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Posts in "Domestic Policy"
May 17, 2013
Lawmakers will spend the coming week performing yet another chapter of Groundhog Day, returning to debates that generated ample heat but yielded no conclusion during the election year.
The Senate will plow through the farm bill one more time. The House will vote again to insist on construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and to prevent student loans rates from doubling.
Very little of that will generate headlines, if for no other reason than the attention of Congress at the moment is all about training its investigative powers on the Obama administration controversies.
Then, at week’s end, the Capitol will go dark, with the entire community scattering for a long Memorial Day weekend of cookouts and commencements.
And when the lights go back on, one recess week later, it will signal the start of the second half of the scheduled legislative year. This is a marker that gives new meaning to the idea that time flies when not much of anything is going on.
May 13, 2013
President Barack Obama moved tentatively today to join the bubbling outrage at the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups, although he said he didn’t have sufficient reason yet to either condemn outright or apologize directly for the tax agency’s behavior.
“If it turns out that IRS employees acted in anything less than a neutral and non-partisan way, then that is outrageous,” Obama said in a mid-morning news conference with visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron.
But he also said he would wait to say more about the revelations — that groups with conservative-sounding names were singled out for heightened IRS scrutiny before being granted tax-exempt status during the 2012 campaign — until Treasury’s inspector general for taxes concludes whether the behavior was politically motivated or otherwise broke regulatory rules.
That yearlong investigation is done and the recommendations are expected to be made public this week, maybe as soon as today.
Since the story broke May 10, congressional anger has come mainly from Republicans, who are falling all over themselves promising all manner of investigations, hearings and legislation. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for example, called today for the ouster of the IRS commissioner. Full story
May 7, 2013
In the fortnight after the Supreme Court’s oral arguments in two same-sex-marriage cases, half a dozen senators announced they had changed their minds to support the right of gays and lesbians to wed.
The wave of turnabouts a month ago was important because it reinforced the notion that elected politicians were hurrying to get right with a seismic shift in public opinion — no matter what the justices decide to do.
But on a more tangible level, the fact that 54 senators now back marriage equality doesn’t have much real meaning. That’s simply because legislation to universalize gay marriage is nowhere near the realm of possibility.
That said, the size of that bloc could prove decisive for the fate of two measures that may show life this year.
If the justices rule, as the arguments signaled they might, and strike down a central section of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act — the part that, in effect, prevents federal agencies from recognizing same-sex marriages in states where they’re legal — it’s a sure bet that culturally conservative Republicans will begin pushing replacement legislation. But those 54 votes would be more than sufficient to prevent such a bill from ever getting through the Senate filibuster starting gate.
More important than that defensive block for many in the gay rights community is the potential help the 54 could give legislation banning most bias against homosexuals on the job. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act would extend federal employment discrimination protections under the 1964 Civil Rights Act to sexual orientation. Full story
April 30, 2013
Do-overs resurrecting legislation that failed the first time are a pretty rare phenomenon in Congress. But Joe Manchin III is predicting that he and Patrick J. Toomey will be able to find the five votes they need to advance their background check expansion proposal a second time around.
A wave of polling in the two weeks since the Senate gun control measure first foundered is offering a decent road map for where to start their search.
Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said on Fox News over the weekend that “some confusion” about the measure contributed to its initial defeat. President Barack Obama has gone further, alleging the National Rifle Association and others “willfully lied” in arguing the measure would lead inexorably to a national registry of gun owners.
But if Manchin and his Pennsylvania Republican partner devote some time to educating close-call colleagues about the reach of their proposal, he says, they will prevail. “The only thing that we’ve asked for is that people would just read the bill,” he said. “It’s a criminal and mental background check strictly at gun shows and online sales.”
Whatever their persuasive skills, the pair will also be aided by polling in states represented by some of the last senators who got off the fence and voted against the background check vote.
Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm, released results Monday of recent surveys showing declines in the favorability numbers for a handful of senators who signaled they were at least considering a “yes” vote but in the end voted “no.”
In Arizona, background checks were favored by 70 percent but the approval rating for Jeff Flake, who won his seat last fall with just above 50 percent, was pegged at only 32 percent. And, by a 21-point margin, those polled said they trusted John McCain, one of the four GOP senators who voted for the background check measure, more than Flake on gun issues.
