TIME Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton Criticizes Proposals to Defund Planned Parenthood

Secretary Hillary Clinton tours the DART Central Station, before taking questions from journalists, to highlight her climate change policy announcement, in Des Moines, Iowa on Monday, July 27, 2015.
The Washington Post—The Washington Post/Getty Images Secretary Hillary Clinton tours the DART Central Station, before taking questions from journalists, to highlight her climate change policy announcement, in Des Moines, Iowa on Monday, July 27, 2015.

Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton may agree with Republicans that recent undercover videos taken of Planned Parenthood employees are disturbing, but she disagrees with what they want to do next.

Speaking to reporters after a meeting with AFL-CIO leaders in Silver Spring, Maryland, Clinton said the organization has “provided essential service for women in our country” for more than a century.

“I think it is regrettable that Republicans are once again trying to undermine, even end those services that so many women have needed and taken advantage of,” she said. “I think that it’s another effort by the Republicans to try to limit the health care options of women and we should not let them succeed once again.”

The Center for Medical Progress released several secretly recorded videos this month showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing fetal tissue extraction and the costs involved. Republicans have alleged that the videos show the organization is illegally selling fetal parts and called for publicly defunding the group. Planned Parenthood has defended itself, saying it only receives reimbursements for associated costs, which is allowed.

Eighteen House Republicans have already said they will not support any government funding resolutions this fall that contain any funding for Planned Parenthood. Under the long-standing Hyde Amendment, none of the federal money that goes to Planned Parenthood can be spent on abortions.

On Tuesday, Clinton told the New Hampshire Union Leader that she had seen pictures from the videos and found them “disturbing,” adding that they raise broader questions about the process of fetal tissue donation.

TIME elizabeth warren

Elizabeth Warren Wants You to Run For Office

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) attends the Planned Parenthood Generation Conference opening ceremony and welcome reception at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel on July 8, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Jennifer Graylock—Getty Images Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) attends the Planned Parenthood Generation Conference opening ceremony and welcome reception at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel on July 8, 2015 in Washington, DC.

If you're a progressive, that is

Sen. Elizabeth Warren urged down-ballot candidates and grassroots Democrats to run for office at a gathering of liberals in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, saying that local elections won in 2016 will help build a national progressive movement in future races.

The Massachusetts Democrat spoke at the kickoff of an intensive four-day conference designed to train a deep bench of progressive candidates to run for local office and build a movement of liberal candidates.

“This is about building a movement,” said Warren. “We build real change in this country by putting energy on our side by bringing ideas to the front, by showing people there are choices.”

Activists on the left have long lamented the lack of a strong grassroots movement to help reshape the Democratic Party equivalent to the Tea Party, which helped elect prominent Republicans such as Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, leading to a swell of GOP victories in 2010 and 2014.

The conference in Washington, organized by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, is intended to train state legislators, state senators and school board members, building up an infrastructure of candidates to eventually match conservatives’ ascent in Congress.

Warren, a standard-bearer for the progressive left who had never run for office before her 2012 Senate campaign, told attendees from states far-ranging as Rhode Island and Minnesota, that they are a central part of the Democratic movement.

“It is so important that we secure victories at the state and local level,” Warren said. “Washington is dysfunctional. We need you to be out there, town by town, county by county, state by state across this nation.”

Warren set out a progressives’ manifesto that received repeated standing ovations.

She called for raising the minimum wage, protecting workers’ bargaining rights, fighting for debt free college and combating racism. “We believe that no one should work full time and still live in poverty,” Warren said. “We believe that black lives matter.”

Warren is much beloved among liberals, who see her as one of the few prominent voices in Congress for the Democratic left. Progressive groups including Democracy for America and MoveOn.org spent months organizing a campaign to encourage Warren to run for president.

Though Warren has declined to run, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has taken her place as the progressive candidate in the Democratic primary, attracting many of Warren’s grassroots supporters to work for his campaign.

Warren is seen as having a wide-ranging influence on the Democratic primary despite her refusal to run, challenging frontrunner Hillary Clinton to take positions on debt-free college and cabinet appointees.

Some in the audience were running for mayors of a small town, state legislature or considering running for city council. For many, the politics of left and right at the national level have few practical implications for effectively running a small town.

“At this point I’m not espousing far left, progresssive ideas. I just want to get stuff done,” Luke Feeney, who is running for mayor of Chillicothe, a town south of Cleveland, Ohio said before Warren spoke. “If the grass in the park isn’t cut, people won’t get behind the big platform.”

Still, Warren riled up her audience with a long view toward rallying a left movement.

“Victories in 2015 and 2016 are the victores of tomorrow,” she said.

TIME Congress

The Trumpification of Congress

People walk past posters supporting politician Ted Cruz put up by the 'StandWithUs' group during a rally calling for the rejection of the proposed Iran nuclear deal outside the Federal Building in Los Angeles, California on July 26, 2015.
MARK RALSTON—AFP/Getty Images People walk past posters supporting politician Ted Cruz put up by the 'StandWithUs' group during a rally calling for the rejection of the proposed Iran nuclear deal outside the Federal Building in Los Angeles, California on July 26, 2015.

The GOP Establishment better be ready

Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Donald Trump’s bombastic brand of establishment-hating populism is succeeding: he’s leading in the polls and in media attention. So, perhaps it’s not surprising that some Republicans in Congress are following his example.

On Tuesday, an obscure second-term Republican congressman from North Carolina, Mark Meadows, filed a motion to try and force House Speaker John Boehner from his post. The measure is more than likely to fail, but the move earned Meadows instant media recognition, numerous cable news appearances and instant notoriety.

Meadows isn’t the only one causing congressional GOP leaders headaches these days. During a rare weekend session forced in part by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell smacked down efforts by Cruz and fellow Tea Partier Sen. Mike Lee of Utah to hijack the amendment process on a transportation bill. The duo had hoped to force votes to defund Planned Parenthood and block President Obama’s deal with Iran but McConnell squashed them, going so far as to distribute an e-mail from a Lee staffer to every Republican senator showing that the pair only sought to play politics with the system, not work for solutions.

“To see the so-called Republican leader whip against allowing a vote to defund Planned Parenthood,” Cruz railed to reporters outside the Senate chamber, “makes clear that the McConnell-[Democratic Senate leader Harry] Reid leadership is united in favor of Big Government.”

Cruz, Lee, Meadows and Trump have one thing in common: their disdain for the Republican establishment. All four are seeking to harness discontent within the GOP base to their advantage. And that discontent pays: all four have raised millions of dollars and each bomb they drop earns them more money, more infamy and more attention—all great things whether one is running for president or fending off a primary challenge in 2016.

The idea of committing some incredible antic or uttering an outrageous statement and then running online to monetize it isn’t a new strategy in Washington. As Michael Scherer and I wrote six years ago, members like Michele Bachmann and Alan Grayson had already honed the online money bomb. What’s new here is the target: leadership.

The problem with this strategy is that it heightens dysfunction in a city where dysfunction has already hobbled the system. McConnell will likely get through a long-term extension of the transportation bill this week, but the House won’t be able to pass that bill so quickly. So both chambers will have to pass a three-month stop gap by the end of the week to give Boehner more time to corral his recalcitrant rank and file on the larger bill.

And if getting a transportation bill through is this tough, what’s facing Congress in the coming months is even more daunting: a potential government shut down and default on U.S. debt. McConnell and Boehner better have some aces up their sleeves. Because as Meadows, Cruz and Lee have shown this week, there’s never been more incentive to play the Trump card.

TIME People

Penn. Congressman Chaka Fattah Indicted in Racketeering Case

Chaka Fattah
Matt Rourke—AP In this May 7, 2015 photo, Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., speaks at the School of the Future in Philadelphia.

Fattah has been the subject of a long-running federal investigation

(PHILADELPHIA) — Pennsylvania Congressman Chaka Fattah has been indicted on charges he misappropriated hundreds of thousands of dollars of federal, charitable and campaign funds.

The 11-term Philadelphia Democrat was charged Wednesday with racketeering conspiracy, bribery, conspiracy to commit wire, honest services and mail fraud, and other charges.

Fattah has been the subject of a long-running federal investigation. Four others also have been charged, including people who worked for his campaign and congressional staffs.

Fattah’s office had no immediate comment on the charges. It said it would issue a statement shortly.

TIME Congress

Conservative Congressman Seeks to Remove John Boehner from Speaker’s Chair

House Speaker John Boehner
Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) arrives for his weekly news conference at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center February 26, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Rep. Mark Meadows' move is largely symbolic

(WASHINGTON) — A conservative Republican who was disciplined earlier this year by House Speaker John Boehner is pushing a largely symbolic effort to strip the Ohio Republican of his position.

Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina on Tuesday filed a resolution to vacate the chair, an initial procedural step. The proposal was referred to a committee stocked with leadership loyalists, and it is unlikely to emerge. The move, however, reflected the discontent among the more conservative wing of the House GOP, whose members have been frustrated with leaders’ willingness to compromise on some legislation.

The resolution said Boehner “has endeavored to consolidate power and centralize decision-making, bypassing the majority of the 435 Members of Congress and the people they represent.”

It also accused the speaker of causing “the power of Congress to atrophy, thereby making Congress subservient to the Executive and Judicial branches, diminishing the voice of the American People.” And it said Boehner”uses the power of the office to punish members who vote according to their conscience instead of the will of the Speaker.”

Last month, the leadership briefly stripped Meadows of his subcommittee chairmanship over his votes but later relented after conservatives objected.

Boehner’s office had no comment.

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., dismissed the resolution and Meadows’ move.

“You don’t raise any money, you need a way to raise money, you do gimmicks like this,” said Nunes, who is close to Boehner.

But Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., who has experienced the wrath of the leadership and is a Boehner foe, complained that the leaders is “not listening to the American people.” He faulted leaders for not allowing quick votes against same-sex marriage and federal money for Planned Parenthood.

“He just has the courage to do something about it,” Jones said of Meadows, a two-term lawmaker who was elected in the tea party-backed 2010 class.

TIME Congress

John Kerry Urges Congress to Support Iran Nuclear Deal

Congress has begun a 60-day review of the international agreement

(WASHINGTON) — Secretary of State John Kerry warned skeptical lawmakers not to nix the contentious nuclear deal with Iran, insisting that it includes strict inspections and other safeguards to deter cheating by Tehran.

“If Congress does not support the deal, we would see this deal die — with no other options,” Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday as he testified for the second time in a week, part of the Obama administration’s all-out campaign to sell the accord.

Kerry spoke as the administration picked up critical support for the deal from Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., a strong supporter of Israel who referred to his Jewish background in announcing his decision.

“I believe the agreement offers the best option to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” Levin said in a statement circulated by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who is leading the effort to round up Democratic support for the deal in the House.

Congress has begun a 60-day review of the international agreement that curbs Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars in relief from sanctions stifling its economy. All members must weigh the deal, but it’s especially a tough decision for those who have a large number of Jewish constituencies because Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called it a “historic mistake.”

“I believe that Israel, the region and the world are far more secure if Iran does not move toward possession of a nuclear weapon,” Kerry told members who, at times, blasted the deal.

“Iran has cheated on every agreement they’ve signed,” said Rep. Ed Royce, the panel’s chairman. With Kerry, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew waiting to testify, he asked if Tehran “has earned the right to be trusted” given its history.

Few, if any, new details emerged from the more than three-hour hearing. Some committee members asked the three officials questions, while others used their time to read lengthy statements in opposition. That left Kerry visibly frustrated and several times he accused the members of misconstruing or misunderstanding the details of the agreement.

“Nothing in this deal is built on trust. Nothing,” Kerry said.

Kerry was asked what would prevent Iran from adhering to the agreement for a short time, and then, in effect, take the money and run toward building an atomic bomb.

Kerry said that was not a likely scenario. He said the Iranian government is under pressure to improve the economy in their country where half the population is under 30 years of age and wants jobs. And he defended the inspection protocol under the agreement, arguing that if Iran tries to develop a nuclear weapon covertly, the international community will know.

“They can’t do that. Because the red flags that would go off — the bells and whistles that would start chiming — as a result of any movement away from what they have to do” to meet their obligations under the agreement, Kerry said.

Faced with Republican majorities in both houses, the administration’s objective was to line up enough support for Obama among Democrats in what is all but certain to become a veto fight this fall.

Congress is expected to vote in September to prevent Obama from lifting sanctions imposed previously by lawmakers, a step that would likely cause Iran to walk away from the agreement. Obama has said he will veto any bill along those lines, and Republicans will need a two-thirds majority in both houses to override his objections.

Apart from Royce, the panel’s senior Democrat expressed reservations about the plan. Rep. Eliot Engel of New York said he has “serious questions and concerns about this deal.”

Engel is a strong supporter of Israel, which vociferously opposes the agreement. Iran has said it wants to wipe out Israel.

