The latest US politics news - including legislators digesting Obama's gun control package, Washington preparing for Monday's inauguration, and more.
Lawmakers ponder Obama gun control proposals
Members of Congress have begun considering legislative measures put forward by President Obama aimed at reducing gun violence across America in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings.
In a much-anticipated speech on Wednesday, President Obama announced a broad package based on Vice President Joe Biden’s review of gun policy. This included criminal background checks for all gun sales, a reinstatement of the assault weapons ban, limits on gun magazines and funds to hire more police officers. He also signed 23 executive actions, ranging from a national dialogue on mental health issues to incentives for schools to recruit “resource officers”.
Obama’s announcement – and his decision to take executive action – has resulted in intense anger on the right of the political spectrum. Two conservative congressmen suggested impeachment could be used to halt executive “overreach” and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul pledged to “nullify” the president’s orders despite their largely administrative focus.
Mainstream Republicans have been more cautious, with some representatives and senators signalling openness to tougher background checks and House Speaker John Boehner deferring to the Senate on crafting a bill.
Key Democrats have also been guarded in their response. Many Democratic Senators from pro-gun states issued carefully-worded statements following Obama’s address: Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu pledged to give the proposals “serious consideration”; Montana’s Max Baucus urged a “thoughtful debate”; and Virginia’s Mark Warner noted “growing consensus” on stronger background checks. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is reportedly concerned about the political ramifications of gun legislation for Democrats representing conservative areas, but will allow advocates of reform within his caucus to try and secure a compromise.
The unveiling of the proposals came after the National Rifle Association released a controversial commercial accusing President Obama of “hypocrisy” on stationing armed guards at schools. The ad made reference to secret service protection for Obama’s daughters, prompting the White House to upbraid the NRA for “repugnant and cowardly” behaviour. The group’s official response to Obama’s gun package proved comparatively restrained.
Washington readies for inauguration
Barack Obama and Joe Biden are preparing to be sworn in for another four years in office, as excitement builds ahead of the President’s second inauguration.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts will administer the oath to Obama in a private ceremony on Sunday 20th January, the date prescribed by the US constitution. The two men will re-enact proceedings in a traditional public ceremony the following day. Vice President Joe Biden will be sworn in by Roberts’s colleague Sonia Sotomayor on both occasions.
This inauguration season is expected to be far more low key than 2009. The period of festivities has been reduced from four days to three, and there will only be two inaugural balls. The number of people attending Monday’s swearing-in is not expected to exceed 800,000; four years ago, 1.8 million turned out.
Highlights of Monday’s ceremony include President Obama’s inaugural address, as well as performances by James Taylor, Kelly Clarkson and Beyoncé.
House GOP considers next step on debt ceiling
House Republicans are discussing how they should approach a vote on the debt ceiling, as President Obama again insists he will not negotiate on raising the limit.
GOP congressmen have gathered for a three-day retreat in Virginia, where a working group of influential members including House budget chair Paul Ryan has been drawing up ideas to deal with the debt ceiling and related spending battles. Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Ryan floated the prospect of a “short-term debt limit extension” that would encourage the White House and the Senate to negotiate a few months down the line. He and other Republican leaders later heard the views of their House colleagues on spending in a members-only brainstorming session.
Earlier in the week, GOP officials claimed more than half of Republican House members were prepared to allow a default on America’s debt so dramatic cuts could be secured. However, a number of congressmen have said they would prefer to use other milestones – the introduction of defence spending cuts on March 1st or the renewal of appropriations 26 days later – as leverage. Other Republican lawmakers and some conservative groups have also said the ceiling should be passed without brinkmanship.
Obama used a press conference on Monday to reiterate he would not bargain with Republicans on the borrowing limit, stating there would be no discussions on spending with “a gun at the head of the American people”. He added the GOP would not “collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy”. But the President did not forbid Democratic leaders from talking to Republicans about possible concessions, and some commentators have seen Obama’s comments as the ‘opening bid’ in a fresh round of bipartisan talks.
