Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Amid acrimony, negotiators carry on

By Kerry Young,

Spending talks among the Obama administration, Democrats and top House Republicans are continuing, despite another round of finger-pointing and heated rhetoric between the two parties.

Even with negotiators pressing ahead, the two sides must deal with the same issue that has bogged down talks on fiscal 2011 appropriations for weeks — finding a level of spending rollbacks that leaders can sell in both chambers.

Republicans are sticking by their demands for $61.5 billion in discretionary cuts from current spending, and Democrats continue to balk at that number.

A recent compromise, floated by the White House, would cut current spending by $20 billion beyond the $10 billion in reductions Congress already has made in the latest two continuing resolutions. But it won little praise Monday, particularly from House conservatives.

With the two sides separated by more than $30 billion in cuts, and many House Republicans eager to put their stamp on government spending, a compromise could be hard to reach in the two weeks before the current stopgap spending law (PL 112-6) expires.

In fact, wide circulation of the White House number brought another round of partisan barbs. Both parties tried to pre-emptively lay blame for a government shutdown on the other side.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Republicans tied to the tea party movement were responsible for upending a recent round of talks.

“Apparently these extremists would rather shut down the government and risk sending our economy back into a recession than work with Democrats or even their own leadership to find a responsible compromise,” Reid said.

Republicans wasted little time responding, saying Democrats were threatening a shutdown by refusing to allow what the GOP considers reasonable reductions to the nation’s more than $1 trillion in annual discretionary spending.

“In the scope of our debt crisis, if Sen. Reid and Sen. [Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.] force the government to partially shut down over these sensible spending cuts, Americans will hold them accountable,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia.

House GOP leaders have scheduled a press conference Tuesday to decry what they see as the Senate’s “failure” to pass a long-term fiscal 2011 bill.

On Monday, Senate Democrats tried to cast a favorable light on the $20 billion cut figure, suggesting that more moderate Republicans might support such a plan.

“The Republicans have to resolve their own deep disagreements before we can find a middle ground between the two parties,” Reid said on the Senate floor. “We have tried to wait patiently for them and do that, but our patience and the American people’s patience is wearing very, very thin.”

But Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions, the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, was not buying that argument. Sessions noted that House Republicans were adamant in their calls for $61.5 billion in fiscal 2011 cuts, and accused Reid of inventing Republican support.

“That’s Sen. Reid trying to create a split,” Sessions said.

Instead, Sessions fired back that many Senate Democrats, if left to make their own decisions, would back the House GOP position.

“Assuming that they were left free, I believe that there would be more than enough Democratic votes,” Sessions said. But, “apparently, they are under pressure” to protest the $61.5 billion in cuts, he said.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, pointed to the bipartisan House vote on the latest continuing resolution as a sign that a compromise could be reached.

Harkin said it was encouraging that Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, relied on Democrats to get past the “tea party vigilantes” to pass the measure.

Although 54 Republicans voted against the three-week bill, 85 Democrats supported it, allowing it to pass, 271-158.

“I thought that gave us hope that Boehner was willing then to work with those Republicans and us over here to strike a deal, even though he couldn’t get the tea party people on board,” Harkin said. “But, I don’t know. Maybe that’s out the window now.”

Six rounds of stopgap funding have been enacted, with the current one set to expire April 8. That series of extensions has left much of the government in a long-term budgetary limbo, a situation that is particularly difficult for the Pentagon and its multifront deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

Members of both parties have said the latest stopgap measure will be the last for this fiscal year.

Like many Democrats, Maryland’s Chris Van Hollen, the ranking member on the House Budget Committee, says GOP demands to slash discretionary spending would damage the fragile economy.

On a Monday television appearance, Van Hollen argued that changes to the tax code need to be considered as part of a fiscal overhaul. He suggested that the federal government could return to the tax rates seen under the Clinton administration, bringing in additional revenue to reduce borrowing.

