The Week in Washington: Immigration bill survives first test, White House refuses debt ceiling deal and more

Larry Smith's weekly round up of American politics.

Top News

Immigration bill survives early committee tests

The Senate Judiciary Committee has begun considering bipartisan legislation which would reform America’s immigration system.

The panel responsible for marking up the Gang of 8’s bill began wading through 300 amendments yesterday, with Republican members of the cross-party group joining Democrats to vote down proposals offered by their GOP colleagues. These included a measure which would have only allowed immigrants to apply for legal status once the border had been secure for six months, and a measure dramatically increasing law enforcement resources. A contentious Democratic amendment which would extend the legislation to binational LGBT couples has yet to be debated, although senior Gang member Chuck Schumer has indicated he may forsake it to get reform through.

There was fierce debate over the merits of immigration reform earlier in the week when the right-wing Heritage Foundation published a controversial report on the issue. The think tank’s study claimed the push to legalise 11 million undocumented aliens would cost the country trillions of dollars. Leading Republicans are among those to have refuted the research: former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour called it a “political document”, while Florida Senator Marco Rubio dismissed its legitimacy. Past writings by one of the report’s authors have raised further questions about its validity.

In an effort to combat Heritage’s intervention, Senator Rubio has aggressively touted findings from the chief actuary of America’s Social Security fund which suggest immigration reform could help secure the future of the programme. Some right-wing commentators have questioned this study, noting the chief actuary did not consider the impact of an overhaul on Social Security beyond an initial ten-year period.

Related polling: [Pew] [Gallup]

WH will not negotiate on debt limit, aide insists

A senior economic adviser to President Obama has reiterated the White House’s opposition to bargaining with Republicans over the debt ceiling, which is due to max out again sometime this summer.

National Economic Council director Gene Sperling told journalists on Thursday that the president “simply wasn’t going to negotiate” over the debt limit, and that Obama had been clear on the need to end “the era of threatening default”. Sperling also dismissed legislation advanced by the House GOP which would allow the government to prioritise debt payments, calling this a “nonstarter to anyone serious about the US economy”.

The White House set its face against a deal on the debt limit as House Speaker John Boehner and his senior colleagues consider how they might encourage conservative representatives to back another ceiling hike. Politico reported on Thursday that Boehner and his colleagues were entertaining the possibility of a ‘kitchen sink’ plan, in which a debt ceiling rise would be accompanied by ‘goodies’ including cuts in regulation, further spending reductions or a framework for tax reform. However, there are doubts even within the GOP leadership about whether such an approach will fly.

House Republicans will hold a members-only meeting next Tuesday to plot their way forward on debt ceiling talks. A spokesman for the Speaker has said the caucus’s position will be consistent with the ‘Boehner Rule’, a demand that any increase in the debt limit is matched by equal or greater spending reductions or entitlement changes.

The debt ceiling also loomed large over the budget debate this week, as Republican senators refused to move ahead with full negotiations unless Democrats agreed in advance that a budget bill would not raise the debt limit or increase taxes. The impasse over budget talks has prompted some sharp exchanges in recent days, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid accusing Texas Senator Ted Cruz of acting like a “playground bully” after he objected to the creation of a congressional conference. Some of Cruz’s colleagues havesaid they are ready to proceed with full budget negotiations.

President Obama discussed budgetary issues with House Democrats during a meeting on Wednesday night. 

Officials criticise admin over Benghazi at House hearing

The storm over the attack on America’s consulate in Benghazi is back in the news after three State Department officials condemned the Obama administration’s response to the assault during a House of Representatives hearing.

Speaking before the GOP-controlled House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, former deputy head of the US mission to Libya Gregory Hicks claimed the Pentagon had refused to allow jets to overfly the scene of the attack or permit the deployment of a rescue force from Tripoli. One of Hicks’s fellow officials, Mark Thompson, claimed a request he put in for a specialised emergency response team was denied by the White House. The Pentagon has insisted US forces were not in a position to launch a rapid intervention on the night of the assault.

The actions of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during and after the Benghazi attack were also scrutinised at the hearing. Republican committee members seized on Hicks’s admission that he told Clinton on the night of the attack that an act of terror was unfolding. They were also interested in Hicks’s claim that key Clinton aide Cheryl Mills subsequently tried to prevent him from meeting a congressional delegation. Allegations Clinton shut the State Department’s counterterrorism bureau out of decision-making during the attack proved ill-founded.

The former presidential contender has not directly responded to the committee’s hearing, although her press aide Philippe Reines has strongly disputed the accusation levelled against Ms Mills. Senior GOP lawmakers have since attacked Clinton over her initial characterisation of the consulate attack, implying she joined other members of the Obama administration in downplaying the possibility of terrorism. Speaker Boehner has also called on the White House to release emails concerning its response to Benghazi.

GOP senators still cold on gun control measure

Two Republican senators who provided critical votes against gun control legislation last month have indicated they are not yet ready to reverse their positions on enhanced background checks.

Speaking to The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent on Tuesday, a spokesperson for Arizona’s Jeff Flake dampened speculation he might support the Manchin-Toomey background checks bill if a provision related to internet sales was altered. New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte has meanwhile doubled down on her opposition to the proposal, arguing in an op-ed that a “flawed” checks system should be fixed rather than expanded.

Senator Ayotte’s refusal to move on the gun debate came as both Republican lawmakers and the National Rifle Association rallied to her defence. In an advert set to air on local TV stations, the gun rights group claimed Ayotte supported a “bipartisan plan” to make checks more effective and stood for “New Hampshire values”. Gun control groups, including Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Gabrielle Giffords’s Americans for Responsible Solutions, are attempting to counter the NRA’s activity in the Granite State.

Leading Democratic proponents of gun control have conceded that further action on the issue must wait for the time being. Vice President Joe Biden insisted there was still “pace on the ball” during an interview with Rolling Stone on Thursday, but admitted last week legislation could not come back until progress was made on immigration reform. Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy has added the background checks measure must be overhauled before opponents can publicly alter their positions.

A pro-gun amendment inserted into water infrastructure legislation by Republican Senator Tom Coburn was this weekdefeated by a Democrat-led filibuster. 

Related polling: [Pew]

Obama clarifies Syria line again

President Obama has sought to answer fresh question about his position on Syria, as speculation continues that his administration will arm rebel forces in the war-torn country.

Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Obama defended his cautious attitude to the conflict engulfing Syria, as well as the need to measure the humanitarian crisis there alongside “the best interest of America’s security”. He indicated he would not rush to judgement on allegations of chemical weapons use, but cited military action in Libya and the killing of Osama Bin laden as proof he and his administration ‘follow through’ on their international commitments.

The New York Times reported over the weekend that ‘red lines’ outlined by Obama last August regarding the use or movement of large quantities of chemical weapons in Syria were unscripted and had not been included in messages transmitted to President Assad via intermediary nations. Unnamed officials told the paper Obama had really intended to “put chill into the Assad regime” without trapping himself into “any predetermined action”. However, some observers noted Obama and his officials repeated and even tightened the red lines following his initial remarks.

There have been further hints the US will arm Syrian opposition fighters in the near future. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Corker – who played golf with Obama over the weekend – said he believed Washington would “shortly” provide rebels with lethal aid. His counterpart on the SFRC, Bob Menendez, meanwhile tabled legislation which would provide arms to vetted opposition groups.

Sanford triumphs in special election

Former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford is returning to the House of Representatives after winning a special election to succeed recently-appointed GOP Senator Tim Scott.

The Republican retook the Palmetto State’s first congressional district by a comfortable margin on Tuesday night, defeating Democratic challenger Elizabeth Colbert-Busch by 54% to 45%. Sanford regained momentum in the highly conservative district with an energetic campaign and a series of attacks on national Democratic figures, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. He has since settled a high-profile dispute with his ex-wife Jenny over allegations of trespassing.

News in Brief

  • House Homeland Security Committee holds Boston bombings hearing [USA Today]; late suspect said to have met with Chechen extremists [CNN]
  • Kerry to return to Middle East for new peace push [Haaretz]
  • WH, lawmakers discuss sexual assaults in military [NYT] [Roll Call]
  • Former State Department lawyer laments drone secrecy [NYT]
  • Prez campaigns on jobs in Austin [Bloomberg]
  • GOP senators step up opposition to Perez [Roll Call]; stall EPA nominee [Reuters]
  • Keystone opponents seize on Biden remarks [WaPo]
  • Obama accused of hypocrisy over private meetings with energy chiefs [Politico]
  • Cantor vows Obamacare repeal vote [CAP]; GOP leaders refuse to name advisory board members [Roll Call]
  • Bills aim to prevent student loan rate rise [NYT]
  • Boehner in no hurry to act on internet sales tax [Politico]
  • Gosnell case referenced in Republican abortion resolution [CNN]
  • RNC petitions court for greater donor freedom [SCOTUSblog]
  • Portman lukewarm on LGBT employment law [BuzzFeed]
  • Newly-out basketball star to fundraise with First Lady [Bloomberg]
  • Prince Harry at landmine event on Capitol Hill [WaPo]
  • FL legislature rejects Medicaid expansion [WaPo]; OH governor doubles down on backing [Plain Dealer]
  • Christie reveals weight-loss surgery [NYT]; still trouncing Dem rival [NBC/Marist]
  • Survey shows VA governor’s race tied [MSNBC]; Book controversy could hurt McAuliffe among women [Political Wire]
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