Heard on the Hill

New Group Wants to Bring Staffers Together Through Golf

By Alex Gangitano

Capitol Ink | The Birds

By Robert Matson

Moderate Senate Democrats on the ballot in 2018 are racking up a number of key legislative victories in advance of what is expected to be a bitter midterm election cycle.

The successes on bills ranging from veterans’ issues, to bank regulation and tax credits for so-called clean coal technology are the kind of achievements that can drive support among voters in the rural states that many of these members call home.

But breaking through a chaotic news cycle dominated by whatever President Donald Trump does that day continues to present a challenge for those lawmakers who want to broadcast their victories. And it remains to be seen how the decision by the entire Senate Democratic caucus to vote against the tax law, the signature legislative achievement of this Congress, will impact voters’ decision this fall.

Republicans counter that the bills — like the recent banking legislation — are a result of years of bipartisan work. And while they admit the passage of those measures could benefit some Democrats politically, GOP members say they are examples of the kind of work Congress should be doing.

While the Senate has advanced few major bills outside of the partisan efforts last year on health care and taxes, the chamber has passed a plethora of smaller bills, many of which have been signed into law.

And members like Sens. Jon Tester of Montana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, all of whom are up for re-election in 2018 in states that Trump won handily, have had influence on many of those measures.

Tester, for example, worked alongside the Veterans Affairs Chairman Johnny Isakson last year to pass legislation that, among other things, gave the Department of Veterans Affairs more latitude to fire poorly performing employees.

“As a policymaker in Washington D.C., what the hell am I sent here for? Sent here to watch the world go to hell around me? No, I’m sent here to get some things done,” Tester, who is the top Democrat on the veterans panel, said in a recent interview.

For Isakson, his work with Tester is aided by the fact that veterans’ issues generally enjoy bipartisan support.

“Collaboration is about effort, he’s cooperative [and] I’m cooperative. I enjoy working with him,” the Georgia Republican said.

For moderate Democrats, working across the aisle can sometimes draw the ire of their colleagues.

The Senate last week passed legislation to lift some regulations imposed by the Dodd-Frank law, the most significant banking bill the chamber has advanced since the financial crisis.

The measure was a key victory for community banks, backers say, and it is one that supporters like Tester, Donnelly and Heitkamp can tout back in their home states, many which rely heavily on those institutions. But the legislation faced intense scrutiny from Democratic lawmakers like Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Banking ranking member Sherrod Brown of Ohio.

“It can be frustrating, but no it doesn’t,” Tester said when asked whether that kind of criticism factors into his decision-making on policy. “The people who were very, very critical of this bill don’t understand what’s going on in rural America.”

The split between representing rural or urban states could be one of the key reasons why members like Tester can get so much accomplished. Many of the rural states they represent are split ideologically or lean Republican, a political reality that pushes Democratic lawmakers to embrace a more moderate stance. But members say it is more than that.

“It’s just finding something that we care about and working to find solutions rather than making a point through a message,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said.

Murkowski and Heitkamp worked together to end the ban on crude oil exports. The ban was lifted after a provision they authored was included in the fiscal year 2016 spending bill.

Last June, Heitkamp stood alongside Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and John Barrasso, R-Wyo., to introduce legislation to provide tax credits to companies that pursue clean coal technology.

The coalition was rare. Whitehouse is one of the Democratic conference’s most pro-environment members, while Barrasso has questioned claims that human behavior has contributed to climate change.

“This is not only an important piece of legislation for what it does, but it’s important in its symbolism for what it means in terms of working together and the future of bipartisanship,” Heitkamp said at a press conference introducing the legislation.

That bill was signed into law as part of a recent continuing resolution. The victory was a huge one for Heitkamp and North Dakota, a heavy coal-producing state.

But bridging the divide between such diverse opinions required a strong mediator, a role most moderates in the Senate say they are used to playing. McCaskill and others say their secret weapon is trust. Republican lawmakers feel comfortable approaching them with ideas and, in turn, that helps notch legislative victories.

“People know that I’m not going to reject it just because it’s a Republican idea,” McCaskill said.

The success that Democratic members of the Senate’s moderate bloc have had is perhaps especially surprising given the need for Trump’s signature.

Trump, who has urged Missouri voters to oust McCaskill and also has also praised Heitkamp as a “good woman,” has a tendency to complicate policy discussions on Capitol Hill. His maneuvers on the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals undermined the whole effort to pass legislation to extend the program.

Despite the eventual need for Trump’s eventual backing, members say the new administration has not affected their ability to work across the aisle.

