Author Archives: Abby Livingston

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson walks back comments on sexual assault

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, on Thursday walked back controversial comments about sexual assault she made a day earlier.

The issue has become a topic of national conversation since dozens of prominent women accused film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment and assault.

Johnson acknowledged her initial comments on the matter “regarding behavior and attire come from an old school perspective that has shaped how some of us understand the issue.”

The flare-up started on Wednesday, in an interview with the Dallas NBC affiliate.

“I grew up in a time when it was as much the woman’s responsibility as it was a man’s — how you were dressed, what your behavior was,” Johnson said. “I’m from the old school that you can have behaviors that appear to be inviting. It can be interpreted as such. That’s the responsibility, I think, of the female. I think that males have a responsibility to be professional themselves.”

In a follow-up question in the same interview, Johnson insisted she meant for the comments to empower women.

“I think we also need to start talking about the power that women have to control the situation. There’s law enforcement, you can refuse to cooperate with that kind of behavior,” she added. “I think that many times, men get away with this because they are allowed to get away with it by the women.”

Johnson’s Wednesday comments met scathing online criticism, both on news sites and on Twitter.

On Thursday afternoon, her office released a lengthy statement pulling back from those sentiments.

“Sexual assault and harassment has no place in our society,” the statement said. “This is something I believe deeply. And at each turn of my professional life, I have made it my mission to fight for women’s rights. I do not blame the victims of sexual assault for the actions of their assailants.”

Johnson came to Congress in 1992. Democrats branded that cycle “The Year of the Women,” as a reaction to the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee panel that held now-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings.

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U.S. House passes hurricane relief bill after tense day for Texas delegation, Abbott

Members of the Texas congressional delegation from both parties discuss funding for recovery from Harvey at a press conference in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 7, 2017.

WASHINGTON — It was a tension-filled 24-hour scramble for Texas’ congressional delegation before the latest disaster relief spending vote, as Gov. Greg Abbott entered the fray in the effort to secure more funds to help the state rebuild after Hurricane Harvey.

The bill, which the U.S. House overwhelmingly passed Thursday afternoon in a 353-69 vote, is expected to be taken up by the U.S. Senate next week when that chamber returns from recess.

All House Democrats — including Texans — voted for the bill. Six Texas Republicans – U.S. Rep. Joe Barton of Ennis, Louie Gohmert of Tyler, Jeb Hensarling of Dallas, Kenny Marchant of Coppell, John Ratcliffe of Heath and Roger Williams of Austin – voted against the spending measure.

But ahead of Thursday’s vote, there was more than a day of frustration and second-guessing. Some in Texas’ 36-member House delegation questioned whether their state’s needs were being neglected as Puerto Rico, ravaged by Hurricane Maria, and California, which is combating devastating wildfires, faced more dire situations. An all-hands-on-deck late-night meeting with key members of the delegation and House leadership focused on a letter the delegation sent to leadership last week requesting $18.7 billion in aid.

“We were anxious to see those items included,” said U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston. “When they were not, we were concerned, but we understood this bill was essential to keep the flow of federal funding intact and uninterrupted.”

Thursday’s bill included $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s main relief fund and the cancellation of $16 billion in debt owed by the troubled National Flood Insurance Program, which thousands of Texans are expecting payouts from after Harvey.

“If this did not pass, the flood insurance program would run out of money  and would not be able to pay off insurance claims, and that would not be acceptable,” Culberson said.

While the vote was far from a nail biter, there was discussion as late as Thursday morning that the bulk of the Texas House delegation could vote against the bill to protest a lack of funding for the Texas rebuilding effort.

The scramble began Wednesday afternoon, when Abbott publicly urged the Texas delegation to oppose a spending plan that probably would direct most of its money to the relief efforts for Puerto Rico. After a late-night meeting and call with the U.S. speaker of the House, Abbott backed off on his opposition  — but the flare-up left many in the delegation concerned about future aid.

With most of the $36.5 billion directed to FEMA’s main relief fund, Abbott and some in the delegation assumed most of the bill’s funding would go to Puerto Rico, much of which remains without power.

Abbott initially argued that the Texans should have fought for the standalone $18.7 billion request that he and nearly all of the state’s members of Congress had officially requested last week. 

“I am disappointed that most members of the Texas congressional delegation have agreed to go ahead and vote for this bill, from what I know at this time, when Texas needs this money,” Abbott told the Houston Chronicle in a Wednesday interview. “It appears the Texas delegation will let themselves be rolled by the House of Representatives.”

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke with Abbott about his concerns Wednesday night, a conversation first reported by The Dallas Morning News.

Ryan and two other members of House leadership – U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise – also met with Houston-area Republican members and several Texas Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee.

Ryan and other House leaders assured the Texans, including Abbott, that more federal money is on the way.

“Governor Abbott was assured by House leadership that as soon as November, Texas will get the disaster assistance funding we’re requesting for Army Corps of Engineer projects, Community Development Block Grants, and funding for dredging Texas ports, expanding bayous and critical flood mitigation projects, among other priorities,” Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch said in a statement.

“The Governor will hold House leadership to that promise on behalf of Texans whose lives were devastated by Hurricane Harvey. In the meantime, the Governor and the Texas delegation will continue working together as a team to help Texans recover and rebuild.”

