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Coal lobbyist on track to become a top dog at EPA

This story was originally published by HuffPost and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Andrew Wheeler, President Donald Trump’s nominee to be Environmental Protection Agency deputy administrator, appeared poised and polished at his Senate confirmation hearing in November. He couched his objections to widely accepted climate science in ambiguous legalese, and kept his cool when, at the same hearing, Kathleen Hartnett White, the president’s pick for the Council on Environmental Quality, flamed out, stammering over questions of basic science.

On Saturday, the White House announced plans to pull Hartnett White’s nomination amid waning Republican support. But on Wednesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted 11 to 10 along party lines to advance Wheeler’s nomination, putting him one step from the EPA’s No. 2 job.

The restraint that steeled Wheeler’s nomination seems likely to clear the way for his confirmation. Unlike other Trump nominees whose outrageous opinions or lack of qualifications put them on the political fringe, Wheeler boasts both the Beltway aesthetic and the experience needed to become a powerful EPA operator. His confirmation, critics fear, will speed the Trump administration’s rollback of environmental and public health protections, and make a lasting, if quieter, impact.

“It’s very alarming and distressing,” Mary Anne Hitt, a campaign director at the Sierra Club, told HuffPost. “He is right up there with the list of the most extreme people that Trump has nominated for any agency.”

Wheeler, a coal lobbyist and former legislative aide to Oklahoma Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, is widely seen as having the relationships and finesse needed to avoid legal potholes while driving the EPA’s deregulatory agenda. He knows how to work the system from within, having spent four years working at the EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He said the right things to woo critics at his confirmation hearing, calling EPA staffers “the most dedicated and hard-working employees in the federal government.”

“The mission of the EPA to protect human health and the environment is critical to our country and its citizens and something that I take very seriously and I know you do, too,” Wheeler said.

The EPA did not respond to HuffPost’s request to interview Wheeler, and directed questions about his nomination to the Senate committee. Faegre Baker Daniels, the law firm where Wheeler currently works, directed HuffPost to the EPA.

“Andrew will bring extraordinary credentials to EPA that will greatly assist the Agency as we work to implement our agenda,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said when Wheeler was nominated in October. “He has spent his entire career working to improve environmental outcomes for Americans across the country and understands the importance of providing regularity and certainty for our country.”

Wheeler won approval from the Senate panel last year, but his nomination never came to the full chamber for a final confirmation vote. His nomination was returned to the committee as a matter of procedure when the new legislative session began last month.

If Wheeler has anything stacked against him, it could be a 2016 Facebook post he wrote calling Trump a “bully” who “hasn’t been that successful” in business and who “has more baggage then all the other Republican candidates combined.” The remarks, surfaced in October by The Washington Post, gained new relevance this month after reporters unearthed two 2016 radio interviews in which Pruitt called Trump a “bully” and an “empty vessel” on “the Constitution and rule of law.”

On Wednesday morning, The Intercept published a report detailing fundraisers Wheeler held for Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, and Inhofe in May. The Sierra Club called on the Senate panel to delay the vote and open an investigation.

But that didn’t deter Republicans, who held the vote on schedule, even as many federal employees delayed morning activities by two hours because of snow.

“He’ll do a good job and I’m glad he’s going to be confirmed,” Inhofe said after Wednesday’s vote.

Wheeler is likely to be confirmed in the full Senate, where the GOP holds a narrow majority. No Republicans publicly oppose him, and Democrats senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota — who generally vote with the GOP on fossil fuel issues — are likely to vote for Wheeler. Neither senator responded to requests for comment on Monday.

To boot, Democrats have already spent political capital to upend more egregious environmental nominations. Those include Hartnett White — who credited coal with abolishing slavery and suggested increased carbon dioxide emissions were good for the planet — and Michael Dourson, whose consultancy was described in 2014 by InsideClimate News as the “one-stop science shop” favored by the chemical and tobacco industries seeking affirmative research. Pruitt picked Dourson to lead the EPA’s chemical safety division, but withdrew the nomination in December after two Republican senators said they would not vote for him.

