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Please Enjoy This Phony Debt Debate

July 7, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Senate Republicans have been hammering Democrats and the Obama Administration for negotiating the debt limit and deficit deal behind closed doors and out of the public view. They have a point. Unless there's something you're bringing to the table that you'd rather hide from the public, why not put a camera in the negotiating room and broadcast the talks?

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Sen. Rand Paul [R, KY] has introduced several amendments to the PATRIOT ACT reauthorization bill that would add oversight to the government's spying powers and rein in their abuses, but it's his amendment to give gun owners special protections that he seems to care about most. According to reports, Majority Leader Harry Reid [D, NV] and Paul are closing in on a deal to allow a vote on the gun amendment, and another minor one on suspicious activity reports, in exchange for Paul dropping his filibuster of the bill and letting it come to a final vote. All of the amendments to reform the PATRIOT Act for all citizens, from Paul and other senators, will be left out of the deal.

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No matter how hard rank-and-file members of Congress may try to reform it, the PATRIOT Act always seems to get special protection from the leadership. In February when the last PATRIOT Act extension was passed by Congress, the House Republican leadership did all it could, including violating a major campaign pledge on procedural openness, to prevent representatives from having their amendments voted on. Now that it's up for extension again, it's the Senate Democrats this time who are using special procedural maneuvers to block senators from offering amendments.

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If you want to break the partisan divide and get Democrats and Republicans in Congress to agree on something, just give them a bill that makes it easier for the government to spy on U.S. citizens without judicial oversight. Yesterday, the Senate voted 74-8, with 18 senators abstaining, in favor of moving forward with legislation to extend three of the most controversial PATRIOT Act surveillance powers for four more years, without any modifications. By contrast, the Senate has had to pull a small business jobs bill and two of Obama's judicial nominees from the floor after the Republicans mounted successful filibusters.

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Not Out of the Woods Yet

April 13, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Despite the grand government funding bargain that appears to be able to get a majority vote in the House and 60 votes in the Senate, it's not a sure bet that the bill will be signed into law by midnight tomorrow in order to prevent a government shutdown. The House is not going to send the bill to the Senate until Thursday, which means that if a single senator chooses to filibuster, they can easily delay passage for days and push the debate on well past the Thursday night when the government's spending authority runs out.

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Senate passes PATRIOT Act extension, 86-12

February 16, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The Senate last night took the 10-month extension of the PATRIOT Act provisions, whittled it down to 3 months, passed it and sent it back to the House for a follow-up vote. Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate agreed to the shorter extension in order to assuage members who want to reform the government surveillance powers, but still keep the authority for the powers in effect in the meantime. This bill, which will now expire in May, gives Congress more time to hold hearings and a full floor debate on the PATRIOT Act, the leaders say.

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As expected, by a 275-144 vote, the House of Representatives has passed a 10-month, unmodified extension of the most controversial surveillance provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act by a simple majority vote. The House had failed to pass the bill last week when the Republican leadership tried to push it through quickly under a procedure that limited debate and amendments, but required a 2/3rds majority to pass. In the end, 65 Democrats and 210 Republicans voted in favor, sending the bill to the Senate where it's likely to be approved quickly so it can be signed into law before the provisions expire. 

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We're now a week out from the midterm elections and the election ads are getting nasty. While there are some great tools for tracking election spending (like those from the Sunlight Foundation), we wanted the ability to actually watch these monstrosities and create a permanent archive to hold these groups and politicians accountable, so we created the AdTracker project on OpenCongress.

AdTracker is built on the OpenCongress wiki and complements RaceTracker, which logged the candidates for each seat. It uses the distributed power of direct citizen research to create galleries of viewable campaign ads for every congressional seat. You can, for example, watch the infamous "Aqua Buddha" ad slinging mud at Republican Rand Paul on the Kentucky senate seat ad page. Or, head over to the Nevada senate seat ad page to watch several ads targeting Democrat Harry Reid using pictures of scary-looking immigrants. Because AdTracker is built using forms that anyone can edit, you can also add links to contextual stories, like the fact that most Kentucky voters think the "Aqua Buddha" was in poor taste or that one of those scary immigrant ads attacking Harry Reid was rated "barely true" by Politifact.

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Mini-Super Tuesday Wrap Up

May 18, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

It was a bad night to be an establishment politician and a good night to be a progressive Democrat. On Tuesday, four states -- Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Oregon and Arkansas -- held congressional primaries, and in all the big races pitting D.C.-insider candidates against grassroots-supported "outsiders," the insiders lost or did worse than anyone expected. Here's a quick rundown of what went down.

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