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Ted Cruz, Condoms And Bathroom Politics

By Niels Lesniewski, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Ted Cruz was in a groove in Iowa Monday, weighing in on issues that underscore his efforts to appeal to socially conservative voters in the nation’s first caucus state.

The Texas Republican did so by blasting the Department of Education for allowing a transgender student to use a girl’s locker room — and even weighed in on the availability of prophylactics in America, soundbites that could have been lead news in their own right on most any other day.

But it was Cruz’s response to a question about access to contraceptives that generated perhaps the most buzz.

“Last I checked, we don’t have a rubber shortage in America,” Cruz told a crowd in Bettendorf, Iowa, as CNN and other outlets reported. “When I was in college we had a machine in the bathroom; you put 50 cents in and voila!”

Cruz argued that Democrats have conflated Republican opposition to abortion rights with opposition to contraception. “Now listen, I have been a conservative my entire life. I have never met anybody, any conservative who wants to ban contraceptives,” Cruz said.

Democrats counter that GOP-backed legislation could inhibit access to some forms of contraception.

“His insistence that condoms are a substitute for the contraception many women need to prevent unintended pregnancies, and for other health reasons, shows he hasn’t got a clue when it comes to women’s health,” said Kaylie Hanson, the Democratic National Committee’s director of women’s media. “This is no laughing matter for millions of women who deserve access to the very health care that could be threatened if he were president, including survivors of rape and incest.”

But for more conservative voters, Cruz’s underlying point could very well resonate above the rhetoric. And the same might prove true of his criticism of a Department of Education ruling that a school district in Illinois ran afoul of Title IX in not allowing a transgender student to use a women’s locker room.

In response to an inquiry from Roll Call, the Cruz campaign said the senator was referring to a Nov. 2 administrative ruling by the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights.

“The District has honored Student A’s request to be treated as female in all respects except her request to be provided access to the girls’ locker rooms at the School,” the statement of facts in that matter said, as outlined in a letter from an Education Department office in Chicago to Township High School Superintendent Daniel Cates.

“(G)iven Student A’s stated intention to change privately, the District could afford equal access to its locker rooms for all its students if it installed and maintained privacy curtains in its locker rooms in sufficient number to be reasonably available for any student who wants privacy,” the letter said. “Here the totality of the circumstances weighs in favor of the District granting student A equal access to the girls’ locker rooms, while protecting the privacy of its students.”

Cruz was having none of that. “Look, my 5-year-old daughter Catherine — she understands the difference between boys and girls. Now, if a local school board tried that, parents in Iowa would throw them out of office in a heartbeat,” Cruz said.

Cruz made the argument in favor of local control of education, including when it comes to decisions about gender identity of student-athletes.

“It’d be real simple if a local school board said, ‘You know what, your little daughter’s got to shower with little boys in junior high,’ you wouldn’t sit still for a minute,” Cruz told the Iowa town hall audience.

In response to the department’s letter, the district said it would continue to seek a solution to the locker-room issue but warned against using it as a wedge issue.

“We celebrate and honor differences among all students and we condemn any vitriolic messages that disparage transgender identity or transgender students in any way. We believe that this particular moment can be one of unification as we strive to create environments that ensure sensitivity, inclusiveness and dignity for ALL students,” the district said in a statement.

©2015 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz speaks at the the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, September 19, 2015. REUTERS/Brian C. Frank

 

2016 Prospects Encouraged To Do The ‘Full Grassley’ In Iowa

By Niels Lesniewski, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

Sen. Joni Ernst’s motorcycle ride and barbecue got most of the attention last weekend as Republican presidential candidates descended on Iowa, but the state’s senior senator spent plenty of time with the presidential prospects as well.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley isn’t expected to have any trouble winning a seventh term, but he’s taking nothing for granted. He told Roll Call last week he anticipates making appearances with other candidates and said there would be more fundraisers for his own political efforts.

Grassley told reporters in Iowa over the weekend he would encourage presidential prospects to attempt what he called the “full Grassley” — a reference to his annual tour of each of the 99 counties in his home state.

“Senator Grassley really appreciates the assistance he is receiving from the presidential candidates and all of the events have been successful,” Grassley’s longtime general consultant and strategist, John Maxwell, said in an email this week.

Maxwell said Grassley was interested in hosting events with each of the dozen-plus prospects who are expected to get into the race, with the expectation Iowa will be of interest well beyond the 2016 caucuses as a general-election battleground.

Maxwell noted that the only time in the past five presidential cycles that the GOP carried Iowa in a presidential contest came in 2004, when Grassley also appeared on the ballot. Grassley’s race is considered Safe Republican by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call.

Grassley has not held an event of a scale similar to Ernst’s “Roast and Ride,” which some have compared to the annual steak fry thrown by Sen. Tom Harkin, who has since resigned from the Senate. But Grassley has welcomed all presidential prospects to join him at the Iowa State Fair and at smaller events, such as the fundraiser he held with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on June 6.”We welcome the opportunity to be first in the nation. We want to be first in the nation,” Grassley said at a media availability coinciding with the fundraiser with Walker, who had earlier ridden with Ernst. “We want all candidates to feel welcome here. So, it isn’t only because he’s been a good governor that I would want him to be here campaigning. I think that this is the one state where it doesn’t matter whether you’ve hundreds of millions of dollars to run for president of the United States, or very little,” Grassley said.

“I want a strong party in here Iowa … not just should I be a candidate and ultimately be the nominee, but I want to make sure that Sen. Grassley and the great members of Congress are sent back, not just for Iowa’s sake but for the nation’s sake,” said Walker, who is expected to formally enter the presidential contest sometime after Wisconsin wraps up work on its state budget.

Grassley has said that his home state’s key role in the presidential nominating process does have fundraising benefits, and Republicans would seem well-served to appear with the longtime lawmaker. Grassley’s among the most popular and well-connected figures in the state and does more than fundraising, Maxwell said.

“For example he has a long history of accompanying and introducing candidates around the Iowa State Fair. He and the candidates have great fun doing that and it is an experience the visitors never forget,” Maxwell told CQ Roll Call. “These activities give Iowans the opportunity to learn about the candidates and in turn allows the candidates to learn about Iowa, its people and priorities. We have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation and believe our experience can help the whole country.”

In addition to the warm words for each other, Grassley and Walker praised Sen. Ron Johnson, the first-term Republican senator from Wisconsin who faces one of the most difficult re-election contests in 2016, with an expected rematch against Democrat Russ Feingold, who Johnson ousted in 2010.

Walker pointed to the contrast between Johnson and Feingold, while Grassley pointed to Johnson’s committee chairmanship, making an argument about his clout.

“He’s chairman of one of the most important committees in the United States Senate, the committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. It’s not only homeland security. That part of it is obviously very important, particularly in the time of terrorism, but the other aspect of it, it’s the committee that does the most investigations of any committee in the Congress of the United States.”

(c)2015 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Appealing To Hawks, Lindsey Graham Jumps Into The 2016 Presidential Ring

By Niels Lesniewski, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

Just hours after Sen. Rand Paul claimed victory in his quest to rein in the National Security Agency, the leader of what the Kentucky Republican termed the “eye-roll caucus” threw his own hat into the 2016 presidential ring.

