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Politics

A Contentious Week in Congress

February 4, 2013

TOP FIVE

A HOT WEEK ON THE HILL. With the next fiscal showdowns looming, Democrats in the House and Senate are set to brainstorm on strategy at out-of-town retreats this week. But that’s not all. The Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to hold a confirmation hearing Thursday for John Brennan, President Obama’s pick to be the next CIA director, who will likely be questioned over drone strikes and torture; Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., who had his own rocky confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, may get a vote on his confirmation; and a floor fight is brewing over a House bill that blames Obama for the nation’s deficits. Read more

PRESIDENT WILL SPEAK ON GUNS IN MINNEAPOLIS. President Obama heads to Minneapolis today to deliver remarks on his ideas to reduce gun violence. He will speak at the Minneapolis Police Department Special Operations Center at 1:30 p.m. Central Standard Time, afterward discussing his measures with local leaders and law enforcement officials in Minneapolis. Obama will visit with members of the community about their experiences and discuss additional steps that can be taken at the federal level to reduce gun violence before returning to Washington. Read more

 

WHY BAD NEWS MAY BE GOOD NEWS FOR SEQUESTER FIX. With the sequester increasingly seen as unstoppable, interest groups and others who favor a rollback are now banking on the public pressure that could erupt after the across-the-board cuts go into effect to compel lawmakers to act, National Journal’s Stacy Kaper reports. For defense hawks worried about putting national security on the line and liberals fretting about teachers receiving pink slips and health research being slashed, the burgeoning strategy is to hold their fire and seize on gloom-and-doom headlines that bring attention—and hence legitimacy—to their pet issues as the cuts start to kick in. Read more

REID’S CRYSTAL BALL ON IMMIGRATION REFORM. On an appearance on ABC’s This Week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid predicted that immigration reform is “certainly going to pass the Senate,” saying “things are looking really good,” Reuters reported. Still, there remain obstacles, foremost among them House Republicans. As NJ’s Scott Bland reported recently, many are skeptical of any deal that includes a path to citizenship, and have little incentive to vote for reform. The Hill also reports that a bipartisan group in the House is readying its own immigration plan, but provided no details on the plan or the lawmakers working on it. Read more

OBAMA TALKS ECONOMY BEFORE SUPER BOWL. In his annual pre-game Super Bowl interview, Obama talked about the economy, the Boy Scouts ban on gays, the safety of football, and women in combat, USA Today reports. On the economy, he said growth was possible—so long as Washington dysfunction doesn't get in the way. "Washington cannot continually operate under a cloud of crisis," Obama told CBS News. He also said he is not interested in further raising income tax rates to reduce the federal debt, but more tax revenue from the wealthy is needed in the form of closing loopholes and deductions. Read more

CONGRESS

SENATE DEMS TIP HAND ON OUTLINES OF GUN BILL. A top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada told The Wall Street Journal that Senate Democrats would introduce a gun-control bill featuring most of Obama’s recent proposals, with one major exception: the ban on automatic weapons. The bill will include proposals to limit the capacity of ammunition magazines; extend background checks to gun shows and private transactions; improve mental health record keeping; and limit gun sales by residents of states with lax gun laws to residents of states with more stringent gun regulations. Read more

REPUBLICANS SPLIT ON WHETHER TO FILIBUSTER HAGEL. Chuck Hagel's performance at his Jan. 31 confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee was less than convincing. But if his critics want to challenge the nomination and block him, they'll face a bitterly divisive and unprecedented uphill battle to do so, Roll Call reports. To block Hagel, Republicans would have to filibuster the nomination, something that has not happened to a cabinet nominee in the history of the filibuster. "Several Cabinet nominees have failed to win the backing of a majority of senators—and others have withdrawn their names before reaching the Senate floor—but a filibuster would mark a serious breach in the unwritten protocol that governs the Senate," Roll Call reports. Read more

CANTOR'S ATTEMPT TO CHANGE THE GOP. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor will use an address tomorrow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute to urge Republicans change their message from one focused on reducing federal spending to one highlighting how the federal government can help American families, The Wall Street Journal reports. He will use examples in education, medical research, job training and the tax code to demonstrate the Republican commitment to families. The overarching theme, according to The Journal: "While Republican determination to pare back federal budget deficits and the size of the federal government shouldn't fade away, it should be supplemented with talk of how the party wants to make the government work better." Read more

CAN ROBERT MENENDEZ SURVIVE? On Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gave the senator from New Jersey a vote of confidence, despite a potential ethics inquiry into his dealings with Salomon Melgen, a Florida donor whose house was raided by the FBI recently. That’s not to mention the accusations that Menendez may have engaged with prostitutes in the Dominican Republic (which is legal), but who may have been underage (which is not—the FBI is reportedly looking into that claim). Recently, The New York Times reported that Menendez intervened with State and Commerce officials in an effort to aid a Melgen-owned company regarding a port-security contract. Read more

FIVE ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT HILL STAFFERS TO WATCH. Congress is unlikely to tackle any major energy and environment legislation through regular order. So if any sliver of policy does get through either or both chambers, it will be thanks to the small cadre of energy and environment aides in congressional leadership offices. National Journal’s Hot Seats column, a new weekly series highlighting significant staff positions in the 113th Congress, will tell you who you need to know. To suggest a position or staffer for the list, please tweet to @NJLeadership or e-mail kroberts@nationaljournal.com. Read more

WHITE HOUSE

BIDEN: THE U.S. WOULD TALK TO IRAN. At a security conference in Munich this weekend, Vice President Joe Biden said the United States is ready for direct talks with Iran "if it is serious about negotiations," Reuters reports. Iran, which has endured harsh sanctions for its continued development of nuclear weapons, says it is enriching uranium to use in peaceful energy development. According to Biden, there is still time and space for diplomacy to succeed. "The ball is in the government of Iran's court," he said. Read more

SAFETY BOARD HEAD LIKELY TO REPLACE LAHOOD. Deborah Hersman, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board, is the leading candidate to replace Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has announced his intention to leave. In her time as head of the independent safety board, Hersman has focused on promoting highway safety and pushing for quicker investigations into commercial-aviation accidents, drawing bipartisan praise from Congress, The Wall Street Journal reports. Previously, Hersman has served as a congressional staffer for both parties. Most recently, she has been in the news for leading the probe into burning batteries aboard Boeing Co.’s new 787 Dreamliner jets. Read more

A BRAND NEW, IDENTICAL OVAL OFFICE. The government is working to recreate a nearly exact replica of the Oval Office at the south end of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to provide President Obama a workspace during a two-year overhaul of the West Wing, Real Clear Politics reports. Obama could move in as early as August. "The timing of Obama’s move to a substitute executive suite is in part dependent on the president’s readiness to begin working in the temporary quarters for what could be as long as two years," RCP writes.  Read more

NATIONAL SECURITY

ISRAELI AIRSTRIKE IN SYRIA ALSO TARGETED CHEMICAL WEAPONS RESEARCH. Breaking several days of silence, Israel’s defense minister this weekend acknowledged that his country was behind an airstrike in Syria last week, according to The Wall Street Journal. Initially, the strike was believed to target a convoy of missile shipments heading to Lebanon, but American officials are now saying that Syria’s main biological and chemical weapons research center was also targeted, The New York Times reports. Secretary of State John Kerry spent the first days in his post reaching out to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, according to Reuters, affirming his commitment to both Israel and a solution to the ongoing tensions between Israel and Palestinian. Read more

IRAN MAY BE OPEN TO NUCLEAR TALKS. Long-stalled talks with Iran about its nuclear program took a small step forward when Iran’s foreign minister said Sunday that his country was amenable to multilateral nuclear negotiations with the United States and five other countries. Reuters reported that Ali Akbar Salehi, the foreign minister, pointed to Vice President Joe Biden’s indication on Saturday that Washington was open to direct talks with Iran as a “step forward.” But according to The New York Times, Salehi does not have the pull within the Iranian government to make a decision about talks unilaterally. While the comments were seen as a positive in the U.S.-Iranian relationship, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in a Wall Street Journal interview, accused Iran of smuggling anti-aircraft weapons to militant groups around the Middle East. Read more

CHANCES OF ONGOING TROOPS IN AFGHANISTAN RISES. Although the NATO mission ends in Afghanistan in December 2014, it appears increasingly likely that American troops will remain in the country beyond that date. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stressed this weekend that no final decision had been made, but that they expected a long-term partnership that would include military assistance, according to The New York Times. A negotiating office for the Taliban that was meant to open a month ago in Qatar has also stalled, giving the U.S. pause in permanently removing troops, reports The Washington Post. Read more

FRANCE CONTINUES AIRSTRIKES IN MALI, DISCUSSES A WIND-DOWN. Although France has reclaimed all major cities in Mali that had been under the control of Islamist extremists, French troops have not completely eradicated their enemies. Many rebel groups took to the desert to hide out. The Wall Street Journal reports that France has launched airstrikes this weekend in northern Mali, and sent convoys of food and fuel. Despite the airstrikes, French President François Hollande, in a visit to Timbuktu on Saturday, said the military is attempting to wind-down its campaign. Foreign Policy reports that the French government might have more problems at home, where the public has quickly lost faith in its government. Read more

REPORT BREAKS DOWN ‘WAR ON DRUGS’ SPENDING. Wired highlights a new report from the Government Accountability Office that details the government’s spending on the ongoing drug war in Central America. The report shows that between 2008 and 2011, the government spent $97 million on gear and training for its Central American partners. Among the biggest money sucks? “Vehicles — like aircraft and patrol boats — night-vision goggles, body armor, radios and weapons, and X-ray equipment for scanning cargo containers.” Read more

POLITICS

TRACKING CLINTON’S CAREER BY THE NUMBERS. Pew has dubbed outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton "the comeback kid." In two decades in the public eye, her favorability ratings have only dipped below 50 percent four times. As she leaves for retirement, she's as popular as she has ever been, with an approval rating of 65 percent. But she can also be a polarizing figure. In 2008, for instance, when she was running for president, the country was evenly split on whether they liked her or not. A National Journal graphic looks at the ups and downs of Clinton's two decades in the spotlight. Read more

SCOTT BROWN COULD RUN FOR GOV IN MASSACHUSETTS. Former Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., won't run in the special election to replace former Sen. John Kerry, a potentially crippling blow to Republican hopes of gaining the seat. Brown, who lost his reelection bid in November to Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, was viewed as Republicans' best and perhaps only hope of winning the special election in June. Attention will now turn to former Gov. Bill Weld, who hasn't given any firm indication he intends to run. Brown could choose to run for Massachusetts governor in 2014, setting up a potential primary showdown with Charlie Baker, the 2010 Republican nominee for governor. Read more

TAGG ROMNEY MULLS MASSACHUSETTS SENATE RUN. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney's eldest son, Tagg Romney, is considering whether to enter the special Senate election for Kerry’s seat, the Boston Herald reports. Heavyweight Republicans have also urged his mother, Ann, to run. Romney, who currently runs the successful venture capital firm he founded, Solamere, would have the infrastructure to run, the paper notes—but his father lost Massachusetts by 23 points in the presidential contest. Read more

DEMS WILL THROW BOOK AT KEN CUCCINELLI. Pragmatic Republicans looking to hang onto the governorship in Virginia have been hoping that their nominee, state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, would tailor his outspoken conservative views for a more-moderate Old Dominion electorate. But based on excerpts released from his new book, Cuccinelli is making no apologies—and comes out swinging hard against all government entitlement programs. The book has opened up a clear line of attack for his Democratic rival Terry McAuliffe, who is trying to cast Cuccinelli as anti-Medicare and anti-Social Security. McAuliffe campaign officials say they expect it to use it to cast Cuccinnelli as outside the mainstream. Read more

ASSERTIVE OBAMA PLAYING WELL WITH PUBLIC. Obama and Biden are settling into a good-cop, bad-cop routine — and it’s working, writes NJ’s Jill Lawrence. Biden supplies empathy, negotiating skills, and comic relief. Obama is assertive, sometimes combative, clear about what he wants and when he wants it, and given to reminders that a) he won the election and b) polls show the public agrees with his agenda. Polls show that a majority of Americans like this unapologetic second-term Obama. Six in 10 people viewed him favorably in one recent poll. And the positive polls come after plenty of public exposure to Obama 2.0, from his aggressive campaign to his forceful moves and language in recent weeks. Read more

MANCHIN CHARTING OWN POLITICAL COURSE. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has carefully cultivated the kind of record that defies prediction. On Thursday, he was the lone Democrat to vote nay along with tea-party Republicans on bipartisan legislation backed by the White House to raise the debt ceiling. Earlier in the week, he announced his support for former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., Obama’s controversial pick for Defense secretary, and showered him with praise at Thursday’s Senate hearing. That’s life in the upper chamber for a conservative Democrat, a disappearing breed of lawmaker whose ranks could thin even more in 2014 with seven red-state Democratic seats in play. Manchin’s behavior shows what happens when conservative home-state politics crashes against the national Democratic political reality. Read more

ENERGY

LIGHTS OUT AT THE SUPER BOWL. The lights quit in the Superdome in New Orleans on Sunday, sending part of the stadium into darkness for roughly 34 minutes during the Super Bowl and stopping the game. Entergy, the utility that supplied the power, said the problem was confined to the stadium, CNN reported. Though lighting was restored, the blackout was widely credited with sparking a late-game rally by the San Francisco 49ers. But it wasn’t enough to beat the Baltimore Ravens, who won 34 to 31. Read more

POSSIBLE CHU SUCCESSORS INCLUDE WESTERN GOVERNORS, MIT PHYSICIST. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced on Friday he will resign from his post once a successor is confirmed, Politico reported. He concludes the letter announcing the move with a lengthy section on the importance of addressing climate change. Chu, the longest-serving Energy secretary, said he plans to stay on at least through the end of the month. Likely contenders to succeed Chu include former North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan, former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, according to Politico. If the president decides to again avoid a political appointee for the post, he could give MIT physicist Ernest Moniz, who served in Bill Clinton’s Energy Department, the nod. Read more

MURKOWSKI TO UNVEIL ENERGY BLUEPRINT TODAY. Leading Republicans in both chambers this week will frame up their energy agendas for the 113th Congress. On Monday, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, rolls out an “Energy 2020” policy blueprint, a listing of energy-policy goals that she’d like to see achieved by the end of the decade. Despite the partisan gridlock in Congress, at least some of her proposals may gain real traction. Murkowski is a moderate pragmatist, and she’s been working closely with her Democratic counterpart, Energy Committee Chairman Ron Wyden of Oregon, to find points of agreement.

EPA AIR QUALITY CHIEF IS LEAD CONTENDER TO HEAD AGENCY. Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Air and Radiation, is Obama’s preferred pick to succeed Lisa Jackson as the head of the agency, Reuters reported. McCarthy served as an environmental advisor to Mitt Romney during his term as Massachusetts governor and, according to Reuters, “Her no-nonsense style could be an asset in dealing with Congress if Obama embarks on ambitious new measures to tackle climate change.” Bob Perciasepe, EPAs deputy administrator, is reportedly also being considered, with a final announcement expected in coming weeks. Read more

CHEMICAL GIANT COURTS CONGRESS ON GAS EXPORTS. The biggest chemical company in the country is lobbying Republicans to oppose unfettered exports on natural gas, putting it at odds with a central GOP value: free markets. Dow Chemical, which had revenues of about $60 billion in 2012, is the most vocal private company urging the Obama administration and Congress to deny uncontrolled exports of natural gas. Dow lobbyists and its CEO, Andrew Liveris, have met with top congressional leaders from both parties on this issue, including the offices of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. Read more

WARNER ASKS EXPERT PANEL ABOUT ENERGY EFFICIENCY. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., is guest-moderating National Journal’s Energy & Environment Expert Blog this week, and he’s asking how energy productivity can jumpstart the economy. On Thursday, Warner will join other experts to announce recommendations on energy efficiency in conjunction with the Alliance to Save Energy. “This ‘Energy 2030’ plan provides policy solutions through investments, modernization, and education and includes an in-depth analysis that shows how these gains in energy productivity can increase U.S. GDP up to 2%, create annual savings of $327 billion, and save the average household $1,039,” Warner writes. Read more

ECONOMY & BUDGET

REID: SEQUESTER DEAL MUST INCLUDE REVENUE. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, when asked Sunday whether he would require revenue in any deal that averts the sequester cuts, responded: "The answer is definitely yes. And I've got a pretty good fan base for that: the American people, Republicans, Democrats, and independents." Reid, speaking on ABC’s This Week, also said that Democrats would resist a deal that would spare defense cuts at the expense of domestic cuts. Unless a deal is reached by March, the automatic cuts will begin. Aides tell The Wall Street Journal that the two sides remain far apart, and many Senate Republicans believe that the sequester cuts will be implemented, at least for a brief period. Read more

GOP RENEWS EFFORTS TO BLOCK CONSUMER BUREAU PICK. Ever since its creation, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been a target for congressional Republicans, who have attempted to weaken its powers. Heading into the weekend, Senate Republicans vowed to block confirmation of any nominee to head the bureau unless changes are made to its structure, The Hill reports. In a letter to Obama, 43 Senate Republicans—including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—vowed to block the nomination of Richard Cordray, who is serving a recess appointment. Republicans say the bureau lacks accountability and also want to alter the bureau’s revenue stream so that it comes under Congressional control. Read more

HOW THE FED BUILT ITS $3 TRILLION BALANCE SHEET. Reuters has produced an eye-opening video on how the Federal Reserve created a multi-trillion dollar balance sheet in a few short years. Not too long ago, prior to the financial collapse, The Fed had about $800 billion on its books, but the collapse, and subsequent programs like quantitative easing, have sent that number soaring. For perspective: if you combined the current market capitalizations of the two biggest publicly traded companies—Exxon and Apple—and then triple that, you would reach $3 trillion. Even more stunning: the balance sheet could reach $4 trillion by the end of this year. Read more

HEALTH CARE

CONTRACEPTION COVERAGE REGULATION SPARKS REACTION. The Obama administration released a new contraception-coverage regulation Friday, after its original rule, which required most employers to offer their employees insurance that covers contraception, set off a firestorm last year. The proposed rule differs little from an administration proposal months ago: churches and other religious organizations are still exempt. Nonprofits that claim a religious affiliation, on the other hand, will not have to pay for contraception directly, but plans covering their workers will still offer it. Planned Parenthood quickly praised the announcement in a statement, saying “This policy makes it clear that your boss does not get to decide whether you can have birth control." And while leaders in the Roman Catholic community have stayed quiet, saying they will evaluate the rule, others expressed their disappointment quickly. "This proposal does nothing to change the scope of religious employer exemption," Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told Reuters. Read more

NEW SUNSHINE RULE FROM CMS. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced a long-awaited final rule designed to increase public awareness of the financial relationships between drug and device manufacturers and certain health care providers. Under the rule, CMS will collect and post data about hospitals and physicians that accept payments or other transfers of value from drug, device and other health manufacturers. The American Medical Association responded cautiously to the release of the final rule, saying it would continue to review the matter, but others were quick to applaud. "Public reporting of the financial relationships between doctors and drug or medical device companies will protect patients and help restore trust in our healthcare system," said Allan Coukell, director of medical programs at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

OUT OF NETWORK? PAY TEN TIMES AS MUCH. Physicians that don't participate in health insurance networks are charging patients 10 times – or even 100 times—the Medicare reimbursement rate for the same service in the same geographic area, according to a new report from the insurance lobbying group, America's Health Insurance Plans. The group highlighted an out-of-network physician in New York who charged a patient $115,625 for lumbar spine fusion, roughly 62 times what Medicare would pay ($1,867). Another in Texas charged $8,040 for a tissue exam, nearly 76 times Medicare's $106 fee. AHIP President and CEO Karen Ignagni told The New York Times, "When you're out of network, it's a blank check. The consumer is vulnerable to 'anything goes.' Unless we deal with cost, we won't have affordability." AHIP blamed such high costs for exacerbating the health care cost crisis. But the American Medical Association pushed back, saying research shows total physician services account for only 16 percent of healthcare costs. Read more

HOUSE ISSUES FINAL DEADLINE ON MENINGITIS. Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee set a final deadline for the Food and Drug Administration to hand over documents concerning the meningitis outbreak last fall. The documents were first requested in mid-October of 2012, and FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg assured members her agency would provide the documents, but the agency still has failed to comply. In a letter sent Friday to Hamburg, the lawmakers said if the FDA does not produce the documents by Feb. 25, 2013, "the committee will move forward with a business meeting to compel their production." Read more 


(YOU DON’T NEED TO KNOW. Apparently President Obama spent his last birthday—Aug. 4—shooting skeet at Camp David—and the White House wants you to know it. This weekend, several Obama allies Tweeted to “skeet birthers” this picture of the president staring down the barrel of a gun, sporting sunglasses and noise-cancelling headphones, smoke drifting out of the barrel. Enter the Internet and Photoshop. See some of the better efforts, which The New York Post ran under the headline “Mock & Load.”)


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