The Week in Washington: Obama bids to break sequester deadlock; hitch in immigration reform push and more

Larry Smith gives his weekly round up of politics across the pond.

Top News

Obama reaches out to GOP leaders as sequester deadline nears

President Obama has for the first time in weeks contacted Republican leaders directly in an effort to defer deep spending cuts which will begin taking effect next week.

At a news conference on Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney revealed Obama had phoned House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to discuss the forthcoming sequester. Carney said the tone of the conversations had been ‘good’ but declined to provide any other details. Representatives for the two Republicans confirmed the talks had taken place but were equally mum on what had been said.

The eleventh hour outreach follows several attempts by Obama to goad the GOP into action on the cuts. During an appearance on civil rights activist Al Sharpton’s radio show on Thursday, Obama warned vital welfare programmes and basic public services would be threatened if the automatic reductions came into force. Earlier in the week, he used a press conference at the White House to flag up emergency responder redundancies and appeared on local TV stations around the country to sound the alarm about defence cuts.

In many of the appearances, Obama touted a Democratic alternative that balances cuts in federal spending with new revenue rises. This was met with a negative response from GOPers. Boehner wrote in The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that ‘the tax debate is now closed’ and Representative Martha Roby of Alabama said Obama had ‘already got his tax increase’ during negotiations over the fiscal cliff.

The Senate will next week vote on both Democratic and Republican plans to avert the sequester. Neither is likely to pass and House Republicans have already begun planning for a fight with Democrats over the financing of the government which is expected at the end of March. If no agreement is reached by the close of next week, the president’s party could put the automatic cuts back on the table at this later juncture. But much would depend on the public’s response to the impact of the sequester. A Pew poll released yesterday suggested less than a quarter of voters have heard a lot about the cuts.

Debate over who is most responsible for the spending cuts still rages on. Many commentators this week seized on a PowerPoint presentation from 2011 which supposedly proves Speaker Boehner and his Republican colleagues authored the reductions. However, Slate’s Dave Weigel noted Boehner did not take credit for the concept of the sequester in this document.

Related polling: [Bloomberg]

Top GOP’er comes out against immigration pathway

Prospects for immigration reform look less certain after one of the most senior Republicans in the House of Representatives signalled his opposition to giving undocumented aliens the right to apply for citizenship.

The Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Representative Bob Goodlatte told NPR there was no point in passing a bill that included a pathway as one already existed in current law. He said foreigners seeking to live in America should “abide by the immigration laws” and then use their family ties and job skills to gain citizenship. The Virginian congressman’s remarks are important as he heads a panel that will have crucial oversight over any new immigration legislation.

Goodlatte’s remarks came as one Republican advocate of immigration reform faced heat over a potential overhaul. Senator John McCain encountered considerable anger at a town hall he held in Arizona on Tuesday, and Republican representatives from his home state have publicly repudiated the bipartisan initiative he signed up to in the Senate. However, outside Arizona key parts of the conservative movement remain open to legislation. The right-leaning Chamber of Commerce has agreed a set of principles in favour of reform with one of the country’s biggest unions, and evangelical leaders are still lobbying hard for change.

In related news, President Obama has insisted the leaking of a White House immigration plan will not doom cross-party efforts in the upper chamber. Speaking to an affiliate of Spanish-language channel Univision on Wednesday, Obama said the leaking of the White House’s plan – which did not link a pathway to citizenship with border security – should not prevent negotiations from moving forward.

A day earlier, the president rang McCain, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham to assure them he was not looking to scupper bipartisan talks. Rubio initially reacted very negatively to the White House leak, calling the plan ‘dead on arrival’ and blasting the administration’s failure to embrace a border security trigger. But the rising conservative star later told the president he felt good about negotiations.

Reporter’s claim embarrasses anti-Hagel effort

The campaign to prevent Chuck Hagel from becoming defence secretary took a farcical turn this week when a reporter alleged a joke he made had been turned into a false rumour about the former Senator.

A journalist at the New York Daily News claimed an accusation the former senator was linked to the ‘Friends of Hamas’ group was the result of a light-hearted conversation he had with an unnamed GOP aide. The ‘story’ was first reported by a right-wing websites two weeks ago but quickly debunked by mainstream journalists. Prominent Hagel opponents Ted Cruz and Jim Inhofe have denied their staff were responsible for peddling the slur.

Elsewhere Senator Graham has asked Hagel to respond to claims he once warned Israel was in danger of becoming an ‘apartheid state’.  This new line of attack has prompted some derision given Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have voiced similar concerns in the past.