Delegation split

There were essentially two camps in Congress over Abbott’s last-minute lobbying, according to interviews with about a dozen sources inside and beyond the Texas delegation.

One group agreed with the governor that Texas was losing out on major funds as dire straits in Puerto Rico took precedence over efforts to rebuild in areas ravaged by Harvey.

While few in the delegation begrudged funding for Puerto Rico, there is a growing concern that the recent onslaught of natural disasters in other parts of the country will cause memories of the calamity in Houston to fade in the minds of other members of Congress and their constituents.

In this camp, Abbott’s sentiment was privately cheered as giving voice to a frustration that is bipartisan and stretches beyond Texas. Members of the Florida delegation told the Tribune that they, too, were concerned about their state’s capacity to rebuild, particularly with the citrus industry, given the federal aid offered thus far.

In the other camp, there was obvious ire with Abbott’s comments to the Chronicle, particularly his urging the delegation needed to get “a stiff spine,” which was interpreted by some as accusing Texans in Congress of being spineless.

Culberson pushed back against that notion.

“We still don’t have a complete account of the scale of the damage,” said the Houston congressman, who added that providing a comprehensive account of the cost at this point was “not possible.”

Some of the tensions over the version of the bill that reached the House floor Thursday emerged from an impression that the chamber’s GOP leadership took marching orders from the White House and cut House appropriators out of the process.

“Leadership forced on the committee a funding bill that lacked enthusiastic support from seven committee members from states affected,” a senior Appropriations Committee member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely, told the Tribune.

Despite the unease within the delegation Thursday, there remains hope that Texas will ultimately secure tens of billions of more dollars in federal funding in the coming months. Since the storm, some estimates for what’s needed for a full recovery have reached as much as $150 billion.

Patrick Svitek and Claire Allbright contributed to this report. 

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U.S. House passes tax breaks for victims of Harvey, Irma and Maria

U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, in his office in the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., September 21, 2016.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House passed a measure Thursday morning that will lift tax penalties on Hurricane Harvey victims who tap into their retirement accounts and offer them other tax breaks. But the vote was not unanimous among Texas members of Congress, and it was not without tension.

The bill, which also includes victims of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, passed on a 264-155 vote. Most of the Texas delegation backed the bill, but four Democrats voted no, while U.S. Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, and Sam Johnson, R-Richardson, did not vote.

The bill now goes to the U.S. Senate for consideration. If it becomes law, it will allow hurricane victims to receive tax-deductions on personal losses from the storm and ease penalties for those who pull money from their retirement accounts to cover storm-related costs.

It was a messy piece of legislation, marrying the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration to the tax measure — along with smaller items like funding for a Native American diabetes program.

All Texas Republicans backed the bill, along with the House Democrats from Houston — U.S. Reps. Al Green, Gene Green and Sheila Jackson Lee — and U.S. Reps. Henry CuellarVicente Gonzalez and Filemon Vela from South Texas. But four Texas Democrats did not back the bill: U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, Lloyd Doggett of Austin, Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, Marc Veasey of Fort Worth.

Democrats who voted no gave varied reasons. Some were unhappy the tax breaks did not include other natural disasters, while others objected to the lack of hearings on the bill or the fact that it didn’t include an extension for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which President Trump wants to terminate in the spring unless Congress can pass legislation to preserve it.

A previous version of the legislation failed on Monday night in the U.S. House. It needed a much higher threshold — two-thirds of the chamber — because the author of the bill, Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady of The Woodlands, aimed to move it through as an emergency measure.

Brady, the chairman of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, expressed his disappointment in a Monday night statement, calling the House Democrats’ decision to mostly withhold support for his bill as “the very worst of Washington, putting politics ahead of people.”

He followed up with stronger wording on Tuesday afternoon.

“The sick Democrats voted AGAINST tax relief for those affected by Harvey, instead of helping out families who have lost so much,” he tweeted.

It’s the sense among some in Brady’s sphere that the comment was directed at Texans, specifically, who did not back the bill. For weeks now, the delegation has presented itself as a united front in dealing with the storm.

Vela moved from a no on Monday to a yes on Thursday, but he was was not pleased with Brady.

“Is he calling out the four Republicans who voted against Hurricane Harvey funding in the first place? is he calling them ‘sick Republicans?’ ” Vela asked.

The Harvey legislation also reignited a bitter regional fight between members from the northeast and Texas Republicans. A bipartisan group of members from New York and New Jersey have repeatedly expressed outrage at the Texans for backing legislation that supports victims of Hurricane Harvey when they did not do the same during super storm Sandy, which battered the Northeast in 2012.

And no one was angrier this week than U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, a New Jersey Democrat, who also serves on the tax-writing committee and proposed similar but unsuccessful tax breaks in the aftermath of that storm.

“He’s gone too far,” he said of Brady in an interview with the Tribune on Tuesday.

The U.S. House voted down a measure on Thursday that would expand the tax breaks for Sandy victims and other natural disasters that occurred in the last five years.

At a U.S. House Rules Committee meeting Tuesday evening chaired by U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, the Dallas Republican repeatedly described the desperate situation in Texas and the Caribbean and urged his colleagues to move on the legislation, calling it “common sense.”

