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March 5, 2014
Not even Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. could convince an in-cycle Senate Democrat from his home state to switch his vote and support embattled Department of Justice nominee Debo P. Adegbile.
In the view of Democratic optimists, Biden had made a rare and impromptu appearance at the Capitol on Wednesday to cast a potential tie-breaking vote for Adegbile. But in reality, Biden served as the last-ditch salesman from the administration, futilely chatting up members such as Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., inside the Senate chamber. Coons was one of seven Democrats to join Republicans to block Adegbile from being the next assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ.
The scene on the floor underscored a new political reality for Senate Democrats. In a “post-nuclear option” world where up-and-down votes now reign, Democrats often will carry the full burden of filling administration posts — and the Republicans will not be afraid to make political gold from tenuous straw to do it.
March 4, 2014
With few remaining options for enacting major public policy before the November election, Democrats instead are looking to set a political trap for Republicans on income inequality issues and hoping the GOP takes the bait.
According to several sources, some Republicans, especially on the Senate side, are reluctant to have House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., push forward with his annual budget framework, which he telegraphed this week would focus on the federal government’s antipoverty programs. Senate Republicans, several of whom are caught between primary challengers on the right and Democratic upstarts on the left, would rather talk about something else, as opposed to being forced to contend with issues better suited to the Democratic party line.
“You are correct they have a vote count problem and that has led to concern on our side. We have better issues on which we can message,” said a Senate Republican aide, of the cross-chamber view of Ryan’s potential budget unveiling.
Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., already have set topline numbers for this fiscal year and next, and Murray has said she will not produce a budget this year. With those spending levels, it could be hard for House Republicans to actually pass the budget, given the 62 GOP defectors on the 2013 Murray-Ryan agreement.
“We don’t have any announcements to make at this time. It is Chairman Ryan’s intent to again put forward a balanced budget,” a Ryan spokesman said in an e-mail.
But perhaps more significant in the GOP’s calculations, assuming there is a regard for Senate Republicans’ political needs from their House counterparts, is that since 2010, Senate Democrats have used Ryan’s budgets as a political weapon against Republicans, and are sure to do so again.
The potential political “trap” goes like this: Democrats, through a series of messaging votes and initiatives from the White House, make “income inequality” issues — extending expired unemployment benefits, raising the minimum wage — the centerpiece of their 2014 midterm narrative.
Republicans, in turn, respond to these messaging efforts by trying to engage on the issue. Republican senators such as Tim Scott of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida already have given speeches to these ends. And on Monday, Ryan unveiled a 204-page report assessing the failures of federal antipoverty programs.
Once Ryan releases his budget blueprint — if he does — Democrats plan to attack him and House Republicans, as they have for years, for slashing safety net programs to balance the budget. For their part, Democrats are happy Republicans are playing on their turf.
“House Republicans are realizing that the major issue that’s affecting the American people is the decline of incomes for the middle class and people below the middle class. … We may not agree with their solutions, but I think it’s a good step that they’re focusing on these things now rather than some other stuff,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer said Tuesday.
When reminded of previous Democratic messaging efforts, largely led by the New York Democrat himself, Schumer added the following caveat: “Well, I haven’t seen the whole Ryan budget this year, but I imagine most of it is going to be similar to last time — where he’s trying to dramatically cut things that will help the middle class grow, like education, infrastructure, scientific research. It’s not going to work.”
A Senate Democratic aide conceded the political nature of budgets in a way that underscored this dynamic: “A lot of these political debates aren’t necessarily won or lost on the answers to questions, but what you can frame as the important question, and on that front, we feel like we’ve already won.”
That has some Republicans asking why give Democrats an easy messaging issue when control of the Senate is in play. With President Barack Obama’s approval ratings hovering around 40 percent, and almost a complete disregard of his budget release Tuesday, these Republicans believe that other messages would be clearer and more effective.
But other Republicans dismiss the idea that attacking Ryan’s budget brings much political advantage to otherwise struggling Democrats.
“I don’t think the Democratic talking points on our budget [are as] effective as they think they are,” said one GOP aide. “I think they’d love to find an issue that would become a national issue to combat the general fatigue with the Obama presidency.”
And even some Democrats admit that what’s said on the ground by candidates plays a more significant role in voters’ decisions than national narratives.
“At the risk of going off-script, I don’t think the problem is Paul Ryan, I think it’s the ideas that all these candidates support and that’s what will have big consequences in these Senate races,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Deputy Executive Director Matt Canter, citing recent stories of GOP candidates opposing the principle of a minimum wage. But Canter suggested that national policy decisions “build a narrative.”
