The Hill

Congressional Dems Turn Backs on Obama and Clinton Health Plans

Congressional Democrats are backing away from healthcare reform promises made by their two presidential candidates, saying that even if their party controls the White House and Congress, sweeping change will be difficult.

It is still seven months before Election Day, but already senior Democrats are maneuvering to lower public expectations on the key policy issue.

In the back of their minds is the damage done to President Bush's second term by his failed attempts to change the nation's Social Security policy.

For some senators, the promises made by Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) outside of Washington may not match the political reality on Capitol Hill.

"We all know there is not enough money to do all this stuff," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), a Finance Committee member and an Obama supporter, referring to the presidential candidates' healthcare plans. "What they are doing is ... laying out their ambitions."

The Democratic candidates say their plans would cover the 47 million uninsured people living in the United States, except for millions of illegal immigrants. Their push for universal healthcare has sparked sharp exchanges over who would do more to cover the uninsured. A recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll found that 58 percent of Americans say healthcare costs are an "important" part of their economic concerns.

But veterans on Capitol Hill say that getting a sprawling piece of legislation requires broad compromise from both parties and outside groups.

Should the majority party rush the issue through, the minority may hunker down -- as was the case with Bush's Social Security proposal and President Bill Clinton's attempt at addressing healthcare policy.

If supporters wait too long, however, it could fall victim to the political considerations of the next election cycle.

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), a member of Senate Democratic leadership and a key Hillary Clinton ally who also sits on the Finance Committee, said he is "not sure we have the big plan on healthcare."

"Healthcare I feel strongly about, but I am not sure that we're ready for a major national healthcare plan," Schumer said.

Schumer said he would focus "on prevention above all and cost cutting until we can get a national healthcare plan."

Making sweeping changes to healthcare issues often takes several Congresses to work through. For instance, a bill to create a drug benefit under Medicare passed the House in 2000 and 2002, but didn't land on Bush's desk until late 2003.

"You don't want to rush and do something and do it incorrectly," said former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), who helped negotiate the Medicare law.

Congressional Democrats have set smaller goals on healthcare next year, like an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which has been repeatedly vetoed by President Bush. But passing broader proposals aimed at insuring greater numbers will more than likely have to wait, they say.

Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), a Clinton supporter who sits on the House Ways and Means Committee, said "the money is not necessarily there right now" to enact the plans and said calls to end the war in Iraq might consume Washington's attention. The healthcare proposals are a "really good start," he said, but any promises that the next Congress would enact the healthcare plans "at even the beginning of next year to mid-next year would really be political talk at this point.

"I hear on the campaign trail, 'This is what I'm going to do,' as if there is not a Congress here with feelings and experience on this issue," Meek said. "I think it's important that everyone takes that into consideration and that this is not a kingdom, this is a democracy."

Under both candidates' plans, people could purchase health insurance from either the government or private companies, and lower-income individuals would be eligible for subsidies to pay for coverage.

Companies also would not be able to discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions.

The main difference is that Clinton's plan includes a mandate for people to purchase insurance, while Obama would only require parents to purchase coverage for their children.

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive GOP nominee, proposes to give tax breaks of up to $5,000 per family for insurance even if it does not come through an employer. But he has not emphasized the issue to the same degree as Clinton or Obama.

Because the issue is so salient for Democrats, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a Clinton supporter, made the case that voters would be giving them a mandate to enact healthcare reform if either Democrat wins in November.

Clinton told an Associated Press annual meeting this month that in her first 100 days, she would ask Congress to send her bills to expand stem cell research and children's healthcare. Obama has made similar promises, highlighting healthcare for all Americans as one of his biggest priorities should he take the White House.

The campaigns did not respond to inquiries seeking further comment.

Senate Finance panel Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said the groundwork is already being laid through hearings, but projected an uphill battle ahead.

"If they try to solve all the problems, it's going to be difficult," Baucus said.

Business Booming for Lobbyists Under Investigation for Cozy Ties to California Rep

A lobby firm connected to a federal investigation has seen business boom this year for its clients, many of whose projects are in a powerful House appropriator's district.

The House Appropriations Committee's ranking member, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), has sponsored or co-sponsored $55 million worth of earmarks in this year's defense spending bill -- close to half of the funds won by the California Republican in the legislation -- for clients represented by one firm.

A former appropriations aide to Lewis, Letitia White, and former Rep. Bill Lowery (R-Calif.), who is friendly with Lewis, work at the company, Innovative Federal Strategies (IFS).

A Lewis spokesman, Jim Specht, wrote in an e-mail that all the congressman's projects have merit. Long before any lobbyist represented several of the companies awarded with earmarks this year, the lawmaker had worked with them, according to Specht.

"Who represents them has no bearing on the value of the projects," Specht said. "The companies you are talking about have hundreds of jobs in his district."

"When Rep. Lewis meets with any lobbyist, including [IFS], he always meets with the client as well," Specht added.

Formerly known as Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White, IFS reportedly fell under the government's watch for its ties to Lewis. Federal authorities subpoenaed some of its clients' internal files in 2006. The firm split under the weight of the government's investigation, losing two of its name Democratic partners as well as clients.

IFS appears to have found a niche in representing interests in Lewis's district, but its clients have secured earmarks from other lawmakers as well. IFS focuses on lobbying appropriations bills, according to its disclosure forms.

"IFS's consulting work on Capitol Hill is no different than the work done by thousands of lawyers and lobbyists in Washington on a daily basis," a spokesman for the firm, Patrick Dorton, said. "Many of the programs we work on are supported by multiple members."

Earmarks, specific projects advocated by members and mostly included in spending legislation, have multiplied over the years. It's not unusual for lawmakers to try to win as much funds as possible for their districts to help their constituents back home.

Yet some argue Lewis's relationship with IFS and its lobbyists is too close.

"Despite all the scrutiny, she is still the gatekeeper to Rep. Jerry Lewis," said Steve Ellis, vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS), a budget watchdog group, said of White. "He can still be the rainmaker for his favorite lobbyist and his favorite firm."

Lobby groups facing similar probes by the federal government have buckled under the glare of investigation. Once a major Republican firm, Alexander Strategy Group went out of business after being tied to jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Members likewise have faced questions from watchdog groups and federal investigators over the earmarking process. Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) had three of his earmarks removed from the agriculture appropriations bill that were falling under heavy scrutiny.

In an analysis of lobbying disclosure forms, letters filed by Lewis declaring no financial interest in his earmarks and data compiled by TCS, the Hill found that 19 of the 39 earmarks in the defense appropriations bill requested by Lewis -- worth $112 million overall in disclosed amounts -- were directed to IFS clients. Several of the companies also employ lobbyists outside of IFS.

The California Republican sponsored 14 earmarks alone, while other members signed off on five with Lewis.

According to the most recent lobbying disclosure forms, White has lobbied for nine of 12 clients granted earmarks from Lewis in the defense bill. Lowery lobbied for two.

A lobbyist who worked at the firm is now in Lewis's office. Jeffrey Shockey, who had worked for Lewis previously, rejoined his staff in 2005. Shockey earned close to $2 million in compensation from the firm when he returned to Capitol Hill.

Specht wrote in an e-mail that Shockey is not involved in decisions on earmarks and that he "formally recused himself from any of the projects Congressman Lewis supports when he returned to work for the Appropriations Committee."

Letitia White's husband, Richard, secured earmarks from Lewis. A lobbyist with his own firm -- Richard White Public Affairs Consulting -- he lobbied Lewis for client Magneto Inductive Systems Limited.

"That is a very good company that does very good work. It is in the congressman's district," Richard White said.

Magneto works with magnetic detonation devices for various military munitions, according to Richard White. Lewis set aside two earmarks, worth $4 million each for the company.

Firm employees' ties to the congressman drew scrutiny from the federal government last summer.

"Congressman Lewis has never been personally contacted about any investigation," Specht said.

Dorton declined to comment on the investigation.

Under its new name, IFS's employees have remained active in political fundraising. The firm has contributed close to $25,000 to politicians' campaign funds in roughly the last 12 months. White gave $1,000 to Lewis in late March.

General Atomics has employed the firm since 2003. One $5 million earmark in this year's defense spending bill directed toward the company was sponsored by Lewis and other members.

"We tend to not get rid of anyone just because some allegation is out there," General Atomics's vice president of Washington operations, Gary Hopper, said. "They have a lot of great individuals over there … They provide a lot of research capability."

Only one of Lewis's earmarks -- $3 million for the Lewis Center for Educational Research -- in the defense appropriations bill was challenged. Rep. Jeff Flake's (R-Ariz.) amendment to cut its spending was easily struck down though, with 353 members voting against the provision.

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Ashcroft Shops For South Korea

Israel's major aerospace company hired former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's lobbying firm late last month to help secure the U.S. government's approval to sell a weapons system to the South Korean Air Force, according to lobbying disclosure records.

The South Koreans are choosing between an early-warning radar system built by Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) and a similar, more expensive system built by Chicago-based Boeing Co. The radar systems enhance an air force's ability to track enemy fighter jets during combat.

U.S. law requires Israel, and any other country seeking to resell American military technology, to secure approval from the Department of State's Directorate of Defense Trade Controls. That agency can also consult with the Pentagon on whether to issue an export license. A State Department spokesman declined to comment.

Boeing already has the U.S. government's approval.

The South Koreans initially had intended to make a decision by Dec. 31, but the government told the companies last month that it would delay its final decision until May 2006, which gives the Israeli company an additional four months to get the U.S. government's blessing.

