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Republicans scramble to round up votes for Obamacare repeal

CLOSE Republicans scramble to round up votes for Obamacare repeal
Republicans scramble to round up votes for Obamacare repeal

US residents face dramatic changes to their health care if Obamacare is replaced by the plan being hashed out by Republican lawmakers in Washington, a cultural and political world away. Video provided by AFP Newslook

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House Speaker Paul Ryan departs from the White House after meeting with President Trump on March 24, 2017. (Photo: Mark Wilson, Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The House continued debating the Republican Obamacare repeal bill Friday, despite mounting doubts that the legislation has enough votes to pass.

Highlighting the uncertainty, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., headed to the White House on Friday afternoon to update President Trump on the shaky situation. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the president is "still optimistic" the bill will pass, but he acknowledged that the White House can't force lawmakers to vote for the bill.

The vote is the first big legislative test for Republicans since they won the White House and retained control of the House and Senate in last fall's election. Trump threw his weight behind the bill , cajoling and strong-arming members in an effort to ensure that Congress helps him keep his campaign promise to repeal and replace Obamacare. It also is a crucial vote for Ryan , who has been scrambling to keep his fractious GOP caucus in line as hard-line conservatives and moderates have pulled the party in opposite directions.

"The American people spoke loudly and clearly last November, and now we're having the vote that Americans have been waiting years for," said Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, on the House floor, summing up the argument that GOP leaders have been making. "Those who vote against this bill, however they justify it, will be voting to keep Obamacare in place. Today, the people's House will either acknowledge the will of the people, or we will defy it."

But even some high-profile Republicans announced they would not support the bill, including the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

“Seven years after enactment of Obamacare, I wanted to support legislation that made positive changes to rescue healthcare in America," Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., said  in a Facebook post Friday . “Unfortunately, the legislation before the House today is currently unacceptable as it would place significant new costs and barriers to care on my constituents in New Jersey. In addition to the loss of Medicaid coverage for so many people in my Medicaid-dependent state, the denial of essential health benefits in the individual market raise serious coverage and cost issues."

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Democrats, who are united in opposing the GOP bill, said Republicans will have to live with voter anger at legislation that imposes an "age tax" and a "pregnancy tax" on Americans by raising costs for older Americans and stripping out the requirement that insurance companies cover maternity care.

"They have to answer for the vote,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said at a news conference with other Democratic leaders before the vote. “They can’t say President Trump made me do it. Their constituents will be very affected

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House Intelligence Committee will hear from Paul Manafort

CLOSE House Intelligence Committee will hear from Paul Manafort
House Intelligence Committee will hear from Paul Manafort

President Donald Trump's former campaign manager, a key figure in investigations about alleged campaign ties to Russia, has volunteered to be questioned by the House intelligence committee as part of its probe of the Kremlin's meddling in the 2016 election. (March 24) AP

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In this July 17, 2016 file photo, Paul Manafort talks to reporters on the floor of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. (Photo: Matt Rourke, AP)

WASHINGTON – Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman who reportedly received millions from a Russian billionaire to advance the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin a decade ago, has volunteered to speak with the House intelligence committee, its chairman said Friday.

Chairman Devin Nunes, a California Republican, told reporters the committee was contacted by Manafort’s lawyer with the offer Thursday.

“We thank Mr. Manafort for volunteering and encourage others with knowledge of these issues to voluntarily interview with the committee,” he said.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the committee, claimed in a separate news conference that announcing the Manafort offer was simply an excuse by Nunes to cancel a public committee hearing scheduled for next week featuring members of former President Obama's intelligence team.

Nunes also announced that the committee has requested FBI Director James Comey and National Security Agency director Admiral Michael S. Rogers, who testified in an open session Monday, to return to testify in a closed session.

“It’s necessary to get both of them down here before we can move on,” he said.

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In testimony Monday, Comey revealed that the Trump campaign is the subject of an FBI investigation into whether it coordinated with Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign against Hillary Clinton.

The developments follow a week of dramatic events in which Nunes briefed Trump at the White House after seeing documents that he says identified U.S. citizens in the Trump transition being caught up in incidental surveillance of intelligence agency targets. On Friday, he made a point of noting that he had known of what is referred to as the “unmasking” of those people before he saw documents proving it. He said he doesn’t know who authorized the unmasking or whether there was a legitimate reason for it.