Democrats seem more at ease with Wheeler’s nomination. No Democrat raised concerns about Wheeler last week during Pruitt’s first Senate hearing since taking office, though no Democrat voted for Wheeler on Wednesday.

The choice of Wheeler is itself a naked gift to the coal industry, which has yielded outsized influence over the Trump White House. Wheeler lobbied on behalf of coal mining giant Murray Energy as recently as last year, disclosure filings show.

“This is the swamp,” Senator Jeff Merkley said at Wednesday’s hearing. “This does not serve the American people. And we should reject this nomination.”

The company’s bombastic chief executive, Bob Murray, has already played a major role in shaping Trump administration energy and environmental policies. Last month, Murray’s so-called “action plan,” became public. The proposals include a federal bailout of coal-fired plants, repeal of the Clean Power Plan, and reopening of the 2009 EPA “endangerment finding” that determined carbon dioxide pollution poses a risk to public health.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, in a break with the White House, rejected the bailout plan. Pruitt announced his repeal of the Clean Power Plan, a suite of rules to reduce emissions from power plants, in October. But the administration’s decision on the so-called endangerment finding is up in the air. Despite calls from ardent climate-change deniers to reopen the finding, overturning the conclusion would require disproving the science behind human-caused climate change in court — an extremely unlikely prospect. Pruitt said last week that he had not yet decided whether to challenge the finding.

Wheeler could be the man to lead that assault. In October, Pruitt railed against the endangerment finding for citing the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In what appeared to be a dog whistle to nationalists, he claimed the endangerment finding “represents, and this is the first time in history this has ever occurred, this agency took work product of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and adopted it, transferred it to this agency and used that as the basis, underpinnings, of the endangerment finding.”

In reality, the technical support document on the endangerment finding references more than 100 published scientific studies and cites peer-reviewed syntheses of climate research by the White House’s Global Change Research Program, the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and the U.N.’s IPCC.

But the criticism echoes Wheeler’s own suggestions. In March 2010, he accused the IPCC of blurring “the lines between science and advocacy” and functioning “more as a political body than a scientific body.” He suggested the EPA could “reconsider its endangerment finding without almost exclusively relying upon the IPCC,” according to remarks posted to his website.

“I believe that man has an impact on the climate, but what’s not completely understood is what the impact is,” Wheeler said at his confirmation hearing when aggressively questioned about the findings of the federal government’s latest climate report.

Wheeler’s Senate career gives pause to environmentalists, too. Inhofe, who serves on the Senate panel voting on his nomination, is one of the most ardent climate-change deniers in Congress. In 2015, the Oklahoma Republican brought a snowball to the Senate floor in a comically flamboyant attempt to prove climate change is a hoax. Inhofe is a close ally of Pruitt, who is said to be considering a bid for his seat when the 83-year-old senator retires. Pruitt’s ambitions raise the prospect that Wheeler could, as The New Republic pointed out, become the next EPA administrator.

“Andrew Wheeler’s nomination is very much in keeping with the Trump administration’s agenda of fossil fuel exploitation and climate inaction,” Michael Mann, a climatologist at Penn State University and coauthor of a book on climate change denialism, told HuffPost. “The environmental community’s celebration of the failed nomination of climate-change denier Kathleen Hartnett White to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality may be short-lived.”

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Coal lobbyist on track to become a top dog at EPA

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The Senate just approved Trump’s pick for NASA chief. You can probably guess what he thinks about climate change.

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The Senate just approved Trump’s pick for NASA chief. You can probably guess what he thinks about climate change.

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Tensions rise between the Trump administration and Alaska.

Trump’s ire fell on Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, who on Tuesday voted “no” to moving a health care repeal bill to the Senate floor for debate. After the vote, Trump tweeted (of course) that Murkowski had let the country and her party down. Then, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reportedly called Murkowski and the state’s other Republican senator, Dan Sullivan, to inform them Murkowski’s move would not be forgotten.

