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House Conservatives Not Willing To ‘Play Dead’ For Ryan In 2016

By Billy House, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul Ryan had a good run in his first few weeks on the job, clearing out several high-profile bills in a year-end rush.

The good times may not last.

Ryan is already lowering expectations of major legislative achievements in 2016, saying he wants to focus on spelling out a conservative agenda. Far-right Republicans say they want more — and that they’ll push Ryan for votes on their top priorities, such as making significant tax changes, reining in entitlement programs and enacting a new health-care law.

That tension — between Ryan’s push to set out broad principles and the House Freedom Caucus’s impatience to force higher-profile confrontations — could intensify this week as House Republicans go to Baltimore to sort out their legislative agenda.

If the three dozen members of the conservative Freedom Caucus don’t like the outcome, they say they are prepared to push him just as hard as they pushed Ryan’s predecessor, John Boehner, who eventually quit the job.

“I don’t think you’re going to see Freedom Caucus members just roll over and play dead,” caucus member Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona said Tuesday in an interview.

The Republican policy retreat is scheduled to last through Friday. Republican senators will be also on hand through Thursday.

Ahead of that meeting, conservatives are trying to set a new, firmer tone.

“I think that there was a lot of patience in the last six weeks because people realized that it wasn’t a table he set that we were eating from,” Salmon said, referring to Ryan.

Salmon said the Wisconsin Republican was given what amounts to a pass by conservatives in his first weeks after becoming speaker on Oct. 29 because he was handling Boehner’s legislative leftovers. That included passage of a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill in December with mostly Democratic votes.

“That’s gone, starting this year,” said Salmon of such patience with Ryan.

Another Freedom Caucus member, Raul Labrador of Idaho, raised eyebrows last week when he declared “the honeymoon is over” for Ryan as the House speaker.

On Tuesday, Labrador added in an interview that he wants to see actual legislation put up for House votes this year, ticking off such aims as entitlement reform and a tax overhaul.

But Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, so far has stopped short of specific promises. On the Senate side, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky already has been playing down the prospect of tax changes in 2016.

Ryan told reporters Tuesday that the House will pass a budget plan for the next fiscal year. But he hedged on whether there will be votes on such things as entitlement revisions or deeper spending cuts.

The policy retreat this week in Baltimore is where Ryan said he hopes to launch “the beginnings of the conversation of assembling an agenda to take to the country, and the launching of a process under which we put that agenda together.”

Ryan’s positioning “confuses me,” said Labrador.

The best way for House Republicans to lay out their agenda for the American public is to pass legislation, he said, regardless of whether it will become law.

Ryan, however, may be trying to position Republicans to compete more effectively in the 2016 general election by developing a “bold pro-growth agenda” without having to actually take too many votes on it.

The Freedom Caucus, led by Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio, put out a statement Tuesday before President Barack Obama’s State of the Union remarks and the Baltimore retreat saying, “This year Congress must advance bold conservative ideas to help families who have seen job loss and stagnant income during the Obama presidency.”

What gives the three dozen Freedom Caucus members leverage is that Republicans control the chamber with 246 seats to 188 for Democrats — meaning their votes can be crucial to passage on issues dividing the parties.

Because some of the thorniest debates, such as raising the debt limit, have been pushed off until after the election, the differences that could emerge this year may have more to do with tactics and expectations, some lawmakers and congressional experts say.

“The Freedom Caucus and much of the Republican base are angry at Republican leaders for not delivering on their promises,” said Thomas Mann, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Ryan is trying to lower expectations by a brash articulation of a very conservative agenda and a priority to elect a Republican president.”

But Mann and New York-based political pollster John Zogby both predict that Ryan will eventually have to depend on Democrats to pass some legislation because of divisions within his own party.

“Sadly for him, I think the Ryan speakership was damned from the outset. I am still surprised he accepted,” said Zogby. “The position is not a bully pulpit nor a national agenda setter. The president does that constitutionally and historically.”

For now, Ryan’s approach has largely focused on trying to open up the House decision-making process.

His promise is aimed at responding to complaints from members such as Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana, a Freedom Caucus member, who said Boehner had made similar promises to decentralize the decision-making.

“But ultimately what he did is he would put the staff together and we’d be up against a hard deadline and we would have our arms twisted to vote for it,” Fleming said.

