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Why Ted Cruz Isn’t Giving Up The Gay Marriage Fight

By Heidi Przybyla, Bloomberg News (TNS)

The Republican Party is hoping that a Supreme Court ruling before month’s end will close a chapter in American politics that has caught much of the party between evangelicals who emphatically opposes gay marriage and many voters who are supportive of same-sex couples.

Ted Cruz is trying to ensure that the debate is far from over.

While Republican leaders hope that the issue will be neutralized either way the high court rules — by affirming social conservatives seeking to protect states that still bar same-sex marriages or by issuing an unambiguous statement in support of gay couples — Cruz has other goals.

The Texas senator is making evangelicals a bedrock of his 2016 presidential campaign. He’s making it clear that regardless of the case’s outcome, he’ll keep pressing the issue.

“I believe 2016 will be the religious liberty election,” Cruz said at a gathering of faith activists in Washington last week. “Religious liberty has never been more threatened in America than right now today.'”

Cruz has legislative, political and fund-raising motivation. In the Senate, he’s sponsoring a constitutional amendment shielding states that still bar gay marriage, and he’s already attacking his competitors. In his speech last week, he derided Republicans who weren’t supportive of religious liberty laws in Indiana and Arkansas that opponents said would allow businesses to discriminate against gay customers.

“I’ll tell you what was saddest, just how many Republicans ran for the hills,” Cruz said, adding that Indiana was “a time for choosing.”

Cruz’s legislative challenge is going nowhere fast, given that it requires a two-thirds majority of both chambers of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures to amend the Constitution. But by using his power to sponsor legislation, he can distinguish himself from other conservatives in the crowded 2016 presidential field. That may help him with the party’s coveted evangelical base.

In the process, Cruz can also create headaches for more centrist (and more front-of-the-pack) candidates such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who need to get through the nominating process without having to take stands that could hurt them in a general election.

Underlining the concerns of some party strategists, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, also among the Republican field’s top-polling candidates, recently threw his support behind a constitutional amendment to allow states to ban gay marriage.

Congressional Republican leaders are using megaphones to blast President Barack Obama’s health care law, which also figures in a major case the court will decide by the end of June. By contrast, they’ve been practically silent on gay marriage.

The same goes for Bush and Rubio. It’s a reflection of the party’s desire to downplay a matter on which polls show they are at odds with the public. A Gallup poll in May found that a record 60 percent of Americans support gay marriage.

“The reality is the ground is shifting on this issue because of people getting to know more about the fact that, for the vast majority of people, this is not a choice, this is who they are,” Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican whose son is gay and who supports gay marriage, said in an interview. “Most of the candidates are not talking about it, which is different than it would have been eight years ago.”

On the other side of the debate, Gary Bauer, president of American Values and one of the nation’s most vocal social conservatives, agrees that “the party establishment and some of the donor base is very uncomfortable with these issues.”

“What they need to ponder is the very real chance of demoralization among voters that care about these issues that would suppress voter turnout,” Bauer said.
As a senator, Cruz can introduce legislation on gay marriage, but there are other Republican candidates who are competing for the evangelical vote and who are eager to make an issue of gay marriage.

In May, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal signed a religious freedom executive order. Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, is promising to fight “judicial tyranny” and calling on his fellow candidates to join him.

“If you lack the backbone to reject judicial tyranny and fight for religious liberty, you have no business serving our nation as president of the United States,” Huckabee said in a letter last week to more than 100 conservative leaders and organizations.

Cruz and the others are backed by activists who say the gay marriage debate is a part of a broader assault on religious liberty that will eventually strip them of their ability to openly practice their beliefs.

Religious leaders are concerned the ruling will force Catholic and other religious-based adoption services to give same-sex couples equal preference, Bauer said. “The battle is morphing away from just the question of the definition of marriage,” he said. ‘”That’s going to be a huge battle that is likely to be very divisive.”

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

Cotton, Republicans Struggle To Balance Threat With Defense Cuts

By Heidi Przybyla, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas says the U.S. should go on the offense against terrorists around the world. He also voted to retain deep cuts in defense spending set for later this year.

