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Here’s A Fact: No Democrat Gets High Marks From NRA

By William Douglas, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The liveliest portions of Sunday’s Democratic debate, the last before Iowa’s caucuses Feb. 1, were sparked by gun control and Wall Street regulation.

The charges and counter-charges, particularly between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, were spirited.

GUN CONTROL

Clinton accused Sanders of flip-flopping on the issue of immunity from lawsuits for gun manufacturers. On the eve of Sunday’s debate, Sanders said he would support a bill introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., that would reverse a 2005 measure that Sanders voted for that shielded gun manufacturers from liability when their weapons were used in crimes.

“I am pleased to hear that Senator Sanders has reversed his position on immunity and I look forward to him joining with those members of Congress who have already introduced legislation,” Clinton said. “There is no other industry in America that was given the total pass that the gun makers and dealers were and that needs to be reversed.”

Sanders insisted he’s been consistent on the issue.

“What I have said, is that (the) gun manufacturer’s liability bill has some good provisions among other things, we’ve prohibited ammunition that would’ve killed cops who had protection on,” Sanders said. “We have child-safety protection work on guns in that legislation. And what we also said, is a small mom and pop gun shop who sells a gun legally to somebody should not be held liable if somebody does something terrible with that gun.”

Sanders also defended his record on gun control, saying he’d been given a D-minus rating by the National Rifle Association, a rating the lobbying group reserves for “an anti-gun candidate who usually supports restrictive gun control legislation and opposes pro-gun reforms.”

Clinton and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, the third candidate on the stage, have both been given F grades by the NRA, a rating the NRA says it reserves for a “true enemy of gun owners’ rights.”

RAISING MINIMUM WAGE

O’Malley and Sanders expressed support for the “Fight for $15” movement, which calls for doubling the federal minimum wage. Republican candidates have argued employers can’t afford it, and that it will cost jobs.

But a study published last January by the University of Chicago’s Booth School suggested it would be consumers who would pay for the higher wages in higher prices. Employers in high-cost states or low unemployment states already have workers making above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Clinton didn’t address the topic.

REVAMPING WALL STREET

Clinton went after Sanders for voting for a financial deregulation bill in 2000 that critics believe gave Wall Street the rope it used to hang the economy in the 2008 financial crisis.

The criticism was unfair given that the bill was signed by a Democrat in the White House, her husband, Bill Clinton.

Sanders and O’Malley both criticized the Obama administration’s landmark revamp of financial regulation, called the Dodd-Frank Act.

The two suggested the legislation failed to give regulators the power to break up big banks, and Clinton rightly noted it in fact does.

Clinton defended herself against a charge by Sanders that she had received $600,000 in speaking fees from the Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs, suggesting that GOP strategist Karl Rove and financial firms called hedge funds are teaming up to run ads against her. In blasting hedge funds, she failed to mention that her son-in-law, Marc Mezvinsky, runs one. He also worked at Goldman Sachs for more than eight years.

FOREIGN POLICY

Foreign policy and national security issues didn’t come up until well over an hour into the debate, and even then the moderators spent only about 10 minutes on the issues, skimming over the Syrian conflict, the fight against Islamic State extremists, diplomacy with Iran and relations with Russia.

Only O’Malley, in his closing statement, mentioned the wave of migrants fleeing violence in Central America. There was no mention at all of the United States’ gradually warming relations with Cuba.

There was also no discussion of Libya, where chaos has reigned since a Clinton-backed intervention helped to topple leader Moammar Gadhafi, and scant mention of Yemen. Clinton referred to Yemen only as a place where the Iranians were meddling, but she failed to note the merciless bombing campaign that U.S. ally Saudi Arabia has waged there, to the outrage of international human rights groups.

BALTIMORE HOMICIDE RATE

O’Malley was pressed by NBC’s Lester Holt about tough-on-crime measures he implemented as mayor of Baltimore, measures that several critics said contributed to rioting following the death of Freddie Gray while in Baltimore police custody.

O’Malley said, “When I ran for mayor in 1999, Lester, it was not because our city was doing well. It was because we were burying over 300 young, poor, black men every single year. And that’s why I ran. Because black lives matter.”

O’Malley added: “We were able to save a lot of lives, doing things that actually work to improve police and community relations.”

The Baltimore Sun reported in November that the city had more than 300 homicides before the end of 2015, its deadliest year, per capita, in history.

©2016 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Democratic U.S. presidential candidates U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton share a laugh at the start of a commercial break during the Democratic presidential candidates debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire December 19, 2015.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder

In Congress, Expect Renewed Battles On Refugees, Guns And Health Care

By William Douglas, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Congress returned Tuesday to deal with some unfinished business from 2015 and to forge a legislative agenda that could shape the 2016 presidential and congressional elections.

Here’s a look ahead.

Health care

The House of Representatives will vote on a measure this week to repeal the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s legacy accomplishment.

The bill would strip key elements from the ACA, including the individual mandate to have insurance or pay a fine and the employer mandate to offer insurance. The measure also contains a provision to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood, a goal of conservative Republicans after secretly recorded videos surfaced last year that reportedly showed an employee of the organization discussing the sale of fetal tissue.

This is the health care repeal bill that the Senate passed before adjourning for the holidays. If the bill clears the Republican-controlled House, it would be the first ACA repeal measure to reach Obama’s desk.

Obama would certainly veto it. Still, Republicans view getting it through both chambers of Congress as a symbolic victory they can take on the 2016 campaign trail.

Syrian refugees

Republicans intend to battle Obama’s plan to bring 10,000 Syrian refugees to the United States, fearing that the Islamic State and other terrorists could enter the country through the resettlement program.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., placed a House-passed bill on the Senate calendar that would restrict the flow of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. It was written by Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has signaled that the Hudson-McCaul bill isn’t going anywhere in the Senate.

This could present problems for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Several conservative Republicans expressed displeasure that the omnibus spending bill didn’t include measures to stall or prevent Obama’s resettlement plan.

Last month, 95 of 246 House Republicans voted against an omnibus government spending bill Congress passed, in part because it didn’t address the Syrian refugee issue.

The Islamic State

While the debate over Syrian and Iraqi refugees rages, Ryan said he’d like Congress to pass a war powers resolution against the Islamic State, commonly known as ISIS.

“It would be a good symbol of American resolve to … go after ISIS, to thoroughly defeat and destroy ISIS,” he said last month.

Depending on how such a resolution is crafted, lawmakers could find a receptive White House. Obama said in a televised speech last month, “If Congress believes, as I do, that we are at war with ISIL (another abbreviation for the Islamic State), it should go ahead and vote to authorize the continued use of military force against these terrorists.”

Gun control

The debate over guns is one of the most contentious issues on Capitol Hill and the campaign trail. Obama and congressional Democrats are arguing for stricter gun control measures in the aftermath of the terrorist shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., that killed 14 people.

Obama intends to use executive action to place new curbs on guns, reportedly including requiring more gun sellers to conduct background checks on purchasers.

Lawmakers and Republican presidential candidates are already accusing Obama of executive overreach. “Such an expansion of governmental power would represent an abuse of one of the core individual rights protected by our Bill of Rights,” Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said Monday.

Criminal justice overhaul

Obama wants it, the conservative Koch brothers want it, most of the 2016 presidential contenders want it, and the House and Senate have proposals to do it.