In Alaska, both senators’ approval ratings have declined sharply since the last PPP survey in February. Both Democrat Mark Begich, who was one of four red-state Democrats who voted against the legislation and faces a tough battle for a second term next year, and Republican Lisa Murkowski saw their approval ratings slip by 8 points — his to 41 percent and hers to 46 percent.
In Nevada, 46 percent of of voters said they would be less likely to back Republican Dean Heller, who just won a full term, because of his “no” vote.
The new PPP numbers come a week after the firm released a poll showing 75 percent support for background checks in New Hampshire but a 15-point plunge in the approval rating for Republican Kelly Ayotte from October to when she voted against the background check language.
April 29, 2013
It’s becoming an annual pattern: Congress starts moving legislation that would boost federal powers in the digital world without generating much attention around the metaphorical Capitol Hill water cooler, only to find out that the proposal is gaining outsized notice — and outrage — in the real world.
Such was the case last year with legislation that aimed to crack down on Internet piracy, known as SOPA in the House and PIPA in the Senate. Public anger blossomed so quickly and furiously that both bills were shelved without a vote.
This year’s bill has a different aim — to help federal intelligence agencies and businesses share information about threats to their computer networks — and goes by a different acronym, CISPA. And, so far, it’s fared better, getting through the House on a wave of bipartisan support almost big enough to override a potential presidential veto.
But that was 10 days ago, and members back home for this week’s recess are already reporting that constituents are raising a fuss about the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act. It sometimes even exceeds their interest in talking about immigration, gun control or the sequester. Once again, tea party conservatives and ACLU liberals are united in their shared libertarian anxieties about a big-brother government getting too easy access to personal and financial information.
One of the bill’s authors is the top Democrat on the House Intelligence panel, C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, whose sprawling Maryland district meanders into the outer-D.C. suburbs. He says he’s been threatened with retaliation by the hacking group “Anonymous.” That’s why the prospects for the legislation were the topic of my most recent conversation with WAMU, the NPR affiliate in Washington. You can read about the discussion or listen to it here.
April 26, 2013
Congress moved quickly today toward putting a stop to the air-traffic-controller furloughs. It won’t be the last such backstop effort to skirt the dreaded sequester knife, though it may be the fastest.
Today’s action means that lawmakers will be subjected to only one more sequester-delayed trip home, and perhaps they won’t be buffeted by town-meeting turbulence during the coming recess. But members are sure to be chastised for making an exception to their tough budget rules that only makes life more convenient for themselves and their business constituents.
The House arranged this morning for expedited enactment of legislation the Senate passed Thursday night, albeit on a rushed voice vote after several budgetary hard-liners at each end of the political spectrum had left town.
Now that one relatively small rifle shot has found its mark. And with no reason to believe there will be progress before summer on a sequester-replacing budget deal, there is every reason to believe that May will be filled with well-lobbied lawmaker appeals to relax the across-the-board strictures at other agencies, from the National Institutes of Health to the National Park Service.
Had the hardliners been around, the ad hoc approach to relaxing the across-the-board cuts would have prompted outraged rhetoric from conservative Republicans, who view acceptance of all the indiscriminate but meaningful spending curbs as a decent price to pay for shrinking government; and liberal Democrats, who want the sequester turned off altogether as a way to help a range of people who are feeling the pinch.
The White House echoed that sentiment in a statement announcing that President Barack Obama would sign the bill. “We hope Congress will find the same sense of urgency and bipartisan cooperation to help the families who have had children kicked out of Head Start, the seniors who have lost access to Meals On Wheels, the hard-working employees who have been laid off due to defense cuts, and the 750,000 Americans who have lost a job or won’t find one because of the sequester.”
Republican leaders crowed that the angry reaction — from the passengers on about a thousand delayed flights every day this week — had forced an unusually quick and complete capitulation by Obama and the Democrats, who had been emphatically opposed to taking this sort of piecemeal approach.
“Consider that the Democrats opening position was they would only replace the sequester with tax increases,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said in a message to his caucus this morning; then they “proposed replacing the whole sequester with phony war savings. And by last night, Senate Democrats were adopting our targeted ‘cut this, not that’ approach.”
