gang of eight in senate
(Charles Dharapak/AP)
June 21, 2013

Compromise Deal May Speed Immigration Bill Through Senate

The chances of an immigration overhaul bill getting through the Senate greatly improved on Thursday.

A deal was reached on a border security plan. NPR's Steve Inskeep talks about the deal with two of the senators in the so-called "Gang of Eight," who are working on a bipartisan approach to immigration, Arizona Republican Jeff Flake and Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin.

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US Supreme Court Justices
Wikimedia Commons
June 19, 2013

Durbin: US Supreme Court Should Provide Live Audio

Sen. Dick Durbin wants the U.S. Supreme Court to provide live audio broadcasts of its proceedings.

The Illinois Democrat sent a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts on Tuesday.

Durbin says many high-profile proceedings are scheduled for the coming weeks. He says live audio broadcasts ``would greatly expand the Court's accessibility to average Americans.''

Durbin also says the broadcasts would provide "greater accountability, transparency, and understanding of our judicial system.''

The court decided recently to release same-day transcripts and end-of-the-week audio of oral arguments and opinion announcements. Durbin applauded that decision but said the court should take another step.

The court is expected to issue opinions soon on two closely watched same-sex marriage cases. This week the court struck down a law requiring would-be voters to prove they are citizens.


June 10, 2013

Senate Takes Up Farm Bill

The U.S. Senate could finally vote on a new farm bill on Monday, but the final version could still be at least several weeks away.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) added a provision that would require wealthier farmers pay more for crop insurance, which Durbin argues is mostly subsidized by taxpayers.

"We took a look at the farmers in Illinois," Durbin said. "These are not the farmers you are thinking about. These are not the farmers you see at the fair, by and large. These are farmers who have farms in six, 12, 18 counties. These are huge operations and they can afford it."

But others say the higher cost would lead some to bow out of the program. 

Many leading ag groups say that could wind up forcing all farmers to pay more to make up the difference.

That is just one controversial part of the farm bill, which is about more than agriculture. For example, it includes funding for food stamps. The House and Senate are at odds over reduction of the benefits.

Durbin said that might wind up being the most contentious part of the overall debate. It is likely the entire farm bill will wind up in negotiations over the summer in an attempt to get a final compromise.


Dick Durbin
(Sean Powers/WILL)
May 28, 2013

Sen. Durbin: Veteran Disability Claims Procedures Must Change

U.S Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) says the way American veterans receive disability claims has "got to change."

His comments come as the federal Department of Veterans Affairs is working on a new digital, paper-less way of handling the claims. The V.A is working to get that done by September.

Durbin said on average, Illinois veterans wait close to a year for payments - which he says is the third-worst rate in the country.

"There is no excuse for people waiting months, sometimes over a year, to get a determination on their disability," Durbin said at a Memorial Day ceremony at the Camp Butler National Cemetery, just outside of Springfield. "We owe it to these veterans to do a much better job."

The Veterans Affairs secretary says the new system should reduce the wait for almost-all disability claims to about four months (125 days) by 2015.

Camp Butler National Cemetery is partially on land that was a military training camp during the Civil War.


Immigration advocates
(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
May 18, 2013

Immigration Bill Chugs Along, But Some See Deal-Breakers

It's been a long slog already for the bipartisan immigration overhaul proposed by the Senate's Gang of Eight.

The legislation has been the target of more than 300 amendments during days of debate and votes by the Senate Judiciary Committee. But while the bill has largely held its own so far, its prospects for getting through Congress remain uncertain.

In Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy's view, the immigration overhaul is "moving very well."

"It's moving a lot faster than people said it would," says Leahy, a Vermont Democrat.

Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, one of two Republican members of the Gang of Eight who sit on the Judiciary Committee, says he thinks with the adoption of 15 GOP amendments so far, the bill has become more appealing to conservatives.

"It's a better bill for, I think, those of us who care about border security and interior enforcement — it's a stronger bill," he says.

But that's not how fellow Republican and committee member Jeff Sessions of Alabama sees it.

"None of the significant amendments have been accepted," he says. "It's pretty clear that the Gang of Eight's original statement that they would resist any significant changes to the bill is coming true."

Earlier this week, Sessions brought up an amendment putting the bill's promised path to citizenship for 11 million unauthorized immigrants on hold until biometric data, such as fingerprints or iris scans, are used to screen the entry and exit of every international traveler.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Gang of Eight, helped defeat it.

"I want biometrics as far as the eye can see, in as many ways as possible, post-9/11, to protect this nation," he says. "But to make it a trigger in light of how much it costs and how long it takes, I just think goes too far."

But the issue has exposed a crack in the Gang of Eight's unity. One of its members who is not on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., says he supports a biometric entry-exit system.

"The fundamental question is: Can it be done in a cost-effective manner? And I think that's what we're going to hopefully explore here over the next few days leading into the floor debate," he says. "I hope that we can. I think it makes the system more effective."

And even though Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., voted against the biometric amendment, she says she would like to see it considered when the bill goes before the full Senate, probably next month.

"I don't think it's a deal-breaker," she says. "But I think we need to do our work, and I'm one Democrat that would like to see it eventually used ... if it is cost-effective — cost-efficient, I should say."

Meanwhile, opponents of that path to citizenship are warning it could doom the entire bill.

"The way to avoid the bill being voted down in the House of Representatives is to reach a reasonable common-sense compromise," says Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, "and, in particular, to take off the table a path to citizenship. So I hope that's what they choose to do."

That would be the wrong choice, says Rubio, the Florida Republican.

"If ... we can put in measures that ensure that we're ... not going to have another wave of illegal immigration, people are willing to support a bill that deals with the 11 million that are here now," Rubio says. "And if we don't, I don't think we'll have immigration reform."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, could end up voting next week to send the immigration bill to the full Senate, a move that could persuade other key Republicans to get behind it. But Hatch first wants the committee to vote on changes he has offered boosting the number of visas for highly skilled workers.

"If they want to pass this bill through both houses, they've got to give on those," he says. "I've got to have them."

But Hatch will have to get past the opposition of Gang of Eight member Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

"Some of his amendments are acceptable, with some changes, and some are unacceptable," Durbin says. "And, you know, when a senator basically says it's take it or leave it, [he] puts himself in a very weak bargaining position."

Adding to the bill's uncertainty is an amendment that Leahy, the Judiciary Committee chairman, has yet to bring up that would allow gay U.S. citizens to sponsor foreign spouses for green cards. Republicans in the Gang of Eight warn such a measure, if adopted, would be a deal-breaker.


Dick Durbin
(Sean Powers/WILL)
April 19, 2013

US Sen. Durbin Preparing Run for Fourth Term

Illinois U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin is running for a fourth term.

The number two Democrat told Illinois Public Radio on Thursday that he has been preparing for the upcoming race, but is still waiting to make a formal announcement.

"I like this job," he said from his Capitol Hill office. "I'm honored to represent Illinois, and I'm doing some of the most important work of my life."

Durbin was recently part of the bipartisan group of eight senators who worked on immigration reform. He's also been involved in the gun control debates -- co-sponsoring a bill on gun trafficking restrictions. Before his time in the Senate, Durbin was a member of the House of Representatives from 1983 to 1997.

The Democrat says he's eventually planning on making a formal announcement about his candidacy, but until then, he'll be busy planning, raising money and putting together the campaign.

If elected in 2014, Durbin would be one of the longest-serving members of the Illinois delegation in history.


Dick Durbin
(M. Spencer Green/AP)
March 23, 2013

They All Voted for DOMA, Now These Senators Are Split

The soul-searching over the Defense of Marriage Act went viral last week after Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, a social conservative and original co-sponsor of the 1996 bill, sought out CNN to say something no one saw coming.

Portman said he'd decided to oppose DOMA and support same-sex marriage, two years after learning his college-age son was gay.

 

 

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two cases next week, including a challenge to DOMA's constitutionality. The federal law defines marriage as only between a man and a woman.

More than 4 in 5 members of Congress voted for that law, but some who did are having second thoughts. Most of them are Democrats.

Democratic Reversals

Bill Clinton signed DOMA into law but now wants it overturned. This week, his wife, former Democratic senator, secretary of state and first lady Hillary Clinton did her own about-face. Without actually mentioning DOMA, Clinton spoke on a gay-rights advocacy group's website, making it clear she no longer opposed same-sex couples getting married.

 

 

"They are full and equal citizens and deserve the rights of citizenship. That includes marriage. That's why I support marriage for lesbian and gay couples," she said.

That shift aligns Clinton not only with President Obama, who now backs gay marriage, but also with every one of the 15 sitting Senate Democrats who voted for DOMA in 1996 and now oppose it. One is Patty Murray of Washington state.

"My state voted, and I voted with them, to allow marriages between gay and lesbian couples. I'm very proud of my state," she says.

Dick Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, says personal experiences changed his mind.

"I think about my colleague, Sen. Portman, and his family situation. Mine is not that, but it certainly reflects a lot of friends that I've become close to over the years who are now in committed relationships, good people, some raising children," Durbin says. "I just felt at the end of the day, that this really is the civil rights question of our time."

Unwavering Republicans

But of the Senate's 14 sitting Republicans who also voted for DOMA, only Portman no longer supports it. Arizona's John McCain, whose wife and daughter have campaigned for DOMA's repeal, still backs the law.

"I have conversations with my children all the time on this issue, and many other people, and I respect Sen. Portman's viewpoint," he says.

Yet, McCain says he has not changed his mind.

Ten Republican senators who voted for DOMA signed a brief urging the Supreme Court to uphold the law. The lead author is Utah's Orrin Hatch, who insists he's not so far apart from Portman.

"Look, both of us believe that we should not discriminate against anybody. But where we do part is that I believe ... in the traditional definition of marriage that has existed for, some estimate, 6,000 years," Hatch says.

Personal, Not Partisan

Though she's no longer in the Senate, Republican Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas has shifted her personal view of same-sex marriage.

"I certainly would vote to end it now. I think the time has come," she says.

Kassebaum voted for DOMA during her last year in the Senate, a time when no states recognized same-sex marriage.

Nine states and the District of Columbia do now. Kassebaum says it's time the federal government's laws acknowledged that reality, and that her fellow Republicans do the same.

"I'm sure people could say, 'Well yeah, right, she could say that, she isn't [in the Senate].' But I think it's personally the way I would feel," she says. "And personally, I would feel it shouldn't be necessarily a Democrat issue or a Republican issue."

Indeed, Portman says he described his decision to oppose DOMA as personal when he talked about it at a lunch this week with Senate GOP colleagues.

"I thanked them because I've had a number of people come up to me and express personal support for me and my family, and that's what I talked about," he says.

Portman says he isn't sure whether he will be the only Republican to reverse course.

"I really don't know. I didn't do this for political reasons, as you know, and I haven't really thought through the partisan politics of it," he says.

And yet, the strong bipartisan support DOMA once had is clearly gone. What backing it still has comes almost exclusively from the Republican side of the aisle.

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Dick Durbin
(Sean Powers/WILL)
March 20, 2013

Top Senate Democrat Proposes Social Security Panel

The Senate's No. 2 Democrat said Wednesday that he's preparing a plan to create a commission to study Social Security's fiscal problems and send a proposed solution to Congress for guaranteed votes in both House and Senate.

Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin says he's got bipartisan backing for the idea, which is patterned after President Barack Obama's 2010 deficit commission.

Social Security currently is spending more than it takes in in payroll taxes and relies on savings from previous surpluses to pay benefits. Those savings are estimated to run out in 20 years.

Durbin wants the commission to make recommendations to make Social Security solvent for 75 years. The panel would be expected to consider increases in the payroll tax, a higher retirement age and a lower annual cost-of-living adjustment for beneficiaries.

"You would basically say to a commission, within a very limited time frame, to come up with a proposal for 75-year solvency of Social Security and then — and this is important — it would be referred to both chambers on an expedited procedure," Durbin told reporters at a Washington breakfast sponsored by The Wall Street Journal.

"I'd like to get it done. I've proposed that to a number of people and they've been receptive to it on both sides of the aisle. I think we can move forward with it," Durbin added.

The commission would resemble the 2010 deficit panel chaired by former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and retired Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo. That panel failed to produce the supermajority vote required to officially present a plan to Congress but has attracted praise from deficit hawks for its sweeping recommendations.

Durbin's proposed 18-member commission would contain an equal number of Republicans and Democrats but require 14 votes to send a plan to Congress.


March 07, 2013

Sen. Rand Paul Ends Filibuster On Brennan Nomination

A tea party senator from Kentucky used an old-style filibuster lasting nearly 13 hours to block Senate confirmation of John Brennan nomination to be CIA director.

Sen. Rand Paul ended his filibuster shortly after midnight, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, also a Kentucky Republican, said he would continue to oppose Brennan's confirmation and ending debate on it.

After Paul yielded the floor, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., filed a motion to cut off debate on Brennan's nomination and bring it up for a vote.

Paul ended his lengthy speech with a joke. He said that he was tempted to go another 12 hours and try and break former South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond's filibuster record of 24 hours, but he needed to use the bathroom.

"I discovered that there are some limits to filibustering and I'm going to have to go and take care of one of those in a few minutes," Paul said.

But Paul's performance clearly energized his colleagues and even he seemed invigorated as the night progressed. Paul, a tea party favorite and a Republican critic of President Barack Obama's unmanned drone policy, started just before noon Wednesday by demanding the president or Attorney General Eric Holder issue a statement assuring that the aircraft would not be used in the United States to kill terrorism suspects who are U.S. citizens. He wasn't picky about the format, saying at one point he'd be happy with a telegram or a Tweet.

But by the time he left the floor, he said he'd received no response.

In a show of support, more than a dozen of Paul's colleagues who share his conservative views came to floor to take turns speaking for him and trading questions. McConnell congratulated Paul for his "tenacity and for his conviction." McConnell also called Obama's choice, John Brennan, a "controversial nominee."

Paul said he recognized that he can't stop Brennan from being confirmed. But the nomination was the right vehicle for a debate over what the Obama White House believes are the limits of the federal government's ability to conduct lethal operations against suspected terrorists, he said.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, read Twitter messages from people eager to "Stand With Rand." The Twitterverse, said Cruz, is "blowing up." And as the night went on, Cruz spoke for longer periods as Paul leaned against a desk across the floor. Cruz, an insurgent Republican with strong tea party backing, read passages from Shakespeare's "Henry V" and lines from the 1970 movie "Patton," starring George C. Scott.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., made references to rappers Jay-Z and Wiz Khalifa. Rubio, a possible GOP presidential candidate in 2016, chided the White House for failing to respond. "It's not a Republican question. It's not a conservative question," Rubio said. "It's a constitutional question."

Dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and red tie, Paul read from notebooks filled with articles about the expanded use of the unmanned weapons that have become the centerpiece of the Obama administration's campaign against al-Qaida suspects. As he moved about the Senate floor, aides brought him glasses of water, which he barely touched. Senate rules say a senator has to remain on the floor to continue to hold it, even though he can yield to another senator for a question.

"No president has the right to say he is judge, jury and executioner," Paul said.

Not all Republicans were so enthusiastic about Paul's performance. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the prospect of drones being used to kill people in the United States was "ridiculous" and called the debate "paranoia between libertarians and the hard left that is unjustified."

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, echoed Graham. He said it is unconstitutional for the U.S. military or intelligence agencies to conduct lethal counterterrorism operations in the United States against U.S. citizens. Suggesting they can or might, Rogers said, "provokes needless fear and detracts attention from the real threats facing the country."

Later in the evening Paul, who is the son of former Texas congressman and libertarian leader Ron Paul, offered to allow a vote on Brennan if the Senate would vote on his resolution stating that the use of the unmanned, armed aircraft on U.S. soil against American citizens violates the Constitution. Democrats rejected the offer.

Along with Cruz and Wyden, Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Jerry Moran of Kansas and Marco Rubio of Florida joined Paul briefly three hours into the debate but turned it back to him. Wyden has long pressed for greater oversight of the use of drones. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., appeared later in the evening to trade questions with Paul.

The record for the longest individual speech on the Senate floor belongs to Thurmond, who filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Holder came close to making the statement Paul wanted earlier in the day during an exchange with Cruz at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, according to Paul.

Cruz asked Holder if the Constitution allowed the federal government to kill a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil who doesn't pose an imminent threat. Holder said the situation was hypothetical, but he did not think that in that situation the use of a drone or lethal force would be appropriate. Cruz criticized Holder for not simply saying "no" in response.

In a letter sent Tuesday to Paul, Brennan said the CIA does not have authority to conduct lethal operations inside the U.S.

Holder told Paul in a March 4 letter that the federal government has not conducted such operations and has no intention of doing so. But Holder also wrote that he supposed it was possible under an "extraordinary circumstance" that the president would have no choice but to authorize the military to use lethal force inside U.S. borders. Holder cited the attacks at Pearl Harbor and on Sept. 11, 2001, as examples.

Paul said he did not dispute that the president has the authority to take swift and lethal action against an enemy that carried out a significant attack against the United States. But Paul said he was "alarmed" at how difficult it has been to get the administration to clearly define what qualifies as a legitimate target of a drone strike.

Brennan's nomination won approval Tuesday by the Senate Intelligence Committee after the White House broke a lengthy impasse by agreeing to give lawmakers access to top-secret legal opinions justifying the use of lethal drone strikes against al-Qaida suspects overseas.

If confirmed, Brennan would replace Michael Morell, the CIA's deputy director who has been acting director since David Petraeus resigned in November after acknowledging an affair with his biographer.

Brennan currently serves as Obama's top counterterrorism adviser in the White House. He was nominated for the CIA post by the president in early January and the Intelligence Committee held his confirmation hearing on Feb. 7.

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February 15, 2013

Durbin Revives Bill to Bring Sales Tax to Internet

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) says a compromise with House lawmakers ensures broad-based support for his bill to help brick-and-mortar retailers compete against out-of-state Internet sellers.

Internet sellers do not have to collect state sales taxes, except in the state in which they are they are physically located. That means brick-and-mortar stores at a disadvantage, as more and more shopping happens online.

Durbin told reporters that Illinois storeowners frequently tell him how they have been “devastated” by the tax advantage for internet retailers.

“Bob Naughtrip, who owned a store that was known as Soccer Plus in Illinois; he was losing large sales to local sports teams regularly, because his online competitors could offer a discount, regularly, of about $10,000. Eventually it put Bob out of business,” Durbin said. “This isn’t just happening in Illinois. It’s happening across the country.”

Under the Marketplace Fairness Act, online retailers would be required to collect sales and use taxes for any state that agrees to simplified administration and collection of those taxes. Online retail groups have said in the past they could accept such a measure.

Durbin said that by agreeing to some details of a House version of his Marketplace Fairness bill, he is able to unite a bipartisan group of lawmakers in both chambers of Congress behind his bill, which languished during the previous session.

Durbin’s bill has the endorsement of one major online retailer --- Amazon.


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