When asked if the delegation was still united despite the split votes on the Harvey bill, U.S. Rep Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, was optimistic

“I think we are,” he said.

Republican and Democratic members of the Texas delegation held a press conference following the bill’s passage in what they called a demonstration of their bipartisanship on the issue.

“Our bill specifically helps hurricane victims keep more of their paycheck, pay for the cost of their expenses in property damage and have more affordable and immediate access to the money they saved for their retirement so they can rebuild their families and their homes and their businesses,” Brady said. “Our legislation will also encourage more Americans to donate generously to those in need.

“Taken together these provisions will provide the support our communities need to recover from this destruction.”

Claire Allbright contributed to this report.

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U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul again top contender to be Trump’s homeland security chief

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul at a Texas Tribune event in Austin on Oct. 25, 2016.

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, is a leading contender to serve as the next homeland security chief and is interested in the position, a source close to the congressman tells the Tribune.

The news – first reported by Politico – could put the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee at the head of the department that oversees the federal emergency response to Hurricane Harvey , which affected the southeastern part of his sprawling Austin-to-Katy district.

But it would also, for a short time, leave the 10th District without a Congressional representative and advocate, although the Houston delegation spent most of Thursday touting its all-for-one-and-one-for-all mantra in the storm’s aftermath.

McCaul was also a leading contender for the post when President Trump first chose his cabinet, but the position went to John Kelly, who now serves as the president’s chief of staff.

In recent years, McCaul was a leading party spokesman on national security – particularly during terrorist attacks.

He also served as a top adviser to candidate Trump during the campaign and helped the president with debate preparation.

McCaul was also frequently mentioned last year as a potential primary challenger to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, but most of that chatter died down by the beginning of the new year.

Should he be selected, McCaul would vacate his seat representing the predominantly Republican 10th District seat and a special election would take place over the coming months.

Back when McCaul was under cabinet consideration in late 2016, GOP operatives pointed to several local Republicans as potential candidates in a special election to replace him including state Rep. John Cyrier of Lockhart, oil and gas investor Brian Haley, Texas Public Policy Foundation board member Stacy Hock, state Rep. Jason Isaac of Dripping Springs and Austin-based communications consultant Jenifer Sarver.

A McCaul spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

Disclosure: Jenifer Sarver and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Every Texan in the U.S. House just voted for sanctions against Russia

President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 28, 2017.

WASHINGTON — Every single Texan in the U.S. House voted Tuesday for legislation that will impose new sanctions on Russia and limit President Donald Trump’s ability to lift them.

“I cannot overstate the importance of sending a strong message to our adversaries that there will be consequences for their bad behavior,” U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, said on the House floor just before the vote. 

The 419-3 vote is significant: It’s unusual for a Republican-led Congress to restrict a Republican president’s handling of foreign affairs. But Russia is an increasingly fraught subject in Washington, D.C., given that the entire U.S. intelligence community believes it was responsible for cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee, Hillary Clinton’s campaign and Democratic House incumbents and candidates.

And Trump has done much to cultivate a friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, even amid investigations into whether his associates colluded with Russian intelligence to disrupt the 2016 elections in his favor.

Support for the legislation by congressional Democrats is no surprise; they’re looking to take punitive action against Russia to prevent such election-meddling in the future.

At the same time, many Republicans in Congress — who grew up on President Ronald Reagan’s anti-Soviet Union rhetoric — are dismayed that their president has struck such diplomacy with the nation’s longtime foreign adversary.

The Senate passed a similar measure in June, with near unanimous support. But this newly-passed House bill is the product of an agreement House leaders struck over the weekend with the Senate. The Senate is expected to take up its own version of the bill soon.

The legislation the House signed off on Tuesday also includes sanctions against Iran and North Korea.

“Aggression against our interests will not be tolerated,” U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, said in a statement. “I urge the Senate to take up and pass this important legislation quickly so that the president can sign it into law.”

Trump could veto the bill, but would be at risk of a veto override. Perhaps in a bid to avoid that embarrassment, White House officials indicated over the weekend that they would accept the legislation.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders walked back some of that sentiment on Monday.

“He’s going to study that legislation and see what the final product looks like,” she told reporters.

McCaul said Tuesday that the legislation is crucial. In his capacity as House Homeland Security chairman, he said, senior intelligence officials warned him even ahead of the November election that Russia was culpable in cyberattacks on Democrats.

“I was an outspoken supporter of the need for a strong response then, and I remain so now,” he added.

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Congressman: If female GOP senators were South Texas men, I’d challenge them to a duel

Blake Farenthold speaks at the state Republican convention in Dallas on June 12, 2010.

WASHINGTON — A Texas GOP congressman says if the three female Republican senators who oppose a bill repealing Obamacare were men from South Texas, he might challenge them to a duel.

“The fact that the Senate does not have the courage to do some of the things that every Republican in the Senate promised to do is just absolutely repugnant to me,” U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, told his local radio host Bob Jones on Friday.

“Some of the people that are opposed to this, there are female senators from the Northeast… If it was a guy from South Texas, I might ask him to step outside and settle this Aaron Burr-style.”

In 1804, Aaron Burr famously shot and killed his political adversary, Alexander Hamilton, in a New Jersey duel.

