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4 Southern U.S. House Democrats in Trump seats break with party on coronavirus vote

Georgia’s Lucy McBath is only Southern Democrat in a seat Trump carried to vote for $3 trillion spending bill

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

WASHINGTON (CFP) — Four of the five Southern Democrats trying to hold seats from U.S. House districts that President Donald Trump carried in 2016 have voted against a $3 trillion coronavirus relief package pushed through the House by Democratic leaders late Friday.

The lone Southern Democrat in a Trump seat who voted for the measure was U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, who represents a district in Atlanta’s near northwest suburbs. She came under immediate fire from her leading GOP opponent for supporting “her San Francisco buddy,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in the vote.

Voting no were U.S. Reps. Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, Kendra Horn of Oklahoma, and Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger, both from Virginia.

Five other Democrats who in 2018 flipped Republican-held districts that Trump didn’t carry in 2016 voted for the measure, including Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Florida, Jennifer Wexton of Virginia, and Colin Allred and Lizzie Fletcher of Texas.

The measure, dubbed as the HEROES Act by its sponsors, passed the House on a mostly party-line vote of 208-199. It would provide nearly $1 billion to state, local and tribal governments that have seen their tax revenues plunge during the coronavirus shutdown, along with $100 billion for farmers who have faced market dislocations.

The measure would also provide another round of $1,200 stimulus payments to Americans, including undocumented immigrants; extend supplemental federal unemployment payments until January; forgive $10,000 in student loan debt for every borrower; provide money for election security; and inject $25 billion into the U.S. Postal Service.

The $3 trillion price tag for the package — along with the provisions on student loan debt, election security, and including undocumented immigrants in stimulus payments — have drawn strong opposition from Republican leaders in the Senate, who have pronounced the plan dead on arrival.

By voting against the bill, the Southern Democrats in Trump districts were trying to avoid being tagged with support for a doomed, partisan spending plan that could be weaponized by their Republican opponents in the fall.

Cunningham, who represents the 1st District in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, called the bill “Washington politics at its worst.”

“While South Carolina families, small business owners, and workers are struggling, now is not the time to advance a partisan wish list or refuse to come to the negotiating table,” Cunningham said in a statement. “At a time when our country is in real trouble, we should not be spending precious time on one-sided solutions that aren’t going anywhere.

Horn, who represents the 5th District in and around Oklahoma City, called the measure “a messaging bill” that lacked bi-partisan support and was “a disservice to the American people, especially during a time of crisis.”

“This is not the time for partisan gamesmanship, this is the time to find common ground and deliver help where it is needed most,” Horn said in a statement.  “In response to COVID-19, our relief efforts must be targeted, timely, and transparent. The HEROES Act does not meet those standards.”

Luria, who represents Virginia’s 2nd district in the Hampton Roads area, noted that the bill would double federal spending this year “and spending of this scale requires careful consideration and input from all members, not just one party.”

“Relief legislation must address the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as pave the path to economic recovery,” Luria said in a statement. “Unfortunately, there are many elements of the bill that are unrelated to addressing Americans’ most immediate needs associated with COVID-19, which distract from addressing our most urgent priorities during this pandemic.”

Spanberger, who represents the 7th District in and around Richmond, said some of her Democratic colleagues “have decided to use this package as an opportunity to make political statements and propose a bill that goes far beyond pandemic relief and has no chance at becoming law, further delaying the help so many need.”

“We must come together to build a targeted, timely relief package that avoids partisan posturing and instead prioritizes combating our nationwide public health emergency, addressing catastrophic unemployment rates, and protecting the security of the next generation,” Spanberger said in a statement.

After the vote, McBath released a statement in which she did not offer a detailed explanation for her support of the bill, beyond saying that she was “fighting” for more funding for hospitals, first responders and the unemployed.

“This pandemic has caused grief for thousands, financial difficulty for millions, and drastic changes to the lives of every American,” she said. “Families across the country agree that more must be done to protect the health and financial well-being of our loved ones.”

But her leading Republican opponent, Karen Handel, charged that McBath “voted with the far left of her party to approve a $3 trillion partisan spending spree on out-of-touch, liberal priorities.”

