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Democrats reorganizing for 2017 and beyond

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GOP dumps provision against Confederate flags over VA cemeteries

A year after South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from its capitol grounds, official Washington is struggling with further restrictions on the flag’s display on federal property, including in the U.S. Capitol complex.

The National Park Service, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Army have longstanding guidelines for its cemeteries that permit display of the Confederate flag one or two days a year. This is particularly true in Southern states that celebrate Confederate Memorial Day, giving descendants of Southern soldiers the chance to use the flag to commemorate their ancestors.

Last week, Republicans quietly dumped a provision preventing the flag from being flown over mass graves of Confederate soldiers from broader legislation to fund the Department of Veterans Affairs. Flag displays would still have been allowed over the graves of individual soldiers.

The move angered Democrats, especially since both House Republicans and Democrats had voted in May for the provision. Further complicating the issue is that the flag provision had been combined with an overall bill to fund the fight against the Zika virus.

“Republicans even used this … listen to this one — to block the prohibition of Confederate flags on federal facilities,” said top Senate Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada.

Reid mentioned the flag fight every day this week, often muddying the facts.

He accused Republicans of allowing the flag to fly over “any veterans’ facility,” which would include hospitals and clinics.

He also claimed that there is already an “order in effect saying you can’t fly the flag on military cemeteries” and said Republicans would rescind it.

Congressional Democrats have not pressed the White House on this issue. Unlike official rulemaking, which requires public feedback and can take years, guidelines on the flag can be swiftly changed by agency officials who answer to the White House.

The White House seemed surprised when asked about it this week.

“I’m not aware of any executive action that’s being contemplated,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday. The White House followed up with a response detailing the limited circumstances in which the flag can be displayed in VA cemeteries.

The flag issue became a national discussion after a white man was arrested for gunning down nine black parishioners last year at a historic church in Charleston, South Carolina. Democrats tried in the aftermath of the shooting to ban the flag’s display at cemeteries run by the National Park Service, but divisions in the House scuttled the effort.

While Republicans in Washington ducked the Confederate flag issue, the South Carolina legislature — dominated by tea party Republicans and including many black Democrats — voted overwhelmingly to remove the flag from the Capitol grounds in Columbia. The debate won wide praise for its civility.

In Washington this year, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., sought to put the Confederate flag controversy to rest. Ryan approved a move to block the Mississippi flag, which incorporates the Confederate battle flag in its top inner corner, from being restored to its display in a passageway between the Capitol and a House office building.

Republicans negotiating the final bill to fund the Veterans Affairs department abandoned the provision despite the House vote in May.

“It is shameful that Republicans would once again seek to allow Confederate battle flags, a historic symbol of hate, to be flown over VA cemeteries,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., who had sponsored the provision.

Republicans rammed the bill through the House last week, but Senate Democrats blocked it, angered by the way Republicans had funded the Zika fight and the restrictions they imposed on money for Planned Parenthood.

Sen. Reid to Democrats: ‘lay off’ Sanders

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said this week that people should “lay off” Bernie Sanders, sending a message to restive Democrats increasingly anxious to see the party unite behind Hillary Clinton.

Reid is personally close with the Vermont independent senator and presidential hopeful. Last week he disclosed that he’d spoken with Sanders to voice concerns about unruly protests by Sanders supporters at the Nevada state Democratic convention, and subsequently voiced his disappointment over a defiant statement Sanders issued in response.

On Tuesday Reid had a different message, signaling to fellow Democrats that pressuring Sanders is not the way to go.

“I’ve had conversations with Bernie, he’s a good person, he’s doing his best to effectuate what he believes in, and I have no criticism of Bernie at this stage,” Reid said.

“I think we should just kinda lay off Bernie Sanders a little bit, OK?”

Reid’s comment comes as Democrats, including in the Senate, grow increasingly vocal with their impatience over Sanders’ continued presidential candidacy. Sanders is showing no signs of quitting despite nearly impossible odds of overtaking Clinton, who is eager to turn her attention to Republican Donald Trump and the general election in November.

Instead Sanders’ is warning of a potentially “messy” Democratic Convention in Philadelphia in July while criticizing Clinton and the Democratic Party for their dependence on big money. Many Democrats find such criticism is wearing thin and poses threats to the party, but there’s debate over how best to respond. Reid seems determined for now to try to keep Sanders in the fold without alienating him and his backers.

Support for Feingold

Reid also told reporters that he’d spoken with Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, who is running for Senate, and “I’m very happy that Sen. Sanders is supporting him bigtime.”

Although it’s not surprising that Sanders would back Feingold since they share similar outlooks, Sanders has not thus far gotten involved in endorsing or campaigning for Senate Democratic candidates. Backing Feingold could reassure other Democrats about his intentions and party loyalty.

Sanctions target Putin’s inner circle

Raising the stakes in an East-West showdown over Ukraine, President Barack Obama on March 20 ordered economic sanctions against nearly two dozen members of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle and a major Russian bank that provides them support.

The U.S. president warned that more sweeping penalties against Russia’s robust energy sector could follow.

Russia retaliated swiftly, imposing entry bans on American lawmakers and senior White House officials, among them Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Obama senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer and the president’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes.

It’s far more than just a U.S.-Russia dispute. European Union leaders said they, too, were ready to close in on Putin’s associates, announcing sanctions on 12 more people linked to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. That brought the number of people facing EU sanctions to 33.

The Western aim is twofold: to ratchet up the costs for Putin’s annexation of Crimea and to head off any further Russian military inroads into Ukraine.

“The world is watching with grave concern as Russia has positioned its military in a way that could lead to further incursions into southern and eastern Ukraine,” Obama said, speaking from the South Lawn of the White House.

The volleys deepened the confrontation over Ukraine, a standoff that has become one of the biggest political crises in Europe since the Cold War. Putin, rather than backing off as the West warns of costs, has defiantly moved military forces into Crimea, backed a referendum in which the Crimean people overwhelming voted to join Russia and then signed a treaty formally absorbing the strategically important peninsula into Russia.

In Ukraine, pro-Russian forces seized three Ukrainian warships on March 20, and U.S. officials acknowledge privately that there is little chance of Russia giving up Crimea now. The more pressing concern is stopping Putin from pushing into other Ukrainian areas with large ethnic Russian populations. Thousands of Russian troops are currently positioned along Ukraine’s eastern border.

The Pentagon said Russia’s defense minister assured Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that those forces have no intention of crossing into Ukrainian territory and are only in the region to conduct military exercises. The two men spoke by phone for an hour.

The U.S. had received similar assurances from top Kremlin officials, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, before Russian troops moved into Crimea.

The penalties announced by the U.S. and Europe build on an initial round of narrower sanctions levied earlier this week. While European officials did not immediately release names, the U.S. listed some of Putin’s closest associates.

Among the 20 individuals sanctioned were Sergei Ivanov, the Russian president’s chief of staff, as well as Arkady Rotenberg and Gennady Timchenko, both lifelong Putin friends whose companies have amassed billions of dollars in government contracts.

Also sanctioned: Bank Rossiya, a private bank that is owned by Yuri Kovalchuk, who is considered to be Putin’s banker.

Putin has not been personally targeted by the first two rounds of U.S. sanctions. In fact, American sanctions on heads of state are rare, largely reserved for instances where the U.S. is seeking a change in government leadership.

Russians have made light of previous U.S. sanctions on individuals, and targeted American lawmakers reacted in like manner.

Said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.: “I guess this means my spring break in Siberia is off.”

Obama also signed a new executive order that would allow him to sanction key Russian industries, actions that could have a harsher impact on that country’s economy. Senior administration officials said Russia’s energy, financial services and metals and mining sectors are among the industries that could be targeted.

“Russia must know that further escalation will only isolate it further from the international community,” Obama said.

The U.S. has so far acted in conjunction with the European Union, Russia’s largest trading partner. The EU’s close economic ties with Russia gives its penalties more bite, but also leave the alliance more vulnerable if the Kremlin retaliates.

The EU did not immediately release the names of those it had targeted with travel bans and asset freezes. European leaders, meeting in Brussels, also announced plans to scrap an EU-Russia summit scheduled for June. And like Obama, they warned that further provocations by Russia would result in deeper punishments.

“We need to prepare to take further steps and we need to do it together,” said Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. “A strong Europe is the last thing that Putin wants. He wants to split us up.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that beyond increasing the number of people affected by asset freezes and travel bans – initially 21 politicians and military commanders – the leaders would prepare for possible measures at a higher level, which would include economic sanctions and an arms embargo.

Russia’s economy has already taken a hit during the Crimea crisis. The country’s stock market fell 10 percent this month, potentially wiping out billions. Economists have slashed growth forecasts to zero this year, and foreign investors have been pulling money out of Russian banks.

The West’s dispute with Russia is expected to dominate Obama’s trip to Europe next week. He’ll chair a hastily arranged meeting of the Group of Seven, pointedly leaving out Russia, which often joins the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan to comprise the Group of Eight.

Officials said the G-7 leaders will discuss what kind of financial assistance they can provide to the fledgling Ukrainian government. The G-7 nations have also suspended preparations for a G-8 summit that Russia is scheduled to host this summer in Sochi, site of the recently completed Winter Olympics.

Senate vote on ENDA expected next week

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has promised a vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act before Thanksgiving — and there are indications that it could be as early as Nov. 4.

In the latest tally, there are 54 Senate co-sponsors and at least 58 “yes” votes for ENDA, which would ban bias based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace with exceptions for businesses with fewer than 15 employees, religious institutions and the Armed Forces.

With a majority in the co-sponsor column and the favorable votes nearing 60, advocates seem confident the full Senate will vote in favor of ENDA. There’s also optimism that a dramatic shift in public opinion on LGBT rights and increased calls for moderation from the GOP leadership may lead to success in the GOP-controlled House.

ENDA, in some form, has been introduced every congressional session since 1994 except the 109th. In the 113th Congress, Colorado Democrat Jared Polis is the chief sponsor in the House, where ENDA is before the Judiciary, Education and the Workforce and House Administration, Oversight and Government Reform committees. The measure has 186 co-sponsors, including Wisconsin Reps. Ron Kind, Gwen Moore and Mark Pocan.

Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley is the chief sponsor in the Senate, where ENDA gained approval from the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in June.

Three Republicans on that committee – Mark Kirk of Illinois, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Orrin Hatch of Utah – backed the bill. The bipartisan vote led Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to say he wants to bring ENDA to the floor this fall.

This week, Reid was working to bring the bill to a vote on Nov. 4, probably in the evening.

“I look forward to working with Leader Reid and the rest of my colleagues to get this bill on the floor and passed through the Senate,” Merkley said.

He added, “All Americans deserve the right to work hard and earn a living. It is fundamentally inconsistent with our American values that in 29 states you can still be fired for who you are and whom you love.”

In October, Americans for Workplace Opportunity, a coalition of civil rights and labor groups, sought to bring citizens to the Capitol to press for ENDA, a campaign that was overshadowed by the partial government shutdown that began just days before the scheduled lobby day.

Later in October, AWO announced that two major political donors – Democrat Jonathan Lewis and Republican Paul Singer – had pledged $250,000 each to the campaign to pass ENDA in the Senate.

Lewis, who is gay, is a businessman and philanthropist from Miami. Singer, whose son is gay, is a hedge fund executive from New York. Singer’s American Unity Fund, which bills itself as “the voice of pro-freedom Republicans.” is promoting the message that “it’s time for Congress to protect ALL Americans in the workplace” and nudging Republican lawmakers to vote for ENDA.

The commitment, said AWO campaign manager Matt McTighe, “is yet another indicator of the unusual partnerships –conservatives and liberals, Fortune 500 companies and labor unions – who are uniting behind this year’s effort to pass ENDA.”

Lewis and Singer “realize there is simply nothing partisan about protecting every American from discrimination on the job,” said Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights group. “Each and every person in this country should be able to go to work without fear of being fired because of who they are or who they love. That’s not a Democratic value or a Republican value, it’s an American value.”

A recent national survey by TargetPoint Consulting, where Republican pollster Alex Lundry is the chief data scientist, found that two-thirds of voters, including 56 percent of Republicans, support passing a federal law to ban workplace bias based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

And 86 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement, “We should all follow the Golden Rule and treat others as we’d like to be treated, including gay, lesbian and transgender Americans.”

The percentage stayed about the same when Republicans were asked about equality in the workplace: 86 percent agreed that “everyone has a right to earn a living – including gay, lesbian and transgender Americans – and workers should be judged on the job they do, nothing more, nothing less.”

Lundry said supporting ENDA is smart policy and smart politics. Lundy said GOP support for the bill “is a testament to the conservative values at the heart of the proposed law.”

Senate vote on DADT set for Tuesday

There is a lot of news circulating about the National Defense Authorization Act, the filibuster vote, the don’t ask, don’t tell repeal provision and Tuesday’s vote in the U.S. Senate.

On Tuesday, Sept. 21, the Senate will vote at 2:15 p.m. on cloture for the motion to proceed to debate on NDAA. That means that opponents of DADT need 60 votes to move forward.

LGBT civil rights activists maintain they actually have more than 60 votes.

However, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has changed the terms of the debate, slighting moderate Republicans lined up to vote to break any filibuster.

Reid’s rule will block any amendments to NDAA.

In the final hours before the vote, activists are urging calls to the Senate switchboard and offices.

Callers are asked to request that Reid return to the original terms of amendments and debate for NDAA.

Callers also are asked to call five key Republicans on the issue.

Reid’s contact is 202-224-3542.

The five Republicans are Sen. Susan Collins, Maine, 202-224-2523; Sen. Dick Lugar, Indiana, 202-224-4814; Sen. George Voinovich, Ohio, 202-224-3353; Sen. Olympia Snowe, Maine, 202-224-5344 and Sen. Scott Brown, Massachusetts, 202-224-4543.

Wrong angle

Sharron Angle, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate who’s angling for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s seat in November, told a conservative talk radio host that young girls who become pregnant after being raped by their fathers should not get abortions, because “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Angle went on to urge such victims to turn their lemons into lemonade.

Before people in Nevada got to know her, Angle held an 11-percent lead in the polls. Now she’s trailing.