US Politics Digest: CIA nominee faces heat over drones; row over spending cuts continues and more

A weekly round up of developments in US politics.

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CIA nominee Brennan feels heat over drones, interrogation

President Obama’s choice to head the CIA was quizzed about torture and the present administration’s use of drones during a charged confirmation hearing yesterday.

Appearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, John Brennan – a veteran intelligence officer who has served as counterterrorism adviser to President Obama – parried questions about his views on whether enhanced interrogation techniques saved lives. He defended drone strikes as a ‘last resort’ while suggesting ‘speeches given by the executive branch’ could explain the rationale behind decisions to assassinate senior terror operatives. He also gave a qualified response on waterboarding, which he pledged would ‘never’ come back under his leadership but declined to label as torture.

As part of efforts to ease public pressure on Brennan, the White House had earlier allowed members of the House and Senate intelligence committees to see a controversial legal memorandum regarding the killing of American-born terror suspects.

The administration decided to grant access to the legal opinion – which was used to justify the assassination of Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011 – after a group of senators urged the White House to publish all legal documents concerning the use of drones for targeted killing.

Their concern was prompted by the leaking of what was thought to be a 16-page summary of the Awlaki memo to NBC News.

The chair of the senate committee Dianne Feinstein has said she now intends to review proposals which would govern overseas drone attacks.

Elsewhere, Senate Armed Services Committee chair Carl Levin has announced his panel will soon vote on whether Chuck Hagel should become defence secretary, despite Republican complaints about the Pentagon hopeful’s sources of income.

Levin, who had deferred a committee vote on Thursday in light of GOP objections, said his Republican colleagues were using their ‘political creativity’ to block Hagel’s confirmation. It is unlikely Hagel will now face a formal filibuster, although Republican sources are still talking about placing a hold on his nomination.

No breakthrough on sequester

Congressional Democrats and Republicans remain deadlocked over how to avert automatic spending cuts set to come into force next month, even as Pentagon leaders warn the reductions could have a severe impact on the operations of the US military.

At a retreat on Wednesday, senior Senate Democrats outlined plans which would temporarily suspend the sequester by limiting energy subsidies, reducing tax advantages for certain wealthy individuals and cutting spending in alternative areas – a plank resisted by progressive senators.

House Speaker John Boehner has been unreceptive to the package and also rejected a plan put forward by President Obama on Monday aimed at deferring the cuts. However, GOP aides are known to be worried about political blowback should inaction lead to layoffs, furloughs and poor economic growth.

Defence chiefs have meanwhile been turning up the heat on legislators over the sequester. Outgoing Pentagon chief Leon Panetta used a Senate hearing on Benghazi yesterday to warn the spending reductions could result in the most serious military readiness crisis’ in over a decade, while chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey said on Sunday that the ‘entire country’ could suffer from the defence cuts.

These interventions have fuelled the concern of defence hawks within the Republican party, but are yet to resonate with many fiscal conservatives.

In other news, the Congressional Budget Office has released a new outlook suggesting the sequester could halve America’s growth rate over the coming year, and defence contractors have met administration officials to discuss how the cuts could impact on their businesses.

House GOP cool on immigration pathway

House Republicans have used a hearing on immigration reform to air their doubts about offering undocumented aliens a pathway to citizenship.

During a session of the House Judiciary Committee, GOP congressmen quizzed witnesses – among them San Antonio Major Julian Castro – on whether a compromise could be found between the “extremes” of a pathway for those not lawfully present in the US and mass deportation.

The Republican lawmakers also expressed greater interest in changing the current system for legal immigrants. At least one GOP representative has since claimed his caucus will not vote for a pathway to citizenship.

These positions put rank-and-file House Republicans at loggerheads with GOP senators who are backing a pathway within the context of bipartisan immigration reform.

The representatives are also distancing themselves somewhat from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who used a headline speech on Tuesday to endorse a pathway for undocumented immigrants brought to America as children. Cantor earlier said Florida’s Marco Rubio was ‘moving in the right direction’ with his broader framework on immigration, but declined to offer categorical support for such a comprehensive package.

On the other side of the debate, immigration advocates visiting the White House for a meeting with President Obama split when asked if a pathway to citizenship should be contingent on triggers such as border security. The Obama administration has noted senators working on reform have so far failed to define what form these triggers should take, but added it will not weigh in until concrete proposals are on the table.

Related polling: [WaPo] [Gallup] [Quinnipiac]

More gun control legislation unveiled

Lawmakers have outlined new plans to deal with gun violence, as the Obama administration renews efforts to pass its own package of proposals.

