Nervous Senate Democrats Grill White House on Obamacare Failures.


By Melanie Batley

Senate Democrats are becoming increasingly alarmed about the political consequences of the botched Obamacare roll-out, and are demanding reassurances from the White House that the obstacles with the website and other problems with the law can be overcome swiftly.

The lawmakers met with senior administration officials on Thursday to vent their frustrations over the dysfunctional Healthcare.gov website, and demanded assurances about when the issues would be resolved, Politico reports. 

ObamaCareYou Can Win With The Facts 

“I didn’t think there’s confidence by anyone in the room. This is more of a show-me moment,” Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley told Politico. “We were all confident that the system was going to be up and running by Oct. 1. And no, we’re not confident until it’s real.”

White House staff present at the meeting — including White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Marilyn Tavenner, and White House chief performance officer Jeff Zients, who was brought in to manage the project to fix the site — reassured lawmakers that the online marketplaces would be fixed by the end of November.

Officials also said they would rectify the problems associated with policyholders losing their current coverage under the new system. The issue has become a major political headache for the president given his repeated assurances from the earliest days of floating the healthcare law that anyone who chose to keep their existing policy would be able to do so.

The meeting was seen as a sign that the White House is anxious to prevent Democrats from breaking ranks or pressing for delays of major portions of Obamacare, Politico reports. Democrats who are already vulnerable in the 2014 midterm elections are concerned about the impact of the Obamacare debacle on their re-election prospects.

One of them, Mark Begich of Alaska, said, “People are frustrated just like I am in trying to get on to the site.”

Related:

White House Knew Millions Could Not Keep Health Plans

Only 6 People Enrolled in Obamacare on First Day

© 2013 Newsmax. All rights reserved.

Sen. Merkley Skipped Briefing on NSA Surveillance Program.


Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, who has led criticism of the Obama administration for keeping Congress in the dark about National Security Agency surveillance, last year skipped a briefing where he would have learned about the program.

The meeting was Nov. 27 on Capitol Hill with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper; Lisa Monaco, then-National Security Division chief at the Justice Department; Bob Litt, general counsel for the director of national intelligence; and Rajesh De, NSA general counsel, BuzzFeed reports. 

Two other senators, Merkley’s fellow Oregonian Ron Wyden and Colorado’s Mark Udall, attended the briefing. The three Democrats had requested the meeting together.

The purpose of the meeting was to brief the senators on how the government was using Section 702, which is the legal provision that the NSA used to create the PRISM surveillance program that was leaked to journalists last week by technology consultant Edward Snowden.

However, an unidentified source told BuzzFeed that Merkley left the meeting early because of a scheduled appearance on MSNBC‘s “HardballWith Chris Matthews.”

During an appearance last week on MSNBC, Merkley responded to President Barack Obama’s charge that the NSA surveillance program is something that Congress not only discussed, but authorized.

Story continues below video.

Merkley said he “had no idea about” PRISM.

“I don’t know how many people knew about it in Congress, but I suspect a very small number on the intelligence committees,” the first-term senator said. “And so when the president says all — I think he said all members of Congress, or full disclosure to all your members — I think very small number of senators and congressmen have full details on these programs.”

“I certainly never heard of it,” he said in a separate appearance on the same network. “I doubt that more than the intelligence committee would have known about that.”

Merkley’s office admitted that he had missed the meeting, but said he is still disturbed by the activities of the NSA.

“Sen. Merkley is deeply concerned about the privacy of American citizens and the scope of government data collection, and has sought out various information in that regard,” a Merkley spokesman said. “In this case, Sen. Merkley thought the meeting would be on an area that he had already been briefed on, and when conflicts arose he missed the meeting.”

Another aide told BuzzFeed that “there was no reason for the senator to believe this was going to be a meeting about this new wide-ranging surveillance program.”

© 2013 Newsmax. All rights reserved.

By Courtney Coren

Democratic Lawmakers Bail on Obama Over Surveillance Program.


By Audrey Hudson

President Barack Obama is losing support among numerous Democratic lawmakers with each new controversy engulfing the scandal-weary White House.

The disclosures this week that the Obama administration has seemingly morphed into a surveillance state by sifting through millions of Americans’ phone and Internet records has angered left-of-center Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado who are in open disagreement with the president.

“We disagree with the statement that the broad Patriot Act collection strikes the ‘right balance’ between protecting American security and protecting Americans’ privacy. In our view it does not,” the senators said.

Liberal icon and former presidential contender Al Gore also lashed out in a tweet that the secret blanket surveillance was “obscenely outrageous.”