“I don’t look at it in terms of who’s the president as much as I do what are the collation we’ve been able to build with our colleagues and how have we been able to position the bills that we’ve done to get this over the hump,” Heitkamp said.

But one area where Trump has impeded their work is in touting the achievements back home.

“The hollering, especially in this administration, gets a lot of attention. The chaos that is this administration takes up so much oxygen, so we have to go home and talk about it because if we don’t, nobody will,” McCaskill, who touts 23 of her bills signed into law this session, said.

Asked if she’s been able to break through on the topic with voters back home, McCaskill said “I hope so.”

“If I haven’t yet, I certainly plan on it,” she added.

And while Trump may end up claiming the legislative victories as his own, some members are fine with that.

“He’s signed them and taken credit for our work. But I don’t care, success takes many authors,” Tester said.

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The pending fiscal year 2018 spending bill will not address a perceived ban on the federal government conducting research into gun violence, according to congressional aides.

Whether any other gun control measures are added to the spending bill, expected to be released Monday evening, remains an open question. Aides said no final decision has been made yet whether to include Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn’s legislation related to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Advocates have been calling for Congress to act on guns in the aftermath of a high school shooting in Florida that left 17 people dead. Much of the recent advocacy efforts have been led by students, including a national protest last week on the issue.

The so-called “Dickey Amendment,” named for the measure’s original sponsor former Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Ark., has been a top target for Democrats since it was first included in an omnibus bill over a decade ago. Despite the heightened pressure, that measure will not be reversed in the pending fiscal year 2018 spending bill, Democratic and Republican aides said.

Watch: Sights and Sounds from #NationalWalkoutDay Protest on Hill

The original text of the amendment stated no funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” While the CDC has often interpreted that to mean no money can be spent to research gun violence, since that research could then be used for advocacy efforts, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has signaled that is not accurate.

“We’re in the science business and the evidence-generating business,” he recently told the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “So I will have our agencies certainly be working in this field as they do across the broad spectrum of disease control and prevention.”

A spokeswoman later said, “the department is in no way prohibited from the collection, analysis or reporting of public health data related to firearm violence.”

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For the second time in less than a year, a shooter took aim at Rep. Barry Loudermilk but missed, the congressman said.

Loudermilk was driving through the North Georgia mountains in September with his wife when they heard a “thump” hit the back of their car, the Georgia Republican told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a recent interview.

“I’d just passed it off as just something falling down in the trunk or [us] just hearing things or a rock hitting the back of the car,” Loudermilk said.

But when Loudermilk and his wife, Desiree, got out of the car later, they discovered a bullet jutting from just above the bumper of the car, which belonged to their daughter.

“The trajectory was directly toward the headrest of the driver,” Loudermilk said, “but the elevation was wrong.”

That piqued the interest of the FBI, he said. The bureau is investigating the shooting, which was not publicly disclosed until Loudermilk’s interview with the AJC.

The FBI confirmed it is investigating the matter, the AJC reported.

It is unclear whether the shooter knew the two-term congressman was driving the car or whether the shot was a one-off occurrence. Federal investigators “believe the car was targeted” because of the elevation of the shot and because no other similar shooting happened that day.

It was the second time in less than four months that Loudermilk survived a shooting attack.

He was on the field in Alexandria, Va., at the GOP Congressional Baseball Game practice in June when a gunman opened fire on dozens of lawmakers and staffers.

He was also on an Amtrak train headed to the GOP Congressional retreat in West Virginia in January when the train struck a truck.

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The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised nearly $10.6 million in February.

That’s the most the committee has ever raised during the second month of the year, according to figures obtained first by Roll Call. 

The DCCC raised $3.38 million from online donations in February, with an average online gift of $18. So far this cycle, the group has raised more than $50 million online, which includes 300,000 first-time online donors, and a total of $125 million this cycle. It ended February with $49 million in the bank.

“It’s been clear all cycle long that the grassroots are energized and unified around the goal of taking back the House,” DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján said in a statement. 

“The DCCC’s historic fundraising combined with incredible candidate fundraising will ensure that Democratic candidates have the resources to tell their powerful stories and connect with voters,” he added.

Democrats need to gain 24 seats to win control of the House in November. (The Associated Press still hasn’t called last week’s special election for Pennsylvania Democrat Conor Lamb in the 18th District, although Democrats have claimed victory.) 

The DCCC raised $7.1 million in February 2016, during the height of the presidential contest. This year’s stronger on-year fundraising comes as the fight over control of the House takes center stage, with February marking the final month of fundraising before the first primaries in March. The committee angered some liberal groups with its involvement in the primary for Texas’ 7th District, which was held on March 6

The DCCC raised $9.35 million in January — less than the $10.1 million the National Republican Congressional Committee raised during the same month. 

