If President Obama and congressional Democrats are going to make headway on the gun violence proposals Vice President Joe Biden is set to deliver to the president on Tuesday, their strategy will probably look a lot like gun-owning Rep. Mike Thompson – and move with the energy and purpose of political cage fighter Rahm Emanuel.
“Federal law prohibits me from having more than three shells in my shotgun,” Thompson said Monday at the liberal Center for American Progress (CAP). “So federal law provides more protection for the ducks than it does” for people, he said, referring to ammunition magazines that can hold 30 or more bullets.
Thompson, chairman of a Democratic committee charged with making recommendations for new “gun violence prevention” measures (Democrats want no part of being pro-“gun control”), is emblematic of the central plank of Democrats’ strategic approach to gun control: put on a friendly face.
Both Thompson and Mr. Biden, the leader of the president’s own task force, are lifelong gun owners who are quick to point out that no, the federal government is absolutely not coming to seize your arms.
“We’re on a little different footing than ever before on this subject,” said Thompson, referring to a 2008 US Supreme Court’s ruling affirming Americans’ ability to possess guns. “American citizens have a right to own firearms. So the idea that one side believes that we should take all the guns, it’s not part of the discussion. And the other side thinks we are trying to get all the guns, that’s not either.”
But a genteel sales pitch will get you only so far.
That’s where Chicago Mayor Emanuel, Mr. Obama’s former White House chief of staff, comes in. Emanuel is a legislative veteran, the point man for President Bill Clinton’s successful gun legislation in the mid-1990s and the man who put the kibosh on a potential battle over guns in Obama’s first term.
This time around, Emanuel, who spoke at CAP with Thompson, says Democrats need to take a half-dozen discrete steps to succeed.
First, they need to frame the changes they seek – whether background checks on all gun sales or a limit on the sale of assault weapons – as “all about criminal access” to firearms, Emanuel said Monday. “It’s not about gun control; it’s about criminal access to guns. That changes the debate.”
Next, Democrats need to take a page out of Mr. Clinton’s playbook and keep “the police chief and the law enforcement community front and center.” Highlighting law enforcement support for the plan, as Clinton did in 1994, helped remove the issue from the partisan terrain of gun rights versus gun control and placed it into an argument about policy and community safety.
Third, Emanuel emphasized that Democrats should make sure Americans get a good look at assault weapons and their associated bullet magazines, restrictions on which are likely to be the most controversial piece of the White House’s policy recommendations.
There’s “a difference between the magazine that holds 10 [bullets] and magazine that holds 20 or 30,” Emanuel said. And there’s “a lot of different type of damage done” with the latter.
Then, Emanuel’s puzzle involves Democrats sticking up for one another come election season: They need to be willing to go to the wall for members in districts with more difficult gun politics.
“If the person is going to take the vote,” he said, reflecting on Democratic losses in the 1994 congressional elections that many attribute to voting for the president’s assault weapons ban, “don’t walk away from them come the political season.”
Moreover, the president would be wise to act on smaller but still controversial issues through executive order when possible, Emanuel advised. Obama has said he will weigh which issues could be handled through executive decisionmaking, a prospect that has infuriated congressional Republicans who believe the president too-frequently sidesteps Capitol Hill’s authority.
“Push the limit on [executive action],” Emanuel said. “Clear the table, man. Don’t allow a side issue to derail these things. [The eventual legislation] is going to be perilous enough.”
With that strategy in place, Democrats should put Republicans into a position similar to that of the fiscal cliff fight: a Senate-passed bill on their doorstep and the president using his political moxie to turn up the heat.
“Get it done [in the Senate] and then clear the decks and put the ultimate pressure on the House,” Emanuel said. “Put the burner up.”
Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled Tuesday to give his recommendations to President Obama on how to help alleviate gun violence in the United States.
While Mr. Obama promised at his press conference on Monday to present the details of Mr. Biden’s recommendations later this week, here are the top five proposals from liberal interest groups (The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the Center for American Progress) and lawmakers closely aligned with the White House that shed light on what the Obama administration may push for at the outset of his second term.
1. Universal background checks
This first proposal is one that Democrats believe has widespread support, even among Republican lawmakers: If you buy a gun, no matter who it’s from, you have to pass a background check.
Currently, private sellers make up about 40 percent of weapon transfers in the US every year. What’s known in some places as the “gun show loophole” means that those barred from buying guns by other statutes can effectively circumvent those laws by obtaining a weapon from a private weapons dealer.
“When you’ve got 40 percent of the guns that are going out [not receiving background checks], that’s not a loophole. That’s an exception,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, said at an event Monday at the liberal Center for American Progress (CAP). “Shutting that exemption... is essential.”
This recommendation requires strong legislative language to require states to contribute information toward national databases used for assessing whether an individual should be allowed to purchase a weapon. At present, 10 states have submitted a grand total of zero names to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and 18 other states have submitted fewer than 100, according to CAP.
2. Restrict the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines
If background checks enjoy the most consensus, what to do about restricting access to assault weapons is perhaps the most controversial.
The Brady Campaign, one of the most outspoken advocates for increased gun control, gives only a single broad sentence to the subject in its policy recommendations: “Limit the availability of military-style weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines that are designed for mass killing.”
But others have been a bit more specific at reviving a policy created under President Bill Clinton but allowed to lapse under President George W. Bush.
CAP endorsed a proposal by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California that would halt the “sale, transfer, importation and manufacturing of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition feeding devices.” In other words, it would freeze ownership of weapons like that used in the Newtown, Conn., massacre at its current level. Feinstein and other Democratic Senators plan to introduce legislation to this effect early in the new session of Congress.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D) of Connecticut told reporters on Monday that she was introducing legislation to offer a $1,000, refundable tax credit for each of the next two years to encourage owners of assault weapons to turn them in to local authorities.
But reducing access to guns of any kind raises the hackles of conservative groups like the National Rifle Association, whose head vowed over the weekend that liberals simply don’t have the votes for such an assault weapons restriction.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, a freshman, told PBS’ Judy Woodruff that he would fight any such legislation.
“I intend to help lead the fight to stop Senator Dianne Feinstein's bill to pass aggressive gun control,” Senator Cruz said last week. “It's misguided policy. If you look at the jurisdictions with the strictest gun control laws, almost without exception, they have the highest crime rates and the highest murder rates. If you look at the jurisdictions that most vigorously protect our right to keep and bear arms, almost without exception, they have the lowest crime rates and the lowest murder rates.”
3. Get better gun data
In addition to making sure dangerous or violent Americans can’t get their hands on weapons, and potentially limiting access to assault weapons, the next most frequent complaint is about a simple thing: information.
Liberal lawmakers say the gun lobby’s innate fear of the federal government collecting data about guns or gun users manifests itself in restrictions on research into weapons and their impact on society.
Among the restrictions Democrats would like to strike down are limits on the use of so-called “trace data,” which show the initial sale of a weapon, and requirements that federal agencies destroy completed background checks within a day, saying the checks would allow authorities to pinpoint “straw purchasers” who help criminals circumvent gun laws.
Democrats would also like to allow the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health free reign to study public health and safety issues relating to firearms.
Regarding the CDC and NIH, there is “nothing legally that says you can’t collect this data, but [fear of losing funding] has over these years had a very chilling effect” on investigation of the subject, said Representative DeLauro said. “These agencies are limited in the funding that they receive, so if they’re going to be engaged in something that’s controversial that’s [potentially] going to lead to precluding resources and funds that they may have, they may not want to move in that direction.”
4. Put ATF under jurisdiction of the FBI
Perhaps the structure of government is impeding the ability of federal agents to pursue violent criminals and gun crimes. CAP proposes moving the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) – which has gone without a permanent head for over two years as Republicans and the NRA criticize the potential director as insufficiently pro-gun – under the FBI.
“For reasons such as lack of funding, limitations on its activities including in appropriations riders, and a leadership vacuum,” CAP’s recommendations read, “the bureau is simply incapable of functioning properly as a standalone agency in its current state.”
Many groups have pointed out that the ATF has been prevented from creating a digital database of gun records, which gun advocates have decried as a breach of privacy and a stepping stone toward the confiscation of guns. Instead, the bureau makes due with an antiquated paper system.
5. Emphasize prosecutions of gun violations
Liberals want gun violations to be a serious enforcement priority for federal prosecutors around the country and advocate elevating gun trafficking to a federal crime.
