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August 21, 2014
The Defense Department violated the law when it didn’t tell Congress before transferring five Taliban detainees from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar in return for the Taliban’s release of captured Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the Government Accountability Office said in a legal decision made public Thursday.
Pentagon officials “did not notify the relevant congressional committees at least 30 days in advance of the transfer,” as required by law, GAO General Counsel Susan A. Poling said in a letter to nine Republican senators who had sought the analysis.
What’s more, Poling said, “because DOD used appropriated funds to carry out the transfer when no money was available for that purpose, DOD violated the Antideficiency Act,” which “prohibits federal agencies from incurring obligations exceeding an amount available in an appropriation.”
The GAO ruling provides legal backing for the position that the administration flouted the notification requirement — a view held by most Republicans and more than a few Democrats. The GAO does not address other issues that many lawmakers have raised about the merits of the exchange.
The requirement for a 30-day notice of transfers is part of the fiscal 2014 defense authorization law ( PL 113-66 ). Moreover, the fiscal 2014 Defense appropriations act ( PL 113-76 ) prohibits spending on any transfers that do not comply with the authorization law’s requirements.
Defense Department lawyers told the GAO that they believe the transfers were lawful regardless of the notification requirement, but Poling said the GAO did not accept that argument.
Pentagon officials also told the GAO that the notification requirement is unconstitutional. They argued that it “would have interfered with the Executive’s performance of two related functions that the Constitution assigns to the President: protecting the lives of Americans abroad and protecting U.S. service members.”
The GAO did not assess the validity of that claim.
The GAO letter was addressed to Republicans Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Dan Coats of Indiana, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Roy Blunt of Missouri.
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
August 1, 2014
Sen. Kay Hagan was undergoing emergency eye surgery this morning in North Carolina.
The North Carolina Democrat, who is seeking re-election in a competitive race this year that Republicans have targeted as a pickup opportunity, was one of several senators to miss votes during the Senate’s marathon sequence late Thursday.
Hagan spokeswoman Amber Moon said in a statement that the senator could not further delay departing for the medical treatment.
“Senator Hagan learned last week that she needs to undergo an emergency procedure to correct an eye condition that has worsened over time. In order to be present for work this week in Washington D.C., she delayed the procedure for as long as possible. However, she was not able to put it off any longer and was forced to leave last night to be in North Carolina for the procedure first thing this morning,” Moon said. “The Senator will have a reduced schedule for a few days, but we expect that by the middle of next week she’ll be fully recovered and back to full speed.”
The Senate held a series of consequential votes on immigration, veterans’ health and transportation before the chamber emptied for August recess. The next roll call vote is expected on September 8.
July 31, 2014
Updated 9:25 a.m. | The Senate cleared a $10.8 billion House bill patching the Highway Trust Fund to the president’s desk Thursday in its last legislative vote before heading out of town for the August recess.
The Senate will still be in session Friday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, but the Nevada Democrat said after Thursday the next roll call vote would not occur until September.
With the highway bill passing 81-13 and a VA bill also cleared for the president’s desk, but a border supplemental blocked by the GOP, Congress cleared two of the three major legislative items leaders had hoped to accomplish this week. Full story
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
Senators blocked legislation Wednesday that would have required Hobby Lobby and other private employers with religious interests to pay for birth control.
The Senate rejected, by a 56-43 vote, the first procedural motion to advance the bill. Sixty votes were needed to limit debate on the motion to proceed. Republican members Susan Collins of Maine, Mark S. Kirk of Illinois and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voted with nearly all Democrats in favor of cloture.
Before the vote closed, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., switched his vote for procedural reasons. Full story
July 14, 2014
Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., announced two staffing changes to his committee and personal offices Monday morning.
As chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Carper promoted Jennie Westbrook to be the committee’s communications director. She was formerly the committee press secretary.
Meghan Pennington has moved from the House to the Senate to become communications director for Carper’s personal office. Pennington and Westbrook replace the vacancy left by Emily Spain, who was promoted to legislative director in April.
“Jennie Westbrook has been an integral asset to our team over the past five years,” Carper said in a statement, adding, “As she takes on this exciting new role to spearhead the committee’s communications team, I have the utmost confidence that she will continue to thrive.”
Westbrook first joined Carper’s office in 2009 and worked as his press secretary. She then moved to the same position in his committee in 2013.
Pennington has worked as a communications director for the past two-and-a-half years for Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md. Before joining Sarbanes’ office, she worked as a press secretary for the late Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., as well as deputy press secretary and press assistant for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md.
“Her service in both chambers will prove to be an asset for me and Delawareans and I look forward to having her on our team,” Carper said of Pennington.
July 7, 2014
A trio of Democratic senators called for quick action this month on agreeing to keep funds flowing to transportation projects through the end of the year as bipartisan, bicameral negotiations continue on finding a way to pay for the patch.
“We have to. It is a necessity for the economy of this country, for our infrastructure and for everything else, to come to an agreement before the trust fund runs out,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the No. 3 Senate Democrat, said on a conference call.
“Our purpose today is to urge both sides to come together, to put down any partisan objection, to come to a compromise and get this done in the short term and then we can try to work on a longer term plan later,” the New York Democrat said. “To let the [highway] trust fund run out at time when we need jobs, we need the economy going, would be a disgrace.” Full story
July 1, 2014
Senate Democrats intend to take up legislation this month reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank in the hope that a strong bipartisan vote in the chamber will help spur House Republican leaders to take up the measure.
“I believe we will bring the bill to the floor in July, before the August break, and we hope that business around the country, small businesses in particular, will rally to our side and tell their Congress member that we have to get the Export-Import Bank reauthorized,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., in a conference call with reporters.
“I think if we can pass it in the Senate, and particularly with a good bipartisan majority, there is more friendliness among Republicans for this bill, that it will put pressure on the House,” Schumer said.
His comments come after House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, last week declined to commit to putting bank legislation on the floor before the credit agency’s authorization expires at the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30.
“There’s a big debate going on in our conference, and we’re just going to have to sort our way through this,” Boehner said. “My job is to help facilitate the sorting through of this so that we can get to an outcome.”
Schumer pointed out that the GOP reluctance on extending the bank is just the latest of a series of business friendly proposals supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at which Republicans have balked, including immigration reform, the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, and a raft of expired tax breaks known as extenders. He attributes the change in position to the influence of the tea party.
“All of the sudden our Republican colleagues, particularly in the House, frightened by a small group that have a lot of power, particularly the tea party, has changed their point of view in way that definitely hurts the country, hurts the middle class and hurts jobs,” Schumer said, adding that there could be a political price to pay.
Asked if the Chamber of Commerce, led by President Tom Donohue, should reconsider its traditional allegiance to the GOP Schumer said “I hope they would examine that, absolutely.”
“I’ve said this to Tom Donohue and to others, in many ways mainstream Democrats are closer to you than many Republicans because the tea party has pulled them so far to the right that they are doing what is harmful to business,” Schumer said.
Conservative Republicans have critical of the bank and called for ending it, arguing it is wasteful corporate welfare.
The bank “exists to dole out taxpayer-backed loan guarantees to help American exporters,” said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, in an April floor speech. “Most of the benefits go to large corporations that are perfectly capable of securing private financing anywhere in the world. That is to say, Congress allows Ex-Im Bank to risk taxpayer money unnecessarily to subsidize well-connected private companies.”
But Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who was also on the call, said that the bank also helps small many businesses.
While she concedes that large companies like Boeing get a disproportionately large amount of aid from the bank, it also helps the many small businesses in Boeing’s supply chain.
