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Obama Says Income Gap Is Fraying U.S. Social Fabric

GALESBURG, Ill. — In a week when he tried to focus attention on the struggles of the middle class, President Obama said in an interview that he was worried that years of widening income inequality and the lingering effects of the financial crisis had frayed the country’s social fabric and undermined Americans’ belief in opportunity.

Upward mobility, Mr. Obama said in a 40-minute interview with The New York Times, “was part and parcel of who we were as Americans.”

“And that’s what’s been eroding over the last 20, 30 years, well before the financial crisis,” he added.

“If we don’t do anything, then growth will be slower than it should be. Unemployment will not go down as fast as it should. Income inequality will continue to rise,” he said. “That’s not a future that we should accept.”

A few days after the acquittal in the Trayvon Martin case prompted him to speak about being a black man in America, Mr. Obama said the country’s struggle over race would not be eased until the political process in Washington began addressing the fear of many people that financial stability is unattainable.

“Racial tensions won’t get better; they may get worse, because people will feel as if they’ve got to compete with some other group to get scraps from a shrinking pot,” Mr. Obama said. “If the economy is growing, everybody feels invested. Everybody feels as if we’re rolling in the same direction.”

Mr. Obama, who this fall will choose a new chairman of the Federal Reserve to share economic stewardship, expressed confidence that the trends could be reversed with the right policies.

The economy is “far stronger” than four years ago, he said, yet many people who write to him still do not feel secure about their future, even as their current situation recovers.

“That’s what people sense,” he said. “That’s why people are anxious. That’s why people are frustrated.”

During much of the interview, Mr. Obama was philosophical about historical and economic forces that he said were tearing at communities across the country. He noted at one point that he has in the Oval Office a framed copy of the original program from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years ago, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

He uses it, he said, to remind people “that was a march for jobs and justice; that there was a massive economic component to that. When you think about the coalition that brought about civil rights, it wasn’t just folks who believed in racial equality. It was people who believed in working folks having a fair shot.”

For decades after, Mr. Obama said, in places like Galesburg people “who wanted to find a job — they could go get a job.”

“They could go get it at the Maytag plant,” he said. “They could go get it with the railroad. It might be hard work, it might be tough work, but they could buy a house with it.”

Without a shift in Washington to encourage growth over “damaging” austerity, he added, not only would the middle class shrink, but in turn, contentious issues like trade, climate change and immigration could become harder to address.

Striking a feisty note at times, he vowed not to be cowed by his Republican adversaries in Congress and said he was willing to stretch the limits of his powers to change the direction of the debate in Washington.

“I will seize any opportunity I can find to work with Congress to strengthen the middle class, improve their prospects, improve their security,” Mr. Obama said. But he added, “I’m not just going to sit back if the only message from some of these folks is no on everything, and sit around and twiddle my thumbs for the next 1,200 days.”

Addressing for the first time one of his most anticipated decisions, Mr. Obama said he had narrowed his choice to succeed Ben S. Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve to “some extraordinary candidates.” With current fiscal policy measurably slowing the recovery, many in business and finance have looked to the Fed to continue its expansionary monetary policies to offset the drag.

Mr. Obama said he wanted someone who would not just work abstractly to keep inflation in check and ensure stability in the markets. “The idea is to promote those things in service of the lives of ordinary Americans getting better,” he said. “I want a Fed chairman that can step back and look at that objectively and say, Let’s make sure that we’re growing the economy.”

The leading Fed candidates are believed to be Lawrence H. Summers, Mr. Obama’s former White House economic adviser and President Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary, and Janet Yellen, the current Fed vice chairwoman and another former Clinton official. The president said he would announce his choice “over the next several months.”

More clearly than he did in three speeches on the economy last week — the next is scheduled for Tuesday in Chattanooga, Tenn. — Mr. Obama in the interview called for an end to the emphasis on budget austerity that Republicans ushered in when they captured control of the House in November 2010.

The priority, he said, should be spending for infrastructure, education, clean energy, science, research and other domestic initiatives of the sort he twice campaigned on.

“I want to make sure that all of us in Washington are investing as much time, as much energy, as much debate on how we grow the economy and grow the middle class as we’ve spent over the last two to three years arguing about how we reduce the deficits,” Mr. Obama said. He called for a shift “away from what I think has been a damaging framework in Washington.”

The president did not say what his legislative strategy would be. Even as he spoke, House Republicans were pushing measures in the opposite direction: to continue into the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1 the indiscriminate across-the-board spending reductions — known as sequestration — that Mr. Obama opposes, and to cut his priorities deeper still.

Republicans are also threatening to block an increase in the government’s borrowing limit — an action that must be taken by perhaps November to avoid financial crisis — unless Congress withholds money for his health care law.