The bill doesn’t ease the $637 million in savings the Federal Aviation Administration has to come up with by September as its share of the sequester’s $85 billion grand total. Instead, it allows the agency to cover the cost of fully staffing all the air traffic control towers by trimming as much as $237 million from other accounts for less pressing projects.
That sort of flexibility is generally prohibited under the terms of the law, which was designed to be so mindlessly draconian that lawmakers would come up with some alternative budget solution in time. They may yet, one pet program at a time.
April 23, 2013
This week’s most important development in the immigration debate has nothing to do with those testy exchanges at Monday’s Senate Judiciary hearings. It didn’t even happen in Washington. And the central player is one of President Barack Obama’s most prominent critics.
The event was a daylong swing through Chicago on Monday by Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, who ran for vice president last year on the Mitt Romney “self deport” platform and who has continued to make deficit reduction the focus of his congressional career and his 2016 national aspirations.
That all changed yesterday, when Ryan became by far the most prominent House Republican to endorse a comprehensive overhaul of immigration law. Full story
April 22, 2013
Senators pushing for an immigration overhaul are going on offense against the intensifying effort to leverage anxiety about the marathon bombing to derail momentum for the legislation.
“We’re not going to let them use what happened in Boston as an excuse,” Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., one of the “gang of eight” senators who wrote the bipartisan bill, said Sunday on CNN.
Several lawmakers and conservative advocates in recent days have suggested that it’s wrong to begin the immigration debate so soon after the Boston bombings. Without explicitly saying so, these critics have suggested that an overhaul they already view as too permissive would allow unsavory potential terrorists even easier entry into the United States.
But if that’s so, what’s known so far about the brothers who allegedly carried out the attack doesn’t seem to support such an argument. They arrived in the United States a decade ago, when Tamerlan Tsarnaev was the age of a sophomore in high school and Dzhokar Tsarnaev was a fourth-grader, almost certainly too young for them to have immigrated with actionable terrorist thoughts about their new home on their minds. The boys and two sisters emigrated from Russia, where they had arrived as refugees from Kyrgyzstan. They followed their parents, ethnic Chechens who had been granted political asylum in the United States.
Dzhokar, who’s now 19 and remains hospitalized and in serious condition after his capture on April 19, became an American citizen in September. Tamerlan, 26, who died in a shootout on April 19, was a legal resident. How they were radicalized, the circumstances of Tamerlan’s travels in Russia for six months last year and the nature of the FBI’s earlier interviews with him at the Russian government’s request will be the subject of intense congressional and public interest in coming days. But, at least on the surface, their known path through the immigration system sounds more like an ushering through the proverbial golden door than a slipping through the cracks.
“Refugees and asylum seekers have enriched the fabric of this country from our founding,” Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said in convening a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill this morning. “Let no one be so cruel as to try to use the heinous acts of two young men last week to derail the dreams and futures of millions of hardworking people.”
Leahy and Schumer both used the same argument at the hearing that was used over the weekend by two “gang of eight” Republicans, Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. They all say the Boston bombing is a reason to accelerate the debate on legislation, not delay it, because of its exit visa requirements and other provisions designed to bolster immigration security.
More than anything else, they say, abandoning deportations and putting 11 million undocumented people on a pathway to citizenship would allow law enforcement to spend more time on border security and investigating immigrants’ terrorist threats.
The slow-walking-because-of-Boston call from the immigration overhaul’s critics may not get all that many adherents in the Senate. It was unveiled on April 19 by Judiciary’s top Republican, Charles E. Grassley, and espoused yesterday by Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., but so far there has not been any additional groundswell. The chances for that are likely to dim as the public comes to understand more of the facts about both the suspects and the bill.
But even a slight delay works to the advantage of opponents, who continue to assume a bill like the one from the “gang of eight” will win a solid majority in the Senate. They are already focusing almost as much lobbying attention on the more skittish, and more Republican, House.
April 18, 2013
The way the drive for gun control got stymied shows that the operative dynamic in the Senate has become more insidious than ever.
It turns out that, in this case, the wishes of 9 in 10 Americans can be repelled by a group of lawmakers representing fewer than 3 out of every 8.
