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Senator: Feds welcome in Orlando, Las Vegas

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Sen. Bill Nelson isn’t happy that some federal agencies are shying away from booking conventions and training sessions in resort cities such as Orlando and Las Vegas.

After media reports that some federal agencies had formal or informal policies to avoid scheduling conferences in resort areas because of image concerns, Nelson, D-Fla., took to the Senate floor Monday to defend his state’s reputation.

When you compare the cost of a hotel room in Orlando during the season with the cost of a hotel room, let’s say, in Washington, D.C., during the season, you will find that the Orlando hotels on average are $100 less per night than the other city in that comparison. Likewise, if you look at the cost of airfare as a destination, you will find that the round-trip airfare to a place such as Orlando is considerably less.”

Nelson said he plans to introduce legislation soon to prevent agencies from banning travel to resort cities and expects other senators to co-sponsor the bill, including Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla.

I wish it hadn’t come to this, but I have had to draft legislation to make it illegal for the federal government agencies to design travel policies that blacklist certain U.S. cities simply because they are looked at as destination cities for a lot of tourism … It is one thing to avoid nonessential trips for the government to save taxpayers money, but it is taking it a little far when it is another thing that if it is legitimate travel and you then avoid certain cities just because they are where they are.”

The bill is likely to enjoy support in the Senate, with Nevada being home to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Reid wrote a letter in June to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel asking for clarifications on explicit or implicit federal policies prohibiting federal gatherings in his tourism-dependent state, including in the city of Las Vegas.

In his written response, Emanuel said there is no federal policy dictating where conferences can be held. Some agencies, such as the Social Security Administration and Agriculture Department, have travel policies stating that the use of resort areas is to be minimized and to be used only if it is the most economical option.

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Republicans: If you want to "CLEAN UP" government, open a phonebook

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In April, several senate Democrats, led by Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski, introduced a bill to convert some contracted work to federal performance and otherwise prevent the government from competing federal jobs with the private sector.

Mikulski’s “CLEAN UP Act” – short for “Correction of Longstanding Errors in Agencies Unsustainable Procurements Act” – drew applause from unions and criticism from industry groups. But now Senate Republicans are getting in on the act with their own bill designed to do the opposite.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., introduced the “Freedom From Government Competition Act” yesterday. The bill mandates federal agencies rely on the private sector for commercially available goods and services.

The bill would codify what Thune calls the “yellow pages test,” meaning if government employees perform tasks found in the phonebook, then agencies should compete those jobs with the private sector.

Thune said in a statement:

This bill would ensure the government isn’t involving itself in areas that duplicate products and services that are available in the private sector and in doing so protecting taxpayer interests. This legislation would give private companies the chance to do the work which has been shown to save taxpayer money.

However, Thune’s news release also claims the bill will “not mandate the privatization of any federal service and would protect those activities which are inherently governmental, such as certain national defense and homeland security functions, prosecutions, foreign policy and activities to bind the United States to take or not to take some action by contract, policy, regulation, authorization, or order.”

Thune’s co-sponsors on the legislation are Senators James Inhofe, R-Okla., Pat Roberts, R-Kan., Sam Brownback, R-Kan. and David Vitter, R-La.

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Paul Light on the unofficial Cabinet

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NYU professor Paul Light has a good op-ed in today’s New York Times on the interminable Senate confirmation process and how that leads to the growth of unconfirmed “czar” positions:

The Senate has done virtually nothing, for example, to address the glacial pace of confirmations that often leads presidents to expand the White House staff as well as the number of appointees who serve without Senate approval. Although he has submitted the names of nominees to the Senate relatively quickly, President Obama will be lucky if the last of his nearly 500 full-time cabinet and subcabinet officers are confirmed by March 2010.

Obviously the president has made some mistakes with his Cabinet picks. The endless parade of nominees with tax problems — Tim Geithner, Tom Daschle, Nancy Killefer, Hilda Solis — has not exactly inspired confidence in the vetting process or the integrity of the people being tapped for public service.

