McConnell’s Move To Avert Shutdown Cheers Vulnerable Senators Up In 2016

McConnell’s Move To Avert Shutdown Cheers Vulnerable Senators Up In 2016

By Niels Lesniewski and Humberto Sanchez, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is always looking ahead to the next election.

And as much as the Kentucky Republican’s move to go ahead with a clean bill funding the Department of Homeland Security drew the ire of the conservative base, others including those on the ballot and vulnerable in 2016 said it was important to resolve the issue and get on with the GOP agenda.

Republican Senator Mark S. Kirk, who is running for re-election in the generally blue state of Illinois, said Tuesday that GOP senators should tell the House Republicans who are against advancing the appropriations bill without riders in opposition to President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration that “this is the way the Senate demands this go.”

“The House should just go along with the Senate. The burden of majority is the burden of governing, and you’ve got to fund” Homeland Security, Kirk said, praising McConnell’s efforts. “Mitch has been around the block a few times … we’ll be able to extract ourselves from a totally unnecessary battle that the House has put us in.”

Senator John McCain (R-AZ), whose seat is also up in 2016, said he hopes that the fight between those who want to govern and conservatives doesn’t continue to flare up.

“I hope not because it’s very important to show that we can govern, so we are going to have to show some results here,” McCain said, adding that he believes that splitting the bill was the “right strategy.”

But while a path is clear (though perhaps rough) to pass a clean DHS bill through the Senate, getting one through the House could be difficult, at best. One GOP senator up for re-election in 2016 said it doesn’t do any good for only the Senate to act.

“I don’t think most people distinguish between the House and the Senate in the real world,” the senator said. “That’s not a governing majority if the House can’t” ultimately clear the bill to send it to Obama’s desk.

But coordinating with the House has proven difficult.

“The House doesn’t know what it can do until they have to do it,” the senator said.

Another factor at play? The presence of swarms of conservative activists not far away at the National Harbor resort in suburban Maryland for the Conservative Political Action Conference, where the idea of funding the Homeland Security Department without a blockade of the executive actions — however impossible — will likely go over like a lead balloon.

“The activist community obviously is very adamantly opposed to what the president’s executive action did. It was unconstitutional … and illegal, and so you know, they want to see, I think, Congress battle the White House over that,” South Dakota GOP Senator John Thune said. “The fact that a lot of people are here for that, perhaps shapes a little bit the discussion.”

But Thune, the Republican Conference chairman, said that it was also important to get fiscal 2015 spending figured out in order to focus on Republican priorities.

“I think in terms of the rest of the legislative agenda that I think that we really want to take on for the balance of the year, you know, the longer we get into this protracted discussion about this particular appropriations bill, the harder it is to get on to those other items,” Thune said. “It’s important, and we need to express in a very direct … way our opposition to the president’s executive order.”

“At some point, I hope we can navigate this and get on to where we’re dealing with things that are about creating jobs and growing the economy,” Thune said.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran echoed that sentiment. The Mississippi Republican noted that his subcommittees have already begun to hold hearing on the dozen fiscal 2016 measures.

“It certainly provides an incentive to restore the regular order of procedure. You know, with the hearings and experts from outside of Congress and the government giving us their reaction to legislation and proposals for dealing more effectively with spending of the taxpayers’ dollars,” Cochran said. “We do have a good number of newer, younger members and I think it’s a good time to really take a hard look at our procedures for managing the … budget that we don’t incur big deficits inevitably within our operating budgets.”

Former Republican Senator Judd Gregg, who was in the Capitol on Wednesday, underscored the need to govern, or the GOP majority will be threatened. His home state of New Hampshire is sure to be one of the hottest battlegrounds on the 2016 Senate map, where GOP incumbent Kelly Ayotte will be on the ballot.

“There is nobody in the party who’s really not a conservative,” Gregg said. “But some people are here to govern, and some people are here to get attention and some people are here for purposes that are unclear to me. But in any event, the purpose of the majority is to govern. Once you are given the majority you can no longer stand in the corner and shout. So the job is to govern and that means you have to reach agreement and in the Senate … you have to go across the aisle to reach agreement.”

Ayotte was quick to issue a statement on Tuesday in support of McConnell’s move ahead with the clean DHS spending bill, while also setting up a vote on a proposal from Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), expressing opposition to Obama’s 2014 executive actions.

“I am encouraged that a recent court ruling has found the president’s executive action on immigration exceeded his legal authority and has blocked its implementation. In light of the court injunction – which prevents the administration from carrying out the president’s executive action – I will support legislation that would fully fund homeland security operations for the rest of the fiscal year,” Ayotte said. “I will also vote in favor of a separate measure that would defund the president’s 2014 executive action, and I support further challenging his illegal actions through the court system.”

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Keystone Debate To Test Waters Of New Senate

Keystone Debate To Test Waters Of New Senate

By Niels Lesniewski and Humberto Sanchez, CQ Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Mitch McConnell has waited years for the moment he’ll take the reins of a dysfunctional chamber and try and show Republicans can govern.

He’ll face tests right off the bat — from how to handle the filibuster rules changes that have divided his conference to keeping the Senate on topic as he looks to clear a series of bipartisan bills to kick off the year, starting with approving the Keystone XL pipeline.

“We’ll hope that senators on both sides will offer energy-related amendments, but there will be no effort to try to … micromanage the amendment process,” the Kentucky Republican said last month, when announcing his plan to bring Keystone to the floor first.

It’s part of a plan, nearly a year in the making, to get the new majority off to a fast start.

Substance of the energy and environment debate aside, just staying on topic with amendments would be a rather novel development. Republicans in the minority of the previous Congresses had a propensity to float unrelated hot-button issues, such as repeated efforts by Sen. David Vitter to nix taxpayer-paid health insurance benefits for members of Congress and their staff.

While allowed under the Senate’s rules, such amendments contributed to derailing legislation altogether, with then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) using his prerogatives to shut down the process.

The Keystone bill will be the first test of the McConnell era — both on the majority leader’s pledge to hold votes on Democratic amendments and of the new minority’s own approach after they ripped Republicans for years as obstructionists.

Democrats are planning to offer five amendments to the Keystone bill in an effort to highlight their contention that the project won’t create many lasting jobs and is designed to benefit oil companies.

“Our amendments will help point that out,” a senior Senate Democratic aide said. Those amendments include a proposal to ban export of the oil carried by the pipeline, a requirement that the iron and steel for the pipeline be American-made and a proposal requiring investment in clean energy jobs.

Other amendments are possible, said the aide, who characterized the five amendments as “a starting point.”

Schumer teamed up with Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) on a letter to colleagues highlighting a few amendment ideas and the importance of having a unified message on the first bill to reach the floor as a minority.

“Consideration of this bill will provide us with the first opportunity to demonstrate that we will be united, energetic, and effective in offering amendments that create a clear contrast with the Republican majority,” Schumer and Stabenow wrote. “Below are summaries of five relevant amendments that the (Democratic Policy and Communications Center) believes can be tied together by a common theme — that we are working hard to make the average American family better off while Republicans are helping narrow special interests.”

Of course, the pipeline is expected to clear the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a filibuster. The same is true for additional Iran sanctions, and likely a few bills nibbling at the edges of the Affordable Care Act, such as repealing the medical device tax.

But there’s no telling how the process will work when McConnell brings up measures that aren’t as ripe with Democratic supporters.

Democrats remain hopeful that McConnell will govern as he has said he would. An effort that could keep party conservatives such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) at bay and keep the government open could be tricky.

“If McConnell puts reasonable proposals on the floor, he would find plenty of willing Democrats,” the aide said.

But that could be McConnell’s biggest challenge, especially as the race for the Republican nomination for president heats up later in the year. Cruz, and Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) are all weighing a possible 2016 run.

“Once the GOP nominating race gets underway, the pull to the right will be as strong as it’s ever been,” the Democratic aide said.

That would also give some Democrats leverage, since McConnell will need at least six Democratic votes to pass most things aside from the budget resolution and possible budget reconciliation. Republicans will control 54 votes in the new Congress and Democrats would hold 46 votes.

The Democratic aide predicted that on many issues, Republicans will have trouble keeping their votes together, requiring even more bipartisan support.

For example on trade, one of the areas that is often cited as a potential area for bipartisan cooperation, some conservatives have signaled their opposition to Trade Promotion Authority, also known fast track, which ensures congressional consideration of trade deals on an up-or-down vote with no amendments.

Nineteen Republicans wrote to Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) last month opposing the TPA.

Reid has said he too opposed fast track, which has also met with resistance from labor unions, part of the Democratic base.

A tax overhaul has been another area discussed as possibly ripe for a bipartisan deal. But the two parties have often been at loggerheads over the details, let alone whether the effort should net new revenue for the government or simply redistribute the tax burden.

McConnell will also face an early test with the nominations of Loretta Lynch to be attorney general and Ashton Carter to be secretary of Defense. Lynch will get grilled over her position on President Barack Obama’s executive action granting deportation relief and work permits to millions of undocumented immigrants.

“That’s going to come up in the questioning … the president’s actions on amnesty,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) said Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press.

Carter’s nomination doesn’t appear as contentious.

“I intend to get Ash Carter’s nomination through very quickly … to show that we want to move forward,” said Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the incoming chairman of Armed Services Committee.

Even if the first work period goes well for Senate Republicans, the big test looms just after the Presidents Day recess, when funding for the Department of Homeland Security is set to expire.
(Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.)

AFP Photo/Alex Wong

Elizabeth Warren Gets Seat At Leadership Table

Elizabeth Warren Gets Seat At Leadership Table

By Niels Lesniewski and Humberto Sanchez, CQ Roll Call (MCT)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren will get a newly created seat at the Democratic leadership table.

A Democratic source familiar with the leadership’s thinking told CQ Roll Call that the Massachusetts senator’s role will involve outreach to progressives. A second source indicated the position would not supplant another member of the leadership.

Bringing Warren into the weekly leadership meetings could put her brand of populist economic messaging front and center as Democrats look to regain their majority in 2016.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) has had high praise for Warren, and adding her to the team gives him a chance to tell his flock that he’s making changes after last week’s midterm disaster cost him his majority leader title.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, meanwhile, is expected to take the steering and outreach slot now occupied by Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, who was ousted by Republican Dan Sullivan on Nov. 4. It’s not clear the timing of when that pick will occur.
(Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.)

Photo: Senate Democrats via Flickr

Executive Action On Immigration Could Imperil Spending Bill, Cornyn Warns

Executive Action On Immigration Could Imperil Spending Bill, Cornyn Warns

By Niels Lesniewski and Humberto Sanchez, CQ Roll Call (MCT)

WASHINGTON — The No. 2 Senate Republican said Wednesday that President Barack Obama’s plans to take executive action on immigration could endanger bipartisan efforts to craft an omnibus spending bill in the lame-duck session.

“Part of what’s I think creating the difficulty is the president’s threatened Obama amnesty, and one of the ways that that could be addressed would be through the spending,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX). “The president seems hell-bent to do this, which I think is a terrible mistake, but it’s his to make.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is poised to become the next majority leader, again cautioned Obama about the effect of making the widely expected moves on immigration.

“There’s a lot both parties can accomplish together over the next couple years. I hope that happens. I’m optimistic. But working together requires trust,” McConnell said on the floor. “I think President Obama has a duty to help build the trust we all need to move forward together, not to double down on old ways of doing business.”

“That’s why I think moving forward with the unilateral action on immigration he’s planned would be a big mistake,” McConnell said.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), the ranking member of the Budget Committee, is leading the charge for using the upcoming government funding bill to block funding for the executive actions.

“Congress should not fund any activity that it thinks is not worthy of funding. Congress appropriates the money. That’s a clear constitutional power. If Congress disapproves of the president providing ID cards, and all of that, for people who have been in the country illegally then it should not appropriate money to fund it,” Sessions said.

Sessions was noncommittal when asked about filibustering an omnibus spending package without such a rider.

“I don’t know how we will play that out, but I think it should be pursued and the votes this year may be problematic because of the Democratic majority, but who knows in the future,” Sessions said. “The president wants to create a massive system to provide millions of people, apparently, lawful status, lawful ID cards, take law enforcement officers from their duties to enforce the law and have (them) process this legal status, which Congress has explicitly rejected.”

Sessions said he would prefer a short-term continuing resolution to keep the government funded, rather than an omnibus for all of fiscal 2015. Such a move would frustrate appropriators on both sides of the aisle, who want to get the decks cleared in order to have time for a robust appropriations process for fiscal 2016 when Republicans control the agenda on both sides of the Capitol.

Entering a GOP lunch, Cornyn said there wasn’t yet a consensus on what to do.

But speaking with reporters earlier in the day, Cornyn said the president appeared to have made up his mind.

“On Friday we met at the White House … and person after person, starting with the speaker, said it would be a terrible way to start. What should be an opportunity for us to get the country back on track again and get the economy moving again on a bipartisan basis, for the president to poison the well at the very outset would be unimaginable,” Cornyn said. “He was pretty defiant. He’s decided to postpone it once before and my hope is that cooler and calmer heads will prevail on him again.”

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Republicans Eye Obamacare Showdown In Lame-Duck Session

Republicans Eye Obamacare Showdown In Lame-Duck Session

By Niels Lesniewski and Humberto Sanchez, CQ Roll Call

A group of Senate Republicans have their eyes on another Obamacare showdown in the lame-duck session.

The 14 Republicans, led by Marco Rubio of Florida, wrote a letter urging Speaker John Boehner to”prohibit the Obama administration” from spending money on an “Obamacare taxpayer bailout.”

They point to a legal opinion from the Government Accountability Office that said additional funding authority would be needed to make payments to insurance companies under the risk-corridor component of the Obamacare health care exchanges. The Republicans say taxpayers could be on the hook for bailing out insurance companies that suffer losses.

“Without that appropriation, any money spent to cover insurance company losses under the risk corridor program would be unlawful,” the senators wrote to Boehner, later noting that Congress needs to act to keep the government operating past Dec. 11, when the existing continuing resolution expires.

“The American people expect us, as Members of Congress, to fulfill our Oath of Office and defend the Constitution,” the senators wrote. “Therefore, we must act to protect Congress’ power of the purse and prohibit the Obama administration from dispersing unlawful risk corridor payments providing for an Obamacare taxpayer bailout.”

The letter writers are mute on exactly what action they think Boehner should take; the House has already authorized a lawsuit over the delay in the employer mandate. The House could also add an explicit prohibition on risk-corridor spending in the next spending bill, but that could provoke another shutdown showdown — which Republican leaders have sought to avoid after last year’s shutdown over Obamacare failed to garner any concessions from the president.

Rubio’s been joined on the letter by John Barrasso of Wyoming, Mike Lee of Utah, David Vitter of Louisiana, Ted Cruz of Texas, Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, John McCain of Arizona, John Boozman of Arkansas, Pat Roberts of Kansas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan