US Politics Digest: Hagel vote put back, Republicans cold on Obama’s SOTU and more

Larry Smith takes an eclectic look at the moves and shakers in US politics this week.

Top News

Final vote on Hagel pushed back
A Senate vote on whether to confirm Pentagon hopeful Chuck Hagel has been deferred, amid Republican demands for extra time to consider his nomination and calls for the White House to provide answers on unrelated questions.

A motion to cut off a GOP filibuster launched against Hagel’s nomination failed by just one vote on Thursday after senate Majority leader Harry Reid agreed to postpone a final judgement until the end of a scheduled recess. Reid had initially planned a vote on Hagel today but changed course following signals from top Republicans that the Nebraskan might be confirmed once a ten-day holiday was out the way.

GOP senators joined the filibuster for a variety of reasons. Defence hawks John McCain and Lindsey Graham had pledged to hold up Hagel until they received answers from the Obama administration regarding the attack on America’s consulate in Benghazi. Others sought to raise questions about the sources of Hagel’s income or preserve certain procedural rights within the upper chamber. President Obama has labelled use of the filibuster ‘unfortunate’.

The filibuster came after the Senate Armed Services Committee endorsed Hagel for the post of defence secretary. Members of the panel voted along party lines in an ill-tempered session which saw Democratic senators lash out at their Republican colleagues for implying Hagel was inappropriately linked to foreign nations such as Iran or North Korea. Hagel has since been accused by right-wing outlets of having ties to a non-existent terror group and of once having branded the State Department an adjunct of the Israeli foreign ministry.

In other news, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew came through a confirmation hearing with the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday. Senators McCain, Graham and Kelly Ayotte have said they will hold up CIA nominee John Brennan’s appointment over Benghazi. Their colleague from Kentucky Rand Paul is also dragging out Brennan’s nomination over the covert use of drones. 

Republicans cool on Obama’s SOTU measures

GOP legislators have given a tepid reception to proposals unveiled by President Obama in his State of the Union address.

During his keynote speech on Tuesday, Obama advocated increasing the minimum wage by over 20%, urged the expansion of preschool education and threatened executive action if Congress did not come up with a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Obama also unveiled a presidential commission on voting rights, doubled down on his support for immigration reform and again backed tougher gun control.

The President has been following up his address with visits across the country designed to boost support for his agenda. However, Republicans have already signalled their scepticism about some of the policies he put forward. House Speaker John Boehner castigated Obama’s proposed minimum wage hike as a job killer, while South Dakota Senator John Thune queried how Obama planned to pay for greater access to early education.

One or two GOP lawmakers did imply they were willing to work with Obama on immigration (see below) and aspects of gun control. Critical reaction to the State of the Union was largely positive, although pundits differed on what they thought the president was trying to accomplish.

Washington Post reporters Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake said Obama had used his address to ‘go big on guns’ and make a ‘major play’ on climate change, a view contradicted by The National Journal’s political commentator Ron Fournier.

TPM’s Josh Marshall suggested Obama had tried to go beyond the normal list of policy aspirations, noting the lengthy passage devoted to educating the public about the sequester.

Foreign Policy’s Aaron Miller meanwhile argued Obama had stressed the need to fix America’s ‘broken house’ over dealing with major foreign policy challenges such as North Korea and Syria.Florida Senator Marco Rubio delivered a rebuttal on behalf of the Republican party which was well-received but overshadowed by his awkward use of a water bottle. Rand Paul gave a response for the Tea Party.

Related polling: [PPP] [WaPo]

Senate Dems agree on sequester plan

Democratic senators have settled on the details of a package aimed at averting sizeable spending cuts due to take effect at the start of March.

The Huffington Post revealed on Thursday that members of the Democratic caucus were agreed on $120 billion of savings to replace the sequester until December of this year. The package is made up of $55bn in revenue and $55bn in new cuts, as well as an additional $10bn of interest savings. It is uncertain whether this offer will win support from Republicans, especially with Speaker Boehner still demanding gargantuan cuts in the federal budget.

The Hill had earlier reported that several progressive senators were concerned with Majority Leader Reid and President Obama’s decision to advocate a 50-50 ratio of revenue rises and spending reductions in negotiations with Republicans. The lawmakers were concerned Obama and Reid would concede further ground on revenue as talks unfolded. Reid refused to back down, arguing an alternative should include “equal amounts of revenue and cuts.”

