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Grassley backing grandson for Iowa agriculture post

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley has endorsed his grandson for the soon-to-be vacant job of Iowa secretary of agriculture.

The current secretary, Bill Northey, is expected to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate this fall as an undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If that happens, Gov. Kim Reynolds will appoint a successor.

Iowa House Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, has been mentioned as a possible appointee.

“I know darn well you expect me to support my grandson — and I am,” Sen. Grassley told reporters Wednesday during his regular conference call. “I hope he will be appointed.”

Reynolds hasn’t said much about her plans to replace Northey. At this time, she doesn’t have a “short list,” according to a spokeswoman.

In addition to Rep. Grassley, a number of names — all Republicans and all farmers — have surfaced as possible replacements, including former state Rep. Annette Sweeney of Alden, Sen. Dan Zumbach of Ryan and Sen. Tim Kapucian of Keystone.

All said they would be interested if asked to fill the remainder of Northey’s term, which extends to January 2019.

Sen. Grassley said he thought his grandson would be a good fit.

“I think being former chairman of the Agriculture Committee and demonstrating real leadership in the 18 months he’s been chairman of the Appropriations Committee” — a post the elder Grassley once held — “and recognized as a leader in the Iowa Legislature, plus being in the farming operation, I think he would fit in very well,” he said. “He wants it and, obviously, I’m going to advocate for it.”

Former North Iowans cleaning up after Irma's 'punch in the mouth'
 John Skipper  / 

ORLANDO, Florida | Former North Iowans living in Orlando have been without power all week and have been told it will be at least Sunday before they get it back.

"Trees and power lines are down everywhere and most businesses are closed because there is no power," said Matt Werner, a Lake Mills native who lived in Mason City with his wife, Erin, before moving to Orlando several years ago.

Hurricane Irma swept through the Orlando area and its impact will be felt for a long time, Werner said.

"She punched us in the mouth," he said.

In addition to flooding and trees and power lines down, Werner said there have been several deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning — the result of fumes from generators operating too close to houses.

Also, he said, many people have had sewers backing up into their homes.

Without power, there is no way to refrigerate food, which is a problem not only for consumers but for grocery stores that depend on refrigeration.

Twenty-six area schools are closed because of the power outage, as well as downed tree limbs and electrical lines making travel unsafe for school buses.

Werner said planes are now coming in and out of Orlando which means hundreds of tourists can return home. "Most of them were trapped," he said.

Werner's wife, the former Erin McMillan, who grew up in Manly and also lived in Mason City, is a nurse who has had trouble getting to work at the hospital where she was needed. Last year, during a hurricane, she spent three days and three nights there without coming home.

This year, she got to work, but it wasn't easy. "First there was the hurricane on Monday," said Werner, a stay-at-home dad and a former flight nurse at Mercy Medical Center-North Iowa. "Tuesday, she couldn't get out because of a tree that fell on our driveway. Then the exit she usually takes to get to the hospital was washed out."

Werner said he spent much of Tuesday with a chainsaw helping clean-up efforts in his neighborhood.

The recovery process will be long, he said, but it could have been worse, like it was in many other parts of Florida.

"We're the lucky ones," he said.

Alliant Energy announced earlier this week its trucks would assist in the massive effort to restore power across Florida. 

More than 200 line workers, safety staff, vehicle mechanics, support staff and managers from Iowa and Wisconsin volunteered to help, the company said in a news release.

They will join more than 18,000 utility crews from across 30 states and Canada working to restore power to more than 6 million people affected by the hurricane.

Florida utilities — which are responsible for the costs, not Alliant Energy's customers — requested help through a nationwide mutual assistance program among utilities, Alliant said. 

Many southern power companies were already assisting with response to Hurricane Harvey, and damage from Hurricane Irma was so extensive the request for help extended to Midwestern energy companies.

Sanders would make government health care role even bigger

WASHINGTON — In an animated, campaign-style rally, Sen. Bernie Sanders unwrapped his plan to remake the nation's convoluted health care system into federally run health insurance Wednesday — a costly proposal embraced by liberal activists hoping to steer the Democratic Party in upcoming elections.

The Vermont independent's plan would hand government a dominant role in insuring Americans, a crucial step, he said, in guaranteeing health care for all. Census Bureau data this week showed the proportion of people lacking policies falling to 8.8 percent last year under "Obamacare," the lowest level ever recorded, but he called it an "international disgrace" that not all Americans have coverage.

Though Sanders' plan is going nowhere in the current GOP-controlled Congress, he drew a big crowd to a packed and electrified Senate hearing room.

Hours earlier, Republican senators unveiled their own last-ditch, long-shot plan to scuttle President Barack Obama's 2010 statute and practically begged the White House to help.

"Pick up the phone" and ask governors to support the repeal effort, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., aiming his remarks at President Donald Trump. "Tell them this matters to you, that you weren't kidding about repealing and replacing Obamacare, that you actually meant it."

Shortly afterward, Trump issued a statement saying "I sincerely hope" the effort by Graham and three other GOP senators will succeed.

The waning desire of GOP lawmakers to revive their failed effort to scrap Obama's law contrasted with growing, though wary, Democratic support for Sanders' bill. It has attracted 16 co-sponsors, one-third of all Senate Democrats, though most are from safely Democratic states.

"Today we begin the long and difficult struggle to end the international disgrace of the United States, our great nation, being the only major country on Earth not to guarantee health care to all," Sanders declared.

Though his bill has no chance in the current Congress, the issue is enthusiastically backed by large segments of a Democratic Party hoping to capture House control in the 2018 elections. Sanders caucuses with Democrats and unexpectedly gave Hillary Clinton a tough run for the party's presidential nomination last year.

The room where Sanders spoke held more than 200 people, including members of unions and progressive groups. Many waved posters and chanted "Medicare for all," the name he has given his 96-page bill, which would gradually expand the health insurance program for the elderly to cover all Americans.

Nine other senators attended and most also spoke, including at least four potential 2020 presidential aspirants who almost seemed to be auditioning. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., called the health care battle "a fight for our nation to live up to our ideals."

Cries for universal coverage and government-provided, single-payer health care have simmered among Democrats for decades.

The notion was submerged as Obama enacted his overhaul, which boosted federal spending and set coverage requirements but left much of the existing private system in place. About 156 million people get policies at work, about half of all those insured, with most of the rest getting coverage through Medicare or Medicaid or by buying individual plans.

But support among Democrats for Sanders' bill and similar measures by other Democrats, plus polling showing growing public backing, suggests the push for a single-payer system will be a major theme inside the party.

"We will defend it at every turn," Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., another possible presidential hopeful, told the crowd about Obama's law. "But we will go further." Potential candidates Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Kamala Harris of California also attended the event.

Sanders provided no details about the price tag of his measure or how it would be financed. Aides have said it would likely rely largely on income-adjusted premiums people would pay the government, ranging from zero for the poorest Americans to high levies on the rich and corporations.

People would no longer owe monthly premiums and other out-of-pocket costs like copayments, and companies would not have to offer coverage to workers. Sanders says most people and employers would save money.

The version he introduced during his 2016 presidential run was supposed to cost an enormous $1.4 trillion annually.

His plan would surpass Obama's law in covering a long list of services, including dental, vision, hospital, doctors and mental health costs. Copayments would be allowed for prescription drugs.

"The president as well as the majority of the country knows that the single-payer system that the Democrats are proposing is a horrible idea," said White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders. "I can't think of anything worse than having government being more involved in your health care instead of less involved."

Meanwhile, Graham and three other GOP senators released details of their proposal to erase many of the subsidies and coverage requirements of Obama's law and instead give block grants to states to help individuals pay for coverage.

"If you believe repealing and replacing Obamacare is a good idea, this is your best and only chance to make it happen because everything else has failed," Graham said.