Revamping the nation’s criminal justice system may be one of the few areas where the political parties and differing ideologies find common ground. And it will be difficult.

Senate Democrats have concerns about a House overhaul bill that they contend would make it more difficult to sue corporations. The Senate criminal justice bill made it through the Judiciary Committee in October with provisions that limit mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders and give judges more leeway in some sentences. Four Republicans on the committee — Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Orrin Hatch of Utah, David Vitter of Louisiana and David Perdue of Georgia — voted against it.

©2016 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) holds a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington November 19, 2015. REUTERS/Gary Cameron    

 

Most Americans Back Iran Nuclear Deal, Poll Says

By William Douglas, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — A majority of Americans favor a nuclear deal with Iran while also supporting the use of U.S. troops to prevent the Tehran government from obtaining nuclear weapons, according to a new poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

The survey, released Monday, found that 59 percent of Americans support the framework of an agreement with Iran while 36 percent oppose it. Simultaneously, 67 percent of Americans back deploying U.S. military forces to keep Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon.

The poll of 2,034 adults nationwide was conducted between May 25 and June 17. Its results come on the eve of a deadline for Iran, the United States and five other world powers to reach an accord in Vienna.

The framework of the deal, announced in April, has stirred vigorous debate in Congress with the majority of Republicans and a handful of Democrats opposing it. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker (R-TN) said he spoke with Secretary of State John Kerry and urged him not to rush into a bad deal for the sake of legacy-building.

“I urged him to please take their time, try to get _ make sure these last remaining red lines that haven’t been crossed _ they have crossed so many _ do not get crossed, and, qualitatively, they don’t make it worse than where it already is,” Corker said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

File photo: Secretary of State John Kerry (2nd L) stands next to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (2nd R) during a round of nuclear negotiations on March 2, 2015, in Montreux, Switzerland (AFP/Evan Vucci)

Deal Or No Deal, Congress Primed To Act On Iran

By William Douglas, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Whenever a deal is announced on Iran’s nuclear program, President Barack Obama faces a tough slog in Congress, where skepticism abounds about the ability of the administration and five world powers to curb Tehran’s nuclear program.

With Congress out of town on vacation Tuesday, there was little commentary about the administration’s decision to extend talks past a midnight deadline that had been set for finding a framework agreement.

If no deal is struck, the House of Representatives and the Senate may move quickly to impose new sanctions on Iran. If a deal is struck, both chambers, Republican controlled, are expected to move quickly to pass legislation requiring Congress to pass judgment on the agreement.

“Congress will make its skepticism clear, its disapproval clear,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Middle East Program. But whether Congress could stop a deal remains to be seen. “I have a hard time seeing how it will be an insurmountable obstacle,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has signaled his intentions, telling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday in Israel that he shares the prime minister’s concerns that whatever is negotiated in Lausanne, Switzerland, will be tilted in Tehran’s favor.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who also is making his way to Israel during Congress’s two-week spring recess, told CNN on Sunday that “sanctions are going to come, and they’re going to come quick.”

But it’s not just Republicans who have doubts about dealing with Iran.

The Senate Foreign Affairs Committee is preparing to act on April 14 on a bill co-authored by Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and ranking Democrat Bob Menendez of New Jersey. The bill would require Obama to submit text of a nuclear agreement to Congress and would prohibit the administration from lifting sanctions against Iran for 60 days while lawmakers conduct a review.

The bill has 21 co-sponsors, including eight Democrats and independent Angus King of Maine.

Bipartisan distrust toward Iran was evident Thursday when lawmakers voted 100-0 for a nonbinding amendment to impose new sanctions on Iran if it violates the interim nuclear deal or any future agreement.

(Anita Kumar of the Washington Bureau contributed.)

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell meet in the U.S. Capitol. January 7, 2015. (Official Photo by Caleb Smith; Speaker Boehner/Flickr)

Democrats’ Boycott Of Netanyahu Gains

By William Douglas, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The head of the Congressional Black Caucus said Thursday he will boycott Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s scheduled address to a joint session of Congress next month, joining a small band of Democrats skipping the event that could include Vice President Joe Biden.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) said House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu — without coordinating with President Barack Obama — undermines the office of the president.

“For the Speaker to invite a head of state, of any country, to address the U.S. Congress without the consent of the (House) minority leader and the White House goes beyond the traditions of his office,” Butterfield said in a statement. “It is baffling that Speaker Boehner, who incessantly proclaims executive overreach by the president, would buck long standing diplomatic protocol to extend such an invitation.”

Butterfield stressed that “the United States is and will remain Israel’s strongest ally. However, I refuse to be a part of a political stunt aimed at undercutting President Obama.”

Reports suggest that dozens of lawmakers could join the three Democrats who have said publicly they will stay away from the address: Reps. John Lewis (D-GA), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), and Butterfield. They contend that Boehner breached protocol in issuing the invitation and put the U.S. in an awkward position of appearing to favor Netanyahu in Israel’s coming elections.

“It was an insult to the president, to the State Department, what the speaker did, by not consulting the State Department and not consulting the White House,” Lewis said.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest on Thursday left open the possibility that Biden, the president of the Senate, also might not attend Netanyahu’s talk.

Earnest told reporters that he anticipates Biden attending Pope Francis’ speech to Congress in September, an event that was announced Thursday. When asked about Netanyahu’s speech, Earnest noted that Biden’s schedule is not yet set, and opened the door to Biden missing it.

“The vice president takes very seriously the ceremonial responsibilities that he has before the United States Senate,” Earnest said. “Now, there has been at least one previous occasion during his tenure as vice president where he’s been unable to attend a joint session of Congress, because he was traveling overseas.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), said Thursday the House chamber will be filled for the prime minister — even if many seats are filled with aides rather than elected members.

“I don’t think anybody should use the word ‘boycott,’ ” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). “When these heads of state come, people are here doing their work, they’re trying to pass legislation, they’re meeting with their constituents and the rest. It’s not a high-priority item for them.”

Pelosi said that often when dignitaries speak at joint sessions, “you look at that audience and it looks like … the average age is 21 years old,” a suggestion that young staffers or interns fill the seats instead of their bosses.

Despite criticism from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and from some Jewish groups in the U.S. and Israel, Boehner defended his decision to invite the prime minister at a time Congress is weighing sanctions against Iran in support of Israel and defiance of the White House desire to hold off while engaged in nuclear talks with Iran.

“It was a very good idea,” Boehner told reporters. “There’s a message that the American people need to hear and I think he’s the perfect person to deliver it. The threat of radical Islamist terrorists is a real threat. The threat of Iran to the region and the rest of the world is a real threat. And I believe that the American people are interested in hearing the truth about what’s happening in that part of the world.”

Republicans have backed Boehner’s action, saying he has a right to invite Netanyahu or any other world leader or dignitary he wants to speak on Capitol Hill.

“I’m very pleased the speaker took the initiative to invite him. I think it’s perfectly appropriate,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK). “I don’t think we have to clear it with the president. We are a co-equal branch of government. He (Obama) certainly has been kind of thumbing his nose at Congress lately, so I’m kind of surprised he would complain when something like this happens.”

Democratic outrage reached such a crescendo that Ron Dermer, Israel’s U.S. ambassador and a key figure in Boehner’s Netanyahu invite, met with some Democratic lawmakers Wednesday to allay their concerns.

“There’s serious unease, but don’t even think in terms of the word ‘boycott,’ ” Pelosi said. ‘Members will go or they won’t go, as they usually go or don’t do.”

Photo: Rep. G.K. Butterfield introduces Vice President Joe Biden in 2012 (Keith Kissel via Flickr)

GOP, Obama Stop Liberal Revolt, Push Through Budget To Avert Shutdown

By William Douglas, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Overcoming strong objections from liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, the House of Representatives passed a $1.1 trillion spending package late Thursday, funding most of the federal government through September with hours to spare before the government was scheduled to run out of money.

By a 219-206 vote, lawmakers approved a package of 11 spending bills to finance mostly government agencies for the coming fiscal year and one short-term measure to fund the Department of Homeland Security through Feb. 27, 2015.

The 1,600-page bill, nicknamed “Cromnibus,” was supposed to be a done-deal, a bipartisan measure crafted by House and Senate appropriators and negotiated by congressional leaders in both parties. But the bill unraveled Thursday — the deadline for when the federal government runs out of money — when Democrats strenuously objected to two provisions.

One would change the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul by giving banks more freedom over their derivatives business, loosening controls put in after the 2008 financial crash.

The other would allow individuals to give to the Democratic and Republican congressional campaign committees far more than now permitted for recounts and other legal initiatives and the same amount for each committee’s building fund. This would be in addition to the current $32,400 limit.

The Democratic complaints revealed a split with President Barack Obama on the bill. Earlier in the day, the White House released a statement supporting the bill despite its objections to the Dodd-Frank and campaign finance provisions.

“It is a compromise and it does fulfill many of the top line priorities that the president himself has long identified,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.

But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) gave a full-throated denunciation of the two provisions on the House floor. She said she wouldn’t vote for the spending bill but added that Democrats were free to vote their conscience.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a rising star among liberals, publicly and privately lobbied against the bill. Warren, who will join the Senate leadership team next year, even reached out to Republicans to reject the bill.

“I urge my Republican colleagues in the House to withhold their support from this package until this risky giveaway is removed from the legislation,” Warren said on the Senate floor. “It is time for all of us to stand up and fight.”

After an afternoon procedural vote on the bill passed by only two votes — with no Democrats voting yes — Republican leaders abruptly placed the House in recess. Pelosi fired off a “Dear Colleague” letter urging her troops to stand their ground against the provisions they consider odious.

“It is clear from this recess on the floor that the Republicans don’t have enough votes to pass the ‘Cromnibus,'” Pelosi wrote. “This increases our leverage to get two offensive provisions of the bill removed: the bank bailout and big money for campaigns provision.”

She added: “However you decide to vote in the end, I thank those who continue to give us leverage to improve the bill … Stay tuned.”

The Democratic defiance sent the White House scrambling to the phones and to Capitol Hill in search of “Cromnibus” votes. White House chief of staff Denis McDonough met with Democrats behind closed doors to explain the administration’s stance on the bill.

As he exited the meeting, McDonough only said “a great opportunity, I really appreciate it.”

A source in the closed-door meeting said Pelosi told Democrats: “I’m giving you the leverage to do whatever you have to do. We have enough votes to show them never to do this again.”

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) desperately needed Democratic votes for the bill because several Republicans wouldn’t vote for it, mainly because they believe it doesn’t do enough to attack Obama’s executive action on immigration.

Some seven hours after the sudden recess, lawmakers returned to House floor and voted on the bill. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) repeated Democratic objections to the bill but said he would vote for it. Retiring Rep. James Moran (D-VA), a House appropriator, reminded his colleagues that the bill was a compromise and urged them to weigh the benefits to Democrats and their constituents over the two provisions.

“In 20 years with appropriations bills, I haven’t seen a better compromise in terms of Democratic priorities,” Moran said as he left the closed-door meeting with McDonough. “Implementing the Affordable Care Act, there’s a lot more money for child development … We got virtually everything Democrats tried to get.”

The 1,600-page bill wraps 11 spending bill into one package that would fund the federal government through Sept. 30, 2015. It also has a measure that would fund the Department of Homeland Security only until Feb. 27, 2015.

Republicans pushed for the short-term measure for Homeland Security to pressure or punish Obama for his November executive action that granted a temporary reprieve from deportation proceedings for more than 4 million immigrants living in the country illegally.

The 1,600-page bill provides $521 billion for defense and $492 billion for non-defense items, sticking to spending levels capped by a two-year agreement hammered out in December 2013 by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA).

It also contains Overseas Contingency Operations funding to combat the threat posed by the Islamic State and $5.4 billion in emergency funding to deal with the Ebola crisis domestically and overseas.

The bill represents one of the final acts of the 113th Congress, considered one of the least productive in U.S. history. It’s been routinely criticized for its partisan acrimony and propensity for waiting until the last minute for getting must-pass legislation done.

Outside conservative groups such as Heritage Acton and the Club for Growth are also urging lawmakers to vote no on the bill, calling it another example of big-spending government run amok.

“Christmas has come early for the big spenders in Congress who have been experiencing long-term withdrawal from the earmark ban,” Andrew Roth, the Club for Growth’s vice president of government affairs, wrote in a message sent to congressional offices this week. “Not only is the ‘Cromnibus’s’ contents unacceptable to fiscal conservatives, but so should the process by which it was made.”

Photo: Diliff via Wikimedia Commons

Kingmaker Or Royal Pain To GOP: DeMint Building Heritage Into Conservative Force

By William Douglas, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — As a senator, Jim DeMint sometimes ran afoul of fellow Republicans by personally recruiting, nurturing and supporting his own stable of conservative candidates for Congress.

Now, as president of the Heritage Foundation, the former South Carolina lawmaker is poised once again to flex his political muscles, entering his third year of running the influential conservative think tank that he believes will be an incubator for Republican ideas in next year’s Congress.

But questions persist as to whether DeMint will be a helping hand to the incoming Republican majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate or a thorn in their side, as several establishment Republicans view him, because of his uninvited forays into the party’s campaign and policy matters.

“Most guys don’t expect us to influence what’s going on,” the 63-year-old DeMint said in an interview in his spacious office near the Capitol building. “But that’s why I’m here.”

Said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich: “Jim DeMint will be very aggressive.”

In the most recent example, 18 newly elected Congress members journeyed last month from freshman orientation sessions on Capitol Hill to attend separate orientation meetings at Heritage’s headquarters.

And just as it did when it delivered a governing road map to President Ronald Reagan in 1980 with a 3,000-page “Mandate for Leadership,” the foundation is putting the finishing touches on a legislative blueprint that it hopes to guide conservatives in the 114th Congress.

This time, the working theme is “Opportunity for All, Favoritism for None,” and DeMint plans to deliver it as the new Congress takes office in January.

“A lot of what we’re doing is pushing Republicans, not just with a positive agenda, but to recognize things like corporate welfare are favoritism,” he said. “They can’t talk about welfare reform if they’re not getting at corporate welfare first.”

Heritage has changed under his leadership. It has stepped up its advocacy activities largely through Heritage Action for America, a political arm created four years ago to help convert Heritage’s academic work into political reality.

The Heritage Foundation is a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization under the tax code, which restricts lobbying activities. Heritage Action is a 501(c)(4) group and has the ability to lobby.

“We’re here to influence outcomes,” DeMint said. “And to do that requires the education and communication components of the foundation. And I know (that) unless we have (an) activist component, people are going to pat you on the head over there and say, ‘Nice study, DeMint,’ and I don’t want that to happen, because our country is at stake.”

