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National Govt & Politics
Congress gears up for year-end legislative rush
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Congress gears up for year-end legislative rush

Congress gears up for year-end legislative rush
Photo Credit: Jamie Dupree

Congress gears up for year-end legislative rush

With less than a month before Christmas - and ten days until funding runs out for a chunk of the federal government - Congressional leaders are racing to cut deals on everything from general spending to farm policy, reforms to the criminal justice system, a package of temporary tax breaks, and a showdown over the high profile issue of how much to spend on security along the southern border.

"We're trying to get the President the money he would like for the wall, that's part of the year-end spending discussion," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday, as reporters pressed for details on how the House and Senate would cut a deal on a border wall which the President routinely promised during the 2016 campaign would be paid for by Mexico.

"That's one of the many things we've got to wrap up here at the end of the year," McConnell added.

While the goal would be to finish work by the next funding deadline of December 7 - that's a week from this Friday - it's still possible that the lame duck session could leak into the next week, inching closer to the Christmas break.

Here's a rundown of some of the major issues left for lawmakers to tackle in the next few weeks:

1. Shutdown showdown over border wall? President Trump has long made clear that he isn't happy with getting $1.6 billion that both parties again agreed to in funding to help build a wall along the border with Mexico. Instead, the President wants $5 billion. "The $1.6 billion for border security negotiated by Democrats and Republicans is our position,” said Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer. So, this is a game of legislative chicken. If neither side blinks, then part of the federal government would have a lapse in funding on December 7, which would lead to a partial shutdown. As you can see from this pair of tweets, both parties are trying to pin the blame for any funding lapse on the other.

2. What needs to be funded by December 7. Congress is supposed to have finshed action on spending for the next fiscal year by October 1. That has not happened since 1994 and 1996, as both parties are guilty of being unable to get their work done on time. This year, the House and Senate approved funding for the military, Congress, Energy and Water programs, military construction and the VA, and a bill that covers labor, health and education spending. Still to be finished: spending for Homeland Security, Agriculture, Commerce/Justice/Science, and other agencies. 75 percent of the government has already been funded, but the seven remaining bills still fund an awful lot of activities, and some high profile items - like money for the border wall, NASA, the Justice Department, and more.

3. Future not clear for tax extenders. Republicans on Monday night released the text of a 297 page bill commonly known as a 'tax extenders' package, which is often used as a year-end Legislative Christmas Tree of sorts, to extend tax breaks for certain groups like the horse racing industry, auto racing tracks, and more. You can read my Twitter thread here for more on the details. When the bill text was released Senate Democrats said it had not been cleared with them. When I reported that, a House Republican spokesman emailed me to say that I was wrong - that Democrats had been on board. But that wasn't what it sounded like a few hours later from Senate Democrats. This may pass, but it's not a slam dunk right now.

4. Crops still in the field on the Farm Bill. Negotiations on a major farm policy bill have been in limbo for weeks, basically waiting until the calendar turns into December, and lawmakers are forced to make last-minute deals (that's why so much gets done between Thanksgiving and Christmas generally). Republicans had wanted to use this bill to make major reforms in the food stamps program (also known as SNAP), but Democrats had made clear for months that big changes were never going to make it into law. Now the question is what will the GOP produce, and will more conservative Republicans balk at a lack of changes on SNAP.

5. Trump pushes Criminal Justice Reform plan. President Trump has been trying to convince the Senate to go along with a House-passed plan to make changes to the criminal justice system, but it's run into some opposition from Republicans. First, here's the text of the bill, which is aimed at shortening federal sentences for thousands of people currently in jail for drug-related crimes. But some more conservative Republicans in the Senate don't like the plan, worried it goes easy on criminals. But since this has the support of President Trump - look for him to try to make it part of any broader deal on what legislation gets through the Congress in the month of December.

6. Transition to the 116th Congress. In the midst of all this work, newly elected House members are in town to complete their orientation, culminating this Friday with the drawing for offices, as the hallways of the three House office buildings will be filled with furniture, file cabinets, and trash bins for weeks. Those lame ducks who are not returning do not have an office to go to - instead, most will have work space for maybe one or two staffers in a general area in one office building, as workers paint and prepare their offices for a new occupant in January. Some lawmakers who are leaving don't show up for many votes, making it harder to figure out what's going to happen in the final days. It's an odd transition time every two years, especially in a year like 2018, when over 90 new members of the House will be taking office - more than one of every five lawmakers.

