Homeland Security funding drama comes to an end
The drama over funding for the Department of Homeland Security finally came to an end this week. After months of efforts by conservatives - particularly in the House - to use the Homeland Security funding bill as a vehicle to roll back President Obama's executive action on immigration, Speaker of the House John Boehner finally allowed a vote on a clean funding bill.
Leaders detailed their plan at a closed-door GOP conference meeting beginning at 9 a.m. Tuesday, and while conservatives were angry with the Boehner decision, there was little they could do to stop it.
Boehner said the House's only options were a DHS shutdown, yet another short-term CR, or the clean Senate bill:
"With more active threats coming into the homeland, I don't believe [a shutdown is] an option," Boehner said. "Imagine if, God forbid, another terrorist attack hits the United States."
Boehner also pointed to a recent court ruling halting Obama's executive actions on immigration as reason for hope.
"I am as outraged and frustrated as you at the lawless and unconstitutional actions of this president. … I believe this decision—considering where we are—is the right one for this team, and the right one for this country," Boehner said, according to a source. "The good news is that the president's executive action has been stopped, for now. This matter will continue to be litigated in the courts, where we have our best chance of winning this fight."
On Tuesday afternoon, the bill passed by a margin of 257 to 167. It required 182 Democrats joining with 75 Republicans to pass the bill - the overwhelming majority of Republicans (167) voted against the measure.
The Senate previously approved a clean Homeland Security funding bill, so the legislation now heads to President Obama's desk for his signature.
Netanyahu speech divides Congress and the country
It is hard to imagine a time when a foreign leader's speech in the U.S. got as much attention or caused as much controversy as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress this week.
Netanyahu himself acknowledged the controversy in his speech:
"I know that my speech has been the subject of much controversy... I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political. That was never my intention. I want to thank you, Democrats and Republicans, for your common support for Israel year after year, decade after decade."
Netanyahu, who thanked the U.S. for its long-standing friendship and partnership, centered his speech on Iran, and in particular, Iran's nuclear program.
The Israeli Prime Minister was deeply critical of a potential deal between Iran and the west - a deal the Obama administration has been brokering.
Netanyahu said the deal makes two significant concessions: It leaves Iran with enrichment infrastructure that could allow it to build a nuclear weapon in the future. And although the pact calls for international inspectors to track any violations, he says they won't be able to stop them.
Netanyahu went as far as to say that no deal was better than the current deal.
Netanyahu has expressed skepticism of the talks before, saying that they threaten his country's national security, but these remarks had received considerably more attention because of political implications here and in Israel.
On Tuesday, the prime minister seemed to suggest that diplomacy alone, which the Obama administration believes is the way to curb Iran's nuclear program, isn't working. "At a time when many hope that Iran will join the community of nations, Iran is busy gobbling up the nations," he said. "We must all stand together to stop Iran's march of conquest, subjugation, and terror."
Netanyahu said that Iran poses a more pressing threat than the Islamic State terrorist group. "The difference is that ISIS is armed with butcher knives, captured weapons, and YouTube," he said. "Iran could be soon armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs. We must always remember—I'll say it one more time—the greatest danger facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons. To defeat ISIS and let Iran get nuclear weapons would be to win the battle but lose the war."
In January, House Speaker John Boehner caught the White House off guard when, without consulting administration officials, he invited Netanyahu to address Congress. On Capitol Hill, the visit quickly turned partisan, and nearly 60 Democrats in the House and Senate skipped Netanyahu's visit in protest of what they believe is an attack on President Obama by congressional Republicans. On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry, while speaking to reporters in Geneva, indirectly warned Netanyahu against sharing information about the ongoing talks during Tuesday's speech.
In Israel, the visit is essentially a campaign stop for Netanyahu, whose Likud Party is facing an election on March 17. It gives the prime minister a chance to build support for his party at home, where voters are starting to wonder if his Iran policy is working or has already failed.
Obama has said he won't meet with Netanyahu this week so as not to appear as if he is trying to influence the Israeli elections. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that the president didn't watch Netanyahu's speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's policy conference, and that he likely won't watch the entire address to Congress.
Watch the Washington Business Brief video, “Rough Week for the President with Steve LaTourette .”
Another week, another Keystone related vote
As expected, President Obama vetoed legislation authorizing building of the Keystone XL pipeline. The veto, however, isn't the end of the legislative odyssey of the much-debated pipeline.
This week, the Senate voted on whether to override the White House's veto. The outcome, however, was well known in advance. Even the most ardent supporters of the controversial project acknowledged that a Senate vote to override the veto would fail, and it did.
On Wednesday supporters came up five votes short, with 62 Senators voting to override the president's veto.
With override off the table, pipeline backers are looking for other options and some have begun to mull attaching Keystone to an appropriations bill, the transportation reauthorization bill, or broader energy legislation.
"Those of us who think it should pass ... I think are going to look for other ways to deal with this, either on an appropriations process or some other way legislatively," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters.
Republicans have long called for Obama to approve the $8 billion pipeline, which would ship crude oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast. Obama has so far not made a final call on whether Keystone should be built but has vowed to veto attempts by Congress to force a decision before the administration's decision-making process plays out.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who has pledged to push broad energy legislation, said that she would prefer not to see Keystone attached to a comprehensive energy package that will be difficult enough to pass as it is.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) said an infrastructure bill would be the "perfect place" for Keystone to come up next, adding that he prefers the pipeline to oil-by-rail transport for safety reasons.
One thing is certain, while we might not know what is next for Keystone, you can guarantee the fight will continue.
Will NSA reform happen?
Since Edward Snowden made national headlines, the question about how broad the National Security Agency's (NSA) ability to collect data has been a huge issue for lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Despite all of the debate about the pros and cons of the NSA’s data collection, there has been no change in the law. However, a looming deadline may finally force lawmakers’ hands on the issue.
Congress has less than 100 days left to decide whether they want to reform the NSA's controversial bulk collection of U.S. call data, or risk losing the program entirely. Core provisions of the post-9/11 Patriot Act are due to sunset on June 1, including Section 215, which grants intelligence agencies the legal authority they need to carry out mass surveillance of domestic metadata—the numbers and timestamps of phone calls but not their actual content.
Government officials have said they have no backup plan for replacing the intelligence void if Congress fails to reauthorize the law in some fashion. And earlier this week, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper suggested lawmakers should bear the brunt of blame if the program lapses and the homeland is struck by terrorism.
Despite support from the White House, which endorsed reform legislation that narrowly died in the Senate last year, lawmakers have publicly done nothing to move forward on limiting the NSA's domestic phone dragnet, which was first exposed by Edward Snowden nearly two years ago.
And in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, more brutality by the Islamic State, and fears of a nuclear Iran, it remains unclear whether there is enough appetite among congressional leadership to move forward on anything that could be perceived as undermining national security.
Reflecting the new more hawkish climate, several Republicans vying for the White House are staking out even more bullish stances supportive of the NSA's surveillance apparatus. In January, Sen. Marco Rubio said the programs were so vital to national security that he called for a permanent extension of their authorities. And in February, Jeb Bush defended mass surveillance as "hugely important."
Reformers in Congress insist they can still get a deal done, and last year they came very close.
In November, the USA Freedom Act, championed by Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, came two votes short of advancing, as it failed to overcome a Republican-led filibuster flamed by fears that restricting the intelligence community could potentially aid groups like the Islamic State. The defeat came despite support for the bill from the White House, the intelligence community, tech companies and privacy advocates, and even a small cohort of tea-party conservatives, like Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, crossing the aisle.Privacy advocates bristle at the notion that a domestic dragnet in any way contributes to the fight against the Islamic State or other terrorist groups.
The Freedom Act, they argue, would have prohibited only the government's carte-blanche collection of metadata, but would have still allowed the government to obtain those records from phone companies after earning judicial approval. And it would have extended the Patriot Act provisions for two years, but with tougher privacy protections—an option Clapper and others have said poses far less a threat to national security than letting the program expire entirely.
Further complicating matters is that some NSA critics, including Sen. Rand Paul, would just as soon let the Patriot Act's provisions expire entirely. But many lawmakers, including Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the original author of the Patriot Act who also introduced the House's version of the Freedom Act, have indicated they are reticent to go that far.
Those disagreements may ultimately lead to a face-off like the recent one over funding for the Department of Homeland Security.
Doc fix debate returns
Like clockwork the doc fix debate is back and it's a painful yearly ritual in DC. The doc fix, which refers to how to deal with Medicare's sustainable growth formula, causes heartburn for legislators and physicians alike, and every year hope springs eternal that a permanent fix will be found. This year's hopes, at least short term, were dashed by Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), Chairman of the House Budget Committee, during a speech before the American Medical Association (AMA).
Price told AMA members that full repeal wasn't possible before the last legislative patch expires on March 31, so the most likely scenario is yet another patch - something in the neighborhood of a four to six month deal. Congress has passed 17 different short-term legislative patches to deal with the problem. If the current patch was allowed to expire on March 31, Medicare payments to doctors would be reduced by 21 percent.
But all hope is not lost, at least not for a permanent fix at some point this year. Price, a physician himself, said that full repeal is likely by the end of the fiscal year (September 30) and that it is likely to be tied to extending funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Tying a permanent doc fix to CHIP re-authorization is not, however, a silver bullet. There are other lawmakers who hope to use CHIP re-authorization as a vehicle for other competing legislative priorities.
Transportation in focus
House passes Passenger Rail Bill
A larger Republican majority hasn't made Speaker John Boehner's job any easier. Despite the larger numbers of Republicans in the House, the Speaker is increasingly finding himself relying on Democrats to pass legislation. This week's Passenger Rail bill was just the latest example.
The House passed the legislation on Wednesday by a wide 316 to 101 vote, but all 101 no votes came from GOPers. Indeed, the measure -which provides nearly $8 billion in funding for Amtrak - would have failed without Democratic support .
It's not just Tea Party insurgents who can no longer be reliably counted on by leadership. In the Passenger Rail vote, eight committee chairmen opposed the measure: Small Business Chairman Steve Chabot (Ohio), Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (Texas), House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas), Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (Texas), Veterans' Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller (Fla.), Budget Chairman Tom Price (Ga.), Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (Calif.), and Rules Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas).
Republicans were lobbied to oppose the bill by interest groups likes Heritage Action, which key-voted the measure. Heritage Action said the reforms in the bill, which were touted by Republicans, were "suspect" and that the overall funding number for Amtrak would increase - something the group opposes.
The Senate is yet to consider the bill, which President Obama has said he supports and would sign if it reaches his desk.
The legislation would provide roughly $1.7 billion per year over the next four years for passenger rail. Of that, roughly $982 million per year would be for Amtrak's national network, $470 million per year would be for the Northeast corridor, and sets aside another $300 million per year for construction.
Among the reforms included in the House bill is a provision that would require revenue generated by trips in the Northeast to be used only for improvements in the popular corridor. The provision could force Amtrak to streamline its longer routes elsewhere in the country.
Republican opposition to funding for Amtrak is nothing new. House conservatives have long pushed to privatize Amtrak, particularly the company's popular and profitable Northeast corridor.
Another provision of the bill would direct Amtrak to start a pilot program allowing passengers to bring cats and dogs on trains.
Under the program, Amtrak would designate at least one passenger car on trains where pets could be transported in kennels stowed in compliance with size requirements for carry-on luggage. Passengers would have to pay a fee in order to bring their pets aboard.
Illinois 10th Congressional District: Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering (D-IL) was in Washington this week meeting with DC Democrats to discuss a potential challenge to Rep. Robert Dold (R-IL).
Illinois 18th Congressional District: U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock’s (R) used taxpayer money for a private plane to travel from Peoria to Chicago for the Bears-Vikings game on Nov. 16. According to congressional disbursement forms released late last week, Schock spent $14,661 in government money on private planes between October and December 2014. In total, Schock has spent more than $70,000 of taxpayer dollars on private plane flights since taking office in 2009.
Florida 18th Congressional District: State Sen. Jeff Clemens (D) and Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay (D) were both in Tallahassee this week and are reportedly being courted to run for U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy's (D) seat if he decides to run for Senate. Neither candidate has given any real indication on if they would run.
Maine 2nd Congressional District: Former State Senator Emily Cain (D-ME), the party's unsuccessful 2014 nominee, announced her campaign to challenge freshman Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-ME).
Michigan 10th Congressional District: Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI) announced that she will retire at the end of her term. Miller, who previously served two terms as Michigan's Secretary of State, will retire after serving seven terms in the House and Chairing the House Administrations Committee.
Nebraska 2nd Congressional District: State Senator John Murante (R-NE) is considering a run against Rep. Brad Ashford (D-NE).
Pennsylvania 8th Congressional District: Small-business owner Shaughnessy Naughton (D-PA) announced a run for the Democratic nomination this week. State Rep. Steve Santarsiero (D-PA) has indicated he will also run.
California: Republicans have their first candidate in the race to succeed retiring Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA). This week, California Assemblyman Rocky Chavez (R-CA), a retired Marine Colonel, announced his bid - focusing on his foreign policy credentials in his announcement.
Maryland: Sen. Barbara Mikulski's (D) announced Monday that she would retire instead of seeking reelection for a sixth term in 2016. Mikulski retires as the longest-serving female in Congress and the only woman to chair the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Her retirement means that Maryland will have its first open Senate-seat in decades, and the list of potential candidates to succeed Mikulski is long.
Tuesday morning, former Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) ruled out a run. Rep. John Delaney (D) tweeted that he'll "explore" a potential bid, while observers also named Reps. Donna Edwards (D), Chris Van Hollen (D), John Sarbanes (D), and Elijah Cummings (D), Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D), U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez (D), and 2014 gubernatorial nominee Anthony Brown (D) as potential candidates. On Thursday, Rep. Van Hollen became the first to throw his hat in the ring, sending an email to supporters announcing his bid.
Ohio: Several allies of former Governor Ted Strickland (D-OH), who recently announced his bid for Senate, say they were assured that Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld (D-OH) would drop his bid if Strickland ran. So far Sittenfeld has maintained that he is still in the race and would not confirm or deny any conversations with Strickland backers.
Pennsylvania Senate: Former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA) kicked off his Senate campaign this week, but apparently did so without telling anyone at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee about his plans.
Utah: Jonathan Johnson (R), Chairman of Overstock.com, said he has every intention of running for governor in 2016. Johnson has not officially announced his candidacy at this time.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D) had more troubling news to grapple with this week. Monday, reports surfaced that Clinton exclusively used a personal email account to conduct government business while serving as Secretary of State. Using a private email may have been a violation of federal requirements that officials' correspondence be retained as part of the agency's record.
Ben Carson (R) announced, via a spokesperson, that he has created an exploratory committee for a 2016 presidential bid. Carson is a retired neurosurgeon
A LOOK AHEAD
The House is not in session.
Tuesday, March 10
9:30 a.m. Senate Armed Services Committee – Hearing. Full committee hearing on the posture of the Navy in review of the Defense Authorization Request for FY2016 and the Future Years Defense Program.
10:00 a.m. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee – Hearing. Full committee hearing on "Continuing America's Leadership in Medical Innovation for Patients."
Wednesday, March 11
2:30 p.m. Senate Indian Affairs Committee – Hearing. Full committee hearing on the nomination of Jonodev Chaudhuri to be chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission.
Thursday, March 12
10:00 a.m. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee – Hearing. Full committee hearing on S.556, the "Bipartisan Sportsmen's Act of 2015," to protect and enhance opportunities for recreational hunting, fishing, and shooting.
2:30 p.m. Senate Armed Services Committee – Briefing. Strategic Forces Subcommittee closed briefing on "Missile Defense Programs."
WASHINGTON BY THE NUMBERS
21,000– Amount of miles the Amtrak route operates in 46 states and the District of Columbia.
2 - The number of foreign leaders who have addressed a joint session of Congress three times. The two leaders are Benjamin Netanyahu and Winston Churchill.
THEY SAID WHAT?
"My wife always reminds me I depress everybody so much that I need to pass out tranquilizers." -- Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) The Boston Globe
"Some people are saying Bill O'Reilly exaggerated his war experience in the 1980s. People became suspicious because O'Reilly said he was injured in the East Coast/West Coast rap wars." - Conan O'Brien
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