House Dems Flex Muscles on Trade

With the recent successes of Congressional Democrats at passing legislation that, if signed into law, would fundamentally change American policy towards Iraq and which, at the least, for once and for all puts Republicans on the record as supporting an unending U.S. military presence in Iraq, it is possible to overlook the fact that the new Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate are having tangible effects upon other areas of American politics. The prosecutor purge scandal, which is being watched more closely by Americans than other previous scandals like the one that centered on the fall of the savings and loan industry or those surrounding Tom DeLay, Jim Wright and Dan Rostenkowski, and upon which the vast majority of Americans agree with the Democratic insistence that Bush administraton officials testify when subpoenaed by Congress, is a good example of this -- but it's not the only one. In Wednesday's issue of The Hill, for instance, Ian Swanson reports on the tough stance House Democrats are taking on the issue of trade, which provides a stark contrast to the willingness of Republican Congresses past to accept any trade legislation put forward by President Bush no matter how deleterious such bills would be to most Americans.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) yesterday unveiled a set of conditions he said must be met before the administration's trade agenda in the Democratic Congress moves forward.

Rangel presented the wide-ranging policy, which covered everything from labor rights to port security, at a noon meeting of the Democratic Caucus where the points won an endorsement, he said. Rangel previously shared such policy details in separate meetings on March 23 and Monday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Following the caucus meeting, Rangel presented his ideas to U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, as well as to top Ways and Means Republicans, with a simple message.

"All we have said was that we have won the election. We are in the majority. It just makes sense that we should not have to beg for consideration of things that we think would be good for trade and good for America," Rangel told reporters.

[...]

Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), who chairs the Ways and Means trade subcommittee, said that text in the pending free-trade agreements (FTAs) must be altered to meet Democratic demands, and that Democrats would work to meet the end-of-month deadline. He also indicated other options could be considered.

Levin said fast track could be extended if the administration were willing to fit the Democratic principles into the current fast-track authority, but he questioned whether the administration would agree to such terms.

In recent years, Iraq has not been the only area of policy that the Bush White House has sought to dominate by executive fiat and Congressional Republican submission. But that has largely changed since Democrats assumed power on Capitol Hill as evidenced by these strong statements by Rangel and Levin, as well as other recent instances such as Barbara Boxer's smackdown of Jim Inhofe at the Congressional hearing on climate change at which Al Gore testified.

And getting beyond the overarching discussion of what Democratic control over Congress has done to change Washington, the move by Rangel and Levin to force the administration's hand on trade, requiring the White House to rework trade agreements so that they are not stacked against the American worker, many American businesses, America's national security and the environment in the world (not to mention workers and others in the countries with which the deals have been negotiated), is much needed in this country today. I will not argue that there are not some benefits to the liberalization of trade barriers. But to do so without regard to workers' rights, the environment and the safety of nations signing such deals can in fact go far to weaken the countries involved. So if the Bush administration is not willing to go back and renegotiate its pending trade agreements, it won't be such a great loss to America -- or other nations, either -- if the deals are put on hold for a couple years until a saner administration is in office.

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Anti-Gay Activists Concede They're Now on the Defensive

While anti-gay activists may have been on the offensive in 2004, passing referenda around the country restricting the rights and liberties of many Americans due to their sexual orientation, the mood in the country has been moving decidedly in the opposite direction. In 2006, Arizonans notably made their state the first to reject an initiative banning same-sex marriage. Polling indicates that a fairly sizeable majority of Americans now favor either allowing the option for marriage or civil unions for same-sex couples, and the latest survey (.pdf) in a series conducted in California dating back 20 years provides a statistical background for the contention that younger voters are significantly more in favor of gay marriage than older ones and that, what's more, as younger voters are replacing older voters within the electorate, voters overall are becoming more amenable to the notionof gay marriage. And now, according to Shawn Zeller writing in CQ Weekly (subscription required) anti-gay groups are conceding that they are on the defensive.

Social conservatives are already talking as though they will be playing defense. Gay lobbyists are "emboldened by the results in the last election, and they are very well-funded," says Tom McClusky, vice president for government affairs with the Family Research Council. "On an issue like hate crimes, there are enough Republicans that it could very easily pass."

More from Zeller...

Eleven years ago the Senate rejected, by just one vote, legislation that would have outlawed bias against homosexuals in most American workplaces; other bids to revive the bill during the GOP's reign on Capitol Hill came up empty. Legislation that would make crimes motivated by hatred of gays a federal offense have come closer to becoming law. The House included such language in a measure targeting sex offenders in 2005, but the language was abandoned later in the process. The Senate has added hate-crime amendments to bills in 1999, 2000 and 2004, but each time the provisions have been dropped in conference negotiations with the House.

Now House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers Jr. , a Michigan Democrat, is preparing to introduce a bill federalizing gay hate crimes and providing resources to law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to target such cases. Its backers say a floor vote is expected this spring.

Gay rights activists also believe that the job- discrimination bill could be on the House floor as early as this summer. It will be introduced soon by Democrats Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Republicans Deborah Pryce of Ohio and Christopher Shays of Connecticut. Last month, the HRC announced that it had joined forces with the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to marshal stories of workplace bias as part of the bill's lobbying push.

Democrat Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts will likely captain the effort behind both bills in the Senate.

The Human Rights Campaign also is looking to move legislation that would permit employees and companies to make pretax payments toward a same-sex domestic partner's medical costs. That bill will be sponsored, in all likelihood, by Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington and two senators, Democrat Charles E. Schumer of New York and Republican Gordon H. Smith of Oregon.

There is little question that the type of basic, sensible legislation being discussed for the first session of the 110th Congress should have been signed into law a long time ago and but for some extremist conservative Republicans on conference committees it probably would have. That said, these moves represent a good start to the process of increasing the rights of all Americans by ensuring that descrimination based on sexual orientation is not acceptable under the law. And as more of this legislation passes, potentially splitting the Republican Party into two camps -- those who are in favor of discrimination and those who are not -- America will move closer to the point at which all of its citizens are afforded the same rights and responsibilities, and are not divided by their sexual orientation.

Update [2007-3-13 0:24:27 by Jonathan Singer]: Just to underscore one of my points above -- that this issue cuts noticeably in favor of those who support either marriage equality or civil unions and that, what's more, it splits the Republican Party -- a new poll from CBS News and The New York Times (.pdf) finds the following:

Which comes closest to your view? Gay couples should be allowed to legally marry OR gay couples should be allowed to form civil unions but not legally marry OR there should be no legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship?
MarryCivil UnionsNo Legal Recognition
All Americans283235
Republican Voters143052

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The First GOP to Dem Party Switch of the 110th Congress?

Following changes in control over a chamber of Congress, it is not uncommon to see a member or many members of the newly-minted minority leaving their party in favor of the new majority caucus. Following the 1994 midterms, for instance, a number of once Democratic Representatives and Senators (Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin and Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby are two large names that come to mind) defected from their party. Although there has yet to be a Senator or Congressman who switched his partisan allegiance from the GOP to the Democratic Party since the 2006 midterms, the possibility remains that one or more still will. Writing in the Thursday edition of The Hill, Jackie Kucinich takes a look at the entreaties offered to one GOP Rep. by the Democrats.

[North Carolina Republican Congressman Walter] Jones's position on Iraq has drawn Democrats to him in recent years, and particularly in the last two months, since he was denied a subcommittee chairmanship on the Armed Services Committee.

While declining to identify which of "several" Democrats have approached him about switching parties, Jones said, as he has many times before, that he plans to stick with the GOP for now.

"Obviously there were some Democrats when I was not given the ranking member status of Armed Services [who wanted] to chat with me," he said, noting that Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) has said publicly that his party would support a swap.

"I [would] welcome him in the Democratic Caucus," Taylor told CongressDaily in January.

"You know it's my political nature to be ... I'm guided by my faith. Quite frankly, I'm strong pro-life," Jones said to explain his allegiance, noting that he didn't believe the Democratic leadership was in line with him on such social issues. "I just take each day as it comes; I certainly think about where I will be a year or two, three years from now, but that's God's plan, not mine ... I think at the present time, because of the pro- life issue primarily, I am where I need to be.

"But I am an independent. There are issues I vote with my party on; there are issues I don't," he said.

Jones is no stranger to the Democratic Party. His father, Walter B. Jones Sr. represented a similar portion of North Carolina for more than 25 years -- as a Democrat -- and when the younger Jones ran to succeed his father in 1992 he did so, unsuccessfully, as a Democrat. Two years later, Jones ran as a Republican and won, and has since maintained that same party allegiance in the House.

But at the same time, Jones is not the most partisan member of his caucus -- not by a long shot. While Jones' standing as one of the leading proponents of bringing an end to the Iraq War from either party has set him apart from most of his fellow Republicans, on a whole range of other issues he voted more like a centrist/conservative Southern Democrat than a traditional Republican. According to 2006 vote rankings from National Journal, Jones tended to vote more liberally than 53.5 percent of his colleagues in the House across all issues (57 percent on economic and foreign policy, 45 percent on social policy), ranking him more liberal than 10 Democrats and all but two Republicans. Similarly, CQ found that on party line votes during over the course of 2006 Jones was the third most likely Republican and eighth most likely member of the House to defect from his party's caucus, doing so about 36 percent of the time.

Now there is certainly credence to the notion that the political cover given to a political party by having a member of the opposing member on its side, thus giving it "bipartisan support", is more beneficial than the addition of one more member, particularly when that party's majority in a chamber is not so small as to be affected by a party switch in the other direction or a sudden retirement. That said, in this particular case House Democrats would well served by adding Jones to their ranks. The district Jones represents, North Carolina's third, leans about 15 points more Republican than the nation as a whole in presidential elections, according to the Cook Political Report's PVI, and as such is not likely to swing Democratic any time soon in the absence of a party switch by Jones. What's more, Jones is established enough in his district that he would likely be able to hold on to his seat even if challenged by the Republicans following a party switch.

It is worth reiterating that Jones not in line with the Democratic Party on every issue, most notably the issue of choice, and that, what's more, he would be one of the more conservative members of the party caucus in the House. That said, if you want to let Jones know that you would like to see him join the Democratic Party -- particularly if you are a constituent of his, but even if you're not -- send him an email through this form or give him a call (his official number is available here, his campaign number here).

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Reid, Schumer Dare GOP to Follow Through on 9/11 Bill Fillibuster Threat

This week the White House announced its intention to veto legislation containing the 9/11 Commission recommendations because of provisions extending the rights of most federal employees to whistle-blower protection and collective bargaining to those who work in the Transportation Security Administration. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in a prepared speech to be given today at the Conservative Political Action Conference, said that he had the votes to sustain the President's threatened veto, throwing his lot on the side of those willing to play politics with this important homeland security measure. Well, according to The HillElana Schor, the Senate Democratic leadership is getting ready to force the Senate GOP to follow through with their political ploy.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his leadership team showed no inclination to remove the TSA provision from the bill, daring Republicans and President Bush to suffer the political consequences of killing a popular homeland security bill.

"If Republicans filibuster this, they have the burden to bear," Reid told reporters. "We do not."

Senate Democratic campaign chief Charles Schumer (N.Y.), in a warning that could unsettle vulnerable GOP incumbents, added, "Every time Republicans put ideology over security and safety, they lost."

This is a gutsy move by Senate Democrats, forcing the Republican minority to obstruct this legislation, providing a good contrast between the two parties on both homeland security and labor. More to the point, forcing the Republicans to filibuster the 9/11 recommendations legislation (which one would assume they would attempt to do even if they have slightly fewer than necessary votes) exposes the GOP as a party beholden to far right wing ideologues, not one interested, above all else, in protecting America from terrorism.

Moving a couple steps ahead, assuming that the Senate is able to overcome a Republican filibuster and come together with the House to send a 9/11 recommendations bill to the President's desk which he vetoes, there is a real possibility that the Senate Democrats could hold another vote on an attempt to override the veto, putting Republicans on the record in opposition to this important homeland security legislation for a second time. With such a move, the Democrats would quite likely have increased momentum at their backs as they move into the debate on the floor of the United States over binding legislation on Iraq -- exactly the type of position they want to (and probably need to) be in as they go up head-to-head against the executive branch and the Republican obstructionists in the Senate in an effort to end the war in Iraq.

Update [2007-3-1 20:32:21 by Jonathan Singer]: Via Breaking Blue, Cliff Schecter makes a great catch -- Mitch McConnell, king of the disingenuous flip-flop:

I don't think obstructionism sells very well to the American people. It's not a great political tactic in my judgment.

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Perhaps it's Time for The New York Times to Retake Congress 101

A little over a month ago the House of Representatives passed an increase to the minimum wage by a 315 to 116 margin. Earlier this month, the Senate passed its own version of a minimum wage increase with a sweetner in the form of tax cuts for small businesses by a 94 to 3 marging. In order to come closer to reconciling the two slightly different pieces of legislation, the House passed a tax cut of its own yesterday by a 360 to 45 margin. From here, leaders from the two chambers will work informally leading into a conference committee where the House and Senate works to combine all of the legislation into one bill that can pass both chambers. This is a textbook example of how the legislative process works and is, frankly, a quick example at that. But how does The New York Times spin the story? Under the headline Familiar Problem Stalls Minimum Wage Bill.

When Democrats campaigned last fall to recapture control of Congress, few domestic issues seemed to have as much winning potential as raising the minimum wage.

[...]

Yet after six weeks in power, the Democratic-led House and Senate have yet to agree on a final bill. The obstacle is the same one that stymied Republicans time after time when they had control: paralyzingly thin margins in the Senate.

According to the reporter, Edmund L. Andrews, the chief Senate negotiator, Max Baucus, believes that the two sides are -- grasp -- "within weeks of reaching their goal". My gosh, the Democrats might take as long as two or three months to send legislation increasing the minimum wage to the White House. Sure, the previous four Republican Congresses were not able to do so, but still, two or three months... what an outrage!

The editors and reporters over at The Times might be well served going back to school to learn a little bit about how the legislative process works, about how, with the exception of bills that are bumping up against real or perceived to be real deadlines (like, say, a potential government shutdown), legislation takes time to pass through committees, both chambers, a conference committee and again both chambers. It may be an unfortunate fact about American politics, but it is a fact. And if those folks at The Times did go back and take a gander at their old college textbooks, they might realize that their lede should instead be, "Democrats moved one step closer to increasing the minimum wage, which Republicans were unable or unwilling to do in nearly a decade."

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