Watch: Pelosi — Lamb Win in Republican District a ‘Tremendous Victory’

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Congress finally heads for a vote this week on a long overdue omnibus appropriations package for fiscal 2018 — a year that is nearly halfway over. Fiscal policy debates on taxes and health care have added friction to an already partisan atmosphere.

Caught in the middle of this endless wrangling on Capitol Hill about budget priorities — where to cut, where to spend — is an organization that has come under fire for telling it like it is on the cost of those proposals, the Congressional Budget Office.

Members of Congress would do well to remember that the agency is not there to show them the results they want to see. It is there to expose hard truths, forcing lawmakers to weigh policy priorities against one another and to be held accountable for their decisions.

At the CBO, staff members labor behind-the-scenes year-round to provide Congress with nonpartisan fiscal policy analysis. They help lawmakers perform perhaps their most critical legislative function — funding the government.

Congress established the agency more than 40 years ago to provide the legislative branch with a steady supply of independent budget information during a time when the executive branch had acquired significant control over federal purse strings. The capabilities of the agency have grown, and with a track record of respected leadership, it now operates as a powerful analytical entity.

Meanwhile, congressional rules have evolved so that the CBO’s estimates of the budget effects of legislation often play a central role in resolving procedural impasses. This has made the institution a positive resource for advocates of fiscal responsibility.

But communication with Congress remains a challenge as the agency struggles to keep pace with high congressional demand for its estimates and analyses. We believe the CBO must continue to seek ways to improve its coordination and responsiveness.

To the credit of the House Budget Committee, it has recognized the importance of improving communication with the agency and should be commended for holding a series of oversight hearings to examine the CBO and how it can better serve the needs of its clients — members of Congress. Still, when the going gets tough, the CBO too often becomes a target.

Blaming the referee can be attractive, because it distracts from the core issues and because lawmakers know that, unlike their political opponents, the CBO will not engage in a public fight.

Despite its imperfections, the budget office remains uniquely qualified to carry out the important functions it performs. No outside group has the expertise, bona fides and institutional credibility that it brings to the table.

Recent proposals, motivated by politics, to downsize the organization or privatize its functions are misguided. Each director of the agency naturally holds personal political preferences, but the CBO has remained scrupulously independent throughout its history.

The American public already faces an uphill battle when trying to interpret various federal policy proposals and their budgetary implications. Imagine how much more difficult that challenge would be in the absence of apolitical arbiters like the CBO.

The agency’s analyses receive more attention now than ever, placing a premium on clarity and openness, not only for Congress but for the taxpaying public. An increase in demand for cost estimates without the appropriate resources has stressed the agency.

Realistically, the CBO needs some additional funding. The agency acknowledges that it can do better by improving transparency and providing more information about its methods, but the staff is currently stretched too thin to devote further time to this while still carrying out the agency’s core functions.

Dysfunction in the annual budget process makes matters worse, unnecessarily straining the agency’s capacity.

The two-month delay to April of the CBO’s annual budget and economic outlook (to accommodate the omnibus that is just now being finalized) is only the latest example.

Restoring regular order to Congress’ consideration of budget resolutions, spending, revenue and debt-limit legislation would go a long way toward curing that dysfunction and getting more out of the CBO.

The new Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Reform will hopefully propose meaningful improvements on this front. Its recommendations should be made with the CBO’s role in mind.

Nonpartisan analysis is not the product of splitting the difference between partisan positions. Rather, it is an objective assessment of likely outcomes based on available data and information. That is what the CBO and its talented staff set out to do each and every day.

Sandy Davis is a senior adviser with BPC’s Economic Policy Project and a former associate director for legislative affairs at the CBO.

Shai Akabas is BPC’s director of economic policy and previously worked on the Domenici-Rivlin Debt Reduction Task Force at BPC.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.

Watch: Ryan Wants Omnibus Done ‘as Fast as Possible’

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As Congress begins its deliberations on this year’s farm bill, it’s time to pay more attention to the “N” in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Launched as a pilot program by President John F. Kennedy and expanded nationwide by President Richard Nixon, the food stamps program — now SNAP — has enjoyed bipartisan support over its nearly 60-year history. From its initial goals of supporting farm incomes and ensuring low-income families did not face hunger, it has evolved into an effective anti-poverty program. That evolution continues today with a focus on nutrition.

The program, unique when compared to other countries, successfully provides food security to over 40 million Americans today. Researchers estimate that households who participate in SNAP are 12 percent to 28 percent less likely to experience very low food security than similar nonparticipating households.

