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February 9, 2016

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February 8, 2016

White House Seeks Emergency Funds to Fight Zika


First Lady Michelle Obama, Pope Francis, and President Barack Obama waves from the balcony overlooking the South Lawn of the White House last September. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

The White House initiative would support research and diagnostics. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

The Obama administration will ask Congress for $1.8 billion in emergency funding to combat the Zika virus — a disease the president says is a cause for concern but not panic.

The White House announced the request to cover research and planning in the United States and abroad minutes after CBS aired an interview with President Barack Obama during which he said “there shouldn’t be panic on this — this is not something where people are going to die from.”

Still, the president made clear “it is something we have to take seriously.”

“The good news is this is not like Ebola, people don’t die of Zika,” Obama said during an interview Monday on “CBS This Morning.”

“A lot of people get it and don’t even know that they have it,” he noted. “There appears to be some significant risk for pregnant women or women who are thinking about getting pregnant.

“We don’t know exactly what the relations there are, but there is enough correlation that we have to take this very seriously,” Obama said. “And so we are going to be putting up a legislative proposal to Congress to resource both the research on vaccines and diagnostics but also helping in terms of public health systems.”

In a fact sheet released shortly after the interview, the White House said it has been “aggressively working” for several months “to combat Zika.” The virus, typically transmitted through mosquitoes but also known to be sexually transmitted, has been linked to birth defects and other ailments.

If approved by lawmakers, the funding would be used “to enhance our ongoing efforts to prepare for and respond to the Zika virus, both domestically and internationally,” according to the White House.

The funds would be used to build on ongoing efforts to prepare for and respond to the virus, including “rapidly expanding mosquito control programs; accelerating vaccine research and diagnostic development; [and] enabling the testing and procurement of vaccines and diagnostics,” according to the White House.

The White House also is planning to step up work on fighting the virus’ impact on unborn babies. It says it needs some of the $1.8 billion to accelerate efforts on “educating health care providers, pregnant women and their partners; improving epidemiology and expanding laboratory and diagnostic testing capacity; improving health services and supports for low-income pregnant women, and enhancing the ability of Zika-affected countries to better combat mosquitoes and control transmission.”

The lion’s share of the request, $1.5 billion, would be channeled to the Department of Health and Human Services. Its share would include $828 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for work on “mosquito control programs,” enhanced work at laboratories, creation of rapid-response teams and other efforts.

Another $250 million would go to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to enhance health care services for at-risk or infected pregnant women in Puerto Rico, as well as children there who have microcephaly, a condition that results in abnormally small heads when pregnant women are infected.

Various other agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, would receive the rest of the money for such things as increased “research, rapid advanced development and commercialization of new vaccines and diagnostic tests” and to help other countries deal with the virus and halt its spread, the fact sheet said.

The administration did not disclose exactly when the emergency funding request would be sent to Capitol Hill, saying only that it would be submitted “shortly.”

The CDC says, so far, it has no evidence of “locally transmitted Zika cases … in the continental United States.” However, the center notes in its own fact sheet that “cases have been reported in returning travelers.” To date, the center has reported 50 confirmed cases of American travelers who have the virus.

The virus has been actively transmitted in a list of South and Central American countries, as well as countries in Africa and Asia, according to the CDC.

U.S. officials are rushing to secure the funds necessary to ramp up their anti-Zika work before the spring and summer months bring mosquitoes out in droves in the continental United States, especially in the South.

“As spring and summer approach, bringing with them larger and more active mosquito populations, we must be fully prepared to mitigate and quickly address local transmission within the continental U.S., particularly in the southern United States,” the White House said.

The administration on Monday bluntly acknowledged “there is much that we do not yet know about Zika and its relationship to the poor health outcomes that are being reported in Zika-affected areas.”

We must work aggressively to investigate these outbreaks, and mitigate, to the best extent possible, the spread of the virus,” the White House said.

That’s why the administration wants lawmakers to act quickly, arguing prompt allocation of the $1.8 billion would “accelerate our ability to prevent, detect and respond to the Zika virus and bolster our ability to reduce the potential for future infectious disease outbreaks,” according to the release.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee’s global health subcommittee has scheduled a hearing on Wednesday with witnesses invited from the CDC, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters it is important that Congress and the White House move quickly to combat the virus, saying Washington moved too slowly during the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

McConnell’s call for action came after he discussed the matter, and others, with Obama and Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., during an Oval Office meeting.

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @BennettJohnT.

