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Chip Brownlee

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In his first speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Alabama’s Democratic Sen. Doug Jones called on the U.S. Congress to take action to stem the tide of gun violence.

“It is time, Mr. President, that we have a serious, pragmatic and practical discussion – not a debate, not a negotiation – but a discussion, on the steps that we can take to reduce the harm caused by gun violence in this country,” Jones said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Jones called on legislators to approach the topic from a bipartisan standpoint, referencing former Alabama Sen. Howell Heflin, the last Democrat from Alabama to serve in the Senate, and his outspoken support of compromise.

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“I want to speak about an issue that has evaded the broad bipartisan discussions and moderation that Senator Heflin spoke of,” Jones said. “Instead, it is an issue where folks quickly take sides and criticize anyone who disagrees. “

Jones was elected in a hotly contested special election in December, upsetting former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, the Republican nominee. Since then, Jones has said he would work across the aisle.

The Alabama Democrat said the Second Amendment and commonsense gun reforms are not mutually exclusive, calling on Senators from both parties to support universal background checks, provisions to raise the purchasing age for semi-automatic guns to 21 and the elimination of purchasing loopholes that allow guns to fall into the wrong hands.

“We can create certain exceptions for concealed carry permit holders and others, but no one should be allowed to take possession of a firearm until they have cleared a background check,” Jones said.

One specific loophole Jones suggest closing is the “Charleston loophole,” one that allows purchasers to buy a firearm after three days regardless of whether their background check was completed. That loophole allowed Dyland Roof to kill nine parishioners and clergy at the Mother Emmanuel AME church in Charleston in 2015.

Jones pointed to instances of gun violence in Alabama in recent weeks — events that have also prompted the Alabama Legislature to consider some gun bills, albeit those bills died Wednesday. From the death of Mobile police officer Justin Billa to a shooting that took the life of Birmingham high school student and another that took the life of a longtime nurse at UAB Highlands hospital, Jones said tragedies like those cannot be allowed to continue.

“These stories didn’t grab national headlines, but they are examples of the gun violence that has become commonplace in our communities,” Jones said.

In Alabama alone, 1,046 people died by guns in 2016 — the second-highest rate of gun death in the U.S., a country where more than 38,000 people died of gunfire in that same year.

While calling on Congress to take a tougher stand on gun safety reform, Jones spoke of his own past as a gun-owning hunter, didn’t directly attack the NRA and offered support of the Second Amendment.

“For those who want more gun restrictions, instead of focusing your energy on banning certain weapons — which, as a practical matter will not pass Congress — focus instead on efforts to keep those weapons and others out of the hands of those who would do us harm,” Jones said. “You cannot simply demonize the NRA and other pro-gun groups.”

Jones said the NRA has some extreme views but represents “millions of law-abiding gun owners who are concerned that their right to bear arms is at risk.”

Instead, Jones, who has attempted to walk the tightrope as a Democratic senator from an overwhelmingly Republican state, said Congress should try to find common ground that could be a balance between hardline liberal and conservative positions.

“Let us find what we can agree on, act on it, and begin to make our country a safer place,” Jones said. “We can be reasonable here because we all want the same thing:  a safer country, a safer world.  At its core, the Second Amendment was an effort to protect Americans.  Let us do the same.”

The U.S. Congress has largely failed to pass any gun reform in recent years, from banning bump stocks to strengthening the background check system, despite two shocking school shootings — one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2013, and the other at Stoneman Douglas. President Donald Trump initially seemed supportive of increased gun control measures but has since backed off of those comments.

“So I ask all of us to consider this question – what is our collective legacy as representatives of the American people and as the members of this hallowed institution?” Jones asked. “I believe it is to leave this body and our country better than we found it.”

Chip Brownlee is a political reporter and content manager at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Former First Lady Barbara Bush dies at 92

Brandon Moseley

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Former First Lady Mrs. Barbara Bush at LBJ Presidential Library in 2012.

