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Capital Chatter: Congress quiet after fiscal cliff vote

ST. PAUL -- Maybe folks should not be surprised that the media often found a communications cliff separating them and many Washington politicians after the fiscal cliff vote.

After all, no one liked the bill Congress passed on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. Its main provision, preventing tax increases on most Americans, was controversial. And the measure missed its goal and would do little to get the $16 trillion federal debt under control.

Most U.S. senators and representatives issued carefully crafted statements either blasting the bill or saying that it was better than nothing. But most in the Minnesota congressional delegation did not return media messages seeking interviews on the subject.

Take Forum News Service's experience on Wednesday: Messages to several Minnesota federal lawmakers' offices resulted in return messages saying their politicians were too busy to talk. That was rare since most Minnesotans in Congress usually return calls.

Newly returned U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, a Democrat serving the northeastern quarter of the state, was one whose office rejected an interview.

Nolan Communications Director Steve Johnson said Nolan, re-entering Congress after a 30-year absence, could not fit an interview into his Wednesday schedule, but he planned a Friday telephone news conference (too late to help most daily newspapers that printed fiscal cliff reaction stories well before then).

The Friday teleconference was canceled less than an hour before it was to begin, with Johnson again saying the congressman's schedule would not allow it.

One who did talk was Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat from western Minnesota who rattled off a long list of federal officials who upset him after work on a new farm bill collapsed.

"I'm not happy with anyone," he said.

Everyone happy, now

Federal budget debate over the fiscal cliff issue ended, as it started, amid criticism, but a couple days later all that was set aside, if only for a short while.

The ornate U.S. Capitol hosted swearing-in ceremonies Thursday that for the most part were controversy-free zones.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who observers say is a potential presidential candidate, marched to the front of the Senate chamber with former Vice President Walter Mondale on one side and Sen. Al Franken on the other.

Vice President Joe Biden swore her in with a small group of other newly elected and re-elected senators. Later, the senator posed for photos with her husband, daughter and Biden in the old Senate chamber.

Minnesota's only new congressman, Nolan, was one of the 435 representatives sworn in as a group. Former longtime U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar accompanied him.

Gun bills on agenda

State Sen. John Marty plans to continue pushing gun-control bills he long has backed.

Last month's Newtown, Conn., school shooting inspired more gun-control talk than usual, even though many Minnesota legislative leaders say the session that begins Tuesday should focus on money issues, not policy matters.

"Perhaps because most of the victims were young children, there has been a perceptible shift in momentum on the issue since the Sandy Hook school shootings," said Marty, DFL-Roseville. "Now is the time for public officials to stand up to the NRA (National Rifle Association), and have a rational discussion over public safety and responsible gun laws."

Marty said it is time "to take a comprehensive look at our gun laws. Practically anyone can purchase an arsenal of weaponry powerful enough to gun down dozens of victims in minutes. Even people who have committed violent acts and even those with serious mental illness are able to purchase assault weapons and large capacity ammunition clips."

Peterson asks

Peterson buttered up newly re-elected House Speaker John Boehner in a Thursday letter: "Please accept my warmest congratulations on your re-election as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives."

But in the next sentence, the Minnesota Democrat began his extended request for a promise that a farm bill be given a full House vote.

Peterson reminded the Ohio Republican that at one point he declared: "We need to stop writing bills in the speaker's office and let members of Congress be legislators again."

But Peterson, the House Agriculture Committee's top Democrat, said, "those noble words turned into empty promises" because Boehner refused to let the House vote on a 2012 farm bill and in the last days of the year was part of a negotiations team that simply extended existing federal farm policies instead of re-writing them.

"I see no reason why the House Agriculture Committee should undertake the fool's errand to craft another long-term farm bill if the Republican leadership refuses to give any assurances that our bipartisan work will be considered," said Peterson, who earlier told Forum News Service that he would not participate in writing a new farm bill without a GOP promise that it would receive a full House vote.

Sporting news

Minnesota's major stadium, for the Vikings football team, has its funding, so the National Hockey League labor dispute appears destined to fill the legislative sports news void.

Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, plans a Jan. 23 hearing on the impact of a lockout that has prevented NHL games this season. The hearing could include big-name Minnesota Wild players.

"But I'm really hoping to give a voice to all those folks who are being hurt by this through no fault of their own - the restaurant servers, the parking lot attendants, the vendors, the fans, the small business owners - they are the ones who are suffering," Atkins said.

Bubble away

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has given up on the idea of erecting an electric barrier to stop Asian carp, fish with an infamously huge appetite.

Instead, a DNR report suggests a Mississippi River barrier with bubbles, sound and lights to stop the carp from taking over water above the Twin Cities, including most northern Minnesota lakes and rivers.

The report indicates an electric barrier could be dangerous.

The proposed barrier, which never has been used before, would deflect fish away from a St. Paul lock. Carp trying to head further north from the barrier would encounter dams that provide fairly efficient barriers.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would need to approve the barrier.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.