Category Archives: U.S. Congress

Welch, Minter seek long-term transportation funds

EAST MONTPELIER — U.S. Rep. Peter Welch and Vermont Agency of Transportation Secretary Sue Minter are urging Congress to pass a long-term transportation spending plan before federal spending authorization expires on July 31, which would put dozens of Vermont projects at risk.

Welch and Minter held a news conference Tuesday at a Route 14 bridge in East Montpelier that intersects with Route 2. The bridge has been deemed structurally deficient and has visible signs of degradation, including at least one hole in the deck offering a view of the water below.

“We in Vermont have bridges that are crumbling,” Welch said. “This bridge next to us is falling apart, and I hate to say that because I don’t want to scare the driving public, but the driving public knows how bad our roads and bridges are.”

Rep. Peter Welch, right, examines a hole on the deck of a bridge on Route 14 in East Montpelier.

Rep. Peter Welch, right, examines a hole on the deck of a bridge on Route 14 in East Montpelier.

In the recent past Congress has passed short-term spending resolutions to keep transportation and infrastructure projects around the country funded. But that approach has made it difficult for states to undertake long-term planning for needed projects. Minter said more than 40 projects totaling about $136 million set to be advertised in the coming weeks are at risk if Congress does not pass funding.

“If we don’t have the authority to spend federal money, they are off the table,” Minter said, also noting that Vermont could foot the bill in the near-term if Congress does not meet the July 31 deadline.

Welch said he and Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wisc., have sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, urging him to use the so-called “Queen of the Hill” strategy to pass a long-term transportation funding plan. It would allow the House to vote on multiple funding options and the proposal with the most votes would be adopted by the House.

Welch said he hopes Boehner will help break prolonged gridlock in the House and pass a long-term funding plan, rather than another “dim-witted, temporary fix.” He said the previous short-term extension allowed corporations to lower their pension obligations, which in turn boosted corporate taxes — a “temporary and irresponsible” solution.

“A confident country, a competent country, will do what needs to be done to keep the roads and the bridges repaired and take the steps that are required to have a modern infrastructure. The thing that mystifies me in Washington is that this, traditionally, has never been a partisan issue. We all have potholes in our roads. We all have bridges that need repair, whether you’re in the most conservative district … or in Vermont,” Welch said.

Some ideas floated in Congress include repatriation of corporate profits, corporate tax reform and boosting the federal gas tax. Welch said he has no favorite funding source. However, collecting taxes on repatriation of corporate profits would provide a five to six year cushion for developing a sustainable funding source, he said.

“The worst thing we can do is come up with yet another short-term solution where we go into the general fund, take money that needs to be spent for education, for National Institute of Health or scientific research, and then use it as a patch to try and get us through a few more months of maintenance of our highways and bridges,” Welch said.

Vermont Agency of Transportation Secretary Sue Minter speaks at a news conference as Rep. Peter Welch listens.

Vermont Agency of Transportation Secretary Sue Minter speaks at a news conference as Rep. Peter Welch listens.

Minter, meanwhile, praised President Barack Obama’s Grow America Act, which would appropriate $475 billion for transportation projects across the country over five years through repatriation and corporate tax reform. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vermont’s junior senator and a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, has also advocated for funding, she said.

“There are proposals out there. The president put forth a very important proposal,” Minter said. “Sen. Sanders, another plan. A trillion dollar investment. It’s called rebuild America. What we need isn’t just to cobble together and put the duct tape on these old bridges, we actually need to be thinking about the future and especially our economy.”

The country’s infrastructure “used to be the envy of the world,” Minter said. But the U.S. now spends just 2 percent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure. By comparison, most of Europe spends between 5 and 6 percent, while China spends 9 percent of its GDP, she said.

In Vermont, significant progress has been made on replacing aging bridges, according to Minter. In 2009, she said, 19 percent of Vermont’s bridges were structurally deficient. That has since dropped to 7 percent.

“We have been doing things differently. We have been focusing more on bridges and we’ve been innovating and doing them more quickly and at lower cost,” she said. “We want to keep going, and that’s why we need Congress to act, because we don’t want to slow down.

Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, also called on Boehner to allow long-term funding solutions to be voted on. He said local residents fear crossing the Route 14 bridge.

A guardrail is severely degraded on a Route 14 bridge in East Montpelier.

A guardrail is severely degraded on a Route 14 bridge in East Montpelier.

“Shame on Congress. I dare Speaker Boehner to come here and drive across this bridge. This bridge is a nightmare. People in East Montpelier are afraid to drive across this bridge,” Klein said. “This has got to stop. This is ridiculous, and Americans should not have to potentially pay with their lives to get people to change their minds.”

Wayne Symonds, the state’s bridge engineer, said the span is now inspected every year and remains suitable for traffic.

“Right now the bridge is safe but it is nearing the end of its useful life,” he said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Sanders PAC fined by FEC

MONTPELIER — Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ political action committee has been fined by the Federal Election Commission for failing to file financial reports on time.

Documents obtained by the Vermont Press Bureau show that the Progressive Voters of America Leadership PAC, a so-called leadership committee that current and former members of Congress are allowed to create, paid about $8,000 in administrative fines in May. The FEC levies fines when a committee fails to file required reports or files them late.

The fines are expected to be made public by the FEC next week.

The Burlington-based committee’s treasurer, Phil Fiermonte, a longtime Sanders aide and currently the field director for Sanders presidential campaign, received a letter from the FEC in December warning that the committee may have failed to file required financial reports.

Fiermonte wrote to FEC Chairwoman Ann Ravel on May 5 acknowledging the committee, which appears to have been founded in 2004, had in fact missed reporting deadlines.

“We acknowledge that we neglected to file the 12 day Pre-General Report of Receipts and Disbursements and the 30 day Post-General Report of Receipts and Disbursements before the filing deadlines and have enclosed checks to pay for each of the administrative fines for these infractions. This was an inadvertent mistake. As you know, we have since filed both reports with the FEC,” Fiermonte wrote. “We will make certain to be diligent to comply with all filing deadlines in the future.”

The letter included two separate checks, one for $1,090 and another for $6,600.

Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs declined to comment on the fines.

“The letters from the senator’s committee to the Federal Election Commission speak for themselves,” Briggs said.

Leadership PACs are often used by candidates to fund expenses, including travel, office needs and consultants and polling. They can also be used to fund provide financial support to other candidates.

Since Jan. 1, 2013, Sanders’ leadership PAC has raised $535,000 and spent $405,000. Sanders has donated generously to Democratic members of the House and Senate from the committee.

Letter from FEC:

PAC letters to FEC:

https://www.scribd.com/doc/270402147/PVA-FEC-AF-2944

Welch declines bid for governor

This story was updated at 12:35 p.m.

MONTPELIER — Congressman Peter Welch said Friday he will seek re-election to the U.S. House in 2016, ending speculation that he might instead return to Vermont and run for governor.

Welch, a Democrat, openly flirted with the notion of running for governor after Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin announced earlier this month he would not run for a fourth, two-year. But after two weeks of consideration, Welch said Friday that he can best serve Vermonters in Congress and would not run for the “distinct honor” of being governor.

“Congress these days is not highly regarded by the American people, but strange as it may seem, I really continue to love my job,” Welch told reporters on a conference call from Washington, D.C., Friday morning. “I’ve been here in the Tea Party Congress where it’s much tougher going, for sure, but where I’ve been able … to do things that have been a major benefit to Vermont.”

Rep. Peter Welch

Rep. Peter Welch

Welch, 68, has a long track record as a legislator. He served two stints in the Senate, from 1981 to 1989, and from 2001 to 2006. His time in the Vermont Senate included several terms as Senate President Pro Tem. He also sought the governorship in 1990, losing to former Republican Gov. Richard Snelling.

The fifth-term congressman touted his ability to work across the political aisle as his main reason for seeking re-election to the House. He has been effective in pushing energy efficiency initiatives alongside some Republican colleagues. He also noted major legislation signed into law during his tenure, including the federal stimulus package stemming from the Great Recession and the Affordable Care Act.

“I am beginning to see signs of change here in Congress among more of my Democratic colleagues and more of my Republican colleagues that we’ve got to get things done. We need problem solvers here. We need people that have credibility,” Welch said. “I’m in a position to do that. I’m in a position to do that because Vermonters have elected me four times to represent them in Congress. That’s a big commitment.”

Welch said he received support from Vermonters, both for seeking re-election to Congress and running for governor. Among those that reached out to him, Welch said half urged him to stay in Congress and half encouraged him to return to Vermont. Those that wanted him to run for governor cited “my bipartisan, problem-solving and practical, civil approach would be something that would be helpful,” Welch said.

The decision, he said, was devoid of politics and based on personal factors. He said he conducted no polling as he considered his future.

“I’m confident that I’m in a good place with voters,” he said. “I basically just had to make my own gut check.”

The draw of returning to Vermont is strong, Welch said, but advocating for Vermonters in Washington ultimately won.

“In all candor, I was torn by it,” he said. “I come home every week, but, wouldn’t it be better to be home every night? That was the real challenge to me. It’s just so much nicer to be in Vermont than it is in Washington. I just had to work through that, but there wasn’t, like, a tipping point or a moment.”

Welch’s decision is likely to unfreeze the decision-making process of several top-tier Democratic candidates for governor. House Speaker Shap Smith and former state senator and gubernatorial candidate Matt Dunne had both said they would defer to Welch if he ran for governor. A spirited Democratic Party primary is now likely.

Smith said Friday he has not yet determined his own future.

“I am seriously considering running for governor and I expect to make a decision and an announcement soon,” he said. “I had been very clear that I wasn’t going to run against Congressman Welch in a primary, so it does make things clearer and I do expected to make a decision soon whether I will run in 2016.”

House Speaker Shap Smith

House Speaker Shap Smith

Smith said he has received “a lot of encouragement from the people I’ve talked to” to jump into the race. He said the conversation with his family is ongoing.

“I’m still talking with my family about what it will be like for me and for the family to be in the middle of a campaign. Those conversations have been good, but I think it’s important for them and for me to really understand what it means to run for governor over the next 14 months.”

In perhaps a bit of foreshadowing, he said an announcement will probably come in the form of an event, not a press release.

Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who is also considering a run, had said Welch’s decision would have no impact on his decision.

Welch said he has no plans to back a candidate any time soon.

“I don’t even know who’s going to run,” he said. “This is going to unfold and there’s a lot of good people who are contemplating the race. Let’s see what happens,” he said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Sanders surging, shaping the debate

DES MOINES, Iowa — Sen. Bernie Sanders took the stage at a Drake University auditorium on a recent Friday to wild applause and several standing ovations before he was even introduced. It was the first of several events he held on a weekend swing through Iowa in his quixotic quest for the presidency.

“Whoa, we’ve got a lot of people here tonight!” the 73-year-old told the adoring crowd. “Sometimes our campaign has been referred to as a fringe campaign. Well, if this is fringe I would hate to see mainstream.”

Sanders, Vermont’s junior senator and a self-described democratic socialist, launched his bid for president on the shore of Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vt., in late May in front of thousands of supporters. Since then he has drawn impressive crowds in Iowa, New Hampshire and Minnesota. More large crowds were expected this weekend in Nevada and Colorado.

Sen. Bernie Sanders addresses a crowd at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

Sen. Bernie Sanders addresses a crowd at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

It’s an auspicious start for a long-shot candidate that many expected to serve as a stalking horse for liberal candidates, perhaps for fellow liberal Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley, the polished-looking former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor who is 20 years his junior.

But Sanders’ star has risen quickly, along with his most recent poll numbers. As he motored around Iowa in his rented white sedan, reporters from CNN, the Washington Post, Politico and other national organizations followed, along with a reporter from Vermont interested in how Iowans would react to the sometimes prickly man with unruly white hair and a Brooklyn accent. Continue reading

Watch: Report From Washington on Vermont PBS

Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami hosted “Report From Washington” this week with U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy. Watch the full program below.

From the Bernie Files: “These politicians are sold like soap…”

Bernard Sanders, c. 1981

Bernard Sanders, c. 1981

We’re looking through the Rutland Herald archives for news clips from Bernie Sanders’ past, and will post the more telling or interesting ones as we find them. One theme that stands out so far is that Bernie Sanders, 1970s Liberty Union Party leader, is not too far off Sen. Bernie Sanders, Independent. They say basically the same thing.
From an article by Rutland Herald reporter Barney Crosier, published on Nov. 7, 1976, which was based on an interview Sanders gave to a local Springfield radio station:

“…he said a major goal of the Liberty Union when it gets the governor’s chair will be to involve ordinary working people, those with low incomes, and the elderly, in the decisions of state government.
“”We’d be delighted to ask 50,000 people to come to Montpelier to say what they think about a system that robs people blind,” he offered.
He claimed the working person, at a job 40, 50 or 60 hours a week, doesn’t have time to go to Montpelier and can’t afford to have an attorney represent him there.
Sanders contended the people of the state are beginning to see through the election process, in which the Liberty Union candidate says a candidate can spend $100,000 and “buy” the election.
“These politicians are sold like soap,” he added. And it doesn’t matter how dumb they are.”
Sanders chided past administrations for their decision to spend time and money luring tourists to Vermont, saying it was a good way to get Vermont working people jobs at the minimum wage, making beds for tourists.
He also hit at the move of General Electric Co. from Ludlow to Rutland, saying the people of Rutland had to pay for water service to the new plant site, thuse subsidizing one of the nation’s rich corporations, of which the major stockholder is Chase Manhattan Bank.”

All this came after he claimed Vermont was a two-party state, as there was little to no difference between the Democrat and Republican parties, leaving the Liberty Union as the opposition.

Sanders sounds alarm on GOP budget

MONTPELIER — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders warned governors in all 50 states Monday of pending cuts headed their way if a GOP spending plan being negotiated this week by House and Senate conferees is approved.

In separate letters to each state, the independent Sanders, ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, characterized the potential cuts as ‘devastating.” He said they would impact working families, the elderly, the sick, the poor and children.

“It is an embarrassingly disastrous document,” Sanders said of the budget proposal in a telephone interview Monday.

According to Sanders, who is mulling a run for president to promote progressive ideals, Vermont could face dire consequences under the House and Senate budget resolutions that outline federal spending for the next decade. House and Senate conferees were working Monday to reconcile differences between the two chambers and are expected to reach agreement early this week.

Sen. Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders

Among the potential impacts in Vermont that Sanders outlined in his letter to Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin are:

— 32,000 people could lose health coverage
— 5,000 jobs could be lost as a result of cuts to education, transportation and other programs
— Cuts to Pell grants could lead to higher tuition for 12,000 college students
— Investments for roads and bridges could be reduced by as much as $261 million

The cuts to programs and services that serve the poor “will be devastating for the middle class and working families of our country,” Sanders wrote in his letter.

“At a time of massive income and wealth inequality the Republican budget will make the very rich even richer, while causing increased pain and suffering for the middle class and the most vulnerable people in our state as a result of draconian cuts to important programs,” Sanders wrote.

Similar letters were sent to the other 49 governors outlining potential cuts in their states.

“I will do my best to see that (the budget plan) is defeated and I hope that some of these governors that we have written to will weigh in on this discussion,” Sanders said.

The GOP spending plan looks to “terminate” the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, and cut $40 billion from Medicaid over the next 10 years, according to Sanders. Doing so, he said, would mean a loss of health coverage for millions.

“They’re just going to throw another 27 million people off of health insurance with no plan to address that. None,” the senator said. “That will be a disaster for states who will have to figure out what to do. There is no question that people will die as a result of that.”

The plan that the GOP is finalizing drops a previous proposal to institute a voucher system for Medicare that would provide the elderly with subsidies to purchase private insurance.

Sanders also decried a nearly 100 billion cut to Pell grants for college students, cuts to nutrition programs and the elimination of the estate tax, which he said would provide about $270 billion in relief to the richest 0.2 percent of Americans over the next 10 years.

“It is a budget that is so bad that I think it’s hard for people to believe it’s true, but it is,” Sanders said.

Shumlin released a statement Monday expressing confidence that the state’s congressional delegation will advocate for a budget that serves Vermont well.

“As Senator Sanders outlines, the effects of federal budget decisions on Vermont are real and will have an impact on the services Vermonters rely on,” the governor said. “As we await the final budget from Washington, we do so knowing that we have fighting for us on the Budget Committee one of America’s greatest champions for the middle class in Bernie Sanders. Combined with Senator Patrick Leahy and Congressman Peter Welch, Vermont is well represented in Washington by the best Congressional Delegation in America.”

The budget resolution provides a broad spending plan but does not actually appropriate funds. Its passage would pave the way for spending bills that do appropriate funds to advance.

Sanders said he will look to prevent such spending bills from passing.

“I will certainly do everything I can to urge the president to veto any piece of legislation that comes out that has this framework in it,” he said. “Whether the president vetoes it or not, that’s another story. I certainly hope he will.”

According to Sanders, the impacts he identified are based on an evaluation of House and Senate versions of the budget resolutions by the Office of Management and Budget, the Economic Policy Institute and the Institution of Taxation and Economic Policy. Some data was generated based on projections from the Census Bureau and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Read Sanders’ letter to Gov. Peter Shumlin below:

Federal lawmakers eye changes to standardized testing in schools

WASHINGTON — Education officials in Vermont are pleased with a step taken by Congress to reduce the high-stakes standardized testing provisions under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Thursday, U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions gave preliminary approval to the Every Child Achieves Act, which would give more authority to states to decide how to evaluate their schools, and would replace the current law that has led to nearly every school in Vermont to be identified as failing.

U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., who serves on the Senate committee, said the annual standardized tests taken by Vermont’s children in grades three through 11 do not fully capture what a child is learning in school.

“I think it is wrong to judge schools solely on the basis of narrow tests. We have to work on what kind of criteria we really need,” Sanders said. “What we in Vermont understand is, a kid is more than a test. We want kids to be creative. We want kids to be critical thinkers. We also want schools held accountable for factors other than test scores, including how they meet the challenges of students from low-income families.”

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act — commonly referred to as No Child Left Behind and signed into law in 2001 — calls for annual testing of math and science skills. Every year, a greater percentage of students are needed to pass the tests in order for a school to meet adequate yearly progress, or AYP.

By 2014, the AYP bar had been raised so high that a single student who does not meet proficiency standards will cause the student’s entire school to be identified as low performing. No Child left Behind includes a provision in which a state can receive a waiver from the high standards, as long as the state agrees to use standardized the scores to evaluate teachers.

Vermont is one of a small handful of states who did not seek out a waiver. As a result, nearly every school in the state has been identified as low performing.

In August, the State Board of Education sent a letter to Congress requesting provisions outlined in the Every Child Achieves Act: more flexibility to evaluate the state’s education system, without placing so much emphasis on standardized testing.

“Although the federal government is encouraging states to use scores for teacher, principal and school evaluations, this policy direction is not appropriate,” the letter reads, noting that standardized tests do not measure other skills called for the by the state’s Education Quality Standards, such as “global citizenship, physical and health education and wellness, artistic expression and transferable 21st-century skills.”

Friday, Stephan Morse, chairman of the State Board of Education, welcomed the news that Congress is looking at a replacement for No Child Left Behind.

“We are encouraged by what the senator is doing and we are encouraged by the new direction they are taking,” Morse said.

Agency of Education Sec. Rebecca Holcombe is also encouraged by the steps being taken by Congress.

“If this bill becomes law, Vermont should have the flexibility to ensure greater equity of opportunities for all students, to ensure all our students are sufficiently supported to reach their full potential, and to ensure all educators are engaged and supported in professional learning and improving instruction,” Holcombe said. “While the proposed bill still requires annual testing, there is an opportunity for states such as Vermont to create innovative assessment systems that work for their needs.”

Welch returns from trip to Tunisia and Ukraine

WASHINGTON — Rep. Peter Welch has returned from a week-long trip abroad, visiting countries where democracy is under attack.

The democratic congressman was part of a fact-finding mission led by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Ukraine, which is facing incursions from its neighbor, Russia, and to Tunisia, whose economy is still reeling from a terrorist attack in March.

Welch, who serves on the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations, discussed his trip to the Bardo National Museum in Tunis — the capital of Tunisia — where, March 18, members of the self-proclaimed Islamic State killed 22 people, most of them tourists.

“It is the one place that is an island of safety in a cauldron of conflict,” Welch said of Tunisia’s place in the Middle East. “Tunisia does not have the sectarian violence plaguing other countries in the region.”

Tunisia was the birth place of the “Arab Spring,” a series of democratic revolutions that began in Tunisia in 2010 and continued in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. While the revolutions in the latter counties have devolved into partisan and sectarian violence, until recently, Tunisia remained relatively stable and safe.

“Its an example of how the Arab Spring could succeed and not fail,” Welch said.
The attack has led cruise ships to stop visiting the port city of Tunis, whose economy relies on tourism.

Welch’s delegation planned to visit Tunisia before the attack on the national museum, and during the trip, Welch and others toured the museum — which still had bullet holes in the walls throughout the building — and laid a wreath to honor the dead.

“It clearly meant a lot to the Tunisians that this congressional delegation kept its schedule and visited Bardo Museum,” Welch said.

The delegation also met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who is requesting military aid from the United States to assist in its conflict with Russia. In March 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula — which was part of Ukraine — and Ukraine is facing skirmishes along its eastern border with Russia.

Russia is currently facing economic sanctions from the United States and the European Union, and in February, Congress approved a resolution to send Ukraine $350 million in military aid. Welch said he voted against the resolution because Congress did not debate or hold hearings on the subject.

Welch said he came away from the trip to Ukraine doubting that military aid is the right course of action.

“That’s a very close call. Some of my colleagues would like to give military aid. I came away a skeptic,” said Welch, who supports the positions held by diplomats he met with from France and Germany who are advocating against military aid and in favor of continuing the economic sanctions.

“Europeans see increased sanctions as the best option and there is concern that a military escalation will make a bad situation worse,” Welch said. ““They don’t see the possibility of a military victory for Ukraine if Russia is involved.”

Vermont congressional delegation concerned about war request

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Vermont’s congressional delegation says it has concerns about President Barack Obama’s request to authorize war against Islamic State militants.

Sen. Patrick Leahy says the country has a responsibility to take action but must do so in a way that does not result in an open-ended authorization that becomes legal justification for future action against unknown enemies.

Sen. Bernie Sanders says he fears U.S. involvement in “an expanding and never-ending quagmire in that region of the world” and says he supports targeted U.S. military efforts to protect Americans.

Congressman Peter Welch says he cannot support the authorization as it is because he says it leaves in place the Bush-era open-ended authorization.

Obama would limit the authorization to three years, with no restriction on where U.S. forces could pursue the threat.

Sanders to skip Netanyahu speech to Congress

WASHINGTON (AP) — Liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders said Monday he will skip Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to a joint meeting of Congress early next month, arguing that President Barack Obama should have been consulted before the invitation was extended.

The Vermont independent is the first senator to announce he won’t attend the speech. Democratic Reps. John Lewis of Georgia and Jim Clyburn of South Carolina are among a handful in their party who have said they will skip Netanyahu’s speech.

“The president of the United States heads up our foreign policy and the idea that the president wasn’t even consulted — that is wrong,” Sanders said. “I am not going. I may watch it on TV, but I’m not going.”

House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, extended the invitation — which comes two weeks before Israel’s elections — without discussing it beforehand with the White House.

Sen. Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders

Added Sanders in a statement: “I think it is very unfortunate that the Speaker of the House invited Prime Minister Netanyahu to address the Congress without consulting President Obama. Further, Netanyahu’s speech is slated to take place just two weeks before the Israeli elections. The U.S. should avoid even the implication of influencing a democratic election of a foreign country.”

Netanyahu is a sharp critic of administration negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, and Democrats fear he’ll use the opportunity to embarrass Obama and further his own re-election prospects.

Release: Leahy reintroduces online privacy bill

Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on Wednesday was joined by a bipartisan, bicameral group of legislators to introduce legislation to modernize the nation’s electronic privacy laws and bring protections against warrantless searches into harmony with the technological realities of the 21stcentury.

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendments Act of 2015 (ECPA) was introduced by Leahy, Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Representatives Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) in the House.  The bill requires the government to have a search warrant requirement to obtain the content of Americans’ emails and other electronic communications, when those communications are stored with a third-party service provider.

Leahy, who authored the original 1986 ECPA law, said the bill introduced Wednesday would bring needed privacy protections to Vermonters in the digital age.

Leahy said:  “These reforms would protect Americans’ digital privacy – in their emails, and all the other files and photographs they store in the cloud.  It builds consumer trust, and it provides law enforcement agencies with the proper tools they need to ensure public safety.  This is a bipartisan issue, and now is the time to act swiftly to bring Americans’ privacy rights and protections into the digital age.”

Lee, who also joined with Leahy last Congress on legislation to update ECPA, said:  “In the nearly three decades since ECPA became law, technology has advanced rapidly and beyond the imagination of anyone living in 1986.  The prevalence of email and the low cost of electronic data storage have made what were once robust protections insufficient to ensure that citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights are adequately protected.”

Leahy and Lee previewed their bill introduction in a joint op-ed last week. The senators joined together in the last Congress to introduce nearly identical legislation, which was unanimouslyapproved by the Judiciary Committee.  The bill introduced Wednesday is cosponsored by Senators Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).  The House version of ECPA has 228 additional cosponsors.  The bill enjoys support from a broad coalition of stakeholders across the political spectrum including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Heritage Action for America, Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), and the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT).

Release: Sanders’ solar bill blocked by GOP

Senate Republicans today shot down a proposal by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to help install up to 10 million solar power systems for homes and businesses in the coming decade.

Rebates for solar systems would have been authorized by a Sanders amendment to a Keystone XL oil pipeline bill now before the Senate.

“The scientific community tells us very clearly if we’re going to reverse climate change and the great dangers it poses for the planet we must move aggressively to transform our energy system away from fossil fuels to energy efficiency and sustainable energy,” Sanders said.

His amendment called for a 15 percent rebate to homeowners and businesses that install solar power. The new solar power generated would have been enough to replace one-fifth of the nation’s dirty, coal-fired power plants. The measure also would create new jobs.

“So if you’re interested in reversing the dangers of climate change and creating jobs, I would urge you to support this amendment,” Sanders said. The amendment got 40 votes. It needed 60 to pass.

Sanders’ proposal was supported by Vermont’s Green Mountain Power, a leading proponent of solar and other renewable sources of energy. “Green Mountain Power is finding new ways to help Vermonters save money and be more comfortable, while moving to cleaner local sources of energy,” said Mary Powell, the utility president. “We appreciate the efforts of leaders like Sen. Sanders and others who recognize the importance of ongoing investments in renewable energy.”

Release: Leahy questions DEA policy

 In a letter sent to Attorney General Eric Holder Wednesday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) questioned the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) use of a national database to track the movement of vehicles around the United States.

 News reports this week revealed that the DEA has expanded its license plate reader (LPR) surveillance program from the Southwest Border to include states across the country. The database now includes hundreds of millions of records about motorists, and it reportedly allows the DEA to track motorists in real-time.

 This is the third oversight letter the Senators have sent in recent weeks, raising privacy concerns about the use of emerging law enforcement technologies. Last week, they pressed the administration on the reported use of radar technology that may enable law enforcement agencies to track the movements of private citizens inside their homes. And last month, they questioned the use of cell-site simulators, which can indiscriminately sweep up the cell phone signals of innocent Americans.

 In their letter Wednesday, the Senators reiterated: “We remain concerned that government programs that track citizens’ movements, see inside homes, and collect data from the phones of innocent Americans raise serious privacy concerns.”

 “We also have questions about the way in which the DEA’s database is being used,” the Senators added.  “According to one document, the primary purpose of the program is to broaden the reach of the DEA’s civil asset forfeiture efforts.  Federal asset forfeiture programs have been the subject of recent controversy and we believe that greater transparency and oversight of civil asset forfeiture is needed.  Any program that is dedicated to expanding the Justice Department’s forfeiture efforts requires similar oversight and accountability.”

Release: Leahy testimony on Lynch

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member, Senate Judiciary Committee at the hearing on the nomination of Loretta Lynch to serve asAttorney General of the United States

It is a pleasure to welcome Loretta Lynch to this Committee.  Ms. Lynch is smart, tough, hard-working, and independent.  She is a true prosecutor’s prosecutor.  Her qualifications are beyond reproach, which is why she has been unanimously confirmed by the Senate twice before to serve as the top Federal prosecutor based in Brooklyn, New York.  I look forward to another swift confirmation process for Ms. Lynch.

 As the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Ms. Lynch has brought terrorists and cyber-criminals to justice, obtained convictions against corrupt public officials from both political parties, and fought tirelessly against violent crime and financial fraud.  Ms. Lynch has remained determined to protect the rights of victims.  She has worked hard to improve the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve – as evidenced by the fact that her nomination enjoys strong support from both.  She has prosecuted those who have committed crimes against police officers, as well as police officers who have committed crimes.  Her record shows that as Attorney General, Ms. Lynch will effectively, fairly, and independently enforce the law.

 Born in North Carolina, Ms. Lynch is the daughter of a Baptist preacher and a school librarian.  We are honored to have members of her family with us today.  I know she will be introducing them to us momentarily.  Ms. Lynch grew up hearing her family speak about living in the Jim Crow South, but she never lost faith that the way to obtain justice is through our legal system.  Her nomination is historic.  When confirmed as the 83rd Attorney General of the United States, she will be the first African American woman to lead the Department of Justice.  I can think of no one more deserving of that honor.

 Ms. Lynch will lead a Justice Department that faces complex challenges.  Nearly one-third of its budget goes to the Bureau of Prisons, draining vital resources from nearly all other public safety priorities.  A significant factor leading to this budget imbalance is the unnecessary creation of more and more mandatory minimum sentences.  Passing new mandatory minimum laws has become a convenient way for lawmakers to claim that they are tough on crime – even when there is no evidence that these sentences keep us safer. That policy fallacy is one of the reasons we have the largest prison population in the world.  And it is why I oppose all mandatory minimums.  We must work together on thoughtful solutions to address our mass incarceration problem.

 The Justice Department also needs strong leadership to keep up with the rapid development of technology.  We must stay ahead of the curve to prevent and fight threats to cybersecurity and data privacy.  The growing threat of cybercrime is very real but so is the specter of unchecked government intrusion into our private lives – particularly dragnet surveillance programs directed at American citizens.  The intelligence community faces a critical deadline this June when three sections of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act are set to expire.  We must protect our national security and our civil liberties.  We must work together to reform our Nation’s surveillance laws so we can achieve both goals and restore the public’s trust.

 The next Attorney General will play an essential role in protecting all Americans on these issues and many others.

 The President’s selection for Attorney General—no matter the President—deserves to be considered swiftly, fairly, and on her own record.  A role this important cannot be used as yet another Washington political football.  I am confident that if we stay focused on Ms. Lynch’s impeccable qualifications and fierce independence, she will be quickly confirmed by the Senate.  Ms. Lynch deserves a fair, thoughtful, and respectful confirmation process – and the American people deserve an Attorney General like Ms. Lynch.

Ms. Lynch, I thank you for your years of public service, and I look forward to your testimony.