Sen. Lindsey Graham formally launched his presidential bid with a predictably foreign policy-heavy speech in his hometown of Central, South Carolina, where he grew up in a tiny space at his parents’ bar room and pool hall.

Graham’s most high-profile backer, fellow Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, on Sunday said that Paul “would be the worst candidate that we could put forward, not just on the Patriot Act but on his views on national security.”

Viewed a serious long shot, Graham has insisted that he wouldn’t jump in if he did not see a path toward the nomination, and it’s clear that the national security hawk is hoping that his worldview will have a place in Iowa and New Hampshire, setting him up to have an opportunity to win his home Palmetto State.

While avoiding direct swipes at other senators who consider themselves would-be presidents, Graham conceded that the more libertarian-leaning voters are not his demographic.

“Those who believe we can disengage from the world at large and stay safe by leading from behind, vote for someone else. I’m not your man,” Graham said. “Those who believe the best way to defend ourselves is to lead the world, to make history rather than be overwhelmed by it, I ask for your support.”

Graham, a military lawyer in addition to senator who just retired from the Air Force Reserve, has been known in the Senate for his outspokenness in favor of U.S. military intervention and engagement. He’s recently gone as far as to say that he wouldn’t have qualms about using unmanned aircraft to kill American citizens tied to terrorism.

He warned of the risk of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East to Israel. He talked of the threat posed by China, where the government’s been building islands in disputed waters, and of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Ukraine.

“If I’m president of the United States and you’re thinking about joining al-Qaida or ISIL, I’m not gonna call a judge. I’m gonna call a drone and we will kill you,” Graham said at the Republican Party of Iowa’s Lincoln Day dinner in March, already sounding like a presidential candidate.

Graham said that his foreign policy experience would trump everyone else in the field.

“That includes you, Hillary,” he quipped, in a nod to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the clear Democratic front runner.

“The next president must be an informed and decisive commander in chief, ready immediately to address these threats. We’ve learned over the past six years that speeches alone won’t make us safer. Superior power and resolve will,” Graham said Monday. “I’m running for president because I am ready to be commander in chief on day one.”

Graham also did not mince words about domestic challenges pertaining to the federal budget. He’s been one of the Republicans most vocal about needing to find a way to overturn sequestration and deal with long-term issues with entitlement programs.

“We’re living longer and fewer workers are supporting more retirees. That’s unsustainable. Everybody knows it. Not everybody admits it,” Graham said. “We have to fix entitlement programs to make sure people who need the benefits the most receive them. That’s going to require determined presidential leadership.”

Noting the death of his own parents at a young age, Graham said he would take tough steps to support Social Security and Medicare, repeating a theme from his early travels around the country _ as if preparing to hit the road in his own version of McCain’s old “Straight Talk Express.”

Graham joins Paul, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas among Republican senators seeking the presidential nomination. Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont is running on the Democratic side.

(c)2015 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Screenshot: YouTube/AP

New Front Opens In ‘Fast-Track’ Trade Fight

By Niels Lesniewski, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — There’s no shortage of liberal opposition to President Barack Obama on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but a more serious threat to the administration’s pro-trade alliance with Republicans might come from those who want to tackle the perpetually thorny issue of currency manipulation.

Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) intends to bring an amendment to the floor as part of the “fast-track” debate that would make it a “principal negotiating objective” under TPA to create enforceable rules to combat unfair currency practices. It was voted down at the committee level, 11-15.

As a former U.S. trade representative under President George W. Bush, the Ohio Republican is among the Senate’s most experienced voices on trade policy, and he has consistently backed free trade. But while his stand is to be expected of a senator representing a large manufacturing state, it has put him at odds with his GOP allies on many other issues, as well as with the Obama Treasury Department.

Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, in an April 21 letter to Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT), warned that including such language in the bill to revive Trade Promotion Authority would be problematic to the Asia-Pacific free trade agreement known as the TPP.

“We have a serious concern that in any trade negotiation other countries would insist that an enforceable currency provision be designed so it could be used to challenge legitimate U.S. monetary policy, an outcome we would find unacceptable. Seeking enforceable currency provisions would likely derail the conclusion of the TPP given the deep reservations held by our trading partners,” Lew wrote. “As such, any amendment to TPA legislation requiring that the administration only seek enforceable currency provisions as a principal negotiating objective would undermine our ability to successfully conclude a TPP negotiation.”

Responding to critics at the markup, Portman has argued stronger currency protections are essential.

“This is not about derailing anything or making it harder to pass anything, it’s about how to make it easier. It’s about how to be able to say with a straight face to the people who we’re hired by, ‘This is going to be good for you, for your families, for your ability to get ahead in life,'” Portman said.

And Portman’s many allies include Senator Charles E. Schumer, the powerful New York Democrat.

Schumer, who appears a lock to become the Democrats’ next party leader in the Senate, was among the bipartisan supporters of Portman’s amendment, which could resurface on the floor as early as next week. He helped lead past efforts to crack down on currency actions by China, including a 2011 effort that received 63 “yes” votes.

“Here, I would just argue to my colleagues that we have to change the way we do trade agreements. I believe that we should do trade agreements, and I certainly believe in the administration’s goal of weaning these nations away from China and putting them more in…our economic world,” Schumer said. “That’s a very appealing rationale, but it can’t come at the expense of doing things that are so untoward and so harmful to American workers.”

Schumer last week at the Finance Committee markup won approval, 18-8, of an amendment to block the Commerce Department from avoiding currency manipulation cases. While Schumer’s offering came on a sidecar to the main TPA legislation, Hatch nonetheless said Schumer was able to “smother” him on the currency issue.

Schumer has long been a leader of a bipartisan group championing legislation to target currency manipulation, with particularly biting criticism of China, and he might be expected to throw significant weight behind efforts to force the administration’s hand in this case.

Obama has been increasingly vocal in responding to fellow Democrats critical of his trade agenda, including during an MSNBC appearance, and there’s expected to be a full push against currency language or anything else that could hamstring trade deal efforts.

In a weekend letter, Democratic Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts responded by pushing back against Obama calling some critiques “dishonest.” But that wasn’t their only message for the president.

“Fast track, as currently written, would preclude Congress from amending or filibustering any trade agreement to this Congress or any future Congress — potentially through 2021. If passed, this legislation would grease the skids for approval of any additional trade agreements that might be advanced through the next two presidencies,” Brown and Warren wrote. “While we hope that future presidents and future Congresses share our values, no one knows who will be using this authority once you leave office.”

The president used his weekly address to discuss the issue.

“If I didn’t think this was the right thing to do for working families, I wouldn’t be fighting for it. We’ve spent the past six years trying to rescue the economy, retool the auto industry, and revitalize American manufacturing. And if there were ever an agreement that undercut that progress, or hurt those workers, I wouldn’t sign it,” Obama said. “My entire presidency is about helping working families recover from recession and rebuild for the future.”

Photo: NASA HQ Photo via Flickr

Senate Turns To Immigration Amid Return Of Shutdown Rhetoric

By Niels Lesniewski, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — As Senate Democrats praised the GOP majority for a new era of openness, they were already preparing for an abrupt turn when the chamber’s attention focuses on immigration.

“What we have seen over the last several weeks is the Senate I remember, the Senate I was elected to, the Senate where there was active debate, deliberation, amendments,” Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said on the Senate floor. “For some members, it is a new experience. I hope in our role as the minority we can work with the senators with a feeling of mutual respect to achieve at least debate on the floor, if not some significant legislation.”

The Illinois Democrat, who has played the role of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s foil on the floor in the absence of Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), expanded on that point in a conversation with reporters. He said that other than one “Thursday night massacre” — an evening session that had Democrats crying foul about debate time — the process had worked well.

“It’s no fun being in the minority, and I hope it ends soon, but as long as we’re in the minority, I think we should try to be constructive,” Durbin said, adding that during the pipeline debate, Democrats “didn’t use the tactics that had been institutionalized under the Republican minority.”

One of the GOP’s favorite chess moves from its time in the minority is expected to return Tuesday afternoon, however. Democrats are planning to block proceeding to a House-passed Homeland Security appropriations bill that would also negate President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration.

It’s a turnabout from a few months ago, when Democrats were in charge and railed against Republicans whenever they would vote to block debate on a bill.

“Our goal is to keep the Democrats united, and make it clear to Sen. McConnell and the Senate Republicans that this House approach is unacceptable,” Durbin said on a Jan. 30 conference call, pointing to support from Democrats for a clean Homeland Security funding bill from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH).

“The Republicans are more frightened by DREAMers than they are by ISIS,” Durbin said in a reference to children brought here illegally by their parents. “They are not concerned about whether or not the Department of Homeland Security is funded.”

The talking point is a close cousin of one used on Jan. 29 by the No. 3 Democratic leader, Charles E. Schumer of New York.

“It seems our Republican colleagues are willing to shut down the government despite the fact that we have such security needs here in this country,” Schumer said. “They dislike DREAMers more than they dislike ISIS, and it’s just unbelievable.”

But the decision by Senate Democrats to filibuster taking up the House bill could leave them more exposed to criticism that they would be responsible if DHS funding dries up at the end of February, leaving Border Patrol agents and many others at the department wondering when they will get their paychecks.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), the new chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee that oversees immigration, offered a window into that line of attack last week on the Senate floor.

“The Democrats are saying we’re not even going to go to this bill that would fund homeland security?” Sessions asked, highlighting a CQ Roll Call report from Jan. 29. “Sen. McConnell is saying you can have your relevant amendments, and if you don’t like the language the House put in that says the money can only go to lawful activities, you can offer an amendment to take it out, but if you don’t have the votes, you lose. That’s the way the system should work.”

McConnell made a brief appearance on the floor on Jan. 30 that included setting the procedural gears in motion for the Tuesday afternoon test vote, saying he saw “no reason” for his Democratic counterparts to stop the process dead in its tracks.

“It’s a debate that will challenge our colleagues on the other side with a simple proposition: Do they think presidents, of either party, should have the power to simply ignore laws they don’t like?” McConnell asked. “Will our Democrat colleagues work with us to defend key democratic ideals like separation of powers and the rule of law, or will they stand tall for the idea that partisan exercises of raw power are good things?”

The Democratic caucus proved its power as a minority recently, when enough Democrats voted to turn back McConnell’s bid to limit debate on the pipeline legislation, a move they thought was premature. But after a slew of additional amendments, the bill reached its inevitable conclusion, having more than 60 supporters.

The dynamic is different with immigration, because, as written, the underlying bill doesn’t have the votes to break a filibuster. And opponents of the bill got new ammunition on Jan. 29, even setting aside complaints about the effect on recipients of deferred action, with the Congressional Budget Office reporting that the bill’s immigration provisions would increase the deficit.

A bid to move around the immigration standoff would face no shortage of opposition from conservatives such as Sen. Ted Cruz, though.

“My view is that Republicans need to honor the commitments we made to the voters to stop President Obama’s illegal and unconstitutional amnesty,” the Texas Republican told CQ Roll Call. “For several months now, I’ve called for us to every constitutional check and balance we have to rein in the president’s illegal action.”

While Cruz was focused on the confirmation process for attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch during that brief interview, he did add that the GOP “should use the power of the purse, the most potent authority that Congress has.”

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Senator Presses NFL On Domestic Violence Ahead Of Super Bowl

By Niels Lesniewski, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

Sen. Richard Blumenthal isn’t convinced the National Football League is doing everything possible to address domestic violence.

The Connecticut Democrat is particularly skeptical of the way the NFL plans to allocate $25 million over five years to back groups that fight domestic violence. Some of that money will come in the form of “promotional support” to entities such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline, according to a letter to Blumenthal and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) from Commissioner Roger Goodell.

Aside from the dollar value seeming small compared to the NFL’s multibillion-dollar revenues, Blumenthal sounds dubious of the promotional elements, and he fired off a response letter to Goodell on Friday.

“Even at the current level of commitment, when it comes to clear terms for timing and action, the NFL has hedged and dodged. The letter implies that some of the $25 million would be used for promotional support, which may include public service announcements,” Blumenthal said. “These supposed ‘public service’ ads may also be self-serving — promoting the NFL’s public image as much as raising awareness. Insofar as they raise public awareness, they are likely to substantially increase call volume to the hotline as well as requests for service without actually bolstering resources for local service providers that struggle every day to help survivors rebuild their lives.”

There is a significant additional commitment for public service announcements from the League, Goodell wrote in his letter.

“During the past regular season, the NFL donated its institutional media time during game broadcasts to run PSAs featuring celebrities, as well as current and former NFL players, that were produced in conjunction with the advocacy group NO MORE,” Goodell wrote, valuing the commitment at about $50 million, running through the Super Bowl.

Blumenthal’s response also highlights the potential for a legislative response.

“Regardless of financial commitment, the NFL so far has not articulated how it will ensure that its athletes are genuinely good role models to fans – a step that only the NFL can take towards truly shifting the culture,” he wrote. “Taken in totality, I believe that the NFL’s handling of its response to public outcry over the league’s role in domestic violence is a clear indication of why additional oversight of professional sports leagues is necessary. I plan to reintroduce the SPORTS Act to make sure that Congress and the public have the ability to periodically and formally review the appropriateness of the antitrust exemptions.”

AFP Photo

Schumer: Health Care Reform Was ‘Wrong Problem’ For Democrats To Focus On

By Niels Lesniewski, CQ Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Charles E. Schumer says Democrats need to have a realistic agenda for demonstrating the importance of government to middle class voters, citing a rather unlikely subject as detracting from that message: health care.

“The policy should be simple and easily explained  — can it be grasped almost intuitively as something that will help middle-class families?” Schumer said. “Democratic priorities should be achievable. Yes — they must be easy to message, but they have to be a lot more than messaging bills.”

In recent years, Democrats have held no shortage of such votes in the Senate, on proposals they have no expectation of getting the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural hurdles, in part because of persistent Republican opposition.

The messaging chief for Senate Democrats also told an audience at the National Press Club that it was a mistake for Democrats on Capitol Hill and in the White House to prioritize the overhaul of the health care system the way they did when they controlled both chambers back in 2009 and 2010.

“After passing the stimulus, Democrats should have continued to propose middle-class-oriented programs and built on the partial success of the stimulus, but unfortunately Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them. We took their mandate and put all of our focus on the wrong problem — health care reform,” Schumer said. “The plight of uninsured Americans and the hardships caused by unfair insurance company practices certainly needed to be addressed. But it wasn’t the change we were hired to make.”

Schumer said that Democrats should have tackled health care eventually, but making the move at the time resulted in a change of focus away from the middle class, and those more likely to be in the electorate.

“Our health care system was riddled with unfairness and inefficiency. It was a problem desperately in need of fixing. But we would have been better able to address it if Democrats had first proposed and passed bold programs aimed at a broader swath of the middle class,” he said in reflecting on the first years of President Barack Obama’s administration.

Schumer said he had expressed his concerns about moving full steam ahead on health care at that time. Still, he attributed the 2014 losses to other factors that made the Republican message of smaller government more appealing that he contended it really is.

“As 2014 began, the parties were in stalemate. But, when government failed to deliver on a string of non-economic issues — the roll out of Obamacare exchanges, the mishandling of the surge in border crossers, ineptitude at the VA, the initial handling of the Ebola threat, people lost faith in the government’s ability to work, and they blamed the incumbent governing party, the Democrats, creating a Republican wave.”

“In order to win in 2016, Democrats must embrace government, not run away from it,” Schumer said.

While warning against being Luddites, he said that on issues like globalization and technology, Democrats will need to do more for the middle class.

“People know in their hearts that when big, powerful, private-sector forces degrade their lifestyle, only government can protect them,” Schumer said.

There’s one fissure between many Democrats on Capitol Hill and the White House — trade policy. While Schumer steered away from specifics in his speech, Senate Democrats have long had less of an appetite for proposals like Trade Promotion Authority (Fast Track) and trade agreements generally than has Obama.

Schumer’s speech at the Press Club, which came during the slow Thanksgiving week on Capitol Hill, is the first of three the New York Democrat plans to give about the party’s agenda.

Photo: Talk Radio News Service via Flickr

Republicans Push For More Iran Sanctions As Talks Are Extended

By Niels Lesniewski, CQ Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Monday’s seven-month extension of talks about the Iranian nuclear program makes it very likely the Senate will vote on strengthening sanctions against Iran in the first part of 2015.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican who will be majority leader next year, signaled that just two days before Election Day.

“I think what we ought to do if we can’t get an acceptable agreement with the Iranians is tighten the sanctions, and in fact we had a bill in the Senate to do that, which the current majority leader wouldn’t allow a vote on,” McConnell told reporters in Kentucky at the time. “Not to stop the talks, but to say at the end of the talks, if there’s no good outcome, then the Iranians would get tougher sanctions.”

The Republican Senate trio of Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona echoed that sentiment in a statement Monday.

“We have supported the economic sanctions, passed by Congress and signed into law by the president, in addition to sanctions placed on Iran by the international community. These sanctions have had a negative impact on the Iranian economy and are one of the chief reasons the Iranians are now at the negotiating table. However, we believe this latest extension of talks should be coupled with increased sanctions and a requirement that any final deal between Iran and the United States be sent to Congress for approval,” the senators said. “Every Member of Congress should have the opportunity to review the final deal and vote on this major foreign policy decision.”

The Obama administration has long opposed the adoption of additional conditional sanctions during the talks, however.

“We continue to believe that adding on sanctions while negotiations are ongoing would be counterproductive, and the reason for that is pretty simple. It’s important for people to understand how the sanctions regime works,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said, before lauding the work of Congress on existing sanctions. “The effect of that sanctions regime was multiplied because of the diplomatic work that the administration did to get other countries around the world to abide by that regime.

“The concern that we have is that layering on additional sanctions could leave some of our partners with the impression that the sanctions regime is more punitive in nature than anything else,” Earnest said. “That could cause some cracks in that international coordination to appear.”

Speaking to reporters at the talks in Vienna, Secretary of State John Kerry said the extension came along with it a “very specific goal of finishing the political agreement within four months and with the understanding that we will go to work immediately, meet again very shortly, and if we can do it sooner we want to do it sooner.”

Kerry said the P5 plus 1 parties and Iran would assess the situation if four months pass without a path forward on the political situation.

Senators on both sides of the aisle expressed the view that an extension would be preferable to reaching a bad agreement.

“This extension demonstrates the international community’s strong desire to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. We and our allies will be more secure with such a comprehensive agreement in hand,” said retiring Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI).

“Since the beginning, I have been concerned about a series of rolling extensions becoming the norm and reducing our leverage. However, I would rather the administration continue to negotiate than agree to a bad deal that would only create more instability in the region and around the world,” said Bob Corker. “With so much riding on these talks for the security of our nation and that of the region, Congress must have the opportunity to weigh in before implementation of any final agreement and begin preparing alternatives, including tougher sanctions, should negotiations fail.”

The Republican from Tennessee is in line to take the gavel of the Foreign Relations Committee in the next Congress. He’s previously expressed interest inmoving legislation that would require Congress to get a vote on any final agreement between the P5 plus 1 states and Iran.

AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski

Rand Paul Wants Senate Vote On Declaring War On ISIS

By Niels Lesniewski, CQ Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Rand Paul has upped the ante in the debate over the role of Congress in the fight against the Islamic State.

The Kentucky Republican announced Monday he would be introducing a resolution to formally declare war against the terrorist group in Syria and Iraq, setting up the possibility of a contentious vote as part of a potential use of force authorization debate next year.

“How and when this is considered is something Senator Paul will discuss with his colleagues and with the Majority Leader,” Doug Stafford, a senior adviser to Paul, said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. “He believes it deserves a vote and that Congress needs to act sooner rather than later to reclaim its constitutional authority.”

Paul’s joint resolution would provide for the first declared war since World War II.

Of course, it is Paul’s senior Kentucky colleague, Sen. Mitch McConnell, who will assume the title of majority leader next year. McConnell has also pledged a more open Senate chamber in the new Congress, meaning it is more likely such a vote could be required as part of any force debate.

“When Congress comes back into session in December, I will introduce a resolution to declare war against ISIS. I believe the President must come to Congress to begin a war and that Congress has a duty to act,” Paul said in a statement. “Right now, this war is illegal until Congress acts pursuant to the Constitution and authorizes it.”

The New York Times first reported on the resolution Sunday evening, which would not only formally declare war against the Islamic State but also wind down authorities under the authorizations for use of military force in Afghanistan and Iraq that remain in effect from the George W. Bush administration. The war declaration itself would have a one-year sunset, something likely to be opposed by more hawkish lawmakers.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Cruz Pushes Short-Term Government Funding, Says Obama Is ‘Not A Monarch’

By Niels Lesniewski, CQ Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Ted Cruz doesn’t know if his effort to push off the debate on funding the government into next year will prove successful, but the Texas Republican is sure making an effort.

“Time will tell,” Cruz said when asked if he thought momentum was building behind using a short-term stopgap spending measure next month. “I think a long-term omnibus or CR makes no sense. It hands over the decision-making authority of Congress to the president. I think what makes sense is a simple short-term CR to get out of the lame duck and into early next year.”

Cruz said the Republican wave was a referendum on the expected executive actions on immigration policy by President Barack Obama.

“We’ll have a new Congress that was just elected in November to take up the issues of the day, and in particular, to stand strong and united against the president unilaterally and illegally trying to extend amnesty to millions who came here illegally,” he said.

“Unfortunately, it appears the president is angry and defiant towards the voters. It is my hope he will reconsider, and not begin this coming year by declaring war on the voters, rather that he will demonstrate fidelity to law and to the Constitution,” Cruz said.

“The president is not a monarch. He does not get to decree my way or the highway, and if the Congress doesn’t give me everything I want, I will impose it by fiat, Cruz said. “That’s not the way the Constitution works.”

The strategy of using a continuing resolution only funding the government’s operations into the early part of the new calendar year has been widely panned by appropriators on both sides of the aisle, who are eager to get to work on the fiscal 2016 measures with Republicans in control on both sides of the Rotunda.

In an opinion piece for Roll Call, House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) wrote Monday about the effort to bring about a return to normalcy.

“The day-to-day work of the appropriations process isn’t always headline-grabbing, but it is essential to the basic functioning of our government. It is the head-down, nose-to-the-grindstone legislation that Congress can and should enact, but that has been stymied in the past few years by internal political battles, and, frankly, a Senate that largely refused to participate in the process,” Rogers wrote. “However, to get back to this regular order in the new Congress, we have to first clear the decks on the leftover, current-year appropriations work. We are now months behind in completing these annual bills, and the current temporary measure keeping the lights on in our government will expire on Dec. 11.”

Separately, Rogers has offered up the possibility of rescinding funding for implementing any potential executive actions on immigration after the fact. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) told Univision that a formal announcement of executive action by Obama could happen “as soon as this week.”

Democrats on Capitol Hill, as well as the White House, have been pointing to previous executive actions and the use of discretion by executive departments when it comes to immigration enforcement.

“I don’t think it’s fair for me to dictate what the president should do. But I do believe that he should do everything he can to complement the law,” Reid told Univision. “Remember, the thing that I’m so concerned about is all of this talk of, ‘Why do you do this? It’s unconstitutional. Why would he do this?’ We can go back to Dwight Eisenhower, Republican President of the United States. Every President since Dwight Eisenhower made things get done on immigration by executive order. Ronald Reagan, Bush and Bush, so why are they screaming now? Republican Presidents have done it since Eisenhower.”

Cruz was speaking with reporters outside a news conference featuring conservative opponents of the legislation known as the Marketplace Fairness Act, which would allow states and localities to collect sales taxes for Internet retail purchases from outside their home jurisdictions. The office of Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH) has already made clear the House won’t act on the measure this year, but for opponents, concerns linger that Reid might seek to include it in some end-of-the-year legislation.

“I am encouraged by the speaker’s public commitment not to allow the Internet sales tax to come up for a vote, and this press conference is simply to build the coalition to hold that line,” Cruz said. “I’m encouraged to see a broader and broader coalition coming together to keep the Internet free of crushing sales taxes.”

Internet sales taxes are already charged on sales when companies have operations in the state the sales are levied. So companies like Best Buy and Walmart typically collect sales tax everywhere. Even when companies do not levy the sales tax, customers usually still owe the tax on online purchases but few pay it.

Photo: jbouie via Flickr

Obama Veto Pen Could Soon Get A Workout

By Niels Lesniewski, CQ Roll Call (MCT)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama might want to find some veto pens. A lot of them. After setting a modern record for fewest vetoes thanks to a Democratic Senate — just two early on in his presidency — Republicans could soon be sending him reams of legislative cannon fodder.

While conventional wisdom suggests relatively few controversial bills would head to the president’s desk, because after all, Republicans will need at least six senators who caucus with the Democrats to beat back filibusters — Republicans can bypass filibusters in multiple ways if Democrats try to gum up the works.

Republicans have already talked about using the budget reconciliation rules to bypass filibusters so they can put spending and tax bills on the president’s desk with their priorities — including potentially an attempt to gut much of Obamacare.

They also plan to use another power to strike at the heart of Obama’s pen-and-phone agenda. Under the Congressional Review Act, the House and Senate can vote to block recently enacted regulations, and such votes cannot be filibustered.

Back in 2011, Senate Republicans forced a vote on a resolution to block the Federal Communications Commission’s rules on “net neutrality.” Then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) offered the disapproval resolution, which Democrats rebuffed, 46-52. Should the FCC move ahead in the coming year on rules that are in line with what Obama and the White House outlined Monday, Republicans could have the votes to send a disapproval resolution to the president’s desk.

That’s after Republicans from all corners panned Obama’s announcement Monday that he supported viewing consumer broadband as a utility and encouraged FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to ensure net neutrality.

“The president’s call for the FCC to use Title II to create new net neutrality restrictions would turn the Internet into a government-regulated utility and stifle our nation’s dynamic and robust Internet sector with rules written nearly 80 years ago for plain old telephone service,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune. “The president’s stale thinking would invite legal and marketplace uncertainty and perpetuate what has needlessly become a politically corrosive policy debate.”

The South Dakota Republican is in line to take the gavel of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee next year. That panel’s jurisdiction includes telecommunications policy.

The EPA — and climate change regulations in particular — also face incoming fire from Sen. James M. Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican in line to regain the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

“Last year, Senator Inhofe said he would be using the Congressional Review Act on any major EPA regulation that comes out under the Obama administration, and I expect you will only see more momentum for this now that the Republicans have the majority in the Senate,” Inhofe spokesperson Donelle Harder told CQ Roll Call in an email. “There is widespread concern for how the EPA’s overbearing regulations are going to impact American job creation and the affordability and reliability of our nation’s electricity grid.”

Inhofe himself said as much back in April, when he pledged to use the CRA to try to force floor votes on EPA regulations.

“I’m committed to using the Congressional Review Act on any significant EPA regulation that comes out until the EPA gets honest about the cost accounting it uses in its rules. Because if the agency is not going to be honest, then the EPA, the president, and the members who support their policies need to own them, which in the Senate means up or down votes on whether to keep or get rid of the EPA’s regulations,” Inhofe said.

Asked about the prospects of the Obama administration facing efforts to upend environmental policy through the CRA, EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia said in an email that the public supported the agency’s efforts.

“A healthy environment for our children should garner bipartisan support, not be a political football. Poll after poll shows that a strong majority of Americans support EPA’s effort to protect public health. Across the country, citizens want EPA to safeguard clean air and clean water, which are essential building blocks for a strong economy,” Purchia said. “We don’t need to choose between a healthy environment and a healthy economy because the two go hand in hand.”

Opposition to EPA emissions proposals affecting coal-fired power plants was one of the recurring themes of the re-election campaign of the man set to become majority leader next year, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and the EPA is sure to face the prospect of spending restrictions and policy riders through the appropriations process as well.

Obama’s newly announced climate deal with China hasn’t cooled Republican passions on the issue, either.

“This unrealistic plan, that the president would dump on his successor, would ensure higher utility rates and far fewer jobs,” McConnell said in a statement. “The president said his policies were on the ballot, and the American people spoke up against them. It’s time for more listening, and less job-destroying red tape. Easing the burden already created by EPA regulations will continue to be a priority for me in the new Congress.”

White House counselor John Podesta has already dismissed the idea that Congress will be able to block Obama’s climate regulations.

Other regulations that could land on Obama’s desk with congressional disapproval resolutions range from health care to labor.

There are time limits and conditions defined in the statute, so not everything the administration does will trigger a filibuster short-circuit for the GOP.

And the process will mainly be a way for Republicans to voice their displeasure — and put Senate Democrats on the record — rather than a plan to realistically change administration policy. A veto would still have to be overridden in both chambers, and Republican would need major Democratic backing to achieve the 67 Senate votes and 290 in the House to override.

Indeed, the process has successfully upended an agency rule-making only once: An Occupational Safety and Health Administration ergonomics rule proposed at the end of the Bill Clinton presidency fell victim to a disapproval resolution that became law after Republican President George W. Bush took office.
___
(Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.)

AFP Photo/Jim Watson

McConnell Eyes The Prize As Grimes Hopes For Grand Upset

By Niels Lesniewski, CQ Roll Call

MADISONVILLE, Ky. — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his backers aren’t taking anything for granted, and Kentucky’s airwaves continue to feature no shortage of advertising, but he’s already starting to look to a future where he runs the Senate.

“I’m certainly hopeful,” the Kentucky Republican said Sunday of the prospects of gaining the six seats needed to flip the chamber. “I think we need to set a new agenda and go in a different direction. A number of you work in Washington, you know the Senate doesn’t do anything any more.

“The American people have seen the do-nothing Senate for four years. I’d think they’d want to go in a different direction on Tuesday night,” said McConnell, who envisions confronting the president on some issues and working with him on others.

He took questions from a small group of reporters after greeting supporters at the end of a veterans’ parade in Madisonville in western Kentucky, riding in the parade just ahead of Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes.

At times, people seemed more interested in the caravan of Corvettes that preceded them in the parade than the candidates themselves.

Despite polling showing McConnell having a decent to sizable lead, the incumbent Kentucky secretary of state has been barnstorming the state, hopeful for what would be at this point a monumental upset.

The Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call has the Kentucky race in the Republican Favored column.

“There are the folks that are going to carry this race home. They’re excited about sending a message to the world that Washington just isn’t working for us, and after 30 years, Mitch McConnell is out of time,” Grimes told reporters on the trail Sunday. “He’s met his match. He’s going to be fired come Nov. 4.”

“The people of this state. They’re going to have the final word, and the energy and momentum that we’ve seen on the ground, it’s been unmatched. The ground game that we have, it’s dynamic. It’s unlike anything Kentucky has ever seen,” Grimes told reporters after a rally with supporters at a hilltop sod farm in Elizabethtown after the parade.

Asked why new polls seem to be trending in his favor both locally and elsewhere, McConnell pointed to President Barack Obama’s unpopularity.

“Well look, I think this election is largely a referendum on the president of the United States. Most people in my state and I hope around the country believe that we need to go in a different direction,” McConnell said. “All I’ve said repeatedly is if you want to go in a different direction, there’s only one thing that can be accomplished in 2014, and that’s to change the Senate and make me the leader of a new majority.”

On both domestic and foreign policy, McConnell sounded familiar themes in looking ahead to the prospects of GOP control.

When asked about the effect of the Senate race on the world stage by a reporter from the BBC, McConnell noted a trend he had picked up on.

“I think a lot of foreign reporters have been coming down here, like yourself, wondering whether America is comfortable with America in decline,” he said. “Hopefully, if the people of this country choose a new majority, it will encourage the president to stop the retreat, basically. That’s what we’ve seemed to have been doing over the last few years.”

He also indicated that a floor vote on tightening potential sanctions against Iran would be on his to-do list.

“I think what we ought to do if we can’t get an acceptable agreement with the Iranians is tighten the sanctions, and in fact we had a bill in the Senate to do that, which the current majority leader wouldn’t allow a vote on,” McConnell said. “Not to stop the talks, but to say at the end of the talks, if there’s no good outcome, then the Iranians would get tougher sanctions.”

Closer to home, McConnell once again pointed to the economic crisis out in Eastern Kentucky coal country as a priority, criticizing the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations about power plant emissions.

“We’re going to try to push back against this over-regulation that’s literally put my people out of work,” he said. But, McConnell also knows the reality that Obama will still be in office.

“I think the first thing we ought to do is see whether there are areas of agreement that we can actually make some progress on. You know, divided government is not unusual in the United States. We’ve had it most of the time since World War II. Reagan never had the House. Clinton didn’t have the House or Senate for six of the eight years, and yet they did some significant things,” McConnell said.

If things go his way Tuesday, perhaps McConnell could invite Vice President Joe Biden here to the parade for the next round of deal-making. He does love Corvettes.

AFP Photo/Jewel Samad

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McConnell: Obamacare Repeal Not Happening Anytime Soon

By Niels Lesniewski, CQ Roll Call (MCT)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says Republicans won’t be able to repeal Obamacare anytime soon.

Tempering the expectations of conservatives a week before the elections that could install him as the first Republican majority leader in eight years, the Kentucky Republican said in a Fox News interview Tuesday that a repeal of the health care law simply wasn’t in the cards for now.

He wasn’t telling Fox News anything that close observers of the Senate and the budget process didn’t already know, but it serves as a reminder of the limitations Republicans should expect even if they net six or seven seats, given the obvious reality that President Barack Obama is still in the White House.

McConnell said repealing Obamacare remains at the top of his priority list.

“But remember who’s in the White House for two more years. Obviously he’s not going to sign a full repeal, but there are pieces of it that are extremely unpopular with the American public and that the Senate ought to have a chance to vote on,” he said.

McConnell also noted Democrats could filibuster a repeal effort.

“It would take 60 votes in the Senate. No one thinks we’re going to have 60 Republicans, and it would take a presidential signature,” McConnell said. “I’d like to put the Senate Democrats in the position of voting on the most unpopular parts of this law and see if we can put it on the president’s desk.”

That suggests McConnell isn’t about to pull a nuclear option of his own and do away with the filibuster just for the sake of repealing the law.

Republicans including McConnell have talked about rolling back much of the Affordable Care Act through the budget reconciliation process — which would allow them to bypass a filibuster. That route is difficult to traverse and forbids the inclusion of items that are not budget-related. Such a bill could also still be vetoed, making the whole process a symbolic exercise without a Republican president.

Other smaller pieces might get super-majorities, such as repealing the 2 percent excise tax on medical devices. McConnell also mentioned nixing the individual mandate as another target.

McConnell again suggested Republicans would try to use the appropriations bills to rein in the Obama administration.

Asked about what a GOP-led Senate might do to blunt executive action on immigration policy that President Barack Obama is planning, McConnell used the example of environmental regulations.

“I think it’s a bad mistake for the president to try and assume powers for himself that many people feel he should not be assuming. You know, we’ve seen that on full display with the EPA and the war on coal,” McConnell said. “That’s not a result of any legislation that Congress passed. It’s just something the president wants to do on his own and uses the people who work for him to achieve. I think that’s a big mistake.”

Those spending restrictions could get to Obama’s desk, leaving the president to decide whether to use his veto authority.

Speaking to Fox from the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky., during a campaign stop, McConnell counted the potential move on immigration as one such mistake. McConnell himself must overcome a challenge from Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, with a variety of public and internal polls showing the race competitive in the closing week. The Kentucky Senate race is rated Leans Republican by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.

“If the American people do change the Senate, and give the Republicans control of Congress, we certainly are, through the spending process, going to try to restrain the overactive bureaucracy that’s been attacking virtually every business in America,” McConnell said. “And we intend to push back against executive orders that we think aren’t warranted by … trying to control the amount of money that is allocated.”

But there’s only so much the GOP is going to be able to accomplish.

“He is the president of the United States, and he’ll be there until January 2017,” McConnell said of Obama.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Vulnerable Senate Democrats Almost Always Voted With Obama

By Niels Lesniewski, CQ Roll Call

(MCT)
WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision to avoid tough votes this year has backfired in one respect — it gave his vulnerable incumbents few opportunities to show off any independence from President Barack Obama.

A new CQ vote study shows that vulnerable Senate Democrats almost always voted to support the president in 2014 — a fact that has been seized upon by Republicans, given that Obama’s approval rating is languishing in the low 40s nationally and lower still in several battleground states.

Democrats who have been distancing themselves from Obama on the campaign trail not in votes on the Senate floor include Mark Udall of Colorado Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana.

Udall disagreed with Obama just once, on a Pennsylvania state judge’s nomination to a federal district court. Pryor parted with Obama three times, and Landrieu four, but only one of those votes was on a policy matter. In July, Landrieu voted against Obama’s request for $2.7 billion to deal with the surge of Latin American children entering the U.S. illegally.

All of the most vulnerable Democrats voted with Obama at least 96 percent of the time on the 120 votes on which Obama has urged a “yes” or “no” vote.

Reid clamped down on amendments more than ever this year and the bills he brought to the floor were aimed at unifying Democrats and putting Republicans on defense — like a minimum wage increase, an unemployment-benefits extension, pay equity and refinancing student loans — rather than bills that would lead to Democratic defections.

As a result, there are only 18 legislative votes involved in the scoring this year. The vast majority (102) were nomination votes. That’s the most lopsided ratio since CQ began keeping records on the ratio in 1988.

Reid’s use of the “nuclear option” last year to effectively prevent Republicans from blocking judicial and executive branch nominees has also contributed to the results. Since the option was imposed, Republicans have insisted on roll-call votes on traditionally noncontroversial nominations, a move that’s had the bonus effect for them of raising presidential support scores for Democrats.

On Thursday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee issued separate releases targeting Democrats citing the figures.

Those releases are virtually identical, with NRSC spokeswoman Brook Hougesen offering quotes that differ only in the name of the senator being targeted and the voting percentage figures.

“Mark Begich is no independent; this year he actually voted for President Obama’s agenda an astounding 98 percent of the time,” Hougesen said in the Alaska version of the releases. “President Obama is right, a vote for Mark Begich is a vote for his policies.”

The campaign website for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., campaign website includes a rebuttal, of sorts, to the underlying charge from GOP challenger Scott P. Brown, the former Massachusetts senator, listing times that Shaheen has opposed the Obama administration’s policies, even if there weren’t roll-call votes on the Senate floor associated with them.

The Republican party in North Carolina was also quick to highlight Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan’s 99 percent presidential support rating in 2014.

On the Republican side, the large number of generally noncontroversial nominees included in the calculations contributed to all but one GOP incumbent supporting Obama more than half the time. That outlier, Pat Roberts of Kansas, also happens to be the most vulnerable Republican on the ballot this year. He supported Obama about 49 percent of the time.

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

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Senate Odd Couple Seek Common Ground On Climate Change

By Niels Lesniewski, CQ Roll Call

POINT JUDITH, R.I. — A visit to the Ocean State’s eroding shoreline didn’t prompt West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III to change his mind about EPA regulation of carbon emissions, but his host wasn’t expecting that sort of evolution.

“I didn’t invite Sen. Manchin here thinking that he was suddenly going to have an epiphany and turn into a ‘greenie’ and come to the next climate march with me,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse told reporters after the two Democrats took a daylong tour of coastal Rhode Island on Oct. 10.

“What I do think though is that he is a smart and reasonable voice from the prototype coal state who has very, very good relations with a lot of our most conservative members of the Senate, some of whom believe that the whole climate change problem is a conspiracy designed as a foil to allow people to expand the role of government and take away freedom,” the Rhode Islander continued.

You would be hard-pressed to find two Democratic senators who more clearly demonstrate the party’s divide on energy and environmental issues, so it was notable when they announced plans to visit each others’ states to discuss energy and climate policy.

Manchin followed through on the first half of the bargain last week, joining with Whitehouse in meeting with oceanography experts, fishermen, environmental officials and residents and business owners at risk of seeing their properties washed away by rising tides.

Asked about the clear disagreement with Whitehouse on the use of executive action by the Environmental Protection Agency in regulating coal emissions, Manchin pointed to one of the reasons why he’s willing to work toward a legislative solution with someone like his Rhode Island counterpart.

“I’m relying on Sheldon to bring the EPA to a commonsense position, to work with us and not against us, and if you have people that are so respected in the environmental community such as Sheldon say, ‘Listen gang, we’ve got to start working together and quit fighting each other,'” Manchin said. “Maybe he can help me and I rely on that, and I know they listen to Sheldon. That he can say the EPA should be working, coming to West Virginia, looking for solutions and not keep beating our heads with a ball bat every time they come.”

“We need good people like Sheldon that understand, and maybe brings a federal agency like the EPA in line,” Manchin said.

A trip aboard a Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management trawler named for former Republican Gov. and Sen. John Chafee, highlighted the activities here.

After leaving from Point Judith, commercial and sport-based fishermen told the senators how the fish population has evolved and how federal regulations have not kept up. The senators participated in the sorting and counting of fish, part of the department’s efforts to better understand the population.

“We need to invest some time and money into really understanding the long-term effects of these climate shifts,” said Rick Bellavance, a recreational charter operator. “I definitely think that there are differences. When I first started coming here to Point Judith 25 years ago, maybe once or twice a year my dock would be underwater because the tides were too high. Now, it seems like every month, two or three days my dock is underwater.”