Now Democratic Party stalwarts on the House Judiciary Committee are demanding congressional hearings on the use of Verizon phone records to track calls made in the United States.

The lawmakers include Democratic Reps. John Conyers of Michigan, Jerry Nadler of New York and Bobby Scott of Virginia, who took exception to the president’s claim that Congress has been briefed on the surveillance.

“We strongly disagree with those who would assert that because this type of program appears to be long standing and members of Congress may have been briefed, that it is acceptable to us or the Congress,” the lawmakers said in a statement. “A classified briefing which does not permit any public discussion does not imply approval or acceptance.”

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois told Politicothat he is troubled by the practice.

“To say that every American’s records of phone conversations are now open to government scrutiny really goes to beyond that standard,” Durbin said.

The Guardian reports that Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia suggested Attorney General Eric Holder should resign, and Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon called the surveillance practice an “outrageous breach of Americans’ privacy.”

The American Civil Liberties Union has launched a campaign among its followers to pressure the president to cancel the program.

“The unconstitutional spying on Americans revealed by the Verizon court order is completely unacceptable,” said a petition already signed by 29,000 members.

The New York Times condemned
 the administration in a hard-hitting editorial saying it has lost all credibility, but later fine-tuned the language to limit the credibility issue to the surveillance scandal.

The controversy follows on the heels of an avalanche of congressional hearings on the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups and wasteful spending that drew heated criticism from Democrats, as well as two separate surveillance stings of the Associated Press and a Fox News reporter.

Rep. Charles Rangel of New York told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that the president should have the opportunity to right the wrongs, but that doesn’t mean Democrats will blindly march in lockstep with the president.

“You just can’t raise the flag and expect us just to salute it every time without any reason, and the same thing applies to the IRS,” Rangel sa

© 2013 Newsmax. All rights reserved.

Schumer, Democrats Urged IRS to Target Tea Party Groups in 2012.


More than a year before the recent revelation by the Internal Revenue Service that it had targeted conservative and Tea Party organizations, a group of Democratic senators headed up by New York Sen. Chuck Schumer asked the agency to do that very thing, the Daily Caller reports.

Schumer, along with fellow Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet, Sheldon Whitehouse, Jeff Merkley, Tom Udall, Jeanne Shaheen and Al Franken, contacted the IRS last year requested the agency cap the amount of political spending by groups presenting themselves as “social welfare organizations.”

They said gray areas in the IRS rules had created a loophole allowing political groups to improperly claim 501(c)4 status and may even be permitting people who donate to these groups to wrongly claim tax deductions for their contributions.

The senators said they would present legislation to rectify these problems if the IRS did not act to fix them first.

In a press release from Shumer’s office dated March 12, 2012, the senators wrote:

“We urge the IRS to take these steps immediately to prevent abuse of the tax code by political groups focused on federal election activities.

But if the IRS is unable to issue administrative guidance in this area then we plan to introduce legislation to accomplish these important changes.”

A number of those senators participated in a press conference about their efforts on March 21, 2012, and Franken addressed what he called lack of oversight of 501(c)(4) status.

“I think that there hasn’t been enforcement by the FEC and the IRS, and so there are entities that are taking a 501(c)4 status, and under that they’re supposed to have more than half of their activity be non-political,” Franken said.

“That’s pretty hinky. I mean, they really aren’t doing that, and that I think there needs to be a look at that — that even under the laws that already exist, there are people who should be disclosing who aren’t.

And I think that is where we’re seeing the effect of — lack of effective enforcement and just oversight.”

© 2013 Newsmax. All rights reserved.

Radical Gay Activists Want Obama’s Executive Order on Same-Sex Rights


President Barack Obama
On the heels of historic Supreme Court arguments over same-sex unions, advocates want President Obama to use his executive powers to fight discrimination at businesses, schools, and military bases and to stop waiting for action from a reluctant Congress.

President Barack Obama may have made a slow start on gay rights issues, but by the end of his first term his record was such that a news magazine dubbed him the nation’s “first gay president.” Now activists want more.

Fresh from historic Supreme Court arguments over same-sex unions, advocates want Obama to use his executive powers to fight discrimination at businesses, schools and military bases and stop waiting for action from a reluctant Congress.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule in June on big issues: the constitutional right to gay marriage and the right of gay married couples to federal benefits. Both are backed by Obama.

Now gay rights groups are pushing for additional measures they believe are key elements for cementing equality.

First on their wish list is an executive order from Obama barring federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, an act that could have sweeping impact.

“There is more that he can do,” said Jon Davidson, legal director at Lambda Legal, a non-profit organization supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. “He has repeatedly said as president that it’s people’s job to push him to do more and more, so we intend to keep doing that.”

