Senate confirms Branstad as U.S. ambassador to China

Minutes ago the U.S. Senate confirmed Governor Terry Branstad as ambassador to China, clearing the way for Branstad to resign on Wednesday, allowing Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds to be sworn in as governor. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee had unanimously approved Branstad’s nomination earlier this month, but twelve senators voted against advancing his nomination last week, and thirteen senators voted against him on the floor today. The opponents included Democrats Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont–all considered potential presidential candidates in 2020. In a list-building e-mail earlier this afternoon, Brown wrote,

Branstad is notorious for busting collective bargaining rights in his state. Legislation he signed into law will force Planned Parenthood clinics to close this summer.

How can we make an anti-labor, anti-women’s rights politician in charge of U.S. relations with a country that has large human rights problems, especially in the areas of women’s and workers’ rights.

Given how unpopular Branstad is with highly-engaged Democratic activists, a vote against confirming the governor certainly wouldn’t hurt any of these senators in the next Iowa caucus campaign.

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, also a possible Democratic presidential contender, supported Branstad’s confirmation. I’ll update this post later with full details on the Senate vote once the roll call has closed and some political reaction.

UPDATE: The thirteen senators who voted against Branstad were Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Booker, Brown, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Gary Peters of Michigan, Sanders, Chuck Schumer of New York, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and Warren. All are Democrats except Sanders, who caucuses with Democrats. All represent states where organized labor is relatively strong.

SECOND UPDATE: Added below Branstad’s statement and other comments on his confirmation, as well as Senator Chuck Grassley’s speech on the Senate floor before today’s vote.

I had to laugh hearing Grassley “express my disappointment and frustration with the seemingly endless obstruction on the part of the minority.” He is bent out of shape because Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had to file cloture on Branstad’s nomination:

We could have approved this nomination with just a few minutes of debate time, yet, the minority required that we use 30 hours – not because they wanted to debate the merits of the nominee, but simply to delay the business of this body.

It’s unfortunate that their delay has kept an eminently qualified individual from getting into the job to promote American interests in China sooner.

Grassley and his fellow Republicans didn’t give the eminently qualified Judge Merrick Garland even a hearing, let alone a floor vote for his nomination to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Interest in running for office surging among Iowa women

Iowa has historically not been a friendly environment for female candidates. The number of women in our state legislature is stagnant and below the national average. But Iowa is no exception to a trend observed across the country: since Donald Trump was elected president, record numbers of women are considering running for office and signing up for candidate training programs.

Participants in the latest set of Ready to Run® workshops at the the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University more than doubled the previous record in the program’s ten-year history.

Bleeding Heartland will soon begin publishing an occasional series of commentaries by Iowa women who recently decided to run for state or local offices, or who have become more deeply involved in political or issue advocacy campaigns. I reached out to Dr. Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center, for more details on this year’s Ready to Run® workshops and participants.

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His biggest lie yet? David Young says GOP bill "strengthens" Medicaid

Representative David Young (IA-03) is denying that the American Health Care Act “will kick millions of people off of Medicaid,” telling constituents the bill “Modernizes and strengthens Medicaid so the state can better serve our Iowa neighbors and patients who are most in need.”

Of all the misleading things Young has said to justify his late decision to support an atrocious bill, this one may be the most blatant lie.

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Rod Blum, David Young lie to cover for reversal on health care bill

All three Iowa Republicans helped the American Health Care Act clear the U.S. House on May 4 with only one vote to spare. Representative Steve King (IA-04) has long called for repealing the 2010 health care reform law “root and branch” and came around to supporting the GOP replacement proposal in March. So nothing about his vote was surprising, aside from his awkward description of how former Representative Michele Bachmann’s “finger joined mine today to push my vote button to dismantle” Obamacare.

Unlike King, Representatives Rod Blum (IA-01) and David Young (IA-03) made a big show of opposing the AHCA in March. Blum pledged to insist on lower costs for consumers and helping “people who need the help.” Young repeatedly promised to protect people with pre-existing conditions while making sure the bill wouldn’t bring back caps on health benefits.

