This Week From the Hill: Snowquester Fizzles, but Will Minimum Wage Rise?

BY Allie Morris and Simone Pathe  March 8, 2013 at 3:21 PM EST

Six inches of snow was predicted to accumulate in Washington Wednesday, but it turned out to be more drizzle than powder on the steps of the Capitol. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The political team took a look at the week that was on Capitol Hill. Got a tidbit? Email Allie Morris at amorris@newshour.org.

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Snowquester Fizzles

​Not even an inch of snow that was expected to accumulate on Capitol Hill did on Wednesday. But beneath the dome, flames roared in the fireplaces off the Speaker’s Lobby, as members of Congress made their cases on the House floor for or against a continuing resolution to keep the government funded. The blaze is perhaps one reason rhetoric stayed heated as the House passed the bill 267-151 to fund the government through September and to give the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs wiggle room to manage their mandatory budget cuts. Now the legislation heads to the Senate, where Democrats are expected to add more exceptions to the mandated sequester cuts.


​Democratic Process At Work

​Sen. Rand Paul’s nearly 13-hour filibuster​ stalled a vote on President Barack Obama’s nominee for CIA Director John Brennan and called attention to the administration’s controversial drone program. It also drew the attention of friends and foes alike to just how long the Kentucky Republican could stand without hitting the bathroom. Throughout the filibuster, ​the junior senator was joined by 10 of his colleagues, some of whom brought him food and drink.

​”It’s a question of the extent that his bladder can hold out,” Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. told reporters in the hallway outside the Senate Chamber during the filibuster.

​”This is the part of government for someone who believes strongly, I want [them] to express their opinion, I support that right,” Nelson said. “But when you have ideology that gets in the way of the functioning of government because it becomes so extreme … you can’t govern the country if you can’t bring people together, and this is what we are seeing now.”

​The filibuster may have put a damper on the Senate’s plan of action for the day, but all the while tour groups continued to filter in and out of the Senate Gallery to watch the day’s proceedings.

​Charlotte Thompson, a resident of Jamaica Plain, Mass., was visiting the Capitol with a group of teenagers. “I enjoyed seeing the process, but it’s hard for me to listen to some of the questions that are posed because they keep repeating the same things non-stop,” Thompson told PBS NewsHour. “So I think it’s just stalling tactics honestly.”


​D.C., Puerto Rico Battle for Attention

​Last fall, 51 percent of Puerto Ricans rejected their current territory status on a referendum vote and 61 percent chose statehood as an alternative.

​Flash forward to Tuesday, when Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi announced at a press conference outside the Capitol that a pro-statehood advocacy group joining him at the event would visit some 150 congressional offices between Tuesday and Thursday, raising awareness of that vote in Puerto Rico. Pierluisi also said he would introduce legislation in Congress by mid-May on the issue of Puerto Rico’s status. “This should be viewed as an issue of fairness, an issue of democracy. I have to believe both Republicans and Democrats believe in that principle,” he said.

​Pierluisi says the key to the legislation is bipartisan support. “Once you have bipartisan support it will get traction because this has no fiscal impact,” he told the NewsHour. “You are talking about a vote in Puerto Rico on status options offered by Congress, it could be simply statehood, but it could also be statehood, free association and independence. The only option Congress shouldn’t be offering is the current status, territorial status, because the people just rejected it in a fair and democratic vote.”

​At the same time, Washington, D.C., residents, tired of Congress holding power over the city’s budget, are fighting for budget autonomy. The issue goes before the city’s voters for the first time on April 23.

​Congress has to approve D.C.’s budget, and local leaders have long argued it’s not fair for Congress to call the shots on how local tax dollars are spent.

​DC Vote, a local nonprofit fighting for budget autonomy, packed a local bar with supporters Wednesday for their fundraising kickoff. Group spokesman James Jones told the NewsHour Washington residents are riled up over this issue.

