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Joe Manchin tries to navigate West Virginia’s red wave

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FAIRMONT, W.V. — This reliably conservative state hasn’t been a presidential battleground for decades but it’s shaping up to be an important hotbed for the 2018 midterm elections and, possibly, the battle for control of the U.S. Senate.

When President Donald Trump made his way to White Sulphur Springs on Thursday for the annual congressional Republican retreat — his third visit to West Virginia since being inaugurated — he shined a spotlight onto one of his most reliable and supportive strongholds, one that also happens to be a top Republican 2018 campaign target.

In the middle is Sen. Joe Manchin, a familiar figure in a state where he was also a twice-elected governor. But 2018 is a hard time to be a Democrat in this solidly red state and the GOP sees him as a key target, one of ten Senate Democrats up for re-election this year in a state won by Trump.

Manchin’s delicate position was evident this week when Vice President Mike Pence used his appearance at the GOP retreat to attack the senator for failing to vote for the GOP tax bill passed late last year.

Manchin fired back:

With the midterm election already well underway, West Virginia will test the rigidness of party ideology, the dedication of President Trump’s base, and whether there’s still room for middle-of-the-road politicians like Manchin to survive on a polarized national stage.

Manchin has not been a stranger to the White House since Trump’s election (he was floated as a potential pick for Secretary of Energy and then voted for a number of Trump’s nominees, including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, but voted against the GOP health care bills and tax plan).

But this year, the senator is competing to win what could be the race of his political life while also trying to navigate the treacherous waters of Washington’s political debates.

He was on center stage in the middle of the recent government shutdown as a primary Democratic player trying to bring opposing sides together and pass a funding bill. And he has found himself in the position of trying to bridge together both parties on immigration policy while simultaneously acknowledging that the issue isn’t of utmost priority to his voters.

“The immigration issue has not been a hot topic in the state of West Virginia,” Manchin said on Sunday’s “Meet The Press.”

“People are concerned, and people want security, and they want to have good opportunities and jobs and on and on and on like everybody else. But it’s not been of high concern.”

Since the shutdown, Manchin has repeatedly said Washington, D.C. “sucks,” but last week affirmed that he will indeed run for re-election this year because he’s “trying to make it better.”

Assuming Manchin gets through his primary, he is likely to face one of a number of Republicans vying for their party’s nomination, including state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, or Don Blankenship, a former coal baron who went to prison in the wake of a 2010 mine explosion. The Cook Political Report has rated the general election as a toss-up.

To win this year, Manchin will have to prove to the voters who have known him for years that he’s still the centrist deal-maker he says he is while also winning over a large swath of his constituents who voted for President Trump.





Shifting West Virginia

Democrats haven’t won a presidential election in West Virginia since Bill Clinton in 1996. In 2016, it was the site of Trump’s largest election margin in the country, when he defeated Hillary Clinton here by 42 points.

If there’s one part of the region that signals the state’s shift to red, it’s Marion County, where Manchin grew up. The senator was born and raised in Farmington, a small coal town in the northern section of the state that’s just outside of Fairmont, the state’s 7th largest city, nestled on a hilly landscape right on the Monongahela River.

Marion County voted for the Democratic candidate in 19 of the 20 presidential elections between 1932 and 2008. In 2008, Barack Obama only won the county by .4 percent of the vote, and then in 2012, Mitt Romney won the county by 14 percent. By 2016, it wasn’t close. Donald Trump easily won the county over Hillary Clinton by 33 percent.

The region is relatively rural, and many residents have been in the area their entire life. In the 2010 census, the county was 94 percent white, with a median income for a household of $38,115 — not far off from the state’s numbers as a whole.





Voters here this week offered a vast variety of grades for President Trump, and most were familiar with their senator, many even noting personal experiences they’ve had with him over the years.

Taylor Sutphin, who lives in Fairmont and works in the packing and moving business, considers himself mostly a Republican and is thankful for the Trump administration rolling back some regulations he felt were hindering his industry.

Trump is “probably not the best president that we’ve ever had,” Sutphin told NBC News, “but some of the stuff that he’s done when it comes to deregulating DOT makes it a lot easier on my end.” Manchin, meanwhile, is “a good guy,” he said. “I can’t say anything bad about him because I’ve done a lot of work for the Manchins. So, they’re good people.”

Jeff Fleming calls himself a “conservative Democrat,” and praised Manchin’s job as senator in an interview this week. “It’s hard right now to be a Democrat in this country because they’ve tagged it with the far left and that’s not necessarily the case with West Virginia Democrats. West Virginia Democrats used to be traditionally conservative, and I think that’s where he stands, and it’s kind of where I stand.”

When it comes to the president, the “jury’s still out,” Fleming said. “I haven’t drawn a conclusion on him yet. I know he’s gotten a lot of bad press but we’ll see how his policies go. I’ll give the guy time.”