But bringing tax changes into the debate probably would be anathema for Republicans and would draw heavy fire from conservative groups such as Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform.

A coalition of tea party groups plans a rally March 31 in Washington to remind Republicans of the desire for deep fiscal 2011 cuts. Still, even the cuts envisioned by House Republicans would do little to immediately curb the gap between annual federal spending and revenue — or the deficit.

“Instead of having the Speaker whip his caucus, the tea party element is whipping the Speaker,” Van Hollen said. “You have a lot of Republicans in the House who are more afraid of Grover Norquist than they are of the deficit.”

The current spending impasse could serve as prelude to even more difficult budget battles later this year, including a vote to raise the nation’s debt limit.

Republican Sen. Jerry Moran, a freshman from Kansas, on Monday announced he would not support an increase in the debt limit unless President Obama becomes more directly involved in efforts to overhaul federal finances.

The overwhelming majority of federal debt is subject to a congressionally imposed limit, which now stands at $14.294 trillion. As of March 25, the debt subject to the limit stood at $14.159 trillion.

The Treasury has estimated that the debt limit will be reached between April 15 and May 31. It may soon update this estimate.

“To date, you have provided little or no leadership on what I believe to be the most important issue facing our nation — our national debt,” Moran said. “With no indication that your willingness to lead will change, I want to inform you I will vote ‘no’ on your request to raise the debt ceiling.”


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Durbin’s Role a Third Rail Among Democrats

With Schumer Leading Democrats’ Messaging, Senate Whip Still Finds Relevance in Being Attack Dog

By David M. Drucker, Roll Call

Sen. Dick Durbin’s leadership role in the Democratic Conference is a sensitive topic.

The Majority Whip is described by colleagues as an indispensable leader who performs the pivotal function of driving the Democratic message and providing a relentless, articulate defense of both Conference and White House policies from Republican attacks. Some of Durbin’s most ardent fans within the Conference, in fact, are Senators far more centrist in their politics than the committed Illinois liberal.

But in offering praise, some Democratic Senators acknowledged that questions have arisen about where Durbin fits in in the wake of Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) assuming command of the Conference’s messaging and policy operations under the auspices of the Democratic Policy and Communications Center — a combination of Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (Nev.) old communications war room and the Democratic Policy Committee.

“They had this so-called, it wasn’t a brush up — with Schumer and Durbin — but I think that each of them is fitting into a perfect spot,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), a self-described “hard-core Durbin loyalist.” “The Schumer strengths we really needed; the Durbin, kind of, street loyalty — street call of core Democratic
values we absolutely need. I just think the world of him.”

Rockefeller agreed that Durbin’s role has changed somewhat since Schumer, with the assistance of Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), launched the DPCC. But the West Virginian said the change has been positive, both for the Conference and for Durbin. “It’s just a different role. There are things that Dick Durbin can do that nobody else can do.”

Durbin might not be tasked with developing the Democratic message — although he does have a hand in that effort. But many of his fellow Democratic Senators said there is no one better at carrying it, either on the floor, where the Majority Whip is a ubiquitous presence, or in public.

In the 14 weeks since Thanksgiving, Durbin has appeared on a Sunday morning news show 10 times, including a handful of guest spots on “Fox News Sunday.” Additionally, he used the Presidents Day recess period to travel Illinois and test market a counter message to the House Republican budget plan for the remainder of fiscal 2011 that would have cut $61 billion if fully implemented. Durbin pushed that message in Republican House districts.

The local news coverage Durbin generated was deemed so successful that Reid asked him to make a presentation to the Conference during a subsequent caucus lunch, and about a dozen Senate Democratic offices later called and asked how they could plan similar in-state events. The message was also discussed at a regular meeting of Senate Democratic press strategists. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a Durbin ally, described him as an “effective national spokesman” for the Conference.

“I think that he’s very, very focused on where our party should make its stand and the communications part of it, because that’s key to us,” Boxer said. “We have to take our message to the people outside the Beltway. It’s his great strength.”