Feigning concern about the legislative process, Blum said in March, “I believe Congress should slow down and discuss in an open and transparent manner” how to address the “unsustainably high cost of healthcare in America.” Similarly, Young warned, “The ACA [Affordable Care Act] was rushed through Congress and to President Obama’s desk which resulted in a failed law that does not work for everyone [….] It is a fundamental principle that repeal, reforms and fixes to healthcare are done in the right way, for the right reasons, and in the right amount of time it takes to ensure we avoid the mistakes of the past. We need to be thoughtful and deliberate and get this right […].”

Over the past week, Blum studiously avoided comment as GOP leaders sought ways to give members cover for caving. Young’s staff told hundreds of callers he was still against the bill, even as late as Wednesday morning. The same day, he signed on as co-sponsor of an amendment that “comes nowhere close to meeting Republican commitments to people with pre-existing conditions.”

Self-styled deficit hawk Blum and “affordable for every patient” Young proceeded to vote for the bill without waiting for a Congressional Budget Office score to tell them “how many people it covers or how much it would cost.” It wasn’t the first time Young reversed his position on a matter of principle to please his party leaders.

In their comments on the House vote, Young and Blum tried to take credit for imaginary improvements in the AHCA. Their claims can’t withstand scrutiny.

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Young and Loebsack yes, Blum and King no on keeping the government running

A federal government shutdown before October appears unlikely now that the U.S. House has approved a $1.1 trillion deal to fund the government through the current fiscal year. The roll call for the May 3 vote shows that Iowa’s Representatives David Young (IA-03) and Dave Loebsack (IA-02) were among the 131 Republicans and 178 Democrats to support the funding measure. Representatives Rod Blum (IA-01) and Steve King (IA-04) voted against it. Cristina Marcos reported for The Hill,

Democrats claimed victory over what the spending bill lacked: funding for the U.S.-Mexico border wall promised by President Trump, restrictions on federal grants for so-called “sanctuary cities” that shield immigrants from deportation and steep cuts to domestic programs proposed by the White House. […]

The legislation also includes an extension of health benefits for retired coal miners and $1.1 billion in disaster assistance. Funding for Planned Parenthood remains untouched.

Republicans, unable to otherwise advance many conservative policy priorities in the bill, touted the $15 billion increase for defense spending. That’s approximately half of the $30 billion in supplemental military spending requested by the Trump administration earlier this year.

It’s still a break from the Obama era, when Democrats insisted that any hike in defense spending had to be matched by an increase in non-defense programs.

Assuming the U.S. Senate passes the spending bill tomorrow, President Donald Trump can sign it before current funding expires on May 5. Trump seems to be itching for a government shutdown, but not just yet.

The other big news from the House is that Republican leaders now believe they have the votes to pass a health care reform bill on May 4. Young is among the high-profile flip-floppers on the American Health Care Act. In March, he opposed the bill, saying health care fixes must be “done in the right way, for the right reasons, and in the right amount of time it takes to ensure we avoid the mistakes of the past. We need to be thoughtful and deliberate and get this right to achieve accessible, affordable quality healthcare.” Over the past week, his staff have told hundreds of constituent callers (some as recently as today) that he opposed the bill.

But this afternoon, Young agreed to co-sponsor an amendment providing a pitiful extra $8 billion over five years–spread across an unknown number of states–to cover people with pre-existing conditions. Get this: the $8 billion would go to states that “apply for waivers allowing insurers to charge higher rates based on a person’s ‘health status’”–that is, states that let insurance companies gouge people with pre-existing conditions. Young has previously stated, “no one should be denied access to affordable healthcare because of a pre-existing condition.” He repeated that commitment in a recent meeting with Indivisible activists.

Aviva Aron-Dine of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explained that “the $8 billion would restore less than 1 percent of the nearly $1 trillion the House bill cuts from programs that help people afford coverage.” Furthermore, “the House bill creates major problems for people with pre-existing conditions that the new funding doesn’t even purport to solve.”

Bleeding Heartland will have more to say on health care reform in a forthcoming post. For now, read Sarah Kliff on the absurdity of House Republicans voting for a bill that will affect millions of people and a huge portion of the U.S. economy, “without knowing how many people it covers or how much it would cost.” Nothing supports Young’s press release asserting that the new GOP proposal “will help make healthcare coverage less expensive than under current law […] and accessible for patients who need it most.”

Blum has not commented publicly on his plans, but Congress-watchers expect him to follow Young’s path, voting for a bill he claimed to oppose on principle six weeks ago.

