By Emma Dumain

Roll Call

With the first round of appropriations bills and a possible budget conference report on the House floor this week, the chamber’s progressive contingent is looking farther down the road at the storm brewing over so-called Trade Promotion Authority, or “fast track.”

Legislation allowing President Barack Obama to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement would ordinarily be divisive within the House Democratic Caucus, but progressives say there’s even more at stake in this most recent fight: 2016.

If they can’t stop the TPA bill, the nearly 70 voting House members in the Congressional Progressive Caucus are determined to make such a ruckus that the party’s 2016 candidates — presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton in particular — realize Obama’s middle-of-the-road approach to trade, or any major policy area, is not acceptable.

“I think if we were to keep fast track from happening here, then the message is pretty clear to the national campaigns, Hillary’s in particular, that this is an issue that’s going to energize the base,” said CPC Co-Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz.

“I think it kind of sets a tone nationally,” Grijalva said, “My point being, if the vast majority of the Democrats in the House are willing to confront their president, it only makes sense that any candidate for that position is on the line.”

“The Progressive Caucus, and the progressive movement in general, needs to be loyal to the principles and ideas, not personalities,” said Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., Grijalva’s co-chairman.

Ideally, Clinton would have come out already against TPA, Grijalva, Ellison and others say. But if she won’t — and not many expect her to — then the mission is to make it politically untenable for Clinton, assuming she is the nominee, to tack to the right on other issues important to populists and labor, a core Democratic constituency.

A senior House Democratic aide who works for a member of the CPC added that even if Democrats aren’t able to derail TPA, the opposition has reached a crescendo that will make future trade negotiations non-starters.

“I don’t think we actually have to defeat TPA,” the aide said. “I think it’s having an impact; I think you’re seeing it already.”

He mentioned the recent episode where Obama called Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., “wrong” in her opposition to TPA. The presidential brushback of the progressive lawmaker, who has become a hero to the left, comes as Obama is increasingly vilified for supporting the fast-track framework negotiated by two Republicans and one Democrat: House Ways and Means Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., and the Senate Finance Committee’s chairman and ranking member, Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, and Ron Wyden of Oregon.

“Seeing Obama directly attack Elizabeth Warren and other unnamed liberals really shows the stakes are really high in this fight,” the aide said.

Both committees acted on the legislation last week, meaning that floor consideration could come sooner than later. House GOP leadership is going to have to start making the rounds soon to determine whether it has 218 Republican votes to make it across the finish line.

Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, at his weekly news conference Thursday, said bipartisanship would be necessary for the TPA and the onus was on Obama to get his members in line.

Much of the larger House Democratic Caucus strategy on TPA hinges on whether Republicans need Democratic votes. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, traditionally an ally of progressives and a point person when it comes to delivering results for the Obama administration, hasn’t signaled how she’ll ultimately vote. But she said at her own news conference on April 23 it would behoove Republicans with work with Democrats if they do in fact need votes, and she would be fighting to make the bill more palatable for her members.

Pelosi would be giving House progressives a huge win in the event she came over to their side on trade, a sign ideology won out over her loyalty to the president, and also that, politically, liberals had won the messaging wars over even the center-left.

For the time being, CPC members said it was important to just keep the pressure turned to “high,” for Clinton or anyone else.

“I believe we will derail this,” Ellison said, “but no matter what happens, it’s kind of like this: Will the little guy beat up the big bully? Who knows? But if the little guy’s willing to fight, the big guy’s able to win in a bloody battle or lose in a bloody battle. But the battle will be bloody.”

By George Zornick

The Nation

Several top congressional Democrats will embrace on Tuesday a loose plan to make public colleges a debt-free proposition—and will receive an immediate boost from progressive activists who are hoping to shape the 2016 Democratic agenda.

In the House and Senate, legislators will simultaneously introduce two resolutions calling for “all students [to] have access to debt-free higher education.” In the Senate, Brian Schatz, Chuck Schumer, and Elizabeth Warren will attach their names to the resolution. Representatives Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva, co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, are leading the House effort along with several members, including Representatives Chris Van Hollen, Steve Israel, Donna Edwards, Katherine Clark, and Alan Grayson.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee is helping to organize the push, and released a short paper along with the think tank Demos about how to make public higher education achievable without debt. It briefly outlines how increased federal aid to states for higher education and expanded Pell Grants, along with other smaller reforms, might eliminate the debt burden at public institutions.

Non-binding resolutions and a three-page policy paper don’t (yet) represent a serious legislative push to eliminate student debt at public universities and colleges, but it’s a fairly remarkable idea to embrace, particularly for more moderate Democrats like Schumer, who is likely to become Senate majority or minority leader in 2017. The point of the movement now is to insert the premise that college could be debt-free into the political discussion.

“When it comes to making college affordable, I’m hopeful that debt-free college is the next big idea,” Schumer said in a release. “We need to do more to make college more affordable for all students so that they can graduate without debt holding them back,” said Schatz.

The PCCC will immediately organize rallies at ten college campuses this week, including four in the early-primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. The students at these rallies will explicitly call on presidential candidates to embrace the debt-free college plan. Hillary Clinton and her advisers are no doubt the primary intended audience here, since she leads Democratic polls by such a wide margin. “Students, families, and progressive leaders are working together to make a national goal of debt-free college central to the 2016 debate,” said PCCC co-founder Adam Green.

In her tour of Iowa and New Hampshire last week, Clinton repeatedly brought up college tuition costs, but did not say it should be debt-free specifically, but rather “affordable.” She did embrace the idea outlined by President Obama in his State of the Union address that community-college education should be free.

As the student-debt crisis metastasizes. it’s becoming increasingly hard for presidential candidates to ignore. On the Republican side, Marco Rubio is advancing honest, if very limited, proposals to reduce the cost of higher education through college credits for workforce experience and more transparency about potential earnings of a given college degree versus its cost.

Many other plans, like one released by Warren last year, focus more on relieving the existing debt load of students. Warren’s bill would allow students to re-finance federal loans at lower rates, and would pay for it by closing tax loopholes for the wealthy.

By Sam Levine

Huffington Post

A group of congressional Democrats introduced a resolution on Tuesday seeking to ensure that students who attend public colleges and universities can graduate without debt.

The Senate resolution was introduced by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), while Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) introduced the House version.

The lawmakers support plans to increase financial aid, help states lower tuition and make it possible for students to earn degrees in less time.

In a statement, they noted that the cost of college has increased by 300 percent over the last 30 years and that when students graduate with debt, it has negative effects on the economy.

“When students graduate with loads of debt, the ripple effects are endless; they're less likely to start a business, to buy a house, and to realize their full potential," Schumer said. "When it comes to making college affordable, I'm hopeful that debt-free college is the next big idea."

A White House report released last year said 71 percent of students who earn a bachelor's degree graduate with debt averaging $29,400. Fifty-nine percent of students who graduated in 2012-2013 with a bachelor's degree from a four-year public institution were in debt and had borrowed, on average, $25,600, according to data collected by the College Board.

On Tuesday, Warren called that debt "crushing."

“Our country should be investing in higher education and working with colleges and universities to bring down tuition costs so that students don't have to take on crushing debt to get an education,” she said.

President Barack Obama in January proposed making two years of community college free for any student who has at least a 2.5 grade-point average, attends at least half-time, and is either making progress toward completing their program or transferring to a four-year school.

The debt-free resolution is backed by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is hosting events at town halls at several public colleges and universities across the country this week. Some of those events are scheduled at schools in Iowa and New Hampshire, as the committee hopes to make debt-free college a key issue in the 2016 presidential campaign.

A paper co-authored by the PCCC and Demos, a liberal think tank, argues that debt can be reduced through a combination of educational offerings and accountability measures. The groups' suggestions include increasing the number of advanced placement courses and early college high school programs that are offered, ensuring that schools aren't using federal money for advertising and requiring schools with large endowments to guarantee debt-free college.

By John Nichols

The Nation

A proper budget is a moral document, which well expresses the values and aspirations of a civil society.

As such, the measure of any budget is its combination of fiscal and social responsibility.

By this measure, there was only one proper budget proposal floated in the current Congress. And it did not get very far.

Only ninety-six House Democrats voted Wednesday for the People’s Budget, as it was proposed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The budget was opposed by 330 House members, including eighty-six shame-on-them Democrats and 244 Republicans.

The record of Wednesday’s roll call is worth reviewing, especially because it identifies the Democrats who got this most important vote wrong.

Of course, no one expected the People’s Budget to be enacted. But that is not a poor reflection on the CPC plan, which better met the tests of fiscal and social responsible than any of the other official or alternative proposals that are currently in play. It is a reflection on this Congress, which cannot get anything right, and on a political process that is now so flawed—because of gerrymandering, big money and failed media—that the United States ends up with, well, this Congress.

Despite the fact that if it was not expected to prevail, the People’s Budget was serious.

Congressman Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who serves on the House Budget Committee and as vice chair of the CPC noted, it sought to address the fundamental issue of our time—inequality—with a focus on “leveling the economic playing field by increasing wages for middle- and low-income workers.”

The People’s Budget proposed the only approach that can work: Start by first asking the wealthy to pay their fair share and making smart cuts to the bloated Pentagon budget, and then use the money to invest in repairing infrastructure repair and expansion, in upgrading energy systems to address climate and providing for debt-free college, workforce training and small businesses expansion. This is a job-creation, investment and growth agenda, as opposed to the austerity and stagnation budgets of Paul Ryan, the former House Budget Committee chairman who now chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.

Above all, the People’s Budget recognized that, as CPC co-chair Keith Ellison explained, “Too many working Americans open their paychecks each week and ask themselves how they will make ends meet by [with a plan to] fully fund childhood health, education and affordable housing to help working families stretch their paychecks [and] a blueprint of proven investments to end grinding poverty, promote economic mobility and enable shared prosperity.”

That prospect is what was lost when the House rejected the People’s Budget.

Susan Harley of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division was right when she said after the House vote that “Congress should have passed the People’s Budget.”

 “The People’s Budget proposed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) was a better alternative to the budget resolution approved today by the U.S. House of Representatives and should have received a majority vote,” she explained. “By focusing on policies like fairer corporate taxation as a way to pay for spending on essential government services such as improved health care and public financing of elections, the People’s Budget would have put America on a clearer path to a more just and democratic society.”

Hawley added:

The People’s Budget also would have instituted a tax on Wall Street trades, known as a financial transaction tax, which is a commonsense way to both increase revenue and calm markets now plagued with volatile high-frequency trading.

The People’s Budget also called for important changes to our tax code, such as ending deferral on foreign-made profits of U.S. companies and limiting the ability of companies to invert and reincorporate in a foreign jurisdiction to avoid their fair share of taxes.

Though it did not garner majority support in the McConnell-Boehner, corporate-controlled 114th Congress, it surely would win majority support from the American people.

And, of course, in a democracy that is the final measure of a proper budget.

 

By Dylan Matthews

Vox

Every year, the Congressional Progressive Caucus releases a budget proposal, and every year it gets roundly ignored. As the big budget plans — the White House's, the House Budget Committee's, the Senate Budget Committee's — are vigorously covered in the press (including by me!), nary a word is said about the CPC's offering.

This makes sense, of course. The CPC represents a little more than a third of the minority party in the House and has one member in the Senate; its plans are objectively less important, and less likely to shape policy, than ones coming from the president or the majority parties in the House and Senate.

But its budget — or "the People's Budget," as CPC likes to call it — deserves your attention. It's a far better contrast to the aggressive spending cuts of the House and Senate GOP budgets than President Obama's much more timid offering. Like the congressional GOP, and unlike Obama, the CPC isn't trying to lay out a realistic spending course or create a starting point for negotiations. It's trying to lay out a comprehensive vision for transforming the federal government, to give grassroots activists something to rally around and to pressure presidential contenders. It sets out a clear theory for where the Democratic Party should head next that Hillary Clinton and others need to reckon with.

Spend a lot more money

House and Senate Republicans would cut trillions from the budget, mostly from health and social welfare programs. So naturally the CPC budget adds trillions to the budget. While theCongressional Budget Office projects the federal government will spend about $49 trillion between 2016 and 2025, the progressive budget envisions $52.4 trillion in spending — a net increase of about $3.4 trillion.

And with those trillions, it does just about everything a progressive could ask for, short of fully implementing Swedish social democracy in America:

$745 billion goes to an infrastructure program, meant to both create jobs and repair deteriorating roads, bridges, and the like.

$128 billion goes to a new tax credit for low- and middle-income workers.

The debt limit deal of 2011 — including the budget sequestration — is repealed in full, and more spending on non-defense discretionary programs is added on top of that, for a total discretionary spending hike of nearly $1.9 trillion.

A bevy of new education programs are introduced, including universal pre-K and a matching fund to help public universities "increase aid to students to help them cover the total cost of college attendance without taking on debt."

While the budget declines to change Social Security (believing that to be an issue best addressed outside of the budget process), it calls for the program to be significantly expanded.

There are a few cuts, too, and you can probably guess where:

Defense spending is slashed, and the overseas contingency operations (OCO) budget, used to fund operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, is canceled entirely.

Medicare is allowed to bargain for lower prescription drug prices.

A public option is added to Obamacare, saving money and paying for the budget's repeal of the Affordable Care Act's tax on expensive health plans (a policy beloved by health wonks but loathed by labor, a major base of support for CPC members).

Obama's budget proposes a few of these things. He wants universal pre-K. He wants to draw down the war budget. Both he and the CPC include expansions to the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit.

But despite favoring it in 2009 and 2010, Obama doesn't include a public option in his budget. He doesn't include nearly a trillion in infrastructure spending. He doesn't undo the debt ceiling deal and massively expand domestic discretionary spending. The Obama administration has suggested that while past budget proposals included concessions meant to elicit Republican support, it's done with that strategy now. Compared with the CPC budget, though, the Obama budget request still looks a lot like a compromise.

Soaking the rich

While not as aggressive in seeking budget balance as the GOP's plans, the CPC budget does achieve "primary budget balance" (that is, the budget would be balanced except for interest payments on past debt). And to do that, it needs higher taxes — a lot of higher taxes. The budget would raise $6.9 trillion more in revenue over a decade.

Some of that is from increased economic growth the CPC claims the budget would spur, but at least $6.3 trillion of it comes from specific tax increases. For context, George W. Bush's 2001 tax cut cost $1.35 trillion over 10 years, and his 2003 one cost $350 billion. The CPC tax hike is about four times larger in scale than the Bush tax cuts.

The tax hikes themselves read like a progressive wish list:

While the fiscal cliff deal at the beginning of 2013 let the Bush tax cuts for couples making over $450,000 expire, the CPC budget knocks that threshold down to $250,000.

It then creates 45, 46, 47, 48, and 49 percent tax brackets for people making over $1 million annually (the 49 percent bracket would only apply to people with billions in earnings).

It would tax capital gains and dividends as normal income, more than doubling the top tax rate on investment income from 23.8 percent to 52.8 percent (including the 3.8 percent surtax included in Obamacare).

It sets estate tax rates of 55 percent and 65 percent — well over the current top rate of 40 percent, and above where the tax was in the Clinton administration — and increases the number of estates that have to pay it.

It creates a financial transactions tax (for example, there'd be a 0.25 percent tax on stock trades) and taxes companies' earnings abroad as they occur, rather than letting companies "defer" taxation by keeping profits overseas.

Last but certainly not least, there's a $25-per-ton carbon tax, which increases by 5.6 percent every year to increase pressure on polluters; a quarter of the revenue is rebated to help low-income families deal with higher energy costs, and much of the rest would be used to fund research into renewable energy.

Some revenue proposals are shared with the Obama administration. The CPC budget caps deductions at 28 percent, so that people in higher brackets don't get huge benefits from them; so does Obama's. Obama would charge a fee on the assets of large financial institutions; so would the CPC budget.

A more liberal budget than Obama's

Despite some similarities, Obama's budget is much more cautious, with much less radical consequences for the tax code. Some of that is strategic. Despite vocally supporting a cap and trade plan to put a price on carbon emissions, Obama doesn't include that or a carbon tax in his budget, knowing it's dead in the water.

On other issues there appear to be legitimate disagreements. Obama is proposing raising the top capital gains rate to 28 percent, not 52.8 percent. Perhaps he wants the top rate to go even higher, but his advisers are certainly more sensitive than the CPC's to the argument that big taxes on capital income hurt growth. His advisers are also likely wary of a 49 percent bracket on any kind of income, and of taxing financial transactions, on the merits. The CPC is just, naturally, to Obama's left on some things.

Why the CPC budget matters

In certain ways, though, the CPC budget holds back. Many in the caucus have endorsed HR 676, Rep. John Conyers' (D-MI) plan to expand Medicare coverage to all Americans, but the budget settles for adjustments to Obamacare rather than single-payer. And while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the caucus's lone member in the upper house and the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, has signaled sympathy for the view that long-run budget balance doesn't really matter, the CPC budget still tries to shrink the deficit, more than even Obama's budget does.

The downside of that approach is that it limits the budget's usefulness as a left flank. But it also keeps it close enough to the mainstream that it can't be laughed off by Hillary Clinton. The vast majority of items in this budget — give or take a 49 percent tax rate — are things she would, in principle, like. Clinton proposed a price on carbon in the 2008 race. Her health-care plan then included a public option. She called for more infrastructure spending. Even the CPC budget's massive increase in domestic discretionary spending is, as the Economic Policy Institute notes in its analysis of the plan, still below the historical norm.

In a way, then, the budget serves as a dare. It lays out a vision most Democrats would have embraced before the post-2010 turn to austerity, and asks the mainstream of the party if they're willing to abandon that vision, to capitulate in the face of years of die-hard Republican opposition. Obama's budgets have to deal with the reality of a Republican Congress, but Clinton does not. She'll be running in a Democratic primary; she can be afford to dream a little bigger.

If Clinton's campaign lays out an economic platform resembling the CPC's — one with a public option, with a carbon tax or cap and trade, with increases in domestic spending — then the CPC has won. It's forced the party standard-bearer to keep these ideas on the table. But if Clinton deviates from them, then the CPC budget — and, in all likelihood, Sanders when he runs against her — challenges her to explain why, to identify what has changed to make 2016 Hillary Clinton less ambitious than 2008 Hillary Clinton.

Clinton doesn't have a particularly easy path ahead of her. Passing a national health insurance plan has been the central goal of American welfare liberalism at least since Theodore Roosevelt's 1912 presidential bid, and now that Obama has finally accomplished that, the party has to figure out where to go next, whether to forge ahead with more welfare state expansions or to retrench. The CPC has one very comprehensive answer to that question, and it deserves a response.

By Katrina vanden Heuvel

Washington Post

This week, Washington descends into its annual budget brawl. House Republicans unveiled their plan on Tuesday, with Senate Republicans to follow Wednesday. Their hope is to pass a common budget resolution through both bodies by mid-April. Their incentive is that if — and that is a big if — Republicans in the House and Senate can agree, they can use the process known as “reconciliation” to pass various right-wing passions by majority vote, no filibuster allowed. The House budget plan, for example, calls for repealing Obamacare, partial privatization of Medicare, turning Medicaid and food stamps into block grants for the states, and tax reforms that lower rates and eliminate any taxation on profits reported abroad, turning the rest of the world into a tax haven for multinationals. The president can veto the appropriations bill containing these items, setting up another government shutdown melodrama. This is not the way to run a railroad, much less a government.

Budgets bore and numbers numb, so reporters tend to focus on the politics. The press now is touting the fight between so-called “deficit hawks” and “defense hawks.” The former want to adhere to harsh “sequester” spending limits this year and cut them even further in out years. The latter led by the dyspeptic Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) want to blow up sequester limits for the military. But this fight is more bluster than substance. The House budget plan squares the circle by adding some $94 billion to the military’s “Overseas Contingency Operations Fund” — the money spent on fighting wars abroad — that isn’t counted under sequester limits. The real story of the Republican budget is the triumph of the anti-tax hawks. With few exceptions, Republicans are committed to slashing the basic functions of government and programs that support education, food stamps, energy and R&D to avoid asking corporations or the wealthy to contribute even one more dime in taxes.

Too often neglected in this Beltway brawl is the budget alternative offered by the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The fifth annual CPC alternative — “The People’s Budget: A Raise for America” — is about as close to common sense as Congress gets. And it is honest: Its numbers are carefully laid out and add up. It actually says what it would invest in and how it would pay for it.

On the investment side, the CPC expands investments in areas vital to our future. It would rebuild America, modernizing our outmoded infrastructure. It would invest to lead the green industrial revolution that is already forging markets and creating jobs across the globe.

The CPC understands that we must do the basics in education. It would provide pre-K for every child, the most important single reform we can make in education. It calls for increasing investment in our public schools, helping to mitigate the destructive inequality between rich districts and poor. It would provide students with four years of debt-free college education, and pay for renegotiating existing student loans, relieving the burden now crushing an entire generation.

The CPC recognizes that more seniors are facing a retirement crisis. On budget, it would adopt an inflation measure for Social Security that reflects the rising costs seniors face in areas like health care. Off budget, the CPC calls for expanded Social Security benefits, paid for by lifting the income cap on Social Security payroll contributions. No longer would Donald Trump pay a lower rate in Social Security taxes than the police who guard his palaces.

The CPC would also expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, giving a break to low-wage workers and to parents struggling with the costs of childcare. And needless to say, the CPC would defend Medicare and Medicaid, not privatize it, and strengthen health-care reform, not eliminate it.

The People’s Budget details how to pay for these vital investments while slowly reducing the national debt as a percentage of the economy. The basic theory is to raise revenues by taxing what we want less of and save by cutting spending we can do without.

We now suffer dangerously extreme inequality, so the CPC would increase taxes on those who make $1 million or more. High-frequency trading on Wall Street is dangerously unstable, so the CPC would levy a small tax on speculation to slow it down. CEO pay has soared while workers haven’t shared in the profits they have helped to generate, so the CPC would end the loophole that allows companies to write off obscene bonuses and stock options as a business expense.

Catastrophic climate change is, even according to the Pentagon, a clear and present danger. The CPC budget would levy a carbon tax, allowing the market to allocate carbon reduction. Much of the revenue is devoted to a rebate so that lower-wage families are made whole from the change.

In cutting waste, the CPC turns to where the money is, calling for a relatively modest reduction in military spending over time. It would repeal the ridiculous law that bans Medicare from negotiating bulk discounts on drugs. It would curb insurance company gouging by giving consumers a public option in health care. It would end the pernicious and wasteful subsidies to oil and gas companies.

And it would rescue millions from of the shadow economy with comprehensive immigration reform, saving nearly $200 billion over a decade according to Congressional Budget Office projections.

What the CPC budget shows is what Washington too often suppresses: There is an alternative. We can afford to build a society that reflects the values and priorities of most Americans. We only have to choose to do so.

By Tami Abdollah

Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Lawmakers sent a letter on Wednesday to the Justice Department saying new guidelines restricting federal law enforcement agencies from racial profiling don't go far enough.

U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, a Democrat who chairs the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, sent the concerns to Attorney General Eric Holder.

She was joined by leaders of the congressional black, Hispanic and progressive caucuses. The letter urges the Justice Department to remove remaining loopholes.

The new policy expands on guidelines established in 2003 under the Bush administration that banned routine racial profiling but allowed broad exceptions for national security and didn't account for other characteristics.

Along with religion and national origin, the new rules ban profiling on the basis of gender, gender identity and sexual orientation.

But they include exceptions, among them exempting Homeland Security agents responsible for screening at airports and at the nation's borders

"The current exemptions in the profiling guidance effectively authorize discrimination in the name of national security, domestic surveillance and border security," the letter states.

It continues, "These exceptions are troubling because border and screening activities are precisely the areas where profiling has been the most pervasive."

The letter, also signed by Reps. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, Linda Sanchez of California, Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Raul Grijalva of Arizona, also takes issue with the FBI's domestic mapping and surveillance programs, which they called discriminatory.

"It's clear that there is religious profiling going on whereby certain people are stopped just because they are Sikh or just because they are Muslim," Chu told The Associated Press in an interview.

The letter urges Holder to require local and state law enforcement agencies receiving federal assistance to adhere to the profiling guidelines.

Chu said the caucuses wanted to emphasize concerns before Holder left office later this year. Chu also sent a letter in December on behalf of the Asian Pacific caucus to U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, urging that guideline gaps be closed.

Alejandro Mayorkas, deputy secretary of DHS, earlier wrote in response to the December letter that the department has asked the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to review activities not directly covered by the new guidance.

"We will enhance our policies where appropriate," he said.

Mayorkas wrote that a listed characteristic may be expressly relevant to the administration or enforcement of a statute or regulation.

For example, he said sometimes U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers must ask about a person's religion because it is relevant to the type of visa the person is using and their reason for entering the country.

In that circumstance, inquiring about religion "as required by law ... is clearly appropriate and unrelated to profiling," Mayorkas said.

By Burgess Everett 

Politico

President Barack Obama’s exhaustive lobbying effort with Capitol Hill Democrats is paying off: The party is giving him major breathing room to finish nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Senate Democrats, led by Iran hawk Robert Menendez of New Jersey, said Tuesday that they will give Obama two months to reach a deal on the country’s nuclear program before they vote for new sanctions. At the same time, House progressives are urging their colleagues to hold off on moving any legislation that would tighten economic penalties on Iran.

Menendez led a group of at least 10 Senate Democrats who told the president in a letter Tuesday morning that they will not support final passage of a sanctions bill until March 24. That will allow the U.S. and other Western powers time to reach a framework for a deal scaling down Iran’s nuclear program.

Obama has said he will veto a sanctions bill if it comes to his desk while negotiators race to reach a deal, arguing that even the conditional sanctions bill being led by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) would disrupt the fragile talks.

In the letter, obtained by POLITICO, the Democrats defended the forthcoming sanctions legislation as “reasonable and pragmatic” given that the economic penalties would kick in only if negotiators fail to reach a final agreement by June 30. But in a major blow to Republicans itching to vote on sanctions perhaps as early as February, the Democrats said they are willing to defer to Obama as negotiators zero in on a March 24 deadline to reach a rough agreement, with hopes of finishing a pact by July.

“In acknowledgement of your concern regarding congressional action on legislation at this moment, we will not vote for this legislation on the Senate floor before March 24,” the Democrats wrote. “After March 24, we will only vote for this legislation on the Senate floor if Iran fails to reach agreement on a political framework that addresses all parameters of a comprehensive agreement. This deadline is the critical test of Iranian intentions.”

Menendez has been viewed as the key bellwether for Democratic support on new sanctions, and his position along with that of a number of other Democrats ensures that unless negotiations break down in the interim, Congress will not be able to produce veto-proof majorities for new sanctions. Their position could influence Republican leaders to turn to other matters on the Senate floor in the meantime, given that sanctions legislation is unlikely to even break a filibuster as long Democrats are paying Obama deference.

Still, Menendez noted in the letter that there is deep skepticism in the president’s party over the ability to actually reach a deal that blunts Iran’s nuclear enrichment program in return for further loosening of some sanctions.

“Considering Iran’s history in nuclear negotiations and after two extensions of the Joint Plan of Action, we are concerned that Iran is intentionally extending the negotiations to improve its leverage at the negotiating table,” Menendez and the other Democrats wrote. “We expect that your Administration will consult closely with Members of Congress in the coming months, and look forward to working with you to achieve our shared goal of reversing Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon capability.”

The New Jersey Democrat announced the letter in a Senate Banking hearing on Tuesday as the panel speeds toward a vote on Kirk’s sanctions bill on Thursday. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) has said repeatedly that it’s full speed ahead on a committee vote.

Separately, House Democrats are also pushing their colleagues not to enact Iran sanctions. Reps. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Raúl Grijalva of Arizona and Barbara Lee of California sent a letter Tuesday to the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate Banking Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, arguing that new sanctions would derail the talks.

“Enacting new sanctions legislation now undermines the efforts of the P5+1 and is contrary to a peaceful solution,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter obtained by POLITICO. “Given the sensitive timing, Congressional action should reflect support for a negotiated settlement over the Iranian nuclear dispute rather than pushing legislation that could take us off the negotiating track and escalate towards war.”

The House progressives added that a “diplomatic solution to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is in the best interest of U.S. national security.”

The comments from Lee, a leading anti-war advocate, and Grijalva and Ellison, the co-chairs of the House’s progressive caucus, put a marker down for House Democrats on a sanctions bill. The conference has been relatively quite on the merits of moving forward with sanctions during the negotiations.

Ellison, Grijalva and Lee all voted against the 2013 Iran sanctions bill, which passed the House 400 to 20.

By Josh Hicks

The Washington Post

Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus invited two guests to represent low-wage workers at Tuesday’s State of the Union address, where President Obama is expected to lay out his vision for improving the lives of middle-class Americans.

Ariana Goodwin, of Madison, Wis., who worked numerous retail and fast-food jobs before completing courses to become a certified nursing assistant, is scheduled to attend the event as a guest of Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI).

Goodwin, 25, has two children, and said she never earned more than $9 an hour and never had health benefits with her previous jobs.

“I have had to rely on the help of food pantries and local organizations to make sure my two kids had the basic necessities like food and diapers,” she said in a statement on Sunday. “A higher minimum wage would give me a little more money each month to feed my kids, and it would mean I don’t have to rely on others to help me get by.”

Goodwin builds houses with the nonprofit group Operation Fresh Start and plans to begin her medical career after taking the required exams.

Minneapolis resident Veronica Mendez, 35, who is co-director of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha’s (Center for Workers United in Struggle), plans to attend the event as a guest of Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN).

Mendez and her organization organized a string of strikes last year by low-wage janitors who clean big-box retail stores, prompting at least one company, Target, to require higher labor standards for the firms that employ the workers.

“Through our efforts we have won a number of changes to improve wages and working conditions for workers,” Mendez said in a statement last week. “All of us will continue to organize and fight until everyone can work with dignity and justice with a voice on the job.”

Already, the White House in recent weeks has previewed proposals that could help low-wage workers, including raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans and providing free community college education. Last year, Obama called on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour from its current $7.25.

On the federal side of things, Obama last year established a minimum wage of $10.10 for workers under new federal contracts. The action answered calls from a small but persistent workers movement that sprang up in the nation’s capital in 2013.

The advocacy group Good Jobs Nation, which helped organize the movement, began a push last year for collective-bargaining rights for federally contracted low-wage workers.

Federally contracted employees do a host of jobs, from serving fast food and staffing the souvenir shops at the Smithsonian museums to washing dishes and laundry at military bases.

Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), a potential presidential candidate for 2016, met with such workers last month as they demonstrated in Washington. He called for Obama to implement a policy of awarding contracts to firms that pay those employees at least $15 an hour and provide them with benefits.

“The federal government cannot and will not be the largest employer of low-wage workers in this country,” Sanders said in a statement at the time.

It remains to be seen whether Obama will address that issue on Tuesday.

By Seung Min Kim

POLITICO

The Congressional Progressive Caucus is laying out what it wants from President Barack Obama on immigration executive action, including shielding 7 million undocumented immigrants from deportation — a larger figure than the White House’s expected plans would cover.

Democratic Reps. Raul Grijalva of Arizona and Keith Ellison of Minnesota say in a memo that Obama “should act swiftly and comprehensively. We should not force deserving individuals and families to wait any longer.”

The 7 million figure comes from a pair of calculations by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington that focuses on immigration.

About four million undocumented immigrants could be shielded from deportations if Obama extended his executive action to parents or spouses of U.S. citizens, green card holders, and young immigrants whose deportations have been deferred under a 2012 Obama program. An additional 3 million could come with various changes to that 2012 directive, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, that would broaden the number of immigrants eligible for that program. One example is getting rid of age limits under DACA — to qualify, an immigrant must have been younger than 31 as of June 15, 2012 under current requirements.

But Grijalva and Ellison want the administration to consider other factors as well. For instance, the CPC leaders believe that immigrants who would’ve qualified for legalization under a Senate-passed immigration last year should qualify, as well as immigrants who have lived here for three or more years and “regularly employed” workers.

“The program should take into consideration those aspiring citizens who have contributed to their communities and have established a strong work history, regardless of familial ties,” Grijalva and Ellison said.

Obama has pledged to act unilaterally on immigration by the year’s end, after delaying the executive action under pressure from Senate Democrats anxious about losing their majority.

Though the White House has been tight-lipped about the scope of the executive action, sources familiar with the administration’s deliberations believe Obama is considering two key factors in whether immigrants will qualify for executive action – how long they have been in the United States, as well as family ties. That would not be as expansive as many immigration advocates and Democrats on Capitol Hill have called for.