“Nancy Pelosi has a true and loyal friend in Lucy McBath,” Handel said in a statement posted on Twitter. “When faced with backing the Speaker’s extreme agenda or representing the interests of [her district], McBath chooses her San Francisco buddy every time.”

McBath unseated Handel in 2018 in the 6th District, which Trump narrowly carried in 2016. Handel will face four other GOP candidates in the June 9 primary for the right to take on McBath again in November.

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North Carolina U.S. Senator Richard Burr steps down from chairmanship after FBI searches phone

Burr is under investigation for stock trades made before markets tanked due to coronavirus crisis

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

WASHINGTON (CFP) — The political and legal jeopardy facing U.S. Senator Richard Burr intensified Thursday, after the FBI executed a search warrant for his phone as part of an investigation into stock sales he made before the coronavirus crisis caused a market plunge.

Just hours after the Los Angeles Times broke the news about the search warrant, the North Carolina Republican temporarily stepped aside as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said Burr would relinquish the chairmanship “during the pendency of the investigation.”

“We agreed that this decision would be in the best interests of the committee,” McConnell said in a statement.

U.S. Senator Richard Burr, R-North Carolina

In brief remarks to a reporter Thursday, Burr, who has previously denied any wrongdoing in the stock sales, said he had been cooperating with the investigation, which he said should be allowed “to play out.”

Burr said he decided to step down from his chairmanship because the investigation “is a distraction to the hard work of the committee, and the members and I think that the security of the country is too important to have a distraction.”

Burr had been cruising toward retirement in his last term in the Senate as head of one of its most important committees before he was hit by blowback from stock sales he made in February, which are now being investigated by both the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

At issue is whether Burr used inside information he obtained as a senator to make the stock sales, which would violate federal law.

An FBI search warrant would have required a finding by a federal judge of probable cause that a crime had been committed and approval at the highest levels of the Justice Department, an indication of the seriousness of Burr’s potential legal jeopardy.

An analysis of financial disclosure reports by the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan research group, showed that on February 13, Burr sold 33 stocks worth between $628,000 and $1.7 million dollars, including stocks in hotel companies hard hit by the coronavirus. The stock market began to plunge about a week later.

Senators only have to report financial transactions within ranges on disclosure reports, so the exact amount of Burr’s stock sales is unknown.

Prior to his stock sales, Burr, as the intelligence committee chair, was receiving daily briefings from Trump administration officials about coronavirus.

ProPublica subsequently reported that Burr’s brother-in-law, Gerald Fauth, sold stock on the same day.

Members of Congress are permitted to own and trade stocks. However, trades have to be disclosed, and it is illegal for them to buy and sell stock based on insider information that isn’t available to the general public, under a law passed in 2012 that Burr voted against.

Burr has said his stock trades were based solely on publicly available information.

In addition to the stock sales themselves, Burr’s public comments during the early days of the coronavirus crisis have contributed to the firestorm he now faces.

On February 7, Burr co-wrote an opinion article for Fox News in which he said that the United States “is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus” and said public health officials were moving “swiftly and decisively” to deal with the threat.

But a week later, he began selling stock, and on February 27, he told a private meeting of North Carolina business leaders that coronavirus “is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history,” according to audio of the speech obtained by National Public Radio.

Burr also likened coronavirus to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that is believed to have killed at least 17 million people worldwide, NPR reported.

Burr, 64, was first elected in 2004. He has announced he won’t seek re-election to a fourth term in 2022.

It will be up to McConnell to pick a new chair for the intelligence panel Among the names being considered is Florida U.S. Senator Marco Rubio.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Rubio indicated he would be wiling to serve but downplayed the impact of the change, saying “whoever gets it is going to be a backup quarterback coming into the game for a few plays while the guy goes through a concussion protocol.”

Several other senators have had their stock trades come under scrutiny amid the coronavirus market plunge, including Kelley Loeffler of Georgia and Dianne Feinstein of California.

A spokesperson for Loeffler said Thursday that she has not been served with a search warrant.

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Jeff Sessions’s plea to Alabama: I really, really love Donald Trump. Really.

