Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
September 4, 2015

Obama, Senate Democrats Talk FISA, Keystone, Economy

During a wide-ranging, closed-door meeting with Senate Democrats that focused on economic issues, President Barack Obama expressed openness to changing the way the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court operates.

That’s according to Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who also serves as chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

“It was a good discussion, but there’s still some unresolved issues in my mind,” Durbin said. “He made reference to something I said on Sunday about FISA courts, and that there be a more adversarial nature of those proceedings. I think if there’s more transparency and a real court proceeding, there’ll be a lot more confidence that’s there’s a check on the power of any executive.”

Durbin was referencing comments he made Sunday on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.”

“There should be a real court proceeding. In this case, it’s fixed in a way, it’s loaded. There’s only one case coming before the FISA, the government’s case. Let’s have an advocate for someone standing up for civil liberties to speak up about the privacy of Americans when they make each of these decisions,” Durbin said on the TV program. “And let’s release some of the transcripts, redacted, carefully redacted so that people understand the debate that’s going on in these FISA courts.”

Asked if the Wednesday discussion included Obama indicating he would be open to such a proposals, Durbin replied: “He did as a matter of fact, and I hope he is.”

There was no shortage of material for the pre-recess meeting with the president. For instance, according to Durbin, Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., raised the subject of the approval process of the Keystone XL pipeline, which she supports (though many Senate Democrats do not). Obama apparently didn’t commit one way or the other.

After the meeting, Landrieu pushed her joint effort with Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., to get the pipeline approved, including circulating a link to a petition on her Senate website.

As was the case in a meeting with House Democrats, Obama addressed the decision-making process for the next head of the Federal Reserve, but apparently didn’t get too far into specifics.

“He has a long list of people he’s talking to. He indicated that there’s not a — his words — not a piece of paper difference in all of them, so he’s weighing all the minus and pluses, and he’s going to make a decision,” said Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Senate Democratic leaders said at a media availability after the meeting with Obama that it demonstrated unity on fiscal issues, with the president renewing the stand that he won’t negotiate over raising the debt limit.

“The questions were good, they covered a wide range of areas, and the president didn’t beat around the bush on anything,” Reid said.

“One thing is very clear as we head into the debates this fall: We’re united, Democrats are united on the simple principle that all our energy will be focused on creating jobs and supporting the middle class. Our economy is growing, but not fast enough, and that’s an understatement,” Reid said.

“We are united that we insist that focusing on middle-class job growth is key, and we are not going to sacrifice other goals for that,” added Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.

Durbin said the meeting was largely designed to provide a sendoff message as senators return to their states for August recess, where many will be holding town hall meetings and other events. He said Democrats were aware of needing to deliver a coherent message.

“Look what happened to health care reform over the August recess. I mean, the creation of the tea party, which we’ve had to live with ever since. So, we’re not going to leave a void here,” Durbin said. “We’re going to fill this with our message, and we’re going to do it in a very forceful, positive way.”

Durbin plans to start his own efforts on Friday with a previously announced event in Iowa with Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, in the district represented by Republican Steve King, whose controversial comments have generated no shortage of national headlines.

“There are a number of events,” Durbin said. “I’m going to start on Friday with a little roundtable with Sen. Harkin in Ames, Iowa … we’re hoping the local congressman can come and meet some of the DREAMers.”

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