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Boehner Re-Elected As Speaker, But Control Over GOP Majority Precarious

By Lisa Mascaro and Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — John A. Boehner secured a third term as House speaker on Tuesday, overcoming a brazen revolt by GOP conservatives to oust him but renewing questions about his hold over the chamber’s often rambunctious majority.

A total of 24 rank-and-file Republicans voted against Boehner and another voted “present,” making the Ohio Republican the most-challenged speaker candidate by his own party in modern House history and setting the new GOP-controlled Congress off to a rocky start. A similar protest erupted during his last election as speaker two years ago.

The drama punctuated an otherwise ceremonial day on Capitol Hill, where new members of the House and Senate — many with families and children in tow — took the oath of office. Among them will be 58 new members of the House and 13 new senators.

Vice President Joe Biden gaveled the Senate into session as the House convened on the other side of the Capitol building at noon.

After 34 elected and re-elected senators took the oath of office, officially giving Republicans control of the body for the first time since 2007, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), beginning his sixth term, was formally recognized as the new majority leader.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), who surrendered the majority leader title to McConnell, worked from home in D.C. as he recovers from injuries sustained while working out in Nevada last week. Reid’s office said he had suffered a concussion and was advised by doctors to remain at home.

It represented the capstone of McConnell’s long career as a Senate insider. As in the House, the Republican majority in the Senate includes a group of conservatives who could complicate the Kentuckian’s plans, but he assumed the leadership smoothly.

In contrast, the message from the House, in the first votes of the new Congress, was clear: The speaker’s hold over his majority remains precarious.

Boehner’s troubles come as his No. 3 leader, Majority Whip Steve Scalise, is fighting for political survival after having addressed a white supremacist group 12 years ago about his budget plans in his home state of Louisiana.

Scalise, who only recently joined leadership ranks, has apologized and won backing from the GOP leadership team.

But Democrats have been relentless in using the crisis to tie the Republican Party, which is trying to expand its outreach to minority populations, to the group’s leader, the former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest piled on Monday with some unsolicited political advice, saying rank-and-file Republicans will have to decide whether elevating Scalise to leadership is in their best interests.

“Who those elected leaders are says a lot about who the conference is and what their priority and values are,” Earnest said.

Opposition to Boehner has been fueled by internal frustrations and outside pressures, including from tea party groups that believe Boehner is too pragmatic and willing to compromise with the White House.

One Tea Party group said that a vote for Boehner was the same as one for President Barack Obama — a rallying cry usually targeted at Democrats.

“America deserves better,” said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), who is among a band of renegade conservative lawmakers who also opposed Boehner two years ago.

Massie said as many as 50 Republicans have signaled their unrest with the speaker, but he expected fewer to go on the record during the public vote. Boehner’s challenge, he added, has nothing to do with politics, but process. Members want a greater say in bill-making.

Boehner and McConnell have promised an ambitious agenda as they confront Obama with control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in his presidency.

First up in the House are a pair of bills that would dismantle parts of the Affordable Care Act. Repealing the law remains a top GOP priority, even though Obama would likely veto those efforts.

The House was expected to quickly vote Tuesday on a bipartisan bill, which may find favor in the Senate, that would encourage small businesses to hire more veterans by making a tweak in Obama’s health care law.

By Thursday, the House plans to vote on a more substantive measure that would gut a key provision of Obamacare — the requirement that employers offer insurance to employees who work 30 hours a week.

Raising the workplace rule to 40 hours has been supported by a handful of Democrats in the past, but it may not have enough support in the Senate to clear a likely filibuster from Democrats. Last year, the White House said it would veto a similar measure.

More likely to win swift approval in both chambers and land on the president’s desk is legislation to green-light the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline.

The House is expected to pass the Keystone measure Friday, sending it to the Senate as the first order of business next week.

Keystone’s approval would likely present Obama with his first opportunity to sign significant GOP legislation into law — or use his veto pen.

The Senate is likely to dispatch with mostly procedural votes this week, but as part of the ceremonial opening, Republicans in the House plan to continue what has become a newer tradition — a full reading of the Constitution, scheduled for two hours on Friday morning.
___

(Tribune Washington Bureau staff writer Kathleen Hennessey contributed to this report.)

This story has been updated.

Photo: Talk Radio News Service via Flickr

Obama’s Expected Immigration Action Stokes Republican Fury

By Lisa Mascaro and Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Rising Republican hostility toward President Barack Obama’s impending immigration plan is as intense as has ever existed between the White House and the GOP.