But for many of today’s participants, the problem is not a lack of calories but the type of calories they consume. Unhealthy calories are contributing to many chronic conditions from obesity to diabetes and heart disease. And with tens of millions of Medicare and Medicaid recipients receiving food assistance, public health care expenditures are increasing.

In the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress responded to the worsening obesity epidemic by acknowledging the need to improve the program’s focus on nutrition. Besides the name change to SNAP, the bill created a new Healthy Incentives Pilot program to provide recipients with incentives to increase their consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. It was expanded in the 2014 Farm Bill and became the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Grant Program, or FINI.

Nearly a year ago, to accelerate putting the “N” in SNAP, the Bipartisan Policy Center launched a high-level SNAP Task Force, headed by two former secretaries of Agriculture — Republican Ann Veneman and Democrat Dan Glickman — along with former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a heart and lung transplant surgeon. They released their recommendations last week.

To prioritize nutrition in SNAP, their first recommendation was to make “diet quality” a core objective and to instruct the U.S. Department of Agriculture to focus on the nutrition of SNAP recipients. Currently, USDA — and state administrators — focus their efforts on minimizing food insecurity and maximizing program integrity through fraud and abuse reduction. While these important goals need to be retained, they should be supplemented with an increased focus on how SNAP is affecting participants’ nutrition — an aspect the program currently lacks.

In addition, the task force recommended eliminating sugar-sweetened beverages from the program, combined with continued support for incentives to consume fresh fruits and vegetables. There is clear evidence linking sugar-sweetened beverages to adverse health outcomes, and research shows that when these two dietary approaches are combined, the health benefits are magnified.

Nothing in the task force’s recommendations precludes individuals from purchasing sugar-sweetened beverages with their own resources. The task force simply believes that federal subsidies (which were once available to tobacco farmers) should not be used for beverages detrimental to an individual’s health and, more broadly, to taxpayers through Medicare and Medicaid costs.

Because these two policies alone will not solve the problem of poor diets, USDA should also test a range of other comprehensive, multipronged interventions to improve SNAP diets. Nutrition promotion research is being conducted across the country, and we need a mechanism for testing interventions within SNAP and expanding viable ones.

In addition, we should continue strengthening retailer standards, which would improve the food environment for all shoppers. Public health researchers and behavioral economists are devising promising strategies to nudge shoppers toward healthier options, and USDA should explore incorporating them into SNAP.

USDA and state administrators would also benefit from better access to information on how SNAP dollars are being spent. Currently, the department does not know exactly what products are being purchased with the $60 billion in annual SNAP benefits. Access to purchase data is limited to participant surveys or samples of point-of-sale data purchased from specific retailers. This lack of consistent, nationwide information limits the ability of USDA, states and local governments to target, tailor and measure the success of efforts to improve diets.

SNAP is a crucial assistance program, and its ability to alleviate food insecurity must be preserved. Moving forward, the program should be strengthened to better promote nutrition among recipients. In this farm bill, Congress should put more emphasis on the “N” in SNAP.

Hannah Martin is a BPC senior policy analyst and registered dietitian. She served as lead staff member to the BPC SNAP Task Force.

G. William Hoagland is a BPC senior vice president, helping direct and manage fiscal, health, and economic policy analyses. He previously served as the Food and Nutrition Service administrator and as staff director at the Senate Budget Committee.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.

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Heard on the Hill

Top Diversity Associations on Capitol Hill Run by Women

By Alex Gangitano

Georgia’s 7th District will have a six-way Democratic primary after a former healthcare professional qualified for the race, according to local news reports Friday. 

The seat is currently occupied by fourth-term Republican Robert Woodall and is rated Solid Republican by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. 

The latest candidate to enter the fray, Kathleen Allen, told the Forsyth County News she was inspired to run after hearing an elected official’s take on the affordable care act, an issue she has dealt with professionally. The newspaper did not identify the official.

“I thought this district deserves to be represented by someone who is listening to them and who knows what niche issues in this whole health care package relate to different constituents,” Allen told the newspaper. 

Qualifying for the seat wrapped up last week and the field is among the most crowded of any of the state’s U.S. House races, according to the Associated Press.

The district voted 51.1 percent for President Donald Trump in the 2016 election, and 44.8 percent to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. That year, Woodall bested his Democratic opponent, Rashid Malik, with 60.4 percent of the vote.

Allan will join Democrats Carolyn Bourdeaux, David Kim, Ethan Pham, Melissa Davis and Steve Reilly in the May 22 primary. On the Republican side, Woodall will have only one challenger, Shane Hazel. The winners will face each other on Nov. 6.

