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Human Rights

Congress Pushes Russia Sanctions

On Friday, key senators pressed the Obama administration to crack down on Russian human rights violators.

Four leading senators Friday called on President Obama to enforce U.S. law and sanction more Russian human right violators, despite the administration’s reluctance to rock the U.S.-Russian relationship.

Last month, the Obama administration declined to add names to a list of human rights violators in Russia created by Congress under the Magnitsky Act. The act is named in honor oof Sergei Maginitsky, a Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died in prison after being tortured after being arrested on charges widely viewed as politically motivated.

The decision not to add new names to the Magnitsky list came as a shock to lawmakers and human rights advocates, who had been told the State Department and Treasury Department were vetting several alleged Russian human rights abusers for addition to the list, an action that would subject them to visa bans and asset freezes.

Late Friday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and the ranking member, Bob Corker (R-TN) invoked a section of the Magnitsky Act that allows senior lawmakers to submit names to the administration for the list on a bipartisan basis.  Sens. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and John McCain (R-AZ), the bill's original co-sponsors, supported the move. The Obama adminstration is ultimately responsible for accepting or rejecting these recomendations to add names to the list. 

Stepping Down

Tom Coburn To Resign From Senate

The Oklahoma senator announced Thursday night that he'd step down from the Senate at the end of 2014, two years before his term expires.

In a surprising announcement, Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn released a statement Thursday night that he would resign from the Senate at the end of 2014.

Coburn, an ardent fiscal conservative, had been battling a recurrence of prostate cancer but said "this decision isn’t about my health, my prognosis or even my hopes and desires." Instead, he credited his decision to his belief that "public service and politics as a calling rather than a career" and his initial commitment on first running for Senate in 2004 to only serve two terms. Rumors that Coburn would resign were first reported last week by Politico.

The Oklahoma Republican, who had previously served three terms in the House of Representatives from 1994-2000, built a reputation in the Senate as "Dr. No" for his willingness to use obstructionist tactics to block legislation and nominations he opposed. However, Coburn also had a longstanding friendship with Barack Obama, dating back to when they entered the Senate together, and was willing to buck party orthodoxy on a number of issues, including opposition to the War in Iraq.

If Coburn resigns as announced, it would lead to a special election for his Senate seat in deep red Oklahoma. In particular, it would open an opportunity for incumbent Republican congressmen Tom Cole and James Lankford to run for the Senate without endangering their seats. While there are a handful of Democrats in the Sooner State who could mount a competitive race for Coburn's seat, it would still be an uphill battle.

Deal

Senate Passes Omnibus Budget

Despite a threatened amendment to defund Obamacare from Ted Cruz, the Senate overwhelmingly approved the omnibus budget Thursday.

There’s seems to be only one thing that can spur the United States Senate into taking quick and decisive bipartisan action; a long weekend.

Not even an attempt by Ted Cruz to defund Obamacare yet again kept the Senate from wrapping up a vote on the omnibus budget deal Thursday night by a vote of 72-26 in order to get out of town for a scheduled recess.

Whereas, normally Senate rules would require 30 hours of debate after a motion for cloture was filed, Democrats and Republicans came together to agree to cut off debate, rather than wait around Washington DC until Saturday to vote. Cruz, in lieu of offering an anti-Obamacare amendment that would keep the Senate in session even longer, agreed simply to give a floor speech expressing his opposition after many of his colleagues reportedly objected in a private lunch. 

The House passed the omnibus budget bill Wednesday, which will fund the government through September by a vote of 359-67 over opposition from some outside conservative groups. With the Senate vote, the 1,582 page bill now goes to the White House for the president's signature.

Iran Sanctions

Feinstein's Israel Controversy

California Senator Dianne Feinstein faced criticism Wednesday after expressing her opposition to language in proposed Iran sanctions legislation.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein faced criticism Wednesday for comments that some thought implied a new Iran sanctions bill could put Israel in charge of U.S. foreign policy.

Feinstein objected to moving forward on a new Iran sanctions bill sponsored by 59 senators, including 16 Democrats, and co-authored by Sen Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL). The California senator said the bill could imperil ongoing negotiations between Iran and the West, harm U.S. diplomatic credibility, break up the current international sanctions coalition, and allow Tehran to argue “we are interested in regime change.”

“Candidly, in my view, it is a march toward war,” she said, echoing the White House argument that senators who support the Iran sanctions bill have a secret pro-war agenda. 

Feinstein took direct aim at a provision in the new bill that states, “If the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapon program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence”

By a 359-67 margin, the House overwhelmingly approved a bipartisan budget deal to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year on Wednesday.

By a bipartisan vote of 359-67, the House of Representatives passed an omnibus budget bill Wednesday that will fund the federal government for the rest of the fiscal year. Despite vocal opposition from outside conservative groups like the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, only 64 Republicans voted against the bill.

The bill, which built on the Murray-Ryan compromise in December, represents an increase in government discretionary spending over the sequestration but still is lower than the budget under the George W. Bush administration after adjusting for inflation. The result was grudging bipartisan support from members of both parties.

Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) told The Daily Beast that the bill seemed to be a step forward. It cut government spending by over $20 billion, including over $1 billion from Obamacare and $10 million from the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a government agency set up under the ACA that was famously called a “death panel” by former Alaska governor and reality television star Sarah Palin. In Sessions’s opinion, “We told people we were going to reduce the size and cost of government and we did that,” noting that 2014 spending was below 2008 levels.

In contrast, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), perhaps the most liberal member of Congress, gave a floor speech prior to the vote where she praised the bill for increasing funding for the United Nations, among other pet left-wing causes. She wasn’t satisfied with the bill by any means either but supported it nonetheless.

Budget Battle

Conservative vs. the Budget Deal

Outside conservative groups like Heritage Action and Club for Growth came out in opposition to the omnibus budget deal on Tuesday.

Wednesday’s vote in the House on an omnibus budget bill will be yet another showdown between tea party conservatives and the outside groups which back them against the Republican establishment. The bill, based on the framework from the bipartisan Murray-Ryan budget deal in December, is being opposed by both Heritage Action and Club for Growth, two key players in the conservative movement.  Both groups are key voting the bill, which means it will be used on congressional scorecards. 

Heritage Action came out vehemently opposed to the bill. The group was deeply offended that the budget bill continued to fund Obamacare as well as frequent conservative hobbyhorses like the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities. The group detailed its complaints on its website, noting that omnibus also prevents the federal government from ending Saturday postal delivery as well as uses pays for specific local projects as well.  It also expresses its discontent that the budget deal funds government programs that Heritage Action disapproves of like Head Start, Pell Grants and green energy. 

In contrast, the Club for Growth was rather understated in its opposition. The conservative group issued a release stating “instead of finding bipartisan ways to spend more money, Congress should be focused on cutting spending so that the federal budget can be balanced as quickly as possible. This bill does not achieve that goal.” The statement was solely focused on spending levels under the omnibus and their increase over the sequester.

The opposition of these groups marks a new obstacle in efforts to smooth over the partisan divide on Capitol Hill. The budget deal has been hailed as a return to a slightly more normal state of affairs on Capitol Hill where there is “regular order” and the government is funded through the traditional appropriations process, not through continuing resolutions. The problem for these conservative groups is that in a divided government, this process means constant compromise between each party. In opposing the bill, both groups are planting their flag as part of the effort to try to avoid such compromises. The bill will likely pass anyway with significant Democratic support but the vote in the Republican caucus will provide yet another test of conservative strength in the House GOP.

GOP Showdown

Ted Cruz Takes On House Republicans

The Texas senator took two steps this week that seemed deliberate provocations towards the House GOP leadership.

During last October’s government shutdown, Sen. Ted Cruz was often referred to sarcastically as “Speaker Cruz,” with the implication that he was the hidden force directing the efforts of recalcitrant House Republicans while the real Speaker of the House, John Boehner was left helpless and emasculated.

Now four months later, a pair of moves seems to indicate Cruz is auditioning for a different role in the House of Representatives, Minority Leader.

Over the past week, Cruz has twice directly taken on his party’s House leadership. On Monday, the first-term Texas Senator announced he had hired Paul Teller to be his deputy chief of staff. This wasn’t just a personnel move but a slap in the face of many House Republicans. Teller was dramatically fired in December as executive director of the Republican Study Committee, (RSC) a grouping of the most conservative members of the House GOP caucus, for leaking details of the Ryan-Murray budget negotiations to outside conservative groups in an apparent attempt to sabotage a bipartisan budget deal. When Teller’s sacking was announced, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), the chairman of the RSC said the staffer no longer had the trust of lawmakers.

At the time, a senior GOP staffer told the National Journal, "No staffer is above a member. [Teller] was divulging private, member-level conversations and actively working against RSC strategies supported by House conservatives." Nevertheless, Teller was praised by hardcore conservatives including Rep. Tim Huelkamp (R-KS) and operatives for groups such as the Club for Growth.

Shots Fired

Biden Aide Fires Back at Gates

Gates asserted in his book that Biden has been wrong on foreign policy for decades, but Gates and Biden joined forces to oppose the war in Libya, Biden’s former national security advisor said.

