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This Week on the Hill: Senate Gang Signs, Hagel’s Day and a Surprise Guest

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to be Defense Secretary (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives was off this week, and it seems the Senate was ready to pick up the slack. The upper chamber was chock full of activity with lawmakers putting forward a new immigration plan, holding a hearing on guns, voting on disaster relief, raising the debt ceiling and getting a new member.

Let’s break it down.

The Pathway to the Pathway to the Pathway to Citizenship

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., with members of the Gang of Eight announcing their plan for immigration reform (Reuters/Gary Cameron)

The Senate has this strange obsession with gangs. Not gangs in the “Menace II Society” sense of the word but more like the singing, dancing Sharks or Jets from “West Side Story.” The most recent gang born from the dark depths of the Dirksen office building is the Gang of Eight (also known by its more awesome, supervillain-esque name — the Octogang). Their mission: immigration reform.

Immigration reform is not a new issue on the Hill but electoral momentum seems to have pushed the parties together. Now instead of talking about how many volts our fences should have, we’re talking about how many science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, visas to issue.

The known members of the Octogang are Republicans Marco Rubio, Fla.; Jeff Flake, Ariz.; John McCain, Ariz.; and Lindsey Graham, S.C.; and Democrats Dick Durbin, Ind.; Robert Menendez, N.J.; Chuck Schumer, N.Y.; and Michael Bennet, Colo.

The House is also rumored to be mulling over its own plan for immigration reform and the White House is very much on board (having drawn up the outlines for a plan of its own) so it looks like immigration reform is going to happen sooner rather than later.

The sides are all still split over some pretty significant issues, how to deal with agriculture workers and LGBT immigrants, for example, but, hey, progress is progress and the GOP knows it must show a willingness to seriously engage on the issue or face dire electoral consequences down the road.

The one to watch in all of this is Rubio. He has been in front of the issue since he came to the Capitol and he seems to be conservatives’ chosen flag bearer for immigration reform.

“I’m not gonna be part of a bidding war to see who can come up with the most lenient path forward,” Rubio said to Rush Limbaugh on his radio program this week. “I think we should be for a reasonable path that’s good for Americans, that’s fair to the people that come here legally every year.”

Wack! Pow! Boom!

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

There is a reason mock hearings are referred to as “murder boards.” Chuck Hagel left the Capitol on Thursday night with his life but before adjourning he went through a hell of a fight. Hagel sat before the Senate Armed Services Committee for eight hours. He sat long enough for the Senators to take two breaks, cast five votes and eat lunch. In the same amount of time Chuck Hagel sat before the committee, you could have watched the entire Star Wars trilogy — from Tatooine to Endor.

From the time President Obama floated the idea of nominating the former Republican senator from Nebraska, Hagel has been publicly flogged for past comments on everything from gays in the military to defending Israel.

“I’ve had more attention paid to my words in the last eight weeks than I ever thought possible,” Hagel said at the hearing after correcting himself at one point.

The problem for Hagel was not what he said over the last eight weeks but, rather, the stockpile of votes, quotes and statements he made over the last 15 years.

Sen. McCain, R-Ariz., who opened his questioning by referring to Hagel as his “old friend,” didn’t waste any time lambasting his good ol’ buddy for failing to support the 2007 surge in Iraq.

When Hagel demurred, saying he would let history judge the surge, McCain sprung: “History has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you’re on the wrong side of it,” he said. “And your refusal to answer whether you were right or wrong about it is going to have an impact on my judgment as to whether to vote for your confirmation or not.”

With friends like these…

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was even less accommodating. When Graham questioned Hagel in the morning session, he was much less kind pressing Hagel to name a member of Congress who is “intimidated by the Jewish lobby.” Graham seemed to enjoy himself, leaning back in his chair and coolly pressing further with his questioning as Hagel squirmed to answer.

The afternoon was not much better. Hagel had become such a polarizing figure, it’s hard to know how much the testimony may have hurt him. But it sure didn’t help.

Debating Guns

Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords sits with her husband, retired U.S Navy Captain Mark Kelly, prior to delivering a statement at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

“Young women are speaking out as to why AR-15 weapons are their weapon of choice,” said Gayle Trotter a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

That was the second most surprising moment of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing this week on gun violence.

The top honor went to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who made an unannounced appearance and delivered a moving speech to open the hearing.

“Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying,” Giffords said, speaking slowly but assertively. “It will be hard, but the time is now. You must act. Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on you.”

The hearing was another act in what is likely to become Congress’s longest play — we’ll call it The Way of the Gun. The defenders of gun rights, this time represented by Wayne LaPierre, Executive Vice President and Chief Executive of the NRA, and the aforementioned Gayle Trotter, insisted, among other things, universal background checks don’t work because they are not enforced. Those in favor of additional gun restrictions were represented by Giffords’ husband and former astronaut Mark Kelly and Baltimore County Police Chief James Johnson. They argued that gun violence was an “epidemic” only cured by tight restrictions.

Gun control, or gun freedom, or whatever you want to call it, is not going to be solved by one Congressional hearing and both sides knew that. They also agreed the Second Amendment is not going away and our current state of gun violence in untenable.

“Mr. LaPierre, it’s good to see you again,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said to her rival. “We tangled, what was it, 18 years ago? You look pretty good, actually.”

And on it goes…

They’re voting! They’re voting!

Ladies and gentlemen, please hold your applause until the end of this segment.

The Senate voted this week. On bills the president is going to sign! The do-nothing-Congress is officially a thing of the past.

The Senate passed the $50.5 billion emergency relief package for the damage caused by Superstorm Sandy. The vote count was 62-36 with a bunch of Republicans (31) voting against it. The criticism, like all of the criticism for spending bills these days, was over the increase to the national debt. The giant’s share of the relief cash will go to Housing and Urban Development (community redevelopment), FEMA (emergency aid and shelter) and repairing the New York and New Jersey transit systems.

The Senate also passed the debt ceiling extension that made it through the House last week. The bill temporarily extends the borrowing limit through May 18th. In the meantime, Congress will have to deal with the sequester and both chambers need to pass budgets.

Maybe it’s best to hold that applause for now.

Mo’ Mo

Interim Senator William “Mo” Cowan with his family after being announced as Sen. John Kerry’s replacement (Reuters/Brian Snyder)

Rarely does the consigliere become a don. This week, he became a U.S. Senator.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) needed to appoint a replacement for Democratic Sen. John Kerry, who is moving to replace Hillary Clinton at the State Department (he was confirmed 94-3 this week). So, he turned to his former chief of staff William “Mo” Cowan.

When Cowan, a former lawyer (aren’t they all) takes his seat in the upper chamber, he will be the second African-American serving in the Senate for the 113th Congress. Never in the history of the United States have two black senators served together.

Massachusetts will hold a special election on June 25 to permanently fill Kerry’s seat.

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