Mark Sanford finds redemption from South Carolina voters

Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford arrives to give his victory speech on Tuesday, May 7, 2013, in Mt. Pleasant, S.C. Sanford won back his old congressional seat in the state's 1st District in a special election. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford arrives to give his victory speech on Tuesday, May 7, 2013, in Mt. Pleasant, S.C. Sanford won back his old congressional seat in the state’s 1st District in a special election.
(AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)

In a story of political redemption, Mark Sanford is headed back to Congress after his career was derailed by scandal four years ago.

“I am one imperfect man saved by God’s grace,” the Republican told about 100 cheering supporters Tuesday after defeating Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch to win back the 1st District seat he held for three terms in the 1990s. “It’s my pledge to all of you going forward I’m going to be one of the best congressmen I could have ever been.”

Although the race was thought to be close going into the voting, Sanford collected 54 percent of the vote against Colbert Busch, the sister of political satirist Stephen Colbert, in a district that hasn’t elected a Democratic congressman in more than three decades. About 32 percent of the district’s voters went to the polls. Green Party candidate Eugene Platt finished far behind.

“Some guy came up to me the other day and said you look a lot like Lazarus,” Sanford told the crowd, referring to the man who, according to the Bible, Christ raised from the dead. “I’ve talked a lot about grace during the course of this campaign,” he said. “Until you experience human grace as a reflection of God’s grace, I don’t think you really get it. And I didn’t get it before.”

Sanford, who turns 53 later this month, has now never lost a race in four runs for Congress and two for governor. And he said before the votes were counted Tuesday that if he lost this one, he wouldn’t run for office again.

He saw his political career disintegrate in summer 2009 when he disappeared for five days, telling his staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. He returned to admit in a tearful news conference he had been in Argentina with his mistress — a woman to whom he is now engaged. Sanford later paid a $70,000 ethics fine, the largest in state history, for using public money to fly for personal purposes. His wife and political ally, Jenny, divorced him.

Three weeks before the special election, news surfaced that Sanford’s ex-wife had filed a court complaint alleging he was in her house without permission in violation of their divorce decree, leading the National Republican Congressional Committee to pull its support from the campaign. Sanford must appear in court Thursday on the complaint.

Sanford said he tried to get in touch with his ex-wife and was in the house so his youngest son would not have to watch the Super Bowl alone.

The congressional seat became vacant when U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint resigned from his Senate seat late last year. Governor Nikki Haley then appointed the sitting congressman, Tim Scott, to fill DeMint’s seat.

“We put up a heck of a fight, didn’t we?” Colbert Busch told a crowd of supporters at a hotel in Charleston. “The people have spoken, and I respect their decision.”

Although the district is strongly Republican, Colbert Busch raised more money than Sanford. And national Democrats flooded the airwaves with ads attacking Sanford’s past indiscretions.

Steve Israel, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Sanford now becomes the face of the Republican efforts to reach out to women voters and the GOP will have to defend him.

“In this deep red Republican district that Mitt Romney won by 18 points, the fact that the Democrat made this competitive is a testament to the strength of Elizabeth Colbert Busch as a candidate and the Republican habit of nominating flawed candidates,” he said in a statement.

But Greg Walden, his counterpart at the National Republican Congressional Committee countered that the “results demonstrate just how devastating the policies of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi are for House Democrats in 2014. Democrats spent more than $1 million trying to elect a candidate who was backed by the Democrat machine, but at the end of the day, running on the Obama-Pelosi ticket was just too toxic for Elizabeth Colbert Busch.”

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Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

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New Congress will face the same, old partisan problems

Anne Easby-Smith, left, and Trace Robbins, right, who work for House Speaker John Boehner, help to prepare the Rayburn Room on Capitol Hill in Washington,Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013, where members of the House of Representatives will pose for pictures at an oath of office ceremony with Boehner. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Anne Easby-Smith, left, and Trace Robbins, right, who work for House Speaker John Boehner, help to prepare the Rayburn Room on Capitol Hill in Washington,Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013, where members of the House of Representatives will pose for pictures at an oath of office ceremony with Boehner.
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Congress is ushering in the new and the old — dozens of eager freshmen determined to change Washington and the harsh reality of another stretch of bitterly divided government.

The 113th Congress will convene Thursday at the constitutionally required time of noon for pomp, pageantry and politics as newly elected members of the House and Senate are sworn in and the speaker of the Republican-controlled House is chosen. The traditions come against the backdrop of a mean season that closed out an angry election year.

A deal to avert the “fiscal cliff” of big tax increases and spending cuts split the parties in New Year’s Day votes, and the House’s failure to vote on a Superstorm Sandy aid package before adjournment prompted GOP recriminations against the leadership.

