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President Donald Trump’s feud with the NFL over players kneeling during the national anthem continued Monday, threatening to overshadow his domestic agenda as several legislative matters approach crucial milestones.

White House officials wanted to focus on policy this week, with time dedicated to health care, taxes, and a new science, technology, engineering and mathematics education initiative led by the president’s daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump.

What’s more, a senior North Korean official said Monday that Trump’s remarks last week before the United Nations General Assembly about destroying the isolated nation if it attacked America or its allies amounted to a declaration of war.

Two hours after those crisis-escalating remarks and after Trump’s oldest daughter briefed reporters during a call about spending at least $200 million annually on STEM education grants, the president’s press secretary was pelted with questions about his war of words with professional athletes, which his critics say have been tinged with racial buzzwords.

[On North Korea, Some Lawmakers See Scattershot Trump Approach]

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in her first appearance at the White House podium in 12 days, faced queries about Trump’s Friday night declaration that any NFL player — the majority of whom are African-American — who kneels during the national anthem should be fired or suspended.

She said Trump’s comments and subsequent weekend tweets knocking players were about being “for something” rather than “against anyone.”

It is “always appropriate for [the] president of the United States to defend the [American] flag” and troops who fought to defend it, she said.

Trump’s critics have said those same forces also fought to keep intact players’ First Amendment rights to voice what they see as social ills.

[Trump, Afghan President Contradict One Another on Situation There]

Sanders later added that it is “always appropriate for the president of this country to promote our flag and national anthem.”

During her opening remarks, she praised the “Little Rock Nine” on the 60th anniversary of nine African-American students, escorted by federal troops, desegregating the Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. Sanders called them “American heroes who courageously advanced racial equality.”

Trump’s feud likely will play well with his political base, as it did during his Friday night rally in Huntsville, Alabama.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired!’” the president said. “You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’”

It wasn't all about the NFL on Monday, though.

Sanders announced Trump will travel to Indianapolis on Wednesday to stump for the still-in-development GOP tax package.

[Republicans Head Into Alabama Senate Race Homestretch]

One day after, Marc Short, White House legislative affairs director, said he expected the Senate to vote Wednesday on a health care overhaul measure from GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Sanders would not say when White House officials anticipate it hitting the floor. “Whether or not there’s a vote, we sure hope so,” she said.

But even as other topics came up, the focus kept coming back to football, and whether the president was singling out black athletes, even as owners are pushing back on his criticism.

“The president is not talking about race,” she said near the end of the briefing, adding that Trump is standing up for those who have “pride” in their country.

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Sen. Susan Collins delivered the likely final blow to the GOP’s latest effort to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law.

“Sweeping reforms to our health care system and to Medicaid can’t be done well in a compressed time frame, especially when the actual bill is a moving target. Today, we find out that there is now a fourth version of the Graham-Cassidy proposal, which is as deeply flawed as the previous iterations,” Collins said. “The fact that a new version of this bill was released the very week we are supposed to vote compounds the problem.”

Collins became the third GOP vote in the “no” column, meaning Republicans cannot adopt the Graham-Cassidy measure even with the help of Vice President Mike Pence. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., are also opposed.

The Maine Republican had been leaning against the proposal from fellow GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana for days, but she withheld formal judgement until after a bare-bones analysis from the Congressional Budget Office on Monday showed millions more would be uninsured than under current law.

Collins also rejected the idea that Maine could be better off under the bill.

“The fact is, Maine still loses money under whichever version of the Graham-Cassidy bill we consider because the bills use what could be described as a ‘give with one hand, take with the other’ distribution model,” Collins said in a statement. “Huge Medicaid cuts down the road more than offset any short-term influx of money. But even more important, if Senators can adjust a funding formula over a weekend to help a single state, they could just as easily adjust that formula in the future to hurt that state.”

Cassidy had sought to convince Collins that the block grant approach would work to the benefit of Maine, particularly if she decided to run for governor.

He portrayed the bill as an opportunity for Collins, if she were to become governor, to essentially create a new insurance market for the state.

“There’s going to be a billion dollars for Mainers who are lower-income to have coverage which they do not now have,” he said during a CNN interview. “Susan Collins knows a smart governor who knows insurance well, as she does, could do a heck of a lot to provide coverage for the people of Maine.”

Collins has yet to announce whether she will run for governor in 2018.

But speaking later with reporters, it was clear just how fundamental the Maine Republican’s concerns really were, and how much she was in alignment with the unified Democratic opposition.

“Keep in mind when the Affordable Care Act was passed, the only change that it made in the Medicaid program was to allow states the option of expanding the Medicaid program to populations that were not covered. It did not make fundamental changes in an entitlement program that had been on the books for more than 50 years,” she said. “And yet that’s what each version of this bill did, and I just don’t think you do that without extensive review and analysis.”

Even before Collins announced her final decision, Republicans seemed resigned to looking ahead to the next battles, entertaining questions about whether the next round of budget reconciliation instructions should allow for simultaneous consideration of health law and a re-write of the tax code.

At one point, Republican Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota suggested that a return to the effort to repeal the health care law could wait for the fiscal 2019 budget reconciliation process, when presumably there could be a new crop of senators elected in the 2018 mid-terms.

Thune said that the chances for any change in course this week were slim.

“It would involve somebody having to be in a different place than they are today,” he said.

McCain, who announced Friday that his concerns about the truncated process would put him solidly against the Graham-Cassidy measure this week, had little interest in another partisan effort through budget reconciliation.

“We could avoid all that if we would sit down together and come up with a bipartisan solution, which would not give us 50 votes, it would give us 70 or 80 votes,” McCain told reporters. “I know for a fact, no matter what anybody else will tell you, that Patty Murray and Lamar Alexander can, and would like, to work together.”

The talks between Alexander and Murray had seemed promising, but they were jettisoned with the GOP move toward the Graham-Cassidy effort to largely devolve health insurance to the states.

McCain was speaking shortly before Collins made her statement, but he was not expecting to watch the scheduled Monday evening debate on CNN featuring Cassidy and Graham along with Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar.

“I’ll be watching the Cowboys and Cardinals,” McCain said of the Monday Night Football matchup between his homestate Arizona Cardinals and the Dallas Cowboys. “But I will record that for the archives.”

Jennifer Shutt and Ryan McCrimmon contributed to this report.

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Maybe we have finally established a lasting legislative principle for both parties: Don’t ever again try to pass major health care legislation using parliamentary gimmicks to avoid a filibuster.

The Democrats, under Barack Obama, followed this route in 2010 after they lost their filibuster-proof Senate majority when Republican Scott Brown unexpectedly won the special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. As a result, final tinkering and technical improvements could not be made in the Obamacare legislation using a House-Senate conference.

What the Senate Republicans have been attempting is far worse. Faced with the expiration of the budget resolution at the end of the month, they have been trying to ram through the Senate a ramshackle bill (named after Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy) that would upend the health care system without hearings or a full analysis from the Congressional Budget Office.

According to the Republicans, Graham-Cassidy would return health care decisions to the states and spawn experimentation.

According to virtually everyone else (including policy experts, insurance companies and state Medicaid officials), the legislation would slash Medicaid spending, jeopardize the protections for those with pre-existing conditions, trim benefits and force each state to concoct a new health care system on an unworkable two-year timetable.

Graham-Cassidy is so ungainly that Iowa’s Charles E. Grassley was forced to admit in a telephone press conference with home state reporters, “I could maybe give you 10 reasons why this bill shouldn’t be considered. But Republicans campaigned on this so often that you have a responsibility to carry out what you said in the campaign. That’s pretty much as much of a reason as the substance of the bill.”

That was on par with the argument that Nebraska Republican Sen. Roman Hruska once used to defend a dubious Nixon-era Supreme Court nominee named G. Harrold Carswell: “Even if he was mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance?”

Graham-Cassidy is Carswell in legislative guise.

And now the bill is likely to fade away as fast as Carswell’s Supreme Court career, thanks to John McCain. In a repeat demonstration that there are still a handful of senators who can utter the phrase “the world’s greatest deliberative body” without giggling, McCain Friday afternoon all but assured the defeat of Graham-Cassidy by announcing his opposition.

McCain killed an earlier “repeal and not replace” GOP health care bill in July with a dramatic late night “no” vote. This time he more routinely issued a statement stating that he could not support any health care bill without knowing “how much it will cost, how it will affect insurance premiums, and how many people will be helped or hurt by it.”

Privately, most members of the dwindling rational wing of the Republican Party are grateful to McCain for saving them from Mitch McConnell’s folly. Not only does it protect the GOP from the consequences of hastily drafted and ill-considered legislation, but it also frees the Republicans to concentrate on their unstinting enthusiasm for bigger and better tax cuts.

In the only politically astute move that Senate Republicans have pulled off since they embarked on their crusade to repeal Obamacare, GOP leaders are moving toward a budget resolution with room for a $1.5 trillion tax cut.

This effort to claim that economic growth will turn a deficit into a surplus will enrage the balanced-budget brigades. But such fiscal sleight of hand is probably the only way that congressional Republicans can deliver a middle-class tax cut.

The billionaires who fill the Trump administration and control major GOP super PACs may be obsessed with corporate tax rates and trickle-down stimulus for the wealthy. But the only thing that a Republican Congress has the potential to deliver before the 2018 elections that a family earning, say, $90,000 yearly might notice is a four-digit reduction in the household tax bill.

Democrats, relieved by what looks like another Perils-of-Pauline rescue of Obamacare, are entering the first autumn of the Trump years with jaunty expressions on their faces. First the president cut a three-month budget-and-debt-ceiling deal with Charles E. Schumer and Nancy Pelosi — and now McConnell has once again played Charlie Brown with the football on Obamacare.

But the Democrats should not feel too smug about their own health care sense of superiority.

Before McCain torpedoed Graham-Cassidy, CNN’s planned Monday night tag-team health care debate seemed likely to garner surprisingly high ratings for a prime-time policy discussion. The 90-minute town hall is slated to pit Graham and Cassidy against independent socialist Bernie Sanders and Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar.

The Republican strategy has been to portray Sanders’ Medicare-for-all proposal as the official position of the Democratic Party. Even though Klobuchar — who is running for re-election in 2018 — has not endorsed the plan, Sanders is apt to grab the TV spotlight as he talks about the benefits of universal health care while skirting all discussions of the high taxes needed to pay for it.

Senate Democrats mulling the 2020 presidential race like Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris have endorsed Sanders’ legislation. But ambitious Democrats on the ballot in 2018 — including Sherrod Brown in Ohio and Christopher S. Murphy in Connecticut — have proven far more cautious about embracing legislation that would effectively end employer-paid health insurance.

Of course, overshadowing the CNN debate is McCain’s political courage as the indomitable “no” man. But McCain aside, the question remains: Why do congressional Republicans always need to be saved from themselves?

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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Lobbyist Matt Mika, who is recovering from being shot during the Republican’s baseball practice in June, threw out the first pitch at the Detroit Tigers’ game on Sunday.

Republican Whip Steve Scalise retweeted a video of the pitch the team posted on its Facebook page and wrote, “Proud of my friend Matt Mika and looking forward to seeing him back on the ball field.”

Scalise is still recovering from his wounds, undergoing inpatient rehabilitation. No date for his return to the Hill has been announced.

Proud of my friend Matt Mika and looking forward to seeing him back on the ball field. https://t.co/VezTcTKoAW

Mika acknowledged the support he has gotten since the shooting in an interview with Detroit TV station WXYZ.

“My ribs are still recovering. My left hand, I don’t have feeling yet in my hand,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing to find out how many care about you, care about the incident and just want you to heal.”

The Michigan native is a former GOP Hill staffer and had helped out with the congressional baseball team for years. He is the government relations director for Tysons Food in its Washington office.

[Shooting Victims Come from All Walks of Hill Life]

Two others who were shot that day, Capitol Police special agents David Bailey and Crystal Griner, threw out first pitches at the Congressional Baseball Game and the Congressional Women’s Softball Game, respectively.

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President Donald Trump on Friday tweeted he believed Facebook’s intent to turn Kremlin-linked ads over to congressional committees investigating influence over the 2016 presidential election to be part of what he considered the “Russia hoax.”

The social media site’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said Thursday it would turn over 3,000 Russia-linked ads after two weeks on the defensive amid growing pressure from Congress for it to expose Russian propaganda in which fictional people posed as American activists, The New York Times reported.

“The Russia hoax continues, now it’s ads on Facebook,” Trump tweeted before turning his attention to his Democratic rival. “What about the totally biased and dishonest Media coverage in favor of Crooked Hillary?”

The president went on to lambaste what he often calls the “Fake News Media,” which he believed had “the greatest influence over our election.”

The greatest influence over our election was the Fake News Media "screaming" for Crooked Hillary Clinton. Next, she was a bad candidate!

Trump also spent the morning taking swipes at other rivals — namely North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who the president called “a madman” the same week he referred to Kim as “Rocket Man” during an address to the United Nations.

Trump and Kim have repeatedly exchanged heated threats in recent months but Trump’s tweet came after Kim, in a rare statement, called the president a “deranged” individual who was “a rogue and a gangster fond of playing with fire,” The Associated Press reported.

The president also had words Friday morning for Sen. Rand Paul, who has indicated he could cast a “no” vote on the latest iteration of a bill that would repeal and replace the 2010 health care law.