Farenthold, whose office did not respond to a Texas Tribune request for comment, was referencing U.S. Sens. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to push through a pure Obamacare repeal bill that lacked a replacement, after months of trouble to pass a repeal-and-replace measure, those three senators effectively ended his efforts by announcing they opposed the plan.

But those three women — considered moderate Republicans — haven’t been the only nails in this summer’s health care coffin. Previous iterations of the legislation have faced opposition from the Senate’s more conservative wing, including men like U.S. Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Duel language is not new in politics. In 2004, then-U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, a Democrat who crossed party lines to campaign for President George W. Bush, invoked it against MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews. The comments were met with widespread mockery at the time.

But there’s little funny about such language in the U.S. Capitol these days, after a deranged man shot and injured a Republican member of Congress during a baseball practice in June. U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, was gravely injured in the incident and remains hospitalized.


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Kay Bailey Hutchison vows toughness on Russia as NATO ambassador

Former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, nominee to be U.S. ambassador to NATO, attends her Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing in Dirksen Building on July 20, 2017. 

WASHINGTON — Former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison testified on Thursday that she would take a tough stance on Russia if she is confirmed as the new ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“We are beefing up defenses for an aggressive Russia,” she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, adding that she supports lawmakers considering new sanctions on Russian in response to its cyberattacks at home and abroad. “I think that Congress is doing the right thing.”

Hutchison’s comments were striking given that the man who nominated her to the NATO post — President Donald Trump — continues to cultivate an oddly close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Several senators, including Democrats, said Thursday they found Hutchison’s positions reassuring, and they were anything but adversarial in their questioning of her.

“Kay Bailey, I’m so excited you’re the nominee,” said U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat and 2016 Democratic nominee for vice president. “Your nomination sends a signal the NATO relationship is an important one.”

The Senate has passed Russian sanctions in a near-unanimous vote, but the legislation is stalled in the House amid procedural and partisan infighting. Most members of Congress believe Trump is against new sanctions, setting the stage for a potential veto or veto override in the coming months.

In her testimony, Hutchison called it likely that Russia interfered in the 2016 American elections, a conclusion Trump and many Republicans have yet to fully accept despite a consensus among the country’s intelligence agencies.

Hutchison was one of several ambassador nominees who participated in Thursday’s panel. Texas’ two senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, introduced Hutchison to the committee with high praise.

“She was relentless; she would not stop until she achieved her objective,” Cornyn said of his time serving with her in the Senate. “And most importantly, she always did what she thought was the right thing for Texas. Whether it was working with Republicans or Democrats, that was always her guiding star.”

“As I think about the type of individual best-suited to represent the U.S. on the world stage, I can think of no one better than Kay,” he added.

Cruz, who succeeded Hutchison in the Senate, joked to his colleagues that they preferred her to him.

“You know I agree with the president’s effort to extract more from our allies in support of NATO. I think that’s a positive direction for our country,” he said. “But I think it is also very good to have a U.S. ambassador who has a strong will and a gracious smile to represent America.”

Hutchison is expected to coast to confirmation.

Disclosure: The author of this article briefly worked for Kay Bailey Hutchison more than a decade ago.

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Texas Republicans in Congress process health care bill’s collapse

 Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn are trailed by reporters as they walk to the Senate floor of the U.S. Capitol after unveiling a draft bill on healthcare in Washington on June 22, 2017. 

WASHINGTON – It took less than 24 hours for the defection of two Senate Republicans to bring about the complete collapse of their party’s health care overhaul efforts.

The unraveling began Monday evening with the announcements from U.S. Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, that they would oppose the current version of a bill overhauling former President Obama’s 2010 health care law. That put U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell two votes short of the minimum 50 votes he needed from his 52-member caucus.

“It was disappointing,” U.S. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said Tuesday.

There has been no other issue more central to GOP advertising, organizing, enthusiasm and fundraising over the last seven years than repealing Obamacare. But unless congressional Republicans can muster a miracle, the current health care debate appears to be over.

McConnell pledged on Monday evening to proceed with repeal legislation that did not include replacement mechanisms.

Like his previous repeal-and-replace bill, he could only afford to lose two GOP senators for the straight repeal effort. He promptly lost three: U.S. Sens. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

“This has been a very, very challenging experience for all of us,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday afternoon. He is expected to move forward with the repeal legislation, if only to put his fellow Republicans on the record following four election cycles in which hundreds of GOP Senate and House candidates ran on repealing the law.

The two Texas senators had much political capital invested in a GOP-led health care overhaul. Cornyn, the party whip, emerged as a chief salesman of the concept in recent weeks, a prominent defender of leadership’s efforts on social media and on television.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz was intimately involved in negotiations too, and prided himself in the spring and summer as a consensus builder in both chambers – a striking difference from his early years as a Senate rabblerouser.

“I continue to believe we can and will get this done,” Cruz said Tuesday afternoon. “The path of Obamacare repeal has been bumpy, and this week was no exception.”

Some Republicans have begun to talk of ditching repeal efforts altogether and working with Democrats on a bipartisan “fix” of the 2010 health care law.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican and chairman of the committee that oversees health care policy, said Wednesday he expected the repeal bill to fail and announced coming hearings “to continue exploring how to stabilize the individual market.”

