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Posts by Humberto Sanchez
August 21, 2014
With lawmakers on the left and right questioning the militarization of law enforcement after two weeks of violence in Ferguson, Mo., Sen. Claire McCaskill announced she will hold hearings next month on the federal programs supplying local authorities with surplus military gear.
The Missouri Democrat, chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight, plans to take a broad look at programs like the Defense Department’s 1033 program that have steered surplus equipment to local police departments.
That DOD program has come under particular scrutiny from other lawmakers.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, last week said he would review the program, which is part of the defense authorization bill, before it gets to the Senate floor “to determine if equipment provided by the Defense Department is being used as intended.” Full story
August 18, 2014
Former Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, a longtime Republican who flipped control of the Senate to the Democrats after switching parties in 2001, has died.
Jeffords, who had been in declining health, was 80. The Burlington Free Press first reported his death.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he was sad to hear of Jeffords’ passing and called him a man of conscience.
“Throughout Jim’s time in the Senate he left an important mark on the history of the institution,” Reid said. “He was a strong supporter of helping people with disabilities and always fought for the underdog. Jim was a model of a great legislator who avoided partisan politics and fought for what was best for the people of Vermont. In 2001 he changed the makeup of the Senate by switching from a Republican to an Independent and caucusing with the Democrats. History will remember Senator Jeffords as a courageous man who listened to his conscience, and I will always respect him for doing so.”
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., also lauded Jeffords’ career.
“He was a partner in our work for Vermont, and he was a friend,” Leahy said in release. “He was a Vermonter through and through, drawn to political life to make a difference for our state and nation. Part of his legacy will also stand as an enduring chapter of the Senate’s history.”
Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., who won the election to replace Jefford after he retired in 2006, praised his demeanor and his dedication to the state.
“Jane and I join all Vermonters in sending condolences to the family of Jim Jeffords,” Sanders said in a statement. “Jim was one of the most popular elected officials in the modern history of the state — serving at the local, state and federal levels. Vermonters admired him because of his low-key and down-to-earth qualities, and because of his obvious and strong love of the state and the Vermont way of life. He was an effective champion of education, disability rights, the environment and the arts — and millions of Americans have benefited from his efforts.”
Sanders acknowledged Jeffords’ strength when he changed the Senate in 2001 and became an independent. “He displayed enormous courage by leaving a party that, he often said, had left him because of its dramatic move to the right,” Sanders said. “Jim was a friend and he will be sorely missed.”
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said that Jeffords and his wife Liz Daley, who died in 2007 of ovarian cancer, were mentors during his early days as the state’s at-large House member.
“While Jim would certainly wave away the notion, he was indeed a legend in Vermont and the nation,” Welch said in a release. “With characteristic decency, humility and civility, and a dogged persistence, he made his mark in Congress.”
“Millions of children with disabilities are better off today because he lead the charge for their equal access to education,” Welch said. “Americans are breathing cleaner air and drinking cleaner water because of his fierce advocacy for the environment and clean energy. And budding artists across the nation receive the boost of his encouragement every year thanks to his legacy as the founder of the annual Congressional Arts Competition.”
“And, in 2001, the world saw what his fellow Vermonters already knew: Jim Jeffords, above all, had the courage of his convictions,” Welch said.
Jeffords endorsed Welch in his 2006 campaign over GOP candidate Martha Rainville.
Education was a legislative passion for Jeffords and Republican leaders decision not to include a school funding provision in a $1.6 trillion tax cut bill led him down the path to renouncing his party affiliation.
At the time of his decision to become an independent who would caucus with Democrats, the Senate was split 50-50 with Vice President Dick Cheney the deciding vote giving Republicans control of the chamber.
Following Jeffords’ switch, the Democrats controlled the chamber, 51-49. Until 2001 he identified as a Republican his entire political career, including 14 years in the House of Representatives and all but the last six years of the 18 years he spent in the Senate.
“It was a unique time in history,” Jeffords once recalled. “It was the first time you had a situation of a 50-50 Senate. That opened up an opportunity for one individual, myself or any other Republicans that wanted to, within the rules, to change the whole thing. And then I got to thinking. … I said, ‘If you don’t do it, you’re going to be to blame for everything that happens from now on — Supreme Court appointments — all of that. Because you had the power to make that change, to stop the abuse of power.’ So that’s when I decided I had to do it.”
August 14, 2014
Updated: 5:05 p.m. | A bipartisan group of 50 senators urged appropriators Thursday to include a provision in year-end, catchall spending legislation that would prevent the U.S. Post Office from closing more mail-processing facilities in the next fiscal year.
“This one-year moratorium will give Congress the time it needs to enact the comprehensive postal reforms that are necessary for the Postal Service to function effectively into the future,” the group said in a letter to Appropriations Committee Chairman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., and ranking member Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala.
The letter — circulated by Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. — was also sent to Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., chairman of the Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over the post office, and the panel’s ranking member Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb.
While Congress doesn’t provide funding for the post service, it does oversee the agency. Full story
July 31, 2014
Updated 7:56 p.m. | The Senate failed to pass a $3.6 billion emergency supplemental spending package, most of which was designed to deal with the tens of thousands children illegally emigrating from Central America.
Hours after House GOP leaders had to pull their own $659 million bill, Republicans used a budget point of order by Senate Budget Chairman Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., to kill the Senate bill on a 50-44 vote, 10 votes shy of the 60 votes needed.
Dr. No is at again, despite the jet fumes in the air.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. — the fiscal hawk of the Senate who has earned the nickname Dr. No. — warned his colleagues that he would object to passing bills by unanimous consent, including money for Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system or wildfires, unless they were offset.
“I am putting my colleagues on notice that if you want to pass any bill that’s going to go by unanimous consent, you better find some waste somewhere to offset it or I will object,” Coburn said. “And I don’t mind taking the heat, no matter what the issue. I’ve done it before, I’ll do it again.” Full story
July 29, 2014
The Senate Tuesday approved a short-term patch to keep funds flowing to highway projects through Dec. 19, but Speaker John A. Boehner has already promised to strip the Senate provisions and send the House-passed bill right back.
After the Senate’s version of the bill passed 79 to 18 — Finance Committee ranking member Orrin Hatch, R-Utah called it a “free vote…because the House is going to send this right back, they are going to strip everything out — after they’ve left” for the August recess.
Boehner is playing hardball.
“I just want to make clear, if the Senate sends a highway bill over here…we’re gonna strip it out and put the House- passed provisions back in and send it back to the Senate,” the Ohio Republican told reporters Tuesday morning. Full story
July 28, 2014
Sen. Bernard Sanders didn’t seem a likely suspect to bridge Washington’s toxic partisan divide and cut one of the most significant deals in years.
But the Senate’s lone socialist and a potential 2016 presidential candidate did just that — negotiating a deal over the weekend to tackle wait times at the Department of Veterans Affairs and clear his biggest legislative test since he took over the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee gavel last year.
The Vermont independent’s compromise with House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., would provide $17 billion to the agency with $5 billion offset with savings and fees elsewhere. In a brief interview after a Monday news conference announcing the deal, Sanders reflected on the difficulty of the deal.
“I learned that it’s very, very, very hard; that there are a lot of moving parts; that there a lot of people you have to pay attention to,” he said. “In this case with the VA, the administration, the Democrats, with Republicans and a whole lot of individuals within those entities. It’s tough stuff.”
So often, Sanders has been on the outside looking in, railing against the powers that be — like when he gave an eight-and-a-half hour speech on the Senate floor in 2010 torching the extension of tax cuts as “Robin Hood in reverse.” The speech, which generated widespread attention and is also known as the “filiBernie,” was published as a book in 2011.
But Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist and caucuses with the Democratic Party, said he wants to legislate, not just pontificate. He attributes his negotiating skills to his time as the first socialist mayor of Burlington, Vt.
“When I took office, people who supported me on the city council, we had two out of 13 and I had to make things happen while being in the minority, so I do know how to negotiate fairly,” Sanders said. “Negotiation is part of the political process. I certainly have been prepared to do that since day one.”
Asked how he balances his progressive views with his role as a legislator, Sanders said there is no recipe. “I do the best I can,” he said.
With regard to the VA, Sanders pushed hard for expanding the agency’s own facilities — and wanted to ensure that veterans weren’t used as pawns in the ongoing spending fight between the parties.