For many Republicans like Cotton, reconciling those conflicting goals will be among their biggest challenges as House and Senate Republicans release budget proposals next week.

A group of Senate Republican defense hawks led by John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina want to ease across-the-board spending cuts enacted in a 2011 budget agreement. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi of Wyoming made clear this week that he intends to keep those cuts, which were achieved after a hard-fought standoff.

“They’ve got themselves wrapped around the axle,” Steve Bell, a senior director at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington and a former Republican Senate budget staff director. “It’s going to illustrate dramatically at some point the split in the party.”

Enzi and House Budget Chairman Tom Price, a Georgia Republican, plan to release separate budget proposals early next week and begin committee consideration. The goal is to reach a unified plan, with both chambers now under Republican control for the first time in eight years.

The cap on defense spending is to be cut by about $35 billion in the 2016 fiscal year starting Oct. 1, allowing for little growth. The limit was enacted as part of the 2011 Budget Control Act, intended to cut $1.2 trillion in domestic and defense spending through 2021.

Congress voted to ease those reductions for the past two fiscal years, though, and the question is whether lawmakers will do the same for 2016. While some Republicans want more defense spending, Democrats are insisting any defense increases must be matched by higher spending on domestic programs such as education, scientific research and aid to the poor.

“When you pull on the string it all comes undone,” Bell said. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s website says it seeks to encourage lawmakers to overcome political divisions.

Cotton, who served as an Army officer in Iraq and Afghanistan, led 46 other senators in sending an open letter to Iran’s leaders this week suggesting that any deal they make with Obama on limiting nuclear weapons could be revoked after the president leaves office.

Hostilities in Ukraine, the beheadings of Americans in Syria and a bigger U.S. military footprint in Iraq may sway lawmakers to support more defense spending. McCain has repeatedly said he won’t vote for a budget that maintains the scheduled defense cuts.

“Every Republican is highly concerned about military readiness, the fact that we are hollowing out our military,” Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson said at a Bloomberg breakfast Friday with reporters in Washington. “We’re just not ready to meet the challenges we’re going to face.”

Yet some Republicans not only oppose increased funds for domestic programs needed to win Democratic votes, they demand even deeper cuts to offset any relief for the Defense Department.

“It’s very, very important that we preserve the overall spending caps which have been the only success we’ve had in fiscal discipline in a long time around here,” said Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey. In order to pass the House, such an approach will “be required,” Johnson said.

The debate may lead to a new political bind for House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, who last week had to abandon much of his Republican conference and rely on Democratic votes to pass a spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security.

Republicans aligned with the small-government Tea Party wanted to use the Homeland Security bill to block President Barack Obama’s immigration policy. On the budget, they support keeping the 2011 spending limits in place.

White House Budget Director Shaun Donovan said Thursday that Obama won’t accept a budget that locks in the 2011 spending caps in defense and non-defense spending. Obama’s budget proposal in February offered a $38 billion increase for national security programs over current budget caps, as well as $37 billion more for domestic programs.

Some Republicans including Graham are proposing a compromise — a reserve fund in the budget that would allow negotiations over defense spending to be held later. Enzi’s proposal may include such an escape valve, said lawmakers briefed on the plan, including Tennessee Senator Bob Corker.

Corker sought to play down the tensions, noting that a budget is a non-binding policy statement anyway.

“The only way to affect military spending is through changing a law,” Corker said. “That’s a detail a lot of people are missing.”

Democrats are making a case for ending the automatic spending reductions.

“I will do my best, as I think every member in our caucus will do, to end” the spending cuts, said Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who is on the Budget Committee.

Neither party likes the 2011 budget-control law, which lawmakers enacted to force themselves to reduce spending after Obama and Republican leaders couldn’t reach a bargain to rein in the national debt.

The spending cuts were intended to be so unacceptable that, to replace them, Democrats would finally agree to trim entitlement programs such as Social Security and Republicans would accept tax increases they ordinarily oppose.

No such deal came about. Instead, the bipartisan budget agreement in December 2013 used offsetting spending cuts and revenue measures, leaving few remaining areas for action outside of the entitlement-program cuts and tax increases that Democrats and Republicans can’t agree to address.

