The Week in Washington: AG Holder denies perjury claims, Obama pushes for judges and more

Larry Smith's weekly round up of American politics.

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Admin denies Holder perjury claims as reporter scandal rumbles on

The Department of Justice and the White House have refuted Republican suggestions that attorney general Eric Holder lied to Congress when he denied knowledge of discussions concerning the potential prosecution of journalists who published classified information.

Both the DOJ and President Obama’s press secretary Jay Carney have insisted that Holder testified truthfully when he told the House Judiciary Committee he never heard conversations about the possible prosecution of reporters for disclosing secret material. GOP representatives had expressed concern about the veracity of Holder’s evidence after it emerged he approved a search warrant suggesting Fox News journalist James Rosen had “potential criminal liability” in a 2009 leak case.

Some legal observers have dismissed allegations Holder lied to Congress, pointing out the search warrant does not constitute evidence he or anyone else considered prosecuting Rosen. However, the attorney general remains under pressure over the tactics his department has used against journalists in leak inquiries. While rejecting claims Holder misled Congress, senior Democratic congressman John Conyers has said he is “deeply troubled” by the DOJ’s conduct. Several media outlets also rejected Holder’s invitation to an off-the-record meeting on new guidelines for leak investigations which took place yesterday.

In an interview with The Daily Beast on Tuesday, Holder said the scandal offered his department an opportunity to consider how it could “strike the right balance” between the interests of law enforcement and a free press. The outlet also spoke to Holder aides who revealed the AG felt a “creeping sense of personal remorse” when he first read the full facts of the Rosen case in The Washington Post. Critics of Holder, especially on the right, have reacted sceptically to such claims.

In related news, Fox News’s parent company News Corporation claims it has no record of being told about the seizure of Rosen’s phone records. The DOJ intimated that it had informed News Corp about a subpoena for the logs in question on 27th August 2010.

New judicial nominations could herald ‘nuclear option’ fight

Speculation about a showdown over filibuster rules is on the rise after Republicans reacted angrily to news President Obama intends to nominate more judges to an important appeals court.

GOP senators strongly criticised reports earlier this week that Obama will nominate candidates for three vacant seats on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals following the successful confirmation of Sri Srinivasan. Judiciary Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley claimed the president and his party were only acting because the court was not ruling in their favour, and said Obama wanted to “pack” the institution. This accusation has prompted anger among liberal columnists, who note the president has a constitutional right to fill empty slots in the judicial system.

Democratic aides have insisted the judicial nominations will not be a “political power play” aimed at changing Senate rules, and warned Republicans will have their obstructionism spotlighted if they use the filibuster to stall further court or cabinet picks. In an interview on Tuesday, senate majority Leader Harry Reid said he was not “beating the drum to change the filibuster for everything”, but warned abuse of the procedure had to end.

There are lingering doubts about whether Reid has the 51 votes required to reform the filibuster. Senate Armed Services Committee chair Carl Levin and Senate Banking Committee chair Jack Reed are resistant to substantive changes, and it is not known where some other members of the 55-strong Democratic caucus stand. However, there are signs a few Republicans will give ground in response to Democratic complaints. Ohio Senator Rob Portman is seeking a compromise that would enable Richard Cordray to win confirmation as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and John McCain has complained his conservative colleagues are endangering a deal he and Levin struck on Senate rules back in January.

In another row over federal nominations, all 45 Senate Republicans have signed a legal brief urging the Supreme Court to limit President Obama’s ability to make appointments when Congress is not in session. 

Tea Party groups to sue IRS and admin over targeting

A conservative group has launched a lawsuit against members of the Internal Revenue Service and the Obama administration on behalf of Tea Party organisations inappropriately targeted by the federal tax agency.

The American Centre for Law and Justice revealed on Wednesday it had filed suit against several officials including attorney general Eric Holder, treasury secretary Jack Lew, outgoing Acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller and the tax agency’s Exempt Organisation division director, Lois Lerner. Federal personnel are accused by the ACLJ of having “unlawfully delayed” applications for tax-exempt status submitted by 25 Tea Party groups solely on the basis of their political views.

There was further pressure on Ms Lerner this week after it was revealed excess scrutiny of right-wing groups was not solely initiated by officials at an IRS office in Cincinnati. NBC News reported that requests for additional information often bore the signatures of higher-ups in the agency, including Lerner herself. The controversial official remains on administrative leave.

Republicans have continued to make hay out of the IRS scandal, especially in context of arguments about President Obama’s health law. The National Republican Campaign Committee has used the furore to attack vulnerable Democrats over their support for health reform, while Florida senator Marco Rubio is urging Obamacare be repealed given the IRS’s role in its implementation. Elsewhere South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham has called for a special prosecutor to investigate the IRS affair, a demand rejected by other GOP lawmakers, elements of the right-wing press and the White House.

The new acting head of the IRS, Daniel Werfel, is to appear before Congress next week. House investigators will also carry on quizzing IRS staff at the Cincinnati office where the scandal first began. 

Related polling: [Quinnipiac]

Reid confident of immigration bill votes

The immigration bill drawn up by a cross-party group of senators should pass the upper chamber, Majority Leader Harry Reid has indicated.

In an interview with The Las Vegas Sun, the Nevadan predicted he would lose no more than two to three Democrats when the bill came up for consideration and sounded confident about winning the Republican votes necessary to avoid a filibuster. The GOP leadership has said it will allow the Gang of 8’s legislation to reach the Senate floor and does not have plans to whip a vote on the bill.

The question of border security could still present obstacles to the bill as it moves through the Senate. Marco Rubio has said he could “beef up” the Gang of 8’s text by proposing Congress, not the Department of Homeland Security, crafts the substance of a border enforcement plan. The Florida senator has also met his ultraconservative colleague Tom Coburn to discuss the issue. It is not clear how Rubio’s Democratic partners in the Gang would react to his border amendment, but advocates of reform away from Capitol Hill are wary of his latest manoeuvres. Anti-immigration forces in the Sunshine State are continuing to prove a thorn in Rubio’s side.

House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi has meanwhile claimed there is enough “general agreement” in Congress for an immigration deal to pass by August. Speaking to The Chicago-Sun Times, the San Francisco Congresswoman said she hoped the House could produce its own bipartisan legislation while the Senate was considering the Gang of 8’s bill. Speaker Boehner stated last week his caucus would not be rushed by the Senate and that the House shall work its own will on an overhaul.

Obama will speak on student loans today

President Obama will return to one of his main election campaign themes later today when he focuses attention on an impending student loan rate rise.

Obama will appear with college students at the White House and call on Congress to prevent interest rates attached to the government’s student loan programme from doubling come July. The president will propose linking the rates to financial markets, but advocate keeping a student’s rate at whatever level it is when they take out a loan. This caveat, along with other safeguards, was not included in a House GOP remedy which Obama has threatened to veto if it ever ends up on his desk.

Dem Senator to hit back at Bloomberg assault

Arkansas’s Democratic senator Mark Pryor has purchased airtime in his home state after New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gun control group targeted him with a slew of negative ads.

Politico reported on Wednesday that Pryor, who has represented the southern state since 2003, put $30,000 towards commercials which will run on cable TV across Arkansas. His decision is a response to a new ad campaign from Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which has blasted his vote against background checks legislation last month. A Republican action group is also targeting Pryor over other positions he has taken in Congress.

Reports Bloomberg could make large-scale interventions in Senate races next year have caused consternation among some Democrats. The New Republic revealed Majority Leader Reid’s office pleaded with the mayor not to target Pryor and other pro-gun members of his party, while Connecticut senator Chris Murphy has worried that harsh ads aimed at Republican senators sceptical of background checks reform could box them into a corner. Bloomberg’s group has refused to stop targeting Democratic senators who oppose tougher gun control.

Federal authorities are probing whether a person responsible for sending poison-laced letters to Bloomberg and a lobbyist for his gun-control campaign was also behind a similar mail to President Obama. 

Related polling: [PPP]

Bachmann to retire

Controversial right-wing congresswoman Michele Bachmann has announced she will leave office when her present term expires at the start of 2015.

In a rambling, 8-minute long video posted on her website early Wednesday, the four-term Republican representative from Minnesota said she had reached her decision after a “great deal of thought”. Bachmann dismissed speculation she would have struggled to retain her seat, and insisted that ongoing investigations into her presidential bid had not motivated her to quit. The congresswoman was named in a lawsuit relating to misuse of an email list during the 2012 campaign on Wednesday.

Bachmann is the first House member to retire but not seek higher office or resign this election cycle. Observers believe Democrats are less likely to capture the former presidential contender’s GOP-leaning district now she is out of the picture.

News in Brief

  • Raises cash for Dems in Chicago [Roll Call]
  • Issa subpoenas State over Benghazi [Roll Call]
  • Hacking will overshadow Obama-Xi summit [WaPo]
  • GOP senators gripe over lack of budget talks follow-up [The Hill]
  • First quarter growth revised down slightly [CNN]
  • Former Bush official lined up to head FBI [NYT]; looks unlikely to face resistance in Senate [USA Today]
  • Admin official Furman to head Council of Economic Advisers [Slate]
  • Hillary Clinton set to join Twitter [USA Today]
  • Markey gets Obama endorsement [Roll Call]; FLOTUS fundraises in Boston [TPM]
  • VA governor candidate claims Planned Parenthood ‘racist’ [Politico]; survey has McAuliffe in front [PPP]
  • KY Dem Grimes pressured to run against McConnell [ABC News]
  • RI Governor joins Dems, earns presidential welcome [WaPo]
  • Poll shows Weiner on rise [Marist]; former rep turns heads at education forum [NYT]
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