The hearing unfolded as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby, dispatched hundreds of its members to prod lawmakers to disapprove of the deal.

On the other side of the issue, seven former U.S. diplomats and State Department officials sent a letter Monday to leaders in Congress urging them to support the pact.

While lawmakers debated the implications of the deal, officials from member nations of the International Atomic Energy Agency told The Associated Press that Iran may be allowed to take soil samples at the Parchin military complex that is suspected as a site of nuclear weapon research, but only under monitoring by outside experts.

The officials said stringent oversight of the soil-sampling could include video monitoring. The samples would be analyzed by the agency for traces left by any nuclear experiments. The disclosures come from IAEA member nations and are tasked with following Iran’s nuclear program. They demanded anonymity because their information is confidential. The IAEA had no immediate comment.

Tehran insists Parchin is a conventional military area with no link to nuclear tests.

___

Associated Press writer George Jahn in Vienna contributed to this report.

TIME Hillary Clinton

Investigators Seek Justice Department Inquiry Over Hillary Clinton Emails

Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton Campaigns in Iowa
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images Hillary Clinton, former U.S. secretary of state and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, pauses while speaking during a campaign event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, U.S., on Friday, July 17, 2015.

Clinton says she did not email any classified material to anyone from her email server

A pair of inspectors general have requested an investigation into the handling of potentially classified government information once stored on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private email server, the New York Times reported late Thursday.

The request reopens a fresh wound for Clinton — the decision to use a private account for government business, and then choosing to delete ostensibly personal information from the server after information was requested by Congress. The controversy has contributed to a decline in Clinton’s favorability rating and has provoked questions about her trustworthiness.

The request for the investigation, the New York Times reported, references “hundreds of potentially classified emails” contained among Clinton’s messages, though it is unclear whether the messages were marked as such when Clinton sent or received them. The Department of Justice has yet to decide whether to pursue charges, nor is it clear whom would be the target of the investigation.

A Department of Justice official said despite initially confirming that the request was not for a criminal investigation, that is not the case. “The Department has received a referral related to the potential compromise of classified information,” the official said. It is not a criminal referral.”

In May, when releasing the first batch of Clinton emails to the public, the State Department, at the request of the intelligence community, classified 23 words of an email relating to the arrest of a suspected assailant in the 2012 Benghazi attack which killed four Americans.

At the time, the State Department said, the email was unclassified while it resided on Clinton’s server and when it was sent to the House Select Committee on Benghazi. A senior department official told TIME then that the retroactive classification does not mean Clinton did anything improper, adding “this happens several times a month” when Freedom of Information Act reports are prepared for the public.

In a statement, Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill brushed back on the assertion that Clinton had done anything wrong.

“Contrary to the initial story, which has already been significantly revised, she followed appropriate practices in dealing with classified materials,” Merrill said. “As has been reported on multiple occasions, any released emails deemed classified by the administration have been done so after the fact, and not at the time they were transmitted.”

In a March news conference, Clinton denied that she used the unsecured account for classified information. “I did not email any classified material to anyone on my email,” she said. “There is no classified material. So I’m certainly well aware of the classification requirements and did not send classified material.”

The State Department is in the midst of a review of 55,000 pages of emails from Clinton’s server, and is under court order to produce them regularly to the public in order to comply with overdue Freedom of Information Act requests.

In her public comments on the server issue, Clinton has at times been less than forthright, telling CNN earlier this month that she hadn’t received a subpoena when she clearly had, and suggesting she had gone above and beyond complying with government records rules.

“The truth is everything I did was permitted and I went above and beyond what anybody could have expected in making sure that if the State Department didn’t capture something, I made a real effort to get it to them,” Clinton told CNN this month. But, in fact, Clinton was under legal obligation to preserve all messages pertaining to her work and to hand them over to the State Department.

Update: This story has been updated to reflect that after initially confirming it had received a criminal referral, the Justice Department now says the request was not for a criminal investigation.

TIME

John Kerry Pushes Back Against Critics of Iran Nuclear Deal

This may be the biggest foreign policy vote in more than a decade

(WASHINGTON) — Secretary of State John Kerry bluntly challenged critics of the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran on Thursday, calling it “fantasy, plain and simple,” to think the United States failed to hold out for a better deal at the bargaining table.

