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What the 114th Congress did and didn’t do

Congress has wrapped up the 114th session, a tumultuous two years marked by the resignation of a House speaker, a fight over a Supreme Court vacancy, bipartisan bills on health care and education and inaction on immigration and criminal justice.

The new Congress will be sworn-in Jan. 3.

What Congress passed or approved

  • A hard-fought budget and debt agreement that provided two years of relief from unpopular automatic budget cuts and extended the government’s borrowing cap through next March.
  • The end of a 40-year-old ban on crude oil exports.
  • A rescue package for financially strapped Puerto Rico, creating an oversight board to supervise some debt restructuring and negotiate with creditors.
  • A sweeping biomedical bill that would help drug and medical device companies win swifter government approval of their products, boost disease research and drug-abuse spending and revamp federal mental health programs. It would also include money for preventing and treating abuse of addictive drugs like opioids.
  • The first overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act since it was approved in 1976.
  • A sweeping rewrite of education law, giving states more power to decide how to use the results of federally mandated math and reading tests in evaluating teachers and schools.
  • An aviation bill that attempts to close gaps in airport security and shorten screening lines.
  • An extension of a federal loan program that provides low-interest money to the neediest college students.
  • The USA Freedom Act, which extends some expiring surveillance provisions of the USA Patriot Act passed after the 9/11 attacks.
  • A bipartisan measure that recasts how Medicare reimburses doctors for treating over 50 million elderly people.
  • Legislation reviving the federal Export-Import Bank, a small federal agency that makes and guarantees loans to help foreign customers buy U.S. goods.
  • $1.1 billion to combat the threat of the Zika virus.
  • Defense legislation rebuffing President Barack Obama’s attempts to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and blocking the Pentagon from starting a new round of military base closings.
  • Legislation authorizing hundreds of water projects, including measures to help Flint, Michigan, rid its water of poisonous lead, and to allow more of California’s limited water resources to flow to Central Valley farmers hurt by the state’s lengthy drought.
  • Expanded law enforcement tools to target sex traffickers.
  • Legislation that would tighten several security requirements of the visa waiver program, which allows citizens of 38 countries to travel to the U.S. without visas.
  • Cybersecurity legislation that would encourage companies to share cyber-threat information with the government.
  • A renewal of health care and disability payments to 9/11 first responders who worked in the toxic ruins of the World Trade Center.
  • A bill allowing families of Sept. 11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts for its alleged backing of the attackers, enacted in Obama’s first veto override.
  • A permanent ban on state and local government Internet taxes.
  • A bill that boosts government suicide prevention efforts for military veterans.
  • Confirmation of Eric Fanning to be Army secretary, making him the first openly gay leader of a U.S. military service.
  • The election of a new House speaker, Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

What Congress did not pass or approve

  • Confirmation of Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland.
  • Confirmation of 51 federal judges nominated by Obama, including 44 district court nominees and seven appeals court nominees.
  • Gun control legislation.
  • Bills that would have halted federal payments to Planned Parenthood.
  • Comprehensive or incremental changes to immigration law.
  • $1 trillion worth of agency budget bills that will be kicked into next year, complicated by a familiar battle over the balance between Pentagon spending and domestic programs and a desire by Republicans to get a better deal next year from the Trump administration. Congress passed a four-month extension of current spending instead.
  • A bipartisan criminal justice bill that would have reduced some mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenders and increased rehabilitation programs.
  • The first comprehensive energy bill in nearly a decade, which would speed exports of liquefied natural gas and create a new way to budget for wildfires.
  • War powers for Obama to fight Islamic State militants.
  • A bill forcing the president to allow construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada. Obama rejected the pipeline in 2015 after seven years of indecision.
  • The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multinational trade agreement involving 11 other Pacific Rim countries. Congress did give the president Trade Promotion Authority, allowing Congress to ratify or reject trade agreements negotiated by the executive branch, but not change or filibuster them.
  • Child nutrition bills that would have scaled back the Obama administration’s standards for healthier school meals.

Onstage at the RNC: Scott Baio, Scott Walker, lots of Trumps

Former presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio — the latter by video link — are among those set to speak at the RNC in Cleveland.

Military leaders, members of Congress, actors, faith leaders and family members of presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump are also set to speak in what the Republican National Committee calls “an unconventional lineup” that will challenge the status quo and press for Trump’s agenda.

Speaker highlights at the four-day convention, which begins Monday at the Quicken Loans Arena.


Theme: Make America Safe Again

Headliners: Trump’s wife, Melania; Lt. Gen. (ret.) Michael Flynn, U.S. Army; Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa; and Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont.

Others: Willie Robertson, star of “Duck Dynasty”; former Texas Gov. Rick Perry; Marcus Luttrell, retired U.S. Navy SEAL; Scott Baio, actor; Pat Smith, mother of Sean Smith, killed in the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya; Mark “Oz” Geist, member of a security team that fought in Benghazi; John Tiegen, member of Benghazi security team and co-author of the book “13 Hours,” an account of the attacks; Kent Terry and Kelly Terry-Willis, siblings of Brian Terry, a Border Patrol agent whose shooting death revealed the botched “Fast and Furious” gun-smuggling operation; Antonio Sabato Jr., actor; Mary Ann Mendoza, Sabine Durden and Jamiel Shaw, immigration reform advocates; Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas; David Clarke, sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wis.; Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis.; Rachel Campos Duffy, LIBRE Initiative for Hispanic economic empowerment; Darryl Glenn, Senate candidate in Colorado; Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.; Karen Vaughn, mother of a U.S. Navy SEAL killed in Afghanistan; Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.; former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani; and Jason Beardsley of Concerned Veterans for America.


Theme: Make America Work Again

Headliners: Tiffany Trump, candidate’s daughter; Kerry Woolard, general manager, Trump Winery in Virginia; Donald Trump Jr.; Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.; former GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson; and actress Kimberlin Brown.

Others: Sharon Day, co-chairwoman of Republican National Committee; Dana White, president, Ultimate Fighting Championship; Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson; Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge; former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey; Andy Wist, founder of Standard Waterproofing Co.; Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.; Chris Cox, executive director, NRA Institute for Legislative Action; golfer Natalie Gulbis; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.; House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.


Theme: Make America First Again

Headliners: Former presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio; Eric Trump, son of the candidate; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Trump’s pick to be vice president.

Others: radio host Laura Ingraham; Phil Ruffin, businessman with interests in real estate, lodging, manufacturing and energy; Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi; retired astronaut Eileen Collins; Michelle Van Etten, small business owner; Kentucky state Sen. Ralph Alvarado Jr.; Darrell Scott, senior pastor and co-founder of New Spirit Revival Center Ministries, Cleveland; Harold Hamm, oil executive; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; Lynne Patton, vice president, Eric Trump Foundation; Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. (by video); Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas; Callista Gingrich, wife of Newt Gingrich.


Theme: Make America One Again

Headliners: Peter Thiel, co-founder PayPal; Tom Barrack, CEO of Colony Capital; Ivanka Trump, daughter of the candidate; and Donald Trump, GOP nominee for president.

Others: Brock Mealer, motivational speaker; Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.; Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin; Dr. Lisa Shin, owner of Los Alamos Family Eyecare in New Mexico; RNC Chairman Reince Priebus; Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University and evangelical leader.

Health care repeal vote to open a political year in Congress

It’s been like a long-delayed New Year’s resolution for Republicans. But 2016 will be the year when they put legislation on President Barack Obama’s desk calling for the repeal of his health care law.

The president, of course, will veto the measure.

The bill undoing the president’s prized overhaul will be the first order of business when the House reconvenes this coming week, marking a sharply partisan start on Capitol Hill to a congressional year in which legislating may take a back seat to politics.

There are few areas of potential compromise between Obama and the GOP majority in the House and Senate in this election year, but plenty of opportunities for political haymaking during the presidential campaign season.

Obama will veto the health law repeal bill, which also would cut money for Planned Parenthood. The measure already has passed the Senate under special rules protecting it from Democratic obstruction. But that’s the point for Republicans, who intend to schedule a veto override vote for Jan. 22, when anti-abortion activists hold their annual march in Washington to mark the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in 1973 that legalized abortion.

Despite dozens of past votes to repeal the health law in full or in part, Republicans never before have succeeded in sending a full repeal bill to the White House. They insist that doing so will fulfill promises to their constituents while highlighting the clear choice facing voters in the November presidential election.

Every Republican candidate has pledged to undo the health law. The Democrats running for president would keep it in place.

“You’re going to see us put a bill on the president’s desk going after Obamacare and Planned Parenthood so we’ll finally get a bill on his desk to veto,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told conservative talk host Bill Bennett over the holidays.

“Then you’re going to see the House Republican Conference, working with our senators, coming out with a bold agenda that we’re going to lay out for the country, to say how we would do things very differently,” Ryan said.

In the Senate, which reconvenes Jan. 11, a week later than the House, early action will include a vote on a proposal by Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican who is running for president, for an “audit” of the Federal Reserve. Democrats are likely to block it. But, like the health repeal bill in the House, the vote will answer conservative demands in an election year.

Also expected early in the Senate’s year is legislation dealing with Syrian refugees, following House passage of a bill clamping down on the refugee program. Conservatives were angry when the year ended without the bill advancing. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky promised a vote, though without specifying whether it would be the House bill or something else.

The House Benghazi committee will continue its investigation of the attacks that killed four Americans in Libya in 2012, with an interview of former CIA Director David Petraeus on Jan. 6. That comes amid new Democratic accusations of political motives aimed at Hillary Clinton after the committee chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. for president. Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, was secretary of state at the time of the Benghazi attacks.

The agenda promised by Ryan after succeeding former Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, as speaker last fall will begin to take shape at a House-Senate GOP retreat this month in Baltimore. Thus far Ryan has pledged efforts to overhaul the tax system and offer a Republican alternative to the health overhaul.

In the Senate, McConnell’s primary focus is protecting the handful of vulnerable Republican senators whose seats are at risk as Democrats fight to regain the Senate majority they lost a year ago. That means weighing the political risks and benefits of every potential vote to endangered incumbents in Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.

That could determine whether McConnell allows criminal justice overhaul legislation _ the one issue cited by Obama and lawmakers of both parties as ripe for compromise _ to come to the floor.

McConnell already has suggested that prospects for approval of Obama’s long-sought Asia trade pact are dim, and the senator has ruled out major tax overhaul legislation as long as Obama is president.

McConnell could try to put his thumb on the scales of the presidential race with two GOP senators having emerged as leading contenders.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has been a thorn in McConnell’s side, once calling the GOP leader a liar, and has frosty relations with his fellow senators. Rubio is on good terms with fellow lawmakers and has been endorsed by several of them. McConnell could schedule debate on an issue with the potential to favor Rubio politically over Cruz, such as National Security Agency wiretapping authority.

But McConnell insists he is staying out of it.

“We all have a big stake in having a nominee for president who can win, and that means carrying purple states, and I’m sure pulling for a nominee who can do that,” McConnell told The Associated Press, refusing to elaborate on who might fit that description.

Minnesota mayor backed by labor crosses picket line for lunch

The mayor of Duluth, Minnesota, faces a lifetime ban from a union hall after the union says he crossed a picket line to eat lunch at a restaurant.

Two-term Democrat Don Ness is backed by labor. But President Dan O’Neill of the Duluth AFL-CIO Central Labor Body said Ness crossed a picket line to enter the Radisson Hotel Duluth.

The Painters and Allied Trades Local 106 ran the picket line at the hotel because union members believe the hotel hired nonunion workers to renovate some of its hotel rooms, O’Neill said. He said Ness approached the picket line, shared a few words with the picketers and then went into the building.

“We were really surprised that the mayor went in,” O’Neill said.

Last month, union members attending a Duluth Central Labor Body meeting voted to ban Ness from the Labor Temple’s Wellstone Hall.

Ness, whose wife worked for the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone’s Duluth office, told his supporters on Facebook that he’s confused and upset by the ban. He wrote that he had been invited to lunch at the hotel and spoke to the picketers on his way in.

“This is still an incredibly hurtful situation,” he wrote on Facebook, adding that it will tarnish his final months in office. Ness announced last year that he doesn’t plan to run for a third term.

Ness said unionized restaurant employees crossed the same picket line, and that it was his understanding that others were allowed to cross without problems.

“If this was a strike, I absolutely would NOT have crossed the line,” he added.

O’Neill and Ness both told the Star Tribune that they thought the ban might be rescinded.

Paul Ryan not interested in becoming House speaker

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, is not interested in replacing Rep. John Boehner as speaker of the House of Representatives.

Boehner announced that he will be resigning at the end of October.

Ryan’s spokesman says the Republican from Janesville is not interested in the post. Ryan is chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

Ryan says in a statement that Boehner’s decision to step down is “an act of pure selflessness.”

He calls Boehner “a great leader of the Republican Party and the House of Representatives.”

National debate on gay marriage returns to Rhode Island

In any other New England state, Chelsea Leyden could marry the woman she’s been with for more than two years. But not in Rhode Island. Leyden hopes this is the year that distinction disappears.

“I want to get married where I was born and raised,” said Leyden, of Cranston. “My family is here. I don’t want to have to go to Massachusetts.”

With gay marriage bills introduced in the state’s General Assembly and the House Speaker calling for a vote this month, Rhode Island again finds itself a battleground in the national debate over same-sex marriage. Supporters eager to capitalize on recent gains elsewhere in the nation tell The Associated Press they’re optimistic Rhode Island could be the next state to allow gay and lesbian couples to wed.

Voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington passed gay marriage referendums last fall, electing to join Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and the District of Columbia in allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. Meanwhile, in Minnesota, voters rejected a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have prohibited gay marriage, the first time such a ballot question has failed in the United States.

The momentum has longtime supporters in Rhode Island feeling optimistic about their chances this year. “There’s a wave and we should ride it,” House Speaker Gordon Fox said the day after the November election. Fox has called for the House to vote on gay marriage before the month’s end.

Rhode Island state Rep. Art Handy, D-Cranston, has sponsored gay marriage legislation during 11 legislative sessions. He was all smiles one day last week as he lobbied other House members to sign onto his bill as a co-sponsor.

“I started with this in 2003, so I know how long it’s taken,” Handy said. “I’m optimistic this year. I think the speaker’s initiative to do it sooner rather than later helps.”

Groups opposed to gay marriage are ready to play defense. Chris Plante, director of the state chapter of the National Organization for Marriage, said he expects a “hard battle.”

He said Fox “wouldn’t have called for a vote so soon if he wasn’t sure,” he said. Nonetheless, “this is not a done deal. We will put up a very strong fight in the House and if we’re not successful we still have a very strong fight in the Senate.”

It’s likely to be months before Handy knows whether his bill succeeded. While supporters like their chances in the House, the state Senate remains a challenge. Opposition to gay marriage in the Senate doomed the last attempt at passing gay marriage in Rhode Island in 2011. Instead, lawmakers instead voted to allow gay and lesbian couples to form civil unions granting the same state rights and benefits as marriage.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a gay marriage supporter, said he’s eager for Rhode Island to join the rest of New England in allowing gay marriage. He said he believes it’s not only the right thing to do but could help improve the state’s image and even its economy. He said he knows people, gay or straight, might elect to settle in another New England state because of the state’s policy towards gay marriage.

“We want to be very inclusive, welcoming everybody,” said Chafee, an independent. “And in particular (to the) creative, energetic people that so often are associated with the gay community.”

Rhode Island now recognizes gay marriages performed elsewhere because of an executive order Chafee signed last year. The state also allows same-sex couples to create civil unions, but so far few couples have signed up.

Some supporters worry the marriage legislation could get caught up in end-of-session negotiating between House and Senate leaders – not an uncommon fate for bills that are of high interest to one chamber’s leader but perhaps not the other.

Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed opposes gay marriage but has said she expects the Senate Judiciary Committee to take up the measure anyway if and when it passes the House.

Whether the votes are there in the Senate to pass the bill is an open question eagerly debated in Statehouse hallways. The Senate has at least three new members that were backed by Fight Back RI, a political action committee created to aid candidates who back gay marriage in the state. Still, the Senate has never debated or voted on gay marriage.

It’s also possible that changes to the bill’s wording – or proposals to hold a referendum on gay marriage – could complicate the political wrangling.

“It’s tough for me to predict what a vote total will look like on the Senate floor,” said Sen. Dawson Hodgson, R-North Kingstown, a gay marriage supporter.

Sen. Harold Metts, D-Providence, said the Senate has more important issues to focus on this year. Metts opposes gay marriage on religious grounds and said his constituents have other concerns.

“They want to know about jobs, about the economy,” he said. “That’s where they want our focus.”

Lawmakers in Illinois are also expected to consider gay marriage legislation this year.

AIDS activists strip naked in Boehner’s office

Seven AIDS activists on Nov. 27 entered U.S. House Speaker John Boehner’s Office and stripped naked to protest pending cuts to HIV/AIDS funds.

The activists were with QUEEROCRACY, ACT UP NY and ACT UP Philadelphia. When they stripped, the revealed painted slogans on their bodies:  “AIDS Cuts Kill” and “Fund PEPFAR,” “Fund Ryan White,” “Fund Global Fund,” “Fund Medicaid” and  “Fund HOPWA.”

Cassidy Gardner of QUEEROCRACY, in a news release from actupny.com said, “When you strip away the rhetoric of the fiscal cliff and the grand bargain, you see that these terms are a way to thinly veil draconian budget cuts that will leave millions around the world with absolutely nothing.

The activists emphasized that later this week, just before World AIDS Day, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to deliver a speech on a blueprint to end AIDS.

The protesters said that there can be no end with mandatory budget cuts that could come early next year.

“The naked truth is that if President Obama and congressional leaders like Speaker Boehner  allow these budget cuts to lifesaving programs, global health programs will lose $689 million, while domestic AIDS programs will lose $538 million,” stated Eustacia Smith of ACT UP New York.

Police arrested three women in the demonstration and they face charges of lewd behavior. Four men were not arrested. It was unclear why the women, who put their clothes back on, were arrested but not the men.

Colorado Dems elect gay House speaker

Colorado Democrats have elected the first openly gay House speaker in state history, giving control of the chamber to a man who was the public face of a fierce debate over civil union legislation that Republicans defeated six months ago.

Democratic lawmakers on Nov. 8 picked Denver Rep. Mark Ferrandino to lead the state House, which they re-took in this week’s election. His election won’t be official until lawmakers reconvene in January and Republicans ratify the pick.

According to the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, there are currently two openly gay House speakers in state legislatures: John Perez in California and Gordon Fox in Rhode Island.

Ferrandino’s ascent is particularly notable in a state where voters banned gay marriage six years ago, and prohibited municipalities from passing laws to protect gays from discrimination 20 years ago.

NYC speaker Quinn to write memoir

New York City council speaker Christine Quinn is writing a memoir.

William Morrow publishers announced this week that the likely mayoral candidate will write about her Irish working-class childhood and her rise in New York politics.

The publisher says Quinn will also touch on her sexual orientation. The city council’s first openly gay speaker married her longtime partner in a private Manhattan ceremony on May 19.

The book is to be published in the Spring of 2013.

Quinn is expected to run to replace Mayor Michael Bloomberg next year, and she is leading in fundraising.

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Poll: Out NYC Council Speaker Quinn leads mayoral race

Out New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn is leading in a new poll of potential Democratic candidates for mayor in 2013.

The Marist poll shows that 32 percent of Democratic voters support Quinn while former New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson comes in a distant second with 12 percent.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio receives 10 percent of the Democratic vote while current Comptroller John Liu has the support of 9 percent. Seven percent of Democrats back Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer while Manhattan Media publisher Tom Allon has the backing of 1 percent. Another 29 percent are undecided.

In September 2011, the poll showed Quinn with 22 percent of the vote and Thompson with 18 percent.

The new Marist Poll also asked voters how New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg will be remembered after his final term. About 39 percent said he will be remembered positively and 10 percent said the Republican is among the city’s finest mayors.

A majority of voters also said the city is moving in the right direction.

“This is a turnabout in voters’ views of how the city is doing,” said Lee M. Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. “We’ll have to wait and see if it’s a sign of positive things to come.”

Quinn, a longtime advocate of LGBT equality, has yet to formally announce her candidacy. But she is the presumptive frontrunner, having raised more than $5 million.

On May 19, Quinn is set to marry girlfriend Kim M. Catullo.

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