“Paul Ryan said he’s not going to do that,” Fleming added. “What he’s going to do is we’re going to do the budget early, do appropriations early, going to follow through with all 12 appropriations bills, and we’re not going to let time limits or the Senate jam us.”

On the other hand, giving the Freedom Caucus more influence could further expose the deep splits with moderate Republicans on certain areas, such as defense policy and spending, immigration, the Export-Import Bank and trade.

If Ryan truly opens the process to the House Freedom Caucus, “they will likely force votes that neither he, nor establishment Republicans, want to see on the floor,” said Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University in Washington.

Huder also noted that in a presidential election year — with the prospect that Hillary Clinton could top the Democratic presidential ticket — some House Republicans representing more moderate, swing districts could be at risk if the House pursues an aggressive conservative agenda, particularly on social issues.

“Ryan will need to find the sweet spot between giving conservatives a voice and protecting his at-risk members,” said Huder.

Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, a co-chairman of a group of House moderates, said Freedom Caucus members aren’t the only ones who “want to take on some bold policy issues.”

“What is extraordinarily unhelpful is that a member would issue a threat to Speaker Ryan, literally on the first day back of Congress” this year,” Dent said of Labrador’s assertion that the honeymoon is over. “It’s very unfair.”

Salmon and other Freedom Caucus members said the “first big fight” could come with the budget plan early in the year.

Dave Brat of Virginia, another Freedom Caucus member, said, “The proof in the pudding for the speakership will be the budget and appropriations process.”

On appropriations bills, Fleming suggested that if there is no agreement on a new government spending plan after fiscal 2016 funding runs out Sept. 30, the House should seek to maintain its leverage.

“I would suggest that we don’t take up Senate bills unless the Senate takes up our appropriations bills,” Fleming said.

And if House Republicans get pushed up against another potential government shutdown drama, Fleming said, they should keep passing two-week extensions of current funding levels “until the other side gives in and decides to work with us.”

©2016 Bloomberg News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) calls on a reporter during a weekly news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington January 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 

 

For Ambitious U.S. House Democrats, There’s Nowhere To Go But Out

By Billy House, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Until this week, Rep. Steve Israel of New York was often named as one of the rising stars in the U.S. House Democratic leadership.

His decision to not seek re-election and to leave Congress at the end of the year is the latest reminder of how thin those ranks are getting.

For the younger, more ambitious Democrats in the House, the obstacles are significant. The Democrats most mentioned by colleagues are Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra of California, a Hispanic lawmaker with strong policy credentials; Caucus Vice Chairman Joe Crowley of New York, a top fundraiser; and Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, one of the most media-savvy House Democrats.

They’ve been waiting for years in the wings, a handful of understudies to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. But she is signaling no readiness to move on and give up the leadership stage.

Even worse, Democrats find themselves languishing as the smallest House minority for their party since the late 1940s, with little realistic chance of retaking the chamber in the next few years.

Israel’s announcement followed the decision by Budget Committee top Democrat Chris Van Hollen last year to seek a U.S. Senate seat in 2016. Like Israel, Marylander Van Hollen is a lawmaker who had been mentored by Pelosi and was long seen as a top aspirant to succeed her.

And still another veteran, Elijah Cummings, also of Maryland, says he hasn’t decided whether he might jump into that same Senate race.

Israel said his decision to leave Congress doesn’t stem, even partly, from a frustration with having to bide his time too long in lesser leadership positions. He insists he wants to pursue writing.

“To the extent there was frustration, it was about campaign finance,” Israel said in an interview Wednesday. “I just couldn’t spend another day asking my donors for another dollar.” But just a month ago, Pelosi’s office had said Israel would be in charge of shaping the House Democrats’ 2016 campaign messaging. So his decision came as a surprise.

Israel responds that his planned departure now makes him “more effective” in that role, because he doesn’t have to worry so much about “my own local politics and now I can take a more long range national view of messaging.”

For now, House Democrats insist there are no rumblings or threats of anyone ready to challenge or take on Pelosi, 75 — the only woman to ever be speaker — even if she doesn’t win back the majority next year.

Pelosi of California strongly signaled in an interview Wednesday that she intends on running again to be her party’s top leader in the House next year.

“I like it here,” she said.

Pelosi has been emphasizing her expectation that Democrats’ chances of picking up House seats will be greatly boosted with Hillary Clinton likely topping the party’s ticket in November.

But other Democrats with leadership aspirations are in the meantime left mostly to jockey under Pelosi, and bide their time in lesser jobs where their work for colleagues could produce chits down the line. In the case of Israel and Van Hollen, that wait didn’t pay off in time.

One lawmaker who didn’t want to be identified so he could speak candidly predicted Pelosi replacement talk would start up only if Democrats don’t go from 188 seats to at least 200 in the 435-seat House — a target far lower than winning the majority, but still a 12-seat gain.

A more immediate challenge facing Pelosi and others in House Democratic leadership may be maintaining the morale of members who see a future that holds little hope for a return to the majority. Some members say that has fostered low spirits and little expectation of electoral success this fall — which they say is contributing to potential future House Democratic leaders deciding to launch pursuits elsewhere.

“The circumstances are that gerrymandering and the tamping down the votes causes members to not think we are going to win the majority any time soon,” said Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida. “That then causes people to say, what the hell, and go about their business elsewhere.”

“I think members in the Democratic Party do not see us winning the majority until the mid-2020s, when places like Texas turn blue, and it will,” said Hastings.

One key for how Pelosi holds onto power is that she remains the Democrats’ rainmaker. She raised more than $80 million in the last two-year election cycle and isn’t letting up.

But younger members haven’t been able to move into the No. 2 or No. 3 jobs as Pelosi’s top lieutenants, because of a bottleneck there as well.

Neither of the two other top Democrats — Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, 76, and Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn of South Carolina, 75, the highest-ranking African-American member of Congress — plan to leave their jobs next session.

Israel and Van Hollen had been among the top names most often floated in recent years as potential new leaders and even successors to Pelosi as the top Democrat.

Beyond Becerra, Crowley and Wasserman Schultz, the other names mentioned most often include John Larson of Connecticut and Diana DeGette of Colorado.

Larson disputed in an interview Wednesday that there is any frustration with the logjam in the form of Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn.

“There’s no shortage of talent on the bench. It’s just that we have three leaders who have been there that everybody respects,” he said.

Echoing Hastings, he said, “I think if you look at who the culprit is in all of this, you have to say it’s redistricting” that favors Republican candidates. He said the Democratic National Committee and the National Governor’s Association are more to blame for losing statehouses, where congressional maps are drawn.

For now, Larson, Israel and Pelosi aren’t conceding that the House Democratic leadership bench is getting thinner.

“The bench has expanded. It’s just getting younger,” said Larson. He and others tick off the names of such newer generation members as Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Joseph Kennedy of Massachusetts, Beto O’Rourke of Texas, and Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico. Lujan is the current Pelosi-selected chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a post previously held by Israel and Van Hollen before him.

“We have tremendous talent and have plenty of options, but there’s a steady stream of members here,” Pelosi said.

©2016 Bloomberg News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Steve Israel via Facebook

 

House Democrats Hang 2016 Hopes Largely On Clinton’s Coattails

By Billy House, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — As top U.S. lawmakers haggled over a must-pass spending bill, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi last week slipped in one more request to Speaker Paul Ryan: reviving federal research on gun violence.

The gun proposal, like Democratic demands for tax breaks for the middle class and poor, is a way to set themselves apart from House Republicans. It also links their longshot bid to win the majority in 2016 with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton’s push for firearm controls in her presidential campaign.

“We will always have a big focus on gun-violence prevention,” Pelosi of California reiterated to reporters on Friday in Washington after pitching the research effort in a conversation with Ryan earlier in the day.

The comeback challenge is daunting: Democrats would have to gain 30 seats in November to take the House, now controlled by Republicans. And so far, Democrats’ efforts at forging their 2016 legislative message have been less substantial and more diffuse than those of Republicans — leaving them to rely on Clinton to give the party’s congressional candidates a lift.

Ryan is using the spending talks to show Republicans can govern. He already gave a speech on Dec. 3 spelling out a detailed “pro-growth” agenda, an early road map of what his members will run on in 2016.

Ryan is avoiding much talk about his party’s potential presidential nominee and any Republican nervousness over inflammatory rhetoric from front-runner Donald Trump. House Republicans will focus on laying out a positive vision for the country, he told reporters Thursday.

“I don’t think that we have the time to wait until a nominee arrives, which could be as late as, I don’t know, June or July,” said Ryan of Wisconsin, his party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee. “What I learned in presidential campaigns is you have to start talking about these issues early.”

