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After Benghazi, State Department Toughened Embassies In High-Risk Countries

By Ali Watkins, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — In the over two years since Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, the State Department says it has overhauled its strategies for high-risk diplomatic posts overseas.

At the first public hearing of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, led by South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy, officials said the State Department has implemented nearly all of the nearly 70 recommendations provided to it in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack and is working to implement the rest.

Among the actions take by the State Department, Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security Greg Starr said it has expanded its training for Foreign Service officers, provided more resources to high-risk diplomatic missions and partnered with the New York City Fire Department to deter fire risks at foreign posts.

In a progress report issued ahead of the hearing, the State Department detailed those efforts, saying it has created new diplomatic security positions and deployed 17 new Marine Corps detachments in conjunction with the Defense Department.

Noting attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions date back decades, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle blasted the State Department for failing to implement changes before the attack at the Libyan consulate. Gowdy pointed to recommendations from 1999, which were issued by an accountability board following several attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in Africa.

“It is stunning to see the similarities in the recommendations made decades ago and the recommendations made after Benghazi,” Gowdy said in his opening statement. “We do not suffer from a lack of recommendations. We do suffer from a lack of implementing and enacting those recommendations. … So it is appropriate to review the recommendations of the most recent (Accountability Review Board).”

Convened by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the weeks following the Libya attack, the Benghazi Accountability Review Board offered a list of 29 recommendations, 24 of which are unclassified. Twenty-two of the recommendations, Starr said Wednesday, have been fully implemented, and the State Department is working to implement the other seven.

Those seven, Starr said, are more “evergreen” recommendations like language training programs, which will take sustained effort and time to complete.

Following the board’s recommendation, the State Department created an independent “panel of outside independent experts (military, security, humanitarian) with experience in high-risk, high-threat areas to support (the department), identify best practices … and regularly evaluate U.S. security platforms in high-risk, high-threat posts.”

The department’s independent panel produced its own set of nearly 40 recommendations. Members of that independent panel who testified before Gowdy’s committee Wednesday also said nearly all of their suggestions had been implemented.

Photo: Speaker Boehner via Flickr

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Politicians Disdain Tea Party But Seek Its Clout

By Ali Watkins, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — As Democrats fight desperately to keep a Senate majority in the upcoming elections, one conservative voice has been noticeably muted in the fight for seats: a cohesive far-right tea party.

It’s been four years since the group made its sensational entrance onto the national stage, prompting a swell of support that swept names like Florida’s Marco Rubio, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, and Texas’ Ted Cruz into Washington. Touting a general distaste for government and a focused disgust for Democrats, the movement helped oust a host of more traditional incumbents.

But according to recent Gallup polls, the number of Republicans who consider themselves supporters of the tea party has steadily dropped since the movement’s peak in 2010, down from 61 percent to 41 percent. With its heyday behind it, the tea party of 2014 looks less like a movement and more like a fractured, disconnected offensive, doomed by hyperlocal ties that make national impact a challenge.

“There’s no single tea party organization, most of which don’t have a whole lot of money,” said Robert Boatright, a political science professor and an expert in congressional primaries at Clark University in Massachusetts. “If candidates wish to refer to themselves as a tea party candidate, there’s not really anybody to say no.”

That lack of cohesive voice has already led to losses in the 2014 midterm primaries, in which tea party challengers failed miserably to upset incumbents with national GOP backing.

South Carolina’s Sen. Lindsey Graham, for example, easily avoided a runoff and walked away with the state’s Republican nomination this year, despite being considered one of this cycle’s more vulnerable incumbents. When all was said and done, though, he had less than 60 percent of the votes.

“That’s no overwhelming landslide. It shows that there’s still some resentment out there,” said David Woodard, a political science professor at South Carolina’s Clemson University.

But that resentment was spread among six different tea party challengers, a fracture that Woodard says speaks to the group’s now exploited weaknesses.

“They each had a geographic support, and what happened is, there was nobody to sort of pull them all together,” he said.

Graham’s South Carolina is a useful example when considering the tea party’s life span, a deep red, conservative microcosm that has hosted various tea party dramas since the group found a foothold in 2010. For years, Graham has had to fend off attacks from the far right, which says he isn’t conservative enough. Some of his delegation colleagues, meanwhile, have attempted a delicate balance: beckoning tea party support with one hand while holding them at arm’s length with the other.

The House elections of 2010 saw several amateur Republicans in South Carolina knock longtime institutional politicians out of office. Reps. Trey Gowdy, Mick Mulvaney, Jeff Duncan, and Tim Scott, now a senator, all rode the swell into office.

It’s difficult to nail down exactly where the four stand now on the tea party. Mulvaney, Duncan and Scott were reportedly all associated with Congress’ Tea Party Caucus at some point, although it appears the caucus, headed by Minnesota’s Michele Bachmann, is not as organized as it was during its inaugural run in 2010. Bachmann’s spokesman, Dan Kotman, said the group is still holding meetings but does not maintain an official membership list.

This reluctance to publicly associate with the movement reflects a trend found in the tea party’s tidal wave aftermath: Many lawmakers didn’t so much help build the wave as hitch its ride to Washington.

AFP Photo/Andrew Burton

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Rep. Tom Rice Of South Carolina Is The Man Behind GOP’s Obama Lawsuit

By Ali Watkins, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Behind the tangled web of partisanship surrounding Republicans’ impending lawsuit against President Barack Obama, the quiet architect of the GOP’s assault on Pennsylvania Avenue has all but disappeared from the spotlight.

South Carolina freshman Rep. Tom Rice, who championed the idea of a lawsuit before it was popular among his leadership, has found himself outside the circle of Republicans who are captaining the effort. In the explosive aftermath of the House of Representatives’ approval of the suit last month, he’s all but disappeared behind House Speaker John Boehner’s shadow.

“I filed a bill in December that was essentially the same terms. I went out and worked really hard to educate people about it and to get support,” said Rice.

The House leadership was hesitant to push his resolution forward, however, although Rice does boast about pinning down 120 co-sponsors.

Despite the support, the resolution lingered, stuck in legislative limbo through the early winter months. But then the White House continued to threaten executive action against a complacent Congress, and the Republican-majority House decided to throw a curve ball at the Oval Office.

The proposal for a civil suit was already in play, thanks to Rice, but rather than take up the South Carolinian’s resolution the chamber’s leadership decided to write a new piece of legislation.

“It was essentially the same terms as my original,” Rice said.

He was tapped to weigh in, and he does get a nod from his colleagues in the House leadership.

“Our team felt we needed to focus narrowly to give us the best chance of getting legal standing,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner. “Rep. Rice’s work was crucial for building the legal theory behind our challenge, and he met with the speaker and our team to discuss it before any steps were taken.”

While Rice’s original lawsuit resolution referred to a broad range of alleged constitutional violations, the leadership’s version focuses on the Affordable Care Act. The wide scope of Rice’s original proposal, Boehner’s office said, might have made it difficult to get the lawsuit through the door.

Rice was pegged, along with fellow South Carolina Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy, to be a media go-to for the leadership’s operation, since he and Gowdy showed particular interest in the issue, according to the speaker’s office.

“Congressman Rice did not introduce the resolution to increase his name recognition or get public attention,” said Rice’s spokeswoman, Caroline Vanvick. “He introduced the resolution to protect the Constitution.”

Rice might say he’s OK with being usurped, but his supporters at home are not.

“He stole that issue from Tom Rice,” Myrtle Beach Tea Party Chairman Joe Dugan said when he was asked about Boehner’s role in the lawsuit. “I have done everything in my power to remind people that this was an issue that was authored by Tom Rice.”

Right off the bat, it was a bold proposal for the first-term congressman, who’d previously sponsored only two other pieces of legislation, which had to do with adjustments to protected coastal lands. But as a conservative former tax lawyer, Rice didn’t like the president’s executive actions to delay some of the Affordable Care Act’s deadlines and it led to his Stop This Overreaching Presidency — or STOP — Resolution.

Although he isn’t the leading face of the movement, Rice’s original push for the civil suit has certainly upped his capital in the party. The Horry County native, despite having no previous political experience beyond being the chair of the county council, landed himself a subcommittee chairmanship within his first months in office.

It’s an uncommon honor in general, and especially rare given his rookie status.

Rice himself toes an interesting political line, at least when considering he hails from one of the country’s most staunchly Republican strongholds. Although he’s quietly become a darling of D.C.’s conservative lawmakers, he rounds out the bottom of South Carolina’s Republican delegation, his 80 percent conservative rating from the American Conservative Union trailing second-to-last Rep. Mick Mulvaney by 8 percentage points.

And although the Tea Party is rallying around the potential of the lawsuit, Rice has made a concerted effort to keep the far right away from his campaign. Instead, he walks that delicate territory between the moderate conservatives and the die-hard right wing, never clearly associating himself with the ideals of the far-flung fringes of the party but trying to unify all his fellow Republicans under a battle cry to defeat the Democrats.

