This Week on the Hill: Immigration and Guns on Deck
Tens of thousands of immigration reform supporters marched in the 'Rally for Citizenship' on the West Lawn of the Capitol in Washington on April 10. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
After two weeks of recess, Congress hit the ground running last week, working on legislation related to guns, immigration and the budget. Here's a quick look back as members return for another busy week.
Thousands Rally for Immigration Reform
WASHINGTON -- The immigration debate moved outside the Capitol, literally. On Wednesday afternoon, when April felt more like July with temperatures spiking into the 90s, thousands of protesters braved the heat, urging lawmakers to pass immigration reform.
Chants of "sí, se puede" -- or "yes, it can be done" -- could be heard across the Capitol grounds as visitors streamed down Independence Avenue toward the rally, held to invigorate the debate as a group of bipartisan senators finalizes an agreement on a proposal for comprehensive immigration reform. Many waved American flags, others held signs with slogans reading "Stop Ripping Families Apart" and "Immigration is not a crime," and more than a few people sported t-shirts saying simply "Illegal. Undocumented. Unafraid."
Over the course of the day, many who had come to lobby for immigration reform went straight to the source, paying visits to several Congressional offices. The Rev. Jesus Ortega held an American flag and sign while he waited outside the Longworth House office building, as members of his organization "Voces de la Frontera" visited lawmakers inside. Security rules stopped him from bringing the flag inside. Ortega and the nearly 150 other members of "Voces" spent 12 hours on buses from Milwaukee, Wis., for the event.
"I'm here supporting the destruction of laws being practiced that tear families apart," said Ortega. He added that in his community he's seen many undocumented single mothers get deported, leaving behind their American-born children. "The kids end up going into welfare, where their families lose track of them, and that to me is a really sad situation," he said.
Ortega said that his message to Congress was simple: "We don't want to amend the Constitution; We want to follow the Constitution. But it's time for some laws to be changed, and that's why we're here."
Members of the United Farmworkers of America from Arizona and California were joined by housecleaners from Alabama, as well as larger organizations such as CASA de Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group that co-sponsored the rally.
Jaime Contreras of the Service Employees International Union, the event's other co-sponsor, told the crowd this time is different from the failed effort six years ago. "We are different. Washington is different. Now is truly the time for immigration reform."
Victims of Gun Violence Lobby on the Hill
"We don't care about the party politics. That has nothing to do with this debate and we are demanding that something be done," said Lori Haas, who was standing outside the Senate floor just after lawmakers voted on Thursday 68-31 to allow debate on new gun legislation.
Haas is no stranger to gun violence. Six years ago her daughter Emily was shot and injured in the Virginia Tech shooting. Since then, Haas has been pushing for stricter gun laws, personally meeting with lawmakers. Last week she joined a group of Newtown, Conn., families and others affected by gun violence to lobby legislators on the Hill.
"We have never had this synergy," she said. "We have always had energy but there is a synergy going on right now with the Newtown families and with other victims of gun violence we are all working together." Haas said grass-roots efforts are at a level she has never seen before. In her home state of Virginia, she said more than 17 gun violence prevention groups have bubbled up since Sandy Hook.
Each act of gun violence has been like a drop in a bucket that spilled with the shooting in Newtown, Haas said. "There is no going back, Americans are fed up," she said. "Everyone in America deserves to live free from gun violence."
She is hopeful for the Senate's vote this week on background checks. "We are elated and delighted that a bill, amendment, or a compromise seems to be moving forward," she said. "We want a very very strong background check system that stops criminals and other dangerous people from getting guns."
Breakin' Up is Hard to Do
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., doesn't want to break up with the country's biggest banks; he wants to break them up.
With that goal in mind, the second-term Vermont lawmaker unveiled legislation Tuesday called, appropriately, the "Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Exist Act," which would give the treasury secretary the authority to break up financial institutions whose "failure would have a catastrophic effect on the stability of either the financial system or the United States economy without substantial government assistance."
"We have a situation now where Wall Street banks are not only too big to fail, they are too big to jail," Sanders said.
Sanders was joined at the press conference by Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., who has introduced a companion bill in the House.
Under the legislation the Treasury Department would have 90 days to submit a list to Congress of commercial banks, investment banks, hedge funds and insurance companies found to be "systemically important" by the Financial Stability Board, a body established by the G20 countries to "promote financial stability."
Sanders also said he would support another measure being worked on by Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and David Vitter, R-La., that would deal with how much capital banks must hold to protect themselves from a financial crisis.
With much of Capitol Hill focused on gun legislation, immigration reform and the budget, Sanders acknowledged financial reform was not an immediate concern for his colleagues.
"I think we have momentum in our effort to break up these large financial institutions," Sanders said. "It's not going to happen tomorrow, but I think the momentum is with us."
Senate Unites to Celebrate McCain
In a truly bipartisan meeting on Thursday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. celebrated the 40th anniversary of his release from capture in Vietnam at a luncheon attended by senators from both sides of the aisle. At the event in Russell's Kennedy Caucus room, McCain told stories from his time in captivity.
"It makes you think about the human condition," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters as he left the event. Schumer said it was the first time McCain has told in depth what happened to him at the prison camp. "He said a lot of things that are wow, just how he was tortured, how he kept his spirit," Schumer said. "The communication that they all had ... they tap on the walls to communicate with each other and he said thats what kept them alive. That's what kept them, the fact they could communicate with one another. "
McCain's plane was shot down in 1967. He was released March 14, 1973, after spending more than five years in a Hanoi prison.
Terence Burlij and Linda Scott contributed to this report.
Find more political coverage on the NewsHour's Politics Page