Cornyn was dubious of Democratic involvement. In a news conference, he called the “structure of Obamacare a failed experience,” and then cautioned of a future without a GOP bill.

“We’re going to continue down that road because the alternative, I fear, is going to be a Democratic effort strictly to bail out insurance companies with no reform whatsoever,” Cornyn said.

GOP overhaul efforts have been declared dead before, only to see legislation resurrected. And Democrats faced similar struggles in their successful 2010 push. But such an overt rebellion by both conservative and moderate Republican senators made this time seem different.

The recent complaints were personal and pointed toward leadership, with lawmakers howling over the fact that negotiations were secretive, did not involve committee hearings and were dominated by men in the conference.

Politically, there are major questions ahead for the GOP. Since 2010, Republican candidates and affiliated groups have spent a combined $666 million on 1.3 million ads attacking “Obamacare,” according to the Cook Political Report and Kantar Media/CMAG, a firm that tracks ad spending.

“Every Republican in the last seven years has campaigned on repealing Obamacare,” Cruz said. He then warned of an erosion of “the credibility of the conference … if we fail to deliver on that promise.”

A similar sentiment came from some in the U.S. House Tuesday. U.S. Rep. Jodey Arrington, a Republican from Lubbock, joined 11 other freshmen Republicans in urging the Senate to act.

“We House Republican freshmen remain fully aware that we were elected with a mandate from voters to end the pain that Obamacare has caused and provide a better solution,” they wrote in an op-ed for “Failure to do so is a failure to follow the will of our voters who elected a Republican majority to both the House and Senate, placed a Republican in the White House and worked tirelessly to secure change from the status quo.”

Texas-based Republican political consultant Brendan Steinhauser’s early read of the fallout was that the party has reasons to be worried about next year’s midterm elections.

“I think that you will see that if this fails, Republicans in Congress will get blamed,” he said. “I think you will see a very angry base that will attract some primary challengers to these members of Congress from the right, and I think you’ll see some of these voters stay home in the midterm [general election].”

“I think that is the more dangerous trend for Republicans,” he added. “… In general, the consensus is, ‘You guys have been making this promise for seven years to repeal Obamacare … If you guys can’t achieve it then why did we send you to Washington?'”

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Four Texas Republicans in Congress were just outraised by Democratic challengers

Clockwise from top left: U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and U.S. Reps. John Culberson, R-Houston, Ted Poe, R-Humble and Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio.

WASHINGTON – There are early signs of Democratic enthusiasm in Texas in the latest round of federal campaign finance report filings over the weekend, but whether that fundraising support will translate into trouble for Republicans remains to be seen.

Four GOP incumbents from Texas – U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, and U.S. Reps. John Culberson of Houston, Ted Poe of Humble and Lamar Smith of San Antonio – found in recent days that their Democratic challengers had posted better fundraising hauls than they had in the second quarter of this year.

“It’s happening in other places as well,” said Achim Bergmann, a Democratic consultant who has clients across the country including one challenging Culberson. “It’s particularly surprising and encouraging in a place like Texas, and it might be an indication of where Republicans are taking things for granted and are going to be sorry.”

This sort of scenario is the first sign of incumbent danger in political circles, but most of these incumbents already have hefty war chests from previous campaigns.

“Comparing a quarter’s worth of fundraising is like declaring victory after one inning of a baseball game,” cautioned Nathan Gonzales, a political analyst at Inside Campaigns, a political newsletter.

The most recent fundraising stretch – early April through the end of June – marked a time when dozens of Democratic challengers declared their campaigns for office around the state. The Democrats highlighted below either out-paced – or nearly out-paced – their Republican rivals in the second quarter.

U.S. Senate

  • U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, posted a $2.1 million quarterly haul in his first report since launching a bid to unseat Cruz, who raised $1.6 million. But Cruz had a $3.8 million cash-on-hand advantage at the end of the quarter and is likely to have major national party and superPAC support.

U.S. House races: 

  • Texas’ 2nd District: Poe’s quarterly haul was on the small side – $81,000 – but he had about $2.1 million in cash on hand, a staggering financial starting point for any House incumbent. A number of Democrats are running against him, but nonprofit executive Todd Litton outpaced him with $139,000 raised. He has $132,000 in cash on hand. Neither Gonzales’ Inside Campaigns nor the Cook Political Report, another political journal, has rated the district as competitive.
  • Texas’ 7th District: Culberson, who has never been among Congress’ strongest fundraisers, heeded Democratic threats to his district and raised a larger-than-usual $336,000 this quarter and reported $361,000 in cash on hand. Even so, two Democrats among a crowded field raised more than he did. Nonprofit executive Alex Triantaphyllis had the best quarter of any House challenger in the state, with $451,000 raised and $402,000 in cash on hand. But attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher also posted a healthy quarter, with $366,000 raised and $343,000 in cash on hand. Her finance report featured two Democratic notables: Mark White III, the son of former Texas Gov. Mark White; and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who keeps an eye out for female candidates to support. As a member of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, Culberson should have the legislative leverage to keep pace with any Democratic rival.
  • Texas’ 21st District: Smith stayed within his normal quarterly range, with $198,000 raised. Veteran Joe Kopser narrowly raised more – $205,000 – but Smith outpaced him by about $700,000 in cash on hand. Neither Gonzales nor Cook rate this seat as competitive at this point, but the district has seen a flood of Democratic candidates. Party insiders in Washington are closely watching this race as a potential opportunity if a major wave takes shape.