So far, the president helped bring an end to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that prevented gays from serving openly in the military, signed hate crimes legislation into law, and mandated that nearly all U.S. hospitals give visitation rights to partners of LGBT patients.

Last year, in the middle of the presidential election, Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, concluding an “evolution” of his views that took years.

While Obama’s advisers tout his record on the issue, they make clear that an executive order on federal contractors soon is unlikely, arguing that it would carry far less weight than broader congressional action. Legislation called the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) lacks enough votes to become law.

“We want to continue to advocate for legislation. We think that that’s the most robust way to accomplish what we want to accomplish,” White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett told Reuters in an interview.

“ENDA is a priority. Right now the votes aren’t there, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be,” she said.

However, congressional aides say they see little evidence that the White House—already consumed by gun control, immigration reform and budget issues—is pushing to win support for ENDA.

Political support for gay rights is certainly gathering momentum—a point conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts made in the March arguments when he told a lawyer defending same-sex marriage: “Political figures are falling over themselves to endorse your side of the case.”

Apart from a few exceptions, however, Republican lawmakers have not been vocal supporters of gay rights. On Friday, the Republican National Committee reaffirmed its commitment to defining marriage as between a man and a woman and called on the Supreme Court to “uphold the sanctity of marriage.”

A New Focus
After lobbying successfully for Obama to weigh in against Proposition 8, a California measure prohibiting same-sex marriage that is now before the Supreme Court, gay rights activists argue executive action is the best way to keep up the momentum.

“Now the priority for our community is definitely continued progress on getting that executive order out of the administration,” said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the gay-rights group Human Rights Campaign.

An order barring discrimination by federal contractors would apply to about 20 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to HRC. It would make it illegal for companies with U.S. government contracts to fire or avoid hiring employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity, just as it now is with race.

Federal action is necessary, activists say, because state laws are inconsistent. They say it is legal to fire someone for being gay in 29 states and for being transgender in 34 states.

Some activists are skeptical that Obama is backing away from executive action because he believes Congress will act. They think he is wary of upsetting the business community by forcing a new regulation on it.

“This Congress is not going to pass ENDA, and they know that,” said one activist, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois intend to introduce a bill on the issue, according to a Senate aide. However, a similar bill is stalled in committee in the House of Representatives, another aide said.

Obama’s advisers believe he has proven his commitment to gay rights is more than lip service, and gay rights advocates recognize that patience pays off.

Obama’s actions, including his administration’s decision to weigh in on Proposition 8 and decline to defend the Clinton-era federal Defense of Marriage Act before the Supreme Court, led Newsweek magazine to call him “The First Gay President” in a story on its cover last year.

“He said going in he wanted to do a lot, but I don’t think anybody really was sure that he meant it. I put myself in that category, and I admit to being proven wrong,” said Richard Socarides, a former senior adviser on gay issues to President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s.

Critics say it took a while to get there. Some Obama backers were frustrated that his “evolution” on gay marriage took so long, and some thought the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” did not get its momentum from the White House.

“He supported it, he signed it, but it’s clear that they weren’t pushing it,” Socarides said.

Now gay rights activists are cautious. Pushing too hard for an executive order would seem ungrateful and could backfire.

Political Payoff
Activists believe Obama could send other signals—for example, by naming an openly gay member to his cabinet.

He could also grant spouses of gay military personnel equal access to commissaries, allow them to live on bases rent free and give them access to legal services such as preparation of wills.

Legislatively, Obama could push for measures to include LGBT students in public school anti-bullying programs.

And, activists say, he could maintain his support for the inclusion of same-sex couples under protections offered by immigration reform efforts making their way through Congress.

Politically, Obama’s actions so far have boosted his standing with young voters, and politicians from both parties have noticed, leading to a wave of new, high profile declarations of support in the last few weeks alone.

Exit polls from the 2012 presidential election showed 5 percent of voters considered themselves gay, lesbian or bisexual, and 76 percent of them supported Obama.

Since endorsing gay marriage, Obama underscored the point by referring to it during his inaugural address on Jan. 21, tying the push for gay rights to the broader civil-rights movement.

Polls have shown a rapid shift in public opinion on gay rights issues, but Jarrett said that while Obama recognizes his role in shaping public opinion, that was not what drives him.

“This isn’t a matter of satisfying a constituency. It’s a matter of doing what’s right,” she said.

Source: CHARISMA NEWS.

JEFF MASON/REUTERS


Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson, Mary Milliken and David Brunnstrom

© 2013 Thomson Reuters. All rights reserved.

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