Cotton, 37, a freshman senator, told CNN that month that the U.S. needs to “get back on offense all around the world” against terrorists, including by sending military troops if necessary. During his previous term in the House, he voted against the 2013 budget deal, saying at the time that it “busts the spending caps that took effect just months ago.”

His spokeswoman, Caroline Rabbitt, said he opposed a spending measure in early 2014 in part because it cut military pensions. She said in an e-mail Thursday that Cotton supports easing the defense cuts before October.

The 2011 Budget Control Act was modeled after an earlier attempt by Congress to force itself to reduce spending, the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget Act.

In the five years the law was in effect, it was frequently skirted as government officials changed economic assumptions to avoid imposing cuts that would be required if the deficit- reduction targets weren’t met.
___
With assistance from Erik Wasson and Roxana Tiron in Washington.

Photo: U.S. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

Senator Ted Cruz Falls In Line Ahead Of Another Shutdown Showdown

By Heidi Przybyla, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Republicans are bringing Sen. Ted Cruz back into the fold as Congress heads for another shutdown showdown.

The Texas Republican and potential 2016 presidential candidate just days earlier criticized his party’s approach of using a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security to force President Barack Obama to renege on his November orders easing deportations.

Yet Cruz, who drove a 2013 confrontation over Obamacare that led to a 16-day shutdown, commanded the floor at a bicameral Republican news conference Thursday meant to demonstrate unity. He blamed Democrats for blocking the bill and, when asked if his party was picking the right legislative vehicle to fight Obama’s orders, Cruz fell into line.

“We should use every constitutional check and balance we have,” said Cruz. “There are a host of constitutional checks and balances, including confirmation power, that we should be using.”

That contrasts with comments he made earlier in the week describing the strategy as a losing one. Cruz had been advocating for a different approach: holding up Obama’s nominations, including U.S. attorney Loretta Lynch to replace Attorney General Eric Holder, until Obama reverses his policy.

The junior senator from Texas has come under criticism within his own party for his role in the 2013 shutdown and is now weighing how to position himself in a potentially crowded field of Republican presidential contenders.

Democrats and Republicans are leaving for a weeklong recess in a standoff over funding the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which must be renewed by Feb. 27. When they return, they’ll have but a few legislative days to bridge their differences.

Instead of heading in that direction, both sides are digging in on their positions, underscored by Cruz’s attendance at the news conference.

Democrats, who have remained united in their opposition to debating the president’s immigration policies as part of a routine funding bill, had pounced on the split between Cruz and his party.

“The finger pointing between House and Senate Republicans that’d been happening behind the scenes for weeks spilled into the open today in a big way,” Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, wrote in a Feb. 10 dispatch. “Meanwhile, Senator Cruz is telling everyone that Senator McConnell is wrong and he was right all along.”

Last week, House Speaker John Boehner chided Cruz and Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama to take the responsibility for rounding up votes to reverse the president’s orders.

Cruz’s entry into the fray is unlikely to change the minds of Democrats, who have prevented Senate leaders three times from even debating the bill. But at least, with Cruz’s enlistment, Republicans can make the case to conservatives that they tried.

Photo: jbouie via Flickr

Republicans Challenging Obama On Immigration Fail In Third Try

By Heidi Przybyla, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans failed for the third time to advance a bill reversing President Barack Obama’s immigration orders as they try to wear down Democratic lawmakers who are unified against it.

The 52-47 vote on Thursday, with 60 required to advance the bill, was a repeat of similar votes held Tuesday and Wednesday. Republicans are trying to demonstrate to conservative lawmakers in the party that they are exhausting efforts to stop Obama’s directives shielding millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. from deportation.

They are also trying to pressure Democrats including West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who has been critical of Obama on immigration, to switch their votes.

“I don’t understand why they’d want to block the Senate from even debating a bill to fund homeland security,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the floor ahead of the vote. “All it requires is a little common sense and a little Democratic courage.”

Republicans are seeking to use a House-passed spending bill for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to force the president to abandon the immigration action he announced in November. The agency would face a shutdown of non-essential operations if Congress doesn’t reach agreement before current funding ends Feb. 27.

