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December 11, 2013
Updated 5:18 p.m. | Federal law enforcement agents escorted Sen. Lamar Alexander’s D.C.-based chief of staff from his Southeast Washington home in handcuffs on Wednesday.
November 15, 2013
Democrats seem to agree on the need to address the rising number of sexual assaults in the military, but the intraparty battle over the issue has gotten deeply personal and could end up politically damaging to those who have been tagged as “anti-victim.”
Democratic leaders are dreading having what is likely to be an emotionally charged fight play out on the Senate floor when the chamber takes up the Defense authorization bill in the next few weeks.
“I would be less than candid if I didn’t say this has been — for somebody who has fought and has a long history of victim advocacy, from my days as a state legislator to my days as a prosecutor to establishing laws and programs and fighting for victims all my life — that it’s been very difficult to be characterized as anti-victim,” Sen. Claire McCaskill told CQ Roll Call.
The Missouri Democrat has been one of the lead supporters of keeping sexual-assault cases within the military’s chain of command while making other key changes aimed at addressing the issue. On the other side, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has been aggressively pushing to take commanders out of the mix when it comes to sexual-assault allegations.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has been coy about his plans to proceed on competing proposals to curb what has become a crisis in the armed forces. While most of his caucus members support Gillibrand’s framework, at least a dozen Democrats likely will vote for the Senate Armed Services Committee markup language being championed by McCaskill.
No. 3 Democrat Charles E. Schumer of New York supports Gillibrand’s bill, while the other members of the leadership team, including Reid, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Patty Murray of Washington are undecided. Both proposals have support from Republicans.
Reid has met with both senators independently to try to map out the best way forward, but sources say leaders are concerned that Gillibrand and her supporters’ passionate rhetoric will make fellow Democrats look anti-victim.
The worry is not unfounded, given how personal the fight has been for months and how much the rhetoric has intensified in the past few weeks. Full story
November 14, 2013
President Barack Obama’s announcement Thursday about keeping existing health care policies under Obamacare hasn’t fully assuaged Senate Democrats’ concerns.
“We still need to work towards a permanent solution so we do not simply kick the can down the road, which is why we need to pass the Landrieu bill that will give people certainty that they will not lose their current coverage,” Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., said in a statement. She was referring to a measure introduced by Louisiana Democrat Mary L. Landrieu that would allow individuals to preserve canceled health insurance plans that do not meet the standards of the 2010 health care law.
Hagan’s statement followed a special Senate Democratic caucus meeting at the Capitol with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who was dispatched to brief Democrats on both sides of the Rotunda about Obama’s plan to handle the outrage over the inaccuracy of the “if you like what you have, you can keep it” catch phrase that the president and other Democrats repeated as the health care measure moved through Congress.
Hagan and Landrieu each face re-election campaigns in conservative-leaning states in 2014.
October 16, 2013
The Senate approved a bill to reopen the government and avert default Wednesday night, 16 days into a government shutdown and a day before the Treasury Department’s debt limit deadline.
The legislation, crafted by negotiations between the Senate’s two leaders, Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada and Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, passed on a wide bipartisan vote, 81-18, despite defections from the chamber’s most conservative members who had hoped to defund the president’s health care law in exchange for reopening the government. The cloture vote passed 83-16, with 16 Republicans voting to filibuster: Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, Ted Cruz of Texas, Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, Dean Heller of Nevada, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Jim Risch of Idaho, Pat Roberts of Kansas, Marco Rubio of Florida, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania and David Vitter of Louisiana. Two more Republicans, Tim Scott of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, voted against final passage. Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., who recently underwent heart surgery, was absent.
All eyes are now on the House, where Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has supported the Reid-McConnell framework but likely will lose a large number of Republicans on the vote.
Marking the beginning of the end of a standoff that has taken a serious toll on the Republican party, Wednesday night’s vote sets up a budget conference committee that could begin to negotiate immediately (or when the Senate returns to Washington on Oct. 28 after a long recess) as well as funds the government until Jan. 15 and extends the debt limit to Feb. 7.
It’s unclear where conservative Republicans, led by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, will stand after a showdown that has turned a number of their GOP colleagues against them, but it’s clear Democrats believe that the fissure in the Republican Party and the dayslong control of conservatives willing to shutter the government in a doomed effort to defund Obamacare has bolstered their case moving forward.
Democrats largely got the clean extensions of both the continuing resolution and debt limit that they wanted without having to give major ground on their signature health care law, despite the tea party’s best efforts.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer told CNN that a minor concession related to the health care law really didn’t mean much at all.
