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Bridget Johnson

Bridget Johnson is a career journalist whose news articles and opinion columns have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe. Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor at The Hill, where she wrote The World from The Hill column on foreign policy. Previously she was an opinion writer and editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. She has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, Politico and more, and has myriad television and radio credits as a commentator. Bridget is Washington Editor for PJ Media.
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Rep. King: Bringing Guns Onto Base Could Interfere with Discipline

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said allowing people to bring weapons onto a base such as Fort Hood should be looked into, but he said officers would have to weigh in on whether it would “interfere with discipline.”

“First, I think we should look into increasing security both at checkpoints and also at, you know, is more security needed within the base itself. As far as carrying weapons, I think we should look at that. But I remember just from my days in the Army, there’s a certain element of discipline involved, people living in close quarters. You have a situation where in the barracks on a Saturday night you may have arguments, fights, whatever,” King told CNN this morning.

“And I just — I would like to talk to the sergeants, the NCOs, the officers and people on the ground to see if they feel that would interfere with the discipline that they need, with the control they need,” he said, adding, “I mean, if you have such a large base and people can walk in apparently with weapons, should those on the base be allowed to defend themselves?”

“But before we go that far, I would really want to look at it. Again, I’m just going back, because this was a long time ago, but just on base, I don’t know if I would have felt comfortable if the guy in the bunk next to me had a gun and we just had an argument or a discussion.”

King continued that “NCOs and sergeants, they have to be pretty tough on their troops at times.”

“Again, do they want those men and women to be having weapons with them at night after something like that occurs? But again, to me, it’s something we have to look at. We have to open it up. This has to be reopened because there’s all the factors I just gave which could be negative. On the other hand, if someone had had a weapon yesterday, you know, they could have stopped this perhaps, you know, right away. So, but, again, we have to open it up and look at it, yes,” he said.

The congressman stressed that “terrorism has not been ruled out” in the killing of three service members and wounding of 16 by Army truck driver Ivan Lopez.

“Right now there are no indications of terrorism. But I can tell you that all avenues are being explored,” he said. “…We should still be very concerned about terrorism. Fort Hood was attacked once before and there was an attempted attack in July of 2011 that was stopped.”

The mental illness component, though, is “very significant.”

“I think we have to do better screening as far as psychological testing. We have to make sure that the people on the ground, the platoon sergeants, the company commanders, that they are watching very carefully for any signs of mental illness or any type of psychological disturbance, any cases of anger management,” King said. “…In the military, we are getting more money appropriated for more programs for mental health, suicide prevention, for PTSD. That is being done. But not enough. I think much more has to be done. We also have the issue of the National Guard and Reservists who don’t get the same level of treatment as far as mental health that the regular Army does. So that has to be increased.”

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Army Secretary: Fort Hood Shooter on Meds, Showed No Sign of ‘Likely Violence’

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Army Secretary John McHugh told the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning that the Fort Hood shooter was on psychiatric meds but an evaluation indicated no signs that he would become violent.

The previously scheduled hearing with McHugh and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno was intended to review the Army’s fiscal year 2015 budget request and current posture.

“We meet with heavy hearts,” Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said at the beginning of the hearing. “Once again, our Army must recover from an act of unspeakable violence here at home. Much remains unknown about the shooting incident yesterday evening at Fort Hood, including the question of what prompted this horrible attack. All that is certain is that lives have been lost and that families are grieving. We all share in their grief. Secretary McHugh, General Odierno, please convey this committee’s condolences to the men and women of Fort Hood and the Army, and please be assured that this committee will fully support your efforts to care for those affected.”

Levin asked the officials to begin their testimony with any comments on Fort Hood.

McHugh said the shooter, identified as Army truck driver Ivan Lopez, 34, had visited psychiatrist last month and showed “no sign of any likely violence either to himself or others.”

He was taking medications including Ambien, the secretary said.

Lopez, who joined the Army in June 2008, was in Iraq for four months in 2011 but his record showed no signs of injury. McHugh said the shooter was a Puerto Rico native, and even though it’s not initially suspected “possible extremist involvement is still being looked at very carefully.”

A spokeswoman for the Puerto Rico National Guard said Lopez joined in 1999 and went on a mission to the Sinai Peninsula in the mid-2000s, according to the Associated Press. Lt. Col Ruth Diaz said Lopez left the Guard for the Army in 2010.

Odierno told the committee that some of the procedures put in place at Fort Hood after the 2009 massacre by Nidal Hasan “did help us yesterday,” adding that the toll “could have been much worse.”

President Obama was on a fundraising trip in Chicago when the shooting happened and returned to Washington as scheduled on Wednesday night.

On Air Force One, Obama hopped on a conference call with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, Chief of Staff of the Army General Ray Odierno, FBI Deputy Director Mark Giuliano, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa Monaco, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors, according to the White House.

“The President directed his team to utilize every resource available to fully investigate the shooting. As the President said earlier tonight, these brave men and women serve with valor and distinction, and when at home they need to feel safe. The Fort Hood community is strong and resilient, and the President emphasized the importance of doing everything we can to ensure the community has every resource needed to recover, heal, and come back stronger than before,” the White House said.

“The Department of Defense has the lead on the investigation with support from federal partners including the FBI, as well as state and local law enforcement personnel. The President will continue to receive updates as new information becomes available and has directed that his team do everything it can to assist the families of those lost and wounded today.”

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Iran’s New UN Envoy ‘Not Something We Can Just Turn a Blind Eye Toward’

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

A New York Democrat said despite the difficulty in blocking another country’s diplomat from coming into the U.S., anyone who participated in the 1979 hostage taking in Iran needs to be stopped.

“Let me just say for Ted Cruz and Eliot Engel to agree on something, it’s got to be right,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) quipped to CNN.

“Look, this fellow, by being an interpreter for the group that took American hostages, was certainly complicit in their capture,” he said of Hamid Aboutalebi, who was a member of Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line when the group took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. “And I just think it’s a terrible insult to the United States at a time when Iran is talking with us, purportedly is doing that in good faith, Iran continues to make mischief and wreak havoc in other places of the world. They are negative in Syria, they are a major funder of Hezbollah, a terrorist organization. They continue to do that with impunity. And now this, which is a real slap in the face.”

“The Iranians should withdraw their nomination and should send somebody else, because this — all of us that were alive at the time remember that hostage crisis, and that is not something I think we can just turn a blind eye toward.”

Engel said it’s “obvious” the ayatollah is pulling the strings on these provocations as Iran’s new president tries to project a facade of moderation.

“It’s just very, very troubling. It’s a slap in the face to Americans. And it ought to be withdrawn. And, you know, it’s very difficult for us to block a diplomat from coming in. But if it’s proven that he was part and parcel of it, I would urge our authorities to deny him entry into the country,” he said.

“…So it’s as if the Iranians are thumbing their nose at us and saying, well, we’re going to negotiate with you but we’re not going to change any of our bad behavior while we’re negotiating. It seems to me if you’re really serious in having negotiations that are fruitful, you’d stop some of the outrageous behavior. And sending this diplomat to New York as their representative to the U.N. is just another indication that the Iranians think they can get away with anything. And that, I think, is an ominous sign to their seriousness in these nuclear talks.”

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Obama Calls Ryan Budget a ‘Stinkburger’ or ‘Meanwich’

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

President Obama had interesting words to describe House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) latest Path to Prosperity budget at the University of Michigan yesterday.

In remarks to students pitching a minimum wage hike to $10.10 per hour, Obama said he stopped at Zingerman’s, a deli in Ann Arbor “because the sandwiches are outstanding” and “Zingerman’s is a business that treats its workers well, and rewards honest work with honest wages.”

“The reuben is killer,” he said. “So I ordered like the small  — and it didn’t look that small. So I gave half to Valerie Jarrett, who’s traveling with us. And then after I finished the half, I wanted the half back. But it was too late. All she had left was the pickle. So I took the pickle.”

“What Zingerman’s can do on its own, what even I can do as the head of the executive branch of the federal government, that doesn’t reach everybody.  If we’re going to do right by our fellow Americans, we need Congress to get onboard,” he said before lobbying for the minimum wage bill. “…It wouldn’t require any new taxes. It doesn’t require new spending. It doesn’t require new bureaucracy. But what it would do is help those families and give businesses more customers with more money to spend. And it would help grow the economy for everybody. So you would think this would be a no-brainer.”

Obama first compared Ryan’s budget to the movie Groundhog Day: “If this all sounds familiar, it should be familiar because it was their economic plan in the 2012 campaign, it was their economic plan in 2010.”

“If they tried to sell this sandwich at Zingerman’s, they’d have to call it the Stinkburger, or the Meanwich,” he said.

The Budget Committee passed Ryan’s budget this week for the fourth year in a row, notwithstanding Democratic objections.

“This budget lays out a long-term vision for the country. It will grow the economy and create jobs. It will strengthen key priorities like national security and Medicare,” Ryan said. “It will restore fairness by rooting out cronyism. And it will stop spending money we don’t have.“It is absolutely critical that we tackle these challenges, and tonight, we took a step in the right direction.”

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Schumer to DHS: Are You Guys Watching Security at New World Trade Center?

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) says “alarming” breaches of security at the construction site of the new World Trade Center call for an immediate Department of Homeland Security review of Port Authority security procedures.

One World Trade Center is scheduled to open to the public this year. Recently, a 16-year-old boy dressed like a construction worker squeezed through a fence, got past security and climbed to the top of the 1,776-foot skyscraper where he spent two hours alone. Three skydivers have also gotten to the top and security guards have been discovered literally sleeping on the job.

“The Freedom Tower should have top-notch, foolproof security, not something that can be fooled by a teenager and a couple of daredevils,” said Schumer. “It’s disconcerting that within six months, there have been a number of safety breaches involving such obvious problems as a hole in a fence. The Department of Homeland Security should make sure the city’s number one terror threat is safe from future harm and move forward with a federal review of security procedures at the World Trade Center site.”