Read More

News

  • A Carolina Panthers football legend wants to make sure anyone facing a mental struggle knows they're not broken. >> Read more trending news  On Tuesday morning, former wide receiver Steve Smith shared some inspiration, based on his own battle with depression. Smith, whose 16-year National Football League career included 13 seasons with the Panthers, spoke to hundreds of people at the Charlotte Convention Center for the Mental Health America Central Carolinas breakfast. He said that despite all the love from his wife, children and fans, he still felt alone. 'When the stadium goes dark and the cheers stop, you're still looking for that pat on the back,' Smith told the crowd. “I started to realize, ‘Man something is wrong.’” Smith caught 80 touchdown passes during his career, including 67 with Carolina. But behind the glory, depression lurked. The condition, Smith wrote in 2018, is “too often taboo” and “shut behind closed doors.” Smith also wrote it was tough to open up about depression, particularly in “a tough-guy sport like football, with a social media environment that glorifies successes and status.” Smith said he first began receiving counseling in 2002, his second season in the NFL.
  • The daughter of a Tennessee man executed for murder in 2006 is asking that DNA evidence in the case be tested to determine once and for all if her father raped and killed a U.S. Marine more than 30 years ago. Sedley Alley was put to death in the July 11, 1985, murder of Lance Cpl. Suzanne Marie Collins, who was stationed at the Naval Air Station Millington, as was Alley’s wife. Collins, 19, was abducted as she went on a run on the base, where she had just completed a nine-month course in avionics.  Her body was found the next day in nearby Edmund Orgill Park, according to The Daily Memphian. The Virginia native, who was set to graduate from the training school the day she was found, was severely beaten, with an autopsy showing she had been struck about 100 times, authorities said.  Collins was also strangled and sexually violated with a tree branch. The New York Times reported that her killer stripped the branch of its leaves and twigs, sharpened one end to a point and drove it repeatedly into her body with enough force that it pierced her lung. Alley, then 29, was arrested the following day and charged with Collins’ murder, the Memphian reported. He confessed but later recanted the confession, saying it had been coerced.  Alley said he could not remember what happened the night Collins was killed because he had been drinking heavily. He was convicted in 1987 and sentenced to death.  April Alley, who, along with her brother, witnessed her father’s execution, filed a petition May 1 in Shelby County Criminal Court seeking DNA testing on evidence found at the scene, including a pair of red men’s underwear investigators believe were worn by Collins’ killer. According to the Memphian, the petition seeks the post-conviction DNA testing that was denied Sedley Alley prior to his death. >> Read more trending news It also asks that Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee use his executive authority to order the testing on the evidence, which a legal team from the Innocence Project verified is still intact and housed in storage. That evidence includes the victim’s underwear, the 31-inch branch used to penetrate her and a sample of Sedley Alley’s DNA, which the Times reported was collected and stored before his death.  The case marks the first attempt to use DNA evidence to clear someone who has been executed for a crime, Stephen Ross Johnson, a Tennessee attorney working on the case alongside the Innocence Project, told the Memphian. “There have been other cases where certainly people have been exonerated and come off death row,” Johnson told the newspaper. “There have also been situations where DNA testing (was done) after someone died in prison, but this will the first one where someone was subjected to capital punishment and then their DNA tested.” The Innocence Project, which represented Sedley Alley in his appeals, sought to have the evidence tested for DNA before his execution. The Tennessee parole board recommended that then-Gov. Phil Bredesen order the testing, but Bredesen instead told Alley’s lawyers to seek relief through the court system. The courts denied Alley’s request. “The Tennessee courts incorrectly ruled that Mr. Alley was not entitled to DNA testing, even if the testing could produce a match to a third party with a history of committing similar offenses,” Innocence Project officials said earlier this month.  Watch April Alley and her lawyers announce their bid to have the evidence in Suzanne Collins’ murder tested. The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that the lower court’s denial was incorrect in 2011, five years after Sedley was put to death. The high court ruled in State v. Powers that Tennessee’s post-conviction DNA law intended to allow defendants to prove their innocence by comparing their DNA to that from other possible suspects, including suspects whose genetic profiles are in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. “The courts got it wrong in 2006 when they allowed Mr. Alley to be executed before testing the DNA,” said Barry Scheck, a co-founder of the Innocence Project. “If Mr. Alley were alive today, he would be entitled to DNA testing under the Powers ruling and the plain language of the post-conviction DNA analysis statute. We now have a chance to learn the truth in this case.” A recent tip has also raised the possibility that another man accused in a rape and murder in another state might be the true killer in Collins’ case, the Memphian reported. The court petition filed by April Alley identifies the potential alternate suspect as Thomas Bruce, who, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is accused of sexually assaulting two women and killing a third at a Missouri Catholic supply store in November.  