NSA and domestic surveillance
The Obama Administration and defenders of the domestic surveillance programs that were disclosed last week went on the offensive this week, seeking to defend against charges that the government was invading the privacy of law-abiding Americans.
National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday that the domestic surveillance programs disclosed last week have aided the agency's efforts to combat terrorism. According to General Alexander, "it's dozens of terrorist events that these have helped prevent…. Both here and abroad, in disrupting, or contributing to the disruption of terrorist attacks."
The somewhat muted criticism of the program by civil libertarians in both parties in the House and the Senate was surprising to some. This week, however, we may have gotten an explanation for the silence when it was revealed that the Obama administration briefed lawmakers 22 times between October 2011 and December 2012 about the PRISM surveillance program.
Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said this week she is open to the idea of holding hearings on the NSA’s surveillance programs; meanwhile, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) is preparing to convene hearings on the leak of information from the NSA.
Immigration reform: Battleground border security
Early this week, comprehensive immigration reform overcame another procedural hurdle when 82 senators voted to move forward with debate. As the Senate debate began, however, it became obvious the most significant fault line that exists, centers not surprisingly, on the question of border security.
Conservatives, led by Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), want border security improvements and are warning Democrats that not getting them could jeopardize the immigration reform bill. At the very least, they argue, it means supporters won’t come near the 70 votes some proponents of reform are both predicting and banking on to force the House into action.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a supporter of Cornyn’s RESULTS border security amendment and key architect of the immigration bill, said this week, “if the border-security elements of this bill are not in place, we’re wasting our time. This bill’s not going to pass. If that doesn’t get in the bill, I’m going to keep working to get it in.”
Supporters of Cornyn’s RESULTS amendment maintain that it is not radically different from language already in the bill. Both Cornyn’s proposal and the broader bill call for 100-percent monitoring and a 90-percent apprehension rate of illegal entrants along the border with Mexico. The crucial difference is that Cornyn’s amendment would require these goals be met before an estimated 11 million immigrants receive permanent legal status. Cornyn’s amendment would also require using biometric data at air and sea ports at which U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel are deployed.
Democrats went after Cornyn’s proposal aggressively. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called it a “poison pill.”
The Cornyn amendment is likely to meet the same fate as a border security amendment offered by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), which was defeated on Thursday. Indeed, some Republicans see the Senate debate over Cornyn’s measure more as a chance to put down a marker with the aim of getting the amendment picked back up if there are negotiations to reconcile the House and Senate bills.
House Republican conference to meet on immigration
House Republican leaders have scheduled a GOP conference meeting on immigration reform for July 10, the first time all of the chamber's Republicans will discuss the issue together.
It is expected that by then, House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) will have begun marking up his single-issue bills, and the bipartisan working group should have released their bill, according to the group's latest self-imposed deadlines.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) made it clear recently that immigration reform was a top priority for House Republicans. At the same time, however, he also made it clear that no matter what happened in the Senate, the House would not advance legislation that was not in line with the values and priorities of the House GOP conference.
Energy efficiency bill could be threatened by its popularity
The bipartisan Shaheen-Portman bill to promote energy efficiency could be dragged down in the Senate by the weight of its own popularity, according to Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR).
Wyden warned supporters of the bill this week that when Senators see a bill with a good chance of passage, it’s hard for them to resist the urge to amend it with unrelated provisions that would never make it through the Senate on their own.
The bill, authored by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), would create a grant program for states to finance efficiency programs and update building codes, among other provisions, at a cost of $210 million over four years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Wyden, who will be the bill’s manager if it reaches the Senate floor, has his work cut out for him in hashing out an amendment plan with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Minority Leader Mitch McConnel (R-KY), and Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Reid and Murkowski both indicated last week that senators would likely have to take tough votes, such as one on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, if the energy-efficiency measure comes to the floor.
The bill is expected to come to the floor sometime shortly after the July 4th recess.
Farm bill to move in the House next week
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) said on Thursday he believes the farm bill will come up on the House floor next week and be finished in two days—assuming the whip count shows that he and ranking member Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) are close to the 218 votes they need for final passage.
In a further indication that the farm bill is moving forward, the House Rules Committee sent out a letter to members Thursday saying the deadline for amendments on the farm bill is Monday at 2:00 p.m.
The farm bill received a boost earlier in the week when House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) announced his support for it.
Conservative groups, such as Heritage Action and the Club for Growth, have targeted members of both parties from agricultural districts for their support of the farm bill, which they view as too expensive.
Much of the debate over the farm bill has centered on funding for the food stamp program – with liberals in both chambers pushing for expanded funding and conservatives in both chambers pushing to reduce or eliminate the program all together.
Udall tapped for Subcommittee Chairmanship
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) announced on Thursday that Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) would be the new chair of the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee. There was an opening after the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ).
The Senate Finance Committee voted to approve Mike Froman to be U.S. Trade Representative setting the stage for a full Senate vote. On Monday, the Senate Commerce Committee voted to approve the nominations of Charlotte, N.C. Mayor Anthony Foxx (D) for Secretary of Transportation and Chicago businesswoman Penny Pritzker for Secretary of Commerce.
No senator has thus far threatened to place a hold on the nominations, though some conservative groups are seeking to block the nomination of Fred Hochberg for a second term as president of the Export-Import Bank. Hochberg won committee approval last week. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans continue to threaten to block the confirmation of Gina McCarthy to serve as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
This week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) announced it is launching Spanish-language radio ads hitting GOP members of Congress for voting to reverse President Obama's deportation policy for those brought to the U.S. as children. The ads are running against Reps. Mike Coffman (CO-06), Blake Farenthold (TX-27), John Kline (MN-02), Joe Heck (NV-03), Buck McKeon (CA-25), Gary Miller (CA-31), Erik Paulsen (MN-03), Steve Pearce (NM-02), and Frank Wolf (VA-10).
Minnesota: Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) will announce today that he will not run for the Senate in 2014. Rogers had been considering a run to replace retiring Senator Carl Levin (D-MI)
A look ahead:
Tuesday, June 18 -- The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the Justice Department's decision to obtain a search warrant for the e-mails of Fox News chief Washington correspondent James Rosen at 10:00 a.m. in 2141 Rayburn. Attorney General Eric Holder is scheduled to testify.
Tuesday, June 18 -- The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on the nomination of Daniel Tangherlini to be administrator of the General Services Administration at 10:30 a.m. in 342 Dirksen.
Washington by the numbers
82 – The number of senators who voted to move debate forward on comprehensive immigration reform on Tuesday.
At a ceremony on Thursday in historic Statuary Hall, honoring Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) for becoming the longest serving Member of Congress, Vice President Joe Biden thanked the Archbishop of Washington for delivering the invocation but added, “please remember Speaker Boehner in your prayers, he needs them."
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