Schumer noted the obvious — the harm that could have come to the city if those breaching security were nefarious instead of pranksters — and said DHS needs to be doing some oversight on the hundreds of millions in federal funds allocated to site security.

“These kinds of lapses in security are unacceptable and further investigation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security must be conducted to examine whether this is a systemic problem and action is needed to boost security at the site,” Schumer wrote to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson.

“…All of these breaches of security in a short period of succession point some serious flaws in the security at the World Trade Center site that need to be addressed immediately before terrorist actors seeking to do harm are the ones who break through.”

Schumer noted that a surveillance system was purchased for the building in August “but has yet to be installed.”

“The security plan surrounding the site is more commonly known as the ‘Ring of Steel’ and is supposed to be an impregnable, multi – layered set of measures encircling the World Trade Center. A tremendous amount of resources are being committed to secure the site, yet they seem to be failing at an alarming rate. The plan involves 25 barriers, 13 guard booths, and a large number of streets are being closed or restricted to traffic. Additionally it involves over a thousand police officers, counterterrorism forces, and security guards protecting the site,” the senator wrote.

“I urge you to have the U.S. Department of Homeland Security conduct an internal review into the security plan of the site and address any flaws that may be allowing unauthorized individuals to make their way into the site undetected.”

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‘Another Disaster’ at Fort Hood: Active Duty Soldier Turns Shooter

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

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Fort Hood was on a shelter-in-place order this afternoon with an active shooter on the base.

From KCEN TV:

We have reports that there are several injuries from this shooting. There is at least one patient being transported to the hospital.

We are also getting reports of victims in the Battle Simulation Center on 65th and Warehouse.

The suspect is still at large. The shooter was said to be in building 33026 which is the Medical Brigade Building.

Reports have said that he was driving a gray Toyota, described as a white male in an Army Combat Uniform, and carrying a .45 handgun.

 

UPDATE 6:45 p.m. EST: The Fort Hood press office has released a statement: “There has been a shooting at Fort Hood and injuries are reported. Emergency crews are on the scene. No further details are know at this time.”

The incident comes days after an FBI division sent out an alert about a recruit suspected of planning an assault like that committed by Nidal Hasan, who received a death sentence last year for the 2009 massacre at the base:

“On 20 March 2014, the Kansas City Division FBI became aware of an individual named BOOKER aka Muhammad Abdullah Hassan who had publicly stated his intention to commit jihad, bidding farewell to his friends and making comments indicating his jihad was imminent. BOOKER had been recruited by the US Army in Kansas City, Mo., in February 2014 and was scheduled to report for Basic Training on 7 April 2014. Kansas City Division Agents interviewed BOOKER on 20 March 2014.”

The title of the alert was “Planned Fort Hood-inspired Jihad against US Soldiers by Army Recruit” and was distributed to Marine Corps officials.

UPDATE 7 p.m. EST: Deputy press secretary Josh Earnest tells the White House pool: “The President has been informed of reports of a shooting at Fort Hood. He’ll continue to receive updates on the situation throughout the evening.” Obama is in Chicago this evening for a DNC event. UPDATE 7:15 p.m. EST: One shooter is reportedly dead at the scene, but Fort Hood officials have not confirmed any reports of dead or wounded. Officials are still trying to determine if there is another shooter. UPDATE 7:30 p.m. EST: From Fort Hood press office:

Fort Hood’s Directorate of Emergency Services has an initial report that a shooter is dead but this is unconfirmed. The injured personnel are being transported to Carl R. Darnall Medical Center and other local hospitals. Numerous law enforcement agencies are in support and on the scene. The number of injured are not confirmed at this time. No further details are known at this time. The post is currently still on lock down.

UPDATE 8 p.m. EST: House Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) tells CNN that four people are confirmed dead and 14 are injured, per briefings that the congressman received from various agencies. He said the known shooter is named Ivan Lopez, but McCaul stressed there are concerns about a second shooter on the loose and a possible “conspiracy.” McCaul said there are no apparent terror links at the moment, but the situation is still fluid.

UPDATE 8:15 p.m. EST: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in Hawaii for the ASEAN defense ministers meeting, gave a brief statement to media. “Fort Hood is still locked down… We don’t have all the facts yet… I have no additional facts or figures,” he said.

Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), who represents Fort Hood, told CNN, “This incredible military family at Fort Hood is going through another disaster.” Carter has staff on the ground near the base and said the shooter died of “probably a self-inflicted wound.” The Department of Homeland Security released the name of Lopez to Congress members, saying he’s active military, a truck driver, and was in full uniform.

The congressman said four of the wounded taken to area hospitals are in critical condition, one very critical. Unlike McCaul’s report, he said one person was confirmed dead. Carter called the reports of a second shooter “very similar to the Hasan shooting,” and added that “the Army’s very thorough” in combing through the installation to dispel that report.

UPDATE 8:30 p.m. EST: Statements from Texas’ senators: “Tonight, Texans’ hearts are once again very heavy,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “The scenes coming from Ft. Hood today are sadly too familiar and still too fresh in our memories. No community should have to go through this horrific violence once, let alone twice. I ask that all Americans join Sandy and me in praying for the victims, their families and the entire Ft. Hood community.”

“My prayers are with all in the Fort Hood community who have been impacted by today’s shooting, including first responders who have been actively working to move people out of harm’s way and secure the area,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). “Our office will continue to closely monitor the situation and stands ready to offer assistance as necessary.” Obama also delivered remarks on the shooting at a Chicago steakhouse.

“Any shooting is troubling. Obviously this reopens the pain of what happened at Fort Hood five years ago. We know these families. We know their incredible service to our country and the sacrifices that they make. Obviously our thoughts and prayers were — are with the entire community. And we are going to do everything we can to make sure that the community at Fort Hood has what it needs to deal with the current situation, but also any potential aftermath,” he said.

“We’re heartbroken that something like this might have happened again. And I don’t want to comment on the facts until I know exactly what has happened, but for now, I would just hope that everybody across the country is keeping the families and the community at Fort Hood in our thoughts and in our prayers.”

UPDATE 10:50 p.m. EST: In a press conference at Fort Hood, Lt. Gen. Mark A. Milley said that the shooter was on medication for psychiatric issues while being treated for depression and anxiety.

Milley said all of the victims were military: three dead in addition to the shooter, and 16 injured. The commander wouldn’t confirm the shooter as Lopez, saying next of kin had not been notified, but said the shooter had served four months in Iraq in 2011 and “self-reported” a traumatic brain injury though was not wounded in combat. He was currently being assessed for post-traumatic stress disorder but was “not yet diagnosed” and “was not in the process of being transitioned out of the military.”

The shooter used a Smith and Wesson .45 that was “purchased recently in the local area.” Milley said the shooter began shooting in one building, got in a vehicle and kept firing while driving, then went to another building to continue shooting. He was confronted in a parking lot by a female officer and shot himself in the head.

“I don’t think soldiers should have concealed weapons on base,” Milley said, arguing that the base has law enforcement that reacted “very rapidly.

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Senator Accuses Obama of Trying to Implement UN Arms Trade Treaty Without Congress

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

The senator leading the bipartisan coalition against the UN Arms Trade Treaty is concerned about new administration efforts to implement the treaty without bringing it through Congress.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) wrote President Obama today to mark the first anniversary of the majority-rule adoption of the treaty by the UN General Assembly.

On Oct. 15, 2013, 50 members of the Senate sent a letter to Obama “pledging to oppose ratification of the treaty, and giving notice that we do not regard the U.S. as bound to uphold its object as purpose.”

“In that letter, we set out six substantive concerns for this position, and invited your response,” Moran noted. “Though Assistant Secretary of State Tom Countryman stated in November that the administration is ‘ready to discuss [the treaty] with people who don’t agree with us…and have offered to do so…repeatedly with very little response,’ we have not received even the courtesy of an acknowledgement.”

A year ago, the Senate passed 53-46 an amendment to keep the U.S. from joining the treaty. Democrats signing the Moran letter were Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).

“I must conclude from this fact that your administration is not interested in responding substantively to the concerns we have raised. Particularly in view of our constitutional responsibility for providing advice and consent on treaties, and of your proclaimed intention to rely on executive actions to achieve your policy objectives, I find this troubling,” Moran wrote.

In December, Obama signed into law the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, which prohibited the Defense Department from funding any part of the treaty before it’s ratified.

“The views of the Senate having been made clear, I was concerned when your administration announced a new conventional arms export control policy on January 15. While Assistant Secretary Countryman stated in November that ‘becoming a party to the treaty would not require any additional export or import controls for the United States, full stop,’ the new policy, announced only two months later, bears a strong similarity to the criteria and standards in the treaty,” Moran continued.

“I therefore regard this new policy as an effort on the part of your administration to implement the treaty without obtaining the advice and consent of the Senate. I do not regard this policy as required by the treaty’s object and purpose: I view it as a voluntary effort to implement the treaty. I am disturbed both by the secrecy of the process that produced this new policy and the disregard it shows for the role of the Senate, in particular. I therefore call upon you to withdraw this policy and to consult fully with relevant committees and concerned offices as you revise it.”

Moran urged Obama to “notify the treaty depository that the U.S. does not intend to ratify the Arms Trade Treaty, and is therefore not bound by its obligations.”

“I pledge to continue leading my colleagues in opposing the ratification of this treaty, and wish to repeat our previous notice that we do not regard the U.S. as bound to uphold its object and purpose,” he said. “Lastly, I now urge you to end any and all efforts to implement the treaty before it passes completely through the entire U.S. ratification process, and thereby to show the respect for the constitutional processes that you are sworn to uphold.”

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EPA Experimented on Humans with Lethal Pollutants Without Risk Notifications

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

The Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general found that the agency didn’t notify test subjects in recent pollutant studies that they were being exposed to cancer-causing chemicals.

At the request of House Science, Space, and Technology Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Paul Broun (R-Ga.), the OIG looked into five research studies the EPA conducted in 2010 and 2011 involving 81 human subjects to test the effects of diesel exhaust.

The OIG found the “consent forms inconsistently addressed the risks of being exposed to [Concentrated Airborne Particles] and diesel exhaust,” with only one of the five studies’ forms providing the test subject “with information on the upper range of the pollutant he or she would be exposed to” and just two of the five “alerted study subjects to the risk of death for older individuals with cardiovascular disease.”

“Only two of the five studies’ consent forms included the risk of death from exposure to high levels of selected air pollutants such as [Particulate Matter] and diesel exhaust, and only one study’s consent form included the upper limits of exposure levels,” the report stated.

“…Evidence suggests that at least some human study subjects would like to know if a study involves risk of death, even if the risk is very small.  In the future, the EPA should include the long-term risk of cancer to potential subjects in its consent forms so study subjects can make the most informed decisions about whether to participate in a study.”

Six “adverse events” happened with test subjects in the five studies. “The EPA’s clinical follow-up for the six adverse events ranged from 1 day to 3 months after the event and included phone calls and emails by the EPA nurses. While the EPA’s clinical follow-up appeared to be reasonable, the EPA’s policies and guidance do not establish the EPA’s clinical follow-up responsibilities. In our view, the EPA should revise its guidance to establish the agency’s clinical follow-up responsibilities after an adverse event.”

Two of those “adverse events” were reported by the EPA “later than required,” the report noted.

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Sanders on Campaign Finance Ruling: ‘What World are the Justices Living in?’

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had a concise reaction to a Supreme Court ruling today that voided legal limits on contributions by individual donors to political campaigns: “What world are the five conservative Supreme Court justices living in?”

“Freedom of speech, in my view, does not mean the freedom to buy the United States government,” Sanders said. “To equate the ability of billionaires to buy elections with ‘freedom of speech’ is totally absurd. The Supreme Court is paving the way toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson will control our political process.”

If Sanders chooses to challenge Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination in 2016, though, he’d likely get slammed by deep-pocketed donors loyal to the Clintons.

The case challenged the $123,200 cap on what donors may give to all candidates and political organizations during a two-year federal election cycle. It did not address the $2,600 limit on how much one individual may give to any specific candidate for Congress in any election, which stands.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who filed an amicus brief in the case, said the court “once again reminded Congress that Americans have a Constitutional First Amendment right to speak and associate with political candidates and parties of their choice.”

“In Shaun McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission, the court did not strike down individual contribution limits to candidates, political action committees or parties. But the court did recognize that it is the right of the individual, and not the prerogative of Congress, to determine how many candidates and parties to support,” McConnell said in a statement. “Let me be clear for all those who would criticize the decision: It does not permit one more dime to be given to an individual candidate or a party — it just respects the Constitutional rights of individuals to decide how many to support.”

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), though, claimed the ruling “allowed big money to continue its manipulation of our democracy.”

“In an era where corporations are people and the wealthiest Americans buy elections, today’s decision further empowers a select few at the expense of the American people,” he said. “Make no mistake: this decision is a set-back for our freedoms.”

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Libertarian Party Cheers Jump in Party Membership as Other Parties Dip

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

The Libertarian Party reported today that national party registration has increased by 11.4 percent since 2012 as registration for all other parties has decreased.

Richard Winger, the editor of Ballot Access News, which analyzes the attempts of minority parties to get on the ballot, studied the 30 states and the District of Columbia allowing voters to mark party affiliation with their registration.

Within these states, Winger found that there were 368,561 registered Libertarians in March 2014 compared to 330,811 in November 2012.

Libertarians got the most votes in a presidential election in 2012, with 1,275,951 ballots cast for former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.

“I think it’s great that Libertarian registration is increasing throughout America, while the Democrats and Republicans have been shrinking,” Libertarian Party Chairman Geoffrey Neale said in a statement. “Maybe it’s our across-the-board message of ‘more freedom, less government.’”

The party said that the states with the largest percent increases were Idaho (161% increase), Wyoming (68% increase), Nebraska (55% increase), and Louisiana (33% increase).

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Senators Want to Block Visa for Iran Hostage Taker, New UN Emissary

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Senators are trying to block Iran’s new emissary to the United Nations, who participated in the 1979 taking of the American Embassy in Tehran, from getting a U.S. visa.

Hamid Aboutalebi, formerly Iran’s ambassador to Belgium and Italy, was a member of Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line when the group took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

Iran submitted a visa application for Aboutalebi to come to New York and serve as Tehran’s ambassador to the United Nations.

At the State Department on Monday, spokeswoman Marie Harf refused to comment on the new envoy. “The visa procedure is obviously confidential. We don’t discuss individual visa cases. People are free to apply for one, and their visas are adjudicated under the normal procedures that we adjudicate people’s. And we don’t comment and we don’t make a prediction about the outcome of what that process might look like,” she said.

When asked if the U.S. kept a reference list of all people involved in the 1979 seizure, Harf said she didn’t know.

“I really just don’t have anything further for you on the gentleman that they have reportedly named to be their UN perm-rep,” she told reporters at the daily briefing. “I’m sure we’ll talk about it more in the coming days, but nothing for you today.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the granting of a visa would be “a slap in the face to the 52 Americans held hostage in Iran for 444 days and an affront to all Americans.”

“The very idea Iran would appoint someone to represent them at the United Nations in New York — who was connected in such a direct way to the American Embassy takeover in 1979 — says a lot about the regime and the so-called moderation of President Rouhani,” Graham said this morning. “Iran has been involved in worldwide terrorism plots and designated as a state sponsor of terrorism. Iran provided equipment used to kill American soldiers in Iraq. Iran supports Hamas and Hezbolloah, two terrorist organizations. And finally, Iran continues its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, not a peaceful nuclear power plant.”

“I’m hopeful the Senate will soon send a strong signal to Iranians that we will not accept this individual or allow him to represent Iran on American soil.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced a bill yesterday banning known terrorists from entering the U.S. on visas.

“It is unconscionable that, in the name of international diplomatic protocol, the United States would be forced to host a foreign national who showed a brutal disregard for the status of our diplomats when they were stationed in his country,” Cruz said.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) sent Secretary of State John Kerry a letter demanding that Aboutalebi take his rightful place on a visa blacklist.

“This man has no place in the diplomatic process, and the State Department should flat-out deny his visa application,” Schumer told the New York Post. “Iran’s attempt to appoint Mr. Aboutalebi is a slap in the face to the Americans that were abducted, and their families; it reveals a disdain for the diplomatic process and we should push back in kind.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called Iran’s selection “really kind of an in-your-face action by the Iranian government, sending a guy who was responsible for the absolutely, totally illegal incarceration of American citizens.”

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Abbas Defies Obama-Kerry Plan, Requests Recognition by International Agencies

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

The Obama administration received a sharp rebuke on its drive to forge a Middle East peace process when President Mahmoud Abbas applied for Palestinian state membership in 15 international organizations.

Secretary of State John Kerry was supposed to meet with Abbas in Ramallah on Wednesday, but that was abruptly called off.

“I’ve heard a rumor about, a quote not being invited sort of, but I’m not sure I’m going, regardless of that, whether or not we have certain things that we’re trying to figure out in terms of the logistics on the ground and what is possible,” Kerry said Tuesday at NATO before confirmation that the trip wouldn’t be happening.

The administration has been pushing for a framework agreement by April 29, which would extend the talks into 2015. The Palestinians complained that Israel wasn’t releasing prisoners on time and complained about construction in the West Bank.

The White House has been considering releasing Jonathan Pollard, a U.S. citizen sentenced to life behind bars in 1987 for spying for Israel, in an attempt to butter up Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept Obama and Kerry’s proposal.

“I continue to believe that releasing Jonathan Pollard is the right thing to do,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said. “However, releasing Mr. Pollard simply to keep Israeli-Palestinian talks going is totally misguided and would be seen as a desperate attempt to avert failure.”

Kerry swore, though, that even Abbas’ move in clear defiance of U.S. demands doesn’t mean failure.

“It is completely premature tonight to draw any kind of judgment, certainly any final judgment, about today’s events and where things are,” he said. “This is a moment to be really clear-eyed and sober about this process. It is difficult, it is emotional, it requires huge decisions, some of them with great political difficulty, all of which need to come together simultaneously.”

“And all I can tell you is that we are continuing, even now as I am standing up here speaking, to be engaged with both parties to find the best way forward. We’ve been in touch with the White House and Washington during the day, as well as all of the parties. And I’ve talked to many people on the ground in the region, and I will continue to even tonight.”

Kerry urged “both sides to show restraint” while a “team is on the ground” to work with both sides.

Abbas has said for nine months that he would set aside his pushes for statehood during negotiations, but instead he went on live Palestinian television to sign the applications for recognition by the agencies, including ones dealing with women’s rights and the Geneva and Vienna Conventions, a Palestinian official told the New York Times.

“We don’t want to collide with the U.S. administration. We want a good relationship with Washington because it helped us and exerted huge efforts. But because we did not find ways for solution, this becomes our right,” Abbas said.

At NATO, Kerry waxed that “it’s moments like this when we all need to remember exactly what brought us to this effort in the first place, what the goal is, and where everybody wants to end up.”

“I know that President Abbas in his comments made it clear that he intends to continue to work, even tonight, on this process that we are engaged in,” he said, adding in apparent reference to both Pollard and the Palestinian prisoners that “at this point in time, no agreement has been reached with respect to any prisoner.”