​”A Congress that has proven itself incompetent on budget matters is telling us, a city that has balanced its budget for 12 years and is running a surplus, that we can’t spend our money until they say so,” he said.

​Party attendee Jeremy Cullimore said he never cared about having a voice in government until he moved here three years ago. “You don’t know it until it affects you. You don’t know what you have until you lose it,” he told the NewsHour. “I used to have a voice. I now don’t have it.”

​Washington, D.C., residents will vote over the city’s budget autonomy for the first time on April 23.


​Gun Measure Advances

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday sent the first piece of gun control legislation since the shooting in Newtown, Conn., to the full Senate.

The anti-gun trafficking law advanced on an 11-7 vote. Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., says his legislation would limit straw purchasing of firearms, or the buying of guns for another person who cannot legally buy one.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, joined Democrats supporting the anti-trafficking bill, but he spoke out forcefully against an assault weapons ban, which is up for vote before the committee next week. Grassley called it unconstitutional. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, invoked the cultural differences between those who’ve grown up with guns and use them safely and those who are unfamiliar and afraid, saying, “An attempt to legislate for the entire United States in a one size fits all is a mistake.” He stressed that mental illness — not availability of guns — has been the common denominator in mass shootings.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. and Sen. Dick Blumenthal, D-Conn., made emotional appeals about the need for restrictions on military-style guns, invoking shooting tragedies in their respective states. Blumenthal said that children in Newtown were able to escape because Adam Lanza had to stop to change magazines, but that even more could have been saved if high-capacity ammunition magazines were banned.

Bipartisan talks over a background check bill broke down Wednesday with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., splitting ways with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., over recording private gun sales. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., also involved in the bipartisan talks that started last month, left Schumer to introduce placeholder legislation to the Judiciary Committee alone. But they have vowed to look for more conservative support for background legislation, in part to give cover to reluctant Republicans.


​Minimum Wage on the Rise?

$10.10 is the new $7.25. At least that’s what Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., are hoping. At a packed press conference in the Dirksen Senate offices Tuesday, the pair proposed legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage up to $10.10 an hour, from the current minimum of $7.25, in three 95-cent increments.That’s even more than the $9 per hour Mr. Obama proposed in his State of the Union address.

Harkin said that a higher minimum wage will benefit the economy by putting more money in consumers’ pockets. “With an increase in the minimum wage, workers have more money to spend, and guess what, they spend it locally not overseas. This is just basic economics, increased demand means increased economic activity,” he said. “They will spend their money in their local economies giving a boost to main street.”

Some 30 million workers in the United States would see their paychecks increase if the legislation passes, according to the Democrats’ numbers, and more than half of those would be women.

Margot Dorfman, CEO of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, praised the legislation at the press conference saying it would help small businesses, not hurt them. “Raising the minimum wage boosts the economy from the bottom up,” said Dorfman.

Not all agree with that logic. The conservative Employment Policies Institute criticized the Harkin/Miller proposal saying the minimum wage hike would cost the country jobs. “Dramatically raising the cost to hire and train entry-level employees will reduce job opportunities from coast to coast — it’s simple economics,” the group’s research director, Michael Saltsman, said in a statement. “Proposals to raise the minimum wage might be well-intentioned, but the economic record is unquestionable: Minimum wage hikes hurt the very people they’re intended to help.” The NewsHour tackled this topic during a recent segment. Watch that here.

“It needs to be increased,” said Michael Jeffries, a resident of D.C. and one of handful from the group Our D.C. who came to support the legislation. “When I was working, supporting my family, I had a full time job and two part time jobs, just to keep the family going.”

The last time Congress voted to raise the minimum wage was in 2007. The legislation raised the hourly minimum wage to $7.25 over a period of 26 months.

Photo above: A press conference on Puerto Rico’s status takes place outside the Capitol. Photo by Allie Morris/NewsHour.

Photo above: Sen. Harkin announces new legislation to raise the minimum wage. Photo by Allie Morris/NewsHour.

​Cindy Huang contributed to this report.