The one-two punch of scholarly research and grassroots activism has made Heritage formidable in the world of think tanks. A 2012 study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program ranked Heritage 18th among the world’s top 150 think tanks and ninth among the best 55 think tanks in the United States.

“Whether you agree with their philosophy or not, Heritage has been successful in raising funds and creating programs that have influence in Washington,” said James McGann, director of the program.

But Heritage’s impact is rubbing some Republicans raw. They complain that Heritage Action’s grassroots activities outside Washington and aggressive score-keeping of lawmakers’ votes inside the Beltway for conservative purity have changed the tone of the foundation for the worse.

Heritage Action, for example, aggressively lobbied Congress to let funding for the Export-Import Bank lapse even as House Republican leaders were negotiating — and eventually winning — a stopgap measure to keep the bank operating to mid-December. Another battle over the bank looms.

Heritage Action was also at loggerheads with lawmakers over a Republican-crafted farm bill in the House, to the point that members of the Republican Study Group barred Heritage employees from its weekly meetings.

DeMint acknowledges the criticism from Capitol Hill. Saying, “We’re not a Republican organization,” he makes no apologies for Heritage’s approach.

“Heritage has always been unashamed to fight for conservative policies because we know they’ll make life better for Americans,” he said. “Politicians always promise to end wasteful spending, but the expensive farm bill didn’t make any meaningful reforms while being larded up with risky loan programs and corporate welfare. … There’s no purity in politics, but Americans expect more from their leaders than just tapping the brakes as we drive off a fiscal cliff.”

Clashes with the Republican establishment are not new. As a senator, DeMint often clashed with party leaders for inserting himself and money from his Senate Conservatives Fund political action committee into political races — including ones with incumbent Republican candidates.

He backed some winners: candidates such as Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, who are all senators today. Both Rubio and Paul are potential Republican presidential candidates.

But some Republicans charge that DeMint cost the party winnable seats by supporting controversial Republican candidates such as Richard Mourdock, who beat Sen. Richard Lugar in the 2012 primary but lost to Democrat Joe Donnelly in the general election, and Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, who defeated moderate Republican Rep. Mike Castle in the 2010 primary but lost to Democrat Chris Coons in the general election.

“I thought when he got to Heritage he’d do what he did, only on a larger scale,” said Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor and a political consultant who once worked for DeMint. “That’s what Jim DeMint likes to do: find political diamonds in the rough and polish them up.”

But DeMint stayed on the sidelines in 2014, focusing on his work at Heritage and enjoying his ability to shape things outside the halls of Congress.

“I think I’ve run my last election,” he said. “I really do believe I can do more here than in political office.”

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Next Up: The Zombie Congress

By William Douglas, McClatchy Washington Bureau (MCT)

WASHINGTON — Jim DeMint likes his zombies on television or in the movies, not roaming the halls of Congress.

DeMint, a former Republican senator from South Carolina who now heads the conservative Heritage Foundation, is among those worried about House and Senate members who were defeated in Tuesday’s elections or are retiring from office voting on critical budgetary and national security matters when Congress returns for a lame-duck session next week.

“These zombie politicians were just rejected by voters and they shouldn’t have one last chance to fleece taxpayers on behalf of special interests,” DeMint said in an email interview with McClatchy.

DeMint and other conservatives worry that defeated or retiring lawmakers — “zombies,” in the words of columnist George Will, who coined the term — are the politically walking dead with nothing to lose. Instead of being beholden to voters, they could go rogue and actually vote their conscience.

“With no electorate to appease, the newly politically ‘deceased’ members have no incentive to restrain their baser urges to feast upon the hard-earned tax dollars of the living,” DeMint added in a column for The Daily Signal, a Heritage Foundation online publication.

Jenny Beth Martin, president and co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, said she’d prefer to see the entire 113th Congress, losers and incumbent winners, become zombies and roam the countryside until the 114th Congress is sworn in in January.

Besides, lawmakers were gone most of the summer and fall, Martin said — why rush back to Washington now?

“I know they have to do a spending bill, but we would like to see as little as possible done in the lame duck and wait for the new Congress,” Martin said. “Congress has been able to be out of Washington a lot since July. If it wasn’t urgent before the elections, it can wait until the next Congress.”

Lawmakers do behave and vote differently in lame-duck sessions, according to a report released in September by George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. The study, which analyzed more than 28,000 House and 22,000 Senate roll call votes between 1939 and 2013, found that lame-duck lawmakers were 3 to 4 percent less likely to vote along party lines.

“For legislators who are retiring or have been voted out of office, a lame-duck session is a unique opportunity to ignore the wishes of special interests, campaign donors, other legislators and party bosses,” Matthew Mitchell and Emily Washington, co-authors with Christopher Koopman of the Mercatus Center study, wrote last month for the website RealClearPolitics. “Only as lame ducks can they freely vote as they wish.”

That’s if they showed up at all. The report also found that House members were 50 percent more likely to miss votes and senators 30 percent more likely to skip on the yeas or nays in lame-duck sessions.

The 113th Congress has a long to-do list before it adjourns next month. House and Senate appropriators are working on an omnibus spending bill to keep the federal government funded beyond Dec. 11.

Lawmakers will get another chance to weigh in on matters of war and peace as President Barack Obama’s authorization to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels to combat the Islamic State expires next month. And the Senate will attempt to push through hundreds of Obama administration judicial, ambassadorial and administrative nominees before adjourning next month. One of those nominees could be a yet-to-be-named replacement for departing Attorney General Eric Holder.

Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, thinks soon-to-be ex-lawmakers will handle their lame-duck duties just fine.

“I know a few of my colleagues have said the lame-duck Congress shouldn’t do anything, but I think there are a few things you can do that the next Congress won’t do dramatically differently,” Blunt told reporters this week. “As long as you have a Republican House, I don’t think senators need to be overly worried about what a lame-duck Senate is going to do.”

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., believes “there should be an accommodation” in the lame duck “based on the people having spoken so emphatically” in the elections. But he’s not scared or worried about what zombie lawmakers will do in Congress’ closing days.

“A lame duck, where there is a transition at the end, is an opportunity to get things done by consensus, which is the way we’ve historically done things in the Senate anyway,” Wicker said.

That’s if they show up to vote.

(Greg Gordon and Lindsay Wise of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.)

Photo: “Night of the Living Dead” — 1968, via Wikimedia

With New Voter Laws Widespread, Fears Persist Of Fraud, Disenfranchisement

By William Douglas, McClatchy Washington Bureau (MCT)

WASHINGTON — With several key elections potentially hinging on razor-thin margins, Americans went to the polls Tuesday in 34 states with new voting laws that critics fear will adversely impact minority turnout and proponents say are needed to protect against voter fraud.

The new laws — ranging from photo identification requirements to restrictions on same-day registration — brought increased scrutiny Tuesday from the two major political parties, civic groups, voting rights advocates and the Justice Department, almost all deploying monitors and lawyers to polling stations to look out for voting problems.

“It’s the new normal since 2000,” said Richard Hasen, a law and politics professor at the University of California, Irvine, and author of The Voting Wars: From 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown. “Some of this is legitimate fear, some of it is a way of getting the base wound up and (to) raise funds.”

From the moment polls opened — and in some cases before — reports of voting irregularities began. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s election protection program reported more than 12,000 calls to its hotline — the bulk of them from Florida, Georgia, Texas, New York and North Carolina.

Georgia and Texas have strict photo ID laws, meaning those who don’t have proper identification can vote via provisional ballots but must provide sufficient identification within days of casting those ballots, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Florida, voters without ID can cast provisional ballots and their signatures can be verified by election officials with signatures on record.

“Yes, there are people saying they’re not being allowed to vote,” Barbara Arnwine, the lawyers’ committee’s president and executive director, said without providing specific details.

“Unfortunately it’s coming from a number of states. We say it’s for two reasons: Some of them are states like Texas where, sadly, the voter ID law has been allowed to proceed. … The other thing that we’re seeing is that states just didn’t do their jobs of getting to voters the correct information about voter registration status and polling places.”

In Georgia, where Republican David Perdue and Democrat Michelle Nunn are locked in a tight Senate race, the secretary of state reported problems with a website that provides poll locations for voters.

The technical glitch further angered civil rights leaders and voting rights advocates who have alleged that 40,000 voter registration applications gathered by the New Georgia Project are missing or unprocessed. Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp said there are no missing applications.

In Connecticut, incumbent Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy’s campaign filed a complain in Hartford Superior Court demanding that voting hours be extended Tuesday because of delays and other problems at Hartford polling sites. Photo ID is requested but not required to vote in Connecticut.

President Barack Obama called “The Colin McEnroe Show” on Hartford’s WNPR on Tuesday and told listeners not to let problems at the polls discourage them from voting.

“If people were planning to vote before going to work, and they weren’t able to do it, that’s frustrating,” Obama said. “I want to encourage everyone who is listening not to be deterred by what was obviously an inconvenience.”

Republicans railed against Malloy’s extension request.

“It’s always the Democrats. It’s always the cities,” state Republican Party Chairman Jerry Labriola told NBC Connecticut. “This is right out of the Democratic playbook on how to conduct elections.”

In Maryland, where Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown is in an unexpectedly close race against Republican Larry Hogan, True the Vote, a conservative-leaning election watchdog group, said Tuesday that issues with a malfunctioning voting machine in Baltimore County that allegedly switched votes in multiple contests during early voting last month remain unresolved.

The group also reported that Texas gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott’s name was missing on at least one voting machine in a San Antonio precinct.

Midterm elections generally draw fewer voters than presidential-year contests. Still, more than 19.6 million have voted ahead of the official Election Day, according to the United States Elections Project, which compiles voting data.

In 2010, 41.8 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, according to U.S. Census data, down from 43.6 percent in the 2006 midterms. The number of African-Americans and Hispanics voting in midterms has been increasing.

In 2006, 38.6 percent of African-Americans and 19.3 percent of Hispanics voted in midterm congressional and statewide elections, according to Census data. In the 2010 midterms, 40.7 percent of eligible African-Americans and 21.3 percent of Hispanics voted.

Democrats and aligned groups fear those gains will be eroded by new voting rules adopted by mostly Republican-controlled state legislatures in recent years to secure the voting process against fraud.

Voting rights advocates and civil rights organizations say minorities disproportionately lack sufficient government-issued identification. At the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest said “it remains to be seen” what impact the laws will have on voter turnout.

All sides of the voting law debate braced for battle Tuesday. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in conjunction with other civil rights/voting advocacy groups, says it has between 1,000 and 2,000 lawyers and non-attorneys on the ground in 18 states and on telephone hotlines on the lookout for problems at the polls.

The Republican National Lawyers Association conducted 60 election law training seminars nationwide. The sessions were attended by more than 1,000 lawyers and volunteers who are available to work if problems arise Tuesday.

True the Vote has trained more than 400,000 citizen poll-watchers since 2012 and released a cellphone app to help people quickly report suspected voter fraud.

The Justice Department, which has wrestled with Texas, South Carolina and other states over voting law changes, dispatched federal monitors to 18 states for the elections.

“This is all focused on the idea that every eligible American citizen should be able to cast a ballot if they choose to do so today,” Earnest said. “Election Day seems to be a unifying day, and I think this is the kind of principle the Democrats, independents and Republicans all agree on.”

Photo: Stan and Diane Cantrell of Gautier, Miss., look at a sample ballot before voting at the Gautier Convention Center on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. (John Fitzhugh/Biloxi Sun Herald/MCT)

Top Priority For Lame-Duck Senate: Vote On Obama Nominations

By William Douglas, McClatchy Washington Bureau (MCT)

WASHINGTON — State Department officials and Washington’s diplomatic community are pressing the Senate to address a backlog of ambassadorial nominations during Congress’ post-election lame-duck session.

They fear that if the Republicans win control of the Senate, the already sluggish pace of voting on President Barack Obama’s nominees will worsen over the next two years.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen in the elections,” said Kristen Fernekes, a spokeswoman for the 17,000-member American Foreign Service Association. “We don’t know what’s going to happen in the lame duck. We’re deeply concerned about this becoming the new normal, and we don’t want to see it take 400, 300, 200 days to get people to their posts.”

Senate Democratic leaders say dealing with hundreds of pending nominations — ambassadorial, judicial and administration — will be a major thrust of the lame-duck session when Congress returns to Washington Nov. 12.

But confronted with a legislative to-do list that also includes keeping the federal government funded beyond Dec.11 to avert a shutdown, Senate Democratic officials concede that lawmakers won’t plow through all the nominations during the lame-duck session.

That means those who aren’t confirmed before the 113th Congress adjourns would have to be re-nominated when the 114th Congress convenes in January, a lengthy process that would involve hearings and committee votes as well as Senate floor action.

“Time is a finite commodity,” said Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). “We’ll do as many as we can, regardless” of the outcome of the election.

Democrats and several political analysts foresee difficulties for the White House in getting its nominees confirmed by a Republican-controlled Senate. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who stands to become the chamber’s majority leader if his party wins control in the coming elections, has vowed to restore so-called “regular order” to the Senate, a process in which legislation and nominations go through committees before being debated and voted on by the full Senate.

But political observers predict that a Republican-run Senate would slow the pace of addressing Obama’s nominees, already at a trickle, even further.

Currently, 47 ambassadorial nominees are awaiting confirmation for assignments in 54 countries such as Argentina, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Norway, Rwanda and Jamaica. Of the 47 nominees, eight are awaiting confirmation hearings by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The vacancies spawn from partisan feuding between Senate Democrats and Republicans and from complaints that Obama has nominated an unusually high percentage of political supporters rather than career diplomats for ambassadorships.

At one point over the summer, more than a quarter of the world’s countries didn’t have a U.S. ambassador. Just before adjourning in August and September, senators confirmed ten ambassadors, including for Sierra Leone, an epicenter of the Ebola virus outbreak, and for Turkey, a key country in the fight against the Islamic State.

Now State Department and diplomatic officials are pressing the Senate to take up the rest of the backlog.

“The vast majority of our nominees could be confirmed quickly in one en bloc vote just like military nominees as soon as the Senate returns to Washington,” Alec Gerlach, a State Department spokesman, said Wednesday.

That request could face stiff resistance.

In July, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tried to move a block of ambassadorial nominees to the Senate floor. But Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) objected in protest of Reid’s change of Senate rules making it difficult for senators to filibuster administration and judicial nominations.