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner notified Congress on Friday his department may be unable to hold off the prospect of default by mid-February. The Treasury has also ruled out minting a trillion-dollar platinum coin as a means of averting default.
Related polling: [ABC/WaPo].
Hagel garners critical Dem support ahead of hearings
The chances of Chuck Hagel winning confirmation as Secretary of Defense have grown after a leading Jewish Democrat threw his weight behind the ex-Republican Senator.
New York’s Senior Senator Chuck Schumer – who ranks third among Democrats in the upper chamber – said he would support Hagel’s nomination despite prior doubts about his positions on Israel and Iran. Schumer stated his former colleague had been “forthcoming and sincere” in private meetings, and urged his fellow Democrats to get behind Hagel’s candidacy. Another top Jewish member of Schumer’s party, California Senator Barbara Boxer, also backed the Nebraskan after receiving assurances about his views on Israel, women’s issues and LGBT rights.
On the Republican side, Maine’s Susan Collins has said she will not take a position on Hagel for the moment, while Oklahoma’s Jim Inhofe has announced he will vote no. Kentucky’s Rand Paul – who often bucks his party on foreign affairs – remains undecided. Arizona Senator John McCain has said he will not prevent the nomination of his fellow Vietnam veteran from advancing to the floor of the Senate. The Armed Services Committee will hold hearings for Hagel on January 31st.
In related news, the president is expected to appoint Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough as his new Chief of Staff, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has revealed he will soon leave his post. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Education Secretary Arne Duncan will all stay in the administration.
Related polling: [Pew].
Rubio outlines immigration approach
Florida’s Republican Senator Marco Rubio has laid out the basics of a plan to reform America’s immigration system, amid fresh talks between the White House and Hispanic leaders on the issue.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, the conservative star advocated ideas he believes could form the basis of future legislation on immigration. These include a rise in the hard cap on people bringing investment or skills into the US and an increase in the number of visas for permanent or seasonal farm workers. Charting a middle course between traditional supporters and opponents of reform, Rubio also backed tough workplace enforcement of immigration rules and greater investment in border infrastructure.
Rubio’s intervention has received a cautious welcome from the White House. President Obama’s press secretary Jay Carney said the Senator’s intervention “bodes well for a productive bipartisan debate”, while adding his outline “closely reflects” a blueprint already produced by the administration.
White House officials held a meeting with Hispanic leaders on Wednesday which focused on how to move forward with comprehensive immigration reform. One participant in those discussions, Illinois Representative Luis Gutierrez, told BuzzFeed afterwards a more solid approach to the issue would emerge “by the end of February or early March”.
There appears to be growing agreement on the need for wholesale immigration reform.
Labour unions previously divided on the issue have backed the prospect of new legislation; evangelical groups are drawing up a campaign to sell their fellow worshippers on possible action; and several Republicans have either endorsed or echoed Rubio’s call for a long-term solution. However, other members of the 2016 presidential hopeful’s party have indicated they would prefer to pursue a more piecemeal approach.
News in Brief:
• US scrambles to respond to Algeria hostage crisis [AP];
• State Department refutes Syria chemical weapons report [Foreign Policy];
• Clinton to testify on Benghazi next Wednesday [Huffington Post];
• Prez’s private frustrations with Israel settlement move revealed [Bloomberg];
• Sandy bill passes House [BBC News];
• Merkley says Dems have votes for filibuster reform [TPM];
• Reid refutes connection to bribery case [Salt Lake Tribune];
• Opposition to overturning Roe vs Wide still high, poll finds [Pew];
• Dems slam GOP over DOMA funding [BuzzFeed];
• Obama campaign relaunched as tax-exempt group [Politico];
• RNC chair backs idea of electoral vote overhaul [Political Wire];
• Brewer says AZ will accept Medicaid expansion [Arizona Republic];
• Dem Congressman considers WV Senate bid following Rockefeller decision to quit [Register-Herald];
• WH hikes petition threshold following glut of submissions [Yahoo News].