House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio says the president’s executive action — expected to be announced Thursday — will “poison the well” for cooperation with the upcoming Republican-controlled Congress. Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky compared it to “waving a red flag in front of a bull.” Tea party conservatives have renewed talk of censuring or impeaching the president.

But the strong reaction by Republican leaders has less to do with opposition to the nuts and bolts of the president’s immigration policy and more to do with fear and anger that the issue will derail the agenda of the new Republican majority before the next Congress even convenes.

Republican leaders who had hoped to focus on corporate tax reform, fast-track trade pacts, repealing the president’s health care law and loosening environmental restrictions on coal are instead being dragged into an immigration skirmish that they’ve tried studiously to avoid for most of the last year.

That’s largely because the question of how to handle the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S. bitterly divides Republicans, and the party has been unable to agree on an alternative to the president’s plan.

To many, stark warnings from Boehner and McConnell sound more like pleas to the president to avoid re-energizing the GOP’s conservative wing, whose leaders are already threatening to link the president’s immigration plan to upcoming budget talks.

Another government shutdown is not what McConnell and Boehner had in mind when their party won control of Congress this month.

In fact, McConnell said flatly a day after the election that another shutdown would not happen. But calls by firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to use “all procedural means necessary” during Congress’ lame-duck session to block the White House’s immigration plans have left leaders scrambling to tame their rebellious ranks.

Republican leaders are increasingly concerned that if Obama follows through, the anti-immigrant fervor in their party will rise to an unappealing crescendo and the rank-and-file’s desire to confront the president will overtake other party priorities.

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) — one of the harshest critics of Obama’s program that defers deportation for immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children — said he canceled plans to return to his district Thursday night as soon as he heard the president would be making an announcement.

Although King said he wanted to see the full details of the president’s plan, he said Republicans should respond by passing a resolution of disapproval of the new policy, censuring the president and cutting off funding to enforce the policy. He did not rule out impeachment.

“I don’t want to go down that path, because we have lived through that and it puts the nation through a lot of drama,” King said. “But it is the president who is initiating these actions.”

GOP leaders’ concerns about getting distracted by immigration are shared by the business community and outside groups that bankrolled the party’s recent electoral success. High hopes that the new Republican Congress would tackle economic and business issues could be dashed if the party were goaded into an immigration fight.

“We’re urging Republicans, whatever happens on immigration, let’s also stay focused,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, which is aligned with the billionaire Koch brothers and spent millions in the midterm campaign supporting Republican candidates for Congress. The group has not taken a position on immigration.

“We just want to make sure this economic agenda is not lost, because there’s an enormous opportunity next year with Republicans who control the Senate and the House to … pass significant legislation,” Phillips said.

Opponents of Obama’s impending executive action want Congress to rescind funds for his immigration programs or use the upcoming government spending bill to block what they see as amnesty for millions of immigrants who would no longer be a priority for deportation.

Some Republican lawmakers want to approve only a series of short-term spending bills, so they can revisit the issue every few months and maintain some leverage over the White House. But GOP leaders worry the tactic will bog down the new Congress in an endless immigration fight and bring back the shutdown politics that badly bruised the party’s image last year.

“It’s always appropriate to use the power of the purse, but it’s important to remember that the president has an important trump card: It’s called the veto pen,” McConnell said Tuesday. “We’re not going to be able to get everything exactly the way we want it, and he’s not going to be able to get everything exactly the way he wants it. That’s why we have compromise.”

The president’s expected announcement Thursday leaves Republican leaders with little time to contain the fallout before the Dec. 11 deadline to approve new funding to keep the government operating.

One solution would be for Republicans to produce their own immigration bill to counter Obama’s approach. That would accomplish two key party goals heading into the 2016 presidential election: help the party reach out to minority voters it needs to win the White House and show Americans the GOP can get Washington working again.

But that is unlikely to happen. Although some lawmakers are quietly working on compromise immigration legislation, there are no immediate plans to bring those proposals forward amid deep differences in the Republican Party. A bipartisan immigration bill passed the Senate last year, but the GOP-controlled House refused to act on it.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), a Boehner ally, accused Obama of intentionally trying to provoke a fight with the new Republican Congress.

“I’m mystified by the political calculation,” he said. “There’s a new Congress coming in. Why would you do this on the eve of Thanksgiving going into the holiday unless you just want to create a political crisis?”

