The Week in Washington: Obama talks peace in Israel, Congress avoids shutdown and more

Larry Smith gives his weekly round up of the political goings on in Washington.

Top News

Obama to Jordan after Israel visit

President Obama will fly to Jordan today for the final leg of his Middle East trip, which has also seen him make high-profile visits to Israel and the West Bank. After further events in Israel this afternoon, the US leader is scheduled to meet Jordan’s King Abdullah for bilateral talks this evening which are likely to focus on the conflict in neighbouring Syria.

Obama will visit the ancient ruins of Petra tomorrow before flying back to the US. Obama arrived in the region on Wednesday, touching down at an airport in Tel Aviv before inspecting a US-financed anti-missile defence system and flying to Jerusalem for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Thursday saw the president urge his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas to drop preconditions for peace talks and give a major address to young Israelis in which he warned neither “occupation nor expulsion” was the answer to the Middle East conflict.

Also yesterday Israeli head of state Shimon Peres honoured Obama with the Presidential Medal of Distinction, returning a similar kindness the US leader bestowed upon him last year.Expectations for a breakthrough on the Israel-Palestine issue were low in advance of the visit. Administration officials downplayed suggestions Obama would restart peace talks, and many ordinary Palestinians greeted his arrival with deep scepticism. There was praise in both the American and Israeli press for the boldness of Obama’s Jerusalem speech, but some saw it as lacking in substance or an admission of recent failures.

At times media outlets appeared more interested in the improved relationship between Obama and Netanyahu. Reporters were eager to cover the camaraderie on show when the president arrived in Israel and during a joint press conference on Wednesday.

Events in Syria also commanded attention during the president’s visit to the region, as allegations chemical weapons had been used in the country’s civil war prompted Obama to reiterate any deployment of the Assad regime’s arsenal would be a “game changer” for the US. At his news conference with Netanyahu, Obama said the international community would have to act if weapons that caused “potential devastation and mass casualties” had indeed been used. Initial probes by Israel and the US have differed on whether the arms were deployed.Related polling: [Pew] [ABC/WaPo]

Shutdown averted with time to spare

Congress has agreed a deal that keeps the federal government funded through the fiscal year, avoiding a shutdown that would have come into effect at the end of next week.The House of Representatives voted yesterday to confirm a Senate funding measure which built on legislation it had sent the upper chamber earlier this month. The continuing resolution only covers the next six months and does not replace sequestration that took effect on 1st March, meaning the battle over spending is far from over.

Also on Thursday, the House voted largely along party lines in favour of Paul Ryan’s revised budget plan. A few right-wing Republicans joined their Democratic colleagues in opposing the Wisconsin congressman’s proposals. The Democratic caucus failed in an attempt to get a GOP majority on record in support of more extreme budget plans drawn up by the Republican Study Committee.With the continuing resolution out the way, the Senate is now considering the budget plan authored by its Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray. The Washington Democrat’s blueprint was rejected by Republicans and conservative Democrats in the House on Wednesday, but is being amended on the Senate floor and could pass the upper chamber in some form by the end of today. Five Senate Republicans yesterday sided with their Democratic brethren in voting against the Ryan budget, which Murray brought as an amendment to embarrass the GOP.

Elsewhere, conservative House Republicans have signalled their appetite for another showdown over the debt ceiling, with right-wing representatives demanding dollar-for-dollar spending reductions, the curtailment of Obamacare and benefit reforms in return for raising the spending limit. House Speaker John Boehner has said he is not prepared to risk “the full faith and credit” of the US government to win major concessions from Obama.

Related polling: [Pew] [Gallup] [CNN/ORC]

Top senator reprimands Gang of 8 over immigration bill delay

The head of the Senate committee responsible for reporting immigration legislation has said his panel will not consider any overhaul until May at the earliest because the bipartisan group of senators focussing on the issue has not produced a bill.

During a hearing on Wednesday, Patrick Leahy announced the Judiciary Committee would not be able to mark up a bill by the end of April as hoped. The Vermont Senator noted his colleagues had committed to producing legislative language by the beginning of March, but “that deadline and others have come and gone.” His anxiety was not shared by the White House, which said it was “encouraged” by the Gang of 8’s progress. Six Republicans on Leahy’s committee earlier wrote to him urging more hearings and objecting to the Gang’s closed-door negotiations.

In response to Leahy’s remarks, a spokesman for one of the Gang – New York’s Chuck Schumer – said the group remained “on pace” to strike a deal very soon. He added the Gang hoped Judiciary would take up a bill in April. Other senators and aides involved in talks have indicated agreement is imminent, with a 10- to 15-year citizenship path set to be the centrepiece of a deal. However, some details – such as those relating to a worker visa programme – remain unresolved.

Efforts to achieve comprehensive reform received a big boost this week as a senior voice within the Republican party and the GOP’s central committee backed sweeping change. Speaking to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul outlined his own immigration plan which included a provision allowing undocumented immigrant workers to eventually apply for citizenship. An autopsy of the 2012 election unveiled by Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus argued the GOP must champion an overhaul or risk relying on shrinking voter constituencies.

Related polling: [PRRI]

Gun background checks to go before Senate

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has filed a gun control bill containing a background checks proposal for his chamber’s consideration once it returns from Easter recess.

The Nevadan announced on Thursday he would table a bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee which proposed expanding background checks, school safety and anti-trafficking laws. The background checks measure is a placeholder bill drawn up by Senator Schumer that includes a provision on firearms records unpopular with Republicans. But Reid has kept alive the prospect of compromise by permitting senators to amend the language of this measure.

Several GOP senators – including judiciary committee ranking member Chuck Grassley and Arizona’s John McCain – declined to answer when quizzed by reporters about their stance on background checks earlier this week. South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham said the proposal will not pass unless his colleague Tom Coburn and Schumer can come to an agreement on outstanding issues. In a separate intervention, Speaker Boehner said he wanted to see stronger enforcement of the existing background checks system rather than a new framework.

On Monday, Majority Leader Reid told California Senator Dianne Feinstein he would not bring her ban on assault weapons up for a vote in the Senate as part of a gun control package. Reid told reporters Feinstein’s proposal would not be included from the beginning as he “had to get something on the floor”. However, he later revealed the ban – along with action on gun magazines – would be considered via amendment. Vice President Biden has insisted the administration is still pushing for passage of the AWB.

Biden appeared alongside New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to campaign for tougher gun control at an event in the Big Apple yesterday.

Support for gay marriage spikes ahead of SCOTUS hearings

Fresh polls have shown support for same-sex unions reaching new highs, just days before the Supreme Court hears landmark cases on marriage rights.

Findings for ABC News and The Washington Post put the number of Americans in favour of legalising gay marriage at 58%, with 36% against. This represents a dramatic swing from ten years ago, when voters disapproved by 55% to 37%. A Pew poll released on Wednesday suggested voters were more narrowly in favour, but also recorded a big change in sentiment since 2003.

Elsewhere, Senator Rob Portman’s decision to speak out in favour of gay unions has reverberated through Republican ranks. The Ohioan sat down with his colleagues in the Senate to discuss same-sex marriage on Tuesday, and many GOP lawmakers have been grilled about their own attitudes to the issue. Portman’s endorsement  also prompted questions for RNC head Reince Priebus when he unveiled his 2012 autopsy on Monday. Priebus said the Ohio Senator had made “pretty big inroads” when it came to bringing LGBT people into the Republican fold, something which riled the GOP’s socially conservative base. The Chairman later reiterated his party’s opposition to same-sex unions.

On the Democratic side, ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has formally embraced gay marriage in a video released by the Human Rights Campaign. Clinton’s message of support for marriage equality nationally follows her endorsement of gay unions in New York State, and appears broader than the Obama administration’s current position.

GOP lawmakers vow to frustrate labour pick

Republicans in the Senate have threatened to obstruct President Obama’s choice for labour secretary unless they obtain answers relating to his work at the Department of Justice.

Iowa’s Chuck Grassley and Louisiana’s David Vitter both threatened to stall the nomination of assistant attorney general Tom Perez if they did not receive information about his conduct as head of the DOJ’s civil rights division. Another GOP senator, Alabama’s Jeff Sessions, labelled Obama’s decision to pick Perez “needlessly divisive”. Democrats have hit back strongly, arguing Republicans risk damaging their outreach to Latinos if they try to prevent the Hispanic lawyer’s confirmation.

Perez – who would be the only Latino in the President’s second term cabinet – was quick to evoke his heritage when Obama unveiled his nomination at the White House. His selection has been warmly welcomed by Hispanic and labour organisations. 

News in Brief

  • Fed presses ahead with stimulus plan [Reuters]
  • Prez honours troops on anniversary of Iraq invasion [USA Today]
  • Progress in arms talks with Russia [NYT]
  • US uses nuclear planes to caution North Korea [CNN]
  • Lew talks trade and ecomony with Xi [Reuters]
  • Hunger strikes mounting at Gitmo [NYT]
  • Reid linked to controversial Menendez donor [The Atlantic]; women were paid to lie about embattled senator [WaPo]
  • Majority Leader, Durbin repeat filibuster reform threats [TPM]
  • House ethics committee to investigate AK, NJ reps [USA Today]
  • Charlotte mayor in running for transportation secretary [Bloomberg]
  • Obama, members of Congress will be among first to enrol under health law [The Atlantic]
  • Justices split on AZ voting law [NYT]
  • Rubio’s PAC swinging into action [Politico]
  • Sanford set for comeback after strong primary showing [WaPo]
  • Bill Clinton backing alternative to Ashley Judd in KY [TPM]
  • Politicians release basketball brackets [Politico]
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