US Politics Digest: Obama inauguration glee; debt ceiling showdown deferred; and more


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Washington digests Obama’s inauguration address

President-Barack-Obama-2013-inauguration
Lawmakers and commentators have been reacting to President Obama’s second inaugural address, with many noting its unrepentantly progressive tone.

In an 18 minute-long speech delivered after his public swearing-in on Monday, Obama highlighted the strides America had made in recent years, trumpeting the end of a “decade of war” and the beginnings of economic recovery. He went on to argue every American deserved “a basic measure of security and dignity”, while rejecting a choice between “caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future”.

He also pledged to respond to the threat of climate change, and – with Supreme Court justices metres away from him – insisted his country’s journey would not be complete until “our gay brothers and sisters” had equality under the law.

Republicans and Democrats offered sharply different takes on the President’s address. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Obama had signalled “the era of liberalism is back”, adding this would limit the prospect of “bipartisan solutions”. Obama’s former presidential rival John McCain lamented the lack of “conciliatory remarks”, and 2012 vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan criticised the president for refusing to address America’s “debt crisis”.

On the other side of the aisle, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he found the speech inspiring, with both LGBT campaigners and civil rights leaders welcoming its “inclusive” promise.

Political columnists also focused on Obama’s progressive slant, although they tended to see it in a more positive light.

Time’s Michael Scherer argued Obama had ‘neatly’ summarised the basics of modern American liberalism, while Slate’s Matt Yglesias hailed the address as a ‘thorough response’ to current conservative economic thinking. Business Insider’s deputy editor Joe Weisenthal added Obama had dropped a ‘bombshell’ by refusing to mention entitlement reform, an omission that prompted conservative writers to accuse the president of deliberately shirking major spending issues.

Elsewhere there was discussion about Obama’s comments on gay rights, a focus on his climate change pledge and interest in a brief reference he made to Iran.

House Republicans defer debt ceiling showdown

The House of Representatives has passed legislation which temporarily increases America’s debt ceiling and seeks to pressure Congress into passing a federal budget.

In a bipartisan vote on Wednesday, 86 Democrats joined 199 Republicans in backing a measure that extended the US government’s borrowing authority until May. Thirty three conservative Republicans joined a majority of their Democratic colleagues in opposing the move, which also included a provision that will suspend the pay of lawmakers if they do not pass a budget resolution by April. Both the Senate and White House have indicated they will not block the House’s move.

Congressional leaders tried to spin the vote in their party’s favour following the vote. Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said the legislation would now force the Senate to “step up and do the right thing” on spending, while senior Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer claimed President Obama had succeeded in staring down his GOP adversaries. The new chair of the Senate budget committee, Patty Murray, has promised her colleagues will now draft the upper chamber’s first budget in four years.

House Speaker John Boehner secured the backing of his caucus for a temporary increase by pledging to back a plan drawn up by his budget chair, Paul Ryan, which would balance spending in just 10 years. This dramatically tightens Ryan’s previous budget blueprint, and means he will have to find additional cuts in discretionary spending assuming House Republicans remain opposed to revenue increases.

Attention now shifts to automatic cuts due to come into force at the start of March, including major reductions in defence spending. There is speculation both Democrats and Republicans will allow the package to go through unamended, although Senator Schumer is touting an alternative that would avert the steep cuts.

Senators in bipartisan push for gun checks

A moderate Republican Senator and one of his conservative Democratic counterparts are working on legislation which would expand background checks for firearms purchasers, something that could make one of President Obama’s key gun control proposals a reality.

A spokesperson for Illinois’s Mark Kirk said the GOP Senator was partnering with West Virginia’s Joe Manchin to forge an “amenable background-check proposal”.

The two have not revealed what this would cover, and several of their colleagues have so far refused to take a position on the background check system advocated by President Obama.  However, any version of this proposal has a greater chance of passing Congress than the Assault Weapons Ban, which long-standing advocates of gun control formally reintroduced yesterday but has consistently failed to win support from pro-gun senators.

The most senior lobbyist at the National Rifle Association, Chris Cox, has indicated his group could negotiate with supporters of gun control on background checks. However, the NRA’s chief executive officer Wayne LaPierre said he would give no ground when he responded to President Obama’s inaugural address earlier in the week.

Speaking at a hunting awards ceremony in Nevada, LaPierre condemned Obama for attacking the “absolutism” of gun owners and suggested the president wanted to put personal firearms transactions “right under the thumb of the federal government”.

Vice President Joe Biden discussed gun control during a ‘fireside chat’ on Google+ last night and will campaign on the issue in Virginia later today.

Related polling: [ABC/WaPo]; [Pew]; [Gallup].

