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Senate Confirms Obamacare Opponent As Health Secretary

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate voted on Friday to confirm Representative Tom Price as the top U.S. healthcare official, putting a determined opponent of Obamacare in position to help President Donald Trump dismantle the healthcare law.

The Senate voted 52-47 to approve the conservative Georgia Republican and orthopedic surgeon as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), a massive department with an annual budget of more than $1 trillion.

His confirmation opens the door for lawmakers to consider Trump’s U.S. Treasury secretary designate, Steven Mnuchin. A vote on his nomination is expected on Monday.

Price, in his new job, will have authority to rewrite rules implementing the 2010 Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Price could move quickly to rework the law’s regulations while waiting for Republicans in Congress to keep their pledge to scrap the law entirely.

Republicans, who have the majority in Congress, are trying to craft a replacement for Obamacare but have not agreed on one. Twenty million Americans gained health insurance under the law.

“Having Dr. Tom Price at the helm of HHS gives us a committed ally in our work to repeal and replace Obamacare,” said U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has vowed to pass a new plan this year.

Trump signed an order on his first day in office directing government agencies to freeze Obamacare regulations and take other steps to weaken the law, a directive that will fall largely on Price. Trump, in a Fox News interview this month, said a replacement may not come until next year.

Price’s nomination was dogged by questions about his trading in hundreds of thousands of dollars in health company stocks while working on healthcare legislation. Democrats boycotted the committee vote on his nomination, saying he had made misleading statements. Price has said his actions were legal and ethical.

A member of the House of Representatives since 2005 who chaired the budget committee, Price wrote legislation to repeal Obamacare and replace it with age-adjusted tax credits for the purchase of health insurance.

Democrats criticized Price for his stock trading as well as his opposition to Obamacare, his ideas about restructuring the Medicare program for the elderly, and his support for cutting federal funds to Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides abortions and other affordable healthcare and education services.

HHS oversees Medicare and Medicaid, the government health insurance programs for the elderly, disabled, and poor. It also encompasses the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Robert and Bernadette Baum)

IMAGE: Chairman of the House Budget Committee Tom Price (R-GA) announces the House Budget during a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 17, 2015. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

Republicans Suspend Committee Rules, Approve Mnuchin and Price Without Democrats

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday voted on a straight party line to confirm U.S. Representative Tom Price to head the Department of Health and Human Services and banker Steven Mnuchin to be Treasury secretary, sending the nominations to the full Senate for a vote.

Democrats stayed away from the meeting for a second day running, which under the committee’s rules normally would have prevented the votes from taking place. But Republicans on Wednesday voted to suspend the rule that had required at least one Democrat to be present for business to be conducted.

Republican members of the committee, who were all present, then approved the nominees 14-0. The nominees are considered likely to be confirmed by the Republican-majority Senate.

“We took some unprecedented action today due to some unprecedented obstruction on the part of our colleagues,” said the panel’s chairman, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah.

Committee aides said the panel had notified the Democrats a half-hour before Wednesday’s proceedings. Hatch said he had obtained approval from the Senate parliamentarian for the move suspending the rule.

“I don’t know all the details of what just transpired, but it seems to me the basic proposition of breaking the rule so that you can in effect look the other way in the face of strong evidence of serious ethical problems for two nominees is exceptionally troubling,” Senator Ron Wyden, the committee’s top Democrat, told MSNBC after the vote.

(additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Jeffrey Benkoe)

IMAGE: U.S. Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) (L)  is welcomed by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) prior to testifying before a confirmation hearing on his nomination to be Health and Human Services secretary on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 24, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Republican Senators Propose Giving States Option To Keep Obamacare

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two Republican senators said on Monday that U.S. states should be allowed to stay in the Obamacare healthcare insurance program if they like, with one adding she felt confused by President Donald Trump’s broad but unspecific executive order targeting the program.

Trump and congressional Republicans campaigned on a promise to dismantle Obamacare, and they are working on carrying out that pledge as an early product of united Republican control of the White House and Congress.

But the legislative proposal by Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana would let states choose to keep Obamacare or move to a replacement program, for which states would also receive some federal funding.

Cassidy, himself a doctor, said such an approach could help attract Democratic votes that will be needed for the eventual replacement for Obamacare, former Democratic President Barack Obama’s health insurance program approved in 2010. It did not, however, win over the Senate’s leading Democrat, Chuck Schumer, who denounced the idea as an “empty facade.”

Collins, a moderate Republican, called Trump’s executive order issued Friday against Obamacare “very confusing,” adding that whatever actions the Trump administration takes, legislation will still be needed to replace the health insurance law.

