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Sen. Claire McCaskill believes Secretary of State John Kerry has some explaining to do

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., questions whether paying contractors to prep officials to face Congress is a good use of resources. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) is seeking an explanation for the State Department’s recent request for outside tutors to teach a course on how to survive congressional hearings.

In a letter sent to Secretary of State John Kerry this week, McCaskill, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on financial and contracting oversight, questions whether paying contractors to prep officials to face Congress is a good use of the agency’s resources.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

“I question the Department’s decision to award a new contract to manage its communications with Congress, rather than focusing its time and attention on fixing its underlying problems,” McCaskill wrote, citing an April inspector general’s finding that the department’s oversight of its contracts leaves much to be desired.

McCaskill noted the Loop’s reporting last month on State’s official solicitation for contractors to run interactive seminars (role-playing!) for officials about to face the dreaded congressional panel. We presume the agency hopes to avoid future embarrassing performances — for instance, an ambassador nominee knowing hardly anything about the country he or she is being sent to (we affectionately like to call it “Bundler-to-Ambassador 101”).

In her note to Kerry, McCaskill wonders whether the department’s Bureau of Legislative Affairs isn’t the place for such training. Among her other questions, the senator asks for a list of “all quotes, bids, proposals and other responses submitted by contractors” for the job and asks which office “proposed this training.”

We’re also curious.

A friend in Israel

Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, let the world know Thursday morning that he’s not angry with the secretary of state for suggesting that Israel could become an “apartheid state.”

In a statement that he also tweeted, Dermer sought to distance himself from Danny Danon, Israel’s deputy defense minister, who was bluntly critical of John Kerry this week.

“We do not believe that Secretary Kerry has tried to threaten Israel, and we believe that his decades of support for Israel reflect an abiding commitment to Israel’s security and its future.”

Danon wrote an op-ed for Politico Magazine with the headline “We Will Not Be Threatened,” in which he accused Kerry of trying to scare the Israeli government into acquiescing to Palestinian demands.

“Time and again, Secretary Kerry’s erroneous declarations have come dangerously close to suggesting moral equivalency between Israel and its adversaries,” Danon wrote. “They call into question his administration’s ability to act as an honest broker in our region.”

Kerry backed off his comments, which he made at a closed-door event, in a lengthy statement Wednesday, saying he would not “allow my commitment to Israel to be questioned by anyone, particularly for partisan, political purposes, so I want to be crystal clear about what I believe and what I don’t believe.”

This is not the first time Dermer has come to Kerry’s defense. In February, Kerry argued that Israel needed to negotiate with the Palestinians, which drew widespread criticism by many in the Israeli government. Dermer told Time magazine in an interview that Kerry was making “a descriptive statement” and was not trying to “pressure Israel.”

No THC for VA

A Republican congressman sponsored a bill to legalize medical marijuana, then two days later voted against an amendment to allow doctors for the Department of Veterans Affairs to recommend the drug.

A classic case of a politician having it both ways?

Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) told the Loop on Thursday morning that he knew it would be a hard one to explain. The amendment, which was introduced by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and defeated by a vote of 222 to 195, would have allowed VA doctors to talk to their patients about the benefits of marijuana, currently an unapproved treatment.

Griffith said the drug should be legal nationally before VA doctors are allowed to recommend, because doing so would be encouraging veterans to commit a federal felony. “It was a tough vote for me, but the VA is just following the law,” he said. “I disagree with the law — we need to change it.”

Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, wasn’t satisfied. The amendment would have freed veterans where marijuana is legal — 21 states and the District of Columbia — to consult with their VA doctors about using it to treat, among other things, post-traumatic stress disorder.

Griffith “knows change happens incrementally,” Angell said. “Yes, we want to legalize it, but we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

The amendment received 22 Republican votes, and just 18 Democrats voted against it, including — to the surprise of marijuana advocates — the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.).

“Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz felt that it was premature to vote for such an amendment given that HHS has approved a new study to look at marijuana’s potential effects on PTSD,” said Sean Bartlett, her communications director. “While there is evidence that medical marijuana is effective in providing relief in some medical conditions, the congresswoman looks forward to the results of that study before making a policy determination.”

Though he voted against the amendment, Griffith called the vote a “godsend” because it gave him a list of lawmakers to approach for support of his bill. Griffith’s legislation would legalize the drug for medicinal use and lower its controlled-substance status.

“I was encouraged by the vote,” he said. “If we can change the federal law, the amendment makes a lot of sense next year.”

Two confirmations

The Senate continued its slow trickle of confirmations Thursday afternoon before leaving town, filling one ambassadorship and one high-level agency post.

By voice vote, the Senate confirmed Suzan LeVine, a campaign bundler for President Obama and a former Microsoft executive, to be ambassador to Switzerland and concurrently the ambassador to Liechtenstein. LeVine reportedly has raised more than a million dollars for Obama over his two presidential campaigns.

The Senate also voted 64 to 32 to confirm Janice Schneider, an environmental lawyer, to be assistant interior secretary.

— With Colby Itkowitz

The blog:
intheloop. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

Colby Itkowitz is the lead anchor of the Inspired Life blog. She previously covered the quirks of national politics and the federal government.

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