What will Congress do about the Boston bombings?

April 22, 2013

Every week that Congress is in session, Ed O'Keefe lays out what to expect from the House and the Senate:

With the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings recovering from serious wounds and unable to talk to authorities, the Justice Department isn't expected to formally charge Dzhokhar Tsarnaev until Monday at the earliest.


Members of a police SWAT team search a neighborhood in Watertown, Mass. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

That isn't stopping lawmakers from discussing possible hearings. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) has said that he plans to review the incident and the response of local, state and federal authorities. Expect other committees to begin similar reviews in coming weeks.

At first glance, three key policy areas appear to be affected by the bombings, the manhunt and the investigation:

1.) The suspect's legal status: Should Tsarnaev be read his Miranda rights, face the laws of war in a military commission or be held indefinitely without charge as a prisoner or detainee of war? Several Republican lawmakers want him to be held under "enemy combatant" status, while many Democrats say that the Obama administration should proceed as planned and eventually try the suspect in civilian court.

Rep. Peter T. King (N.Y.) was one of five congressional Republicans who urged the administration over the weekend to treat Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant. He told "Fox News Sunday" that the status is necessary because “there are so many questions unanswered. There are so many potential links to terrorism here. Also, the battlefield is now in the United States."

But Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told the same program that holding Tsarnaev indefinitely “would be unconstitutional."

There's very little that Congress can do once the administration makes a decision on Tsarnaev's legal status, except to speak out and hold hearings. But the early disagreements about the suspect's status demonstrate that lawmakers remain sharply divided over how the government should respond to terrorist attacks and treat suspects.

Notably, lawmakers of both parties agreed over the weekend that Tsarnaev should eventually face the federal death penalty.

2.) Guns: The Tsarnaev brothers used multiple weapons in their shootout with Boston police early Friday morning and stockpiled an array of explosive devices and other dangerous materials, officials said. Neither brother had permission to carry firearms, law enforcement officials said.  Investigators haven't said which weapons were used, but lawmakers may ask several questions: How did the brothers obtain the firearms? Did they fail a background check and then illegally purchase the weapons? Would any of the gun-control legislation proposed in recent months helped stop the brothers from obtaining the weapons? Answers to those questions could help begin or blunt further debate over gun control, which is on hold.

3.) Immigration: Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said Sunday that the Boston bombings ought to spur even swifter action on overhauling the nation's immigration laws. His comments could be critical to maintaining Republican support for the bipartisan Gang of Eight, which is sponsoring an immigration reform proposal and faced early doubts Friday when Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) urged his colleagues not to rush ahead on the overhaul before determining the immigration status and travel of the suspects.

The Tsarnaev brothers legally immigrated to the United States with their families, but their travels in the years since are still being scrutinized and are likely to factor into the forthcoming immigration debate. But will the bombings derail the process of passing new immigration legislation? Probably not.

What else is Congress working on this week? Here's a quick look:

4.) The House: Among other items expected to pass this week in the House is a measure to posthumously award the Congressional Gold Medal to Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, the four girls who ranged in age from 11 to 14 who were killed in the September 1963 bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. The measure is sponsored by Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.), who represents parts of Birmingham.

In an effort to defund and revamp part of the 2010 health-care reform law, the House plans to vote on the Helping Sick Americans Now Act. Republican co-sponsors say the bill would make it easier for Americans with preexisting conditions to obtain insurance coverage. The measure would partly defund the $15 billion Prevention and Public Health Fund established by health-care law and use the money to continue funding high-risk pools established by the law.

5.) The Senate: Now that Senate Democrats have paused the gun-control debate, senators could vote as soon as Monday on a proposal that would give states the authority to collect sales taxes on all Internet purchases. The move could hand local governments as much as $11 billion per year in added revenue that they are legally owed — but that hasn’t been paid to them for years, according to The Washington Post's Jia Lynn Yang.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), technically would not add a new tax liability because these purchases are already supposed to be taxed. It also wouldn't require states to collect the money; it would simply give them the authority. Companies with out-of-state revenue of less than $1 million would be exempt.

Opposition to the plan comes from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), among others. Baucus said the bill would force businesses to keep track of far too many tax codes.

Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Follow Ed O'Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

 

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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