TIME Congress

Senate Passes Keystone Bill

Senate Votes On Keystone XL Pipeline Bill
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) (C) speaks about the Keystone XL Pipeline while flanked by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) during a news conference on Jan. 29, 2015 at the US Capitol in Washington D.C. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

Bill passed in the Republican-led Senate 62-36

The new Republican Congress is on the verge of passing a bill to build the controversial Keystone oil pipeline, helping connect the Alberta tar sands in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

After debating the environmental and economic issues surrounding the 1,179 mile pipeline for years, the Senate passed a bill Thursday that would authorize construction of a pipeline linking the Canadian tar sands with Gulf Coast oil refineries. It’s the first politically significant bill that has passed the Senate since Republicans regained a majority there this month.

The bill, which passed 62 to 36, was one of several top priorities for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, advancing despite a White House veto threat over three weeks ago. The House will now decide whether it will take up the Senate bill, or move to go to conference. The President has vowed to veto the final bill.

The way in which it passed through the Senate—with more than double the number of amendments considered last year—provoked McConnell to flash a rare smile during a speech on the chamber floor Thursday morning.

“The debate over these American jobs has shown that with bipartisan cooperation, it’s possible to get Washington functioning again,” said McConnell. “This debate is also providing that the new Congress is ready to work and work hard for the middle class, even in the teeth of opposition from special interests.”

Republicans have often used the $8 billion pipeline to bash the Obama administration for catering to Washington special interests over middle class jobs; in his 2012 presidential run, Mitt Romney said he would build it “if I have to myself.” Polls show that nearly 60% of Americans agree with the GOP’s position on the TransCanada six-year project.

Senate Democrats brought up more than a few amendments to trip up their Republican colleagues. One brought up earlier in January—“To express the sense of the Senate that climate change is real and not a hoax”—passed with only Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker voting “nay,” as some skeptics of manmade global warming like Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe simply retorted that the climate has “always changed.”

A Republican-introduced amendment specifying that humans play some role in climate change was defeated by one vote, but gave 15 Republicans, including some 2016 swing-staters like New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, Ohio’s Rob Portman and Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, the chance to have their views marked on the record.

Republicans and anti-Keystone Democrats lobbied the same middle class vs. special interest critique and used the same State Department report to prove their points. That report shows that the pipeline would indirectly and directly support around 42,000 jobs over two years, but only employ around 50 people once the pipeline was built and functional.

“Right out of the gate the first act of the new Republican majority was to pass a special interest bill that’s a giveaway to foreign oil and steel companies that do nothing to benefit the American people,” said New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, a member of the Democrats’ leadership team. “Republicans are calling this a jobs bill, but the fact is that the Keystone [pipeline] would create only 35 permanent jobs—a drop in the bucket. A fried chicken franchise creates about as many jobs.”

The years-long, pick-your-own-statistics messaging adds to the point that the Keystone debate has taken on a political significance greater than its actual one. Its long-term economic significance and environmental impact is minimal. But for Congress and the Obama administration, which has also spun off officials to work for groups on both sides, the Keystone pipeline debate has risen to become one of the best-known symbols in the fight over the environment and economy.

TIME justice

Koch Brother Teams Up With Liberals on Criminal Justice Reform

Charles Koch
Charles Koch, head of Koch Industries, on Feb 27, 2007. Bo Rader—Wichita Eagle/MCT via Getty Images

The push for prison reform gets momentum from a conservative power player

Just days after word emerged that the billionaire Koch brothers will spend nearly a billion dollars to elect conservatives in the 2016 elections, Charles Koch sent a top adviser to Washington to urge Republicans to work with Democrats on a key issue: criminal-justice reform.

Justice reform is not a cause for which the Kochs are normally in the news. The billionaire brothers are known for their lavish giving to conservative candidates and causes, for which they are celebrated on the right and reviled by the left. But for more than a decade, the Kochs have quietly pumped several million dollars into efforts to fix a criminal-justice system that many on both sides of the aisle believe is broken.

Last month, Charles Koch co-authored an op-ed for Politico decrying the “overcriminalization of America.” Now the Kochs are teaming up with some unlikely allies on the left in hopes of rectifying the problem. And their presence in the emerging bipartisan coalition for justice reform underscores the issue’s rare—perhaps unique—status as a cause that has united liberals and conservatives in an era of bitter partisanship.

“There’s just so much movement here,” Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel at Koch Industries, tells TIME. “It’s sweeping in a lot of unusual, non-traditional allies, and I think it’s a good thing.”

Holden was standing on Wednesday under the glittering chandeliers and Corinthian columns of a caucus room in the Russell Senate building, where he had just wrapped up a prison-reform discussion organized by The Constitution Project. The event offered the rare tableau where a bipartisan group of activists gathered in Washington to agree on policy, rather than fling accusations.

The motley panel included liberal and conservative senators and congressmen, activists and commentators, who warmly complimented one another’s leadership. Holden was seated next to Van Jones, a former Obama environmental adviser who once accused the Kochs of running a “plantation.” The oddball pair seemed bemused at the strange alliance. “Dogs and cats sleeping together,” Holden joked.

It’s easy to see why the issue attracts both sides. The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration of any industrialized country in the world (second overall, behind the tiny Seychelles). It has 2.2 million total inmates—more than any other nation, and an increase of 500% over the past three decades. There are some 4,500 federal criminal laws on the books. More than half of the federal prison population consists of nonviolent drug offenders.

“Conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans alike, have come to the conclusion that the system that has developed over the course of the last few decades in this country isn’t working,” said David Keene, a longtime conservative activist. “We’ve come to the conclusion that we have to work together.”

Activists on the left have long been vocal opponents of the justice system’s failings, which disproportionately affect minority groups and the poor. But their right-leaning counterparts have also fought hard to combat the pipeline to prison, for reasons ranging from the big-government bloat to the waste of taxpayer dollars to the dehumanizing conditions that strip individual liberties.

“Most people assume that conservatives are motivated to reform by economics,” says Pat Nolan, the director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservation Union Foundation. “My experience is not that. It’s the moral issues…There’s no form of government domination greater than imprisonment.”

Holden has been interested in criminal justice since his days working as a jail guard in his hometown of Worcester, Mass. He was in high school and college at the time, and some of the inmates were former classmates. He witnessed the ways the system can suck people in. “These were the kids who were always in trouble,” Holden recalls. “I’ve always kind of been around these issues.”

The Kochs’ commitment in criminal-justice reform dates to the mid-1990s, when the company became embroiled in a court case related to alleged environmental crimes at a a refinery in Corpus Christi, Tex. In 2001, a subsidiary of the company pleaded guilty to concealing environmental violations at the refinery; a multitude of other charges were dropped, but the company paid a $20 million fine to settle the matter. The owners believed they had been victimized by overzealous prosecutors and unclear statutes. “Our view was if we, a large company with many resources, were treated this way, what’s happening to the average American?” Holden says.

The Kochs began donating money to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) to combat prosecutorial abuses. “Once we got involved,” says Holden, “we couldn’t stop.” Since 2004, the Kochs have made annual donations (in the “significant six figures,” according to Holden) to the NACDL. The money is designed to address a broad range of justice issues, from mandatory minimums for drug crimes to the right to competent representation and sentencing disparities for the disadvantaged.

Last month, Holden and Koch laid out a five-point reform plan to change the criminal justice system. It includes ensuring that indigent defendants receive adequate legal counsel, reducing criminal liabilities for inadvertent violations, and restoring rights to youthful and non-violent offenders to help them re-enter the job market after their release. Such beliefs have led the Kochs to team up with liberal organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union to combat issues like harsh sentencing and Sixth Amendment rights. “It’s very, very rare where we have a moment that the stars have aligned in this way,” said Jones.