With Republicans grabbing most of the public attention with a hotly contested primary race and a new House speaker who’s already a political star, Democrats are forced to try to break through with policy proposals such as the gun-research one reacting to this month’s massacre in San Bernardino, Calif. Congress has banned gun violence research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 19 years.

Democrats also are seeking to continue wind and solar tax breaks, as well as a permanent extension of the current Child Tax Credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the college-tuition tax credit.

Their campaign-year talking points won’t be rolled out until closer to the election, perhaps as late as August, said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, who is in charge of message development.

For now, House Democrats are talking more about how they’ll get a big boost from the top of the presidential ticket, with a kicker also that voters are tired of long-running House Republican dysfunction.

“It depends on what happens on the presidential, too, I keep reminding people,” said Pelosi during an interview on PBS’s Charlie Rose program with Al Hunt of Bloomberg News.

Non-presidential election years — such as 2014, when Democrats lost 13 House seats and plummeted to the smallest House minority since the 1920s — “are like the lounge act. So, who goes there, right?” Pelosi said in November.

Pelosi is careful not to declare Clinton as the obvious winner of her party’s 2016 nomination — not directly, that is.

“We have three great candidates. Any one of them would walk into that Oval Office with all the values of our country; we would be very proud of them whoever she may be,” she said on PBS.

Democrats say that if Clinton carries the 2016 presidential banner, that would boost fundraising and turnout for women, minorities and other Democrats.

“Democrats are prepared to seize on opportunities in the political atmosphere, whether they are presented by the ultra-conservative House of Representatives or the circus of Republican presidential candidates,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico said in a statement to Bloomberg.

With these hopes, Lujan and Democratic Party strategists in Washington say they are digging deep into the electoral map and finding an expansive battleground that could stretch to as many as 65 seats viewed as competitive to some degree.

Democratic leaders aren’t predicting a “wave” election in 2016 that would turn over the House majority. Democrats say Republicans are likely to struggle to hold seats in swing districts in states including New Hampshire, Maine, New York and Illinois.

The nonpartisan Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report lists 31 U.S. House seats “in play,” 25 of which are held by Republicans. Thirteen of those are depicted as pure tossups, with three held by Democrats and 10 by Republicans.

Gaining 30 House seats in one election isn’t impossible. In 2006, Pelosi oversaw Democrats’ net gain of 31 seats that gave them the majority and made her the first female House speaker. Democrats held onto that majority for four years.

©2015 Bloomberg News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. House of Representatives Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) sits down for an interview with Reuters on House legislative plans, in her office at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, December 2, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Theiler 

House Democrats Intensify Criticism Of Benghazi Panel’s Motives

By Billy House, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — House Democrats are sharpening their criticism of a Republican-led panel investigating the Benghazi attacks, accusing the committee of shifting its focus to politically target presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

In a report released Monday, Democrats on the committee sought to debunk what they called “wild” assertions about the former secretary of State’s handling of the 2012 attacks, including that she had ordered the military to stand down on the night a U.S. mission in Libya was overrun by extremists.

The 124-page report escalates a Democratic offensive against the panel just days before Clinton is scheduled to testify publicly on Oct. 22. The motives of the Republican-led investigation have come under increasing attack by Democrats and set off a war of words with the panel’s chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina.

“Republicans have now admitted repeatedly that they are spending millions of taxpayer dollars to damage Secretary Clinton’s campaign for president,” said Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the panel’s top Democrat, in a statement attached to the report.

Jamal Ware, a spokesman for the committee, said the report showed that Democrats were more interested in providing political cover for Clinton than in finding out about what happened in Benghazi.

“For the majority members of this committee, they will continue to wait until after hearing from all witnesses, up to and including the very last one, before drawing conclusions, because that is what serious investigations do,” Ware said in a statement.

Democrats say that the committee has shifted its focus from investigating the 2012 terrorist attack that killed four Americans to probing Clinton’s use of a private email server for official business while serving as secretary of State. Revelations about Clinton’s use of a private email account emerged as a result of the committee’s work, and have weighed on her bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.

Objections from Democrats to the panel’s work have been fueled by comments during the last two weeks by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and Rep. Richard Hanna of New York, who cited the committee’s work as helping to undermine Clinton’s presidential prospects and poll numbers.