“Let me underscore, the alternative to the deal we’ve reached isn’t what we’re seeing ads for on TV,” he said at the first public hearing on the controversial deal to lift economic and other sanctions in exchange for concessions of the Islamic state’s nuclear program. He was referring commercials aired by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee urging lawmakers to reject the deal.

“It isn’t a better deal, some sort of unicorn arrangement involving Iran’s complete capitulation,” Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

He spoke as Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and other Republicans spoke scornfully of the administration’s claim that the only alternative to the deal that was reached was a war with Iran.

“You’ve been fleeced,” Corker, the committee chairman, said as Kerry sat nearby at the witness table — although he later sought to soften his criticism by saying, “we’ve been fleeced.” He said he was depressed after hearing the secretary of state and other administration officials make the same claim Wednesday in a closed-door briefing for lawmakers.

“You guys have been bamboozled,” added Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, who said the agreement wouldn’t permit testing at Iran’s Parchin military complex.

Kerry was joined by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who sat across the table from Iranian negotiators in the talks, and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, whose agency enforces many of the sanctions that have squeezed Iran’s economy in recent years as part of a strategy to force Tehran to the bargaining table.

The hearing marked a new phase of a bruising struggle that will lead to what will arguably be the biggest foreign policy vote in more than a decade.

The deal will take effect unless Congress blocks it, and Republicans in control of the House and Senate have made clear they intend to try to do so in September.

Obama has vowed to veto any such bill. That would lead to a vote to override his veto, and the administration is searching for 34 votes in the Senate or 146 in the House, enough to assure the veto sticks.

Democrats and allied independents control 46 seats in the Senate.

The hearing unfolded as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., demanded the administration immediately turn over the text of side agreements between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency. “The law is clear,” he said in remarks on the Senate floor.

Administration officials say that in the past, such agreements have not been made available. They also say U.S. officials are available to provide information about them in classified meetings.

The committee hearing turned contentious at times, particularly including when Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., asked Kerry a tough question — and Corker interjected an answer. “You want to answer, senator?” Kerry said tartly to the chairman, who had said that Iran would be allowed to develop ballistic missiles.

Moniz also sought to parry Republican charges, including the claim that Kerry had failed to achieve a goal of assuring inspections “anywhere, anytime” to see if Iran is cheating on the deal.

“Like Secretary Kerry, I did say the words ‘anytime, anywhere,’ and I am very pleased that yesterday a member of your caucus acknowledged, however, that the full sentence was “anytime, anywhere in the sense of a well-defined process with a well-defined end time.”

In his testimony, Kerry read aloud from statements by past Israeli intelligence officials who praised the agreement, and said he expects Saudi Arabia will ultimately back the deal.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been an outspoken critic of the agreement, saying it would set Iran, which denies his country’s right to exist, on a path toward obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Kerry said that when the negotiations began, experts calculated that it would take Iran only two to three months to produce enough material for a bomb, the so-called breakout time.

“If the deal is rejected, we return immediately to this reality, except that the diplomatic support we have been steadily accumulating in recent years would disappear overnight,” he said.

The United Nations Security Council has already voted to lift the international sanctions in place, effectively accepting the deal that the United States and other powers have struck with Iran. As a result, administration officials say the United States would be left trying to enforce more limited sanctions, without the support of other nations that backed the earlier steps.

“President Obama has made it crystal clear we will never accept a nuclear-armed Iran,” Kerry said. “He is the only president who has developed a weapon capable of guaranteeing that. And he has not only developed it, he has deployed it.”

That appeared to be a reference to a bunker buster bomb, the “Massive Ordnance Penetrator.”

_____

Associated Press writers Donna Cassata and Matthew Lee contributed to this story.

TIME Congress

Lawmakers to Introduce Historic LGBT Non-Discrimination Bills

Same-sex marriage supporters rejoice after the U.S Supreme Court hands down a ruling regarding same-sex marriage June 26, 2015 outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong—Getty Images Same-sex-marriage supporters rejoice after the U.S Supreme Court hands down a ruling regarding same-sex marriage in Washington on June 26, 2015

After marriage equality, the fight for full civil rights begins

On Thursday, Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. David Cicilline are set to propose historically broad non-discrimination bills that will protect Americans from losing their jobs—or from being evicted from their apartment or other forms of discrimination—because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Supporters of the bills are using the fact that marriage is newly legal in all 50 states as both a springboard and justification for this next battle to win civil rights for the LGBT community.

The Equality Act will cover the areas of employment, education, housing, public accommodations, jury service, federal funding and credit. “You can be married on Saturday, post your wedding pictures on Facebook on Sunday and be fired from your job or kicked out of your apartment on Monday,” says Cicilline, who became the fourth openly gay member of Congress in 2010. The legality of same-sex marriage, he says, “creates a sense of urgency,” because it will lead to LGBT people living more openly but consequently expose them to the possibility of more discrimination.

There is a vast misconception that it is already illegal to discriminate against gay people—one poll put the number at 87% who believe so—but there are no federal laws that set out protections for LGBT Americans. Twenty-one states currently prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, and 18 of those, as well as the District of Columbia, also include gender identity. “There is a huge hurdle our community needs to overcome to convince people that this kind of discrimination is—A—perfectly legal, and—B—actually exists,” says Winnie Stachelberg from the Center for American Progress.

In December, that progressive think tank put out a report to refute the notion that protections for LGBT Americans are “unnecessary,” as conservatives such as House Speaker John Boehner have argued. One in ten lesbian, gay or bisexual people say they’ve been fired from a job because of their sexual orientation, they reported, while nearly one in three transgender people reports being treated unequally at a retail store.

A lesbian couple in Michigan, where a GOP lawmaker tried but failed to pass a non-discrimination law last year, says a pediatrician recently refused to see their six-day-old baby after she “prayed” on the matter. There was no statute under which the couple could file a complaint, says report author Sarah McBride. But, she adds, non-discrimination laws aren’t just about recourse. “They’re also about preventing bad behavior,” she says. “They’re also about making clear what our values are as a country and what we expect our citizens to do, and that’s to treat everyone fairly and with respect.”

A bill that would make it illegal to discriminate against LGBT people when it comes to hiring and firing has been introduced in some form—and then failed to become law—in nearly every Congress for the past two decades. But rather than have another go at passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or even a broader bill that creates a new law, Merkley and Cicilline are trying a different strategy: amending existing statutes like the Civil Rights and Fair Housing acts so that those long-established protections are extended to cover sexual orientation and gender identity, in addition to race, sex, religion or national origin.

“The only way that we can achieve full equality for the LGBT community,” says Cicilline, “is to make them part of this well-accepted civil rights construct.”

The move is designed, in part, to make it harder to object to the bill—because the Equality Act will “literally be extending the exact same protections” other classes already have—and to stymie the inevitable objections about religious freedom, which almost always crop up alongside debates over such non-discrimination bills.

“It has the value of saying, Look, whatever religious exemptions currently exist in these other protected categories—race, religion, gender, ethnic origin—those same religious exemptions would exist in the context of the LGBT community,” Cicilline says. “Not a single person’s right to exercise their religious tradition or to honor the practices of their own religion are compromised by this legislation.”

Critics of such bills say that legally obliging, say, a pizzeria to cater a same-sex wedding, violates a person’s right to oppose such unions based on religious or moral beliefs. With the battle over same-sex marriage lost, many conservatives are turning their efforts to pushing “religious freedom” or “First Amendment defense” bills to give people legal arguments for such refusals. A poll released earlier this month found that a small majority of small business owners—55%—believe businesses should not be allowed to deny wedding-related services to a same-sex couple based on religious beliefs.

Republicans Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Raul Labrador introduced companion bills in June aimed at “protecting religious freedom from Government intrusion,” stating that “conflicts between same-sex marriage and religious liberty are real.” While they say their bill is aimed at making sure organizations like religious schools can’t lose their tax-exempt status for opposing same-sex marriage, progressives say it threatens to “undermine” protections Obama extended to millions of LGBT workers with an executive order, as well as the future of a broad non-discrimination law.

Merkley announced in December that a big proposal was coming. The scores of lawmakers he and Cicilline expect to co-sponsor the bills are rehashing this old fight in a time when there are new levels of awareness and acceptance for LGBT Americans, particularly among young people. According to Gallup, a record high 60% of Americans now support same-sex marriage, up from 50% in 2012 and 40% in 2009. Once people learn that protections for LGBT people don’t exist federally or in many states, “they overwhelmingly support the basic idea that LGBT Americans should be judged only on their merits, just like everyone else,” Merkley tells TIME. “It’s time to act.”

TIME justice

Can Congress Pass Criminal Justice Reform?