“We really don’t know yet what the impact (of the order) will be,” Collins told a news conference, adding that it will be difficult to assess the impact until there is a new Cabinet secretary in place in charge of health.

Trump signed his executive order on Friday within hours of taking office. It directs U.S. agencies to “waive, defer, grant exemptions from, or delay the implementation” of provisions of Obamacare deemed to impose fiscal burdens on states, companies or individuals.

But the order did not specify which parts of Obamacare would be affected or the timing.

Trump’s nominee to head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Georgia Representative Tom Price, has said there is no plan for “pulling the rug out” on millions of Americans’ healthcare as a replacement is designed. Any changes are unlikely to affect the government-funded or subsidized insurance plans covering more than 20 million people in 2017.

Schumer said in a statement that the Collins-Cassidy approach would be a “far cry” from a full replacement of Obamacare.

“It is nearly impossible to keep the benefits of the Affordable Care Act,” Schumer said, using the official name for Obamacare, “without keeping the whole thing.”

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Tom Brown and Cynthia Osterman)

U.S. Senate Approves Measure Launching Obamacare Repeal Process

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Thursday took a first concrete step toward dismantling Obamacare, voting to instruct key committees to draft legislation repealing President Barack Obama’s signature health insurance program.

The resolution, passed in the early hours of Thursday in a 51-48 vote, now goes to the House of Representatives, which is expected to vote on it this week. Scrapping Obamacare is a top priority for Republican President-elect Donald Trump and the Republican majorities in both chambers.

Republicans have said the process of repealing Obamacare could take months, and developing a replacement plan could take longer. But they are under pressure from Trump to act fast after he said on Wednesday that the repeal and replacement should happen “essentially simultaneously.”

Some 20 million previously uninsured Americans gained health coverage through the Affordable Care Act, as Obamacare is officially called. Coverage was extended by expanding Medicaid and through online exchanges where consumers can receive income-based subsidies.

Republicans have launched repeated legal and legislative efforts to unravel the law, criticizing it as government overreach. They say they want to replace it by giving states, not the federal government, more control.

But in recent days some Republicans have expressed concern about the party’s current strategy of voting for a repeal without having a consensus replacement plan ready.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said this week he wants to pack as many replacement provisions as possible into the legislation repealing Obamacare. But Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, also a Republican, said that could be difficult under Senate rules.

The resolution approved Thursday instructs committees of the House and Senate to draft repeal legislation by Jan. 27. Both chambers will then need to approve the resulting legislation before any repeal goes into effect.

Senate Republicans are using special budget procedures that allow them to repeal Obamacare by a simple majority so that they will not need Democratic votes. Republicans have 52 votes in the 100-seat Senate. One Republican, Senator Rand Paul, voted no on Thursday.

Democrats mocked the Republican effort, saying Republicans have never united around an alternative to Obamacare. “They want to kill ACA but they have no idea how they are going to bring forth a substitute proposal,” said Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.

On Wednesday, Trump said he would submit a replacement plan as soon as his nominee to lead the Health and Human Services Department, Representative Tom Price, is approved by the Senate. Trump gave no details.

Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway praised lawmakers for clearing the way for repeal and said the replacement effort will likely tackle medication costs.

“To repeal and replace Obamacare and not have a conversation about drug pricing seems not like a very reasonable prospect and not (a) responsible prospect,” Conway told Bloomberg Television on Thursday, one day after Trump targeted the pharmaceutical industry, a traditional Republican ally.

Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010 over united Republican opposition. Democrats say the act is insuring more Americans and helping to slow the growth in healthcare spending.

But Republicans say the system is not working. The average Obamacare premium is set to rise 25 percent in 2017.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Nick Macfie and Bill Trott)

IMAGE: AFP Photo/Joe Raedle

Paul Ryan’s Challenges Will Not start Until After Nov. 8 Election

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan is expected to cruise to re-election in his Wisconsin congressional district on Nov. 8, the day before his real political problems are likely to start.

That is when Ryan will know the shape of the new House of Representatives. If, as some analysts foresee, it becomes even more conservative than it is now, Ryan’s difficulties in managing the lower chamber of Congress could worsen.

For the highest-ranking elected U.S. Republican, that could spell trouble as the former vice presidential nominee looks ahead to a possible presidential run in 2020.

Some staunch House conservatives, questioning Ryan’s commitment to them and their agenda, are looking less kindly on the idea of re-electing him as speaker early next year.

