KERRY’S CONFIRMATION KICKS OFF. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., will appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today, the committee that he chairs, for a hearing on his own confirmation as secretary of State. Kerry’s appearance is expected to go smoothly, though not all on the panel agree with the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Kerry will be introduced by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who will replace Kerry as head of the committee, will preside over the proceedings. Read more
SENATE TO TAKE UP DEBT LIMIT BILL. After the House on Wednesday voted to suspend the debt ceiling for three months, the Senate will take up the bill without changes, Majority Leader Harry Reid announced. The bill will take the contentious issue off the table until mid-May and put pressure on the Senate to pass a budget, which it hasn’t done in four years, under threat of having its pay suspended. Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., pledged on Wednesday to pass a budget. Still to come: the fight over sequestration cuts in March and a possible government shutdown. Read more
CLINTON TESTIMONY FEATURES HEATED EXCHANGES. Some of the more notable moments from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s testimony Wednesday on the terrorist attack in Benghazi came when she squared off with Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis. Clinton confronted Johnson after he pressed her on the characterization of the attacks by the administration shortly after the assault, according to The New York Times. Conservatives have charged that the White House downplayed the terrorist nature of the events. “What difference at this point does it make?” Clinton shot back, adding that there were “four dead Americans.” McCain focused on warning signs that should have tipped off Clinton’s office to the possibility of an attack. “Well, Senator, I understand your very strong feelings,” Clinton responded. “And we just have a disagreement.” Read more
FILIBUSTER TALKS IN FLUX. A deal to change Senate filibuster rules was close to completion on Wednesday, Politico reported, but details remained murky. While no deal is set, an accord that would speed debate and curtail filibusters could be reached between Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as early as today. Still, some Democrats say the reforms don’t go far enough, while others are balking at changing the body’s culture. Read more
BAN ON WOMEN IN COMBAT TO BE LIFTED. Within the next few years, women in the military will no longer be banned from serving in combat. As the Associated Press reported Wednesday, women will soon become eligible for hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and possibly elite commando jobs. The orders Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gave to military services allow a grace period until 2016 for commanders to “seek special exceptions” for certain positions. Read more
2014 HOUSE FIELD POISED TO BE LEAST COMPETITIVE IN A DECADE. A quick look at the 2014 House election landscape reveals a surprisingly low number of competitive house races. Roll Call reports that it could be the smallest competitive field in a decade. There are a few reasons for this early prognostication: an increasing number of representatives politically lean the same way as their district, it will be the second election since districts were redrawn, and most believe the number of open seats will be less than in recent election cycles. This could put the number of competitive seats somewhere in the 40s, far fewer than in other recent elections. Read more
ROUGH ROAD ON GUN CONTROL FOR SENATE DEMOCRATS. President Obama has long had a close friend and ally in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid but their interests may be diverging, The New York Times reports. As Obama's legacy-building agenda gets more ambitious, Reid is looking to protect the 20 vulnerable Democratic senators up for reelection this year. Retaining those seats will be especially difficult if the Senate tackles gun control, the mere talk of which has already thrust Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mark Begich, D-Alaska, among others, into hot water with constituents back home. Read more
A PRELUDE TO ENDING THE DEBT LIMIT? Opponents of the statutory limit on the government's borrowing — and there are plenty — may get a glimpse of life without the debt ceiling, but only for a few months. The GOP’s proposal that passed the House on Wednesday, which enjoys qualified White House support, would suspend the federal government’s borrowing limit for roughly four months, taking a powerful but controversial bargaining chip off the table. At a Tuesday hearing on the history of the debt limit, experts and lawmakers on both sides called for increasing the ceiling, though some emphasized that the increase should be temporary because the debt ceiling serves as an important and necessary tool for lawmakers. Read more
BOEHNER SHUFFLES POLITICAL STAFF. House Speaker John Boehner said Wednesday that his longtime aide Kevin McGrann will take over as executive director of his political operation, one of several personnel changes that Boehner announced this week. McGrann, the group’s former political director, replaces Tom Whatman in the leadership position. Curtis Isakson will serve as his deputy. Boehner’s political operation is a big and influential one, as National Journal’s Reid Wilson recently noted. Boehner’s staff says he raised roughly $97 million for GOP candidates this election cycle. Read more
WHITE HOUSE NOT BACKING DOWN ON GEN. JOHN ALLEN NOMINATION. White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that the White House will stick with its nomination of Gen. John Allen to be the next supreme commander of NATO forces in Europe. The statement comes after Allen was cleared Tuesday of any wrongdoing in the David Patraeus sex scandal. Read more
WHITE HOUSE: UK SHOULD STAY IN EU. Carney said Wednesday that the administration believes the United Kingdom is stronger as a part of the European Union, and the EU is in turn stronger because the United Kingdom is a member. The comment comes on the heels of an announcement from British Prime Minister David Cameron that he will allow a referendum on whether the country should remain in the EU.
ADMINISTRATION WANTS TO RESUME PEACE TALKS. In the wake of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's reelection, the Obama administration renewed its call for a resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations that have long been stalled. "We believe that what needs to take place is direct negotiations between the two parties (Israelis and Palestinians) that addresses the final-status issues and results in a two-state solution," spokesman Carney said. Read more
GAY RIGHTS GROUPS EXPECT OBAMA TO DELIVER. Obama’s prominent mention of gay rights in Monday’s inaugural address has brought the issue back to the fore. And despite satisfaction with first-term accomplishments in their sphere that outpace every other liberal interest group, the gay community has a laundry list for the next four years — and the expectation that Obama will fill it. If the Supreme Court strikes down the Defense of Marriage Act in June, as gay-rights activists expect, the president would be pressured to adjust the federal code and its 1,138 mentions of marriage, making changes in areas from military service to taxes. At the same time, Republicans would be pushed to respond legislatively, perhaps through religious-exemption laws. Read more
CLINTON TAKES RESPONSIBILITY FOR BENGHAZI IN HEARINGS. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton testified before Senate and House committees on Wednesday, taking responsibility for the four American lives lost during the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in Libya during at-times contentious proceedings. She also outlined new security measures for “high-risk” diplomatic posts. “Nobody is more committed to getting this right,” Clinton said. “I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger, and more secure.” To fulfill this pledge, Clinton outlined 64 security action items assigned to specific bureaus, adding that 85 percent are on track to be completed by the end of March. National Journal’s Matthew Cooper offers the 10 things to note about Clinton’s testimony. Read more
U.S. PLANS TO BOLSTER AFGHAN SURFACE-FIRE CAPABILITIES. A key component of the future U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan will involve howitzers and mortars, two well-entrenched staples of older-style warfare, Wired magazine reports. As the U.S. removes its 66,000 troops from Afghanistan at an unannounced pace throughout 2013, the Afghan army will be faced with a deficit in aircraft and helicopter equipment, critical in defending ground troops under fire. To compensate, the U.S. plans to strengthen the Afghan military’s surface-fire capability, said Army Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, who oversees the day-to-day operations of the Afghan war, at the Pentagon on Wednesday. Read more
EGYPT’S MORSI IMPLIED JEWISH MEDIA CONTROL IN MEETING WITH U.S. SENATORS. Foreign Policy reports that during a meeting with seven U.S. senators last week, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi implied that he was being victimized by an American media controlled by the Jews, an accusation that reportedly made the participants “physically recoil,” according to Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del. “He was attempting to explain himself,” Coons said, “then he said, ‘Well, I think we all know that the media in the United States has made a big deal of this and we know the media of the United States is controlled by certain forces and they don't view me favorably.’” Participants included Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. – who is Jewish – among others. Read more
BOOKER POLLING AHEAD OF LAUTENBERG IN N.J. A Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday found Newark Mayor Cory Book with a 21-point edge over fellow Democrat and incumbent Sen. Frank Lautenberg in a hypothetical race for Lautenberg’s New Jersey Senate seat. Booker’s edge comes despite Lautenberg’s high job approval ratings from Jersey voters. Booker has opened himself to criticism by publicly exploring a Senate run before party elder Lautenberg announced whether he plans to seek reelection. Lautenberg implied on Tuesday that Booker is in need of a “spanking.” The Senator, who turned 89 Wednesday, is up for reelection next year. Read more
ROMNEYS TO WASHINGON FRIDAY. Mitt Romney, who has sought to avoid the public spotlight since losing the presidential election and avoided the capital for Monday’s inauguration, is scheduled to be in Washington on Friday for a reception in honor of him and his wife, Ann. Two major Romney campaign fundraisers, Virginia philanthropist Catherine Reynolds and hotel magnate Bill Marriott Jr., have invited guests to wear business attire to a luncheon at Washington’s J.W. Marriott Hotel. Reynolds’s office confirmed that the Romneys would be on hand. Romney rejoined Marriott International's board of directors after November’s election. Read more
WILL OBAMA'S GO-IT-ALONE STRATEGY PAY OFF? President Obama's inaugural address was a bold, ambitious wish list for progressives – but many items will also be very tough to sell to red-state Democrats in the Senate, six of whom are up for reelection next year, reports National Journal's Josh Kraushaar. Combined with his campaign officials’ decision last week to split from the Democratic National Committee to form their own 501(c)(4) lobbying group for the president’s agenda, it’s evident Obama believes he can mobilize his supporters to rally behind his proposals — any Democratic skittishness be damned. And he’s betting that the demographic changes that propelled his 2012 reelection victory will reemerge in full force for the upcoming midterms. Read more
MURKOWKSI TO UNVEIL ENERGY BLUEPRINT. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Wednesday that she plans to unveil an energy blueprint next week, The Hill reported. She said the plan would focus on, among other things, boosting domestic energy production, reducing consumption, and upgrading the electrical grid. She said that reductions in greenhouse emissions would likely not be part of the plan. Murkowski said the plan is designed so that items could be taken up individually in different legislative initiatives. Read more
KERRY TO DIVEST FROM EXXON MOBIL AND ALBERTA TAR-SANDS MINER. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., has agreed to divest from Exxon Mobil and a Canadian company tied to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline following his expected confirmation as secretary of State, The Boston Globe reported. The State Department will rule this spring on whether to grant the Keystone project a permit to construct a pipeline that crosses international boundaries. The pipeline would carry oil extracted by Canada’s Cenovus Energy from the Alberta tar sands to the United States. Kerry, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, also pledged in his letter to State’s ethics officer to divest from other nonenergy companies, including Raytheon and Pfizer, that could present conflicts of interest. Read more
HOUSE MEMBERS TO PRESS CHU ON NATURAL-GAS EXPORTS. More than a 100 House members, including almost 20 Democrats, are signing a letter presented by two Ohio Reps. — Republican Bill Johnson and Democrat Tim Ryan — urging Energy Secretary Steven Chu to not restrict natural gas exports. The congressmen will officially release the letter on Thursday. Citing newspaper editorials supporting natural-gas exports, the lawmakers say exporting the fossil fuel will bring economic growth to the United States and that the worries some people have raised — that exporting the resource will raise natural-gas prices—will not be realized.
WYDEN JOINS NUCLEAR-WASTE GROUP. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., will replace retired Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., in an ad-hoc group of four senators studying nuclear-waste management, The Hill reported on Wednesday. Wyden’s interest in the issue could portend action in the 113th Congress. One sticking point in the debate over nuclear waste is whether to allow storage at interim facilities before a permanent site has been designated. Wyden has signaled support for the Republican position that waste should be able to go to interim facilities. Read more
ITALY GRAPPLING WITH MAFIA CONTROL OF RENEWABLES. The Italian government is busy rooting out Mafia control of much of Sicily’s renewable energy, The Washington Post reported. The island, in addition to its notoriety for organized crime, is a center of wind and solar energy in Europe. The inflow of cash from state subsidies for renewable energy has proven irresistibly alluring to Sicily’s crime families, which are vying to remain relevant in a 21st-century economy. So far, the government has seized about a third of the island’s wind farms, frozen $2 billion in assets, and arrested more than a dozen alleged conspirators, casting a pall over Italy’s renewable-energy industry, The Post reported. Read more
ECONOMY & BUDGET
FOUR KEYS TO DECODING DAVOS. The International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde will be there, as will Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, in addition to hundreds of others of business and political elite. Chances are, most of us won’t, so Time magazine has some keys to understanding the proceedings of the World Economic Forum. “Many earthshakers at Davos don’t really want to be there and do their best to say very little,” Roya Wolverson writes, taking note of a Financial Times piece that compared the proceedings to Scientology. “George Soros, who is here as usual, told me he ‘hates it,’ but always attends,” writes FT’s Howard Davies. For the curious, here’s a secret list of the elite invitees. You should also take a look at The New Yorker’s entertaining piece on last year’s forum. Read more
WHAT DID MORGAN STANLEY KNOW ABOUT ITS TOXIC ASSETS? A lawsuit filed against Wall Street giant Morgan Stanley is shedding light on what employees at the firm knew about the danger of so-called “toxic assets” before the financial collapse of 2008, a joint report by The New York Times and ProPublica reveals. As reporter Jesse Eisinger writes, “The documents suggest a pattern of behavior… people across the bank understood that the American housing market was in trouble. They took advantage of that knowledge to create and then bet against securities and then also to unload garbage investments on unsuspecting buyers.” Read more
FORMER TARP CHIEF EYES CALIFORNIA POLITICS. Neel Kashkari, the former Treasury official who supervised the Troubled Asset Relief Program, is leaving the equity-fund world for a possible political career, The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday. Kashkari, whose Pimco firm manages $1.9 trillion, did not inform the paper which office he may seek, but said, "I'm not the typical California Republican. I'm the son of immigrants. I come from modest upbringing. I have a successful track record. I'm an optimist. And I think something can be done if people work together." He has a political-looking website, www.neelkashkari.com, and a sense of political timing, disclosing his intentions the same day the Treasury said it had recovered almost 93 percent of TARP funds.
SENATE TO TAKE UP MENTAL HEALTH. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will hold a hearing today to address issues with the mental health system, including "a need to focus on prevention and early intervention," a committee planning memo said. Pamela Hyde, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services administrator, and Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, will both testify at the 10 a.m. hearing.
STATES UPDATING MEDICAID SYSTEMS. Many states are still refusing to expand their Medicaid programs in 2014, despite a 100 percent federal match. But another pot of Medicaid money from the Affordable Care Act has been very attractive, according to a new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation. All but three have signed up for ACA money to update their Medicaid computer systems, and 42 have already begun making improvements. Those improvements are split 90/10 between the federal government and states. The report, one of the foundation’s annual 50-state surveys, also found that few states have cut back on Medicaid eligibility last year, despite tough budgets.
HOUSE PROPOSES BILL TO REPEAL AMGEN EXEMPTION. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., introduced a bill Tuesday that would repeal a $500 million giveaway to Amgen that was tucked into the fiscal-cliff deal passed by Congress at the end of the year. A weekend New York Times story highlighted the provision, which exempts a specific class of drugs from government controls for two years, including the pill Sensipar, used by dialysis patients and made by the biotechnology giant. "This special interest provision should have stood on its own merits with an up or down vote. It’s no wonder cockroaches and root canals are more popular than Congress," Welch said in a statement.
HOUSE WILL CONSIDER IPAB REPEAL AGAIN. A bipartisan group of 70 House lawmakers introduced a bill Wednesday that would eliminate the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a group created by the Affordable Care Act and tasked with keeping Medicare spending within set limits. The IPAB has always had Democratic opposition in Congress. Because the board’s recommendations become law unless a supermajority of senators overturn them, some lawmakers think it robs Congress of its authority to oversee the program. Republicans are fond of calling it a “rationing board.” All 15 members of the board must be confirmed by the Senate; so far, the president hasn’t nominated any.
IPAB CRITICS SHOULD BE CAREFUL WHAT THEY WISH FOR. Of the controversial elements of the president’s health reform law, the provision that has enjoyed the most sustained political oppositions is the Independent Payment Advisory Board, sometimes called a “rationing board” or “death panel” by its detractors. The board is designed to help control Medicare spending, but, so far, the president has named no names to the hot-button panel. What many critics don’t realize is that if that 15-person board is not assembled, the law hands a lot of power to the secretary of Health and Human Services. Read more
NELSON'S NEW ROLE: ROLLING OUT OBAMACARE. His Cornhusker Kickback may have nearly doomed the health reform law, but Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., will now be paid to help implement the law. He's joining the nonpartisan National Association of Insurance Commissioners as CEO, Politico reports, which will have him "way more involved in the nitty-gritty of Obamacare than anyone could have imagined three years ago," since he will be the intermediary between Washington and the states as they roll out major healthcare changes this year. Read more
VOTERS IN KEY STATES WANT MEDICAID EXPANSION. Polling data in seven key states show that registered voters want states to expand Medicaid, according to a report released Wednesday by the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network. More than 60 percent of voters in Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, and New Mexico want to accept the federal funds to expand, and 58 percent of Texans feel the same. Less than 35 percent in each of those states agreed with turning the money down. The numbers could be particularly important as the state legislatures and governors wrestle with the decision throughout the spring.
(YOU DON’T NEED TO KNOW. It’s the scandal that won’t die. On Wednesday, a White House reporter walked the plank and asked what Obama knew about singer Beyoncé's alleged lip-syncing of the National Anthem at the Inauguration. Press secretary Jay Carney said he had not spoken with the President about it and concluded with a slap: “I’m glad you guys are focused on the important issues of the day here.” Read more)
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