Progress looks possible at the federal level. Several justice-reform bills have been introduced in Congress. They’re often the product of strange partnerships: one Senate effort, which would adjust mandatory sentencing guidelines, was sponsored by Dick Durbin of Illinois, a leading liberal, and Utah Senator Mike Lee, a Tea Party darling. Another sweeping Senate bill, introduced by Kentucky Republican Rand Paul and New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker, would seal and expunge juvenile records for nonviolent offenders and restrict the use of solitary confinement. But so far the legislation has languished.

The Kochs have the power to change that. Their clout on the right could help sway more conservatives to support criminal justice efforts. Most of the likely 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls have supported some kind of criminal-justice reforms. Given the Kochs’ commitment to the issue, candidates might be wise to make issues like curbing the prison population a larger campaign theme.

Holden says the Kochs won’t make criminal justice a political litmus test, in the way that they have focused attention on issues like health-care reform or environmental regulations. At the same time, “to the extent that there are candidates that are working on these issues we care about,” Holden says, “we’re probably going to want to support candidates who are in favor of helping people, helping the disadvantaged with their policies.”

Compared to their spending on elections, the money the Kochs are funneling toward justice reform is modest. Their network plans to fork out nearly $900 million in advance of the 2016 election, according to reports—nearly as much as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney corralled in 2016 to support their campaigns. And Holden says there are no plans at the moment to increase the financial support for justice reform or form a new nonprofit devoted to the issue, although he wouldn’t rule it out. “It depends on what the opportunities are. If we see coalitions building and real change coming, and it’s consistent with our values and beliefs,” Holden says, “we’ll be all over it. We don’t necessarily start out saying we’re going to spend this much this year.”

And the momentum is building. “It’s not a left-right issue,” Holden says. “It’s all about what’s right for the country. There’s so much that everyone fights about, and there’s a commonality here.”

TIME Congress

Senators Introduce Bill To End Cuba Travel Ban

Young man wears shorts with the colors of the U.S. flag in Jaimanitas , Cuba, Jan. 2015.
Man wears shorts with the colors of the U.S. flag in Jaimanitas, Cuba, Jan. 2015. Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME

A bipartisan group of eight senators was set to introduce legislation Thursday to lift all travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba. The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, led by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), would lift onerous constraints on Americans visiting the Caribbean island nation

A bipartisan group of eight senators will introduce legislation Thursday to lift all travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba.

The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, led by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), is co-sponsored by an equal number of Senate Democrats and Republicans, and would end onerous constraints on Americans wishing to travel to the Caribbean island.

It is the first move by Congress towards ending the embargo since Obama’s December announcement that he would begin normalizing relations with Cuba.

The bill, which is seen by supporters as an intermediate step to lifting the full embargo, is co-sponsored by Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), John Boozman (R-Arkansas), Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois).

The United States held face-to-face talks with Cuba last week to discuss how best to normalize relations. On Thursday, Cuban President Raul Castro added new demands to restore diplomatic relations, including the U.S. returning Guantanamo Bay.

 

TIME Congress

Watch John McCain Call Kissinger Protesters ‘Low-Life Scum’

He threatened to have them arrested

Sen. John McCain channeled his inner Clint Eastwood at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday, calling protestors who broke in “disgraceful” and “low-life scum.”

The protesters began their demonstration as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger entered to give his testimony in a hearing on national security and global concerns. For over one minute they chanted, “Arrest Henry Kissinger for war crimes,” until they were escorted away.

McCain, who chairs the committee, then apologized to Kissinger and the rest of the speakers, saying, “I have never seen anything as disgraceful and outrageous and despicable as the last demonstration that just took place.”

Watch the video here.

 

TIME Congress

Former CBS Reporter Takes Case Against Obama to Congress

Loretta Lynch Howard Sorority Sisters
Congresswoman Alma S. Adams posted this photo on Jan. 28, 2014. "Supporting Greensboro native, Loretta Lynch, in her confirmation hearing for U.S. Attorney General. #NC12" Alma S. Adams (@RepAdams) via Twitter

Sharyl Attkisson gets a large perch to project her lawsuit's claims

Former CBS correspondent Sharyl Attkisson, a high-profile plaintiff suing the Justice Department for alleged computer hacking, received a national audience on Thursday to project her claims before Congressmen who will chose her defendant’s successor.

As a witness before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is considering Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch, Attkisson broadly knocked the Obama Administration for punishing those who cross it.

“The message has already been received: if you cross the Administration with perfectly accurate reporting that they don’t like: you will be attacked and punished,” she said in her opening remarks. “You and your sources may be subjected to the kind of surveillance devised for enemies of the state.”

But Attkisson also repeated claims that she makes in her case: that forensic investigation confirm “intrusive, long-term remote surveillance” of her work. “That included keystroke monitoring, password capture, use of Skype to listen into audio and exfiltrate files, and more,” she said.

The Justice Department has repeatedly denied any effort to hack Attkisson. “To our knowledge, the Justice Department has never compromised Ms. Attkisson’s computers, or otherwise sought any information from or concerning any telephone, computer or other media device she may own or use,” the Department said in a statement in 2013.

Attkisson is seeking $35 million in damages, alleging that the Administration illegally monitored her work as she reported on the Benghazi attacks, Fast and Furious and Obamacare, according to reports.

The Washington Post reports that of the four witnesses called by Republicans, three are involved in lawsuits against the Administration.

As the hearing commenced, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy objected to using the Lynch confirmation process as a forum for hearing unrelated grievances. “Barack Obama is not the nominee,” said Leahy. “That may come as a surprise to some who heard some of the questions [yesterday.] Eric Holder is not the nominee. Loretta Lynch, the daughter of Lorine and the Rev. Lorenzo Lynch, a U.S. Attorney twice unanimously confirmed by the United States Senate, one who has been applauded for her law enforcement work—that’s who is being called upon to consider.”

Lynch has gained the support of some senior Republicans, including Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who called the nominee “exceptionally well qualified and a good person to boot” during the hearing.

 

TIME foreign affairs

Exclusive: Dalai Lama, Barack Obama Set to Appear in Public Together for First Time

Tibetan leader will participate in the Feb. 5 National Prayer Breakfast where the President is expected to attend. Obama has never appeared publicly with Tibetan leader who is viewed by the Chinese government as a dissident

The Dalai Lama will attend this year’s National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 5, marking the first time that the Tibetan leader will appear in public at an event that President Obama is expected to also attend, according to a press aide for Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, who is co-chair of the event.

“The Dalai Lama will be at the breakfast, but he does not have a speaking role,” Casey aide Alex Miller tells TIME in an email. The White House did not immediately confirm the report.

President Obama has previously met with the Dalai Lama three times, despite the strong objections of the Chinese government who considers the Tibetan leader a dissident. In the past, the White House has not allowed reporters to witness the meetings, which have been staged outside the Oval Office in deference to Chinese objections.

The National Prayer Breakfast is an annual, historically Christian event at the Washington Hilton for hundreds of mostly evangelical and other faith leaders. The President of the United States and First Lady have long attended, and the President traditionally speaks.

Following the Dalai Lama’s last private meeting with Obama in 2014, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui summoned a U.S. diplomat to register his nation’s objections. “The Tibetan issue is the domestic affair of China, and the United States bears no right to interfere,” he said, according to the Xinhua news agency. “Such a move will gravely sabotage China-US co-operation and relations, and will definitely undermine its own interests.”