Bruce was taking courses at the same avionics training school as Collins in 1985, the petition states.   “I just want the truth,” April Alley wrote in an email to the Memphian. “The DNA evidence should have been tested before my father was executed. It’s too late for my father, but it’s not too late to find the truth. The court or governor should order DNA testing.” The case against Sedley Alley The night she was attacked, Collins left the barracks for her daily 10-mile run, the Times reported. Around 11 p.m., two other Marines passed her, jogging in the opposite direction. The Marines moments later dodged a station wagon swerving in the road, headed in the same direction as Collins, the Times said.  A few seconds later, the men heard a woman screaming, “Don’t touch me! Leave me alone!” They ran toward the screams and saw what they believed to be the same station wagon stopped alongside the road, the Times reported. It sped off as they approached. The men ran to the barracks gate, where a guard sounded an alarm for a possible abduction. Sedley Alley was stopped about an hour later near the base, driving a 1972 station wagon, the newspaper said. He did not have any visible injuries, according to a Navy investigator.  After talking to Alley’s wife, investigators concluded the two Marines had heard the couple arguing and, not knowing that Collins was then missing, canceled the alert for the station wagon, according to the Times. The Alleys were sent home and a guard was put on their home.  Collins’ body was found the next morning, and Alley was arrested. Read April Alley’s petition to have the evidence against her father tested for DNA. Investigators said Alley told them he had hit Collins with his station wagon while driving drunk and then accidentally stabbed her in the head with a screwdriver. The petition filed by his daughter states that the medical examiner determined neither of those claims was accurate. Alley later said investigators only turned on their tape recorder after he told them what they wanted to hear.  Physical evidence used to tie Alley to the crime included Type O blood on the driver’s side door of the station wagon. That type matched Collins, but it also matched Alley’s blood type, the Times said.  Paper napkins from a local restaurant were also found in the car and on the ground near Collins’ body, and an air conditioner pump found in the station wagon had reportedly been installed at a home near where Collins was jogging, the paper said.  No physical evidence from Collins was found inside the car or on Alley, the Times said. The petition for DNA testing also indicates that a witness on the base reported seeing a second station wagon carrying a couple -- potentially Alley and his wife -- around the time of Collins’ abduction. Despite the lack of direct physical evidence, Alley was for decades after his conviction assumed to be the killer. An investigator in 2003 found a handwritten note, however, in which the medical examiner in Collins’ case estimated she had died after Alley and his wife were sent home that night -- and while military police were watching the family’s home. Read the letter to Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee from lawyers for Sedley Alley’s estate. The investigator also learned that a boyfriend of Collins’ drove a station wagon and matched the approximate height of a man seen near the site of her abduction, while Alley was about 8 inches taller, the Times said. Alley’s complexion and hair color also failed to match the description from a witness. Alley told his daughter a few weeks before his death that if he committed the heinous acts Collins was forced to suffer, he deserved to be executed, the court petition says. He told her he did not remember committing the crime, however, and did not believe he had.   Scheck said if the killer’s DNA can be pulled from the evidence, it can not only be tested against the known sample from Alley but can also be compared to profiles uploaded to public genealogy databases.  Dozens of cold cases have been solved over the past year using genetic genealogy, including murder cases decades old.  “The public’s interest in having the right defendant brought to justice extends beyond the life of a single defendant,” Scheck said. “If Tennessee executed the wrong person in 2006, the actual perpetrator may still be free to harm other people. This is a matter of public safety.”
  • Police are looking for a man they say defrauded an Alpharetta, Georgia, woman out of more than $80,000 after meeting her on a dating website, telling her he was a millionaire and convincing her they were in love. Police have a warrant for the arrest of John Martin Hill, who is charged with theft by deception. The 35-year-old is also accused of defrauding women in the same way in four other states, authorities said. >> Read more trending news  The woman told police she met Hill on Match.com. The two messaged on the dating site March 27, then met in person later that day, police said.  “During their short romance, he convinced her that they were in love and wanted to buy a house together,” Gwinnett County Police Department spokeswoman Cpl. Michele Pihera said in a news release. “They went house hunting and selected a home they were interested in.” Within a week of knowing one another, Hill and the woman agreed to get married, Pihera said.  The woman gave Hill more than $80,000 to put toward the purchase of the house and to buy furniture. “Following the exchange of money, the suspect ceased all contact,” Pihera said. Investigators learned that Hill lives in an apartment in Duluth with another woman and a child. They said Hill has changed his name more than five times in the past 2 1/2 years and is accused of committing similar acts in Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey. Anyone with information on Hill’s whereabouts is asked to contact detectives at 770-513-5300. Tipsters can remain anonymous and be eligible for rewards of up to $2,000 by contacting Crime Stoppers Atlanta at 404-577-8477, texting information to 274637 or visiting the Crime Stoppers website. 
  • An off-duty New York City firefighter was attacked Saturday morning as he tried to defend an elderly couple from a group of teenagers, WABC reported. >> Read more trending news  The 38-year-old firefighter intervened at 9:25 a.m., when police said the teens were harassing the couple in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, WPIX reported.  According to police, one of the teens punched the firefighter, striking him throughout his body, the television station reported. The man suffered a concussion and had five broken teeth, WABC reported. He also needed 25 stitches for his wounds, the television station reported. Police released surveillance video that shows the teens, believed to be between 15 and 17 years old, smiling as they skipped down the sidewalk, WNBC reported.
  • A Massachusetts high school student is getting high praise from NASA after he created a piece of hardware so good that it will be used in space. >> Read more trending news  The hardware Franklin High School senior Dom Parrella made is called an actuator. The piece itself is around an inch in length, but for astronauts at the International Space Station who use dozens of storage lockers, the actuator is essential – and has to be perfect. It helps prevent the lockers from opening. More than 2,000 students from across the country are a part of NASA's Hunch Program, meant to empower them by giving design and manufacturing projects. NASA's Hunch Program works with thousands of students at over 200 schools nationwide, four of them in Massachusetts. A NASA engineer said few produce pieces that are just right. 'It's not always going to be picture-perfect, their ranges are really tight,' Parrella said. How tight? Parrella's teacher, Jeff McCall, said it could be three-thousandths of an inch. 'Three-thousandths of an inch is the width of your hair, for the record,' McCall said.  Tri-County Regional High School in Franklin has been in the Hunch Program for five years. While it was the first time a student from the school made a part for NASA, it was not Parrella's first attempt at it. As a junior, Parrella ran into trouble as he neared the finish line. 'Right before one of the reviews, right before we were going to present to one of the astronauts, we had to scrap our entire project and then find something new,' he said. This year, Parrella, using an advanced mill, produced work that was stellar. 'I was very proud, very proud of Dom that he was able to get 11 of these done,' McCall said. 'They all came out flawlessly.' Each one met NASA’s standards. NASA says he's the only student from Massachusetts to produce a NASA-quality part this year. 'This is a very hard part to make,' NASA engineering specialist Bill Gibson said. 'They got it right their very first try.' 'We actually get to sign them, which is really nice,' Parrella said. 'We get our names to go up into space.' With Parrella graduating, another student will be making another 20 of the actuators. The hope is they'll be able to continue to be able to make pieces that will be used up in space. Parrella is set to attend the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in the fall. 
  • It was supposed to be a fun ride on a roller coaster, but it ended with a fire department rescue. About a dozen children were stuck atop the roller coaster at Wonderland Amusement Park in Amarillo, Texas, KVII reported. They were at the park for an end-of-the-school-year party when the Mouse Trap got stuck mid-ride. >> Read more trending news  Park officials said they think the ride had an issue because of wind and temperatures at the park, but the 35-year-old ride worked as expected, and stopped when magnetism was indicated on the rails, KVII reported. The children were removed from the ride either via fire department cherry picker or by manually pushing the cars down the track, according to KVII.