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Rod Blum comes out against Republican health care plan Updated: So does David Young

A little more than two weeks after House Republicans released their alternative to the Affordable Care Act, U.S. Representative Rod Blum (IA-01) announced on Twitter that he will not support the American Health Care Act. According to Blum, the bill “doesn’t do enough to lower premiums for hardworking Americans. I’m a ‘no’ on current version – need to drive down actual costs!” Speaking to The Hill the same day, he added, “We need real competition driving prices down. We don’t need the government telling us what should be in an insurance policy. The government has a role to play. We need to help people who need the help.” Blum had previously said directly and through staff that he was studying the bill.

Like all other House Republicans, Blum has voted multiple times for “Obamacare” repeal bills that would have done nothing “to lower premiums for hardworking Americans,” let alone “drive down actual costs.” However, the stakes are higher now that a GOP-controlled Senate and Republican president might enact new health care legislation. I don’t know what kind of plan Blum is envisioning, but there is no magic wand Congress can wave to “help people who need the help” without the government setting minimum standards for health coverage and regulating the market in other ways.

Blum belongs to the House Freedom Caucus. Although that group has not taken an official stand against the AHCA, some of its prominent members are on various “whip counts” of Republicans opposing the bill. Since no Democrats are backing a plan that would leave millions uninsured and drive up costs for millions more, House leaders can’t spare more than 21 GOP members in any floor vote on their health care bill. Some Congress-watchers have already counted more defectors than that.

Representative Steve King (IA-04) was among the first House Republicans to come out against the AHCA. He supports “rip it out by the roots” repeal of “Obamacare” instead. I doubt the amendments unveiled this week to satisfy House conservatives will change his mind. UPDATE: A staffer told the Des Moines Register’s Jason Noble on March 22 that King is “undecided–leaning no” on the bill. SECOND UPDATE: White House spokesperson Sean Spicer announced that King will support the bill. Seeking confirmation. A member of the House whip team told Jonathan Martin of the New York Times that King “went from no to yes in the WH [White House] today after assurances about Senate tweaks.” UPDATE: King released a video statement explaining his decision to support the AHCA. He’s still committed to repealing Obamacare. He hopes Republicans will strip “essential health benefits” out of the bill, paving the way for other measures he wants, like health savings accounts and selling insurance across state lines. He said he told President Donald Trump in a White House meeting today that he worked very hard for total repeal of the Affordable Care Act, but that legislation won’t be brought up this year, because leaders don’t think they can get the votes. He said he had a “firm commitment” from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for a manger’s amendment to strip out “mandates” and “essential health benefits” from the House bill. King views this bill as the “best chance” for the “closest thing” to total repeal of Obamacare in the current political environment. He later tweeted that he and Trump had negotiated “the best possible improvement on ObamaCare Repeal.”

Representative David Young (IA-03) has repeatedly said he is studying the bill and the Congressional Budget Office analysis of its impact. Young’s staff have told constituents this week that he is still undecided. I consider him likely to vote yes if the bill comes to the floor–which may never happen, if leaders conclude they don’t have the votes. For what it’s worth, The Hill’s whip count put Young in the “leaning/likely no” camp because he said on March 15, “I want to make sure it is something that works in the end for all Americans, and that it would pass if it gets over to the Senate.” Several GOP senators have said the AHCA will not pass the upper chamber. UPDATE: Young announced in a March 22 statement, “While the American Health Care Act, legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare, is a very good start, it does not yet get it right and therefore I cannot support it in its’ [sic] present form.” I’ve added his whole press release below.

Neither of Iowa’s U.S. senators have clarified how they would vote on the Republican bill. Senator Chuck Grassley has made conflicting statements, telling House members the bill must be changed so that insurance premiums don’t skyrocket for older people not yet eligible for Medicare. On the other hand, Grassley has said Republicans can’t afford to miss what could be their only opportunity to keep six years of promises. Senator Joni Ernst said at town-hall meetings in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines on March 17 that she is studying the AHCA’s potential impact on Iowans and insurance premiums. I hate to break it to her: no alternative plan will magically make cheap insurance widely available while maintaining guaranteed coverage for people for pre-existing conditions and letting children stay on their parents insurance through age 26.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention that the Iowa Hospital Association estimates between 200,000 and 250,000 Iowans would lose their insurance coverage under the Republican plan. More on that story below.

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