This Week on the Hill

BY Alex Bruns and Allie Morris  December 7, 2012 at 10:17 AM EDT

U.S. Capitol; Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images.

Now that the election is over and the nation’s attention has shifted to Congress, the NewsHour is launching a new series “This Week on the Hill” to keep you, loyal reader, up to speed with what’s happening in Congress.

Each week, the NewsHour will bring you an inside look from our team on Capitol Hill.

So, without further ado, the inaugural (that’s Washington speak for “first”) post of This Week on the Hill.


Tree Ceremony Lightens a Week of Fiscal Cliff Stalemate

The 2012 Capitol Christmas Tree; photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Tuesday, temperatures may have hit the 70′s in Washington, but that didn’t stop the holiday spirit from descending on Capitol Hill for the annual Capitol Christmas Tree lighting. The crowd let out a cheer as House Speaker John Boehner and an Eagle Scout lit up the 73-foot Engelmann Spruce, after words from members from the Colorado delegation and a performance from Lindsay Lawler singing ‘Standing Tall.’

For some thirty members of the Southern Ute, Northern Ute and Ute Mountain tribes in the audience, the Capitol tree was more than chance to spread holiday cheer, it was an opportunity to share their culture. In early November, three members of the Ute tribe, invited by the the Forestry Service, blessed the Capitol tree before it was cut down from Colorado’s White River National Forest, an area the Ute have called home.

“We do the Sundance, and in the Sundance we do a special ceremony for the tree before we even cut the tree,” said Bradley W. Hight, vice-chairman of the Ute Mountain Tribal Council, who attended the tree lighting. “To be able to do this for the nation was a great honor because we can share not only our spiritual, but our religious beliefs and be able to say, OK, we are going to bless this tree, it is going to go to the nation’s capital and we’re going to bless it for everyone.”

The Capitol tree tradition dates back to 1964, when a living tree was put on the Capitol lawn by the then speaker of the House. Starting in 1970, the tree has been selected from a different national forest each year. This is Colorado’s third tree and it will be lit throughout the holidays.


Representatives Seek to Deny Visa for Indian Politician

It has been 10 years since the Gujarat riots between Hindus and Muslims left more than 1,000 people dead in the Western Indian state of the same name, but the memory hasn’t faded. Outside the Capitol Tuesday at a small press conference organized by the Coalition Against Genocide, a band of congressmen, nongovernmental organization representatives and victims’ family members called on the administration to continue to deny a U.S. visa to Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, who oversaw the state government during the riots.

“The Bush administration rightly denied Mr. Modi’s request for visa to enter the United States because of his complicity with these attacks,” said Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., who visited Gujarat shortly after the 2002 riots. “We here are here today to call on the present administration, President Obama, Secretary Clinton, to stand with the victims and continue this good policy.”

Pitts was joined at the press conference by Reps. Frank Wolf, R-Va., Trent Franks, R-Ariz., and Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who, along with a bipartisan group of 21 other lawmakers, sent a letter to Secretary Hillary Clinton last week, requesting the government deny Modi a visa in light of his further political aspirations.

“As Mr. Modi continues to pursue a potential run for higher office, we believe a change in policy to his request for a visa will only embolden Modi and his government’s efforts to obstruct further investigations and the tandem prosecutions that have still to be finished to bring the perpetrators to justice,” the letter read.

Modi was denied a visa in 2005 under the International Religious Freedom Act.


The Senate Approves Trade with Russia with a Human Rights Kicker

The U.S. Senate voted Thursday to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a relic of the Cold War limiting trade with some communist countries, specifically targeting the former USSR. The bill passed by the Senate establishes permanent normal trade relations, or PNTR for short (because in D.C. there is an acronym for everything), with Russia and Moldova. But there is an additional provision to the bill named for the deceased Russian anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky — the Magnitsky Act.

The Magnitsky Act sanctions Russian officials associated with the 2009 murder of the lawyer. Magnitsky exposed a high-level criminal tax enterprise only to be implicated by the Russian government and subsequently dying in Russian custody under mysterious circumstances.

“This bill sends a signal to Vladimir Putin and the Russian kleptocracy that these kinds of abuses of human rights will not be tolerated,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said at a press briefing shortly after the bill was passed on the Senate floor by a vote of 92-4. “I believe this legislation is not anti-Russian. I believe it is pro-Russian. It’s for the people of Russia, who deserve far better than what they have today.”

The Russians, however, were not pleased.


Quit Filibustering Yourself

When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he wanted to vote on a provision to allow the president to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling, he didn’t really mean it.

Invoking a strange game of legislative chicken Thursday morning, McConnell called for a vote as soon as possible to turn the screws on Democrats and force them into a potentially regrettable vote. McConnell took the the Senate floor for what has become a daily (at least when the Senate is in session) back-and-forth with Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to argue over the specific faults for the continued intransigence on negotiating an aversion to the coming fiscal cliff.

In the process of said bickering, McConnell said he would welcome a vote on whether senators wanted to grant a president control over raising the nation’s borrowing limit.

The proposal McConnell was suggesting, referred to as the McConnell provision because of its similarity to the idea he floated during the 2011 debt ceiling negotiations, would relieve Congress of any responsibility (read: blame) for increasing the amount of debt the nation is requesting to take on.

So what happened?

Reid took McConnell up on the idea (after first rejecting it), calling for a vote that afternoon so he could meet with his caucus and ensure quick passage. The Democrats quickly realized they had the votes and McConnell, understanding he may have overplayed his hand, blocked the bill with a filibuster.

“This may be the moment in Senate history, when a senator made a proposal and when given an opportunity for a vote on that proposal filibustered his own proposal,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said after the vote was cancelled.


Treaty for the Disabled Falls Victim to Senate Paranoia

America loves baseball, apple pie and war heroes. So, when legislation comes to the Senate floor to protect the rights of the disabled, including American veterans, you would expect it have the same level of approval Babe Ruth had for his Hall of Fame ballot.

But black helicopters and 38 senators proved to be the treaty’s demise.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities was originally negotiated and passed by the George H.W. Bush administration around the same time the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted and has since enjoyed broad bipartisan support. This year, the Senate could not reach the 67 votes needed to pass the bill.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., gave an impassioned speech leading up to the vote and former senator, GOP presidential candidate and disabled veteran Bob Dole made an appearance on the Senate floor in support of the treaty.

Some members of the chamber, including Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, cited a fear of relinquishing sovereignty to the United Nations as reason for their “nay” vote. Others cited an op-ed in the Daily Beast by former-Sen. Rick Santorum who wrote, among other things, that the treaty could be used in legal disputes to deciding on how to properly care for the disabled (this is incorrect because the treaty would not overrule current US law).

“I do not support the cumbersome regulations and potentially overzealous international organizations with anti-American biases that infringe upon American society,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., of his decision to vote against the treaty.

“This is one of the saddest days I’ve seen in almost 28 years in the Senate and it needs to be a wakeup call about a broken institution that’s letting down the American people,” Kerry said after the vote.


Photo above: The Capitol Tree stands lit following the ceremony on the Capitol lawn. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Photo above: Rep. Keith Ellison addresses reporters at Coalition Against Genocide press conference. Photo by Allie Morris/PBS NewsHour