Analysis | Senate appropriators to debate Supreme Court ethics proposal

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In today’s edition … After late night meeting, annual defense policy bill moves forward … What we’re watching: Brett Kavanaugh speaks in Minnesota … Senate Democrats release diversity report … Blinken set to meet with Chinese official after hack … Washington faces new challenges after this year’s NATO summit … but first …

On the Hill

Senate appropriators to debate Supreme Court ethics proposal

Democrats’ push to force the Supreme Court to adopt stronger ethics rules could get a bit of a test run today. 

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) is expected to bring up a proposal today at a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting that would use Congress’s power of the purse to pressure the Supreme Court to adopt a “code of ethics.” 

The committee will mark up three spending bills today, including the one that funds the Supreme Court.

Van Hollen, who chairs the subcommittee that oversees the court’s budget, declined to discuss his plans Wednesday, including whether his proposal would be included in the base bill or offered as an amendment.

“I’ve been sworn not to say anything,” Van Hollen said. “As I’ve said all along, we’re looking at all options.”

  • But The Early obtained an amendment he is expected to at least bring up for discussion, if not formally offer, that would withhold $10 million in funding from the court’s $110 million salaries-and-expenses account until Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. informs Congress “that the Supreme Court has put into effect a code of ethics for the Chief Justice and the associate justices of the Supreme Court of the United States.” 

It goes on to specify that none of the withheld money would apply to security funding.

Wary Democratic appropriators

While Democrats back Van Hollen in principle, his effort is unlikely to advance because of concerns it could make an already fraught debate over the annual spending bills more complicated. And no Republicans are expected to back it. 

“We recognize that this is very likely gonna fall on partisan lines, unfortunately,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), a member of the Appropriations Committee. “And so there are a bunch of things that I’m for that are not going to make the cut on the appropriations bill.” 

  • Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Vice Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine), both of whom are veteran appropriators but new to their committee leadership roles, are seeking to fend off partisan proposals that could derail the annual spending process. 

“I am working with Chair Murray to identify proposals that could prevent the bill from progressing out of committee,” Collins said.

She declined to say whether she considered Van Hollen’s bill a “poison pill” but said she would prefer senators hash out Supreme Court ethics in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is to set to take up separate Supreme Court ethics legislation next week.

  • “If there is going to be a debate on it, that’s the appropriate forum,” Collins said.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who’s working with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) on that ethics bill, agreed.

“I still think the proper venue for dealing with ethics and disclosure is the Judiciary Committee,” Durbin said.

Still, Whitehouse said Van Hollen’s threat to withhold funding from the court if it doesn’t act is “a signal” to the justices. 

  • “If they won’t pay attention to public concern or if they won’t pay attention to questions from the Judiciary Committee, they will probably pay attention to appropriations,” Whitehouse said.
Justices under scrutiny

We broke the news of Van Hollen’s plan to try to use the appropriations process to pressure the justices to adopt a code of conduct in April days before ProPublica detailed extravagant trips that Justice Clarence Thomas took that were paid for by the Republican donor Harlan Crow

Since then, there have been further revelations about several justices’ potential ethical lapses, including reports about an all-expenses-paid trip that Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. took in 2008 to an upscale fishing lodge in Alaska and how staffers for Justice Sonia Sotomayor have pressed colleges where she has spoken to buy her books.

  • Because most of the revelations have involved conservative justices, Supreme Court ethics reform, once a bipartisan cause, is now a partisan one. Van Hollen’s proposal is not expected to win any Republican support.

Several liberal judicial advocacy groups have urged Democrats to move forward with ethics legislation, but they aren’t taking sides on which approach they favor. 

“It is encouraging to see members of Congress pursuing multiple avenues to achieve ethics reform,” Russ Feingold, the former Democratic senator from Wisconsin who leads the American Constitution Society, said in a statement to The Early.

Durbin and Whitehouse have also expanded their investigation into what they describe as potential ethics abuses by the justices. They sent letters Wednesday to former Federalist Society leader Leonard Leo and billionaires Paul Singer and Robin Arkley II, who funded Alito’s Alaska fishing excursion, asking for the “full extent” of payments and gifts to justices. 

The pair also asked the Supreme Court Historical Society on Wednesday for information about its donors and events after the New York Times reported last year that donors with business before the court had been granted special access to the justices.

Programming Note

But wait, there’s more: Leigh Ann will speak with Durbin at 9 a.m. Eastern today about his effort to tighten ethics rules at the Supreme Court as well as his outlook for the rest of the Democrats’ legislative agenda. Watch here.

On the Hill

After late night meeting, annual defense policy bill moves forward

The annual defense bill is moving forward after Rules convened just after midnight to take up its unfinished business — what to do about the controversial amendments offered by the far-right faction of the party. 

The committee adopted another 80 amendments mostly from far-right members that would limit health care for servicemember gender reassignment surgery, prohibit the Defense Department from paying for a servicemember’s travel for abortion and further eliminates diversity and inclusion training. There are also a large number of amendments targeting China and covid origins. Read the list here.

“Once again we’re meeting after a backroom midnight séance to resurrect this rule because a dozen far-right wing nuts threw a fit that this bill wasn’t perfect to them,” the Rules Committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), said. 

While these amendments, if adopted on the House floor, will likely garner the support of the far-right, it could produce a mostly partisan national defense bill. Furthermore, the Senate is unlikely to accept these measures. 