January 28, 2014
President Barack Obama did not mention the words “background checks” in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. And don’t expect him to push for expanding federal background checks until after the 2014 elections, according to a top lawmaker on the issue.
Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., said Tuesday that, to his knowledge, there are no behind-the-scenes negotiations on gun control extending beyond Obama’s brief comments in his speech Tuesday. After spending a significant amount of time speaking about gun control in 2013, weeks after a mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, Obama glossed over gun control in 2014. Manchin said he believed the administration would wait until after the 2014 midterm elections.
“I think basically, the numbers are what they are right now. They’ll probably wait until the 2014 election and see what happens,” Manchin said.
In September, 15 Senate Democrats put pen to paper to urge President Barack Obama to issue an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10. On Tuesday, they’ll get exactly what they wanted from Obama — except for any recognition of their efforts.
Of the 15 lawmakers on the letter, championed by Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., four senators are up for re-election in 2014: Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Brian Schatz of Hawaii.
And though Democrats in the White House and in Congress have been touting a stronger relationship than ever heading into Tuesday night’s State of the Union, there was some residual frustration that the White House apparently didn’t consider mentioning the letter or the senators in its announcement of the policy change. Democratic aides approached for this story did not want to be quoted on the record about senators’ displeasure, largely out of worry they would upset administration officials.
“Since when does the White House give credit to other Democrats?” one Senate aide quipped.
When asked by Roll Call whether he was frustrated that the White House didn’t mention the group of Democratic senators and their push for higher wages, Sanders smiled a wide grin, then paused.
January 24, 2014
The White House dispatched top aides to Capitol Hill Friday afternoon to brief Senate Democratic chiefs of staff on President Barack Obama’s upcoming State of the Union address.
The meeting was led by Obama’s new Legislative Affairs Director Katie Beirne Fallon, a former top staffer to Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, and Director of Communications Jennifer Palmieri.
One source familiar with the gathering said it was light on the specifics of the president’s speech. While similar spare-on-details meetings have stoked anger from Hill staff in the past, the frustration level this year was tampered by more congressional staff involvement in the lead-up to the address. Full story
January 13, 2014
Updated 11:13 p.m. | Senate Democrats have begun whipping an amendment from Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., to the stalled jobless benefits bill, hoping to use it as a political hammer against GOP senators who are looking to the measure to cater to their conservative bases.
Sources confirmed that Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin’s vote-counting operation over the weekend started gauging whether Democrats could stand firm against the proposal that would eliminate tax credits for the children of undocumented immigrants, millions of whom are American citizens. Similar legislation previously had been championed by Sens. David Vitter, R-La., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who lacked support for the initiative and failed in multiple attempts to bring it to the floor.
Democrats say they are checking with their caucus to ensure they would have enough votes to block the Ayotte measure in the event they offer a vote on it to Republicans in exchange for support on cloture of the bill. The result would be a rare political test vote that could be embraced by both parties in the opening days of 2014. Republicans fearful of primaries can prove their conservative bona fides “by stopping a scheme that currently [benefits] illegal immigrants,” according to a press advisory last week. Democrats in turn can use the measure as an example of how the GOP is anti-immigrant to the point of taking punitive measure against millions of legal citizens, even in the chamber that approved a comprehensive immigration overhaul. Full story
January 10, 2014
A bipartisan bill to increase sanctions on Iran appears to have a filibuster-proof majority, according to a Senate aide, but the Obama administration already has vowed to veto it.
A source tracking a bill from Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Sen. Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill., confirmed a CNN report that backers have rounded up enough members to clear a 60-vote procedural hurdle. But a Senate Democratic leadership aide denied that the legislation will come to the floor in the coming weeks, and said especially not during the week of the State of the Union. That timing would be awkward for Senate Democrats and President Barack Obama, as the White House has urged Congress repeatedly to hold off on a sanctions deal until an agreement between world leaders and Iran forcing the country to ease off its nuclear program has been given time to succeed.
“The president would veto it,” Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters at the White House in December. Another round of sanctions now, Carney said then — and the administration has repeatedly warned — would threaten the diplomatic progress Secretary of State John Kerry believes he has made.
January 8, 2014
By voting to open debate on a temporary extension of long-term jobless benefits, Republicans gave themselves leverage to force Democrats to consider cuts from elsewhere to pay for it.
But so far, the GOP has failed to come forward with a plan Democrats could support.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told CQ Roll Call he has yet to see an offer from the GOP he could take seriously. Reid has said he would prefer not to offset the emergency extension, but would consider proposals that he viewed as genuinely bipartisan efforts.
“Not yet. They’ve offered to go after Obamacare and go after little kids, so you know, those two aren’t too good,” the Nevada Democrat said.
The most recent GOP offer to pay for the extension came Wednesday from Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who suggested Congress pay for unemployment benefits — plus a rollback of approved cost of living adjustment cuts for veterans’ pensions — by eliminating child tax credits filed by undocumented workers. Seven Republican senators stood by her side, touting its ingenuity. Republican Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., even dubbed the plan “all-American,” evoking laughs from the other senators on stage. Full story
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said that in a conversation with President Barack Obama on Tuesday, he promised her he would send staff to the Hill to discuss with her potential changes to the extended unemployment insurance program.
Collins on Tuesday was one of six Republicans to vote to open debate on a three-month patch of the program. On Wednesday, she was the only GOP senator at a news conference to step forward in response to a question from CQ Roll Call to state her belief that jobless benefits should exist in the long term — on the condition that the program be changed to include support and training for America’s chronically unemployed. Though much of the focus on Capitol Hill has been on how to approve an emergency extension of the extended unemployment insurance, which lapsed last month for 1.3 million Americans, larger questions loom: Can the system be changed to attract bipartisan support again and are Republicans, on principle, willing to support such a program?
The Maine moderate believes she has an answer.
“I, for one, believe that the long-term unemployment [compensation] program needs to be overhauled so that it is focused on giving people the training, the supports that they need to get back to work. That may mean training them for a job in a field that is completely different from the field where they have traditionally worked,” Collins said. “Considering they have been unemployed for more than a year, than most likely the job that she or he once held is not going to come back. … I think we do a real disservice if we don’t link the continued receipt of benefits after a year to new jobs for them.
January 7, 2014
Republican Dean Heller of Nevada is getting flak from D.C.-based conservative groups for his support of extending jobless benefits, but back home in Nevada — where the unemployment rate is a nation-high 9 percent — a different story is being told.
Heller, the lone co-sponsor of the three-month extension, was one of six Republicans who voted Tuesday to advance the legislation. He is also currently the only GOP senator whose support of the bill is unconditional.iframe code:
Since Friday, the major networks in Las Vegas and Reno have run approximately 55 news segments combined on the pending unemployment insurance legislation, according to a CQ Roll Call estimate based on media tracking information provided by a Nevada source outside Heller’s office. More than 40 segments have run since Monday alone. This estimate only considers information about the major English-language networks newscasts, though many segments have run on Univision and Telemundo. The count also does not take into consideration the segments that have run and will run now that the bill unexpectedly cleared a key procedural hurdle.
For context, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — Nevada’s senior senator who typically gets more local press coverage — had more than well more than double the number of television mentions on this issue than any other issue combined. Full story
Six Republicans bucked the party line Tuesday to open debate on a temporary reinstatement of lapsed jobless benefits — and for some, the story behind their support is one of high unemployment at home, combined with Democratic delegation-mates who create inherent political tension.
Jobless benefits expired on Dec. 28 for 1.3 million Americans, but states with higher unemployment rates are disproportionately affected because federal extended benefits are divided into tiers of aid based on need.
States that have unemployment rates at or above 6 percent, 7 percent and 9 percent have access to more federal benefits for their residents. Three of the GOP senators who voted with Democrats Tuesday — Dean Heller of Nevada, Dan Coats of Indiana and Rob Portman of Ohio — are from states where the unemployment rate is above 7 percent. They also all have Democratic seatmates, and had they not supported at least allowing debate of the measure, they risked headlines at home highlighting how they blocked assistance to their neediest constituents as their Democratic colleagues fought to approve them.
That was the case for Republicans Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania and Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, both of whom fall into the same category as the aforementioned GOP supporters. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran the headline, “Toomey, Casey split on unemployment benefits” and the Chicago Tribune published, “Illinois senators split in jobless aid extension vote.” Pennsylvania and Illinois have jobless rates of 7.3 percent and 8.7 percent, respectively.
President Barack Obama also sought to pressure both House and Senate Republicans in a White House speech Tuesday.
But perhaps the biggest boon to Democrats seeking to approve the bill was that Republican leaders had not met with the rank and file to discuss voting strategy. When Coats was asked by CQ Roll Call about the decision-making behind his vote, the Indiana Republican said he had not spoken to any of his colleagues before voting.
The long-delayed farm bill may finally be on a glide path to passage, after months of partisan wrangling raised doubts over whether such a day would ever come.
House and Senate conferees are tentatively scheduled to meet Thursday to begin the final process of approving a bill that can be voted on by both chambers, senators and aides said. Leadership aides in both chambers indicated that the long-stalled legislation, which faltered in the House last session, could be sent to the president’s desk by the Martin Luther King Jr. Day recess.