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February 5, 2016

On Unemployment Rate, Obama Spikes the Football


In this photo made using a teleconverter in-between two crop factors, President Barack Obama addresses a crowd of around 15,000 during a state arrival ceremony for Pope Francis on Sept. 23, 2015. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

In this photo made using a teleconverter in-between two crop factors, President Barack Obama addresses a crowd of around 15,000 during a state arrival ceremony for Pope Francis on Sept. 23, 2015. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

President Barack Obama on Friday took credit for the latest jobs report, saying the 4.9 percent rate shows his stewardship has made the U.S. economy the “strongest and most durable” in the world.

The Labor Department on Friday released data that was a mixed bag for both American workers and the Obama administration. The numbers showed the lowest unemployment rate in eight years and rising wages; they also concluded that 151,000 new jobs were created in January, down from three consecutive months during which nearly 300,000 jobs were created per month.

“After reaching 10 percent in 2009, the unemployment rate has now fallen to 4.9 percent even as more American joined the job market last month,” Obama told reporters during a rare appearance in the White House briefing room. “Americans are working.” Full story

February 3, 2016

At Maryland Mosque, Obama Calls Muslims ‘Real Americans’


President Obama speaks during his final State of the Union address last month. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

President Obama speaks during his final State of the Union address last month. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Visiting a mosque on U.S. soil for the first time, President Barack Obama urged Americans to reject politics that target those of a single faith and told Muslim-Americans “you’re right where you belong.”

Obama’s visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore offered him a chance to counter anti-Muslim rhetoric from some leading GOP presidential hopefuls such as Donald Trump. And it was met with resistance from some on the country’s political right. Full story

February 1, 2016

Is Cancer Task Force Another Placebo?


Vice President Joe Biden on Dec. 3, giving remarks in the Capitol Visitors Center. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Biden is heading up Obama’s task force to fight cancer. The group will meet this week. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

History suggests the White House’s new high-level task force to fight cancer could prove more placebo than antidote, despite its broad bipartisan support.

The same Republicans who sat dismissively as President Barack Obama ticked off a wish list of stalwart Democratic policy desires during his final State of the Union address joined Democrats in a standing ovation when he announced he was placing Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in charge of a new task force charged with curing cancer in 10 years.

In doing so, Obama added to a long list of such groups he has created during his presidency. But the use of presidential task forces and their big brother, the presidential commission, is as old as the office itself. Electronic searches show presidents as far back as William Howard Taft have turned to these hodgepodge, government-wide entities to get something or, in most cases, nothing done. Full story

January 29, 2016

Obama to Meet With Ryan, McConnell on Tuesday


Ryan and Obama will meet Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Ryan and Obama will meet Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

President Barack Obama will meet with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., next week to discuss legislative priorities and potential areas of common ground in 2016.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest informed reporters at his weekly briefing that the president would meet with the Republican leaders on Tuesday, one day after the Iowa Caucuses.

Earnest said the group would meet “to discuss legislative priorities in the coming year building on the bipartisan budget agreement that was signed into law.”

The meeting will be the first time Obama and Ryan have sat down together since Ryan was elected speaker in October. The budget agreement Earnest referred to was negotiated as Ryan’s predecessor, John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, was heading out the door. Ryan ultimately supported the agreement, but said the process of crafting it at the last-minute “stinks.”

Earnest said they have been in discussions with Ryan since the beginning of the year about setting up a meeting with the president. “It’s obviously been a busy couple of weeks,” he said, when asked why it has taken so long for Obama to sit down with the new speaker.

The president will discuss potential areas of cooperation between the White House and Congress as Obama heads into his final year in office, Earnest said. After Obama’s final State of the Union address, some Republicans appeared open to some of Obama’s priorities, particularly overhauling the criminal justice system and authorizing the use of force against the Islamic State.

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January 28, 2016

On Cancer ‘Moonshot,’ Time is Ticking for Biden


UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 20: Vice President Joe Biden participates is discussion as part of a tribute to former Vice President Walter Mondale at George Washington University's Jack Morton Auditorium, October 20 2015. The event was part of day long series of talks about policy and the vice presidency hosted by GW and the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Biden is driving Obama’s campaign to cure cancer. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Vice President Joseph R. Biden is widely seen as the engine behind the Obama administration’s “moonshot” anti-cancer push, raising questions about its fate once he leaves office next year.

