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Kirk Nod Gives Lynch Enough Backing To Become Attorney General

By Kathleen Hunter, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Mark Kirk became the fifth Republican senator to publicly back Loretta Lynch’s nomination for attorney general, giving President Barack Obama’s nominee the support of 51 senators that she needs for confirmation.

Kirk spokeswoman Danielle Varallo said Thursday that the Illinois Republican will vote to confirm Lynch. He is seeking re-election next year in Obama’s home state of Illinois, which is heavily Democratic.

Kirk joins three Senate Republicans — Orrin Hatch of Utah, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Jeff Flake of Arizona — who backed Lynch when the Senate Judiciary Committee approved her nomination February 26 on a 12-8 vote. Maine Republican Susan Collins also has announced her support of Lynch.

The backing of five Republicans, along with all 46 lawmakers in the chamber’s Democratic voting bloc, means Lynch has the 51 votes needed for confirmation.

Many of the Senate’s 54 Republicans have questioned Lynch’s independence and criticized her support of the president’s immigration policies.

Lynch, 55, is Obama’s choice to replace Attorney General Eric Holder, who has frequently clashed with Republican lawmakers over issues including a law enforcement operation to crack down on gun smuggling at the U.S.-Mexico border as well as federal challenges to states’ voter-identification laws.

Holder has agreed to remain on the job until his successor is confirmed.

Lynch, the top federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, would be the first black woman to serve as the nation’s top law enforcement official.

Some Republican opponents say Lynch’s answers to questions from senators didn’t assure them that she would be independent enough to stand up to Obama if she disagreed with him.

While praising Lynch’s long legal career, Republicans criticized her for testifying that Obama’s decision to shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation was legal. The Justice Department is seeking to overturn a federal judge’s decision to block part of Obama’s plan.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest and other Democrats have accused Republicans of playing politics with Lynch’s nomination. Earnest said March 16 that delaying a confirmation vote planned for that week was “unconscionable.”

A dispute with Democrats over an anti-abortion measure in a human-trafficking bill prompted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to scrap plans for a vote before Congress left for a two-week recess that ends April 13.

Photo: United States Mission Geneva via Flickr

Iranian Leaders ‘Clearly’ Got Senate Letter Message, Cotton Says

By Kathleen Hunter, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Iranian leaders “clearly have the message now” from a letter that 47 Senate Republicans wrote warning that a future U.S. Congress could reverse any nuclear deal, the chief author said Tuesday.

President Barack Obama views the Republican-led Congress as a “nuisance,” said freshman Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, as he defended the letter following criticism from U.S. allies and lawmakers including some fellow Republicans.

“This president views Congress as an afterthought,” Cotton said at a breakfast with Bloomberg reporters and editors in Washington. “Iran’s leaders clearly have the message now, and I think it was important they got the message.”

Cotton said he “absolutely” stands by the decision to address the March 9 letter to Iran’s leaders. White House officials and Democratic lawmakers have accused Cotton and his colleagues who signed the letter of undermining the administration’s efforts to forge an agreement with Iran in the nuclear talks ahead of a March 24 deadline.

“That’s because they know the offer is indefensible,” Cotton, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former U.S. Army lieutenant, said of the Democratic criticism. He accused the administration of being unable to defend “the very bad deal that they’re about to make.”

At least two Republicans who signed the letter — John McCain of Arizona and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — said last week that they would have approached the matter differently in retrospect.

Johnson said it may have been “a tactical error” to address the letter to Iranian leaders, rather than to Obama’s administration or the American people. McCain, a prominent Republican voice on foreign affairs and national security, said an impending snowstorm in Washington short-circuited more measured consideration of the letter.

The missive has escalated political rancor in Washington surrounding the Iran negotiations, complicating Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker’s efforts to cobble together enough Democratic votes for legislation to require congressional review of any Iran nuclear deal to overcome an Obama veto.

Republicans hold 54 seats in the Senate and ten Democrats have said they’ll support Corker’s measure, though only after the end-of-the-month deadline passes for the current round of negotiations among the U.S., five other world powers and Iran. That’s three votes short of the number needed to override a veto.

Corker was one of seven Senate Republicans who didn’t sign the letter.

The Associated Press, citing a senior U.S. official, reported Monday that Iranian officials have twice in recent days confronted U.S. negotiators, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, over the letter.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Keystone Backers Predict Final Senate Passage By Weekend

By Kathleen Hunter, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate is on track to pass legislation to approve TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL oil pipeline by the end of the week, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

The Keystone legislation stalled in the Senate on Monday as Democrats raised objections about the number of amendments they’ve been allowed to offer.

The bill’s chief sponsor, North Dakota Republican John Hoeven, said Republicans were working with Democrats to develop a list of amendments in hopes of moving the bill forward.

“We’re just trying right now to get votes going on amendments,” Hoeven told reporters at the Capitol. He said it was “definitely realistic” to complete work on the bill this week.

South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the chamber’s third-ranking Republican, said, “I think so,” when asked if he was confident the bill would pass by the end of the week.

Republicans control the Senate 54-46. Because six Democrats have signed on as sponsors of the Keystone bill, there are expected to be enough votes for passage though not the two-thirds margin required to override a veto from President Barack Obama.

Supporters said they think they can still amass the votes for passage, even though they didn’t get the 60 votes needed for two procedural votes Monday. Several of the bill’s backers missed the vote and a few Democratic proponents voted no because of the dispute over amendments.

“It’s now time to get through the remaining amendments and vote up or down on the bill,” McConnell (R-KY) said earlier Tuesday on the Senate floor.

Two weeks ago, enough Democrats joined the majority Republicans to move the bill forward.

Democrats have accused McConnell of backing off his promise to allow both parties a chance to offer wide-ranging amendments to the bill. Republicans have pointed out that the Senate has voted on two dozen amendments — more than were voted on in all of 2014 under Democratic control of the Senate.

“Sen. McConnell promised Democrats an open amendment process and a full-throated debate on the Keystone pipeline, and we are holding him to that promise,” said New York Sen. Charles Schumer, the chamber’s third-ranking Democrat.

Schumer accused McConnell of “trying to muzzle the debate.”

Backers of the pipeline say it will provide jobs and promote U.S. energy independence. Opponents say the project will create few permanent jobs, won’t boost domestic energy security and would pose environmental hazards.

Even Democratic opponents of the measure said they thought it would eventually pass.

Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, said he told McConnell before Monday’s vote that Democrats want to “work together on a bipartisan basis.”

“Let’s do this in a conscientious, good-faith effort to complete this bill, and I think we can achieve it,” Durbin said he told McConnell.

The project would connect to an existing pipeline network, linking oil sands in Alberta, Canada, with U.S. Gulf Coast refineries.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr