Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
April 17, 2014

April 16, 2014

Cornyn Presses Holder on Gun Tracking

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn is asking Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. about the possibility of the Obama administration trying to track gun owners. The Texas Republican’s letter puts the Justice Department on the spot following Holder’s testimony about new gun safety devices at an April 4 House subcommittee hearing about the department’s fiscal 2015 budget.

“Would the technological capabilities you referenced in your testimony require, or allow for, the monitoring of American citizens’ personally identifying information through a central database or registry?” Cornyn asked in his Tuesday letter.

Full story

April 15, 2014

Filibuster Unconstitutional? D.C. Circuit Denies Appeal, Cites ‘Speech or Debate’ Flaw

Advocates asking the judiciary to declare the filibuster unconstitutional were dealt a major setback Tuesday by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The court said it lacked jurisdiction because Common Cause and the House lawmakers associated with bringing the lawsuit had sued the wrong party.

“In short, Common Cause’s alleged injury was caused not by any of the defendants, but by an ‘absent third party’ — the Senate itself,” the court held. Full story

Unemployment Extension Petition Gets Manchin’s Push

manchin 068 091013 445x308 Unemployment Extension Petition Gets Manchins Push

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Keeping the unemployment insurance extension issue alive, Sen. Joe Manchin III is asking supporters to sign on to a petition urging the House to act. The West Virginia Democrat doesn’t agree with his party on everything, but an email pitch sent Tuesday morning demonstrates considerable Democratic unity on reviving extended unemployment insurance benefits.

The Senate passed its version of the jobless benefits measure with 59 “yes” votes on April 7.

“Extending unemployment insurance makes economic sense, but it’s also just the right thing to do. Our hardworking neighbors paid into the system when they had a job, so it’s only fair that they should benefit from those funds when they’re down on their luck,” Manchin wrote in an email to supporters. “That’s why I’m asking you to join my colleagues and me in calling on the House to pass an extension of unemployment insurance.”

The email blast links to a petition — without an immediate fundraising ask — from 11 Senate Democrats, a trio of House members and three candidates, including Alison Lundergan Grimes in the Kentucky Senate race.

Full story

April 14, 2014

Washington Responds to Passing of Nuala Pell, Widow of Former Rhode Island Senator

Nuala Pell, widow of former Rhode Island Sen. Claiborne Pell, passed away Sunday morning in Newport at age 89.

“Our entire family is heartbroken by my grandmother’s passing. She dedicated her life to her family and to the service of others. From her work in support of the arts, education, and her humanitarian service, she was a beacon of hope to many,” grandson Clay Pell said in a statement posted by Providence TV station WPRI. “We could not have asked for a better parent or grandparent than Mimi. We will love and miss her more than words can express.”

The younger Pell is running for governor of Rhode Island. His grandfather, the former senator and namesake of the landmark college aid program, died on New Year’s Day in 2009.

Nuala Pell was praised by many for her political involvement and commitment to issues like the arts and education.

Full story

By Niels Lesniewski Posted at 5:41 p.m.
Potpourri

‘Nuclear’ Nominations Aftermath Slows Senate to Crawl

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( Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Just how many of President Barack Obama’s nominees will get confirmed this year? If last week is any indication, the answer may depend on whether Democrats once again employ the “nuclear” option to effectively change the Senate’s rules.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made a big deal last week about scheduling nomination votes on the Friday before recess, but with senators in both parties eager to jet out of town, the Nevada Democrat was forced to punt.

“We are slogging through these nominations,” Reid said April 10 on the Senate floor. “It is kind of slow because of the inordinate amount of time that we are caused to eat up.”

Reid pondered on the floor whether he should have gone even further on rules changes last year, given the Republican slow-walking of nominations whose confirmations have become a fait accompli, and he lamented that a minimum wage debate he hoped to have on the Senate floor before the break was delayed as a result. Full story

Obama Not Considering Arms to Ukraine, Plans to Call Putin

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McCain is one senator who called for lethal aid. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senators in both parties have said arms for Ukraine should be on the table as that country faces down a threat from Russian President Vladimir Putin, but President Barack Obama has no plans to go there.

“We’re not actively considering lethal aid,” Press Secretary Jay Carney said Monday.

Instead, the administration seems intent on letting the threat of much broader economic sanctions dissuade Putin from a further invasion — and Carney signaled the president would call Putin later today.

Carney, however, denied that the dispute with Russia amounted to another Cold War.

Russia is not the Soviet Union, and there is no longer a Warsaw Pact, he said.

“Russia is a regional power to be sure,” Carney added, but he declined to answer whether Russia represented a threat to the United States. Full story

By Steven Dennis Posted at 3:04 p.m.
John McCain

Ban on E-Cig Sales, Marketing to Children Pushed by Durbin, Waxman

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

E-cigarette sales and marketing to children will soon be banned and flavorings could be restricted by the federal government if two senior congressional Democrats get their way.

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and House Energy and Commerce ranking member Henry A. Waxman of California want the Obama administration to regulate e-cigarette products the same way as traditional tobacco products. On Monday, they touted the findings of a report they commissioned with several other Democratic lawmakers finding that a number of e-cig brand manufacturers are marketing to children.

“E-cigarettes are a candy-flavored addiction, which is dangerous to our young people across America. It is growing in popularity among children and sadly poses serious public health threats,” Durbin said on a conference call. “The report … makes clear that e-cigarette companies and the tobacco companies that own some of them have a determined effort to market their product, to pass out samples and to lure children into this nicotine addiction. It’s time for the [Food and Drug Administration] to step up and to regulate this product to protect our children across America.”

Full story

By Niels Lesniewski Posted at 12:02 p.m.
Policy

April 11, 2014

Tax ‘Extenders’ and Energy Efficiency Make May Agenda, Reid Says

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid plans to bring up a catchall tax “extenders” package to the floor next work period, along with a long-delayed energy efficiency bill.

Those measures may be in line behind an effort by Democrats to phase-in an increase of the federal the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. The minimum wage bill, spearheaded by Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, was initially expected to get a test vote on the Senate floor before the most recent work period ended, but Reid decided to move forward first with a vote on a gender pay equity measure, along with some nominations.

Full story

Senate Democrats to Holder: Intervene in GM Recall

A group of five Democratic senators want the Justice Department to take action to keep General Motors from denying responsibility for faulty ignition switches.

Among the suggestions by Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Barbara Boxer of California, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, is for possible intervention by the federal government in civil litigation against the giant automaker.

“We recommend that you intervene in pending civil actions to oppose any action by GM to deny responsibility for consumer damages on grounds that those damages may have resulted from deceptive and fraudulent concealment and other misconduct by GM,” the senators wrote in Friday’s letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. Full story

By Niels Lesniewski Posted at 12:57 p.m.
Policy

Senate Switcheroo Crimps Travel Plans

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Thursday night’s unplanned — but predictable — shift in the Senate’s vote schedule meddled with plans of senators who actually planned to show up for work Friday.

While it’s not clear how many Republicans planned to be at the Capitol had votes gone forward late Friday, the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee certainly did.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa drove himself back to the Capitol complex at around 8:30 p.m., on Thursday.

Standing outside the Dirksen building, Grassley said he had returned to pick up materials for his trip back to Iowa for the two-week recess, having expected to be in Washington until after a series of nomination votes that were slated to start at 5 p.m. Friday.

“I was going to come back to the office and vote and fly out tomorrow night. Now, I’ve got to come back to the office and get the stuff I left here,” Grassley said.

Full story

Burwell Should Expect Tough Questions, Easy Confirmation

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(Via AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama said Friday he assumes the Senate will easily confirm Sylvia Matthews Burwell to replace Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of Health and Human Services — and he’s almost certainly right.

But that doesn’t mean Republicans aren’t relishing the idea of re-litigating the health care law once again under the bright lights of a nomination hearing.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, promised a “fair and thorough vetting process” and already signaled the Affordable Care Act will be his target, calling it “an unmitigated disaster.” Full story

April 10, 2014

Sebelius Resigning; Burwell to Take Place

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(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated 8:37 p.m. | Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is resigning and President Barack Obama will replace her with OMB Director Sylvia Matthews Burwell.

Sebelius’s resignation comes on a relatively high note, with the White House trumpeting a late surge in initial signups for the Affordable Care Act exchanges — topping 7.5 million just today. But she was deeply damaged by the disastrous initial rollout of the Healthcare.gov website last year, and there had been speculation on how long she would last as a result.

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Sebelius was cheered during a Cabinet meeting on Sept. 30, 2013, the day before the disastrous launch of Healthcare.gov. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Health and Human Services released a statement on her decision to resign:

From her work on Head Start, to expanding mental health coverage, to advancing cutting-edge health care research and, of course, her unwavering leadership in implementing the Affordable Care Act, Secretary Sebelius often calls her work here the most meaningful of her life. As she closes this chapter, Secretary Sebelius is extremely thankful to President Obama and very proud of the historic accomplishments of this Administration.

Burwell, who has already cleared one Senate confirmation process, will have to clear another, although in a post-nuclear-option Senate, Republicans do not have the ability to block her nomination. That might have been different if Sebelius had waited until next year, should Republicans take back control of the chamber. Full story

‘Nuclear’ Fallout Slows Senate, Briefly Delays Recess (Updated)

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(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated 8:30 p.m. | Fallout from last year’s “nuclear” rules change trumped the proverbial smell of jet fumes in the Senate this week, but only for a while.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had called a live quorum to summon senators to the floor and declare on the official record what he had said earlier in the afternoon, that he wouldn’t punt on the nomination of Michelle T. Friedland to be a judge on the Ninth Circuit.

“We’ve wasted so much time that we could be working on important issues, and Republicans come to the floor [and say], ‘We want amendments,’” Reid said. “One reason we don’t do that kind of stuff is cause we spend so much time on this.”

Later in the day, Reid set a series of nomination votes for 5 p.m. Friday, but Senate Democrats say it is now anticipated those votes will be postponed until April 28, in what represents a retreat for Reid.

Full story

Reid: Recess Won’t Start Until After Judicial Nomination Vote

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(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is in no mood to delay a scheduled confirmation vote for a Ninth Circuit judicial nominee — warning he’ll keep the Senate in session Friday if Republicans don’t consent to an earlier vote.

“We’re not punting,” the Nevada Democrat told CQ Roll Call when asked if the confirmation vote on President Barack Obama’s choice of Michelle T. Friedland for a seat on the Ninth Circuit would be put off until after the two-week recess.

The Senate voted, 56-41, to invoke cloture and thus limit debate on that nomination earlier Thursday, with Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska joining Democratic caucus members in voting for cloture.

Full story

Boxer and Vitter Have Tentative Deal on Highway Bill

boxer001 092513 445x282 Boxer and Vitter Have Tentative Deal on Highway Bill

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

With time running out before funding expires for highway and transit programs, key Senate lawmakers announced a deal in principle Thursday for a new six-year highway bill — but still no final plan on how to pay for it.

“We, as leaders of this committee, have worked across party lines before the Highway Trust Fund cannot pay its bills,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said at a news conference.

The trust fund, the collection of gas-tax receipts that fund the nation’s surface transportation programs, is expect to run out of money later this summer.

Boxer and ranking member David Vitter, R-La., said the committee would move to mark up the bill in the next work period after the two-week spring recess.

“What we have is a detailed outline of the next highway bill in terms of policy matters within our jurisdiction,” Vitter said. “Our staff is developing the specific legislative language on all of those points. A lot of it’s done, a lot of it’s being worked on and we expect to be acting on that bill in the next work period after this recess.”

Sens. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., and John Barrasso, R-Wyo., the chairman and ranking member of the committee’s Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee, also signed onto the proposal.

All four members said they want to fix the trust fund at some point to make it self-financing, but said there is not enough time before they must act on the next bill.

“I believe in the trust fund concept and user fees to pay for that and hopefully we can modernize that in the near future,” Vitter said.

Their comments aren’t surprising because giving up on the Highway Trust Fund would reduce the committee’s influence over transportation policy.

While the Environment and Public Works Committee is primarily responsible for drafting the nation’s road construction policy, the Senate Finance Committee is responsible for coming up with how to pay for the bill. The Senate Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over transportation safety programs and the Banking Committee oversees mass transit policy.

The new six-year bill would authorize keeping current funding levels, plus inflation. Boxer said that the measure would need $16 billion a year above what is provided by the Highway Trust Fund, which is facing shortfalls in part due to improving mile-per-gallon standards, which shrinks gas tax receipts.

Boxer said she has spoken to Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and said funding could be tied to a tax overhaul. Boxer and Vitter added that the likeliest offset would be repatriation — allowing corporations to bring overseas profits back into the U.S. at a lower tax rate — which would generate one-time revenue.

“There is nothing written in stone as to how this is going to be done,” Boxer said. “David mentioned repatriation. I think that is one area where there seems to be some interest in that because there are enough funds there to keep this trust fund going.”

Boxer called it a “pragmatic solution.”

Asked if there was any concern a tax overhaul may not happen in time, Boxer said the Finance Committee may be willing to do something without an overall tax rewrite, but stressed that that decision is up to Wyden and the panel.

Wyden declined to discuss any details. “I’ve been talking with [Boxer] about a variety of options, let’s just leave it at that,” he said.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, the ranking member of the Finance Committee, also said talks are ongoing.

“I don’t know that we’ve come up with any way of paying for it, but we are interesting in making sure we do what we can in that area,” Hatch said.

He was skeptical that Congress would be able to change the tax code this year, adding that renewing about 50 expired tax breaks, known as extenders, may be the best that can be done.

“And we’ll be lucky if we can get that,” Hatch added.

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