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Senate passes tax overhaul, securing major GOP victory

The Senate passed legislation to overhaul the tax code early Saturday morning,handing Republicans a badly needed legislative and political victory.

Senators voted 51-49 to pass the plan, capping off days of debate and hand wringing as leadership worked frantically behind the scenes to win over holdouts and get the proposal in line with the chamber’s rules.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) bucked party leadership and voted against the plan amid lingering concerns over the impact on the deficit. No Democratic senator supported the legislation, with Democrats quickly leaving the chamber after voting no.

Vice President Pence presided over the final passage vote. GOP senators, who stayed on the Senate floor until the vote closed after midnight, broke out into applause after Pence announced the bill had passed.

"This is a great day for the country," Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said during a 2 a.m. press conference after the vote.

"We have an opportunity now to make America more competitive, to keep jobs from being shipped off shore and to provide substantial relief for the middle class."

Corker, who is retiring after 2018, said in a statement ahead of the vote that he "wanted to get to yes" on the tax plan.

"But at the end of the day, I am not able to cast aside my fiscal concerns and vote for legislation that I believe, based on the information I currently have, could deepen the debt burden on future generations,” he said.

The bill would lower tax rates for individuals through 2025 and permanently cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent. The bill’s tax cuts for individuals are temporary in order to comply with budget rules that the measure can’t add to the deficit after 10 years.

The bill would also repeal ObamaCare’s individual mandate, a priority for President Trump and many Republicans, and open up a section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for drilling.

Republican senators will now move to reconcile their legislation with the House’s proposal, passed in mid-November, as they try to get a final product to Trump’s desk by the end of the year.

The vote in the early morning hours of Saturday came after Trump met this week with key senators, including leadership and holdouts. Marc Short, the White House director of legislative affairs, was also spotted outside of the Senate chamber in the hours leading up to Saturday's vote.

McConnell had a narrow path to getting the bill through the upper chamber. With a 52-seat majority, he could only afford to lose two GOP senators and still let Pence break a tie.

But GOP leadership appeared confident on Friday that they would be able to pass the legislation after GOP Sens. Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Steve Daines (Mont.) came on board.

Johnson and Daines had been pressuring for a larger tax deduction for small-and-mid-sized businesses known as “pass throughs.”

Johnson noted that Republicans had been able to get the deduction percent increased from 17.4 to 23 percent and that he would be involved in further pass-through discussions as lawmakers work to get the bill to Trump’s desk.

"A seat at the table. Not just input. Not just consulting, but a seat at the table," Johnson said when asked what leadership promised him in exchange for voting yes.

Passage of the tax plan became clear earlier Friday when Sen. Jeff Flake(R-Ariz.) gave leadership their 50th vote for the plan.

The Arizona Republican, who is retiring after 2018, said that in addition to getting rid of a “budget gimmick” relating to the full expensing of capital investments that he had also gotten a commitment on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a moderate who voted against the GOP’s ObamaCare repeal efforts, also voted in favor of the tax bill after getting several of her amendments into the bill, including the restoration of a $10,000 deduction for property taxes and a lower threshold for deducting medical expenses.

"I will cast my vote in support of the Senate tax reform bill. As revised, this bill will provide much-needed tax relief and simplification for lower- and middle-income families, while spurring the creation of good jobs and greater economic growth," Collins said.

To pay for the last-minute changes, Republicans made changes including restoring the alternative minimum tax in the bill, but raising the exemption amounts, and increasing rates for the repatriation of foreign earnings currently held overseas.

But passage of the Senate legislation wasn’t without drama. Republicans haggled over the details of the bill and key provisions remained unfinished in the hours leading up to the final passage vote.

And the bill seemed to be on the brink of defeat after deficit hawks, led by Corker, appeared ready to send the legislation back to the Finance Committee as they tried to get a promise that the legislation wouldn’t increase the deficit.

McConnell defended the legislation the early morning press conference with GOP senators, saying he was "totally confident" the bill would not add to the deficit. 
"I think it's going to be a revenue producing," he said. 

Corker, Flake and Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) had pushed for a “trigger” that would spark automatic tax increases if the legislation didn’t meet economic growth forecasts. But they were told by the parliamentarian that it didn’t comply with the rules.

GOP leadership initially offered to include automatic tax increases, which sparked near immediate backlash from across the caucasus.

"It would have been counterproductive to the central objective of this legislation, which is bringing back jobs and economic growth," Cruz said. "And after extended discussion with a number of senators a consensus emerged that we shouldn't be raising taxes."

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), asked about the plan, added that his colleagues should “just quit fooling around.”

In the end, Republicans dropped the tax hikes, arguing they were confident the legislation would boost the economy.

That’s despite the fact that the Joint Committee on Taxation said the version of the bill that passed the Finance Committee last month would cost about $1 trillion in its first decade after accounting for economic growth.

“I think most of us have made it pretty clear that just on looking at the analysis that was done in the most recent scoring we just think they’re way off in their analysis,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.). “It just doesn’t add up to us."

Democrats warned that the bill would put a hole in the deficit, and mostly benefit wealthy individuals and businesses at the expense of the middle class.

“All of the claims that tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations will pay for themselves were not correct. It’s time for my Republican friends to admit their error and come clean with the American people,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted out an image of a unicorn, writing: “Unicorns are real. Tupac is still alive. Borrowing money to pay for tax cuts for the rich shrinks the deficit.”

Democrats used the free-wheeling floor drama, known as vote-a-rama, to force Republicans to take politically tough votes even though it was clear the legislation would pass. They also criticized what they called a lack of transparency, with GOP leaders releasing amended legislation hours before the vote.

McConnell hit back at Democrats, arguing they were complaining about the process because they lost the fight over the tax legislation. 
"This was done through regular order. The Democrats had plenty of notice. ... You complain about process when you're losing and that's what you heard on the floor tonight," he said after the vote.

Still, a Democratic amendment did pass striking a provision that would have allowed colleges that don’t take federal funding to be exempt from an endowment tax. Democrats argued that the provision would have primarily benefited Hillsdale College, a conservative college in Michigan.

Senators also rejected a push by GOP Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Mike Lee (Utah) to make the child tax credit refundable to payroll taxes, and pay for it by raising the bill's corporate tax rate from 20 percent to 20.94 percent.

But an amendment from Cruz to allow taxpayers to use funds from 529 plans for K-12 education, including home schooling, was added to the bill after Pence was called in to break a tie.

The House and Senate are expected to work out the differences in a conference committee in the coming weeks.

The bills differ in a number of ways. The House bill has four individual tax brackets with a top rate of 39.6 percent, while the Senate bill has seven brackets with a top rate of 38.5 percent. The corporate rate cut takes effect in 2018 in the House bill, but takes effect in 2019 in the Senate bill.

Other differences relate to the child tax credit, the estate tax, pass-through businesses and international tax provisions.



Former Trump Adviser Michael Flynn Pleads Guilty In Special Counsel’s Russia Investigation

President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser pleaded guilty Friday morning to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian government, an extraordinary development in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Michael Flynn was charged with one count of making a false statement to FBI agents and appeared in federal court in D.C.

In a criminal information filing from Mueller’s team, the government alleges that Flynn “willfully and knowingly made materially false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements” in an interview with FBI agents on Jan. 24. It alleges he falsely told the FBI that he did not ask the Russian ambassador to refrain from retaliating to sanctions the Obama administration imposed on Russia in late December. Flynn also allegedly lied about asking the Russian ambassador on Dec. 22 to delay or defeat a pending United Nations Security Council resolution.

Considering all of the additional charges Flynn could have faced in connection with his overseas dealings, the fact that he is facing only one charge is an indication that Flynn is offering significant cooperation and information that could further Mueller’s investigation.

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn arrives for a plea hearing at U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

The Associated Press and Washington Post reported Friday that Flynn admitted in his plea that he spoke to the Russians at the direction of Trump transition team officials.

In response to Friday morning’s charge, Trump lawyer John Dowd told Wall Street Journal reporter Rebecca Ballhaus: “I have no reaction. I don’t know enough. I’m not worried about it.”

White House lawyer Ty Cobb said the plea implicates only Flynn.

“The false statements involved mirror the false statements to White House officials which resulted in his resignation in February of this year,” Cobb said in a statement. “Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn. The conclusion of this phase of the Special Counsel’s work demonstrates again that the Special Counsel is moving with all deliberate speed and clears the way for a prompt and reasonable conclusion.”

The New York Times reported in late November that Flynn’s lawyer, Robert Kelner, was no longer sharing information with Trump’s legal team, further raising the possibility that Flynn was cooperating with Mueller’s probe. Kelner later met with the investigators, according to ABC News.

Flynn’s indictment follows Mueller’s team charging Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his former aide Rick Gates with 12 counts, including allegations of conspiracy against the U.S. and money laundering. Manafort and Gates pleaded not guilty to the charges and are scheduled to face a federal trial in May.

In October, the investigators also reached a plea agreement with former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, who lied to the FBI about being offered “dirt” on Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. Papadopoulos also reportedly suggested a meeting between then-candidate Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin last year.

But those indictments involved only Trump campaign officials. Flynn is the first former administration official to be charged, making it more difficult for the White House to distance the president from Mueller’s probe.

After Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey amid his investigation into the campaign, Comey testified that Trump had requested that he end the FBI’s investigation into Flynn.

Flynn, who stepped down as Trump’s national security adviser in February after lying to administration officials about the extent of his communications with Russian officials, had long faced scrutiny from the multiple investigations into Trump’s campaign.

Flynn stepped down as Trump’s national security adviser in February after lying to administration officials about the extent of his communications with Russian officials.

Of particular interest was Flynn’s history of suspicious business dealings and financial ties to Russia, as well as his concealing that he worked as a foreign lobbyist for the Turkish government while advising Trump’s campaign.

In the fall of 2016, a businessman with close ties to Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid Flynn more than $500,000 to conduct research aimed at discrediting the exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen. Flynn failed to disclose the work until March, after he had already stepped down as national security adviser.

Mueller’s team has reportedly investigated Flynn’s lobbying firm and its dealings with Turkey.

Flynn also hid multiple contacts with Russia during Trump’s transition, including discussing sanctions with then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

He also attended a meeting with Kislyak to discuss creating a backchannel with Putin. Also in attendance was Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is now a senior White House adviser and also reportedly a subject of Mueller’s probe.

White House officials have repeatedly denied any collusion between Trump’s team and Russia, often by downplaying suspected officials’ involvement in the campaign or the administration. In March, then-press secretary Sean Spicer diminished Flynn as just “a volunteer.” 




Mother Of Vegas Survivor Pleads With Lawmaker To Change Gun Laws

More than a month after 58 people died and more than 500 were wounded in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, the mother of one of the survivors of the Las Vegas massacre is reminding local lawmakers that part of the solution lies with them.

In a gut-wrenching letter to her local representative, Illinois Rep. Ryan Spain (R-Peoria), Anne M. (as she asked to be named) described the harrowing trauma her daughter Hannah suffered following the Las Vegas tragedy. Without stronger gun laws, Anne M. warned, tens of thousands of Americans are set to suffer the same fate.

“As you are gathering with your family during these holidays, I ask that you remember us and all the other families who have suffered losses due to gun violence,” she pleaded. “Reflect on the power and responsibilities that your office entails and be prepared to act for positive change when the new legislative session begins.”

“Anne M.” told HuffPost her story and that of “Hannah” on the condition of anonymity. She lives in a region of Illinois that she describes as anti-gun control and is fearful for her family’s safety following the shooting. Additionally, her daughter is employed by one of the companies involved with the music festival and was not authorized to speak publicly about the incident. We’ve identified them both by the pseudonyms they used in the letter to the state lawmaker.  

Flowers and other tributes to the victims of the Las Vegas massacre pile up at the iconic “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign.

Hannah had been preparing for the Route 91 Harvest Festival, a three-day country music fest that drew tens of thousands to the Las Vegas Strip, for days. On Oct. 1, she was working from a trailer near the stage when gunman Stephen Paddock unloaded hundreds of rounds into an unsuspecting crowd listening to Jason Aldean perform. At first, Hannah thought the popping sounds were the sound system experiencing problems. Then it dawned on her she was hearing rapid gunfire blasting overhead.

Hannah barricaded the doors of her trailer, turned off the lights, computers and audio equipment. She huddled under the tables, fervently texting her colleagues to see if they were safe. Outside she heard crying and screaming as dozens lay dying.

“I am safe. Many dead,” she texted her family from the trailer.

Hannah stayed hidden in the trailer for about an hour, eventually making her way out of the venue with the help of law enforcement. She was later released and escorted to another hotel to rest. As morning broke in Las Vegas, she took a photo of the sunrise from her hotel room and texted her mother.

“I never thought I’d live to see this day.”