Doyle Cowger, a retired coal miner who has lived around Fairmont all his life, didn’t like Trump or Hillary Clinton in 2016 but told NBC News that he felt Clinton was the better option of the two. He felt the sentiment around his region largely changed during the last election.

The president “knows the right things to say to get elected in this state, but he didn’t say what I liked,” Cowger said. “And I’m a coal miner and I still don’t like what he said.” Cowger voted for Manchin before and plans to again. “He’s working on pensions for the miners and the other labor people and looks out for old people, or seems to.”

If Manchin loses this fall, it could be partly because of voters he’s won before that he could not keep for another round. This year, Republicans believe they have extra ammo to unleash in the fight for this seat, including Manchin’s support for gun background check legislation in 2013, and his votes last year against President Trump’s top legislative priorities.

Carson Zickefoose, a paralegal from nearby Shinnston, “couldn’t be happier” with the president, and is one of those voters Republicans know they might have reached. He’s a registered Republican, but Zickefoose calls himself a “conservative first.”

He said he voted for Manchin twice as governor but probably won’t vote for him for Senate this year. “He talks a lot about wanting to work with President Trump and wanting to be part of the solution,” he said in an interview.

“But he’s voted against absolutely everything that Trump’s put up.”



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Biden to sign two executive orders on Covid economic relief, worker protections

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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden plans to sign two executive orders Friday to address the economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic, including expanding food stamps and beginning the process to require that everyone working for the federal government get a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

National Economic Council Director Brian Deese said the orders, which add to a slew Biden has already approved, are “not a substitute” for the massive $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill that Biden hopes Congress will pass, but rather a “critical lifeline” for millions of Americans who need assistance now.

“The American people can’t afford to wait. So many are hanging on by a thread,” he said.

Biden’s “all-of-government” effort will ask the Agriculture Department to increase by 15 percent a Covid-19 food assistance program that provides nutritional assistance to families with children who would normally receive free or reduced-price lunches when schools were in regular sessions, as well as expand the emergency increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits authorized by Congress to include those at the lowest income levels.

The order will also ask the Treasury Department to update its process to issue direct payments after a number of qualifying Americans reported issues and delays getting the first two rounds of stimulus checks last year, a hurdle Biden hopes to avoid with the third round of payments included in his relief bill.

Biden will also ask the Labor Department to allow for workers who refuse employment out of concerns about health risks to qualify for unemployment benefits. The order will create a coordination system across federal agencies to help people better navigate what relief benefits they qualify for.

The second executive order Biden is expected to sign will revoke orders signed by former President Donald Trump to restore collective bargaining power and ask federal agencies to pay a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Biden will also start the planning to require federal contractors to pay a $15 minimum wage and to provide emergency paid leave.

Biden inherits a deeply damaged economy, with about 900,000 Americans having filed for unemployment benefits last week, according to the first labor market data released under his presidency. Coronavirus deaths in the country have surpassed 400,000.

Biden has signed a number of executive orders since he took office Wednesday to swiftly roll back some Trump-era policies, as well as tackle the coronavirus.

On Thursday, Biden signed an executive order requiring people to wear masks in airports and on airplanes, trains and maritime vessels. He also directed agencies to use their powers, including the Defense Production Act, to accelerate production of items in short supply.

Aides have said more executive actions are expected in the coming days and weeks.

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Brussels on alert as furious MEP erupts over UK ambassador spat: 'EU must NOT build state'

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BRUSSELS has been warned not to pursue its federalist dream of a United States of Europe following a brutal spat with the UK over the diplomatic status of the EU ambassador to Britain.

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Puerto Rico Gov. Pierluisi seeks ‘equality’ in funding to tackle Covid, reconstruction

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Puerto Rico’s new governor, Pedro Pierluisi, was on a mission on his first trip to Washington, D.C. — to ensure that the U.S. territory of 3 million people is top of mind for Congress and the new administration.

“In Puerto Rico’s case, I believe that it’s very important to attract attention for positive reasons, not negative ones, so that they do not forget us and we are present in Washington’s agenda,” Pierluisi said, speaking in his native Spanish about his trip to the nation’s capital to attend President Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Pierluisi, a Democrat who is the head of Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood party, stepped into office Jan. 2 after winning the first gubernatorial election on the island since Gov. Ricardo Rosselló resigned in 2019 after a political scandal that led to historic protests.

Pierluisi inherited an island still rebuilding after the destruction left by a string of strong earthquakes last year and Hurricane Maria in 2017 — the deadliest U.S.-based natural disaster in 100 years. The island has been grappling with the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

A vehicle drives through streets filled with floodwater past destroyed homes caused by Hurricane Maria in an aerial photograph taken above Barrio Obrero in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 25, 2017.Alex Wroblewski / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Pierluisi’s immediate priority is to manage the health and economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed at least 1,447 people in Puerto Rico and infected over 82,500 others.