“There’s a lot of hangover obviously from the last few weeks of this session into the new one, which always makes a fresh start a lot harder,” Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said.

For all the change of the next Congress, the new bosses are the same as the old bosses.

President Barack Obama secured a second term in the November elections, and Democrats tightened their grip on the Senate for a 55-45 edge in the new two-year Congress, ensuring that Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., will remain in charge. Republicans maintained their majority in the House but will have a smaller advantage, 235-199. Former Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.‘s Illinois seat is the one vacancy.

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has faced a bruising few weeks with his fractious GOP caucus but seemed poised to win another term as speaker. He mollified angry Republicans from New York and New Jersey on Wednesday with the promise of a vote Friday on $9 billion of the storm relief package and another vote on the remaining $51 billion on Jan. 15.

The GOP members quickly abandoned their chatter about voting against the speaker.

The new Congress still faces the ideological disputes that plagued the dysfunctional 112th Congress, one of the least productive in more than 60 years. Tea partyers within the Republican ranks insist on fiscal discipline in the face of growing deficits and have pressed for deep cuts in spending as part of a reduced role for the federal government. Democrats envision a government with enough resources to help the less fortunate and press for the wealthiest to pay more in taxes.

“We can only hope for more help,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who was re-elected in November. “Any time you have new members arriving you have that expectation of bringing fresh ideas and kind of a vitality that is needed. We hope that they’re coming eager to work hard and make some difficult decisions and put the country first and not be bogged down ideologically.”

The next two months will be crucial, with tough economic issues looming. Congress put off for just eight weeks automatic spending cuts to defense and domestic programs that were due to begin with the new year. The question of raising the nation’s borrowing authority also must be decided. Another round of ugly negotiations between Obama and Congress is not far off.

There are 12 newly elected senators — eight Democrats, three Republicans and one independent, former Maine Gov. Angus King, who will caucus with the Democrats. They will be joined by Rep. Tim Scott, the first black Republican in decades, who was tapped by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to fill the remaining term of Sen. Jim DeMint. The conservative DeMint resigned to lead the Heritage Foundation think tank.

In a sign of some diversity for the venerable body, the Senate will have three Hispanics — Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and one of the new members, Republican Ted Cruz of Texas. There will be 20 women in the 100-member chamber, the highest number yet.

At least one longtime Democrat, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, will be departing in a few weeks, nominated by Obama to be secretary of state. That opens the door to former Republican Sen. Scott Brown, the only incumbent senator to lose in November’s elections, to possibly make a bid to return to Washington.

Eighty-two freshmen join the House — 47 Democrats and 35 Republicans. Women will total 81 in the 435-member body — 62 Democrats and 19 Republicans.

In the Senate, Reid and Republican leader Mitch McConnell are negotiating possible changes in the rules as lawmakers face a bitter partisan fight over filibusters, according to a Senate Democratic leadership aide who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about private matters.

Reid has complained that Republicans filibuster too often and has threatened to impose strict limits with a simple majority vote. That step could set off retaliatory delays and other maneuvers by Republicans, who argue that they filibuster because Reid often blocks them from offering amendments.

The aide said Reid was preserving the option of making changes with a simple majority vote.

The start of the new Congress also offers a comeback for one lawmaker. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who suffered a stroke last January and has been absent for the past year, plans a dramatic return to the Capitol by walking up the 45 steps to the Senate’s doors.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press

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Joe Miller’s expensive gamble

Alaska Republican Senate candidate Joe Miller gestures in Juneau, Alaska. Miller has mounted a vigorous post election campaign as his lawyers wage a last ditch legal challenge to throw out write in ballots for Sen. Lisa Murkowski in their hard-fought Senate race. (AP Photo/Chris Miller, File)

Joe Miller is fighting as though Alaska’s Senate race has yet to occur.

He has maintained a presence on TV, conservative radio and the Internet, casting himself as a righteous reformer in the face of an out-of-control establishment. He is still raising money and speaking out against his opponent.

Miller has mounted a vigorous post-election campaign as his lawyers wage a last-ditch legal challenge to throw out write-in ballots for Sen. Lisa Murkowski in their hard-fought Senate race.

A hand count of ballots showed Murkowski ahead by 10,328 votes, or 2,169 when excluding votes challenged by Miller’s campaign. Miller wants a judge to set standard of review for the ballots and a possible recount.

While there’s hope this could swing the election in his favor, Miller insists that it’s less about win-or-lose now and more about principle, ensuring the law is upheld and that the election is fair.

Miller told The Associated Press that he’s “more convinced than ever that this is the right fight, not for Joe Miller but for Alaska.”

The legal challenge has left the Senate seat in limbo just one month before the race’s winner is scheduled to be sworn in.

If the fight drags on, Alaska could be left with only one senator until the dispute is resolved. That means the next Senate would be a 99-member body as it returns to take up important matters like tax cuts. Murkowski could also lose her leadership positions if the new Senate convenes without her, her attorneys warn.

People who know Miller describe the Ivy League-educated lawyer and Army veteran as driven, emotional, focused on the mission at hand.

He knows what’s at stake in fighting on, including running the risk of looking like a sore loser or hurting his chances of running for office again, perhaps against U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, in 2014. But he insists he doesn’t care.

“My only call is to be faithful to what I believe is the right thing to do,” he said, “and I’ll trust God for the ultimate outcome.”

Miller relentlessness has occurred despite calls from his own party to concede and Murkowski having already declared herself the victor. Some of his highest-profile supporters have either gone silent or moved on and urged him to do the same.

Miller won the Republican nomination in the August primary with the backing of former Gov. Sarah Palin and the tea party crowd. Murkowski responded by becoming the first politician to win a write-in U.S. Senate campaign in more than 50 years.

Miller believes the state’s running of the election favored Murkowski, who mounted a write-in campaign after losing her primary to Miller.

State law calls for write-in ballots to have the candidate’s last name or name as it appears on the declaration of candidacy written next to the filled-in ballot oval and Miller believes that standard should have been adhered to strictly. But the state used discretion in determining voter intent, counting ballots with misspellings toward Murkowski’s tally — a practice it has defended as being in line with case law.

A federal judge, calling both interpretations plausible, blocked certification of the race pending resolution of Miller’s complaint. The judge sent the matter to state court and a hearing is set for Wednesday.

That decision buoyed Miller supporters, deflated after the count of write-in votes went for Murkowski.

The glimmer of hope is reflected in a banner on the website for the tea party-style Conservative Patriots Group, which reads: “We are keeping our fingers crossed for Joe Miller.” South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint‘s Senate Conservatives Fund PAC has reported raising more than $150,000 for Miller’s legal bills, and a spokesman says DeMint remains behind Miller “100 percent.”

“You can say it’s a long shot but we’re still in the fight,” said Bill Peck of Maryland, who served as a ballot observer for Miller. “And I think we have a strong case.”

The state GOP thinks otherwise. Chairman Randy Ruedrich, who publicly supported Miller after his primary triumph, has called on him to “respect the will of the voters” and concede. Both the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Republican National Committee, once vocal backers of Miller, have fallen silent since the last votes were tallied in mid-November.

“The election is over; the state should certify it as soon as it’s legally allowed to do so, and we should move on to other elections,” state GOP spokesman Casey Reynolds said. “Dragging it on really doesn’t serve any real purpose.”

Miller, joined by Palin and others in an effort to oust Ruedrich from his post in 2008, said he considers it an “honor and a privilege” to have Ruedrich fight him. Given the state party’s “history of supporting corrupt practices and corrupt politicians,” he said Ruedrich’s opposition “means I am doing something right.”

Miller’s camp has complained about the state moving up the date for hand counting write-in ballots by eight days, saying it made it impossible to get the full complement of ballot watchers to Juneau in time to oversee the start of the process. Murkowski has claimed no hardship.

Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell, who oversees elections, wanted the date moved up to allow more time for the counting to occur and any challenges to take place.

As for the court case, Miller’s attorneys opposed the expedited schedule, wanting to ensure they had time to comb through ballots and precinct logs to ensure there weren’t widespread voting problems. Attorneys for the state want a ruling this week to allow time for appeal and for the race to be certified before next month’s swearing in. They call Miller’s concerns about voting irregularities unfounded.

Miller was widely considered the favorite in the race, with his call for a smaller federal government and greater state’s rights resonating. But he suffered from a series of high-profile campaign stumbles — the handcuffing of a journalist by his security detail after a town hall and the disclosure that he’d lied and had been disciplined for using computers at his government job for political purposes.

“This has been a bruising process but there is a price to be paid for stepping out and advocating a fundamental change of direction,” he said.

Political science professor Jerry McBeath doesn’t think Miller is doing himself great political damage so long as he’s willing to accept the decision of the state courts.

If he ultimately loses this race, and chooses to run again, he said Miller could do it without the GOP backing. After all, Murkowski did.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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The arms treaty: More hype than facts, more spin than truth

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

In their showdown over the fate of a major arms-control treaty with Russia, Democrats and Republicans are charging each other with undermining national security. So who’s right?

The Obama administration is pushing for a vote this year on the treaty, while Republicans are calling for a delay until a new Congress convenes in January.

Here’s a closer look at the claims flying back and forth in the debate:
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THE CLAIM: Opponents of the treaty, known as New START, say it will limit U.S. options for future missile defense. “New START could hamper our ability to improve our missile-defense system — leaving us unable to destroy more than a handful of missiles at a time and vulnerable to attacks from around the globe,” Republican Sen. Jim DeMint wrote in the National Review in July.

THE FACTS: The treaty itself does not place any constraints on missile defense. The document’s preamble, which is not legally binding, acknowledges an interrelationship between nuclear weapons and missile defense, an assertion that was accepted by George W. Bush’s administration and is self-evident: The point of missile defense is to counteract nuclear-tipped missiles.

Opponents also point to Russia’s assertion in a signing statement that it reserves the right to withdraw from the treaty if the United States significantly boosts its missile defenses. In fact, both sides have the right to withdraw from the treaty for any reason they believe is in their national interest.

The Soviet Union made a similar assertion when leaders signed the original 1991 START treaty, warning the country might withdraw if the United States did not respect the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. But when President George W. Bush withdrew from the ABM treaty in 2001, Russia did not pull out of START. The START treaty held together for the same reason it was signed: It was in both countries’ national interest.

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THE CLAIM: Opponents have alleged Russia is likely to cheat on the treaty and that its compliance will be hard to verify. “I think the treaty is weak on verification, especially compared to previous treaties,” Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on a radio program last month. “We will have much greater trouble determining if Russia is cheating and given Russia’s track record, that’s a real problem.”

THE FACTS: Bond has said that a classified report raises concerns about Russian cheating. That’s impossible to evaluate without seeing the document. But without the treaty, it would be even harder for the United States to make sure Russia is not covertly expanding or improving its nuclear or ballistic missile capabilities. The U.S. has not had inspectors in Russia checking its nuclear assets since the 1991 START treaty expired in December. The only quick way of getting them back is to bring a new treaty into force.

It’s debatable whether U.S. treaty negotiators got the best terms on how they can conduct inspections, but the treaty followed hard-fought talks. The Soviet Union for years resisted allowing inspections at all. Without inspectors, the U.S. would have to rely on espionage and satellite monitoring, which are much less effective and more expensive than onsite inspection.

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THE CLAIM: The treaty’s backers say getting inspectors back on the ground in Russia is so urgent that the United States cannot afford to wait until next year. “This is not about politics,” President Barack Obama said Thursday. “It’s about national security. This is not a matter than can be delayed.”

THE FACTS: The urgency is political. Next year the Republican ranks in the Senate will expand by six and it will be much more difficult to ratify the treaty. Even the administration concedes that the security risk is not immediate. “I am not particularly worried, near term,” Obama’s top adviser on nuclear issues, Gary Samore, said Thursday. “But over time, as the Russians are modernizing their systems and starting to deploy new systems, the lack of inspections will create much more uncertainty.”

Intelligence officials have also expressed concerns about returning inspectors that have sounded less than urgent.

“I think the earlier, the sooner, the better. You know, my thing is: From an intelligence perspective only, are we better off with it or without it? We’re better off with it,” the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said recently.

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THE CLAIM: Republicans, led by Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, say they won’t consider the treaty until the Obama administration budgets adequate money for the nation’s nuclear arsenal and the laboratories that oversee them. The treaty would reduce the limits on U.S. and Russian warheads, and Kyl says he needs assurances that the remaining nuclear arsenal is modernized and effective.

THE FACTS: The administration acknowledges that the weapons complex has been underfunded and says that it wants to address that. It has pledged a total of $85 billion to maintain the nuclear arsenal over the next 10 years, including a $4.1 billion boost recently pledged in an attempt to address Kyl’s concerns.

The president can’t guarantee Congress, which controls spending, will go along with those figures. For his part, Kyl hasn’t said whether he thinks the pledge is enough. But it would lift average spending over the five years beginning 2012 nearly 30 percent over 2010 levels. Even before the administration’s new pledge, Linton Brooks, who oversaw the nuclear laboratories as director of the National Nuclear Safety Administration during the Bush administration, told an audience at a Washington think tank that he “would have killed for” the amount in this year’s budget.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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Can Democrats buck the anti-pork tidal wave?

Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV), R, makes a statement about leadership elections as Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) listens on Capitol Hill in Washington. (REUTERS/Jim Young)

Now that Republicans have abandoned the you-scratch-my-back, I’ll-scratch-yours earmark process, Democrats who still hold a majority in the Senate have to decide whether they’ll try to prop up a system that seems to be collapsing all around them.

With the incoming House GOP majority dead set against earmarks and President Barack Obama urging a crackdown, defenders of earmarks — mostly Democrats but with a few Republicans mixed in — are swimming against a powerful tide.

Earmarking allows lawmakers to steer federal spending to pet projects in their states and districts. Earmarks take many forms. They can be road projects, improvements to home district military bases, sewer projects, economic development projects and even those Predator drone aircraft that are used to kill terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

They can also include tax breaks for a handful of specific companies, like a tax cut proposed years ago for manufacturers of hunting arrows.

The reason Capitol Hill’s favor factory has churned out so many pork-barrel projects so successfully for so long is pretty simple: Everybody did it, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives.

Not anymore.

Critics like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and incoming House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, have railed against earmarks for years, even as they proliferated when Republicans controlled Congress. Slowly, the tide has turned in their favor.

Boehner promises that next year’s spending bills won’t have earmarks. The opinion of House Democrats doesn’t matter much since they’ll be stripped of most of their power under a Boehner-led regime.

But it was Monday’s surprise announcement by Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in support of a two-year moratorium on earmarks that fundamentally shifted the paradigm. Until then, McConnell had been a strong defender of the practice. Banning earmarks wouldn’t save money and would shift too much power to Obama, McConnell said in the days after the midterm congressional elections.

Despite deep misgivings among many old-timers, Republican senators followed McConnell’s lead and endorsed a nonbinding moratorium on earmarks Tuesday evening by a voice vote in a closed meeting.

Earmark critics want to go further and are demanding a vote by the entire Senate to ban them for three years.

The move by the Senate GOP leaves Senate Democrats as the only faction of Congress in a position to try to save the practice — and their position doesn’t seem very strong, since it’s difficult to see how Boehner and McConnell would allow any earmark-laden bills to pass.

Thus far, however, some Senate Democrats seem to be in denial.

“I have an obligation to the people of Nevada to do what is important to Nevada, not what is important to some bureaucrat down here (in Washington) with green eyeshades,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said. “So I am not going, personally, going to back off of bringing stuff back to Nevada.”

Once limited to the most senior and powerful lawmakers, earmarking pet projects and grants mushroomed after Republicans took over Congress in 1995.

Then, GOP leaders like House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas saw earmarks as a way to help endangered Republicans keep their seats and to reward lawmakers loyal to GOP leaders. Boehner, by contrast, has never sought an earmark.

Estimates vary, but earmarks went from more than 1,300 projects worth nearly $8 billion in 1994 to a peak of nearly 14,000 projects worth more than $27 billion in 2005, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group that opposes the practice.

Democrats cut back the number and cost of earmarks somewhat and presided over changes that made the process more transparent by requiring the sponsors of the specially targeted programs and grants to disclose them. That’s made it easier for outsiders to track a “pay-to-play” system in which lobbyists and corporate executives showered lawmakers with campaign funds in exchange for earmarks.

The new Senate moratorium is a nonbinding statement. It doesn’t outright block a lawmaker from seeking an earmark, and some GOP senators have said they still will try to find a way to win them.

“If the Obama administration and their bureaucrats in the federal agencies take action against the best interests of South Carolina, I will take swift action to correct their wrongs,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said.

Graham has been feuding with home-state GOP colleague Jim DeMint — a leader of the movement to ban earmarks — over an effort to win federal money for a project to deepen the Port of Charleston so it can accept larger ships.

Other Senate Republicans, like Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, maintain they’ll also try to find a way to earmark regardless.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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Reid, McDonnell keep Senate leadership posts

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid

Senate Democrats and Republicans alike are poised to return their respective party leaders to their posts following an election in which the top Democrat scrambled to retain his seat and the senior Republican picked up 13 new senators.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, is unopposed to keep his post, as is Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell, the minority leader.

Reid’s midterm election victory over tea party favorite Sharron Angle spared Democrats a battle over who might have replaced him.

And McConnell is sidestepping a divisive fight with conservatives over earmarks by endorsing a tea party-sponsored ban on them.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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McConnell flips and backs ban on pork barrel spending

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., center, in Washington Monday, Nov. 15, 2010.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Congress’ most unapologetic fan of big-money politics is backing a ban on pork-barrel earmarks and avoiding an early battle with conservative senators who had threatened to force a vote on the matter.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has long defended the practice of designating money for home-state projects, said he was heeding the message sent by voters so distrustful of government that they swept Democrats from power in the House. McConnell said the abuse of the earmarking system turned it into a symbol of government waste that Republicans do oppose.

“Old habits aren’t easy to break,” McConnell, the Senate minority leader, noted.

But he and other earmark proponents were under pressure to acknowledge the tea party-fueled public anger over government spending and “back-room deals” in Congress.

Just hours before McConnell spoke, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., promoted the ban on remarks to tea party activists at a Capitol rally, saying he was forcing a vote to see whether entrenched Senate veterans have “gotten the message.”

“Tomorrow, the Republicans in the Senate are going to start answering that question: Have we learned our lesson? Are we going to go a different way?” DeMint said.

House Republicans already are moving to extend their moratorium on earmarks, and President Barack Obama has said he supports a crackdown on the practice.

“We can’t stop with earmarks as they represent only part of the problem,” Obama said in a statement. “I look forward to working with Democrats and Republicans to not only end earmark spending, but to find other ways to bring down our deficits for our children.”

Earmarking is the longtime Washington practice in which lawmakers insert money for home-state projects like road and bridge work into spending bills. Critics say that peppering most spending bills with hundreds or even thousands of such projects creates a go-along-get-along mindset that ensures that Washington spending goes unchecked.

McConnell, a 26-year veteran of the Senate and longtime member of the Appropriations Committee, had argued in the past that banning earmarks would shift too much power to Obama and wouldn’t save taxpayers any money.

“I know the good that has come from the projects I have helped support throughout my state. I don’t apologize for them,” he said.

McConnell’s move also forestalls a possible fight with the House, where Speaker-to-be John Boehner, R-Ohio, poised to become the most powerful Republican in Washington, had put people on notice that there won’t be any earmarks in spending bills.

The developments took Senate Democrats, who remain the majority party in the chamber, by surprise, and top Democrats said they stand by the practice. A spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid, freshly re-elected after a campaign in which he boasted of his ability to bring home the bacon to Nevada, said Reid believes it’s up to each senator to decide whether he or she will seek earmarks.

“From delivering $100 million in military projects for Nevada to funding education and public transportation projects in the state, Sen. Reid makes no apologies for delivering for the people of Nevada,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley said. “He will always fight to ensure the state’s needs are met.”

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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Lame ducks return to Washington

House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio, right, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., left, swap positions at the microphones during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Fresh off big election day victories, Republicans in Congress are feeling empowered in their fight to extend tax cuts that expire in January, including those for the wealthy. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)Seven weeks ahead of the GOP

House takeover, hobbled Democrats and invigorated Republicans return Monday to a testy tax dispute and a lengthy to-do list for a post-election session of Congress unlikely to achieve any landmark legislation.

With change clearly in the air, more than 100 mainly Republican freshmen arrive on Capitol Hill to be schooled on the jobs they’ll assume when the next Congress convenes in January. For Democrats, it’s another sad note as one of their most venerable members goes on trial on ethics charges.

Lame-duck sessions are usually unpopular and unproductive. Nothing suggests otherwise this year.

Republicans are looking ahead to January, when they will take back control of the House; many Democratic lawmakers and staff are more focused on cleaning out their desks and looking for new jobs. That doesn’t mean they can slack off.

Congress must act before year’s end on expiring Bush-era tax cuts to protect millions of people from significant tax increases. Lawmakers failed to pass even a single annual spending bill this year, and funds are needed to keep federal agencies financed and avoid a government shutdown. Doctors, meanwhile, face a crippling cut in Medicare reimbursements.

Democrats still command sizable majorities in the House and Senate, and have other ambitions for the lame-duck session. Most will go unfulfilled.

There are efforts to give Social Security recipients a $250 check to make up for no cost-of-living increase next year; to extend unemployment benefits; to allow gays to serve openly in the military; to ratify a nuclear weapons reduction treaty with Russia; and to extend government oversight of food safety.

Congress will be in session for a week, break for Thanksgiving week and return on Nov. 29. Lawmakers will continue until they complete their work or give up.

Most of the attention this week will be on activities off the House and Senate floors.

In a back room of a House office building, the House ethics committee will open the trial Monday of 80-year-old Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., the former Ways and Means Committee chairman charged with multiple ethics violations.

Elsewhere on the Hill, more than 100 incoming House and Senate freshmen start learning the rules of decorum, how to run a congressional office and how not to get lost in the Capitol basement. Two Democratic senators — Joe Manchin, who won the seat of the late Robert Byrd of West Virginia, and Chris Coons, elected to Vice President Joe Biden‘s Delaware seat — will be sworn in Monday.

On Tuesday the Senate parties elect their leaders. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada will continue to head the reduced Democratic majority, with Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky still guiding the Republicans.

One uncertainty is whether Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., can get fellow Republicans to accept a freeze on the pet spending priorities of lawmakers known as earmarks for the coming session.

“Americans want Congress to shut down the earmark favor factory, and next week I believe House and Senate Republicans will unite to stop pork-barrel spending,” DeMint said.

Earmarks are one subject being discussed by a 22-member GOP transition team that is drawing up plans on how the House will operate when Republicans take over in January. That team includes four freshmen who ran almost universally on cutting the size of government and reducing spending.

“We have some dynamic young leaders that are coming into our conference and you bet we’re listening to them,” said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., head of the transition team.

House leadership elections take place Wednesday. Pending the official floor vote in January, Republicans will confirm Rep. John Boehner of Ohio as the next speaker and Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia as future majority leader.

Things appear to have settled on the Democratic side.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., wants to stay on as Democratic leader, and a Democratic arrangement reached Friday clears the way for Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer to become second in command without a challenge from South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn.

While Pelosi has no challenger, two senior Democrats, Reps. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio and Peter DeFazio of Oregon, wrote to their colleagues urging that the vote be put off until December. “Following the loss of our majority, we should fully understand the causes of our historic losses before we begin the process of rebuilding,” they wrote.

The chances of bipartisan action during the lame-duck session could become clearer when President Barack Obama meets next week with leaders of both parties at the White House.

On the most pressing issue facing Congress, extension of the Bush tax cuts, Obama wants to extend them for couples earning less than $250,000 annually while seeking a compromise, perhaps a temporary continuation, for wealthier taxpayers. Buoyed by their advantage, Republicans are holding firm on permanent extensions for all.

This, Boehner said last week, “will be the most important thing we can do to help create jobs in the country.”

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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Deficit commission challenges conventional wisdom on budget

Erskine Bowles, left, accompanied by former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, co-chairmen of President Barack Obama's bipartisan deficit commission, gestures while speaking on Capitol Hill in Washington Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The leaders of the deficit commission are baldly calling out the budget myths of both political parties, challenging lawmakers to engage in the “adult conversation” they say they want.

Their plan — mixing painful cuts to Social Security and Medicare with big tax increases — has no chance of enactment as written, certainly not as a whole. But the commission’s high profile will make it harder for Republicans and Democrats to simply keep reciting their tax and spending talking points without acknowledging the real sacrifices that progress against government deficits would demand.

It’s time for both conservatives and liberals to “put up or shut up,” says Jon Cowan, head of the centrist-Democratic group Third Way, which praised the bold new proposals and urged politicians to show courage. Republicans failed to produce their often-promised deficit reductions when they controlled the government, Cowan said, and Democrats refuse to acknowledge that entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare must be trimmed.

Already, some top elected officials — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for one — have declared Wednesday’s proposals by the leaders of President Barack Obama’s bipartisan commission unacceptable. Others still say deficits can be reduced in relatively easy ways, a notion that few mainstream economists accept.

There’s no need to trim Social Security, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a tea party favorite, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “If we can just cut the administrative waste,” he said, “we can cut hundreds of billions of dollars a year at the federal level.”

Well, no.

As amply demonstrated by the panel’s co-chairmen — former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and retired Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo. — taming the deficit requires real pain all around. One person’s government waste is another’s essential program.

The co-chairmen’s ideas, which they agree are simply a starting point, include calls to raise the Social Security retirement age and reduce scheduled benefit increases, whack the Pentagon budget, cut farm subsidies and increase the federal tax on gasoline by 15 cents a gallon.

The most vocal critics of the plan, which would cut spending by $3 for every $1 raised through higher taxes, are Democrats. Many will strongly oppose the bid to slowly raise the Social Security retirement age to 69. Republicans, especially three commission members appointed by incoming House Speaker John Boehner, are likely to balk at tax increases

Opinion is split on whether 14 of the panel’s 18 members will ultimately agree on a plan. That’s the number needed to demonstrate bipartisan support and send the measure to the Senate and, maybe, the House for a vote. Either way, commission members are unlikely to produce actual legislation that could become law. But they could bless a set of recommendations that would put lawmakers on record for or against a serious deficit-reduction recipe.

The panel was created out of both parties’ frustration with the government’s chronic inability to control budget deficits and the national debt. The idea is that Republicans and Democrats might join hands and vote for an unpopular mix of tax increases and program reductions because the shame and hypocrisy of doing nothing would be too great.

Ultimately it’s the public that often drives decisions by lawmakers and a president, all craving re-election.

That doesn’t necessarily help.

“The voters are the most culpable group of all,” says former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va. They embrace the idea that “we don’t need new revenues, and all these programs are sacrosanct,” he said in an interview.

“Nobody wants to make hard decisions,” Davis said, adding that partisan commentators such as Glenn Beck on the right and Rachel Maddow on the left might be better positioned to call on Americans to share some pain to avoid a debt crisis.

Obama created the commission after the Senate rejected a plan by Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Judd Gregg, R-N.H., to establish a similar but stronger panel comprised exclusively of lawmakers and administration officials. Creation of the Bowles-Simpson commission was a promise required to get Senate Democrats to cast a politically perilous vote last January to allow the government to go a whopping $1.9 trillion deeper in debt. Days later, Obama proposed a budget mostly devoid of tough choices, leaving it to the commission to propose solutions.

He has no administration officials on the panel, so it was easy for spokesman Bill Burton to distance the White House from Wednesday’s recommendations by Bowles and Simpson. Burton called them “only a step in the process.”

This is hardly the first time Washington has resorted to a blue ribbon panel to take on a politically difficult issue. Some work out better than others.

A 1994 deficit commission was a bust. So was a 2005 tax reform panel established by President George W. Bush. It called for erasing tax breaks that many Americans enjoy, including the tax deduction on home mortgage interest — an idea endorsed by Bowles and Simpson on Wednesday. The Bush White House response: Thanks but no thanks.

On the other hand, a 1982 Social Security commission chaired by Alan Greenspan came up with a plan for solvency that earned the blessing of President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Thomas O’Neill, D-Mass. It passed Congress easily and generated almost three decades of program surpluses.

Bowles and Simpson no longer hold top offices, so they were able to produce a plan that would gore everyone’s ox. It’s actually a discussion draft, which the men decided to publicize after Wednesday’s commission meeting because leaks seemed inevitable.

Their proposal surprised many people because the duo had kept such a low profile before this week. Expectations have been low that they would be able to produce anything that could get support from enough members of their own panel.

But in releasing such a slap-in-the-face plan, the co-chairmen grabbed headlines and riveted interest groups across the political spectrum. In one stroke, they seemed to change the national conversation on the deficit, at least for a while.

Besides Democrats concerned about big cuts in entitlement programs, the plan may cause discomfort for dozens of Republicans who won congressional elections last week after vowing to cut the deficit but offering few or no details on how to do it. The House GOP’s “Pledge to America” doesn’t propose touching Social Security and Medicare, instead focusing vaguely on domestic programs passed every year by Congress — which are only about one-seventh of the budget.

Even people who don’t like the Bowles-Simpson plan credited the men for jump-starting a national debate on the nation’s precarious fiscal posture.

“The positive aspects of this are that they say, ‘It’s got to be both revenues and spending. … You can’t get there with getting rid of waste, fraud and abuse and earmarks,'” said James Horney of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “So that’s moving the debate forward from where it’s been.”

Soon Congress must decide whether that is all it will do.

___

Andrew Taylor covers Congress for The Associated Press and Charles Babington covers the White House.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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Republicans plan early assault on health care law

Congressional Republicans said on Sunday they plan a full-scale assault against President Barack Obama‘s healthcare overhaul next year but acknowledged it could take until after the 2012 presidential election to repeal it.

Representative Paul Ryan, expected to become chairman of the House Budget Committee chairman, said his fellow Republicans will try to deny funding for implementation of the healthcare legislation and hold hearings to point out its shortcomings when the new Congress convenes in January.

But full repeal of the law and replacing it may have to await the results of next election cycle, when control of Congress will again be up for grabs as well as Obama’s bid for a second four-year term.

“This bill is such a fiscal and economic train wreck for our country and for the health care system itself,” Ryan said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”

“We’re going to do everything we can to try and repeal and replace this thing. And ultimately, I think 2013 is when it will be done the right way,” he added.

The healthcare law is a signature achievement for Obama’s first term in office and he would most certainly veto any legislation that attempts to repeal it.

Fresh from their mid-term congressional election victory on November 2 that gave them control of the House of Representatives and reduced the Democratic majority in the Senate, Republican leaders said on Sunday that they would do whatever they could to disrupt implementation of the law.

REPUBLICANS EYE FUNDING

The landmark measure aims to extend health coverage to 33 million uninsured people and make it easier for individuals and small businesses to buy medical coverage. But critics say it creates too big a role for government in healthcare while failing to reduce soaring costs.

“What we’re doing in my office is looking for the various parts of it that are subject to funding,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“We will be revisiting this issue time after time. The American people expect us to,” McConnell said.

The bill enacted in March requires most Americans to obtain health insurance and provides federal subsidies to help middle- and low-income families afford it. It also includes penalties for large companies that do not provide insurance and have employees obtaining federally subsidized coverage.

Republicans campaigned against the bill as well as Democrats’ handling of the weak economy. They won a sizable majority in the House and took six Senate seats from the Democratic majority. Democrats defended the health legislation arguing it puts an end to insurance companies discriminating against pre-existing conditions and charging higher premiums for women.

Most of the bill’s provisions will not go into effect until 2014, including the coverage mandate and state-run insurance exchanges that will provide one-stop shopping for coverage.

But some of the more popular provisions, such as allowing young adults to stay on their parent’s health policies until they turn 26, are already in effect.

Republicans are considering denying funds to the Internal Revenue Service that would be needed to enforce the coverage mandate.

They also are talking about denying money to the Health and Human Services Department that will play a major role in establishing coverage requirements and setting up the insurance exchanges.

Republican Senator James DeMint, a staunch supporter of the conservative Tea Party movement, said denying funds for implementation is the first step toward ultimate repeal.

“Most aspects of this new Obamacare are not implemented for two more years so it’s very realistic to think we can slow the implementation of it or delay it and then replace it in 2012,” DeMint told NBC’s “Meet the Press.

Copyright © 2010 Reuters

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