The Week in Washington: Outrage over fed surveillance claims, concerns for immigration reform and more

Larry Smith's weekly round up of American politics.

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Uproar over federal snooping revelations

Controversy has erupted after it emerged federal security agencies have been monitoring the telephone and internet records of millions of Americans.

The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald reported yesterday on a top-secret court order which requires telecoms company Verizon to give the National Security Agency information on all telephone calls in its systems. The order appears to be the broadest of its kind ever and a renewal of a similar edict issued in 2006.

The Washington Post subsequently revealed the NSA and FBI tapped directly into the servers of nine leading internet companies to track individual movements and contacts.Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said on Thursday that the government’s internet surveillance programme was “important and entirely legal”. He declassified a formal defence of the NSA phone record scheme and claimed both newspaper reports contained inaccuracies. Senior members of the congressional committees on intelligence had earlier downplayed the furore over the phone scheme, arguing it simply covered “meta data”. However, two Democratic members of the Senate’s panel long opposed to enhanced surveillance, Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, have expressed anger at the news.

Other leading members of Congress, perhaps mindful of their role in approving NSA surveillance programmes, gave fairly muted responses to the revelations. Although one of his party’s campaign committees described the NSA phone records affair as a “scandal” for the president, House Speaker John Boehner merely said Obama needed to explain why the order was critical for protecting Americans. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said people should “calm down”, while his GOP counterpart Mitch McConnell has declined to comment for the time being.

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee largely skirted the NSA phone controversy when Attorney General Eric Holder gave routine testimony before their panel yesterday. Indeed much of the appropriations hearing concerned the beleaguered DOJ chief’s future. Under questioning, Holder hinted publicly that he could depart his post within the next year or two. On Wednesday Holder told NBC News he had no intention of resigning, despite reports even members of the White House are now dissatisfied with his performance.

Rubio’s security push spooks immigration backers

Efforts by Gang of Eight member Marco Rubio to woo conservatives on security aspects of the Senate immigration bill have sparked concern among advocates of reform.The Florida Senator on Wednesday offered support to an amendment from his Texas colleague John Cornyn, which would trigger a pathway to citizenship for immigrants only when 90 per cent of illegal-border crossers were caught. This worried several supporters of reform, with one advocacy group leader saying Rubio now faced a “moment of truth” on immigration.

The rising conservative star raised eyebrows a day earlier when he told a talk show host he would not vote for the Senate bill in its current form, despite having helped author it. However, Rubio indicated concerns with the legislation when it was reported out of committee and other Gang members are publicly relaxed about his efforts to bridge the divide with GOP lawmakers. On Thursday the Sunshine State Senator insisted he would not abandon the issue of immigration reform.

The Gang of 8’s legislation is set to be debated for the first time on the Senate floor today, and Senate Majority Leader Reid hopes to finalise its passage through his chamber by 4th July. Meanwhile news that the bipartisan House group working on reform had agreed its own package was undercut when a Republican participant said he would author an alternative proposal. Idaho Representative Raúl Labrador was angry that his colleagues rejected language to prevent newly legalised immigrants from obtaining subsidised health care.

A separate bill offered by Labrador could give other GOP representatives cover to abandon the House immigration bill, the timetable of which is still unclear. But some members of the cross-party group believe enough conservatives remain on board to see it through. Senior House Republicans remain adamant that the Senate’s plan will not get a full hearing in their chamber.

In related news, the White House and congressional Democrats have said they will block House GOP efforts to halt the administration’s lenient approach to the deportation of young undocumented aliens. 

Rice moves up in foreign policy shuffle

UN Ambassador Susan Rice will succeed National Security Adviser Tom Donilon next month, in a move that heralds a shake-up of the Obama administration’s foreign policy personnel.

The president formally unveiled Rice as a replacement for Donilon on Wednesday. He also nominated his former foreign policy aide and anti-genocide advocate Samantha Power to take up Rice’s position in New York. Speaking at a White House press conference, Obama praised Rice as the “consummate public servant” and a “trusted adviser”. He hailed Power as a “relentless advocate for American interests and values” and called on the Senate to give her a speedy confirmation.

The appointment of Rice – which does not require Senate backing – had been trailed for some time. Republicans who opposed the prospect of her becoming Secretary of State offered little resistance: Arizona Senator John McCain and his New Hampshire colleague Kelly Ayotte were among those pledging to work with her on important issues. Rice will take up her new role next month, allowing her influential predecessor to take full credit for today’s summit between President Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Commentators have speculated about what Donilon’s departure and the two new appointments will mean for US foreign policy. Much has been made of Rice and Power’s close relationship and their preference for liberal intervention, an approach less favoured by the realist Donilon. However, others have noted the two always wielded significant influence behind the scenes and there are doubts about whether their views will alter administration policy on issues like Syria.

IRS officials assailed for excess spending

The Internal Revenue Service has come in for further censure this week amid allegations of lavish spending by its employees.

IRS officials faced a stern grilling from the House Oversight Committee on Thursday in response to an inspector general’s report which found the agency spent $50m on employee conferences between 2010 and 2012. The panel’s Republican Chair Darrell Issa upbraided the employees for one particular event at which staff produced an elaborate spoof training video based on Star Trek. The new acting head of the IRS, Danny Werfel, has responded to the various revelations by placing officials on administrative leave.

All eyes were on Werfel earlier in the week when he gave testimony to Congress concerning the inappropriate targeting of conservative political groups. Speaking before a House Appropriations Subcommittee, the new IRS chief said his primary mission was to “restore trust” in his agency and dismissed suggestions from some Democratic representatives that more federal funding would solve its problems. This line met with approval from Republican House Appropriations Chair Hal Rogers, who said he was “beginning to like” Werfel.

The Wall Street Journal has reported employees at an IRS Cincinnati office told congressional investigators that agency officials in Washington helped oversee the probe of Tea Party organisations. This testimony showed that an IRS lawyer in the US capital supervised the work of one Ohio official and floated questions she could ask conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status. In a related development, some Republican lawmakers have chided Congressman Issa for accusing White House Press Secretary Jay Carney of lying about the extent of misconduct.

GOP lawmaker draws fire for remarks at sexual assault hearing

A Republican senator has been heavily criticised for attributing sexual assaults in the military to hormones.

Georgia’s Saxby Chambliss put it to military chiefs appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that “raging hormones” of young people entering the military were responsible for the high number of sexual assaults that have occurred across all services. Chambliss stressed the incidents were unacceptable, but was subsequently condemned by Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and others for writing off the crimes.

Other senators on the committee expressed intense anger at the rising tide of assaults. Former veteran John McCain said he would not be able to give “unqualified support” to the military if mothers asked him about their daughters signing up, while Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill slammed force representatives for overoptimistic assessments. However, there was less agreement on how to resolve the problem. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand touted a bill that would take the power to investigate allegations away from military leaders and give it to prosecutors, but others argued this authority should not be removed from commanders.

Christie names successor to late senator

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has announced a temporary replacement for Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg, who died on Monday at the age of 89.

Christie – who has been renominated by his party for the Garden State’s forthcoming gubernatorial election – yesterday appointed state Attorney General Jeff Chiesa to serve as junior senator until October. Voters will then pick a replacement to serve out Lautenberg’s term, which was due to finish at the start of 2015.

Democrats and Republicans are unhappy with Christie’s decision to hold a special election one month before the contest for governor, as are elements of the local press which have accused him of wasting money. However, it seems unlikely the move will damage the presidential hopeful’s chances of re-election. Newark Mayor Cory Booker is clear favourite to run for the Democrats in the special election; former mayor and conservative activist Steve Lonegan istipped to be his GOP opponent.

Lautenberg – who was the last member of the Senate to have served in World War II – was remembered at a funeral service in New York on Wednesday attended by Vice President Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and several members of Congress. His coffin was subsequently taken to Capitol Hill, where mourners had a chance to pay their last respects.

News in Brief

  • McConnell signals he may block vote on Obama DC circuit nominees [TPM]
  • Boehner calls on WH to take shutdown off table [Roll Call]
  • Senate rejects two student loan proposals [WSJ]
  • Farm bill advances in upper chamber [Politico]
  • Reid to talk gun legislation with Biden, Manchin [Roll Call]; Bloomberg group in fresh attack on Ayotte [TPM]
  • Jobs report due today [WSJ]
  • Prez pitches WiFi plan in NC [WaPo]
  • First Lady hits back at LGBT rights heckler [CNN]
  • Admin ordered to make some emergency contraception available immediately [Mother Jones]
  • Sebelius asked companies to support health law [NYT]; questions over email addresses [Fox News]
  • Admin says Russia rejected Syria chemical weapons evidence [Yahoo News]
  • New Iran sanctions approved [LA Times]
  • Ex-ambo testifies behind closed doors on Benghazi [Politico]
  • US lawmakers in Moscow for Boston bombing inquiry [NYT]
  • Turkish FM furious at Kerry protest criticism [TPM]
  • Surprising split in SCOTUS DNA ruling [NBC News]
  • Guns, Benghazi dominate MA Senate debate [ABC News]; another poll shows Markey ahead [PPP]
  • More past comments come back to haunt VA LG nominee [Politico]
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