Mr. Obama all but dared Republicans to challenge his executive actions, including his decision three weeks ago to delay until 2015 the health care law’s mandate that large employers provide insurance or pay fines. Republicans and some legal scholars questioned whether he had the legal authority to unilaterally change the law.

The delay in the employer mandate, which mostly affects large businesses that already insure workers but are worried about federal reporting requirements, was “the kind of routine modifications or tweaks to a large program that’s starting off that in normal times in a normal political atmosphere would draw a yawn from everybody,” Mr. Obama said.

“If Congress thinks that what I’ve done is inappropriate or wrong in some fashion, they’re free to make that case,” he said. “But there’s not an action that I take that you don’t have some folks in Congress who say that I’m usurping my authority. Some of those folks think I usurp my authority by having the gall to win the presidency.”

The president’s latest campaign for his agenda began as national polls last week showed a dip in his public support. The declines were even greater for Congress and Republicans in particular, in their already record-low ratings.

Mr. Obama said he would push ahead with a series of speeches that lay out his agenda ahead of the fights this fall with Congress. “If once a week I’m not talking about jobs, the economy, and the middle class,” he said, “then all matter of distraction fills the void.”

Young GOP leaders see need for substantive changes

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — Republicans hoping to reach beyond their party’s white, aging core must do more than retool campaign strategy and tactics, say young GOP leaders pressing elected officials to offer concrete policies to counter Democratic initiatives.

"It’s very easy to just say no, and there are times where it’s appropriate to say no," said Jason Weingartner of New York, the newly elected chairman of the Young Republican National Federation. "But there are times where you need to lead and present ideas on the issues of the day."

Weingartner and other under-40 activists at a recent national young Republican gathering in Mobile said their party must follow an all-of-the-above approach. Their assessment goes beyond the more general prescriptions that many party leaders, including Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, have offered since November, when Republicans lost the popular vote for the fifth time in the past six presidential elections.

The latest loss was due in large measure to President Barack Obama’s advantage over Republican nominee Mitt Romney among younger and nonwhite voters.

For the most part, Priebus has avoided policy recommendations for elected Republicans and says the Republican platform, a political document that’s supposed to reflect the core values of the party, isn’t the problem.

Weingartner and many of his colleagues agree with Priebus on the platform.

But their ideas are more explicit than the chairman’s blueprint and stand in contrast to a partisan Congress where many Republicans tailor their actions to please primary voters who loathe cooperation with Democrats.

Weingartner said House Republicans, who won’t pass the Democratic-led Senate’s version of an immigration overhaul, should pass their own bill that at least "streamlines and expands" legal slots for foreign students and workers.

On health care, Weingartner said that besides regularly voting to repeal Obama’s law, the GOP should emphasize its own ideas. On same-sex marriage and abortion, young GOP leaders say Republicans should tolerate a range of views, even while maintaining a socially conservative identity.

©2012 The Associated Press

Bill seeks to speed the filling of inspectors general vacancies

A bipartisan group of Senators on Thursday proposed legislation that would allow Congress to fill inspectors general vacancies lasting more than seven months.

The measure ? introduced by Sens. John Boozman (R-Ark.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) ? would transfer appointment authority to the House speaker and the Senate president pro tempore whenever the president does not nominate someone within 210 days of an opening.

The legislation addresses longstanding inspectors general vacancies that have occurred during the Obama administration. Some positions have been open for more than four years.

“Inspectors generals are taxpayers’ best advocates to fight waste, fraud and abuse throughout the federal government,” Shaheen said in a joint statement with the other senators. “Making sure we have our watchdogs in place is absolutely critical to putting our fiscal house in order and managing the government as efficiently and effectively as possible.”

There are seven vacancies for inspectors general within the executive branch, including two openings at cabinet agencies. President Obama has made nominations to fill four of those spots, but his picks await Senate confirmation.

The nominees in waiting are Steve Linick for the State Department, Scott Dahl for the Labor Department, Michael Carroll for the U.S. Agency for International Development and Jon Rymer for the Defense Department.

The president has not chosen inspectors general nominees for the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of the Interior or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In lieu of permanent inspectors general, agencies work with acting or deputy IGs. But critics of that approach say acting inspectors are sometimes considered less credible and that the prospect of returning to the lower ranks after a successor is confirmed can hinder their independence.

The watchdog group Project On Government Oversight (POGO), which has long pressured the administration to fill its inspectors general vacancies, expressed limited support for the Senate legislation Thursday.

“It’s a good-faith effort, and we want to work with these and other senators to fill all inspectors general positions, but there are some legitimate constitutional concerns with congressional appointments,” said Angela Canterbury, POGO director of public policy.

The senators said in their statement that the Supreme Court affirmed in 1976 that Congress can appoint officials who would have investigative authority, except for the power to seek warrants or to make arrests without warrants.

Canterbury said that scenario would not be preferable, even if the argument holds up. ”Allowing for Congress to make an appointment but stripping the inspector general of essential powers in order to make it constitutional, I think that’s not an added value,” she said. “We want well-qualified, permanent and fully empowered inspectors general.”

Energy Efficiency Bill Need Not Address Pipeline, Subcommittee Chairman Says

By Geof Koss, CQ Roll Call

A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee chairman discounted the notion that energy efficiency legislation would have to address the Keystone XL pipeline to pass the chamber.

“I don’t think there’s any way we would use that as a bargaining tool for an efficiency bill, because I don’t think we need to,” Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Edward Whitfield, R-Ky., said Thursday at a CQ Roll Call energy forum. “I think we can pass an efficiency bill, I think the Senate can pass one, and then hopefully we can just go to conference.”

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and other supporters of the pipeline have signaled they may offer a Keystone XL amendment to the Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill (S 761) that is expected on the Senate floor next week.

Speaking earlier at the same event, Hoeven did not address whether a Keystone vote is in the cards for the Senate next week.

But he noted growing support in the chamber for approving the pipeline. Hoeven said he had more than 60 votes last year for a bill to approve the project legislatively — until President Barack Obama “called people directly” to urge them to change their votes.

He also noted that 62 senators voted earlier this year for a “sense of the Senate” resolution (S Con Res 8) to the chamber’s non-binding budget resolution that the Keystone XL pipeline should be approved. Hoeven said that after five years of studies, the State Department has yet to find any significant environmental impacts.

“I think unless they change the environmental-impact statements, it will be very hard to turn it down,” he said. “And ultimately if they turn it down, obviously we’d be in a position to approve it congressionally.”

Whitfield expressed doubts that Obama will approve the pipeline — and that Congress can muster the support necessary to override the action. “I think we have difficulty in the Senate,” he said. “I know we can pass one in the House.”

Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., called for leaving Keystone out of the efficiency debate unfolding on separate tracks in both the House and Senate. Efficiency is a rare area of bipartisan agreement in energy policy.

“I’m hoping that these bills can be brought together, get things done, and allow the two parties to taste success in the energy arena,” he said. “With Keystone, it’s been aired publicly, it’s near the end of its review process, I’d like to see it stand on its own.”

geofkoss@cqrollcall.com

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

Military Sexual-Assault Bills Don’t Break on Party, Gender Lines

Two competing proposals on combating sexual assault in the military could cause further headaches for Democratic leaders, as lawmakers debate how best to manage what has become an epidemic culture of misconduct in the armed services.

The fight, which does not break cleanly on party or gender lines, could get more complicated as Congress inches closer to full debate of this year’s defense authorization bill.

On Thursday, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., held a news conference with Republican Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Democrat Jon Tester of Montana, to advocate for the proposal approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee last month. Flanked by retired female servicemembers, the senators argued that removing the chain of command from prosecuting misconduct could lead to fewer consequences for assailants in cases prosecutors find too difficult to try.

On the other side, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has pushed legislation that would remove the command structure from prosecutions completely, and her plan has picked up significant support from members of both parties.

“Sen. Gillibrand would be the first to tell you that our bill is not the status quo. It is aggressive and [makes] meaningful changes,” McCaskill said Thursday. “I’ve had to discipline prosecutors who were turning down cases because they were worried about their win-loss record. Prosecutors like to win, and a lot of these cases they think are ‘losers.’ We see instances where time after time prosecutors say ‘no’ and commanders say ‘yes.’

Read more on Roll Call: Military Sexual-Assault Bills Don’t Break on Party, Gender Lines

Steve King Keeps Calling Immigrant Kids ‘Drug Smugglers’

Steve King insisted again Thursday that undocumented immigrant children are often drug mules who carry illegal substances across the border from Mexico, but this time he did it on the House floor.

Despite a firestorm of criticism — including another rebuke from Speaker John A. Boehner Thursday morning — the Iowa Republican defended his comments last week that such children have “calves the size of cantaloupes” as a result of carrying drugs across the border.

“I can tell you that in Mexico they are recruiting kids to be drug smugglers,” King said Thursday afternoon to an empty House chamber. “Every night some come across the border smuggling drugs across the border. Increasingly the higher value drugs, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine in some form or another, are being strapped to the body — sometimes of young girls, teenage girls. The media is replete with this. Anybody that reads the paper should know, especially those that live on the border, should know that there are many, many young people coming across the border unlawfully who are smuggling drugs into the United States.”

