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File destruction scandal highlights Obama's failure to regulate Wall Street

by: desmoinesdem

Mon Aug 22, 2011 at 10:25:26 AM CDT

Senator Chuck Grassley made news last week by publicizing a whistleblower's claims about widespread file destruction at the Securities and Exchange Commission. Thousands of preliminary investigation files no longer exist, which hampers the SEC's ability to identify and prosecute financial crimes. The alleged practice goes back nearly two decades, despite a federal law that grants the National Archives and Records Administration authority over preserving government files.

President Barack Obama didn't create this problem, but his cozy relationship with Wall Street helped keep law-breaking alive at the SEC.

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Senate passes, Obama signs short-term FAA extension

by: desmoinesdem

Fri Aug 05, 2011 at 17:33:58 PM CDT

While in pro-forma session for 59 seconds today, Senate Democrats passed a six-week extension of the Federal Aviation Administration's authorization. Since the bill had already passed the U.S. House, it went straight to President Barack Obama. He signed it right away, ending the partial shutdown of the FAA that began on July 22. Furloughed FAA employees can go back to work, and airport construction projects put on hold can resume.

The short-term extension contains some cuts to the Essential Air Service program subsidizing service to small airports (including three in Iowa). House Republicans want to phase out that program, while most Democrats want to preserve it. The bill passed today does not include Republican-backed language that would make it more difficult for airline workers to join a union.

LATE UPDATE: The FAA shutdown delayed planned upgrades at the Southeast Iowa Regional Airport in Burlington, possibly until after the winter.

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Senate approves debt ceiling deal; Harkin and Grassley vote no

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Aug 02, 2011 at 13:04:08 PM CDT

The U.S. Senate approved the last-minute deal to raise the debt ceiling today by a vote of 74 to 26 (roll call). Iowa's senators voted no for very different reasons. Democrat Tom Harkin reject the deal he called "a clear and present danger to the fragile, indeed faltering, economic recovery." Republican Chuck Grassley said the plan "delays meaningful spending reductions, fails to address entitlement spending in a way that will save the programs for future generations of retirees, and leaves open the possibility of tax increases." The complete statements from by Harkin and Grassley are after the jump.

Yesterday all five Iowans in the U.S. House voted against the debt deal as well. To my knowledge, no other state's entire Congressional delegation rejected this national embarrassment.

After hailing passage of an austerity plan that will deeply cut domestic spending, President Barack Obama said today, "We've got to do everything in our power to grow this economy and put America back to work." He missed that chance.

LATE UPDATE: Richard Kogan posted a helpful summary on "How the Potential Across-the-Board Cuts in the Debt Limit Deal Would Occur."

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New thread on the debt ceiling sellout

by: desmoinesdem

Sun Jul 31, 2011 at 21:59:43 PM CDT

President Barack Obama and Congressional leaders announced a deal on raising the debt ceiling in exchange for at least $2 trillion in domestic spending cuts. The agreement is complicated in many respects, but the gist is that Republicans will get almost everything they have demanded throughout this process (if they are smart enough to accept total victory).

After the jump I've posted the ludicrous White House talking points on why this deal is "a win for the economy and budget discipline." They brag about putting the U.S. "on track to reduce non-defense discretionary spending to its lowest level since Dwight Eisenhower was President," as if that's a good thing. No economist would endorse big domestic spending cuts, given the current state of the economy. The deal calls for many of those cuts to happen in 2013 or later, but unemployment is not going down in any significant way before 2013--more likely, it will increase. Some Democrats claim the president will hold the line on extending the Bush tax cuts in late 2012, but that is a sick joke. Obama has no credibility on these issues. Only two weeks ago he said he would reject a $2.4 trillion spending cut plan that did not include any tax increases. Look where he is now, serving up a "sugar-coated Satan sandwich" and thanking Republican leaders for doing their part.

House Speaker John Boehner is trying to sell the deal to the House Republican caucus with this slide show (pdf file). House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi hasn't committed to supporting the deal, but I assume a significant number of House Democrats will be stupid enough to go along. Any Democrat who votes for this deal deserves to lose.

I will update this post with comments from the Iowans in Congress as those become available. Recent statements from most of the Iowa delegation are here, along with details on how our representatives in the U.S. House and Senate voted on the debt ceiling proposals offered since Friday.

UPDATE: The deal passed the House easily on August 1, but all of Iowa's representatives voted against it.

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All Iowans vote no, but House passes Boehner debt plan (updated)

by: desmoinesdem

Fri Jul 29, 2011 at 19:07:56 PM CDT

The U.S. House on Friday evening approved Speaker John Boehner's latest bill to sharply cut federal spending as a condition for raising the debt ceiling. The bill barely passed by a 218 to 210 vote (roll call). Every House Democrat present voted no, including Bruce Braley (IA-01), Dave Loebsack (IA-02), and Leonard Boswell (IA-03). The big surprise for me was that both Tom Latham (IA-04) and Steve King (IA-05) were among the 22 Republicans who voted against the bill. I expected King to oppose the measure, because many of his Tea Party Caucus colleagues believe Boehner isn't cutting enough spending. But Latham is one of the speaker's closest friends, and I thought he would be one of the votes putting the bill over the top. It was a tremendous struggle for Boehner to line up enough support for this bill; he had to delay Thursday's scheduled vote in order to rewrite some provisions today.

Sometimes in situations like these, the House speaker gives some members in the majority caucus permission to vote no, if they are in tough districts. Latham will face Boswell in the new third Congressional district next year, and some of the spending cuts in this bill would affect popular programs. It's possible Latham voted no with Boehner's consent, once the speaker knew he had 218 yes votes lined up. That insulates Latham against some potential attack ads. However, Latham was on WHO radio this afternoon saying something must be done to ensure that the government pays its bills. If he acknowledges the need to raise the debt ceiling, when does he think a better deal will come around than Boehner's bill?

Incidentally, House leaders don't seem inclined to move on Latham's bill to prioritize certain types of spending in case no debt ceiling deal is reached.

The U.S. Senate is expected to table the latest House bill on the debt ceiling later Friday evening. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been working on a new "compromise" that is depressingly similar to what Boehner proposed, so Congress is probably headed toward a total Republican victory--big spending cuts, no revenue increases. Notably, if the U.S. ever does pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan, all the savings would go toward deficit reduction, rather than investing in our own infrastructure or social programs. Never mind that the U.S. economy is sputtering and will probably go back into recession under fiscal austerity. That serves Republican political interests as well, because President Barack Obama will be blamed for the downward spiral. Obama's approval rating on the economy is already low, and most Americans think job creation is more important than deficit reduction right now.

For some reason, Obama prefers this outcome to Senator Tom Harkin's advice: raise the debt ceiling by invoking the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

UPDATE: On Friday night six Senate Republicans voted with all 53 members of the Democratic caucus to table the motion on concurring with Boehner's bill (roll call). Grassley was among the 41 Republicans who opposed the motion to table.

Statements released by Latham, King, Loebsack and Braley are now after the jump.

SATURDAY UPDATE: The House rejected Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's bill on July 30; it was a symbolic vote because Reid is still revising the proposal, which so far doesn't have enough support to overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate.

Most House Democrats voted for the Reid bill, including Boswell. However, Braley and Loebsack were among the 11 Democrats who voted with all Republicans present against that bill (roll call). I am seeking comment from Braley and Loebsack offices on why they voted against the Reid proposal. It's worth noting that like Boehner's bill, Reid's plan would cut more than $2 trillion in spending over the next decade, with no revenue increases. A total disgrace.

UPDATE: Loebsack released this statement about Saturday's vote: "We must get Iowa's economy moving forward.  Today's vote was not about a solution, it was about political leverage in Washington."

FURTHER UPDATE: Here's Harkin speaking on July 30:

"I'm talking about that there's precedents for presidents to do things where the Constitution doesn't give the president explicit authority but it doesn't prohibit the president from doing it, and I believe there's a basis in the 14th amendment as decided in Perry v. United States," Sen Tom Harkin (D-IA) said on the Senate floor. "I think the president - barring action from the Congress - not only has the authority to do so, he has the responsibility to not let this country default."

SUNDAY UPDATE: Senate Majority Leader Reid called a cloture motion on his horrendous compromise proposal Sunday afternoon. It needed 60 votes to pass but only received 50, mostly from Democrats (roll call). I don't understand Harkin voting for cloture here, when the bill has none of the balance he has advocated. Maybe he planned to vote against the bill itself later--who knows? Grassley voted against cloture, as did every Republican present besides Scott Brown. I've added Grassley's statement below.

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Senate tables "Cut, Cap, and Balance" on party-line vote

by: desmoinesdem

Fri Jul 22, 2011 at 11:28:05 AM CDT

The U.S. Senate voted down the Cut, Cap, and Balance Act of 2011 today, three days after the House approved that Republican budget-cutting plan. All members of the Democratic caucus present, including Iowa's Tom Harkin, voted for a motion to table the motion to proceed with considering the bill (roll call). All Senate Republicans present, including Iowa's Chuck Grassley, voted against the motion to table. Tabling the bill in effect kills it for this session of Congress.

After the jump I've posted the floor statement Grassley submitted yesterday in support of the Cut, Cap, and Balance Act. He argued that raising taxes would neither increase federal government revenues nor reduce the federal deficit. He described Cut, Cap, and Balance as "the only plan that has been put forth to address our deficit and debt problem" and claimed it would "impose budget caps to get our spending down to a manageable level compared to our gross domestic product." This piece by Michael Linden and Michael Ettlinger points out that the "last time federal spending dipped below 18 percent of GDP was 1966." Click through for a chart showing how severe spending cuts would have to be to bring fiscal year 2016 spending down to 18 percent of GDP. Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities described this bill as "one of the most ideologically extreme pieces of major budget legislation to come before Congress in years, if not decades."

I've also posted below Harkin's floor statement opposing Cut, Cap, and Balance. He reminded colleagues that President Ronald Reagan warned Congress against refusing to raise the debt ceiling, and that Reagan supported "corrective income tax increases in 1982 and 1984" when he realized that "his 1981 tax cuts were resulting in large deficits." Harkin also claimed the Republican bill would defund Medicare by putting "the federal government in a fiscal straightjacket, allowed to spend no more than in the mid-1960s, before Medicare."

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King, Grassley speak out for Defense of Marriage Act

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Jul 21, 2011 at 20:31:38 PM CDT

Senator Chuck Grassley and Representative Steve King (IA-05) spoke out this week for preserving the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, which states that the federal government recognizes only marriages between one man and one woman. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a July 20 hearing on S. 598, the Respect for Marriage Act. That bill would repeal part of the DOMA so that for purposes of federal law, "an individual shall be considered married if that individual's marriage is valid in the state where the marriage was entered into." Six states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriages.

Grassley is the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, and his opening statement in yesterday's hearing asserted that "George Orwell would have marveled" at calling S. 598 the "Respect for Marriage Act." In Grassley's view, the bill would undermine the institution of marriage. He denied that Congress passed DOMA in 1996 "to express disapproval of gay and lesbian people." He asserted that supporters of DOMA now face threats and intimidation that amount to an "unacceptable" "chilling of First Amendment rights."

Grassley invited King to testify before the committee, and in his statement, King asserted that recognizing same-sex marriages would devalue the institution of marriage. Saying "you can't choose who you love" could be used to justify incestuous or polygamous unions, King told the senators. He also argued that the DOMA is consistent with the will of the American people, who have voted in 31 states to restrict legal marriage to one man and one woman. (More recent opinion polling has shown growing support for same-sex marriage rights.)

After the jump I've posted the full texts of Grassley's opening remarks and King's testimony. Both Iowa Republicans described the government's interest in protecting marriage as an institution that promotes procreation. King cited a 1942 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said, "Marriage and procreation are fundamental to the very existence and survival of the race." During the past decade, several state Supreme Courts have rejected that argument as a reason to deny same-sex couples the benefits of marriage.

Multiple plaintiffs have challenged the constitutionality of the federal DOMA. Click here for a brief summary of six lawsuits working their way through federal courts. In July 2010, a U.S. District Court judge hearing two of those cases in Massachusetts struck down section 3 of the DOMA. In February of this year, President Barack Obama instructed the U.S. Department of Justice not to defend "the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA as applied to same-sex married couples" as applied in those two court cases. This week, White House spokesman Jay Carney affirmed that the president supports repealing DOMA. King claimed in his testimony that President Obama said DOMA is unconstitutional "despite no court ever reaching that conclusion." He may be unaware of U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Tauro's ruling from last summer.

While I support repealing DOMA, I view the current debate over S. 598 as a somewhat cynical public relations exercise. Everyone knows that the Republican-controlled U.S. House would never approve a DOMA repeal bill. Had Democrats tried to move this legislation when they held majorities in both houses of Congress, I would give them more credit. It's notable that Obama publicly voiced his opinion about DOMA only after its repeal was a dead letter in the House.

Any comments about marriage equality are welcome in this thread.

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Harkin, Grassley vote yes as Senate confirms first openly gay federal judge

by: desmoinesdem

Mon Jul 18, 2011 at 21:43:09 PM CDT

The U.S. Senate confirmed J. Paul Oetken as a District Court just for the Southern District of New York today, making Oetken the first openly gay person confirmed for a federal judgeship. The Senate vote was 80 to 13 (roll call), with Republicans casting all of the no votes. Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin and Republican Chuck Grassley both voted yes on Oetken's nomination. Throughout his career, Grassley has usually voted to confirm judges nominated by presidents from either party. However, Grassley voted against confirming both of President Barack Obama's nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. More recently, Grassley helped filibuster Goodwin Liu's nomination for the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

Oetken was valedictorian at Regis High School in Cedar Rapids before graduating from the University of Iowa in 1988 and from Yale Law School in 1991. Here is more background on his career in law and business:

Oetken is currently the senior vice president and associate general counsel of Cablevision, a cable television company primarily serving customers on the eastern seaboard. He has a long history of federal service, previously serving as a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun and attorney-advisor in the United States Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel. Oetken was recommended to replace Judge Denny Chin on the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York by New York Senator Charles E. Schumer. [...]

Schumer called Oetken a "strong advocate for the LGBT community" in his statement, citing Oetken's support of the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual & Transgender Project as well as the amicus brief he co-authored in the Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down the sodomy law in Texas.

"The Texas Homosexual Conduct Law violates principles that are basic to the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment," stated the introduction to the amicus brief, which Oetken wrote with Chai R. Feldblum, a commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "[A]nimosity toward a group of people is not a legitimate purpose for governmental discrimination against such a group."

Speaking on the Senate floor today, Schumer said Oetken

will give hope to many talented young lawyers who, until now, thought their paths might be limited because of their sexual orientation. When Paul becomes Judge Oetken, he will be living proof to all those young lawyers that it really does get better.

Schumer also hailed Oetken's "moderation," which (along with his work for a major media company) may explain why Oetken won support from so many Senate Republicans.

Perhaps some Bleeding Heartland readers remember Oetken from his time in Cedar Rapids or Iowa City. Regis alums must be proud.

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Senate votes to repeal ethanol tax credit; Grassley and Harkin vote no

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Jun 16, 2011 at 16:13:57 PM CDT

Two days after rejecting a similar measure, the Senate voted today to repeal a key ethanol tax credit as of July 1:

[Democratic Senator Dianne] Feinstein's amendment to an economic development bill would quickly end the credit of 45 cents for each gallon of ethanol that fuel blenders mix into gasoline. The credit led to $5.4 billion inforegone revenue last year, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The amendment also ends the 54-cent per gallon import tariff that protects the domestic ethanol industry.

Thursday's vote was a turnaround from Tuesday, when just 40 senators voted for [Republican Senator Tom] Coburn's identical amendment, well shy of the 60 needed to advance it.

But the politics of Tuesday's battle were clouded by Democratic anger at Coburn's surprise procedural move last week that set up the vote. Democratic leaders had whipped against the amendment heading into Tuesday's vote, but two aides said they did not do so ahead of the vote Thursday.

Both Iowans in the Senate voted against the Feinstein amendment, which passed 73 to 27 (roll call). Tom Harkin was one of 13 Democrats to vote no, and Chuck Grassley was one of 14 Republicans to vote no. Most of the opposition came from significant corn-producing states.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack called today's Senate vote "ill advised" and warned that jobs would be lost. His full statement is after the jump. I will update this post with reaction from Harkin and Grassley if it becomes available. Their comments on Tuesday's ethanol vote are here.

UPDATE: Philip Brasher writes for the Des Moines Register,

The vote was largely symbolic in that the House is expected to reject the provision because tax measures are supposed to originate in the House, not in the Senate. But the sweeping defeat was a powerful indication of how the industry's once legendary political clout on Capitol Hill has all but disappeared because of  the federal deficit and concerns about the impact of the biofuel on food prices and the environment. The subsidy and tariff are due to expire at the end of the year and the industry is trying to continue some kind of subsidy after that  to go with the annual usage mandates that require refiners  to add ethanol to gasoline. The mandate rises each year until 2015 before leveling off at 15 billion gallons. [...]

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said that the rising cost of food is a sleeper issue around the country and that the vote to kill the ethanol subsidy was a "vote to lower food prices and to lower the national debt." [...]

The ethanol industry did achieve one victory today when the Senate rejected, 59-41,  a proposal by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to block the Obama administration from subsidizing the installation of ethanol pumps and storage tanks. However, the House approved a similar measure 283-128 earlier in the day as part of an appropriations bill for the Agriculture Department. That Senate vote's important, however, because it shows the industry has support there for shifting at least some of the  federal aid it's now getting into infrastructure subsidies, according to energy policy analyst Kevin Book.

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Grassley, Harkin vote no as Senate defeats amendment on ethanol

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Jun 14, 2011 at 16:25:00 PM CDT

Senators Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin both voted to preserve a key ethanol tax credit today, as an effort to end that credit six months early fell way short of the 60 votes needed in the U.S. Senate. Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma had submitted an amendment to repeal the 45-cent-per-gallon volumetric ethanol excise tax credit for ethanol blenders as of July 1. The credit is scheduled to expire at the end of 2011. Coburn's amendment "also would have eliminated a 54 cent-per-gallon tariff on imported ethanol," saving the federal government approximately $2.7 billion total. Only 40 senators (34 Republicans and six who caucus with Democrats) voted for a cloture motion on Coburn's amendment. Grassley and Harkin were among the 59 senators (13 Republicans and 46 who caucus with Democrats) who voted against cloture; click here for the roll call.

Today's vote might have been much closer had Coburn not used unusual Senate procedures to force the legislation to the floor. Democratic Senate leaders whipped the vote against Coburn's amendment, bringing around some Democrats who oppose ethanol subsidies. Democrat Dianne Feinstein, a co-sponsor of the Coburn amendment, nonetheless voted no on today's cloture motion and said publicly, "If it weren't for the process, we would have 60 votes." Feinstein had urged Coburn "to withdraw his amendment and wait until next week" for a Senate vote.

Most of the Republicans who voted against the Coburn amendment represent large corn-producing states. A major anti-tax group's opposition to the measure may have peeled off a few GOP votes as well. Grover Norquist's group Americans for Tax Reform argued that eliminating any tax credit without simultaneously adding new tax cuts amounts to a tax increase.

Ethanol supporters also reduced support for Coburn's amendment by introducing a rival proposal yesterday. Harkin and Grassley are both co-sponsoring the new bipartisan Senate legislation:

While Coburn's language would completely eliminate the subsidy, the pro-ethanol proposal would cut off the subsidy on July 1, and replace it with a variable subsidy that fluctuates with the price of oil. [...]

Under this proposal, ethanol blenders would get no subsidy at all when oil prices are above $90 a barrel. If oil falls to between $80 and $90 a barrel, they would get a six cents per gallon subsidy. Another six cents would be added for each $10 drop in the price of oil, and a maximum subsidy of 30 cents a gallon could be received when oil falls to $50 a barrel or less (a summary of the bill is here).

That's still less than the current 45 cents a gallon subsidy that ethanol blenders receive currently, regardless of the price of oil.

Proponents of the bill say ending the current system on July 1 and moving to a variable subsidy would save $2.5 billion. In a nod to Coburn and his supporters, the bill would use $1 billion of that for deficit reduction.

The rest would be used for the variable subsidy, but also for the development of ethanol infrastructure and other incentives. For example, the bill would expand tax credits to ethanol blender pumps, and extend through 2014 the small producer ethanol credit.

After the jump I've posted Grassley's floor statement against the Coburn amendment and his comments released after today's vote. I will update this post if I see official comment from Harkin.

UPDATE: Added Harkin's statement praising the Senate for rejecting "this misguided amendment." The Iowa Environmental Council reminds us that the government's pro-ethanol policy has unintended consequences for water quality.

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Grassley, Harkin reject delay of debit card fee rules

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Jun 09, 2011 at 06:50:00 AM CDT

Resisting a full-court press from bank industry lobbyists, Senators Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin voted yesterday against delaying new regulations of fees banks can charge for debit card retail transactions. Under the Dodd-Frank financial reform law enacted last year, the Federal Reserve Board has until July 21 "to ensure fees banks charge merchants for debit card purchases are 'reasonable and proportional.'" Those fees currently average 44 cents per transaction, totaling approximately $1.3 billion per month nationwide. A proposed Fed rule would cap the fees at 12 cents per transaction.

Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana and Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee have been trying to water down the regulation:

Tester and Corker had originally proposed a 24-month delay, then shortened it to 15 months and on Tuesday filed an amendment to reduce it to 12 months in a bid to pick up support.

The Tester-Corker measure would require bank regulators to study the impact of the Durbin regulation on consumers and community banks and credit unions for six months. It requires regulators to issue a rule implementing new swipe fee rates six months later but gives them power to include a wider range of costs which could let banks charge more than the Fed is currently proposing.

The number two Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, sponsored the Dodd-Frank amendment on debit card swipe fees. Speaking on the Senate floor yesterday, Durbin said "leading up to this vote has been one of the most heated debates and exchanges that many of us in the Senate have seen in our time." The Hill's Alexander Bolton called it " the biggest K Street battle of 2011."

Tester and Corker fell six votes short of the 60 needed to approve their amendment to the financial reform law. In an unusual split, 19 Democrats and 35 Republicans voted to delay the debit card fee rules. Grassley and Harkin were among the 12 Republicans, 32 Democrats and one independent who voted against the amendment (roll call).

Both of Iowa's U.S. senators both voted for Durbin's amendment on debit card fees last May (roll call). Kudos to them for resisting the pressure to delay this reasonable regulation. Bolton noted that nine Senate Democrats who supported the original debit card rule also voted for the Tester-Corker amendment.

For what it's worth, credit cards still offer consumers more protection than debit cards for certain retail transactions.

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Iowa delegation split on PATRIOT Act extension (updated)

by: desmoinesdem

Fri May 27, 2011 at 06:45:00 AM CDT

Hours before three controversial PATRIOT Act provisions were set to expire, Congress approved a bill extending the provisions until June 1, 2015. At the Open Congress blog, Donny Shaw summarized the legal points:

They include the authority for "roving" wiretaps that allows the government to monitor computers that may occasionally be used by suspected terrorists, the "tangible records provision" that requires banks, telecoms and libraries to hand over any customer information the government requests without being allows to inform the customer, and the "lone wolf" provision allowing the government to track terrorists acting independently of any foreign power or organization.

Congress approved a three-month extension of those provisions in February. The bill that just passed was a compromise between House Republican and Senate Democratic leaders who disagreed on how far to extend the powers. A House bill would have extended the "lone wolf" authority permanently and the others for six and a half years. A Senate bill would have extended all three powers until the end of 2013.

Many senators have complained that the PATRIOT Act provisions in question undermine civil liberties, but few had the stomach to filibuster the bill when the Senate considered a motion to proceed on May 23. Iowans Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley were among the 74 senators voting for considering the PATRIOT Act extension (roll call). Just eight senators voted to filibuster this bill; another 18 senators did not vote on the motion to proceed.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid used a legislative maneuver to block various amendments seeking to reform the PATRIOT Act from receiving votes on the floor yesterday. The Senate voted on just two amendments, both submitted by Republican Rand Paul. Motions to table those amendments passed with overwhelming majorities, 91 to 4 and 85 to 10. Both Harkin and Grassley voted to table Paul's amendments.

Harkin and Grassley disagreed on final passage of the bill, however, as they did when the last extension came to a vote in February. Grassley was among 72 senators voting for the four-year PATRIOT Act extension; Harkin was among the 23 voting against it (roll call).

The bill then went to the House for consideration. After some debate it passed on Thursday evening by a vote of 250 to 153. The roll call shows that Democrat Leonard Boswell (IA-03) and Republicans Tom Latham (IA-04) and Steve King (IA-05) all voted yes, while Democrats Bruce Braley (IA-01) and Dave Loebsack (IA-02) voted no, with the majority of their caucus. Quite a few House members crossed party lines on this bill; 31 Republicans voted no, while 54 Democrats voted yes. Iowa's House delegation split the same way in February when the three-month PATRIOT Act extension passed.

After the House voted to concur with the Senate amendment to the bill, the PATRIOT Act extension went to President Barack Obama's desk. Because the president is in France, White House officials said Obama signed the bill before midnight using some kind of "autopen" machine. That's the first I ever heard of that technology.

After the jump I've posted a memo from Grassley on the PATRIOT Act extension, which the Republican senator's office sent to the media on Thursday evening. At this writing I have not seen press releases on this vote from Harkin, Braley, Loebsack, Boswell, Latham or King.

Glenn Greenwald wrote a good post on the cynicism of Democrats who have been using the Republican talking points of yesteryear to browbeat colleagues into rubber-stamping the PATRIOT Act extension.

UPDATE: Added King's press release on this vote after the jump.

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Grassley yes on some, Harkin no on all draft budgets

by: desmoinesdem

Thu May 26, 2011 at 09:17:22 AM CDT

The U.S. Senate rejected motions to proceed with considering four draft budgets for the 2012 fiscal year yesterday. Democratic leaders scheduled the vote primarily to get Republicans on the record supporting the budget that passed the Republican-controlled House of Representatives last month. That blueprint, also known as Paul Ryan's budget, foresees big changes to the Medicare program and became a central issue in Tuesday's special election in New York's 26th Congressional district.

Senator Chuck Grassley voted for two out of the three Republican proposals on the table, including the Ryan budget, while Senator Tom Harkin voted against all three GOP budgets as well as President Barack Obama's budget blueprint.

Details on the votes and proposals are after the jump.

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Reports view Iowa pedestrian deaths, bike friendliness

by: desmoinesdem

Wed May 25, 2011 at 15:09:59 PM CDT

Two new reports examine how well Iowa and other states are serving people who travel on foot or by bicycle. Yesterday Transportation for America released Dangerous by Design 2011: Solving the Epidemic of Preventable Pedestrian Deaths. The report looks at factors contributing to 47,700 pedestrian deaths and more than 688,000 pedestrian injuries that happened in the U.S. from 2000 through 2009. Iowa didn't emerge as one of the most dangerous states for pedestrians, but our state did conform to national trends showing ethnic minorities, lower-income residents, senior citizens and children are at greater risk of dying as pedestrians struck by vehicles.

Iowa placed sixth on the League of American Bicyclists 2011 Bicycle Friendly States rankings, but our state scored much better in some categories than others. Falling short in a couple of areas cost Iowa the "silver" or "bronze" recognition that several other states received.

Follow me after the jump for details from both reports and many other transportation links, including an update on passenger rail funding in Iowa.

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Grassley, Republicans filibuster judicial nominee

by: desmoinesdem

Fri May 20, 2011 at 07:56:15 AM CDT

Yesterday Senator Chuck Grassley and almost all his Senate Republican colleagues blocked a motion to end debate on the nomination of Goodwin Liu for the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (roll call). Tom Harkin and all but one Senate Democrat voted for the cloture motion. A 40-year-old law professor at the University of California in Berkeley, Liu had strong academic and legal credentials. Conservatives opposed his liberal policy views as well as his criticism of President George W. Bush's Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. During his confirmation hearing in March, Liu said the conclusion of his 2006 testimony against Alito showed "poor judgment."

Liu would have been the only Asian-American on the 9th Circuit panel, which covers territory where more 40 percent of Asian-Americans live. Some observers have suggested that Republicans wanted to keep Liu off the appeals bench to prevent him from being a future U.S. Supreme Court nominee. (Similar concerns were raised about Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor when President Bill Clinton nominated her for an appeals court judgeship in the 1990s.) President Barack Obama has drawn criticism for the "slow pace" of his judicial nominations, but he had nominated Liu three times for this post.

Liu was the second high-profile Obama appointee filibustered this month. On May 9, Grassley and most of his Senate Republican colleagues blocked a motion to end debate on the nomination of James Cole for deputy attorney general. The president had nominated Cole for the position in May 2010, naming him as one of six recess appointees in December after Republicans long delayed considering his nomination.

Cole has extensive experience in private practice and in various Justice Department positions. He is best known for being the House Ethics Committee special counsel who investigated then Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1997. Gingrich ultimately paid a $300,000 fine for breaking House ethics rules; Cole discussed that investigation at length in this 1997 interview.

Grassley didn't mention the Gingrich investigation in his lengthy prepared floor statement opposing Cole's nomination. Grassley cited the Justice Department's failure to cooperate with investigations into whistleblower allegations, as well as a 2002 op-ed piece Cole wrote advocating criminal trials in U.S. civilian courts rather than military tribunals for terrorism suspects. Finally, Grassley criticized Cole's work as an independent consultant hired in 2004 to monitor the insurance giant AIG's compliance with a securities fraud settlement.

The least convincing part of Grassley's statement on Cole was this: "I have been consistent in my opposition to recess appointments over the years." Trouble is, President George W. Bush "made 171 recess appointments, of which 99 were to full-time positions." I do not recall Grassley filibustering a Bush nominee for any position.

Grassley may have been especially upset by Obama's December 2010 batch of recess appointees because they included Norm Eisen for U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic. The U.S. had been without an ambassador to that country for two years, and Grassley was the lone senator holding up Eisen's nomination. He "accused Eisen of improperly firing an inspector general for partisan political reasons"; Eisen denied that claim. In January, Grassley and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Darrell Issa wrote to White House Counsel Bob Bauer, calling Eisen's appointment "particularly inappropriate."

UPDATE: After the jump I've added Grassley's official statements on the Goodwin Liu nomination and the failed cloture vote. I also added the full prepared floor statement from Grassley on May 18, explaining his reasons for opposing Liu. These prepared remarks do not include statements Grassley made on the Senate floor that day, asking rhetorically whether Liu thinks "we're the communist-run China." Speaking in the chamber, Grassley suggested that by discussing how conservatives use terms like  "free enterprise" and "private ownership of property" as code words, Liu was implying that "if you get government more involved, like they do in China, it's somehow a better place."

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Grassley yes, Harkin no on expanding offshore drilling

by: desmoinesdem

Thu May 19, 2011 at 06:53:19 AM CDT

A bill to expand offshore drilling for oil failed to advance in the U.S. Senate yesterday. Iowa's Chuck Grassley was among 42 Republicans who voted to proceed with considering the Offshore Production and Safety Act of 2011 (roll call). Five Republicans joined every Democrat present, including Tom Harkin, in voting against the motion, which needed 60 votes to pass.

This bill was written as the Republican way to address high gasoline prices, in contrast with Democratic efforts to repeal oil company tax breaks. Although oil market experts agree that more drilling in the outer shelf won't affect prices at the pump, I am surprised that no Senate Democrats backed yesterday's motion to proceed. When the House of Representatives approved a different offshore drilling bill two weeks ago, a large chunk of the Democratic caucus (including Iowa's Leonard Boswell) voted with Republicans.

In other Senate news, Grassley hasn't announced how he will vote on House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan's budget: "[Grassley] said the burden is on Senate Democrats to explain why they haven't introduced their own alternative budget." I would be shocked if Grassley voted against Ryan's plan. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell isn't whipping his colleagues to vote for the legislation, probably because Democrats plan to make proposed Medicare reforms the centerpiece of the 2012 election campaign. But Grassley doesn't have to worry about being re-elected.

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Grassley and Harkin split over ending tax breaks for oil companies

by: desmoinesdem

Tue May 17, 2011 at 19:49:17 PM CDT

A Republican-led filibuster blocked Senate consideration today of a bill that would end "tax breaks for the five largest oil companies: Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips and Chevron." Click here for more detail on tax breaks that would be eliminated. The 52 to 48 vote in favor of proceeding with the "Close Big Oil Tax Loopholes Act" failed because 60 votes are needed to overcome a filibuster. The roll call shows that Iowa's Chuck Grassley voted against the motion to proceed, as did all but two Senate Republicans. Tom Harkin voted for considering the bill, as did all but three Democrats.

I'm all for ending oil company subsidies, but this bill was about optics rather than good energy policy. Andrew Restuccia wrote in The Hill,

Democrats' pledge to continue pushing the bill signals that they view the effort as a winning political issue amid $4-a-gallon gas, soaring oil company profits and growing concern about the deficit. [...]

Democrats say the bill would save $21 billion over the course of 10 years, savings that can be used to reduce the deficit at a time of increased belt-tightening.

Those talking points would be more convincing if party leaders had genuinely tried to end oil subsidies when Democrats controlled the U.S. House and had close to 60 votes in the Senate. It also makes no sense to focus this bill on the biggest oil companies, rather than the sector as a whole. Democrats apparently wrote the bill that way because of those companies' large profits in the first quarter of this year.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told journalists today that he will press for ending oil companies' tax breaks as part of legislation on raising the debt ceiling. The U.S. hit its current debt ceiling yesterday and won't be able to pay all its bills if Congress does not act to raise the ceiling by August 2. I believe President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats are playing a losing game by making budget negotiations part of a deal on raising the debt ceiling. When it was time to raise the government's borrowing limit in 1995, President Bill Clinton wisely refused to let Republicans use the occasion to "backdoor their budget proposals."

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: After the jump I've added a statement Grassley released on May 17, calling on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to approve the proposed Keystone XL Canadian pipeline project. Grassley depicts that project as a way for the Obama administration to help reduce the cost of gasoline. But an analysis commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy earlier this year suggested that building this pipeline might cause oil and therefore gasoline prices to rise in the Midwest. Environmental groups have raised many objections to the Keystone XL project as well.

SECOND UPDATE: I've also added below excerpts from a report by the Congressional Research Service on "the extent to which proposed tax changes on the oil industry are likely to affect domestic gasoline prices." The report briefly explains the five tax breaks that would be repealed under the bill senators filibustered.

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Iowa delegation split as Congress approves current-year spending bill

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Apr 14, 2011 at 20:22:33 PM CDT

The federal government is no longer in danger of shutting down. Today Congress approved a bill to fund operations through fiscal year 2011, which ends on September 30. In the House of Representatives, the bill passed by 260 votes to 167 (roll call). The bill needed bipartisan support, because only 179 House Republicans voted yes, including Iowa's Tom Latham (IA-04). Steve King (IA-05) was among the 59 Republicans who voted against; that's about one-fourth of the House GOP caucus. Leonard Boswell (IA-03) was among the 81 House Democrats who voted for the budget bill; Bruce Braley (IA-01) and Dave Loebsack (IA-02) voted against it.

After the bill passed, the House voted for two "corrections" to the bill, which passed on nearly party-line votes (roll calls here and here). One of those resolutions would defund the 2010 health care reform measure, the Affordable Care Act. The other would eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Latham and King voted for both "corrections," while Boswell, Loebsack and Braley voted against them.

The Senate quickly took up the spending bill. The House measure to defund health care reform went down first; all 47 Republican senators voted yes, but all 53 senators who caucus with Democrats voted no. Then senators rejected the measure to defund Planned Parenthood. On that resolution, 42 Republicans, including Iowa's Chuck Grassley, voted yes, while a few GOP moderates and the whole Democratic caucus, including Tom Harkin, voted no. The Senate then voted 81 to 19 to pass the spending bill. Most of the no votes were Republicans. Both Grassley and Harkin voted for the compromise to fund the government through the current fiscal year.

After the jump I've posted statements from some members of the Iowa delegation. I will update those as more become available. I noticed that Leonard Boswell did not issue a statement on his vote today; he also didn't send out a press release Friday night about voting for the stopgap one-week spending measure. King's press release today glossed over his vote against the budget deal; instead, he emphasized the House vote on language to block funding for "Obamacare."

There's some confusion about how much federal spending will be cut in the current fiscal year. According to the Congressional Budget Office, "while the agreement cuts almost $40 billion in budget authority, the near-term reduction in the federal deficit is only about $352 million." Philip Rucker explained some of the accounting gimmicks in this Washington Post article. Many of the cuts will hurt, however.

Of the $38 billion in overall reductions in the budget that funds the government for the rest of the fiscal year, about $20 billion would come from domestic discretionary programs, while $17.8 billion would be cut from mandatory programs. [...]

Although the pain would be felt across virtually the entire government - the deal includes a $1 billion across-the-board cut shared among all non-defense agencies - Republicans were able to focus the sharpest cuts on areas they have long targeted. The Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services departments, which represent about 28 percent of non-defense discretionary spending, face as much as a combined $19.8 billion, or 52 percent, of the total reductions in the plan.

In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency, long a target of conservatives, will see a $1.6 billion cut, representing a 16 percent decrease from 2010 levels. At the Department of the Interior, affected agencies include the Fish and Wildlife Services ($141 million cut from last year), the National Park Service ($127 million cut from last year) and "clean and drinking water state revolving funds" ($997 million cut from last year).

Democrats were able to beat back the most severe cuts originally proposed by House Republicans and protect funding for some cherished programs, such as Head Start, AmeriCorps and the implementation of the new health-care and food safety laws.

This pdf file lists the program cuts, grouped by department. There are basically no Defense Department cuts, although spending has been reduced on military construction and a few veterans' programs. In other areas of domestic spending, there are too many ill-advised cuts to list in this post. Some terms in this deal are merely short-sighted: reducing spending on various literacy and conservation programs, energy efficiency and renewable energy, and a big cut to high-speed rail projects. Other provisions are immoral, like slashing spending for community health care centers and the Low-Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program's contingency fund. It depresses me that a Democratic president and Senate majority leader agreed to make the largest USDA spending reduction apply to the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.

The bill also contains provisions that have nothing to do with federal expenditures. For instance, it removes gray wolves from the endangered species list in Montana so that farmers and ranchers can shoot them.

At the end of this post I've added reaction from the Iowa Congressional delegation to President Barack Obama's April 13 speech on bringing down the national debt. I didn't watch the speech, but I read through the full text, as prepared. It contained some nice words for liberals and some Republican-bashing. The trouble is, based on the president's handling of budget negotiations in the past few months, I believe Obama will end up agreeing to almost all the spending and entitlement cuts Republicans want. Despite his promises yesterday, I very much doubt he will block a permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts for all income levels.

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Iowa reaction to the looming federal government shutdown

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Apr 07, 2011 at 17:06:15 PM CDT

A federal government shutdown appears imminent, with Republicans and Democrats still far from a deal and the last continuing resolution on fiscal year 2011 spending set to expire at the end of April 8. Trying to buy more negotiating time, House Republicans approved a new continuing resolution today that funds most of the federal government for just one week but the Department of Defense through the end of September (the remainder of the fiscal year). The bill passed on a 247 to 181 vote, mostly along party lines, despite a rare veto threat from President Barack Obama earlier today. The roll call shows that Steve King (IA-05) was one of only six Republicans to vote no on this bill, and Leonard Boswell (IA-03) was among only 15 Democrats to vote yes. Tom Latham (IA-04) voted yes, along with most of the GOP caucus. Democrats Bruce Braley (IA-01) and Dave Loebsack (IA-02) voted no, like most of the Democrats.

House and Senate leaders have been negotiating at the White House today and are scheduled to continue this evening, but prospects for a budget deal don't look good. Both sides are "already spinning a shutdown." The main sticking point seems to be not the dollar figure for cuts to the current-year budget, but a number of "riders" demanded by House Republicans, which are unacceptable to Democrats. Some of the most contentious ones would defund health care reform, Planned Parenthood and forbid the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases.

After the jump I've posted recent statements from Braley, Loebsack, and Latham regarding the federal budget negotiations and the continuing resolution passed today. Braley and Loebsack both denounced Washington political "games" and pointed out how thousands of Iowans would be affected by a shutdown. Latham said, "No one wants a government shutdown, and I'm doing everything I can to keep that from happening while protecting our troops [...] However, we can't continue to spend money we don't have, and any budget approved by Congress must contain serious spending cuts." Earlier today on the House floor, Latham stuck to the GOP script on the "troop funding bill". I'll update the post as more reaction becomes available.

Senator Tom Harkin has blamed Republican intransigence for the potential shutdown in many media interviews this week. Speaking on MSNBC today, he said that even in 1995 and 1996 he'd never seen anything like the current attitude among some Republicans who won't compromise. Radio Iowa quoted Harkin as saying, "It is flabbergasting, that actually people are walking around here saying 'shut the government down.' I gotta ask sometimes, where's their patriotism, where is their patriotism?" Speaking to reporters yesterday, Senator Chuck Grassley expressed frustration about Senate Republicans being excluded from the direct negotiations at the White House. He still sounds optimistic a shutdown can be avoided, though.

If Friday night's deadline passes with no agreement, some government services would continue, including various law enforcement activities, air traffic control, the U.S. Postal Service, National Weather Service monitoring, and payment of food stamps and Social Security checks. However, approximately 800,000 federal employees would be furloughed, and many other Americans would be affected by cutbacks in government services. For instance, tax refunds would be delayed, national parks and forests would be closed, and neither the Federal Housing Administration nor the Small Business Administration would be able to process or approve new loans. Federal courts can continue to operate for two weeks, but if a shutdown lasts longer than that, "the federal court system faces serious disruption." Over at Iowa Independent, Tyler Kingkade looked at how a federal government shutdown would affect Pell grants and the Head Start program in Iowa.

Share any thoughts about the federal budget impasse in this thread. I'm worried that the final deal will include too many spending cuts aimed at vulnerable people, and will be a drag on the economy as a whole. Tens of billions of dollars in cuts would not be on the table now if the Democratic-controlled Congress had completed work on the 2011 budget on time last year.

UPDATE: King explained his vote to IowaPolitics.com:

"I am on a singular mission to undo Obamacare," King said. "I took the position that I'm going to hold my ground and I'm going to vote 'no' to any bill that does not cut off funding to Obamacare. When I give my word, I keep it. I see leadership moving away from using it as a lever. That's a point of greater frustration."

King also said, "I think the shutdown at this point is inevitable [...] Then it becomes a stare down: who will blink." Unfortunately, I think we can guess that President Obama will blink.

SECOND UPDATE: Jamie Dupree on the broken federal budget process: both parties have failed to approve budget bills on time during the last five election years.

Eli Lehrer has a post up on lobbyist influence over the "riders": "the much longer list of environment-related riders looks like it was written almost entirely by specific industry lobbyists who have good relationships with certain members of Congress. Although there are some very broad efforts that would end virtually every climate-change or carbon-regulation program in the government, most of the environmental efforts are very narrow and, one assumes, serve a very few interests."

THIRD UPDATE: Click here to listen to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack discuss the impact a shutdown would have on USDA operations.

On April 8 Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen and Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal vowed that legislators will settle their parties' differences over the state budget in the coming weeks through "healthy dialogue," with no chance of an impasse like what's occurring in Washington.

Also on April 8, Bruce Braley's office sent reporters a memo prepared by chief of staff John Davis about the impact a government shutdown would have on Iowa families and the Iowa economy. Among other things, the memo asserts that nearly 60 Iowa small businesses would not have SBA loans approved, about half of Iowa Guard personnel would not be paid, veterans would see delays in various benefits and support services, Farm Service Agency loans would be delayed, as would export licenses and applications for Social Security cards. Also, the memo warns, "Over 3000 employees of Rock Island Arsenal could be out of work," based on what happened during the 1995 government shutdown.  

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Grassley and Harkin vote for 3-week spending bill

by: desmoinesdem

Fri Mar 18, 2011 at 07:50:41 AM CDT

The U.S. Senate approved a three-week continuing resolution on current-year federal spending yesterday, one day before the last continuing resolution was set to expire. Iowa's Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin both supported the measure, which passed on an 87 to 13 vote (roll call). Harkin was one of only nine senators to vote against the last temporary budget fix two weeks ago.

According to Josiah Ryan's report for The Hill,

The new measure will keep the government funded through April 8. If the two sides do not reach a deal by then, the government would shut down. [...]

The bill would reduce spending this year by $6 billion. Both the Obama administration and Senate Democrats supported many of the cuts.

The measure approved Thursday includes $2.1 billion in rescissions of funds that have not been used; $2.5 billion in earmark terminations and  $1.1 billion to financial services/general government programs.

This includes $276 million for a fund to fight flu pandemics; $225 million in funding for community service employment for older Americans; and $200 million in funding for Internet and technology projects.

In other Congressional news, the House of Representatives voted yesterday to "permanently prohibit direct federal funding to [National Public Radio], ban public radio stations from using federal funds to pay their NPR dues and prevent those stations from using federal dollars to buy programming." The 228 to 192 vote went mostly on party lines. Iowa Republicans Tom Latham (IA-04) and Steve King (IA-05) both voted yes, while all Democrats present voted no, including Bruce Braley (IA-01), Dave Loebsack (IA-02) and Leonard Boswell (IA-03). In a speech to the House floor,

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) compared to the current move to strip NPR of federal funding to previous battles to strip ACORN and Planned Parenthood of the same, both of which were sparked by sting videos by conservative activists.

"Of all of the data that we've seen, we still had not absorbed the culture of NPR until we saw the video of that dinner," Rep. King said.

That "sting video" was heavily edited to take certain comments out of context.

As far as I know, Braley was the only member of the Iowa delegation to issue a statement on the NPR funding vote. I've posted that after the jump. Both the White House and Democrats who have a majority in the U.S. Senate oppose defunding NPR.

UPDATE: I've added a March 18 e-mail blast from Loebsack after the jump.

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