Debate over how a divided Congress should respond to the Zika virus moved from Washington to the campaign trail in the first half of the summer recess, ranging from the presidential campaign to House contests.
While it's not clear yet that fear of the mosquito-borne virus will prove to be a major issue that moves votes, Zika certainly has emerged as a flash point in Florida, the ground zero for infections in the continental U.S.
Democratic Senate candidates in Iowa and Pennsylvania also are using Zika to attack Republicans over the slow pace of congressional action on money for vaccine development, mosquito spraying and more.
A $1.1 billion package providing funds for domestic and international Zika aid stalled in the Senate just before Congress left town in mid-July and as warnings continued from public health officials about the spread of the virus. During the first half of the seven-week recess, the first locally contracted cases of Zika within the continental U.S. were diagnosed in Miami, leading to a travel warning for pregnant women. In addition, Texas reported its first death of a newborn with Zika-related microcephaly.
Zika headlined, too, at the Republican National Convention, as Republicans made the case that Democrats were holding up funding. “As we sit here tonight a terrifying mosquito-borne illness threatens expectant mothers and their babies along our Southern coast,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said onstage in Cleveland, while urging delegates to keep the Senate within the GOP’s control.
Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign is blaming Republicans. The Democratic nominee recently traveled to Miami to urge congressional leadership to bring the House and Senate back into session before their scheduled Sept. 6 return to pass an emergency spending bill.
“I am very disappointed that the Congress went on recess before actually agreeing on what they would do to put the resources into this fight,” Clinton said. “And I really am hoping that they will pay attention."
“I disagree with those who say that Zika is an insignificant issue,” Clinton continued, taking a jab at Republican nominee Donald Trump, who has not said much about the virus.
In the Florida Senate race, Sen. Marco Rubio’s reelection campaign has focused heavily on the issue. He is one of the few Republicans in the country to call for funding the president’s original $1.9 billion emergency funding request, which did not include any offsetting budget cuts.
Rubio voted for all three Zika proposals offered in May. They included an amendment he co-sponsored with Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., to provide $1.9 billion in non-offset emergency funding; a bipartisan agreement from Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. and Patty Murray, D-Wash., to provide $1.1 billion in non-offset emergency funding; and a proposal from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, that would have approved $1.1 billion in offset funds.
Rubio also voted during the summer in favor of the $1.1 billion, partially offset Zika conference report written by Republicans, which drew ire from Florida Democratic Senate hopeful Rep. Patrick Murphy.
Then, in early August, Rubio said pregnant women diagnosed with Zika should not be allowed abortions, bringing one of the most contentious social policy debates into the Zika campaign.
"I understand a lot of people disagree with my view — but I believe that all human life is worthy of protection of our laws. And when you present it in the context of Zika or any prenatal condition, it’s a difficult question and a hard one," Rubio said to Politico. "But if I’m going to err, I’m going to err on the side of life."
Murphy rebuked Rubio for those comments.
“Zika is most dangerous for women who are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant, yet Marco Rubio still opposes a woman’s right to make her own health decisions,” Murphy said in a statement. “Florida women need a fighter who will stand up for their right to choose and who is committed to getting our state the critical funding needed to fight this virus. It’s clear that Marco Rubio will always put his ideology above women’s health care — and our families deserve better.”
Florida’s 27th Congressional District, which covers most of Miami and sections of Coral Gables, is the swing state’s first House campaign to see a Zika-specific ad campaign, from Democratic hopeful Scott Fuhrman.
His campaign released a 15–second ad in early August criticizing Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen for going on recess with no Zika legislation in place.
In other Southern states that could be affected by Zika, including Alabama, Texas and Mississippi, it's not been much of an issue due to the region’s solidly Republican voting record as well as the makeup of its House districts.
“My sense is it’s not going to be much of a factor in terms of the election and that’s because none of the elections are competitive,” said Richard Fording, chair of the University of Alabama’s political science department. The combination of Alabama's status as a red state and the congressional district map ensures that Sen. Richard C. Shelby and the state’s seven House members are all but guaranteed re-election in November.
