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D.C. Memo: Something is better than nothing

It’s not the gun bill House Democrats wanted, but a trimmed-down bipartisan bill looks likely to pass the Senate.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal speaking at a rally outside the United States Capitol on June 8.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal speaking at a rally outside the United States Capitol on June 8.
REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

WASHINGTON – Once again, gun legislation and the work of the special Jan. 6 committee overshadowed most everything else in Congress this week.

A negotiating group of 10 Republican and 10 Democratic senators agreed to a framework of very modest gun related legislation last weekend, and were given a boost when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he supported the proposal.

Reporters cornered Senate Republicans in the halls of the U.S. Capitol this week trying to assess how broad the support is for the modest proposal. Some GOP senators rejected the package of agreed upon concepts outright. Other said they were open to considering support for the package after they could read it in bill form.

And that was a problem this week.

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The bipartisan group of negotiators struggled to agree on legislative language that would provide details of their framework and set funding levels.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the leader of the GOP negotiating team, said two provisions were especially troublesome. One would offer incentives to states that have not adopted “red flag” laws, also known as extreme risk protective orders. Those laws allow the court-ordered temporary removal of weapons from those determined to be a danger to themselves or others. Minnesota is among 31 states that have not adopted a red flag law.

The question is: How much money would the new gun package provide to states that adopted red flag laws? Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who has pressed for adoption of a federal red flag law for years, said “hundreds of millions of dollars” are needed to be prod states to action. But Republicans want to shift some red flag money to the package’s mental health and school security measures.

Another question is whether Minnesota can be induced by the federal money and GOP support in the Senate to approve a red flag law. The GOP-controlled state Senate never considered an extreme risk protection order bill the Minnesota House approved several years ago.

The other sticking point in Senate attempts to draft a final gun bill, Cornyn said, is the package’s effort to close the so-called “boyfriend loophole,” which allows some domestic abusers to buy firearms.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has for years tried to close the “boyfriend loophole,’” through her Domestic Violence and Stalking Victims Act, which has never passed the Senate.  The legislation would prevent people who have abused dating partners from buying or owning firearms and stop convicted stalkers from possessing a gun.

Klobuchar said she is “pleased the Senate is moving forward with a bipartisan framework on gun safety which will include my legislation to close the boyfriend loophole.” She also called the gun agreement “a positive step forward.”

But many Democrats are unhappy with the gun deal, which would also provide new funding for school safety resources and establish an enhanced review process for buyers under the age of 21. They say the Senate proposal pales compared to gun legislation approved the Democratic-controlled U.S. House, which would expand FBI background checks, broaden a ban on “bump stocks” and raise gun ownership age from 18 to 21.

That more substantial House legislation did not have a chance in the Senate, where at least 10 GOP votes are needed to pass legislation.

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This week, the House also continued its hearings in the special Jan. 6 committee, which is trying to establish the genesis of a rioting mob that tried to stop congressional certification of the election of President Joe Biden (every member of Minnesota’s congressional delegation voted to certify the election, except for Rep. Michelle Fischbach, R-7th District).

But the violent attempt to stop the electoral process has been called one of the nation’s most serious attacks on the U.S. democratic system.

Witnesses this week included former Attorney General Bill Barr and other Trump White House officials who said they tried to talk the president out of his obsession that the election was rigged in Biden’s favor. Barr said he became convinced Trump was “detached from reality.”

In other testimony, then White House attorney Eric Herschmann said he received a call from an attorney who counseled Trump about overturning the results of the elections, who asked him about “something dealing with Georgia and preserving something potentially for appeal.”

“And I said to him, ‘Are you out of your f’ing mind?’” Herschmann testified. “I said, ‘I only want to hear two words coming out of your mouth from now on: orderly transition.”’

The hearings may not be having a lot of impact. Several Trump endorsed candidates who ran on “the big lie” that the presidential election was stolen won primaries this week.

By the way, the Jan. 6 committee has altered its hearing schedule. Next week’s hearings will be held Tuesday (June 21) and Thursday (June 23). All of the hearings will start at 1 p.m. EST.

Ships ahoy

The U.S. House this week easily approved a bill Klobuchar sponsored and marshalled through the Senate.

The Ocean Shipping Reform Act, which President Biden is expected to sign into law on Thursday, aims to ease congestion at the nation’s ports; a gridlock that has resulted in increased shipping costs for exporters, including Minnesota’s agricultural producers and manufacturers. Those exporters say their shipping costs have increased four-fold in just two years.

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“Meanwhile, ocean carriers have reported record profits,” said Klobuchar. “This legislation will help level the playing field for American exporters so they can get their goods to market in a timely manner for a fair price.”

The legislation would boost the investigatory authority of the Federal Maritime Commission, (FMC), the U.S. agency that oversees ocean shipping, and increase industry transparency.

Co-sponsored by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the bipartisan bill would make it harder for ocean carriers to unreasonably refuse goods ready for export at American ports.

Biden this week said Klobuchar’s bill “will make progress reducing costs for families and ensuring fair treatment for American businesses.”

“During the pandemic, ocean carriers increased their prices by as much as 1,000%. And, too often, these ocean carriers are refusing to take American exports back to Asia, leaving with empty containers instead,” Biden said. “That’s costing farmers and ranchers—and our economy—a lot of money.”

 From the Chauvin case to the federal bench

Jerry Blackwell, the attorney who helped the state during the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, was nominated this week to serve on the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison tapped Blackwell to help in the prosecution of Chauvin, who killed George Floyd – kneeling on him while handcuffed for more than nine minutes –during an attempted arrest. Blackwell worked pro-bono on the Chauvin case.

The attorney is a founding partner of Blackwell Burke, where he has worked since 2006. From 2000 to 2006, Blackwell was a partner at Blackwell Igbanugo in Minneapolis. He’s also worked as a partner at several other law firms and is the founder of the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers and the Twin Cities Committee on Minority Lawyers in Large Law Firms.

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Blackwell is expected to win Senate confirmation. But it might take a while. There are 35 pending judicial nominees. Of those, 17 are waiting for floor votes, four are waiting to be reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and seven are waiting for hearings before the committee.

Blackwell received both his law and undergraduate degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

That St. Paul-based court hears federal cases from across the state.