The Week in Washington: Senators move forward with gun debate, Obama unveils budget and more

Larry Smith gives his weekly US political round up, featuring the gun debate, Obama's unveiling of the budget and more.

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Gun control proposals brought before Senate

The Senate has voted to begin debate on gun control legislation, breaking a filibuster launched by conservative Republicans in the chamber and setting up a bitter fight over proposals supported by the Obama administration.

Over a dozen GOP senators joined nearly all their Democratic colleagues in agreeing to consider a package of gun control measures, which includes an amendment on background checks drawn up by West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey. Two Democrats facing election in Republican-leaning states next year – Arkansas’s Mark Pryor and Alaska’s Mark Begich – supported the GOP-led filibuster.

Gun control advocates were hopeful on Thursday morning when news emerged of Manchin and Toomey’s agreement to expand background checks. But this proposal has since been criticised for loopholes and has many hurdles to surmount before it becomes law. It is unclear how many Republicans and red-state Democrats will agree to end debate on the legislation now before the Senate, and unclear how many will vote for final passage.

Even if the background checks bill does pass the Senate by a clear majority, it would almost certainly be tougher to get through the GOP-run House of Representatives. While some Republican members there are thought to be ‘gettable’, conservatives are already pressing Speaker John Boehner not to allow a vote on a bill which lacks majority support among Republican representatives. The Ohioan has been guarded on the issue, saying he will “review” whatever the Senate passes and expects the House to act in “some way, shape or form” on gun control.

Republicans and conservative Democrats both appear reluctant to back action on checks given the National Rifle Association’s vociferous opposition to an expansion of the system. The NRA initially responded cautiously to Toomey and Manchin’s bill, but subsequently revealed it would grade senators for their final votes on the legislation. Polls of American voters continue to show very strong backing for the principle of enhanced checks.

President Obama gave an emotional speech in support of efforts to end gun violence when he visited Connecticut on Tuesday. Some relatives of those killed in the Sandy Hook shootings were in attendance. The First Lady also delivered an impassioned address on the subject while visiting her native Chicago on Wednesday.

Obama dines with GOP senators after budget announcement

President Obama had dinner with another group of Republican senators on Wednesday night, hours after unveiling the details of his 2014 budget plan.

Obama and the senators sat down together at the White House for two and a half hours of discussions which covered deficit reduction, immigration and gun control. The meal’s organiser Senator Johnny Isakson said afterwards that most of the “very productive” conversation focussed on “debt, deficits and fiscal challenges facing our country”. Other attendees described the dinner as cordial but cautioned both sides were still far apart when it came to fiscal matters.

Earlier on Wednesday, President Obama published his long-awaited budget proposals for the next fiscal year. During a press conference in the White House Rose Garden, Obama set out the main components of his plan, including $3.78tn in spending and $1.8tn of deficit reduction over the coming decade. The blueprint seeks $580bn in new revenue and features a contentious plan to re-index Social Security payments, otherwise known as Chained CPI.

Congressional Republicans were largely dismissive of Obama’s budget plan upon its release. Speaker Boehner said the budget was not balanced, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell dubbed it “just another left-wing wish list”. Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor both welcomed President Obama’s move on Chained CPI, but said they would not allow that reform to be tied to fresh tax rises.

Progressive groups have reiterated their strong opposition to Chained CPI, and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer has warned his caucus is not yet ready to support the proposal.

However, Republicans too may be less than committed. In a surprising intervention, the head of the House GOP’s re-election committee Rep Greg Walden accused President Obama of a “shocking attack on seniors.” The Oregon Congressman has resisted pressure from the fiscally-right wing Club for Growth to abandon his hostility to Chained CPI, and Speaker Boehner’s response to Walden’s words suggests the House Republican leadership regards the policy more as a stick with which to beat Democrats come 2014.

Before its launch, the Obama blueprint was seen an opportunity to bridge the gap between competing budgets passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House. The chairs of the two congressional budget committees, Patty Murray and Paul Ryan, are holding discussions on how to reconcile their respective plans.

Related polling: [Gallup] [ABC/WaPo] [Quinnipiac]

Immigration bill may come early next week

The bipartisan group of senators collaborating on immigration reform has still yet to produce its legislative proposals, although there are signs these could be released in the coming days.