The former top national security advisor to Vice President Joseph Biden Friday fired back at former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who charged Biden has been wrong on every foreign policy issue in 40 years, pointing out that Biden and Gates both opposed Obama’s 2011 decision to go to war in Libya.

“I think [Biden] has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” Gates wrote in his soon to be released book Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.

On Friday, Julianne Smith, who served as Biden’s national security advisor for much of the first term of the Obama administration, pointed out that if Gates thinks the Vice President was always wrong, Gates is either forgetting the debate prior to the U.S. intervention in Libya or the former Secretary of Defense is admitting that he was wrong in opposing the mission as well.

“It is unfair to say they haven’t been able to agree in four decades,” Smith said at a Friday morning event at the Institute for Strategic and International Studies. “On Libya, this is one case I would note for the record, where Gates and Biden were actually hand in hand, and were in fact often going to the president to express their opposition to this mission. That’s an interesting footnote given what we are reading in the papers these days.”

Blame Game

U.S.: Benghazi Groups Not Al Qaeda

Two groups that attacked the U.S. mission in Benghazi are about to be designated as terrorists. But officials say they aren't "official affiliates" of al Qaeda.

The State Department confirmed Wednesday that two Libyan groups reportedly set to be designated as terrorists took part in the Benghazi 9-11 anniversary attacks of 2012. But the Obama administration insists there is no evidence linking the attack to al Qaeda's central leadership.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki chose her words carefully saying the branches of Ansar al-Sharia, a militia that claimed credit for the Benghazi attack in the first hours after the incident on social media were not "official affiliates" of al Qaeda. 

“Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi and Ansar al-Sharia in Derna have been involved in terrorist attacks in the past, of course, against civilian targets, frequent assassinations, and attempted assassinations of security officials and political actors in eastern Libya," Jen Psaki said. She added that these attacks "include the September 11th attack against the special mission and annex in Benghazi, Libya.” 

Psaki was responding to a report in the Washington Post that the Obama administration would soon designate the Derna and Benghazi branches of Ansar al-Shariah as terrorist organizations. 

Iran Sanctions

Congress Urged to Act on Iran

A number of prominent conservatives urged Congress on Wednesday to act on Iran.

As Congress contemplates passing new Iran sanctions over the objections of the White House, over five dozen conservative experts and former officials called on Congressional leaders to set out tough parameters for any potential deal with Iran according to a letter obtained by The Daily Beast.

61 senior figures, including some Democrats, wrote to House Speaker John Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday, asking them to take variety of steps to ensure Iranian compliance with the Joint Plan of Action that the P5+1 countries agreed to with Iran in November and ensure that any final deal meets tough standards.

The letter, signed by former elected officials and diplomats associated with a hawkish foreign policy, including former Sen. Joe Lieberman, former Sen. Norm Coleman and former Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams, states, “Congress has a chance to play an important role in making clear the consequences of Iranian violations of the interim nuclear deal, in clarifying expectations with respect to future nuclear talks with Tehran, and in creating incentives for Iran to conclude a comprehensive nuclear agreement that protects the national security interests of the United States and its allies." 

The signatories state they support the push for diplomacy backed by the threat of military force, but they called on Congress to ensure that any deal includes forcing Iran “to comply with numerous U.N. Security Council Resolutions and verifiably abandon its efforts to get nuclear weapons-making capability.”

World

Civil War Brews in South Sudan

The Obama administration is scrambling to stop South Sudan’s slide into chaos, but nothing seems to be working. What else can the U.S. do before it’s too late?

The U.S. government is on high alert as the Sudanese crisis worsens by the hour. With time running out before an all-out civil war erupts, the Obama administration is short on options. Experts say it’s time to put pressure on Khartoum to rein in the rebels.

 

140103-rogin-south-sudan-tease

Ben Curtis/AP

The U.S. embassy in Juba decided not to shut down Friday, but it reduced staffing for the second time amid fears that the rebel force led by ex-Vice President Riek Machar might march on Juba to contest control of the capital city from the forces of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, which is under the tenuous command of President Salva Kiir. If the battle of Juba begins, the embassy will be forced to close.

Marijuana

Legal Pot In Maryland?

A key legislator in Maryland came out in support of legalizing marijuana on Friday.

Amsterdam, Vancouver, and Silver Spring?

Maryland could become the latest destination for legal marijuana, joining the states of Washington and Colorado, if an effort to allow the regulated sale of the drug in the Old Line State becomes law.

In an interview with The Washington Post on Friday, Mike Miller, the powerful president of the Maryland Senate, said, “I favor the legalization and taxation of marijuana, with restrictions.” Miller, a relatively conservative Democrat who has opposed both same-sex marriage and abolishing the death penalty, said he believes his position is the way of the future. “I know where people are going to be a generation or two from now,” he said.

However, in the interview, Miller appeared pessimistic about the chances for the legislature to legalize marijuana during its 2014 session, noting that it faced long odds in the House of Delegates and a skeptical governor in Martin O’Malley. Another legislator echoed Miller’s take, stating that either or perhaps both O’Malley and Speaker Michael Busch would have to push for a legalization bill for the effort to have a chance at success in the House of Delegates. It’s not likely that O’Malley, a possible 2016 presidential contender who first rose to fame as the law-and-order mayor of Baltimore, would support such an effort.

Watch This

Greenwald Attacks Post’s Ruth Marcus

The former Guardian reporter called the Post columnist ‘everything that is horrible with the D.C. media.’

In a combative segment on CNN’s The Lead, Glenn Greenwald accused Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus of “exemplifying everything that is horrible with D.C. media” and called her an Obama administration “loyalist.” The former reporter for the Guardian who is now taking part in a new journalistic endeavor funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar attacked Marcus for stating that leaker Edward Snowden should face justice in the United States and evading a question about whether James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, should be subject to prosecution for lying to Congress.

Watch the video here:

The heated back-and-forth took place in the aftermath of a New York Times editorial on Thursday morning, which called on the Obama administration to offer clemency to Snowden.

In Marcus’s defense vis a vie Greenwald’s accusations, she is not the most horrible member of her own op-ed page; that, of course, is Richard Cohen.

Duck Dynasty

King: I Relate to ‘Duck Dynasty’

Iowa Republican Steve King expressed his solidarity with controversial reality star Phil Robertson.

In an email to supporters earlier this week, conservative firebrand Rep. Steve King (R-IA) compared himself to controversial Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson.

According to the Des Moines Register, King wrote “I have been in similar situations to the one Phil Robertson finds himself in now. I have learned to navigate [liberal] intolerance while holding firm to our values.” Robertson was briefly suspended recently from the A&E show Duck Dynasty after making a series of controversial statements in an interview with GQ, including that blacks were happier during Jim Crow, that Pearl Harbor happened because “Shintos” were in “a society where there is no Jesus” and “it seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus.” King has a history of making controversial remarks as well, notably stating that “For every [illegal immigrant] who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds—and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”

In the Iowa congressman’s opinion, Robertson was being persecuted because he expressed opinions “contrary to views held by those with loud megaphones, including the liberal media and PC police…The leftists who disagree with him made it clear with their attacks that conservatives are to be driven from public life if they express their opinions, however objectively true they might be.”

King had previously tweeted his support for Robertson after A&E reinstated the reality show star, writing “Welcome back Phil of #DuckDynasty. “Fear God, hunt ducks and let the chips fall where they may.” And speak self evident truth.”

Grievances Aired

Rand Paul Festivus

On Monday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) took to Twitter to commemorate Festivus

Christmas is for establishment Republicans; Rand Paul celebrates Festivus.

The Kentucky senator took to Twitter on Monday morning in honor of Festivus, the holiday created by George Costanza’s father on the show Seinfeld. It was likely the first time that a sitting Senator had commemorated Festivus. The U.S. Senate Historical Office, in response to a query from The Daily Beast, was unable to find an example of Senators who had celebrated Festivus publicly in the past.  Paul did not fully observe the holiday, he didn’t raise a virtual aluminum pole or engage in feats of strength, he did take part in one of the most important rituals of the day, the “airing of grievances.”

While many of Paul’s grievances were serious, including the lack of a Senate vote on his “Audit The Fed” bill and what he saw as significant increase in the debt in the most recent bipartisan budget deal, others were more lighthearted.  The Kentucky senator complained about DC’s parking rules as well as what he saw as too many people on television wearing ties.

Paul didn’t celebrate the holiday alone. Towards the end of his airing of grievences, he shared what he described as “One more Festivus grievance about bipartisanship.  @CoryBooker doesn't RT me enough.” That prompted Booker to join in and after the New Jersey senator offered to engage in “feats of strength,” they compromised on working together on mandatory minimum sentencing reform and federal hemp and marijuana laws instead.

Josh Rogin: Hope Is Not a Policy

After President Obama announced a shift in approach to the conflict in Syria, Josh Rogin joins ‘The Daily Rundown’ on MSNBC to offer his take on whether the move was too little, too late.

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