The Week in Washington: Boston bombings colour immigration debate, US alleges Syria chemical weapons use and more

Larry Smith's weekly round up of American politics.

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More details emerge about Boston bomb suspects; attacks impact on immigration debate

The Boston Marathon bombing and its violent aftermath have continued to dominate the news this week, with revelations about the two brothers suspected of carrying out the attacks prompting criticism of government agencies and colouring the debate over immigration reform.

Surviving suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – who is currently in hospital with serious injuries – was charged in connection with the blasts on Monday, at which time he was also read his rights as a criminal defendant. The reading of the rights came after he admitted responsibility for the attacks to federal agents, something which could compromise evidence presented in court. Tsarnaev also told investigators he and his brother had planned to travel to New York City and detonate more explosives in Time Square.

The charging of Tsarnaev and debate over his legal rights has been somewhat overshadowed by revelations about his older brother Tamerlan. It has emerged the 26-year old may have been exposed to radical Islamic preaching while on a visit to Russia’s Dagestan region last year, and that he was investigated by the FBI in 2011 following a tip-off from Moscow. Officials have also revealed the CIA placed Tamerlan on a federal terrorism database, although this contained hundreds of thousands of entries and did not constitute a watch-list.

Senior members of Congress have raised concerns about possible oversights by America’s intelligence agencies in the run-up to Boston: House Speaker John Boehner wondered why information had not been circulated and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham queried the FBI’s response to the Russian tip-off. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano meanwhile faced questions from GOP Senator Chuck Grassley about why her department had not flagged Tamerlan’s visit to Russia.

Events in Boston were front and centre in hearings on immigration legislation convened by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. Appearing before the panel on Tuesday, Napolitano claimed the bill unveiled by the cross-party Gang of 8 would strengthen border security, and argued the legal immigration system was an important tool in responding to attacks like Boston. A day earlier, senior Democrats and Republicans on the committee quarrelled with each other over suggestions opponents of reform were exploiting the tragedy for political purposes.

Some Republicans – among them Kentucky Senator Rand Paul – have indicated immigration reform should be paused in light of the Boston attacks. However, Gang of 8 members Marco RubioJohn McCain and Lindsey Graham have all sought to keep the process moving. Proponents of reform have also received boosts from Speaker Boehner and former vice presidential contender Paul Ryan, who made a notable intervention in their favour on Monday.

House Judiciary Chair Bob Goodlatte has announced his panel will rewrite immigration law in a “step-by-step” fashion and said his committee has not decided how it will address proposals being put together by a bipartisan group of representatives. Senator McCain has warned House Republicans reform will not get off the ground unless a pathway to citizenship is included in an overhaul.

Admin sees evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria

The Obama administration has said for the first time that it suspects the Syrian government of using chemical weapons in the country’s civil war.

Speaking on a trip to the Middle East yesterday, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said US intelligence services believed the Assad regime had deployed the deadly arms “on a small scale”. This was confirmed in letters from the White House to senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which said the administration thought Sarin gas had been used against individuals but emphasised the US still needed “credible and corroborated facts”. The correspondence also called for a comprehensive UN investigation into the evidence, a suggestion which yielded a dismissive response from Speaker Boehner.

Earlier in the week, Secretary of State John Kerry downplayed allegations made by an Israeli military official that President Bashar al-Assad’s army had “increasingly used chemical weapons” and was not being properly checked by the international community. The latest revelations come at the end of a particularly violent week in Syria, in which a purported massacre took place outside Damascus, two senior Christian clerics were abducted and an historic minaret in Aleppo was destroyed. The Assad regime has also made a significant advance outside the capital, capturing a strategic town near the city and breaking a critical supply route for rebel fighters.

Prez in renewed push for grand bargain

President Obama has again sought to win congressional backing for a ‘grand bargain’ on the budget, even as some Democrats restate their opposition to entitlement reform.

On Tuesday the president held a dinner with female senators at the White House, during which he urged those present to help bring about a compromise and suggested they could be key in reaching an agreement. His Chief of Staff Denis McDonough has also been engaging GOP senators with a view to more substantive talks on fiscal matters.

A fresh attempt to secure a budget deal still faces many hurdles, including resistance to Obama’s proposed reindexation of social security benefits. Liberal House Democrats wrote to the president this week seeking a meeting about the policy, which they argue would “take money directly out of the pockets of American seniors”. Their concerns are likely to have been amplified by a Congressional Budget Office study released last week that indirectly implied Chained CPI would hit the elderly more than the rest of the population.

