Republican Gianforte Wins Montana Special Election

Republican Greg Gianforte won the special election for Montana’s at-large House seat Thursday night.

With 77 percent of precincts reporting, he led Democrat Rob Quist 51 percent to 44 percent, The Associated Press reported. Gianforte will fill the seat vacated by former GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke, who left to become Interior secretary.

Most polls had showed Gianforte leading, but the contest, which had already grown closer than expected for a reliably GOP seat, crossed into unknown territory Wednesday night when Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault after attacking a reporter at his campaign headquarters in Bozeman, Montana.

The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs had tried to ask him about the Congressional Budget Office’s score of the House Republicans’ health care bill. But Jacobs tweeted Wednesday night that Gianforte had “body-slammed” him, and the newspaper later posted audio of the encounter from Jacobs’ recorder.

That night, Gianforte’s campaign released a statement with a version of events that did not match the audio recording, and the candidate stayed silent on Election Day. He must report to court by June 7 and could face a maximum $500 fine and six months in jail.

Despite spending little on the race up until this week, Democratic outside groups quickly released digital and radio ads using the audio of the attack. But it might have been too late for the incident to boost Quist. By the time polling places opened on Thursday, about half of the estimated total ballots had already been cast early.

While Quist, a first-time candidate and folk musician, was able to tap into grass-roots liberal energy to raise more than $6 million, Gianforte benefited from massive outside spending from GOP groups attacking Quist.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC backed by House GOP leadership, dropped $2.7 million on the race. Just six months earlier, he’d lost a bid for Montana governor, underperforming President Donald Trump by double digits. Zinke won re-election last fall by 16 points.

Corry Bliss, the fund’s executive director, has compared Gianforte to an unpopular incumbent running for re-election. “In this environment, a C-minus candidate isn’t going to cut it. So we decided to take this race very seriously from the beginning,” Bliss said Thursday. Republicans hammered Quist for his personal financial struggles and tied him to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

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Politics

NIH Probe by House Panel Expands

By Joe Williams
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“When I voted in 2001 to authorize military force against the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks, I had no idea I would be authorizing armed conflict for more than fifteen years, and counting.”

That’s what Sen. Jeff Flake said Thursday. The Arizona Republican was announcing yet another effort with Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., to get Congress to actually go on record to authorize the use of military force against ISIS and other terror groups.

“It is past time for Congress to voice its support for the war against ISIS, something many military officers and diplomats working to defeat ISIS have advocated for, and for Congress to reassert some of the authority it has abdicated over the years,” Flake said in a statement.

Kaine, the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2016, has been working with Flake on authorizations for several years. He had said President Barack Obamaneeded congressional approval to combat ISIS.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said Thursday that, “It would be my hope … that we would also during this next work period begin to take up the AUMF.”

The Republican from Tennessee praised the effort by Flake and Kaine.

“It’s the best of the U.S. Senate working in a bipartisan way to come up with something that may in fact work,” Corker said, speaking at a committee markup Thursday morning.

Like Obama, President Donald Trump is continuing to pursue the fight against terrorist entities using authorities granted in 2001 and 2002 to take military action against al-Qaida, as well as for the military action against Iraq.

In April, senators emerged from a closed briefing regarding military action against Syria wanting the Trump administration to provide a proposal for any additional use of force authorization. But even then lawmakers conceded there is no good legal remedy for Congress to assert its will.

“We have the War Powers Act,” Foreign Relations ranking Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland said at the time. “There’s no way of enforcing the War Powers Act, but we do have the War Powers Act.”

The legislation Flake and Kaine are introducing Thursday would, according to a summary provided to CQ Roll Call, “repeal and replace” the AUMFs from the George W. Bush administration. The new authorization would cover ISIS, al-Qaida and the Taliban.

It would set up a new process to allow Congress to weigh in more expeditiously when the fight against ISIS, al-Qaida and the Taliban expands beyond an identified set of countries (Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Somalia).

The bill also would allow for better oversight of what exactly constitutes being an affiliate or an associate of one of the three groups.

“Most members of Congress were not yet elected when the debate and vote on the 2001 AUMF took place and it is time for this Congress to fulfill its duty by putting its stamp on the current fight and to reaffirm its commitment to defeating ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban,” Kaine said in a statement. “I’m proud to have Senator Flake as a partner on this issue as we share this AUMF with our colleagues in hopes it presents a bipartisan way forward on this issue.”

Rachel Oswald contributed to this report.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.

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The House Freedom Caucus is looking for a debt ceiling increase by August and it’s willing to lend votes to pass one — with some caveats.

According to a source familiar with the group’s plans, the Freedom Caucus could soon take an official position saying they will provide votes for a debt ceiling increase conditional on two things — that the measure includes structural changes designed to give Treasury borrowing authority for specific obligations, known as debt prioritization, and that a vote occurs before Congress leaves for the August recess.

The caucus began discussions on the idea during their weekly meeting Monday and those talks are continuing this week.

A formal position from the Freedom Caucus, which requires support of at least 80 percent of their roughly three dozen members, would be significant because it would mean House Republicans would have an opportunity to pass a debt ceiling increase without Democratic votes.

Conservatives inside and outside the Freedom Caucus have typically voted against “clean” debt ceiling increases, which has given Democrats leverage on the issue. But conservatives have supported separate legislation to prioritize specific debt payments and make other structural changes designed to prevent a continually increasing debt limit. With Republicans now in control of Congress and the White House, conservatives feel they have an opportunity to couple the two and get legislation to the president’s desk.

The Freedom Caucus has not yet settled on a specific proposal it would push for on the structural changes, but the source familiar with the plans said Reps. Tom McClintock of California and Dave Schweikert of Arizona have worked on language that is an option being considered.

The Freedom Caucus’s plans are timely as Office and Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, a founding member of the conservative group, suggested on Wednesday during a House Budget Committee hearing that Congress may need to act more quickly than expected to raise the borrowing limit because tax receipts are coming in “a little bit slower than expected.”

The debt ceiling suspension lifted in March but Treasury has been using so-called extraordinary measures, like the use of tax receipts, to continue making payments.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, speaking at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing Wednesday, urged Congress to raise the debt limit before the August.

The Freedom Caucus’s urgency, however, is not tied to Mulvaney’s admission or Mnuchin’s request. According to the source familiar with it’s plans, the group wants to push for a vote by August because it feels Congress needs to stop governing by crisis and address issues in advance of the deadlines lawmakers have created for themselves.

Paul M. Krawzak and Alan K. Ota contributed to this report.

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Blue Beats Red in Congressional Soccer Game

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Congressional inquiries and special counsels can productively coexist, serving complementary purposes because of their reciprocal approaches, unless they’re unable to settle inevitable fights over the same documents and star witnesses.

That may be the best response to a question many on Capitol Hill started asking as soon as Robert S. Mueller III was appointed to run the government’s probe of Russian interference in last year’s election and whether Moscow collaborated with President Donald Trump’s campaign:

What’s left for lawmakers to do — indeed, what’s appropriate for them to do — now that the Justice Department has given the former FBI director broad latitude, independence of judgment and an open budget for getting to the bottom of Russia’s role?

As Congress left town following the most tumultuous week of the nascent Trump administration, which turned four months old on Saturday, lawmakers were of two minds. Beyond their effusive bipartisan praise for Mueller and his above-reproach reputation, sentiment fell decidedly along party lines when talk turned to the special counsel’s impact on the Hill’s work.

Republicans heaved a collective sigh of relief, hoping a sustained and in-secret investigation lasting months would create a bad news blackout in which the Capitol’s attention could be refocused on conservative legislating. But, even if that doesn’t materialize, Mueller’s probe has given them ample justification for saying absolutely nothing more about the Russia-Trump imbroglio — not to reporters or their constituents and, in the view of many, not at Hill hearings that could complicate Mueller’s work.

“Congress has been pretty much sidelined, because we’re going to have to be very leery about steering into Mr. Mueller’s lane,” said GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has been spearheading one of four congressional committee inquiries on Russia, after a closed-door briefing where Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein detailed his reasoning for naming a special counsel.

Democrats declared that broad Senate and House inquiries into counterintelligence and other aspects of the Russia story should continue while Mueller pursued his more narrow assignment of searching for criminality.

“They are very different investigations,” Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said moments after Graham spoke. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”

There does seem to be plenty Congress can tackle, through its own committees or by empaneling an independent commission, without getting in Mueller’s way.

This is because the two have fundamentally different roles to play, often divergent ways of going about their work, and ultimately, dissimilar objectives.

At the core, the House and Senate have oversight responsibilities to carry out as part of their constitutional brief, while Mueller has the exclusive responsibility of law enforcement.

The elected officials can draw a satisfied sense of accomplishment by focusing the nation’s attention on incidents and rhetoric that don’t pass the smell test — behavior by government actors that’s maladroit, ethically suspect, morally reprehensible, professionally bone-headed or palpably unpatriotic.

But the appointed counsel will get a “mission accomplished” badge only if he persuades a grand jury to return indictments alleging provable crimes, those charges produce guilty verdicts and those convictions are upheld on appeal.

The politicians, using the guaranteed publicity at their disposal, will be all about turning poor behavior into breaking news alerts and headlines — preferably in plenty of time for the next campaign.

The prosecutor, using the expectations of confidentiality at his disposal, will be all about turning bad behavior into violations of U.S. Code, Title 18 — whether that takes several months or several years.

The preferred venue for Congress to do its most consequential work is the court of public opinion. The only place where Mueller might win is the federal courthouse. Their job is fundamentally political, while his is entirely legal.

At a minimum, lawmakers can use investigations to inflict public embarrassment on foolish actors. At a maximum, they can persuade the electorate to get behind efforts to secure resignation of poorly behaved senior officials — or, in the most extreme case, to support their drive for impeachment. An impeachable offense, after all, is whatever a majority of the House and two-thirds of the Senate says it is.

In the end, special counsels have a binary choice. They can file criminal charges and lay out their case, or they can close up shop after offering their rationalization for why charges were not warranted. A criminal offense, after all, is whatever a dozen ordinary Americans are persuaded it is.

The job is to decide “whether government agents had engaged in bad acts, not whether they exercised bad judgment,” is how former GOP Sen. John Danforth of Missouri said it when his own assignment ended in 2003, without any criminal charges stemming from the fatal raid on the Branch Davidian sect compound in Waco, Texas.

All that said, as Congress and Mueller maintain their interest in Russia, they will inevitably be hoping to make use of the same original source material — and that is where each has the potential to hobble if not ruin the work of the other.

For example, several Republican committee chairmen have already asked for the contemporaneous notes that James B. Comey kept of his encounters with Trump in the months before he was fired as FBI director — particularly the memo he reportedly wrote, after a February dinner in the White House, recounting the president’s request that he quash the investigation of Michael Flynn’s connections to Russia and other countries before his brief run as national security adviser.

But it’s unclear whether compliance with those congressional requests, even if they become subpoenas, would complicate the FBI’s efforts to help Mueller decide how to handle that same evidence.

The same will be the case when it comes to Comey’s own future appearances. He’s been asked by the GOP to appear before a handful of Hill panels, and his testimony could make for blockbuster political television.

But accepting the invitation to illuminate the nation about his version of events could create legal or strategic problems down the line for Mueller. And since the two have been close colleagues in the ranks of premier federal prosecutors for two decades, it’s very likely Comey will put working with the special counsel behind closed doors ahead of sharing his own narrative on television.

Most important of all, though, will be whether Congress and Mueller can come to a shared agreement for handling witnesses more hostile than Comey — because they might be in career, if not criminal, jeopardy.

The lawmakers, since they’ll be putting a premium on getting credit for explaining any malfeasance to the public, will be intent on getting the central players in the Russia probe to tell the whole truth on camera. But such appearances could prejudice juries or otherwise hobble a special counsel’s case later on.

And if Congress secures key witnesses with grants of immunity, promising that nothing they say on the Hill can be used against them in court, that would likely shield some of the worst actors from ever contemplating prison time.

That is the lasting consequence of the biggest power tussle ever between Congress and a special prosecutor.

Iran-contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh could not prevent a special House-Senate investigative committee in 1987 from partly immunizing the testimony of John M. Poindexter, President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, or Oliver L. North, who, as a National Security Council staffer, helped coordinate arms sales to Iran and the diversion of some profits to the Nicaraguan rebels.

Walsh won their convictions after trials where what they said on the Hill was not repeated, but both saw their guilty verdicts thrown out by appeals courts that ruled other evidence had been tainted by testimony given under promise that it wouldn’t be used against them.

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