“The absence of any federal law defining gun trafficking in this country is shocking,” wrote Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York in a recent op-ed about her legislation that would raise gun trafficking to the level of federal prosecution. “We have thousands of laws, but effectively none of them are directly focused on preventing someone from Virginia from driving to New York City, parking their car in a parking lot, and selling hundreds of firearms out of the back of their trunk to criminals.”
Such legislation would impose harsher penalties on not only the recipients of trafficked weapons but on buyers and gun dealers who don’t comply with federal laws. Without legislation, however, liberals believe that instructing district attorneys to emphasize gun prosecutions would help prevent violence in the future.
6. What isn’t included?
What’s yet to be seen are concrete proposals from the two liberal groups on two frequently mentioned areas of concern: how to improve access to mental health care or deal with what those on both the left and right agree is a dangerous cultural fascination with violence as exemplified by violent movies and videogames. As part of his assignment to draw up recommendations on gun violence, Biden convened meetings with both health professionals and members of the entertainment industry.
CAP offered no proposals to address either issue. The Brady Campaign only submitted a single broad thought on the matter: “We should provide legal mechanisms to prevent those dangerously mentally ill who present the most significant risk from possessing guns, while carefully protecting the rights of those who are mentally ill but do not pose a risk.”
DeLauro said that the mental health component had a simple solution: money.
Without funding for state or national efforts to provide greater access to mental health-care, DeLauro said, all the talk will be just that – talk.
“It has been a struggle every single year to increase the funding,” for federal agencies overseeing mental health, said DeLauro, a member of the House appropriations subcommittee, which oversees such spending. “If you’re not going to provide the resources ... you can say that we’re going to focus in these areas, but without the resources it is hollow.”
President Obama has not budged from his stark line in the sand: When it comes to the debt ceiling, he will not negotiate. Period.
In a press conference Monday, he reiterated this position, stating: "Republicans in Congress have two choices here. They can act responsibly and pay America's bills. Or they can act irresponsibly and put America through another economic crisis. But they will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy."
Mr. Obama made clear – as he did during the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis – that raising the debt ceiling "does not authorize more spending; it simply allows the country to pay for spending that Congress has already committed to." The difference this time around, however, is that while Obama says he's ready to have a "vigorous debate" on debt reduction, he also says that debate must be separate from Congress taking action on the debt ceiling. And if Republicans decide to block such an action, the consequences will be all on them.
The problem, of course, is that Republicans are taking an equally firm stand. House Speaker John Boehner has vowed to raise the debt ceiling – which could hit its limit as early as mid-February – only if he gets dollar-for-dollar spending cuts. Mr. Boehner reiterated this position in a statement released after the president's press conference, which read: “The American people do not support raising the debt ceiling without reducing government spending at the same time. The consequences of failing to increase the debt ceiling are real, but so too are the consequences of allowing our spending problem to go unresolved.”
No one knows how this crisis will unfold, of course, but here's our best guess: Republicans will eventually blink.
In fact, we believe Obama pretty much secured this outcome from the moment he declared that he simply would not negotiate on the matter.
True, it's a potentially risky position to take – since, if Republicans don't back down, the president will either have to go back on his pledge or allow what he himself has described as a catastrophic economic event to take place.
And it is, of course, a far less conciliatory approach than the one the president took back in 2011. That time around, Obama was already in the middle of a tough reelection campaign, and the economy was more fragile. He couldn't risk even appearing willing to risk a default. As a result, Obama and Boehner spent months trying to work out a "grand bargain" on deficit reduction, which ultimately imploded.
But the president has clearly learned some lessons from the whole ugly episode – which resulted in a credit downgrade for the United States – and the follow-up "fiscal cliff" negotiations that took place last month. One is that a grand bargain may simply be impossible right now, given the divisions between the parties. While that doesn't mean those negotiations should be shelved, it doesn't necessarily make sense to keep tying them to economic deadlines that create crises.
The other is that, while these self-created crises have been politically damaging to both sides, they have been far worse for the GOP. A Washington Post poll taken right after the 2011 debt-ceiling debacle found, for example, that while 67 percent of Americans said they had little or no confidence in Obama when it came to making the right decisions for the country's economic future, an astonishing 81 percent had little or no confidence in congressional Republicans.
Current polling suggests that Americans are already inclined to blame Republicans more than Democrats for whatever happens with this latest debt-ceiling fight. And on the heels of a reelection victory in which Obama's economic vision received public validation, the president appears to be betting that, for all their bluster, Republicans won't in the end be willing to risk an actual default. The economic and political consequences of a default could be devastating.
That hasn't stopped GOP members from hitting the airwaves and publicly threatening to shut down the government by refusing to raise the debt ceiling. On Monday, Politico reported that "more than half" of Republicans are currently prepared to allow default, with Republican leaders warning privately that the White House "doesn't understand how hard it will be to talk restive conservatives off the fiscal ledge."
But in many ways, it all feels like a big bluff. Tellingly, the GOP leadership isn't out there advocating default – and many prominent Republicans have said they think it would be a mistake. The business community – including typical GOP allies like the Chamber of Commerce – is strongly opposed.
As Slate's William Saletan wrote last week, parsing statements by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell about the "leverage" his party holds: "That isn’t how you talk when you have leverage. It’s how you talk when you know your leverage is fake. Republicans don't have enough members willing to tank our credit rating or shut down the government. They know it would be too painful."
The other point to keep in mind about all this is that the debt ceiling isn't the only card Republicans have to play. There is still the package of $1.2 trillion in spending cuts, known as the sequester, scheduled to hit in coming months, as well as the need to reauthorize the stopgap spending measure currently funding the government. The latter could offer Republicans another opportunity to shut down the government, as they've been threatening, without risking a credit default and the potential meltdown of the global economy.
And perhaps that's the real motive behind all these Republican debt-ceiling threats. In comparison to the prospect of default on the debt, a more straightforward government shutdown, à la 1995, seems practically tame.
First, Mr. Doocy went through a buildup in which he asserted that both “Argo,” a movie about US diplomats escaping from Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis, and “Zero Dark Thirty,” a film about the US hunt for Osama bin Laden, got more love from the Golden Globes than from the Academy Awards. The directors of both these movies were nominated for Golden Globes, he pointed out. (That would be Ben Affleck for “Argo” and Kathryn Bigelow for “Zero Dark Thirty.” Mr. Affleck won.) Yet neither got a nod in that category from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
“Do you think both of those movies are being punished by Oscar because they’re pro-American movies?” Doocy inquired of The Donald, who often appears on the “Fox & Friends” show.
Without hesitation, Mr. Trump shot this theory down. “I don’t think so,” he said. Then he went on to praise NBC for how much it has built up the Golden Globe franchise over the years. (Is it a coincidence that Trump’s own “Celebrity Apprentice” appears on that network? You be the judge.)
Anyway, we’d say that this is one mark for rationality: Both “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” have won an Academy Award Best Picture nomination, after all.
But it’s true that this year, politics is swirling around the film awards season like never before. Look at who appeared as a surprise presenter on the Golden Globe telecast – Bill Clinton.
The 42nd president of the United States introduced a clip of Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln,” which depicts the push to abolish slavery through enactment of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution.
“A tough fight to push a bill through a bitterly divided House of Representatives,” Mr. Clinton said in his introduction. “Winning it required the president to make a lot of unsavory deals that had nothing to do with the big issue.”
Then, he paused just a bit before adding, “I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
Was his appearance a subtle pro-Democrat move? Well, unlike Abraham Lincoln, Clinton isn’t a Republican, last we looked. True, he talked about the need for “principle and compromise” to make enduring progress in governing America, which is a suitably bipartisan sentiment. But if the show’s producers had wanted to say “let’s all come together,” they could have had George W. Bush up on stage with him.
Corporate America’s top lobbyist Thursday laid out a slew of the business community’s top goals for the year – lower regulation, increased trade, booming energy production, and a fix to the nation’s fiscal situation.
But US Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue was particularly bullish, and at times passionate, on another long-sought goal, one not often associated with the conservative-leaning group: immigration reform.
“I have an optimistic feeling about this,” Mr. Donohue told reporters after his annual State of American Business speech. “Before, everybody talked about it, everybody understood the issues, but there wasn’t an energy behind it and I think there is a bipartisan group of people – we haven’t got everybody, that’s for sure – but I feel positive about it and look forward to [immigration reform] this year.”
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The Chamber has been a firm advocate for immigration reform, an issue more closely identified with liberal advocates, for many years, including its support for 2006 legislation that stalled in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Donohue said his conversations with lawmakers from both parties on Capitol Hill make him optimistic for a solution in 2013. He also noted that the Chamber is working with groups ranging from faith organizations to law enforcement to labor unions including the nation’s largest – and staunchly progressive – labor group, the AFL-CIO, to forge a broad political coalition to support an immigration reform effort.