“You’d never know there is an election going on here,” Fording said.
Mississippi is similar. Conor M. Dowling, associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi, said the state’s House races aren’t close, so little has been heard about Zika.
In Texas, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, who is not up for reelection this year, has been talking about the issue frequently, as have Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. “We certainly are seeing that Zika and the federal Zika funding issue are hitting on all cylinders here,” said Sherri Greenberg, Fellow of Max Sherman Chair in State and Local Government at the University of Texas.
But it won’t matter for almost all of the state’s House members, who are in safely drawn districts in a conservative state, she said.
One exception is Texas’ 23rd District, where Republican Rep. Will Hurd is seeking reelection against former Democratic Rep. Pete Gallego. Covering much of the state’s Southwestern border, the large area is one of the few remaining contested districts in Texas, according to Greenberg.
Gallego’s campaign criticized Hurd in June because he supported having the Obama administration move money from Ebola accounts to combat Zika. Gallego also rebuked the Republican-controlled House for not having moved faster to fund a Zika response, saying in a statement it was "indefensible that Congress would add to the natural stress of expectant parents by failing to address the danger of Zika in our region or anywhere in the country."
Polls show Americans are concerned but not panicked. An online, opt-in Economist Group/YouGov poll found 65 percent of voters surveyed are following news about Zika very or somewhat closely, with 64 percent of those polled saying they are very or somewhat concerned about the spread of Zika within the United States.
Fifty-five percent of Democrats polled believe the government should increase spending, while 32 percent of Republicans felt the same way. When asked if spending on Zika should stay the same, 42 percent of Republicans said it should, while 25 percent of Democrats thought anti-Zika spending should stay at current levels.
As far as which political party faces greater political repercussions for Congress not having passed a spending bill, 27 percent of those polled said Republicans face a greater risk, while 15 percent said Democrats are at risk from the stalemate. The remaining 58 percent were unsure.
In Pennsylvania, the Democratic candidate for Senate, Katie McGinty, has slammed incumbent Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey over his Zika votes.
Toomey voted for the Cornyn plan that would have approved $1.1 billion in offset funds. But Toomey opposed the Blunt-Murray bipartisan agreement as well as the Rubio-Nelson proposal.
“This is deeply troubling,” McGinty said of Toomey's votes. “Public health officials have made it crystal clear the urgency and the amount of funding that is needed effectively to combat the threat. Partisan political games should never take precedence over protecting public health and safety.”
In late June, her campaign critiqued his vote on the Republican-written conference report on Zika funding, saying that "the bill Toomey supported today is a joke."
Toomey’s campaign has not criticized McGinty on Zika, but he has gone after Democrats for blocking the conference report in the Senate.
“I can hardly believe that my Democratic colleagues are playing partisan politics and obstructing this bill,” Toomey said in an official statement.
In Iowa, Sen. Charles E. Grassley’s votes have been brought up by his Democratic rival Patty Judge. Grassley voted for the Blunt-Murray agreement as well as Cornyn’s proposal, but against Rubio and Nelson’s amendment.
“Today @ChuckGrassley voted against multiple bipartisan bills to fight the Zika virus. This is a serious threat, Iowans expect action #iasen,” Judge tweeted at the time.
Since then, she has further criticized Grassley including a statement in late July where she said she “couldn’t be more disappointed in Senator Grassley’s partisanship” or “more concerned about stopping the Zika threat.”
Grassley responded in August with an op-ed detailing his votes.
“There’s an effort to distort my votes on spending to fight the Zika virus to make it seem as if I don’t care about women and children’s health,” he wrote. “That’s not the case.”
With the September session of Congress a few weeks away, Congress still could send a bill to the president’s desk before the election.
But if the stalemate continues and Zika cases continue to rise, politicians in swing districts will have to carefully craft their message to voters.