While ads from super PACs have often dominated the television airwaves ahead of elections in recent years, candidate fundraising still matters because it illustrates enthusiasm — and candidates are able to book TV ads at a lower price than outside groups. 

Bragging rights are due for any challenger who raises more than an incumbent – many donors refuse to give to challengers. But the first quarter is often among a candidate’s strongest; it’s the low-hanging fruit and easiest ask. 

Additionally, some of this money will be spent by Democrats to survive their own primaries. The Houston-based Democratic primary for Culberson’s seat has the potential to turn into a financial arms race, with Democratic candidates spending hundreds of thousands to make it through both a primary election and expected runoff.

While some GOP incumbents may have posted comparatively weak second quarters, months and years of previous fundraising keep them on strong footing going forward.

“These Democrats are off to a great start, but this is a long game, and most of them will have to do even better,” said Gonzales.

Other noteworthy fundraising: 

  • Texas’ 32nd District: U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, is, much like Culberson, a new Democratic target. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton carried both of their districts in 2016 and Democrats are challenging both incumbents for the first time in years. Both primaries are crowded. Sessions outraised all of his rivals with a $399,000 haul, but former Clinton staffer Ed Meier came within spitting distance, with $344,000. Sessions, who formerly ran the national House GOP campaigns, has a fearsome $903,000 in cash on hand. 
  • Meier, who has $298,000 in cash on hand, reported personal donations from multiple top officials from Clinton’s world, the Obama administration and current and former officeholders: Washington attorney Robert B. Barnett, Georgetown professor Peter Edelman, former Biden chief of staff Ron Klain, former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, former campaign manager Robby Mook, longtime Clinton loyalist Minyon Moore, former Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, former Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines, former U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado, Clinton adviser Jake Sullivan, former Clinton aide Neera Tanden, former U.S. Rep. Ellen Tauscher of California and the leadership PAC of U.S. Sen. Mark Warner. 
  • Texas’ 8th District: U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady of The Woodlands raised a monster $842,000, with nearly $2.5 million in cash on hand. Many Texas Republicans anticipate he will face a primary challenge from the right. But as chairman of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, Brady is at the center of major policy debates and is, as a result, a magnet for money.
  • Texas’ 23rd District: U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, a Helotes Republican, holds the the most competitive seat in the state. Democrats have yet to announce a serious challenger for 2018, though former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, Democrat of Alpine, has said he’s considering running again against the man who has defeated him twice. Hurd spent the first half of the year building up his cash-on-hand sum to $736,000.

Disclosure: Joseph Kopser has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Texas Republican congressman calls on Trump to keep his kids out of White House

U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, in his House office in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, a Bryan Republican, called on President Trump to eject his children from the White House in light of continuing revelations over their activities in the 2016 presidential campaign.

“I’m going out on a limb here, but I would say that I think it would be in the President’s best interest if he removed all of his children from the White House,” Flores told East Texas affiliate KBTX Thursday morning. “Not only Donald Trump, but Ivanka and Jared Kushner.”

Flores was referring to Donald Trump, Jr., who posted on Twitter on Tuesday an email exchange from June 2016 in which he displayed an eagerness to collaborate with a Russian official to obtain damaging information on the Democratic nominee, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Trump Jr. does not formally work for the White House but Ivanka Trump and her husband, Kushner, are considered some of President Trump’s most influential advisers.

Kushner, Donald Trump, Jr. and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort ultimately met with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a woman identified as a “Russian government attorney” to discuss incriminating information about Clinton last year at Trump Tower in New York City.

“I do find issues with the meeting. It’s a meeting that should not have taken place,” Flores said of Trump Jr. “I think he thought he was looking out for his father’s best interest.”

Federal investigators are reportedly closely looking at Kushner, and there are increasing calls to revoke his security clearance.

Flores’ remarks are striking in a larger context. Since Congress returned from a Fourth of July recess period, many GOP members in both chambers have contorted themselves to avoid questions about Trump’s relationship with Russia.

A special counsel is investigating the matter, along with several ongoing investigations within the Congress. The more immediate matter is whether to impose new sanctions on Russia as punishment. The Senate passed such a measure last month by a near-unanimous vote.

The House, meanwhile, is mired in procedural stalemate with both parties – and chambers – blaming one another. White House officials have used that opportunity to lobby for watered down sanctions, according to multiple media reports.

Back in February, Flores called for sanctions as he reacted to the firing of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned after lying about conversations he had with Russian officials.

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Beto O’Rourke posts $2 million in fundraising in bid against Ted Cruz

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke announced his bid to run for U.S. Senate while speaking to supporters in El Paso on March 31, 2017. 

WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, raised “more than $2 million dollars” in his first quarter as a U.S. Senate candidate, according to a statement he released on Facebook Thursday morning.

That sum is quite large for a challenger to a sitting Senator – it surpasses the fundraising of some U.S. Senate Democratic incumbents in other states who are the subject of major party pushes to hold their seats in 2018.