“We will find a balance in these issues,” Donohue said, before calling AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka, a man with whom Donohue is working personally, “about the best guy in town at building coalitions.”
On Capitol Hill, Donohue’s efforts will support legislative work by bipartisan groups in both the House and Senate currently discussing immigration reform proposals. President Obama, too, has vowed to make immigration reform a top legislative priority in 2013.
Bringing a wide range of interest groups on board an immigration reform push is key, Donohue acknowledged, because immigration reform’s many politically explosive questions – What to do with undocumented immigrants? How to secure America’s borders? What about American unemployment? – could be disastrous for lawmakers.
“These are very passionate issues,” Donohue said. “People worry about what the folks back home think, and you can demagogue this issue very easily.”
Donohue’s speech offered only the broad outlines of an immigration reform plan. The Chamber favors strict border security measures and workplace systems to verify immigration status, “thoughtfully designed” guest worker programs for both low- and high-skilled workers, more green cards for international students at American universities, and “a path out of the shadows for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who live in the United States today, provided that they meet strict conditions.”
Donohue put special emphasis on the need to reform the immigration system despite persistent unemployment among existing Americans.
“Even with high unemployment, we have millions of job openings that go unfilled. Either the workers come here to fill those jobs,” Donohue said, “or the companies take all of their jobs somewhere else.”
He noted that the Chamber and the business community at large are fighting for better job training and education reforms, but that even so, “we still need immigrants. We are locked in a competition for the world’s best talent. This is the competition that will separate the economic leaders from the laggards in the 21st century.”
And he warned that America would do well to remember its heritage when thinking through how to change its immigration system.
“As we have this important debate,” Donohue said, “let’s remember who we are and where our families would be today if earlier generations of Americans had decided to slam the door shut.”
“The door to the American dream,” he continued, “must always remain open.”
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This week, he's heading up the gun-control talks at the White House, bringing all parties to the table and, in typical Biden fashion, making news with his declaration Wednesday that the president would consider using executive orders to make something happen.
The vice president also proved pivotal in the recent "fiscal cliff" negotiations, almost single-handedly sealing a deal with Republicans at the 11th hour. As Major Garrett writes in National Journal this week, Mr. Biden "made or took 13 calls from Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky during the weekend that most cliff issues were resolved." He added, "Can anyone imagine President Obama calling anyone about anything 13 times?" It was a reprising of the dealmaking role that Biden played in 2011's debt-ceiling negotiations.
Mr. Garrett pointedly calls Biden a "closer" – the only one the administration has. Notably, Ezra Klein uses the same term in his Bloomberg column this week, in which, like Garrett, he describes Biden as an underrated legislator and politician, "the White House closer, the guy who can cut a deal with the Republicans after everyone else has failed."
Mr. Klein goes on to note that Biden's off-the-cuff remarks often provide "comic relief" – and, as a result, his presidential ambitions have been mostly "laughed off." But in fact, the prospect of a Biden 2016 campaign is something we should take quite seriously.
That's a far cry from the general consensus among the chattering classes not too long ago, when most Democratic insiders were tending to play down, if not completely write off, Biden's chances. And it may still be a bit optimistic.
As U.S. News & World Report's Ken Walsh writes: "Americans in recent years have mostly elected Washington outsiders or fresh faces to the presidency, such as Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. Being a Washington insider such as Biden no longer has much appeal in either major party."
But the recent health scare and hospitalization of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who's been widely regarded as the Democratic front-runner should she decide to enter the fray (though she's hardly a fresh face, either) has added a touch more uncertainty to the 2016 field. If Mrs. Clinton decides in the end not to run, then it becomes a wide-open race – with Biden's chances to win the nomination as good or better than anyone else's.
And it's possible that Biden's old-school, backslapping style of politicking may be coming back in vogue – in part because it stands as such a sharp contrast to what has become the chief criticism of his boss: the widespread lament, even from many Democrats, that Mr. Obama is too "aloof," "condescending," and generally too above-it-all to dirty his hands in the Washington mud pit.
That's why the image of Biden as a "closer" is a shrewd one for the veep's aides to circulate now – since it speaks to the general longing for Washington to get things done. Their guy may not be the flashy starting pitcher, as the analogy goes, but he's the one who ultimately wins the game.
It's true that Americans don't like the way Beltway politics are played. But electing someone who's reluctant to join the game can lead to nothing happening at all. With Washington gridlock seeming more and more intractable – even as the challenges facing the nation become more and more pressing – an old-fashioned dealmaker in chief like Biden may seem like just what the country needs.
Amid all the controversy over President Obama's cabinet picks, it's been hard not to notice that the face of Republican opposition has lately seemed to be embodied more and more by one man in particular: South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Senator Graham has been one of the administration's most vocal critics on the Benghazi matter, helping torpedo UN Ambassador Susan Rice's chances to become secretary of State as a near-ubiquitous presence on cable news and the Sunday shows. Just this week, he suggested he might place a hold on the nomination of John Brennan for CIA director until the administration stops what he calls its "stonewalling" on the matter.
Graham is also among those leading the charge against the nomination of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel for Defense secretary, calling it an "in your face" pick, and "incredibly controversial." He reluctantly voted for the recent "fiscal cliff" deal, but has vowed to oppose raising the debt ceiling next month unless Congress agrees to significant entitlement reforms. He says he will oppose any efforts to pass a new assault-weapons ban.
None of this would be particularly eyebrow-raising – except that in many ways it's a sharp change of direction for Graham. Like his closest Senate ally, Arizona Sen. John McCain, Graham was until fairly recently most often seen as one of those "independent" Republicans who could give his own party more trouble than the opposition. As recently as 2010, a profile in The New York Times magazine described Graham as "contentedly discussing the various fellow South Carolina conservatives who dislike him – Tea Partiers, Constitutionalists, immigration hardliners," and noted that he had apparently logged more White House visits than any other Republican senator (other than, perhaps, Maine's Susan Collins).
Back then, Graham was known for working with Democrats on issues like comprehensive immigration reform and climate change. He voted for both of President Obama's Supreme Court picks, and has been a proponent of closing Guantánamo Bay.
He also received the lowest rating of all Republican senators from the anti-tax Club for Growth – whose president, Chris Chocola, suggested at a Monitor breakfast in September that they may support a primary challenge against Graham when he goes up for reelection in 2014.
Which may help explain Graham's recent morphing into the Obama administration's antagonist in chief. If anything, Graham seems to be taking a page out of the playbook of Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who was initially a top target for tea party groups in 2012, but wound up winning reelection easily after a full-court press to win back support from the right.
Last month, political scientist Jordan Ragusa of the College of Charleston charted Graham's move to the right during his time in the Senate on the blog Rule22, writing: "I suspect this movement is especially pronounced in the current Senate (we don’t have the data yet) and will only accelerate in the coming 113th." He added: "the reality is that Graham has carefully prepared for a conservative challenge in 2014."
And so far, it seems to be working. A Public Policy Polling survey last month found that Graham had significantly improved his standing among Republican voters in South Carolina, going from just 37 percent saying they'd support him in a primary back in 2011 to 66 percent saying they'd support him now.
It may be a cheap shot. But we couldn't resist commenting on the latest Public Policy Polling survey measuring just how deeply, down-there-with-sewer-rats-and-root-canals unpopular Congress is these days with the American people.
To wit: When given the opportunity to choose which they held in higher regard, voters actually picked all of the following over Congress:
Used car salesmen
NFL replacement refs
As the PPP press release commented: "It's gross to have lice, but at least they can be removed in a way that, given the recent reelection rates, members of Congress evidently can't." For the record, lice were favored over Congress by 67 to 19 percent.
Sure, it's a funny poll. And in lawmakers' defense, they actually did score higher than the Kardashians, playground bullies, North Korea, and Gonorrhea. (Although in a way, those results simply validate the overall poll – showing that respondents actually gave their rankings some thought, rather than simply giving Congress the lowest possible rating to make a point.)
But we also find it a little disturbing that Congress is now so widely seen as a laughingstock or worse. Congressional approval ratings have been at historic lows for some time now, and Congress-bashing has become a national pastime. The sentiment stems from a number of trends –including a growing lack of trust in institutions in general. But above all, it's a clear reflection of the public's frustration with legislators' inability to come together and resolve the nation's most pressing fiscal problems.