Sessions pens open letter touting his pro-Trump bona fides as he battles for his political life in GOP U.S. Senate primary runoff

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

MONTGOMERY (CFP) — Facing political headwinds blowing from President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, U.S. Senate candidate Jeff Sessions has taken the extraordinary step of sending open letter to his fellow Alabamians in which he expresses undying fealty to the man who has repeatedly, publicly belittled him.

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions

“I have remained faithful to the President and his agenda. I have always stood up for him, and I never backed down, not even for one moment. My convictions are immovable, built on rock, not sand,” Sessions said in the letter released May 12.

“I believe President Trump is a great President who is steadily making progress for America, despite relentless opposition. My support for his agenda is not about me, or even about him. It’s about doing the right thing for the country I so love.”

Insisting that there is no daylight between him and Trump, Sessions said “the people of Alabama do not have to choose between voting for the President and voting for me, they can do both.”

Read full text of Session’s open letter.

However, Sessions also defended the decision he made that has drawn Trump’s unending ire — recusing himself as U.S. attorney general from the investigation into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election after his own meeting with Russia’s ambassador in Washington became public.

“I did what the law required me to do,” Sessions said. “I was a central figure in the campaign and was also a subject of and witness in the investigation and could obviously not legally be involved in investigating myself.”

“If I had ignored and broken the law, the Democrats would have used that to severely damage the President.”

But as he tries to reclaim the goodwill of Trump’s most fervent partisans, Sessions also dismissed the investigation as “a disruptive and prolonged fiasco for America and especially for President Trump, and a massive waste of money chasing the deep state myth of Russian collusion.”

He also said that from the beginning of the administration, he had urged Trump to fire the man who launched the Russia investigation, former FBI Director James Comey.

“I concluded that Comey was driven by ego, lacked self-discipline, and lacked the judgement necessary to lead an agency as critical as the FBI,” he said.

Sessions’s letter is the latest chapter in his quest to regain the Senate seat he gave up in 2017 to become attorney general — a seat he had held for 20 years and likely could have kept for life had he not agreed to join the Trump administration.

Trump was publicly critical of Sessions during his time attorney general and has continued to needle him since firing Sessions in 2018, including in an interview just days before Session’s open letter in which he said Sessions had “begged” to be attorney general and was “a very average guy” and a “total disaster.”

The president has endorsed Session’s opponent in the July 14 GOP primary runoff, former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville — an endorsement that has left Sessions fighting for his political life in a state where the president remains popular.

In his letter, Sessions noted that in 2016, he the first member of Congress to endorse Trump, at a time when “many thought I was nuts to do so.”

“I helped Trump win and traveled the country with him, embedded in his campaign. I am one of the architects of his agenda, and I was pushing his agenda even before he ran for office,” he said.

Sessions also noted that after Trump fired him, “I did not say a cross word about him, as I thought that would be dishonorable.”

He also said that while Alabamians “enthusiastically” support Trump, “we also make our own decisions on who to send to the U.S. Senate.”

“Alabamians have long resisted pressure from people in Washington telling them how to vote,” Sessions said.

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Insight: How the coronavirus crisis has set off odd, angry crosscurrents across Southern politics

Budget woes, religious liberty, economic freedom crash against public health concerns

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

The collision between an untreatable and potentially deadly virus and a conservative Southern political culture that is both business-friendly and skeptical of government dicta has sent odd and even angry crosscurrents rippling across the region’s politics.

For example, in Mississippi, Governor Tate Reeves, who was slow to close down his state, had to backtrack on plans for a quick reopening when coronavirus cases rose, on the same day that legislators from both parties united to strip him of authority to spend a $1 billion pot of federal coronavirus money.

An angry Reeves accused them of “stealing.”

Editor Rich Shumate

In Nashville, Mayor John Cooper proposed a whopping 32 percent property tax increase to deal with a coronavirus-related shortfall in city revenue — and admitted that he agreed with critics who began howling about the possibility of sharply higher tax bills.

But, said Cooper, the city has no other choice.

In Kentucky, the new Republican attorney general, Daniel Cameron, joined a lawsuit seeking to invalidate a ban on interstate travel ordered by the new Democratic governor, Andy Beshear — which Beshear imposed because Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Lee, wasn’t imposing stay-at-home orders as strict as what Beshear issued in the Bluegrass State.

In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp stubbornly stuck to plans to reopen his state, even though Peach State mayors and even President Donald Trump had urged him not to do so.

Coronavirus lockdowns have triggered angry protests across the South, and governors have struggled to stop pastors from holding church services — raising First Amendment arguments in the nation’s most religious section.

With a few exceptions, states in the South were among the last to close down due to the coronavirus, and they are now among the first to begin reopening, in spite of warnings from some public health officials that doing so might be dangerous.

The decisions being made by Southern governors certainly reflect the political split that coronavirus is increasingly causing nationwide, with conservatives willing to accept risk to revive the economy and liberals taking a more cautious (critics might say overcautious) approach that prioritizes public health over economic good.

Ten of the 14 Southern governors are Republicans, and the GOP controls both legislative chambers in every state except Virginia, fostering a political culture that tends to be friendly toward business interests and libertarian when it comes to questions of personal liberty.

But the push to reopen also reflects that fact that except for Louisiana, the coronavirus crisis has not been as extreme in the region as it has been in hot spots such as New York and New Jersey.

While Louisiana’s death rate per 100,000 people stands at 40, Georgia comes in at 11, and the rest of the Southern states are all less than 10 — statistics that bolster the arguments of unemployed people demanding an end to stay-at-home orders, although providing little comfort to people at higher risk for contracting COVID-19.

The push to reopen is also attractive to Southern leaders for another reason — the lockdown is blowing a hole in state and local budgets that will only get worse the longer it goes on, presenting an unpalatable choice between steep budget cuts or higher taxes.

State governments can’t deficit spend, and the income and sales tax revenues they rely on are falling sharply. The effect of the sales tax plunge will be particularly acute on three Southern states that don’t have an income tax to fall back on, Texas, Florida and Tennessee.

Florida — where Governor Ron DeSantis drew sharp criticism for being late to close — is also heavily reliant on taxes generated by tourism, which has been decimated by the crisis. Oil prices have also crashed, which affects Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, where lawmakers have been warned that they’ll need to deal with a $3 billion hit to the state’s budget.

Southern legislators have traditionally been reluctant to raise taxes, particularly income taxes in states that have them. But if they stick to that tradition, the cuts needed to balance budgets could be extreme — prompting outrage not only from those affected by the cuts, but also from those who believe the lockdowns were an unnecessary overreaction that caused more problems than they solved.

The strongest coronavirus crosscurrents have been seen in North Carolina and Kentucky, where Republicans control the legislature and Democratic governors were quicker to close and have been more reticent to reopen than their GOP counterparts.

In North Carolina, Roy Cooper faces the unenviable prospect of running for re-election in the middle of the pandemic against Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, who has been pushing the governor to move more quickly to reopen parts of the state less affected by the virus.

Anti-lockdown protests have also grown in size and anger in North Carolina, with much of the ire directed toward Cooper.

In Kentucky, Beshear’s moves to clamp down on church services have drawn criticism from U.S. senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul and other Republican leaders.

The GOP holds super-majorities in both houses of the legislature and could force Beshear to back down from his coronavirus restrictions, although — perhaps fortunately for the governor — legislators don’t have the power to call themselves back into session to undo his handiwork.

In the Southern state hit hardest by coronavirus, Louisiana, Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards’s imposition of a lockdown has encountered less resistance. But even there, some Republicans in the legislature are now plotting to use an obscure state law to force him to reopen the state.

The coronavirus crisis has focused attention, both nationally and regionally, on governors; however, governors in just two Southern states, North Carolina and West Virginia, have to face the voters this fall.

Of more consequence come November will be whether the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus crisis affects Republican candidates in races for federal offices, particularly the U.S. Senate, where 14 Southern seats are up.

That list includes both seats in Georgia, where Kemp has, for better or worse, forged his own path in dealing with the virus, and McConnell’s seat in Kentucky, where he’s already running ads touting his role in pushing coronavirus relief bills through Congress and his Democratic opponent, Amy McGrath, is deriding those bills as a sop to special interests.

Because no one knows how long the coronavirus crisis will last, or how things will turn out, its political consequences are as yet unknowable, particularly because we’ve never been through a crisis quite like this before.

Political stability and certainty, it seems, lie among coronavirus’s victims. The rest is unlikely to be peaceful.

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Kentucky U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie faces avalanche of criticism for forcing vote on coronavirus bill

Massie insists his stand was in defense of the Constitution, but Donald Trump suggests he be tossed from GOP

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

WASHINGTON (CFP) — U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky is defending his decision to force members of the House to return to Washington to vote on emergency coronavirus legislation against a torrent of criticism — including from President Donald Trump, who suggested Massie be drummed out of the Republican Party.

Massie objected to pushing through the $2 trillion measure with unanimous consent, which required House leaders to assemble a quorum of lawmakers who had to travel from their home districts back to the nation’s capital to vote on Friday.

U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Kentucky, rises to object in the House (From C-SPAN via YouTube)

“I came here to make sure our republic doesn’t die by unanimous consent in an empty chamber,” Massie said on the House floor, drawing audible groans from his fellow lawmakers.

Earlier in the day, Massie defended his decision to try to delay the massive spending bill on Twitter, saying “I swore an oath to uphold the constitution, and I take that oath seriously.”

“The Constitution requires that a quorum of members be present to conduct business in the House,” he said. “Right now, millions of essential, working-class Americans are still required to go to work during this pandemic … Is it too much to ask that the House do its job, just like the Senate did?”

Massie’s stand derailed a plan by House leaders in both parties to push the bill through with unanimous consent, which would have allowed members to remain in their districts, where most of them had been during a scheduled recess.

However, while Massie blocked unanimous consent, he was unable to find enough support to force a roll call vote on the bill, which passed by a voice vote and was quickly signed into law by Trump.

Massie’s move triggered an eruption by Trump on Twitter, who dismissed the Kentuckian as a “third rate grandstander.”

He just wants the publicity,” Trump said. “Workers & small businesses need money now in order to survive. Virus wasn’t their fault. It is ‘HELL’ dealing with the Dems, had to give up some stupid things in order to get the ‘big picture’ done. 90% GREAT! WIN BACK HOUSE, but throw Massie out of Republican Party!”

Trump also reacted to a tweet from former Secretary of State John Kerry after he said that Massie had “tested positive for being an asshole”: “Never knew John Kerry had such a good sense of humor! Very impressed!”

Trump’s reaction is welcome news for Todd McMurtry, a Covington attorney who is challenging Massie in the Republican primary in Kentucky’s 4th District — and would be the beneficiary if the president decides to move against Massie.

Massie had been sufficiently concerned about Trump’s potential support of McMurty that he aired an attack ad against him during Super Bowl weekend on TV in Palm Beach, Florida, where the president was staying.

The 4th District includes suburban Cincinnati and the Ohio River Valley between Louisville and Ashland.

Kentucky’s primary, originally scheduled for May, was moved to June 23 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

While Trump and Democrats were scorching in their criticism of Massie, two members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus came to his defense.

U.S. Rep. Chip Roy of Texas told Trump to “back off,” calling Massie “one of the most principled men in Congress.”

“He is defending the Constitution today by requiring a quorum. There’s nothing 3rd rate about that, @realDonaldTrump,” Roy said in a tweet.

In his own tweet, U.S. Rep Paul Gosar of Arizona called Massie “a good man and a solid conservative.”

“He believes in the Constitution strongly. We won’t always agree on strategy or policy. But he doesn’t warrant this dressing down,” Gosar said, adding “Thomas—Hang tough brother.”

Massie, 49, has served in Congress since 2012.

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U.S. Senator Rand Paul pushes back against criticism for not entering self-quarantine while awaiting coronavirus results

Kentucky Republican was reportedly using Senate gym just hours before positive test result

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com

WASHINGTON (CFP) — U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky is pushing back against criticism that he may have put others in the Senate in danger by continuing with his work as a senator for nearly a week while awaiting the results of a coronavirus test that came back positive.

Paul was reportedly seen working out in a Senate gym on Sunday morning, just hours before he learned he had tested positive for the virus and went into self-quarantine.

U.S. Senator Rand Paul, R-Kentucky

In a statement issued Monday, Paul acknowledged he took the coronavirus test on March 16 and did not self-quarantine while waiting for the results, which came back on March 22.

However, Paul said he had no reason to believe that he had been exposed to coronavirus prior to the positive result and had only been tested as a precaution because of a lung injury he suffered during an attack by a neighbor in 2017.

“For those who want to criticize me for lack of quarantine, realize that if the rules on testing had been followed to a tee, I would never have been tested and would still be walking around the halls of the Capitol,” Paul said. “The current guidelines would not have called for me to get tested nor quarantined. It was my extra precaution, out of concern for my damaged lung, that led me to get tested.”

Paul also said that while he did attend a March 7 museum fundraiser in Louisville that was also attended by two people who later tested positive for coronavirus, he did not have contact with either of them, and his decision to get tested was unrelated to his attendance at the benefit.

“The event was a large affair of hundreds of people spread throughout the museum,” he said. “I was not considered to be at risk since I never interacted with the two individuals even from a distance and was not recommended for testing by health officials.”

Paul said he was “at a higher risk for serious complications” because he had part of his lung removed after he developed complications from rib fractures he suffered when he was attacked by a neighbor, Rene Boucher, outside of his Bowling Green home in 2017.

In his statement, Paul also renewed his call for more immediate, widespread testing of people who do not yet show any symptoms of coronavirus.

“The broader the testing and the less finger-pointing we have, the better,” he said.

Paul’s positive test prompted two fellow senators who had contact with him — Mitt Romney and Mike Lee, both of Utah — to enter self-quarantine, which means five Republican senators are now out of action as Congress grapples with emergency coronavirus legislation.

In his statement, Paul did not confirm or deny reports that he swam and worked out in the Senate gym on Sunday before the results of his coronavirus test came back.

Politico reported that one of Paul’s colleagues, Jerry Moran of Kansas, told colleagues a Republican lunch on Sunday that he had seen Paul using the facilities. That report led another senator, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, to blast Paul’s behavior as “absolutely irresponsible.”

“You cannot be near other people while waiting for coronavirus test results,” she said in a tweet. “It endangers others & likely increases the spread of the virus.”

Paul’s office responded by noting that he had left the Senate “immediately” after the diagnosis and entered self-quarantine.

Paul’s actions with regard to coronavirus are also being scrutinized because of his background — he is a graduate of the Duke University School of Medicine who worked for 20 years as an ophthalmologist before being elected to the Senate.

In an interview on MSNBC Monday, Ezekiel Emanuel, former chief of bioethics at the National Institutes of Health and health policy adviser in the Obama administration, accused Paul of a “lack of leadership” for not going into self-quarantine until his test results came back.

“Multiple times Rand Paul has sort of violated his basic oath of being a physician, that he should model good, healthy behaviors,” Emanuel said.

In addition to Paul, Romney and Lee, two other Republican senators — Rick Scott of Florida and Cory Gardner of Colorado — are in self-quarantine after coming into contact with people who tested positive for the virus.

That leaves just 48 GOP members in the upper chamber who are able to vote on coronavirus legislation because Senate rules require senators to be present in person in order to vote.

Paul was among just eight senators who voted against an emergency coronavirus funding bill that passed March 18 and the only senator who opposed an earlier coronavirus funding measure that passed on March 5.

In a letter to his constituents sent over the weekend, Paul vowed to continue to oppose “more spending, more debt, and more mandates on the American people.”

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U.S. Senators Richard Burr, Kelly Loeffler under fire for selling stock before coronavirus slide

Burr and Loeffler insist they did nothing wrong in unloading stocks before markets tanked

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

WASHINGTON (CFP) — Republican U.S. Senators Richard Burr of North Carolina and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia are facing a torrent of criticism after revelations that they and family members unloaded millions of dollars worth of stock before U.S. markets tanked over concerns about the coronavirus — and while both senators were still making upbeat assessments about its threat.

Prior to his stock sales, Burr, as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was receiving daily briefings from Trump administration officials about coronavirus; Loeffler and her husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, whose company owns the New York Stock Exchange, sold stock after she attended a private briefing for senators on the topic in late January.

Another Southern senator, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, also sold stock after that briefing but says he did not attend.

U.S. Senators Kelly Loeffler (R-Georgia) and Richard Burr (R-North Carolina)

All three senators insist they did nothing wrong, although Burr has asked the Senate Ethics Committee to review his sales.

