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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

 10:18 AM 

Feingold delivers final State Department speech

Former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold urged the United States and the rest of the international community to continue providing "sustained attention" to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as part of his final speech as special envoy to the central African region.

Feingold, speaking in Washington, D.C., touted diplomatic successes in the region during his 18-month tenure, such as reduced threats from the M23 armed rebels, better economic integration and an improved attitude toward the U.S.

But Feingold said he remains worried about deep-rooted problems, including violence against women as a weapon of war by other armed rebel groups, such as the FDLR, a rebel Hutu group believed to be responsible for numerous terrorist acts, including the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

"The time is now to end the threat of the FDLR," said Feingold, saying it's in the "security interest of the United States" to stop armed groups from "creating cracks in society" that provide openings for extremism.

The longtime former senator from Wisconsin warned against viewing aid to the DRC as "of moral and humanitarian obligation alone."

Feingold said he's made 15 trips to the region in the past year and a half. He also touted a trip in November to Beijing, where he said he invited China, for the first time, to participate in U.S. efforts to work with "like-minded groups, traditionally Western countries," to "harmonize strategy and messaging and to share information."

Feingold said most Americans are unaware that China has long been active in the African region, but stressed, "As a major partner of Africa, China's voice is to be welcomed on messaging on peace and security issues in the Great Lakes, particularly on the need to eliminate threats to regional security, such as that posed by the FDLR."

Feingold said his Wisconsin roots made him highly aware of the potential of Africa's Great Lakes area as a source of healthy food and water-related industries, but also as an area with potential environmental concerns, similar to those faced in the U.S. Great Lakes region.

He called for "careful stewardship" of what he says represents half of the world's freshwater resources.

Feingold promised his continued support and involvement in DRC issues, quoting Pope Francis: "Peace is possible but we have to seek it."

Near the end of his speech, Feingold dropped a line that several media outlets interpreted as a hint of an upcoming Senate campaign.

He thanked "my once, current, and I hope, future Chief of Staff Mary Irvine," saying she "brilliantly held the ... operation together."

Irvine worked with Feingold in the State Department and, before that, in his U.S. Senate office.

-- By Kay Nolan
For WisPolitics.com

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

 5:31 PM 

Column: New Congress, old showdowns

This is an excerpt from Nicole Duran's weekly DC Wrap column. Sign up to get the full column in your inbox each week.

Not even two months into their stewardship of Congress, Republicans are already playing a game of fiscal chicken with President Obama that could shutter the Department of Homeland Security by week's end.

Republicans, furious over Obama's November executive order on immigration, refused in December to include DHS in a package funding the federal government for fiscal 2015. Democrats had to settle for a two-month extension of the department's spending authority. Conservative Republicans hoped that once the GOP assumed control of Congress in January, it could force Obama to back away from his orders that halt deportation of some undocumented immigrants by holding the Homeland Security funding over Democrats' heads.

Although Republicans are pursuing a course Sen. Ron Johnson advocated even before winning the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee's chairmanship--effectively reversing Obama's executive immigration orders by denying the programs' funding--the Oshkosh Republican is now espousing a less confrontational tact as Friday's midnight deadline rapidly approaches.

"Responsible members of both parties must work together to find some way to fund DHS without further delay," Johnson said Monday. "I will work to make certain the Department of Homeland Security is operating at full strength during these dangerous times."

The House already approved a spending bill that blocks implementation of Obama's orders. Senate Democrats filibustered that legislation for the fourth time on Monday, saying they would continue doing so until Republicans stripped the provision. Johnson, echoing GOP leaders, blamed Democrats for the impasse.

"Democratic senators are currently blocking a DHS funding bill from coming to the floor of the Senate to be debated, possibly amended and voted up or down," he stated.

It is unclear if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would bring a "clean" bill to the floor. And even if he did, it is even less clear whether House Republicans would accept it. Whether Republicans are willing to back down now that a federal court is temporarily preventing the administration from implementing Obama's deferred deportation programs is also uncertain.

Johnson's statement seemed to imply that Republicans won the legal battle and can now drop the contentious provisions.

"Fortunately, [DHS] Secretary [Jeh] Johnson has agreed that his department will be bound by court decisions," Johnson stated. "This means, and I expect, that DHS should immediately suspend all actions designed to implement these unlawful programs."

For her part, Sen. Tammy Baldwin is using her Twitter account to pound the administration's message that if Congress allows DHS to shut down, Republicans are to blame.

"Solution to stopping a Homeland Security shutdown is simple: ‪#FundDHS with a clean bill. Stop playing politics & ‪#DontShutDownOurSecurity," the Madison Democrat tweeted Monday.

Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Sherwood, voiced many of his colleagues' frustration with the Senate's procedural hurdles when he began urging senators back on Feb. 6 to act.

"While I understand the need for the Senate to have 60 votes to proceed, the responsible thing for the Senate to do is to pass...something, regardless of whether or not it matches that of the House," Ribble stated then. He continued to press senators Monday, tweeting: "‪#DHS‪ funding expires in a week. The House has passed a bill to fully fund it. Senate must act."

Read Duran's column for more on this and other DC issues

Monday, February 23, 2015

 8:55 AM 

Johnson calls for cyber-attack legislation

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, delivering the Weekly Republican Address, called for legislation that would protect private sector organizations from lawsuits if they share information to help thwart cyber attacks.

Johnson, R-Oshkosh, said such legislation has been blocked in the past, but hoped that would change with the president acknowledging cybersecurity as a priority.

"Cyberattacks may not dominate the headlines every day, but they present a crucial challenge to the safety and security of this nation," said Johnson, chair of the Senate's homeland security committee. Reducing this threat would benefit every American. Ignoring it will guarantee that future attacks will produce headlines describing lasting harm to America. We need to get this done. I look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress and the Obama administration to resolve this issue - this year.

Listen to the address

Friday, February 20, 2015

 10:20 AM 

State GOP files complaint over severance offered to former Baldwin staffer

The state GOP today accused U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of misappropriating taxpayer dollars by offering an aide a severance package that contained a nondisclosure agreement.

Baldwin aide Marquette Baylor was fired over the handling of a report on the prescription practices of the Tomah VA. A Baldwin attorney shot back the complaint filed with the Senate Ethics Committee was frivolous.

The GOP complaint focused on the severance package offered to Baylor, who was Baldwin's deputy state director for constituent services. It cited a media report the package included a nearly six-figure payout for the aide.

"As part of a massive cover-up, Tammy Baldwin wrongly appropriated taxpayer funds to compensate a Senate employee who would not have performed official government duties while also fraudulently offering a contract to silence a former employee in order to save Baldwin's own political career," the complaint charged.

The complaint asks the Senate Select Committee on Ethics to begin an investigation.

"This is a frivolous allegation wholly without merit and nothing more than a political stunt," said Baldwin attorney Marc Elias. "It is unfortunate that the Republican Party has made the choice to play partisan politics with the serious and tragic issues facing the VA and our veterans."

Baldwin, D-Madison, has been under fire for her office's handling of a report detailing the overprescription of opioids at the Tomah VA.

Elias, who has been described as the go-to lawyer for a range of Dem politicians, also said Baylor was terminated because of "her long-term performance on a range of issues did not meet with the Senator's expectations for effective constituent service." That included her handling of problems at the Tomah VA.

Elias said Baylor has turned down the settlement offer and "is free to move forward in any way she so chooses." He said the separation agreement was one "that is standard for a Senate employee of her tenure and seniority" was put together with guidance from the Office of the Senate Chief Counsel for Employment. He said it "included standard confidentiality language."

Read the complaint

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

 2:40 PM 

Column: No legislative embrace for Obama force authorization

This is an excerpt from Nicole Duran's weekly DC Wrap column. Sign up to get the full column in your inbox each week.

Democrats and Republicans alike have clamored for President Barack Obama to submit a proposed authorization for use of military force against the self-proclaimed Islamic State since it started taking control of chunks of Iraq and Syria last summer, including Sens. Ron Johnson, and Tammy Baldwin.

But when Obama finally did it last week, no one on Capitol Hill seemed content.

Everyone agreed it was too vague and that lawmakers should hold hearings and debate any new authorization. But they generally broke down along party lines about what they disliked in the proposal's ambiguous wording, with Republicans saying it doesn't give a commander-in-chief enough latitude and Democrats worrying it could lead to another protracted war in the region.

Speaking on Fox News, Johnson said he's happy the administration laid down a marker -- something he's been asking it to do since July -- but is concerned that the process is backwards. The first step is for Obama to state a concrete objective and then outline a detailed strategy for achieving it. Only then can Congress debate, draft and vote on an authorization. "What does he mean by 'defeat'" the group also known as ISIS and ISIL?" the Oshkosh Republican asked. "Kill every last one of them? Containment?"

Baldwin in December called on Obama to submit an update to the 2001 and 2002 authorizations he's relied on thus far to engage ISIS without specific congressional approval. She echoed many Democrats in her statement released shortly after the administration transmitted its request to the Senate on Wednesday.

"I'm concerned that the vague language of the administration's draft proposal may leave the door open to putting boots on the ground for combat operations and put the United States at risk of repeating the mistakes of the past and becoming bogged down in an open-ended conflict," the Madison Democrat stated. "I'm also concerned that the draft AUMF would authorize action for three years without establishing measurable goals, benchmarks of success and a clear scope in the battle against ISIL."

Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Sherwood, was measured in his response: "As a Foreign Affairs Committee member, I look forward to reviewing the proposal through hearings, briefings and careful study," he said. "The American people and their representatives in Congress will now have a robust conversation about what our next steps must be­ to defend ourselves from this grave threat."

Johnson was part of a small bipartisan group of senators who met with administration lawyers in late July to discuss drafting a new authorization or even rewriting the War Powers Act. He said the timing was perfect to have a robust debate about both laws and that he would help sell the public on whatever the White House and Congress ultimately came up with so long as Obama took the lead and they all worked together.

"I want something with staying power; I don't think this threat is going away," he said back then. The group "left the ball in the administration's court," he said. It wasn't until the waning days of the 113th Congress, however, before anything was put on paper. Tired of waiting for the White House, then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Bob Menendez of New Jersey, pushed an authorization through his panel but Congress adjourned before it could come to the floor.

Read Duran's column for more on this and other DC issues

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

 5:29 PM 

Ryan leads trade trip to Asia

A House delegation led by Ways and Means Chairman U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan met with Singapore government officials and toured a U.S. Navy ship as part the group's week-long trip to promote the U.S. trade agenda in Asia.

The group met with Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam, Trade Minister Lim Hng Kiang, and Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

The delegation also attended a luncheon meeting of the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore, where discussion focused on issues related to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, according to a Ways and Means Committee blog posting.

The group also visited with commander and crew of the U.S.S. Fort Worth and toured the littoral combat ship, which was manufactured in Marinette.

See a blog post about the meeting

Read the post about the U.S.S. Fort Worth

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

 8:06 AM 

Column: FCC reversal on net neutrality sparks probe

This is an excerpt from Nicole Duran's weekly DC Wrap column. Sign up to get the full column in your inbox each week.

Sen. Ron Johnson is following his House counterpart's lead in questioning whether the White House forced the FCC to change its proposed rule regulating broadband Internet access.

Johnson, in his role as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, penned a letter Monday to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler requesting communications between the regulatory agency and the White House regarding the rulemaking process. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz of Utah wrote a similar letter seeking much the same documentation last week.

"I request your assistance in better understanding whether the White House and the FCC respected the proper boundaries established by Congress between the executive branch and independent agencies," Johnson, R-Oshkosh, wrote.

Last week the FCC said it would regulate the Internet like a utility to implement "net neutrality," a policy that prevents Internet service providers from favoring content or the speed with which it is delivered from companies that offer to pay more for superior or exclusive delivery. In addition to banning sweetheart deals, which would extend to mobile devices, the agency would get authority over agreements struck between service providers and content providers, such as Netflix, designed to alleviate network congestion.

"I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC," Wheeler wrote in a Wired magazine op-ed unveiling the proposal. "These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services. I propose to fully apply--for the first time ever--those bright-line rules to mobile broadband.

"My proposal assures the rights of internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone's permission," the one-time telecom lobbyist wrote.

In November President Barack Obama made the case for net neutrality. Shortly after, Wheeler delayed the proposal's rollout. The draft rule goes in the opposite direction of one proposed last year, leading Republicans to accuse the administration of strong-arming the independent agency.

"Not only is this a monumental shift from the 2010 FCC order, but it is a very large deviation from the previous proposal as well as the light regulatory touch applied to broadband services since the Clinton administration," Johnson wrote.

Johnson asked Wheeler why he changed his mind and about the proposal's timing. He also asked to see the draft as it stood before Obama weighed in on the matter and for call, email and meeting logs of any discussions or meetings about the issue between the administration and the FCC. He set a deadline of Feb. 23 to provide the requested documents.

The five-person FCC board is slated to vote on the proposal Feb. 26.

Generally speaking, support for net neutrality splits along party lines with Democrats mostly supporting the policy and the bulk of Republicans opposing it. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, is the only member of the Wisconsin delegation to opine about the proposal so far, tweeting "#NetNeutrality‪ is the heart of an accessible & #OpenInternet. Glad to see @TomWheelerFCCembrace #TitleII authority" the day Wheeler laid out the proposal.

Read Duran's column for more on this and other DC issues

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

 12:05 PM 

Ryan says trade one area president 'doing some good'

MILWAUKEE -- U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, says trade is "is the one area where ... the president is finally breaking out and doing some good."

Ryan, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, said yesterday at Marquette Law School that a strong role in global trade has bipartisan support in Washington, D.C, and lawmakers need to take advantage sooner than later.

"The global economy is here, it's going to stay and it's going to shape us," Ryan said during an appearance for the "On the Issues with Mike Gousha" series. "So the question is, are we leading and shaping the global economy, or is it being done to us?"

Ryan denounced what he calls President Obama's idea of "envy economics," an economic doctrine that seeks more government control of the economy and divides people on class and income.

"I don't think that's who we are, or who we ought to be," the Janesville Republican said.

Ryan said he believes in a philosophy where America could grow the economic pot.

He also said that instead of worrying about what others have, citizens need to be worried about large, special interest groups who try to "rig the rules."

"I call that cronyism, and both parties do that," Ryan said. "Let's go after cronyism, which today you see powerful interests, like big government or big businesses, joining in a common cause ... to try and deny other would be competitors."

Ryan said the country isn't doing as well as it could economically, even with 58 months of private sector job growth and the best private job sector growth in the last 17 years.

Ryan said that the labor participation rates aren't high enough for him to be satisfied with the economy. He also said employment growth has to be more than 3 percent to get the economy growing at the pace it needs to grow to get the average income higher

"We cannot accept as a new normal 2.6, 2.7 percent economic growth," Ryan said.

Ryan, the 2012 vice presidential candidate for Republicans, announced earlier this year he wouldn't run for president in 2016. But he was appointed chair of the Republican National Committee presidential trust.

Ryan also added some insight into why he decided against a presidential bid.

"I'm 45 years old," he said. "I can always do these things later if I want. I'm just not one of these people who thinks it's now or never."

Monday, February 9, 2015

 4:04 PM 

Johnson sees border fence as solution to illegal immigration

Building a fence along the U.S. border with Mexico will be challenging, but it's the best option to stem the tide of illegal immigration, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson said today as he returned from a trip to the region.

Johnson, R-Oshkosh, said the Rio Grande poses particular problems in the effort to fence off the border. He noted the river is prone to floods, particularly during tropical storms, that can change its path. There are also environmentally sensitive areas and the likelihood that homeowners and cities on the river backs would fight eminent domain efforts to obtain the land needed for a barrier.

He also compared trying to keep illegal immigrants out of the country like trying to dam water; wherever barriers are erected, they will look for new openings to enter the country.

"It's a whole lot easier saying you're going to build a fence than actually accomplishing it," Johnson said in a phone interview as he flew back from a weekend trip to the Texas border as part of a bipartisan fact finding delegation.

Johnson expects to take the information he gathered on the trip for possible changes to legislation he's co-sponsoring to secure the border. The chair of Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee said he would like to work with the administration to reach a compromise, noting it would be up to the Obama administration to enforce any law Congress wrote.

He also accused Dems of playing politics with legislation to fund the Department of Homeland Security after House Republicans inserted a series of provisions in their bill aimed at undercutting executive actions the president took on immigration. Dems have been calling for a "clean" bill and have filibustered the House version.

Johnson said Obama picked a fight with Republicans by taking the executive actions despite their warnings. He accused Dems of playing politics by preventing debate on the bill in the Senate and suspected after three failed votes it will have to be sent back to the House for a new approach.

"They are the obstructionists right now," Johnson said. "It's a real shame."

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

 5:24 PM 

Petri reports more than $400K in legal fees

Retired U.S. Rep. Tom Petri spent more than $400,000 in legal fees last year as he dealt with an ethics probe.

Through the end of the year, the Fond du Lac Republican's campaign paid the D.C. law firm Covington & Burling LLP $417,551, according to the campaign's finance reports for 2014. The campaign also paid $3,422 to the DC firm Berke Farah LLP.

Petri, who was cleared in the probe, had requested the investigation following media reports that he took actions to help Oshkosh Corp. while owning stock in the company. The House Ethics Committee ruled Petri had properly consulted with committee staff and followed their advice.

Petri's year-end report, which covers activity from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31, showed the longtime Republican congressman received $129 in contributions and spent $118,031 during the period. Of that spending, $76,644 went to legal fees. The campaign ended the year with $428,174 cash on hand.

See the report

 1:33 PM 

Column: Pocan splits with Obama on trade

This is an excerpt from Nicole Duran's weekly DC Wrap column. Sign up to get the full column in your inbox each week.

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, is becoming a leading congressional opponent of free trade deals and so-called "fast-track" negotiating authority for the executive branch.

After specifically asking Congress to grant him Trade Promotion Authority in his State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama pitched the House Democratic Caucus on Friday at its annual retreat in Philadelphia.

Pocan, first vice chairman of the House Progressive Caucus, immediately rebuffed the president's request to allow an administration to present finalized trade deals to Congress for a simple up-or-down vote, without opportunity for amendment.

His office quickly recirculated his post-State of the Union comment regarding TPA and the two massive trade deals the Obama administration hopes for soon: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. "I am disappointed he pushed for an expansion of our nation's flawed trade policies," Pocan stated. "I support fair trade, but I cannot support more bad trade deals that will hurt our American jobs and American industries. I hope President Obama and U.S. Trade Representative Froman are open to the concerns my colleagues and I have expressed about the consequences of fast-track legislation and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations."

Pocan has penned and signed numerous letters outlining his objections since coming to office in 2013 and has frequently held press conferences on the subject. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee, and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, have signed on to some opposition letters as well. Most recently Baldwin and Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey outlined their concerns about financial regulatory provisions in TPP in a letter to Froman.

"Including such provisions in the TPP could expose American taxpayers to billions of dollars in losses and dissuade the government from establishing or enforcing financial rules that impact foreign banks," the trio wrote in December. "The consequence would be to strip our regulators of the tools they need to prevent the next crisis."

Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, has made generally supportive statements about the trade deals but remains noncommittal. He is "committed to working with farmers, workers and businesses to fight for trade policies that elevate standards for workers and the environment, and that help create jobs in Wisconsin," a spokesman for Kind stated. "Rep. Kind has not come out in favor or opposition to any agreements yet because they are still a work in progress. He is committed to working with the administration toward sound trade policies with core environmental and labor standards."

Meanwhile, House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, is a strong supporter of pending trade deals and supports the trade promotion bill put forward by his committee predecessor, retired Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., to pave the way for congressional sign-off on TPP.

Ryan will speak on the topic Thursday before the Washington International Trade Association.

Read Duran's column for more on this and other DC issues

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· Tammy Baldwin (D)
· Ron Johnson (R)

· 1st CD: Paul Ryan (R)
· 2nd CD: Mark Pocan (D)
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· 5th CD: F. James Sensenbrenner (R)
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