“The protests against Congress will only grow as Zika grows in the United States and if before the elections we end up having an epidemic here, I think, it could have significant political ramifications,” said Lawrence O. Gostin, faculty director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University Law School.
“Congress has no greater duty than to protect the public’s health and the fact it simply went on recess at the moment when an epidemic was hitting our shores will be seen as wrong and unethical.”
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The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee briefed House Democrats by phone Saturday evening on a cybersecurity attack that led to a breach of some of their personal information — much of which has been publicly posted online.The call, hosted by DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján, comes a day after personal phone numbers and email addresses of House Democratic members and their staffs were posted online. The House IT system was not compromised, the House Chief Administrative Officer said in a campus-wide email, according to a letter that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi sent to members earlier Saturday.A DCCC spokeswoman did not return a request for comment on what was discussed in the call, but Pelosi said in the letter that a senior representative from the Sergeant-At-Arms office and cybersecurity experts involved in the investigation would provide an update and guidance.Russians are suspected in the recent cyber attacks against Democrats that have targeted databases maintained by the DCCC and the Democratic National Committee.“This is a sad course of events, not only for us, but more importantly for our country,” Pelosi wrote to her colleagues. She described the attacks as an "electronic Watergate break-in."The California Democrat, whose phone number was posted online as a result of the breach, said in the letter that she received “scores of mostly obscene and sick calls, voicemails and text messages” on Friday and was planning to change her phone number Saturday.She advised members whose information was released to change their phone numbers as well — and in the interim not to allow their children or family members to answer their phones or read their text messages.The House chief information security officer has provided guidance to people whose email addresses were made public and the DCCC executive director has provided additional guidance, Pelosi said. She said that the Capitol Police and the Sergeant-at-Arms are conducting an ongoing threat assessment.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.
A group trying to make gun violence a factor in pivotal Senate races faces the challenge of educating voters on the candidates' positions.
Americans for Responsible Solutions released polling data Thursday that showed a majority voters in Florida and New Hampshire either mischaracterized or were unaware of the Republican incumbents' positions on expanding background checks on firearms purchases.
Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., both voted against an amendment in June that would have expanded background checks to firearm sales at gun shows and online.
According to the group's spokesman, voters in the poll were asked if they thought Rubio or Ayotte "supports or opposes requiring background checks on all gun sales?"
The polling showed that 69 percent of respondents believed Rubio supports background checks on all sales or were not sure of his position. In New Hampshire, 59 percent of respondents believed Ayotte supported expanded background checks or were not sure of her position on the issue.
[Victims, Families, Lawmakers Bring Firepower to Gun Control Fight]
The poll, which surveyed more than 900 registered voters in Florida and more than 800 in New Hampshire, also showed tightly contested races in both states. In Florida, 42 percent of respondents backed Rubio compared to 40 percent who backed Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Fla., with 17 percent undecided. In New Hampshire, 42 percent backed Ayotte, compared to 47 percent who supported Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.
A plurality of survey respondents in both states — 48 percent in Florida and 47 percent in New Hampshire — said they were less likely to vote for a candidate who opposes background checks on gun sales.
Former Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., and her husband, Capt. Mark Kelly, founded Americans for Responsible Solutions to support officials and candidates who support solutions to gun violence. Giffords was shot in the head in 2011 during a constituent event in Tucson, Ariz.
[Gun Violence Takes Center Stage at Democratic Convention]
The political action committee has named Ayotte one of its top targets during this campaign cycle. The group launched an ad in May titled "Safety" that said Ayotte voted against background checks.
"She stands with the Washington gun lobby," the ad's narrator said.
Ayotte's campaign responded with an ad titled "Truth," noting she voted for background checks, citing a vote for an amendment offered by Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa.
Grassley's amendment covered a number of areas, including increasing funding for prosecutions against criminals who obtain firearms, increasing and clarifying mental health records that are fed into the national background check system, and allowing for interstate gun sales.
Al Bracket, Chief of Police in Atkinson, N.H., cited the amendment in the Ayotte ad, saying, "Kelly's voted for background checks, with more prosecutions and tougher penalties on criminals."
Americans for Responsible Solutions responded with a second ad in July titled "Mislead" that highlighted Ayotte's votes against expanding the background check system.
Jeffrey Pollack of the Global Strategy Group, which worked in partnership with Americans for Responsible Solution on new campaign messaging, said ads were key in educating voters on candidates' positions.
“That information isn’t out there aside from the sort of chattering class that we all talk to regularly. The average voter doesn’t know it," Pollack told reporters on a Thursday conference call. "So the only way they are going to find out is by advertising. That’s the thing, when you have a number that’s so big like support for background checks, people are consistently amazed that anyone could be against it.”
[Sen. Chris Murphy: Gun Control for First Time a ‘Winning Issue’]
The executive director of Americans for Responsible Solutions, Peter Ambler, said the group planned to use its "Vocal Majority" bus tour to educate voters. Ambler said the bus tour would be particularly focused on bringing national leaders to Florida to generate attention around Rubio's record on gun control.
Though they won't be using the phrase "gun control." Along with the polls numbers, the group released a new guide for candidates discussing preventing gun violence on the campaign trail.
Among the tips were to use phrases such commonsense gun laws, reducing gun violence, gun violence prevention, reducing gun tragedies, in lieu of "gun control." Campaigns were also encouraged to reference the "gun lobby" instead of the National Rifle Association specifically.
“The opposition is not the NRA. The opposition is the gun lobby,” said Pollack. “What the average NRA member isn’t, is a gun lobbyist.”
Campaigns were also encouraged to dispel confusion about current gun laws, discuss solutions, and create urgency around the issue.
Contact Bowman at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @bridgetbhc.
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The Washington lobbying group representing big pharmaceutical manufacturers is shedding high-level officials even as it prepares for what is shaping up to be an intense battle over rising prescription drug prices.
Several top employees have left or are preparing to leave the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA. That includes Charles Clapton and Pam Smith, considered the group's top Republican and Democratic representatives, industry lobbyists and other sources said. Jennifer Romans, the vice president of federal advocacy, also left recently, and several sources said they expect more departures.
The shakeup comes as the group is raising its profile in Washington after the appointment of Steve Ubl as chief executive officer last year. PhRMA has already laid out $11.7 million on lobbying this year — almost a record clip for the group, which now stands as the third biggest spender among interest groups. It has also made high-profile hires in recent months, including Rodger Currie as executive vice president for advocacy, James Stansel as general counsel and Brian Toohey as head of international advocacy.
The changes reflect the tumult the industry faces and its own increasing awareness of a looming regulatory and policy battle. Both major presidential candidates have slammed prescription drug costs, and regulators are eyeing an overhaul to the way Medicare pays for cancer drugs.
Prominent lawmakers have additionally ramped up scrutiny of the industry since several companies significantly hiked the price of older drugs. Democratic Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, for example, have pressed for including drug pricing language in the Senate version of the so-called 21st Century Cures biomedical research package (HR 6), according to lobbyists.
[Aviation, Drug Prices Keep Lobbyists Busy in Election Year]
“We were in the same shape when I joined. Public approval was at 36 percent and they were in a real rut,” said former Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, who led PhRMA from 2005 to 2010. “This industry needs to tell its story much more dramatically, that every day they are spending billions of dollars to try to save somebody’s life."
Currie, who was vice president for government affairs and law at PhRMA from 1998 to 2004 before leaving for Amgen Inc., is described by current and former employees as an extremely aggressive advocate. Some herald him as the catalyst needed to reignite PhRMA’s lobbying efforts.
Restoring that aggressive spirit is a major goal for many of the organization's members. One current employee and several industry lobbyists said former CEO John Castellani’s reluctance to take proactive steps to combat the image of drugmakers as profiteers hurt his standing with member companies, many of which hoped the group would take a stronger defensive stance.
Lobbyists said Castellani left the association in disarray and described a culture of distrust at the upper ranks and a lack of communication both within and between departments. Attempts to reach Castellani were unsuccessful.
One current staffer said the association needs to “act like we belong in the discussion” around drug costs, and pointed to Currie as the individual who can bring the energy necessary to help PhRMA push its message in Congress. Lobbyists said Currie feels he is cleaning up a mess left behind before he joined.
[Sanders, Cummings Push for Lower Prescription Drug Prices]
In some ways, the changes are also a natural part of restructuring under a new leader.
“It’s not at all uncommon for a new CEO to come in and examine their senior team,” said Nels Olson, co-leader of the board & CEO services practice at executive search firm Korn Ferry. “As they gear up for legislative and regulatory battles, Steve wants to make sure he has the right people on his team.”
PhRMA hired Korn Ferry to find a replacement for Clapton, and the association is recruiting for additional positions, including those vacated by Smith and Romans.
Ubl, who replaced Castellani in 2015, is optimistic about the group's future despite the tumult. He pointed to new member companies including the big Israeli drugmaker Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. and Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc., both of which he says will help PhRMA amplify its message.
"The combination of new voices and resources will also bolster our efforts to engage with all stakeholders and advocate for proactive policies that promote continued medical progress,” he said in a statement.
A spokesman emphasized that Ubl has the full support of the group's board of directors, and added that PhRMA is aiming to become more proactive in the debate around drug costs and come to the table with more policies and solutions, a current staff member said.
PhRMA is also preparing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in a grassroots campaign around the country, as reported by Politico last week. Part of this influx in spending will be offset by higher membership dues and bringing on new members.
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Sen. Kelly Ayotte is claiming success getting the Pentagon to release new details about detainees held at the U.S. prison facility at Guantanamo Bay.
The New Hampshire Republican circulated a Defense Department report Wednesday morning that she requested in the fiscal 2016 defense policy bill, as well as by applying a procedural hold on confirming the nomination of Jennifer O'Connor for general counsel at the Pentagon.
"Most of the detainees who remain at Guantanamo are the worst of the worst, as demonstrated by the fact that 93 percent of the detainees who remained there as of late last year had been assessed as a high risk for a return to terrorism," Ayotte said in a statement. "This report demonstrates once again why we need a common sense law of war detention policy—focused on the security of Americans and nothing else—that keeps terrorists off the battlefield and gathers the intelligence necessary to prevent future attacks."
The report is a further sign that President Barack Obama will not realize his goal of shuttering the detention facility at the U.S. Naval Station, a long-term commitment that's been consistently stymied by congressional opposition.
Ayotte's touting of the report came as her Democratic challenger, Granite State Gov. Maggie Hassan, spoke in Manchester about her national security agenda.
"The United States has the strongest armed forces in the world, and we must maintain our military superiority. At the same time, we must remain the greatest force for good and ensure that the use of our military might is a last resort. And we must demonstrate to all those who seek to do us harm that they can never defeat the resilience and spirit that defines New Hampshire and the United States of America," Hassan said. "That is what I will do in the United States Senate."
Ayotte's campaign criticized Hassan's statement that, "I will stand up to anyone, regardless of political party, to keep our country safe."
"Hassan has been silent on the Obama administration's ransom payment to Iran and refused to justify her continued support for the Iran Deal; refused to address [Democratic presidential nominee Hillary] Clinton's mishandling of classified information; and waffled on Syrian refugee resettlement," Ayotte campaign spokeswoman Liz Johnson said Wednesday.
Defense and foreign policy questions have factored prominently in the New Hampshire Senate race, with Hassan's campaign pointing to a local television report saying that Ayotte did not answer a query about trusting Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump with the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Contact Lesniewski at NielsLesniewski@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter @nielslesniewski.
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