Photo: Talk Radio News Service via Flickr

Some Senate Candidates Seize On Terrorism As Campaign Issue

By Lisa Mascaro and Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Far behind in the polls and in need of a bump, a Republican running for Senate in New Mexico recently turned to the image of the knife-wielding Islamic State militant who beheaded an American journalist, building a campaign advertisement that flashes on the horrific YouTube video.

The online spot, from the campaign of Allen Weh, a decorated Marine who served in Vietnam and later in Iraq, is perhaps the most brazen effort by Republicans to use the threat posed by the militants to win votes. But it is not the only one.

At a time when no single national issue is dominating midterm election campaigns, GOP candidates in several battleground states are seizing on public unease with President Barack Obama’s strategy for containing the terrorist group.

In Colorado and New Hampshire, Democratic senators are being badgered by TV ads showing gun-toting Islamic militants against a soundtrack of Obama’s comments — including his remark in September that “we don’t have a strategy” for the threat.

During debates this past week in North Carolina and Georgia, both key contests for control of the Senate, the U.S. response to the terrorists was the first question of the evening.

“The president has continued to fail and show a policy of peace through weakness,” said Thom Tillis, the Republican speaker of the House in North Carolina who is trying to oust Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, during the debate in the military-heavy state. “This is a policy that needs to be on the ballot in November.”

Tillis, struggling to compete on the local and pocketbook issues of education and teacher pay that have dominated his opponent’s re-election message, is, like other Republicans, eager to shift the campaign’s focus to terrorism. He attacked Hagan for missing key hearings on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

But the incumbent is not shying away from the foreign policy debate. Hagan questioned whether Tillis had any strategy of his own.

“He is waffling,” Hagan said at the debate. “He is spineless on what he would do to take ISIS out,” using an acronym for the militant group.

Republican plans for containing Islamic State are not markedly different from what their Democratic opponents are proposing — and what Obama has already put into action with airstrikes targeting the militants in Iraq and Syria, and U.S. support for regional ground troops.

While Republican candidates freely criticize the White House, they are reluctant to get ahead of the administration. Such a move could be politically risky. It is unclear whether voters would back a major military campaign after more than a decade of war.

That leaves many Senate challengers gravitating to broader themes of foreign policy leadership. Campaign ads aired by Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR)., who served as an Army soldier in both Iraq and Afghanistan, are a case in point.

In some, Cotton simply appears in military fatigues, discussing his military background, without mentioning incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor. He suggests in another that the state needs a “tested” leader for “a world in chaos.”

Analysts cautioned that candidates should not put too much stock in terrorism as a potential game-changer.

“It is taking on some meaning in a couple of these races, but I don’t think it’s going to affect races across the board,” said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

She said the candidates typically have little to distinguish themselves from their opponents on the matter, “so the issue either becomes leadership, as it did in Arkansas, or it becomes asleep-at-the-switch.”

The terrorism message can backfire. Republican Wendy Rogers, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel running for a House seat in Arizona, decided to remove from one of her ads the image of American journalist James Foley, held captive before a knife-wielding Islamic State militant, after Democrats protested.

A spokesman for Rogers said that, as a mother, she was mindful of the Foley family’s mourning of their slain son.

Voters, meanwhile, seem far less preoccupied with terrorism than campaign strategists, and more concerned about the economy.

Just 16 percent of voters rank terrorism as the “most important” issue in the upcoming election, according to a CBS News poll this week. The economy was cited by 34 percent.

Yet worries about Islamic extremism have surged since the appearance of videos showing the beheadings of Americans by Islamic State — with 62 percent of Americans saying they were very concerned, the largest share since 2007, according to a Pew Research poll.

So candidates with few substantive differences are nonetheless raising national security issues on the campaign trail, capitalizing on voter interest and knocking the incumbents off their preferred message.

Republican Scott Brown launched a new ad in New Hampshire this week that touts his service in the National Guard, and asserts that “he knows what it takes to keep America safe.”

“And Jeanne Shaheen? She supports President Obama’s failed foreign policy,” the ad says of the Democratic incumbent.

Shaheen’s campaign was forced to respond, launching an upbeat ad that highlights her work on the Senate Armed Services Committee to fight terrorism.

“We know Jeanne Shaheen: She always works to keep America strong,” it says.

As terrorism nudges other issues aside this election season, it is not just candidates getting thrown off kilter. Groups that intended to push signature concerns find their campaign messages crowded out.