A whole series of surveys have found support in the 90 percent range for requiring background checks before almost all commercial firearms sales. That’s about as close as it gets to unanimity in the polling world. And that’s the heart of the proposal that was blocked Wednesday, effectively ending the debate over how best to reduce gun violence — at least until after the next massacre in a schoolhouse, movie theater or supermarket parking lot.
On the surface, the reason was that 45 senators opposed the idea and, under the new normal for accomplishment in the chamber, any proposal of consequence can be stopped by any bloc of 41 or more. That’s because, three years ago, the dilatory dysfunction got so bad that the leaders of both parties struck a handshake deal. To keep filibusters from swallowing the Senate calendar whole, they would grant the minority an extra measure of leverage on any controversial votes for passing bills or adding amendments: They could insist that the other side come up with 60 affirmative votes, or a three-fifths supermajority. Full story
April 17, 2013
His allies hailed it as a bold statement of conscience with considerable political risk. His critics labeled it a baldly cynical ploy without any lasting downside.
Either way, what Harry Reid did on Wednesday was mostly unexpected — and largely overlooked. It came on a day when the Capitol’s attention was riveted anew by suspicious packages and powder-filled letters sent to lawmakers, the search for the Boston Marathon bomber, the details of a bipartisan immigration overhaul deal, and the climactic series of gun control roll calls in the Senate.
As the day began, the Senate majority leader appeared in the well to announce that he would vote for both of the most ambitious gun control measures being pushed by President Barack Obama: a ban on a long roster of military-style assault rifles, and a prohibition on ammunition clips with more than 10 rounds. Full story
The Senate path for legislation to curb gun violence is about to hit a brick wall, any so-called evidence of progress notwithstanding.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, who’s spent his career cultivating support from the National Rifle Association, announced Wednesday morning that he would vote for both of the most ambitious gun control goals set by President Barack Obama — a ban on a long roster of military-style assault rifles and a prohibition on ammunition clips with more than 10 rounds.
Both proposals are still guaranteed to be rejected without any suspense later in the day. And so will the bipartisan compromise for expanding background checks on would-be gun buyers. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the amendment’s author along with Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, conceded as much on Wednesday morning. “We will not get the votes today,” Manchin told NBC News, although soon afterward his office issued a statement insisting the senator had not given up. Full story
April 15, 2013
Assuming the Senate “gang of eight” unveils its immigration legislation, as promised, a disproportionate share of this week’s media attention will once again be aimed at a single senator in that octet.
That’s even though this chapter of the Marco Rubio story has hardly changed in recent weeks — certainly not since Sunday, when the Republican from Florida appeared on a record seven network TV news shows. His logistical feat should have ended any mystery about his intentions on immigration: He’s decided, without ambiguity or room for backtracking, to defy the vituperative warnings from fellow conservatives and take the lead for his party on the most comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws since 1986.
Even though the “will he or won’t he?” question has been answered, the coverage will continue to be enormous because of the consequences for the Republican Party’s electoral fortunes — and for Rubio’s own aspirations to become the first Latino in the White House. But the mystery on both those fronts seems to be dissipating as well. Support for creating a multi-requirement pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people who reside in the country illegally stood at a solid 57 percent majority among Republicans in a Gallup Poll released on April 12.
One of the first maxims of the congressional whips is, “If you’ve got the votes, then vote.” Additional delay can only work to unravel a thinly woven majority. So a decision to call the Senate roll on schedule Tuesday on a bipartisan compromise for expanding background checks will be a clear sign that proponents have rounded up the 60 senators needed to guarantee victory.
A decision to put off the vote for one day would mean the plan’s authors don’t have the magic number in hand but are pretty confident of getting there. A delay lasting any longer would spell big trouble for the background check language. And without that amendment, the underlying gun control bill is doomed — meaning the outcomes on the other amendments (most of which would weaken gun control) don’t matter much.
“I think it’s an open question as to whether or not we have the votes. I think it’s going to be close,” Republican Patrick J. Toomey, who wrote the compromise with Democrat Joe Manchin III, said Sunday on CNN.
They were hoping that some of the fence-sitters — the outcome rests with three Democrats and six Republicans — would be won over by the nation’s No. 2 gun rights group, the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, which endorsed the Manchin-Toomey plan on Sunday. The group said it’s an appropriate scale-back from the background check proposal originally pushed by President Barack Obama.
Deal supporters also are hoping that former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who plans to plant herself Tuesday outside a main entrance to the Senate floor, will be able to win over a couple of the undecideds by her very presence. They are hoping that a coincidence of history — Tuesday is the sixth anniversary of the shooting deaths of 32 students at Virginia Tech — might cause one of the waverers to fall into their camp.
Finally, they are hoping that one of the Senate’s most vigorous supporters of tougher gun control, the ailing 89-year-old Frank R. Lautenberg, who hasn’t cast a floor vote in six weeks, might be well enough to get to the chamber.
Without Lautenberg, the amendment has 52 solid “yes” votes, or eight short of what it needs.
The New Jersey senator is one of 49 Democrats in favor. Of the remaining six, “no” votes are essentially guaranteed from Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. That leaves the three others from the “red state five” — senators (including Begich and Pryor) running for re-election in 2014 in states carried by Mitt Romney — as the only other Democrats the National Rifle Association has much of a chance of winning over: Max Baucus of Montana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana.
Among the Republicans, only four have so far committed to voting for the background check compromise: Toomey, Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, Susan Collins of Maine and John McCain of Arizona.
And the rest of the lobbying attention is being focused on six of the GOP senators who voted last week to bring the bill to the floor in the first place. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Dean Heller of Nevada, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and John Hoeven of North Dakota.
Chambliss is retiring and none of the others are on the ballot next year.
April 11, 2013
“The hard work starts now,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid just declared.
The most important vote in Congress so far this year for President Barack Obama’s legislative agenda was relatively anticlimactic. The Senate voted just a few minutes ago, 68-31, to overcome the filibuster launched to prevent any discussion at all of gun control legislation, well more than the 60 votes required because more than one-third of Republicans broke with the party mainstream and supported at least having a full debate.
The 16 Republicans who voted to break the filibuster were Sens. Lamar Alexander, Kelly Ayotte, Richard M. Burr, Saxby Chambliss, Tom Coburn, Susan Collins, Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham, Dean Heller, John Hoeven, Johnny Isakson, Mark S. Kirk, John McCain, Patrick J. Toomey and Roger Wicker.
Sens. Mark Begich and Mark Pryor, both of whom are seeking re-election next year in Republican-leaning states, were the two Democrats who wanted to kill the bill in the cradle.
Even before the roll was called, proponents of the most ambitious gun control package possible announced they had an agreement for an even more pivotal vote on Tuesday — on language embodying the bipartisan agreement, unveiled Wednesday, for expanding the reach of required background checks to cover customers at gun shows and online transactions, but not noncommercial sales. Background checks now are required only before sales at the country’s 55,000 licensed gun dealers.
The delay is because, knowing they were going to lose Thursday morning, the conservative orchestrators of the filibuster served notice they would insist on their right to delay the debate another 30 hours before any consideration of amendments could begin.
The outcome of the background check vote is still too far in the future to predict, and a huge wave of lobbying on both sides is sure to wash over middle-of-the road senators when they’re back in their home states this weekend. But the momentum seems to be with the authors of the compromise — Toomey and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III — a sense undoubtedly reinforced by the solid bloc of GOP support for taking up the bill in the first place.
Expanding background checks, it has become clear, has become the aspirational high-water mark of the Obama administration and its allies on gun violence. The lobbying by the National Rifle Association has all but officially sealed the fate of the two other central proposals in the president’s package: bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.
Both will get roll calls, but almost no one thinks they’ll come close to winning inclusion in the final Senate measure.
April 9, 2013
Senate Republicans will be deliberating over lunch Tuesday just how far to push one of the most politically risky filibusters they have contemplated in many years.
Guns hold such a unique spot in the political and cultural climate that it’s a tossup to predict that will happen. But assessing all the usually relevant factors leads to a pretty easy conclusion that the wiser course is to stand down and permit a wide-ranging debate on the legislation at hand.
Public opinion is solidly in favor of the background check expansion at the heart of the bill. Public opinion is even more overwhelmingly opposed to governance by obstructionism. President Barack Obama shows every sign of staying in the bully pulpit to pound on both those themes for as long as it takes. Full story