Details of the bill thrashed out by the Gang of 8 were expected to be revealed in a closed meeting of GOP senators on Wednesday. South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham later said he and his fellow gang members were “really close” to an agreement, but added the legislation was not likely to drop until next week. Democratic Senate Whip Dick Durbin has indicated an announcement may come on Tuesday.

Despite the lack of a formal unveiling, the content of the gang’s legislation has become clearer in recent days. It is understood undocumented immigrants would be put on a 10-year path to permanent residency, which could ultimately result in them being granted citizenship. At the same time, authorities would need to ensure 90 per cent effectiveness of enforcement in high-risk border areas and continuous surveillance along the whole frontier with Mexico. Roll Call spoke to a Democratic aide who said these security measures were “goals”, not formal triggers for a citizenship pathway.

In related news, Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy has rejected complaints from Republicans who accuse him of forcing an immigration overhaul through Congress. Alabama’s Jeff Sessions and Utah’s Mike Lee are among those who have urged a slowdown in proceedings. Gang member Marco Rubio echoed such calls following a deal between businesses and unions on a guest worker programme last week, but is now apparently ready to go ‘all-in’ for reform.

Tens of thousands of people demonstrated their support for immigration reform in the US capital and other American cities on Wednesday.

Related polling: [NBC/WSJ]

Prez talks tough on Korea

The administration will do everything necessary to protect the US from North Korea, President Obama has insisted amid ongoing tension in the Far East.

Speaking after an Oval Office meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on Thursday, Obama called on North Korea to end the “belligerent approach” it had adopted and vowed to take “all necessary steps” to defend the US.

Earlier in the week, combined US and South Korean forces went to a higher alert level as administration officials warned North Korea could test fire mobile ballistic missiles at any time. American intelligence officials are concerned the communist state is close to having a mobile nuclear arsenal, although they believe it is untested and of questionable reliability.

The American government attempted to reduce the crisis on the Korean peninsula over the weekend when it delayed an intercontinental ballistic missile test scheduled for this week. On Tuesday Yahoo News’s Olivier Knox spoke to an official who said the administration could assess the necessity of ship deployments and other missile tests to avoid worsening the standoff. One senior Democratic lawmaker, Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin, has queried the Pentagon’s decision to abandon this week’s missile test.

Secretary of State John Kerry has today flown to Seoul, where he is expected to call on the North’s neighbour China to put diplomatic pressure on its longtime ally.  

Related polling: [Pew]

Key judicial nominee makes grade

An administration lawyer picked by President Obama to serve on America’s most important appeals court has sailed through a Senate confirmation hearing, reducing the prospect of a major showdown with Republicans on judges.

Justice Department lawyer Sri Srinivasan – who has been renominated by the president to serve on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit – won fairly positive reviews when he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. Senior Republican committee member Orrin Hatch promised to send Srinivasan’s nomination to the full Senate for a vote, suggesting the GOP caucus will not hold up another Obama pick for the DC court.

The New York Times earlier reported the White House was lobbying several GOP senators – including former Supreme Court law clerk Ted Cruz – to confirm Srinivasan to the DC court. The court often hears cases relevant to the federal government, and many of its justices have ended up on the Supreme Court. Srinivasan himself is tipped for America’s highest judicial body.

Democratic leaders in the Senate have recently threatened to revive a ‘nuclear option’ on judges, as part of which they would change the chamber’s rules and prevent Republicans from filibustering any more of Obama’s court nominations. Majority Leader Harry Reid played down this possibility on Tuesday, saying he hoped it would not be necessary.

Liberal activists said to have been behind McConnell taping

A Democratic party leader in Kentucky has claimed a liberal activist group was behind the taping of a private strategy meeting held by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his aides.

Local committeeman Jacob Conway told Fox News that Progress Kentucky members had bragged to him about a secret recording of McConnell’s team discussing controversial opposition research on possible Democratic challenger Ashley Judd. He also revealed he had been contacted by FBI officials investigating the tape.

The audio – in which McConnell’s advisers gleefully debate Judd’s past mental health problems – was published by left-leaning outlet Mother Jones earlier this week, setting off a minor political storm. McConnell alleged he had been “bugged” in a “Nixonian” manner, and his campaign is now assisting the FBI probe into the incident.

However, additional comments by Conway suggest the recording may not have been made illegally. The co-founder of Progress Kentucky has denied taping the McConnell meeting and blamed one of the group’s former activists for the incident.

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