For weeks, Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and House Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., have been engaged in one-on-one negotiations trying to bridge the gap between the two sides. They now believe they have made enough progress to bring the remaining issues to conferees for haggling.
“Sen. Stabenow thinks that sometime this week the conference could be completed. I hope that’s the case,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters Tuesday.
Beyond fighting over the final, contentious issues, there could be increased pressure on conferees to act swiftly on the bill — projected to reduce the deficit by about $20 billion — as members eye potential offsets for a pending three-month jobless benefits extension. Full story
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to tie the bill extending jobless benefits for 1.3 million people to a delay in the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate Tuesday.
The Kentucky Republican asked for unanimous consent on the floor Tuesday morning for consideration of an amendment to the pending three-month unemployment insurance bill that Democrats were certain to oppose — and did. McConnell’s proposal would have restored military pension cost-of-living cuts enacted by the recent budget deal and then pay for both items by striking at the heart of Democrats’ health care law by delaying the individual mandate for a year.
Asking for a vote on what amounted to a poison pill amendment enables Republicans to continue hitting the unpopular health care law while perhaps shielding themselves from criticism in states still hard-hit by the recession for opposing unemployment benefits.
From McConnell’s exchange with Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on the floor moments ago:
“To that end, I’d like to propose that my side be allowed to offer an amendment to pay for these benefits by lifting the burden of Obamacare’s individual mandate for one year and take care of our veterans who were harmed by the recently agreed-to budget deal while we’re at it in the same amendment,” McConnell said. “And once that is disposed of, we can have an actual debate on this issue and an amendment process here in the Senate, which hasn’t happened very often in recent times.”
In an apparent rebuke of their leadership and a relative surprise to many in the Capitol, a handful of Senate Republicans voted with Democrats to advance a bill restoring lapsed unemployment benefits for 1.3 million people.
The three-month proposal, championed by Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Republican Dean Heller of Nevada, does not include offsets to pay for continuing the program. Congress has granted extensions of the program previously without offsets. Democrats overcame a Republican effort to block consideration of the bill 60-37.
Even if it gets out of the Senate, House Republican leadership aides have said that their bosses will not bring a bill to the floor unless it is fully paid for. The administration has estimated that if Congress does not reinstate unemployment insurance this year, an additional 3.6 million Americans could lose benefits by the end of 2014. That same report concluded that eliminating the benefits could cost the American economy 200,000 jobs over the same time period, as federal payments to unemployed workers tend to be spent immediately, creating both demand in the market and an economic multiplier effect.
Before the vote, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sought a vote on an amendment that would pay for the benefits by delaying the health care law’s individual mandate by one year.
Senate Democrats held a press call advocating for swift passage of the stopgap welfare measure Sunday, and planned another news conference after Tuesday’s vote. There’s no sign that they’ll stop talking about this issue, or the minimum wage, in the run-up to November’s midterm elections.
In an interview with CQ Roll Call last week, Reed said he hadn’t given much thought to whether Democratic leaders should have made their push for unemployment insurance sooner and that in “20/20 hindsight, maybe we should have done more.” But he remains committed to the policy and politics behind the issue, and told CQ Roll Call then that he was hopeful that Republicans, over time, might change their minds, even as the Senate faces a tight schedule in the days ahead, with potential omnibus and farm bill conference votes.
“I’m going to work as hard as I can to get it done. The reality is this is a problem that affects the nation, in Republican and Democratic states. … [It] affects a broad number of people and I think my colleagues, when they think about the consequences to their constituents and the fact that this is good for the economy, will realize that,” Reed said then.
January 3, 2014
Sen. Bernard Sanders sent a letter to the director of the National Security Agency on Friday, demanding that he disclose whether the intelligence agency has spied on elected officials and members of Congress.
The Vermont independent’s letter to Keith B. Alexander comes after revelations over the past weeks and months that the American government may have spied on the phones and electronic devices of foreign leaders, as well as a district court ruling that challenged the constitutionality of the agency’s domestic surveillance programs.
“Has the NSA spied, or is the NSA currently spying, on members of Congress or other American elected officials? ‘Spying’ would include gathering metadata on calls made from official or personal phones, content from websites visited or emails sent, or collecting any other data from a third party not made available to the general public in the regular course of business,” Sanders wrote in the letter.
Sanders is one of several lawmakers who has introduced legislation that would limit the powers of the NSA and FBI to collect mass records from American citizens without suspicion or warrant.
Sanders’ full letter can be read here.