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National Govt & Politics
Away from shutdown fight, House Democrats press agenda
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Away from shutdown fight, House Democrats press agenda

Away from shutdown fight, House Democrats press agenda
Photo Credit: Jamie Dupree

Away from shutdown fight, House Democrats press agenda

Overshadowed by the bitter political standoff over funding for border security, which has resulted in a partial government shutdown that has stretched for almost three weeks, Democrats in the House are using their new majority status to press ahead on some of their campaign promises, unveiling major legislation in recent days on ethics in government, voting rights, and gun violence, and setting the stage for action on climate change, and a variety of investigations of the Trump Administration.

"We put power back into the hands of the people," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as she helped to introduce the first major legislation of the 116th Congress, H.R. 1, a sweeping measure on voting rights.

While Democrats could certainly offer up bills on any subject in recent years, grabbing the majority in the 2018 mid-term elections will mean they can not only produce new legislation, but bring it to the floor for action.

Here's some of the areas where House Democrats are already moving:

1. Reforms on voting, campaign finance, ethics. This 571 page bill from Democrats covers a lot of ground in terms of voting reforms, campaign fundraising changes, and new efforts on ethics in government. In fact, the bill is so comprehensive that the section-by-section summary of the measure runs for 22 pages. The voting reforms include making it easier to register to vote with automatic voter registration, making Election Day a national holiday, not requiring postage for mail-in ballots, blocking purges of voters rolls, efforts to block partisan gerrymandering, and much more. The campaign finance changes include reforms on so-called 'dark money' in elections, stricter rules on politcal action committees, and new processes for the Federal Election Commission. The ethics changes seek to slow the revolving door for members of Congress and lobbyists, new rules for ethics oversight in the Congress, and creates a code of ethics for the Supreme Court (there isn't one right now). The plan would also force a President of the United States to disclose his or her tax returns.

2. Background checks on all gun sales. While the first major bill from Democrats was 571 pages, the bipartisan plan on universal background checks for gun sales runs only six pages in all. This bill would require that in all sales of guns - including private sales - that the buyer go through the instant gun sale check system. "97 percent of Americans support background checks," said Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), "and yet we offer thoughts and prayers instead," as Democrats vowed they would press ahead with action on this bill within the first 100 days of 2019. The bill has five Democrats and five Republicans as the official co-sponsors, in an effort to make it bipartisan - but it still drew sharp GOP attacks. "Thankfully this nonsense isn't going anywhere in the Senate," said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), who accused Speaker Pelosi of "showboating on gun control." Democrats though believe the atmosphere is changing in Congress when it comes to acting on guns and gun violence. We'll see by Easter if they're really able to bring this bill to a vote in the House - and pass it. "The purpose of this Act is to utilize the current background checks process in the United States to ensure individuals prohibited from gun possession are not able to obtain firearms," the bill states.

3. Climate change and environmental policy. With Republicans out of the majority in the House, Democrats will now get to do more on environmental issues; on their second day in power, they voted to set up a special panel just on climate change in the House, chaired by Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL). Also, look for Democrats to use House committees to question actions by the EPA and Interior Department on offshore oil and gas drilling, pollution regulations, Trump Administration policies on the environment, and more. Just because Democrats are in charge doesn't mean they can force the President to change his policies - but the basic function of oversight will generate headlines and put top Trump officials on the spot at hearings in the Congress in 2019 and 2020.

4. Priming the pump on investigations. While there has been a lot of talk about the Democrats investigating everything imaginable in the Trump Administration, the work of House committees takes a little time to get going in a new Congress, especially with the change in leadership. Democrats have tried to get the Acting Attorney General in for a hearing, but have faced resistance, so now the House Judiciary Committee has told Matthew Whitaker to show up by January 29 for a hearing, as Whitaker evidently wanted to wait to testify until two weeks after the end of the current partial government shutdown. "I cannot accept your proposal," said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), who will be one of the prime point men for Democrats in 2019 in terms of Congressional oversight. More hearings - and subpoenas - are coming.

5. Waiting on Mueller report, Democrats to press on Russia. The new Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), has already made clear that Democrats will likely recall some witnesses, convinced that Republicans didn't push hard enough for answers on possible Russian interference in the 2016 elections, and any ties to the Trump campaign. There were already reports on Wednesday that the first person to get a subpoena would be Donald Trump Jr., as panel member Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) gave that answer during a book signing event in Washington. Schiff has already said he'll make transcripts of earlier interviews available to the Mueller investigation, giving the Special Counsel extra information to review. The Russia investigation is not going away with the Democrats in charge of the House.

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The Latest Headlines You Need To Know

  • Orlando Democratic Representative Anna Eskamani is co-sponsoring a bill to allow illegal immigrants living in Florida to legally obtain a state driver’s license. “We can talk about the need to reform immigration as a whole, but this is one solution to make sure that our roads are safer,” Eskamani said over the phone on Thursday. Illegal immigrants would still have to take a driving test to get a license, and they’d be able to buy car insurance, which Eskamani said would generate additional revenue for the state.  She also believes the bill will encourage people to report accidents and crimes they see on the road. Eskamani agreed with the assessment that the bill (HB 969) does not attempt to change immigration policy but rather change policy dealing with Florida’s current immigrant situation. “On our roads, you have people who are undocumented who are driving their kids to daycare, who are going to work,” Eskamani said.  “They’re doing their best to live life to its fullest potential.” Under current Florida law, residents must prove U.S. citizenship or show a resident alien green card to get a state driver’s license.  This bill would allow people to use documents such as foreign passports, international birth certificates, or tax ID number to get one.   With the 2019 legislative session well underway in Tallahassee, neither the bill nor its Senate companion has seen a committee vote. The bill has gotten notable attention from Fox News, to which Eskamani mused on her Facebook page, “Wow, my first ever mention in Fox News!  This has to come with some sort of award right?”
  • The Florida man accused of sending pipe bombs last year to several high-profile critics of President Donald Trump pleaded guilty Thursday in a Manhattan federal court. >> Read more trending news Cesar Sayoc appeared Thursday for a change of plea hearing before U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff.  Sayoc pleaded not guilty in November to a slew of charges after he was identified as the man suspected of mailing pipe bombs to targets including CNN, former President Barack Obama and actor Robert De Niro. >> Cesar Sayoc Jr.: What we know about the man arrested for sending package bombs Sayoc has been held without bail since his late-October arrest outside a South Florida auto parts store. He had been living in a van covered with stickers of Trump and showing images of some Trump opponents with crosshairs over their faces. Authorities launched an investigation in October after pipe bombs were mailed to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and philanthropist George Soros. In the subsequent days, similar devices were mailed to several other prominent Trump critics, including U.S. Rep Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and Democratic donor Tom Steyer. >> 2nd mail bomb to Tom Steyer recovered; suspect agrees to remain jailed, face charges in New York Authorities said Sayoc was linked to the packages after investigators found his fingerprints and DNA on some of them. Without a plea deal, Sayoc faced charges carrying a potential penalty of mandatory life in prison. A court filing last Friday didn't indicate which charge or charges the plea would involve. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
  • Federal authorities and Butler Township police are investigating after an explosive device was placed inside a mailbox and detonated, according to police. >> Read more trending news  The explosive device, which police believe was a commercial-grade firework, was detonated and destroyed the mailbox sometime between 7 p.m. Tuesday and 9 a.m. Wednesday, Butler Township Police Chief John Porter said in a media release. Police did not say what road the incident occurred on but described the area as a rural part of the township.  “Since tampering with a mailbox is covered under federal law, federal authorities have been notified and are participating with us in a joint investigation,” Porter said. “Our initial investigation shows there is no indication of any type of hate or bias crime at this time.”  Authorities continue to investigate.
  • The sister of a Minnesota woman accused of killing a stranger to steal her identity in Florida last year is now facing criminal charges of her own after investigators say she grew angry at her intoxicated son and ran him over with her SUV.  Cynthia Lea Grund, 58, of Salem Township, was jailed on suspicion of second-degree assault and reckless driving. Olmstead County Jail records indicate she has since been released.  >> Read more trending news Olmstead County deputies were called Monday evening to Grund’s home, where they found her 37-year-old son, identified by the Minneapolis Star Tribune as Jason Finstad, suffering from significant lower body injuries, a Sheriff’s Office news release said. The man had been run over by a vehicle.  Investigators determined that Grund had run over her son with a 2004 Ford Explorer, the news release said.  According to detectives, Finstad was very intoxicated when he began walking down the rural driveway to go to a friend’s house. His mother and stepfather no longer wanted him staying at their home.  Grund drove down the driveway to pick Finstad up and drive him to the friend’s house, the news release said. Finstad refused to get in the SUV. “Why don’t you just run me over,” he allegedly said before lying in the driveway in front of Grund’s vehicle.  “Grund then backed the vehicle up and intentionally ran over the victim,” the news release said. “Grund admitted to her actions and at one point made a comment to the effect, ‘He didn't believe I would. He has been drinking all day. We gave him a chance.’” Grund was taken into custody at the scene. >> Related story: ‘Losing Streak Lois,’ killer grandma wanted in 2 slayings nabbed near U.S.-Mexico border Finstad underwent surgery at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester to repair damage to his pelvis. He also suffered head injuries in the incident, investigators said.  He was in fair condition as of Tuesday, the Star Tribune reported. According to the newspaper, Grund is the sister of Lois Ann Riess, 57, of Blooming Prairie, who is being held in Florida on a charge of first-degree murder in the April 5 slaying of Pamela Hutchinson, 59, of Bradenton.  Riess was arrested April 19 on Texas’ South Padre Island after a multistate string of crimes that investigators allege began with the shooting death of her husband, David Riess, 54, at their worm farm. Saturday will mark a year since David Riess’ decomposing body was found. Authorities said David Riess had been dead for several days by the time his body was discovered. The Star Tribune reported last month that a .22-caliber semi-automatic handgun found in Lois Riess’ Texas motel room matched shell casings found at the scene of her husband’s death. Dodge County investigators have turned their case over to the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office for review.  Lois Riess, who authorities nicknamed “Losing Streak Lois” for her penchant for gambling, fled south to Florida -- stopping at a casino on the way. Riess’ abandoned Cadillac Escalade, which Minnesota investigators alleged she left the state in after gunning down her husband, was found in a park in Fort Myers, Florida.  Surveillance footage from a restaurant two blocks from Hutchinson’s borrowed timeshare condo showed the victim chatting with Riess at the bar on April 5, the day authorities believe she was shot to death. Hutchinson’s body was found four days later in the bathroom of the condo.  See the footage of Lois Riess chatting with Pamela Hutchinson below, courtesy of the Fort Myers News-Press.  Investigators believe Hutchinson was killed so Riess could assume her identity. They also believe Hutchinson was shot with the same gun that killed David Riess. According to Riess’ Florida indictment, Lois Riess stole credit cards, money, jewelry, sunglasses and other property from Hutchinson after she was killed. Surveillance footage from Hutchinson’s condo complex showed Riess walking into the parking lot, getting into Hutchinson’s Acura TL and driving away.  The indictment also alleged that Riess went to a Fort Myers bank and used Hutchinson’s identification to withdraw $5,000 from the dead woman’s account before leaving town. Riess was next spotted the following day at an Ocala Hilton hotel, where she used Hutchinson’s identification to check into a room, Lee County officials said. She stayed there the nights of April 6 and 7, according to investigators.  Surveillance footage from inside and outside the hotel showed both Riess and the stolen Acura. According to the News-Press, a white straw hat Riess wore in the footage belonged to Hutchinson.  While in Ocala, Riess is accused of withdrawing another $500 from Hutchinson’s bank account.  From there, Riess is accused of making her way west across the southeastern U.S., making several stops in Louisiana -- including at another casino -- before being seen driving the Acura around Corpus Christi, Texas. She attempted to get $200 from Hutchinson’s account at a gas station, but the effort failed, the News-Press reported.  Riess used her own ID to claim a $1,500 jackpot at a Louisiana casino, the newspaper reported.  Riess remained at large until April 19, when she was arrested on South Padre Island in Texas. Dodge County Sheriff Scott Rose said a man recognized Riess when she walked into a restaurant on the island, located about 25 miles from the Mexican border, and looked at a menu. Riess did not stay to eat at the restaurant, identified as Dirty Al’s Seafood, but the man called police to report the sighting. A South Padre Island police officer and a federal marshal responded to the area and spotted the white Acura that had been stolen from Hutchinson at another nearby restaurant, the Sea Ranch.  Riess was taken into custody as she sat at the bar inside, eating a meal and chatting with fellow patrons. She was subsequently extradited back to Florida to face charges in Hutchinson’s homicide.   Riess was indicted June 6 in the case, according to court records. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in Hutchinson’s slaying. 

Washington Insider

  • Frustrated by opposition on some college campuses to conservative speakers, President Donald Trump on Thursday signed an executive order which threatens to take away federal research grant money from colleges and universities, if those schools don't guarantee First Amendment protections for those who want to speak on campus. 'We're dealing with billions and billions and billions of dollars,' President Trump said in a White House ceremony on Thursday. Flanked by conservative activists who have run afoul of protests at college and university campuses, Mr. Trump made clear that he wants new opportunities for their voices to be heard. 'Universities that want taxpayer dollars should promote free speech,' the President added. 'This order is part of the Trump Administration’s administrative and legislative efforts to support a focus on student outcomes and improve transparency, accountability, and affordability in postsecondary education,' the White House said in a statement. The President had raised this matter earlier in the month, during an appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference just outside Washington, D.C. It was not immediately clear how the Thursday signing would change the current landscape governing money being sent to schools by the feds, as there are already requirements to uphold the First Amendment. In a morning conference call with reporters, a senior administration official refused to give any hints about how the requirement would be enforced differently going forward. 'I won't get into implementation details,' the official said, repeatedly deflecting questions in a Thursday conference call with reporters about how the plan would work.  'But schools are already supposed to be following these rules,' as the official said 'the goal of the order is to promote free speech more broadly across college campuses.' The plan drew immediate fire from the President's critics. 'President Trump’s concept of free speech is speech that he agrees with, which is, in fact, the antithesis of what the First Amendment seeks to protect,' said Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers union.