Obama vs. The Senate

this article comes courtesy of the Associated Press:

senate

WASHINGTON (AP) — As the Senate prepares to begin debating new gun control measures, some of President Barack Obama’s fellow Democrats are poised to frustrate his efforts to enact the most sweeping limits on weapons in decades.

These Democrats from largely rural states with strong gun cultures view Obama’s proposals warily and have not committed to supporting them. The lawmakers’ concerns could stand in the way of strong legislation before a single Republican gets a chance to vote “no.”

“There’s a core group of Democratic senators, most but not all from the West, who represent states with a higher-than-average rate of gun ownership but an equally strong desire to feel their kids are safe,” said Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. “They’re having hard but good conversations with people back home to identify the middle-ground solutions that respect the Second Amendment but make it harder for dangerous people to get their hands on guns.”

All eyes are on these dozen or so Democrats, some of whom face re-election in 2014. That includes Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

The Senate Judiciary Committee begins hearings Wednesday.

Interest groups, lobbyists, lawmakers, crime victims and others with a stake in the outcome will be watching these senators closely for signals about what measures they might support. The answers will say a lot about what, if anything, Congress can pass in the wake of the shootings of 20 school and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., last month.

At issue are Obama’s proposals to ban assault weapons, limit ammunition magazines, crack down on trafficking and require universal background checks. Leading the charge against those ideas is the National Rifle Association. The group wields enormous power to rally public sentiment and is a particular threat to Democrats in pro-gun states who face re-election.

The political concerns of Democrats create problems for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has his own history with the NRA.

The powerful gun lobby endorsed him in previous elections, but stayed neutral in his most recent race, in 2010. Even before Obama announced the gun proposals this month, Reid told a Nevada PBS station that an assault weapons ban would have a hard time getting through Congress. That comment irked Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., author of such a ban.

“Clearly it wasn’t helpful,” she said this past week in reintroducing her measure. But Feinstein’s original assault weapons ban was a stern political lesson for Reid and other Democrats. Its passage as part of President Bill Clinton’s crime bill in 1994 was blamed for Democratic election losses that year after the NRA campaigned against lawmakers who supported the legislation. When the assault weapons ban came up for renewal in 2004, Congress, under pressure from the NRA, refused to extend it.

Reid has pledged action on gun measures. “This is an issue we’re not going to run from,” he said. But he’s under pressure from all sides.

Some major pieces of legislation are shepherded by the Senate leadership to the Senate floor. But Reid is promising that the gun bills will go through the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chairman is Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a gun owner and Second Amendment supporter.

Reid also is promising an open amendment process, potentially a lengthy endeavor. Those signals have some gun control activists concerned that the process will go so slowly that it will grind to a halt without action. Some question whether that’s just the outcome desired by some moderate Democrats.

“I’m concerned just because Harry Reid has a mixed record on these things and we want him to be a champion,” said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

On the other side, the NRA, known for rewarding friends and punishing enemies, promises it will be closely watching Reid, too.

“He’s going to be torn and a lot of people are going to be torn, particularly Democrats, but I think as the debate goes on he’ll do more good than bad from our perspective,” said David Keene, NRA president. “All this stuff has been debated before and once you get into a debate and a discussion and say will this do anything to protect children, to prevent another Newtown, I think the answer is going to come out `no.'”

Baucus, Begich, Pryor and others have been cautious in their comments on Obama’s gun proposals.

Baucus called for “a thoughtful debate.” Begich told his home state Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that passage of any element of the package was “a long haul. … There are some of us who just fundamentally believe in a Second Amendment right.” Pryor has told Arkansas media that efforts on gun safety should start with enforcing existing laws.

Another Democrat closely watching the issue is Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, known for a 2010 campaign ad where he fired a rifle shot though a copy of Democratic-written climate change legislation. Manchin recently told a West Virginia radio station that he’s working on legislation to require background checks on most gun purchases. Details weren’t clear but that’s the area where advocates are most hopeful of finding a solution that could get through the Senate and possibly even the Republican-controlled House.

The NRA generally opposes legislation mandating universal background checks and disputes gun control groups’ claims that 40 percent of purchases happen without such checks. NRA officials question whether background checks could be done effectively in a way that makes a difference and doesn’t disrupt legitimate sales.

The NRA’s executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, is to testify Wednesday before Leahy’s committee.

Democrats, especially those from gun-rights states, will be weighing whether to side with the NRA or follow the president, or how best to split the difference.

“We’re a Second-Amendment state. I support the rights of sportsmen and target shooters and collectors to own firearms. It’s an important part of our culture and tradition,” Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said in an interview. “But I just hear there’s such grave concern given the experiences we’ve had with Aurora, Columbine … people all over Colorado want to prevent these massacres.”

Jackson Williams.

The Fiscal Cliffhanger

this story comes courtesy of the Associated Press:

WASHINGTON (AP) — The end game at hand, the White House and Senate leaders made a final stab at compromise Friday night to prevent middle-class tax increases from taking effect at the turn of the new year and possibly block sweeping spending cuts as well.

“I’m optimistic we may still be able to reach an agreement that can pass both houses in time,” President Barack Obama said at the White House after meeting for more than an hour with top lawmakers from both houses.

Surprisingly, after weeks of postelection gridlock, Senate leaders sounded even more bullish.

RELEASE THE HOUNDS! (courtesy of The Omnipotent Poobah)

The Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said he was “hopeful and optimistic” of a deal that could be presented to rank-and-file lawmakers as early as Sunday, a little more than 24 hours before the year-end deadline.

Said Majority Leader Harry Reid: “I’m going to do everything I can” to prevent the tax increases and spending cuts that threaten to send the economy into recession. He cautioned, “Whatever we come up with is going to be imperfect.”

House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican who has struggled recently with anti-tax rebels inside his own party, said through an aide he would await the results of the talks between the Senate and White House.

Under a timetable sketched by congressional aides, any agreement would first go to the Senate for a vote. The House would then be asked to assent, possibly as late as Jan. 2, the final full day before a new Congress takes office.

Officials said there was a general understanding that any agreement would block scheduled income tax increases for middle class earners while letting rates rise at upper income levels.

Democrats said Obama was sticking to his campaign call for increases above $250,000 in annual income, even though in recent negotiations he said he could accept $400,000.

The two sides also confronted a divide over estate taxes.

Obama favors a higher tax than is currently in effect, but one senior Republican, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, said he’s “totally dead set” against it. Speaking of fellow GOP lawmakers, he said they harbor more opposition to an increase in the estate tax than to letting taxes on income and investments rise at upper levels.

Also likely to be included in the negotiations are taxes on dividends and capital gains, both of which are scheduled to rise with the new year. Also the alternative minimum tax, which, if left unchanged, could hit an estimated 28 million households for the first time with an average increase of more than $3,000.

In addition, Obama and Democrats want to prevent the expiration of unemployment benefits for about 2 million long-term jobless men and women, and there is widespread sentiment in both parties to shelter doctors from a 27 percent cut in Medicare fees.

Glorious.

The White House has shown increased concern about a possible doubling of milk prices if a farm bill is not passed in the next few days, although it is not clear whether that issue, too, might be included in the talks.

One Republican who was briefed on the White House meeting said Boehner made it clear he would leave in place spending cuts scheduled to take effect unless alternative savings were included in any compromise to offset them. If he prevails, that would defer politically difficult decisions on curtailing government benefit programs like Medicare until 2013.

Success was far from guaranteed in an atmosphere of political mistrust – even on a slimmed-down deal that postponed hard decisions about spending cuts into 2013 – in a Capitol where lawmakers grumbled about the likelihood of spending the new year holiday working.

In a brief appearance in the White House briefing room, Obama referred to “dysfunction in Washington,” and said the American public is “not going to have any patience for a politically self-inflicted wound to our economy. Not right now.”

If there is no compromise, he said he expects Reid to put legislation on the floor to prevent tax increases on the middle class and extend unemployment benefits – an implicit challenge to Republicans to dare to vote against what polls show is popular.

The president also booked a highly unusual appearance on Meet the Press for Sunday, yet another indication of his determination to retain the political high ground that came with his re-election.

The guest list for the White House meeting included Reid, McConnell, Boehner and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

The same group last met more than a month ago and emerged expressing optimism they could strike a deal that avoided the fiscal cliff. At that point, Boehner had already said he was willing to let tax revenues rise as part of an agreement, and the president and his Democratic allies said they were ready to accept spending cuts.

Since then, though, talks between Obama and Boehner faltered, the speaker struggled to control his rebellious rank and file, and Reid and McConnell sparred almost daily in speeches on the Senate floor. Through it all, Wall Street has paid close attention, and the meeting was still going on at the White House when stocks closed lower for the fifth day in a row.

The core issue is the same as it has been for more than a year, Obama’s demand for tax rates to rise on upper incomes while remaining at current levels for most Americans. He made the proposal central to his successful campaign for re-election, when he said incomes above $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples should rise to 39.6 percent from the current 35 percent.

Boehner refused for weeks to accept any rate increases, and simultaneously accused Obama of skimping on the spending cuts he would support as part of a balanced deal to reduce deficits, remove the threat of spending cuts and prevent the across-the-board tax cuts.

Last week, the Ohio Republican pivoted and presented a Plan B measure that would have let rates rise on million-dollar earners. That was well above Obama’s latest offer, which called for a $400,000 threshold, but more than the speaker’s rank and file were willing to accept.

Facing defeat, Boehner scrapped plans for a vote, leaving the economy on track for the cliff that political leaders in both parties had said they could avoid. In the aftermath, Democrats said they doubted any compromise was possible until Boehner has been elected to a second term as speaker when the new Congress convenes on Jan. 3.

Further compounding the year-end maneuvering, there are warnings that the price of milk could virtually double beginning next year.

Congressional officials said that under current law, the federal government is obligated to maintain prices so that fluid milk sells for about $20 per hundredweight. If the law lapses, the Department of Agriculture would be required to maintain a price closer to $36 of $38 per hundredweight, they said. It is unclear when price increases might be felt by consumers.

(Associated Press writers Alan Fram and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.)

Jackson Williams.