Trump said any GOP member who did not support the bill would be known on the campaign trail as “the Republican who saved ObamaCare.”

Rand Paul, or whoever votes against Hcare Bill, will forever (future political campaigns) be known as "the Republican who saved ObamaCare."

About an hour later, Paul, a Kentucky Republican, took to his own Twitter account to defend his stance.

“No one is more opposed to Obamacare than I am, and I’ve voted multiple times for repeal,” Paul said. “The current bill isn’t repeal.”

I won't vote for Obamacare Lite that keeps 90% of the taxes & spending just so some people can claim credit for something that didn't happen

The Senate intends to bring to the floor next week another iteration of a health care bill, this time sponsored by Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.

The measure would provide block grant funding to states and repeal parts of the law, but keep in place most of the taxes that were created with it.

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Word on the Hill: Busy Week

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Republican senators face the prospect of retreating from their previous public stances in order to support fast-moving legislation that would significantly overhaul the U.S. health care system.

Concerns about the impact on people suffering from opioid addiction, drastic cuts to Medicaid and the lack of robust analysis from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office appear to have vanished as the GOP hopes to advance a bill to repeal the 2010 health law before the fast-track budget reconciliation mechanism they are using expires on Sept. 30.

Lawmakers say any concerns are addressed by the state flexibility included in the proposal from Sens. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Dean Heller of Nevada.

“We have a real problem with [opioid abuse] in our state, obviously, which is why I’ve talked a lot about it,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia said. “What our state would find in a Graham-Cassidy situation would be the flexibility to put an emphasis on that and the dollars behind it as well.”

Capito is one of several lawmakers who expressed serious concerns about prior GOP repeal proposals that would have gutted federal Medicaid funding. Under the Graham-Cassidy model, federal money for the entitlement program would drop by billions of dollars over the next 10 years, according to an analysis by consulting firm Avalere Health.

Capito also worked alongside Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and others to add billions more in funding for opioid treatment into previous versions of the repeal legislation. No similar measure is currently included in the Graham-Cassidy bill.

Portman, whose state has been one of the hardest hit by the opioid problem, struck a tone similar to Capito’s.

“Giving the states more flexibility is something I generally have been supportive of,” he told USA Today.

Ohio’s governor appears to disagree.

Graham/Cassidy/Heller/Johnson eliminates the guardrails that protect some of the most vulnerable among us. 2/

While the bill would give states significant leeway to spend federal health care money, many would have to grapple with notable funding cuts over the next 10 years, according to several outside analyses.

By the same token, other states — namely Republican-run states that did not expand Medicaid under the 2010 health care law — would see a partial influx in money from the government. But experts have questioned whether some would be able to effectively manage the increased funding.

Democrats argue that Republicans are asking most states to do more with less, and say the legislation would lead to a significant loss of insurance coverage and increased health care costs for the most vulnerable.

That claim will not be verified or refuted by the CBO before a vote. The office said earlier this week that a full analysis of the proposal would not be available for several weeks.

Voting without that report is something the bill’s sponsor previously criticized.

A bill -- finalized yesterday, has not been scored, amendments not allowed, and 3 hours final debate -- should be viewed with caution.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this article.

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Sen. Chris Van Hollen believes Democrats will invest in their candidate in the Alabama special election to fill the remaining term of former Sen. Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump’s attorney general.

And as the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which will fight to retain current and capture new Senate seats in 2018, Van Hollen’s word carries considerable weight.

No one in his party “is kidding themselves how tough politically Alabama has been” for Democrats, Van Hollen, the freshman senator from Maryland who previously served seven terms in the House, told ABC News’ “Powerhouse Politics” podcast Wednesday.

“We all know it’s Alabama. That’s been tough territory for Democrats. … On the other hand, we have a terrific candidate.”

Victory is a long shot for Democratic candidate Doug Jones, the U.S. attorney who gained acclaim for successfully prosecuting two suspects in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls. Jones secured his party’s nomination by nearly a 50-point margin over his closest opponent in the August primary.

An Alabama Democrat hasn’t served in the Senate for 20 years. And President Trump carried the state by 28 points last November.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Likely Republican, a downgrade from its previous “Solid Republican” status.

If former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore beats incumbent Sen. Luther Strange in the primary runoff on Tuesday, that “creates the potential for a Democratic upset,” Gonzales wrote in August.

Strange has the backing of the Republican establishment, including Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Moore has received an endorsement from Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina and has an advantage in most public polls ahead of the vote.

The runoff between Strange and Moore has lit the fuse on a “full-blown Republican civil, political war” in the state, Van Hollen said.

“I think Doug Jones is going to energize a lot of voters to come out, and I’m not sure, after a bitter Republican primary, that’s going to be the case on the Republican side,” he continued, adding, “Republicans have just gone through months of beating the hell out of each other.”

The special election will be held Dec. 12.

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Republican hopes for moving an ambitious tax package in a closely divided Senate may hinge on a number of incumbents on the ballot, including Luther Strange of Alabama, who faces a tough primary runoff on Sept. 26.

The vulnerability of Republican incumbents like Strange underscores the challenges facing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as he tries to hold together at least 50 votes in his 52-member conference to pass a partisan tax plan under a filibuster-proof reconciliation bill.

Senior Republicans praise Strange, appointed in February to the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when he became attorney general, as a team player. They voice doubts about his primary rival Roy Moore, a former state Supreme Court chief justice, in potentially crucial floor showdowns on taxes and other issues.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn pointed to Moore’s record of being twice removed by a judicial ethics panel in Alabama for defying federal court orders: once in 2003 for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from a state building and again last year for urging probate judges to deny marriage licenses to gay couples.

“Getting thrown off the Supreme Court of your state twice I don’t think is a credential that commends you for membership in the United States Senate,” said Cornyn, a former Texas Supreme Court justice.

Of the prospect for more GOP primary challengers like Moore during the 2018 midterm elections, Cornyn said, “We’ve seen that sort of thing happen before. And it’s not a pretty picture.”

Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, said a tough political environment would ensure an uphill slog for a GOP tax package.

“I would put the probability of their completing a tax bill at about 30 percent. It is arguably the most complex public policy area, and touches the largest number of interest groups of any issue,” Baker said.

President Donald Trump plans to campaign for Strange in Alabama on Friday, and has recorded a robocall telling voters that Strange is “going to get the tax cuts for us.” On the other side, Moore has criticized McConnell as a creature of the “Washington swamp” and accused the top Republican of running a “slime machine” that fails to reach conservative goals.

The stalled push to uproot the 2010 health care law has angered Republican conservatives and energized primary challengers such as Moore, who are urging GOP voters to hold incumbents like Strange accountable for not delivering legislative victories.

Since Alabama is a GOP stronghold, the winner of the runoff will be the favorite in the special general election against Democrat Doug Jones on Dec. 12 and will serve the remainder of Sessions’ term. The Alabama Senate seat would be up again in 2020.

Steven L. Taylor, a political scientist at Troy University, said Moore or Strange would be likely to weigh home-state concerns first in deciding on components of a GOP tax package.

“The reality is that any tax vote is going to affect different constituencies in different ways. If you have a revenue-neutral bill, that by definition will make the vote difficult. For example, if there’s a reduction in the mortgage interest deduction to pay for a lower corporate rate, that would be difficult,” Taylor said.

Baker believes the GOP base will play a role in the tax debate.

“I would be very astonished if they came up with something heavily in favor of the top 1 percent,” he said about Republicans crafting a tax package. “The party base is really riled up by populists. I don’t think that would be acceptable.”

The Alabama runoff could provide a preview of what lies ahead next year for the eight Senate Republicans up for re-election. Some Trump allies, including former White House strategist Steve Bannon, are considering whether to recruit or assist GOP candidates to the right of incumbents such as Bob Corker of Tennessee, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Dean Heller of Nevada and Roger Wicker of Mississippi next year.

Corker, who has questioned Trump’s competence for the presidency, has said he is undecided about running for another term.

Earlier this summer, Corker helped lead an effort to remove a proposal that would have repealed the 3.8 percent net investment tax for wealthy taxpayers from the Republican bill to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law. Now, the Budget Committee member is making the case for a revenue-neutral tax package, instead of pursuing one that would add to the deficit.

“I’m willing to give them some headroom here on the way things are scored and some of the things that we go through here. But, at the end, I want to make sure myself that it’s going to generate growth, we have broadened the base and, importantly to me, we are not going to do something that is going to increase our deficit,” Corker said Tuesday about a tax bill.

Heller, a Finance Committee member, has voiced support for exploring a bipartisan tax accord, but made clear he would work with party leaders if they opt to move a GOP-only tax plan.

“I’m going to guess that at the end of the day, it’s going to be a partisan exercise,” the Nevada Republican said.

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McConnell Opens Door to Health Care Vote Next Week

By Mary Ellen McIntire
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