At Roy Carpenter’s Beach, a collection of summer cottages along the waterfront in nearby Matunuck, Whitehouse and Manchin met with residents, including Kevin McCloskey. His cottage, which has enjoyed a front-row view of the ocean, needs to be moved to the rear of the lot by the time the property opens for the 2015 season in hopes of avoiding rising tides.

“This is my heaven. I’m giving this up to go in the back row because the community’s worth it down here,” McCloskey said. He noted some of his neighbors have already lost homes.

“I don’t want … my house falling in the ocean, because when I go diving down there, I see remnants of refrigerators and stuff in the ocean, and that bothers me,” he said.

The day ended at two oceanfront bars where the owners outlined threats to their businesses. In between the watering holes, the senators paused for an interview with MSNBC’s Ed Schultz. The liberal talk host’s show dispatched a satellite truck for a shot with an ocean backdrop most often seen on cable news during hurricanes. Perhaps that was appropriate given that Superstorm Sandy less than two years earlier had washed into the Atlantic three of the summer cottages at the working-class beach community the senators had just visited.

Manchin told reporters he hoped more of his colleagues would make similar trips in an effort to bridge divides.

“If you don’t build that relationship, you don’t have any type of a colleague type of relationship and then build a friendship off that … you’re not going to find the middle,” Manchin said. “I’m not seeing a perfect piece of legislation. I’m not seeing a perfect solution. I’ve found that if we talk and work through it, we might try to move forward and make our country a better country.”

Whitehouse has given nearly 80 weekly Senate floor speeches on energy and climate issues, and Manchin joined him June 25 for an exchange about finding common ground. The two senators reiterated much of the same message last week.

“We did a colloquy. We keep talking, our staffs are talking all the time,” Manchin said. “We’re sincerely looking to find — I said Sheldon help me get the money freed up from the Department of Energy so we can find the technology that you want so that we can take the CO2 completely out of the system whether it be existing or … new plants, new coal-fired plants, and we can reduce what we have right now.”

There’s no sign of a broad agreement on how to balance environmental and economic consequences, but the two Democrats at least listened to each other as they took in Rhode Island’s idyllic coastline.

The listening could always lead to progress, given the senators are surely to see a similar dire situation, though for entirely different reasons, when Whitehouse comes to Manchin’s coal country in the coming weeks.

Photo: Third Way via Flickr

Why Senate Attendance Attacks Are Usually Bogus

By Niels Lesniewski, CQ Roll Call

WASHINGTON — The worst-kept secret on Capitol Hill? Senators miss committee hearings and meetings. All the time.

Unless the senator wields the gavel, he or she may only show up for five minutes, or when it is their turn to ask questions. The results include guffaw-inducing scenes where even senior lawmakers enter the wrong hearing room, misidentify a witness and question the wrong person on the other side of the dais.

But out on the campaign trail, a less-than-stellar attendance record has become the political ammo in a number of Senate races, with criticism of incumbent lawmakers flying in Alaska, Kentucky, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Colorado and Iowa.

This cycle, much of the fodder has come from committee attendance records, at least compared to floor votes. It might look bad back home, but consistent committee attendance defies a reality on Capitol Hill.

“It might make for a compelling campaign ad to whack an incumbent for missing a committee hearing or markup, but the truth is that most legislating gets done outside of the hearing room,” one former Senate committee aide said in an email. “Obviously, it’s impossible for any senator to attend every meeting of the committees to which they belong, which is why staffers exist: to cover the hearing or ensure that the member can vote by proxy.”

After a Tuesday evening debate, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) conceded she had missed a delayed hearing for a fundraiser. Hagan faces state Speaker Thom Tillis, a Republican, in one of the most competitive races of the cycle.

“There was one, and what had happened at that hearing is that it was scheduled earlier in the day. Votes were scheduled and that hearing had to be postponed to later that day,” Hagan told reporters, according to a video clip of the news conference. “So yes, I did miss that one.”

Hagan’s campaign noted she also turned the attack back on Tillis, pointing to the Charlotte Observer editorial board’s criticism from last year in which they called for him to step aside from the legislature.

Politifact, in responding to an ad against Hagan, went through the public records of the Armed Services open hearings to tabulate attendance, finding a number of senators present less than half the time. The website noted the difficulty getting an accurate read because of the large number of closed meetings.

In the New Hampshire Senate race, former Sen. Scott P. Brown (R-MA) launched a new round of ads against Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) this week, pointing out in a new ad that she missed a hearing about the Islamic State, which is also known by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL.

“As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, she skipped a key hearing, where a top official gave an early warning about a new terrorist group known as ISIS,” says an announcer in the Brown campaign spot.

Shaheen’s campaign looked back at Brown’s own tenure in the Senate when he represented the neighbor state to the south, and they found numerous incidents of missed immigration and border policy hearings. Brown served on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee during his Senate tenure.

“The fact is that it was Scott Brown who missed every single one of his border security hearings while in the Senate, despite now campaigning on securing the border as a cornerstone of his campaign,” Shaheen campaign spokesman Harrell Kirstein said. “Jeanne Shaheen has participated in 16 hearings, briefings, classified meetings on ISIL and terrorist threats from Iraq and Syria, dating back to before Scott Brown even moved to New Hampshire.”

A new ad from GOP Rep. Cory Gardner, who is challenging Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), claims the senator has been absent from public emerging-threat hearings at the Armed Services panel. Those records can be derived, but they aren’t kept by the committee itself, a committee aide said.

“The Senate Armed Services Committee does not keep an attendance record. However, committee transcripts list the senators that attended each hearing, so it would be possible to compile such records by searching the hearing transcripts,” the aide said.

Rep. Bruce Braley, the Democrat running for the Iowa seat being vacated retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, has faced criticism for attendance at the Oversight and Government Reform, and Veterans Affairs Committees.

In Kentucky, the campaign of Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat, took aim at Minority Leader Mitch McConnell over his attendance at the Senate Agriculture Committee during the drafting of the most recent farm bill and at other meetings on appropriations bills.

“First we learn Mitch McConnell skipped hundreds of committee meetings. Where was he? He didn’t show up to vote on troop funding, the farm bill and the VA … on days he found time for a lobbyist fundraiser and was on two TV shows,” one such Grimes ad said.

The McConnell operation rebutted those attacks, pointing to McConnell’s role as leader, which included appointment of Republican conferees that negotiated the final farm bill deal.

“More times than not, a low attendance record isn’t nearly as bad as it is made out to be,” said Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Government Affairs Institute, who studies congressional operations.

Huder noted that in an average senator’s schedule, there may be 12 to 15 assignments at the subcommittee level alone, and that’s not including any other responsibilities of the job.

“Having a competent staff makes up for the lack of time and overlapping responsibilities. They are legislative equivalent of a central nervous system. They attend hearings the member cannot, research the issues, often know the issue and background better than the member themselves, and can fill in the workload gaps,” Huder said. “Frankly, having a good staff is far more important than showing up to a hearing.”

Staffers, of course, do most of the grunt work on major legislation too.

Photo: Mark Udall via Flickr