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Congress Returns to Intense Agenda     02/26 09:15

   Congress returns to Washington this week to confront dramatic decisions on 
health care and the Supreme Court that may help determine the course of Donald 
Trump's presidency.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Congress returns to Washington this week to confront 
dramatic decisions on health care and the Supreme Court that may help determine 
the course of Donald Trump's presidency.

   First, the president will have his say, in his maiden speech to a joint 
session of Congress on Tuesday night. Majority Republicans in the House and 
Senate will be closely watching the prime-time address for guidance, marching 
orders or any specifics Trump might embrace on health care or taxes, areas 
where some of his preferences remain a mystery.

   Congressional Republicans insist they are working closely with the new 
administration as they prepare to start taking votes on health legislation, 
with the moment finally upon them to make good on seven years of promises to 
repeal and replace former President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. House 
Republicans hope to pass their legislation by early April and send it to the 
Senate, with action there also possible before Easter.

   Republicans will be "keeping our promise to the American people," House 
Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said as he sent lawmakers home for the Presidents 
Day recess armed with informational packets to defend planned GOP changes to 
the health law.

   But land mines await.

   The recess was dominated by raucous town halls where Republicans faced tough 
questions about their plans to replace the far-reaching law with a new system 
built around tax credits, health savings accounts and high risk pools. 
Important questions are unanswered, such as the overall cost and how many 
people will be covered. There's also uncertainty about how to resolve divisions 
among states over Medicaid money.

   The lack of clarity created anxiety among voters who peppered lawmakers from 
coast to coast with questions about what would become of their own health 
coverage and that of their friends and family. It's forced Republicans to offer 
assurances that they don't intend to take away the law and leave nothing in its 
place, even though some House conservatives favor doing just that.

   "What I have said is repeal and replace and more recently I have defined 
that as repairing the ACA moving forward," Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., insisted 
to an overflow crowd in his politically divided district this past week. "I 
think we have a responsibility in Washington to try to make the system better."

   It remains to be seen whether the release of detailed legislation in the 
coming days will calm, or heighten, voters' concerns. Details on the size of 
tax credits to help people buy insurance, and how many fewer people will be 
covered than the 20 million who gained coverage under Obama's law, could create 
bigger pushback and even more complications.

   With lawmakers set to return to the Capitol on Monday, it will become 
clearer whether the earful many got back home will affect their plans. GOP 
leaders are determined to move forward, reckoning that when confronted with the 
reality of voting on the party's repeal and replace plan, Republicans will have 
no choice but to vote "yes."

   Many Republicans say that how they will handle health legislation will set 
the stage for the next big battle, over taxes. And that fight, many believe, 
will be even trickier than health care. Already, it has opened major rifts 
between House and Senate Republicans.

   Senators also will be weighing the nomination of federal appeals Judge Neil 
Gorsuch, Trump's pick for the Supreme Court. Hearings soon will get underway in 
the Senate Judiciary Committee; floor action is expected before Easter.

   Despite Gorsuch's sterling credentials, Democrats are under pressure from 
their liberal supporters to oppose him, given voters' disdain for Trump and the 
GOP's refusal last year to allow even a hearing for Obama's nominee for the 
high court vacancy, federal appeals Judge Merrick Garland.

   Yet some Democrats are already predicting that one way or another, Gorsuch 
will be confirmed. Even if he doesn't pick up the 60 votes he needs, Senate 
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., could use a procedural gambit to 
eliminate Democrats' ability to filibuster Gorsuch, an outcome that Trump has 
endorsed.

   Congress is awaiting a budget from the Trump administration, and the slow 
process of rounding out Trump's Cabinet will move forward as Republicans tee up 
more nominees over Democratic protests. The Senate has confirmed 14 Cabinet and 
Cabinet-level officials, fewer than other presidents at this point.

   The most controversial nominees, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos 
and Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt have been confirmed. Next 
up: financier Wilbur Ross for commerce secretary, Rep. Ryan Zinke to lead the 
Interior Department, retired neurosurgeon and 2016 GOP presidential candidate 
Ben Carson to be housing secretary and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry at the 
energy department.

   How Democrats vote will be telling, given the extreme pressures on them to 
oppose Trump at every turn. It's a dynamic to which those with potential 
presidential ambitions are particularly sensitive. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of 
Massachusetts, among others, took heat for voting in favor of Carson in 
committee, while Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York as opposed nearly all the 
nominees.


(KA)

 
 
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