US Politics Digest: Boehner squeezes home as Speaker; GOP debt ceiling challenge; and more

The latest US politics news - including House Speaker John Boehner's stiff re-election vote, the GOP debt ceiling challenge plot post-fiscal cliff, and more.

Top News:

Boehner wins tight re-election battle

Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner has been returned to his post at the end of a week which saw him endure intense pressure over the fiscal cliff and aid for victims of Superstorm Sandy.

The House – which reconvened on Thursday for the start of the 113th Congress – re-elected Boehner with 220 votes, only just avoiding a second ballot that could have undermined the Ohioan’s authority. Twelve Republican lawmakers opposed their leader, voted present, or abstained. Three representatives initially declined to offer a preference but swung behind Boehner before the roll call was finished.

Accepting the Speaker’s gavel in a traditional ceremony, an emotional Boehner told representatives they had been sent to Washington “not to be something, but to do something”. He later took congratulatory calls from President Obama and 2012 presidential contender Mitt Romney.

Boehner won the support of his members despite a vote on the fiscal cliff Tuesday which prompted a divisive split within the House GOP. The Speaker joined 84 of his colleagues and the vast majority of House Democrats in backing a deal to avert imminent tax rises and spending reductions. One hundred and fifty one House Republicans – including Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy – voted to reject the compromise given a lack of spending controls.

Cantor also criticised the deal in a closed-door meeting of Republican representatives, but repeatedly insisted he was working alongside Boehner in the run-up to the vote. Both Cantor and McCarthy also held off voting no until the legislation’s passage was assured.

There was further trouble for Boehner a day after Congress had acted on the cliff, as leaders from the north east slammed him for not moving a bill to provide relief for those affected by Superstorm Sandy. The fiercest criticism came from New Jersey’s GOP Governor Chris Christie, who personally assailed Boehner for not taking his calls and said it was “disgusting” the House had adjourned on Tuesday without considering the package.

The Speaker additionally faced calls to act from Republican members of the New York and New Jersey House delegations before agreeing to hold votes on relief measures over the next fortnight.

GOP threatens debt ceiling showdown following cliff deal

Senior Republicans have said they will seek concessions over the debt ceiling in the wake of a scaled-down deal on the fiscal cliff which left spending issues untouched.

Speaking in the aftermath of the bipartisan agreement, Pennsylvania’s Republican Senator Pat Toomey called the debt ceiling – which must be raised by Congress within months – an “opportunity” for his party, and said the GOP needed to steel itself for a “temporary, partial government shutdown”. His words were echoed in part by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said President Obama should join in “meaningful spending and government reform” now tax rates had gone up.

Some observers have condemned Republicans for their brinkmanship, arguing an increase in the ceiling is a mandatory requirement and not a bargaining chip.Obama has again reiterated he will not negotiate over the ceiling, although he informed supporters in a YouTube appearance Washington would have to solve its deficit problem via “several steps”.

Democratic leaders are already discussing how they should handle a fresh impasse, with some lawmakers concerned the White House has few cards left to play in talks but others suggesting delayed defence cuts could provide leverage. Obama would face resistance within his party if he offered concessions on social security, something he attempted during fiscal cliff talks to the dismay of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Reaction to the cliff deal – which extended low tax rates for those with incomes less than $400,000, kept unemployment insurance in place and temporarily averted reductions in military spending – has been mixed.

Global markets initially soared on news of an agreement, but fell back Thursday morning. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the legislation would add $4tn to the deficit over the next ten years, and representatives of the defence industry said the lack of a permanent fix to the sequester would continue to affect their business decisions. A failure to extend the payroll tax could also disadvantage many American employees.

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner – a key player in the fiscal cliff talks – will reportedly depart his position by the end of the month.

Jobs report due

The Bureau of Labor Statistics will publish its jobs report for December later today. Payroll processor ADP’s respected monthly survey has suggested there were 215,000 new hires in the private sector during this period.

Clinton treated for blood clot

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been released from hospital after receiving treatment for a blood clot detected during a routine medical examination.

The clot was found behind Clinton’s right ear during a brain scan conducted following a bout of concussion. Such clots have the potential to be life-threatening, but the fact this was caught before any symptoms were spotted bodes well for the former presidential contender’s recovery.

Clinton received blood thinners to treat her condition at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, where she was visited by her husband Bill and daughter Chelsea. She was discharged on Wednesday evening and is expected to return to work next week. The State Department and Congress are now attempting to schedule her testimony regarding the attack on America’s consulate in Benghazi.

In another development, The Senate Homeland Security Committee has published a report concerning the Benghazi incident which strongly criticises the State Department for keeping its mission in the city open in spite of “woeful” security arrangements.

Obama says no decision yet on Pentagon job

President Obama has said he is yet to decide who should replace Leon Panetta as Secretary of Defence, despite defending former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel’s qualifications for the post.

In an interview with NBC’s Meet The Press on Sunday, Obama praised Hagel’s patriotism, and noted he had apologised for anti-gay remarks about one of Bill Clinton’s diplomatic nominees. However, the president said he had not settled on his choice for Defence and would make a decision based on “who’s going to do the best job in helping to secure America.”

At least two Republican senators have said they will not vote to confirm Hagel as head of the Pentagon. South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham raised objections to Hagel’s positions on Israel and Iran, while Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn cited his lack of management experience as a problem. Hagel’s fellow Nebraskan Deb Fischer has said she wishes to quiz him on a number of topics before offering her support.

Filibuster reform advocate opposes compromise package

A Democratic Senator spearheading attempts to overhaul filibuster rules in the upper house has threatened to vote against compromise proposals put forward by his colleagues.

Oregon’s Jeff Merkley told The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent a blueprint outlined by senators including Michigan’s Carl Levin and Arizona’s John McCain was so weak he would oppose it and encourage fellow liberals to do the same.

The compromise mooted would require senators looking to scupper legislation to move filibusters on the floor of the Senate instead of simply threatening them. Merkley and his allies have sought changes which would force senators to publicly talk bills they oppose into jeopardy. Merkley’s opposition may not doom the bipartisan proposals but could undermine their significance.

Majority Leader Harry Reid delayed any action on the filibuster pending further negotiations, but has used a procedural device to ensure he can change Senate rules by a simple majority.

Defence bill signed into law

President Obama has given his assent to a controversial defence bill which contains amendments banning the closure of Guantanamo Bay and giving the military powers that could allow it to indefinitely detain terror suspects.

Obama backed the National Defense Authorization Act despite having threatened to veto it over the Guantanamo provision. He used a presidential signing statement to argue a $633bn budget included in the legislation was “too great to ignore”.

Lawmakers avert ‘dairy cliff’

Congress has pushed back a steep rise in milk prices as part of legislation to avoid the fiscal cliff.

The agreement signed by President Obama extended farm subsidy programmes for nine months. This fix will prevent retail milk prices from climbing to highs of around $7 per gallon over the coming weeks. The farming industry has reacted with some frustration to the temporary deal, arguing its members need comprehensive legislation if they are to make long-term business decisions.

Prez offers support for equal marriage bid in home state

Lawmakers advocating the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Illinois have received the backing of President Obama.

A White House spokesperson told The Chicago Sun-Times that while Obama does not weigh in on every state initiative, he believes in treating people fairly and would support a measure that treats “all Illinois couples equally” if he were still a state senator. This is first time Obama has endorsed a legislative effort to allow gay couples to wed, although he intervened in referendums on same-sex marriage during the 2012 election.

Same-sex marriage bills have also been tabled this week in the New England state of Rhode Island.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.