In related news, concern about air traffic control cutbacks triggered by sequestration has led the Senate to divert Transportation Department funds to the Federal Aviation Administration. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has additionally proposed a five-month delay to the automatic spending cuts financed by war savings, a package Republicans have criticised and characterised as a blow to President Obama’s bid for more revenue.

Ex-presidents at Bush library opening 

President Obama, his four surviving predecessors and their wives have attended the launch of George W Bush’s presidential library in Dallas.

All four of Bush’s fellow presidents offered public tributes at the ceremony. Jimmy Carter hailed his work in Africa; Bill Clinton humorously praised his newfound skills with a painting brush and Obama honoured his compassion and support for immigration reform. A frail-looking George HW Bush also thanked those in attendance for helping to make a “special day”. The 43rd president gave an emotional reply, describing his terms in the White House as “the honour of a lifetime”.

The content of Bush’s library has sparked some interest, with journalists commenting on its approach to 9/11 and the war in Iraq, an interactive feature which lets visitors confront the choices the 43rd president made and the comparatively limited attention afforded to Vice President Dick Cheney. Bush gave a terse reply when asked about his relationship with Cheney during an interview aired Wednesday, but thanked him warmly in his speech yesterday.

Much has been made of a poll released by The Washington Post and ABC News which shows Bush scoring his highest approvals since 2005. But the same survey gives him a net approval rating of -3%, and other polls have the former president still performing very poorly with voters.

President Obama followed his appearance at the Bush library with a trip to the site of last week’s fertiliser plant explosion in West, Texas. 

Congress seeks to resolve Obamacare niggle

Leading lawmakers and their assistants are attempting to fix a problem in the implementation of President Obama’s health care law which directly affects Congress.

An amendment inserted into the Affordable Care Act over three years ago will in 2014 remove members of Congress and their personal aides from existing federal health plans and oblige them to purchase premiums on new exchanges. However, the rule does not specify if or how much government may spend to help these groups purchase insurance.

A controversial article by Politico had implied lawmakers were seeking to exempt themselves and their assistants from the ACA’s insurance exchanges. This was flatly denied by Senate Majority Leader Reid, who is encouraging the Office of Personnel Management to rule federal authorities can keep on financing congressional employee health plans once changes come into effect. Speaker Boehner has refused to entertain a legislative solution to the problem.

In another development, House Republican leaders have backtracked after a bill they proposed to redirect money from Obamacare to an insurance pool for people with pre-existing conditions drew resistance from conservative representatives. Texas Senator Ted Cruz was also instrumental in blocking this legislation.

Failure of gun control bill debated

There has been considerable analysis of the Senate’s failure to pass gun control legislation last week, with politicians and commentators focussing in particular on President Obama’s role.

Republican Senator Pat Toomey – who proposed action on background checks along with West Virginia’s Joe Manchin – hit out at the administration on Wednesday, arguing opponents of the legislation had not trusted Obama to protect second amendment rights. His comments followed a critical analysis by The New York Times and a hostile piece from the paper’s columnist Maureen Dowd, who claimed no-one on Capitol Hill was “scared” of Obama.

Dowd’s assessment has been rejected by a number of observers. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent noted the senators who resisted Obama’s entreaties also rejected personal appeals from the relatives of those killed in deadly shootings, while his colleague Ezra Klein endorsed arguments that the meagre reach of the bill made it an unappealing risk for senators. Others have questioned Manchin’s contribution or faulted Senate Majority Leader Reid’s approach to the legislation.

The Obama administration has insisted there will be a “round two” on gun control, even as Reid warns his caucus is “not ready to move” on a new path forward. Democratic senators who advocated an expansion of background checks and action on gun trafficking are holding talks with moderate Democrats and Republicans in an effort to revive their respective bills.

Vice President Biden thanked gun control groups for their recent efforts at a meeting on Wednesday.

Another top Senate Democrat to retire

One of the most powerful Democrats in the Senate has announced he will not run for another term in office, leaving the president’s party to defend one more open seat next year.

Montana’s Max Baucus, who is aged 71 and serving his sixth term, had until very recently denied reports he might retire in 2014. But on Tuesday he changed his mind, saying it was time to “go home” and spend time with his family.

The Finance Committee Chair recently angered some fellow Democrats by voting against gun control legislation, opposing his caucus’s budget plan and publicly criticising the implementation of President Obama’s health care law – a measure he helped pass. He was also facing pressure back home from former Democratic governor Brian Schweitzer, who has been expressing an interest in Baucus’s seat.

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