Read More on Roll Call: Steve King Keeps Calling Immigrant Kids ‘Drug Smugglers’

Back to Basics

Advocacy and Engagement 101With Congressional Recess fast approaching, we here at Congress.org felt it necessary to take you back to the basics. While we talk about new and innovative ways to educate and engage audiences, we can’t forget about our roots. That is, what makes a good advocacy effort? What if advocacy isn’t my direct goal? And how did we get here?

With questions like those in mind, we’ll be writing over the coming weeks not only about the latest tools to integrate into your effort, but more importantly how to ensure the foundation of your effort is strong. The idea being that as new tools and ways to interact with your stakeholders hit the market, we want to be able to integrate them seamlessly into our overall effort rather than just jumping from one trend to the next.

So stay tuned for a Back to Basics / Advocacy & Engagement 101 style run-through over the next ~30 days. While federal legislators are home working in their districts, now is the time to hone your skills, to stop and take stock of your strategy so that your effort is ready not for just the post-Labor Day legislative session, but for the coming months and years ahead.

Tuition-Free in Oregon: Lawmakers Pass ‘Pay Forward, Pay Back’

Legislation designed to keep student loan interest rates down is working its way through Congress, but opponents believe the bill will do little to help students and families deal with the escalating cost of a college education. The bill would provide immediate relief as it reverses a July 1 decision that doubled interest rates on subsidized loans. Students would be required to pay the current yield on the 10-year Treasury note plus 2.05 percent. Treasury notes are at historic lows and the newly proposed 3.86 percent on subsidized Stafford loans, up modestly from 3.4 percent, would likely increase exorbitantly in the future. The Obama administration supports the bill.

The states are not betting that Congress will solve the problem. Oregon lawmakers passed legislation this year that could radically change the way students pay for higher education.

Keep Reading…

RATINGS CHANGE: Maine’s 2nd District

Ten years ago, the open-seat race in Maine’s 2nd District was one of the most competitive in the country. The seat is open again, but it may be further out of reach for Republicans this time.

Rep. Michael H. Michaud delighted some Democratic strategists by announcing his gubernatorial bid. He also left the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee with an open seat to defend.

He won his initial race, 52 percent to 48 percent, in 2002, and Michaud has cruised to re-election ever since. In the meantime, the presidential results have also shown some movement in the district over the past decade.

Read more on Roll Call: RATINGS CHANGE: Maine’s 2nd District

Amash NSA Push Falls Just Short After Spirited Debate

Updated 8:17 p.m. | The White House and Republican and Democratic leadership marshaled their forces Wednesday to narrowly defeat an attempt by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., to defund the National Security Agency’s blanket collection of telephone records, but not before a heated floor debate pitting civil liberties against national security.

Amash faced extraordinary odds: leadership on both sides of the aisle registered opposition to the amendment; former attorneys general and executive branch officials penned a letter opposing the measure; outside groups such as the Heritage Foundation came out against it; newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, wrote op-eds rebuffing it; and the White Houseissued a rare statement of opposition against a House amendment.

The House killed the proposal, 205-217.

But the vote was much closer than the NSA, the White House or leadership wanted. The Amash amendment got 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats to go on record against the NSA surveillance program. A majority of Democrats effectively repudiated President Barack Obama’s handling of the program exposed by leaker Edward Snowden.

Snowden, of course, had called for just such a public debate and votes on the program when he revealed himself as the NSA leaker.

Read More on Roll Call: Amash NSA Push Falls Just Short After Spirited Debate

No Easy Steve King Solution for GOP

How do you solve a problem like Steve King?

“You can’t,” Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina said of his fellow House Republican colleague from Iowa. “You don’t.”

But that doesn’t mean House GOP leaders and prominent voices within the chamber’s Republican Conference aren’t trying, now more than ever, to isolate and marginalize once and for all their colleague whose frequent anti-immigrant rhetoric threatens their efforts to make inroads with the burgeoning Latino voting base.

The turning point, perhaps, came Tuesday, when comments King had made a week earlier to the conservative media outlet Newsmax erupted into a firestorm that brought condemnation from the speaker on down.

The gist of his remarks was that not all young undocumented immigrants brought to the country illegally by their parents — the “DREAMers” — should be put on a path to legal status, despite that idea gaining significant traction among House Republicans.

“For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds — and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” King said.

By Tuesday night, Speaker John A. Boehner had released a statement calling King “wrong.”

“There can be honest disagreements about policy without using hateful language,” the Ohio Republican added. “Everyone needs to remember that.”

Read more on Roll Call: No Easy Steve King Solution for GOP

Federal Minimum Wage Goes 4 Years Without Budging

WASHINGTON — Workers toiling in low-wage jobs marked a dispiriting anniversary on Wednesday: It’s now been four years since the last time the federal minimum wage was raised.

The minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour, and it prevails in the 30 states that don’t already mandate a higher one. The last time it saw a boost was on July 24, 2009, when it was raised from $6.55. That 70-cent raise marked the last in a series of increases signed into law by President George W. Bush.

Since then, the legal wage floor has held steady, even as the cost of living has continued to rise. A full-time worker earning the minimum wage now pulls in a salary of about $15,000 per year, far below a living wage in most parts of the country.

President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats have proposed raising the minimum wage and pegging it to inflation, though House Republicans are unlikely to go along with such a hike any time soon. Bills to raise the minimum wage, introduced in the House and Senate earlier this year, have not been voted on by their respective committees. Republican leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), have deemed a minimum-wage raise a job killer. (House Republicans have already voted down a version of the minimum wage raise that was inserted as an amendment to a workforce training bill.)

Labor groups supporting a minimum wage boost planned demonstrations in an estimated 30 cities across the country on Wednesday, calling the four-year lapse reason alone for a raise. According to organizers, the protests would target low-wage employers who’ve seen employee strikes in recent months, including Walmart and McDonald’s.

Over the decades, the minimum wage has gone for spells longer than four years before seeing a raise, according to the Labor Department. The wage floor remained stagnant for a full 10 years leading up to the first increase late in Bush’s tenure, in 2007. And during the early 1990s, the minimum wage stood at $4.25 for more than five years before being raised under President Bill Clinton.

But if Congress doesn’t send Obama legislation to sign by the end of his second term, he will be the first president since Ronald Reagan who didn’t raise the minimum wage at all.

Back on the campaign trail in 2008, Obama stumped for hiking the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2011 and pegging it to inflation in perpetuity. That raise never came, however, and the president proposed a more modest boost to $9.00 during his State of the Union address earlier this year. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) soon rolled out their own, more ambitious proposal, which by 2015 would raise the minimum wage to $10.10, closer to its historical high in the late 1960s.

The proposals by both the president and congressional Democrats include one pivotal measure — the tying of the minimum wage to an inflation index. Ten states have already undertaken this change, choosing to automatically reset the minimum wage each year rather than wrangle politically over a new raise every few years. If Congress adopted an inflation index, the purchasing power of the minimum wage wouldn’t erode as it has for the past four years.

According to a recent HuffPost/YouGov poll, Americans broadly support the idea of raising the minimum wage and pegging it to inflation, with 62 percent of Americans saying it should be boosted to $9. Obama’s proposal was supported by a huge majority of Democrats in the poll (86 percent to 6 percent) and a majority of independents (56 percent to 28 percent). Fifty-two percent of Republicans, however, opposed the proposal, compared to 36 percent who supported it.

Shutdown Blame Game Begins Anew

Budget brinkmanship is on tap again this fall, if this week’s renewed finger-pointing over a potential government shutdown is any guide.

Though Congress and the White House have just more than two months to strike a deal keeping the government running — and a little longer before the debt ceiling hits — they appear set to engage in a full-fledged messaging war over the August break before returning to the negotiating table in September.

Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, challenged the White House to take a shutdown off the table by dropping a veto threat on spending bills at the House budget’s austere level. That $967 billion level happens to be the one prescribed in the 2011 Budget Control Act that President Barack Obama signed into law, and it includes the full-year effect of the sequester that both sides have called bad policy.

It’s a $21 billion cut from this year’s spending level of $988 billion.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said it would be unacceptable to let the sequester continue beyond the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year — and he vowed to oppose a stopgap spending bill that would do so.

Read More on Roll Call: Shutdown Blame Game Begins Anew

Steve King Defends DREAMer Comments Condemned by Boehner, Cantor

Updated 11:07 p.m. | Rep. Steve King is defending his comments that children who were brought to the U.S. illegally don’t deserve “amnesty” because they’re not “all valedictorians” despite a firestorm of criticism from Republican leaders and Democrats.

Speaker John A. Boehner called the comments “wrong” and his language “hateful.” Majority Leader Eric Cantor called them “inexcusable.” Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., called the remarks “reprehensible.” And Florida Democrat Joe Garcia said they were “beneath the dignity” of a member of Congress.

The Iowa Republican told the conservative website NewsMax last week that he is sympathetic to the situation in which many undocumented children find themselves. But he said those so-called DREAMers are not all created equal.

“Some of them are valedictorians — and their parents brought them in. It wasn’t their fault. It’s true in some cases, but they aren’t all valedictorians. They weren’t all brought in by their parents.

“For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds — and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert. Those people would be legalized with the same act.”