Last week, Cummings criticized the committee for interviewing long-time Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, saying that she had no policy or operational role in the Benghazi matter. Republicans defended bringing Abedin before the panel for several hours of questioning on Friday, saying her role as a top State Department aide to Clinton made her testimony essential to learning more about Benghazi.

In their report, Democrats summarize 54 transcribed interviews and depositions conducted by the select committee — and they say none of the witnesses has substantiated claims made by Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates.

Along with noting that Clinton did not order the military to stand down on the night of the attacks, it says there is no evidence Clinton personally approved or ordered a reduction of security in Benghazi prior to the attacks or that Clinton or her aides oversaw an operation at the State Department to destroy or scrub embarrassing documents.

“The evidence obtained by the Select Committee also corroborates previous testimony to Congress indicating that Secretary Clinton was deeply engaged during and after the attacks and took action to ensure the safety and security of U.S. personnel, even as intelligence assessments of the attacks changed more than once during this period,” the report states.
The report also states that of the 70,000 pages of documents obtained by the committee, the only documents Gowdy has chosen to release publicly are Clinton’s emails with outside adviser Sidney Blumenthal.

“At the same time, Chairman Gowdy has blocked the public release of Mr. Blumenthal’s deposition transcript, which would reveal the questions Republicans asked about issues related to Secretary Clinton that have nothing to do with Benghazi, as well as Mr. Blumenthal’s answers to questions about the emails that Chairman Gowdy released,” the report states.

The report also notes the committee, meanwhile, “has never asked a single question to the secretary of Defense — in public or private,” or ever held a single hearing with anyone from the Department of Defense in 17 months.

On Sunday, Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas defended the panel, saying it remained focused on getting to the bottom of a terrorist attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

“We have an obligation to hold folks accountable and make sure that we reduce the risk that something like this could ever possibly happen again,” Pompeo, a committee member, told NBC’s Meet the Press.

(c)2015 Bloomberg News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MD). September 29, 2015. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

State Department Seeks 2016 Release Of Hillary Clinton’s Email

By Billy House, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — About 55,000 pages of Hillary Clinton’s State Department email would be made public in January under an agency proposal.

The email, handled on Clinton’s private server and provided to the agency in December by the former secretary of state, must undergo an internal review before it can be released, the State Department said in a federal court filing on Monday in response to a public-records request.

The timetable means the email controversy will continue to follow Clinton’s presidential campaign into the new year. The disclosure that Clinton, a Democrat, used private email while at the State Department already has re-energized Republicans’ criticism of her handling of the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.

The State Department is planning to make public as early as this week 296 Clinton emails already turned over to the Republican-led committee investigating the terror attacks. That panel is led by Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina.

The court filing, by State Department official John Hackett in federal court in Washington, seeks a judge’s permission for the January document release. The filing is part of a public-records lawsuit by a Vice News reporter. The department says it’ll take time to examine the e-mails, which number about 30,000.

“Given the breadth and importance of the many foreign policy issues on which the secretary of state and the department work, the review of these materials will likely require consultation with a broad range of subject matter experts within the department and other agencies, as well as potentially with foreign governments,” Hackett wrote in the court filing.

Photo: Niu Xiaolei via Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS

House Repeals DC Law Protecting Workers’ Reproductive Health Choices

By Billy House, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Shortly before midnight Thursday, without fanfare, the U.S. House voted to repeal a Washington, D.C., law that will prohibit employers from discriminating against workers who obtain abortions or use birth control.

The 228-192 vote was symbolic venting and conservative vote-scorecard padding, at most.

That’s because Monday is the legal deadline for Congress to override the District of Columbia law, and Speaker John Boehner held the vote after the Senate left town for the weekend. President Barack Obama wouldn’t sign the measure, anyhow.

So, what was the message?

“Fix it!” said Rep. Bill Flores of Texas, chairman of the House Republican Study Committee, a group of about 170 members who pushed to get the vote on their scorecards.

Flores said that if he were on the D.C. Council and realized that the House of Representatives had passed a disapproval measure, he would consider undoing the law.

Not likely.

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s non-voting member of the House, scoffed that while “Republicans have been champions of federalism and local control,” the goal this time “is to resume the war on women.”

The D.C. law, signed by Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser on Jan. 25, protects employees in the district from being fired for reproductive health choices such as using birth control or getting an abortion.

Members of Congress who want to overturn the law say it discriminates against employers who have religious objections to birth control and abortion. They argue that the law could force such employers to cover abortions in their health-care plans, or even to hire abortion activists.

Norton and others say the real intent is not only to infringe on women’s reproductive rights, but also to slap at D.C. local decision-making. She said the vote was “a coming attraction” to what Republicans might try in other parts of the U.S.

That wasn’t what Republicans were saying.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican, said the D.C. government shouldn’t tell employers they must “hire, retain, or promote someone who actively opposes their central mission or core beliefs.”

“What in the world is the connection between private health care decisions and work performance?” asked Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California. “This resolution is outrageous and undemocratic.”

Thirteen Republicans voted against the measure, while three Democrats joined 225 Republicans in passing it. Most of the Republicans voting no are from Northeastern states, or other more-moderate areas that could come into play in the 2016 election.

Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, a co-chairman of a group of House centrists, was among them. He said in a statement Friday that he was disappointed that lawmakers engaged “in a futile exercise dealing with contentious social issues.”

“I have told my Republican colleagues time and again that we should remain focused on our message of economic growth and opportunity, which resonate with a vast majority of Americans,” he said.

(c)2015 Bloomberg News, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Adam Fagen via Flickr

House Republicans Hesitate To Overturn D.C. Law On Reproductive Rights

By Billy House, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Congress faces a Monday deadline to repeal a new Washington, D.C., law that would prohibit employers from discriminating against employees who obtain abortions or use birth control, and Republicans in the House seem divided about whether to make the effort.

Sponsored by Republican Representative Diane Black of Tennessee, the “resolution of disapproval” (H.J. Res 43) would undo the D.C.-passed Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act. The disapproval measure passed the Oversight and Government Reform Committee on April 21, by a 20-16 vote, according to House records.

The law, signed by Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser on January 25, protects employees in Washington, D.C., from being fired for reproductive health choices such as the use of birth control, or getting an abortion. Members of Congress who want to see the law overturned say that it discriminates against employers who have religious objections to birth control and abortion. They also argue that the law could force employers with religious objections to cover the abortions in their health care plans, or even hire abortion activists.

“We cannot let this bill stand,” declared Oversight committee chairman Jason Chaffetz of Utah, in a statement prior to the panel’s vote in favor of the resolution of disapproval.

The Oversight Committee’s top Democrat, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, argues that Congress is resurrecting a legislative relic that allows Congress to disapprove laws enacted by the District of Columbia — something the lawmakers have not done in decades — for the purpose of infringing the rights of women, as well as local government control.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Chaffetz and Republican House leaders still had not discharged that resolution out of committee, which is a procedural requirement for a vote by the entire House. Because the bill has not been reported out of committee, no individual member of the House can invoke parliamentary privilege to call up the bill.

The delay caused a group of House conservatives Wednesday to press Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) for a floor vote “as quickly as possible.” But aides to Boehner’s chief deputy, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and to other Republican leaders won’t discuss their plans, saying only that the dispute is the subject of ongoing discussions.

In any event, the battle seems more politically symbolic — and perhaps indicative of GOP leaders’ reluctance to continue fighting over divisive social issues — than substantive. Under federal law, a District law may be overturned if both houses of Congress vote to do so and the president agrees within 30 legislative days, something that hasn’t happened in 23 years. The deadline for action has been determined by the congressional parliamentarians to be Monday. Even if the House does vote, it seems unlikely that the Senate would act quickly enough to get the legislation to the desk of President Barack Obama who, in turn, would be unlikely to sign it.

Mike Long, a McCarthy spokesman, would not directly say whether the Monday deadline for passage of the disapproval resolution would be met — and if not, why not.

Black said there are ongoing talks, but would not say what those discussions were focused on. She said she still hopes to see the bill brought to the House floor for a vote in the coming days, but acknowledged in an interview Wednesday that a deadline is imminent.

Chaffetz’s committee spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about why his committee has not discharged the resolution of disapproval.

Internal tension being caused by the delay became public Wednesday when the conservative House Freedom Caucus released a statement calling on their Republican leaders to allow a vote on H.J. Res. 43. Their statement warned the D.C. law “could force religious and conservative employers in the District to cover abortions in their health care plans and require pro-life organizations to hire abortion advocates.”

This could be stopped, they note, because “Under the Home Rule Act, ‘Congress is statutorily empowered to review actions by the D.C. Council.’ ”

Photo: Adam Fagen via Flickr

Some U.S. House Democrats Seek Postponement Of Netanyahu Speech

By Billy House, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Some U.S. House Democrats are circulating a petition asking Speaker John Boehner to postpone a planned March 3 speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a joint meeting of Congress.

“As members of Congress who support Israel, we share concern that it appears that you are using a foreign leader as a political tool against the president,” states the letter being circulated among lawmakers by Reps. Keith Ellison, Steve Cohen and Maxine Waters.

The three started sending the petition to fellow lawmakers last week, said Mike Casca, a spokesman for Ellison of Minnesota. The names of all lawmakers signing it won’t be released until later this week, he said.

While the petition asks Boehner to delay the speech, it stops short of declaring that members signing won’t attend.

Boehner, an Ohio Republican, announced Jan. 21 — the day after President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address — that he had invited Netanyahu to address Congress. He didn’t consult the Obama administration.

“I do not believe I am poking anyone in the eye,” Boehner told reporters at the time. His spokesman, Michael Steel, said Monday that the speaker isn’t considering a postponement of the speech.
Obama press secretary Josh Earnest has said typical practice is for one head of state to reach out to another. Obama on Monday said the U.S. doesn’t meet with foreign leaders “right before” an election.

The lawmakers’ petition asks Boehner to postpone the invitation until after Israel’s March 17 elections and the deadline for diplomatic negotiations with Iran. March 24 is the deadline for the framework of an agreement.

Already deciding to skip the address is Vice President Joe Biden, whose office said Friday he will be traveling internationally.

Some lawmakers aren’t planning to go. They include Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the assistant House Democratic leader and the highest-ranking black member of congressional leadership, according to a senior House Democratic leadership aide. The aide asked not to be identified because the decision hadn’t been made public.

In addition, Democratic Reps. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, John Lewis of Georgia and G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina have said they plan to skip the event. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California has said she’s deciding whether to attend.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, in a speech Monday at the Brookings Institution said he won’t attend the Netanyahu event.

In calling for the speech be postponed, the petition from Ellison, Cohen of Tennessee and Waters of California raises some of the same concerns as the administration.

The petition said Boehner’s invitation “appears to be an attempt to promote new sanctions legislation against Iran that could undermine” efforts to reach a nuclear deal with that country. Obama has said the negotiations are the best chance to keep the enemy of Israel from acquiring nuclear weapons.

“At the State of the Union, President Obama made it clear that he will veto new Iran sanctions legislation,” said the petition. “Aside from being improper, this places Israel, a close and valued ally, in the middle of a policy debate between Congress and the White House.”

A statement on Boehner’s website Monday said, “It’s becoming more and more clear that the concessions” Obama is offering to Iran “would undermine American security and the security of our allies.”

Netanyahu is scheduled to deliver a separate speech to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference in Washington during his visit.

Photo: Talk Radio News Service via Flickr

Hillary Clinton Questioning Sought By House Panel On Benghazi

By Billy House, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. congressional panel investigating the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, said it wants to interview former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other Obama administration officials.

Among 20 current or former officials the committee wants to question are White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, former White House press secretary Jay Carney, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey, former CIA Director David Petraeus and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

The committee’s chairman, Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, disclosed the plans in a letter Friday to the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland.

Interviews of State Department personnel will begin next week and run through April, Gowdy wrote. Those will be followed by interviews with executive branch and other administration officials, the chairman said.

Gowdy said his committee wants to schedule an interview “as soon as possible” with Clinton, who led the State Department at the time of the attack that killed four Americans including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Clinton is a potential 2016 presidential candidate.

Gowdy said a subpoena has been issued to the State Department for documents, e-mails and other materials needed to prepare for questioning of Clinton. He said a deadline had been set though he didn’t disclose what it was.

Clinton testified about the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi attacks before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January 2013. She is prepared to testify again before Congress, Cummings said last month, according to the Hill newspaper.

Cummings and the four other Democrats on the 12-member panel have complained that they have been excluded from some witness interviews.

Photo: Mark Nozell via Flickr

Boehner Lacks Most House Members’ Support As Obama Clashes Near

By Billy House, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — John Boehner must find a way to lead the U.S. House of Representatives after winning a third term as speaker with votes from fewer than half of the chamber’s 434 members.

