TPM News

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court seems likely to strike down a California law that mainly regulates anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers.

Both conservative and liberal justices voiced skepticism Tuesday about the law that requires the centers to tell clients about the availability of contraception, abortion and pre-natal care, at little or no cost. Centers that are unlicensed also must post a sign that says so.

The centers say they are being singled out and forced to deliver a message with which they disagree. California says the law is needed to let poor women know all their options.

Similar laws also are being challenged in Hawaii and Illinois.

At different points in the arguments, liberal Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor said they were troubled by aspects of the California law.

Kagan said it seemed that the state had “gerrymandered” the law, a term usually used in the context of redistricting, to target the anti-abortion centers. Sotomayor said there was at least one instance dealing with unlicensed centers that seemed “burdensome and wrong.”

Justice Samuel Alito, a likely vote for the centers, said the state’s criteria about which centers are covered by the law seemed to take only “pro-life clinics.”

“When you put all this together, you get a very suspicious pattern,” Alito said.

The outcome also could affect laws in other states that seek to regulate doctors’ speech.

In Louisiana, Texas and Wisconsin, doctors must display a sonogram and describe the fetus to most pregnant women considering an abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights. Similar laws have been blocked in Kentucky, North Carolina and Oklahoma.

Doctors’ speech has also been an issue in non-abortion cases. A federal appeals court struck down parts of a 2011 Florida law that sought to prohibit doctors from talking about gun safety with their patients. Under the law, doctors faced fines and the possible loss of their medical licenses for discussing guns with patients.

In another lawsuit over regulating crisis pregnancy centers, a federal appeals court in New York struck down parts of a New York City ordinance, although it upheld the requirement for unlicensed centers to say that they lack a license.

The court has previously upheld requirements that doctors in abortion clinics must tell patients about alternatives to abortion.

“If a pro-life state can tell a doctor you have to tell people about adoption, why can’t a pro-choice state say you have to tell people about an abortion?” Justice Stephen Breyer asked Michael Farris, representing the centers.

Farris replied that the Supreme Court has recognized that doctors must obtain a patient’s informed consent about the risks and alternatives of medical procedures, including abortions.

The abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice California was a prime sponsor of the California law. NARAL contends that the centers mislead women about their options and try to pressure them to forgo abortion. Estimates of the number of crisis pregnancy centers in the U.S. run from 2,500 to more than 4,000, compared with fewer than 1,500 abortion providers, women’s rights groups said in a Supreme Court filing.

California’s law was challenged by the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, an organization with ties to 1,500 pregnancy centers nationwide and 140 in California.

Farris said the state is trying to compel the centers “to point the way toward abortion.”

Joshua Klein, California’s deputy solicitor general, said the state is trying to let a poor, pregnant woman who visits a crisis pregnancy center know that “her financial circumstance does not make her unable to access to alternative care.”

The justices suggested they could give a different reception to a law that required all pregnancy-related facilities to post the services they provide and those they don’t.

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The Senate Intelligence Committee, as part of its ongoing Russia probe, on Tuesday previewed their initial recommendations to improve election cybersecurity ahead of the 2018 midterms.

“It is clear that the Russian government was looking for the vulnerabilities in our election systems,” Senate Intel Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) said at the press conference to announce the release of a summary of the draft recommendations. On Wednesday, the committee will host a hearing with elections officials and the leaders of the Department of Homeland Security on election security.

The committee’s summary calls for the federal government to “clearly communicate to adversaries that an attack on our election infrastructure is a hostile act, and we will respond accordingly.”

In calling for states to update their election technology, the summary recommends that states going forward purchase voting machines that at “a minimum” have a  “voter-verified paper trail and no WiFi capability.”

At the press conference, Intel senators stressed the need for states to use election equipment whose results can be audited with physical voting records.

“Fourteen states used voting equipment that had not audit-able voting trail,” Intel Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA) said, adding that his own state didn’t have a full system that had a paper trail and that it scrambled to implemented one in time for the 2017 elections.

The committee recommended that Congress pass legislation that boosts resources available to states for their election security. At the press conference, lawmakers stressed that states are still in charge of their elections, including the funding of them. However, they said they are considering legislation that would allow the feds to better assist states.

Some of that legislation has already been introduced. Other potential measures will fall under the jurisdiction of other committees, such as the Appropriations Committee or the Rules Committee, the lawmakers said.

The recommendations come as the other committees probing Russia have descended into partisan squabbling. Republicans on the House Intel Committee have wrapped up their inquiry, over Democrats’ objections, and are finishing their report. Senate Judiciary Republicans meanwhile have focused their scrutiny on Christopher Steele, the ex-British spy who sought to expose allegations of connections between Russia and associates of President Trump.

Senate Intel has so far avoided any major public displays of dysfunction. There are still critical and more controversial questions lingering over their inquiry — and specifically those concerning Trump. But Senate Intel lawmakers have signaled they are seeking to move forward on at least the election security aspects of the their review ahead of the midterms.

“The Committee has reviewed the steps state and local election officials take to ensure the integrity of our elections and agrees that U.S. election infrastructure is fundamentally resilient,” Tuesday’s summary said.

Read the summary below:

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MOSCOW (AP) — U.S. President Donald Trump called Russian President Vladimir Putin to congratulate him on his re-election Tuesday and the leaders discussed arranging a possible bilateral meeting, the Kremlin and Trump said.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed that Trump spoke with Putin Tuesday morning. She said a summary of the call would be released later.

The Kremlin said in a statement that the two presidents also spoke about the need to “coordinate efforts to limit the arms race” and closer cooperation on strategic stability and counter-terrorism.

“A special attention was given to considering the issue of a possible bilateral summit,” the Kremlin statement said.

In addition, Trump and Putin expressed satisfaction with the apparent easing of tensions over North Korea’s weapons program, according to the Kremlin.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that the two leaders didn’t discuss the poisoning of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal in Britain.

British officials have blamed the nerve agent attack on Skripal and his adult daughter on Russia. Russia has denied the accusations.

Trump offered highlights from what he called a “very good call” with Putin. He said he wants to meet with Putin in the “not too distant future” to discuss the “arms race” between Russia and the U.S.

Trump said he also wants to discuss Ukraine, North Korea, and Syria with the Russian leader.

The Kremlin said Putin and Trump also discussed the Ukrainian crisis and the 7-year Syrian war, talked about expanding economic ties and discussed energy issues.

The presidents “agreed to develop further bilateral contacts, taking into account changes in the U.S. State Department,” the Kremlin statement said in a reference to Trump’s decision to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

Moscow has repeatedly said it hoped for better ties with the U.S. under Trump. Relations between the two countries instead have remained tense amid the allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the investigations of whether there was collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia.

The White House said Monday that it was “not surprised by the outcome” of Sunday’s presidential election in Russia and that no congratulatory call was planned.

Putin received calls from a number of other foreign leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Many others, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, sent congratulatory telegrams.

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Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on Tuesday said that it would “probably” be an impeachable offense if President Donald Trump fired special counsel Robert Mueller “without cause.”

“If the President fired Robert Mueller, do you think that would be an impeachable offense?” conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt asked the senator in an interview.

“Probably so, if he did it without cause, yeah,” Graham replied.

“Now Angus King said no, last hour,” Hewitt said. “Why do you think it would be?”

“Well, I think what the President will have done is stopped an investigation into whether or not his campaign colluded with the Russians, what effect the Russians had on the 2016 campaign,” Graham said. “I can’t see it being anything other than a corrupt purpose.”

Later in the interview, asked whether congressional Republicans would be willing to impeach Trump, Graham compared the situation to a hypothetical involving former President Barack Obama.

“Let’s say that Obama fired somebody,” Graham said. “I think we’d all have a different view on the Republican side. A high crime and misdemeanor in the Constitution is a fairly vague term. But what is at the essence of impeachment is a check and balance on a President, right, who’s gotten out of their lane, who changed the rule of law and basically turns it upside down.”

He said he could not “think of a more upsetting moment in the rule of law to have an investigator looking at a President’s campaign as to whether or not they colluded with a foreign government, what kind of crimes may have been committed.”

“I’ve seen no evidence of collusion, but to stop investigation without cause, I think, would be a Constitutional crisis,” Graham said.

Near the end of the interview, he recalled the way former President Bill Clinton’s legal team attacked then-independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

“I’m just saying there’s a line you can’t cross,” Graham said. “You can’t fire the guy without cause.”

Graham has supported legislation to protect special counsels, and said on Sunday that if Trump fired Mueller it would “be the beginning of the end of his presidency, because we’re a rule of law nation.”

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The state’s governor will appoint Mississippi’s first-ever female member of Congress to fill the Senate vacancy that will soon be created when veteran Sen. Thad Cochran retires, three state Republicans told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Cindy Hyde-Smith, a 58-year-old Republican, has served as the state’s agriculture commissioner since 2011.

Once appointed, Hyde-Smith will immediately be running for re-election for the nearly three years remaining in Cochran’s term. That special election will be Nov. 6. Two of the sources said Gov. Phil Bryant was expected to announce his selection of Hyde-Smith as early as Wednesday.

The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because the announcement was not yet official.

Hyde-Smith is expected to be backed by the national and Mississippi GOP establishment against challenges from insurgent Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel and Democrats who would like to nab a Mississippi senate seat as part of an effort to overturn a slim GOP majority.

The tea party-backed McDaniel, who narrowly missed knocking off Cochran in 2014, said last week that he would drop a primary challenge to Mississippi’s other senator — Roger Wicker — to instead seek Cochran’s seat. Mike Espy, a Democrat who served as President Bill Clinton’s secretary of agriculture, said Monday he has a “strong intention” to run for Cochran’s seat. In 1986, Espy became the first African-American in modern times to win a congressional seat in Mississippi. Other candidates could yet join the race. If no one earns a majority on Nov. 6, a runoff would follow on Nov. 27.

Bryant, who like McDaniel benefited from substantial tea party backing, declared open war on his onetime ally after he switched races. Bryant has said he was focused on naming someone who could hold the seat for years to come. By choosing Hyde-Smith and passing over the 70-year-old Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, Bryant follows a long Mississippi tradition of seeking to place federal lawmakers who can stay in Congress for decades and build seniority and influence. Hyde-Smith could be able to call on support from agricultural interests, which are strong in Mississippi, one of the nation’s most rural states.

Cochran announced March 5 that he would retire on April 1, citing health problems. The 80-year-old, first elected to the Senate in 1978 after serving six years in the House, was the first Republican elected to the Senate from Mississippi since Reconstruction ended. A mild-mannered Southerner, Cochran came to the Senate when it had a far clubbier atmosphere and he played an insider’s game throughout his seven terms — particularly as a member of the powerful Appropriations panel, which had long been a bipartisan powerhouse and way to funnel taxpayer dollars back home.

Hyde-Smith is a former colleague of McDaniel, having been elected three times to the state Senate from a rural southwest Mississippi district that includes her hometown of Brookhaven. She switched parties to become a Republican in 2010, and won a three-way GOP primary for agriculture commissioner in 2011 without a runoff. She beat Democratic opponents even more easily in the 2011 and 2015 general elections.

Hyde-Smith is Mississippi’s first female agriculture commissioner and one of only four women ever elected statewide. Mississippi and Vermont are the only two U.S. states never to have elected a woman to Congress.

McDaniel, seeking an anti-establishment message, has been accusing Bryant of letting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or other GOP leaders in Washington pick the state’s next senator. Bryant has hotly denied any such influence, but has said he expected President Donald Trump and others to aid his choice.

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Republicans in the House and Senate released a bill Monday afternoon that aims to shore up Obamacare’s damaged individual market and bring down insurance premiums. The bill would bring back the cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments to health insurers that President Trump terminated last year, pour $30 billion into a federal reinsurance program, and fully restore funding to the open- enrollment outreach work that the federal government abandoned when Trump took office.

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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) on Monday accused both Senate and House leadership of stripping her effort to reform how Congress deals with sexual harassment from this week’s must-pass government spending bill.

It begs the question: Who are they trying to protect?” Gillibrand wrote in a statement Monday. “I can’t think of any legitimate reason to remove this language other than to protect members of Congress over taxpayers and congressional employees.”

Following revelations that members of Congress had used taxpayer dollars to secretly settle harassment allegations and other claims, Gillibrand and several co-sponsors introduced the Congressional Harassment Reform Act in December.

The bill would make members of Congress personally liable for harassment settlements and would draw back the secretive process currently governing claims of improper conduct.

Gillibrand’s office on Monday said that provisions of her bill were “included in the omnibus bill throughout the negotiation process, but were removed by Leadership at the last minute.”

However, in a statement to Politico Monday, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Don Stewart, said that “while this important issue is being discussed, at no time was language from Sen. Gillibrand’s bill adopted to the legislation and/or stripped.”

The government funding bill is still being developed, so I don’t have any update on the final bill,” he said.

Spokespeople for Gillibrand, McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) did not immediately respond to TPM’s requests for comment Tuesday.

Politico, citing multiple unnamed sources tracking the issue, reported Monday that language on congressional harassment reform was “unlikely” to be attached to the spending bill, which must be passed by Friday to avoid a government shutdown.

The outlet noted that the House has already passed a harassment reform bill — which, contrary to Senate Democrats’ wishes, according to one unnamed House aide, also required lawmakers to pay discrimination settlements out of pocket.

H/t ThinkProgress.

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Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV) defended one of his staffers on Monday after a high school student’s profanity-laced call led the staffer to report the call to the student’s school, resulting in the student’s suspension.

“I’m not apologizing because my guy accurately described what happened in the phone call,” Amodei told the Nevada Independent.

17-year-old Noah Christiansen called Amodei’s office during Wednesday’s national school walkout to say that lawmakers needed to “get off their fucking asses” and do something about gun violence, such as raising the minimum age to purchase firearms.

The staffer who took the call contacted the principal of Christiansen’s high school about the incident, who then slapped the student with a two-day suspension for “disrespectful language.” Christiansen was also barred from assuming his role as elected class secretary-treasurer.

Amodei, a strong gun rights supporter, denied the suspension was an act of retaliation or a stifling of the student’s First Amendment rights, saying that “what the principal decided to do is, I mean, that’s what principals get paid for.”

The ACLU of Nevada and Christiansen are pushing for the school to wipe the suspension from his record and allow him to serve his elected class position, along with an apology from Amodei and the school administrators.

“I’m smart enough to use better words than of course the f-word,” Christiansen told the Independent. “But, at the same time, even if I do want to use words and use them over and over again, it’s my right to do so.”

“It is unbelievable that a constituent should have to worry about calling a congressional office to share their opinions because your congressman’s office might retaliate against you by reporting you to your school or place of employment,” said Nevada ACLU executive director Tod Story in a statement.

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The nation’s most restrictive abortion law is headed for a showdown before a federal judge only hours after it was signed by Mississippi’s governor.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves late Monday scheduled arguments Tuesday morning over whether he should immediately block the law after a request by the state’s only abortion clinic and a physician who works there.

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signed House Bill 1510 on Monday, immediately banning most abortions after 15 weeks of gestation. How quickly will the effects of the law be felt in Mississippi? Dr. Sacheen Carr-Ellis of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization stated in court papers that a woman 15 weeks or more pregnant is scheduled for a Tuesday afternoon abortion.

The law and responding challenge set up a confrontation sought by abortion opponents, who are hoping federal courts will ultimately prohibit abortions before a fetus is viable. Current federal law does not.

Some legal experts have said a change in the law is unlikely unless the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court changes in a way that favors abortion opponents.

“We are saving more of the unborn than any state in America, and what better thing can we do?” Bryant said in a video his office posted on social media.

The law’s only exceptions are if a fetus has health problems making it “incompatible with life” outside of the womb at full term, or if a pregnant woman’s life or a “major bodily function” is threatened by pregnancy. Pregnancies resulting from rape and incest aren’t exempted.

Mississippi previously tied with North Carolina for the nation’s strictest abortion limits at 20 weeks. Both states count pregnancy as beginning on the first day of a woman’s previous menstrual period. That means Mississippi’s previous restrictions already kicked in about two weeks before those of states whose 20-week bans begin at conception.

“We’ll probably be sued in about half an hour,” Bryant said to laughter from supporters as he signed the bill. “That’ll be fine with me. It’ll be worth fighting over.”

Bryant’s prediction was accurate. The state’s only abortion clinic and one of the physicians who practices there sued in federal court within an hour, arguing the law violates other federal court rulings saying a state can’t restrict abortion before a child can survive on its own outside the womb.

The Jackson Women’s Health Organization, in a lawsuit handled by the Center of Reproductive Rights, argued the measure is unconstitutional and should immediately be struck down.

“Under decades of United States Supreme Court precedent, the state of Mississippi cannot ban abortion prior to viability, regardless of what exceptions are provided to the ban,” the suit states.

The suit says the clinic performed 78 abortions in 2017 when the fetus was identified as being 15 weeks or older. That’s out of about 2,500 abortions performed statewide, mostly at the clinic.

Carr-Ellis, in a sworn statement, says she’ll have to stop providing abortions to women past the 15 week ban, or else lose her Mississippi medical license, as House Bill 1510 requires. She says women shouldn’t be forced to carry their pregnancies to term against their wills or leave the state to obtain abortions.

“A woman who is pregnant should have the ability to make the decision that is best for her about the course of her pregnancy, based on her own values and goals for her life,” Carr-Ellis said in the statement.

Republican legislative leaders Lt. Gov Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn both attended Bryant’s private signing ceremony

“The winners (today) are those babies that are in the womb, first and foremost,” Gunn said. “Those are the ones we’re trying to protect.”

When asked if the state is prepared to bear the cost of a lawsuit, Gunn said, “Absolutely.”

“I don’t know if you can put any value on human life,” Gunn said. “We are all about fighting to protect the unborn. Whatever challenges we have to take on to do that, is something we’re willing to do.”

Opponents, though, predicted the attempt to allow states to restrict abortion before viability would fail.

“We certainly think this bill is unconstitutional,” said Katherine Klein, equality advocacy coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi. “The 15-week marker has no bearing in science. It’s just completely unfounded and a court has never upheld anything under the 20-week viability marker.”

The bill was drafted with the assistance of conservative groups including the Mississippi Center for Public Policy and the Alliance Defending Freedom.

“We believe this law should be a model for the rest of the country,” Jameson Taylor, acting president of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, said in a statement.

Both Republican-controlled chambers passed the bill overwhelmingly in early March, by a vote of 35-14 in the Senate and 76-34 in the House.

The U.S. Senate failed to pass a 20-week abortion ban bill in January. With 60 “yes” votes required to advance, the bill failed on a 51-46 vote.

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Trump Lawyer John Dowd Resigns

John Dowd, an attorney on President Donald Trump’s outside legal team handling the Russia…