According to the Alaska Dispatch News, Sullivan said the call sent a “troubling message.” Murkowski didn’t comment, but Sullivan appeared unnerved by the conversation. “I fear that the strong economic growth, pro-energy, pro-mining, pro-jobs and personnel from Alaska who are part of those policies are going to stop,” Sullivan said.

At a rally on Tuesday night, Trump implied there would be repercussions: “Any senator who votes against repeal and replace is telling America that they are fine with the Obamacare nightmare, and I predict they’ll have a lot of problems.”

The Interior Department has input over several issues important to Sullivan and Murkowski, like energy exploration and drilling in parts of Alaska. Murkowski, as chair of two committees related to the Interior, has say in several issues important to the department, like its budget.

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Tensions rise between the Trump administration and Alaska.

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The Blue-Slip Rule Is On Its Last Legs

Mother Jones

The Washington Post confirms what we’ve already heard about Senate Republicans doing away with the blue-slip rule:

Leaders are considering a change to the Senate’s “blue slip” practice, which holds that judicial nominations will not proceed unless the nominee’s home-state senators signal their consent to the Senate Judiciary Committee….Removing the blue-slip obstacle would make it much easier for Trump’s choices to be confirmed. Although Trump and Senate Republicans have clashed early in his presidency, they agree on the importance of putting conservatives on the federal bench.

….The Senate acted Thursday on Trump’s first appeals-court nomination, elevating U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar of Kentucky to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.

….“Eliminating the blue slip is essentially a move to end cooperation between the executive and legislative branch on judicial nominees, allowing nominees to be hand-picked by right-wing groups,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, wrote in a memo this week. She pointed out that the vacancy for which Thapar is nominated exists only because McConnell refused to return a blue slip for Obama’s nominee, Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Lisabeth Tabor Hughes. The seat has been vacant since 2013, and Tabor Hughes never received a hearing, because blue slips were not returned.

Christopher Kang, who advised Obama on judicial nominations, said that was the reason 17 of the president’s picks did not receive hearings, killing the nominations. But the impact was even greater than that, because Obama gave up on trying to find nominees in some states, such as Texas, with two Republican senators. One vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which covers Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, has been open for five years.

Were Republicans snickering in private for six years because Democrats continued to be Boy Scouts during the Obama presidency, respecting the blue-slip rule despite blanket Republican opposition of the kind that Republicans now say will prompt them to kill it? Probably. Was it the right thing to do anyway? I guess I’m still unsure. But it sure doesn’t look like it.

The Brookings table above shows the effect of all this for circuit court vacancies. The absolute numbers aren’t huge, but both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama simply gave up nominating judges in states where there were any Republican senators. They would object as a matter of course and their objections would be honored. George Bush, by contrast, continued nominating judges everywhere. Democratic senators sometimes objected, but not always—and Republicans often ignored their objections anyway when they controlled the Senate.

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The Blue-Slip Rule Is On Its Last Legs

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CBO Agrees: Trumpcare Wipes Out Protections for Pre-Existing Conditions

Mother Jones

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Earlier this month I passed along a note from Matthew Fiedler of the Brookings Institution. Long story short, he suggested that the Republican health care bill would do more than eliminate community rating only for folks who failed to maintain continuous coverage.1 He theorized that once a separate set of rates was set up, insurers could open it up to anyone. Since this second rate schedule would be medically underwritten—i.e., based on health status—it would be very cheap for young, healthy folks. In the end, healthy consumers would all gravitate to the medically-underwritten rates while unhealthy consumers would be stuck with the higher community-rated prices. Over time, the difference between these rates would grow, which means that anyone with a pre-existing condition would end up paying much higher rates than similar healthy people.