House Democrats on Thursday put forward 15 measures aimed at halting deadly shootings, including an assault weapons ban and background checks for all firearms sales. A cross-party group of representatives also touted a bill which would tighten penalties for the illegal purchase and transportation of guns. Both these blueprints are unlikely to go anywhere for the time being given Speaker John Boehner’s desire to let the Senate lead on the issue.

Within the Senate, a bipartisan group drawing up plans to widen background checks has indicated it will seek to close a loophole which currently allows people banned from purchasing firearms to obtain weapons from private sellers. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid appears open to this sort of legislation, as do the American public. 92% of respondents interviewed for a nationwide Quinnipiac poll said they supported background checks for all buyers. This included 89% of Republicans and 91% of gun households.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has said he favours improving the background check system used to evaluate gun purchase applications, but has refused to commit to background checks for all firearms sales.

President Obama sought to build momentum towards universal background checks when he delivered a speech in Minnesota on Monday.

Addressing a rally of supporters, Obama said there was ‘no reason’ Congress could not ban the sale of guns to individuals legally prohibited from owning them. He also de-emphasised the importance of an assault weapons ban, simply requesting a vote on its reinstatement. Senator Feinstein may try and insert the ban when the Senate Judiciary Committee marks up legislation later this month, although a lack of support for the measure even among the Democratic grassroots could force her to reconsider.

The White House has said ‘persistent questions’ were behind its decision to release a photograph of President Obama participating in a skeet shoot.

Menendez saga rumbles on

New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez is facing fresh pressure over his links to a controversial donor recently investigated by federal agents.

The Democrat has been accused of improperly interceding on behalf of Caribbean-based firm ISCCI in a fight with the government of the Dominican Republic over a port contract. ISCCI is part-owned by Menendez backer and Florida doctor Salomon Melgen, whose offices were raided by the FBI last week. A former aide to the Senator, Pedro Pablo Permuy, is also said to be an official at this company. At the same time, Menendez has acknowledged he assisted Melgen in a dispute with federal officials over Medicare services.

In a related development, Menendez has reimbursed Melgen for two flights he took to the Dominican Republic in 2010. The Democrat told CNN on Monday that paying the Floridian back for the flights had simply ‘fallen through the cracks’ and that he had now cut Melgen a cheque worth $58,500. Recent financial disclosures suggest this amount could be equivalent to up to 87% of Menendez’s personal wealth.

Allegations Menendez consorted with prostitutes through Melgen were undercut when one woman named in connection with the alleged sex scandal told Spanish language channel Univision she was not a prostitute and had never met the Senator. Other media outlets have raised doubts about the veracity of this report.

Obama will go to Israel in March

President Obama is to make his first trip to Israel and the Palestinian Territories since entering office, as the administration seeks to show it is still engaged in the Middle East peace process.

The White House revealed Obama would visit Israel, the West Bank and Jordan during the course of his tour, with Israeli media outlets suggesting he would arrive in their country on 20th March. Both the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government said the trip would underscore the close ties between the two countries, and allow them to focus on areas of mutual concern such as Iran and Syria.

News of Obama’s trip comes days after incoming Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with both Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas about the Middle East conflict. Kerry will himself travel to the region later this month.

News in Brief

  • Obama previews SOTU themes at House Dem retreat [LA Times]; Rubio will deliver rebuttal [NYT]
  • Prez plotting executive action on climate change [Wonk Wire]
  • Carney dismisses talk of Oval Office substitute [The Hill]
  • Iran’s Supreme Leader shoots down prospect of direct talks [BBC News]
  • Panetta backs arming of Syrian rebels [Bloomberg]
  • WH set to reject Moscow invite [NYT]
  • Biden banters with Cameron in London [AP]
  • Outdoor gear retailer nominated as Interior Secretary [WaPo]
  • Boehner guests at Senate GOP meeting [Roll Call]
  • Cantor says domestic violence law will be priority for House [Roll Call]
  • Republican lawmakers run from gay scout questions [BuzzFeed]
  • First openly LGBT nominee chosen for federal appeals court [BuzzFeed]
  • Politicians react to postal service cutback [The Hill]
  • Massachusetts GOPers search for candidate after Brown declines special election run [Huffington Post]
  • Republican frontrunner for IA-Sen struggles in matchups with Dems [PPP]; top Democrat jumps into race [National Journal]
  • Evolution opponent to run for Senate in Georgia [CNN]
  • Rove group attempts to nix Ashley Judd senate bid [YouTube]; touts bid to block Tea Party candidates [National Journal]
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