In fact, Kerry was insistent that Abbas hadn’t breached any part of the negotiations agreement because he wasn’t seeking UN recognition. “None of the agencies that President Abbas signed tonight involve the UN. None of them,” he said.

“And President Abbas has given his word to me that he will keep his agreement and that he intends to negotiate through the end of the month of April,” he added.

However, in the words of Abbas: “The Palestinian leadership has unanimously approved a decision to seek membership of 15 UN agencies and international treaties, beginning with the Fourth Geneva Convention.”

Palestinians were up in arms that Israel didn’t release a fourth batch of prisoners on March 29. “I’m not going to get into the who, why, what, when, where, how of why we’re where we are today. We’re where we are today – and the important thing is to keep the process moving and find a way to see whether the parties are prepared to move forward. In the end, this is up to the parties,” Kerry continued.

“…President Obama has been as committed to this as anybody. He has committed his personal time. He has committed my time. The President is desirous of trying to see how we can make our best efforts in order to find a way to facilitate. But facilitation is only as good as the willingness of leaders to actually make decisions when they’re put in front of them.”

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Obama: ‘There are Still No Death Panels; Armageddon Has Not Arrived’

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Declaring that “Armageddon” hasn’t occurred since implementation of the Affordable Care Act, President Obama did a victory lap in the Rose Garden and declared 7.1 million had signed up for Obamacare.

“The truth is, even more folks want to sign up.  So anybody who was stuck in line because of the huge surge in demand over the past few days can still go back and finish your enrollment — 7.1 million, that’s on top of the more than 3 million young adults who have gained insurance under this law by staying on their family’s plan,” Obama said with Vice President Joe Biden smirking over his shoulder.

“These are all benefits that have been taking place for a whole lot of families out there, many who don’t realize that they’ve received these benefits. But the bottom line is this: Under this law, the share of Americans with insurance is up and the growth of health care costs is down, and that’s good for our middle class and that’s good for our fiscal future,” he added.

Each of his applause lines got a wild reaction from the crowd, which, according to a White House aide, was composed of “organizations and stakeholder groups who helped lead the enrollment and outreach efforts, as well as Hill lawmakers and staff from HHS, CMS and other agencies involved in implementing the ACA.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was notably not at Obama’s side during his remarks, but was spotted by the White House press pool “walking up and down the aisle before the speech began greeting people and shaking hands.” Obama did not mention her name.

“All told, because of this law, millions of our fellow citizens know the economic security of health insurance who didn’t just a few years ago — and that’s something to be proud of.  Regardless of your politics or your feelings about me, or your feelings about this law, that’s something that’s good for our economy, and it’s good for our country.  And there’s no good reason to go back,” Obama declared before going into a handful of anecdotes about happy Obamacare users.

“Like every major piece of legislation — from Social Security to Medicare — the law is not perfect.  We’ve had to make adjustments along the way, and the implementation — especially with the website — has had its share of problems.  We know something about that.  And, yes, at times this reform has been contentious and confusing, and obviously it’s had its share of critics.  That’s part of what change looks like in a democracy.  Change is hard.  Fixing what’s broken is hard.  Overcoming skepticism and fear of something new is hard.  A lot of times folks would prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t,” he continued.

“…I’ve got to admit, I don’t get it. Why are folks working so hard for people not to have health insurance? Why are they so mad about the idea of folks having health insurance? Many of the tall tales that have been told about this law have been debunked. There are still no death panels. Armageddon has not arrived. Instead, this law is helping millions of Americans, and in the coming years it will help millions more.”

The president said he’s “willing to work with” people who want to make Obamacare “work even better,” but “the debate over repealing this law is over.”

“In the end, history is not kind to those who would deny Americans their basic economic security,” he said. “Nobody remembers well those who stand in the way of America’s progress or our people. And that’s what the Affordable Care Act represents. As messy as it’s been sometimes, as contentious as it’s been sometimes, it is progress.”

Obama said it was due to a grass-roots communications effort that the White House met signup goals.

“I want to make sure everybody understands: In the months, years ahead, I guarantee you there will be additional challenges to implementing this law. There will be days when the website stumbles — I guarantee it. So, press, just — I want you to anticipate — there will be some moment when the website is down — and I know it will be on all of your front pages.  It’s going to happen. It won’t be news.”

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Ryan Unveils Latest GOP Budget That Cuts $5.1 Trillion in Spending

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) unveiled the latest incarnation of the Path to Prosperity budget blueprint, a proposal that vows to cut $5.1 trillion in government spending and gets a thumb’s up from the Congressional Budget Office for economic growth.

Ryan says his plan balances the budget within a decade, strengthens Medicare and national security, repeals Obamacare, reforms the tax code and tackles entitlement reform.

“This is a plan to balance the budget and create jobs, and it builds off a simple fact: We can’t keep spending money we don’t have,” Ryan said. “…The Bipartisan Budget Act was a good first step. But we can and must do more. As the House majority, we have a responsibility to lay out a long-term vision for the country, and this budget shows how we will solve our nation’s biggest challenges.”

“By cutting wasteful spending, strengthening key priorities, and laying the foundation for a stronger economy, we have shown the American people there’s a better way forward.”

The White House immediately jumped on Ryan’s plan as “the same old top-down approach.”

“The House Republican Budget stands in stark contrast to the President’s Budget, which would accelerate economic growth and expand opportunity for all hardworking Americans, while continuing to cut the deficit in a balanced way. The President has put forward a Budget that rewards hard work with fair wages, equips all children with a high-quality education to prepare them for a good job, puts a secure retirement within reach, and ensures health care is affordable and reliable, while at the same time asking the wealthiest to pay their fair share and making tough cuts to programs we can’t afford,” press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.

“And by paying for new investments and tackling our true fiscal challenges, the President’s Budget builds on the progress we’ve already made to cut the deficit by more than half since 2009 and cuts the deficit as a share of the economy to 1.6 percent by 2024. It also stabilizes the debt as a share of the economy by 2015 and puts it on a declining path after that,” Carney continued. “Budgets are about choices and values. House Republicans have chosen to protect tax breaks for the wealthiest rather than create opportunities for middle class families to get ahead.”

Ryan reaped praise from his House colleagues, though. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) lauded how it “prioritizes expanded American energy production and recognizes that new energy development is one of the best ways to raise new revenue, put Americans back to work, bolster the economy, lower gasoline prices, and create good-paying jobs.”

“Onshore and offshore U.S. energy production on our federal lands currently accounts for the second largest source of revenue to the U.S. Treasury,” Hastings said. “Yet the full potential of our energy resources will never be realized if the Obama Administration continues to block new leases sales and impose unnecessary bureaucratic regulations and costly red-tape.”

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) tweeted, “Paul Ryan ran for VP on a very similar budget to the one he released today. Americans didn’t like it last time, they won’t this time.”

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Christie: Obama Hug Had ‘Absolutely No Effect’ on Romney’s Loss

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said his hug with President Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy did not hurt Mitt Romney in his quest for the Oval Office.

“No, and the best source for that information is not me. It’s Mitt Romney. And I have seen him, publicly say over and over again, that it had absolutely no effect on the race, either subjectively for the way he felt or objectively in terms of what they’re polls will reflect at that time. So, the answer is no,” Christie told Fox.

“Secondly, the other thing that Mitt Romney said to me at that time was you’re doing your job. Go do your job as best as you can. I’ve had that job.”

Christie said he would remind voters who might hold a grudge that there wasn’t “one person with the possible exception of Paul Ryan in America who worked harder for Mitt Romney.”

“I was the first governor to come out and endorsed him in the fall of 2011. I traveled to 26 states for him. And right up until the day of Hurricane Sandy, in fact that Friday before hurricane Sandy, I was in North Carolina campaigning and raising money for Mitt Romney,” he said. “So, some people have — who are you referring to, have a very short memory. Fortunately, Mitt Romney doesn’t and the fair people don’t. When that crisis hit, I was asked has the president have been responsive? Has the president been there to help the people? And my answer is yes.”

Christie was asked to give his top three names for the GOP nomination in 2016.

“I don’t know if I can restrict myself to three. But I can give you the ones that I can think of that are really good. I think Jeb Bush would be an outstanding candidate for president. I think Scott Walker would be a really good candidate for president. I think Paul Ryan would be a really good candidate for president,” he said.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) would be “a credible candidate for president,” Christie continued. “I think Marco Rubio would be a good candidate for president.”

“I intend to campaign for whoever Republican nominee is because I’m a Republican. Whatever differences I may have with any one of those people that I just named myself because there were differences between me and those folks, it would be minor compared to the differences I would have with whoever the Democratic nominee is. Listen, if Mitt Romney wanted to run again, I would be totally up to him. I don’t think he will.”

On his own potential candidacy? “We’ll see.”

“I think I’m older and more experienced and it is certainly something that I said to everybody that I consider,” he said. “…And you know what? If you don’t have baggage, they will create baggage for you. That’s politics in America today, that’s the way it goes. In the end, you know what? People don’t judge you on that kind of stuff. People look into your eyes and they try to decide what is in here. And that is how they vote. They vote for what they believe is in your heart. And can they trust you? Do you care about them and understand them? Will you be the type of person that they will be proud of sitting in that office?”

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Dem Congressman: Obamacare Opponents are Like Galileo’s Doubters

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

A Missouri Democrat said the same people accusing President Obama of cooking the books on Obamacare enrollment numbers “are the same people who were upset with Galileo for saying that the world was round.”

“And I think we’ve got to come to expect that it’s unfortunate that we have people out here who have simply jumped to their own confusion. And we have a responsibility to just continue to make progress,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) told MSNBC. “The president was right. And in spite of the glitches, we made tremendous progress, 3.1 million young people, 26 years and younger who are out of high school are still able to get insurance with their parents.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters yesterday that there was no timeline on when final enrollment numbers would be released. Obama added a Rose Garden statement to his schedule Tuesday to tout signups.

Cleaver declared it “is a good day.”

“Some — we just have to understand who will not come along, they’re going to be left behind. And that there’s not much we can do about them,” he added.

Cleaver mentioned an informal poll that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) posted on his Facebook page: “Quick poll: Obamacare was signed into law four years ago yesterday. Are you better off now than you were then? Comment with YES or NO!” There was a deluge of “yes” comments among the more than 52,000 left on the post.

“This is not been a good Monday for the senator from Texas,” Cleaver said. “Because I think he, like some others, have over the past couple of years gone out and given their opinions along with several unrelated facts. They have done everything they could to kill this legislation that’s going to help millions of Americans… I hope I never get to the point where I get up in the morning with my goal being that I want to take something away from people that can make their lives better. And these guys get up in the morning trying to keep people from getting insurance and that is sick.”

“…I think that anybody who has even a moderately good memory will recall that there was not a single debate and very few speeches that were made either by President Obama or by Mr. Romney that did not raise the issue of the Affordable Care Act. It was front and center. And so the people of this country considered what was going on, and the proposals that have been brought forth on the ACA, and they voted to reelect the president anyway. And I think that eventually that the others are going to get on board when all other alternatives have been exhausted.”

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RNC Says It’s Changing Party’s Color to Blue

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

The Republican National Committee announced this morning that they want to be the blue party from now on, and Democrats can have red.

“The RNC has made a commitment to attracting new voters and revitalizing the image of the Republican Party,” said Reince Chairman Priebus. “This unprecedented color swap sends a clear signal that we’re serious about change—and that we’re making a clean break with the recent past. After careful consideration and analysis, guided by two focus groups of working women in Colorado and Virginia and a poll of Millennial voters, we determined that becoming the party of blue would improve our standing in 2014, 2016 and beyond.”

Priebus said Democrats can now “be the party of red, which is much more in line with their record and values.”

“After all, they are the party of red tape, red lines, and red ink. They’ve driven our country deeper in the red, and the DNC itself is swimming in red ink: they’re still $15 million in debt. In other words, this color swap is both beneficial and logical,” he said.

“As recently as the 2000 election, Republicans, like other major conservative parties in the world, were more closely associated with blue. Mainstream media outlets like the New York Times then decided to paint us red. We’ve had enough of the media’s games and are reclaiming the color blue.”

The RNC’s link to a picture of the new party logo went to an April Fool’s message, though the statement was released on March 31.

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Carney: Judge Healthcare.gov Not on ‘Glitches,’ But on Its Resurrection from ‘Dark Days’

Monday, March 31st, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters at Monday’s briefing that there was a Healthcare.gov “technical problem that the tech team is on,” but was vague about the details and heavy on the cheerleading.

The website went down just after 3 a.m. Eastern time today and was out of commission for several hours. “During times of especially high demand, you may be queued to begin your online Marketplace application to ensure the best possible shopping experience,” read an alert at the top of the site later Monday.

The Department of Health and Human Services blamed the trouble on a software bug that emerged during routine overnight site maintenance.

“There are currently 100,000 people in the system who are enrolling, and there is no problem for them to enroll. For the causes of different glitches that are being addressed, I would refer you to CMS. But as has been the case all along, when there is a problem like this, it gets addressed and addressed quickly,” Carney said.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said Sunday that its techs were on “real time monitoring of HealthCare.gov systems around the clock to ensure a smooth consumer experience.”

“Over the past week the site has handled record consumer demand well – supporting more than 8.7m visits since last Sunday, with 2 million alone this weekend. The site continues to perform well under the largest sustained period of volume to date with average response times less than 400 milliseconds and an error rate of 0.5%,” CMS said in a statement. “…In the last week the HealthCare.gov team has sent emails to millions of people and more than 65,000 text messages to consumers reminding them of the steps they need to take to complete enrollment before the March 31 deadline.”

When pressed on two stories that reporters were being told — a software glitch vs. too many people rushing to get health insurance — Carney was vague.

“And what I’m telling you is that I would refer you to the experts in terms of — because this is obviously very fast, I think they are working on it, and when they can give you an answer,” he said. “What I think what is important, because I know there has been a lot of focus on glitches, is that there has been a remarkable story since the dark days of October and November, which has resulted in a situation where here on the last day of enrollment we are looking at a number substantially larger than 6 million people enrolled.”

“And I dare say that there are a few people in this room, including some of the folks who work in the White House, who would have predicted that we would get to that number. And it is because of the remarkable persistence and hard work of the teams that fix the problems at healthcare.gov. And it is because of the determination of the American people who so clearly demonstrated the desire for quality affordable health insurance that they would not be deterred, despite the problems that the system initially presented, and which had to be fixed.”

Carney insisted that we’re now seeing “some pretty incredible things, including more than 6 million people, as I’ve said, having signed up. We saw people lining up around the block this weekend, 2.9 million visits to the website this weekend. And last week alone we saw more calls to the call centers than in all of February.”

“No one expected us to come back from the brink or to surpass the revised CBO projection that 6 million consumers would sign up in year one, but we have. And I think that merits noting in your reports,” he added.

Carney didn’t, though, have an estimated date when reporters would receive final enrollment figures.

“As you know, as was the case in December, there will be an opportunity for those who have initiated the process but are not able to finish it at midnight tonight to ensure that they get signed up for health insurance, and we will not know what that universe of people looks like until we get past the deadline tonight,” he said.

“So what I can tell you is we expect the numbers to be significant, as we have seen in this period towards the end of the open enrollment period. As we predicted all along, there would be a substantial number of people that at the very end would, when faced with the deadline, enroll. And that is what we are seeing.”

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Dem Senators Urge Navy Secretary to Ban Tobacco Sales on Bases, Ships

Monday, March 31st, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus is being urged by a group of Democratic senators blaming wide availability for higher military smoking rates to ban tobacco sales at naval bases and aboard ships.

Both the Navy and Marine Corps are considering the move, as reported by Military Times. A March 14 Defense Department memo encouraged bans on sales and use of tobacco on bases, yet didn’t call for a specific policy adaptation. The Pentagon said it’s still reviewing the issue and has not arrived at any decisions yet.

“Structural reforms in how and where we allow tobacco purchases to be made, as well as the need to consider tobacco-free installations, are all matters that require our near-term attention,” stated the memo, signed by Jessica Wright, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) told Mabus they hope the service will “move forward with this initiative which will renew emphasis on the health of our dedicated sailors and Marines as well as provide for increased combat readiness.”

“The high rate of tobacco use by active-duty personnel is not only harmful to their health, but also costs the federal government significantly in the longterm. While annual profits from all Department of Defense (DOD) authorized military tobacco sales are roughly $90 million, a DOD report from June 2009 estimated that the annual tobacco-related military health costs and lost productivity are about $1.9 billion, or 21 times greater than the annual sales. While smoking rates among active-duty military have decreased in the past few decades—similar to the trends that we are seeing in the civilian population—DOD should do more to lower the smoking rates among active-duty military,” the senators wrote in their letter.

“A 2008 DOD study found that smoking rates among all branches of the military was 30.6 percent, compared to 20.6 percent among adults in the general U.S. population. Additionally, 33 percent of surveyed active-duty personnel said that the availability of cigarettes at many places on installations made it easier to smoke. Wide availability could contribute to the fact that nearly half of all smokers surveyed had attempted to quit but were unsuccessful. Several factors purportedly contribute to high smoking rates such as stress relief and the desire to relax or calm down. The Department should ensure that adequate support is always available to personnel seeking to quit tobacco use, including the existing effort to offer tobacco cessation products and services.”

The senators applauded Mabus for recent efforts “to increase smoke-free areas on bases, eliminate smoking on submarines, and improve access to cessation services.”

“We urge you to do everything in your capacity to address this issue for our military men and women, including moving forward with the proposal to stop the sale of tobacco aboard all naval bases and ships.”

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Clyburn: White House Can Step Up Help for House Dems in November

Monday, March 31st, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Assistant House Democratic Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said his party is facing a midterm election challenge from a news cycle that is “getting smaller and smaller, quicker, quicker.”

“Therefore, it’s kind of tough to lay out the kind of vision you’d like to see, you know, for the country. Because you need to respond so often,” Clyburn told MSNBC this morning.

He said they’ll have “to really concentrate at the local levels” to get Democrats to show up to the polls in a non-presidential year.

“The fact of the matter is, we’re not gonna have a national ticket in most states. And so, what you gotta do is concentrate on the gubernatorial races and the Senate races,” Clyburn said. “I think we’ll have some surprises this year. I feel pretty good about those races.”

“…On minimum wage, I think that we will stay focused on that. We believe it’s important have a minimum wage increase. The fact of the matter is we’ve been at $7.25 now for, what, 10 years? It’s time for us to do something about that. Now, will it happen before the elections? I don’t think so… Because I don’t think that the Republicans feel that they will pay a price if they don’t.”

Clyburn was asked if the White House is pulling out all the stops to help House Dems. “Well, I don’t know if they’re doing everything they possibly can,” he replied. “But we will get there. I feel real good about where we are now.”

The congressman acknowledged Obama’s doing a lot of fundraising for his party, but “I do not believe that fundraising will be key in November. I think the organization will be key.”

“And if we can get the White House to come in, or at least the president’s political operations to help us at the state and local levels the way they did in Ohio and Florida — the mechanisms they put in place were just great… I’m gonna get on the phone and ask him.”

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Kerry: ‘Costs of Inaction’ on Climate Change are ‘Catastrophic’

Monday, March 31st, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Secretary of State John Kerry touted a working group’s latest report on climate change as irrefutable proof that the globe is warming.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in the report titled “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability” that “the effects of climate change are already occurring on all continents and across the oceans. The world, in many cases, is ill-prepared for risks from a changing climate.”

The UN report included 309 coordinating lead authors, lead authors, and review editors fro 70 countries along with 436 contributing authors and 1,729 expert and government reviewers, according to the IPCC.

“We live in an era of man-made climate change,” said Vicente Barros, co-chairman of Working Group II. “In many cases, we are not prepared for the climate-related risks that we already face. Investments in better preparation can pay dividends both for the present and for the future.”

Kerry said after reading the report one can’t “deny the reality”: “Unless we act dramatically and quickly, science tells us our climate and our way of life are literally in jeopardy. Denial of the science is malpractice.”

“There are those who say we can’t afford to act. But waiting is truly unaffordable. The costs of inaction are catastrophic,” Kerry continued in a statement. “We can already see the damage it’s causing to our ecosystems, wildlife, glaciers, and countless other natural habitats. We can feel the impact of rising temperatures and sea level rise on vulnerable coastal areas. We know the security risks of water scarcity and flooding; widespread land and marine species extinction; and devastated crop yields in some of the poorest nations on earth.”

“No single country causes climate change, and no one country can stop it. But we need to match the urgency of our response with the scale of the science.”

Kerry said the U.S. is “meeting the challenge” with President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, and the administration is “committed to reaching an ambitious agreement to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions with other countries in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.”

“The clock is ticking. The more we delay, the greater the threat,” he said. “Let’s make our political system wake up and let’s make the world respond.”

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Feinstein: It’s Not the Job of U.S. Intelligence to Pay Attention to Planes

Monday, March 31st, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told CNN on Sunday that in the three weeks since the Malaysian Airlines flight disappeared they still haven’t learned anything definitive beyond what’s being broadcast to the public.

“No, and you have to understand that American intelligence doesn’t gear itself to be ready for plane crashes. That is not its job. Our job is terrorism and missile defense and that kind of thing,” Feinstein said.

She echoed what the administration has been saying: terrorism has not been ruled in or out.

“So far there has been none. And but there is speculation, but there is nothing,” the senator said.

“It is a very, very hard situation because they really don’t have what they need to carefully calculate a reasonable area where the ship may be,” Feinstein continued. “So — where the plane may be. So this is a very difficult mission. I think it’s the fact that so many nations are participating that they’re getting more ships, more planes, a little bit more direction, being flexible, changing the places where they look. I think all of this is good.”

“But it also indicates that there is no real method of calculation that’s functioning very well.”

The chairwoman said she wasn’t sure if the U.S. has clearer satellite images of the area. “Not necessarily. I would answer that that way. I don’t know whether more sophisticated satellites could be turned on to this area. I just don’t know,” she said.

“…I’m sure, if asked, our intelligence services would provide whatever data they could. They probably do not have data.”

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Vietnam War Hero, Former Senator Denton Dies at 89

Friday, March 28th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Former Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.), who survived nearly eight years of torture and imprisonment at the hands of the North Vietnamese, died Friday of a heart ailment at a Virginia Beach hospice. He was 89 years old.

President Obama said in a statement that Denton “bravely served his country as a naval aviator in Vietnam and went on to represent the people of Alabama in the U.S. Senate.”

“After his aircraft was shot down by enemy fire in North Vietnam, he spent nearly eight years as a prisoner of war. One of the highest-ranking officers to be taken prisoner in Vietnam, he endured torture, starvation, and years of solitary confinement with extraordinary fortitude,” the president continued.

“The valor that he and his fellow POWs displayed was deeply inspiring to our nation at the time, and it continues to inspire our brave men and women who serve today. As Senator, he served as a strong advocate for our national security. He leaves behind a legacy of heroic service to his country, and Michelle and I send our condolences to the Denton family.”

Navy Adm. Denton’s A-6 Intruder was shot down south of Hanoi just a month after he deployed to the region in 1965. In a 1966 propaganda video, he blinked the word “torture” in Morse code. In 1973, he was the first of the POWs freed at the end of U.S. involvement in the war to come off the plane at Clark Air Base in the Philippines.

Denton served one term in the Senate before being defeated by now-Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) in 1986.

“Admiral Denton will be long remembered for his service to America,” Shelby said in a statement Friday. “He was a war hero, an honorable senator, and a family man who cared deeply about his country. I send my deepest condolences to his family during this difficult time.”

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Putin Calls Obama, Hints at Move to ‘Protect’ Sliver of Moldova

Friday, March 28th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Russian President Vladimir Putin called up President Obama on Friday as tens of thousands of Russian troops pressed along the Ukraine border and Washington feared a fresh invasion as a response to the White House’s initial sanctions.

The Kremlin said the call was about the two leaders “exchanging views on the crisis in Ukraine.”

“Vladimir Putin drew Barack Obama’s attention to continued rampage of extremists who are committing acts of intimidation towards peaceful residents, government authorities and law enforcement agencies in various regions and in Kiev with impunity,” Putin’s office said in a statement. “In light of this, the President of Russia suggested examining possible steps the global community can take to help stabilize the situation. The two presidents agreed that specific parameters for this joint work will be discussed by the Russian and US foreign ministers in the near future.”

Putin also complained about a “blockade” to Transnistria, a breakaway sliver of Moldova along the border of Ukraine populated with Russian and Ukrainian speakers, “which significantly complicate[s] the living conditions for the region’s residents, impeding their movement and normal trade and economic activities.”

“He stressed that Russia stands for the fair and comprehensive settlement of the Transnistria conflict and hopes for effective work in the existing 5+2 negotiation format,” the Kremlin added.

In a separate release, the Kremlin said Putin’s national security council met to “begin the process of withdrawing from a number of bilateral Russian-Ukrainian agreements,” particularly dealing with the Black Sea fleet, and “there was an exchange of views on strengthening Russia’s position in the Arctic region.” That foreshadowed a potential next chapter of conflict between Washington and Moscow.

The White House version of the call was naturally different, stating that Putin called “to discuss the U.S. proposal for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Ukraine, which Secretary Kerry had again presented to Foreign Minister Lavrov at the meeting at the Hague earlier this week, and which we developed following U.S. consultations with our Ukrainian and European partners.”

“President Obama suggested that Russia put a concrete response in writing and the presidents agreed that Kerry and Lavrov would meet to discuss next steps,” continued the White House readout. “President Obama noted that the Ukrainian government continues to take a restrained and de-escalatory approach to the crisis and is moving ahead with constitutional reform and democratic elections, and urged Russia to support this process and avoid further provocations, including the buildup of forces on its border with Ukraine.”

The administration statement said Obama “underscored to President Putin that the United States continues to support a diplomatic  path in close consultation with the Government of Ukraine and in support of the Ukrainian people with the aim of de-escalation of the crisis.”

“President Obama made clear that this remains possible only if Russia pulls back its troops and does not take any steps to further violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.  President Obama reiterated that the United States has strongly opposed the actions that Russia has already taken to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Euromaidan PR, the official voice of the movement that ousted Viktor Yanukovych, tweeted disdain about the statement. “White House summary of #Putin‘s call to #Obama doesn’t even mention #Crimea! ‘Crisis in Ukraine’? ‘Next steps’? First leave Crimea!”

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters Friday that Putin assured him “that he had no intention to make any military move” into southern and eastern Ukraine. “I should also tell you that, at the same time, President Putin also expressed his concern about some extreme radical elements and any such movement along the borderlines,” Ban added.

“I have been really trying to urge both parties to de-escalate the situation. Emotions were running high, as you will agree, and tensions have been very highly charged. Therefore, my immediate priority was to urge them, urge the leaders of both [countries] to engage in direct dialogue,” he said. “I also urged the leaders of the Ukraine authorities to address all domestic concerns which they may have, which may also create concerns to the Russian side; therefore, a mutual effort would be very important at this time. But he assured me that he would have no such intention.”

Ban has apparently been so unconcerned of further Russian invasion that he spent the previous two days in Greenland studying climate change. “While I really admire the wisdom of people of Greenland, who are living harmoniously with nature, but their livelihood is seriously threatened because of the melting glaciers and extreme weather patterns and sea level rise are now starting from that area,” the UN leader said. “So I really wanted to send a strong warning to world leaders, standing on the Arctic ice.”

Reuters quoted U.S. sources estimating the Russian troop buildup hit 40,000, including developed supply lines and a breadth of forces — including the unmarked troops that occupied Crimea.

Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters on board Air Force One en route to Riyadh on Friday that there was “nothing new in terms of the troops on the border.”

“We of course continue to be very concerned about the Russian deployments on the border that go well beyond any military exercise that they would need to do as part of their standard practice,” Rhodes said. “So it’s something we’re watching very closely.”

Putin’s call came after this week’s G-7 meeting at the Nuclear Security Summit, where the G-8 decided to operate without Russia and take further moves against Moscow if additional Ukrainian territory is invaded.

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Ukraine Selfie Today, Pink Ushanka Pic with Lavrov Yesterday

Friday, March 28th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

State Department press secretary Jen Psaki today…

And Pskai in mid-January, posing with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a pink ushanka given to her by the Russian government…

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Nunes Guns for House Intelligence Committee Chairmanship

Friday, March 28th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

California Republican Devin Nunes is gunning for the Intelligence Committee chairmanship as the current chairman heads for a career in talk radio.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), 50, a former FBI agent who has served seven terms in the House, announced today that he won’t seek re-election and will move into broadcasting.

“As I close this chapter in my life, I am excited to begin a new one that allows me to continue serving as a voice for American exceptionalism and support a strong national security policy agenda,” Rogers said in a statement.

Soon after, Nunes released a statement announcing that he would seek the gavel.