“He was not our first choice during the primary,” the Tea Party’s Dugan said. “Although he said that he was more of a moderate during his first campaign … I think that he has turned out to be an excellent congressman.”

The conservative base in Rice’s home state certainly supports the lawsuit, although the notion that it might lead to impeachment is something that the congressman — along with the House leadership — vehemently denies.

“It simply will not happen. I never pushed for that or asked for that,” Rice said.

Outside the partisan throes, many say the lawsuit won’t accomplish much.

“This lawsuit will be an embarrassing loser for the House Republican party. I rate its chances of getting in the door and getting considered at all as somewhere between zero and nothing,” said Charles Tiefer, former legal counsel to the House and currently a law professor at the University of Baltimore.

Although Republicans are touting the suit as a means to restore the constitutional balance of powers, Tiefer warned that it might just shift the imbalance elsewhere.

“I think that the judges will be disgusted by trying to drag them into what they’ll see as a sleazy political fight,” he said, laughing at the possibility of impeachment. “Some judges who want to be completely free of political interference may regard this kind of partisan lawsuit as an attempt to soil the judicial robe.”

Until it’s filed, though, Rice is quietly pushing the lawsuit forward, although at this point, he said, the process is out of his hands.

“I don’t know how much more of a role there is. … The resolution has passed,” he said. “I think they’re doing their legwork for the lawsuit. I think you should see a lawsuit filed before too awful long.”

Photo: Crazy George via Flickr

Rep. Gowdy Says He’ll Bring Prosecutor’s Focus, Fairness To Benghazi Probe

By Ali Watkins, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Rep. Trey Gowdy’s got a late-night habit.

“He eats a ridiculously lot of pizza,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah. “Even if he goes out and has dinner, he’s got to have his late-night pie. I don’t know how he does it.”

It’s a tasty vice for the South Carolina congressman, even as he displays a distaste for national politics while his profile rises inside Republican ranks.

Since his election to Congress in 2010, Gowdy has been known inside the Washington Beltway less for his politics than for his hair, a sometimes silvery tangle that Buzzfeed once dubbed “the most confusing hair in Congress.”

But the Greenville, S.C., native has found a springboard to possible Washington stardom — whether wanted or not — with his appointment last spring as chairman of a special House of Representatives select panel investigating the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans were killed when militants raided the compound.

Despite fierce partisan tension over an issue that has been a go-to political pinata for Republicans to bash the Obama administration, Gowdy appears to have placated the Republicans and mollified some Democrats. He has employed a quiet, nonpartisan approach that likely hails from his days as a federal prosecutor.

“I haven’t been there that long, but none of us has seen somebody rise so fast,” Chaffetz said. “It’s a unique combination of his ability to cogently articulate a pattern of questions or to make a case on the floor of the House.”

Gowdy, who turns 50 this week, decided in 2010 to challenge six-term GOP incumbent congressman Bob Inglis. He won an upset victory in the primary and then went on to win the general election for the Palmetto State’s 4th Congressional District seat.

His reputation on Capitol Hill grew after the attack on the Benghazi consulate. As a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, he took a tough, confrontational approach to witnesses during the panel’s initial investigation of the incident, much like the style he favored in South Carolina courtrooms.

“He was a commanding presence … when he went in the courtroom, he was prepared, he knew exactly what he was going to do. He took control,” said Barry Barnette, who took over the post of South Carolina’s 7th Circuit solicitor after serving as Gowdy’s deputy. “There’s nobody tougher than him.”

It’s standard practice on Capitol Hill to savor the flurry of attention that surrounds partisan issues, particularly one such as Benghazi, which has triggered multiple investigations and hearings. The results, however, have been mixed at best for Republicans hoping to find some political advantage to use against the Democrats in the way the administration responded to the attack.

Indeed, the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee approved a report earlier this month that could not pinpoint any intelligence failures on the part of the administration, a contention that Republican critics have been trying to press since the attack occurred.

Still, Gowdy’s new panel, created by House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), will begin more public hearings on Benghazi next month when Congress returns from its lengthy summer recess. Asked to talk about the committee, though, Gowdy declined.

“I didn’t talk about my investigations when I was a DA,” he said curtly. “There’ll be a time and a place.”

“Trey is making a good effort to work in a collegial way and in a consultative way, and I think he’ll continue to do that,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who reluctantly accepted a position as a minority member of the committee.

His praise for Gowdy is notable, given that the longtime House Intelligence Committee member was one of the more outspoken Democrats who ridiculed the creation of the panel in the first place.
Even Republican friends, such as South Carolina’s junior senator, Tim Scott, say politics does not come naturally to Gowdy.

“Trey is Trey,” Scott said. “He ultimately has a desire for getting things accomplished, and that means that his first objective isn’t to be the best example of the Republican Party. … He just doesn’t have a desire for politics.”

For his part, Gowdy insists his investigation of Benghazi will be straightforward, and that whatever partisanship surrounds the controversy, “it’s bigger to me than politics.”

“People would rather see a sermon than hear one,” he said. “I can talk about the need to be fair. I can talk about the need to be inclusive … or I can prove it to you. I would rather prove it to you.”

While determined to avoid the national stage, his aggressive tactics, smooth demeanor, and boyish camaraderie with House colleagues have polished his profile.

“You combine that with his Southern drawl and bad hair and it’s a winning combination,” Chaffetz joked.

Friends, however, say that Gowdy makes it no secret that he misses home and if given the choice, he’d take a courtroom over Congress any day.

“I miss the rules, the fairness,” Gowdy said. “The fact that there’s a referee. And there is no referee in politics.”

But he has chosen to stick around and seek a third term this fall, despite insisting he wouldn’t keep the office longer than two terms. The reason is Scott, a former member of the House who was named last year to fill the unexpired term of former Republican Sen. Jim DeMint.

“The thought of being around and helping someone like Tim be successful in the United States Senate. … He is the reason,” Gowdy said.

Photo: House GOP via Flickr

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Immigration Crisis At Border Afflicts Heartland Harvest

By Ali Watkins, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The heated tempers of the nation’s border states are driving the debate over immigration policy. States farther away from the U.S.-Mexico border, though, are reckoning with a different set of challenges: a skimpy agriculture labor market and cumbersome immigrant-worker programs that go unfixed amid partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill.

More than 20,000 U.S. farms employ more than 435,000 immigrant workers legally every year, according to 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture census data. Thousands — probably tens of thousands — more are employed illegally. Naturally, agricultural powerhouses near the border, such as Florida and California, employ tens of thousands of seasonal immigrant laborers every year. But deeper in the homeland, such as the fruit orchards of the Carolinas, farmers confront a blue-collar labor vacuum.

“Because we’re not a border state, it’s definitely harder to get people over this far from the border to work,” said Chalmers Carr, the owner of the East Coast’s largest peach grower, South Carolina’s Titan Farms. “2006, 2007, even 2008, we had a very robust economy and there were not enough farmworkers then. And there’s truly not enough farmworkers now, legal or illegal.”

South Carolina in particular has a unique view, having seen the greatest percentage increase in Hispanic population in the country from 2000 to 2010 — nearly 150 percent, according to the most recently available census data. Although its Hispanic population sits at a comparatively low 5.1 percent, the increase reflects decisions by immigrants to make the trek deeper into the United States. And while many are taking temporary seasonal work, the labor shortage has become a permanent issue for growers and workers alike.

“It’s not a temporary situation,” said Lynn Tramonte, the deputy director of America’s Voice, which focuses on changing immigration policy. “It might be a seasonal job, but we’re going to keep having grapes that need to be picked and cows that need to be milked, and immigrants are coming to do that sort of labor.”

Immigrant workers who slipped over the borders years ago are aging out of the workforce, and their younger, more able-bodied counterparts are being kept from the fields because of the bureaucratic clutter. But the crops and the growing season don’t wait.

“We’re losing that aging population, but we’re also not getting anybody replacing them because of the mess we have at the border and no immigration law,” said Manuel Cunha Jr., the president of California’s Nisei Farmers League, which represents over 180 types of farms, including those that produce raisins, vegetables, and flowers.

The trend certainly isn’t limited to the southern edges of the country either.

“In northern Ohio, we’re on the front lines, and it’s not because we’re on the northern border,” said Mark Gilson, the owner and operator of Gilson Gardens, a nursery in northeast Ohio, which relies largely on seasonal immigrant workers. “It’s because the agricultural jobs are here.”

The idea by those on the anti-immigration front that U.S. workers should fill those agriculture jobs is simply out of kilter with reality, the farmers say.

“I get lambasted for why do I hire migrant workers? Why don’t I hire Americans?” Carr said. “I can clearly tell you Americans aren’t out there willing to do these jobs.”

AFP Photo/Scott Olson

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