As to whether Enzi would object to en bloc nominations during the lame-duck session, Daniel Head, an Enzi spokesman, said, “The majority leader sets floor votes. We’ll see what the remaining session looks like when we come back into session.”

Republican senators also may want separate votes on individual nominees to show their displeasure over the number of politically connected people Obama has chosen over career diplomats.

Of the 47 nominees awaiting confirmation, 13 are considered political. They have limited international diplomacy experience or worked for the Obama administration or his presidential campaigns.

Historically, presidents have adhered to a “70-30” combination: 70 percent of nominees being career diplomats, 30 percent are political backers.

Since taking office in 2009, 64.8 percent of Obama’s picks have been careerists and 35.2 percent political, according to American Foreign Service Association statistics.

So far in his second term, 58.6 percent of Obama’s ambassadorial nominees are careerists and 41.4 percent political. Of the 47 nominees awaiting full Senate votes or Foreign Relations Committee approval, 13 are political.

To get as many people confirmed as possible during the lame-duck session, State Department officials and the foreign service association have suggested that senators move ahead with the nominations of career diplomats.

“We know that foreign service officers have respect on both sides of the aisle,” Fernekes said. “We would hope as a goodwill gesture that they would at least confirm career nominees.”

The foreign service association has mounted a full-court press. Since July, representatives of the group have spoken with the White House and met with 20 senators — most of them Republicans — in hopes of moving nominations forward.

“We don’t know when the next nation will arise that will be on the nightly news” because of a crisis, Fernekes said. “We need to have fully staffed embassies.”

AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards

Senate Passes Stopgap Budget And Aid For Syrian Rebels, Then Quits Until After Elections

By William Douglas, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Moving quickly on the heels of the House of Representatives, the Senate grudgingly approved a measure Thursday that gives President Barack Obama the authority to train and arm Syrian rebels to combat the Islamic State and provides funding to keep the federal government open through mid-December.

Like their House counterparts, several senators questioned the viability of Obama’s strategy. They also complained that with the short-term budget bill, lawmakers were once again kicking serious budgetary questions down the legislative calendar.

But with the Islamic State’s threat rising and control of the Senate up for grabs, senators swallowed their concerns and voted 78-22 for the overall budget bill before heading home to campaign in the final weeks before November’s elections. There was no separate vote on the training of Syrian rebels.

“It is not perfect, that’s for sure,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said of the bill. “But no legislation is.”

The narrowly crafted Syria language gives Obama the power to train and equip vetted Syrian rebels against the Islamic State. The authorization expires in mid-December, dovetailing with the budget bill’s expiration date.

Administration officials must report to Congress on the progress of the strategy and how it fits into a larger plan to combat the Islamic State. The measure contains language that prevents Obama from expanding the training strategy into a battle that involves U.S. troops without congressional approval.

The provision doesn’t include any of the $500 million Obama has requested, though it allows the Pentagon to submit requests to Congress to redirect money and allows the State Department to accept foreign contributions.

Obama called it a victory nonetheless.

“The House and the Senate have now voted to support a key element of our strategy,” he said Thursday evening. “The strong bipartisan support in Congress for this new training effort shows the world that Americans are united in confronting the threat from (the Islamic State), which has slaughtered so many innocent civilians.”

The overall budget bill will continue to fund federal government programs and services at its current rate of $1.012 trillion until Dec. 11 and extends the life of the federal Export-Import Bank, which was set to expire Sept. 30, through June 2015.

But many lawmakers were unhappy that Congress is leaving until Nov. 12 after taking five weeks off this summer and then returning for eight days.

Congress’ long recesses and short list of legislative accomplishments are some of the reasons Capitol Hill lawmakers have a scant 14 percent approval rating, according to Barrett Loomis, a University of Kansas political science professor.

“Who had expectations that this Congress would do any better than this?” Loomis said. “They want to be on record as doing something, but they want to leave as few fingerprints as possible. These are far from profiles in courage here.”

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was blunt Thursday on why the House and Senate decided to do a short-term budget bill.

“We’re in the closing hours before the Senate takes a recess for the fall elections,” Mikulski said. “We want to make sure that we could provide funding and make sure that the government will not be shut down and that after the election we can return and do due diligence and pass this in a more comprehensive way.”

The bill had the rare bipartisan blessings of Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Still, many senators weren’t pleased with the choices — or lack thereof — that they faced Thursday.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a potential 2016 presidential candidate, said senators are more afraid of the American voter than the Islamic State. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said, “I don’t think we should adjourn and go home with matters of war and peace in front of us.”

“And here, the Congress of the United States is going to adjourn in the middle of September?” Nelson said on the Senate floor. “And, as I calculate, starting tomorrow, it’s 55 days until we would return? We need to be talking about war and peace. We need to be talking about the Congress exercising its constitutional authority to give the authority to the president for this long-term engagement.”

Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) said the U.S. government is “on autopilot or, alternatively, government without an engine,” for passing a budget bill in election-year haste without scrutinizing the effectiveness of some of the departments and programs it funds.

“This kind of all-or-nothing proposition is dysfunctional, antidemocratic, and it prevents Congress from doing its job, which I remind my colleagues, is to represent the American people and be faithful stewards of their money,” he said.

Photo: Diliff via Wikimedia Commons

As Congress Returns To Work, Politics Is High On The Agenda

By William Douglas, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Congress returned Monday for a two-week session with a schedule that’s short on substantive action and long on political theater ahead of November’s midterm elections.

Rather than go out in a blaze of legislative accomplishment before the Nov. 4 elections, members of the House of Representatives and the Senate appear satisfied with doing the bare minimum required before returning to their districts to campaign.

Keeping the federal government operating beyond Sept. 30, extending or shutting an agency that helps U.S. businesses sell their products overseas, and whether to formally weigh in on the recent violent activities of the Islamic State top the agenda.

After that, the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-run House will conduct a series of votes and debates designed more to appeal to each party’s political base than to become law.

For example, the Senate was scheduled to vote Monday on a Democratic-sponsored measure to consider a constitutional amendment on the nation’s campaign finance laws, a nonstarter among Republicans.

House Republicans are slated to fold their previously passed jobs measures into one bill and put it up to a vote during the two-week session. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California told fellow Republicans last week that the vote is designed “to remind (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid of our positive solutions and foster job creation.”

“Do a quick kick and get out of town,” said Robert Bixby, the executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan government-watchdog group. “This has kind of become the new regular order. It’s not a good thing, but it’s better than a shutdown.”

As early as this week, lawmakers will vote on a short-term continuing resolution to fund the government past the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year and avoid a repeat of last October’s 16-day partial government shutdown.

The measure once again signifies the failure of Democrats and Republicans in the two chambers to reach consensus on serious budgetary issues and punts the responsibility of passing a budget into the hands of a post-election lame-duck Congress — or even a new Congress in 2015.

Though the resolution is expected to pass, there might be some problems along the way. One of them could be the federal Export-Import Bank, which would run out of funding if Congress fails to reauthorize it by Sept. 30.

The bank is the bane of conservatives, who consider it a testament to “crony capitalism” and a heavy-handed institution that picks business winners and losers.

There’s bipartisan support for the bank among Democratic and Republican leaders, though they disagree on the length of the reauthorization.

With House members and senators assembled in Washington for the first time since late July, both chambers are expected to discuss the deteriorating situation in the Middle East and the deadly rise of the Islamic State.

