Heard on the Hill

Word on the Hill: What’s Buzzing Over Recess?

By Alex Gangitano

By calling for price caps on renewable fuel credits, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz on Wednesday made clear that a wide gulf remains between lawmakers from agricultural states and those from oil patch states over the future of biofuels, even within the GOP.

His comments also dimmed hopes that Cruz would lift his hold on the confirmation of Bill Northey, an Iowan nominated by President Donald Trump to be undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation at the Department of Agriculture. That hold has led to rhetorical skirmishes between Cruz and Iowa Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley.

Cruz, speaking at the recently bankrupted Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery, sided with the company in arguing that the price of Renewable Identification Numbers or RINS caused the company’s financial troubles, an assertion that has been rejected by the biofuels industry and agricultural state lawmakers, including Grassley.

The “broken” RIN system is threatening the economy and bankrupting refineries, Cruz told company employees, referring to the credits that refiners can buy and sell like stocks in an open market to meet federal renewable fuel standards.

“This is about jobs,” Cruz said, adding that the RIN system isn’t working and needs to be fixed.

The Renewable Fuel Standard, a congressional mandate to add biofuels to the nation’s transportation fuels, is credited as the most successful federal effort to increase the use of plant-based fuels derived from corn, soybeans and other agricultural products. But the policy has faced consistent opposition from the oil industry, which has called for its repeal or overhaul. Refiners, of which Cruz’s state of Texas has many, have complained about RINs being too pricey.

Cruz, like other oil patch lawmakers, argued that the inflated price of RINs have made compliance with the standard costly for refiners like PES, which blamed its bankruptcy on a $218 million RIN obligation in 2017.

RIN prices, Cruz said, should be capped at 10 cents. But biofuels backers fear that setting lower prices for the credits would discourage refiners from buying more plant-based fuels as it would be cheaper to buy the RINS.

Seeking a ‘win-win’

“Senator Cruz’s efforts to secure a so-called ‘win-win’ solution to protect refining jobs are entirely misdirected,” Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Bob Dinneen said in a statement following the lawmaker’s speech. “His proposal to cap RIN prices would not protect these workers, and would most assuredly risk agricultural jobs across the country. All Senator Cruz is really protecting is corporate greed, because that’s what’s really at the heart of PES’ financial problems.”

Ethanol advocates have also blamed PES’ corporate decision-making, including reliance on high cost imported crude oil and inefficient refinery technology, for its troubles. Grassley, a staunch RFS defender, shot back at Cruz, calling the PES event an “anti-RFS rally.”

“Every independent study shows the PES bankruptcy was due to management decisions that did not work out, not the Renewable Fuel Standard,” Grassley said in a statement. “It sure looks like PES management and its private equity owners are scapegoating the RFS to distract from their own failings, which have risked the livelihoods of more than a thousand workers. Like the refining industry, America’s biofuels industry creates tens of thousands of middle class jobs that support families across the country.”

This is not the first time the two senators have exchanged words on the topic.

On Feb. 7, Grassley took to the Senate floor seeking unanimous consent to confirm agriculture nominee Northey, who has been blocked by Cruz over the Texas lawmaker’s concerns with the RFS implementation.

The Texas Republican blocked Grassley’s request, prompting a back-and-forth over the efficacy of RINs. Just like he did on Wednesday, Cruz argued for a cap on the price of RINS.

RIN compliance was also the subject of a recent White House meeting that included a dozen senators from oil states. Trump directed the group to find a “win-win” legislative fix to the RFS program that would benefit corn states and oil states.

That direction has prompted a working group on Capitol Hill, although no new ideas have yet emerged to overhaul the RFS. The war of words between Grassley and Cruz may indicate the difficult path ahead for those negotiations.

For Cruz, who is up for reelection in Texas where the primaries are less than two weeks away, taking the position he did Wednesday could win him political points. But the Iowa GOP has warned that if Cruz continues to block Northey over RFS, they’ll oppose him if he ever again seeks national office.

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At the Races: Desert Drama

By Simone Pathé

Vice President Mike Pence spoke at CPAC on Thursday on a variety of topics, including a plug for the president’s request to build a wall on the U.S. and Mexico border and the need to decertify the Iran nuclear deal.

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Shannon Edwards, the woman linked to the affair that brought down former Republican Rep. Tim Murphy, plans to challenge Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle in Pennsylvania.

Murphy resigned last year after it was revealed that he had pressured Edwards to get an abortion during a pregnancy scare.

Edwards, who is a forensic psychologist, announced her candidacy at the steps of the Allegheny Courthouse, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

“Pittsburgh deserves an active and diligent voice in Washington, D.C,” she said. “I will fight the tough battles that no one else chooses to fight.”

Edwards, who was an independent before registering as a Republican, said she is a moderate on social issues.

Watch: The #MeToo Impact on 2018

“This is an entrenched Democratic district since 1953, and I hold values from both sides of the aisle,” she said. “In our current sociopolitical climate, people are used to checking a box — pro-life, pro-choice. I am pro-life span, not just pro-birth. I want to talk about health care.”

Her relationship with Murphy was revealed when her then-husband Jesse Kelly tried to have Murphy deposed in their divorce case.

“I don’t regret having the relationship,” she said. “We worked very closely on legislation that did a lot for my patients and clients. I can’t rewrite the past, and I don’t know what other course it could have gone.”

Edwards said she expects the affair to play a role in the campaign.

“I was warned. I have been given explanations. I have been told to back down, and I am here to tell you, nevertheless, I will endure,” she said.

So far, no other Republicans have challenged Doyle. After Pennsylvania’s new redistricting map, Doyle’s district is now the 18th District.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the new district Solid Democratic.

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Opinion: After Billy Graham, the Deluge

By Mary C. Curtis

Rep. Trent Franks resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment. But that hasn’t stopped him from being a factor in the race for his seat.

Republican strategists say the former congressman is still well-liked among GOP voters in Arizona’s 8th District, which could explain why he hasn’t disappeared from the race to replace him. Franks appeared briefly in an ad for one of the candidates as voters head to the polls next Tuesday in the primary election to replace him.

“This is one of those issues where I feel like the intelligentsia in Washington can’t figure out why this is happening,” Arizona GOP consultant Chris DeRose said.

DeRose, who is not working with any of the candidates, said GOP voters have not rejected Franks, despite the allegations that he repeatedly asked female staffers to carry his child as a surrogate. One of the staffers said Franks offered her $5 million to be a surrogate, according to The Associated Press.

“Prior to that, he’d been building a relationship with that district for 20 years. So people still think very well of him there,” DeRose said. “And so … it was a no-brainer seeking and using Trent Franks’ endorsements.”

The candidate standing next to Franks in the ad, former state Sen. Steve Montenegro, is considered one of the top contenders in the GOP primary. Controversial former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is popular among immigration hard-liners, also appeared in the ad backing Montenegro.

But Montenegro, who is married, could face his own controversy regarding a possible relationship with a former legislative staffer. KPNX, the NBC affiliate in Phoenix, reported Tuesday evening on text messages exchanged between Montenegro and the staffer that included a topless picture she sent him. KPNX said the messages did not indicate any harassment had taken place.

Montenegro was asked on the station's “Sunday Square-Off” program on Feb. 4 whether he could assure voters he has treated staffers with respect and “never engaged in any improper relationships with any of them.”

“Of course, yes,” he replied. His campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Watch: Candidates to Watch in Arizona’s Special Election Primaries

Montenegro was considered a top candidate, and it’s not clear if the latest revelation could upend the primary, since more than 70,000 votes have already been cast.

The winner of the Republican contest is expected to be in a strong position heading into the April 24 general election. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Republican.

It’s not surprising to folks in Arizona that Franks would be willing to go on the airwaves for Montenegro. After he decided to step down, Franks asked Montenegro, a former district staffer, to run for his seat and endorsed him. Montenegro defended Franks on “Sunday Square-Off.”

“I wasn’t there,” he said of the allegations. “I’ve known Trent Franks for 15 years and he’s been a stellar congressman.”

Constantin Querard, Montenegro’s consultant, said in a phone interview last week that their polling had Franks’ approval ratings in the upper 50s. He said the news surrounding the allegations came and went fairly quickly, and Franks’ constituents still think he was a good congressman.

But strategists working with other candidates in the race were not as confident about the former lawmaker’s appeal.

