US Politics Digest: Obama announces cabinet picks, Biden prepares gun control package and more


Obama rolls out cabinet nominations

President Obama has announced his nominees for key cabinet vacancies, including secretary of defence, secretary of the treasury and director of the Central Intelligence Agency. At a White House press conference on Thursday, Obama unveiled White House chief of taff Jacob Lew as his choice to replace incumbent treasury secretary Tim Geithner. Earlier in the week, former Republican senator Chuck Hagel was chosen to succeed Leon Panetta at the Pentagon and counterterrorism adviser John Brennan was picked to take over from acting CIA chief Mike Morell.

VP-Joe-BidenWhile both Lew and Brennan are facing criticism over their records, the selection of Hagel has stirred the most controversy around Washington. Leading members of the Nebraskan’s party have questioned his views on Israel and Iran, with right-wing groups launching aggressive advertising campaigns against him.

At the other end of the spectrum, some liberals have attacked Hagel’s positions on gay rights and abortion. However, the most influential LGBT groups and pro-choice organisations have so far refrained from opposing his nomination. In related news, the biggest pro-Israel group on Capitol Hill, AIPAC, has said it will sit out the battle over Hagel’s nomination.

Observers are now assessing Hagel’s chances of winning confirmation in the Senate. Several GOP senators – among them House Minority whip John Cornyn and Tea Party stalwart Ted Cruz – have said they will actively oppose him. Other Republican members – such as Hagel’s fellow Vietnam veteran John McCain – have signalled doubts about his candidacy.

Democrats have mostly promised to give Hagel a fair hearing, although two senior Jewish Democrats are raising concerns about his attitude to Israel and international sanctions against Tehran. Hagel reportedly walked back his positions on these issues during private meetings with senior defence leaders not long after being chosen by Obama.

Obama’s decision to fill all the top posts in his cabinet with white men has led to complaints about a lack of diversity. The White House sought to rebut these concerns by announcing at least one female cabinet secretary and two of her nonwhite male counterparts would remain in their roles. This strategy was somewhat undercut by news that Labour Secretary Hilda Solis, the first Hispanic woman to serve in cabinet, was leaving her post.

Both Energy Secretary Stephen Chu and senior White House adviser David Plouffe are expected to resign from their jobs in the near future. 

Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough and former adviser to Joe Biden, Ron Klain, are seen as contenders to follow Lew as chief of staff. 

Biden prepares to unveil gun control package 

The task force set up by President Obama to look at gun violence in America will deliver recommendations next week, it has been revealed.

Speaking before he met sports groups yesterday, Vice President Joe Biden said he would put proposals before President Obama on Tuesday, given there was a “very tight window” for action. Biden added there was consensus on the need for universal background checks and restrictions on the amount of ammunition that may be loaded into gun magazines.

The vice president later held a meeting with officials from the National Rifle Association, which said it was “disappointed” with the line Biden and his colleagues were pursuingNews of another school shooting – this time in California – broke during the course of Thursday’s talks.

The Biden commission’s agenda first became clear last weekend, when the Washington Post reported the task force was considering putting an expansive package on the table. This prompted instant opposition from some lawmakers, with North Dakota’s newly-elected Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp calling the proposals “way in the extreme”. Supporters of gun control subsequently took Heitkamp to task for her intervention. Ahead of meetings with survivor groups on Wednesday, Biden said the White House could take “executive action” to deal with gun violence. Major changes to gun law – including a ban on assault weapons – can only be enacted with the backing of Congress.

Gun control advocates have in the past identified incremental steps Obama could take via executive order, including action against ‘prohibited purchasers’ and requirements for federal agencies to report mental health records. At least one Republican Senator has claimed an executive order on guns would amount to a “power grab” by the president.

In other news, former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly have launched a new organisation that will lobby for ‘common-sense’ measures to end deadly shootings.

Related polling: [PPP]

Admin cool on skirting debt ceiling fight

The White House has largely rejected calls for it to bypass Congress when it comes to the federal debt ceiling, as Republican leaders disagree on whether they should exploit an impasse over the limit.

At a news conference on Wednesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the administration was still against invoking section 4 of the 14thamendment, which some experts believe allows the president to unilaterally raise or ignore the debt ceiling.