But his real test, assuming he retains the speaker’s gavel, would be getting legislative results with a more conservative House. Compounding that could be the U.S. Senate switching to Democratic from Republican control and possibly a Democratic president, Hillary Clinton, if she beats Republican Donald Trump in the November election.

“Next year, almost no matter what, is going to be a very tough one for Paul Ryan,” said political scientist Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute think tank.

The 2016 election results could cast a shadow over Ryan’s presidential ambitions in 2020 and 2024, assuming he harbours them. “It may well be that he decides it’s just not worth it, partly given what he sees within his own party,” Ornstein said.

Ryan’s aides were reluctant on Monday to discuss the possible challenges of the next Congress.

“The focus over the next 57 days is defending and strengthening our House majority. We are in a good position,” said Ryan’s political spokesman, Zack Roday.

SMALLER, MORE CONSERVATIVE CAUCUS?

Republicans hold 246 of the 435 House seats, their biggest majority in decades. But analysts expect the party will lose seats in November, especially if Trump hurts fellow Republicans.

House members serve two-year terms and most are easily re-elected. The political prediction newsletter “Sabato’s Crystal Ball” has tagged only 16 races as too close to call. Ten of those are currently held by moderates or pragmatists who have been fairly reliable supporters of legislation backed by Republican leaders including Ryan. Five of the 10 are retiring from the House.

If Trump’s performance damages candidates down the ticket, moderates may bear the brunt. The result could be a smaller House Republican majority more dominated by politically secure conservatives of the sort who have in recent years defied Ryan on some legislation.

“A shrinking GOP conference is no doubt going to be more conservative in the new Congress, raising the challenge for Speaker Ryan to form majorities with a slimmer and more conservative rank and file,” said Sarah Binder, professor of political science at George Washington University.

If a number of moderates lose their seats, while most conservatives hold theirs, “then the House Freedom Caucus becomes more powerful,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of “Sabato’s Crystal Ball.”

The Freedom Caucus is the House’s most conservative bloc, with about 40 members. It helped eject Ryan’s predecessor, John Boehner, a year ago, leading to Ryan’s election as speaker.

The Freedom Caucus initially welcomed Ryan, a budget and fiscal policy specialist seen as more willing to listen to their agenda. But some Freedom Caucus members are unhappy with him since one of their members, Representative Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, lost a primary election last month.

Ryan could have done more to help Huelskamp, some critics said. “There was huge disappointment in that,” said Representative John Fleming, a Freedom Caucus member from Louisiana who is running for the U.S. Senate in November.

The Huelskamp fallout has driven speculation that some conservatives who previously backed Ryan will oppose him when the House elects a new speaker in January, although none of them has said so publicly.

“I don’t think most members feel yet that Ryan is undeserving of more time (as speaker), but frustration with the leadership is certainly growing,” said Dan Holler of Heritage Action, the political wing of the Heritage Foundation conservative think tank.

(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Peter Cooney)

Photo: U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) speaks at a news conference following a closed Republican party conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. May 11, 2016. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo

U.S. Officials, Legislators Choose Puerto Rico Control Board: Source

(Reuters) – U.S. government officials and legislative leaders have selected the seven-member board that will oversee the financial restructuring in Puerto Rico, a Democratic congressional aide said on Wednesday.

The panel, chosen by a combination of House Speaker Paul Ryan, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and the Obama administration, will include Republicans Carlos Garcia, Andrew Biggs, David Skeel and Jose Carrion III, and Democrats Arthur Gonzalez, Jose Ramon Gonzalez and Anna Matosantos, the aide told Reuters.

The aide spoke on condition of anonymity.

The board was created under the federal law known as PROMESA, passed earlier this year, which will bring Puerto Rico’s finances under federal oversight and give it the authority to restructure some of its $70 billion in debt.

The island is mired in economic crisis, facing a 45 poverty rate and rampant outmigration.

Garcia is former chairman of Puerto Rico’s Government Development Bank, while Arthur Gonzalez is a former federal bankruptcy judge who oversaw the Chapter 11 case of Chrysler.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell. Additional reporting and writing by Nick Brown, editing by W Simon)

Photo: People protesting against first seminar of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), chant slogans as they try to prevent participants from entering the hotel which is scheduled to be the venue of the seminar, in San Juan, August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Ana Martinez

GOP Senator: Not ‘Much Worry’ Of A Trump Presidency If He Can’t Change

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senator Jeff Flake said on Tuesday that Republican nominee Donald Trump will not be able to win the presidential election, and should not win it, if he maintains the positions that he holds now, including his harsh stance on immigration.

In an interview, Flake said he still hopes Trump will change enough that the Republican senator from Arizona will be able to vote for the candidate in the Nov. 8 election.