The island’s coronavirus vaccine distribution process was off to a bumpy start at the end of last year, but Pierluisi said Puerto Rico is now “distinguishing itself by being one of the jurisdictions that most quickly administers the vaccines we’re receiving.” Of the 270,000 vaccine doses the island has received, at least 220,000 have already been given. “The rest are in the process of distribution or administration,” he told NBC News.

Biden has already signed a series of executive orders to increase Covid-19 vaccinations, expand testing and reopen schools. Pierluisi said he expects that the island will have access to more vaccinations, “and that’s going to be good for Puerto Rico.”

Biden has also said he wants the majority of K-8 schools to reopen in his first 100 days, a goal Pierluisi shares with Biden and his nominee for education secretary, Miguel Cardona, who’s also Puerto Rican.

“The education of public school students in Puerto Rico has been very limited over the last year, and the educational lag they face has to be enormous. That’s a great concern for me,” Pierluisi said. “Also, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that face-to-face education be resumed, partially because it’s essential for the development of our children.”

A path to recovery

Aside from managing the pandemic, Pierluisi outlined his priority to ensure that the island’s government “becomes more agile” in using federal funds approved to rebuild after Maria, especially the $3.2 billion available through a federal grant program from the Department of Housing and Urban Development known as Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery. The funds have barely been used.

During the Trump administration, Housing Secretary Ben Carson awarded historic amounts of aid under the program for Puerto Rico to rebuild after Maria but then placed unique restrictions on the island, citing “alleged corruption” and “fiscal irregularities,” as well as “Puerto Rico’s capacity to manage these funds” as a first-time grantee. The efforts to limit Puerto Rico’s access to the funds came after the longest government shutdown in U.S. history initially halted the disbursement process in 2019.

Texas and Florida faced similar issues after hurricanes Harvey and Irma. However, their funds were not held up after the natural disasters, and they faced no additional restrictions, according to audits last year by the inspector general’s office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In a conversation with Biden’s team, Pierluisi urged the new administration to lift Trump-era requirements prohibiting the use of funds to help fix the island’s electrical grid, even though Congress promised $2 billion to rebuild it. He also called on it to lift restrictions on the use of HUD funds, which Biden had promised to remove in his plan for Puerto Rico.

“I’m not looking for Puerto Rico to get better treatment than other states. I’m asking for equality. We want the same treatment,” Pierluisi said.

Pushing for equal funding

Pierluisi is advocating for the island to have equal access to federal programs like Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Forty-four percent of the island’s population lives in poverty.

Even though the poverty rate in Puerto Rico is double that of Mississippi, the country’s poorest state, the federal government covers 55 cents of every dollar Puerto Rico spends on Medicaid, compared to 76 cents in Mississippi. That is because, unlike the 50 states — where Medicaid funding is open-ended — Puerto Rico has a limited spending cap, essentially a block grant, and the island has to pick up the rest of the costs.

In the 2019 fiscal year, the island’s Medicaid funding was capped at $367 million, while Medicaid expenditures totaled $2.7 billion, making it challenging to adjust to the population’s needs during the coronavirus crisis. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the federal program providing low-income families with financial assistance for food operates under similar restrictions in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico is fully excluded from the Earned Income Tax Credit, which has become one of the federal government’s largest antipoverty programs by providing tax credits for working families. It has also been excluded from Supplemental Security Income, a federal program that provides cash assistance to elderly, blind and disabled people with limited resources to meet basic living expenses.

Biden’s plan for Puerto Rico calls for providing funding parity under the programs. Pierluisi said it’s “my job now” — alongside Puerto Rico’s nonvoting member of Congress, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez — “to make sure they keep their word.” Gonzalez, a Republican, is also part of the island’s pro-statehood party.

To break cycles of poverty and boost economic development, Pierluisi proposes to improve the government’s system of granting business permits.

He also plans to add pressure on Congress over statehood after 52 percent of Puerto Ricans voted “yes” in November in a nonbinding statehood referendum, which directly asked voters whether Puerto Rico should immediately be admitted into the union as a state. Forty-seven percent of Puerto Ricans voted against it. His hope is that Congress will eventually support a binding statehood referendum.

Rebuilding the troubling power grid and the debt

Hurricane Maria triggered the collapse of Puerto Rico’s power grid, leading to the world’s second-longest blackout. Even after post-hurricane repairs were made, Puerto Ricans have been paying nearly double compared to U.S. mainland customers for unreliable service that often causes blackouts across the island.

Against that backdrop, Pierluisi inherited from the previous administration a $1.4 billion contract between Puerto Rico’s state-owned utility, PREPA, and the private company LUMA Energy to manage the island’s electricity transmission and distribution system for the next 15 years.



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