“I think Congressman Franks’ endorsement is certainly a double-edged sword,” said Brian Seitchik, a consultant for former state Rep. Phil Lovas, who is also in the GOP race. “Certainly, he has his followers in the district, but other folks are pretty embarrassed or disappointed with his behavior as well.”

Seitchik said he had seen polling that “cuts both ways” on Franks but declined to discuss internal numbers.

Franks’ former colleagues with the House Freedom Caucus are not behind his choice. They endorsed state Sen. Debbie Lesko, the only woman in the race. Montenegro and Lesko are considered the front-runners in the 12-candidate GOP contest.

Lesko’s entire state Senate district is located in the 8th District, and she has also been endorsed by former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and 5th District Republican Rep. Andy Biggs.

Lesko raised $179,000 in the final stretch of the race, according to Federal Election Commission documents. Montenegro raised nearly $233,000.

Both candidates have aired television ads in recent weeks, though they have also had help from outside groups.

Sen. Ted Cruz has endorsed Montenegro. The Texas Republican’s political action committee has spent roughly $124,000 on the race. National Horizon, a super PAC backing Montenegro, has also spent nearly $60,000.

Defend US PAC, a super PAC backed by President Donald Trump supporter Ken Blackwell, has spent $164,000 against Montenegro and on behalf of Lesko.

Several GOP strategists said outside spending, or independent expenditures, could shape the race since candidates have not had time to raise and spend their own money in the compressed campaign.

“Obviously, in a race where not much money has been raised, the IEs matter,” said DeRose, the GOP consultant. “And the IEs may end up making a difference.”

The GOP candidates have been competing over who is most conservative and who would be the best ally to Trump, who carried the district by 21 points in 2016.

Lovas and former state Rep. Bob Stump are also mentioned among the top candidates. Stump, whose given first name is Christopher, sparked some controversy for campaigning as “Bob” Stump — the same first name as a former Arizona congressman who’s no relation.

Lovas, also a onetime state legislator, appears to have tied himself most closely to the president. Even his campaign logo resembles Trump’s from 2016. Lovas co-chaired Trump’s campaign in Arizona.

Seitchik, Lovas’ consultant, declined to say whether his candidate sought an endorsement from Trump. But he said he believed the higher turnout could benefit the former state lawmaker.

A spokesman for the Arizona secretary of state put the estimated turnout for the Tuesday primary, including early votes, at between 110,000 and 115,000, with roughly 70 percent of them for the GOP primary.

As of Friday, nearly 74,000 people have voted early, while officials had previously expected a total turnout of 70,000 to 80,000.

“We think those were folks who were activated and inspired by President’s Trump’s message,” Seitchik said.

Border security and immigration have also been top issues the primary, even though the 8th District is in the Phoenix suburbs and not along the Southern border.

When it comes to issues important to GOP primary voters in the district, “border’s No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3,” Lesko’s spokesman Barrett Marson said.

Lesko’s first campaign ad touted her support for Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, along with funding additional border agents and improved technology.

Democrats will also have a candidate in the special election. (Franks hadn’t faced a Democratic challenger since 2012.) LGBT activist Brianna Westbrook will face Dr. Hiral Tipirneni, who has raised nearly ten times more than her opponent.

Roughly 25 percent of registered voters in the district are Democrats, and one Democratic strategist working in the race said boosting turnout could help the party in the April election. But a Democratic victory is considered a long shot.

So all eyes will be on the Republican primary. With a crowded field and no runoff, strategists estimate the winner could garner as little as one-third of the vote and still win.

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The first debate among Indiana’s three Republican Senate candidates began much as this primary race started — with some punches.

In his opening statement, Rep. Todd Rokita came out swinging. “Mike, welcome to the Republican Party. Luke, welcome back to Indiana,” he said.

Rokita was referring to businessman and former state Rep. Mike Braun, who’s been attacked for voting as a Democrat in the state, and to fellow Hoosier Rep. Luke Messer, who moved his family to Virginia to be closer to him in Washington, D.C. Residency issues are a frequent source of attacks in Indiana politics and have already become a source of contention between the two congressmen.

Americans for Prosperity-Indiana sponsored the debate Tuesday night, which was moderated by WIBC radio host Tony Katz in Indianapolis. The primary is on May 8.