The White House on Thursday took the first tangible steps in its fight against cancer, formally establishing a task force first mentioned in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. Biden, who will lead the task force, sounded at times bold and cautious.

“We’re on the cusp of incredible breakthroughs in both research and therapies,” Biden wrote in a Medium post. “In just the last decade or less, we’ve seen amazing advances in immunotherapy, in genomics, in virology and combination therapies.”

He vowed that his task force will “break through some of the barriers and do what we can to help speed up the progress, so that we can deliver treatments and increase access to these new approaches for millions more people.”

But even while declaring his optimism, he acknowledged the challenges ahead. He will lead a task force composed of five massive government departments and nearly 10 offices, institutes and agencies from across the sprawling — and often hard-to-wrangle — federal apparatus. He has a year left in his term and no definitive budget identified yet.

Cancer research advocates say the concerted focus on one issue could make a difference.

“If this is [Biden’s] single most important issue, he’s going to wake up every morning wanting to know what those federal agencies are doing and how the private sector and outside stakeholders could be helpful,” said Jon Retzlaff, managing director of science policy and government affairs at the American Association for Cancer Research.

“That’s going to result in additional opportunities and ideas for overcoming some of the challenges and barriers that we are facing today,” Retzlaff added. “If this is one of the top, if not the single most important priority of the administration for this year, to have leadership at that level could really change the way we’ve been approaching this whole effort until now.”

Biden, who lost his son, Beau, to cancer last year, will assemble the task force for the first time on Monday. He struck a pragmatic tone in his comments. For instance, he noted the importance of bringing drug manufacturers into the government’s fight against cancer.

Janet Marchibroda of the Bipartisan Policy Center called the formal creation of the group “a good first step.”

“So many federal agencies that play a role in prevention — or in working on a cure, or getting drugs to market faster — that pulling pulling together the agencies into one task force feels right,” Marchibroda said.

She also said it is “important” that Obama and his top aides opted to house it within the vice president’s office. “This is really a job for the executive branch,” she said. “So the vice president’s role really helps demonstrate that this is a priority.”

But  House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., who supports the anti-cancer program, sounded an alarm.

“Our only concern is timing. Patients and their families can’t wait any longer,” Upton said in a statement prepared for Roll Call, issuing a warning to Biden on avoiding bureaucratic quicksand.

“Now is not the time for another task force or a long series of meetings,” Upton said. “Now is the time to act for patients to find faster cures.”

The timing of the cancer “moonshot” has raised eyebrows around Washington. After all, it was launched in the final year of an administration that has struggled to garner congressional buy-in since Republicans grabbed control of the House in 2010.

Another timing hurdle: Biden will relinquish what amounts to his role as program manager next January. And it is unclear whether the next administration will put as much emphasis on the task force’s work as Obama is during his final 12 months in office.

Still, experts and lawmakers are giving the White House high marks for pinpointing issues key to a successful anti-cancer effort.

For instance, the White House is putting a particular emphasis on, as Biden put it, “the potential to take advantage of big data and advances in supercomputing with greater data sharing.” To that end, the task group will try to promote ways to make a “treasure trove of information” spread across multiple cancer centers across the country accessible to all those doing cancer-related work.

“The data sources exist,” Marchibroda said. “The role of the government on making that data interoperable is to set standards.

“That would be huge,” she added. “I think they could get a lot done in a year” just by “figuring out where the highest-priority data is.”

Though the initiative is expected to be costly without yielding immediate results, so far it has met little political resistance.

Aides to the leaders of the congressional committees that will decide whether to dole out funds for the cancer “moonshot” program said Thursday that they are still waiting for more details from the White House.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest advised reporters on Thursday to “stay tuned” when asked if the administration’s fiscal 2017 budget request will seek new funding for anti-cancer work.

But, on Capitol Hill, lawmakers were quick to note medical legislation is on the move — and with bipartisan support.

Upton said the “moonshot” program’s mission “fits exactly within” that of the 21st Century Cures Act, a measure aimed at cracking the codes of many diseases. The House passed that measure, 344-77, last July.

“Let’s add the administration’s thoughts to our bill and get it enacted before the end of the year,” Upton said. “We feel like we’ve already launched the ‘moonshot.’ It’s time for a successful landing.”

“We are working … to send to the president’s desk bipartisan legislation that would safely bring lifesaving drugs and medical devices to patients more quickly,” Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said in a statement.

The White House on Thursday also issued much-anticipated guidance for the “moonshot” group, further defining its mission and members.