But, tax troubles and all, Obama still has 55 nominees pending before the Senate; legislators have confirmed just 43 people in the more than two months of Obama’s presidency.

Congress has a lot on its plate. But you would think confirming Obama’s appointees would be a higher priority.

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Panetta confirmed as CIA director

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The Senate last night voted to confirm Leon Panetta as the CIA’s new director. Panetta and new Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair have promised to reduce the size of the intelligence community’s contractor work force, and pledged to bring interrogation positions almost entirely back in house.

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Intel committee approves Blair

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The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence yesterday approved Adm. Dennis Blair’s nomination to be the nation’s third Director of National Intelligence. The vote was unanimous.

The full Senate plans to weigh in on Blair’s nomination soon, though a date has not yet been set for the vote. He is expected to be confirmed.

Blair will replace Michael McConnell, who resigned Jan. 27.

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Senate Appropriations approves stimulus

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Senate appropriators voted 21-9 along party lines today to send the proposed economic stimulus bill to the Senate floor, setting it up for a possible vote by the end of the week.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, entertained little discussion on amendments, telling senators to propose their amendments once the bill reaches the Senate floor.

Most of the Republicans voting yes on the $365 billion proposal said they did so only to further debate and adhere to committee rules, not to endorse the components of the stimulus. Only Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, voted without adding an explanation to her vote. That means the bill may meet with significant resistance from Republicans in both the House and Senate unless changes to the current proposed bill are made.

A Senate Appropriations staffer said a copy of the proposed bill will be up on the committee’s Web site Wednesday.

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Senate approves five Obama officials

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Barack Obama’s Cabinet is filling up. Last night the Senate confirmed:

In other confirmation news:

  • Susan Rice, Obama’s choice for U.N. ambassador, was approved.
  • Nancy Sutley was confirmed as chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
  • And finally, Lisa Jackson was given the green light to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, after Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., lifted his objection to a vote by unanimous consent.

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Byrd gives up chairmanship

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Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., announced this afternoon he’s stepping down as chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, effective Jan. 6, 2009.

But Byrd, who’s never know for his succinctness, started out his statement with a little (unintentional?) humor.

To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.”

Which, of course, is a verse from Ecclesiastes from the Bible. But it’s also a lyric from the famous song by the sixties group The Byrds.

The Byrds?

Sen. Byrd?

Oh, we’re just cracking ourselves up here.

But seriously folks, Byrd’s expected to take on an honorary chairman title or something similar in exchange for giving up his chairman’s gavel. Byrd, 90, has had increasing difficulties with public speeches and performing the minutiae that comes along with the chairmanship. In his statement, Byrd says the time has come to pass the gavel to Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who had been rumored to be Byrd’s replacement as chairman.

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Lieberman's fate? He's not telling

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So is Sen. Joe Lieberman losing his Senate Government Oversight Committee chairmanship? If he knows, he’s not saying.

Lieberman, I-Conn., called a news conference this afternoon. Many reporters were hoping he’d reveal his future in the Senate. After Lieberman campaigned heavily for Sen. John McCain , R-Ariz., many expected Lieberman to lose his chairmanship of the committee. Lieberman has caucused with Democrats as a senator.

Sen . (Harry) Reid (D-Nev.) and I have just concluded what I could call a very good conversation between two colleagues and friends. I want to spend some time in the next few days thinking about what Sen. Reid and I discussed and what my options are at this point, and he promised me he would do the same, and and we will continue these conversation.”

Eh?

Lieberman’s press conference lasted 2 minutes and 11 seconds, during which he never once said the words “committee,” “quit” “asked to step aside” or anything related to his chairmanship. He also didn’t provide any further answers to reporters who chased after him after the end of his statement.

A staffer for the congressman said he didn’t know what the timeline would be for an announcement about the chairmanship.

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