Texas, in comparison, is far less of a priority for the national party because of its size, conservative makeup and the high cost of advertising in the state.

“We raised more than $2 million over the last three months, from more than 45,000 unique donations, most of them from Texas, every one of them that wanted to take back our state, take back the senate and take back this country,” O’Rourke said.

He added that none of that money came from “PACs or special interests or corporate donors.”

O’Rourke is the underdog in a race against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who has yet to announce his quarterly haul. The junior senator from Texas and former had a fierce fundraising machine during his unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, and acquired a massive conservative following.

O’Rourke has deftly built an online following in recent months and standing-room only crowds have shown up at his events across the state. But he is still mostly unknown and on his own in this race.

The challenger will need every dime he can raise to build up his name identification. And for now, it is unlikely the national party will help him in this effort as they focus resources on other states.

National Democrats say they will prioritize supporting the ten Senate incumbents who represent states President Donald Trump carried in 2018.

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U.S. Sens. Cornyn and Cruz sidestep questions about Trump and Russia

Republican U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz (l) and John Cornyn

WASHINGTON – Texas’ two U.S. Senators largely sidestepped questions Tuesday regarding the firestorm unleashed hours earlier when Donald Trump Jr., the son of the president, released emails showing he eagerly accepted overtures from the Russian government to help his father’s presidential campaign a year ago.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, brushed off the controversy with a line he’s repeated often: The question of Russian influence in the 2016 election doesn’t register back home.

“When I go back to Texas, nobody asks about Russia,” Cruz told reporters. “You know, I held town halls all over the state of Texas. You know how many questions I got on Russia? Zero.”

He further deflected questions about President Trump’s relationship with Russia by blaming former President Obama’s foreign policy. These comments came as the news of Donald Trump, Jr. emails was breaking.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, directed most of his public comments on Tuesday toward efforts to pass a health care overhaul bill, but he did suggest that Donald Trump Jr. will likely testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee, on which Cornyn serves.

Texas U.S. House members are scheduled to return to the Capitol Tuesday evening.

The younger Trump wrote on Twitter that he was posting his email conversations with a Russian lawyer in order to be “totally transparent,” once he was informed that the New York Times had copies of the correspondence. The correspondence makes clear that a senior Russian government official was offering the Trump campaign dirt on Hillary Clinton.

The president, for his part, issued a brief statement through his spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders: “My son is a high quality person and I applaud his transparency.”

The magnitude of the Russia news eclipsed health care, which Republican leaders had expected would be the headline issue of the week. Senate Republicans have struggled mightily to pass a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s 2010 health care law, only to see their first stab at the issue fall apart in recent weeks.

GOP senators intend to release a new bill on Thursday. That bill will come in two forms: one with a key amendment from Cruz and one without it. The bill will then head to the Congressional Budget Office, a non-partisan arm of Congress, for an economic analysis.

Cruz has pushed in recent weeks to allow insurers to sell plans that do not comply with Obamacare coverage requirements in a state as long as they were also selling at least one plan in the state that was Obamacare-compliant.

Also Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced he would keep the chamber in session into early August, which is typically the beginning of a traditional five-week recess period.

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Trump taps Kay Bailey Hutchison to serve as NATO ambassador

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has nominated former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison to be his ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — a job that could test the former Texas senator’s diplomacy skills.  

Hutchison, who represented Texas in the U.S. Senate from 1993 through 2013, will represent the nation in the increasingly fractured diplomatic alliance of the western world. Since her name was first floated for the role weeks ago, Trump has alienated political leaders of the three most powerful European countries: the United Kingdom, France and Germany. In recent weeks, the president taunted the mayor of London in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on that city. 

Further complicating Hutchison’s new assignment, during a trip to Europe in May, Trump wavered on supporting a long-standing agreement within NATO that if one country is attacked, all other countries will respond.

NATO was created after World War II to counter the expansion of Soviet power in Eastern Europe.

The potential weakening of NATO could also put Hutchison on the forefront of the increasingly strange U.S. diplomatic relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump administration officials.

Hutchison is a safe bet for confirmation, barring any unforeseen developments. She only recently retired from the chamber and had strong alliances within both her Republican conference and among some Democrats. 

Upon Senate confirmation, her new boss will be a fellow Texan, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon Mobil. The Tribune reported in May that Hutchison was a key player in preparing Tillerson for his confirmation hearing: She interrogated him in practice sessions, known in Washington as “murder boards.” 

Hutchison is the fourth prominent Texan to receive a Trump appointment. U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and Tillerson are confirmed Cabinet members. In early June, Trump appointed Dallas GOP bundler Ray Washburne to serve as president of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a government agency that directs private capital into the developing world.

Disclosure: Exxon Mobil Corp. has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here. The author of this article briefly worked for Kay Bailey Hutchison more than a decade ago.

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After shooting, Texas congressmen recall frantic scene, close calls

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady was not even on the field when a shooter opened fire on his colleagues Wednesday morning, but the event will probably haunt the Woodlands Republican for the rest of his life.  

Brady is the designated hitter for the Republican Congressional baseball team. He said he has that slot because his roommate, U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisana, beat him out for second base.

On Wednesday morning, as Brady took batting practice, the team’s coach, U.S. Rep. Roger Williams – a fellow Texan – offered Brady the chance to take some grounders at second base as the team’s back up. 

“I looked out at second base, where Steve and I play. I thought for a moment,” Brady recounted on Wednesday afternoon. “I told Roger, ‘Nah, I’m fine.'”

Brady said he then picked up his gear and left the field, leaving Scalise at second base.

“That was apparently a couple of minutes before the shooting,” he said.

Scalise went down just after Williams sent his first grounder toward second base.

Scalise was the lone Congressman shot, along with two Capitol Police officers and a Williams staffer named Zack Barth, who was released from the hospital later in the day.  

Brady spent the day at the hospital with Scalise and their two other roommates who also play on the team: U.S. Reps. John Shimkus of Illinois and Erik Paulsen of Minnesota. 

“It pains me to say this, coming from Texas, but Scalise is not just my close friend, but he’s a proud LSU tiger,” Brady said. “So he’s tough as nails and we are all praying for his recovery.” 

According to various news reports, Scalise dragged himself to a safer position as the mayhem continued around him at the suburban Virginia practice facility. Williams dove into the first base dugout. 

There, Williams and Zack Barth, a staffer of his who had been shot, clung to each other while U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona staunched Barth’s bleeding with his baseball belt. Barton said Williams also aimed to protect other teammates in the dugout as well as Barton’s young son.

U.S Rep. Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee screamed out the emergency call to 911, per Williams.  

“It seem like it went forever,” Williams later recounted. “We had no arms. All we had were bats.” 

The shooter was eventually fatally shot. Everyone else on the scene survived. Brady, like Williams, credits two factors: a locked gate that prevented the shooter from getting on the field, and thereby having a clear shot at players congregated near first base, and the valor of the U.S. Capitol Police force on the scene.

“The thin blue line held,” Williams said tearfully at a news conference later that day where he was on crutches.

But Brady added another chilling piece of luck: The team’s pitchers skipped Wednesday’s practice to avoid wearing out or injuring their arms ahead of Thursday night’s big game.

“On any other given day, our pitchers would have been throwing in the bullpen right where the shooter appeared,” Brady said. “They would have been trapped, but they’re all resting their arms.”

As Washington became consumed in a debate about whether the shooter had been motivated by partisan rhetoric, Barton, the GOP team manager, presented a united force Wednesday afternoon with the Democratic coach, U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania.

At a news conference, the pair stressed the humanizing impact of baseball, and the newfound importance of Thursday’s game’s at such a toxic moment in American politics. 

Doyle then made a gesture to emphasize that point. Besides baseball, members of the two parties do not normally socialize much. Even after the annual game, the two teams head to one of two haunts on the House side of Capitol Hill: the Democratic Club for the Democrats and the Capitol Hill Club for the Republicans.

But this year will be different. On Wednesday night, the eve of Thursday’s game, Doyle announced that the Democratic team had invited the GOP team to dinner at their club. 

When informed about the Democratic dinner invitation late Wednesday afternoon, Brady, who was still at the hospital waiting for more news on his roommate, went quiet for a moment. 

Then he finally spoke: “I’ll be darned. That’s good.” 

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U.S. House passes sweeping financial deregulation bill from Jeb Hensarling

WASHINGTON – The U.S. House passed on Thursday a massive bill designed to repeal many Obama-era Wall Street regulations. 

The new legislation, known as the Financial CHOICE Act, is the signature legislative effort of U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas, during his tenure as the House Financial Services Committee chairman. It passed the House on a mostly party-line vote of 233-186. The Texas delegation vote broke down along party lines, with the exception of U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Richardson, who was absent.

The bill dismantles much of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street overhaul, which was drafted in response to the 2008 financial crisis and became a signature accomplishment of the Obama administration. 

While the bill breezed through the House chamber, its path forward in the U.S. Senate is far less certain, where Democratic support would be needed to draw the necessary 60 votes. 

The Hensarling bill is an embrace of free-market principles over Dodd-Frank regulations that he and other Republicans argued inhibited economic growth. Hensarling is one of the staunchest believers in such policies and was a protege of former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who helped lead financial deregulation efforts in Congress in the 1990s. 

The Hensarling bill, if it passes becomes law, will: 

  • Repeal the “too big to fail” procedures designed to unwind large investment banks in the event of a meltdown, out of concern that their immediate closure would create instability in the financial industry.
  • Severely weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a government agency with a mission to protect consumers from predatory lenders. Earlier this year, Hensarling called the bureau “Orwellian.”  

Hensarling spent much of the afternoon managing the debate on the House floor and made his own remarks.

“There will be economic growth for all, bank bailouts for none, and we will have an America that is only limited by the size of its dreams,” Hensarling said. His bill had the strong backing of a close friend, U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan.

House Democratic leaders were unconvinced and bashed the bill in a news conference just prior to the vote.

Hensarling’s Democratic counterpart on theHouse Financial Services Committee, Maxine Waters of California, told reporters the bill would “pave the way back to the financial crisis.”

The Democratic whip, U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, forecasted that the bill would never make it to President Trump’s desk.

“I am sure it will not pass the United States Senate because it is the wrong choice,” he said.

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