“There’s a report from the secretary of HHS to see if it’s working, but there was verification — we believed in it — in the bill even before these negotiations began,” the New York Democrat said. “It is frankly a bit of a big leaf which we were happy to give, but that was not a negotiation.”
On the broader issue, Schumer said that the agreement could lead to more cooperation going forward.
“I believe that certainly in the Senate, and even in the House, the hard-right, tea party group of Republicans has been discredited not only by the poll numbers, but because they really didn’t have a strategy,” Schumer said. “Once everyone has learned that we Democrats are no longer going to cave to this kind of brinkmanship, they won’t try it again. So, we’ll have a much, much better next year than we did this year.”
“What’s happened here is that this extreme group has finally been stood up to, and now maybe in an ironic way Democrats have given mainstream Republicans some of the strength to go forward and negotiate on a reasonable basis where you get something and not everything,” Schumer said.
Sen. Thad Cochran, a veteran Republican appropriator from Mississippi expressed similar optimism on the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon, though he used far different language than the No. 3 Democratic leader.
“Under the Rules of the Senate, individual senators are provided with significant power to shape the activity of this body. That’s the way the Senate was designed to operate, and it has served this body and the country well. Recognizing that the rights entrusted to each of us can be powerful, we must be judicious in their application,” Cochran said. “We must always remember that each of us was elected by the people. If we work in cooperation, and even opposition, with a sense of realism and respect for ourselves and our institution, I believe this body can function effectively.”
“In getting past our current fiscal stalemates, I hope that we can next achieve a long-term agreement that we will reduce our debt through structural changes to government spending,” Cochran added.
As the current ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Cochran will be turning much of his attention to the immediate issue of a House-Senate farm bill conference, a measure that would generate its own budget savings on the mandatory side.
October 8, 2013
Senate Republicans believe the silver lining of the government shutdown will be linking moderate Democrats up for re-election in 2014 to the more liberal leaders sticking them with politically unsavory votes.
The problem for the GOP is that not everyone reads the current stalemate that way — especially not Democrats themselves.
“Oh really?” Louisiana Sen. Mary L. Landrieu asked three times, laughing off a question about the GOP using the shutdown against her.
“It’s so asinine,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who is up for re-election in 2018 and tends to break from his party often. “It’s just absolutely totally ridiculous for anyone to be in this position, thinking they can inflict this much pain on the American public and benefit by it. If anyone’s benefiting, if anyone’s sending out campaign letters, then you better find out what their real reason for being here is. What’s their purpose? Why did we come here?”
July 1, 2013
There is no such thing as an “interim senator.”
The Senate Historian’s office doesn’t keep statistics on that designation, and might even gently chide you for uttering those exact words because once a person is a senator, he or she is a senator for life. It doesn’t matter if he only served four days — like Louis C. Wyman, R-N.H., from Dec. 31, 1974 to Jan. 3, 1975 — or more than 51 years, like Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. A man can have the word “senator” etched for eternity onto his gravestone either way (see: Burris, Roland W., D-Ill.; 2009 to 2010).
In the history of the Senate, 125 senators have served for six months or less, including Sen. William “Mo” Cowan, D-Mass., who wrapped up the final days of a five-month stint last week. And 193 members have been appointed to the chamber since 1913, when the Constitution was amended so that voters directly elected senators. Of those, 62 senators did not seek re-election. Sen. Jeff Chiesa, R-N.J., sworn in last month, will fit into all three categories after October, when a special election is held to replace the late Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J.
“Not one person was given a chance to vote for or against me, but I have gone about my work every day as if they had,” Cowan said in his final floor speech on June 26, following Rep. Edward J. Markey’s special-election victory to fill Secretary of State John Kerry’s old seat. “I came to this body beholden to Massachusetts, her residents and the country only, and leave confident that I have stayed true to that honor.”
Of the senators currently serving in the 113th Congress, Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Robert Menendez, D-N.J., John Barrasso, R-Wyo., Roger Wicker, R-Miss., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., all were appointed before winning their own elections outright.
There’s also been a wide range of experience for the short timers.
Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del., for example, filled in for his longtime boss, Joseph R. Biden Jr., after decades as a top aide. Kaufman served alongside Burris, who replaced President Barack Obama and had no Washington experience at all, and Paul Kirk, who served for 134 days following the death of his former boss, Edward M. Kennedy.
“I was in a very different situation than most interim [senators] because I had worked in the Senate for 22 years, 19 as chief of staff for Sen. Biden, and so I thought a lot about the Congress … [and] had more standing as the average interim,” Kaufman said in an interview, citing a bipartisan breakfast group he attended as a senator with former Senate Parliamentarian Robert Dove to illustrate his point.
“We got to talking about reconciliation in the budget act in 1974, and the only people in the Senate then were Bob Dove and me,” Kaufman said. “In general, it’s hard for someone who comes in and doesn’t have any experience because they don’t really have much to add.”
Kaufman conceded, however, that the amount of access available to members themselves, via requests to agencies or even weekly caucus lunches, was so much more than he realized as a staffer. Kaufman said his experience as a senator has made him a better professor at Duke University’s law school, where he teaches a class on Congress.
Senators who pass through Washington too quickly to become “of it,” as insiders like to say, sometimes seem lighter as they bound through the Capitol. Though he rebuffed such a characterization at first, Kaufman quickly corrected himself.
“Roland Burris. He’s absolutely loved it. He loved presiding. He loved every little piece of it,” Kaufman said. “And Carte Goodwin. … It wasn’t like smiling happy going to a football game, but it’s mostly the impression that it’s so cool to be here.”
Goodwin, who served for 123 days in 2010, is the youngest former senator at age 39, and with deep connections to West Virginia politics, is one of the few former short timers who could one day return.
On a random weekday morning in June, CQ Roll Call got Burris on the phone. He had been watching C-SPAN 2 that day, when senators were debating the “nuclear option” to blow up the procedural rules of the body to try to reduce the number of procedural filibusters to block nominees. Burris said he was watching Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., make the case that “there’s another body and if you just want majority rules, then you go to the House,” in the former Illinois senator’s words.
Burris said he didn’t know much about Senate procedure before getting to Washington; he said he spent nights reading up on “what putting bills on the tree means” and learning the location of meetings.
He said people outside Washington don’t really understand the processes that take place inside it.
“One reason why I know that is because I started a school out here in Chicago. … I teach at my own school for a grand total of $50,” he said.
Regardless of experience going into their short tenures, each member recalled colleagues of both parties fondly. Burris said he became close with Republicans Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Pat Roberts of Kansas and that they used to tease each other.
“They were trying to get me on the Republican side because they thought the Democrats were messing with me,” Burris said with a laugh.
Cowan spent a large chunk of his farewell speech thanking his colleagues and highlighting their human sides.
“Sen. Rand Paul and I have recounted our days at Duke and affection for college basketball,” Cowan recounted. “On a bipartisan congressional delegation to the Middle East, I traded life stories and perspectives with Sens. [Amy] Klobuchar and [John] Hoeven and discussed the comedic genius of Will Ferrell with Sens. Gillibrand and [Lindsey] Graham.”
Kaufman talked about bringing his granddaughter to the senators-and-family-only dinner before the State of the Union and said that members of both parties had told her how great her grandfather is.
“If you spend time around any senator, there’s a reason why that senator is there, why their state sent them to the Senate,” Kaufman said.
May 21, 2013
As the Senate Judiciary Committee wrapped another block of its dayslong markup of immigration legislation Tuesday, Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., quipped he was glad such a large space was reserved for the meeting because “the amount of love in this room is amazing.”
But like any affection in Congress, the love between Republicans and Democrats expressed Tuesday was transactional and, perhaps most dauntingly for key negotiators on the sweeping bill, likely ephemeral.
The most significant action taken Tuesday on the underlying bill, negotiated by a bipartisan “gang of eight” senators, was to substantially amend provisions on high-tech visas in an attempt to win the support of Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah. The newly negotiated H-1B visa deal dramatically increased the caps for high-skilled visas without accounting for domestic economic conditions and was brokered between Hatch and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.
But not all senators were comfortable with the changes, chiefly Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, who said the amended version of the language would not provide incentives for companies to hire higher-cost American workers first. Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who previously worked with Grassley on the high-tech visa issue, appreciated some of the Iowa senator’s concerns but voted for the new agreement.
And though the deal worked to secure Hatch’s backing for the immigration framework in committee, he and other Republicans are demanding more concessions before they back a final bill on the Senate floor.
“I am going to vote this bill out of committee because I’ve committed to do that once this amendment passes,” Hatch told his colleagues as part of the discussion of his measure with Schumer. “But make no mistake about it, those other four amendments that are Finance Committee amendments, we are going to reserve them for the floor, but I’ve got to get those or we’ll never pass those bills.”
“If we don’t get a reasonable resolution to those amendments, I’m going to vote against this bill on the floor,” warned Hatch, who in the past has shown a talent for getting changes to legislation he ultimately opposes.