In a related development, GOP chiefs have aggressively sought to blame President Obama for creating the spending cuts. Speaker Boehner’s office said Obama bore more responsibility for resolving the current impasse as he was the first person to insist on the reductions, even though the Ohioan enthusiastically embraced them two years ago. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy also dubbed the package an “Obamaquester”, a quip that has angered the White House and fiscal conservatives who want Republicans to own the legislation.

WH eases tension over immigration trigger

The White House has downplayed suggestions it will not accept a final deal on immigration if a pathway to citizenship for undocumented aliens is made contingent on the security of the southwestern border.

Administration spokesman Tom Earnest said on Thursday that keeping reforms to the immigration system separate from a security ‘trigger’ was not a dealbreaker for the president. Obama himself told Senate Democrats in a private meeting on Wednesday that both border security and a pathway should be key planks of a bipartisan deal.

Senator Marco Rubio – who has been pushing the link between security and a pathway as part of bipartisan efforts to overhaul the immigration system – had earlier called on Obama to “accept the principle that security triggers must be met” before undocumented immigrants could apply for a green card. His intervention was prompted by comments from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who told the Senate that the security issue was too often invoked in the immigration debate as an excuse not to address “underlying problems”.

The section on immigration in President Obama’s State of the Union speech won plaudits from some Republican lawmakers. House Budget Chair Paul Ryan said he thought Obama had made a “productive” contribution, and many of his colleagues joined Democrats in publicly applauding the president’s words on the subject.  Speaker Boehner has indicated he will not call a vote on reform until he has seen the substance of legislation, although a group of representatives is currently attempting to craft a cross-party bill for the House’s consideration.

Veteran NJ senator calls it quits

New Jersey’s Senior Senator Frank Lautenberg will today announce he is not seeking re-election in 2014. The 89-year old was facing a primary challenge from Newark Mayor Cory Booker but had until recently insisted he would run for another term. Democratic Congressman Frank Pallone is now expected to challenge Booker.

Renewed questions for Menendez over donor affair

There has been no let-up in the pressure on the Garden State’s other senator Bob Menendez, who this week sought to bat away further accusations of misconduct.

Fox News spoke to sources on Tuesday who claimed Menendez had not acknowledged another flight he took to the Dominican Republic on a plane belonging to controversial donor Salomon Melgen. The trip was said to have taken place in 2008, and enabled the Senator to attend a private golf tournament in the Caribbean Island. The New York Times has meanwhile alleged Menendez discouraged the US government from donating port security gear to the Dominican Republic, lest it undermine the work of a firm part-owned by Melgen.

Menendez’s office has come out swinging against suggestions he accepted another flight from Melgen, describing the Fox report as “absolutely false”. However, his position as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is increasingly in doubt. The Times’s editorial board has called on Menendez to relinquish his chairmanship, while fellow Democrats on the panel are linking their support for him to an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee.

Related polling: [Monmouth]

Band of House Republicans presses leadership on domestic violence law

A group of Republican representatives has called on the Speaker and House Majority Leader to enact a new version of the Violence Against Women Act, which was overwhelmingly passed by the Senate on Tuesday.

17 GOP congressmen sent a letter to John Boehner and Eric Cantor urging them to pass legislation designed to reduce domestic violence and protect women who are subjected to it. Boehner has hinted he could take up the Senate’s bill, but some members of his caucus have quibbled with a provision that would allow Native American tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians accused of domestic violence offences against Indian victims. Native American activists have argued this change is necessary to curtail the large number of assaults on Indian women committed by non-Indian abusers.

News in Brief

  • Shooting victims testify at fresh Senate hearing [ABC News]; LaPierre slams president in SOTU response [TPM]
  • Obama in tribute to outgoing Pope [USA Today]
  • First family to take short vacation in Florida [Huff Post]
  • Israeli officials produce schedule for Obama visit [Politico]; Barak meets Panetta for last time [Al-Monitor]
  • US, EU set timetable for trade agreement [FT]
  • Allen given time to decide on NATO role [NYT]
  • Row over Bin Laden Navy SEAL healthcare claims [Huff Post]
  • Pentagon extends some benefits to same-sex couples [NYT]
  • Senators demand Obama act on LGBT workplace rights [WaPo]
  • Prez reappoints labour board members [NYT]; Senate GOP huddles with case lawyer [National Review]
  • Medicare may get confirmed director [WaPo]
  • NC governor says no to Medicaid expansion [WRAL] Walker declines but expands coverage [WaPo]
  • Landrieu in with fighting chance of re-election [PPP]
  • McConnell up nine in matchup with Judd [WaPo]
  • Senior GA conservative deferring decision on Senate bid until May [WaPo]
  • House of Cards takes Washington by storm [BuzzFeed]
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