Speaker of the House John Boehner addresses the 113th Congress in the Capitol. Photo by Reuters/Kevin Lamarque.
It was a busy week on Capitol Hill. Barack Obama was sworn in twice for his second term as president (once ceremonially and once for real) and Republicans gave in unilaterally on extending the debt ceiling. But the real drama that grabbed everyone’s attention involved Beyoncé’s performance of the Star Spangled Banner on Monday.
So, let’s take a look at what they did.
No Budget, No Pay, No Problem
The House got right to work on Wednesday debating and passing the No Budget, No Pay Act of 2013. The bill made it through the House after a 285-144 vote. There was both bipartisan support and opposition to the measure, with 86 Democrats voting in favor, and 33 Republicans casting ‘no’ votes.
The main element of No Budget, No Pay is a temporary suspension of the statutory debt limit through May 18th. The proposal also directs the House and Senate to pass budgets by April 15, and if a chamber fails to do so, its members will have their paychecks put in escrow. But the wrinkle in all this is even if Congress fails to pass a budget, members would still be paid at the end of the term for the 113th Congress because of the 27th Amendment, which says “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.”
The No Budget, No Pay Act of 2013 gives House Republicans some political cover, putting off the debt ceiling fight and letting them focus instead on two upcoming fiscal battles: the sequester, across the board spending cuts that start to take effect in early March; and funding to keep the government running, which runs out March 27.
Hill’s on the Hill
Hillary Clinton testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Photo by Reuters/Kevin Lamarque.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a pair of appearances on Capitol Hill this week as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee each had a chance to question the outgoing secretary about the attacks in Benghazi. On Tuesday, Clinton sat for five hours answering questions about the attacks in Benghazi that left four Americans, including an ambassador, dead.
Clinton choked up as she recalled watching the “flag-draped caskets” of the slain Americans arrive at Andrews Air Force Base. She also immediately dispelled any notion the committee members may have had of turning the hearings into a State Department whodunnit.
“As I have said many times since Sept. 11, I take responsibility. Nobody is more committed to getting this right. I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger, and more secure,” Clinton said in her opening statement at the Senate hearing.
Of course, committee hearings being what they are, Clinton still had to sit through a day’s worth of Democratic praise heaping and a barrage of Republican questions (most of the aforementioned ‘questions’ were more like extended comments with punctuation errors).
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., lambasted Clinton when his turn came around.
“Libya has to have been one of the hottest of hot spots around the world. Not to know of the requests for security really, I think, cost these people their lives,” Paul said during one testy exchange. “I think it is good you are accepting responsibility because no one else is.”
Taking a turn into alternate reality (of which your author is a great fan) Paul went on to say that had he been president he would have fired Clinton over the State Department’s handling of Benghazi.
When Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., peppered Clinton with questions about the administration’s messaging in the aftermath of the attacks, she seemed to have had enough.
“With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and they decided to go kill some Americans?” Clinton said. “What difference, at this point, does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from happening again.”
After a long day of hearings, we can understand if Hillary Clinton just wanted to relax and get her dance on.
A gun store employee in Los Angeles inspects a semi-automatic rifle. Photo by Reuters/ Lucy Nicholson.
It was a big week for California lawmakers and gun control. Democrats Sen. Dianne Feinstein announced the introduction of a new assault weapons ban and Rep. Mike Thompson chaired the second hearing of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force.
Feinstein’s bill, co-sponsored by Connecticut Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, both Democrats, “drys up” the supply of military-style semi-automatics and restricts high capacity magazines (in this case over 10 rounds). In the bill, a ‘military-style’ weapon is defined as having at least one military feature such as a pistol grip, collapsible or folding stock, flash suppressor or bayonet. The drying up comes into play because the bill has an allowance for lawfully acquired weapons purchased before the bill goes into law.
“Getting this bill signed into law will be an uphill battle, and I recognize that, but it’s a battle worth having,” Feinstein said during the roll out announcement for the bill on Thursday.
The bill is similar to the one Feinstein sponsored in 1994 which expired 10 years later when Congress did not renew it. The new bill would have no expiration.
Thompson’s gun control hearings, which also feature Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., a former staff member for Gabby Giffords, focused on broader violence prevention.
“I’m a hunter. I’m a gun owner and I believe that law abiding citizens have a second amendment right to own firearms. I am not interested in giving up my firearms and I am not going to ask other law abiding Americans to give up theirs,” Thompson said at the start of the hearing.
According to a pair of polls (Gallup and Washington Post/ABC) out this week gun control is popular with a majority of Americans but passing anything through Congress will be tough/difficult/next-to-impossible.
Filibuster Deal Goes Bust
Remember that great scene in “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” when Jimmy Stewart silently places a hold on a bill and leaves Washington for the the weekend to read the Constitution while perusing the boardwalk in Atlantic City while members of the other party try fleetingly to muster 60 votes to break his filibuster?
No!?! Well, that’s because the movie was made in 1939 when the filibuster still required a senator (or senators) to stand and orate before the convened legislature as his or her colleagues brokered a deal to end the filibuster and move whatever piece of legislation (or nomination) was in contention. These days, a filibuster can be invoked silently and even the threat of a filibuster can derail a bill from coming before the Senate floor.
A group of senators decided it was time to bring back the talking filibuster and pushed leadership hard to get it done. The senators were mostly Democrats but when Republicans were in the majority they were advocating more or less for the same thing.
So, this week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, after much weeping and gnashing of teeth, came to an agreement to pretty much keep the filibuster the way has been operating as of late. The changes agreed to should move bills to the floor more quickly and speed the pace for nominations to clear but the sweeping changes some Senate Democrats hoped for are not coming anytime soon.
The Senate approved the changes Thursday night.
Dudes for Women
A pair of Senators, Pat Leahy, D-Vt., and Mike Crapo R-Idaho, reintroduced the Violence Against Women Act this week. The 1994 law was up for a third reauthorization last year but it could not make it through the House. In fact, it could not even make it to the floor of the House because House leadership blocked the Senate version and passed their own version of the bill.
The bill the House passed (with almost exclusively Republican support) differed from the Senate bill by excluding Native American, LGBT and immigrant women from its protection. The Senate-passed bill would have raised some revenue by increasing the number of U Visas available to immigrants who are victims of crimes including domestic abuse. Because the bill would raise revenue and according to the Constitution, revenue raising bills must start in the House, House leadership killed the bill using a procedural move. The Constitutional argument is a procedural sieve (for evidence: see this year’s deal averting the fiscal cliff) but Republicans used it nonetheless to save themselves from a politically difficult vote (voting against protecting abused women is not exactly an electoral winner).
The bill Leahy and Crapo introduced eliminates the increase in the number of U Visas, closing the procedural loophole and conceivably straightjacketing the House into a vote. Without the procedural fig leaf, the House now has to either bring the bill to a vote (in which case it would surely pass) to find another way to squelch it. The smart money is on the president signing the VAWA bill in the not too distant future.
John Kerry, Subject of a Hearing by the Committee He Is Currently Chairman of
Sen. John Kerry after testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Photo by Reuters/ Gary Cameron.
Yes, John Kerry is going to become the next Secretary of State. So, rather unnaturally, he sat before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — of which he is the current chairman — and explained why he would be a good Secretary of State. It was a fairly friendly hearing. Our coverage is here and here.
Oh, and when Kerry becomes Secretary of State, Elizabeth Warren will become the senior senator from Massachusetts.