The photo Hannah took from her hotel room the morning after the shooting. She told her mother: “I never thought I’d live to see this day.”

By the following afternoon, Hannah was on a plane back home. But once back in Illinois, she had trouble picking up her life.  

“In many ways I feel like every bullet that didn’t physically hit me, because none of them did, all hit me mentally and emotionally,” she told HuffPost. “If you could do a fictitious scan of my head, it would look like Swiss cheese, because they all went through me on some level.”

Profoundly haunted by the killings, Hannah would come home from work and collapse in her mother’s arms, recounting the details of the shooting, over and over again. She’d complain of chest pain and had trouble breathing. Being in public became stressful, and being near strangers frightened her. The sounds of dogs barking and children laughing were too much to bear.

One evening shortly after the shooting, as fireworks popped off during the halftime show of a school football game nearby, Hannah burst into tears and became panicked ― she didn’t hear fireworks, she heard gunfire, and she was instantly pulled back to her trailer at the festival hearing instead the bullets flying. Anne had to pull Hannah into the bathroom and turn on the exhaust fan, to drown out the fireworks, and hold her daughter as tight as she could.

Anne, a former therapist, recognized her “bright, happy, spunky girl” was suffering from severe trauma and found her a therapist who specialized in treating post-traumatic stress disorder.

While most often discussed as a disorder that affects members of the military, any person who experiences trauma can suffer from PTSD. About 7 to 8 percent of Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lifetimes, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD. In any given year, about 8 million adults have PTSD, and it is common among survivors of mass shootings: About a third of them will experience PTSD.

Watching her daughter suffer the effects of the shooting made Anne keenly aware of the trauma that tens of thousands of Americans ― gun violence survivors and the members of their families ― go through.

The only way to prevent the trauma is to stop the shootings, she argues. “We can no longer deny that mass shootings are a terrifying, nearly daily part of American culture,” Anne wrote in her impassioned letter to Spain. “We have allowed assault rifles to become weapons of mass destruction in our everyday lives.”

“Our schools, hospitals, concert venues and churches are now all battlefields,” Anne wrote.

There are no readily available answers for Anne, Hannah, their family and the thousands of others affected by this national tragedy. Nearly 3,000 people have been shot in the weeks that followed the Las Vegas massacre, according to data collected by the Gun Violence Archive. About 800 of those victims have died. Just two weeks ago, a gunman opened fire at a church in a small town in Texas, killing 26 people and wounding 20 others.

Despite numerous high-profile massacres involving firearms in recent years, from Aurora to Sandy Hook to Orlando, Congress has not passed meaningful legislation that could prevent another mass shooting. And while lawmakers briefly voiced support for a restriction on bump stocks following the Las Vegas shooting, the devices that facilitate rapid firing are still legal. Any hope for a legislative fix was dashed when the National Rifle Association issued a statement urging the Trump administration to address the matter via existing regulations and not new laws.

Gun rights activists consider gun laws in Illinois to be strict. Gun owners are banned from carrying handguns that are visible to the public, and those with concealed carry permits are banned from bringing their firearms into schools, public parks and government buildings. Still, bump stocks remain legal, and the semi-automatic firearms that Paddock used during his rampage are as well. The state’s legislature has adjourned for the year without passing any new gun control legislation.

Anne is trying to change that. She’s starting locally, with her state representative. “Until and unless stronger gun laws with thorough background checks are in place, our country is not safe,” Anne told Spain. “Not for my Hannah. Not for [Spain’s daughter] Eleanor. Not for any of us.”

Rep. Spain told HuffPost in an email that he received Anne’s letter and found it to be “heartfelt and impactful” and that it gave him an opportunity to take time before the state’s next legislative session to find common ground on gun laws. “Out of strong respect for what her family has been through, I am looking for opportunities to work together toward addressing the scourge of mass-shootings on our society and that is what I told [Anne M.]. She asked me to take time to think about this issue and I am doing so.”

Hannah hopes that, at the very least, making her story public will remind the nation of what she and the thousands of other people ― numbers that are growing ― who have been been hurt by gun violence are living through and to keep remembering it. And in doing so, perhaps Americans will decide they’ve finally had enough and fight for safer gun laws.

“Nobody should have to experience this. Whether you’re 7 years old at Sandy Hook or 55 years old at a country music festival, there’s real action we can take. Somebody’s right to a gun should not be more important than anyone’s piece of mind.”