This was an interesting suggestion, but since then I haven’t heard anyone else support Fiedler’s argument. Until today, that is. AHCA allows states to apply for waivers from two provisions of Obamacare. The first is the requirement to provide essential health benefits. The Congressional Budget Office describes the other waiver:

A second type of waiver would allow insurers to set premiums on the basis of an individual’s health status if the person had not demonstrated continuous coverage; that is, the waiver would eliminate the requirement for what is termed community rating for premiums charged to such people. CBO and JCT anticipate that most healthy people…would be able to choose between premiums based on their own expected health care costs (medically underwritten premiums) and premiums based on the average health care costs…(community-rated premiums).

….CBO and JCT expect that, as a consequence, the waivers in those states would have another effect: Community-rated premiums would rise over time, and people who are less healthy (including those with preexisting or newly acquired medical conditions) would ultimately be unable to purchase comprehensive nongroup health insurance at premiums comparable to those under current law, if they could purchase it at all….As a result, the nongroup markets in those states would become unstable for people with higher-than-average expected health care costs.

So the CBO expects precisely the result that Fiedler predicted. This is genuinely big news and deserves wider reporting. For all practical purposes, AHCA eliminates the requirement that insurers charge the same rates to everyone, even those with pre-existing conditions. They still can’t flatly turn you down, but they can do the next best thing: make insurance so expensive for those with pre-existing conditions that most people can’t afford it. That’s especially harmful since the subsidies under AHCA are so skimpy.

This provision of AHCA has no direct budgetary impact, so it ought to get tossed out by the Senate parliamentarian.2 We’ll have to wait and see how that turns out.

1“Community rating” is the requirement that everyone pays the same price for insurance, even if they have a pre-existing condition.

2AHCA is being passed as a reconciliation bill. These bills are only allowed to address issues that directly affect the federal budget.

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CBO Agrees: Trumpcare Wipes Out Protections for Pre-Existing Conditions

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Trumpcare Still Hasn’t Been Sent to the Senate

Mother Jones

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As we all know, the Republican health care bill can’t survive a Democratic filibuster, so it’s being considered via reconciliation, which requires only 51 votes in the Senate. That means the bill has to obey reconciliation rules.

Normally, this is not a big problem. If some aspect of the House bill violates the rules, it gets removed in the Senate and life goes on. But what if the bill violates the prime rule of reconciliation—namely that it reduce the deficit? Then it’s dead and everyone has to start all over. This means the House has to be pretty careful that their bill does indeed reduce the deficit.

But how do they know if it reduces the deficit? Easy: the CBO scores the bill and tells them. But Paul Ryan famously rushed passage of the bill in the House before CBO had time to deliver a score, so no one knows for sure if it still reduces the deficit. Bloomberg reports on what this means:

House Speaker Paul Ryan hasn’t yet sent the bill to the Senate because there’s a chance that parts of it may need to be redone, depending on how the Congressional Budget Office estimates its effects….”I had no idea,” Dennis Ross of Florida, another member of the vote-counting team, said Thursday, adding that the prospect of another vote “does concern me.” GOP leaders never said publicly they were planning to hold on to the bill for two weeks or longer.

In the end, I imagine the bill will get scored as a deficit reduction and then be sent to the Senate. But the fact that Ryan is still holding onto the bill shows that he knew perfectly well how irresponsible it was to force a vote before the CBO delivers a score. In addition to being callous and malignant, the whole thing is also a massive FUBAR.

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Trumpcare Still Hasn’t Been Sent to the Senate

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Senate Republicans Are Arguing About How Badly to Screw the Poor

Mother Jones

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Medicaid doesn’t get a lot of attention in the debate over Trumpcare, but it’s likely that more people would be affected by Medicaid cuts than by any other single part of the bill. However, the Wall Street Journal reports that Senate conservatives still aren’t satisfied:

Some conservative Senate Republicans, such as Mike Lee, want to immediately start phasing back federal money for expansion enrollees, a process that would take 10 years….Conservatives also hope to use a different formula to calculate federal Medicaid funding that would mean less money for states. The House bill would slash an estimated $839 billion from Medicaid over the next 10 years, according to the CBO. Senate conservatives want to change federal funding of Medicaid in part by pegging it to a different inflation measure, which long term would mean less generous payments to the states than under the House GOP bill.