US Capitol Building Washington DC
Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images The US Capitol seen on Feb. 11, 2015 in Washington.

Bipartisan negotiators are working on bills to fix sentencing guidelines and reform the prison system

There’s a growing bipartisan consensus around criminal justice reform, but it’s not yet clear if that will be enough to get a bill through Congress.

Supporters of reform got several hopeful signs last week. Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders, then made the first-ever Presidential visit to a federal prison. Former President Bill Clinton chimed in to apologize for signing a crime bill that further clotted the U.S. prison system. And House Speaker John Boehner signaled his support for a vote in the House. “We’ve got a lot of people in prison, frankly, who really in my view don’t need to be there,” the Ohio Republican said.

The rare burst of harmony reflects months of work by lawmakers and the wide-ranging coalition of advocacy groups that have joined forces in a bid to fix the flaws of the U.S. justice system, which critics from both parties call bloated, costly and rigid.

“This was unthinkable six months ago,” says Van Jones, a former Obama administration official and co-founder of #cut50, a bipartisan initiative to slash the U.S. prison population in half. Predicts Jones: “A series of bills will be on this President’s desk and signed into law by Christmas.”

But change never comes easy in Washington. And the powerful array of interests aligned behind reform have so far struggled to translate broad support into legislative success.

That could soon change. The Senate Judiciary Committee is preparing to unveil a bipartisan package of reforms that negotiators have been haggling over since March. The proposal is expected to include sentencing reforms as well as so-called “back-end” efforts to rehabilitate prisoners and more effectively reintegrate them into society.

“There are still a handful of issues left to work through,” says Beth Levine, a spokeswoman for Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the Republican who chairs the committee. “The members are still working and committed to trying to reach an agreement that can gain wide bipartisan support.”

One of the challenges is getting powerful personalities with competing priorities onto the same page.

Grassley is a case in point. His participation in the process reflects the dramatic evolution of the politics of criminal justice. The 81-year-old Iowan is a tough-on-crime Republican who has long opposed reforms like easing mandatory minimum sentences. He’s signaled openness to reform, but as the chair of a crucial Congressional committee, he has the ability to block any bill that comes through.

The situation is similar in the House, where the Judiciary Chairman, Bob Goodlatte, is another conservative steeped in the tough-on-crime mantras that reigned in the 1980s and ’90s. Criminal-justice reform “is something that Congress needs to undertake,” Goodlatte said Wednesday, addressing a bipartisan audience at a justice-reform conference on a rooftop with views of the Capitol. The Virginia Republican indicated he wants to tackle issues like over-criminalization and prisoner re-entry. But he did not sugarcoat the complications of producing legislation.

It’s also not clear which chamber will move first. A raft of narrow bipartisan bills have been introduced in the Senate, including a measure to address mandatory minimums introduced by Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin and Utah Republican Mike Lee, and a bill crafted by Texas Republican John Cornyn and Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse that addresses prisoner re-entry. The House may coalesce around a single ambitious bill, authored by Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner and Virginia Democrat Bobby Scott.

As a result, the unanimity on display now could ultimately be derailed by the clutch of bills, competing goals and bureaucratic hurdles that often combine to stifle progress in a divided Congress. “Different members all want to assert their priorities,” says a source familiar with the negotiations.

Negotiators suggested a Senate package could be unveiled as soon as this week, but it now looks likely to wait until after the summer legislative recess. “Everyone is working in good faith, and it will be ready when it’s ready,” says a Democratic Senate aide familiar with the negotiations. “The more comprehensive our negotiations are now, the easier it will be to move the bill swiftly in committee and on the floor.”

But even members committed to advancing justice reform are clear-eyed about the looming obstacles. “It’s an uphill battle,” Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican and presidential candidate who is part of the push for justice reform, said Wednesday. “Nothing happens easy in this town.”

Paul cited civil-asset forfeiture reforms and potentially legislation around the use of body cameras by police as two areas where the Senate could make progress. But he predicted the efforts in the House were more likely to bear fruit. “I think they’re more open to reform than the Senate is,” Paul said. “That’s just my opinion.”

Legislators say they’re encouraged by the breadth of agreement. And they know that justice reform is one of the last subjects they’re capable of tackling before the capital is consumed by the presidential race.

“Everybody is aligned,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, said at a hearing last week. “The House, the Senate, the President. Let’s make it happen.”

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