All three contenders are graduates of Wabash College, a small men’s only liberal arts college in Indiana. Messer and Rokita dressed almost identically in suits and red ties, while Braun sported just a blue dress shirt — an undeniable attempt to distinguish himself as the “outsider.” It’s a refrain he repeated throughout the night, blaming the two congressman for being part of Washington’s dysfunction.

Here are tonight's sartorial choices from the #INSEN GOP candidates. Which one isn't a congressman? pic.twitter.com/y2YhriElhH

All three candidates tried to come off as President Donald Trump loyalists who would shake up Washington. Messer, a member of House GOP leadership, brought up his proposal to eliminate the legislative filibuster in the Senate several times.

One of the biggest substantive differences between Messer and Rokita in Congress came recently, when they voted differently on the budget deal earlier this month to keep the government open. Messer voted for it; Rokita voted against it.

“The last thing we should do is pile more debt on our kid and grandkids,” Rokita said when asked about his vote. He pointed out that he’d previously voted to fund the military.

Messer cast his vote as an order from Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and the president. “He could not have been clearer about what he asked us to do,” Messer said of Trump.

Rokita fired back, saying “it’s a false choice” to have to choose between funding the military and growing the debt. With the right leadership, Rokita suggested, those choices wouldn’t be necessary.

“It’s the choice our commander in chief gave us,” Messer replied.

Standing by for this back-and-forth was Braun. When asked how he would have voted on the budget deal, he said he liked how Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul described the deal. Rokita jumped in, accusing him of being just another politician who couldn’t give a straight answer.

Braun has been under attack for voting for a gas tax increase in the state legislature. He explained on Tuesday how constituents told him to “fix the roads,” but said he’s vowed to never support a tax increase at the federal level.

Rokita then delivered a one-liner that may please Democrats. “If you nominate one of these two, Joe Donnelly will be the tax cutter in the race,” the congressman said.

Rokita echoed that sentiment in his closing remarks, telling the crowd: “There’s only one contender up here, and two pretenders. ... Joe Donnelly is going to eat them alive with the vulnerabilities.”

While Rokita has been trying to appeal as the Trump candidate in the race, Messer’s strategy has recently been trying to keep the focus on Donnelly.

“All the time spent throwing stones is time not spent on defeating Joe Donnelly,” he said at the debate. Shortly after the debate, Messer’s campaign released a statement calling him “the adult in the room.”

Braun pointed out that Rokita and Messer were throwing stones well before he got into the race. Blasting Rokita, Messer and Donnelly as “career politicians,” he called them all lawyers “who never really practiced” and touted himself as an entrepreneur. “Who would you trust in DC?” he asked.

Democrats slammed the debate for the infighting among the three GOP candidates.

“Outside of their full-throated endorsement of Joe Donnelly’s Right-to-Try Act, we only got the same personal attacks and mudslinging that made this the ‘nastiest race in politics’ months ago,” Democratic Party Chairman John Zody said, alluding to legislation Donnelly sponsored with Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson giving terminally ill patients access to investigative drug treatments.

“Maybe the Koch brothers found someone tonight with the right mix of far-right policies and a potentially salvageable campaign, but the only winner for Hoosiers is the bipartisanship and common sense of Joe Donnelly,” Zody added.

Elected to the Senate in 2012, Donnelly is running for a second term. He raised $1.2 million during the final quarter of 2017, ending the year with $5.3 million.

Rokita raised $459,000 in the final quarter of 2017, ending the year with $2.4 million. Messer raised $427,000 during the quarter and also ended 2017 with $2.4 million. Braun raised about $166,000 in the fourth quarter and loaned his campaign $2.35 million. He ended the year with $2.3 million.

Braun was the first candidate on the air, releasing his earliest TV ad in early November. The CEO of Meyer Distributing, an Indiana company that distributes automotive and truck accessories, pivots to immigration in his fourth ad buy released Tuesday.

In an early January poll conducted for the Rokita campaign, Rokita led among likely GOP primary voters with 24 percent to Messer’s 9 percent and Braun’s 9 percent. Fifty-eight percent of likely primary voters were undecided. GS Strategy Group surveyed 500 likely primary voters Jan. 6-9.

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Opinion: Digital Discourse, Not Division

By David Winston