“Chairman Rogers has been an excellent and energetic chairman of the Intelligence Committee, guiding the committee’s work through the attack on Benghazi, the outbreak of war in Syria, and other challenging issues,” Nunes said. “Under his leadership, the committee functioned in an effective, bipartisan way. I wish him good luck in his future career in broadcasting, and would be privileged to be considered as his successor as chairman.”

The 40-year-old congressman, who’s served in Congress since 2003, is close to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) — both in proximity of their offices in the Longworth House Office Building and in terms of the lawmakers who have the Speaker’s ear.

Nunes isn’t close, however, to the current chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) have been at loggerheads over water rights as Nunes has tried to relieve the chokehold of environmental regulations and get water to his parched agricultural constituents in the Golden State’s central valley.

Rogers, on the other hand, has enjoyed a friendly working relationship with Feinstein as they shared key national security views.

Of the Benghazi attack and subsequent congressional probes, Nunes told PJM in October 2012 that “it’s a fact that within 12 hours the Intelligence Committee knew this was an attack.”

“The best thing for the American people, Congress, government, is for everyone to come clean,” at the very least to the intelligence panels, Nunes stressed. “The last thing we want to do is go through some long investigation because people are lying, and that’s where we’re headed — and that’s really unfortunate.”

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GOP Congressman Parts Ways with Blogger, Says She Couldn’t ‘Transition from Activist’

Friday, March 28th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

A New Mexico congressman has parted ways with his new press secretary, who was connected to a controversial Twitter account and blog, just three days after she started.

On Tuesday, Rep. Steve Pearce’s (R-N.M.) communications director, Eric Layer, announced to reporters that Rebekah Stevens was coming on board.

Stevens anonymously tweeted under @PolitixFireball, with more than 40,000 followers, and wrote on a blog of the same name. The Santa Fe Reporter confirmed that Stevens was one of the pundits behind the accounts. The Twitter account was made private and the blog stopped publishing new posts after she joined Pearce’s office.

ProgressNow New Mexico combed through the posts, saying in a statement that Stevens was “well known for her myriad racist, xenophobic, and defamatory tirades against everyone from public school teachers to respected journalists to political campaign consultants to President Obama himself.” The group screen-captured a tweet in which PolitixFireball says to another user, “I know the Jews went up in smoke … I think you’re wrong re: the economy.”

“I can’t wait to see how excited Pearce’s colleagues in Congress will be to learn that his new hire has made a living attacking Republican leadership in the party, making light of Jews, and trolling reporters and Democrats across the country,” said Alex Curtas, research director for ProgressNow.

Pearce told the Albuquerque Journal on Wednesday that Stevens was behind the Twitter account and blog, and stressed that he had a “very frank and straightforward discussion” with the 24-year-old about what rhetoric isn’t acceptable in a congressional office.

“They are not things I would have said,” Pearce said. “She’s very aware she doesn’t speak for herself anymore. … She’s working in a bigger system, and we all work together here.”

He added that Democrats weren’t the only ones rubbed the wrong way by her hiring. “Republicans are making hay of it, too,” he said.

Stevens sent out six press releases on Wednesday and Thursday, before Pearce announced in a statement today that he accepted her resignation.

“I am proud to hire passionate, hardworking, and dedicated congressional staff out of New Mexico,” said Pearce. “When I hired Miss Stevens, I hoped she could transition from activist to become an asset to the people of New Mexico. It is now clear that major obstacles will prevent this. I asked for and accepted her resignation this morning. I hold myself and my staff to the highest level of accountability, and any distractions that hinder my service to New Mexicans must always be addressed.”

Today is also the last day of Layer, as he leaves to become vice president of communications at the Association of Commerce and Industry.

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‘Less Than Pleased’ with Obama’s Reaction, Rubio Pushing for Sanctions Against Maduro’s Government

Friday, March 28th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Senators are trying to steer attention to the repression in Venezuela as President Nicolas Maduro continues to crack down on democracy activists and politicians under the cover of a busy news cycle.

“And I recognize there’s been new stories about an airline that’s been tragically potentially lost or has been lost, we don’t know the full outcome of that yet. I know that the situation with Ukraine has captivated the attention of the public, and rightfully so,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said on the Senate floor yesterday.

“Since February 4 of this year, Venezuelans have been taking to the streets to complain about their government. And these Venezuelans are from all walks of life, but it’s truly been motivated by young people, by students. The origins of this public discontent are important to understand because they are not just purely political,” Rubio continued, detailing the “political abuses, the corruption, and the economic disaster of the Venezuelan government.”

“…I am less than pleased, by the way, with our own government’s reaction. This is not a partisan issue, but I have to say this. President Obama has expressed he’s ‘concerned’ about this. To his credit, the Vice President was stronger in condemning the Maduro regime. We’re not just ‘concerned’ about this. We should be outraged about this. Just as we’re outraged when things go wrong in other parts of the world and weigh in with sanctions — and we should. And our voices — and we should. This is happening in our own hemisphere, right underneath our nose, and it is shameful that the leadership of our government has so far not done more to address this. But we can change that. And I’m hoping that we will.”

Rubio is spending the next few days pushing sanctions “against individuals and companies associated with the Maduro regime so they know there are consequences for what is happening her” at the Foreign Relations Committee.

Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) issued a statement yesterday on Venezuela, saying he’s “truly alarmed by the speed at which President Maduro is eliminating the remaining vestiges of democracy in Venezuela.”

“The removal of three elected members of Venezuela’s National Assembly – Maria Corina Machado being the most recent – is blatantly unconstitutional and nothing short of authoritarian. The silencing of opposition voices in the National Assembly marks yet another sad episode for Venezuelans seeking to enjoy the freedom of a functioning democracy,” Menendez said.

“I call on leaders throughout the hemisphere and around the globe to condemn President Maduro’s illegitimate and undemocratic actions. As we await the results of the visit to Caracas by foreign ministers of South American countries, it is my hope that they will demand decisive steps to secure the release of all political prisoners, prevent future arrests of opposition leaders and halt further attacks against political opponents,” the chairman continued. “Finally, it is my sincere desire that the ambassadors to the Organization of American States live up to the expectations of their citizens by taking a stronger stance in defense of human rights and democracy in Venezuela.”

Rubio said sanctions need to move through the committee and come to the Senate floor “so we can send a clear signal to the people of Venezuela.”

“If the United States of America will not stand up and be a strong voice on behalf of people who all they seek is freedom and liberty that our own founding documents say belong to all people, rights given to them by their Creator — if the United States of America will not be a forceful voice, what nation on Earth will?” he said.

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Oversight Dems Ask Issa to Call Off Benghazi Investigation

Friday, March 28th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

All 17 Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee have called on Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) to end the “partisan” investigation into the Benghazi attack “and begin focusing instead on conducting responsible oversight to implement constructive reforms.”

The Dems, led by ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), charged that the probe “has been characterized by wild and unsubstantiated political accusations that turn out to be completely inaccurate.” They proceeded to outline those instances in the five-page letter.

“Continuing this reckless pattern of launching wholly unfounded accusations on national television — and racking up more and more Pinocchios in the process — is undermining the credibility of our Committee and the seriousness of our work,” they wrote. “Your approach repeatedly has called into question the integrity of our military and diplomatic personnel who are charged with executing our nation’s missions and policies overseas.”

“…The Committee has held three hearings, conducted 27 transcribed interviews and depositions, organized several partisan delegations to Libya, issued two Republican staff reporters, and reviewed tens of thousands of pages of documents… We believe it is time for the Committee to turn to constructive efforts to ensure that the [Accountability Review Board's] recommendations are fully implemented in order to protect our diplomatic corps overseas.”

Reaction to the Oversight Dems’ call spilled over into the Senate, where proponents of a hearty Benghazi investigation said Americans are still entitled to a full accounting of the Sept. 12, 2012, attack.

“I wish Democrats would show some interest in how and why President Obama and Susan Rice got it so wrong about the true nature of the Benghazi attack. I wish Democrats would show a little interest about why Secretary Clinton was clueless about the multiple security requests coming from Benghazi and how she allowed our mission to become a death trap,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “I wish Democrats would show a little interest in finding out whether Mike Morell, the former #2 at the CIA, lied to Congress and the American people about a protest that never happened. Democrats seem to be more interested in protecting the Obama Administration than they are in getting the truth.”

“If Republicans win a Senate majority in 2014, one of the first things I will insist on is hearings that actually get to the bottom of what happened before, during, and after the Benghazi attack. The families of those who lost loved ones, and the American people, deserve nothing less than a full accounting.”

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Obama Announces 6 Million Signups in Call with Obamacare Navigators

Thursday, March 27th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

President Obama took a break from his Italian trip today to hop on a conference call with Obamacare navigators and tout six million signups, the White House said.

A readout from press secretary Jay Carney said the president “convened a conference call with health care navigators and volunteers helping with enrollment efforts and announced that more than 6 million Americans have signed up for private health insurance plans through the federal and state Marketplaces since October 1.”

“The President was joined on the call by several thousand grassroots volunteers, navigators and in-person assistors who are leading the effort to enroll millions of Americans in quality, affordable health insurance plans,” the announcement continued. “During the call, the President thanked the group for all their hard work to date and discussed the importance of building on this progress over the last four days of open enrollment.”

“With consumers’ interest in signing up for health insurance surging – yesterday there were over 1.5 million visits to HealthCare.gov and over 430,000 calls to the call centers – the President encouraged the navigators and volunteers to redouble their efforts over the next four days and leave no stone unturned in trying to bring affordable health coverage to as many Americans as possible by the March 31 deadline. Nationwide, there more than 27,000 trained assistors in all fifty states who are helping consumers sign up in their communities.”

The administration still hasn’t detailed how many people have paid for their plans.

Obama’s fundraising machine also stepped up its last-minute pitch for Obamacare.

Organizing for Action sent out a fundraising email accusing the Koch Brothers of being behind beer parties for young people refusing to sign up for Obamacare.

“Let them spend their millions on sick crap like that. Whether they like it or not, they’re losing this debate, all because of the work you’re doing. We’re the group that’s capable of putting these groups in their place,” OFA Chairman Jim Messina said in the email. “…Our track record is pretty damn good. We’ve shown we can beat them, because we’re building something bigger, stronger, and smarter than just a pile of money.”

Both OFA and the Democratic National Committee sent out emails to supporters today pegging the number of signups at “more than 5 million.”

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Obama Assures Vatican That Obamacare Protects Religious Freedom

Thursday, March 27th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

President Obama said he told Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin today that religious freedom is being respected in the application of Obamacare.

The Vatican meeting, after Obama sat down with Pope Francis, came in the same week as arguments before the Supreme Court about the contraception mandate and religious objections among for-profit businesses.

Obama told reporters that he and Parolin “discussed briefly the issue of making sure that conscience and religious freedom was observed in the context of applying the law.”

“And I explained to him that most religious organizations are entirely exempt. Religiously affiliated hospitals or universities or NGOs simply have to attest that they have a religious objection, in which case they are not required to provide contraception although that employees of theirs who choose are able to obtain it through the insurance company,” the president haltingly continued.

“And I pledged to continue to dialogue with the U.S. Conference of Bishops to make sure that we can strike the right balance, making sure that not only everybody has healthcare but families, and women in particular, are able to enjoy the kind of healthcare coverage that the ACA offers, but that religious freedom is still observed.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops filed an amicus brief in support of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood at the end of January.

The USCCB wrote in the brief that it opposes “any rule that would require faithful Catholics and other religiously motivated business owners to choose between providing coverage for products and speech that violate their religious beliefs, and exposing their businesses to devastating penalties.” These penalties include “potentially fatal fines” of $100 a day per affected individual.

Frequently pausing and carefully choosing his words, Obama said he and the pontiff talked about “issues of the poor, the marginalized, those without opportunity, and growing inequality” as well as “the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world.”

“I think the theme that stitched our conversation together was a belief that in politics and in life the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes and to care for someone even if they don’t look like you or talk like you or share your philosophy — that that’s critical. It’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars,” Obama said. “It’s the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets.  And obviously central to my Christian faith is a belief in treating others as I’d have them treat me. And what’s I think created so much love and excitement for His Holiness has been that he seems to live this, and shows that joy continuously.”

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El-Sisi Turns in His Uniform, Running for President of Egypt

Thursday, March 27th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, who shepherded Mohamed Morsi out of office at the climax anti-Muslim Brotherhood protests on July 3, is running for president of Egypt.

El-Sisi resigned from his position as leader of the military today in preparation for the campaign to begin March 30, Al-Ahram reported.

“Today is the last time you’ll see me wearing this uniform. I was honored to wear it to defend the nation and today I am also leaving it behind to defend the nation,” said the 45-year military veteran. “…My determination to run in the election does not bar others from their right to run. I will be happy if whoever the people choose succeeds.”

The only declared challenger to El-Sisi is Nasserist politician Hamdeen Sabbahi, who came in third when Morsi won in 2012. “I welcome El-Sisi’s candidacy. We look forward to democratic, fair and transparent elections that guarantee the impartiality of the state and the people’s right to choose a president with their free will,” Sabbahi tweeted.

El-Sisi’s off to a good start with 51 percent saying they would vote for him and 45 percent undecided. More than 82 percent said they planned to show up to the polls, compared to the 52 percent voter turnout that saw Morsi elected.

After a death sentence was handed down for 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters in the murder of a police commander, Egypt is now trying Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie and 682 of his supporters on various charges including murder.

Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement yesterday that he was “deeply, deeply troubled by the sudden and unprecedented decision” saying the verdict “does not reflect the values and goals to which the interim government has aspired publicly and privately.”

“The need for due process assumed greater urgency with the start of a new trial for nearly 700 more people in the same courtroom where the earlier judgment was rendered after a two-day summary proceeding in which the defendants were tried as a group rather than on the merits of individual cases. Many of those defendants were not even in the courtroom. It is impossible to believe that such a proceeding satisfied even the most basic standards of justice,” Kerry continued.

“The interim government must understand the negative message that this decision, if upheld, would send to the world about Egypt’s commitment to international law and inclusivity.”

The Obama administration has been pressing for Muslim Brotherhood inclusivity ever since Morsi’s ouster, and the Egyptian government has responded by cracking down on the group.

“For three years, Egyptians have demanded responsive leadership that protects human rights and promotes economic opportunity. Many lost their lives in that struggle. Adhering to the new constitution and maintaining a criminal justice system free of intimidation and political retribution are essential functions of a legitimate government,” Kerry said. “I urge the interim Egyptian government to reverse the court ruling and ensure due process for the accused. Anything less would dishonor the bravery of all who sacrificed their lives for democratic values.”

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Editor at Ebony Calls Black RNC Staffer a ‘White Dude’

Thursday, March 27th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Republican National Committee deputy press secretary Raffi Williams, son of Juan Williams, and Jamilah Lemieux, a senior editor at Ebony:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Substitute Teachers Hit by Obamacare Hour Cuts

Thursday, March 27th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Obamacare is hitting teachers’ jobs due to the 30-hour workweek threshold, a North Carolina congresswoman stressed, adding that the law means “work less and suffer more.”

NBC WITN Greenville reported this week that substitute teachers are scrambling to make ends meet:

Jordan Banjo, a sub in Pitt County, says she’s now wondering how she will continue to survive and make ends meet without that income.

She worked over 30 hours a week until last month when the district sent a notice to all subs that their hours would be restricted to just 3 days a week–about 21 hours.

Banjo says that was disheartening, “Cause I need the money, need to work, I’m willing and able to work and now they’re telling me I can only work for so long.”

Pitt County Schools spokesman Brock Letchworth says It’s because of the Affordable Health Care Act. He says, “The cost for us to be able to provide health care to everyone would be just over a million dollars, is what I’m told, and that is the lowest cost to this school system.”

Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) said each day brings new news of “the dangers facing millions of Americans due to Obamacare.”

“We learned that our substitute teachers in North Carolina are losing their hours and income. In just one North Carolina county, as many as 200 teachers are facing fewer options – all because of Obamacare’s employer mandate. This is happening all over our state and across the country. Millions of hard working Americans are told to work less and suffer more in order to comply with the law,” Ellmers said.

“In my own district, substitute teachers are facing the same problem,” she added. “A Lee County official confirmed this to my office today, saying ‘we are cutting hours for all our part-time people so they don’t trigger healthcare coverage.’ Lee County officials also noted that they are considering sending those employees who are currently over the 30 hours per week threshold to a temporary agency and then hiring them back through the agency to avoid the healthcare costs.”

Former American Idol star Clay Aiken, who’s running in the Democratic primary in a quest to win Ellmers’ seat, said he supports fixing Obamacare to a point.

“I don’t think that it’s completely perfect. I think there are a whole bunch of things that should be fixed and rough edges that should be smoothed out. I think that’s a problem that Democrats in general have, an inability to recognize the fact that a lot of people do have problems with that particular law. There are a lot of people who have a lot of problems with a lot of parts of it,” Aiken told the Raleigh News & Observer last month.

“That said, the number of things that are positive about the law, we don’t talk about enough,” Aiken continued. “There are parts of it, like doctors not being able to be paid to prescribe you a particular medication, like hospitals now having to tell you what they are charging you for and how much they are charging you for. A lot of parts we don’t talk about enough that I think need to get more light on them.”

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Obama Meets Pope Francis, Gives Him a Box of Seeds

Thursday, March 27th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

President Obama met Pope Francis this morning at the Vatican in a meeting that lasted a little under an hour and featured Obama giving the pontiff a box of seeds.

Obama brought along Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer, press secretary Jay Carney and deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.

The pope greeted Obama outside the Papal Library with a friendly handshake. Obama “nodded his head slightly,” according to the White House pool report. “Wonderful meeting you,” the president said. “Thank you sir, thank you.”

“It is a great honor. I’m a great admirer. Thank you so much for receiving me,” Obama continued. “I bring greetings from my family. The last time I came here to meet your predecessor I was able to bring my wife and children.”

Michelle Obama departed China yesterday after a weeklong trip with her daughters and mother.

The pool reporters could not hear the pope’s responses to Obama as they sat across a desk from each other, each with an interpreter. Pope Francis’s native language is Spanish but he also speaks Italian, Portuguese, French, German, Ukrainian, Piedmontese and Latin, according to the Vatican.

In the exchange of gifts following the meeting, Obama presented the pope with the seeds. According to a White House official, it was “a custom-made seed chest featuring a variety of fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House Garden” using “reclaimed wood from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” The official noted the pope’s earlier announcement that he would open the gardens at Castel Gandolfo, the historic papal summer residence, to the public as a reason for the gift.

“These, I think, are carrots,” Obama said, holding up a pouch from the box. “Each one has a different seed in it. The box is made from timber from the first cathedral to open in the United States in Baltimore.”

“If you have a chance to come to the White House, we can show you our garden as well,” he added. The pope quipped, “Why not?” Congressional leaders recently extended a formal invitation for the pope to address a joint session on the Hill.

The pope gave Obama a copy of his apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel.”

“I actually will probably read this in the Oval Office when I’m deeply frustrated,” Obama said. “I’m sure it will give me strength and calm me down.” Pope Francis chuckled and said, “I hope.”

“My family has to be with me on this journey. They’ve been very strong. Pray for them. I would appreciate it,” the president requested of the pope as they said goodbye.

A reporter in the White House pool later was able to ask Rice how the papal visit went. “Great, really cool,” the ambassador said.

 

 

 

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