US Politics Digest: Boehner’s cliff vote scrapped; Obama moves on guns; and more

The latest US politics news - including House Speaker John Boehner's fiscal cliff vote getting scrapped, President Obama moving on gun control and more.

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Boehner’s fiscal cliff fallback plan withdrawn

Republicans in the House of Representatives have cancelled a vote on a ‘Plan B’ for dealing with the fiscal cliff advocated by Speaker John Boehner, damaging the Ohioan’s authority and widening the impasse over tax and spending issues that must be resolved by the year’s end.

Amid tense scenes last night, the House failed to vote on a plan that would have extended tax cuts due to expire at the end of the year except for people making more than $1 million. Conservative Republicans had threatened to join the vast majority of Democratic representatives in opposing the proposal.

A separate measure tabled by the Republican leadership to cancel cuts in military spending was narrowly passed. Before the votes, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would not allow either bill to be brought before the upper chamber.

The Speaker’s high-stakes gamble followed extensive negotiations with House Republicans, many of whom still hew to low-tax principles and do not want individual rates to rise for the wealthiest.

Important elements of the conservative movement were split on the vote: the organisation run by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist gave Boehner’s initiative its blessing, while the Club for Growth dubbed it “anti-growth”.

Earlier in the week, President Obama had presented Boehner with a revised offer to end the standoff over the cliff, which included a slightly lower amount of revenue and Bush-era tax rates for households earning up to $400,000. The Speaker did not immediately discard the proposals, but later responded to a call from Obama for compromise by forcing a vote on Plan B. The White House subsequently alleged Boehner could not convince his caucus to back a counter offer he made Obama last weekend. Boehner’s office has rejected the claim.

Other elements of Obama’s revised blueprint proved contentious among Democrats, with liberal senators and congressmen opposing plans to link social security benefits to a chained consumer price index. There was additionally some surprise on the left that Obama had not asked for an extension of payroll tax cuts. Comments made by Boehner imply the thorny issue of Medicare eligibility has been kicked into touch.

Obama vows action on guns in wake of Sandy Hook tragedy

President Obama has pledged renewed efforts to curb gun violence following the massacre that took place at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut last Friday.

During a press conference on Wednesday, Obama said he would restart a national conversation about the role of guns in American society, adding:

“This time, the words need to lead to action.”

He announced Vice President Joe Biden would head an interagency task force that would look at ways of responding to the tragedy, and promised to bring proposals before Congress in January.

The President further signalled his backing for restrictions on high-capacity ammunition clips and a renewal of the expired assault weapons ban, legislation California Senator Dianne Feinstein has said she will put before lawmakers at the start of next year. Obama’s initiative on guns came after he held a brainstorming session with senior officials on how best to react to the killings. It also followed an emotional address he delivered in the New England town last Sunday, during which he said “these tragedies must end” and asked whether Americans would remain “powerless in the face of such carnage”.

The tragedy – which ranked as the second deadliest shooting in American history – initially reconfigured the debate over gun control. Some of the most pro-gun Democratic lawmakers in Washington, including West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Virginia’s Mark Warner, said they were prepared to look at imposing restrictions. The influential National Rifle Association largely refrained from intervention while pledging to outline “meaningful contributions” at a news conference scheduled for today.

However, both Manchin and Warner subsequently dialled back their comments, and many Republicans in Congress have reiterated their opposition to any new gun control measures. There is also uncertainty about how the Supreme Court would view legislation following the landmark ruling on second amendment rights it issued in 2008.

In related news, several Democratic governorshave said they will look at instituting restrictions on guns within their states and a prominent private equity firm, Cerberus Capital Management, has agreed to sell its stake in the firm which manufactures the type of rifle used at Sandy Hook.

Related polling: [Pew]; [CNN]; [CBS]; [ABC/WaPo]; [PPP].

Hagel allies reject Israel claims

Friends of Pentagon hopeful Chuck Hagel have hit back as criticism of his attitude to Israel and its allies in the US grows.

Supporters of the former Republican Senator, who met President Obama at the start of December to discuss the post of Secretary of Defense, have released a factsheet refuting accusations he is not supportive of Israel and favours a soft approach to Iran. Senior policymakers close to the Nebraskan have also hit out at allegations Hagel once referred to pro-Israel groups as the “Jewish lobby”.

There has been a concerted effort by pro-Israel organisations to scupper a Hagel nomination. Supporters of the country raised concerns about the former Senator during a White House Hanukkah party last Friday, and the right-wing Emergency Committee for Israel has strongly criticised Hagel’s positions on the Middle East in a new commercial.

In related developments, The Washington Post has warned Hagel’s views on defence spending and Iran put him “well to the left” of Obama’s current positions, and LGBT groups have reacted angrily to revelations Hagel once voted against a diplomatic nominee because he was “openly, aggressively gay”.

Hagel on Wednesday still had the backing of key Democrats within the Senate. However, Maryland’s Ben Cardin and Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal were among a number of others refusing to pledge support. At the same time, Marco Rubio’s office revealed the Florida Senator would place a procedural hold on Hagel given his opposition to the trade embargo against Cuba.

President Obama is also under pressure to pass over Hagel in favour of former Under-Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy, who would be the first woman to head the Pentagon.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney defended Hagel during a news conference on Thursday, saying he had “fought and bled” for his country.

Longest-serving Senator dies

Washington is in mourning after the most senior US Senator, Hawaii’s Daniel Inouye, passed away at the age of 88. Inouye, who was also the second-longest serving Senator in American history, had been ill for a while and died of respiratory complications on Tuesday.

Inouye’s death has stunned his fellow senators, with many lining up to praise his integrity and long years of service. Announcing his passing, an emotional Harry Reid hailed his late colleague as a personal mentor, describing him as “one of the giants of the Senate”. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell joined Reid in paying tribute, highlighting Inouye’s distinguished World War II record and calling him one of history’s “finest” senators. Inouye’s body lay in state beneath the Capitol dome yesterday, and will today be taken to Washington Cathedral for a funeral service at which President Obama will speak.

Inouye’s passing meant significant vacancies within the Senate leadership needed to be filled. Vermont’s Patrick Leahy has taken the honorific post of President Pro Tempore, while Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski has become chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee. Leahy was entitled to this post but instead opted to remain head of the Judiciary Committee, a move which denies California’s Dianne Feinstein a perch from which to advocate stricter gun control.

Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa – who Inouye endorsed as his successor – is considered the clear favourite to assume the departed Senator’s seat come January.

Officials resign over Benghazi failings

Four officials at the US State Department have resigned their posts after an independent review into the circumstances surrounding the attack on America’s consulate in Benghazi condemned “grossly inadequate” security arrangements.

Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Eric Boswell, Deputy Assistant Secretary Responsible for Embassy Security Charlene Lamb, Deputy Assistant Secretary with Responsibility for North Africa Raymond Maxwell, and an unnamed member of Boswell’s office quit in the wake of the report drawn up by former ambassador Thomas Pickering which raised concerns about leadership in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

Senior personnel at State were not personally criticised, although the department’s top brass were faulted for a culture of “husbanding resources”. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already announced steps to rectify the problems.

Deputy Secretaries of State William Burns and Thomas Nides testified before congressional committees on Benghazi yesterday in place of Clinton, who has been suffering from a stomach illness. She will now appear before Congress in January.

Scott chosen to succeed DeMint

South Carolina Congressman Tim Scott has been picked to replace Republican Senator Jim DeMint, an appointment that makes him the first African-American to represent a southern state in the Senate since reconstruction.

Scott, who has held South Carolina’s first congressional district since 2010, was announced as DeMint’s successor by GOP Governor Nikki Haley during a news conference on Tuesday. Haley said she had selected the freshman because he backed the state’s business community and shared DeMint’s political philosophy.

In his acceptance remarks, Scott discussed the challenges he overcame early in life, as well as the support he received from a local business mentor. Both he and DeMint offered effusive praise of South Carolina’s Senior Senator Lindsey Graham, who could still face a tricky battle for re-election come 2014.

Scott’s departure from the House of Representatives will trigger a keenly-fought special election for his seat, with both former Governor Mark Sanford and his ex-wife Jenny tipped as contenders.

Booker lines up Senate run

Newark’s Mayor Cory Booker has announced he will explore a run for the New Jersey Senate seat currently held by fellow Democrat Frank Lautenberg. Booker, who has endured unflattering press about his record in Newark of late, stated in a YouTube video that he intended to seek higher office in 2014 to finish “the work we started”.

Many Democrats saw Booker as their party’s best chance of defeating Garden State Governor Chris Christie, who is now odds-on for re-election.

Lautenberg’s office has said he will not address the matter of his re-election until next year. Majority Leader Harry Reid has indicated he would support the veteran incumbent.

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