“By which I mean [Republicans would say], ‘Yeah, we will fund veterans health care, but we will cut Head Start or education,” Sanders said. “That I did not want to see, and that did not happen.’”
Sanders repeatedly said he believes that most Americans think taking care of veterans is part of the cost of war. And he had an advantage, given that failure to act would have been bad politically for both parties.
During the news conference, Sanders was quick to note how rare a deal — any deal — is in Washington.
“The United States Congress today, in my view, is a dysfunctional institution,” he said. “There is major issue after major issue where virtually nothing is happening.
“The important point is we are here together having done something that happens quite rarely in the United States Congress,” Sanders said. “I am proud of what we have accomplished.”
The deal is one of the biggest expansions of government since the GOP takeover of the House, with $10 billion to launch a program to allow veterans to seek private medical care if they have unreasonable wait times or if they live more than 40 miles from a facility.
The compromise also includes $5 billion for additional doctors, nurses and upgrades to facilities, although not nearly as much as Sanders wanted.
“I think we are [to] going have to be back discussing these very same issues sooner than I would liked to have seen,” he said.
But the deal also included funding to extend a scholarship to include surviving spouses of members of the armed forces who died in the line of duty, a bipartisan provision to let all veterans qualify for in-state tuition under the Post-9/11 GI bill, and language that extends an about-to-expire program that provides housing for veterans who are struggling with traumatic brain injuries.
Sanders and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who co-sponsored a veterans measure that passed the Senate last month, heaped praise on each other.
“John and I see the world very, very differently,” Sanders said. “But John made it clear that it was vitally important that this legislation be passed; that it would be an obscenity if it were not passed by the time we got out of here for recess.”
McCain reciprocated in a statement of his own, saying Sanders’ “tenacity and passion on behalf of America’s veterans cannot be questioned.”
The deal nearly didn’t happen, after talks collapsed last week over Republican objections to adding funds funds for doctors, nurses and facility improvements.
Miller, who had acting VA Secretary Sloan D. Gibson before his panel on July 24, had argued it made no sense to provide the agency funding for that purpose because it already had job openings that it couldn’t fill.
Miller offered Sanders $10 billion for veterans to seek private care, as well as for leases and authorization for 27 new major VA medical facilities. But Sanders rebuffed the offer and rejected calls from Miller to convene the conference.
Sanders and Miller agreed to restart talks over the weekend.
Asked late last week what it was like negotiating with the Senate’s foremost liberal, a visibly frustrated Miller said jokingly, and somewhat angrily: “Wonderful.”
But jokes aside, Miller said there is no personal animus between the two.
At the news conference Monday, Miller warmly thanked Sanders for “working in good faith throughout the entire process.”
“Sen. Sanders and I differ about certain things, but one thing we do agree about is that the veterans of this country deserve the best quality health care that they can get in a timely fashion,” Miller said.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this article.
July 25, 2014
Sen. John Walsh said he “made a mistake” when he plagiarized portions of his Masters’ thesis and dismissed possible affects of post-traumatic stress disorder possibly playing a role.
“I was going to the United States Army War College, I had to write a strategic research paper and I made a mistake,” the Montana Democrat said Friday on KMMS AM Radio in Bozeman, Mont.
“It was an unintentional mistake when I put the paper together,” Walsh said. “It was a 14-page paper. There were 96 citations that I identified in the paper. Some of those citations were identified incorrectly and some of the comments that I left in the paper I did not put a citation against. So I made a mistake on my paper. It was an unintentional mistake.” Full story
July 24, 2014
Updated 1:08 p.m. | Talks on a fix for the Department of Veterans Affairs’ health care crisis have collapsed, after the lead Senate Democratic negotiator accused the top House GOP negotiator of a “take-it-or-leave-it gambit.”
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., said House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., has signaled he has abandoned talks after calling a noon meeting of the conference committee in an effort to ram a GOP plan through.
Sanders told CQ Roll Call he did not plan to attend the noon conference meeting called by Miller.
“It’s not a conference. A conference is when two sides agree to meet. This was decided at 10 last night by the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs,” Sanders said, adding he would be prepared to talk with Miller over the weekend.
After Sanders and Senate Democrats opted not to go, Boehner sent out a statement blasting them.
“In the wake of the shocking scandal at the Veterans Administration, the House passed a bipartisan VA reform and accountability bill, and we’re ready to complete work on an agreement the president can sign. Unfortunately, Senate Democrats refused to even show up and discuss bipartisan solutions, preferring instead to talk behind closed doors. That is shameful. If President Obama cares about America’s veterans, he needs to pick up his phone out in California and tell Senate Democrats to get to work.”
Sanders blasted the move in an earlier statement of his own.
“Instead of working constructively toward a compromise, Miller unilaterally called a ‘conference committee meeting’ to unveil his take-it-or-leave-it gambit,” Sanders said in the release. “This is a sad indication that the House leadership is not serious about negotiations. We don’t need more speeches and posturing. We need serious negotiations — 24/7 if necessary — to resolve our differences in order to pass critical legislation.”
On the Senate floor, Sanders said Miller’s move was a low point in the talks.
“This is a proposal that nobody on our side has seen,” Sanders said. “My understanding is that he then wants to take this to the House on Monday and [hold] a vote.”
“Any sixth grader in a school in the United States understands that this is not negotiation, this is not what democracy is about,” Sanders continued.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has also been involved in the talks, agreed that negotiations are in a difficult period, but suggested Sanders go to the noon meeting prepared to negotiate in calm fashion.
“I hope we could go to this conference at noon today and listen to the various proposals,” McCain said in an effort to save the talks.
Sanders asked McCain to sit down with Miller and the ranking members to work out a deal.
“I’d be more than glad to do that,” McCain said, adding he hoped agreement could be reached Thursday.
Waging war on smoking, for-profit colleges and tax loopholes may sound like odd subjects for the military spending bill, but not when you consider who is wielding the gavel.
In an era without earmarks, Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin has used his perch atop the powerful Defense Appropriations Subcommittee to put his stamp on several of his priorities, like increasing the accountability of for-profit schools getting federal tuition dollars through the Pentagon.
“If you’ve been bored and watched C-SPAN, you’ve probably heard me on the floor talk about this a couple times. This is serious,” the Illinois Democrat said at last week’s Appropriations Committee markup. “Corinthian Colleges is about to fail and go bankrupt. It’s going to cost the United States over a billion dollars when this for-profit school goes under.”
July 23, 2014
Despite remaining short of the 67 votes needed to ratify the United Nation’s disability treaty, disabled veterans groups are pushing for a vote to identify the holdouts.
Former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., at a press conference urging ratification, said the treaty is a no-brainer to help veterans.
“I just hope the Republicans will take another look and support this treaty,” Dole said.
“This is a common sense thing … so … the people in wheelchairs can have the same rights when they travel overseas as able-bodied persons.” Full story
July 22, 2014
Senate Democrats are hoping their use of the “nuclear option” to end a Republican blockade of circuit court nominees last year will help overturn a 2-1 appeals court ruling with the potential to gut Obamacare tax subsidies for millions.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., blasted the court’s ruling that Congress only wanted to provide tax subsidies in states with their own exchanges an “absurd” move by “two activist Republican judges.”
The administration plans to appeal the ruling to the full D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which now has more Democrat-appointed judges after the nuclear option blew up GOP attempts to filibuster Obama’s nominees. Full story
July 21, 2014
A pileup of nominations — particularly for scores of would-be U.S. ambassadors — has the Obama administration pushing hard for Senate action ahead of the August recess, while senators want to get home to campaign before the midterms.
There are 224 executive and 29 judicial nominations awaiting Senate action, according to the White House, including many whose lives have been on hold for a year or more. The Senate last year used the “nuclear option” to change the rules so a simple majority can confirm most nominations — and that move has shrunk the judicial backlog.
But a backlog has built up in executive branch nominees, including 56 ambassadors.
Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry called Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to voice concern over the pileup, and a State Department spokesman said the former Massachusetts senator was expected to speak by phone with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Monday while traveling in the Middle East.
“We hope the Senate will come to agreement to confirm nominees before heading into recess,” Assistant Secretary Doug Frantz said in a statement Monday. ”There is plenty of time remaining in July to do so, particularly if they can reach an agreement to approve the career nominees in a block as Secretary Kerry has proposed.”
“We are redoubling our efforts on ambassadors,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Democrats are about to threaten the August break to confirm them.
“These ambassadors are America’s front lines, fighting to defend our interests abroad — our security interests, our national interests, and our economic interests,” Reid said last week. ”Right now, there are gaping holes in our nation’s front lines. … A quarter of all American embassies are without an ambassador.”
After the rules change, Republicans retaliated by slow-walking numerous nominees; the rules change allowed a simple majority to advance nominees but kept in place time limits that allow Republicans to force Democrats to burn days of floor time to get to a final vote.
“Some Senate observers say that Republicans are stalling these nominations as payback for the rules changes instituted by the Senate,” Reid said. “Let me see if I can wrap my head around this — Republicans are stalling executive nominees vital to our national security to get back at Democrats? To get back at me? Stalling these nominees is jeopardizing America’s interests abroad. It is damaging our nation’s role in global affairs. It is damaging our national security. Is this conjured-up political retribution worth harming the U.S.?”
Republicans say Democrats only have themselves to blame.
“Their complaint assumes there should be no consequences for Majority Leader Reid breaking the rules of the Senate to change the rules on the processing of nominations,” the Senate Republican Policy Committee wrote in an issue brief. “The consequences of that act were predictable. Senator Obama predicted the consequences himself when a rules change was contemplated in 2005, saying, ‘If they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate, then the fighting, the bitterness, and the gridlock will only get worse.’”
The nominations backlog in the ambassadorial ranks has been a recurring topic of discussion at the regular State Department press briefings in recent weeks.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki likened the Kerry proposal to accelerate career appointees to the way the Senate treats military promotions.
“And just to not to put too fine a point on it, obviously for America to continue to play a strong role in the world, we need equal treatment for diplomats, we need to have ambassadors and our representatives on the front lines in these countries around the world,” she said on July 9.
Asked if the nuclear option has contributed to the backlog, Psaki dismissed the contention.
“There has been a logjam in the Senate on the Senate floor about nominations and legislation long before … Majority Leader Reid moved forward with the nuclear option several months ago. That was put in place because there was a complete deadlock on getting anything done in the Senate at all,” she said.
Democrats have also highlighted delays of top veterans’ officials — some waiting more than a year for confirmation even as the crisis at the Department of Veterans Affairs unfolded.
Numerous other would-be officials are awaiting their fate. If they don’t get confirmation before the August recess, they’ll be waiting months longer for confirmation — or be stalled forever — given that the Senate will have a limited schedule before the November elections and faces a lame-duck session where floor time will be at a premium.
At some point, Senate Democrats could deploy the nuclear option again to cut down on what the Senate aide calls the “slow-motion temper tantrum.”
At the beginning of this Congress in January 2013, the chamber adopted a bipartisan agreement that reduced the post-cloture debate time for certain nominations. That agreement will expire at the end of the year.
If they manage to maintain the majority, Democrats would have to either negotiate time rules with Republicans or use the nuclear option again.
Given the mounting frustrations, “If it comes to a head, the caucus will be more supportive,” the aide predicted.
Correction 6:42 p.m.
An earlier version of this post misattributed the quote from the Republican Policy Committee.
July 17, 2014
If it’s determined that Ukrainian separatists shot down the Malaysia Airlines plane that crashed in Eastern Ukraine Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin should face consequences, Sen. John McCain said.
The Arizona Republican said it’s too early to know exactly what happened to the plane that reportedly crashed near the Russian border.
“It’s an outrageous and incredible act of terrorism that people [should] be held responsible and not only be people directly responsible, but indirectly,” McCain said when asked about reports the plane was shot down. “And if these are … separatists, which are also Russian, Vladimir Putin should be paying a heavy price. But I am not concluding yet that until we find out all the information.”
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, said he expected a briefing Thursday.
President Barack Obama announced Wednesday new sanctions targeting Russian businesses in retaliation for Putin’s actions on Ukraine.
July 16, 2014
Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin would not concede that the only way forward for fiscal 2015 appropriations is a continuing resolution, but he wasn’t very optimistic.
Asked if the regular process of handling bills one at a time was dead, the Illinois Democrat said ”I hope not, but it really looks tough.”
Durbin’s comments come a day ahead of a scheduled full committee markup of the fiscal 2015 defense spending bill. In addition to his leadership role, Durbin serves as chairman of the Defense subcommittee, which considered the measure on Tuesday.