Democrats are portraying the measure as an attempt to force unrelated changes to U.S. immigration policy by holding up a bill needed to keep the nation safe from terrorist threats.

“We have these terrorist acts all over the world taking place right now,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. “And we, the United States of America, are in a position where we’re not going to fund homeland security?”

Republicans control the Senate 54-46, and with 60 votes required to advance legislation, they need support from at least six Democrats. Obama has said he’d veto any measure that rolls back his directives.

Senator Dean Heller of Nevada was the only Republican to join Democrats in voting against advancing the measure in all three votes.

The legislation would provide $39.7 billion to keep Homeland Security operating through September.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the chamber, said Wednesday that Republicans will have to revise the bill if Democrats refuse to budge.

Obama announced Nov. 20 that he would temporarily halt deportations for about 5 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. The Homeland Security bill would bar funds to carry out that initiative and would reverse a 2012 directive shielding undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

One potential change Republicans could make to gain support, Cornyn said, is to drop their attack on the 2012 order. Other Republicans are also suggesting the party could revise the bill to target only on Obama’s November orders.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican who has worked with Democrats on legislation, said she’s offering an amendment that would do just that. “We have reached an impasse,” Collins said.

Rep. John Carter of Texas, the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, also said he’d support abandoning all of the immigration-related amendments except the one rolling back Obama’s most recent orders.

The president reiterated his threat to veto such legislation after meeting with the children of undocumented immigrants. He said he’s confident Democrats would have the votes to sustain a veto.

“I would call on members of Congress to think about all the talent that is already in this country, that is already working in many cases, is already making contributions,” Obama said in the Oval Office.

In similar funding battles over the past five years, Congress hasn’t passed major legislation unless it is on the brink of a deadline. That means there may be several more unsuccessful attempts to pass a bill before a final deal is reached before the end of this month.

“I’m sure we will resolve this sometime in the next few weeks,” McConnell said.

With assistance from Kathleen Hunter and Billy House in Washington.

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

Cruz Immigration Crusade Has Republicans Fretting Over Backlash

By Heidi Przybyla, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Senator Ted Cruz of Texas wants to clamp down on illegal immigration, saying it’s a winning issue with many voters.

Some of his fellow Republicans fret that the party could end up losing big in Cruz’s home state.

Cruz and his allies want to roll back President Barack Obama’s November orders easing deportations. The U.S. House this week took the first step to undo Obama’s plan and to start sending home children the president protected in a 2012 order as well.

Lawmakers and strategists from both parties say the campaign could feed an anti-immigrant narrative even in Republican-leaning states including Texas with swelling populations of Hispanics, who tend to vote Democratic.

“The Democrats are betting on Republicans shooting themselves in the foot,” said Hector Barajas, a Republican strategist. “Even for Hispanics who aren’t in fear of being deported, the big question is: ‘Why are they picking on us?'”

Barajas said the effort was reminiscent of former Republican California Gov. Pete Wilson’s support two decades ago for a ballot initiative barring undocumented immigrants from using state-funded social services. The backlash among Hispanics has helped Democrats dominate the state for a generation.

“It could have some devastating effects for Republicans,” said Barajas, who advised Republican Meg Whitman in her losing 2010 gubernatorial campaign in California and says Democrats still use Wilson’s image in political advertising in that state.

Cruz, a 44-year-old freshman whose father was born in Cuba, rejects any suggestion that the campaign could backfire by electrifying Hispanic voters in states like Texas, which has been reliably Republican since the 1980s.

“The Democrats said that before November as well,” he said in an interview. “It proved correct: It did mobilize voters — and we saw a historic tidal wave of an election that was a referendum on executive amnesty.”

Still, Texas’s demography — 38 percent of the state is Hispanic — illustrates the political risks for Republicans. Almost 3 million eligible Hispanic voters didn’t go to the polls in 2012, and both parties need their support.

Some Republican lawmakers say that angering those voters could upend the electoral map. The concern is that Cruz, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, and his backers — who tried last year to defund part of the government to stop Obama’s orders — will drown out the voices of party members who want broad immigration changes.

“More responsible voices need to speak up and try to frame that debate rather than just surrender the field to the shrillest and most obnoxious,” said Texas’s other U.S. senator, John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the chamber. “It’s not representative of the party,” he said referring to some of Cruz’s House allies.