Ryan opens door to tax cuts adding to deficit

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul Ryan backed off months of promises that the Republicans' tax plan won't add to the nation's ballooning deficit, declaring Wednesday in an AP interview that the most important goal of an overhaul is economic growth.

Asked twice whether he would insist the emerging tax plan won't pile more billions onto the $20 trillion national debt, Ryan passed up the chance to affirm that commitment. GOP leaders made that "revenue neutral" promise in a campaign manifesto last year and many times since.

"We want pro-growth tax reform that will get the economy going, that will get people back to work, that will give middle-income taxpayers a tax cut and that will put American businesses in a better competitive playing field so that we keep American businesses in America," the Wisconsin Republican told Associated Press reporters and editors. "That is more important than anything else."

Ryan's comments signaling possible retreat on a core GOP commitment came amid quickening action on taxes, which Republicans view as their last, best chance to notch a significant accomplishment to take to voters in the 2018 midterm elections following the collapse of their "Obamacare" repeal drive. Yet even as President Donald Trump hunted for Democratic votes for a plan that's not yet taken shape, and GOP leaders laid out an aggressive timetable to lawmakers, significant hurdles remained.

A major one is the GOP's failure, thus far, to pass a federal budget, which under legislative rules is a prerequisite for a tax plan that can avoid being stalled to death by Democrats in the Senate.

Others involve the contents of the tax blueprint itself, which Ryan and his lieutenants envision as a far-reaching reform plan that would significantly lower rates for corporations and individuals while cleaning up the loophole-ridden code. One problem is that every tax deduction has its own constituency, and Ryan has already ruled out eliminating some of the most popular ones, including deductions for home mortgages and charitable giving.

Objections also threaten from the GOP's seemingly shrinking ranks of deficit hawks if Ryan, Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell do try to move forward with a tax plan that could cost hundreds of billions of dollars, without paying for it with cuts in federal spending, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement earlier this week calling the debt the "greatest threat to our nation," greater than North Korea, Russia or the Islamic State group.

Ryan made his comments on taxes as he discussed a range of issues with the AP, including immigration, where he pledged to find a solution for the nearly 800,000 immigrants brought to this country as children and now here illegally. He declared that removing them all is "not in our nation's interest," though he declined to reaffirm his past support for eventual citizenship for the "Dreamers."

He said any immigration solution must include border security measures, though he said a wall along the entire southern border, which Trump has repeatedly urged, doesn't make sense.

On taxes, Trump himself added to the complications when he surprisingly declared, at a meeting with a bipartisan group of House members, that taxes on the wealthy would not go down under the GOP plan and might even go up. Although the administration has not provided specifics on its plan, House Republicans have embraced an approach that would lower the top individual rate from 39.6 percent to 33 percent, which would be enormously beneficial to the wealthiest Americans.

Still, Trump declared, "The rich will not be gaining at all with this plan. We are looking for the middle class and we are looking for jobs — jobs being the economy."

Trump reiterated that he hoped to lower the top corporate tax rate from 35 to 15 percent, something Ryan has already ruled out as impractical — and an idea the president himself has backed off from, according to people with knowledge of a meeting he held Tuesday night with bipartisan senators.

The president added, improbably, that the individual rate would be even lower than that.

The long list of difficulties has led some analysts to conclude that Congress is likelier to settle on straightforward tax cuts than on full-blown reform — if it passes anything at all.

But Ryan rejected that approach, telling the AP, "It's not just narrow cuts in taxes that will do the job."

Referencing tax cuts signed by President George W. Bush, Ryan said, "You can't just do what Bush did in 2001 and 2003. You have to overhaul the system itself to put American businesses and the American economy in a much more competitive situation."

Earlier Wednesday, Ryan and House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady met behind closed doors with GOP lawmakers to lay out a timetable on taxes, pledging a detailed blueprint from top congressional Republicans and administration officials in the final week of September. The goal, which Ryan reiterated Wednesday, is to send Trump a bill to sign before year's end.