In a brief interview Thursday, Durbin appeared hesitant to promote his leadership role, and he dismissed any suggestion that there has been tension or confusion within the leadership team since Schumer was granted expanded authority.

Democratic Senators have conceded that there has been some friction in the caucus as Members adjust to the new DPCC. The view of a strain among the leadership is partly a hangover from the last election cycle, when Durbin and Schumer were preparing to run against each other for Majority Leader in the event that Reid lost re-election.

“I sit in the leadership meetings with Harry, and we develop our tactics and strategy, and I try to execute them on the floor, and some of my work [I] bring back to the caucus, and some of them decide it’s worthy,” Durbin said of his responsibilities. In discussing the new DPCC and how it has affected him, Durbin said, essentially, that it has not.

“The war room was originally Harry’s creation, and now Chuck and Debbie play a major role in that with Harry and I think they do a great job, and I’m glad they’re doing it,” he explained. “We’ve had no problems along those lines. We’re going to disagree on an issue from time to time. But in terms of the message and thrust of the caucus, we’re unified.”

One Democratic operative who monitors the Senate said Durbin’s influence has not diminished so much as Schumer’s role has increased.

This individual said Durbin’s nature as an outspoken and unabashed liberal could hamstring him in any future battles for influence with Schumer, who is similarly liberal in his personal politics but viewed as more pragmatic and flexible. The loyalty Schumer might have developed in helping elect the 14 Democrats who won in 2006 and 2008 might also give Schumer an advantage in intra-caucus politics.

“Durbin is a go-to champion on the issues many Democrats care about,” said the Democratic operative, who is based in Washington, D.C. “But he tends to be more of a true believer and it’s hard to be effective in leadership when you’re a true believer, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican.”

However, Durbin has admirers among centrist Democrats. Some are particularly impressed with his work on President Barack Obama’s deficit reduction commission and his willingness to support the group’s final recommendations despite the whack it would take to government expenditures that have long been sacred to Congressional Democrats.

“He is a voice of reason; he is obviously very smart and is a very gifted communicator,” said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), a moderate. “On the political spectrum, he’s over on the left-end side of spectrum down there somewhere. But he just brings — I think people really respect the things he says and he stands for.”


Friday, March 11, 2011

Suspect Charged in Attempted MLK Day Bombing


SEATTLE — A man suspected of planting a sophisticated bomb along the route of a march honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Spokane, Wash., was arrested early Wednesday, law enforcement officials said.

A swarm of federal agents arrested the suspect, Kevin W. Harpham, 36, near his home outside rural Colville, Wash., and searched the property. A law enforcement official said it was not clear whether the accused had acted alone.
The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the investigation, said Mr. Harpham was not someone investigators had tracked before this case.
A cleanup crew first found the bomb in a backpack left on a bench in downtown Spokane on Jan. 17, shortly before a march celebrating the King holiday that day. Investigators called the device very sophisticated and capable of causing multiple casualties.

Investigators said the timing of the incident suggested a racial motive, and the case has stirred fears in the inland Northwest, a region with a history of white supremacy and racially motivated crimes. The case has been investigated as domestic terrorism.

Law enforcement officials would not say whether Mr. Harpham had links to extremist groups. But the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks such groups, said that its research showed that Mr. Harpham was a member of the National Alliance as recently as 2004.

In a blog post on Wednesday, the center described the National Alliance as a once prominent neo-Nazi group that “has fallen on hard times since the 2002 death of its founder, William Pierce.” Mr. Pierce is the author of “The Turner Diaries,” a novel noted for having inspired Timothy J. McVeigh’s bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.

Mr. Harpham served in the Army for several years. From June 1996 to February 1999, he was a fire support specialist in the First Battalion, 37th Field Artillery Regiment, at what is now called Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Seattle.
He is charged with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and possession of an unregistered explosive device. More charges could be filed.


