The Week in Washington: Obama talks security amid leak row, IRS official refuses to testify and more

Larry Smith's weekly round up of American politics.

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Obama delivers national security address

President Obama has given a major speech on national security, as his administration faces further accusations it unduly targeted journalists involved in leak cases.

Speaking at the National Defence University yesterday afternoon, Obama said it was necessary to define the “nature and scope” of the struggle with global terrorism. He revealed he had signed a new presidential directive that insisted upon “clear guidelines” for drone strikes and called on Congress to work with him in closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

Obama also claimed he was “troubled” by the effect recent leak investigations might have on journalism and said the Department of Justice would review its guidelines concerning reporters.

There was praise for the approach Obama took in his speech.Mother Jones’s David Corn said a president had never spoken so forthrightly about the challenges of counterterrorism, while The National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar conceded Obama had made ‘persuasive’ policy arguments despite indulging in ‘professorial jam sessions’. However, others were sceptical about the substance of the address. Commentators argued the president had tried to offload responsibility for Guantanamo onto Congress, rejected proposals for oversight of the drone programme and implicitly dismissed a balance between security and the rule of law.

A day before Obama’s speech, Attorney General Eric Holderconfirmed for the first time that four American citizens had been killed in drone attacks since 2011. In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Holder named radical preacher Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year old son Abdulrahman as among those killed in Yemen and Pakistan. Florida Senator Marco Rubio and his Independent colleague from Maine, Angus King, are using the revelations to push for greater scrutiny of drone strikes that target American-born nationals.

Obama’s focus on national security issues came as questions were raised about why the Department of Justice named Fox News reporter James Rosen as an “aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator” in a recent espionage case. Rosen, who has not been charged with any crime, wrote a story in 2009 about a classified report on North Korea’s nuclear programme allegedly leaked by State Department employee Stephen Jin-Woo Kim. The DOJ stands accused of accessing Fox News phone records, numbers belonging to Rosen’s parents and the reporter’s personal email. It has also been claimed Holder signed off on Rosen’s search warrant.

In related news, House Republicans are taking a greater interest in the Department of Justice’s seizure of phone records belonging to Associated Press journalists. The DOJ has additionally denied allegations it compromised the computers of a CBS reporter investigating the Fast and Furious gun-running scandal and the fallout from Benghazi.

Related polling: [YouGov]

Official at centre of IRS targeting storm declines to give Hill testimony

An official embroiled in the row over the Internal Revenue Service’s inappropriate targeting of conservative groups refused to give evidence when she came before Congress this week.

Appearing before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, Lois Lerner – the IRS employee who first revealed details of the inappropriate targeting – insisted she had not misled Congress about her knowledge of the case and invoked the fifth amendment to avoid giving testimony that might be considered incriminating. The panel’s Republican Chair Darrell Issa attempted to convince her otherwise but was ultimately forced to dismiss her. He has since claimed Lerner effectively waived her constitutional rights and has pledged to recall her for questioning. Lerner was placed on administrative leave from the IRS on Thursday evening.

Other IRS and federal government officials were grilled about their knowledge of the scandal on Wednesday. Chief among these witnesses was former IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman, who was asked by a member of House Oversight whether he had ever raised the case in over 100 visits to the White House. The ex-commissioner faced a gentler ride when he appeared before the Senate Finance Committee a day earlier, although members of that panel pressed him for a comprehensive apology.

The Obama administration’s response to the scandal has come in for further criticism, particularly after it gave conflicting details about its knowledge of the investigation and the release of relevant information. The President’s Press Secretary Jay Carney conceded on Wednesday that some complaints about the White House’s conduct were “legitimate”, but said providing a full account was difficult given the new media environment.

House Speaker John Boehner has said it is “inconceivable” President Obama knew nothing of the IRS scandal before he read about it in the newspapers. However, a Washington Post investigation has suggested senior aides elected not to tell the president about a critical probe into the agency when they heard of it in April. In terms of the administration’s involvement in the targeting itself, Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration J Russell George admitted his organisation had not asked IRS officials if they received direction from the White House but added there was no evidence for such a link.

Related polling: [Pew] [ABC/WaPo] [USA Today/PRS] [CNN]

Senate committee approves immigration bill

The Senate Judiciary Committee has formally endorsed the Gang of 8’s immigration bill after resolving disagreements over contentious amendments.

The Democratic-controlled panel voted 13-5 on Tuesday in favour of the bipartisan group’s legislation, setting up a full Senate vote which is likely to take place in June. Two GOP Gang members and veteran Utah Senator Orrin Hatch joined members of President Obama’s party to see the bill through. There was broad praise for the committee’s work, and even leading bill opponent Chuck Grassley acknowledged its hearings had been “very fair”.

Passage of the bill was ensured when Hatch and Gang of 8 Democrat Chuck Schumer reached a compromise on an amendment proposed by the Utah Senator concerning visas for high-skilled foreign workers. It was also secured when Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy decided not to press an amendment in support of LGBT binational couples. This move sparked fury among gay rights advocates, although some hope a Supreme Court ruling against the Defence of Marriage Act would enable same-sex couples to obtain visas.

Meanwhile in the House of Representatives, a cross-party group drafting its own immigration legislation has again been navigating a thorny dispute over healthcare. Democratic leaders had raised significant doubts about principles agreed by bipartisan negotiators last week, warning they could prevent undocumented aliens from accessing subsidised care in emergencies. However, members of the House group now claimed to have resolved this issue and say they will begin working up legislative text. Speaker Boehner and his colleagues earlier insisted delays in the group’s work would not oblige the House to take up the Senate’s bill.

Reid, McConnell spar over nuclear option

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his Republican opposite number Mitch McConnell have argued publicly over suggestions the Democratic leadership is looking for a fight on filibuster rules.

Speaking after a week of bickering over Senate procedure, The Nevadan said yesterday GOP obstruction of presidential nominees “continues unabated” and attacked Republicans for not honouring an agreement on confirmation votes. Reid added he was not making a threat, but just wanted his chamber to “work well”. This did not cut any ice with Senator McConnell, who alleged Reid was trying to manufacture a crisis and claimed Obama’s nominees had been approved at a quicker rate than George W Bush’s appointees. Statistical evidence does not necessarily back up this claim.

Reid earlier downplayed suggestions he wanted to invoke the ‘nuclear option’ and embark on wholesale changes to the filibuster, telling journalists he would do nothing at this time to jeopardise immigration reform. In any case, it is thought the Majority Leader lacks the votes to radically alter Senate rules.

In a related development, the Senate on Thursday endorsed President Obama’s nomination of administration lawyer Sri Srinivasan to sit on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals. Srinivasan was confirmed by an overwhelming margin, something that boosts his chances of being appointed to the Supreme Court one day. The prospect of Obama making further appointments to the critical appeals court has sparked alarm among some right-wing outlets: The Wall Street Journal argued the president should not be allowed to engage in “court packing”. Liberal commentators have dismissed this argument.

Republicans tangle over budget

Senior Republican senators have publicly condemned their more conservative colleagues for refusing to open congressional budget negotiations.

In a testy exchange on Tuesday, Senators John McCain and Susan Collins criticised Ted Cruz and Rand Paul for objecting to a formal conference that would reconcile budgets passed by the Senate and House. The Arizona Senator was particularly scathing about GOP demands that Democrats not insist on tax increases or a debt ceiling rise as part of talks.

McCain engaged in a similar clash a day later with his Gang of 8 partner Marco Rubio, and returned to the fray on Thursday with a warning that Democrats might use the impasse over the budget as an excuse to change Senate rules.

Oklahoma tornado tragedy sparks GOP disagreement over funding

A Republican senator and GOP congressman from Oklahoma are at odds over funding for victims of the tornado which devastated the city of Moore this week.

Congressman Tom Cole – the representative for the area hit by the disaster and Deputy Majority Whip in the House –contradicted Senator Tom Coburn’s demand that funding relief only be granted if corresponding budget cuts are identified. Speaker Boehner has played his cards close to his chest on the issue but says debate about funding offsets is “healthy”.

President Obama has said Americans will support Oklahomans as they recover from the tornado and is promising their state will get “everything that it needs right away”. He has also dispatched Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate to the area.

News in Brief

  • Petraeus had big role in drafting Benghazi talking points [WaPo]; Victoria Nuland tapped for State Department promotion [WaPo]
  • Kerry warns US will increase support for Syria rebels if talks fail [CBS]; chemical weapons witnesses to be brought out of country [Daily Beast]
  • Obama deplores killing of British soldier in London [TPM]
  • Prez to meet Xi next month [ABC News]; First Couple to travel to SA in June [TPM]
  • McConnell says Burma sanctions won’t be extended [Bloomberg]
  • Election commission members announced [WaPo]
  • Bernanke in defence of stimulus [BBC News]
  • Apple chief pushes back on tax criticism [WSJ]
  • WH threatens to veto House student loan move []
  • Farm bill withstands challenges [Politico]
  • GOP leadership’s Obamacare revision could return to floor [Roll Call]
  • Court fights loom for birth control mandate [Politico]
  • VA Lt Gov candidate controversies threaten running mate [CNN]
  • Another poll shows Markey leading in MA [Emerson]; GOP rival lashes out [BuzzFeed]
  • Weiner announces NYC comeback [NYT]
  • Garcetti elected LA mayor [Time]
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