Tuesday, former First Lady Barbara Bush passed away. She was the wife of President George H.W. Bush, who was President from 1989 to 1993 and was the mother of President George W. Bush who was president from 2001 to 2009. She had been in failing health for some time now. She was 92.

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey expressed her condolences.

“I am saddened to hear about the death of former First Lady Barbara Bush,” Ivey said. “She was a dynamic Republican woman, as First Lady she lead an effort to increase family literacy, an issue she championed to this day. She was matriarch of the Bush family, that produced governors and a president. Her life is a shining example of how strong women can serve their country and help improve the lives of all Americans. My thoughts and prayers are with the Bush family and all of America tonight.”

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U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby said, “My deepest condolences to the Bush family following the loss of former First Lady, Barbara Bush. She was a remarkable woman. Her legacy and service to our country will never be forgotten.”

Alabama Republican Party Chairman Terry Lathan said, “The Alabama Republican Party is saddened to hear of the passing of former First Lady Barbara Bush. A shining light to all who knew her, Mrs. Bush will be deeply missed. Her great American and family legacy she leaves behind is a true testament of a lifetime filled with grace, strength and a strong love for our country. Our hearts and prayers are with the former first family during this time. Barbara Bush was a true American patriot, matriarch and role model for our nation.”

“What a wonderful woman. I certainly admired her as a citizen, but especially as a son who had a tough but lovable mom,” Congressman Bradley Byrne, R-Montrose, said. “God bless her. The prayers of the nation are with the Bush family.”

“Barbara Bush led a remarkable life, and her legacy will impact our country for many years to come,” Congresswoman Martha Roby, R-Montgomery, said. “My prayers are with the Bush family during this very sad time.”

“My family and I are sad to hear of the passing of former First Lady Barbara Bush,” Congressman Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville, said. “She was the rock of the Bush family and I know she will be deeply missed. My sincere condolences to the Bush family.”

“Our hearts and prayers go out to the Bush family tonight after the passing of Mrs. Bush,” said Congressman Mike Rogers, R-Saks. “She was a strong woman, wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and proud American. She served her country with poise and dignity and will be sincerely missed.”

Charlotte Hays, Director of Cultural Programs at Independent Women’s Forum said, “Independent Women’s Forum extends our condolences to the family of former First Lady Barbara Bush. Mrs. Bush, who served as First Lady from 1989 to 1993, was universally admired for her forthrightness and ability to put people at ease.”

“Despite her aristocratic origins, Mrs. Bush was unpretentious, and her country loved her for her for it,” Hays said. “She made no pretenses about her trademark fake pearls and delighted in the ‘America’s grandmother’ image conferred by her mane of white hair. She firmly believed that literacy was the key to solving many national problems and improving the lives of disadvantaged Americans. To that end, she established and worked hard for The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. She was essential to President George H. W. Bush’s career, both as a politician and a transplanted Texan building a career in the oil business, and exerted an important influence on President George W. Bush, who sometimes traced his outspokenness to his mother. Our hearts go out to the Bush family at the loss of this wonderful wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, and to the country for the loss of this model First Lady.”

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, also released a statement on the passing of Mrs. Bush.

“Barbara Bush holds a revered place in the hearts of generations of Americans,” Ryan said. “She so loved her family and our country. She led both with clarity and character. She shined a light on the power of a parent reading to a child. Her husband, our 41st president, wrote in his last days in office: ‘history will show that she was beloved because she was real and she cared and she gave of herself.’ Who could say it better?”

“To Mrs. Bush’s family—especially her 17 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren—I extend the deepest condolences of the whole House of Representatives. May she rest in eternal peace.” Ryan stated.

Former President George W. Bush said in a statement, “My dear mother has passed on at age 92. Laura, Barbara, Jenna, and I are sad, but our souls are settled because we know hers was. Barbara Bush was a fabulous First Lady and a woman unlike any other who brought levity, love, and literacy to millions. To us, she was so much more. Mom kept us on our toes and kept us laughing until the end. I’m a lucky man that Barbara Bush was my mother. Our family will miss her dearly, and we thank you all for your prayers and good wishes.”

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Sen. Doug Jones co-sponsors bipartisan legislation to address opioid crisis

Brandon Moseley

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Sen. Doug Jones delivers a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate on March 21, 2018. (CSPAN)

Tuesday, U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-Alabama) co-sponsored legislation introduced by Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tennesee) and Patty Murray (D-Washington), leaders of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP), which was composed of 40 different proposals, and is the result of seven bipartisan hearings over several months, and feedback from the public.

Jones’ office said that the Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018 (S. 2680) will improve the ability of the U.S. Departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Health Resources and Service Administration (HRSA), and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to address the crisis, including the ripple effects of the crisis on children, families, and communities, and improve data sharing between states.

“Many communities in Alabama and across our country are struggling to combat the opioid epidemic, and alleviate the harm it has caused to families and to our economy,” said Senator Jones. “I’m proud of the comprehensive, bipartisan efforts led by my HELP Committee colleagues to confront this issue with the urgency that it deserves. I’m also grateful that they agreed to incorporate the bipartisan bill I introduced recently with my colleagues Senators Tim Kaine and Todd Young, which would integrate job training into addiction recovery programs. We have more work ahead, but this is a strong step in the right direction.”

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Alabama has more active opioid prescriptions than it has people. There is more prescription opioid abuse in Alabama than in any place in the country. Doctors remain immune from prosecution, under state law, for their role in aiding and abetting, and in some cases encouraging opioid addiction. The Alabama Medical Association has vigorously opposed legislation that would allow prosecutors to pursue doctors and pharmacists who abuse their prescribing authority.

The Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018 will:

Authorize the Department of Labor to provide grants to address the economic and workforce impacts for communities affected by the opioid crisis, targeted at workforce shortages for the substance use and mental health treatment workforce, and to align job training and treatment services.

Reauthorize and improve grants to states and Indian Tribes for prevention, response, and treatment of the opioid crisis, authorized in 21st Century Cures, for three more years.

Spur development and research on of non-addictive painkillers, and other strategies to prevent, treat, and manage pain and substance use disorders through additional flexibility for the NIH.

Clarify FDA’s regulatory pathways for medical product manufacturers through guidance for new non-addictive pain and addiction products.

Encourage responsible prescribing behavior by clarifying FDA authority to require packaging and disposal options for certain drugs, such as opioids to allow a set treatment duration, for example “blister packs,” for patients who may only need a 3 or 7 day supply of opioids, and give patients safe disposal options.

Improve detection and seizure of illegal drugs, such as fentanyl, through stronger FDA and Customer Border Protection coordination.

Clarify FDA’s post-market authorities for drugs, such as opioids, which may have reduced efficacy over time, by modifying the definition of an adverse drug experience to include such situations.

Provide support for states to improve their Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMPs) and encourage data sharing between states so doctors and pharmacies can know if patients have a history of substance misuse.

Strengthen the health care workforce to increase access to mental health services in schools and community-based settings and to substance use disorder services in underserved areas.

Authorize CDC’s work to combat the opioid crisis, including providing grants for states, localities, and tribes to collect data and implement key prevention strategies.

Address the effects of the opioids crisis on infants, children, and families, including by helping states improve plans of safe care for infants born with neonatal abstinence syndrome and helping to address child and youth trauma.

Improves treatment access to patients by requiring the Drug Enforcement Administration to issue regulations on how qualified providers can prescribe controlled substances in limited circumstances via telemedicine.

Allow hospice programs to safely and properly dispose of unneeded controlled substances to help reduce the risk of diversion and misuse.

S. 2680, The Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018 Legislation is the result of 7 bipartisan hearings on opioid crisis with FDA, NIH, CDC, SAMHSA, governors, experts, and families. The legislation combines 40 different proposals to try to address the opioid crisis into one bill, mostly from members of the Senate Health Committee.