“Our job is made a little more difficult,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said at a media briefing where labor leaders talked about their strategy to assist Democrats by focusing voter attention on the economy. “It took more effort this time to break through.”

AFP Photo

House Votes 273-156 To Arm Syrian Rebels Against Islamic State

By Lisa Mascaro and Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The House on Wednesday approved President Barack Obama’s plan to arm Syrian rebels in the fight against Islamic State militants, giving the administration a much-needed endorsement of its strategy to defeat the extremist group.

But though the Senate was expected to give its approval Thursday, deep personal and political misgivings of lawmakers in both parties exposed more doubt than resolve over the president’s approach.

Republicans and Democrats are skeptical that the proposal to train and arm Syrian opposition forces will work. Training will take months, and the fighters’ battlefield abilities and trustworthiness remain untested.

Some Republican hawks wanted bolder action, but many lawmakers, particularly anti-war Democrats, fear that the administration is moving toward another protracted Mideast war that could ultimately require American ground troops.

Obama reiterated Wednesday that U.S. combat forces would not be deployed, a day after his top military adviser told a Senate panel that ground troops could be necessary in certain circumstances.

Despite the 273-156 House vote by an unusually bipartisan mix of lawmakers, passage came only after several days of heated debate on Capitol Hill. A rare unity emerged from top leaders in both parties who closed ranks to back the president’s strategy, even as they acknowledged it was the best among imperfect options for a war-weary country.

“It is not pleasant. It is not easy. It’s hard,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). “But it really is necessary for the House to approve this.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) expressed frustration with the president’s approach, but said that “we must support this amendment and take this first step towards a comprehensive strategy to combat these brutal terrorists.” Although the House speaker rarely votes, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-OH) backed the president and voted in favor.

The White House welcomed Wednesday’s vote. “Today’s vote is another step closer to having the authorization to train and equip vetted elements of the moderate Syrian opposition so they can defend themselves against, and ultimately push back on, ISIL forces in Syria, while creating the conditions for the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all,” Obama said in a statement, referring to Islamic State by a commonly used acronym. He urged the Senate to pass the bill as well.

The resolution authorizes the arming of moderate Syrian forces who oppose President Bashar Assad and does not approve Obama’s broader strategy of using airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against Islamic State, a Qaida offshoot that has seized large swaths of territory in the two countries and has beheaded three Westerners.

Obama has maintained he doesn’t need further authorization from Congress to bomb Islamic State forces, but he said he wanted a congressional “buy-in” for his strategy to send a message of unity to allies and enemies abroad.

The White House bet that the narrowly crafted resolution on arming Syrian rebels would be easier to pass for lawmakers reluctant to vote on such a sensitive issue during an election campaign.

But passage proved much more difficult than anticipated, spurring a last-minute flurry of White House lobbying and pressure. Both parties held extensive closed-door sessions on Capitol Hill as administration officials presented its case, with the president personally calling some leaders.

The White House initially requested $500 million for the training program, but the funding was left out of the resolution. Money will be initially available from the Pentagon’s existing accounts.

House Republicans bolstered the resolution to require 15-day advance notice to Congress before any training begins, and follow-up reports every 90 days.

The resolution was attached to a must-pass spending bill that is required to fund the government and avert another shutdown by the end of the month. The spending package also cleared the House on Wednesday by a vote of 319-108, including a provision to temporarily renew the authorization for the Export-Import Bank, which some lawmakers have tried to shut down.

Linking the Syria resolution to the funding bill made it more difficult for lawmakers to refuse, but the tactic drew scorn from those who saw it as political gamesmanship on a vote that many see as one of conscience.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-WV) denounced the parliamentary move, and tea party conservative Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), who voted against both measures in the House, called it “immoral” to use a budget bill to pressure members to support the military action.

Congress initially had been reluctant to vote on any authorization of the administration’s military strategy. But when polls showed public opinion supportive of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, lawmakers embraced a more active role.

Both the stopgap spending bill and the authority to arm Syrian rebels are effective only until December, all but guaranteeing another debate on Syria in the postelection lame-duck session of Congress.

Lawmakers from both parties vowed to return from the November election to force a debate — and vote — on whether the president should be able to engage in broader military action.

Although the administration maintains that the United States is conducting airstrikes under previous War Powers Resolution authority granted by Congress in 2001 and 2002, lawmakers increasingly argue that those resolutions do not cover this effort.

“What in the world are we doing?” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) who voted against the resolution. “Congress should be examining all of the solutions to this crisis, not just the military ones.”

AFP Photo

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