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Monday, May 12, 2014

Week In Politics: From Energy Efficiency To Benghazi

Last week, the Republican-controlled U.S. House voted to establish a select committee to investigate the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi that left four Americans dead.

House Democrats are divided over whether to participate in the probe, which many see as a political stunt preceding this fall’s midterm election and the 2016 presidential race. However, the investigation could have political consequences for both parties.

Also this week in politics, a bipartisan energy efficiency bill has been caught up in the Keystone XL pipeline dispute. Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid used parliamentary measures to block amendments to the bill, including a measure that would approve construction of the proposed Keystone pipeline.

NPR’s Senior Politics Editor Ron Elving discusses these and other stories from this week in politics, with Here & Now’s Robin Young.




From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. And coming up, we'll visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, where 13 names were added to the wall yesterday.

YOUNG: But first to the week ahead in Washington. The energy efficiency bill may meet its fate today. It's been called the least controversial bill in Congress, but it's still frozen in a standoff between Republicans and Democrats. Why is that? Also some Republicans change their tune on minimum wage and voter ID laws. And where are we on the special committee to investigate Benghazi?

Joining us to talk all things politics, NPR senior editor Ron Elving. Ron, hi.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Robin.

YOUNG: And let's start with that energy efficiency bill. It includes things that both parties want: incentives; funding to encourage energy efficiency in buildings and homes. There are no mandatory standards. So what's the holdup?

ELVING: It's not what's in the bill, it's what isn't in the bill that some senators would like to have in the bill, and that in and of itself is enough in this Senate to make a not inherently controversial bill too hot to handle. And in this particular case, the Republicans had a number of amendments, some of which had to do with energy and some did not. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, Democrat, said we're not going to let you do that. So he blocked their adding those amendments.

That made the Republican support kind of head for the hills, and meanwhile we have the issue of the Keystone Pipeline, which is looming in the background if this energy efficiency bill gets enough votes to pass.

YOUNG: And remind us why.

ELVING: That's because Mary Landrieu, a senator from Louisiana, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee and a woman running for re-election this fall, would like very much to get a free-standing vote or some kind of vote, possibly as part of this bill or as a free-standing bill, on the Keystone pipeline, which of course is that controversial line bringing oil from the tar sands of Canada all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico for refining and shipping.

This has been a flashpoint between environmentalists and energy supporters. Mary Landrieu is very supportive of it and would like to get it done, but the Obama administration has not yet decided whether to go one way or the other, and the Senate forcing his hand on this is not popular with all Democrats. So that's got a big hang-up to it, as well.

YOUNG: OK. well, staying with energy, last week President Obama revealed a big study regarding the dangers of climate change. But here's Senator Marco Rubio, potential presidential candidate, yesterday on ABC's "This Week."


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let me get this straight. You do not think that human activity, the production of CO2, has caused warming to our planet?

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it. That's what I do not - and I do not believe that the law that they propose we pass will do anything about it, except it will destroy our economy.

YOUNG: So Miami, one of the cities cited for losing its beachfront, hot topic, your thoughts on that statement?

ELVING: You don't think anyone in Miami would mind losing their beachfront? This is a nice, neat summary of the three positions that Republicans take against what the president brought out last week, this particular report, and the whole idea that climate change is an emergency. Number one, they say that the scientists are portraying it too drastically, they're scare-mongering.

Number two, they say that the laws that they propose wouldn't really do anything good. And number three, they say that those laws would greatly restrain the growth of our economy. And that really does put people back a little bit because if you start talking about what we're not going to do in the whole world of fossil fuels, immediately people start thinking about all the ways that fossil fuels contribute to their employment.

YOUNG: Well, let's move from that for a second. This is someone sticking with, as you said, is right now sort of the party line. But last week we saw some Republicans stray from some party-line issues. For example, on Friday, on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Mitt Romney said he disagrees with his party on the issue of minimum wage. Let's listen to a little.


MITT ROMNEY: I, for instance, as you know, part company with many of the conservatives in my party on the issue of the minimum wage. I think we ought to raise it because frankly our party is all about more jobs and better pay.

YOUNG: And what's been the reaction to that?

ELVING: Well, some Republicans were already onboard with that, including two of Mitt's rivals from the 2012 presidential primaries on the Republican side, Tim Pawlenty, no big surprise, he's talked about this for a long time. But Rick Santorum also, who was the great conservative rival to Mitt Romney in 2012, he's also said he thinks it's time, and he's got a new book out called "Blue Collar Conservatives." So I think we get the drift there.

And overall, 70 percent of the people in the country think the minimum wage could be higher, should be higher, and roughly half of Republicans agree with that. So in a sense, Mitt's not taking that big a risk, but on the other hand, more typical Republican reaction is, well, the leaders of the Republicans in Congress, who have refused to consider any kind of minimum wage increase at all, and then of course there are those who say, in the Republican Party and among conservatives generally, there shouldn't be a minimum wage at any level.

YOUNG: Well, then there was Rand Paul. Last week in that New York Times interview, he said his party had gone completely crazy over voter ID laws. This is a big shift from his earlier stance, in which he defended voter ID laws against people who said that they discriminated against minorities. What do you make of that?

ELVING: Rand Paul still thinks that people who say that this discriminates against minorities are mistaking the intent of voter ID laws, which he maintains are only intended to keep elections and keep people from voting fraudulently, but he also made the point that this is being taken amiss by a great large portion of the country, particularly African-Americans. He could have also said Latinos and new voters.

And he is trying to position himself here to be someone with a little different mix on the issues, stepping outside of the regular party orthodoxy and showing us greater sympathy for people who have not been Republican voters in recent years.

YOUNG: Well Ron Elving, in the minute we have, Benghazi and the investigation. As you know, the Republican-controlled House voted to establish a select committee to investigate the 2012 terrorist attack on the diplomatic mission, Democratic, conflicted about whether to be even - be on the panel. What's your thinking?

ELVING: The Republicans have named seven members of this committee. A lot of them are lawyers; a lot of them have been prosecutors. The Democrats are trying to decide whether putting their five, and they're only allotted five, seats, would tend to legitimize the whole process, which many Democrats regard as illegitimate, or whether by not being there you allow this to take all kinds of different turns, and you fail to use the opportunity to question witnesses and prevent some kind of a counterargument to where this committee seems to be going. You look like you essentially abandoned the field.

YOUNG: Yeah, we'll keep an eye on that and the whole week. Thanks for getting us ready. NPR's senior politics editor Ron Elving, thank you.

ELVING: Thank you, Robin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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