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March 20, 2018
Senate, Trump clas over Saudi Arabia
The Senate is headed for a clash with the Trump administration over Saudi Arabia this week.
The chamber is expected to vote Tuesday on a resolution directing the U.S. military to stop cooperating with Saudi bombing operations in Yemen, an action the administration strongly opposes.
The vote comes at an awkward time, as President Trump is meeting Tuesday with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on his first trip to Washington since becoming next in line to the throne.
Supporters of the bipartisan Senate resolution, which has the backing of conservative Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), are pressing hard for a debate.
As civilian deaths mount in Yemen, where an estimated 10,000 people have died in a years-long civil war, these senators say it’s time for Congress to claw back some of its warmaking authority from the executive branch.
“The Constitution is pretty clear on this point. It says that Congress shall have the power to declare war. Congress — not the president, not the Pentagon, but Congress,” Lee said on the floor last week.
U.S. military advisers are helping Saudi forces target enemies in Yemen for attack and U.S. planes are refueling Saudi-led bombers on combat missions.
“The War Powers Resolution was designed to stop secret, unauthorized military activities such as these. So Congress is well within its right to vote on whether these activities should continue,” Lee said.
Republican leaders are trying to postpone action on the resolution until after Salman’s visit by sending it to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“I hope what will happen is that we will not in our haste make a mistake that we’ll come to regret,” said Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn(Texas).
“I think the better course is for the Foreign Relations Committee to take this up and to have a hearing and to make a recommendation to the whole Senate rather than just have this pop and have people voting on it and perhaps live to regret it later on,” he added.
Cornyn said he expected that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) will recommend moving the resolution through his committee before bringing it to the floor.
Corker is scheduled to meet with Salman on Capitol Hill this week, according to a spokesman.
Salman has been a leading proponent of the kingdom’s military effort to push Shiite rebels known as the Houthis out of power in Yemen. The Houthis are allied with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s chief military and political rival in the region.
Saudi Arabia is predominately Sunni, a competing tradition of Islam.
Defense Secretary James Mattis warned Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in a letter last week that cutting off U.S. support for the military operation in Yemen would be a mistake.
“New restrictions on this limited U.S. military support could increase civilian casualties, jeopardize cooperation with our partners on counter-terrorism and reduce our influence with the Saudis — all of which would further exacerbate the situation and humanitarian crisis,” he wrote.
The Yemen War Powers Resolution is privileged and guaranteed to get a vote on the floor at some point, but leaders could delay action by filing cloture motions on other Senate business.
Lee, Sanders and Murphy, however, have leverage — GOP leaders need unanimous consent to pass an anti-sex trafficking bill and an omnibus spending package before a two-week congressional recess scheduled to begin Saturday.
The tensions come amidst growing criticism in Congress of Saudi Arabia, a longtime U.S. ally, over its human rights record and links to terrorist organizations.
Complicating matters is a $110 billion arms deal that Trump is trying to finalize with Saudi Arabia and several other Middle Eastern countries despite some reservations on Capitol Hill.
There are also significant U.S. commercial interests at stake.
Defense contractor Raytheon is pressing for a green light to go ahead with the sale of 60,000 smart bombs to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which is also participating in the bombing of targets in Yemen.
Corker criticized Saudi Arabia last year for not doing more to crack down on financing of terrorists, and put a hold on the arms deal, which he just recently lifted.
In July, he charged that significantly more support for terrorist groups is coming from Saudi Arabia than from Qatar, which Trump accused last year of being a state sponsor of terrorism.
The Trump administration took Saudi Arabia’s side in the dispute last year, just as it has in the current debate over whether to continue U.S. military support of Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen.
Senate sources are split over what chance the bill would have of passing. Because it is a privileged resolution, it only needs a simple majority to pass.
Two Senate aides said it has a good shot of rounding up 51 votes, but Murphy, one of the original sponsors, cautioned that success is far from a sure thing.
He said votes on the Democratic side of the aisle are “fluid,” and the administration is going all-out to persuade Republicans to vote against it.
“I think a lot of members on our side are tying to figure out what a ‘yes’ vote means, what a ‘no’ vote means,” Murphy said. “The administration is spending a lot of energy trying to spin the rationale for this war. I would expect that most Republicans would oppose it.”
Jordain Carney contributed. Source
Feb 7, 2018
Senate leaders agree to two-year budget deal
Dec 3, 2014
GOP Senator Implies Those Who Aren’t Millionaires Waste Money On ‘Booze, Women’
That’s why the richest deserve a break on estate taxes, says Chuck Grassley.
In an astonishing defense of dropping “death taxes” for individual estates worth more than $5.5 million, GOP Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley implied that people not currently affected by that tax are “spending every darn penny … on booze or women.”
“I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing — as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies,” Grassley told the Des Moines Register in an interview published Saturday. Grassley, who serves on the Finance Committee, made the remark when asked about the Senate tax reform measure which would double the exemption for estates to $11 million for an individual and $22 million for a couple. Heirs would inherit the estates tax-free.
Grassley’s comment triggered a wave of criticism on social media. Many complained that the working class is, in fact, spending “every darn penny” on raising their kids, caring for elderly parents, health care and putting food on the table. One Twitter user complained that the GOP was turning America into a version of “The Hunger Games.” Source
Nov 9, 2017
Key differences between the Senate and House tax plans
Senate Republicans on Thursday unveiled a tax reform bill that breaks with the House in a variety of significant ways, taking into account various objections from constituents and special interest groups to the House plan.
If the House Republican bill was a first draft of tax reform, the Senate bill is the first rewrite.
“I like it better than what I saw in the House version,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.). “The Senate was able to learn a lot from what the House found it.
The Senate bill attempts to mollify opposition from two important special interest groups, the National Association of Home Builders and the National Federation of Independent Business.
But it will likely draw strong opposition from moderate House Republicans in wealthy suburban districts whose constituents take big deductions for local taxes.
Here are the key differences between the Senate and House bills.
State and local taxes
The Senate bill will entirely repeal the deduction for state and local taxes, making no exception for property taxes.
The House bill, in a bid to win support from moderate Republicans, would allow deductions up to $10,000 for property taxes.
Senate Republicans see little need to allow property tax deductions as they don’t have members in their conference from high-tax states such as California, New York, New Jersey and Illinois.
Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) is trying to exploit the difference by calling on House GOP moderates to kill tax reform.
Reps. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), Ed Royce (R-Calif.), Erik Paulsen (R-Min.), Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) and Mimi Walters (R-Calif.) represent districts where a significant percentage of voters take big deductions for local taxes.
Roskam and Paulsen are both members of the House Ways and Means Committee and voted for the House bill. Roskam is also chairman of the panel’s tax-policy subcommittee.
The Senate would keep in place the deduction for newly purchased homes up to $1 million while the House plan would cut the threshold to $500,000.
The House Ways and Means Committee added the lower cap on mortgage interest deductions as a last-minute revenue raiser and it drew strong opposition from the National Association of Home Builders, a powerful special interest group.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), a member of the Finance Committee, pushed to raise the limit, arguing that homes priced between $500,000 and $1 million are average in high-income areas such as San Francisco, New York and the District of Columbia.
Popular tax credits and deductions
The Senate would keep in place a variety of popular tax credits and deductions that would have been eliminated by the House tax bill released last week.
It preserves tax credits and deductions for adoption, medical expense, teacher expenses, and student loan interest.
“We stayed kind of inside the big structural issues,” said a Senate Finance Committee aide.
The House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday adopted an amendment to restore the adoption tax credit.
The Senate bill would also raise the income limit for the child credit.
The House bill would condense the number of tax brackets to four: 12 percent for income up to $90,000; 25 percent for income up to $260,000; 35 percent for income up to $1 million; and 39.6 percent for income over $1 million.
The Senate bill would establish seven tax brackets at 10 percent, 12 percent, 22.5 percent, 25 percent, 32.5 percent, 35 percent and 38.5 percent for the nation’s highest income earners.
The top rate kicks in for individuals who earn $500,000 and couples who earn $1 million.
Senate Republicans said they were concerned about the optics of changing the 10 percent bracket to 12 percent while cutting the corporate tax rate, even though low-income earners would be covered by the doubling of the standard deduction in both bills.
The Senate bill would double the estate-tax exemption for wealthy estates from $11 million to $22 million per couple (or from $5.5 million to $11 million per individual) while the House bill would repeal the estate tax entirely.
Moderate Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) last week said she opposed getting rid of the estate tax entirely.
Corporate tax rate
The Senate would cut the corporate tax rate to 20 percent, like the House would, but delay its implementation until 2019 to reduce the projected cost of the bill over ten years.
The House would cut the corporate tax rate next year.
The Senate would establish a 17.4 percent deduction for pass-through businesses based on the Section 199 domestic manufacturing deduction that would lower the effective tax rate for small businesses in the top tax rate to slightly more than 30 percent, according to Senate Finance Committee aide.
It would apply to certain domestic non-service passthrough income, according to the committee.
The House bill, by contrast, would have established a 25 percent rate for pass-through companies but would only make 30 percent of their revenue eligible for that rate and tax the other 70 percent as wages under the individual tax rate. That would result in a blended rate for many small businesses between 35 percent and 38 percent.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) last week called the House formula “completely unacceptable.”
The National Federation of Independent Business, which contributes money overwhelming in favor of GOP candidates, complained the House bill “leaves too many small businesses behind.”
On Thursday the group said, “We are very encouraged by the plan introduced by [Senate Finance Committee] Chairman [Orrin] Hatch [R-Utah.].”
The House on Thursday adopted an amendment to provide additional relief to small businesses and won back the support of NFIB. It would create a new nine-percent tax rate for the first $75,000 of income of a married active owner who has less than $150,000 of pass-through income.
NFIB president Juanita Duggan said her group was “grateful” the House Ways and Means Committee listened to her group’s concerns. Source
Nov 9, 2017
Monopoly critics decry ‘Amazon amendment’
Lawmakers put the finishing touches this week on military funding legislation that contains a provision that stands to significantly benefit Amazon.
The amendment, Section 801 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), would help Amazon establish a tight grip on the lucrative, $53 billion government acquisitions market, experts say.
The provision, dubbed the “Amazon amendment” by experts, according to an article in The Intercept, would allow for the creation of an online portal that government employees could use to purchase everyday items such as office supplies or furniture.
This government-only version of Amazon, which could potentially include a few other websites, would give participating companies direct access to the $53 billion market for government acquisitions of commercial products.
“It hands an enormous amount of power over to Amazon,” said Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a research group that advocates for local businesses.
Mitchell said that the provision could allow Amazon to gain a monopoly or duopoly on the profitable world of commercial government purchases, leaving smaller businesses behind and further consolidating the behemoth tech firm’s power.
Amazon declined to comment to The Hill on Section 801.
The Seattle-based tech giant spent the second and third quarters of 2017 lobbying on the NDAA and “government procurement,” according to disclosures that the company filed this year.
Amazon has also recruited outside firms to help it influence policymakers on the matter. Disclosure filings made by lobbying firm TwinLogic Strategies, made on behalf of Amazon as its client, do not specify the exact legislation that they tried to influence, but note that they focused on the “modernization of the procurement process.”
The Internet Association, a trade group representing the political interests of major tech firms like Amazon, Google and Facebook, also pushed lawmakers on the matter.
“Dozens of acquisition reform proposals over the years have highlighted the need to inject greater innovation and disruption into federal procurement,” the group’s President Michael Beckerman wrote in an Oct. 12 letter addressed to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) and ranking member Jack Reed (D-R.I.).
In his letter, Beckerman wrote that a government purchasing portal offers “just that opportunity.”
Despite the size of the potential windfall for Amazon, Section 801 has gone unnoticed by some lawmakers on the House and Senate Armed Services committees, which are responsible for drafting and finalizing the NDAA.
Many legislators in the House and Senate whom The Hill asked about the bill were not immediately familiar with the provision, though some expressed interest and commented later after reviewing Section 801.
Those who were familiar with the provision had mixed opinions, but many lawmakers leaned toward supporting it.
“I’m going to seriously scrutinize it and see if we’ll want to revise it in some way,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
The Connecticut senator said he was skeptical of criticisms that the provision would allow Amazon to dominate the government procurement market.
“My concern is that every company have a chance to participate in the procurement process — both online and traditional,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who represents Silicon Valley, told The Hill when questioned about the amendment.
Khanna said it was essential that the final version of the bill ensured “transparency in input pricing and also to make sure they have multiple bids from competitors.”
Another member of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), offered a more pointed defense of Section 801.
“This isn’t about Amazon, although Amazon lobbied for it. It’s about trying to create online space for purchasing so that [the Department of Defense] can get something for value,” Larsen argued.
He explained that the provision was born out of trying to create a specific provision for Defense Department procurement only. But the committee realized that, to do that, “we’d have to set up a mini-[General Services Administration] inside the Defense Department.”
“So then it became more broad,” Larsen said.
In a briefing on Wednesday before the bill’s release, senior House and Senate Armed Services committee staffers explained that, in addition to Amazon and Walmart, Staples and industrial supply company Grainger would be eligible to also provide commercial items.
But Mitchell is skeptical, pointing to language in the current version of the bill that would appear to exclude Staples and Grainger.
“The way the language reads to me, it’s hard to imagine that there are any other companies who would fit the bill besides Amazon and perhaps Walmart,” she said. “Those are the only retailers who are operating online marketplaces who seem to be in a situation to create a government marketplace portal that this provision envisions.”
The House Armed Services Committee contests the idea that Section 801 will only benefit one or two companies, saying that multiple companies will have access to the government procurement market in the final version of the NDAA.
“[Amazon’s dominance of government procurement] is a myth that opponents of the provision have been shopping for a while, that we wrote the language in such a way as to exclude more specialized marketplaces,” a representative from the House Armed Services Committee told The Hill over email, adding that some of Section 801’s language had been changed in the latest version of the provision.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) has made a strong push for online marketplace reform. In addition to advocating for the amendment, he also introduced a standalone bill in May that shares similar goals with Section 801.
Mitchell and other experts believe that Section 801 could have harmful impacts.
“It’s incredibly dangerous,” said Matt Stoller, an economist at the Open Markets Institute, a think tank critical of Amazon’s growing power. “What it’s doing is concentrating the buying power of the country into the hands of Jeff Bezos.” Source
Oct 25, 2017
Here’s What Happened Among Republicans a Few Hours After Jeff Flake’s Speech
Specifically, among those seeking reelection
You would have thought that Senator Jeff Flake would have basked a little longer in the applause he got for scarpering out of the Senate before he got around to the business of emptying his words of any significant meaning they ever had. Instead, Flake—along with fellow brave truth-tellers Bob Corker, Ben Sasse and, significantly, John McCain—joined with every other Republican (including Mike Pence, The Great Tiebreaker) to arrange for the screwing of countless Americans and their families.
In the dead of Tuesday night, with the applause still ringing in his ears, Flake voted to strip the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau of a rule that allowed Americans to file class-action suits against banks rather than being forced into an arbitration process that generally is as rigged as a North Korean election. From The Los Angeles Times:
The rule was unveiled in July by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and praised by Democrats and consumer advocates as giving average people more power to fight industry abuses, such as Wells Fargo & Co.’s creation of millions of unauthorized accounts. But banking lobbyists argued that the rule would unleash a flood of class-action lawsuits, and that the cost of fighting those suits would be passed on to consumers. Republicans quickly moved to repeal the regulation.
You have to love their timing, too. This move comes hard on the heels of the Equifax calamity, and just as the Congress is shilling for a massive upward shift in the country’s wealth that is disguised as a “middle-class tax cut.” Further, it proves that our political system learned absolutely nothing from what happened in 2008, when the masters of the universe nearly blew up the entire world economy.
Set to take effect in March, the rule would not have banned clauses in checking account, credit card and other banking agreements that say disputes between companies and customers must be dealt with privately or in small claims court. Instead, there would have been a ban on provisions that block consumers from banding together to bring class-action cases. The CFPB argued that such cases help hold banks accountable. The determinations of an arbitrator are binding and consumer advocates say most decisions favor the company. The private proceedings also allow banks to deal with individual problems quietly rather than address widespread abuses. George Slover, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, said the vote “means that big financial companies can lock the courthouse doors and prevent consumers who’ve been mistreated from joining together to seek the relief they deserve under the law.”
You know who’s going to get hosed now, Senator McCain? All those veterans and military families that you’re always so tender about. You know who’s going to take it in the ear, Senators Corker, Flake, and Sasse? All those middle-class people in all those little towns that you spend most of your time praising as the reservoir of Real American Values. None of those people mattered a damn to you Tuesday night, and it wasn’t the president* that forced you to make this vote. You did it with cold deliberation and calculated forethought.
And it’s not as though we don’t already know how stacked a deck the mandatory arbitration process is.
For years, Wells Fargo used arbitration clauses to block lawsuits from customers who alleged that unauthorized accounts had been opened in their names. Ultimately, the bank estimated that as many as 3.5 million such accounts were opened.
Just gaze in awe. Wells Fargo opened three-and-a-half million unauthorized accounts in the names of actual customers. To hell with a class action suit, these people should have been keelhauled under the Staten Island Ferry for a year. Now, though, Wells Fargo and the other banks, and their armies of lobbyists, have choked off the most effective way through which the people so swindled could get some form of justice.
Three-and-a-half million phony accounts. More than twice as many phony accounts as there are actual people living in the borough of Manhattan, wherein Wall Street lies. A little more than three times as many actual people as live in Boston, where Wells Fargo has its headquarters. And the U.S. Senate, an otherwise torpid beast unable to get anything done, bestirs itself to make sure that these swindlers never are called to a proper account. The vice president stays up past his usual bedtime just to make sure. Tell me again who the real owners of the country are.
Oct 24, 2017
Pence breaks tie as Senate votes to repeal banking rule
WASHINGTON — The Republican-led Senate narrowly voted Tuesday to repeal a banking rule that would let consumers band together to sue their bank or credit card company to resolve financial disputes.
Vice President Pence cast the final vote to break a 50-50 tie. The banking industry had been lobbying hard to roll back the regulation from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The bureau had moved to ban most types of mandatory arbitration clauses found in the fine print of agreements consumers often enter into when opening a checking account or getting a credit card.
The vote reflects the effort of the Trump administration and congressional Republicans to undo regulations that the GOP argues harms the free market. The measure now moves to President Donald Trump’s desk for his signature.
Democratic lawmakers said the rule was needed and would give consumers more leverage to stop companies from financial wrongdoing. They cited the sales practices at Wells Fargo and the security breach at credit company Equifax as examples of misdeeds protected through forced arbitration.
“So who does forced arbitration help? Wall Street banks and other huge corporations that never pay the price for cheating working people,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
Republicans said that the arbitration system has worked “wonderfully” for consumers. They said the payouts for the average consumer in arbitration cases are generally much larger and occur much more quickly than compared to the relief gained through class-action lawsuits.
“The effort to try to characterize this as some devious system that has been created to try to stop consumers from having access to fairness is simply false,” said Sen. Mike Crapo, the Republican chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. “We have a very fair system that has been working for over 100 years in this country.”
Crapo said the average pay-out for consumers in class-action lawsuits against financial companies was just $32, but lawyers stood to make millions.
“This is a rule to benefit the plaintiff’s bar,” Crapo said.
Democrats argued that consumers generally don’t have the time and means to pursue claims in arbitration, and since most disputes revolve around small amounts, they typically just give up. They said banks and other financial firms know that, in the end, they won’t have pay a real price for taking advantage of a consumer. Class-actions would serve as a powerful tool for consumers, they said.
“Once again, we’re helping the powerful against the powerless,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., as the Senate neared the vote.
Two Republicans sided with Democratic lawmakers to keep the rule — Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Kennedy of Louisiana.
The advocacy group Consumers Union and several veterans groups, including the American Legion, lobbied to keep the rule. They said consumers would still have the option to use arbitration to resolve a dispute, if both parties want to go that route.
“Giving the consumer a genuine choice also means the lender has the incentive to make sure the alternative is fair and workable, so that informed consumers will have a reason to choose it,” said George Glover, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union.
The American Bankers Association applauded the Senate vote. “Today’s vote puts consumers first rather than class-action lawyers,” said Rob Nichols, the group’s president and chief executive officer.
Oct 2, 2017
Every Member of Congress Who Took Money From the NRA and Tweeted ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ to Las Vegas
Americans woke up on Monday morning to learn of yet another horrific act of gun violence in the United States—this time a mass shooting in Las Vegas that left at least 58 people dead and more than 500 injured. But it seems unlikely that the politicians in a position to actually change our gun laws will actually do something about it, because they never do.
So, in lieu of any substantive gun control, what do America’s senators and congresspeople have to offer? That tried and true chestnut of noncommittal national mourning: “Thoughts and prayers.” And just as in the past, those thoughts and prayers seem to have been paid for in part by the National Rifle Association, whose campaign donations and scare-mongering have effectively blocked any life-saving legislation which might prevent a person from getting their hands on a fully automatic machine gun they can then use to pump bullets into dozens of innocent people.
So who is sending their NRA-sponsored well wishes to the victims of the Las Vegas massacre today? Let’s take a look, with a little help from the campaign contribution database at opensecrets.org. Read more
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