The Senate worked late into the night to pass their first budget in 4 years. Mother Jones' Andy Kroll and The Hill's Amie Parnes join MSNBC's Alex Witt to discuss the legislation.
By David Lawder, Reuters
WASHINGTON -- The Senate on Saturday narrowly passed its first federal budget in four years, a move that will usher in a relative lull in Washington's fiscal wars until an anticipated summer showdown over raising the debt ceiling.
The budget plan was passed by a 50-49 vote in the Democratic-controlled chamber. Four Democratic senators facing tough re-election campaigns in 2014 joined all the Senate Republicans in opposing the measure, which seeks to raise nearly $1 trillion in new tax revenues by closing some tax breaks for the wealthy.
The Senate budget, which reflects Democratic priorities of boosting near-term job growth and preserving social safety net programs, will square off in coming months against a Republican-focused budget passed by the Republican-dominated House of Representatives.
The Senate on Saturday narrowly passed its first federal budget in four years. CNBC's John Harwood reports.
Neither of the non-binding blueprints has a chance of passage in the opposing chamber, leaving Congress no closer to resolving deep differences over how to shrink U.S. deficits and grow the economy. But they give each party a platform from which to tout their respective fiscal visions.
The Democrats' plan from Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray aims to reduce deficits by $1.85 trillion over 10 years through an equal mix of tax increases and spending cuts.
The Republican plan from House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan seeks $4.6 trillion in savings over the same period without raising new taxes. It aims to reach a small surplus by 2023 through deep cuts to health care and social programs that aid the poor.
"The House budget changes our debt course, while the Senate budget does not," said Senator Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee.
'Very different' values Murray said after the vote that she would try to work with Ryan on a path toward compromise.
"While it is clear that the policies, values, and priorities of the Senate budget are very different than those articulated in the House budget, I know the American people are expecting us to work together to end the gridlock and find common ground, and I plan to continue doing exactly that."
Passage of a stop-gap government funding measure on Thursday lowered the temperature in the budget debate by eliminating the threat of a government shutdown next week.
Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut joins MSNBC's Alex Witt to discuss the Senate's late night session where they voted on 70 bills and passed a $3.7 trillion budget.
"We're going to get a breather here. Congress will let things cool off a bit and there'll be other issues that come to the forefront in the spring," said Greg Valliere, chief political strategist at Potomac Research Group, a firm that advises institutional investors on Washington politics.
These issues include legislation on gun control, immigration reform and initial work on simplifying the tax code, which is particularly important to Republicans.
Joining Republicans in opposing the Democratic budget were Democratic senators from conservative-leaning states: Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.
Voting for a budget that raises tax revenues could increase their vulnerability in congressional elections next year and put Democrats' thin majority at risk.
In the lead-up to the Senate vote early on Saturday morning, the body considered more than 100 largely symbolic, non-binding amendments to the budget aimed at scoring political points and staking out positions.
Among notable amendments, the Senate signaled strong support for allowing states more authority to collect sales taxes on Internet purchases, for approval of the controversial Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL oil pipeline and for repealing a tax on medical devices imposed by President Barack Obama's health care reform law.
The Senate also voted 99-0 to end policies that subsidized large banks considered "too big to fail" but came out against imposing taxes on industrial carbon emissions.
The Senate had not passed a budget resolution since 2009 because of fiscal policy disputes with House Republicans that forced Congress to turn to numerous stop-gap spending measures to avoid government shutdowns.
In this Jan. 4, 2013, photo, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, walks to a strategy session with GOP members, on Capitol Hill in Washington at the start of the first full day of business for the new 113th Congress.
Throughout the 2012 presidential campaign, President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress confidently predicted that the re-election of the president would break the partisan “fever” they claimed had enveloped Washington and the Republican Party.
But the weeks since the election have found Republicans as dogged as ever in their resistance to Obama, whose initiatives – including gun control, immigration reform and efforts to boost renewable energy – still face an uncertain path forward, particularly in an unruly House of Representatives still controlled by a Republican majority. Republicans are signaling a willingness to go to great lengths to bend coming battles in their favor, especially versus a White House whom they view as just as unflinching in its views, if not more so.
“I believe if we're successful – when we’re successful in this election – the fever may break. My hope and my expectation is that after the election, now that it turns out the goal of beating Obama doesn’t make much sense because I’m not running again,” Obama said at an event on June 1. “We can start getting some cooperation again, and we’re not going to have people raising their hands and saying – or refusing to accept a deal where there’s $10 of cuts for every dollar of tax increases, but that people will accept a balanced plan for deficit reduction.”
That was an expectation the Obama administration carried all the way through the campaign; Vice President Joe Biden said on MSNBC just days before Election Day: “I think you’re going to see the fever break.”
President Obama nominated Chuck Hagel to defense secretary on Monday, January 7, 2013. The Morning Joe panel -- including the Council on Foreign Relations' Richard Haass and Dan Senor -- discusses why several top GOP lawmakers are having a tough time with the president's nomination.
But the just-finished fight over the fiscal cliff suggested that, if anything, Republicans are more entrenched than ever before. While Obama ultimately won the income tax rate increases on the wealthy, on which the president campaigned, it wasn’t until Republicans had exhausted every feasible move that they relented to Obama’s demand. And even then, it wasn’t until the U.S. had gone over the fiscal cliff – if only for a matter of hours – that Congress agreed to act, passing the bill in the House with mostly Democratic votes.
Debt limit a 'point of leverage' But Obama might be mistaken to assume his toughest fights with congressional Republicans are behind him. While Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s vow to make Obama a one-term president is now moot, Republicans appear as emboldened as ever to both battle with the administration and keep true to their the ideological conservatism that a large number in the party represent.
The temporary fiscal cliff deal sets up a series of potentially more contentious battles this spring over continuing government funding and authorizing more borrowing authority for the government. And top Republicans are now openly discussing options, like a government shutdown, that they had taken every pain to disavow in 2011.
"It may be necessary to partially shut down the government in order to secure the long-term fiscal well being of our country," Texas Sen. John Cornyn, Republicans' No. 2 in the Senate, wrote last week in the Houston Chronicle. "President Obama needs to take note of this reality and put forward a plan to avoid it immediately."
The government will reach its debt limit next month, and unless Congress raises the debt ceiling, the U.S. will default on 40 percent of its obligations. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., explains what will happen to the economy, if the U.S. defaults.
And House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called the debt limit fight "one point of leverage" in an interview with the Wall Street Journal; a Politico report, also published Monday, suggested the House speaker was more circumspect about the possibility of defaulting on the national debt. In 2011, Boehner stressed at every turn that defaulting on the U.S. debt was not an option.
Senate Republicans’ budget chief was more explicit: “I think it should be a firm principle that we should not raise the debt ceiling until we have a plan on how the new borrowed money will be spent,” Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions told the Washington Examiner on Tuesday.
If Obama was hoping there were more deals to be had on taxes, too, Republicans all but tried to slam the door on such an idea.
“We’ve resolved the tax issue now. It’s over. It’s behind us,” McConnell said Sunday on “Meet the Press.”
Fight over defense secretary And those are only the spending fights; other clashes are already taking shape.
Obama has also suggested that he’s willing to dive headlong – and quickly – into battles over comprehensive immigration reform and gun control, fights which could only threaten to intensify hostilities between the White House and congressional Republicans (and put some moderate Democrats in a tough spot politically in the meanwhile).
The president’s second-term initiatives could fall victim to the same fever that killed the DREAM Act, cap-and-trade legislation, the Employee Free Choice Act and the “public option” in health care reform during his first term.
“There will be plenty of time to take a look at their recommendations once they come forward,” McConnell said Sunday of Obama’s hope for quick action on curbing gun violence. “What’s going to dominate Washington for the next three months here is going to be spending and debt.”
President Obama praised lawmakers and Vice President Joe Biden after the House of Representatives voted to pass a Senate measure to avert the most serious impacts of the so-called "fiscal cliff."
By Daniel Strieff, NBC News
The last-minute deal-making on Capitol Hill may have helped avert the fiscal cliff for now, but many commentators expressed pessimism over the agreement and the distressing sight of lawmakers allowing the world’s largest economy to teeter near economic disaster.
“This is a bad bill that made a bad situation worse,” Richard Haas, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Wednesday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.
“The only thing it did was avoiding sending the signal (to the rest of the world) that we’re reckless and out of control,” he added.
But even with the agreement, more budget drama is expected on the way. In February, Congress will have to decide what to do about a slew of other spending cuts. Then, in March, lawmakers will decide on whether to increase the federal borrowing limit.
“We could see an early lift in the markets because of relief the deal went through,” Gary Thayer, the chief macro strategist at Wells Fargo Advisors, told The New York Times. “The response may be muted because the deal left out many long-term issues.”
'A missed opportunity' Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, who headed a deficit commission for Obama, said lawmakers missed a "magic moment to do something big" for the American economy.
“The deal approved today is truly a missed opportunity to do something big to reduce our long term fiscal problems, but it is a small step forward in our efforts to reduce the federal deficit,” they said in a joint statement released Tuesday.
In a scathing editorial, the Wall Street Journal called for the parties to go their own ways in Congress and tried to rally Republicans against Obama.
“Having been cornered into letting Democrats carry this special-interest slag heap through the House, Speaker John Boehner should from now on cease all backdoor negotiations and pursue regular legislative order. House Republicans should pursue their own agenda and let Mr. Obama and Senate Democrats pursue theirs. Mr. Obama has his tax triumph. Let it be his last,” it wrote on the editorial page.
Economists had been warning that the tax increases and spending cuts could take a chunk out of the U.S. economy.
But early Wednesday, world markets registered relief over the deal.
Benchmarks in Australia and Hong Kong boomeranged on the first trading day of the year. Asian markets had slipped on Monday, fearing that negotiations over the measure might collapse.
Many analysts were gloomy about long-term prospects.
“The process was so chaotic and the outcome so unsatisfactory that we are likely to see a further U.S. downgrade at some point,” Steven Englander, fixed-income strategist at Citi, wrote in a research note.
The House voted Monday to approve the Senate's fiscal cliff bill by a vote of 257-167. Richard Lui, Luke Russert and Mike Viqueira report on MSNBC.
But China's state news agency Xinhua took a more severe view, warning the United States must get to grips with a budget deficit that threatened not a "fiscal cliff" but a "fiscal abyss." Most of China's $3.3 trillion foreign exchange reserves are held in dollars.
“We hope the nation’s leaders will be able to accomplish in stages what they have been unable to do in a series of self-imposed crises: raise more revenue and significantly reduce future entitlement spending. But the fiscal cliff episode offers little encouragement,” the newspaper concluded.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
House Republican leadership considers a new proposal from the White House to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff "a small step in the right direction" but aides say that "there are still substantive issues that are unresolved."
The lack of an outright rejection of the White House's most recent proposal is noteworthy, hinting that both sides may be willing to come to an agreement with just 13 days until the New Year.
The reaction comes after the White House proposed Monday what they call a $2.4 trillion dollar deficit reduction package, including $1.2 trillion in new revenues and $1.22 trillion in spending reductions.
Included in the revenue increases is the expiration of the Bush-era tax rates for incomes of $400,000 and more, marking the first time the White House has moved on their stance of raising rates on incomes of $250,000 and more. The $1.2 trillion in increased revenue is also down from the $1.4 trillion in new revenues the White House included in their last proposal.
Republican leaders are looking at the White House's latest fiscal cliff proposal, which includes a $2.4 trillion dollar deficit reduction package and tax hikes on incomes over $400,000, marking the first time the Obama administration has changed its stance on tax rates. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.
But Republicans feel the package is not balanced, and say that interest savings included in the White House's $1.2 trillion in spending reductions should not be included in the proposal.
"When you attempt to use all of those interest savings in lieu of programmatic structural reforms like the ones that we've been talking about you further enhance the unbalance between revenue and spending," a Senior GOP Aide said.
Because of that, the aides say that the spending reductions included in the White House proposal only equals $850 billion, compared to the $1.3 trillion they see in revenue increases, something they say does not achieve the balance they are looking for.
Talks continued Monday as the fiscal cliff quickly approaches. Reports suggest both sides are submitting to certain concessions. NBC's Brian Williams reports.
Aides said that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has agreed to allow marginal tax rates on incomes of $1 million or more to move back to the Clinton-era level of 39.6%. He would also raise revenue through limits on itemized deductions and expenditures, which they say would raise a total of around $700 billion. Aides said they would have to work out how they would raise more revenue according to the still-to-be-decided target number.
But the Republican aides said details are still lacking in how spending would be cut, and how the tax code would be reformed to achieve the increase in revenues and cuts that is eventually agreed upon.
On both sides, it appears the White House and Republicans have agreed, in principal, to make both the cuts to entitlements, and the tax increases, occur in a two-step process.
The first step would take place in January of 2013, after which the second step would take place in January of 2014, but would be so unsavory that fundamental reforms of both the tax code and entitlement programs would be far more appealing.
This approach would effectively create another cliff at the end of 2013, where Congress would be forced to agree on comprehensive reforms to entitlement programs and the tax code, or face an alternative that neither side would prefer.
The Republican Leadership Aides say they are still talking to the White House, and that talks will continue in the days to come. But they were quick to say that despite the way the White House depicts their most recent proposal, it doesn't come close to the "balanced approach" they are seeking.
Either way, the aides said that the difference between the White House and Republicans are not unresolvable in the coming days.
"The issues that we're talking about are not technically difficult to resolve," one Republican Leadership Aide said, "There are not hundreds of moving parts, but they may be fundamental issues that are difficult to resolve."
Also unclear is how Republicans on Capitol Hill will react to Speaker Boehner's concession on tax rates. The House Republican conference will meet on Tuesday morning, where aides say leadership will discuss the details of the fiscal cliff negotiations.
While the mood may be icy when it comes to political sparring in Washington, there was a warm bit of good cheer in the U.S. Senate. Minnesota's Sen. Al Franken, inspired by an old grade school tradition from his childhood, organized a Secret Santa gift exchange again this year. The parties regularly tangle over government spending, but the senators did agree to a $10 spending cap for gifts.
Aides say a bipartisan group of 60 senators participated by picking names, mostly across the aisle, keeping those identities secret and then delivering small presents at a gathering over eggnog and seasonal treats Monday night.
Frank Fey / U.S. Senate Photographic Studio
Sen. Al Franken, right, speaks with colleagues during the gift exchange.
Not just any fruitcake was served -- the Senate kitchen began making fruitcake a few months ago, giving the brandy enough time to soak the cake. Due to fog that delayed some flights and therefore postponed Senate votes, some members were not able to attend the Monday party but were spotted exchanging wrapped gifts on the Senate floor late Tuesday.
Among the gifts given and received:
Sen. Franken received a VHS copy of the movie "Tunnel Vision" and a DVD of "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29" from Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barasso.
Franken, in turn, gave Arkansas Republican Sen. John Boozman a mahnomin porridge kit from Hell's Kitchen, a popular restaurant in Minneapolis. Sen. Franken serves that breakfast porridge at his weekly breakfast with constituents.
Florida Republican Marco Rubio gave Godiva chocolates to Delaware Democrat Chris Coons.
North Carolina Democrat Kay Hagan gave her state's famed peanuts to fellow Democrat Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.
New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte gave Hagan a book, "1,001 Gardens you Should See Before You Die."
Wyoming's Mike Enzi, R-WI, gave Virginia Democrat Mark Warner a George Washington University T-shirt and a book on bicycling. Aides say Enzi "refrained from getting him a book on freestyle BMX tricks because of the safety issues Sen. Enzi works on."
Alaska Democrat Mark Begich presented a cookbook and wine from his home state to Missouri's Claire McCaskill.
Nebraska Republican Mike Johanns gave Nebraska wine to Florida Democrat Bill Nelson.
Johanns received a shirt for his undergraduate alma mater, St. Mary's University, from Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar.
Montana Democrat Jon Tester gave home state chocolates to Ohio Republican Rob Portman.
Portman gave Louisiana's Mary Landrieu a Cincinnati favorite, Graeter's Buckeye Blitz ice cream.
Arkansas Republican John Boozman gave Georgia's Saxby Chambliss Mason jar wine glasses.
In 2011, the participation was a bit better, with 62 senators exchanging gifts. This year, with much year-end business left to complete, senators may spend more of the holiday season together as the “fiscal cliff” looms.
By Paul Abowd and Andrea Fuller, The Center for Public Integrity
Despite outraising its Democratic counterpart by a 2-to-1 margin, the Republican Governors Association won only four of 11 races in the 2012 election, a far cry from the success it enjoyed two years ago.
The Washington D.C.-based political organization raised almost $100 million, according to recently released Internal Revenue Service data. The group targeted six states it considered winnable, losing five of them. Democrats won seven of the 11 contests, but the GOP managed to pick up one seat in North Carolina, long held by Democrats.