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A second Republican-crafted tax overhaul bill? In a highly competitive midterm election year? President Donald Trump keeps suggesting Republican lawmakers should do just that.

Trump and Republicans late last year relished his lone legislative feat, a tax bill that slashed rates while also opening new Arctic oil drilling and nixing Barack Obama’s individual health insurance requirement. He threw a celebration party with all congressional Republicans on the White House’s South Portico and insisted on signing the bill into law several days early in a hastily arranged Oval Office session.

During public remarks — both at official White House events and campaign rallies — he almost always brings up the tax law. He touted the tax cuts Wednesday during a roundtable with private-sector officials in St. Louis as they gushed about the law’s impacts on them personally, their employees and their businesses. And during a Saturday rally in Pennsylvania for GOP House candidate Rick Saccone, Trump urged the crowd to go vote for him Tuesday because “we need him. We need Republicans. We need the votes. Otherwise, they are going to take away ... your tax cuts.”

[Trump Knows Best on U.S.-Canada Trade, President Says]

At least three times since Feb. 1 — and twice this week alone — the president has suggested Republicans need to team up with him again for “round two” of tax rate cuts and code alterations. He revealed Wednesday that House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady is working with him to write a second measure.

But the president's first comments about a second bill could be viewed as him just ribbing the Texas Republican, whom he has teased about working around the clock to get the GOP tax law crafted and to his desk.

“We’re now going for a phase two. We’re actually going for a phase two,” Trump said Wednesday. “It’s going to be something very special. Kevin Brady’s working on it with me.” He even contended that Democrats will have a “big incentive” to support the second bill.

Trump singled out Brady on Monday during an event at the White House, telling him, “Kevin, are we going for an additional tax cut, I understand?”

“He’s the king of those tax cuts. Yeah, we’re going to do a phase two,” the president said. “I’m hearing that.”

The audience, there to see the president honor the World Series Champion Houston Astros, responded with a collective laugh. A lighthearted Trump smiled, but persisted in a serious tone: “We’re actually very serious about that, Kevin. So it’s good.”

[In Shift, White House Embraces Art of the Possible]

Those predictions of a “phase two” came after Trump went to the GOP policy retreat in West Virginia on Feb. 1 and said this while addressing Brady: “Maybe we’ll do a ‘phase two,’ I don’t know. We’ll do a phase two. Are you ready for that, Kevin? Huh? I think you’re ready. ... We’ll get them even lower.”

Asked just what the president is referring to and whether he was indeed working on a new tax overhaul bill, a White House official replied succinctly: “He was joking.”

But was he?

A Ways and Means spokeswoman referred a reporter to comments Brady made Wednesday on Fox Business. “We are,” he replied when asked if a second tax bill is in the works.

“We think even more can be done,” Brady said. “While the tax cuts for families were longterm, they’re not yet permanent. So we’re going to address issues like that. We’re in discussions with the White House, the president, on this issue.”

Brady and other Republicans dropped an idea earlier this week to include tax code fixes in a coming omnibus spending bill as Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said his caucus would only sign on if they got code changes they want in return.

Further muddying the waters about how serious Trump and Brady are is an audio recording of Trump’s off-the-cuff remarks at a Wednesday evening GOP fundraiser in Missouri that shows how the president often says things in certain terms even when he later admits he was uninformed about the subject matter.

Trump told Republican donors he once told Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Canada enjoys a trade surplus with the United States despite having “no idea” if that was true, according to the Washington Post.

Any Republican-crafted tax measure almost certainly would need special rules to allow it to pass the Senate with 51 votes — and even then it likely would not be a sure thing. And only a budget resolution can unlock those rules, known as “reconciliation.” GOP leaders have shown no inclination to even craft, much less pass, a budget resolution this year, complicating Trump’s idea — serious or not.

Brady would only commit to a timeline of “this year” for rolling out some “new, good ideas.” However, he did not commit to moving a second measure in 2018. 

And one GOP source said that is for a good reason.

“I think the president enjoyed the tax reform process and wants more of it,” said one Republican source with knowledge of the situation. “But, of course, we can’t do that this year, and no one on the Hill is considering it at all.”

Watch: Congressional Republicans Had Wonky Plans for the Week. Then Trump Happened


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The special election result in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District has rocked the political world on its heels, with Democrat Conor Lamb’s success in the heavily Republican region setting off a fresh round of speculation about the 2018 midterms. 

Roll Call Senior Political Reporter Bridget Bowman, who reported from the area recently, was at the Capitol gauging reaction from members of Congress after the latest round of political jousting.

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