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Can GOP ‘Replace’ Obamacare? The RSC Has a Plan

House Republicans have held 40 votes to repeal Obamacare, but their promise to come up with legislation to replace it with something else has been far more elusive. That may be about to change.

The 173-member strong Republican Study Committee is on track to roll out legislation this fall that would replace the 2010 Affordable Care Act with a comprehensive alternative, Chairman Steve Scalise told CQ Roll Call on Thursday.

Though it wouldn’t be the first Obamacare repeal-and-replace proposal floated by individual GOP lawmakers in either chamber of Congress, the RSC bill is one that could at least gain traction on the House floor, given the conservative group’s size and influence.

It would, however, have to pass muster with House Republican leaders, who have not yet been formally acquainted with the legislative text, according to Scalise. It would also likely need the blessing of outside advocacy groups such as Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth, which could make or break the bill’s chances of passage.

The Louisiana Republican said the plan would include protections for people with pre-existing conditions — one of the main benefits of Obamacare.

“We address that to make sure that people with pre-existing conditions cannot be discriminated against,” he said. But, he promised the bill would not “put in place mandates that increase the costs of health care and push people out of the insurance that they like,” Scalise said.

“We want to make sure that, when it’s rolled out, that people who have an interest in health care, from families to small and large business groups, all understand just what the difference is between our bill and the president’s health care law,” Scalise said, demurring on whether the RSC would need outside stakeholders’ approval in order to move forward with the bill’s introduction. “There are very dramatic differences, not just in the policy but in the cost.”

Can GOP ‘Replace’ Obamacare? The RSC Has a Plan

Congressional Prayer Under Threat?

This article appeared in Roll Call on Aug 5, 2013

By Niels Lesniewski, CQ Roll Call

An upcoming Supreme Court case has caught the attention of lawmakers concerned with curbs on public prayer, including their own.

The case, originating out of the Rochester, N.Y., suburb of Greece, asks if opening sessions of the town board with a prayer violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

In filing an amicus brief, 34 senators (33 of them Republicans) ponder the question of whether such a prohibition would apply broadly to legislative bodies including their own.

“The work of the Senate is often divisive. But for a few moments each morning, politics and party are set aside. Instead of debate, senators reflect on their duty to represent every constituent, mindful of the Nation’s core values and their need for divine assistance in carrying out their responsibilities,” the senators wrote in the court filing.

A group of senators, led by Rubio, criticized the decision out of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, that struck down the legality of prayers at town board meetings in Greece, N.Y. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The group of senators, led by Florida Republican Marco Rubio and including the chamber’s GOP leaders, as well as Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, criticize the decision out of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which struck down the legality of the prayers in the town of Greece, saying that it effectively constituted an endorsement of Christianity over other religions, even though other faith groups offered prayers.

“In practice, Christian clergy members have delivered nearly all of the prayers relevant to this litigation, and have done so at the town’s invitation,” the appeals court said. “We ascribe no religious animus to the town or its leaders. The town’s desire to mark the solemnity of its proceedings with a prayer is understandable; Americans have done just that for more than two hundred years. But when one creed dominates others — regardless of a town’s intentions — constitutional concerns come to the fore.”

Rubio and the other senators detail the history of the chaplaincy and the daily prayer, expressing particular concern that the 2nd Circuit decision could put the constitutionality of many legislative prayers in doubt because it says that single circumstance may appear to suggest an affiliation.

Read More on Roll Call: Congressional Prayer Under Threat?

States Debate Large-Scale Hydro Power and Renewable Portfolio Standards

A total of 29 states currently have mandated Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), while eight have voluntary targets. An RPS requires that a certain percentage of a state’s electric energy mix be generated from renewable energy sources, typically hydro, solar, wind, geothermal and biomass. The deadline for compliance with these standards is approaching and states are having a hard time meeting them. An emerging issue in these states is whether large scale hydropower should be eligible for compliance with an RPS. Most states will require legislation to make large hydro projects eligible.

Seven percent of the nation’s electricity was generated by hydropower, which represents 65 percent of renewable generation, according to the National Hydropower Association (NHA). More than 1600 hydropower facilities operating in the U.S. provide power to more than 30 million homes. While plants are located throughout the U.S. and Canada, the top 10 hydropower generating states include: Alabama, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington. Quebec and Ontario are also huge producers of hydropower. In addition to abundance, advocates, like the NHA, tout hydroelectricity as affordable, safe and reliable. It seems almost certain that large scale hydro could be used to help states comply with their legislatively mandated RPS.

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Obamacare Hostage Takers Get a GOP Comeuppance

The rhetorical preliminaries will last at least another 33 days. Once Congress returns to work in September, this year’s budget battle royal will be joined for real, then last for months. Or so the thinking goes.

However, new signs from key players in the GOP spectrum point to something quite different. The cliff-walking melodrama may itself get kicked down the road.

