Gonzales

Rating Change: Toomey to Tossup

By Nathan L. Gonzales
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Policy

Louisiana Flood Relief May Not Require Extra Federal Spending

President Barack Obama makes a highly anticipated visit to flood-ravaged Louisiana on Tuesday with the federal government already busy repairing damage to a large swath of the state and drawing down disaster relief funds.

It appears unlikely that the flood recovery will require additional emergency spending by Congress to address the needs of victims, federal officials say.

A Federal Emergency Management Agency official expressed confidence in a statement that sufficient dollars are in place. “Congress has appropriated the necessary funding to address disasters for this fiscal year. FEMA has enough funding to address response and recovery support to Louisiana,” said Rafael Lemaitre, the agency's director of public affairs.

Still, the devastation from the second major disaster declared in the state this year raises questions about how quickly and efficiently state and federal government officials will be able to respond. At least 60,733 homes have been damaged by floods this month, according to preliminary estimates provided by affected parishes to the Louisiana Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness. According to most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 41 percent of the state’s residents live in parishes affected by the August floods.

Following this month’s rains, 20 parishes — analogous to counties in other states — were declared federal disaster areas. That comes after floods in March resulted in a federal disaster declaration for 36 of the state’s 64 parishes. Most of the overlap from the two events was in a southeastern portion of the state. Nearly the entire state has experienced some major flooding, FEMA maps show.

More than 106,000 Louisianians have registered for FEMA assistance, and more than $55 million in disaster relief funding has been approved to date for the August floods. Additionally, more than 25,000 flood insurance policyholders have submitted claims related to the event.

There’s still a significant store of funds to tap for recovery efforts. FEMA as of Friday said it still had $3.4 billion in its Disaster Relief Fund for fiscal 2016. The agency had a carryover balance of $5.3 billion in the fund from fiscal 2015. In addition, Congress appropriated nearly $7.4 billion for fiscal 2016 to the fund. That meant FEMA began fiscal 2016 with roughly $12 billion in the fund.

Ralph Abraham, R-La., whose 5th District was heavily affected, said he’s willing to fight for more money if there’s a need. But damage assessments aren’t finished, making it difficult to estimate whether additional funds will be in order.

“I am going to look to the local and state leaders as well as federal budget officials for guidance on flood recovery funds. If they tell me we need more money, I’m prepared to fight for it to get our people what they need,” Abraham said in a statement Friday.

“People in nearly every parish I represent have experienced flooding, and for some this is their second flood this year,” he added.

[Flint Aid Deal Slows Down Energy Bill]

On Monday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest called the Obama administration's response to devastating flooding in Louisiana "much more effective and much more impactful" than the Bush administration's immediate response to Hurricane Katrina 11 years ago. He said "the most significant difference" was that Louisiana Republicans and Democrats are praising the federal reaction this time.

Should additional disaster relief funds be needed, lawmakers could increase spending without breaking spending caps in the 2015 budget agreement. That’s because FEMA disaster relief spending enjoys special treatment under budget law.

Congress still has room to appropriate more funding to address disasters in fiscal 2016, according to the latest Office of Management and Budget report, released Friday. The limit on such disaster funding for fiscal 2016 is $14.1 billion under caps that were set by the 2011 budget law, meaning nearly $7 billion more could be appropriated.

If more were needed, it could be sought as emergency funding outside the Stafford Act (PL 100-707), which governs how the U.S. responds to disasters. OMB also estimated Congress would be able to appropriate up to $8.6 billion for disaster relief in fiscal 2017. The number is lower because of the high carryover balance that boosted fiscal 2016 funds.

Louisiana lawmakers indicated damage will be significant in an Aug. 14 letter expressing support for Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ request for a federal major disaster declaration, which became effective that day. Storms began Aug. 11, according to the disaster declaration.

The letter, signed by Republican Sens. David Vitter and Bill Cassidy and Reps. Steve Scalise, Charles Boustany Jr., John Fleming, Cedric L. Richmond, Garret Graves and Abraham noted that in some areas flood waters exceeded the 500-year estimate.

[A Decade After Katrina, Two New Orleans Lawmakers Look Back]

White House Deputy Press Secretary Jen Friedman said on Thursday “FEMA has been on the ground in the region since before the flooding began and continues to mobilize across the state to respond to emergency needs and to assist with recovery, including getting people into temporary housing.” Kurt Pickering, FEMA spokesman, said Monday the agency has done most of the damage assessment in cooperation with state and local officials, though more assessments are underway.

But disaster aid isn’t the only funding stream that will be scrutinized as Louisiana continues cleanup. Flood insurance will play a major role and could become a hot topic with lawmakers in Washington as homeowners look for help. The latest authorization for the National Flood Insurance Program was tacked on to the 2012 surface transportation bill and expires September 30, 2017.

The state has already tried to smooth potential issues with flood insurance by putting emergency measures in place Friday to give policyholders more time to comply with their policy provisions. And on Monday, FEMA announced it would extend the grace period to 120 days for homeowners to renew certain flood insurance policies who are in the 20 parishes declared disaster areas following this month’s floods.

It’s possible Louisiana’s water woes could place a spotlight on efforts to overhaul the flood program, which has been on the Government Accountability Office’s “High Risk List” since 2006. The program currently owes $23 billion to the U.S. Treasury, according to a June report. The GAO stated in a 2015 report that current losses generated by the program as well as the potential for future losses “have created substantial financial exposure for the federal government.”

[Landrieu: Flood Insurance Decided Florida's Special Election]

But many people affected aren’t covered by the flood insurance program because they did not apply for coverage. Only homes in designated high-risk areas must have flood insurance to qualify for federally-regulated mortgages.

Former Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., welcomed FEMA's assessment that there is enough funding in the disaster relief account. But she expressed concern about residents who don’t have flood insurance whose homes were devastated. More moisture is forecast to barrel through the state this week.

“We do have to hope that there’s not another major catastrophe that hits and that we can be effective and efficient in the way we spend the money,” Landrieu said.

John T. Bennett and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.

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A Republican-aligned outside group is spending $1 million on a new TV ad that touts Sen. Patrick J. Toomey's efforts to give police officers access to military-style equipment.

The ad from One Nation, a nonprofit organization linked to GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, echoes the emphatically pro-police message Toomey has used during his battleground Pennsylvania Senate race. The first-term lawmaker is locked in a tight contest against Democrat Katie McGinty.

The minute-long spot opens with audio of an emergency phone call, with someone yelling: "Shots fired! Officer down!"

"The police who protect us have dangerous jobs," a narrator says later, while footage of a man firing a gun into a police vehicle is shown. "Facing well-armed terrorists and shooters, our police need Kevlar and armored vehicles to keep us safe."

Toomey, the ad then explains, has tried to give police officers the necessary safety equipment.

The ad will run Aug. 23 through Sept. 5 only in the Philadelphia media market, according to a spokesman for One Nation. The buy is worth $1.1 million.

The emphasis on law and order from Toomey and his allies has stuck out at a time when many of his Republican colleagues are more inclined to talk about the opioid crisis or foreign policy. To an unusual degree, the Pennsylvania Republican has sought to highlight his support of police officers in and out of state.

[Toomey's Tough Talk on Cops: Good or Bad Idea?]

It's an effort to win over moderate-leaning voters, especially in the Philadelphia suburbs, who might be worried about an uptick in crime or police violence.

But such an effort also mirrors the message of the GOP presidential nominee, Donald Trump. Democrats argue that the overlap is undercutting Toomey's ability to run as a distinct candidate from Trump, who polls show is significantly trailing Hillary Clinton in the Keystone State.

Debate over whether police officers should have access to military-style equipment has roiled American communities in the wake of several high-profile shootings of African-American men. Critics have said the equipment makes officers look more like an occupying army than a police force.

Contact Roarty at alexroarty@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter @Alex_Roarty.

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There was a time in the early summer of 2016, after Donald Trump seemed to have locked up the Republican presidential nomination but before he attacked an Indiana judge as “Mexican” and picked a ruthless fight with a Gold Star family, that embracing Trump as a down-ticket candidate seemed like a gamble worth taking.

For newcomers, it would be a way to both get early media attention and surf off the best of the Trump brand to tell voters they were a new kind of candidate, too. For incumbents, going full-Trump was the path of least resistance — a way to stay loyal to the party and its likely nominee, and associate with the man who was, against all odds, clobbering the competition in their states.

Fast forward to late August, with both conventions over and fewer than 90 days left to the general election, and life is not going well for the early Trump adopters.

