Forensic News

Forensic News Roundup: Manchin signals openness to filibuster reform

Executive actions and staffing

The Biden administration announced it will reimpose sanctions on Israeli billionaire Dan Getler, reversing a last-minute decision by former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Getler was put on the sanctions list, under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, in 2017 for “opaque and corrupt mining deals” stemming from his friendship with then-Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) President Joseph Kabila. He had hired high-powered lobbyists and lawyers, including Alan Dershowitz, to press Trump’s Treasury to remove the sanctions before he left office.

Pressure also came from Israel, where Mr. Gertler is represented by prominent lawyers including Boaz Ben Zur, whose client list also includes Mr. Netanyahu. David M. Friedman, then the U.S. ambassador there, was targeted in the push, and then notified Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Pompeo that he supported the sanctions relief Mr. Gertler wanted

The White House has backed a new congressional effort to repeal and replace a war authorization that has allowed four administrations to conduct military action with little to no involvement of lawmakers. One bill on the table was introduced last week by Sens. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Todd Young (R-IN) following Biden’s first military strike in eastern Syria. If it passes and is signed into law, the Senate would have to vote to approve most actions of war.

The Department of Homeland Security announced it will provide $77 million in grant funding for state and local governments to address domestic extremism. For the first time, DHS designated combating domestic violent extremism as a “National Priority Area” for FEMA programs.

President Biden fired Trump-appointed attorney Sharon Gustafson on Friday after she refused to resign. Gustafson served as the general counsel of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and was viewed as hostile to the mission of protecting civil rights, particularly those of the LGBTQ community.

A key DeVos appointee within the Education Department resigned on Friday, following pressure from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and other progressives. Mark A. Brown’s departure allows Biden to pick someone more aligned with his priorities to lead the federal aid office that oversees the government’s $1.5 trillion student loan portfolio.

“Whether it was incompetence, malice, or a mix of both, the Department of Education’s student loan bank under Betsy DeVos was a disaster and oversaw the illegal garnishment of the wages of thousands of struggling borrowers during the pandemic,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said earlier this year. “Students deserve leadership at this office who will follow the law and make this program work for students.”

The Pentagon announced Monday that President Biden nominated two female generals to elite leadership positions, after having their promotions delayed by former officials out of fears that Trump would reject them based on their gender. Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost of the Air Force has been nominated to head the Transportation Command and Lt. Gen. Laura J. Richardson of the Army to head the Southern Command.

Although Van Ovost and Richardson are highly regarded and the Pentagon’s top leadership agreed they were the best general officers for those jobs, the Times reported, former Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley “feared that any candidates other than white men for jobs mostly held by white men might run into turmoil once their nominations reached the White House.”

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Congress

As you probably know, the Senate passed Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill on Saturday after working all night, a process that overall took more than 24 hours on the Senate floor. Voting opened on Friday with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ amendment to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Republicans raised a point of order objection, as expected, forcing a procedural vote with a 60-vote threshold. Seven Democrats and one Independent joined with Republican senators to squash the amendment, 42-58. Sens. Manchin (D-WV), Sinema (D-AZ), Carper (D-DE), Coons (D-DE), Tester (D-MT), Hassan (D-NH), Shaheen (D-NH), and King (I-ME) – who caucuses with the Democrats – broke ranks.

The primary cause of Friday’s delay was centrist Sen. Manchin, who threatened to side with Republicans seeking to cut unemployment benefits. After hours of negotiations and a direct call from President Biden, Manchin reached a deal with Schumer to cut unemployment benefits short by several weeks and add a $150,000 cap to the proposal’s tax deduction for up to $10,200 in unemployment benefits.

In an [earlier] interview, he suggested that by June or July the economy should be opening up as vaccines become more widespread and the coronavirus recedes. And he worried about paying people more than $1,000 extra a month to stay home..

The episode baffled Democrats, who said Manchin threatened what they understood to be a universally acceptable compromise… Manchin’s dramatic play on Friday perplexed even his West Virginia counterpart, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). Their state’s governor had been pushing Congress to go bigger, not smaller. “I have no idea what he’s doing, to be quite frank,” she said. “Maybe you can tell me.”

Even with Manchin’s slightly watered-down unemployment benefits, the American Rescue Plan (ARP) is one of the most progressive pieces of legislation advanced in recent memory. Unlike previous coronavirus relief actions under Trump, the ARP focuses the majority of funding on low- and moderate-income Americans. According to an analysis by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a “family of four in Massachusetts in which one parent lost a job would get around $66,000 from the government,” including the stimulus checks, child tax credits, and unemployment assistance.

Researchers predict it could become one of the most effective laws to fight poverty in a generation. Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy estimates that the plan’s provisions, including a generous expansion of tax credits for low-income Americans with children, would reduce the poverty rate by more than a quarter for adults and cut the child poverty rate in half.

Sen. Manchin hinted on Sunday that he may be open to reforming the filibuster by requiring that a lawmaker continuously hold the floor in order to stave off legislation they object to. The practice, known as a “talking filibuster,” used to be the norm. Nowadays, a senator only has to send an email to invoke the 60-vote threshold. Making the talking filibuster a requirement would allow all legislation to eventually advance with a simple majority vote, when the filibustering party cedes the floor.

“If you want to make it a little bit more painful, make him stand there and talk, I’m willing to look at any way we can. But I’m not willing to take away the involvement of the minority,” Manchin told Chuck Todd.

Reforming the filibuster is a requirement for the Democratic party to pass the majority of its agenda, as only legislation that directly impacts the federal budget can be passed through reconciliation and, even then, only a limited number of times per year.

[Dan Pfeiffer, who was a senior adviser to President Barack Obama] said that while some parts of Biden’s agenda can bypass or overcome filibusters, voting rights measures can’t — and failure would be devastating for the Democratic Party. “Democrats cannot pass voting rights legislation with the filibuster in place and if Democrats do not pass voting rights legislation they are making a generational mistake that could doom them to the minority for a decade,” Pfeiffer said by email.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell backed a GOP bill in the Kentucky legislation that would require the governor to replace a departing senator with someone from the same party. Currently, the governor – Andy Beshear (D) – picks the replacement if a U.S. Senator from Kentucky is unable to fulfill their term. Senate Bill 228 would alter the state statute to require that the appointment to fill a vacancy be selected from a list of three names selected by members of the same party as the departing senator.

In other words, if McConnell retires early, gets sick, or passes away, Gov. Beshear will be forced to appoint a Republican chosen by the highly conservative state legislature. According to The Intercept, McConnell has already indicated who he would like to be on the list of three potential replacements:

The list is topped by his protégé, state Attorney General Daniel Cameron, and also includes former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft, whose billionaire coal magnate husband is a major McConnell donor, as well as Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, a former McConnell Scholar.

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Congressional misconduct

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) skipped House votes last week to instead attend an event hosted by white supremacists. The America First Political Action conference was put on by Nick Fuentes, who helped instigate the Jan. 6 insurrection and marched alongside neo-Nazis in Charlottesville in 2017. Gosar and Fuentes both spoke at the conference, with the latter calling what he saw at the Capitol riot “awesome.”

The Pentagon Inspector General released a detailed report finding that former White House doctor and current U.S. House Representative Ronny Jackson (R-TX) made “sexual and denigrating” comments about a female subordinate and drank and took Ambien while on the job.

The Office of Congressional Ethics released a months-long investigation into Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), concluding that he misused campaign and congressional funds to improve his personal house and potentially overpay his brother for work on his campaign. The House Committee on Ethics, which handles punishments for ethics violations of lawmakers, is reviewing the matter.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) is under FEC scrutiny for campaign filing discrepancies totally nearly $3 million over the past two years. Jordan reportedly received ten official notices last week demanding the lawmaker explain the variation between his campaign’s earlier reports and amended versions filed recently; failure to adequately do so “could result in an audit or enforcement action.” The campaign’s campaign manager claims the “former campaign treasurer inadvertently double-reported certain fundraising expenses.”

The family of South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem received $600,000 in relief grants under a program she expanded. Initially capped at $100,000, Noem raised the threshold and her relatives got the maximum. According to the AP, less than 4% of grant applicants received grants that large.

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