“I relied solely on public news reports to guide my decision regarding the sale of stocks,” Burr said in a statement posted on Twitter. “Specifically, I closely followed CNBC’s daily health and science reporting out it its Asia bureaus.”

Loeffler — a multimillionaire business executive appointed to the Senate in January by Governor Brian Kemp — called the reports about the stock trades “completely false,” saying they were made by her financial advisers.

“I’m not involved in the decision-making of these trades, nor have I been in communication with my third-party financial advisors about them,” she said in a statement posted on Twitter. “I have no knowledge of these trades until well after they are made.”

However, Democrats and even some Republicans are calling for investigations into the trades — and even for the senators to resign.

Among those calling for Burr’s head is Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who told his viewers that “there is no greater moral crime than betraying your country in a time of crisis.”

While Burr is retiring in 2018, Loeffler is facing a tough special election battle for the remainder of her term in November, a race that includes an intra-party challenge from Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Collins.

Collins — still in self-quarantine after being exposed to the virus — said he was “sickened” by Loeffler’s actions.

“People are losing their jobs, their businesses, their retirements, and even their lives and Kelly Loeffler is profiting off their pain?” he said in a tweet.

The leading Democrat in the race, Raphael Warnock, called Loeffler’s conduct “unconscionable.”

“As the coronavirus pandemic is busy taking lives and livelihoods, Kelly Loeffler has been busy looking out for herself,” Warnock said on Twitter.

An analysis of disclosure reports by the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan research group, showed that on February 13, Burr sold 33 stocks worth between $628,000 and $1.7 million dollars, including stocks in hotel companies hard hit by the coronavirus. The stock market began to plunge about a week later.

Senators only have to report financial transactions within ranges on disclosure reports, so the exact amount of Burr’s stock sales is unknown.

Loeffler and Sprecher sold up between $1.3 million and $3.2 million worth of stock in the weeks after she attended a private January 24 briefing for senators in which administration officials discussed the spread of coronavirus, according to a financial disclosure report she posted on Twitter.

In that report, Koeffler said she wasn’t notified of those transactions until Feb. 16, which she said was “proof” that the stock sales weren’t improper.

At the time of the briefing, Loeffler had been in office just three weeks.

Two other senators — Inhofe and Dianne Feinstein of California — also sold stock after the January 24 briefing.

In a statement, Inhofe, who is seeking re-election in November, said he did not attend the briefing and that the sales were part of an ongoing effort to shift his stock portfolio into mutual funds after he became chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. His sales were on a smaller scale than those of Burr and Loeffler, between $180,000 and $400,000.

A Feinstein spokesman said her holdings were in a blind trust run by her husband and she was not involved in the sale.

Members of Congress are permitted to own and trade stocks. However, trades have to be disclosed, and it is illegal for them to buy and sell stock based on insider information that isn’t available to the general public.

In addition to the stock sales themselves, statements made by Burr and Loeffler about coronavirus as their stocks were being sold have also come under scrutiny, as have Burr’s remarks at a private gathering in late February where he likened the coronavirus to the 1918 flu epidemic that killed millions of people worldwide.

On February 28, Loeffler took to Twitter to allege that “Democrats have dangerously and intentionally misled the American people on #Coronavirus readiness. Here’s the truth: @realDonald Trump & his administration are doing a great job working to keep Americans healthy & safe.”

On March 10, following a meeting with the president, she said on Twitter: “Concerned about #coronavirus? Remember this: The consumer is strong, the economy is strong, & jobs are growing, which puts us in the best economic position to tackle #COVID19 & keep Americans safe.”

By the time of those tweets, at least $355,000 worth of her stock had been sold and possibly as much as $950,000; her husband’s total was between $926,000 and $2.2 million, according to her disclosure report.

On February 7, Burr co-wrote an opinion article for Fox News in which he said that the United States “is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus” and said public health officials were moving “swiftly and decisively” to deal with the threat.

A week later, he began selling stock, and on February 27, he told a private meeting of North Carolina business leaders that coronavirus “is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history,” according to audio of the speech obtained by National Public Radio.

Burr also likened coronavirus to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that is believed to have killed at least 17 million people worldwide, NPR reported.

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