Joni Ernst tweets about aliens, silent on Trump pushing Ukraine for political gain

U.S. Senator Joni Ernst is among Ukraine’s most vocal supporters in Congress. While in college, she visited the Ukrainian Republic of the USSR as part of an agricultural exchange. Now a member of the bipartisan Senate Ukraine Caucus, she has met with high-level Ukrainian officials in Washington and Kyiv, advocating for the U.S. to “make it clear to Russia that we will stand by Ukraine in the face of unjustified aggression.”

Yet Iowa’s junior senator has been silent this week as multiple news organizations reported that President Donald Trump abused his power to seek political assistance from his Ukrainian counterpart.

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Grassley's excuse-making for Trump is beyond embarrassing

Yesterday’s revelation that President Donald Trump disclosed “highly classified information” to senior Russian officials in the Oval Office last week, jeopardizing “a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State,” sent the White House into crisis mode. Reporters “could hear yelling emanating from the presidential residence” as senior officials tried to contain the fallout. Amy Zegart estimated the possible damage to U.S. intelligence-gathering at “about a billion” on a scale of 1 to 10.

After sending his national security adviser out yesterday to make a “non-denial denial,” Trump asserted this morning he had “the absolute right” to share pertinent information in an “openly scheduled” meeting with Russia, claiming he did so for “Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.” By the way, that meeting was closed to American journalists, as Trump gave exclusive access to a photographer for the Russian state-run news agency ITAR-TASS.

All of the above would be disturbing, even if Trump hadn’t just fired FBI Director James Comey and improperly asked Comey whether he was under investigation.

The reaction from self-styled watchdog Senator Chuck Grassley was a classic example of normalizing some of the most abnormal behavior we’ve seen yet from Trump–which is saying something.

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Weekend open thread: Threats to national security edition

What’s on your mind, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

Only one week into Donald Trump’s presidency, the outrages are piling up. Philip Rucker and David Filipov report today for the Washington Post that Trump has restructured the National Security Council to give his political strategist Steve Bannon a permanent spot on the “principals committee” of senior officials. Meanwhile, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence will no longer be regular members of that committee. President George W. Bush never allowed his hatchet man Karl Rove to attend National Security Council meetings.

Trump issued several executive orders this week related to immigration. The most controversial (and probably unconstitutional) one restricts entry from seven countries–but maybe not for Christians from those areas. Despite the trending hashtag #MuslimBan, the order is technically not a ban on Muslims entering the U.S.–though Rudy Giuliani says Trump asked advisers to help him accomplish that goal through legal means. The White House is portraying the order as an anti-terrorism measure, but knowledgeable people know otherwise.

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Weekend open thread: Alarming ties between Trump and Russia edition

President-elect Donald Trump continues to assemble a cabinet full of people “who have key philosophical differences with the missions of the agencies they have been tapped to run.”

But arguably, the scariest news of the week was the political reaction to the Central Intelligence Agency assessment that it is “quite clear” Russia intervened in the U.S. elections with the goal of electing Trump.

Despite what one retired CIA officer described as a “blazing 10-alarm fire,” only four Republican senators have taken up the call for a bipartisan investigation of Russian interference in U.S. elections. For his part, Trump dismissed the CIA’s findings as “ridiculous,” while members of his transition team discredited the agency and leaked news that Trump will appoint a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin as secretary of state.

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Senate roundup: Harkin, Grassley split on Keystone XL, limits on NSA spying, and judges

Iowa’s Senators Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin rarely found themselves in agreement during a busy day on the Senate floor yesterday. A bill to force approval of the Keystone XL pipeline project fell one vote short of the 60-vote threshold to defeat a filibuster. The roll call shows that Grassley was among the 59 yes votes (all Republicans plus 14 Democrats), while Harkin was among the 41 Democrats who defeated the bill. Scroll to the end of this post to read Grassley’s statement on the failure to pass this measure. He backs an “all-of-the-above approach to meet the country’s energy needs and give consumers choice.” He does not address the reality that oil transported via Keystone XL would likely be sold to foreign markets, having no effect on domestic gasoline prices.

Although several of the pro-Keystone Democrats just lost their seats in this year’s elections, nine of them will continue to serve next year. That means future Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will have the votes to overcome a filibuster of future bills on the pipeline. He won’t have the 67 votes needed to overcome a presidential veto, but Republicans have vowed to attach Keystone language to “must-pass” bills that President Barack Obama won’t want to veto.

Senators also blocked a bill that would have attempted to rein in domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency. Timothy B. Lee wrote a good backgrounder on the USA Freedom Act. The cloture vote failed by 58 to 42. Like almost all the Senate Democrats, Harkin voted for proceeding to debate the bill. Like all but four Republicans, Grassley voted to block efforts to reduce NSA spying on Americans. Members of Congress will revisit this issue next year, but I’m not optimistic any reforms will pass.

Side note: among the senators who are possible Republican presidential candidates in 2016, Ted Cruz voted for the USA Freedom Act. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio voted no. Paul opposed the bill because it did not go far enough, in his view; Rubio voted no because he thought the bill would increase the risk of terrorist attacks in this country.

Last week and this week, the Senate has moved forward on several nominees for vacant judicial spots on U.S. district courts. Harkin supported confirming all of the president’s nominees. Grassley voted against cloture on all of the nominations, but Republicans were not able to block any of them from a vote on the floor, because the 60-vote threshold no longer applies to most confirmations. (That could change when Republicans take control of the chamber in the new year.) On the confirmation votes themselves, Grassley opposed most of the judges nominated by the president, with one exception last week and another exception yesterday. Many expect judicial confirmations to stop happening when Grassley becomes chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but perhaps he will let a few non-controversial nominees through.

A bill reauthorizing the Child Care and Development Block Grant gained massive bipartisan support on Monday, passing by 88 votes to 1. Both Grassley and Harkin backed this bill. In a statement I’ve enclosed after the jump, Harkin explained how this bill “will expand access to and improve the quality of child care for the more than 1.5 million children and families that benefit from the federal child care subsidy program.” President Obama signed this bill today, and Representative Dave Loebsack (D, IA-02) attended the ceremony. He worked on the bill as ranking member of the House Education and Labor subcommittee that covers early childhood issues. I posted Loebsack’s statement below Harkin’s.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

Note: Over the years I’ve written dozens of posts about Grassley and Harkin splitting on Senate votes. I expect that to end for the most part in January. If Joni Ernst votes differently from Grassley even five times over the next two years, I’ll be shocked.

UPDATE: Added after the jump some of Harkin’s recent comments on the Keystone XL pipeline.

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