The Week in Washington: Immigration looms over Obama Mexico visit; admin considers arming Syria rebels and more

Larry Smith's weekly round up of American politics.

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Immigration hangs over Obama’s Mexico trip

President Obama has paid a visit to Mexico, with immigration reform looming in the background as he met the country’s new leader.

The president landed in Mexico yesterday afternoon at the beginning of a three-day tour of Central America which will also see him visit Costa Rica. At a joint news conference with his counterpart Enrique Peña Nieto, Obama said he was “optimistic” about immigration reform passing Congress but avoided drawing his opposite number into the debate back home. The main focus of the Mexico trip is trade and security, although it is likely Obama and Peña Nieto spoke about issues relating to the overhaul during a meeting immediately before their press appearance.

Arguments over reform turned slightly sour in the US this week, as conservatives targeted Gang of 8 member Marco Rubio for advocating wholesale change to the immigration system. The right-wing National Review has dubbed the Florida Senator’s work with leading Democrats “folly”, while Tea Party activists have staged small but vocal protests back in his home state. The Florida Senator also finds himself at odds with former mentor and influential Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint on the issue.

In an effort to put a lid on this backlash, Rubio has said security aspects of the Gang of 8’s bill must be toughened before it can pass the Senate, and that the draft law will “have to be adjusted” once it reaches the House of Representatives. House Judiciary Committee chair Bob Goodlatte has begun to hold hearings on smaller pieces of immigration legislation, something which the House’s own bipartisan group for reform has interpreted as a warning to complete its work. President Obama has said he is open to any bill the House ultimately proposes, but will not back a package which omits a pathway to citizenship.

Elsewhere Senate Democrats and Republicans remain at loggerheads over moves to cover bi-national LGBT couples in the legislation. Gang of 8 member John McCain has additionally suggested hearings on how best to fix holes in the immigration system following fresh revelations about the Boston bombing suspects.

Related polling: [Quinnipiac] [Pew] [Pew (Mexico)]

Talk of arming Syrian rebels grows

Speculation is growing that the Obama administration will decide to arm rebels in Syria, as the president bids to clarify his line on the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons.

Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel admitted on Thursday the US government was reconsidering whether it should supply lethal aid to forces battling President Assad’s military. This followed a report from AP which suggested an increasing number of officials were ready to support arming the secular-leaning Free Syrian Army. During his first press event in Mexico, President Obama said he was still assessing “all options” and that Hagel had simply been echoing his own position.

Asked about Syria’s chemical weapons at a press conference on Tuesday, Obama said America did not know for certain who had used the deadly arms, and lacked a clear “chain of custody” on their deployment. He said he would not “rush to judgement without hard evidence”, but added that the Pentagon had been asked to prepare options in case a “clear base line of facts” was established.

After the news conference, administration officials told The Washington Post that Obama was preparing to send ‘lethal weaponry’ to Syrian rebels, although they added he was still engaged in political negotiations. CNN meanwhile spoke to administration sources who claimed the Pentagon was also stepping up plans for potential strikes on Syria’s chemical weapons sites. However, the same sources said these efforts had been complicated by the Assad regime’s decision to move its stockpiles around the country.

Some neoconservative Republican lawmakers, including John McCain and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, have urged a much more active approach to Syria in the wake of reported chemical weapons assaults. However, many of their colleagues are reluctant to back greater US involvement. New polls released this week suggest American voters have little interest in the Syrian conflict and do not believe their government has a responsibility to do something about the crisis.

Also at his press conference on Tuesday, Obama reiterated calls for the closure of Guantanamo Bay and said he would look into claims government officials were pressured not to co-operate with congressional investigators probing the attack on America’s consulate in Benghazi. 

Gun bill opponents feel heat over votes

Senators whose votes were instrumental in dooming gun control legislation last month have come under pressure back home.

In a highly-charged town hall on Tuesday, New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte faced tough questions about her position on guns from the daughter of a teacher killed in the Sandy Hook shootings. Other gun control advocates in attendance booed the freshman senator’s responses and objected to her pre-screening of questions. Ayotte got a less hostile reception at another public meeting two days later. Meanwhile in Montana, progressive groups have launched an advertising campaign calling on Democratic Senator Max Baucus to reverse his opposition to expanded background checks.

Recent surveys conducted by Public Policy Polling have found a number of senators, including Ayotte and her Arizona colleague Jeff Flake, losing support in the wake of their votes against greater background checks. Flake initially dismissed these findings, but has since modified his tone and discussed the possibility of a scaled-down gun bill with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.

By contrast, another PPP poll has shown two red-state Democrats, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and North Carolina’s Kay Hagan, rising in the polls following their votes in favour of enhanced checks. Arizona’s John McCain, who also voted to expand the checks system, won applause for his stance at an event in Tucson yesterday.

It is still far from clear that background checks reform will return to the Senate any time soon. While Senator Manchin is keen to revive his bill, cosponsor Pat Toomey has said a “change in the atmosphere” is required before fresh action can be taken. Toomey has also claimed many GOP senators opposed his bill because President Obama was so strongly in favour of it. One of the Republicans who attempted to filibuster the plan before it was debated in the Senate, Ted Cruz, boasted about his obstructionism during a meeting with Tea Party activists last Friday.

Bill halting air traffic cutbacks signed

President Obama has signed a law mitigating the impact of sequestration on air traffic control services, as members of his own party express concern about a step-by-step approach to unwinding the package of spending reductions.

Obama approved legislation on Wednesday allowing the Federal Aviation Administration to prevent staffing reductions through September, a move which will ease delays at airports around the US. Congress has been severely criticised in recent days for acting on the delays but leaving the rest of sequestration unaltered.

In his press conference on Tuesday, Obama pressured GOP lawmakers to act on the automatic spending cuts and reiterated his belief that a comprehensive agreement was needed to undo them. However, White House spokesman Jay Carney did not completely reject suggestions Obama could support more incremental legislation when he was quizzed by journalists a day earlier.

The prospect of a piecemeal approach to undoing sequestration has met with some resistance on the Democratic side. The Ranking Member of the House Budget Committee Chris Van Hollen has warned that allowing people to ‘cherry-pick’ amendments will overwhelmingly favour groups with political clout, a fear shared by other lawmakers in the president’s party.

The Bureau of Labour Statistics’ latest jobs report showed the US economy adding 165,000 new jobs during April, with unemployment down slightly at 7.5 per cent. Totals for February and March were revised significantly upwards. 

Related polling: [CBS/NYT] [Pew]

Prez insists health law will be implemented on schedule

The law which comprehensively alters the US health care system will be fully implemented on time, President Obama has said.

Speaking at his Tuesday news conference, Obama pushed back on claims the Affordable Care Act could become a “train wreck”, while conceding some “glitches and bumps” might occur as it is introduced. He downplayed concerns about how insurance exchanges were being set up, saying they would serve a “relatively small part of the population” and that the health law had “already happened” for Americans with insurance. This assertion was disputed by some commentators.

In another development, the Health and Human Services Department has published a document which people will use to apply for insurance under the health care law. The application, which was released on Tuesday, was reduced to three pages from an original 21 amid criticisms of its complexity.

Related polling: [Kaiser]

MA special election candidates chosen

Democratic Congressman Ed Markey and Republican businessman Gabriel Gomez will face off for the right to succeed John Kerry as Massachusetts Senator after winning their respective primaries on Tuesday.

Markey, a Boston representative who is one of the longest-serving members of Congress, defeated his colleague Stephen Lynch by 14 per cent. Gomez, who once served as a Navy SEAL, led his nearest rival by a similar margin. Both candidates wasted little time in attacking one another, with Markey’s camp tying Gomez to the GOP’s “extreme agenda” and the Republican calling his new rival a “poster boy” for term limits.

In other news, the campaign for South Carolina’s first congressional district has descended into further acrimony and mudslinging. Elizabeth Colbert-Busch used a televised debate on Monday to attack her GOP opponent Mark Sanford over his infamous disappearance to Argentina, while two local people told liberal outfit Think Progress they had been called by someone push-polling against the Democratic candidate.

News in Brief

  • Public back Obama’s response to Boston bombings, fear another attack [CBS]
  • New ricin suspect makes first court appearance [TPM]
  • Charlotte Mayor picked for Transportation [WaPo]; Commerce nominee finally announced [Yahoo News]
  • Perez criticised again over whistleblower case [Roll Call]
  • FDA appeals morning after pill order [The Independent] women’s health groups condemn admin’s decision [CBS]
  • Commentators dispute major new Medicaid study [TNR]
  • Kerry welcomes Arab League’s Israel peace move [NYT]; full-scale talks seem unlikely [Haaretz]
  • Liberal senator ratchets up filibuster reform effort [TPM]
  • Ryan backs gay adoption, still opposed to SSM [WKOW]
  • Obama, Bill Clinton praise basketball player for coming out [USA Today]
  • McConnell seeks to revamp GOP’s digital operation [National Journal]; riffs off Obama’s WHCD joke [CBS]
  • Former Justice O’Connor raises doubts about Bush vs Gore [Chicago Tribune]
  • Hanabusa to challenge Schatz in HI Senate primary [WaPo]
  • Christie unveils first re-elect ad [YouTube]

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