But it’s unclear whether lawmakers will do anything more than talk and hold hearings such as the Sept. 16 House Foreign Affairs Committee session on the Islamic State, in which Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to testify.

AFP Photo/Michael Mathes

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Poll: Hillary Clinton Leads Chris Christie On His Turf

By William Douglas, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Potential Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton leads New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a potential White House contender, in his home state, according to a Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday.

Clinton, President Barack Obama’s former secretary of state, leads the second-term governor 50 percent to 42 percent in the poll. The poll exposes a huge gender gap with Clinton ahead among women 54 percent to 38 percent. Men in the Garden State prefer Christie over Clinton 47 percent to 44 percent.

The poll also finds Clinton, a New York resident, with a higher favorability rating — 60 percent to 38 percent — than Christie. New Jersey voters were split 47-47 on the governor, who has had to deal with a controversy over whether his aides orchestrated major traffic jams on the New Jersey-New York George Washington Bridge last year as political payback against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J.

“As Gov. Christopher Christie traipses around the nation, his presidential potential seems alive, but former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the adopted girl next door, easily beats him in his home state,” said Maurice Carroll, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University poll.

The poll shows Clinton with double-digit leads in New Jersey over other possible Republican presidential candidates: 54-34 over former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; 55-35 over Senator Rand Paul (R-KY); and 57-34 over former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

AFP Photo/Thomas Samson

Need Campaign Cash? No Problem. Sue The President

By William Douglas, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — House Speaker John Boehner has yet to formally file his lawsuit accusing President Barack Obama of overreaching his executive authority, but that hasn’t stopped Democrats and Republicans from making a mad dash for campaign cash off the threatened legal action.

No sooner did Boehner (R-OH), unveil a draft resolution authorizing the House of Representatives to proceed with the lawsuit than party campaign committees rushed to Twitter, email, and social media with the digital equivalent of tin cups, begging for donations.

“Hours ago, Republicans held a hearing to launch their biggest attack yet against President Obama — they’re suing the president,” alerted a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee email Wednesday asking for donations between $5 and $250 from 200,000 supporters. “Crushing that goal is the single most important thing we can do right now to get President Obama’s back. Can you chip in to help us hit our target?”

Republicans have been equally busy on the lawsuit money trail. On Facebook, the Republican National Committee placed a post seeking support for Boehner’s lawsuit, calling it an effort to “Stop this imperial presidency in Court.”

Type your name, email address and zip code in the petition signature section and it takes you to another page that states, “But to fully stop this Imperial President’s radical, unconstitutional actions and to hold him (Obama) accountable to the American people, we must get more principled conservatives elected to Congress.”

It then asks for donations to the RNC from $5 to $32,400 to “get more Republicans elected to Congress in 2014.”

Campaign finance watchdog groups say that, while the practice of using controversies or tragedies for fundraising purposes may appear unseemly, it’s perfectly legal and is becoming a growing part of today’s politics.

“This is standard procedure in the political/charity fundraising playbook to shake loose money from the money tree,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign finance oversight group. “This is a clear reminder of how these controversies are the bread and butter of fundraising. They (political parties) hope it excites and incites their base.”

The proposed Obama lawsuit is the latest political skirmish to trigger a fundraising blitz. Both parties are also trying to turn political hay into campaign cash from the increasing chatter on the political right calling for Obama’s impeachment. And the health care law is now a standard fundraising tool, with Republicans making cash appeals to help elect members to kill it and Democrats asking for donations to preserve it.

Larry Noble, legal counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit campaign legal research group, said that the efforts are symbolic of the “fundraising demands” of the political parties and their candidates to “fundraise on anything.”

“There are a lot of things that they do in Congress with an eye towards fundraising, and they’re very open about it,” said Noble, a former Federal Election Commission general counsel. “There’s clearly an element to this about exciting your base and fundraising off it.”

AFP Photo/Jim Watson

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Time To Impeach Obama?

By William Douglas, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — For many on the far political right, it’s high time to charge President Barack Obama with high crimes and misdemeanors.

The “I-word” — impeachment — is creeping back into the political lexicon nearly 16 years after the House of Representatives impeached President Bill Clinton for lying under oath about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

From conservative media outlets to the campaign trail to book stores, chatter about impeaching Obama, and members of his administration has heated up in recent weeks. It’s fueled by conservative anger over the president’s increasing use of executive actions on issues such as immigration and air pollution regulations, the exchange of Taliban detainees for the release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdhal, and the familiar issue of the Affordable Care Act.

“I submit that Barack Hussein Obama’s unilateral negotiations with terrorists and the ensuing release of their key leadership without consult — mandated by law — with the U.S. Congress represents high crimes and misdemeanors, an impeachable offense,” former Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), wrote on his website in June.

South Dakota’s Republican Party passed a resolution at its June convention calling for Obama’s impeachment for violating “his oath of office in numerous ways.”

“We wanted to have a shot across the bow to the president and Congress that nobody is above the law,” said Dr. Allen Unruh, the delegate who sponsored the resolution. “Our goal is to embolden Congress.”

Unruh said he has a “thick book on impeachable offenses of the president.” So does Andrew McCarthy, who’s been making the conservative media rounds with his recently released book “Faithless Execution: Building the Case for Obama’s Impeachment,” which offers a sort of template for removing Obama from office.

The impeachment drumbeat from the right has gotten loud enough that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), flatly stated last month that his planned lawsuit against Obama for alleged overreach of his executive authority isn’t a prelude to impeaching the president, something establishment Republicans feel would be a wasted endeavor that could hurt the party at the polls.

“I don’t see the passion for it, quite honestly. It obscures the issues we want to talk about,” said former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. “I don’t think Speaker Boehner or (Senate Minority Leader Mitch) McConnell want to dance on that pin. People remember 1998.”

Republicans were expecting a midterm election boon that year powered by their dogged pursuit of the Lewinsky scandal. Instead, the party lost five seats in the House and failed to pick up seats in the Senate. It marked the first time since 1934 that a sitting president’s party gained seats in a midterm election. The failure led then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., to relinquish his gavel.

Fast-forward to 2014, where some Democrats predict that an Obama impeachment would be bad for the country but good for the party.

“From the Republican perspective, it may be good politics in their primaries but it would also be helpful to Democrats in midterm elections to bump up Democratic turnout,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic Party strategist who worked in the Clinton White House. “It would be the GOP ‘Thelma and Louise’ approach: Let’s get in the car and drive off the cliff.”

And that even worries some major tea party supporters, who often clash with the Republican establishment. Sal Russo, a co-founder of the Tea Party Express, calls impeachment talk an unwanted distraction.

“You have to think we learned a lesson from Clinton’s impeachment,” he said. “To do it, you have to have public support for it, and I don’t think that’s present. I don’t see it (impeachment) as an issue today.”

Though he believes Obama has committed offenses against the Constitution, conservative talk radio show host Rush Limbaugh agrees with Russo about the lack of a public appetite for impeachment.

“Without that, it is a waste of time, if you don’t have the political will,” Limbaugh said recently. “Meaning, if the Republican Party doesn’t have the gonads, and if the American people are not desirous of it, then it’s just whistling into the wind.”

AFP Photo / Mandel Ngan

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A U.S.-Iran Alliance On Iraq? Is The Enemy Of Our Enemy Our Friend?

By William Douglas, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The United States considers Iran a top state sponsor of terrorism, a budding nuclear threat and a meddlesome supporter of President Bashar Assad’s regime in civil war-torn Syria.

But those negatives apparently aren’t enough to prevent Washington from considering calling Iran a potential partner in the battle against a group of al-Qaida-inspired militants who are trying to overtake Iraq.

Washington and the Shiite Muslim-led government in Tehran find themselves on the same side in defending the Shiite-dominated government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki against the assault from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a Sunni Muslim insurgent group that’s quickly and violently gained control of swaths of Iraq.

With options limited, the combination of crisis and mutual interest might make possible what many foreign policy experts once thought unthinkable: that the U.S. and Iran, archenemies since the taking of 50 hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, become partners, frenemies for the sake of Iraq.

“It may be an unholy alliance to some folks, but countries don’t have allies, they have interests,” said retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, a senior adviser at the National Security Network, a liberal research center. “And in this case, Iran is a natural ally of the U.S. They want a stable country around them, and that’s what we want. From a purely realpolitik, Kissinger view of the world, we may have some strange bedfellows here.”

The White House apparently thinks so, too. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns discussed the Iraq situation last week with Iranian officials on the sidelines of a meeting in Vienna on Iran’s nuclear program.

President Barack Obama, in announcing the deployment of 300 advisers to Iraq last week and holding out the possibility of airstrikes, noted that Iran “can play a constructive role if it is helping to send the same message to the Iraqi government that we’re sending, which is that Iraq only holds together … if the interests of Sunni, Shia and Kurds are all respected.”

A potential U.S.-Iran collaborative effort unnerves many in Washington, who worry that the Tehran government will try to extract more favorable terms in the nuclear talks in exchange for its help. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., last week dismissed the thought of the U.S. teaming up with Iran.

“I’m not one who is interested in working with Iran on this,” Pelosi said. “I think you have to be open about where you get support, but I don’t have the confidence level. Right now, we’re trying to stop Iran from having a nuclear weapon.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said collaborating with Iran made sense because “they know more about what’s going on in Iraq than we do because they have people on the ground.” The New York Times reported that Iran also had embarked on drone surveillance of Iraq.

But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Graham’s close friend and fellow hawk, said working with Tehran was out of the question because “the reality is U.S. and Iranian interests do not align in Iraq, and greater Iranian intervention would only make the situation worse.”

Anthony Cordesman, a former senior defense official who’s a strategic analyst for Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, sees little upside for the United States in partnering with Iran and a potential downside if they coordinate on military operations, which the White House rules out.

“The United States can bring air power to bear, but if it brings air power to bear in support of Iranian forces, they’ll be on the ground,” Cordesman said. “They’ll be settling their influence in Iraq. They’ll be at the dividing line of whatever advances or holding position is established between Sunnis and Shiites, and we will have been an enabler and we won’t be present on the ground.”

It’s not as if the U.S. and Iran haven’t dealt with each other before. They shared intelligence in Afghanistan to help oust the Taliban in 2001. Washington and Tehran are now communicating on a higher diplomatic level than they have for years, largely because of the talks to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

But even advocates of cooperation on Iraq say any collaboration must be done with eyes wide open, and with strict parameters. And the union shouldn’t be considered a long-standing partnership with a capital “P.”

“My fear is if you don’t set some red lines with Iran, they’ll pour in troops from the south and there goes Iraq. They’ll do what Russia did with Crimea,” Graham said. “This is not a partnership, a military alliance. This is lines of communication to create red lines and basically exchange operational information to make sure that we don’t do damage, that we don’t hit each other and that we can maximize the effect we have on a common enemy.”

Photo Credit: AFP/Jewel Samad

Analysis: Cantor’s Primary Loss Sends Shock Wave Through House

By William Douglas, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The jarring defeat of House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Republican primary ripped through Congress on Wednesday, driving members to question whether the Virginia congressman was an isolated case or a broad warning sign likely to doom even slim chances of changes in such hot-button issues as immigration or voting rights.

Some said Cantor invited the stunning upset by losing touch with his district, opening the door to the successful challenge by tea party-powered political novice David Brat. Others said Cantor did it by inviting compromise with Democrats on immigration revisions, anathema to tea party activists.

Either way, it was likely to have a chilling effect on lawmakers worried about elections this year and a House already prone to gridlock.

“I think it’s made everything much more uncertain,” said former Senator Bob Bennett (R-UT), who was the first Congress member defeated by the tea party in 2010.

That doesn’t bode well for significant action in a Congress that already struggles with passing what used to be routine measures to pay its bills, let alone controversial measures.

“Every politician’s immediate concern is their election, and they’re trying to figure out how Cantor’s defeat impacts them,” said former Representative Lee Hamilton (D-IN) the director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. “This calibration distracts from legislation and contributes to inertia in Congress. I’m afraid that even less will get done.”

Put overhauling the nation’s immigration laws at the top of the list.

More than anything, Cantor was probably a casualty of immigration. As he considered Obama administration and Senate proposals to revamp immigration laws, Cantor advocated a limited legalization path for those brought into the United States as children.

That allowed Brat to hammer him as a flip-flopper soft on illegal immigration, an approach that resonated in a redrawn Virginia congressional district that’s grown more conservative.

Prospects for Congress passing new immigration measures were bleak before Cantor’s defeat. Now the chances of lawmakers dealing with it this year are nil.

“It was always going to be a tough mountain to climb,” said Bill Dal Col, an immigration-overhaul supporter and Republican strategist who managed billionaire Steve Forbes’ presidential campaigns in 1996 and 2000. “It just got tougher. I think this may make it a harder sell for those on the fence.”

Hamilton agreed, saying, “Certainly this sets back immigration in a big way.”

Supporters of overhauling the immigration system said Cantor’s ouster was his own fault for not taking a definitive position on the issue. They noted that conservative Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who supports a comprehensive immigration overhaul, handily won his primary Tuesday.

“Eric Cantor’s loss is about local politics more than immigration,” said Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group. “At the same time, he tried to play both sides of the immigration debate, and he got burned.”

Some lawmakers and analysts say immigration wasn’t the sole reason for Cantor’s defeat. Bennett said Cantor had become estranged from the area he was elected to serve.

“I talked to some people in town who said Cantor was moving away from the district almost to the point of being contemptuous,” Bennett said. “This is a traditional case of ignoring his district, ignoring that all politics is local.”

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) who’s trying to usher immigration legislation through Congress, went to the Senate floor Wednesday and said talk of Cantor losing because of the immigration issue was a false narrative.

“First, Eric Cantor was never the solution on immigration; he was always the problem,” Schumer said. “Cantor was the choke point for immigration reform for these past few months. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Cantor’s loss makes it easier, not harder, for the House leadership to pass immigration reform.”

Either way, Cantor’s defeat may ripple beyond immigration.

He was one of a handful of conservative Republicans, along with House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI), who were trying to get the party to seriously re-examine poverty issues during the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a war on poverty.

He also advocated repairing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after the Supreme Court weakened it last year by striking down key provisions of the landmark civil rights legislation. As with immigration, a bill to fix the act is stuck in the House and Senate and apparently going nowhere fast.

“It’s hard to imagine how the House could even get less done, but Cantor’s loss definitely puts a damper on getting anything done on voting rights and immigration,” said Allan Lichtman, an American University history professor who specializes in politics. “This will make it tougher. It will sharpen the differences between the two parties.”

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr