US Politics Digest: Hagelshambles; immigration reform; and more

The latest US politics news - including Chuck Hagel's meltdown, the gathering momentum on immigration reform, and more.

Top News:

Hagel on defensive in confirmation hearings

Pentagon hopeful and ex-Republican Senator Chuck Hagel endured tough criticism from members of his own party when he came before the Senate committee charged with evaluating his nomination yesterday.

During a lengthy appearance in front of the Senate armed services committee, the former Republican lawmaker faced a series of assaults on his realist view of foreign policy and approach to the Middle East.

Under pressure from fellow GOPers, Hagel gave hesitant answers regarding his use of the phrase “Jewish lobby”, refused to offer a categorical position on the Iraq troop surge and was forced to correct himself after suggesting President Obama had a policy of containment when it came to Iran’s nuclear programme. He rallied near the end of the session, rebutting efforts by Texas Senator Ted Cruz to link him with a former diplomat accused of being anti-Israel.

Hagel’s wilting performance increased speculation he may not get confirmed as Secretary of Defense. Several Republican senators went on the record following the hearing and said it was less likely they would vote for his nomination, with Hagel’s former Vietnam comrade John McCain condemning him for a lack of direct answers. It is not yet clear GOP senators will filibuster such a senior post, but one of their number – Cruz – has hinted he could drag out Hagel’s nomination.

The White House has dismissed attacks on the Nebraskan as “posturing”.

There was happier news for the Obama administration earlier in the week when John Kerry was overwhelmingly endorsed by his Senate brethren as Secretary of State.

Kerry bid an emotional farewell to his colleagues on Wednesday and will formally succeed Hillary Clinton later today. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has selected his former chief of staff William Cowan as the interim replacement for Kerry, an appointment that means two African-American senators will for the first time serve simultaneously.

Also in the Bay State, Representative Stephen Lynch will challenge fellow Democratic Congressman Ed Markey for the right to run in the special election triggered by Kerry’s departure. It remains to be seen if recently-defeated Senator Scott Brown will make another run.

Obama offers backing for bipartisan immigration push

President Obama has pledged his broad support for Democratic and Republican lawmakers attempting to alter America’s immigration system.

Speaking to Spanish-language broadcasters Unvision and Telemundo late on Wednesday, Obama promised to do all he could to support reforms outlined by a bipartisan group of senators, including possible 2016 contender Marco Rubio, former presidential candidate John McCain and senior Democrat Chuck Schumer. The President said a bill should be passed in the first half of the year, while adding the senators were currently following a “reasonable timeline”.

A day earlier, Obama gave a speech in Las Vegas outlining his own preferred approach to immigration. In this address, the President applauded the broad framework of the bipartisan plan but advocated proposals which differed from those put forward by the senators.

Crucially, Obama did not endorse calls for a ‘trigger’ system, under which immigrants could gain “probationary legal status” but not apply for permanent legal status until the border was judged secure. Obama also supported changing the law to aid binational couples in same-sex relationships, something McCain dismissed as a relatively unimportant detail.

Senator Schumer has insisted there is no daylight between the two blueprints, and has attempted to reassure pro-reform Democrats and immigration advocates border security will not be used to deny a pathway to citizenship.

Republicans remain largely united in their willingness to consider an immigration overhaul. Part of this is down to Rubio, who has been aggressively courting conservative pundits with his plan. However, a few of the Florida Senator’s colleagues are still unconvinced, and there is some confusion within reformist ranks about whether a commission of south-western officials proposed by the bipartisan group would have the authority to declare the border secure.

Consensus emerges on background checks at gun violence hearing

Democratic and Republican lawmakers hinted they could compromise on greater background checks for firearms purchasers during an emotionally-charged Senate session on gun violence.

Several members of the Senate judiciary committee – including Vermont’s Patrick Leahy and Texas’s John Cornyn – indicated they could back enhanced background checks when grilling witnesses on Wednesday. One of the most prominent gun control advocates testifying, former astronaut Mark Kelly, also spoke about the need for improved checks, saying: “I can’t think of something that would make our country safer.” Kelly’s spouse, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, had earlier opened the hearings with a brief but powerful statement in support of gun control.

Support for expanded background checks was growing in the run-up to the hearing. Conservative Republican Senator Tom Coburn joined West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Illinois’s Mark Kirk in drawing up legislation on the issue, and other GOP legislators said they could back changes. In the most notable intervention, former Vice Presidential contender Paul Ryan argued people who are legally barred from possessing guns should not be able exploit loopholes and purchase them at gun shows.

Bipartisan progress is also being made on an anti-gun trafficking bill, although the assault weapons ban still looks unlikely to be reinstated.

National Rifle Association chief executive Wayne LaPierre spoke out against increased background checks during his own appearance before the Senate on Wednesday; the NRA’s President David Keene echoed his position a day later, but conceded the proposal had a chance of passing Congress.

President Obama has held further meetings with gun control supporters and will travel to Minnesota next week to defend his proposals. Vice President Joe Biden pressed Senate Democrats over the administration’s package yesterday afternoon.

Senior Dem refutes prostitution allegations

New Jersey Senator and incoming foreign relations committee chair Bob Menendez has denied claims of misconduct following an FBI raid on the office of a top Florida donor alleged to have procured him prostitutes.

The Democrat hit back after federal agents searched premises owned by Dr Salomon Melgen in Palm Beach on Tuesday night. Melgen was previously accused by a conservative news website of providing Menendez with prostitutes, some of whom were underage, when he made a trip to the Dominican Republic. There have been suggestions the raid was more to do with a possible Medicare fraud by Melgen than the Menendez allegations.

In a statement on Wednesday, Menendez said claims he had been involved with prostitutes were “manufactured” and “false”. However, he admitted writing a cheque of $58,000 to Melgen for two previously-unknown flights he took to the Dominican Republic. A third visit Menendez made to the Caribbean country courtesy of Melgen is already in the public domain. The Senator has also faced accusations he used his office to procure business favours for Melgen.

Menendez has received less than enthusiastic backing from the White House, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and New Jersey’s Senior Senator Frank Lautenberg.

WH says sequester should not be used as bargaining tool

The White House has warned Republicans not to treat cuts due to take effect at the start of March as leverage in negotiations over federal spending.

During a news conference on Wednesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the automatic cuts – which include significant reductions in the defence budget – should not be used for “political brinkmanship”. He also condemned House Republicans for flip-flopping on the sequester, accusing them of changing their minds for “nakedly political reasons”. Speaker John Boehner’s office criticised these remarks.

Senior Republican officials have claimed in recent days the automatic cuts are almost certain to come into force. House budget chair Paul Ryan told Meet the Press on Sunday the reductions would most likely occur as Democrats would not accept alternatives put forward by his party. A top GOP aide also told AP some Republicans now regard the sequester as the best means of trimming the cost of government. Such a view is not shared by the party’s defence hawks: John McCain and his close ally Lindsey Graham are among those still committed to rolling back the cuts before March.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has implored members of Congress to work on replacing the spending reductions, arguing parts of the sequester should be supplemented “in short increments” with different cuts and revenue gleaned from the repeal of energy subsidies.

The Senate has now passed a temporary increase in the debt ceiling initiated by the House of Representatives. President Obama is expected to sign the legislation shortly.

Monthly job figures due

The Bureau of Labor Statistics is due to publish its monthly report on jobs today, with analysts predicting 160,000 new hires in January and unemployment of 7.8%.

In related news, statistics released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis have shown the American economy slowing at the end of last year, surprising experts who had predicted growth of around 1%. The economy shrunk by 0.1% in the fourth quarter of 2012, the first drop since 2009. GDP grew by 2.2% for the whole of last year, up from 1.8% in 2011. A majority of economists argue another recession is unlikely to occur, despite concerns about the impact of the defence sequester.

News in Brief:

• Latest presidential approval ratings [WaPo], [Reason];

• Republicans up pressure on labour board appointees after ruling [Reuters];

• Biden, Donilon prepare fresh Russia arms engagement [Foreign Policy];

• Senate Armed Services Committee to hold another Benghazi hearing [];

• CIA nominee said to have had knowledge of enhanced interrogation techniques [Reuters]; Dem Senator knocks for lack of preparedness [Time];

• Obama belatedly congratulates Netanyahu on election win [Reuters];

• State Department shuts office working on Guantánamo closure [NYT];

• Sandy relief bill signed into law [NY Daily News];

• Senate prepares to vote again on VAWA [TPM];

• Transport Secretary decides to quit [LA Times];

• CO Lieutenant Governor tipped for Secretary of Labor [NYT];

• Chicago backer Pritzker in frame for Secretary of Commerce [WaPo];

• House, Holder nearing deal on Fast and Furious [Politico];

• WH jobs council to be wound down [Fox News];

• GOP electoral vote plan runs out of momentum [Politico];

• GA, IA senators to retire in 2014 [WSJ];

• Biden helps Landrieu fundraise for re-election [CNN];

• State Senator Buono lined up to challenge Christie [];

• VA governor contender’s book causes stir [WaPo];

• More bad poll numbers for McConnell [Courier-Journal]; Dems may finance Tea Party challenger [Politico].

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