Rep. Renee Ellmers was the first canary in the collapsing Trump coal mine. In March, Ellmers became the first woman in Congress to endorse Trump, saying she understood “exactly how he feels,” in his shabby treatment from the Republican establishment. Days before her June primary, Trump returned the favor and chose the pro-immigration North Carolina Republican as his debut congressional endorsement. Three days later, Ellmers lost by 30 points and became the first incumbent Republican to lose a primary in 2016. So much for coattails,

[Ellmers Becomes First GOP Incumbent to Lose in 2016]

Trump hasn’t made many endorsements since then, but several candidates have fashioned themselves in the Trump mold nevertheless, perhaps none more so than Carlos Beruff, a Florida multimillionaire with no political experience who has been dubbed the “little Trump of Florida.” Like Trump, Beruff is a self-funding Republican, who takes a hard line on immigration from the Middle East.

Leaving nothing to voters’ imaginations, Beruff has even run ads declaring, “I’m not ashamed to support Trump.” The result? The latest polls show Beruff trailing Sen. Marco Rubio by over 30 points ahead of the state’s Aug. 30 primary. Little Trump’s latest indignity came from the man himself, who said he’s supporting Rubio.

In Colorado, another Senate GOP hopeful is having a different problem. Darryl Glenn has already made it through the state’s primary to challenge Sen. Michael Bennet in November. But declaring it his “personal responsibility to deliver Colorado for Donald Trump,” and speaking on Trump’s behalf at the GOP convention in Cleveland seem only to have dragged Glenn backward in the battleground state.

[Meet the Senate Candidate Who Uses Only Volunteers]

An early July Harper poll showed him within 6 points of Bennet, but his slide has mirrored Trump’s in the state. Glenn was trailing Bennet by 15 in NBC’s most recent poll, where Trump trails Hillary Clinton by 13.

To the east in North Carolina, Sen. Richard Burr was always assumed to have a close race for re-election in November, if only because President Barack Obama won the state in 2008 (but lost it in 2012). So it came as a surprise when Burr became one of the few Republican incumbent senators in a contested election to go full-Trump early on. Even as most of his GOP colleagues were ducking into elevators to avoid discussing the party nominee, Burr said was both supportive of Trump and would campaign with him.

But as Trump’s chances in the Tar Heel State have darkened, so have the senator’s. Roll Call’s Nathan Gonzalez just demoted Burr’s race to “Tilts Republican,” while Charlie Cook has knocked it down from “Lean Republican” to a toss-up.

[Darrell Issa Gets Viable Challenger]

On the House side, the most unabashed Trump supporters with Democratic challengers in November, from Rep. Lee Zeldin in New York to Darrell Issa in California, now top the DCCC’s target list, thanks in large part to their early, full embrace of Trump, and his ongoing, headline-grabbing attacks. While Trump continues to rail against Washington, Congress, and GOP leaders, the association isn’t paying off for the congressional Republicans supporting him.

If anyone is wondering how Trump will affect down-ballot Republicans in November, they can stop guessing — it's already happened. Up and down the ticket, Republicans are finding that Trump is, in fact, the worst kind of nominee possible for a political party: a personality-driven phenomenon without an ideological bone in his body.

Without a larger governing philosophy to support or values to stand by, many of those who embraced him early on have found their own fortunes sinking along with his, while those trying to keep him at arms’ length can’t get out of his shadow. It turns out that the Trump magic isn’t transferable, but the Trump stink won’t wash off.

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The political action committee started by former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords endorsed Republican Sens. Pat Toomey and Mark Kirk in their re-election efforts.Americans for Responsible Solutions, which supports candidates who support gun control, endorsed Toomey, who is running for re-election in Pennsylvania, over Democrat Katie McGinty. Toomey worked with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on legislation improving background checks.

The endorsement comes as Toomey also received the support from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's group Independence USA. That group released an ad which featured the daughter of the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School, who was killed in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.

Kirk is in a tough re-election fight against Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth in Illinois. Giffords' op-ed praised both senators for supporting the background check legislation.

She also wrote how difficult some of the endorsements were.

"With so many more candidates running on a gun violence prevention platform, in some places the changing politics of gun safety has made our endorsement decision difficult," she wrote. "In Pennsylvania, Katie McGinty is a passionate advocate for gun violence prevention and would be a consistent vote for life-saving gun safety laws in the Senate. Likewise, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois is not only a decorated veteran and an American hero, but has been a champion for commonsense gun laws in the House. We have no doubt she would continue to be a leader on gun safety in the Senate."

Giffords became an advocate for gun control after she was shot in 2011, which ultimately led to her resignation from Congress. In her op-ed for CNN with her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, Giffords also praised Toomey's Democratic opponent Katie McGinty and Duckworth.

"With so many more candidates running on a gun violence prevention platform, in some places the changing politics of gun safety has made our endorsement decision difficult," the op-ed said.

Kirk released a statement after the announcement thanking the organization.

"The only way to break through the partisan gridlock in D.C. is by working across the aisle to reach bipartisan solutions," he said. "And I remain committed to working with Republicans and Democrats alike to get the job done and end the cycle of gun violence."

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Heard on the Hill

Exit Interview: Rep. Randy Neugebauer

By Alex Gangitano
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Policy

Despite Spending Feud, NIH Makes Do in Fight Against Zika

Development of a vaccine to combat the Zika virus is on track for at least the next three or four months, despite the bitter congressional standoff over funding a response.

But the scientist in charge of the effort said Wednesday the money is likely to dry up in December. Funding for vaccine research at the National Institutes of Health was part of a much broader $1.9 billion request from the Obama administration that's been the subject of much wrangling this year on Capitol Hill.

"We asked for $277 million, and if you do the math and you look at all the money that was reshuffled in different places, when you pay it back, we still need $196 million to go through 2017 and into 2018," Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview.

Where Does the NIH Stand With Zika Funding?

Fauci's team has relied on reprogrammed dollars shuffled between government accounts, including last week's reallocation of some $34 million within the NIH by Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell. Fauci said Burwell wanted to avoid the transfers because they will eat into research of conditions such as heart disease and cancer.

"We have to spend that money by the end of September," Fauci said. "We are going to be funding things that we're going to be doing starting in January and February. So, when you get to October, November, December, we're not going to be spending any additional money because we already put it into the contracts and the things to start."

[HHS to Transfer Funds to Help Fight Zika Virus]

He predicted the possibility of a funding drop-off unless Congress agrees on stopgap measures to keep federal agencies running.

"If we get a continuing resolution, we can still do what we're doing until like maybe December, and then, all of a sudden, we start to get into real trouble," Fauci said. "So, when we get to calendar year 2017, and we essentially run out of the money that we had forward funded into the areas to keep the vaccine going, we're going to be back in trouble again."

A stopgap appropriations measure that runs past Election Day would give Burwell some new spending to move around on October 1.

"The thought of that gives me a chill. It does," Fauci said when asked about further shifts. "I can tell you that would have so many negative effects — not only negative effects on the actual conduct of research in cancer and heart disease and diabetes. It would be very demoralizing to the biomedical research community to see that."

Fauci told Roll Call that a large-scale Zika outbreak such as those seen in Brazil and Puerto Rico is "extremely unlikely" in the continental United States, though not impossible. He warned against complacency, given that there's an expectation of additional localized outbreaks, particularly along the Gulf Coast.

[Republicans Shocked White House Won't Bite on Zika Funding]

Fauci said he understood public confusion about the severity of the threat. Zika presents "relatively mild" symptoms, except in pregnant women, whose babies are vulnerable to microcephaly, a severe birth defect in which the newborn can have an abnormally small head.

"That dichotomy of a mild illness on the one hand with potentially devastating consequences on another creates a bit of confusion about how serious is that and what should we be doing about it," Fauci said. "When we start seeing the devastation of even a handful or so of babies born with microcephaly or who have congenital abnormalities, that is going to have as profound an influence on 'Did we do the right thing?' as a less severe infection that has broad dissemination, like influenza."

Fauci seemed aware it could take only a small number of cases to generate even greater media and public attention for Zika, in contrast with a condition like the flu.

"People don't get excited about influenza except when there's the threat of a pandemic," he said.

The lengthy debate over funding to combat Zika devolved into a standoff where Senate Democrats blocked a GOP proposal that would deny family planning assistance from going to groups like Planned Parenthood. In places like Florida, the fight is spilling over onto the campaign trail.

[Zika Spending Stalemate in Congress Spills Over Into Campaigns]

But Fauci said being on the pivot point of the summer's biggest funding fight doesn't make him feel like a politician.

"There's a lot of back-and-forth between Democrats and Republicans about how much should be funded, what the mechanism of the funding [should be]. I don't get involved in that and have never gotten involved in that because I have to maintain, as I do, my credibility as a scientist," he said. "The decision about how that's going to come about, you leave it up to things that are well beyond any control I can have. I can only give the scientific information as I know it."

Contact Lesniewski at NielsLesniewski@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter @nielslesniewski.

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