Obama ordered the group to “work with a wide array of executive departments and agencies that have responsibility for key issues related to basic … and clinical research, therapy development, regulation of medical products, and medical care related to cancer.”

What’s more, in a three-page guidance document Obama directed the Biden-led task force to come up with a “detailed set of findings and recommendations on a range of cancer-related issues. Specifically, he ordered the group to propose ways to improve the “prevention, early detection, treatment, and cure” of the disease, and ways to “improve patient access and care.”

The task force also has been directed to identify ways to expand access to new research, spur work on new cancer treatments, and strip away “regulatory barriers” — the latter likely will be music to the medical community and Republican lawmakers’ ears. Obama also ordered the group to spell out ways to “ensure optimal investment of federal resources” and highlight potential public-private partnerships.

Obama spelled out more details about how the group will be constructed and go about its work. It will include officials from some of the federal government’s behemoths, like the Pentagon and Department of Health and Human Services. Representatives from the National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, and the White House Office of Management and Budget also will be among its members.

Christopher Hansen, the president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said Biden, who received the president’s blessing during the State of the Union address, will have an unique — but daunting — opportunity to bring all those entities together.

To that end, Biden and members of his staff has already been meeting with many of the country’s leading researchers and advocacy groups. Due to the massive snowfall that Washington struggled to recover from this week, a meeting with American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network had to be rescheduled.

“If you think of the time they have left,” Marchibroda said, “this interagency coordination piece is something that is best suited for executive branch — and, really, at the highest level like this.”

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @BennettJohnT.

Contact Akin at stephanieakin@rollcall.com and follow her on Twitter at @stephanieakin.

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Biden: Democrats Can Win the House


 Biden offered a prediction House Democrats couldn't quite believe makes remarks during a bust unveiling ceremony for former Vice President Dick Cheney in the Capitol Visitor Center's Emancipation Hall, December 3, 2015. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Biden predicts Democrats will win the House. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

BALTIMORE — Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. offered House Democrats a prediction Thursday that they couldn’t quite believe.

“I think the House, we can win,” Biden told lawmakers gathered here for a Democratic retreat. “I really mean it.”

Full story

Bernie’s Big Day in D.C.


Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a media gaggle in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 26. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a media gaggle in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 26. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders had a big, but mixed day in Washington Wednesday, meeting one-on-one with President Barack Obama at the White House, but also getting blasted by another key Democrat, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who criticized the presidential hopeful’s health care plan as unrealistic.

Just days before the crucial Iowa caucuses, Sanders also got a chance to reversee a previous stand on gun legislation, as Democrats on Capitol Hill pushed to roll back a 2005 law that protects firearms manufacturers from liability when their guns are used to commit crimes. Full story

January 25, 2016

Will Obama Issue Executive Action on Cap-and-Trade?


Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., speaks with a reporter as he arrives for the Senate Republicans' policy lunch on Tuesday, March 24, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Inhofe. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Obama administration is refusing to make his final year in office as uneventful as Republicans would like. In fact, lawmakers expect executive action on everything from terrorist detention to campaign finance to environmental issues.

One possibility is an executive action setting up a carbon cap-and-trade system, says Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James M. Inhofe, R-Okla. President Barack Obama “has legacy things and he doesn’t have as much time as he would like to have,” Inhofe said in an interview. “Cap-and-trade and closing Gitmo, those are the things he wants to do.”

Full story

January 13, 2016

Biden, McDonough Defend Obama’s Last SOTU


UNITED STATES - JANUARY 12 - President Barack Obama speaks during his final State of the Union to a joint session of Congress in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016. Behind him Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker Paul Ryan listen. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Obama speaks during his final State of the Union to a joint session of Congress in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday. Behind him, Biden and Ryan listen. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

President Obama deployed two of his closest advisers to defend his final State of the Union address, and they championed his shots at Donald Trump and calls for economic adjustments.

During his likely final address to a joint session of Congress, Obama landed some not-so-subtle jabs on Trump’s chin. White House aides said the speech was not crafted as a political document meant to influence the presidential election cycle, but the president clearly wanted voters to hear an anti-Trump message from perhaps the most powerful bully pulpit in American politics.

Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff, told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor-sponsored breakfast near the White House, that Obama wanted to put on display an “alternative argumentation to rebut the prevailing wisdom in some of the public debate right now.”

But, by criticizing the Republican front-runner on such a bright stage, was Obama failing to live up to his own call for politicians and citizens to behave better when participating in the political system? Full story

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