No sooner had the fractured Republicans physically scattered over the weekend than their leadership made this much clearer than ever: They are not getting behind the idea of holding the entire government hostage as a way to starve Obamacare to death.

The two House members with the most power to drive such a showdown, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, both spurned the idea in TV interviews that aired Sunday.

The senator with the most interest at the moment in bucking up his base on the far right, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, didn’t offer a lick of support for the tactic when the national political press was hanging on his every word at Kentucky’s fabled Fancy Farm political picnic.

And one of the most influential conservative officials from outside the Beltway, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, led a chorus of GOP chief executives in warning their congressional colleagues away from any shutdown strategy, which they said risked rattling their fragile state economies.

All this resistance will infuriate the country’s most influential and well-funded conservative groups, including the Tea Party Patriots, the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and Heritage Action for America.

Read More on Roll Call: Obamacare Hostage Takers Get a GOP Comeuppance

Rodney Alexander to Retire From Congress

Updated 5:49 p.m. | Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-La., will not seek a seventh term, according to an interview he gave The Monroe News-Star on Tuesday.

“I’ve represented the best people in the world; it’s been a privilege and I’ve enjoyed it,” Alexander told the paper. “But I never wanted to be in Washington all my life.”

Northern Louisiana’s 5th District is safe Republican territory, so it is unlikely this seat will flip party hands anytime soon.

Read More on Roll Call: Rodney Alexander to Retire From Congress

Leaders Fan Out for August Push

For as little as Congress did in the days leading up to recess, lawmakers certainly are planning a packed time at home, hustling from issue summits to town halls, photo ops and state fairs.

Non-campaign-year August breaks tend to be less aggressively frenetic than those in years that end in even numbers, with members keeping a busy schedule while at least trying to appear less overtly political. But there will be certain policy areas highlighted, especially economic ones, though many will look to see how constituents react to events about an immigration overhaul scattered throughout the country and calendar.

Want to know what House and Senate leaders are doing this break? CQ Roll Call’s got your roundup:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., likely has the most “summits” on his schedule, with two. On Aug. 13, Reid will co-host the annual Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz will speak. Then, on Aug. 19, he will travel to Lake Tahoe (his office points out on the Nevada side) for the annual Lake Tahoe summit. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and California Gov. Jerry Brown are also expected to attend.

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., for example, plans to do more events at home like the one he held in Iowa last Wednesday with Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, about the DREAM Act and immigration overhaul. Durbin, like many other senators and representatives, also will make an appearance at his state’s fair.

Leaders Fan Out for August Push

Pentagon Overestimates Size of Civilian Workforce, Say Senate Appropriators

By Frank Oliveri, CQ Roll Call

Senate appropriators would provide $1.2 billion less than the Pentagon requested for civilian personnel salaries, arguing the military overestimated the number of people it employs.

In its report associated with the fiscal 2014 Defense spending bill (S 1429), the Senate Appropriations Committee noted that the Pentagon estimated it would have 11,660 more full-time equivalent employees than a later analysis found.

“Through analysis directed by the committee during the budget review, each service and defense agency identified the current estimate for civilian full time equivalents [FTE] that will be on the books in fiscal year 2013 and it is far short of what was planned for in the budget request,” the report states.

The Pentagon has roughly 800,000 civilian employees. As a result of sequestration, some 650,000 of them were originally told they would have to take 11 furlough days, although officials have said the figure could be reduced to five. The military had hoped to save about $2 billion from the furloughs.

But if sequestration occurs again in fiscal 2014, the Pentagon has indicated a desire to impose a civilian reduction in force in lieu of furloughs, which are viewed as a temporary fix. A reduction in force represents a more significant structural change that would be reflective of the financial straits faced by the Pentagon under budget caps imposed by Congress (PL 112-25).

In it report, the Appropriations panel noted that if the Pentagon request were honored, the military would start the new fiscal year with funds for about 11,660 employees more than it needed in its operations and maintenance budget.

“Considering that the fully-burdened average salary of Department of Defense civilians is approximately $100,000, that could mean an overstatement of about $1,200,000,000 in the operation and maintenance accounts based on the overestimation of civilian FTE levels at the beginning of fiscal year 2014,” according to the report. “The committee recommendation includes an overestimation reduction.”

The House-passed bill (HR 2397) was silent on the issue.

frankoliveri@cqrollcall.com

Source: CQ News
Round-the-clock coverage of news from Capitol Hill.
© 2013 CQ Roll Call All Rights Reserved.

Incumbent Primary Challengers: Some Promising, Others Premature

The 2014 primary season has begun with high-profile Democratic Senate primaries in Massachusetts and New Jersey. But they’re the tip of the iceberg in what promises to be a cycle of competitive, and possibly nasty, primaries in both parties.