Clinton in defiant Benghazi testimony

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a strong defence of her department’s response to the attack on America’s consulate in Benghazi when she appeared before Congress on Wednesday.

In her opening statement before both the House and Senate committees on foreign relations, Clinton noted the assault in Libya last September did not happen in a “vacuum” and was part of a “broader strategic challenge” across the Middle East. She emotionally recalled meeting the coffins of those who died on their return to the US, and insisted the Obama administration had carefully co-ordinated its actions on the night of the attack.

During the course of the two hearings, Clinton engaged in hostile exchanges with conservative Republicans who quizzed her about the administration’s initial characterisation of the assault and suggested she ignored warnings about the security situation in Benghazi.

The Secretary hit back sharply on both counts, angrily chiding Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson for implying the American government had misled people and telling Kentucky Senator Rand Paul the responsibility for reading the relevant diplomatic cables resided at a lower level in her department. Democratic lawmakers frequently came to Clinton’s aid, upbraiding Republicans for having cut back funding for US diplomatic outposts.

Clinton’s appearance came as a new poll showed her approval rating reaching its highest ever level. A survey for The Washington Post and ABC News found 67% of Americans expressing favourable views of the Secretary of State, with 28% seeing her in a negative light.

The former presidential contender was back before the Senate foreign relations committee on Thursday to introduce her designated successor, John Kerry. The Massachusetts Senator sailed through his confirmation hearing and is expected to win Senate backing for his appointment early next week.

Senate agrees lightweight filibuster reform

The Senate has overwhelmingly endorsed plans designed to end obstructionism in the chamber, despite concerns from some liberal members the reforms do not go far enough.

In two lopsided votes last night, senators backed proposals agreed by Majority Leader Harry Reid and his opposite number Mitch McConnell that alter rules governing the filibuster.

Under the new arrangement, the majority party no longer has to obtain 60 votes in order for debate on a bill to proceed. However, in return, the minority is allowed to make two amendments to the legislation. In addition, senators can still move a filibuster without being present on the floor of the chamber and are allowed to block bills which lack the support of 60 members.

First briefs on same-sex marriage filed

Groups defending laws against same-sex marriage have become the first to file legal briefs with the Supreme Court, which is to consider the issue this March.

Lawyers acting for supporters of California’s Proposition 8 – which defined marriage in the Golden State as solely between a man and a woman – argued California’s citizens had “demonstrated their belief that this matter is best resolved by the People themselves”. They added the constitution’s equal protection clause does not prevent states from determining who may wed.

In a separate filing concerning the Defense of Marriage Act – which prevents federal agencies from recognising the legal marriages of gay and lesbian couples – the House of Representatives suggested the LGBT community did not need “the special intervention of the courts” given its growing political power.

The Obama administration previously refused to defend DOMA, branding it unconstitutional. The Justice Department is now considering whether to also declare Prop 8 legally unsound, a move which would increase pressure on the Supreme Court to strike the measure down. White House press secretary Jay Carney told a news conference a day after the inauguration Obama still regarded gay marriage as a state issue. However, this does not necessarily preclude his administration from passing judgement on Prop 8’s constitutionality.

Further coverage: [BuzzFeed].

News In Brief:

• Hagel, Lew make rounds on Capitol Hill [Foreign Policy], [WSJ];

• WH refutes Boehner ‘annihilate’ claim [BuzzFeed];

• Leahy wants Obama to send Congress draft immigration bill [National Journal]; Reid may be moving goalposts [Yahoo News];

• Nebraska governor’s Keystone pipeline move puts heat back on Prez [NYT];

• Pentagon to allow women in combat roles [ABC News];

• Gen. Allen nominated for NATO role after being cleared of inappropriate communication [BBC News Online]; Kelley breaks silence over Petraeus scandal [Politico];

• Admin reiterates position on Britain’s EU membership [The Guardian];

• Dem backbiting over OFA reconstruction [National Journal];

• Jindal in spotlight ahead of RNC meeting [Washington Times];

• Mary Jo White nominated for SEC, Richard Cordray chosen to head consumer protection agency [Roll Call];

• Trade Rep Kirk leaving post [Politico];

• NM Senator in mix for Interior Secretary [WaPo];

• Transport Secretary LaHood says he’s staying [Bloomberg];

• Senators reintroduce Violence Against Women Act [WaPo];

• Poll shows Lautenberg trailing Booker [USA Today]; hits rival’s record as Newark mayor [National Journal]; ‘spanking’ comments raise eyebrows [CBS News];

• VA Republican governor candidate compares self to MLK on contraception mandate [TPM];

• Capito leads in WV Senate matchups [The Hill];

• Ashley Judd drops hints about possible McConnell challenge [CBS News].

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