The Week in Washington: Obama and GOP talk budget, filibuster fails to block CIA director and more

Left Foot Forward's Larry Smith gives his weekly US politics round up.

Top News

Obama hosts GOP lawmakers in bid to break budget logjam

President Obama has sat down with senior members of Congress as he tries to resolve disputes over the federal budget and automatic spending cuts that took effect last week.

House Budget Chair Paul Ryan and the Democratic ranking member of his committee, Chris Van Hollen, came to the White House on Thursday for a working lunch with Obama. Their visit took place a day after a number of Republican senators – including Arizona’s John McCain and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham – had talked fiscal issues with Obama over a dinner organised by the White House at a Washington hotel. Obama will also hold discussions with House Republicans on Capitol Hill next Wednesday.

Obama’s decision to court Ryan and the senators constitutes an attempt to bypass Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who have both refused to bargain with the president on revenue rises in a future budget deal. Some Republican legislators are willing to back revenue increases if Obama gives ground on entitlement spending, although a few appear unaware of concessions the president has already made in this area. Obama reportedly wants an agreement finalised by the end of July, when the debt ceiling is due to expire.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives has passed legislation which ensures the federal government is financed through the end of the fiscal year. The measure, which passed the lower chamber with some Democratic support, locks in most of the spending reductions which came into force last week but includes safeguards for defence programmes. Senate Democrats look likely to add new spending bills to this package, something that may not aggravate Republicans provided its overall cap – $984bn – remains the same. Speaker Boehner has warned the Senate it should not overload the legislation with too much spending.

In another development, Congressman Ryan is struggling to convince moderate Republican colleagues to back a revised budget plan he is drawing up which would cut Medicare benefits for recipients currently aged 56.

Related polling: [ABC/WaPo] [CBS]

Brennan installed at CIA; nomination overcomes Paul filibuster

President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser John Brennan was confirmed yesterday as CIA director despite pugnacious opposition from Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.

The Senate voted 81-16 to end debate on Brennan’s nomination and 63-34 to confirm him, a day after the libertarian Republican launched a 13-hour filibuster on the floor of the Senate. Paul’s protest was directed more at the Obama administration’s stance on drones, and in particular comments Attorney General Eric Holder made regarding the use of force against Americans on US soil. Holder delivered a brief response to Paul on Thursday that satisfied the Senator’s concerns and lifted the threat of further delays.

Several Republicans, including Paul’s potential presidential rival Marco Rubio and right-wing Texas Senator Ted Cruz assisted their colleague during his historic performance on Wednesday. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell – who is keeping close to his fellow Kentuckian ahead of a potentially tricky Republican primary next year – also gave his blessing to the effort. However, Senators McCain and Graham vented their fury at Paul’s tactics and chided colleagues who encouraged him.

To smooth Brennan’s passage to Langley, the White House this week agreed to give the Senate Intelligence Committee a complete set of classified legal opinions concerning drone attacks. It had previously provided the committee with four of the eleven memos concerned. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy voted against Brennan’s nomination in protest at the administration’s failure to provide his panel with the same documents.

In other news, President Obama has announced three more nominees to fill cabinet positions. Former Clinton administration official and Waltmart Foundation member Sylvia Mathews Burwell has been chosen to head up the Office of Management and Budget; physicist Ernest Moniz is Obama’s choice for Energy Secretary; and Environmental Protection Agency assistant administrator Gina McCarthy will replace her superior Lisa Jackson.

Reid slams GOP for judicial appointment filibuster

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has criticised overuse of the Senate filibuster after Republicans blocked a full vote on one of President Obama’s judicial nominations.

Speaking in the wake of Paul’s marathon appearance on the Senate floor, Reid contrasted the Kentuckian’s proper use of the filibuster with the Republican minority’s refusal to even consider the nomination of Caitlin Halligan. The GOP caucus stymied Halligan’s confirmation to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday in part because of her stance on gun rights.

Reid’s intervention follows more explicit warnings from Democratic Senate Whip Dick Durbin and Oregon Senator Merkley that bipartisan changes to the filibuster enacted earlier this year have failed to tackle excessive Republican obstructionism.

