These United States

A round up of news and blog posts from around these United States.

Delaware House Passes a Civil Unions Bill. The Delaware House has approved a measure that allows civil unions for same-sex couples by a vote of 26 to 15. Last week, the same measure passed the Delaware Senate by a vote of 13 to 6. The bill now goes to Governor Markell who last week after the bill passed the Senate: "It's time for this bill to pass. It's time for the bill to be signed. It's the right thing to do for the people of Delaware." Once signed, Delaware will become the eighth state to offer civil unions.

Green Mountain Care Passes Senate Panel in Vermont. The Burlington Free Press reports that the Senate Health and Welfare Committee passed by 5 to 0 vote a bill that would put Vermont on the road toward creation of a government-financed health insurance plan called Green Mountain Care by 2017. The legislation, a priority for Gov. Peter Shumlin, already passed the House.

Arizona's Birther Bill Advances.  A year in the making, the Arizona Senate approved a bill requiring presidential candidates to prove they were born in the U.S. before they're included on Arizona's ballot. The Senate made a few changes to the bill before passing it and turning it back over to the House of Representatives. Believe it or not, there are actually conservatives who believe that this will keep Barack Obama off the ballot next year. It's not for nothing that the Grand Canyon state is derided as the "meth lab of American democracy." More from KPHO-Phoenix.

Georgia Set to Pass Arizona-Style Immigration Law. Stateline reports on Georgia House Bill 87 which would allow local police to check the immigration status of anyone whose legality it suspects.

Obama's Insane Hostage Bargaining Strategy. Jon Chait of the New Republic bemoans the President's handling of the debt ceiling issue. Chait writes, "If Obama is going to begin by saying he'd like a straight vote on the debt ceiling but is willing to make policy concessions, what do you expect the Republicans to do? Keep in mind, the assumption that the Congressional minority can use the debt ceiling as a hostage to win substantive policy the president opposes is entirely novel. Obama has introduced this new development." Indeed, the President should insist on a clean bill. Anything else would allow lunatics to run the asylum.

The Devilish Obama

This is just brilliant on the part of the President. When asked by George Stephanopoulos of ABC News about the rise of Donald Trump and the persistent birtherism that marks much of the GOP, President Obama "grabbed at the chance with a big smile – saying he thinks the whole issue will be a problem for Republicans."

“I think that over the last two and a half years there's been an effort to go at me in a way that is politically expedient in the short-term for Republicans.  But [it] creates, I think a problem for them when they want to actually run in a general election where most people feel pretty confident the President was born where he says he was, in Hawaii.  He-- he doesn't have horns…we're not really worrying about conspiracy theories or-- or birth certificates,” President Obama told me.

And in all my talks with Obama I think it was the first time he was one the same page as Karl Rove who thinks the “birther” controversy is hurting the GOP.

“The truth of the matter is that I think that the vast majority of Americans across the country – Democratic or Republican – really want this election to be about growing the economy, getting control of the deficit, preparing the future for our kids. And my suspicion is that anybody who is not addressing those questions…Is going to be in trouble. I think they may get a quick pop in the news. They may get a lot of attention. But ultimately, the American people understand this is a serious, sober time,” he told me

The President may not have horns but he sure is devilishly clever to let this issue persist. The more it does, the more it discredits the GOP.

The Dangers of Politicizing the Debt Ceiling Vote

In 2006, then Senator Barack Obama voted against raising the debt ceiling. At the time, he said this:

The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. Government can’t pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our Government’s reckless fiscal policies.

Increasing America’s debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that ‘the buck stops here. Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better.

In 2007 and in 2008, when the Senate voted to increase the limit by $850 billion and $800 billion respectively, Senator Obama did not even bother to vote. He now probably wishes he hadn't voted on the issue in 2006. Now, of course, the President is singing a different tune and rightly so.

In an interview to be aired by ABC News, President Obama has admitted that politics drove his thinking in 2006 when he voted against raising the debt limit. 

"That was just an example of a new senator making what is a political vote as opposed to doing what was important for the country," Obama said, "I'm the first one to acknowledge it."

Obama said he now understands why Republicans are concerned about voting to raise the debt limit, characterizing it as a "lousy vote." He continued, "Nobody likes to be tagged as having increased the debt limit for the United States by a trillion dollars."

The President added if Senators could see what he sees as President, they wouldn't vote against raising the limit. "As President, you start realizing...we can't play around with this stuff. This is the full faith [and] credit of the United States."

Actually it is more than the full faith and credit of the United States, it is much of what underpins the whole global economy. Senator Obama was wrong in 2006, the failure of leadership would be not to raise the debt ceiling though I have to note that no other country on Earth has the idiotic policy that the United States has of having a legal limit on the amount of bonds the central government can issue. It is a market driven event, not a political one.

Enter now, our bête noir du siècle, because the sheer stupidity and ignoble ignorance of this man far transcends that fit for a mere day, Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina.

From The Hill:

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said on the conservative Laura Ingraham Show he is considering filibustering an upcoming vote to raise the nation's $14.3 trillion debt limit if it doesn't contain other fiscal reforms.

That could pose a conundrum for leaders in both political parties, who say it is imperative for Congress to raise the debt ceiling to prevent the government from defaulting on its debt.

DeMint, whom Tea Party activists consider a key ally, urged Republican leaders to draw the line.

"I think Republicans have to decide this is a time to start the fight," he said. "Not passing the debt ceiling is not going to cause us to default on our debt."

Well, actually, it leads to a technical default. The US Treasury would be barred from its legal authority to issue bonds that finance government despite the fact there is a global demand for US securities in the capital markets. The historically low level of real and nominal interest rates on Treasury securities is proof that there is still strong demand for Treasury securities.

There's more...

Congress Passes FY 2011 Budget Accord

The House and Senate passed the compromise legislation to finance the Federal government for the balance FY 2011, with 59 House Republicans breaking ranks to vote against the deal. The overall vote in the House was 260-167. Eighty-one Democrats gave House Speaker John Boehner the votes needed for the bill's passage. 

In the Senate, the vote was 81-19, with dissenting votes mostly coming from more conservative Republicans. In the Senate, 48 Democrats, 32 Republicans and independent Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut voted in favor.

Vermont's Bernie Sanders voted no proving the dictum that politics does indeed make for odd bedfellows. Three Senate Democrats voted no: Ron Wyden of Oregon, Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Carl Levin of Michigan. The deal struck by the White House, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid cut $2 billion in funding for non-profit healthcare cooperatives which was intended to function as a weaker version of the public option. These were much championed by Senator Sanders. Also cut were Senator Wyden's provision that would have allowed low-income earners to opt out of employer-sponsored health insurance to purchase insurance on the new exchanges. Both measures were part of the healthcare cost containment focus in the Affordable Care Act of 2010.

Rand Paul, Kentucky's libertarian Senator, despite threats to block the bill earlier in the week passed on filibustering the bill and instead allowed a quick vote following House passage a few hours earlier. Other Republicans voting no included Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah.

President Obama is expected to sign the bill by tomorrow, but the debate in the nation's capital has already moved on to bigger spending battles, with a critical vote to raise the Federal debt limit, the FY12 budget and long-term deficit reduction all in play.

Twenty-eight out of the 87 freshman Republicans in the House voted no. A number of Tea Party backed freshmen said they were disappointed by the deal struck last week by House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the White House. Among the Republicans who voted no were Rep. Bill Huizenga of Michigan, Rep. Allen West of Florida, Rep. Steve King of Iowa, Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Rep. Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, Rep. Ben Quayle of Arizona, Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana and Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota. Huizenga, West and Quayle are freshmen. Paul and Bachmann are believed to hold Presidential aspirations while Mike Pence of Indiana is seen as possible Vice Presidential material.

The vote divided the Democratic leadership in the House with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi voting no but the Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland voted to support the measure.

More on this from the National Journal.

Rep. Shelley Berkley Will Run for Senate in Nevada

Democratic Representative Shelley Berkley, who represents the Nevada First Congressional District that includes Las Vegas, will run for the United States Senate seat being left vacant by the retiring scandal plagued GOP Senator John Ensign.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray told reporters Thursday morning at a briefing, “Shelley Berkley is running. ... Our polls show her up and winning.”

"These are serious times in our nation’s history and that’s particularly true for Nevada, where our economy has been hit especially hard," Rep. Berkley said in a statement. "As I talk to Nevadans across our state I hear one priority: jobs, jobs, jobs. And that has been my focus, whether it is fighting to prevent more layoffs of teachers, police and firefighters or getting loans for small business that want to grow, or helping Nevada become the clean energy capital of the world."

The Las Vegas Sun’s Jon Ralston first reported the news in his email newsletter. “She had been agonizing but polling, opportunity too appealing,” Ralston wrote.

She is likely to face GOP Congressman Dean Heller, who represents the sprawling Second Congressional District that encompasses most of the state, in the general election. The race is likely to be a competitive one representing an opportunity for the Democrats to pick up a Senate seat.

More from the Las Vegas Sun.

Santorum Takes Step Toward 2012 Bid

The former Republican Senator from Pennsylvania Rick Santorum has announced plans to form what he described as a “testing-the-waters committee” during an interview with Greta van Susteren on Fox News Channel Wednesday night. In forming a presidential exploratory committee, the former two term Senator most noted for his homophobic remarks can raise money for a presidential bid without formally declaring a candidacy.

Santorum followed up his appearance with nan email to supporters, in which he wrote, “Tonight during an appearance on the Fox News Channel, I announced that I established a Presidential Testing-the-Waters effort, which will allow me to begin the process of raising the funds necessary to consider a formal candidacy.”

Santorum sits near the bottom of most early polls in single digits territory, but his regressive social conservatism marked by staunch opposition to abortion and gay marriage makes him attractive to the religious conservatives who hold sway in the Iowa and South Carolina. His campaign slogan is "To Make America, America Again." Yes, he italicized the second America. We can only infer that he aims to drag the country back to some bigoted, god-fearing past.

Just this past weekend, Santorum scored a decisive victory in a straw poll held among Republicans in Greenville county, South Carolina's largest county. Santorum took 31 percent of the vote from a group of 413 activists coming in ahead of Newt Gingrich who won 14 percent and ahead of both Michelle Bachmann and Donald Trump who each won 7 percent of the vote. It really is quite the bumper crop of regressive misanthropes.

Around the World

News from around the globe impacting our world.

Qatar Arming Libyan Rebels. The Guardian reports that officials in Doha confirm Qatar has been secretly supplying French-made missiles to Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

In other Libya related news, NATO foreign ministers are meeting in Berlin on Thursday to discuss how to move forward on Libya. But the alliance against Qaddafi will have to make tough choices if the military stalemate continues. Der Spiegel reports from Berlin.

Protests Spread Across Syria.  Al-Jazeera reports that anti-government discontent is spreading to new towns, as the challenge to President Assad's regime grows. Significantly, protests have been reported in Aleppo, the country's second largest city and an Alawite stronghold.

Bulgaria's Demographic Crisis. Bulgaria has completed its 2011 census. The census results have expectedly revealed the scope of Bulgaria's demographic catastrophe – the country's population is declining rapidly, aging rapidly, and continuing to emigrate at a steady rate. According to Novinite, "Bulgaria's demographic condition is unique as it corresponds to its situation as the poorest country in the "rich countries' club." As the least developed among the developed states, it is exhibiting the worst characteristics of the two worlds. Bulgaria is like the developed countries because its birthrate has declined dramatically and its population is aging; it differs from them in that it is failing to attract skilled young foreign immigrants. Bulgaria resembles the developing states in the sense that its best and brightest are emigrating at a constant rate; it differs from them because its birthrate is nowhere near those of the typical developing countries."

Korea Widens Its Ban of Japanese Food Imports. South Korea will virtually suspend importing agricultural products from areas near the quake-crippled nuclear plant in Fukushima, Japan, from next month, a state food regulator said Thursday. Beginning in May, the Korea Food and Drug Administration (KFDA) will require the Japanese government to provide certificates showing agricultural products harvested in 13 regions in the plant’s vicinity are safe. So far, only India has instituted a total ban on Japanese food imports.

Israel Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman May Face Charges. Israel's Attorney General moved Wednesday to possibly indict Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on fraud and other corruption charges, capping a decade-old investigation into the leader of the hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu party. More from the Los Angeles Times.

Sober, Serious and Smart

President Barack Obama came to the George Washington University with his Presidency besieged by radical right wing proposals and his liberal credentials seemingly in grave doubt to pronounce his long-anticipated views on the nation's fiscal condition. Despite an opening joke, which frankly fell flat, he gave a sober, serious and smart address that was perhaps short on details but long on a vision speaking to values such as fairness and traits such as unbridled American optimism.

While I suspect some on the left may find aspects on which to quibble and I know that most if not all on the right will denounce his proposal to end the Bush tax cuts in the most vehement of terms, this nearly 45 minute speech interrupted only once by applause was at its starkest a study contrasting two diametrically opposed visions for the country.

Without mentioning Rep. Paul Ryan directly by name, the President lambasted the Wisconsin Republican for offering a vision that would "lead to a fundamentally different America than the one we've known throughout our history."

"A 70% cut in clean energy. A 25% cut in education. A 30% cut in transportation. Cuts in college Pell Grants that will grow to more than $1,000 per year. That's what they're proposing. These aren't the kind of cuts you make when you're trying to get rid of some waste or find extra savings in the budget. These aren't the kind of cuts that the Fiscal Commission proposed. These are the kind of cuts that tell us we can't afford the America we believe in. And they paint a vision of our future that's deeply pessimistic.

"It's a vision that says if our roads crumble and our bridges collapse, we can't afford to fix them. If there are bright young Americans who have the drive and the will but not the money to go to college, we can't afford to send them. Go to China and you'll see businesses opening research labs and solar facilities. South Korean children are outpacing our kids in math and science. Brazil is investing billions in new infrastructure and can run half their cars not on high-priced gasoline, but biofuels. And yet, we are presented with a vision that says the United States of America -- the greatest nation on Earth -- can't afford any of this.

"It's a vision that says America can't afford to keep the promise we've made to care for our seniors. It says that ten years from now, if you're a 65 year old who's eligible for Medicare, you should have to pay nearly $6,400 more than you would today. It says instead of guaranteed health care, you will get a voucher. And if that voucher isn't worth enough to buy insurance, tough luck -- you're on your own. Put simply, it ends Medicare as we know it.

"This is a vision that says up to 50 million Americans have to lose their health insurance in order for us to reduce the deficit. And who are those 50 million Americans? Many are someone's grandparents who wouldn't be able afford nursing home care without Medicaid. Many are poor children. Some are middle-class families who have children with autism or Down's syndrome. Some are kids with disabilities so severe that they require 24-hour care. These are the Americans we'd be telling to fend for themselves.

"Worst of all, this is a vision that says even though America can't afford to invest in education or clean energy; even though we can't afford to maintain or commitment to Medicare and Medicaid, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy. Think about it. In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90% of all working Americans actually declined. Meanwhile, the top 1% saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. And that's who needs to pay less taxes? They want to give people like me a two hundred thousand dollar tax cut that's paid for by asking thirty three seniors to each pay six thousand dollars more in health costs? That's not right, and it's not going to happen as long as I'm President."

It was at this point that the President was interrupted by applause. Obama went to chide the Republican proposal as anything but serious or courageous. "There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires," said President Obama adding that he didn't think that "there’s anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill." In perhaps the opening salvo of the 2012 campaign, he hit the Republican proposal as offering a vision that "is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America."

There's more...

These United States

A wrap-up of news and worthy blog posts around the USA.

Senator Graham Angered Over Budget Cuts Affecting Charleston. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has vowed to bring the Senate to a standstill unless Congressional leaders agree to allocate $40,000 for a federal study on deepening the Port of Charleston. The funds were apparently cut in the budget deal averting a government shutdown. More from The Hill.

Tennessee Teacher Tenure Bill Signed into Law. Republican Governor Bill Haslam signed his teacher tenure bill into law Tuesday. The bill makes it harder for new teachers to win and keep tenure protections, lengthening the time it takes a teacher to qualify for tenure from three years to five. The story in the Chattanooga Free Press.

Say It Ain't So Joe. In Arizona, Maricopa County officials charged that the staff of controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio misspent $99.5 million in restricted jail funds over the last eight years. Budget officials said $84.7 million was misspent from the detention fund, while another $14.8 million in inmate-services funds were misspent. More from the Arizona Republic.

Barry Bonds Guilty of Obstruction. A jury in San Francisco today found former baseball player Barry Bonds guilty of obstruction of justice but deadlocked on three perjury counts. U.S. District Judge Susan Illston declared a mistrial on those counts and gave Federal prosecutors three weeks to decide whether the government would seek another trial. Bonds, the record holder for the most home runs in Major League history, faces up to two years in Federal prison. More from the San Francisco Chronicle.

"Right to Work" Legislation Vote Looms in New Hampshire Senate. A Senate committee yesterday in the Granite State recommended changing the law to prevent unions from charging nonmembers for a share of collective bargaining costs. The House passed right-to-work legislation in February. Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, has said he would veto it. House lawmakers voted 221-131 for the bill, so supporters would have to pick up votes to overturn a veto. More from the Concord Monitor.

State Budget Talks in Florida Break Down. Budget talks in the Sunshine State between the House and Senate broke down over a series of differences. Both Republican-dominated chambers agree on the need to cut nearly $4 billion in spending without raising taxes. But details are proving elusive, especially the costs of higher-education cuts and new requirements over public-employee pensions. The full story in the Miami Herald.

In Iowa, Terry Bransted Vetoes the Budget. GOP Governor Terry Branstad on Tuesday made good on his promise to veto one-year state budget bills when he rejected a bill approved by Iowa lawmakers that had appropriated nearly $351 million for state transportation programs solely for the coming state budget year that begins July 1. The Des Moines Register provides the full details on the budget impasse in Iowa.

The Long-Awaited Speech

President Barack Obama, in his eagerly anticipated major speech on the Federal budget deficit, proposed $4 trillion in cuts and revenue increases over the next twelve years – about $2.2 trillion less than the reductions proposed by the House Republicans. The President's proposals are more in-line his own deficit commission, the Simpson-Bowles commission, which proposed $3.8 trillion in cuts when it was unveiled last December but the mix of cuts is far different. The critical difference is that the President's plan calls for the expiration of the Bush tax cuts.

Speaking at the George Washington University just blocks from the White House, the President attacked Rep. Paul Ryan’s deficit plan, saying: “I will not allow Medicare to become a voucher program that leaves seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry.” President Obama countered Republican budget plans with what he said was a more balanced approach that relies in part on tax increases for the wealthy as well as on spending cuts. “To meet our fiscal challenge, we will need to make reforms,” President Obama said. “We will all need to make sacrifices. But we do not have to sacrifice the America we believe in. And as long as I’m President, we won’t.”

The New York Times has more on the President's speech but the major key goals articulated by the President include:

* Reducing the deficit by $4 trillion in 12 years or less

* Curbing deficits to 2.5 percent of GDP in 2015, 2 percent toward the end of the decade

* Ending Bush-era tax rates for the wealthiest Americans

* Seeking $770 billion in savings by 2023 in cuts to non-security discretionary spending

* Saving $480 billion in Medicare and Medicaid by 2023 and at least $1 trillion more by 2033.

I'll have more later but for now here is the full text of the speech as prepared for delivery beneath the fold.

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Diaries

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