While no one says that Texas, the second-most-populous state, will break for Democrats as quickly as California did after 1994, the immigration debate has the potential to lay the groundwork for future success.

The Latino Victory Project recently brought together grassroots activists for a gathering in Arizona to mark the 20th anniversary of California’s Proposition 187. The group is working to disseminate information about Obama’s orders through phone calls, social media and Spanish-language television.

It also has an ad campaign ready to go for “the right moment” when Republicans ramp up their rhetoric, said Cristobal Alex, the group’s president.

Texas “is the biggest prize,” he said.

The demographic growth, coupled with Republican attacks on immigration, “is the perfect recipe for building political power,” he said.

“We’ve been looking carefully at the Prop 187 springboard effect,” Alex said. “It changed California politics forever.”

Republican leaders, eager to prevent that from happening in other states, aren’t well-positioned to contain members like Cruz.

After 2010, many Republican-run state legislatures redrew congressional districts, making them less racially diverse. That puts less pressure on many Republicans to go along with their national party’s goal of reaching out to Hispanics.

Even as House Speaker John Boehner allowed the vote this week on a sweeping rollback of Obama’s orders, his staff has been working to convince individual members they need to engage more of these voters.

Boehner squeezed through an annual spending bill late last year by promising to use his newly expanded majority to retaliate against Obama’s orders. Cruz will hold Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to that.

Republican congressional leaders leery of an intraparty battle are offering small-government Tea Party lawmakers a largely symbolic vote since Obama would veto it.

Cruz and Republicans including Representative Steve King of Iowa — who once characterized most undocumented immigrants as drug runners with calves the size of cantaloupes — say they see through this strategy. It is, they say, an effort to mollify them before proceeding to pro-immigration priorities like expanding high-skilled worker visas.

Republicans will try to attach a rollback of Obama’s orders to any legislation that moves through Congress, keeping the issue alive, said Representative Louie Gohmert, an outspoken critic of undocumented immigration.

“If we’re not able to stop the president’s amnesty, we can’t possibly move on to anything else,” said Gohmert, who has represented his northeast Texas district for a decade.

It will be no simple task for Democrats to capitalize on the immigration issue in Texas.

Unlike California 20 years ago, Texas has little of the infrastructure to organize Democratic voters, including strong labor unions. And there are leading Republicans from the state — including former President George W. Bush and former Gov. Rick Perry — who have taken softer stances on immigration. In California, Wilson was the dominant voice, making him an easier target for Democrats.

Getting Hispanics to participate in elections is another challenge: Texas has a lower Hispanic voter-turnout rate — 39 percent — compared with the 48 percent national average. And Democrats enjoy a narrower advantage in the socially conservative state than in others. Newly elected Republican Gov. Greg Abbott took 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in November. That compares with the 27 percent that Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney carried nationally in 2012.

Cruz himself says he got 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 2012 election.

“I was unambiguously opposed to amnesty,” he said. “There is a lot of bipartisan agreement among Texans on immigration,” specifically “that we’ve got to get serious about border security,” Cruz said.

Texas is “a higher mountain to climb,” said Frank Sharry, who heads America’s Voice, a pro-immigration policy group. “It’s inevitable, but I’m less optimistic about the short-term timeframes that people predict.”

Still, the potential for Democrats in Texas is vast.

Hispanics represented 28 percent of all eligible Texas voters in 2012. Their share of the electorate will grow to 31 percent by 2016, according to the Center for American Progress, a Washington policy group aligned with Democrats.

A November 2014 poll by Latino Decisions showed that 51 percent of Hispanics consider themselves Democrats, while 18 percent identify as Republicans and 17 percent as independents.

“Is the potential there for Texas to go purple?” said Patrick Oakford, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress. “Absolutely, it’s just a question of getting people out to the polls.”

As in California in the 1990s, much of the Texas Hispanic population is young and has yet to solidify its party preferences.

“You’ve got a lot of those people who are now the middle class of America and still remember that Proposition 187,” Barajas said. “A lot of them are Democrats and a lot of them are Democrats because of Pete Wilson.”

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr