The Week in Washington: Cuts take effect, action on guns delayed and more

Larry Smith gives the lowdown on who's up and who's down this week across the pond.

Top News
Prez, congressional leaders to meet as sequester kicks in

President Obama and senior lawmakers will convene this afternoon for talks on automatic spending cuts which come into effect today.

The administration has invited House Speaker John Boehner, House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell for discussions at the White House about the reductions, which impact on the budgets of many federal agencies. GOP officials have criticised the timing of the talks and branded them little more than a photo opportunity.

Obama and congressional leaders assemble a day after the Senate held largely symbolic votes on competing plans aimed at deferring sequestration. A Democratic mix of revenues and replacement cuts failed to muster the 60 votes needed to overcome the threat of a GOP filibuster, while a Republican alternative which would have given Obama a fortnight to send Congress his own package of savings went down 62-38.

The White House and Congress were until very recently expected to address the cuts as part of a deal later this month to keep the federal government financed. But sources from both parties told The Hill on Thursday the reductions could now be here to stay. House Republicans are also threatening to lock in the savings.

A number of lawmakers were looking at the positives of sequestration as it honed into view this week. One or two liberals welcomed the prospect of defence cuts that would oblige the Pentagon to modernise its operations, and fiscally conservative Republicans continue to see the cuts as their best chance of reining in government spending. However, several consequences of sequestration – including Pentagon pay cuts, the release of immigrant detainees and redundancies in the education sector – have prompted concern on both sides of the aisle.

In related news, a media storm erupted on Wednesday night when veteran reporter Bob Woodward suggested he had been threatened by White House aide Gene Sperling over his sequester coverage. Emails subsequently obtained by the press showed Woodward’s claims were overblown. Related polling: [Pew] [Gallup] [WaPo]

Background check talks delay action on guns

The Senate committee responsible for drawing up gun control legislation has temporarily halted its work to allow further negotiations on a plan which would enhance background checks. The Senate Judiciary Committee was supposed to mark up proposals – including a revised version of the Assault Weapons Ban – on Thursday. However, chair Patrick Leahy indicated all measures will now be considered next week, so Democrat Chuck Schumer and conservative Republican Tom Coburn can reach agreement on expanding the system of checks for firearms purchasers. The Oklahoma Senator dampened down talk of a deal over the weekend, but The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent reports he is only haggling over the application of checks in rural or remote areas.

Senate aides confirmed at the start of the week that gun reform would be considered in four separate parts, to ensure lawmaker hostility to the Assault Weapons Ban does not prevent other aspects of legislation from passing. The ban did however dominate judiciary committee hearings on Wednesday, with the father of a child killed at Sandy Hook and a Wisconsin police chief giving emotional testimony in support of its reinstatement.

Guns were also at the forefront of a special election in Chicago this week which saw a candidate backed by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s political action committee triumph over a fellow Democrat who supported gun rights.

Robin Kelly easily defeated Debbie Halvorson and other opponents to become the Democratic nominee for disgraced Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr’s House district. Some observers have suggested Bloomberg’s pro-gun control outfit may not have determined the outcome of the race, but Vice President Joe Biden was quick to acknowledge its clout.

Related polling: [NBC/WSJ] [Kaiser]

Hagel, Lew win confirmation

The Senate has approved Chuck Hagel’s appointment as defence secretary, ending an acrimonious confirmation battle that pitted the former Senator against members of his own party.

The Nebraskan finally took over at the Pentagon on Wednesday after senators voted by a margin of 71 to 27 to end a filibuster of his nomination. 54 Democrats and four Republicans – Alabama’s Richard Shelby, Mississippi’s Thad Cochran, Nebraska’s Mike Johanns and Kentucky’s Rand Paul – backed him for the job in an up or down vote that followed. Republican senators including Tom Coburn have insisted Hagel’s rough confirmation ride will curtail his authority as secretary of defence, although he will wield considerable influence over military projects in their states.

Elsewhere, former White House chief of staff Jacob Lew won lopsided support to succeed treasury secretary Tim Geithner. The Senate is likely to vote next Tuesday on whether counterterrorism adviser John Brennan should become director of the CIA.

Justices assail key segment of voting law

The future of an important aspect of the Voting Rights Act is in doubt after conservative Supreme Court justices sympathised with a challenge to its constitutionality.

During oral arguments on Wednesday, chief justice John Roberts and associate justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito raised objections to Section 5 of the landmark civil rights law, which requires mostly southern states to clear changes to voting rules with the Department of Justice.

Roberts, who opposed the VRA early in his legal career, asked an administration lawyer whether the federal government believed “citizens in the South [were] more racist than citizens not in the South”. Kennedy, who was sceptical about Section 5 in a similar case three years ago, labelled the measure “reverse engineering.” Their arguments were strongly contested by the members of the court’s liberal bloc, especially Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Several commentators speculated in the wake of the hearings that the four conservative justices mentioned above – along with fellow GOP appointee Clarence Thomas – will now proceed to gut the VRA’s central provision. However, SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston thought Kennedy might be reluctant to go “all the way” and invalidate Section 5 completely.

The Department of Justice official responsible for implementing the law, Tom Perez, has expressed confidence Section 5 will be upheld and has refused to comment on suggestions he is preparing for its abolition.

In other news, the Obama administration has filed a legal briefing with the Supreme Court urging a broad ruling against California’s ban on same-sex marriage. A prominent group of Republicans also submitted a brief to the court arguing Proposition 8 should be struck down. 

McCain, Graham commend Obama on immigration

Two prominent GOP supporters of immigration reform have vouched for President Obama’s commitment to an overhaul following a meeting on Tuesday.

Speaking after talks at the White House, Arizona Senator John McCain and his ally Lindsey Graham said they had enjoyed an “excellent” conversation with President Obama and Vice President Biden on the issue. They added Obama understood the need for new border security requirements in whatever legislation was drawn up. This prompted concern among some liberal backers of reform: the Dream Activist Coalition called on Obama to put Latino “family reunification” ahead of enhanced security.

McCain and Graham’s comments came as two senior Republicans kept the prospect of bipartisan reform afloat. Appearing on a Sunday talk show, Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer – a favourite of the Republican right and a hardliner on immigration – said progress could be made if border security was addressed. Equally significant was a fresh intervention from House Judiciary Chair Bob Goodlatte, who walked back suggestions undocumented aliens should not receive a pathway to citizenship.

In another development on the Republican side, an influential right-wing group, the American Action Network, has launched a campaign designed to win greater conservative support for immigration reform.

House backs VAWA renewal

A bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives has endorsed the renewal of legislation combating violence against women.

In a cross-party move yesterday, the House approved a Senate bill reauthorising the Violence Against Women Act by 286 votes to 138. 87 Republicans joined with every Democratic representative to ensure its passage. President Obama is expected to sign the legislation very shortly.

A GOP version of the Senate bill – which weakened provisions relating to tribal communities and same-sex couples – failed to pass after a minority of Republicans refused to support it. House majority leader Eric Cantor had earlier said only a bipartisan version of VAWA would be allowed to advance.

News in Brief

  • Q4 growth figure revised upwards [Reuters]; unemployment claims fall [USA Today]
  • Bernanke defends stimulus efforts [NYT]
  • Kerry announces expansion of aid to Syria rebels [NYT]
  • Representatives attack WH stonewalling on drones [Raw Story]; Gibbs said he was instructed not to acknowledge covert programme [Yahoo News]
  • Manning pleads guilty to Wikileaks charges [CBS]
  • Iran, conservatives fume over FLOTUS’s Oscar appearance [National Post]
  • Prez, congressional leaders honour Rosa Parks [ABC News]
  • Cantor says he talked Boehner out of grand bargain in 2011 [New Yorker]
  • Menendez invokes MLK in response to scandal [Star-Ledger]
  • AFL-CIO lobbies for Keystone construction [NYT]
  • Questions over OFA donor access [CBS]; group will disclose funder ranges [WaPo]
  • Christie to accept Medicaid expansion [Star-Ledger]; doesn’t get CPAC invite [WSJ]
  • Clinton could scoop $14m for memoirs [BuzzFeed]
  • Ex-Surgeon General Koop dies [LA Times]
  • Ashley Judd tipped to make KY senate run [ABC News]; right-wing outlets dig up embarrassing quotes [The Atlantic]
  • Ex-navy SEAL claims signatures to contest MA special [Boston Globe]
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