Boeing officials based in Seoul, South Korea, expressed disappointment with the four-month delay in news reports in that country and Israel. The Jerusalem Post reported last month that Alexander Vershbow, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, met with the South Korean defense minister and pushed for Boeing. The $1 billion deal has garnered little attention in the U.S. media and in Congress.

In 2005, Boeing contributed $642,877 to Republican and Democratic lawmakers' political action committees and campaign committees, according to The firm reported spending $4.9 million on lobbying in 2004.

A spokesman for Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), who traditionally aids Boeing because the company has a large presence in his district, said he was not aware of the sale and had not been contacted by Boeing on the matter. Spokespeople for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Washington Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell did not return calls for comment.

South Korea, the world's 11th largest economy, has been investing heavily in its military in recent years. The U.S. ally has developed its own fighter plane and battle tank and launched an aircraft carrier, destroyers and submarines, said John Pike of, an intelligence research company.

"The [surveillance] technology makes a tremendous difference whether you have airplanes like this," Pike said, adding that not having the system is like having a "football team without a coach and captain. It is night-and-day in terms of efficiency and effectiveness of air power. Any serious, self-respecting country wants them or wants to get them."

The Ashcroft Group and IAI signed a nondisclosure agreement, said spokeswoman Juleanna Glover Weiss, and IAI officials based in D.C. and Tel Aviv said the company does not comment on its consultants. Ashcroft has built a lucrative lobbying practice since starting last summer. Public records also show that Oracle; ChoicePoint, a company that sells data to police and federal law-enforcement agencies; and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants have hired Ashcroft.

Public records do not disclose how much IAI is paying Ashcroft. The records show that IAI also hired Morris Amitay for $20,000. "I am not going to comment," Amitay said, referring to questions about the potential deal to IAI's office in Arlington, Va.

While it is not unusual for foreign governments to hire Washington lobbyists to navigate the executive-branch bureaucracy, Congress has a record of inserting itself into commercial transactions, especially when national-security issues are concerned. For example, the House overwhelmingly passed two resolutions last year encouraging the Bush administration to stop a potential merger between a Chinese oil company and Unocal, a U.S. oil company.

Israel has come under criticism from the U.S. government for selling arms to countries hostile to the United States, such as China and South Africa. In 2000, pressure from the Clinton administration and Congress stopped Israel from selling its Phalcon radar system to the Chinese.

"Past Israeli behavior does not inspire confidence," said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, adding that past actions could spark Congressional action.

The United States suspended cooperation with Israel last year on some long-term military projects after Israel announced plans to sell China spare parts for Harpy Drone unmanned aerial vehicles. The United States and Israel signed a memorandum of understanding in August to regulate future arms sales between Israel and other countries.

Boeing has sold its surveillance system to the Australian and Turkish governments, said a D.C.-based Boeing official, who declined further comment. Last year, the Israelis sold the Phalcon system to India's air force, and, previously, they sold the Phalcon system to the Chilean air force.

The United States approved $22.4 billion in licenses to sell arms in 2004; Israel accounted for $1.33 billion in sales. Japan and Great Britain were the largest buyers of U.S. weapons, according to a State Department report.

Did FDA Play Politics With Plan B?

Congressional investigators fueled the fire of a seething ideological debate on emergency contraception yesterday when they characterized the Bush administration's handling of the morning-after pill as "unusual."

Although the basic facts of the story, which began in 1999, have been known, the strongly worded Government Accountability Office (GAO) report will provide the Democrats who requested it with support for their charges that high-ranking administration officials interfered with the inner workings of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The GAO does not draw such a conclusion but leaves unanswered the question of why the FDA acted as it did. The GAO did not question White House or Health and Human Services officials. At the center of the storm is the FDA's decision in May 2004 not to approve Barr Laboratories' request that its drug, known as Plan B, be granted over-the-counter status. The company submitted new information in July 2004 but a final ruling has not been issued.

The report states that high-level FDA officials took special interest in Plan B and that the agency departed considerably from its regular procedures. The FDA defended its actions in comments signed by FDA Deputy Commissioner for Operations Janet Woodcock. The report is not definitive about the motives of the FDA leadership, however. One reason for the lack of certainty on this point appears to be that the GAO was unable to interview two former FDA commissioners, Mark McClellan and Lester Crawford.

McClellan ran the FDA from November 2002 to March 2004. "We were unable to arrange an interview, and he did not respond to written questions we submitted," the GAO notes. McClellan responded in writing that the agency's decision on Plan B was made after he left, according to the GAO.

However, the GAO investigation shows that McClellan was aware of and involved in Plan B issues during the months leading up to his departure.

McClellan left the FDA to take the helm at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which he still heads. Former FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford responded to the GAO only through his attorney. Crawford was deputy commissioner under McClellan and served as acting commissioner until being confirmed by the Senate this July; he left the FDA in September.

"We were unable to arrange an interview with him or obtain a response to our written questions prior to his departure from FDA," the GAO report says. Crawford denied any direct involvement in the Plan B decision-making process.

Plan B nearly scuttled Crawford's confirmation and may have contributed to his quick departure. Just one month before quitting, Crawford announced an additional delay of a final decision on Plan B. The move broke a promise made by Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt that the FDA would take action by Sept. 1. The GAO did not evaluate the FDA's actions after May 2004. FDA employees interviewed by the GAO believed their leaders were deeply involved in the consideration of Plan B's application, according to the report.

"FDA review staff told us that they were told early in the review process that the decision would be made by high-level management," the GAO reports. The GAO also says it received conflicting accounts of exactly when the FDA leadership decided to reject Barr's application. Some employees said the decision had been made before agency scientists finished reviewing the application. In a break with normal procedure, the acting director of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, Stephen Galson, notified Barr. Under standard practice, the staff members who conducted the review would have sent a letter to Barr that its Plan B application was not "approvable." In this case, they did not even co-sign Galson's letter because they disagreed with the agency's decision.

The FDA also disregarded the nonbinding recommendation of a joint advisory committee that Plan B could be appropriately used without a prescription. Among the 23 drugs that received an advisory-committee ruling in favor of over-the-counter sales since 1994, Plan B is the only one the FDA rejected.

The GAO also found that the criteria used by Galson to turn down Barr's application were out of the ordinary as well.

Galson told Barr that the FDA did not have enough information about how teenagers below age 16 would use Plan B. The GAO notes, however, "there are no age-related marketing restrictions for any prescription or [over-the-counter] contraceptives that FDA has approved, and FDA has not required pediatric studies for them."

DeLay Allies Circle Wagons

A Texas grand jury's decision to indict former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) may have caught many people in Washington off-guard, but those in DeLay's inner circle had spent the past few days bracing themselves for the worst and were ready for the political firestorm when it hit.

"We knew it was coming, but we didn't believe it would really happen because it's just so terrible," one ally lamented.

Just minutes after the announcement came, DeLay's closest and strongest supporters began mounting a defense. By 2 p.m., a two-page memo condemning Ronnie Earle and the indictment was hitting Republican email in boxes all over town.

Republicans would not disclose the author of the memo, which is not the first of its kind. Earlier this year, Barbara Comstock, a lawyer and former research director at the Republican National Committee, penned a memo in response to questions that DeLay was facing involving foreign travel and reports that his wife and daughter had received $500,000 since 2001 for work they did for his campaign and political action committee.

DeLay retained Comstock last fall to help him manage his ethics troubles after he received his third rebuke from the House ethics committee.

Yesterday's memo begins with a three-paragraph denunciation of Texas prosecutor Ronnie Earle for issuing a "baseless indictment" after a "selective prosecution of an individual he knows to be innocent of any criminal activity."

The memo also argues that the prosecution was brought only to further Earle's political vendetta against Republicans.

"Indeed," it states, "the indictment against Congressman DeLay is only one example in Earle's long history of using the judiciary and abusing legal processes for political gain."

It turns the ethical spotlight on Earle and casts DeLay as the innocent victim: "No citizen, including Congressman DeLay, should be the victim of a rogue, partisan prosecutor acting with improper motives. Earle's behavior is unethical, unlawful and should not be allowed to continue."

The bulk of the memo is devoted to "important points to ponder," including:

"Ronnie Earle has repeatedly exhibited his partiality and cannot make an unbiased decision regarding prosecution of Congressman DeLay."

The memo cites a Houston Chronicle article saying that Earle had started raising money for "far-left" groups, including Texas Values in Action Coalition, a Democratic PAC that hosted a May 12 event in Dallas to raise money for Democratic efforts to take back control of the state Legislature from Republicans. The paper reported that Earle helped generate $102,000 for the organization.

"Democrats have regularly engaged in the same conduct that Earle accuses [the Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee, or TRMPAC] of engaging in, yet Earle's office has declined to call a single witness or issue a single subpoena to investigate those claims."

The indictment alleges that TRMPAC accepted corporate donations for non-administrative expense in violation of the Texas election laws, but the memo argues that Democrats have engaged in "identical behavior" without raising Earle's interest.

The memo says Earle launched a similarly motivated investigation against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) five days after she won a special election to the Senate in 1993. Earle charged her and two of her aides with official misconduct and tampering with records and evidence.

"Not surprisingly, after the media frenzy that accompanied the indictments subsided, Earle quietly dismissed the charges on the first day of trial," the memo states.

The memo ends by impugning the basis of the indictment. "The state must show more than Congressman DeLay's mere presence on the advisory committee of TRMPAC in order to hold him responsible."