….Centrist GOP senators are on board with some Medicaid cuts but disagree over how best to implement them. Some say the House plan to halt federal funding for new expansion enrollees in 2020 is too harsh and want a longer sunset of the program.

Nearly a quarter of all Americans depend on Medicaid as their primary (or only) source of health coverage. That’s the American health care system for you. Nonetheless, of course Republican centrists are on board with “some” Medicaid cuts. They only want to quibble over whether 10 million poor people should be tossed out of the program by 2026 or if it would be more humane to toss out 9 million poor people by 2028. Decisions, decisions.

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Senate Republicans Are Arguing About How Badly to Screw the Poor

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Why Trump’s Firing of Comey Should Be Investigated

Mother Jones

There are multiple investigations of the Trump-Russia scandal underway, including two conducted by the House and Senate intelligence committees, one by a Senate judiciary subcommittee, and one (or more) by the FBI. They cover a range of issues: Vladimir Putin’s secret operation to subvert the 2016 campaign to help Donald Trump win, interactions between Trump associates and Russia, ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador (and how the White House handled that controversy, as well as Flynn’s acceptance of foreign payments from Russia and other nations and his other business dealings), and, possibly, the business- and lobbying-related actions of Paul Manafort, who managed Trump’s campaign, and other people close to Trump. Now there is a need for a new investigation that focuses on Trump’s firing of FBI chief James Comey.

This could well be the most serious inquiry of all because it would raise the sensitive issue of impeachment.

When Trump pink-slipped Comey on Tuesday, his Justice Department released a three-page letter with reasons why Comey should be booted. The justifications were all related to how he managed the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails at the State Department. The criticisms were familiar and old: Comey had gone too far when he first held a press conference in July to declare the investigation was over but harshly criticized Clinton and then informed Congress days before the election that his agents had revived the investigation to review a newly found cache of Clinton emails (which turned out to hold essentially no new information). Of course, Trump enthusiastically praised Comey for his October surprise, because it dealt Clinton a blow in the final days and conceivably helped Trump win. But now, suddenly, Comey’s conduct in that episode is supposedly the grounds for Trump showing Comey the door.

The initial news reports tell another story. Various insider accounts—yes, based on anonymous sources—indicate that Trump’s firing of Comey was motivated, at least in part, by Trump’s anger over the ongoing Russia investigation. Politico reports:

Trump had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said.

And who was the best target for his anger? Comey.

Last month, Comey appeared before the House intelligence committee, and his testimony put Trump in a bad spot. Comey noted that the FBI had no information to support Trump’s baseless charge that President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump before the election. He was practically calling Trump a nut or a liar. Then Comey, in an unprecedented move, revealed that the FBI had been investigating interactions between Trump associates and Russia since last July. It was a stunning moment: the FBI chief disclosing his bureau was running an investigation that could lead to his boss, the president. All of this showed the Trump-Russia scandal was still on fire.

Naturally, Trump was enraged. He has dismissed the Russia story as fake news and a hoax. Comey said it was nothing but.

If Trump fired Comey to impede the Russia investigation, he possibly engaged in obstruction of justice. That is a crime. That is a case for impeachment. In fact, the first of the three articles of impeachment filed by the House judiciary committee against Richard Nixon in 1974 was for obstruction of justice. That article listed as one reason for impeachment: “interfering or endeavouring to interfere with the conduct of investigations by the Department of Justice of the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the office of Watergate Special Prosecution Force, and Congressional Committees.”

Trump certainly appears to have tried to interfere with the Russia investigation by dismissing Comey.

A congressional investigation of Trump’s action is warranted. There are White House and Justice Department officials who can be questioned on this subject. They can be asked how the firing was discussed and handled by administration officials. (Congress might also want to ask Comey about the President’s claim, in his termination letter to the FBI director, that Comey had assured Trump on three occasions that he was not a target of the bureau’s investigation.) There may be documents to subpoena. (One side issue: how could Attorney General Jeff Sessions participate in this decision, as he did, if he recused himself from anything to do with the Russia investigations because he had lied about his own meetings with the Russian ambassador?)