Boehner was re-elected as the 53rd House speaker yesterday although 25 members didn’t show up to cast votes and 24 of his fellow Republicans supported someone else. He won with 216 votes to 164 for Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. No Democrats supported Boehner.

The Ohio Republican quickly dished out payback to some of the party members who voted against him, kicking two off the influential Rules Committee and stopping a third from sponsoring a bill.

Boehner will be tested in coming weeks as he and new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, prepare to confront President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats on issues including approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Later in the year, they’ll need to address government spending and raising the U.S. debt limit.

Republican Daniel Webster of Florida, who received 12 votes from members of his party, said after the speaker’s vote that he hoped a message had been delivered that rank-and-file Republicans want a more “member-driven legislative process.”

“I’ve been a speaker. I’ve been a majority leader,” Webster said in an interview, referring to his time in the Florida statehouse. He said he was seeking to show that leaders need to listen more to their members’ concerns.

Boehner, in a short speech after the vote on the first day of the 114th Congress in Washington, urged House members to “prove the skeptics wrong” and find common ground on legislation.

“This won’t be done in a tidy way. The battle of ideas never ends and frankly never should,” said Boehner, 65.

The returning Republican members of the House Rules panel were announced after the speaker’s election. Absent from the list were Florida Representatives Daniel Webster, who voted for himself for speaker, and Rich Nugent, who also voted for Webster.

The two lawmakers, who served on the Rules panel in the last Congress, were on the list to be reappointed until they voted against Boehner, according to a House leadership aide who sought anonymity.

Representative Randy Weber, a Texas Republican, said Boehner won’t let him sponsor a bill headed for floor consideration because he voted for fellow Republican Louie Gohmert of Texas for speaker.

“Sometimes there are casualties and changes, and people make decisions,” said Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican. “They make decisions to do things knowing sometimes there can be consequences.”

Gohmert, who voted for himself, said in a statement that Webster and Nugent were removed from the Rules panel “simply for voting like their voters wanted.”

“It appears before we can work together, we are now going to have another fight,” Gohmert said. “It would be a shame if the speaker of the House who has so much power is a sore winner.”

Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina, a leader of the anti-Boehner revolt who voted for Webster, declared the rebellion to be a success.

“We listened to the American people and acted,” said Jones anti-Boehner group. “We’ve gotten more calls of support in opposing the speaker than we got on the Wall Street bail- out.”

Republican Raul Labrador of Idaho voted for Boehner yesterday after opposing the speaker’s re-election in 2013.

“The votes were simply not there to defeat the speaker,” Labrador said. “I think it is unwise to marginalize yourself when there is no chance of victory, which was the case today.”

In addition to Webster and Gohmert, those who received votes from the 24 Republican defectors included Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and Representatives Ted Yoho of Florida and Jim Jordan of Ohio.

Four Democrats voted for someone other than Pelosi, with Representative Jim Cooper of Tennessee backing former Secretary of State Colin Powell. House rules don’t require that the speaker be a member elected from a district.

Boehner has a more muscular House majority of 246 Republicans — with 188 Democrats — compared with the previous session’s 234-201. One seat is vacant following the resignation yesterday of New York Republican Michael Grimm, who pleaded guilty to a federal tax charge.

Second-ranking House Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland said some Democrats from New York missed the speaker’s vote because they attended former Governor Mario Cuomo’s funeral.

Boehner will share the mantle of top Republican in Washington with McConnell, 72, of Kentucky, after having it to himself for four years. Boehner has been a chief foil for Obama and congressional Democrats in battles over the budget, debt and spending. A dispute over Obamacare led to a 16-day partial government shutdown in October 2013.

Boehner and McConnell have promised swift action starting this week on the Keystone pipeline and other bills they say will spur employment — a veterans’ hiring measure and a change to Obamacare to require employers to provide health care only to workers who put in more than 40 hours a week. That’s up from the current 30-hour threshold.

Opening-day comity didn’t last long, as White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that if the Keystone bill passes Congress, the president won’t sign it. Boehner responded in a statement that Obama was siding with “fringe extremists” in the Democratic Party.
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Bloomberg reporters Derek Wallbank, James Rowley and Jonathan Allen contributed to this report.

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