Republicans face plenty of intraparty fights, including one in Kentucky where Minority Leader Mitch McConnell faces a challenge on his right flank. Conservatives aiming to knock off establishment GOP incumbents are most excited, however, about their prospects against Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, whom they see as fundamentally weak with a record they can pick apart.

Simpson, a dentist who served as speaker of the Idaho House before winning election to Congress in 1998, hasn’t had a serious primary or general-election challenge since his first race, when he defeated former Democratic Rep. Richard Stallings in an open-seat contest.

The Club for Growth has already endorsed attorney Bryan Smith in the primary. “Simpson has been in Congress forever, he’s an appropriator and prolific earmarker, and he voted for the [Troubled Asset Relief Program] bailout and for the 527 reform act,” said Andy Roth, the group’s vice president of government affairs.

Smith calls himself a “real conservative.” His website says he won’t support “ANY tax increase as a member of Congress and would not have supported the debt limit deal passed by Congress this year.” He also criticizes Simpson for opposing a libertarian amendment to end certain National Security Agency surveillance programs.

Read More on Roll Call: Incumbent Primary Challengers: Some Promising, Others Premature

August recess now high season for interests lobbying lawmakers

Lawmakers hoping for a respite from Washington’s intense lobbying climate won’t get a break back home during the August recess.

Once a lull in the political calendar, August is now officially part of the high season. An array of interest groups has methodically plotted how to use the congressional recess to press causes.

The sophisticated operations aim to drive a political narrative throughout the month, hoping to produce a strong display of voter sentiment that lawmakers will not be able to ignore when they return to Washington after Labor Day. At that point, they will immediately contend with a showdown over the budget, a House debate on immigration reform and the launch of new state health insurance marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act.

So this month, the pressure is on. At town hall meetings, lawmakers will face activists calling for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. On walks in local neighborhoods, they could run into gun-control advocates, who plan to blanket key districts with fliers. During visits to the county fair, they are likely to encounter voters demanding defunding of President Obama’s signature health-care law.

Liberal groups are employing top-shelf political tactics in their grass-roots advocacy campaigns, driven by the memory of being outflanked by conservative activists in the summer of 2009.

Advocates for an overhaul of immigration laws and backers of the health-care law, among others, are using rapid-response war rooms, district-targeted organizing and elaborate media events to press their case while lawmakers are home in their districts.

They are determined to avoid a repeat of August 2009, when tea party activists and conservative groups descended upon congressional town hall meetings to denounce Obama’s plan to remake the health-care system. The loud and often rowdy opposition emerged as the singular story that August, further galvanizing the tea party movement and helping the GOP take the House in the 2010 midterm elections.

In 2009, “they did a good job of putting us on the defensive,” said Brad Woodhouse, president of the liberal advocacy group Americans United for Change. “Since then, I think it’s been a draw. But we’re not trying to fight them to a draw this August ? we’re trying to win.”

With a divided Congress on track to hold one of its least productive sessions in decades, August has taken on heightened importance as an opening to reach recalcitrant members.

“If you’re going to get anything to move, you have to appeal to the lawmakers back at home,” said veteran Republican communications strategist Ron Bonjean.

“The smart outside groups have always used the recess to get their message through,” he added. “It’s just that now, the efforts are much more intense because of the gridlock in Washington.”

Obama has urged his backers to spend the month speaking out on issues such as gun control, climate change and health care, part of an “Action August” effort spearheaded by Organizing for Action, the advocacy group that grew out of his reelection campaign.

By the month’s end, “I think you will see our message has dominated the conversation,” said Jon Carson, the group’s executive director.

The issue that is expected to generate the most on-the-ground energy this month is a bipartisan push to persuade House Republicans to back a comprehensive rewrite of the country’s immigration laws. An unusual coalition of labor, business, faith and Latino organizations is launching huge coast-to-coast campaigns that will include rallies, voter-registration drives and prayer vigils in front of the district offices of lawmakers.

One of the largest events is set to take place in Bakersfield, Calif., on Aug. 14, when a two-day caravan of 1,100 vehicles ? representing the number of illegal immigrants deported each day ? will converge in front of the office of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the GOP majority whip and the third-
ranking Republican in the House.

The goal of the nonstop events, said Frank Sharry, a longtime immigration advocate who runs the organization America’s Voice, is to create “surround sound.”

“We all know that most of this stuff is highly orchestrated,” Sharry said. “We’re not going to leave it to chance. Our opponents are signaling quite publicly they’re going to send people to town hall meetings to yell and scream. The question is, who else speaks up?”

Conservatives said they have no intention of relinquishing the spotlight. NumbersUSA, one of the groups fighting efforts to grant a legal pathway for illegal immigrants, held a conference call last week with more than 58,000 supporters to prepare them with talking points for the recess.

On another front, a coalition of groups including the Tea Party Patriots, ForAmerica, the Club for Growth and Heritage Action is launching a new campaign demanding members of Congress defund the Affordable Care Act.

“This is going to be health-care August again,” said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, one of the groups that helped mobilize the protests four years ago. This time, the organization is recruiting young people to burn “Obamacare cards” to symbolize their antipathy for the law. (No such cards exist, but the organization has fashioned mock certificates that can be downloaded from its Web site and then destroyed.)

“The perfect storm that created that high participation and frustration in August of 2009, those conditions are with us today,” Kibbe said. “I think you’re going to see a lot of people showing up ? not just tea partyers but disaffected Democrats and young people who aren’t getting what they voted for.”

A wave of on-the-ground activism in August is no guarantee of legislative victory in the fall, of course.

“For all of the tea party anti-health-care stuff in ’09, in the end, if you recall, we did pass it,” said communications strategist Brendan Daly, who was a spokesman for Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) when she was House speaker.

Still, he said, the flood of activism aimed at overtaking this recess underscores a new reality: “Basically, we’re in a permanent campaign.”

Much of the clamor on the ground will be driven by a professional class of political operatives who view the month as a prime business opportunity.

“This has become a big industry, and people have a vested interested in showing off what they’ve got,” said GOP strategist John Feehery, who served as spokesman for former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). “The target is the member of Congress, but it’s also trying to get funders involved.”

Lawmakers are not walking into the fray unarmed. Both party caucuses have prepared their members with extensive talking points. House Republicans, who are expected to be the focus of the attention, have been urged to stress the theme “Fighting Washington for All Americans.”

But even as August recess activity intensifies, the opportunity to confront lawmakers face to face is diminishing. Since the town hall confrontations of four years ago, fewer lawmakers are holding open gatherings or widely publicized constituent events, according to advocacy groups on both sides of the aisle.

So activists are using crowdsourcing to track down events and post them online, along with suggested talking points. FreedomWorks unveiled its “Demand a Townhall” Web effort last week, while Americans United for Change launched a similar site called Accountable Congress. The liberal group also is asking supporters to record their encounters with lawmakers and share the videos, hoping to capture moments that fuel a “national narrative,” Woodhouse said.

Still, with so many groups jockeying to be heard this month, it remains unclear whether any issue will dominate the news the way health care did four years ago.

“I think it’s going to be a lot of noise,” Feehery said. “It’s really a bunch of mixed messages that are going to leave members of Congress dazed and confused.”

Plus, he added, “some are probably just going to want a vacation.”

Alice Crites and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

Congress Scatters for Summer Recess on Heels of Tepid Job Growth

The White House reacted to today’s middling employment numbers by insisting that the less-than-expected addition of 162,000 new jobs is just a reminder the economy won’t get any better until the sequester is turned off.

Republicans in Congress reacted by saying much less than they usually do about the monthly jobs reports — and then turning out the lights at the Capitol for the next five weeks.

That reticence was in part because the headline-grabber was a July unemployment rate of 7.4 percent, a drop of two-tenths of a point to the lowest figure since Barack Obama was elected president.

Beyond that, the GOP leadership has gone essentially mute on the sequester and its strategy for keeping the government operating beyond Sept. 30, the last day of fiscal 2013.

That’s because their caucuses this week essentially rejected both of the clearest options:House Republicans on Wednesday signaled they were unwilling to maintain the deep spending cuts in domestic programs for another year, and on Thursday their Senate colleagues signaled their almost unanimous unwillingness to abandon them.

Senators then scattered for the summer, leaving House members on their own to close up the Capitol shop this afternoon.

The House said goodbye after passing a pair of GOP measures designed to help House rank-and-file members with their political messaging during the August recess — without any hope the Democratic Senate will ever consider either bill.

Read More on Roll Call: Congress Scatters for Summer Recess on Heels of Tepid Job Growth

Farm Bill Negotiations to Continue Into September As Expiration Looms

Sen. Jeff Flake in a colloquy before lawmakers adjourned for their August recess helped Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow lay down her markers for shaping a final farm bill, or, failing that, another extension of the 2008 farm bill, by questioning continued payments for cotton farmers.

Since 2011, Stabenow, D-Mich., and House Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., have persisted in trying to deliver a final farm bill. They’ve gotten farther this year than in the past toward that goal, but they will enter September with no guarantee of success and only nine legislative days in the House before the expiration of the current farm bill extension on Sept. 30

The path to a conference committee on the Senate bill (S 954) and the House agriculture-only bill may be complicated if House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., brings a revised farm bill nutrition title to the floor that cuts up to $40 billion over 10 years from the nation’s largest domestic food aid program.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters she is not confident about the farm bill’s future if Republicans offer the new nutrition bill.

“To put their members on record as supporting $40 billion in cuts, that really makes the path back the harder one for the farm bill,” Pelosi, D-Calif., said. “What comes back would have to have strong bipartisan support, and can they produce any votes on their side that doesn’t cut [so much]?”