This is not simply a personnel matter. Trump does have the right to fire Comey. But if this was done to smother an investigation, Trump may have violated the law, defending himself and not the Constitution. He knows why he did this—and presumably so do Sessions and assorted White House and Justice Department officials. Congress needs to step in and guarantee for the American public that the president has not abused his power and obstructed justice to protect himself. And there are several committees in the House and Senate that could assume this critical mission. With Trump’s firing of Comey, the Trump-Russia scandal has moved from a tale of a foreign power undermining American democracy to the story of a president possibly doing the same.

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Why Trump’s Firing of Comey Should Be Investigated

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News Report Undermines Trump’s Claim About Michael Flynn

Mother Jones

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With the Senate hours away from hearing testimony about former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to preempt the testimony with his own version of events:

Unfortunately for Trump, news broke later on Monday morning that undermined his argument. NBC News reported that President Barack Obama had warned Trump against hiring Flynn during their meeting in the Oval Office on November 10—two days after Trump was elected and months before he appointed Flynn as his national security adviser.

Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates is set to testify before a Senate subcommittee today about her warnings to the White House about Flynn’s ties to Russia. Yates is expected to tell the committee that she warned White House Counsel Don McGahn several weeks before Flynn was forced to resign that Flynn had lied when he denied discussing US sanctions in his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

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News Report Undermines Trump’s Claim About Michael Flynn

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The Senate Has a Working Group to Repeal Obamacare. It Apparently Includes Zero Women.

Mother Jones

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Now that Republicans in the House of Representatives have passed a bill to repeal Obamacare, the work is shifting to the Senate. Senate Republicans will need to cobble together a deal without losing more than two of their own members (Vice President Mike Pence could cast the tie-breaking vote if it’s tied 50-50). Because the legislation is what’s known as a reconciliation bill, it can’t be filibustered.

The House bill is unlikely to pass the Senate without significant changes, as a number of GOP senators have voiced displeasure with various aspects of it. Senate Republicans have formed a working group made of up various ideological factions—ranging from Republicans in swing states wary of Medicaid cuts to hardcore conservatives, such as Ted Cruz—to try to find a compromise.

On Friday, Bloomberg published the list of senators who are part of that working group so far, and one group is notably absent: women. All 13 of the GOP senators reportedly involved in crafting the new bill are men; none of the Senate’s five Republican women are members of the group. (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (Ky.) press office didn’t immediately respond to a request to confirm or comment on the membership of the working group.)

The House plan to repeal Obamacare would cut all federal funding to Planned Parenthood and would allow states to end Obamacare’s prohibition on discrimination against patients with preexisting conditions—allowing insurance companies to charge women more strictly because they are women. And yet apparently, none of the lawmakers involved in crafting the Senate’s initial legislation will be women.

This is particularly surprising since several female Republican senators have voiced skepticism about the House bill, and at least some of them will need to be brought onboard in order for the Senate to pass a health care bill. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) cosigned a letter earlier this year objecting to the House’s proposal to end Medicaid expansion, which has helped lower the uninsured rate for adults in her home state from 22 percent in 2011 to 8.7 percent in 2015. Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) have both objected to the bill’s provision defunding Planned Parenthood. Collins’ absence from the working group is particularly surprising, since the Maine senator has taken a leading role in crafting one of the few fully fleshed-out alternative proposals to the House’s bill.

Leaving women out of key spots is becoming a trend when it comes to health care decisions during the Trump administration. When Trump invited House members to the Rose Garden after Thursday’s vote, it was a sea of mostly men standing behind him. When the White House released images of Trump meeting with the conservative Freedom Caucus in March, Kellyanne Conway was the only woman in sight.

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The Senate Has a Working Group to Repeal Obamacare. It Apparently Includes Zero Women.

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