Review Category : Poltics

Senate Republicans Block $2.7 Billion Border-Funding Bill

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — Senate Republicans blocked a bill Thursday that would provide $2.7 billion in funding to address the crisis of minors from Central America illegally entering the United States.

With 50 yeas and 44 nays, the Senate did not advance Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s, D-Md., proposal to provide funding in response to President Obama’s request. The measure required a 60-vote threshold.

On July 8, the president asked Congress to supply an emergency $3.7 billion to address what members of both parties have deemed a national crisis. That request included $1.1 billion to improve enforcement and detain and return adults accompanying children across the border, plus about $2.2 billion to help Customs and Border Patrol and the Department of Health and Human Services detain, house and care for children after they have crossed.

In response to that request, Mikulski proposed a pared-down $2.7 billion package.

Under Senate rules, all non-emergency funding must include spending offsets, and 44 Republicans voted against waiving those rules and proceeding to a vote on Mikulski’s spending package. All 50 Senate Democrats voted to waive budget rules and proceed to vote on the bill.

House Republicans struggled Thursday to corral members for a vote Friday on their own border bill, but the Senate bill’s failure ensures that Congress will not send a border measure — much less the $3.7 billion in funding he requested — to President Obama’s desk before its August recess.

The House will convene for a border vote Friday before leaving town for August recess. After voting late into the night Thursday, the Senate will be in session without holding any votes on Friday, its last day before the month-long break.

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Congress Approves $15 Billion VA Deal

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — In a rare moment of bipartisan, bicameral unity, Congress has approved a deal to add $15 billion and institute reforms at the Veterans Administration.

The agency has been plagued by scandal; staffers routinely falsified wait times for veterans seeking care, and gamed internal procedures to hide the delays. Dozens of veterans died while reportedly waiting to see doctors.

The scandal resulted in the ouster of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

After the House passed the measure on Wednesday, the Senate followed suit Thursday. The VA deal sailed through two votes: an 86-8 vote to waive budget rules, and a 91-3 vote to pass the bill and send it to President Obama’s desk.

After weeks of negotiations, the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees this week reached a deal to provide $10 billion in, “mandatory emergency money” to contract health care outside the VA system. An additional $5 billion, offset by spending cuts within the VA, will go to hiring new doctors and nurses. Veterans living more than 40 miles away from a VA facility will be able to obtain care outside the VA network.

On the floor before the final vote, Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., thanked Sen. John McCain for intervening and making sure the deal was approached by “serious negotiators.”

On Tuesday, the Senate approved Shinseki’s replacement, voting 97-0 to confirm former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald as the next Veterans Affairs secretary.

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Driving While Stoned: Congress Searches for a Test Standard

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — With the clock ticking down to the congressional recess and amid a day of high drama over how to handle the border crisis, the House of Representatives made time for another matter: “Planes, Trains and Automobiles: Operating While Stoned.”

That was the title of a hearing held on Thursday by the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, which was reviewing the federal government’s response to state-level marijuana legalization as it pertains to transportation policy.

The consensus of experts who testified before the committee was that operating a vehicle under the influence of drugs poses a clear danger to the public, but lawmakers expressed concern that methods to test for marijuana are not up to date — and neither is the science.

“We don’t have a uniform standard,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. “The variable is much greater than that of other controlled substances such as alcohol. We actually can’t scientifically pinpoint levels of impairment with any accuracy.”

“We would all concede there’s some impairment for some period of time, but it’s very variable, and we’re not quite sure yet — sure enough to adopt a uniform standard,” he added.

Testing vehicle operators for marijuana is not quite as simple as using a breathalyzer to test for alcohol, officials noted.

Dr. Jeff Michael, associate administrator at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, explained that marijuana does not appear to have a distinct impairment threshold — such as the .08% blood alcohol content that a breathalyzer can test for. The level of impairment from THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, is much more variable than alcohol, making it harder to gauge, he said.