Graham and 14 other Republican senators penned a letter to President Obama on Thursday urging him to withdraw Hagel’s nomination from consideration. However, Graham’s fellow Hagel sceptics John McCain and Kelly Ayotte were not among the signatories. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby’s decision to support the Nebraskan also means Majority Leader Harry Reid has the 60 votes required to end the GOP filibuster of Hagel when the Senate returns next week.

Related polling: [Pew]

NRA steps up opposition to gun control measures

The National Rifle Association has intensified its efforts to block new restrictions on firearms, with the group’s president threatening political consequences for lawmakers who support changes.

On Thursday, adverts from the NRA appeared in newspapers across five pro-gun states with Senate races in 2014 – Arkansas, Louisiana, Maine, North Carolina and West Virginia. The ads argued President Obama’s own advisers were sceptical about his gun control package, and highlighted an internal Department of Justice document which questioned the effectiveness of measures like universal background checks. Web videos carrying a similar message have also been released.

The NRA’s campaign came after its President David Keene told an audience at Harvard University his organisation wanted to see votes in Congress on gun control but would punish members who backed universal background checks. This could spook pro-gun Democratic senators facing tough re-election fights in 2014, although many of them have yet to suffer politically as a result of their party’s push against gun violence.

Vice President Joe Biden yesterday spoke at a conference on guns close to the site of the Sandy Hook shootings. He drew criticism from both sides of the political spectrum earlier in the week when he advised Americans to buy a shotgun, not an assault weapon, for self-defence in the home.

SCOTUS to consider Voting Rights Act

The fate of a major piece of civil rights legislation will hang in the balance next Wednesday when the Supreme Court considers whether to gut a critical provision of the Voting Rights Act.

Section 5 of the Act forces mostly southern states to clear any change to their voting rules with the Department of Justice. It was designed to prevent the disenfranchisement of minority voters and has been reauthorized a number of times, most recently by President George W Bush in 2006. However, an Alabama county is now challenging section 5’s constitutionality, claiming it infringes upon state sovereignty.

The Supreme Court handed down a narrow ruling on the Voting Rights Act in 2009 which avoided judging its constitutionality. However, at that time Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy – ‘swing’ votes in the coming case – suggested section 5 was redundant or unfair. A final judgement is expected in the summer.

In other news, the Solicitor General is reportedly consulting the White House on whether the administration should urge the Supreme Court to overturn California’s ban on same-sex marriage. A government briefing could ask the court to strike down every single statewide ban on gay unions or rule Proposition 8 alone invalid.

The high court has also announced it will hear a case concerning how much individuals can give to candidates and political action committees over a two-year cycle. 

VA governor’s race remains tight

The contest to succeed Republican Bob McDonnell as Governor of Virginia is still too close to call, according to a fresh poll of the Old Dominion.

survey by Quinnipiac had GOP Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and likely Democratic opponent Terry McAuliffe tied on 38% of the vote. If Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling entered the race as an independent, McAuliffe would lead Cuccinelli by 3%.

Quinnipiac also published a poll of this year’s other gubernatorial race in New Jersey, which showed Chris Christie trouncing presumptive Democratic challenger Barbara Buono by nearly 40%. The possible presidential contender enjoys record-breaking approval ratings of 74% in the Garden State.

News in Brief

  • Admin could reconsider Syria arms policy [NYT]
  • Obama to receive top award during Israel trip [Politico]
  • Kerry to stop in Europe, Gulf on first trip abroad [Reuters]; talks budget and diplomacy at UVA []
  • WH could get Brennan through by sidestepping drone demands [NYT]; Graham denies citing secret kill tally [BuzzFeed]
  • Press corp gets off-the-record access following complaints [Huffington Post]
  • Carter gripes about lack of presidential bond [CNN]
  • Nebraska’s Johanns to retire [NBC News]
  • Senators pay visit to Cuba [CBS]
  • Rubio meets Netanyahu on Middle East tour [Fox News]
  • Dem lawmakers persist with tax reform efforts [Politico]
  • FL’s governor reverses course on Medicaid [NBC News]
  • Booker raises cash for Senate bid [BuzzFeed]
  • Markey leads Lynch in MA Sen Dem primary [PPP]; makes Citizens United gaffe [WaPo]
  • McConnell tears into potential opponents in new ad [YouTube]; Ashley Judd meets with Dem officials [CBS]
  • Sanford asks for second chance as House campaign gets underway [MSNBC]
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