US Politics Digest: Cliff talks reach standstill; Rice quits race to replace Hillary; and more

The latest US politics news - including the fiscal cliff talks reaching a standstill and Susan Rice pulling out of the race to replace Hillary Clinton.

Top News:

Boehner warns of long haul on cliff as GOP discontent builds

House Speaker John Boehner has indicated the impasse over the fiscal cliff may not be resolved before Christmas, after he and President Obama again failed to bridge the divide over tax increases and spending reductions set to come into force next month.

The Ohioan, who told Republicans on Wednesday they should avoid making plans for the holiday season, rejected a fresh proposal from Obama which included $1.4 trillion in revenues. On Thursday he told reporters Obama’s latest efforts to end the crisis were “anything but” balanced and said Washington had a spending problem “that can’t be fixed with tax increases alone”.

He added a vote to lift the debt ceiling early in 2013 should be used to bring “fiscal sanity” to DC.

There is confusion over whether Boehner is willing to entertain any rise in individual tax rates. The Speaker said on Thursday such increases would do considerable damage to small business, but his office had earlier denied White House claims he had advocated a permanent extension of low rates for top tax brackets when negotiating with Obama.

This lack of clarity could be the result of fraying unity within Republican ranks over fiscal issues.

A growing band of GOP lawmakers is prepared to compromise over tax rates, while a vocal group of conservatives has criticised the Speaker for moving closer to Obama. Rumours of a challenge to Boehner’s authority have grown, and senior Democrat Chris Van Hollen has suggested the Speaker could prolong negotiations until after he has been re-elected in early January. Boehner has shrugged off reports he could be dethroned.

Obama and his allies in Congress have kept up the heat on Republicans over the fiscal cliff. The President told a crowd in Michigan on Monday he was prepared to make “tough spending cuts” but would not compromise on tax rises for the wealthy. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, put pressure on Boehner to act, offering him a vote on the Bush tax cuts which would be carried largely by her party.

Democrats have sought to use this leverage to extract concessions on entitlement reductions, and are attempting to block any rise in the Medicare eligibility age. Their bargaining power on this issue may be compromised by Obama, who would not rule out the possibility of hiking eligibility during an interview with ABC News on Tuesday. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin later claimed Obama was no longer open to the idea.

Obama and Boehner held their second face-to-face meeting of the week at the White House on Thursday evening. The talks were described as “frank” and saw no movement on key issues.

Related polling: [NBC/WSJ]; [Pew]; [ABC/WaPo].

Rice pulls out of race for State

UN Ambassador Susan Rice has asked not to be considered as a possible replacement for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, stating her nomination would be an “irresponsible distraction from the most pressing issues” facing America.

In a letter to President Obama, Rice lobbed veiled attacks at the Republicans who challenged her initial response to the assault on the US consulate in Benghazi, arguing the post of Secretary of State “should never be politicised”. Obama responded by calling her an “extraordinarily capable” public servant and confirmed she would stay in her current post. A White House spokesman later hinted another job – such as national security adviser – could be in the offing down the line.

It is thought Rice reached her decision alone but that the president did not dissuade her from it.

Rice’s withdrawal – which came after concerns were also raised about her ties to Rwanda’s controversial President Paul Kagame and her financial assets – makes former presidential contender John Kerry the frontrunner for Clinton’s role. His departure from the Senate would trigger a special election in Massachusetts, with recently-defeated Republican Scott Brown likely to attempt a comeback.

Elsewhere, Bloomberg reports Nebraska’s former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel is President Obama’s leading choice for Secretary of Defense.

Hagel, who accompanied Obama on his tour of the Middle East in the summer of 2008 and now serves as chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, is said to have met Obama at the White House to discuss the post on December 4th. The ex-Senator was well-known for his criticism of the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq, despite voting for the invasion of the country in 2003. His views on Iran and the Middle East peace process could prompt opposition from some conservatives and pro-Israel groups.

MI right to work law stuns labour movement

Michigan has become the latest state to prohibit mandatory membership of unions, shocking the American labour movement in one of its heartlands. Republican Governor Rick Snyder signed two bills passed by the GOP-controlled legislature on Tuesday which prevent unions from requiring workers to join their ranks and contribute funds. The laws cover both public and private sectors, and were quickly enacted after Snyder indicated his support last Thursday.

The speed of the changes took unions and their supporters by surprise. Local Democrats desperately pleaded with Snyder to delay action, and initial protests against the law appeared relatively small compared to those which took place in Wisconsin nearly two years ago. Opponents have limited options when it comes to reversing the reforms, although a ‘veto referendum’ could be held in 2014. President Obama weighed in on the legislation when he visited the state on Monday, branding right to work laws a “race to the bottom”.

The prospect of similar bills being introduced across the US seems unlikely given the proportion of governorships and state legislatures controlled by Democrats. But Virginia, which is already a right to work state, is among a number which could see renewed efforts to curb union influence.

Related polling: [EPIC/MRA].

WH punts on SCOTUS gay marriage move

The Obama administration has declined to answer questions about the Supreme Court’s decision to hear a case concerning California’s Proposition 8, or respond to the broader issue of whether there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

Quizzed at a press briefing earlier this week, White House spokesman Jay Carney pointed out the government was not party to the Prop 8 case and referred journalists to the Department of Justice for further comment. The President previously signalled his opposition to California’s ban on same-sex marriage and last year ordered his administration to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act. However, he is now under pressure to side with those challenging Prop 8 at the Supreme Court and declare gay marriage protected by the US constitution.

The court’s move last Friday generated excitement among LGBT rights advocates and their allies, who hope swing justice Anthony Kennedy will help deliver a broad ruling in their favour (see below). A poll released by NBC and The Wall Street Journal found 51% of voters in favour of gay marriage, with 40% opposed. This represents a dramatic change from 2004, when 30% supported equal marriage rights and 62% opposed them.

Further polling: [YouGov USA]; [Politico].

Related News: [The Daily Princetonian].

Fed links rates to unemployment

The Federal Reserve has announced it will keep interest rates low while joblessness is high, a move that affirms the central bank’s commitment to tackling unemployment.  At the end of a two-day meeting on Wednesday, the Fed held rates at 0.25% but revealed it would keep them down provided the proportion of people out of work stayed above 6.5% and inflation remained under control. The Fed also said it would continue to purchase $85 billion a month in government bonds and mortgage-backed securities as part of efforts to stimulate the US economy.

Admin refuses flexibility on Medicaid expansion

The Department of Health and Human Services has told states they will not be allowed to partially implement an expansion of the Medicaid programme in President Obama’s reform of healthcare. Obama’s health law originally mandated states to extend Medicaid coverage to everyone with incomes up to 133% of the poverty level. The Supreme Court made this expansion voluntary in June, since when a number of states have considered offering coverage to those with incomes up to 100% of the poverty level and placing those with incomes between 100% and 133% in health exchanges.

Supporters of the expansion have praised the administration’s decision as in the best interest of the states. Those seeking greater flexibility, including Louisiana’s GOP Governor Bobby Jindal, have criticised it as shortsighted. One of Jindal’s Republican counterparts, Nevada’s Brian Sandoval, this week became the first GOP governor to back the Medicaid expansion in its entirety.

SC Governor whittles down candidates for DeMint seat

CNN’s Peter Hamby reported on Tuesday that South Carolina’s GOP Governor Nikki Haley has narrowed her choices to succeed Senator Jim DeMint when he leaves Congress in January. Those in the running are African-American Congressman Tim Scott, his colleague Trey Gowdy, ex-state Attorney General Henry McMaster, former South Carolina First Lady Jenny Sanford and right-wing lawyer Catherine Templeton.

One commentator suggested Sanford was included to make the list look more diverse, although she played a key part in her ex-husband Mark’s political career and gave Haley critical support when she ran to succeed him in 2010. The Governor has indicated she will not select a placeholder to replace DeMint and has said political experience is not a prerequisite for the job.

Related polling: [PPP].

News in Brief:

• Obama said to be planning big immigration push [Political Wire];

• Latest presidential approval ratings [NBC/WSJ], [Gallup];

• Filibuster reform could be in jeopardy [WaPo];

• Admin baffled by Syria scud launch [Foreign Policy]; Panetta says regime backing off chemical weapons threat [WaPo];

• NK rocket launch condemned [Washington Times];

• Clinton cools presidential speculation [The Atlantic]; may not testify on Benghazi [Foreign Policy];

• State department’s Koh quits [Foreign Policy];

• Republicans begin election review [USA Today];

• Retiring Senators give farewell speeches [ABC News];

• Incoming Dems receive committee assignments [Reuters];

• GOP expected to give ground on Sandy aid [Politico];

• Divisions persist over Farm Bill [Politico];

• Christie dismisses weight question [WaPo]; gets first Dem challenger [The Hill];

• Booker talks electoral prospects [The Hill];

• Charlie Crist joins Democrats [MSNBC];

• VA’s Bolling drops more hints about governor run [Washington Examiner];

• McConnell highly unpopular in KY [PPP];

• NJ Senator’s intern arrested [Politico]; DHS said to have deferred action until after election [AP].

Best of the Web:

The National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar argues the row over Michigan’s right to work law previews several top-flight electoral contests in 2014 which will be critical for the future of organised labour. If unions can oust Republican governors who have tried to curb their power since 2010, they will cause the GOP to rethink its agenda for fear of offending blue-collar supporters; conversely, defeat for the unions would embolden the party and establish labour reform as a key part of its platform.

Over at Wonkblog, Sarah Kliff assesses a potential rise in the Medicare eligibility age, and uses past modelling to examine how the policy would impact on groups eligible for the entitlement as well as their employers. The role President Obama’s Affordable Care Act could play in keeping people insured is also discussed.

The New Republic’s legal correspondent Jeffrey Rosen considers the role Justice Anthony Kennedy will play in the forthcoming Supreme Court battle over gay marriage, and suggests the Reagan appointee will craft a comparatively narrow ruling that strikes down the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 without recognising a federal right to same-sex unions.

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