“Yes it does help U.S. manufacturers,” Cantwell said. “And what people need to understand first and foremost is that U.S. manufacturers have a supply chain that is made up of thousands of small businesses. So for us in the Northwest the supply chain that supports Boeing is about 80,000 people in Washington State. So that supply chain is affected by those deals that U.S. manufacturers can make in the global marketplace where there is world demand for 35,000 new airplanes. So without the Ex-Im bank we won’t be competitive and that small business supply chain will be hurt.”
Cantwell also said she wants more small business to avail themselves of the bank and “chase the global marketplace.”
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who was also on the call, stressed that allowing the bank to expire would hurt the nation’s competitiveness given that other countries help their manufacturers.
“To not reauthorize the Ex-Im bank is like unilateral disarmament in our attempts to grow our manufacturing base and grow our export base,” North Dakota Democrat said.
“These are the arguments that are going to get our colleagues see the light and get this done sooner rather than later,” Heitkamp said.
April 28, 2014
Under bipartisan fire on Capitol Hill, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a sharply worded statement of his own regretting his use of the word “apartheid” to describe Israel’s future without a deal with the Palestinians.
In his statement, Kerry said he has long fought to support Israel during his 30 years in the Senate and as secretary of State.
“I will not allow my commitment to Israel to be questioned by anyone, particularly for partisan, political purposes, so I want to be crystal clear about what I believe and what I don’t believe,” he said.
He said he doesn’t believe that Israel is an apartheid state or “intends to be come one.”
“I have been around long enough to also know the power of words to create a misimpression, even when unintentional, and if I could rewind the tape, I would have chosen a different word to describe my firm belief that the only way in the long term to have a Jewish state and two nations and two peoples living side by side in peace and security is through a two state solution,” he said.
And while several Israeli leaders have used the word “apartheid,” Kerry added, “it is a word best left out of the debate here at home.” Full story
April 23, 2014
The family of Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., is hopeful and looking forward to the next stage of the senator’s recovery following his emergency heart surgery for an acute aortic dissection Tuesday.
“We appreciate the prayers, kind words and well-wishes that have come from Arkansans and people all across the country,” the family said in a statement. “Our number one priority is making sure John makes a full recovery.” Full story
April 21, 2014
The U.S. Agency for International Development’s much-maligned Twitter-esque program in Cuba had a quick defender on Capitol Hill — Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez.
“For more than 50 years, the U.S. has had an unwavering commitment to promote freedom of information in the world,” the New Jersey Democrat said at a hearing earlier this month. “I do not believe that USAID’s actions … are, in any way, a ‘cockamamie idea.’ ”
It was a direct rebuke of Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Appropriations State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee who called the Twitter-like program, known as ZunZuneo, “cockamamie” and “dumb, dumb, dumb.” Leahy suggested the alleged secrecy of the program — USAID denies that it was covert — could potentially endanger other agency workers around the world. Menendez pushed instead for a review of efforts to reach people in other authoritarian regimes.
He has been anything but a shrinking violet since taking over the Foreign Relations gavel from John Kerry last year. Full story
March 24, 2014
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., wrote to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration to determine if the agency properly conducted an audit of General Motors’ ignition switch problem.
“Even with access to information directly from the manufacturer, the Office of Defects Investigation declined to move forward in both 2007 and 2010 on any vehicle recall recommendation,” Heller wrote to NHTSA acting administrator David J. Friedman.
The problem has been linked to 12 deaths and 31 crashes and GM ultimately announced a recall in February, which grew to about 1.7 million cars. The company acknowledged that it first became aware of the issue in 2001. Full story
March 17, 2014
With congressional action delayed and Russia appearing on the verge of annexing Crimea, President Barack Obama announced a new round of sanctions against the Russian government Monday.
“We are making it clear that there are consequences for their actions,” Obama said. Eleven people, including seven government officials and other “cronies” of the government, have been sanctioned in the dispute over Ukraine, prohibiting them from doing business with the United States and freezing their assets.
“Further provocations will achieve nothing,” Obama said, except to deepen Russia’s isolation. The United States stands ready to impose additional sanctions, he said. Full story