What we’re watching

From the courts

Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh is expected to deliver a speech at the Eighth Circuit Judicial Conference in Bloomington, Minn. We’re watching to see whether questions of judicial ethics come up.

At the White House

Biden is in Helsinki today for the final leg of his European tour that included stops in the United Kingdom and Lithuania. Biden is scheduled to participate in a meeting with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto. He is also expected to take a group photo with Nordic leaders before participating in the U.S.-Nordic Leaders’ Summit and a news conference with Niinisto.

On the Hill

Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Lina Khan will appear before the House Judiciary Committee today. The oversight hearing comes less than 24 hours after the agency announced its intent to appeal a federal judge’s decision to overrule the FTC’s attempt to block Microsoft from buying video game maker Activision

On the Hill

Senate Democrats release diversity report

Senate Democrats are out with a new report this morning showing that their staffs have grown more racially diverse since 2017, when they started surveying senators about diversity by race, gender and sexual orientation in their offices.

  • Thirteen percent of Democratic Senate staffers are African American, according to the report. That’s almost exactly the same as the Black percentage of the population, according to Census estimates: 13.6 percent.
  • Fifteen percent of staffers are Latino — less than the share of the population that identifies as Hispanic or Latino: 19.1 percent.
  • Ten percent of staffers are Asian American or Pacific Islander. That’s higher than those groups’ share of the population: 6.3 percent of Americans are Asian, and 0.3 percent are Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.
  • Three percent of staffers are Middle Eastern or North African. The Biden administration has proposed adding such a category to the Census but that hasn’t happened yet.
  • Two percent of staffers are Native American, Alaskan or Native Hawaiian. The Census Bureau counts Native Hawaiians with other Pacific Islanders, making an exact comparison tough, but American Indians and Alaska Natives make up 1.3 percent of the population.
  • Sixteen percent of staffers are LBGTQ. While there’s less definitive data on LGBTQ Americans, the Pew Research Center found last year that 7 percent of American adults are lesbian, gay or bisexual, and 1.6 percent identify as transgender or nonbinary.

The report also includes a breakdown for each office and each committee. Here are a few takeaways:

  • Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), one of three Black senators, has the highest share of Black staffers in his office of any Democratic senator: 40 percent. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) is the only Democratic senator who has zero Black staffers.
  • Nearly half of the staffers in Sen. Martin Heinrich’s office — 48 percent — are Latino, giving the New Mexico Democrat the highest share. Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Angus King (I-Maine) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) have zero Latino staffers in their offices.
  • Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) has the highest share of Asian American or Pacific Islander staffers: 56 percent. Sens. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) have zero such staffers.
  • Nine percent of the staffers in the offices of Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) are Middle Eastern or North African. Fourteen Democratic senators have no such staffers.
  • Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) has the highest share of Native American, Native Hawaiian and Native Alaskan staffers: 21 percent. Nearly half of Senate Democrats have no such staffers.
  • Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) has the highest share of women working in his office: 78 percent. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) has the lowest: 41 percent.
  • Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) has the highest share of LGBTQ staffers: 30 percent. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is the only Democratic senator who has zero.

Democratic lawmakers have been under increasing pressure to diversify their staffs along racial lines in recent years.

An Instagram account called “Dear White Staffers” that allowed aides of color to vent anonymously about discrimination and low pay took off last year. And Paul N.D. Thornell, a former Democratic Senate staffer who is Black, wrote a Washington Post op-ed in February headlined, “Diversity among top Senate staffers is abysmal.”

At the White House

Blinken set to meet with Chinese official after hack

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to met with Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, in Jakarta, Indonesia today. It comes less than a month after Blinken visited Beijing and met with top Chinese officials including Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The meeting follows reports that Chinese cyberspies hacked the email accounts of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and other U.S. officials. The “agency has imposed stiff export controls on Chinese technologies that Beijing has denounced as a malicious attempt to suppress its companies,” per our colleagues Ellen Nakashima, Joseph Menn and Shane Harris. “Raimondo is the only known Cabinet-level official to have their account compromised in the targeted cyberespionage campaign.”

Washington faces new challenges after this year’s NATO summit

As this year’s high-stakes NATO summit in Lithuania drew to a close, Washington’s newest Ukraine dilemma became clear: “Biden faces an increasing challenge holding together the transatlantic alliance, as other countries increasingly push plans for helping Ukraine that rush past the lines the White House believes could trigger a Russian escalation,” per our colleagues Michael Birnbaum and Emily Rauhala.

Here’s what happened: 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky slammed the alliance’s joint statement on his country’s membership prospects Tuesday, decrying its lack of a concrete timeline as “unprecedented and absurd.” 

  • Zelensky’s angry intervention “crashed Biden’s careful balance between two constituencies: his own conviction that a U.S. misstep in Ukraine could start World War III, and the voices channeling Kyiv’s desire to join the fast track to NATO membership.” It also made members of the U.S. delegation “furious,” one official told our colleagues.

Next steps: “Now Biden needs to make a double sell to NATO allies on his strategy to help Ukraine — that the vision is ambitious enough to create a path to victory, but that there are meaningful, dangerous lines beyond which the alliance should not cross,” Michael and Emily write.

  • That includes convincing “some of Ukraine’s staunchest backers inside NATO, who say that more cautious voices, including Biden’s, underestimate their power to push back against the Kremlin.”

Must reads

From The Post: 

From across the web: 

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