Impeachment fever swamps gun control efforts

Rep. Gabby Giffords, speaks during a news conference to announce the introduction of bipartisan legislation to expand background checks for sales and transfers of firearms, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

After back-to-back mass shootings in Ohio and Texas this summer, gun control burst back on the scene as a major political issue for Democrats. Now it risks taking a back seat as impeachment fever overtakes Washington.

Gun control advocates are determined to prevent that from happening.

Ten White House hopefuls will be in Las Vegas for a forum on gun policy on Wednesday, almost two years to the day after a gunman killed 58 people at a country music festival on the Las Vegas Strip in the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. The event is being hosted by MSNBC, March for Our Lives and Giffords, the advocacy organization set up by former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was shot and gravely wounded during a constituent meeting in 2011.

The forum is an effort to keep gun violence front and center of the debate and gives 2020 presidential candidates a chance to showcase their plans to combat the epidemic. Polls show that a majority of Americans favor stricter gun laws, while even more support specific proposals like universal background checks. But negotiations between President Donald Trump’s administration and lawmakers have halted over background checks legislation, an effort that faced long odds even before the impeachment inquiry began.

“Impeachment sucks everything out of the room. Certainly it’s the focus of Trump’s attention,” said Jack Citrin, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of California-Berkeley. “If you need to reach some kind of bipartisan agreement and one party is determined to throw the president out of office, rightly or wrongly, it’s a little hard to see how that builds the kind of goodwill that’s necessary on this or any other issue.”

Ariel Hobbs, a 21-year-old student organizer with March for Our Lives in Houston, said her group wants “to hear from the candidates that they are taking this seriously and they understand they can no longer ignore America’s gun violence epidemic.” She doesn’t think the impeachment inquiry is a reason for lawmakers to stop their push for a bipartisan solution.

The 10 candidates slated to participate in the forum are former Vice President Joe Biden; New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; former Obama Housing Secretary Julián Castro; California Sen. Kamala Harris; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar; former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren; and businessman Andrew Yang.

O’Rourke recast his campaign around gun control after the August shooting in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, where a gunman targeting Hispanics killed 22 people. O’Rourke even vowed to ban assault weapons, saying at a debate in Houston in September, “Hell, yes, we’re gonna take your AR-15, your AK-47, and we’re not going to allow it to be used against your fellow Americans anymore.”

One expert said he doesn’t see a downside for O’Rourke or any of his fellow presidential candidates to talk about impeachment alongside other issues like gun control.

“If (O’Rourke) is pointing out that because of impeachment, the president has decided not to work at all on an issue that involves people’s lives, he could make the argument if he wanted that this is itself an impeachable offense,” said Michael Green, a history professor at the University of Las Vegas-Nevada focused on state and national politics. “If you are trying to get your base, your base probably does not mind the idea of impeachment.”

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut has been leading negotiations with the White House on a background checks deal and will attend the forum. The conversations have gone silent in the past two weeks, but he’s told the White House that he’s still willing to talk. Trump himself has accused Democrats of ignoring other issues to focus on impeachment.

“The Democrats are so focused on hurting the Republican Party and the President that they are unable to get anything done because of it, including legislation on gun safety, lowering of prescription drug prices, infrastructure, etc. So bad for our Country!” he tweeted Sept. 24.

Murphy says reaching consensus may still be possible.

“I think that the president is going to have some pressure to show that impeachment isn’t consuming him, and a breakthrough on a background checks deal that nobody thought was possible would probably be a pretty good tonic for the administration right now,” he said.

While his fellow Democrats may not be keen on the idea of giving Trump a win, Murphy said he’ll keep pushing because gun control remains top of mind for voters.

“Our party needs to find mechanisms to keep our focus on the issues that matter to voters, and guns is right at the top of that list,” he said. “The forum is an effort to try to keep the primary dialogue focused on an issue that is absolutely going to be top of mind for swing voters.”

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Pelosi finally ready to impeach Trump

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., joins a rally of organized labor to show support for union workers, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Accepting the inevitable and under pressure from her Democratic colleagues, Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is set Tuesday to announce a formal impeachment inquiry into the corrupt practices of president Donald Trump.“As soon as we have the facts, we’re ready. Now that we have the facts, we’re ready,” Pelosi said at a forum hosted by The Atlantic Tuesday. “For later today.”

Her belated decision to investigate the increasing corrupt practices of Trump comes as a dozen more Democratic members of Congress decided to support impeachment in just the last day.

Trump, struggling to try and stay ahead of the rapidly growing scandal around his use of foreign aid to convince the government of Ukraine to launch an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, the leading contender for the Democratic nomination to oppose him in the 2020 election, announced Tuesday that he will release the full transcript of his phone call with the President of Ukraine, where a probe of Biden was discussed.

Pelosi huddled with the Democratic caucus of the House of Representatives Tuesday to discuss her plans in an investigation of Trump and the growing calls for impeachment.

Among her possible approaches could be establishment of a special panel to handle the impeachment inquiry instead of leaving it with the House Judiciary Committee, which is handling the current push.

Since becoming Speaker, Pelosi has refused an outright endorsement of impeachment but pressure within the party’s liberal base and most of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates has increased dramatically in recent weeks.

The few Democrats who remain wary worry that impeachment would stall in the GOP controlled Senate and could become a political liability that threatens the gains in the 2018 election that gave Democrats control of the House.

While some Republican members of Congress privately express “reservations” about Trump’s latest actions, none have come out publicly in favor of impeachment in the House or Senate.

Some Democrats oppose creation of a special panel, saying they think the House Judiciary has taken the lead and should remain there.

“Judiciary has been investigating & putting the pieces together for months,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted Tuesday. “Impeachment belongs there. We must honor jurisdiction, historical precedent, & work done + allow Judiciary to move forward.”

Developing story…

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Pelosi offers plan to cut drug prices for seniors

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Putting her stamp on the health care issue that worries consumers the most, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday unveiled an ambitious plan to lower drug prices for seniors on Medicare and younger people with private insurance.

Pelosi, D-Calif., would empower Medicare to negotiate prices for up to 250 of the costliest drugs, including insulin. Pharmaceutical companies that refuse to negotiate could face steep penalties. Additionally, drugmakers that hike prices beyond inflation would have to pay rebates to Medicare.

The plan would limit copays for seniors covered by Medicare’s “Part D” prescription drug program to $2,000. And Medicare-negotiated prices would be available to other buyers, such as employer health plans.

The plan is Pelosi’s marker in what’s shaping up as a high-stakes negotiation to determine if a drug pricing compromise can pass Congress this year or if Democrats and Republicans will take their differences into the 2020 elections.

The sweeping legislation leans left politically and appears to be tailor-made for Pelosi’s Democratic majority in the House. But in a signal that Pelosi wants a deal, it also incorporates ideas from the Trump administration and from Republican and Democratic senators.

A group of House Republicans led by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., quickly accused Pelosi of putting “politics over progress,” calling her plan “a socialist proposal to appease her most extreme members.”

Nonetheless, Americans across party lines say lowering prescription drug costs should be a top priority for Congress this year. Overall, 70 percent deemed that a top priority in a poll earlier this month from the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.

President Donald Trump appears eager to sign prescription drug legislation and lower costs, but most Republicans oppose the Medicare negotiations that are the centerpiece of Pelosi’s plan. The 2003 law that created Medicare’s prescription drug benefit barred the program from negotiating prices, a restriction Democrats have long opposed.

As a candidate, Trump backed Medicare negotiations. But after Trump was elected president, he seemed to revert to the traditional Republican position that price negotiations are best left to private players like insurance companies.

With tens of billions of dollars in profits at stake, drugmakers are determined to block any major changes to payment policies. But the industry’s powerful lobbying group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, has been taking fire from all sides, from liberal Democrats to pro-business Republicans. Trump once accused drug companies of “getting away with murder.”

Pelosi’s proposal would:

— Authorize Medicare to negotiate prices for up to 250 drugs with the greatest total cost to the program and the U.S. health care system. That includes pharmacy drugs covered through the popular “Part D” prescription benefit, along with “Part B” medications dispensed in doctors’ offices, which covers many cancer drugs. Medicare would negotiate for as many drugs as possible, but no fewer than 25 annually. The maximum price would be determined using a blend of international prices, similar to a more limited proposal from the Trump administration. Insulin would be included. Drug companies that balk at making a deal would face penalties that start at 65% of sales for the drug at issue, and would escalate if they hold out.

— Require drugmakers to pay rebates to Medicare if they hike their prices beyond the increase in inflation. That idea resembles a bipartisan plan from Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore. The senators’ proposal has already cleared a key committee, with Trump’s support. But many Senate Republicans oppose inflation rebates, and it’s unclear what Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., plans to do next.

— Limit what seniors pay out of pocket for their medications to $2,000 a year. Currently, Medicare’s pharmacy benefit has no cap on copays, and the advent of drugs costing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year has left some seniors saddled with bills that rival a mortgage payment. An out-of-pocket limit also is part of the Grassley-Wyden bill, and the idea also is backed by the Trump administration.

Pelosi’s office says her plan is to have the legislation introduced and moved through House committees to a vote on the floor. If compromise can be reached among House Democrats, the Trump White House and enough GOP lawmakers, a drug pricing package could be added to year-end budget legislation.

Movement in Congress comes at a time when criticism of the industry — from Trump and lawmakers of both parties — appears to be having an effect on prices.

The Commerce Department’s inflation index for prescription drug prices has declined in seven of the last eight months, which is highly unusual. That index includes lower-cost generic drugs.

The story is different for brand name drugs, however. A recent analysis by The Associated Press shows that on average prices are still going up but at a slower pace. Costly brand-name drugs can translate to steep copays for insured patients.

The AP analysis found that in the first seven months of 2019, drugmakers raised list prices for brand name medicines by a median, or midpoint, of 5%.

That does reflect a slowdown. Prices were going up 9% or 10% over those months the prior four years.

But there were 37 price increases for every decrease in the first seven months of 2019.

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Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed to this report.
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Is Congress ready to avert government shutdown?

The Capitol (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The House is set to pass a government-wide temporary spending bill to prevent a federal shutdown when the budget year ends Sept. 30.

The bipartisan measure would give lawmakers until the Thanksgiving break to pass and negotiate $1.4 trillion worth of annual agency spending bills. Those bills would fill in the details of this summer’s budget and debt agreement between President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Thursday’s House vote comes as the Republican-controlled Senate struggles to process its versions of the follow-up spending bills amid partisan skirmishing over the boundaries of the budget agreement and Trump’s moves to pay for the U.S.-Mexico border fence without approval by Congress.

The Senate is likely to adopt the stopgap bill with plenty of time before the deadline.

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