The top donors to the so-called “527” organization, which can accept unlimited contributions from billionaires, corporations and unions, are familiar Republican Party patrons — No. 1 is Bob Perry, a Texas homebuilder and perennial RGA supporter, who gave $3.25 million. That’s a little more than half of what he gave in 2010.
Billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson is No. 2, with $3 million in donations between him and his wife. According to the latest Federal Election Commission reports, Adelson is the top donor to super PACs in 2012, doling out more than $93 million along with his family.
Conservative billionaire David Koch — who has not made any contributions to super PACs — was the organization’s third-highest donor, writing two checks totaling $2 million. Koch is co-owner of the second-largest privately held company in America, Koch Industries, an energy conglomerate.
Seven of the RGA’s top 10 donors are corporate executives who gave at least $1 million. Two of them, Paul Singer and Kenneth Griffin, are hedge fund managers.
Six of the Democratic Governors Association's top donors were unions. The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees topped the DGA donors list, giving about $1.3 million. The Service Employees International Union gave about $1.1 million, while the American Federation of Teachers gave at least $772,000.
Top corporate donors to the DGA included pharmaceutical giants Pfizer, which gave almost $700,000, and AstraZeneca, which contributed nearly $600,000. The companies also gave comparable sums to the RGA. The DGA also got corporate support from health insurer United Healthcare Services Inc., and AT&T.
The DGA raised nearly $50 million, the organization's "strongest fundraising year ever," according to spokeswoman Kate Hansen.
'Enormous impact on state elections' The DGA and RGA have devised national strategies for collecting unlimited funds from unions, corporations, and wealthy individuals, and funneling the money into state races. Both have used networks of state-based PACs to maneuver around various state limits on campaign giving.
“They’ve had an enormous impact on state elections across the nation,” said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, an election law expert at Stetson Law School. “In many states they were consistently a top spender.”
The circuitous methods used by both organizations to inject corporate and union cash into state races and mask the identity of its donors have raised legal questions, prompted lawsuits, and tested the capacity of state election boards to enforce limits on outside spending.
Both organizations have told the Center for Public Integrity that they fully comply with campaign finance laws, and that they report their donors and spending to the IRS.
The RGA set up a federal super PAC called RGA Right Direction, and fed it with $9.8 million in contributions. The super PAC — another type of organization that can accept unlimited donations from individuals and corporations — then made a large contribution to Indiana Republican candidate Mike Pence, and bought ads in tight state races in Montana, Washington, New Hampshire, and West Virginia.
Super PACs are normally used to spend money on federal campaigns. By passing the funds through the super PAC, which reported its sole donor as the RGA, the association effectively shielded the identities of the donors who paid for ads in the state races.
In North Carolina, the RGA spent millions of dollars, directly from corporate treasuries to win in a state long led by Democratic governors. The unlimited contributions from dozens of corporations across the country went toward ads supporting Republican candidate Pat McCrory, who won convincingly over Democratic Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton.
The DGA, too, used a network of state-affiliated PACs, to fund ad campaigns in battleground states like Montana and North Carolina. It was the primary funder of a PAC called North Carolina Citizens for Progress, which purchased ads attacking McCrory.
While America’s wealthiest corporate executives tend to prefer the RGA, and unions give almost exclusively to the DGA, some donors played both sides this election.
Agricultural giant Monsanto, credit card company Visa and health insurance company Humana were large donors to both the RGA and DGA — each giving about $100,000 to both groups.
Despite the Republicans' win-loss record, RGA spokesman Michael Schrimpf called 2012 "a successful year by any standard" with Republicans now in control of governorships in 30 states. Most of those gains, however, came in 2010. The North Carolina win and the failed effort to recall Scott Walker, Wisconsin's Republican governor, in June, were high points for the GOP this year.
In addition, in five states targeted by the RGA where it lost, the Democrats held advantages unrelated to fundraising.
Missouri and West Virginia featured Democratic incumbents. Three other states — Montana, Washington and New Hampshire — had open seats where a Democrat had previously been in power.
The two organizations will put their fundraising powers to the test again in 2013, when Virginia and New Jersey choose their next governors.
Michael Beckel contributed to this report.
The Center for Public Integrity is a non-profit independent investigative news outlet. For more of its stories go to publicintegrity.org
MILWAUKEE -- Favored candidates for the U.S. Senate easily won primary contests in Florida and Connecticut on Tuesday, as Republicans and Democrats in four states picked candidates for the November 6 general election that will decide which party controls Congress.
Democrats control the Senate by a 53-47 majority. Two years ago, Republicans seized control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 mid-term election and hold a 240 to 192 majority.
In Florida, two-term Democratic Senator Bill Nelson faced minor opposition in his primary, but was expected to be in for a tough re-election battle in November against the Republican primary winner, U.S. Representative Connie Mack.
Mack, the son of a former senator, easily won the Republican primary over three other candidates and could edge out the incumbent Nelson in a general election, according to a recent poll. But political analysts said Nelson has ample resources to attack Mack.
"Tonight's results really show that a lot of Republicans are voting for the candidate they think will have the best chance of beating the Democrat" and putting aside negative concerns about individual candidates, said University of South Florida political analyst Susan MacManus.
Because of population shifts over the past decade, Florida added two congressional seats, but the redrawn districts pitted two incumbent Republicans against each other. Republican John Mica, a 20-year veteran, easily beat Sandy Adams, a favorite of the conservative Tea Party movement, in a central Florida district.
The Cook Political Report considers seven of the 23 Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate seats to be toss-ups. Nelson's re-election chances were seen as particularly tough. Three of the 10 Republican-held seats up for election this year are toss-ups.
"It's a 50-50 ball game right now," said Cook Political Report analyst Jennifer Duffy. "When I look at the map, I find it improbable that any party would have 52 (Senate) seats, with 51 more probable."
A 50-50 tie in the Senate would give control of the chamber to the candidate who wins the presidency - Democratic President Barack Obama or his Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
A wild card in the Senate will be if former Maine Governor Angus King, an independent, wins the seat of retiring Republican Olympia Snowe. King has said he will not declare which party he will side with until after the November vote.
Wisconsin and Connecticut voters set the stage to fill U.S. Senate seats being vacated by retiring Democrat Herb Kohl and Joseph Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.
Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin, a seven-term U.S. representative and avowed liberal, ran unopposed in her party's primary. Former four-term Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson beat businessman and political neophyte Eric Hovde and two other candidates for the Republican nomination.
Thompson may benefit in the general election from Romney's choice over the weekend of Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate, analysts said.
However, Ryan is a polarizing figure in Washington, where he led his party's push to cut domestic spending, lower taxes and scale back the size of the federal government as chairman of the House of Representatives Budget Committee.
The Connecticut contest was won by favorite Linda McMahon, a professional wrestling executive. McMahon is seeking another chance after she lost a Senate race two years ago despite spending $50 million.
On the Democratic side, U.S. Representative Christopher Murphy was favored to win the primary and has already been targeted by McMahon's campaign ads.
In June, a Quinnipiac University poll found Murphy with a slight lead over McMahon if the two candidates face each other in the November general election.
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, was predicted to be heavily favored in November against the winner of the Republican contest. The party-endorsed candidate, Republican state representative Kurt Bills, was leading handily with more than half the vote counted.
(Additional reporting by Edith Honan in New York, David Bailey in Minneapolis and David Adams, Tom Brown and Barbara Liston in Florida.; Writing by Andrew Stern. Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Christopher Wilson)
The House Ethics Committee has unanimously concluded that House member, California Democrat Laura Richardson, was found to have "violated" the law and was fined $10,000 for misconduct.
Richardson, who is seeking another term in November, was accused of pressuring staffers to work for her campaign. The committee said it had "substantial reason to believe that Representative Laura Richardson violated the Purpose Law...." This will trigger a floor vote to sanction her.
As part of an agreement with the committee, Richardson admitted to all seven counts of allegations against her.
The Ethics Committee established an investigative subcommittee in November of last year to investigate her use of official staff for campaign purposes, which is against House rules. Staffers in many offices leave the congressional office to work for campaigns, but working for both is not permitted.
The committee said in a statement that she was "improperly using House resources for campaign, personal, and nonofficial purposes; by requiring or compelling her official staff to perform campaign work."
The committee also found she obstructed the investigation by the Ethics Committee through "the alteration or destruction of evidence, the deliberate failure to produce documents responsive to requests for information and a subpoena, and attempting to influence the testimony of witnesses."
The fine must be paid no later than Dec. 1, 2012. The committee also strongly discouraged Richardson from permitting any of her official staff to perform work on her campaign -- either on a paid or volunteer basis.
Castro, 37 -- a Harvard Law and Stanford grad, who will be the first Hispanic to deliver the address -- is largely unknown to a national audience. But looking at past speeches and videos, his personality, humor, and ability to deliver a stirring speech that draws on his compelling personal story are clear.
The Obama campaign has watched Castro closely, made him a campaign co-chairman, and says he has been effective on the campaign trail for the president.
And then there was his public spat with Charles Barkley, the former NBA basketball player who criticized San Antonio, particularly its women. Castro fired back in a YouTube video that went viral and even won over Barkley.
'Somebody who won't screw up'
Castro’s keynote speech in Texas last month reflected the seriousness and potential of someone who has won plaudits like this:
“People look at him and say, ‘Finally, we have somebody who won’t screw up,’” John A. Garcia, a political science professor at the University of Arizona, told the New York Times magazine in 2010. Of course, he’s still young, and he might be too good to be true, but if I were betting on the next national Hispanic political leader, I’d bet on Julián.”
Of course, in the current political climate in Texas, it is difficult for a Democrat to break through, at least for now. Even though the majority of voters are minorities in the Lone Star State, none of its statewide officeholders are Democrats.
Belief in government
There was plenty in Castro’s Texas convention keynote about the American Dream, but rather than making his story solely about his own drive, determination, and individual responsibility, he laid out what government needs to do to help pave the way of fairness, including on education, infrastructure, and new technology.
Castro supports affirmative action, he has said, because it gave him and his identical twin brother, Joaquín, the opportunity to go to elite colleges. Joaquín -- who, like his brother, also went to Stanford and Harvard -- is a state representative favored to win the open 20thcongressional district seat to replace retiring longtime Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D).
“Joaquín and I got into Stanford because of affirmative action,” Castro told the New York Times. “I scored 1,210 on my SATs, which was lower than the median matriculating student. But I did fine in college and in law school. So did Joaquín. I’m a strong supporter of affirmative action, because I’ve seen it work in my own life.”
What he might say
Castro strives for the similar unity rhetoric that made Obama famous. Here he was in that speech before Texas Democrats:
“In San Antonio, collaboration is our currency. … These days we hear a lot of talk about how Americans are tired of politics. They’re disillusioned with government, but I think the real issue is that Americans are tired of politicians battling over manufactured issues instead of solving real ones.”
But he also lays blame at the feet of Republicans:
“Today’s Republican Party is leaving just about everyone behind. To them, compromise is a non-starter. Moderate is a four-letter word. You see folks are reevaluating their past political allegiances because people are fed up with the politics of division. They’re fed up with the politics of exclusion. They’re fed up with petty politics. And they’re fed up with Perry politics.”
And he tries to undercut what they stand for:
“Republicans haven’t just departed from the mainstream, they’ve departed from mainstream values. Since when does cutting health care for children make you the party of family values? Since when does denying women their basic rights make you the party of freedom and liberty? Since when does smoke-and-mirrors budgeting make you the party of fiscal accountability?”
He also gives Democrats want they want to hear -- about education, abortion, and immigration.
“We believe the real emergency is getting more students across the graduation stage not frivolous voter ID laws. We believe that veterans who risk their lives for us shouldn’t have to come home and fight for their own livelihoods here. We believe that woman’s right to privacy is a right to privacy is an individual liberty not a political wedge issue. We believe that it’s more important to build bridges to send Texas products across the world than to build a wall that cuts us off from it.”
He pivots from state politics to lay out the choice in the presidential election:
“This year’s presidential election will provide a very clear choice. President Obama inherited the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. He acted to keep thousands of Texas teachers in the classroom and cops on the beat and made investments in the industries for the future. The president made a bold call to save our auto industry. And today, they’re back at work, making the best cars in the world.”
He seems to have the talking points down. During the speech, he touted private-sector job growth under Obama, including manufacturing jobs because of the auto bailout. He hit presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney for “Let Detroit go bankrupt” and Massachusetts being “47th in job creation.”
He defended Obama’s health law, ending the war in Iraq, and killing Osama bin Laden. Sounding a lot like First Lady Michelle Obamabefore the president’s kickoff speech at Ohio State, he also called on the Democratic activists to do the grassroots work:
“We must reelect President Obama. In your neighborhoods, in your cities, in your counties, in your communities, get out there. Knock on doors. Call your friends. Text them. Tweet them. Email them. Heck, maybe even speak to them face to face. Do everything that you gotta do to get President Obama reelected in November.”
Toward the conclusion of his speech, he reached for the kind of rhetoric that can translate on a national stage.
A compelling personal story:
“I told you about my mother. Now I want to tell you about my grandmother, Victoria. By the time she was 6-years old, my grandmother was an orphan. She had to leave her home in Mexico to come to San Antonio with relatives who had agreed to take her in. My grandmother never made it past the third grade. She had to drop out of school to start working and help support her family. By the time, I was born, this incredible woman had taught herself to read and write in Spanish and English. She spent her whole life working because of her lack of education as a maid, a cook, and a babysitter – barely scraping by but still working hard to give my mother a good chance in life, so that my mother could give me an my brother an even better shot.
“My grandmother was a fantastic cook. By the way, a skill that never really transferred to Joaquín or me. And the day before Joaquín and I were born, she won $300 in a Menudo cook off. And that money came in pretty handy. In fact, she used it to help pay a hospital bill. My grandmother didn’t live to see us enter public service. But she probably would have found it extraordinary that just two generations after she got to San Antonio one grandson would be the mayor and the other would be on his way to the United States Congress.”
Reverence for America:
“My family story is not special. What’s special is the America that’s made our possible. This is a nation like no other with unlimited potential. And a Texas where great journeys can be made in just the space of a generation.
Outlining the choice ahead:
“Today, Erica and I are the parents of a precious little girl. Carina Victoria. Now, I love my job. But I love even getting home at the end of the day and seeing her big smile and getting an even bigger hug. All of the time, I ask the questions that all of us parents wonder about – what will her life hold? What will her Texas look like? What America will she inherit? Will it shine with opportunity and possibility? Or be damaged and decayed? Will our Texas be left behind or will we shepherd America to its greatest days yet? We cannot leave the answers to chance! It shouldn’t be a coin toss!"
And a call to action (one could insert “America” for “Texas” in many spots, “Ohio” for “Panhandle,” “Florida” for “Rio Grande Valley”):
“So tonight, the future of Texas is calling on us -- from the Panhandle to the Rio Grande Valley. The need for common-sense values has never been more urgent. The future is calling us. Across the country, as he campaigns for reelection, President Obama is asking folks a very simple question: ‘Are you in?’ In fighting for our party’s future, for our state’s future, Texas Democrats, I ask you the same thing. Houston, are you in? Dallas, are you in? The valley, are you in? El Paso, are you in? San Antonio, are you in? Tonight, let us stand up as one party, one state, one Texas, and proudly say, We. Are. In! The future of Texas is calling on us. And we’re answering that call. Vamanos!”
GOP to also feature Latinos
Republicans at their convention a week earlier will also prominently highlight Latinos. They have plenty of elected Republican Hispanics to choose from, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL); Ted Cruz (R-TX), who’s the heavy favorite to become Texas’ next senator after his win last night in the Texas GOP primary; popular New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez; Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval; and current Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID).
Rubio’s and Cruz’s roots are from Cuba; Martinez and Sandoval trace theirs to Mexico; and Labrador’s family is from Puerto Rico.
According to the U.S. Census, Mexicans are the largest Hispanic group and the largest-growing group:
“About three-quarters of Hispanics in the United States reported as Mexican, Puerto Rican or Cuban origin in the 2010 Census. Mexican origin was the largest group, representing 63 percent of the total U.S. Hispanic population — up from 58 percent in 2000. This group increased by 54 percent and saw the largest numeric change (11.2 million), growing from 20.6 million in 2000 to 31.8 million in 2010. Mexicans accounted for about three-fourths of the 15.2 million increase in the total Hispanic population between 2000 and 2010. The Mexican origin population represented the largest Hispanic group in 40 states, with more than half of these states in the South and West regions of the country, along with two states in the Northeast and all 12 states in the Midwest.”
“Hispanics are going to play a very prominent role in both conventions,” a GOP strategist told First Read. “The Republican Party has now run a lot prominent elected Hispanics. … . In Texas, it elected a U.S. senator, and he’s conservative, and he’s Hispanic.”
The strategist, referring to Cruz, said Cruz may be Cuban, but he “is going to represent a whole heck of a lot of Mexican Americans.”
The strategist added, “I don’t foresee any problem with our ability to be able to communicate to this audience broadly and in a more narrow fashion. And we can do it with more authority than we’ve ever done it as a party.”
The strategist noted that it’s no longer top-down white party officials telling Hispanics they should join the GOP: it’s “Latinos who have done it and are doing it. We’re in a very strong position. There’s a reason Democrats put this guy up -- it’s because they know that.”
The Obama campaign, however, believes that Castro represents the differing economic visions between the parties.
“Mayor Castro is a rising leader in the party who has worked tirelessly to build San Antonio’s economy from the middle class out, by making investments in things like clean energy and innovative education programs that will lead to the creation of good-paying, sustainable jobs you can raise a family on,” Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said. “Having both the First Lady and Mayor Castro speak on the opening night of our convention will bring together two incredible leaders whose life stories both embody the promise of America -- that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can thrive.”
Defending the women of San Antonio from Charles Barkley
Charles Barkley outraged San Antonians two years ago when, on television, he criticized the city, especially its women.
“As much as I love San Antonio -- a great city, I’m not gonna miss it,” Barkley said. “One thing about San Antonio, them women down there, they got— My ass, my ass would look normal down there. I wanna tell you somethin’ -- they ain’t got no skinny women down there.”
The comment during TNT’s broadcast left analysts in the studio slack jawed. But Barkley reiterated it again this past May during the NBA playoffs: "Everyone knows San Antonio is a great city... They do have some big ol' women down here."
Castro had had enough. But rather than a huffy call for Barkley to apologize, Castro took to the camera and YouTube for a “Hey Chuck!”smack down that went viral. Castro ragged on Barkley’s fitness, lack of championship rings, and a horrifically awkward golf swing.
“You’ve not always been very kind in describing the women of San Antonio,” Castro says in the video. “Come to think of it, maybe that’s because we have a very different idea of what a beautiful woman looks like,” Castro deadpans when up pops a photo of Barkley dressed in drag.
Castro saved his best line for after playing video of Barkley’s golf swing: “Actually, that has nothing do with San Antonio. We just thought it was funny.”
“I never met a mayor with a sense of humor before,” Barkley told Castro. “I want to thank you for taking the time for making that video. It was funny.”
He even changed his tune on other matters: “I like the women,” Barkley said, and he picked the Spurs to win in the playoffs.
In showcasing someone like Castro, Democrats hope to energize the base and also signal to the majority of Hispanics which party is looking out for them. One thing is clear -- both parties are well aware of Latino growth and know they need to make sure Hispanics are featured prominently.
The Democratic Party is set to include a pro-gay-marriage plank in their party convention platform, according to a Democratic source.
The language was included as the first step in the platform process. The platform drafting committee met in Minneapolis this past weekend. Next, the full platform committee will be consider it in Detroit in two weeks and then, it will go to the convention delegates in Charlotte for final approval.
No specific language of the platform plank was made available.
The Washington Blade, which broke the news, also reported -- and the source confirms -- that it was approved unanimously and "the platform approved on Sunday not only backs marriage equality, but also rejects DOMA and has positive language with regard to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act."
*** UPDATE *** NBC's Domenico Montanaro notes: The National Republican Senatorial Committee points to a Wall Street Journal report in May which notes Democratic Senate candidates who have not backed the president's position on gay marriage.
"The below Wall Street Journal article from this past May includes the names of a number of Democratic Senators and candidates that you might consider asking for their reaction to this news today…," the NRSC notes in an email.
"Sen. Jon Tester in Montana, Sen. Claire McCaskill in Missouri and former Gov. Tim Kaine in Virginia have declined to support same-sex marriage, even as Mr. Obama's backing has galvanized the party's liberal wing and activist ranks. Even senators facing less-competitive races—Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Bill Nelson of Florida—have sought distance from Mr. Obama on same-sex marriage."
Democrats maintain a 53-47 advantage in the Senate, including two Independents who caucus with the Democrats. Control is up for grabs this fall with Democrats on defense in many races.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Democratic campaign treasurer Kinde Durkee defrauded at least 50 candidates, officeholders and political organizations out of $7 million in a scheme that dates back more than a decade, according to a court filing made Tuesday by federal prosecutors.
The U.S. attorney's office in Sacramento filed the additional charges in federal court, providing the most detailed account to date in a case that has left some Democratic candidates scrambling for campaign cash in an election year.
Such filings typically are a prelude to a plea, but prosecutors would not confirm such a development or offer any further details.
Durkee, who heads Durkee & Associates in Burbank, was arrested in September and charged with suspicion of mail fraud after millions of dollars disappeared from the campaign accounts of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, other Democratic members of Congress and several Democratic state lawmakers.
The filing details a complex shell game in which Durkee shifted campaign money to cover an array of personal and business expenses.
Disneyland bills In one example, $23,000 taken from Feinstein's account was used to help pay American Express credit card charges from the Los Angeles Dodgers, Amazon.com, Disneyland, Trader Joe's and Turners Outdoorsman.
Other misappropriations from Feinstein's account covered payments for a Long Beach condominium owned by Durkee and to the 401(k) plan for her employees.
The court filing said Durkee had devised a scheme from January 2000 until she was arrested last September "to defraud clients of Durkee & Associates, and to obtain money from them by means of materially false and fraudulent pretenses, representations and promises."
It said she had signature control over roughly 700 bank accounts, including those used by political campaigns.
Durkee's attorney, Daniel Nixon, did not return telephone and email messages Tuesday evening.
Durkee was scheduled to appear in court Friday afternoon at a hearing that had been set before Tuesday's developments.
Political treasurer Kinde Durkee is accused of stealing money from California campaigns for personal use. Political attorney Bob Bauer joins Chuck to explain the legal issues.
She has been accused of looting the accounts of dozens of Democratic officeholders, candidates and political organizations. Prosecutors also say Durkee filed false information with the Federal Election Commission and the California Secretary of State, which track campaign contributions and expenditures.
Feinstein alone estimated that she may have lost $5 million, but there has been no firm accounting of the losses because the money has been so difficult to track.
The fraud investigation froze the coffers of dozens of Democratic politicians across the state of California during an election year, and left candidates scrambling to raise more money.
In a separate order filed Monday, the U.S. attorney's office and Durkee agreed to a forfeiture auction of her Burbank home, which it says she owns with her husband, John Forgy. The couple owes $671,000 on the house, as well as $17,471 in state tax liens, according to the filing.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
As another round of voting takes place this week in the Republican presidential race – with 11 states holding Super Tuesday contests – a new national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that the combative and heavily scrutinized primary season so far has damaged the party and its candidates.
Four in 10 of all adults say the GOP nominating process has given them a less favorable impression of the Republican Party, versus just slightly more than one in 10 with a more favorable opinion.
Additionally, when asked to describe the GOP nominating battle in a word or phrase, nearly 70 percent of respondents – including six in 10 independents and even more than half of Republicans – answered with a negative comment.
Some examples of these negative comments from Republicans: "Unenthusiastic," "discouraged," "lesser of two evils," "painful," "disappointed," "poor choices," "concerned," "underwhelmed,” “uninspiring” and “depressed.”
And perhaps most significantly, the GOP primary process has taken a toll on the Republican presidential candidates, including front-runner Mitt Romney, who is seen more unfavorably and whose standing with independents remains underwater.
“The primaries have not raised the stature of the party, nor enhanced the appeal of the candidates,” says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff.
“The word you’d have to use at this stage is: ‘Corrosive,’” McInturff adds.
The damage from the Republican primary season – in addition to a rising job-approval rating for President Obama and more optimism about the U.S. economy – has given Democrats an early advantage for November’s general election.
Indeed, the president’s job-approval rating now stands at 50 percent; Obama leads Romney in a hypothetical general-election match up by six points; and Democrats hold a five-point edge on the generic congressional ballot.
If this poll’s outlook on the 2012 race were a cocktail, Hart says, it would be “one part Obama, one part the economy, and three parts the Republican Party’s destruction.”
Bad news and good news for Romney How damaging has the primary season – with all of its debates, attack ads and scrutiny -- been for the Republican Party?
Forty percent of all adults say the GOP contest so far has made them feel less favorable about the party, while 12 percent say they now have a more favorable impression. Forty-seven percent say it’s had no impact.
Even among Republicans, 23 percent maintain the primary season has given them a less favorable opinion of the party, versus 16 percent who say it’s been positive.
In addition, 55 percent of respondents – including 35 percent of Republicans – believe the Democratic Party does a better job than the GOP in appealing to those who aren’t hard-core supporters. Just 26 percent say the Republican Party does a better job on this front.
And it’s been damaging for Romney, too. In January’s NBC/WSJ poll, Romney’s favorable/unfavorable rating stood at 31 percent to 36 percent among all respondents (and 22/42 percent among independents).
But in this latest survey, it’s now 28 percent favorable and 39 percent unfavorable (and 22/38 percent among independents).
In fact, Romney’s image right now is worse than almost all other recent candidates who went on to win their party’s presidential nomination: Obama’s favorable/unfavorable ratio was 51/28 percent and John McCain’s was 47/27, in the March 2008 NBC/WSJ poll; John Kerry was at 42/30 at this point in 2004; George W. Bush was 43/32 in 2000; and Bob Dole was 35/39 in March 1996.
The one exception: Bill Clinton, in April 1992, was at 32/43 percent.
But there is also some good news for Romney in the poll, especially as it relates to his bid to capture the GOP presidential nomination.
After his primary victories last Tuesday in Arizona and Michigan, the former Massachusetts governor leads the national Republican horserace, getting support from 38 percent of GOP voters, his highest-ever mark in the poll.
He’s followed by former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum at 32 percent and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul tied at 13 percent.
In a race reduced to just two candidates, Romney leads Santorum by five percentage points, 50 to 45 percent.
In particular, Romney has improved his standing with Tea Party supporters, getting support from 44 percent of them in a two-way contest against Santorum.
And what’s more, 72 percent of Republicans say they would be satisfied if Romney becomes their party’s presidential nominee.
Obama’s improved political standing When it comes to President Obama, the poll contains mostly good news. Fifty percent approve of his job – his highest mark in the NBC/WSJ survey since Osama bin Laden’s death – and 45 percent disapprove.
In a hypothetical general-election contest, he leads Romney by six points, 50 to 44 percent, winning independents (46-39 percent), women (55-37 percent) and those in the Midwest (52-42 percent).
Obama enjoys bigger leads over Paul (50 to 42 percent), Santorum (53 to 39 percent) and Gingrich (54 to 37 percent).
Bolstering Obama’s standing is increased optimism about the state of the U.S. economy.
Forty percent believe the economy will improve during the next year, a three-point increase from January. And looking back at the economic recession, 57 percent say that the worst is behind us, while 36 percent say the worst is still to come.
Back in November, only 49 percent said the worst was behind us.
“President Obama is probably in the best political shape he’s been in since his initial year as president,” says Hart, the Democratic pollster.
The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted from Feb. 29 through March 3 of 800 adults (including 200 by cellphone), and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.5 percentage points. The poll also contains an oversample of 185 interviews to achieve a total of 400 GOP primary voters, and that margin of error is plus-minus 4.9 percentage points.