“Beyond some broad confirmation that high levels of THC are associated with higher levels of impairment, a more precise association of THC levels and degrees of impairment are not yet available,” Michael said during the hearing.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the chairman of the subcommittee, highlighted a device capable of detecting marijuana within four hours of entering the system. Mica even brought the device into the hearing room.

“I was gonna swab the panelists,” the congressman quipped, “but I thought I wouldn’t do that today.”

“You can take a swab with this —– and it can tell you if anyone has used marijuana within four hours,” Mica noted. “But again, we have no standard. We have no acceptable test. And we have no way of telling if people are impaired. Most of the data we’re getting right now is from, again, fatalities.”

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Driving While Stoned: Congress Searches for a Test Standard

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — With the clock ticking down to the congressional recess and amid a day of high drama over how to handle the border crisis, the House of Representatives made time for another matter: “Planes, Trains and Automobiles: Operating While Stoned.”

That was the title of a hearing held on Thursday by the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, which was reviewing the federal government’s response to state-level marijuana legalization as it pertains to transportation policy.

The consensus of experts who testified before the committee was that operating a vehicle under the influence of drugs poses a clear danger to the public, but lawmakers expressed concern that methods to test for marijuana are not up to date — and neither is the science.

“We don’t have a uniform standard,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. “The variable is much greater than that of other controlled substances such as alcohol. We actually can’t scientifically pinpoint levels of impairment with any accuracy.”

“We would all concede there’s some impairment for some period of time, but it’s very variable, and we’re not quite sure yet — sure enough to adopt a uniform standard,” he added.

Testing vehicle operators for marijuana is not quite as simple as using a breathalyzer to test for alcohol, officials noted.

Dr. Jeff Michael, associate administrator at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, explained that marijuana does not appear to have a distinct impairment threshold — such as the .08% blood alcohol content that a breathalyzer can test for. The level of impairment from THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, is much more variable than alcohol, making it harder to gauge, he said.

“Beyond some broad confirmation that high levels of THC are associated with higher levels of impairment, a more precise association of THC levels and degrees of impairment are not yet available,” Michael said during the hearing.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the chairman of the subcommittee, highlighted a device capable of detecting marijuana within four hours of entering the system. Mica even brought the device into the hearing room.

“I was gonna swab the panelists,” the congressman quipped, “but I thought I wouldn’t do that today.”

“You can take a swab with this —– and it can tell you if anyone has used marijuana within four hours,” Mica noted. “But again, we have no standard. We have no acceptable test. And we have no way of telling if people are impaired. Most of the data we’re getting right now is from, again, fatalities.”

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How the Monica Lewinsky Scandal Would Be Different Today

Lawrence Lucier/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — Monica Lewinsky is reclaiming her story.

In her second column for Vanity Fair magazine, published online on Thursday, Lewinsky writes about how people who are tarnished in public scandals or who face bullying online have an unprecedented opportunity to defend themselves — through social media, online essays, and other forms of modern communication.

Using Lewinsky’s own advice, we wondered how the scandal involving her and President Bill Clinton may have been different if it happened today:

1) Taking Charge of the Narrative

News of the “Lewinsky scandal” first broke in January 1998, when a relatively new online outlet called the Drudge Report posted a story about a White House intern having a sexual relationship with the president. From there on, Lewinsky was largely defined by a series of characterizations: the woman in the blue dress who performed oral sex on the president.

“More and more I’m finding that those who have lost command of their public narratives, do the opposite. They shake off the assault or the slight, take control of their rightful place in their community or the larger culture, and use social media to return the salvo,” Lewinsky wrote. “They refuse to have their identities swindled or misshapen. Instead, they take charge. They turn the attack on its head and use it as an opportunity for self-definition, instead of just taking blood as they go down.”

2) Writing an Online Rebuttal

After news of the affair broke, and President Clinton issued a denial referring to Lewinsky as “that woman,” the former White House intern escaped the public eye, hiding out at her mother’s house. If the scandal happened today, perhaps Lewinsky would have published an essay on the Internet that addressed the her side of things.

“I was listening to NPR’s ‘All Things Considered.’ One segment of the show addressed a trend: ‘The Rise of the Online Rebuttal,’” Lewinsky wrote in Vanity Fair, quoting from the NPR segment that explained the rebuttal “allows for people who feel they have been wronged or misrepresented to forcefully answer in their own voice.”

3) Using Social Media to Push Back

After remaining silent through the long and very public investigation into her affair with the president, Lewinsky finally participated in a biography written about her and was interviewed by Barbara Walters for an ABC News special in 1999, two traditional forms of media relations. But today, Lewinsky could have direct and immediate access to the millions of Americans reading about her story; she could tweet, Instagram or write lengthy Facebook posts directly to readers.

“[The NPR] report reminded me of a story that had come across my browser in recent days. It concerned a young woman who was not even remotely a public figure until acquaintances began body shaming her. They graffiti’d some rocks on a local beach with ridiculous insults about her rear end,” Lewinsky wrote. “She posted a sweet and sassy photo of herself on social media — a photo taken from behind, peering over one shoulder, grinning.”

4) Capitalizing on the Bad in Order to Do Good

Lewinsky has written previously about how she had trouble finding work for years after the Clinton scandal, but she pointed out in the new Vanity Fair essay that people who have been bullied have capitalized on their worst moments by using them as a platform to spread awareness.

“As of this month, [the young woman] has been named an ambassador to ReachOut.com [to help spread the word about the perils of body shaming] and a featured guest blogger for AMightyGirl.com, a Web site that serves as a resource for ‘courageous girls,’” Lewinsky wrote. The young woman’s father now “hopes that her daughter’s story and the ensuing dialogue will help bring real support to people who need it.”

5) Looking at the Silver Lining

Lewinsky argues in her essay that perhaps the very things that allow for bullying or negativity could be used for the opposite. If she found herself enmeshed in the Clinton scandal today, perhaps Lewinsky would be able to use those tools to fend off some of the “haters.”

“Perhaps it is our access to the subterranean depths of the Internet — a shadowy medium that exists outside the physical world — that has allowed us … to begin to have the means of reclamation,” Lewinsky writes. “In [the case of the body shamed young woman], her body-positive photo went viral. An online rebuttal . . . in all meanings. Sounds good to me.”

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Lawmakers Summoned Back to DC as Border Bill Hangs in Balance

Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — Cancel that flight, congressman.

Lawmakers departing on Thursday for their annual August recess are now being told “not so fast” after the House Republican leadership pulled a $659 million bill to address the ongoing crisis at the southern border.

Several House Republicans told ABC News they were furious about not taking a vote on the bill, and they were pushing for a chance to do so before leaving town.

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told lawmakers to stay near the Capitol, suggesting that a vote could still take place on Thursday.

In fact, House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., told ABC News that he was at the airport when he was summoned back to the Capitol for a closed-door GOP meeting.

Rogers said it became clear Thursday morning the conservative defections were growing, but he said he and others believe the House should vote — up or down — on immigration.

“I would like to see us have a vote,” Rogers said in an interview.

There is an unusual air of uncertainty in the Capitol, mixed with a big dose of dysfunction, as rank-and-file Republicans discuss whether to have a vote on immigration before they go home for August recess.

Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., told ABC News that he believes lawmakers need to vote. Leaving town without doing so, he said, will be difficult to explain to constituents. He supports the immigration bill.

At issue is a Tea Party revolt that broke out on Thursday among House Republicans inspired by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who urged members late into the night to oppose a bill to approve more money to address the border crisis.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, thought he had enough Republican votes for the spending bill, but he canceled a vote after it appeared that was not the case.

Earlier on Thursday, Boehner, along with his Republican colleagues — Reps. Kevin McCarthy of California, Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state — issued the following statement on the legislation:

“This situation shows the intense concern within our conference — and among the American people — about the need to ensure the security of our borders and the president’s refusal to faithfully execute our laws. There are numerous steps the president can and should be taking right now, without the need for congressional action, to secure our borders and ensure these children are returned swiftly and safely to their countries,” the quartet of lawmakers wrote in a joint statement. “For the past month, the House has been engaged in intensive efforts to pass legislation that would compel the president to do his job and ensure it can be done as quickly and compassionately as possible. Through an inclusive process, a border bill was built by listening to members and the American people that has the support not just of a majority of the majority in the House, but most of the House Republican Conference.”

The decision by GOP leaders sparked a counter revolt, and members of Congress say they’ve rarely seen an afternoon like this.

Of course, even if the House does pass its $659 million border bill, it still faces certain defeat in the Senate.

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Undeterred by Lawsuit, Obama Signs Another Executive Order

The White House(WASHINGTON) — One day after House Republicans voted to sue him for allegedly exceeding his executive authority, President Obama signed yet another executive order, saying the suit is “not going to stop me from doing what I think needs to be done in order to help families across the country.”

“Any time Congress wants to do work with me to help working families, I’m right there. The door is always open. More than that, I’ll go to them; I’ll wash their car, walk their dog,” the president joked at a White House ceremony. “I’m ready to work with them any time that they want to pursue policies that help working families. But where they’re doing so little or nothing at all to help working families, then we’ve got to find ways, as an administration, to take action that’s going to help.”

“I said to [House] Speaker [John] Boehner, tell your caucus the best way to avoid me acting on my own is work with me to actually do something. Then you don’t have to worry about it. We’re not going to stop, and if they’re not going to lift a finger to help working Americans then I’m going to work twice as hard to help working Americans,” Obama said.

The president on Thursday signed an order, titled “Fair Pay and Safe Workplace,” requiring prospective federal contractors to disclose labor law violations.

With lawmakers leaving behind a lengthy legislative to-do list as they head out of town, the president quipped that “the big event last night — it wasn’t the vote on the minimum wage. It wasn’t a vote on immigration reform, strengthening the borders. It wasn’t a vote on family leave. What did they have a vote on? They got together in the House of Representatives, the Republicans, and voted to sue me for taking the actions that we are doing to help families.”

“One of the main objections that’s the basis of this suit is us making a temporary modification to the health care law that they said needed to be modified,” Obama explained. “So they criticized a provision; we modify it to make it easier for business to transition; and that’s the basis for their suit. Now, you could say that, all right, this is a harmless political stunt — except it wastes America’s time. You guys are all paying for it as taxpayers. It’s not very productive.”

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CIA Apologizes for Searching Senate Intel Committee Computers

The Central Intelligence Agency(WASHINGTON) — CIA Director John Brennan has apologized to the leadership of the Senate Intelligence Committee after the CIA’s Inspector General determined that agency officials inappropriately searched the stand-alone computer network used by committee staffers in preparing their report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.

Earlier this year, Brennan denied the CIA had illegally monitored the committee’s computers, calling the suggestions as “just beyond the scope of reason.”

To follow up on the Inspector General’s determination, Brennan has ordered the formation of an accountability board to review the incident and make recommendations that could potentially lead to disciplinary action.

The development is the latest twist in a long-running dispute between the CIA and the committee about classified information used to compile the 6,000 page report. The classified report found that the CIA overstated the success of the program and may have misled members of Congress. A declassified summary of the report could be released in a few weeks.

In order for committee staffers to have access to classified materials about the program an agreement was reached in 2009 that allowed them access to documents at a CIA facility in northern Virginia. A standalone computer network, called RDINet, was developed so the staffers could access classified computer files.

In January, Brennan informed committee chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein and vice-chairman Sen. Saxby Chambliss that the CIA had recently performed a “search” of that network and determined that committee staffers had been given access to files that should not have been on the network. In turn, Feinstein said she believed that the CIA could only have determined that by violating the agreement that the CIA would not have access to the committee’s computer network.

At the time, Brennan referred the dispute to the CIA’s Inspector General.

In a statement released Thursday, CIA spokesman Dean Boyd said the Inspector General’s investigation had judged “that some CIA employees acted in a manner inconsistent with the common understanding reached between SSCI and the CIA in 2009 regarding access to the RDINet.”

“The Director subsequently informed the SSCI Chairman and Vice Chairman of the findings and apologized to them for such actions by CIA officers as described in the OIG report,” said Boyd.

The statement added that Brennan has ordered the establishment of an Accountability Board to be chaired by former senator Evan Bayh who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“This Board will review the OIG report, conduct interviews as needed, and provide the Director with recommendations that, depending on its findings, could include potential disciplinary measures and/or steps to address systemic issues,” said Boyd.

The dispute became public in March when Feinstein delivered a lengthy and blistering speech on the Senate floor where she expressed “grave concerns” that the CIA had conducted an unauthorized search of the network that violated the 2009 agreement. She also asked the CIA to apologize and recognize that the computer search was inappropriate.

Appearing at a Washington, D.C. think tank the same day as Feinstein’s speech, Brennan denied her accusations, labeling them “beyond the scope of reason” and that “nothing could be further from the truth.”

“I mean we wouldn’t do that,” Brennan told the Council on Foreign Relations. “I mean that’s just beyond the scope of reason in terms of what we would do.”

On Thursday, Feinstein called Brennan’s apology and his decision to refer the Inspector General report to an accountability board “positive first steps.”

Other Democratic members of the committee were more critical.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) called for Brennan to make a “public apology” and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) expressed a loss of confidence in Brennan.

“I am concerned about the director’s apparent inability to find any flaws in the agency he leads,” Udall said in a statement. “Earlier this year he referred to the chairman’s and my publicly stated concerns about the CIA search as ‘spurious allegations that are wholly unsupported by facts’ and urged us to ‘refrain from outbursts.’ Brennan needs to account for these statements.”

Udall said he wants an independent counsel to look into the matter.

Earlier in July, the Justice Department said it had found insufficient evidence to proceed with a criminal probe of Feinstein’s and the CIA’s separate allegations.

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Eric Cantor Gives Farewell Speech as House Majority Leader

Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — Rep. Eric Cantor took to the House floor for the last time as majority leader Thursday, calling his service on Capitol Hill “a privilege of a lifetime.”

“Walking into this building and walking onto this floor is something that excited me every day since I was first elected to Congress,” he said. “As it should. Not one of us should ever take for granted the awesome honor and responsibility we have to serve our fellow Americans.”

Cantor has represented Virginia’s 7th District for 14 years, and his defeat in June by tea party-backed professor Dave Brat stunned Washington.

As he steps down as majority leader, there will be a few changes, notably his Twitter handle, @GOPLeader, and first-class office at the Capitol.

On Tuesday, the House Republicans uploaded a two-minute Cantor tribute video to honor his time as majority leader. But Thursday’s address marked a very public goodbye.

During the 10-minute speech, Cantor continually expressed pride and gratitude that he was able to take part in leading the country, thanking his colleagues, staff, family and Capitol Police.

Cantor recalled a story about his grandparents who had fled religious persecution in Europe, saying his own rise to majority leader served as an example of the American Dream but that the country has seen that “dream erode” in recent years.

He also expressed concern for the country’s education system and employment opportunities, as well as the state of American strength abroad.

“Instability and terror seem to be coming from every corner of the globe. The Middle East is in chaos, Iran is marching towards a nuclear weapon, Russia has reverted to a Cold War footing and invaded Ukraine,” Cantor said. “America does lead in so many areas, including innovation, scientific discovery, and medicine. But we must also make leadership abroad a priority. I shudder to think what the world looks like in five years for us and our allies if we don’t steel our resolve and stand tall with those who stand with us.”

It wasn’t all dismal news. Cantor said one of his proudest moments in office was when President Obama signed the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act, which aimed to find cures and treatments for pediatric diseases.

Cantor ended by thanking three Republicans specifically. He thanked House Speaker John Boehner for his “firm leadership” while “not being afraid to show us all your kind heart and your soft spot from time to time,” to which the chamber erupted in bipartisan laughter.

He also named Budget Chairman Paul Ryan for his commitment to “conservative solutions” and incoming Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Both men were referred to as “dear friends.”

Before waving and blowing kisses to a bipartisan standing ovation, Cantor closed his speech in the most appropriate way he knew how, saying, “And with that, I yield back.”

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State Department Using Facebook for Visa Delay Damage Control

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — International students and others looking to travel to the United States this fall are concerned about whether glitches in the State Department’s visa processing system will prevent them from getting their travel documents on time — and have taken to social media to vent.

The system in charge of processing and printing visas has been at least partially down since July 20, and a steady backlog of visa cases means frustrated travelers are looking for answers. For many, the first place they turn is Facebook and, perhaps to their surprise, the State Department is responding.

“I did my F-1 visa interview in Luxembourg on 21st July. However it’s been 10 days. We get continued contacts with the embassy and they said they cannot process anything right now, but isn’t the system partially working?” asked Allen Liu, who studies at UCLA, on the State Department’s Consular Affairs Bureau page Thursday morning.

Consular Affairs responded to Liu six hours later: “Hi Allen, it sounds like our colleagues in Luxembourg are aware of your case and doing what they can to assist you and others like you who are anxiously awaiting visas. Thank you for your continued patience.”

Another complainant, newlywed Laura Johnson, also fretted about her travel arrangements.

“As I will miss my honeymoon to Florida now due to this, what’s the best way to get my passport back so at least I can go somewhere else? At the rate the London embassy replies to emails most of the honeymoon time off will be over before I get a proper answer,” Johnson wrote.

“Hi Laura, we are truly sorry that you will not be able to enjoy the honeymoon you’ve planned. We are still issuing many visas, however, at a reduced rate,” Consular Affairs replied.

It’s unusual to see the federal government react so personally — and relatively quickly — to individual complaints. But in the interest of damage control, the State Department has to cast a wide net in this case to reduce confusion among people all over the world who might not have much experience dealing with government red tape.

“In addition to communicating through our websites, e-mail and letters, we are also reaching out to applicants via Facebook and other social media sites, such as Weibo [a Chinese microblogging site], to relay the latest information,” according to a Consular Affairs FAQ page on its website.

Plus, the State Department isn’t sure when this problem will be fully resolved. There have been “performance issues” since Consular Affairs performed upgrades on its Consolidated Consular Database, the hub for all visa and passport applications, on July 20, spokeswoman Marie Harf said Wednesday.

“We anticipate it may take some time before we process all of the pending cases created by the performance issue,” she said.

The Consular Affairs bureau is working with Microsoft and Oracle, the makers of the database’s technology, to fix the problem, which it believes is related to outdated hardware and software, as opposed to something malicious like a virus.

Meanwhile, passports are still being processed in a timely fashion. But the glitches prevent embassies from physically printing visas for individuals looking to come to the United States.

For students seeking admission to the U.S. for the fall 2014 semester, which for many colleges starts in August, Consular Affairs is already recommending a Plan B: making arrangements with their school’s administrators for starting their studies after their program begins.

But that was little consolation for Liu, the UCLA student, who wrote back to Consular Affairs on its Facebook page.

“I have my summer course next Monday,” he wrote. “I desperately need the visa as soon as possible.”

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