“No matter where I go in Washington state, I hear from families about how devastating the opioid crisis has been to their lives and to their community,” Senator Murrat said. “I’m grateful to members on both sides of the aisle for their strong work on the policies in our bill, which will offer families and communities in Washington and across the country much-needed tools and resources as they continue working to stop this epidemic and rebuild. The work isn’t over, and I look forward to more bipartisan progress in support of everyone on the frontlines of the opioid crisis looking to Congress for support.”

“Our goal is to move urgently, effectively, and in a bipartisan way,” Sen. Alexander said. “This is a broad-based set of 40 different proposals to address the opioid crisis. The bill could help states and communities begin to bring an end to the opioid crisis by reducing the number of prescription opioids, stopping illegal drugs at the border, and accelerating research on non-addictive pain medicines. We will consider and seek to approve this bill next Tuesday, so we can get it to the Majority Leader and to the Senate for prompt consideration, along with other important proposals that may be coming from other committees.”

Deaths from drug overdoses have soared in recent years and now exceeds murder and automobile accidents combined. 62,469 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2016 al one, which is more than died in the entire Vietnam War. That is up from just 16,849 in 2000. That does not include addicts who commit suicide or people killed by violence in the drug trade.

Doug Jones was elected to the U.S. Senate on December 12.

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On Tax Day, Shelby praises GOP tax cuts but calls for a flat tax

Chip Brownlee

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Sen. Richard Shelby speaks at a committee hearing.

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican, on Tax Day Tuesday praised the GOP’s recent tax cuts as a positive for the average American taxpayer but, at the same time, called for going further to implement a so-called flat tax.

As last-minute filers finished their annual returns, Shelby said the Republicans’ 2017 tax cuts benefit American taxpayers by lowering the rates for individuals, doubling the standard deduction, doubling the child tax credit, eliminating the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate and incentivizing saving for retirements.

“When Congress passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, we made huge progress in simplifying the tax code and increasing efficiency,” Shelby said. “Today is the last Tax Day that Americans will file their taxes under the old, broken system. Hard-earned money will finally go back into the pockets of the American taxpayer.”

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Even as Shelby touted the new tax cuts, they remain unpopular with Americans and the legislation was the most unpopular tax cut in recent American history when it passed last year, according to a polling average compiled by FiveThirtyEight.

Even though the tax cuts were never particularly popular according to public poling, a new poll NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Monday showed that only 27 percent of Americans believe the cuts were a good idea.

Republicans were banking on the tax cuts to be a campaign talking point as Congress heads into an election year, and Republicans touted the tax cuts Tuesday. Ivanka Trump, an adviser to her father, President Donald Trump, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin spoke in New Hampshire, a swing state, about the money they said Americans would save when they file next year.

The event — and pronouncement’s like Shelby’s — are part of a larger effort by GOP lawmakers and the White House to talk up what they say are the benefits of the new tax law.

Trump quoted an administration estimate that a middle-class family of four would see a reduction in their annual income taxes of about $2,000.

Shelby pointed to pay raises, bonuses, 401(k) match increases, cuts to utility rates and other benefits that he said are the result of the tax cuts. He said tax reform is already helping to create an environment that lets employers grow their business and hire new employees while increasing wages.

While he praised the tax cuts, he also called on Congress to push forward with his own legislation that would establish a so-called flat tax on income and simplify filing requirements.

“Every year on Tax Day, I highlight the SMART Act as a straightforward solution that would require taxpayers to file only a simple postcard-size return, saving Americans time and money,” Shelby said. “The SMART Act would also allow businesses to focus on expanding their businesses and creating jobs rather than directing resources toward tax compliance.”

Shelby has introduced similar legislation since his election to the Senate in 1986. The act would establish a flat income tax of 17 percent on all income.

There would be more simplified personal exemptions of $14,590 for a single person; $18,630 for a head of household; $29,190 for a married couple filing jointly; and $6,290 for each dependent.

The allowances would be indexed to the Consumer Price Index in order to track inflation, and the law would exempt all savings from being included in taxable income, which he said would result in an immediate tax cut for all taxpayers.

Shelby is not seeking re-election this year.

 

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Sen. Doug Jones calls on Congress to tackle gun violence in maiden Senate speech

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