King said until there is some way to tell the difference between the “innocent ones” and those who have been “undermining our culture and civilization and profiting from criminal acts,” no one should advocate for “amnesty.”

Read more on Roll Call: Steve King Defends DREAMer Comments Condemned by Boehner, Cantor

The 7 Most Dysfunctional State Parties

In the past two years, one state party chairman was investigated by the local bar association. Elsewhere, an about-to-be-ousted party leader changed the locks at the headquarters. Two more state parties were threatened with eviction.

Traditionally, state parties have been the meeting point between the national political organizations and the local ground game. But in recent cycles, many of them have become so dysfunctional that they are now irrelevant — or even worse, detrimental, to the national party’s efforts.

The reasons behind their ineptitude vary: Some parties struggle with finances, others with competing personalities. For Republicans, many of the problems stem from power struggles between tea party activists and old guard operatives.

Does it matter if the state party is dysfunctional, especially in the age of shadow campaigns and ubiquitous third-party spending? It depends whom you ask.

Of the dozens of operatives CQ Roll Call interviewed, most had such low regard for state parties that they shrugged off the incompetence. They described the evolution of a state party’s role in federal politics as a glorified bank account for cheaper television and postage rates.

Still, some operatives stress that a functional state party is crucial to a national party’s interests in some states. One hired hand argued that a strong state party infrastructure is particularly important in fast-paced special elections.

Read more on Roll Call: The 7 Most Dysfunctional State Parties

Abortion Energizes Parties, Even Without Passage

By Rebecca Adams, CQ Roll Call

Congress is unlikely to pass any legislation making changes to abortion this year, but that hasn’t stopped both sides from taking legislative steps aimed at energizing their core constituencies.

The House Appropriations Committee included a ban on abortion coverage in the new health insurance marketplaces in the fiscal 2014 financial services spending bill approved on July 17.

And the full chamber followed the lead of many states on June 18 by passing a ban on abortion 20 weeks or more after fertilization. The measure passed 228-196, with six Democrats supporting it and six Republicans opposing it. Supporters of limits on abortion immediately praised the action.

Even though the Senate has not scheduled action on the House-passed measure, Democratic senators have already held news conferences with abortion rights supporters declaring that they will never let the legislation pass in that chamber.

“We are here to make one thing abundantly clear, and that is that the extreme, unconstitutional abortion ban that passed the House just weeks ago, and which is being shopped around by the right wing for sponsors here in the Senate is a non-starter,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., standing beside Planned Parenthood officials. “Regardless of who introduces it, it’s going nowhere.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has taken a more muted approach. On NBC’s “Meet the Press” on July 14, host David Gregory pressed Reid on whether it’s reasonable to consider a ban on abortion 20 weeks after fertilization.

Reid first demurred, talking about how hard it is to hold debates on other unrelated issues that both sides support when someone introduces an amendment on abortion or contraception. “I think we should deal with the problems that affect this country,” Reid said. “We need to do something to help the American working class and stop worrying about fringe issues.”

After Gregory continued to ask whether a 20-week ban is reasonable, Reid said, “I’m happy to take a look at this. I repeat, let’s do things that the vast majority of the American people think we should deal with.”

rebeccaadams@cqrollcall.com
A version of this article appeared in the July 23, 2013 print issue of Roll Call

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

As Portland (Maine) Goes, So Goes … the Nation?

For decades, Portland, Maine, the state’s largest city (population 66,000), has been more liberal and more Democratic than the rest of the Pine Tree State. But it wasn’t always the magnet for foodies or the home of upscale boutiques that attract a more affluent crowd.

While Maine elected a Republican governor and GOP majorities in the legislature in 2010, that political “wave” outcome is misleading. Democrats won the legislature back in 2012, and Republicans will have trouble holding the governorship in 2014.

If the state of Maine has been sliding toward the Democrats in most statewide elections over the past four or five decades, Portland has been leading the state’s move to the left.

In 1972, when Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern was drawing only 38.5 percent of the vote in Maine, he was doing somewhat better in Portland. McGovern lost the city to Richard Nixon but drew a respectable 47.6 percent of the vote — 9.1 points better than his statewide showing.

In contrast, McGovern carried the city of Lewiston (population 36,000) easily, with 62.2 percent of the vote. Maine’s second-largest city has had a strong Catholic, French Canadian flavor for decades, and its blue-collar economy started going downhill in the middle of the last century, when textile mills left the Northeast for the South.

Lewiston was reliably Democratic, and it didn’t echo the Nixon landslide in 1972. McGovern ran 23.7 points better in Lewiston than he did statewide.

By 2000, Portland and Lewiston had started to show that things were changing.