It's worth noting that a significantly less funny version of the PPP poll also came out this week. On Monday, Gallup released a survey showing that 77 percent of Americans believe that the way politics works in Washington is causing "serious harm" to the nation. Let's repeat that: In the eyes of most Americans, Congress is not just inept, but is causing serious harm. And the sentiment was pretty bipartisan, including 87 percent of Republicans, 79 percent of independents, and 68 percent of Democrats.
As Gallup noted, those numbers track pretty closely with the current, paltry 18-percent job approval rating for Congress. Likewise, confidence in Congress as an institution is down to a pathetic 13 percent.
Maybe it's the mom in us, but we've come to learn that expectations matter. If the public wants their representatives to make tough decisions, they have to have some confidence that they can do it.
Perhaps more to the point, they have to want them to do it – and there's the rub, since there is also plenty of evidence to suggest that in fact, voters may not really want Congress step up to the plate when it comes to tough budget decisions. Sure, they say they want lawmakers to reduce the debt. But poll after poll shows there's very little public support for most of the specific, painful spending cuts and/or higher taxes that would have to happen to really get the nation's fiscal house in order.
As a McClatchy-Marist poll last month documented, voters by wide margins were opposed to: cutting spending on Medicare, raising the Medicare eligibility age, cutting spending on Medicaid, eliminating the home mortgage tax deduction, or eliminating the charitable contribution deduction. When voters are sending such mixed signals, is it any wonder that Congress winds up stalemated?
It's easy for the public to make members of Congress the bad guys. But we wonder if all this ridicule – along with the cynical expectation that lawmakers will probably fail to resolve the really serious budget issues they face – doesn't on some level just let Congress off the hook? Until Americans are really willing to back the kinds of decisions they say they want Congress to make – well, the joke's on us.
With one short-term deal to avert the fiscal cliff behind them, Republicans have already moved on to Round Two, and are making it clear that this time, they believe they have a lot more leverage – including the threat of a government shutdown.
Yes, you heard us correctly. The same party that shut down the federal government twice back in 1995 – only to suffer a massive public backlash, paving the way for a sweeping reelection victory for President Bill Clinton – is now openly suggesting that they'd walk that same plank again. In fact, listening to the rhetoric coming from many GOP members recently, it's sounding like a possibility they'd not only accept, but would actually embrace.
To give just one example: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a tea party favorite, told CNBC last week: "I think we have to be prepared to go so far as to shut the government down if we don’t get some serious policies to stop the out-of-control spending, to tackle the debt, and to get economic growth."
There's been some interesting revisionism of late when it comes to the 1995 shutdowns. Republicans have been suggesting that those episodes, far from being a political disaster for their party, were actually positive, because they pushed President Clinton to embrace smaller government and led to the eventual accomplishment of things like a balanced budget and welfare reform.
On NBC's "Meet The Press" on Sunday, former shutdown-architect Newt Gingrich himself made the case that the events of 1995 could provide a good model for action today, saying: "I helped close the government twice. It actually worked. Bill Clinton came in and said 'the era of big government is over' after two closures, not before."
That view was echoed by Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon, who was in the House for the 1995 shutdowns, and said on CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday that they "actually gave us the impetus, as we went forward, to push toward some real serious compromise." When asked if he thought a shutdown now would be a good idea, Salmon said, "Yes, I do."
Now, not surprisingly, the Republican leadership in Congress has been far more circumspect on this point. On "Meet The Press," Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell repeatedly dodged the question when asked if he would "rule out" a government shutdown.
And even many of those suggesting that a shutdown may be necessary seem to be deliberately tempering their language, making it clear it would only be a "partial" or "temporary" measure.
Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania told MSNBC last week that his party should be prepared to "tolerate a temporary, partial government shutdown." And Texas Sen. John Cornyn wrote in an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle: "It may be necessary to partially shut down the government in order to secure the long-term fiscal well being of our country, rather than plod along the path of Greece, Italy, and Spain."
Republicans are also not making it clear how, exactly, they'd choose to pursue such a "partial," "temporary" government shutdown. In coming months, Congress will face three separate fiscal deadlines: the debt-ceiling limit, the postponed spending cuts known as the sequester, and the expiration of the stopgap measure currently funding the federal government.
Some have suggested they might use the debt-ceiling fight to force a shutdown – Senator Cruz, for example, told radio host Mark Levin: "What would happen if the debt ceiling isn’t raised is it would be a partial government shutdown. We’ve seen this before, we saw this in 1995, when Republicans in the House shut down the government. What happened was it was a partial shutdown, there was some political cost to be paid, but at the end of the day, because Republicans stood strong in 1995, we saw year after year of balanced budgets and some of the most fiscally-responsible policies Congress has produced in the modern era. If we hold strong we can do that again."
But as Slate's Matthew Yglasias pointed out last week, shutting down the government by refusing to raise the debt ceiling is a far cry from previous government shutdowns. He writes: "If the debt ceiling isn't raised, the Treasury won't have the money to pay the bills it has to pay. The result won't be a "shutdown" of government functions; it'll be a deadbeat federal government. Some people won't get money they're legally entitled to."
On the other hand, shutting down the government by failing to agree on new appropriations would be more like 1995. But according to some reports, it's also the least likely outcome. The Hill's Erik Wasson calls the behind-the-scenes talks over the spending bills a rare "bright spot" in an otherwise "gloomy congressional outlook," and quotes several members as saying that those negotiations – which have been quietly underway for months – have already been largely worked out.
How often does the US Senate reject presidential cabinet nominations? That question comes up because President Obama on Monday announced two somewhat controversial picks for top executive-branch posts.
Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel, a maverick former GOP senator from Nebraska, will face tough questions over his positions on Israel and Iran during confirmation proceedings. Mr. Obama’s choice to head the Central Intelligence Agency, current counterterrorism adviser and former CIA official John Brennan, will be grilled by some senators over the agency’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques during his tenure.
It’s certainly possible that one or both of these nominations could stall on Capitol Hill. Mr. Hagel, in particular, looks headed for a tough fight. But both nominees can take some comfort in historical numbers. Traditionally, the Senate gives presidents more leeway on executive-branch appointments than it does on Supreme Court picks, on the theory that they are not lifetime appointments and that the president needs to work with people he can trust. Senators block cabinet nominees about 2 percent of the time.
Since World War II, the Senate has actually voted down only two such picks, according to the Senate Historical Office.
The first of these was President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1959 choice to lead the Department of Commerce, Lewis Strauss. A former admiral, Strauss had accumulated many enemies as the outspoken head of the Atomic Energy Commission. His confirmation hearing did not go well, as he gave what some senators considered evasive answers while demanding to cross-examine hostile witnesses. In addition, Democrats had made big gains in both House and Senate in the 1958 mid-term elections, and held a 64-to-34 Senate majority.
“Appearing to question the Senate’s constitutional prerogatives, the imperious Strauss personified the worst elements of executive-branch domination at precisely the time that the Senate sought to cast off such control and had acquired the Democratic majorities to do so,” writes the Senate Historical Office.
The second Senate nomination-vote loser was Sen. John Tower (R) of Texas, who was nominated as secretary of Defense by President George H.W. Bush in 1989. A recognized defense expert and one of the Senate’s own, Senator Tower at first seemed a safe choice. But allegations of alcohol abuse, plus questions about his role as a consultant to defense contractors, sank his bid following a contentious debate.
“The rejection of Tower’s nomination was surprising because the Senate allows presidents great latitude in selecting top-level members of their administrations,” writes James King, chairman of the University of Wyoming political science department, in a study of the Senate nomination process.
Of course, it’s more common for nominees to withdraw their names from consideration than it is for them to go down in flaming defeat on the Senate floor. Since 1993, six cabinet nominees have faced reality and pulled out rather than suffer a Senate rejection.
Zoe Baird ended her bid to serve as President Clinton’s attorney general in 1993 due to controversy over her hiring of illegal immigrants to serve as a chauffeur and nanny to her children. Linda Chavez was picked by President George W. Bush in 2001 to serve as Labor Secretary, but withdrew after reports that she had also paid an illegal immigrant to perform household chores. Former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle withdrew his name from consideration as Obama’s secretary of Health and Human Services due to charges of conflict of interest and tax evasion.
Both Hagel and Mr. Brennan are probably well aware that, given the contentious state of modern US politics, even winning cabinet nominees now suffer bruises along the way. Whereas the Senate once generally opposed nominees only for nonpolicy reasons, now nomination hearings are yet another forum in which to argue over matters of state.
“The appointments process has become a policy battleground in recent times. Senators may oppose a candidate because they disagree with the policy preferences of the candidate,” writes Wyoming’s Dr. King.