House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes responds to

House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes responds to a question from the news media during a press conference March 24, 2017.   (Photo: Shawn Thew, European Pressphoto Agency)

American citizens caught up incidentally when speaking with surveillance targets are not supposed to be identified except under a strict set of exceptions. Democrats say Nunes’ trip to the White House has compromised the investigations the intelligence committee and the FBI are conducting.

Nunes said Manafort can testify at a public hearing or in a closed setting and it was unclear when it might occur.

“We want more people to come forward, and the good thing is that we have continued to have people come forward voluntarily to the committee,” Nunes said, “and I will tell you that will not happen if we tell you who our sources

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Alabama's Freedom Caucus members split on GOP health plan

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House Freedom Caucus member Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., (left) Mo Brooks, R-Al., (right) and other members, arrives at the White House in Washington, Thursday, March 23, 2017. (Photo: Evan Vucci, AP)

WASHINGTON — The two Alabama members of the Freedom Caucus are split on the Republican health care bill with Rep. Mo Brooks planning to vote against it and Rep. Gary Palmer promising to cast his vote in favor.

The House kicked off debate early Friday on the GOP plan to replace and repeal the Affordable Care Act. The vote – expected Friday afternoon – comes after days of intense negotiations between House Republican leaders, the White House, moderate Republicans and the Freedom Caucus, a hard-line conservative Republican caucus of about 40 members.

Republican leaders amended the bill to eliminate regulations on insurance plans in an effort to woo conservative support.

But Brooks was not swayed.

“As much as I would like to vote with many of my Republican colleagues in Congress and in the White House (most of whom privately tell me they dislike the bad policy in this bill), I will vote against the American Health Care Act because it has more bad policy than any bill I have ever faced,” Brooks said in a statement early Friday. “I simply cannot, and will not, vote for bad legislation that hurts so many Americans solely because Washington friends and colleagues ask me to."

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Palmer, who has been to the White House three times in recent weeks, switched from a no vote earlier last week to a yes after a meeting last Friday at the White House.

“I voted against the American Health Care Act in the House Budget Committee because, in my opinion, the underlying bill was not sufficient to address our healthcare crisis,’’ he said in a statement after the meeting. “The Trump Administration and Republican Leadership have since made a number of concessions that I believe would improve the bill, improvements that President Trump assured me he supports and that justify my support.”

Palmer voted against an earlier version of the GOP plan during the March 16 Budget Committee hearing.

“We have one opportunity to answer the healthcare crisis the American people are facing," he said then. “In my opinion, the current bill does not answer this crisis.”

David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth, praised Palmer and others on the Budget Committee who voted against the measure, describing their vote as “principled courage.’’

Brooks, who attended a meeting at the White House Thursday, complained the GOP measure, which he referred to as ObamaCare 2.0, does not repeal the Affordable Care Act, but instead retains many of the provisions. He said, among other things, the GOP bill is still too costly.

“Not only does ObamaCare 2.0 include almost all of the bad ObamaCare policies that force higher costs, it similarly fails to include basic cost containment measures that help lower health care costs," he said.

Brooks said he plans to soon draft a bill repeal the ACA by the end of the 2017.

“These Republican Congressmen

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French politicians avoided religion — until this presidential campaign

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Far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen arrives for a television debate at French TV station TF1 in Aubervilliers, outside Paris, France, on March 20, 2017. (Photo: Patrick Kovarik, AP)

PARIS (RNS) — Two of the most interesting photo ops of France’s current presidential election campaign took place last month 2,000 miles away in Lebanon — and they were all about religious optics.

In one, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen called off a scheduled meeting with Grand Mufti Abdellatif Deriane just outside his Beirut office when the Muslim cleric’s staff insisted she don a headscarf before going in for the meeting.

With the video cameras rolling, she emphatically refused.

Later that day, with the same media entourage in tow, she smiled and exchanged pleasantries with Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai, leader of Lebanon’s Maronite Christians and a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church.

The National Front leader made her first trip abroad as presidential hopeful to burnish her weak foreign policy credentials, but the images flashed back to France sent a strong domestic message.

Her supporters back home immediately got the memo — “no to Muslims, yes to Christians” — and loved it.

Playing the religion card so openly is unusual in France, where the official separation of church and state is normally taken so seriously that politicians rarely if ever mention in public whether they have a faith or not.

But this two-round election, on April 23 and May 7, is not taking place in normal times.

After several deadly attacks by militant Islamists in recent years and sliding support for the main parties, politicians — especially from the right and far-right — are harking back to a secularized version of France’s traditional Catholic identity as one of several ways to mobilize voters.

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Their occasional religious references, which are mostly aimed at reassuring worried swing voters who could provide a crucial margin of victory, stand out in a country where many — notably on the left — denounce any suggestion of religion in politics as unacceptable populist manipulation.

“Candidates know that religion as a shared culture speaks to many people in a world that no longer offers them a shining future,” Philippe Portier, sociologist of religion, told the newspaper 20 Minutes . “This talk can quickly resonate with a population that feels more and more culturally Christian, even while it doesn’t always follow the rules.”

Eleven candidates are competing in the election, and the top two from the first round will meet in the runoff two weeks later.

Opinion polls have long put Le Pen out front in the first round with about 25% of the vote, but losing the runoff to whichever mainstream rival she faces. Centrist Emmanuel Macron, now polling about evenly with her, looks likely to be her opponent.

When Le Pen took over the National Front from her father, Jean-Marie, in 2011, she set out to soften its reactionary image and woo mainstream voters by dropping its traditional anti-Semitism and stressing economic and social issues.

A twice-divorced

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As the European Union turns 60, it starts to feel its age

CLOSE As the European Union turns 60, it starts to feel its age
As the European Union turns 60, it starts to feel its age

The United Kingdom's decision to exit the European Union in June and a EU summit meeting Friday have cast a spotlight on the organization. Yet few Europeans understand the massive bureaucracy based here that governs their lives. Sara Snyder, USA TODAY

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A man in Rome walks past a poster announcing a demonstration against the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Treaty of Rome. (Photo: AP)

European leaders gather in Rome on Saturday to mark the 60th birthday of the European Union at a time when the 28-nation bloc faces threats to its long-term survival.

Just six of the EU's current 28 members were signatories to the Treaty of Rome in 1957, the agreement that established the European Economic Community, the EU's predecessor. This weekend's ceremony takes place five days before British Prime Minister Theresa May invokes legislation that starts Britain's two-year legal path to a formal exit from the bloc.

And Britain may not be the only deserter from a union that once had visions of creating a mighty union that would rule all of Europe. Disenchantment with the bloc is growing from France to Greece over policies viewed as having a negative impact on jobs, sovereignty, security, immigration and national identity.

European governments have backed the Netherlands in a political feud with Ankara related to a Turkish referendum next month on presidential powers. At the same time, the EU needs to be careful not to isolate Turkey because it is reliant on it for a migrants deal. There are deep divisions among EU members about how closely the bloc should integrate.

"The EU has good reasons to celebrate its last 60 years — or at least most of it: it promoted peace, democracy and cooperation among its members and created the world’s largest single market," said Michael Wohlgemuth, an economist and director of the Berlin office of Open Europe, a think tank .

The predecessor to the EU was set after World War II, with the aim of forging unity to prevent another conflict on the continent. The six founding countries — Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands — believed that economic cooperation would make it difficult to turn to war.

More than half a century later, the EU's steady expansion, including ex-communist states, has ballooned to 28 nations — 27 after the U.K. formally leaves in about two years' time.

Nineteen of the EU members share the euro currency in what is known as the eurozone.

The centerpiece of Saturday's ceremony will see the bloc's 27 remaining members endorse a new Rome declaration that emphasizes unity and solidarity.

There could also be an attempt, in the text, to formalize a "multi-speed" EU. This would allow, for example, wealthier and more powerful nations like France and Germany to pursue closer economic and political integration. Eastern European countries such as Poland fear that would leave them as second-class members.

"If the declaration does not include the issues which are priorities for Poland, we will not accept the declaration," Prime Minister Beata Szydlo told Polish broadcaster TVN.

Ton van den Brink, a professor of EU law

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