Even Stabenow, who excels in projecting optimism whenever she discusses the farm bill, called the possible nutrition bill “one more road block.” She said the possible new nutrition bill could “put us in a situation where it’s going to make it harder to get a farm bill done.”

But she pushed ahead with her talk on the floor with Flake, to which she had agreed in order to win support last month for a unanimous consent to send the House a request to go to conference committee.

Read More on Roll Call: Farm Bill Negotiations to Continue Into September As Expiration Looms

Eric Cantor Looks To Entitlement Cuts For Sequester Compromise

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Sunday that Republicans might be willing to compromise on sequester cuts in exchange for talks on reducing entitlement programs.

“What we need to have happen is leadership on the part of this president and the White House to come to the table finally and say we’re going to fix the underlying problem that’s driving our deficit,” Cantor told Fox News’ Chris Wallace. “We know that is the entitlement programs and the unfunded liability that they are leaving on this generation and the next.”

“We’ve always said sequester is not the best way to go about spending reductions. It was, as you know, a default mechanism, because Congress couldn’t do the job it was supposed to a couple of years ago,” Cantor said.

Cantor isn’t the first high-ranking Republican to suggest the party is open to sequestration relief in exchange for a focus on entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has expressed similar sentiments, telling the National Review, “You want sequester relief? Then let’s talk about a reduction in entitlement spending.”

Congressional Democrats have expressed little enthusiasm for the idea.

“Our caucus would not accept entitlement cuts to replace the sequester -– that’s just replacing crappy cuts with crappy cuts,â€? one top Democratic aide told The Huffington Post in response to McConnell’s plan.

As Congress flees, what have we learned about it and its denizens?

Congress is gone from Washington, fleeing historic levels of partisan gridlock and voter distaste. With the House and Senate not set to return until the second week of September – nice life! – it’s worth reviewing what we’ve learned about the institution and the men and women who occupy it in these first eight months of the 113th Congress.

John Boehner is a SINO (Speaker In Name Only): From nearly being pushed to a second ballot in the vote for speaker at the start of this Congress to the failure of the farm bill in June, there are signs everywhere that the Ohio Republican has been tasked with leading a Republican conference that has no interest in being led. Boehner has put on a brave face, insisting that bills failing on the floor of the House is part of his more transparent approach to leadership. But, for an institutionalist like Boehner, the rump group of House Republicans who simply won’t cooperate with, well, anything has to be immensely frustrating.

A grand bargain looks like a pipe dream: One thing both sides agree on is that almost zero progress has been made toward avoiding a government shutdown at the end of September and/or avoiding a debt-ceiling crisis the likes of which we saw in the summer of 2011. And, as the Republican response to President Obama’s latest grand-bargain offer ? corporate tax reform in exchange for stimulus spending ? showed, there is a trust deficit between the White House and the GOP. Boehner and Obama, both clearly scarred by the collapse of the 2011 grand-bargain talks, seem to be circling each other like wary combatants. That’s not exactly the right posture for a deal. And when you consider that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who cut the “fiscal cliff” deal with Joe Biden in late 2012, is facing a real primary challenge in 2014 and won’t be keen on working with a Democratic White House, you begin to wonder who might even sit at the negotiating table for a grand bargain.

House Republicans’ slow-it-down strategy: This Congress is on its way to being the least productive ? in terms of bills passed that become law ? in the six decades that stats have been kept on things like that. That’s a stat to be proud of, according to Boehner, who rejected the idea that passing legislation should be a measure of success for the GOP-led House. “We should not be judged on how many new laws we create,” Boehner told CBS’s Bob Schieffer in late July. “We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal.” That sentiment explains the strategic philosophy behind the 40 votes the House has taken to defund parts of President Obama’s health-care law and why there’s little reason to think that the pace of legislative action will pick up anytime soon.

Gun control ain’t happening: Think back to the beginning of this year. The dominant political question was not whether some sort of gun-control legislation would pass in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings but rather how broad that legislation would be. Four months later the legislation had failed in the Senate, and even the most optimistic gun-control advocates believe the window for legislative change has slammed shut without much being accomplished.

The Senate isn’t a fun place to be: Seven senators ? five Democrats, two Republicans ? have already announced they won’t be running for reelection in November 2014. If not a single other senator retires between now and then ? and we tend to think that is unlikely ? that would make 29 senators who have called it quits in the last three elections. By contrast, the three elections prior ? 2004, 2006 and 2008 ? saw only 18 Senate retirements. Between 2000 and 2008, a period that spans five national elections, only 30 senators retired. And it’s not just the raw number of retirements that is historically anomalous ? it’s the years of seniority being lost. In the 2014 cycle alone, Michigan’s Carl Levin (D) and Montana’s Max Baucus (D), who were first elected in 1978, as well as West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller (D), first elected in 1984, are retiring. That race for the doors is attributable to many factors, but one big one is that the Senate just isn’t what it used to be.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is a force to be reckoned with: The single most memorable moment of the first eight months of the 113th Congress was Paul’s filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination as CIA director in early March. Paul’s almost 13-hour talk-athon, dedicated to his opposition to the use of drone strikes against American citizens, became a political and cultural touchstone. Hours after Paul started speaking on what is an off-the-beaten-path issue for his party (to say the least), the eminence grise of the party ? McConnell, Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (Tex.) and 2016 favorite Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) ? were rushing to the floor to speak in support of Paul. That was Paul’s biggest moment, but it wasn’t his only one. His recent spat with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie over libertarianism proved that inside or outside the Beltway, the Kentucky senator is a prime mover in Republican politics.

House Republicans Eye $40 Billion Nutrition Cut in Farm Bill Fallout

Updated 5:44 p.m. | House Republicans are eyeing a $40 billion cut to nutrition programs over 10 years — double their earlier proposal and 10 times what Senate Democrats are proposing — as they look to pass a bill reauthorizing food stamps after the August recess, lawmakers said.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said the plan is to bring up the nutrition bill in early September. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program was severed from the farm bill after objections from conservatives demanding deeper cuts. Cole said his understanding was that no matter how the bill fares at the hands of members, the plan would be to go to conference with the Senate thereafter.

House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said a working group that had been convened to find a path forward had made a breakthrough, but cautioned legislative text still needed to be drafted.

“Clearly the working group now believes that they have something that the house has a 218 consensus on,” he said.

Lucas added that with nine legislative days left when Congress returns after the August recess before current farm and nutrition aid funding is set to expire, “this needs to come to resolution.”
Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has been leading the effort to push through a revised bill.

“Majority Leader Cantor and Chairman Lucas have worked with members to present a stand alone nutrition bill building on those reforms already considered by the House,” said Cantor spokesman Doug Heye. “That will include common-sense measures, such as work requirements and job training requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents receiving assistance, that enjoy a broad range of support,” he said.

Read More on Roll Call: House Republicans Eye $40 Billion Nutrition Cut in Farm Bill Fallout

Senators Blast Putin Over Snowden

Senators lashed out Thursday in response to news that Russian President Vladimir Putin was granting temporary asylum to Edward Snowden.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Snowden has blood on his hands, but he declined to offer intelligence to explain that comment in an interview with CNN set to air later today.

Asked by Wolf Blitzer what he would say to Snowden if they met face to face, Graham replied: “You’ve gotten some people killed probably, no matter what your motives were. The results of your conduct has put some very brave people at risk. You’ve compromised our nation at a time when radical Islam is on the move. We need to find out what these guys are up to.”

Separately, New York Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer called on President Barack Obama to push to relocate the upcoming G-20 summit.

“When Mr. Putin first allowed Mr. Snowden to enter Russia and remain at the airport, it was a clear poke in the eye of the United States. By allowing him to leave the airport, and remain in Russia, he has taken the situation a step further and put our relationship with Russia in even greater danger,” Schumer said.

Graham and Schumer previously introduced a resolution encouraging moving the G-20 meeting.

“Russia has stabbed us in the back,” Schumer said, appearing before cameras in the Capitol.

Schumer and Graham aren’t alone. Sen. Bill Nelson was one of several senators issuing statements on the issue.

Read More on Roll Call: Senators Blast Putin Over Snowden

Congress pushes EPA on giant Alaska mine

WASHINGTON _ Republicans in Congress hope to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from blocking the gigantic Pebble open pit mine in Alaska, proposed for one of the last places left on the globe to support huge runs of wild salmon.

EPA opponents in the House of Representatives held the first congressional hearing over the proposed copper and gold mine Thursday as the contentious issue gains increasing national attention.

“A pre-emptive veto by EPA would set a dangerous precedent and could have a chilling effect on similar projects throughout the nation,” said Georgia Republican Rep. Paul Broun, who chaired the science and technology subcommittee hearing. “Investors would be wary of funding projects if they believed that a federal agency could just say no at any time prior to permit applications.”

The EPA says it has the power under the federal Clean Water Act to stop the Pebble mine or impose strict conditions on its development. But the agency hasn’t decided whether to use that authority, EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson said Thursday in an email.

The mine is proposed for Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, which produces about half the world’s wild red salmon. Johnson said it is an “area of national interest,” and new EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is considering a visit as the agency weighs the mine issue.

Thursday’s congressional hearing was stacked in favor of the mine. Three of the four people chosen to testify are opponents of the EPA’s review.

The hearing was the latest move by congressional Republicans to pressure the EPA not to block the mine, including a June letter from five Senate Republicans saying the EPA is abusing the process.

An EPA study released in April says the mine could wipe out nearly 100 miles of streams and 4,800 acres of wetlands in the Bristol Bay region. The EPA did the study in response to concerns raised by Alaska tribes and others about the potential impact on salmon. A final version of the study is expected by the end of the year.

The EPA said the work is based on preliminary Pebble mine plans submitted to federal and state agencies. That includes a report that developer Northern Dynasty Minerals filed in 2011 with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. Congressional Republicans slammed the EPA for using a “hypothetical” mine for its evaluation instead of waiting for a final plan.

A consultant for Northern Dynasty Minerals told the subcommittee that the EPA study is an exaggeration.

“It is an alarmist portrait of a hypothetical mining project that could never be permitted in Alaska,” said Michael Kavanaugh of Geosyntec Consultants, an engineering firm.

But Wayne Nastri, a former regional administrator for the EPA under George W. Bush, argued the Obama administration’s EPA is doing the right thing. He urged the subcommittee to consider that the agency is using documents provided by the mine developers. Nastri is consulting for the Bristol Bay Native Corp., an opponent of the mine.

He said the EPA’s “conclusions are sound and, if anything, conservative.”

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

Congressional Democrats spoke against the mine at the hearing, saying the Bristol Bay region can support fishing jobs and salmon indefinitely while the mine would leave just waste behind.

“Consider what the future generations might think of us,” said New York Democratic Rep. Dan Maffei.

Democrats are applying their own pressure. Five Democratic senators from the West Coast wrote the president in June and said the proposed mine is an economic threat to the seafood industry.

Broun, the Republican who chaired Thursday’s hearing, said he has “serious questions about how a mine can co-exist with fish in Bristol Bay.”

But he said the EPA shouldn’t stop the mine before developers are ready to submit their plans for it.

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski last month called on Northern Dynasty and fellow developer Anglo American to get moving and submit their plans for the mine. Murkowski opposes an EPA veto of the mine but said delays in getting specifics from the companies are contributing to confusion and frustration.

___

(c)2013 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

With a THUD, Congress Kicks Another Can Down the Road

On domestic spending, it’s been assumed all year that the two halves of Congress were on a collision course.

What came as a stunning surprise was how the appropriations process crashed in the House on Wednesday — or, as those with knowledge of congressional lingo can appreciate best — how it landed with a thud.

Senators are on course to decide Thursday whether they’ll do their part to assure the impasse is locked down even earlier than expected, before the August recess starts and more than eight weeks before Congress must either reach at least a stopgap agreement or be complicit in the first partial government shutdown in nearly two decades.

The Senate will vote to either advance or spike its version of the Transportation-HUD bill for fiscal 2014, which goes by the totally awkward acronym of THUD. (Many on the Hill revel in pronouncing it like the word for heavy blow, but appropriations purists insist the proper thing to say is “tea hud.”)

Whatever you call it, the legislation is now an irreparable mess. And so it’s become the best available example of what President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans brought on themselves precisely two years ago, when they sealed the deal that raised the debt ceiling but started Washington down its slippery slope into the sequester.

Top Republicans decided to halt debate on the House’s version of the bill, probably never to be seen again, once they realized it had no chance of passage. They quickly concluded that presiding over the second high-profile defeat in a month of a bill of their side’s own making (the farm bill being the other) would further amplify their reputation as a majority leadership with steadily eroding control over its own troops — and thereby over the one slice of the government the public has elected them to run.

With a THUD, Congress Kicks Another Can Down the Road

Longest Senate Vote Ever?

Wednesday’s prolonged roll call vote to limit debate on B. Todd Jones to become the permanent ATF director fell about 15 minutes short of the longest example in recent years.

While there are no official statistics on the subject, a February 2009 vote on that year’s stimulus act conference report was held open for about 5 hours and 15 minutes to accommodate senators with two different scheduling conflicts.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn. — a Modern Orthodox Jew — voted before the Sabbath began at sundown, while Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown had to fly back to the Capitol after attending his mother’s memorial service. Such extended votes are a good reminder that the typical 15 minutes is merely the minimum time for a roll call vote.

The Senate Historical Office notes that any discussion of the longest votes should be applied to modern Senate practice, since vote time limitation had been less stringent in the past. The Historical Office noted a 1955 vote that ran for several hours because Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey had a delayed flight. Lyndon B. Johnson, the majority leader at the time, kept the vote open until Humphrey’s return.

Of course, Humphrey would later serve as vice president under Johnson.

Speaking of vice presidents, the current occupant of that office once caused a Senate vote that ran for more than an hour. In 2001, Joseph R. Biden Jr. was delayed in arriving for the confirmation vote of John Ashcroft to be attorney general because he was attending a funeral.

Read More on Roll Call: Longest Senate Vote Ever?

10 Republicans Who Could Be Speaker

What does it take to be the speaker?

The ability to lead and have people follow. The talent to message and have it resonate. The willingness to use the carrot and the stick. And, most importantly, you’ve got to have the votes.

Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has learned it’s no easy task as he faces one mutiny after another from his fractious flock.

He’s given no indication that he plans to step down anytime soon, and there are no Republicans on the staff or member level who would venture to guess his expiration date.

But one day, Boehner will go. And on that day, if Republicans have the House, there will be a new order. Here are 10 members (plus two freshmen) who could one day be speaker.

Eric Cantor of Virginia

Cantor’s ambition for the top slot is hardly a secret, and conventional wisdom would suggest the majority leader would be next in line. Aides say Boehner and Cantor often rule the House as equals, but the Virginian knows his place.

Some wooed Cantor to challenge Boehner earlier this year, but he held off and has sought to play the role of good soldier since.

If Boehner were to retire quickly, Cantor would have built-in advantages with his own leadership operation ready to take over.

Admirers say he might be better positioned to bridge the chasm between the younger, more unruly members and the old rank and file. But Cantor’s record of corralling the conference is far from spotless — several of his initiatives have run into trouble, most notably his signature health care bill.

And if a conservative revolt ends up pushing Boehner out of the chair, would the mutineers really be satisfied with Boehner’s No. 2? Or would they demand a clean sheet at the top?

Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin

Paul D. Ryan makes everyone’s short list — and many believe that if he wants the job, he’d get it. The former vice presidential candidate known for his controversial plan to balance the budget is a prolific fundraiser who has deep respect inside the GOP conference and he has been urged over the years to run for the top job by some of his colleagues. But Ryan, a father of three young children, has said publicly he doesn’t envy the frequent travel required of leadership. And he could have other ambitions — like chairing the Ways and Means Committee or making a run of his own for 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

10 Republicans Who Could Be Speaker

Energy Secretary Says Yucca ‘Stalemate’ Delays Nuclear Disposal Solution

By Ambreen Ali, CQ Roll Call

Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz is expected to tell the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday that it’s time to give up on Yucca Mountain as a permanent disposal site for the nation’s commercial radioactive waste.

“The stalemate could continue indefinitely,” Moniz said in his written testimony, urging a consent-based alternative “rather than continuing to spend billions of dollars more on a project that faces such strong opposition.”

Moniz will testify that finding a Yucca alternative is the best way to address the disposal issue.

The House testimony follows Moniz’s appearance Tuesday before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where he offered support for efforts by four leading senators to address the nuclear waste storage issue.

Though he stopped short of endorsing the legislation (S 1240) proposed by the group, Moniz told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday that the approach is very promising.

“The administration is ready and willing to engage with both chambers of Congress to move forward, and [the bill] provides a workable framework for that engagement,” Moniz said. The legislation was introduced last month by Energy Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the panel’s ranking Republican, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and the top Energy Department appropriators, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander.

The measure would establish an independent agency to oversee nuclear waste and require its administrator to designate short-term nuclear storage facilities and at least one permanent repository within the decade.

The sites would have to be chosen through a consent-based process that requires permission both from the local government or tribe and the state government. Much of the focus of the hearing Tuesday centered on whether any localities would volunteer to host disposal sites.

The legislation draws from recommendations made by President Obama’s blue-ribbon commission on handling nuclear waste, on which Moniz served.

“The administration embraces the principles of the commission’s core recommendations, and like S. 1240 supports the goals of establishing a new workable, long-term solution for nuclear waste management,” the secretary testified at the hearing.

The senators also consulted Moniz while drafting their bill, so his supportive testimony came as no surprise. Still, his backing could help advance the proposal beyond an impasse over Yucca Mountain, the Nevada site designated to house the nation’s spent nuclear fuel.

Strong opposition to the Yucca Mountain site, led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has kept it from ever opening. Republicans have insisted that Yucca remain on the table as discussions advance, particularly because no clear alternatives have yet been found. The Wyden legislation does not take a position on the issue, but calls for the government to consider other locations.

“Yucca Mountain was not designed to be big enough to handle all of the spent fuel and nuclear waste that will need disposal,” Wyden said in his opening remarks.

Moniz agreed, saying that regardless of what happens with Yucca, the nation will need more than one repository if nuclear technology continues to be a part of the nation’s energy future, as expected.

But several Republicans on the panel voiced opposition to abandoning the Yucca site, which has already cost taxpayers money for development. Moniz is likely to hear more of that when he appears before the House panel on Wednesday.

Murkowski and Alexander urged their Republican colleagues to give the legislation another look, expressing a willingness to discuss concerns.

“It would be fair to say that whether you’re for Yucca Mountain or against Yucca Mountain, that one could be for a bill — one should be for a bill — that finds some reasonable way to create new repositories and new consolidated sites on a parallel track as long as they’re consent-based,” Alexander said.

ambreenali@rollcall.com

Source: CQ News
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