Background check talks reach impasse

Attempts to expand background checks for firearms purchases have hit a snag, with a key Republican senator pulling out of talks on the issue for the time being.

Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn said on Wednesday he was unable to support background check legislation drawn up by Senators Chuck Schumer, Joe Manchin and Mark Kirk that would require records for private gun sales. Coburn’s withdrawal makes it harder for many other GOP lawmakers to back the proposal, but his spokesman said he was “still hopeful” of agreement. Senator Schumer has in the meantime filed a placeholder bill which can be fleshed out later.

While lawmakers have failed to reach consensus on background checks, another one of President Obama’s gun control recommendations – action on trafficking – is closer to becoming law. On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill which would make it a crime to buy a firearm for an individual banned from owning one and punish those who sell a gun when they having cause to believe it will be used in a felony. Senator Graham, who has been pushing his own legislation on guns and mental illness, has signalled openness to these changes. The Judiciary Committee will not vote on the reinstatement of the Assault Weapons Ban until next Tuesday.

In a high-profile intervention, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords returned to the place where she was shot in the head two years ago to call for universal background checks. A new poll from Quinnipiac has revealed Americans still overwhelmingly support the policy.

Further polling: [Harper]

GOP senators discard Bush’s resistance to immigration pathway 

Republican senators involved in talks on immigration reform have said they are still prepared to offer undocumented aliens a pathway to full citizenship, despite unexpected opposition to the idea from Jeb Bush.

In press interviews this week, the three most influential GOP senators in favour of an overhaul – John McCainLindsey Graham and Marco Rubio – restated their support for a pathway and rejected an alternative plan floated by the former Florida governor which would allow immigrants legal residency but not citizenship.

Bush’s intervention – which comes in a new book written last year – took many observers by surprise given his previous support for large-scale reform. Some have wondered whether the ex-governor is positioning himself for a Republican presidential primary, although it seems more likely he formulated the alternative to woo his party away from hardline positions it took during the 2012 election. Bush has already indicated he could change his position on the issue.

The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that the cross-party group of senators working on an immigration reform bill would not have a draft ready until April at the earliest. However, there are signs of progress in the House of Representatives. Judiciary Chair Bob Goodlatte has announced he will hold classes for members on immigration to ensure a lack of in-depth knowledge does not hinder legislation, and small GOP working groups are aiding bipartisan House talks on the issue. Aides to Speaker Boehner have said his chamber may end up passing ‘small-bore’ bills that could then be reconciled with a comprehensive Senate blueprint.

Related polling: [Latino Decisions]

February job figures due

The Bureau of Labour Statistics will release its monthly jobs report later today, with most economists anticipating 160,000 new hires through February. Unemployment is expected to hold steady at 7.9%. On Wednesday, payroll processor ADP estimated the number of positions in the private sector had grown by 198,000.

Elsewhere, the Dow Jones industrial average has returned to highs not seen since before the financial crisis of 2008. Experts attribute this development to a lack of opportunities for investors rather than a booming American economy.

News in Brief

  • OFA pledges transparency over large donors [Roll Call]
  • Right-wing site hits back after Menendez prostitution claims debunked [Daily Caller]; Reid offers colleague fresh support [USA Today]
  • Dems bid for more ambitious minimum wage plan [Roll Call]
  • GOP senators evasive on future of Voting Rights Act [TPM]
  • Boehner dismisses disgraced ex-congressman’s job claims [Politico]
  • Biden tells AIPAC Obama not bluffing on Iran military threat [The Guardian]
  • Ex-State Department official blasts WH on Afghanistan [Foreign Policy]
  • Report slams Iraq, Afghanistan overspending [WSJ]
  • Obama visits veterans [NYT]
  • State Department findings offer no clear recommendation on Keystone [Politico]
  • Californians favour repealing Prop 8 [Reuters]; Bill Clinton calls for DOMA repeal [WaPo]
  • Romney reflects on presidential loss in first post-election interview [The Hill]; takes job at son’s firm [NBC News]
  • VA governor McDonnell denied CPAC invite [WaPo]
  • Ashley Judd strongly considering Senate run, top KY Dem says [ABC News]; star once compared mining activity to rape [BuzzFeed]
  • Markey leading all comers in new poll of MA special election [Boston Herald]
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