Carney did not fully respond to suggestions the government could mint a trillion-dollar platinum coin to prevent default if Congress dragged its feet on an increase. This sparked delight among commentators who have been pushing this option in recent days. However, others have argued Carney wanted to avoid commenting on whether the coin strategy was even legal.

Influential liberal law professor Lawrence Tribe and a former director of the US Mint have indicated there would be a constitutional basis for a platinum coin.

On the Republican side, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner appear at odds over how best to pressure President Obama into accepting spending reductions. Boehner told the Wall Street Journal defence cuts due at the start of March were his party’s biggest form of leverage, while top Republican Senate aides indicated the debt ceiling was a more effective weapon.

Boehner also stated in his interview with the WSJ that monthly debt limit increases could help secure his deficit reduction goals. This is likely to anger pro-business conservatives and organisations already calling for an end to deadlock over the ceiling. Republican opposition to further increases in revenue has been given short shrift by Democrats.

Related polling: [Pew] [YouGov]
Boehner putsch was abandoned at last moment

It has emerged a full-scale effort to remove Speaker Boehner stalled just minutes before the House of Representatives began voting on his re-election last Thursday.

Roll Coll reported earlier this week that a group of renegade conservatives agreed to vote against Boehner if they could persuade at least 25 representatives to support his ouster. The group had met its target by the morning of the ballot, only for one unnamed member to pull out. Congressman Justin Amash of Michigan was initially thought to have led the revolt against the Ohioan, although participants have since claimed the plot was ‘organic’.

The bid to eject the speaker was more extensive than previously thought, and inadvertently benefited from a separate anti-Boehner movement heavily covered by the right-wing Breitbart website which led Boehner’s allies to assume opposition was not serious.

Clinton set to testify before Congress on Benghazi

Secretary of state Hillary Clinton is likely to give testimony concerning the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi on 22nd January, according to a senior Republican senator.

Tennessee’s Bob Corker – the ranking GOP member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – said he had held discussions with Clinton’s staff and revealed she was “anxious” to answer questions about the incident.

The former presidential candidate received a warm reception when she got back to the State Department on Monday following her recovery from a blood clot. Staff marked her return by giving her gifts including a football helmet.

New polls of VA, NJ contests

Fresh surveys have shown a tight race for Virginia’s next governor, while Chris Christie continues to crush Democratic challengers in New Jersey.

A poll of Old Dominion voters by Quinnipiac put former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe one point ahead of controversial Republican attorney general Ken Cuccinelli. A Public Policy Polling survey of Virginia gave McAuliffe a five point advantage. Both firms revealed GOP Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling would poll in the low teens were he to mount an independent bid.

New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson University meanwhile found Christie way in front of potential Democratic opponents, with state senate president Steve Sweeney, state senator Richard Codey and state senator Barbara Buono all losing to the combative Republican. 73% of registered Garden State voters said they approved of the job Christie was doing in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.

News in Brief

  • Sandy aid bill could face new hurdles [Politico]; Reid says he misspoke over Katrina gaffe [CNN]
  • Prez to meet Karzai for drawdown talks [Time]
  • SCOTUS sets date for gay marriage hearings [SFC]; WH weighs in on RI equal marriage legislation [Washington Blade]
  • AIG won’t join lawsuit against government [WSJ]
  • Obama approval returning to mid-2009 levels [TPM]
  • OFA to undergo restructuring [CNN]
  • Beyonce and Latino LGBT poet to headline inauguration [WaPo]; anti-gay pastor removed from schedule [CAP]
  • Dems retake affiliation lead [Gallup]; ahead in generic house ballot [PPP]
  • Iran holds off on nuclear talks until foreign policy team in place [The Guardian]
  • State department official voices fears about Cameron EU referendum plans [BBC News]
  • NM’s Martinez says yes to Medicaid expansion [KUNM]
  • Barney Frank continues to lobby for interim Senate appointment [Politico]; backs Markey for special election [The Hill]
  • Former OH governor Strickland won’t mount comeback; county exec expected to enter Dem primary [Plain Dealer]
  • Nixon remembered on 100th anniversary of birth [MSNBC]
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