Illinois Governor Signs Capital Punishment Ban

By John Schwartz and Emma G. Fitzsimmons, New York Times.

Illinois became the 16th state to ban capital punishment as Gov. Pat Quinn on Wednesday signed an abolition bill that the state legislature passed in January.

“Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it,” Mr. Quinn said in a statement.
At a news conference at the Capitol in Springfield, Mr. Quinn said that signing the bill was the most difficult decision he had made as governor. “I have concluded, after looking at all the information that I have received, that it is impossible to create a perfect system — one that is free of all mistakes,” he said.

Mr. Quinn, a Democrat who became governor in 2009 and was elected to a full term in November, said during the 2010 campaign that he supported the death penalty when applied “carefully and fairly,” but added, “I am deeply concerned by the possibility of an innocent person being executed.” He had kept the question of whether he would sign the bill unanswered since it passed on Jan. 11.

Those on death row will have their sentences commuted to life without the possibility of parole. The law also dedicates funds to law enforcement and services for victims’ families.
The heated debate over the bill had focused on more than a dozen death row prisoners who were found to have been wrongfully convicted — including one man who came within 50 hours of execution. Lawmakers also debated the costs of imposing the death penalty.
As Mr. Quinn approached his announcement, he was lobbied by death penalty supporters, including family members of some victims, and by opponents, including the South African anti-apartheid leader Desmond Tutu, the death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean and the actor Martin Sheen.

The state’s death penalty machinery had been halted since 2000, when the governor at the time, George Ryan, called the system “broken” and declared a moratorium on executions. Before leaving office in 2003, Mr. Ryan, a Republican, commuted the sentences of 167 death row prisoners to life and pardoned four inmates.

Fifteen prisoners have been placed on the state’s death row since then. The state has formed commissions to study the death penalty and has made some changes, but those favoring abolition argued that the system could not be tweaked into fairness.

“Illinois’ experience of trying to fix the death penalty, and finding it can’t be done, sends a real message to other states that are also grappling with the same problems,” said Shari Silberstein, executive director of Equal Justice USA, a group that opposes capital punishment. “It’s a real turning point in the conversation about the death penalty in the United States.”

But Kent S. Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a group that supports the death penalty, called the governor’s action “a double-cross of the voters of Illinois.” “If he had honestly told the voters he would sign a repeal bill” during the campaign, Mr. Scheidegger said, “he would not be governor now.”

Some Democrats in the state had disagreed with a ban, including Lisa Madigan, the state’s attorney general, who argued that the death penalty should be available as a punishment for the worst crimes. Anita Alvarez, the Cook County state’s attorney and a Democrat, said she was disappointed by the governor’s decision, and called it “a tremendously disappointing day for murder victims and their families.”

Dozens of family members of victims had signed a letter to the legislature supporting the bill, arguing that capital trials and appeals “drag victims’ loved ones through an agonizing and lengthy process, which often does not result in the intended punishment.”

The current and future mayors of Chicago took different sides, with Mayor Richard M. Daley supporting capital punishment, and Rahm Emanuel, who will became mayor this spring, saying the ban was the right thing to do.

Illinois joins a wave of states that have reconsidered capital punishment. New Jersey abolished the practice in 2007. The New Mexico Legislature ended the death penalty in 2009. New Mexico’s newly elected governor, Susana Martinez, a Republican, has asked the Legislature to reinstate it, though bills to do so have stalled. The Connecticut legislature voted to abolish the penalty last year, but the governor at the time, M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, vetoed the measure.
Ronald J. Tabak, a lawyer in New York who has argued death penalty cases, said that legislators were coming to understand that they could vote to abolish the death penalty without losing their next election, so long as they avoided moralistic arguments and focused instead on factors like accuracy, fairness and cost. “At least outside of the South, it is not the political death sentence, as often perceived by politicians, to be willing to vote for or be willing to sign into law an abolition bill,” Mr. Tabak