While Al Gore carried Maine by 5.1 points (49.1 percent to 44 percent) and had decisive wins in both Portland and Lewiston, the Democratic presidential nominee drew 63.4 percent in Portland but a smaller 61.1 percent in Lewiston.

Read More: As Portland (Maine) Goes, So Goes … the Nation?

Bob Dole’s 90th Conjures Visions of Senate Long Gone

Seventeen years and 774 cloture petitions after he left the Senate, Bob Dole celebrated his 90th birthday Monday with the sort of plain-spoken tough love that marked his run as one of the most accomplished congressional leaders of all time.

At an invitation-only Capitol birthday party Tuesday afternoon, his fans will raise a chocolate milkshake toast and wistfully remember what was and what may never be again.

The week won’t have the same emotional pull as Dole’s last announced visit to the Capitol, in December, when he pulled himself out his wheelchair before saluting the coffin of his World War II hospital roommate and three-decade Democratic senatorial buddy Daniel K. Inouye.

It won’t have the same import as Dole’s last attempt to leverage his elder-statesman status as a lobbyist, that same month, when his personal appeals on the floor could not stop the Senate from spurning an international treaty to protect the rights of disabled people.

Nor does it provide the political punch of his last Sunday show appearance, in May, when he declared that his own Republican Party ought to declare itself “closed for repairs” until it settled on a less obstructionist vision.

But his birthday wishes — expressed with his trademark blast-of-Kansas-prairie-wind brevity — may be more important than any of those moments. They were the bluntest articulation possible of the Senate’s profound challenges.

Read more on Roll Call: Bob Dole’s 90th Conjures Visions of Senate Long Gone

House GOP August Plan: Hate on Washington

When House Republicans retreat to their districts for the August recess, they will each be armed with a detailed guide — an exceptionally detailed guide — on how to assure their already convinced constituents that Washington is broken.

The August House Republican Conference planning kit, titled “Fighting Washington for All Americans,” offers a rare glimpse into the constituent outreach efforts of the GOP. Those efforts, it turns out, are highly calculated, hashtag-heavy and rife with references to the video app Vine.

The best way to stay in Washington appears to be to deride Washington, and Republican leadership isn’t going to deviate from that familiar formula.

Of the many topics Republicans could delve into — the impending debt ceiling debate, immigration or, perhaps, the sequester — the 31-page GOP packet focuses on safer ground: Obamacare, jobs and the fierce hatred of all things Washington.

It includes a cookbook of events largely aimed at whacking the Obama administration and highlighting House Republicans’ efforts to fight it — while using social media every step of the way.

There’s an “Emergency Health Care Town Hall,” for starters, with detailed recipes on where to hold the event, how to promote it — tweet it, Vine it, Instagram it, Facebook it — and how to hold an “impromptu” media availability to “frame the key takeaways.”

Riva Litman, the spokeswoman for Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, said it is the job of the House Republican Conference to equip members with “the tools and resources they need to take our message to all corners of this country.”

“That’s why, in anticipation of the upcoming August recess, we’ve provided offices with a thorough and comprehensive planning kit — complete with suggested events, best practices and talking points,” Litman said. She noted that a second packet, complete with updated talking points, would be on its way to members soon.

The first kit offers variations on an old Washington favorite: bashing Washington.

“Washington is out of control,” warns a “sample op-ed” titled “Fighting Washington for You.”

Read more on Roll Call: House GOP August Plan: Hate on Washington

Cattle producers want to get rid of new meat labels

WASHINGTON _ After surviving years of drought and watching the size of the U.S. cattle herd fall to its lowest level in more than 60 years, Texas cattleman Bob McCan would just as soon steer clear of the U.S. government’s latest meat-labeling rules.

For many U.S. consumers, it’s a popular idea: Label packages to let them know what country the meat comes from.

But with his herd of roughly 4,000 including cattle from Mexico, McCan said there’s no good reason to segregate the animals when he sells them. All it would do, he said, is create hundreds of millions of dollars of extra handling costs that would get passed on, driving up the price at grocery stores.

“We don’t want beef to become a luxury item,” said McCan, a fifth-generation rancher from Victoria, Texas.

McCan, now the president-elect of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, is among a group of cattle producers and meat companies that has sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture for moving ahead in late May with new country-of-origin labeling rules.

In a lawsuit filed July 8 in U.S. District Court in Washington, the groups claim the labels will hurt beef exports and are unconstitutional as “compelled speech” that doesn’t advance a government interest.

Backers of the new rules, who say labeling can be done at a minimal cost, are braced for another battle with cattle producers.

“They’re totally wrong _ consumers have the right to know where products are from,” said Joel Joseph, chairman of the Los Angeles-based Made in the USA Foundation, a group that promotes labeling and products manufactured in the United States. “It’s not forced speech. It’s just consumer information, the same kind of information that’s on a label of a new car that says where an engine’s from.”

He offered some advice for McCan: “If he doesn’t want to segregate his cattle, then he shouldn’t get cattle from Mexico.”

McCan said labeling is a marketing issue that should be left to the private sector.

“We’re not anti-labeling at all,” he said. “We just kind of feel like the government doesn’t really need to be in our marketing system. It doesn’t have to be dictated to us.”

Cattle producers aren’t the only unhappy ones.

The new labeling rules also could ignite a trade war with Canada, which is threatening to retaliate. Last month, the Canadian government called the new rules a “protectionist policy” that discriminated against foreign competition. Ottawa said it might respond by imposing tariffs on a long list of products, including pork, fruits and vegetables, pasta, chocolate, cheese, office furniture and many more. The Canadian government fears that its beef exports to the United States would decline under the new rules, with U.S. retailers more likely to reject foreign meat.

Canadian officials immediately complained to the World Trade Organization, but they say it could take more than a year to resolve the case.

As a result, John Masswohl, director of government and international relations for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, called the new rules a tactic by the U.S. Agriculture Department “to buy themselves another year of discrimination.”

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And he predicted that the threat of tariffs will quickly affect U.S. businesses.

“If the market thinks tariffs are coming, businesses make plans to adjust,” Masswohl said. “So my feeling is that if you are a producer of one of the products on that list, your banker might have some issues with your line of credit.”

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The issue has become tortuous for the Agriculture Department, which last year got sued by labeling proponents who accused the government of dragging its feet on adopting new rules.

And for consumer groups, labeling has become the issue that never goes away, even though it wins strong backing in polls.

“I thought we were done with it, and all of a sudden it’s still going on,” said Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America.

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But he said industry groups have opposed country-of-origin labeling since it first appeared in Congress’ farm bill more than a decade ago.

“They’ve been trying to delay it ever since,” Waldrop said. “This is just another effort to do that, but the public is not on their side on this. … Consumers want more and more information about where their food comes from and how it’s grown, and not less.”

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He cited a poll released by the Consumer Federation in May, which found that 90 percent of Americans back mandatory labeling of meat products.

McCan is not convinced.

“They might say they care, but most of them really don’t care what country it comes from. Beef is beef,” he said.

Masswohl said polls are misleading, adding that if consumers are asked only whether they’d like to know the origin of their food, “you’d be hard-pressed to find one who would say ‘no.’” But he said consumers put a higher value on price when they understand that labeling could result in a higher grocery bill. He estimated that the new U.S. rules would cost Canadian cattle producers from $90 to $100 per animal.

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Canada and Mexico filed complaints against the United States with the World Trade Organization after an expanded labeling law took effect in 2009, alleging that it constituted a barrier to trade. After reviewing the case, the WTO upheld the right of the United States to require labels but said their cost exceeded the benefit and that they were confusing to consumers.

That prompted the USDA to issue its new rules this spring, satisfying a deadline set by the WTO.

Under the new rules, the labels will provide more information, detailing what countries the animals were born in and where they were raised and slaughtered. Officials at the Agriculture Department and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said the federal government is satisfied that the new rules are legal and comply with the WTO’s concerns.

But critics say the new rules did nothing to end the discrimination, which they say will continue the forced segregation of animals.

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“It’s absurd what they did, for them to suggest that they complied,” said Masswohl, whose group is one of eight that filed the lawsuit against the USDA.

Cattle producers say the new rules will be particularly onerous for ranchers and meat companies in border states such as Texas, the nation’s top beef-exporting state.

With his ranch just three hours from the Mexican border, McCan said he has long included cattle from Mexico in his business.

“They’ve been tested and treated for everything under the sun before they come across the river, so they’re clean animals and their health is good,” he said. “And usually they’re just ready to go when we get them. … There’s no safety concerns with those cattle coming in from Mexico. If anything, they’re even safer.”

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But Joseph, whose Made in the USA Foundation urged the USDA to pass the new rules, said labeling is both a health and safety issue for American consumers, who put more faith in U.S. products.

“You’re getting a better product when you get American goods of any type,” he said. “And concerning food products, you’re getting a safer, cleaner product. Sanitation is better in the United States than it is in Mexico.”

McCan worries that a prolonged labeling spat could sour trade relations with Canada and Mexico. And they’re the top two destinations for U.S. beef exports, which declined by 12 percent worldwide in 2012, compared with the year before, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation.

“The last thing we really need to be doing is creating some problems with them,” McCan said. “It’s gotten very political, unfortunately.”

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(c)2013 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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GRAPHIC (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20130719 BEEF TRADE