TPM News

by Nicholas Kusnetz, ProPublica

Democrats renewed their push to cut oil subsidies this week, saying high gasoline prices and big revenues for oil and gas companies make this as good a time as any to eliminate billions in annual tax incentives to the industry. Republicans countered that higher taxes on oil companies would only mean higher prices for consumers.

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Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Thursday that President Barack Obama's plan to seek a two-year extension of FBI Director Robert Mueller's 10-year term was unusual and would set a bad precedent. "This is an unusual step by the President, and is somewhat of a risky precedent to set," Grassley said.

"Thirty-five years ago Congress limited the FBI director's term to one, 10-year appointment as an important safeguard against improper political influence and abuses of the past," he said, referring to former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who headed the bureau for nearly a half century until his death in 1972.

"There's no question that Director Mueller has proven his ability to run the FBI. And, we live in extraordinary times," Grassley said. "So, I'm open to the President's idea, but I will need to know more about his plan to ensure that this is not a more permanent extension that would undermine the purposes of the term limit."

Obama's plan does have the backing of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) who said that he was "delighted when President Obama informed me that he has asked Director Mueller to stay on at the Bureau for an additional two years." "The Bureau has seen significant transformation since September 11, 2001, and Director Mueller has handled this evolution with professionalism and focus," Leahy said. "The FBI plays a critical role in our efforts to protect national security. I appreciate Director Mueller's continued service to the nation, and I am fully supportive of this decision."

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) told reporters on Thursday he's not worried about Democratic concerns over the tough position he struck on the debt limit earlier this week. As the deadline for raising the amount of money the government can legally borrow approaches, business groups have started to get skittish, warning of dire consequences for the national economy if Republicans stick to their guns on demanding politically unlikely cuts in return for the boost in the debt ceiling needed to keep America from going into default.

In his big New York speech Monday, Boehner laid out the plan: In return for an increase in the debt limit, Democrats on the Hill and the White House will have to agree to cuts that are greater than the level of the the increase.

This sets up a high stakes game of chicken that business groups told Congress in a letter Wednesday the economy can't afford. On Thursday, Boehner dismissed the concerns coming from his political opponents as little more than hand-wringing.

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Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), who launched his campaign for president yesterday, is now set to embark on a week-long tour of the key first caucus state of Iowa.

As the Des Moines Register reports, Gingrich will make 17 stops next week, from Monday through Saturday.

The cities and tows that Gingrich will visit are: Dubuque, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Mason City, Waterloo, Marshalltown, Ames, Carroll, Atlantic, Council Bluffs, Onawa, Sioux City, Le Mars, Storm Lake, Holstein, Orange City, and Sheldon.

In a rare move, leaders of the Senate Ethics Committee will take to the Senate floor this afternoon to inform their colleagues about their two-year investigation into the sex scandal and legal issues surrounding it that lead Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) to resign earlier this month.

Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who chairs the ethics panel, and Johnny Isakson (R-GA), the ranking member, are scheduled to give a floor speech about their findings in the case against the Nevada Republican who admitted to having an affair with a former campaign aide, Cynthia Hampton, and then helping her husband, also a top aide, establish a brief lobbying career.

Formal accusations and charges have focused on the great lengths -- and potentially illegal steps -- Ensign took to keep the affair quiet, including having his parents (wealthy Las Vegas casino owners) pay the Hamptons $96,000 in hush money.

Ensign was also accused of knowingly helping Doug Hampton violate the one-year lobbying ban by helping him set up a short-lived job on K Street.

If the ethics committee has found any evidence of criminal wrongdoing, they must forward that evidence to the Justice Department for further investigation.

In March federal prosecutors charged Doug Hampton with seven counts of violating conflict-of-interest laws. In December Ensign said the Justice Department had told him he was no longer a target in its probe, but shortly after the Ethics Committee's hiring of a special counsel to continue its investigation, Ensign said he would retire instead of seeking reelection.

The Federal Election Commission said the $96,000 payments did not violate campaign-finance law because they were paid in installments to the Hamptons and their children in amounts allowed under U.S. tax law.

Still insisting he did nothing wrong, in announcing his resignation in April, Ensign said he decided it was time to go after the Ethics Committee named a special prosecutor to continue looking into the matter, even though he believed the Justice Department had dropped its case and the FEC has dismissed the accusations against him.

Executives of the five largest U.S. oil companies received a harsh public flogging for near-record gas prices coupled with high profits for the first quarter of the year at a Senate Finance Committee hearing Thursday.

Democrats excoriated the executives for rejecting calls to end tax breaks for the industry when they stand to make record profits and gas prices are reaching an all-time high at the pump.

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Republican Jane Corwin and Democrat Kathy Hochul, who are running to replace resigned GOP Rep. Chris Lee in New York's 26th district, faced off in a debate Thursday morning, sparring over entitlements, spending, and at one point their husbands' cars.

Democrats have sought to turn the race into a referendum on the House GOP's proposal to privatize and cut Medicare and Hochul repeatedly brought up Corwin's support for the Republican budget.

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Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) took to the Senate floor Thursday to condemn waterboarding and other torture techniques, saying that the debate over these techniques is ultimately "about morality. What is at stake here it the very idea of America."

"The America," he continued, "whose values have inspired the world and instilled in the hearts of its citizens the certainty that no matter how hard we fight, no matter how dangerous our adversary, in the course of vanquishing our enemies we do not compromise our deepest vlaues."

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