But, Flake said, “It’s a slim hope.”

He said that as things stand, Trump will even have difficulty clinching the state of Arizona if the nominee, who has called for building a wall on the border with Mexico, does not develop a more “serious” immigration policy.

Arizona last voted for a Democratic presidential candidate two decades ago.

“Given the positions that he’s taken, if he continues to maintain those positions, if he continues to hold to the statements he has made, I don’t think he can win the presidency, nor do I think he should if he is unwilling to change,” Flake said of Trump.

“There is a big difference between winning a primary, getting what, 14 million votes, and getting 65 million votes that you’re going to need to win the presidency. In between those two numbers you encounter a number of swing voters, independents, who simply don’t cotton to the kind of message that he has been delivering. And that’s just the reality,” Flake said.

Flake, 53, has long been one of Trump‘s more vocal critics on Capitol Hill.Trump‘s inflammatory remarks about immigrants have been a particular problem for Flake, whose Southwestern border state has a large Hispanic population. Flake was among eight senators who proposed comprehensive immigration reform in 2013.

Flake memorably told a reporter last month that he would not be attending the Republican convention to nominate Trump because he had to mow the lawn.

Flake told Vanity Fair magazine in July: “I don’t think that there’s much worry of a Trump presidency if he doesn’t change.”

But he also insists that he will not vote for the Democratic candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Flake, a member of the House of Representatives for 12 years before being elected to the Senate in 2012, said Arizonans are more realistic and pragmatic on immigration than Trump.

Right now, Flake said, Arizona is almost a “toss-up” in the presidential election.

Flake does not have to run for re-election to the Senate until 2018. His fellow Arizona senator, John McCain, is up for re-election this year, and faces both primary and general election challengers. McCain has said he backs Trump.

Flake said he respected Senator Susan Collins of Maine, another Republican, who said in an opinion article published on Monday that she definitely would not vote for Trump. Flake said he was not prepared to follow Collins’ example, which did not set off a stampede of Trump repudiations.

(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Jonathan Oatis)

Photo: U.S. Republican Senator Jeff Flake speaks to reporters as U.S. Democrat Senator Tom Udall listens during a news conference in Havana November 11, 2014.  REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa 

Senate Democrats Seek New Deal On Zika Funding Fight

This article was updated at 1:29 PM to reflect the failed Senate vote on $1.1 billion in Zika funding.

U.S. lawmakers deadlocked over funding to fight the Zika virus on Tuesday, as Senate Democrats blocked a Republican proposal they said fell short of the challenge posed by the mosquito-borne virus and hurt other health priorities.

Amid political recriminations by both parties, the Republican plan to provide $1.1 billion in funding to combat Zika, which had already passed the House of Representatives, failed to get the 60 votes needed in the Senate to clear a procedural hurdle. The vote was 52 in favor and 48 against on a mostly party-line vote.

It was unclear when Congress would revisit the issue. Democrats urged bipartisan talks, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said lawmakers would address the matter again sometime after the July 4 national holiday next week.

Both sides warned the other that there could be a political price to pay in an election year for stalling on Zika funding, with the summer mosquito season under way and with it the threat of the virus spreading.

“Here we are, in an utterly absurd position, playing political games as this public health crisis mounts here in our country,” McConnell said.

The Zika virus, which has swept through the Americas and Caribbean since last fall, has been linked to thousands of cases of microcephaly, a rare birth defect, in Brazil, as well as to neurological disorders. It has been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization.

There have not yet been any cases reported of local transmission of the Zika virus in the continental United States, but there have been 820 cases that were acquired from travel to areas with active Zika outbreaks, or through sexual transmission. There have been more than 1,800 cases of Zika infection reported in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory in the Caribbean.

Health experts expect local transmission to occur in the continental United States with warmer weather.

Democrats have been urging Republicans for months to agree to Zika funding. The Republican plan would have funded mosquito control efforts by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, as well as vaccine research by the National Institutes of Health, and money for community health centers in areas that are experiencing the highest rates of Zika transmission.

But Democrats complained that Republicans locked them out of drafting the $1.1 billion funding plan, which would have made $750 million in budget cuts elsewhere. The Republican plan, rushed through the House last week, would have taken money from battling the Ebola virus as well as from funds set aside for implementing the Obamacare health insurance program in U.S. territories.

The Senate last month agreed to a bipartisan bill allocating the same amount – $1.1 billion – to fight Zika, but without cutting any other programs.