Senator Casey (D., Pa.) and Senator Roger Wicker (R., Miss.) are co-chairing the congressional side of this year’s event. The breakfast is sponsored by a conservative evangelical group, the Fellowship, run by Douglas Coe. Christians have usually given the keynote address, but last year, U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Rajiv Shah, a Hindu, spoke.

TIME Military

Military Chiefs ‘Prep the Battlefield’ for Biggest Pentagon Budget Request Ever

Leaders of US military branches testify on military budgets before Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington
General Raymond Odierno (Army), Admiral Jonathan Greenert (Navy), General Mark Welsh (Air Force), and General Joseph Dunford (Marines) warned a Senate panel Wednesday of the dangers they see if their services' budgets are cut. Gary Cameron / Reuters

They're seeking more than a half a trillion dollars

The White House will be seeking $534 billion to run the Pentagon next year when it sends its 2016 budget request to Congress on Monday.

That would be—despite the cries we keep hearing from assorted generals—the largest Pentagon budget in history.

That’s because President Obama is ignoring the budget caps imposed by the legislative legerdemain known as sequestration: he will ask Congress (which, along with the President, imposed those caps in 2011) for $34 billion more than sequestration allows (there’s another $51 billion in the request, exempt from the caps, for waging ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria).

The Pentagon finds itself on the horns of a dilemma: a growing number of congressional Republicans have been more eager to tame spending than fund the military. If the military can’t succeed in loosening sequestration’s grip on the Pentagon’s coffers, across-the-board cuts in personnel, procurement and training are certain.

For four years, the Pentagon and its allies in Congress have fought the budget caps. Their inaction has kept the Defense Department from learning to live within them, and the retooling and reforms such an acknowledgement would require. Their fight continues, which is why the service chiefs trekked to Capitol Hill Wednesday for the umpteenth time to plead with the Senate Armed Services Committee to relax sequestration’s strictures.

The guys on the ground say they’re losing the edge. “The number one thing that keeps me up at night is that if we’re asked to respond to an unknown contingency, I will send soldiers to that contingency not properly trained and ready,” Army General Ray Odierno said. “We simply are not used to doing that.” His Marine counterpart concurred. “I think I probably speak for all the chiefs, none of us want to be part of, on our last tour on active duty, want to be a part of returning back to those days in the 1970s when we did have in fact a hollow force,” General Joseph Dunford said.

The guys on the water and in the sky—where technology pays its biggest dividends—warned the bad guys are catching up. “We’re slipping behind,” Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, said. “Our advantage is shrinking very fast.”

“We currently have 12 fleets of airplanes that qualify for antique license plates in the state of Virginia,” General Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said. “The capability gap is closing…the people trying to catch up with us technologically…have momentum. If [they] get too close, we won’t be able to recover before they pass us.”

But the chiefs were preaching to the wrong audience: the armed services committee, packed with lawmakers with major defense installations or factories back home, has long been a bastion of pro-Pentagon lawmakers.

How draconian are sequestration’s budget cuts? It’s tough keeping track of how much the U.S. spends on its military, in part because there are several yardsticks to keep track. If you want to boost spending, you use one yardstick; if you want to cut it, you use another.

The U.S. military budget has been creeping steadily upward since World War II, even after the fall of the Soviet Union. Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments

For example, simply using dollars (adjusted for inflation) shows U.S. military spending jumped by 61% from 1998 to 2010. U.S. defense spending in 2010 eclipsed the peak of the Reagan-era defense buildup, designed to defeat the Soviet Union. Military spending has fallen 12% from 2010’s crest. And when you fold in the added funding the Pentagon got to wage the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the drop is a steeper 21%.

This is a problem of the Pentagon’s own making. It routinely took defense dollars that were supposed to be used to fight the wars and used them to buy new hardware and for other, non-war-related expenses. Like any addict, it got used to this easy access to spending euphoria.

That makes withdrawal from such easy money all the tougher: if war funding had been only used for wars, ending the wars would end the need for that money. But seeing as much of the funding bought what should have been paid for by the Pentagon’s so-called “base” budget, weaning itself from its war-fattened budgets is proving painful.

Then there’s another way to measure Pentagon spending: what share of the national economy is dedicated to defense? Since World War II, the nation has spent about a nickel of every dollar created by the U.S. economy on its military, or 5%. It’s now down to about 3.5%. If sequestration remains the law, the Pentagon’s share of the national economic pie will fall to 2.5% by 2019, the smallest slice since the end of World War II.

The share of the nation’s economy dedicated to national defense has been on the decline since World War II. Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments

Those who want to spend more on the Pentagon cite this decline as proof the nation is starving the military. That’s only true, of course, if one assumes the enemy is the Gross Domestic Product.

Many Pentagon advocates would like to earmark a fixed percentage of the GDP for the military—4% is often cited— even though the economy has boomed since World War II and there is no link between GDP and the threats facing the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

The challenge for the U.S. military is obvious. The lawmakers, obligated “to raise and support Armies” under the Constitution, are concerned with global instability and terrorism.

But the 13 years, nearly 7,000 American lives and three trillion American dollars spent in Afghanistan and Iraq weigh heavily on their minds. It’s obvious most of them don’t feel that more military money is the answer.

TIME Congress

Republicans Look to Gain on Obama’s Education Blunder

John Boehner Holds Media Briefing At The Capitol
Speaker of the House John Boehner takes questions during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Jan. 16, 2014 in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer—Getty Images

On Tuesday, President Obama dropped his proposal to reform popular college savings plans. On Wednesday, Republicans wouldn’t let him hear the end of it.

“I’m not sure why President Obama would have sought to undermine them in the first place, but it’s certainly good to see the President coming around to Republicans’ pro-middle class view on this matter,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the chamber floor.

“What crazy tax hike scheme will the White House dream up next,” tweeted House Speaker John Boehner.

“Well, that must have polled badly,” taunted the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board.

The proposal—ending a tax break for mostly wealthy families and redistributing the billion dollars saved towards tax breaks for the less well-off—was a part of a broader plan but so politically perilous that House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi pressed the President to drop it while aboard Air Force One on Tuesday.

White House Press Secretary Eric Schultz said Wednesday that the proposal was a “distraction” and dropped because it could “jeopardize” a larger education strategy that included $50 billion in tax reforms and a plan to make two years of community college free.

But Republicans will keep the issue in the spotlight. Kansas Rep. Lynn Jenkins, a member of the House GOP leadership, introduced a bill this week with Wisconsin Democrat Ron Kind to strengthen the nearly 12 million savings accounts, which are known as 529s. Americans accumulated nearly $245 billion in the plans last year, according to the Investment Company Institute.

“These are particularly important goals as college costs continue to rise and students struggle with extreme amounts of student loan debt,” says Jenkins, who notes that there is a “spotlight” on the issue due to the president’s “misstep.” “We certainly are going to call on him to support [the bill.]”

The bill aims to reduce paperwork, allow students to withdraw from college without a refund penalty and updates the current law by including computers as a qualified expense. Jenkins says that she expects the bill to hit the House floor in a month.

Kind says that the Administration could have done a better job of educating members of its plans ahead of the State of the Union.

“This has become a trusted vehicle for education savings and therefore calling for the tax benefit elimination from 529s seems to be a giant step too far,” he says.

Kind laughed when asked if he thought Republicans would use the President’s fumble to their own political advantage.

“It’s the world in which we live,” he said. “Unfortunately that’s what makes entitlement reform so hard. When you have people honestly trying to put forward some straightforward provisions only to be attacked by the right or the left. That’s what makes developing consensus very difficult.”

TIME Congress

Pro-Life Congressman Explains Why He’s Now Pro-Choice

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, speaks at a news conference in Washington on Feb. 14, 2007.
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, speaks at a news conference in Washington on Feb. 14, 2007. Susan Walsh—AP

Ryan says talking to women helped change his mind

Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan has officially changed his stance on abortion—from pro-life to pro-choice.

Ryan, who has been serving in the House of Representatives since 2003, says he has self-identified as pro-life for the majority of his political career, having being raised Catholic. But the Ohio representative wrote in an op-ed published by the Akron Beacon Journal on Wednesday that his conversations with women across Ohio and the country about the myriad reasons that lead them to have an abortion led him to change his mind.

“These women gave me a better understanding of how complex and difficult certain situations can become. And while there are people of good conscience on both sides of this argument, one thing has become abundantly clear to me: the heavy hand of government must not make this decision for women and families,” Ryan writes.

Ryan goes on to say, “each and every American deserves the right to deal with these difficult situations in consultation with their families, close friends, or religious advisers.”

The op-ed comes nearly a week after some Republican women in the House of Representatives stopped a vote on an anti-abortion bill because of language included in it that would have but restrictions on women seeking to end pregnancies that resulted from rape. A vote on that bill was scheduled for Jan. 22, the anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, Roe v. Wade.

As recently as 2009 Ryan trumpeted his record on pro-life legislation, while promoting a bill that would reduce unintended pregnancies in an effort to find common ground among pro-choice and pro-life communities. In 2013, Ryan opposed a ban on abortions after 20-weeks, saying it was “dangerous in its implications.” Douglas Johnson of National Right to Life Committee, a leading pro-life organization, calls Ryan a “pro-life impersonator” and notes he’s never consistently voted pro-life—according to the organization’s scorecard, he’s voted “against” them more times than he has for them throughout his time in office.

“This is dog-bites-man from my perspective,” Johnson tells TIME.

Yet given his past self-identification as pro-life, Ryan’s stance is now abundantly clear. “I am a 41-year-old father and husband whose feelings on this issue have changed. I have come a long way since being a single, 26-year-old state senator, and I am not afraid to say that my position has evolved as my experiences have broadened, deepened and become more personal. And while I have deep respect for people on both sides of this conversation, I would be abandoning my own conscience and judgment if I held a position that I no longer believed appropriate,” he writes

Women’s health organization Planned Parenthood has lauded Ryan’s pivot on the divisive issue saying in a statement that they look forward to working with him.

“Congressman Ryan joins the overwhelming majority of Americans who want women to have access to abortion and don’t want politicians to interfere in women’s personal medical decisions,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, in a statement.

Read next: Mormon Church Supports LGBT Protections in Shift

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Congress

Paul Gets Assist from 2016 Rivals on ‘Audit the Fed’ Bill

Rand Paul speaks at the Wall Street Journal's CEO Council meeting in Washington
U.S. Senator Rand Paul speaks during the Wall Street Journal's CEO Council meeting in Washington D.C. on Dec. 2, 2014. Kevin Lamarque—Reuters

The three Republicans senators potentially running for the White House in 2016 agree on at least one thing: The Federal Reserve should be audited.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul re-introduced a bill with Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida on Wednesday to order the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office to review the Fed’s monetary policy decision making and increase congressional oversight.

The bill has a much greater chance of making it to the Senate floor under new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is one of 30 co-sponsors according to Paul’s office. Former Rep. Ron Paul, Rand’s father, pressed lawmakers for years to audit the Federal Reserve and similar bills have passed the Republican-controlled House in the past.

“A complete and thorough audit of the Fed will finally allow the American people to know exactly how their money is being spent by Washington,” said Paul in a statement. “The Fed’s currently operates under a cloak of secrecy and it has gone on for too long. The American people have a right to know what the Federal Reserve is doing with our nation’s money supply. The time to act is now.”

The bill is unlikely to be signed into law by President Obama. In December, Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen said that she would “forcefully” oppose such legislation as it would jeopardize the central bank’s independence with “short-run political interference,” according to the Hill.

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