The Week in Washington: Manhunt for Boston bomb suspects after Obama speech; gun control push fails in Senate and more

Larry Smith's weekly round up of American politics.

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Manhunt for Boston bomb suspects follows Obama memorial speech

There have been major developments this morning  in the Boston bombing case, less than a day after President Obama visited the city to pay tribute to the victims of the blast.

Two men suspected of carrying out Monday’s attacks are believed to have killed a police officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before hijacking a car, following which they were pursued through Boston by police. One of the two suspects was subsequently killed in a shoot-out, while another is on the loose in the Watertown district. The incidents have prompted the authorities to warn local people not to leave their homes, and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has suspended Boston’s public transportation network.

NBC News is currently reporting that the suspects – who were identified by the FBI last night – are of “overseas” origin, and that a missing American student linked to the attacks by social network users is not involved. However, these and other reports should be treated with an extremely high degree of caution as this story develops.

The manhunt for the suspects comes just hours after President Obama delivered a speech honouring those who lost their lives in the Boston marathon. Speaking at an inter-faith service at the Cathedral of Holy Cross yesterday, Obama told Bostonians the perpetrators of the attack had targeted “the wrong city”. He recalled his own ties to Boston, and said “our hearts are broken” over an eight-year old victim who was killed after greeting his father at the end of the race.

After the event was over, the president and the first lady met with survivors at local hospitals.

Gun control legislation falls short in Senate

The Senate has failed to pass a series of proposals that would have toughened up federal firearms regulations, prompting intense disappointment among gun control advocates and the survivors of deadly shootings.

In dramatic scenes on Wednesday afternoon, measures designed to expand the background checks system for gun purchasers and curb gun trafficking fell short of a 60-vote threshold placed on the legislation. California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s bid to reinstate the Assault Weapons Ban was defeated by 60 votes to 40, while a pro-gun amendment which would have forced states regulating concealed weapons to recognise out-of-state permits was three votes off passage.

The closely-watched amendment on background checks was in jeopardy even before being brought to the floor. Talk of concessions and personal lobbying by proposer Joe Manchin failed to prevent four Democratic senators from joining all but four Republican members in outright opposition to the measure. Moderates in both parties were reluctant to take a stand given the measure was was unlikely to pass the House of Representatives, although some GOP senators may have been nervous about a backlash from grassroots gun-rights activists.

Supporters of gun control, including President Obama, have reacted to the Senate’s refusal to act with a mixture of sorrow and anger. Speaking at a White House press conference with victims of gun atrocities, Obama deplored a “shameful day” in Washington and accused the gun lobby of having “wilfully lied about the bill”. His stance was echoed by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who accused the senators who vetoed the legislation of “acting out of political fear”. Giffords’s action group is vowing to exert pressure on those members who voted no.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has announced a freeze on gun legislation until the requisite 60 votes can be found to pass an expanded background checks system. However, a renewed push is very unlikely in the near future. Senator Manchin has pledged not to give up on his plan, but Republican cosponsor Pat Toomey is sounding less enthusiastic about continuing the fight. Polls suggest American voters are less-than animated about gun control despite their strong support for greater checks, and the prospect of reforming the senate rules which helped doom this package is still some way off.

Vice President Joe Biden has told allies in the gun control movement that the White House will announce further executive actions on the issue very shortly. 

Immigration bill finally published

The cross-party group of senators seeking to reform America’s immigration system has been touting its plan for an overhaul, which was released on Tuesday.

During a news conference held on Capitol Hill Thursday, leading Gang of 8 member Chuck Schumer hailed a “bipartisan breakthrough” and said he believed the immigration issue would not fall victim to the “usual partisan gridlock”. He was followed by John McCain, who said piecemeal solutions “have not and cannot repair” immigration problems. The two senators – who discussed reform with President Obama on Tuesday – spoke as McCain’s GOP colleagues Jeff Sessions and David Vitter used their own media appearance to blast the proposed legislation.

The Gang’s bill runs to 844 pages, and would allow the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants living in America the chance to legalise their status by applying for a new temporary visa, registered provisional immigrant status. This would be valid for six years, but could be renewed provided an immigrant did not commit crimes rendering them deportable. Aliens would have to wait ten years before they could apply for permanent residency. The bill also contains border security measures which Republican proponents have characterised as ‘triggers’ for a pathway to citizenship. Provisions for binational LGBT couples were not included, something that could alienate Democratic backers of the bill.

Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy has said his committee will soon hold two immigration-themed hearings to examine the Gang of 8’s bill. Senator Schumer says he hopes the panel can formally mark up the legislation in May, and has predicted a “battle-tested” package will advance to the floor of the Senate in June.

Leahy’s Republican counterpart in the House of Representatives, Congressman Bob Goodlatte,offered both praise and criticism for the Gang of 8’s bill following its roll-out. He also said any House legislation on immigration would need to follow the ‘regular order’ procedure, under which relevant committees produce a bill before a vote. The Republican leadership has endorsed this call, with Speaker John Boehner signalling Goodlatte will be able to move a series of smaller immigration bills rather than one comprehensive package.

Boehner’s eagerness to adopt Goodlatte’s drawn-out approach comes as opponents of reform organise in the House and as right-wing activists begin to take issue with the Gang of 8’s plan. Florida Senator Marco Rubio is already seeking to debunk preconceptions about the bill on the conservative blogosphere and on the talk radio circuit.

Related polling: [NBC News]

Suspect held over ricin letter plot

Authorities have charged a suspect with threatening the life of the president and others after letters containing ricin were sent to the White House and a Mississippi senator.

Paul Kevin Curtis, an entertainer from the Mississippi town of Tupelo, was formally accused on Thursday of threatening to harm President Obama, Senator Roger Wicker and a judge from his home state. Correspondence mailed to Obama and Wicker earlier this week tested positive for traces of ricin, but was intercepted at off-site screening facilities before it could endanger lives. Several other suspicious packages reported by senators this week have turned out to be harmless.

Labour pick parries Republican attacks

The Department of Justice official nominated by President Obama to succeed Hilda Solis as Labour Secretary has pushed back against criticism of his record during a Senate confirmation hearing.

Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez pledged to take an “open and balanced approach” to the Labour role and rebutted criticisms of him in a GOP-authored report when he appeared before the Senate Health, Education, Labour and Pensions Committee yesterday. Specifically, Perez rejected suggestions he had acted improperly when the DOJ declined to join whisteblower cases against St Paul, Minnesota in return for the city dropping an appeal to the Supreme Court. It is understood none of the Republican members on the HELP panel ultimately intend to vote against Perez.

In related news, The Senate Energy Committee has approved the president’s nomination of Ernest J Moniz for the post of Energy Secretary. 

Trespassing allegations hit Sanford comeback bid

Former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s attempt to return to frontline politics is in trouble after it emerged he is facing legal action over trespassing at his ex-wife’s property.

The Republican – who is running to succeed Senator Tim Scott in a House special election – engaged in a “pattern” of trespassing at his former spouse Jenny’s home, according to court documents released on Wednesday. Sanford had earlier sought to clarify reports he entered his former wife’s house without her consent on 3rd February this year, saying he had merely wanted to watch the Super Bowl with his son.

Both internal and external polls taken before the allegations became public showed Sanford in a surprisingly close fight with his Democratic rival Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, a local businesswoman and the sister of celebrated comedian Stephen Colbert. The National Republican Congressional Committee has now abandoned Sanford’s election bid.

News in Brief

  • Obama meets with Senate Democrats [USA Today]
  • Declines to comment on controversial abortion case [USA Today]
  • Downplays fears about NK nuke capability [CNN]
  • Agrees to meeting with Putin [NYT]
  • American military presence in Jordan strengthened as Syria violence continues [CNN]
  • Kerry testifies before foreign relations committees [Yahoo News] [Time]; meets with parents of slain service officer [NYT]
  • Boehner explains caucus’s change of tactics on budget negotiations [TPM]
  • Top Republican on Senate Judiciary Committee sees no opposition to Sriniviasan [TPM]
  • Baucus Obamacare criticisms cause stir [BuzzFeed]
  • Senate passes resolution honouring Thatcher [Fox News]
  • Bush re-enters limelight ahead of library opening [Dallas News]; becomes grandfather for first time [Politico]
  • Republican activists object to party rule changes [Roll Call]
  • Progress Kentucky member at centre of McConnell row sets up legal fund [Politico]; Senator condemns ‘dirty’ attacks in ad [WaPo]
  • Failed Tea Party candidate considering second Senate run in AK [WaPo]
  • Disgraced Weiner polling strongly in NYC mayor matchup [TPM]

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