 

DISPUTE OVER PLANNED PARENTHOOD

Democrats were especially angry that the Republican proposal that failed on Tuesday would not allow funding to go to private entities such as the women’s healthcare provider Planned Parenthood, although the Zika virus can be sexually transmitted.

“I don’t know what universe (McConnell) is living in. What does he think, we’re all stupid, the American people are dumb? They’re not. They understand what’s going here,” Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid declared after the vote.

President Barack Obama, a Democrat, had vowed to veto the plan, which falls short of his $1.9 billion request, if it ever arrived on his desk.

Republicans charged that the Democrats were blocking the measure mainly because it included no funding for Planned Parenthood, a non-profit group that Democrats and Republicans have been skirmishing over for years. It provides health exams, screening and contraception services to women.

Republicans have previously sought to cut off all federal funding to the group, which also provides abortions. Planned Parenthood says abortions make up just three percent of its work.

Republican Senator John Thune, referring to Planned Parenthood, charged on Monday that Democrats were more interested in pleasing a what he called a special interest group than in acting on Zika.

U.S. health officials have concluded that Zika infections in pregnant women can cause microcephaly, a birth defect marked by small head size that can lead to severe developmental problems in babies. The WHO has said there is strong scientific consensus that Zika can also cause Guillain-Barre, a rare neurological syndrome that causes temporary paralysis in adults.

 

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and David Morgan; Editing by Bill Trott and Frances Kerry)

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Photo: A 4-month-old baby born with microcephaly is held by his mother in front of their house in Olinda, near Recife, Brazil, February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Nacho Doce/File Photo         

Republican Party Gears Up To Fight Obama Court Nominee

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Republican Party on Monday stepped up its fight against any Supreme Court nominee put forward by President Barack Obama while the president’s allies hit back against a conservative group’s attack on a judge who had been considered for the job.

The Republican Party’s move to create a task force to coordinate advertising and other steps to assail Obama’s nominee to fill the vacancy left by the Feb. 13 death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia is the latest indication that the political fight could become very nasty.

“It’s clear what Republicans are planning to do,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “They are planning to tear down the president’s nominee, without regard to who that person is.”

The Republican National Committee said the task force will contract and team up with America Rising Squared, a conservative group, in the effort.

“This will be the most comprehensive judicial response effort in our party’s history,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement.

“If the president wants to break with decades of precedent by pushing through a nominee in an election year, we’re going to vet that person and put their real record on display,” Priebus said.

Earnest declined to say when Obama would announce his choice to fill the vacancy, beyond saying it would not be on Monday.

The Republicans who control the Senate have vowed not to hold confirmation hearings or an up-or-down vote on anyone Obama picks, saying the choice should belong to the next president who takes office in January after the Nov. 8 presidential election.

The nomination requires Senate confirmation.

 

High Stakes

The stakes are high, as Obama’s selection could pivot the nine-member court to the left for the first time in decades.

In an interview with CNN Espanol that aired on Monday, Obama said he will make his decision “soon.” He said he is looking for someone with “impeccable credentials” who “should be a consensus candidate.”

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid denounced on the Senate floor what he called a “smear” campaign against federal appeals court judge Jane Kelly, who had been on Obama’s short list of potential nominees.

Sources familiar with the selection process said on Friday Kelly was not among the final three under consideration, federal appeals court judges Sri Srinivasan, Merrick Garland and Paul Watford.

Reid was referring to an ad campaign mounted by a conservative activist group called the Judicial Crisis Network referring to Kelly as a “a liberal extremist” with a “disturbing background.” It cited her prior work as a public defender in Iowa for a man charged with possessing child pornography who was later convicted of first-degree murder and sexual assault in the death of his former girlfriend’s 5-year-old daughter.

The group, in a news release, called the ads the next phase of its “national campaign to educate and inform the public about what’s at stake in filling the Supreme Court vacancy.”

Reid referred to the group as “a dark money, right-wing political organization that operates in total secrecy.”

“The accusations leveled against Judge Kelly are despicable,” Reid said, calling on Iowa’s U.S. senators including Republican Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee who in the past praised Kelly, to denounce to the group’s charges.

The Senate voted to confirm Kelly to her current position in 2013 in a 96-0 vote.

Obama administration lawyers continued to review the legal opinions of three finalists, weighing whether elements could become a flashpoint for opponents on the right or even the left. The current finalists generally are considered more moderate than liberals in the tradition of Obama’s two previous appointments, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

 

 

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Jeff Mason, Lawrence Hurley and Eric Beech; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Bernard Orr)

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama carries a binder containing material on potential Supreme Court nominees as he walks towards the residence of the White House in Washington February 19, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque