Tales from the Trail

Senator Franken draws no laughs but plenty of applause

Al Franken, a big-time comic turned Washington politician, received plenty of applause but no laughs on Tuesday when he finally took his seat as a member of the U.S. Senate.

In fact, one of the few jokes publicly told on Capitol Hill about Franken had the former writer/performer on the popular TV show “Saturday Night Live” as the punchline.

“Senator Franken gave me a few jokes he thought I should share with you, but I didn’t like them, so I’m not going to do it,” Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid told reporters.

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Republican and Democratic senators shook Franken’s hand and gave him a standing ovation after he was sworn in as a member of their chamber — eight months after last November’s election.

Franken took office a week after the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld his razor-thin victory over Republican Norm Coleman.

U.S. Senate leader pushes immigration reform bid

Even with enormously difficult to pass legislation on healthcare and climate change topping the Obama administration’s agenda, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid believes he can still muscle through a bill to overhaul U.S. immigration policies later this year.

OBAMA/President Barack Obama has said he wanted immigration reform done this year, although his own spokesman acknowledged on Monday that they may only be able to begin the debate on the issue.  “I can see the president’s desire for it to happen, but understanding that … currently where we sit, the math makes that more difficult than the discussion,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

But that hasn’t stopped Reid, who caught a lot of people off guard a few weeks ago when he predicted the Senate would act this year.

The First Draft: Obama campaigns again – for his court pick

OBAMA/President Barack Obama is back on the campaign trail.

But this time he’s not trying to win himself a job …he is trying to win over support for his Supreme Court nominee,  Sonia Sotomayor.

Even though regular Americans — or the elite Democrats attending fundraisers — don’t get to vote for Supreme Court nominee, they can pressure their senators.

Sounding like he did while stumping for more than a year on the campaign trail, Obama spoke passionately about his choice of Sotomayor — the first Hispanic woman ever nominated to the high court — to Democrats at a fundraiser for Democratice Majority Leader Harry Reid in Las Vegas.

In Vegas, Obama raises cash for Senate ally Reid

Declaring “it’s good to be back in Vegas,” President Barack Obama used his political star power on Tuesday to help Senate majority leader Harry Reid fill his campaign war chest against Republican efforts to unseat the veteran lawmaker next year.  
 
“Make sure that Harry Reid continues to be our majority leader. As long as I’m president I want him to be my majority leader,” Obama told a Las Vegas crowd who paid $2,400 per person to attend a reception at Caesars Palace with the president and Reid. 
 
Although Reid’s control over the Senate makes him one of the most powerful men in Washington, a recent poll shows he is not that popular in his home state. 
 
Forty-five percent of Nevada voters said in a survey last week they’d vote to kick Reid out of office and another 17 percent said they could support another candidate.
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Hours after nominating Sonia Sotomayor to be the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court, Obama said he needed Reid’s help with an ambitious agenda that includes reforming the health care system and approving energy legislation to wean the United States off foreign oil.
 
Obama also spoke at a second event for Reid, where singers Sheryl Crow and Bette Midler entertained for ticket-holders who paid between $50 and $250 a seat.
 
Reid aides said they expected the evening to bring in close to $2 million, which the senator and the Nevada Democratic Party will split. Reid hopes to raise $25 million for his race, an amount which could keep many Republican challengers at bay.
 
Obama annoyed local leaders earlier this year when he criticized financial companies for holding lavish retreats in Las Vegas after accepting taxpayer bailout funds. But he glossed over that controversy on Tuesday night.
 
“It’s good to be back in Vegas. I thought I had good room, but now that I’m president they upgraded me,” he said to laughter. “They’ve been stashing away a really nice room. It’s like one of those high roller rooms. And now I have it because I’m president.”

-Photo credit: Reuters/Jason Reed (Obama and Reid hug in Las Vegas)

Poll: U.S. Senate leader has problems in home state

Sure it’s a long way before the November 2010 U.S. congressional election — and a lot can happen between now and then. But at this point, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada seems to be in jeopardy of becoming the second Senate leader in a half century to be voted out of office.

A poll released on Tuesday by the Las Vegas Review-Journal found that half of Nevada voters had an unfavorable view of Reid, while 38 percent had a favorable view, the newspaper said.

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Reid won reelection in 2004 to a fourth term with 61 percent of the vote. But his approval ratings have since slipped. He became Senate Democratic leader in 2005, and majority leader in 2007.

With less than 70 minutes to spare…

U.S. Senate Democrats had less than 70 minutes to spare when they finally filed the paperwork on Saturday for the compromise they reached with a handful of Republicans for the $827 billion economic stimulus package, setting up a vote for early next week.

USA/Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had hoped to file the specific language much earlier on Saturday but drafting took significantly longer. The compromise measure, some 778 pages long, was brokered by Republican Senator Susan Collins and Democratic Senator Ben Nelson.

With the paperwork filed, that will set a vote for 5:30 p.m. EST on Monday to wrap up debate on the stimulus package. If there are 60 votes, the Senate will vote on passing the legislation on Tuesday

First lady Michelle Obama in spotlight at reception

First lady Michelle Obama took a turn in the spotlight Thursday, hosting a reception for a woman whose treatment at Goodyear prompted Congress to change the law on pay discrimination. 
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It was one of the highest-profile public events for the first lady since the inauguration last week. And it was on behalf of a woman — Lilly Ledbetter — who got to know the first couple well during the presidential campaign.
 
President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act into law in the East Room of the White House flanked by a small crowd of lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
 
“This is what change looks like,” Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland joked to the audience as the lawmakers crowded around the document Obama was to sign.
 
The first lady later spoke about Ledbetter at a reception in the State Dining Room as guests sipped orange juice and cranberry juice and munched cherry orange scones, apple muffins and other pastries.
 
“She is one of my favorite people in the whole wide world,” Michelle Obama said. 
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“She knew unfairness when she saw it and was willing to do something about it because it was the right thing to do, plain and simple.”
 
Ledbetter discovered after 19 years on the job at Goodyear Tire & Rubber that she was the lowest-paid supervisor at her plant despite having more experience than some male co-workers.
 
A jury found she was the victim of discrimination. But the Supreme Court reversed the decision two years ago, saying discrimination claims must be filed within 180 days of the first offense.
 
“I will never see a cent from my case,” Ledbetter said. “But with the passage (of the bill) and president’s signature today, I have an even richer reward. I know that my daughters and granddaughters and your daughters and your granddaughters will have a better deal.” 
 
For more Reuters political news, click here.

Photo credit: Reuters/Larry Downing (Michelle Obama greets guest); Reuters/Jim Bourg (Obama hands pen to Ledbetter after signing bill)

The First Draft, Friday Jan. 2

The new year begins on a quiet note in Washington, but lawmakers are preparing to hit the ground running next week when the 111th Congress will be seated.

obamaPresident-elect Barack Obama is scheduled to return to Washington this weekend and plans to meet House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Monday to discuss the legislative agenda and plans for a nearly $1 trillion economic stimulus package.

Obama also plans to meet Republican leaders Rep. John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell.

Kerry to head Senate Foreign Relations Committee

WASHINGTON – Thirty-seven years ago, dressed in old battle fatigues, John Kerry testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as a young hero and a critic of an unpopular war that divided Americans and radicalized a generation.
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“We are angry because we feel we have been used in the worst fashion by the administration” of President Richard Nixon, Kerry testified on behalf of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
 
Now 65 and a senator from Massaschusetts, Kerry will take over next month as chairman of that committee, which raised questions about the war that ultimately helped lead to the end of the decade-old conflict.
 
“I am honored to serve as chairman of a committee which I know from my own experience as a young man can impact the course of our security and help advance our values and interests in the world,” he said in a statement.
 
Kerry’s remarks on Monday came after Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid named him to head the panel.
 
Kerry had been on the short list of potential nominees to be President-elect Barack Obama’s secretary of state.
 
But with Obama deciding instead to go with Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York as his top diplomat, Reid, as anticipated, recommended to a Democratic steering committee that Kerry lead the Foreign Relations panel. Kerry is virtually certain to get the job.
 
He would replace Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, who is stepping down to be sworn in next month as Obama’s vice president.
 
Kerry will be one of only a few new Senate Committee chairs as recommended by Reid.
 
The others include Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, who is stepping down as chairman of the Commerce Committee to take over as head of the Appropriation Committee.
 
He will replace Robert Byrd, 91, the longest serving senator, who agreed to move aside as head of Appropriations because of concerns about his health and age. Inouye is 84.
 
Reid recommended that Sen. John Rockefeller of West Virginia take over as chairman of the Commerce Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California replace Rockefeller as chair of the Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Charles Schumer of New York replace Feinstein as chair of the Rules Committee.

For more Reuters political news, click here.

Photo credit: Reuters/POOL (Kerry meets Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad in 2006)

McCain warns of too many Democrats in Washington

Is John McCain running against Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi?

At two rallies in Virginia on Saturday, the Republican candidate slammed the House Speaker and other congressional Democrats almost as much as his rival for the White House. A President Obama would be unlikely to curb the excesses of a Congress likely to remain in Democratic hands, he warned.

“The answer to a slowing economy is not higher taxes, but that’s what’s going to happen when Democrats have total control of Washington,” McCain told several thousand supporters in Springfield. “We can’t let it happen, my friends.”

McCain hopes voters will opt for partisan gridlock over one-party rule.

Supporters at both Virginia rallies, in Springfield and Newport News, booed lustily at the mention of Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, the acerbic chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. McCain invoked the trio several times as he raised the specter of higher taxes.