Thursday, February 28, 2013

Obama to meet with congressional leaders on ways to avoid sequester

By and , Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 3:10 PM

INTERACTIVE: Breaking down the sequestration cuts, state-by-state.
This link will take you to my page with all the sequester documents including all the states and the military

In a meeting planned for Friday, President Obama will push Republican congressional leaders to accept higher tax revenue in order to avoid deep spending cuts set to take effect on the same day.

The Republicans are expected to reply that they already compromised at the beginning of the year, when they agreed to more than $600 billion in new taxes, according to officials in both camps.

The first formal meeting between Obama and congressional leaders over the spending cuts, known as the sequester, will come after weeks of finger-pointing by both sides. An administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the president will push for specific solutions from Republicans, asking them to name one tax break they are willing to end to stop the spending cuts.

“What we haven’t seen, when we hear Republican leaders adamantly refuse to consider revenue as part of deficit reduction, is anything like that same spirit of compromise or seriousness of purpose that I think you’ve seen demonstrated by the president,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday. “We remain hopeful that at some point, hopefully soon, that Republicans will understand the need to compromise here.”

Republicans, though, cast doubt on whether the meeting will be useful.

“The message my constituents keep sending is simply this: Replacing spending cuts that both parties have already agreed to, and which the president has already signed into law, with tax hikes is simply unacceptable,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

What does ‘sequester’ mean? — Edsplainer

Jan. 29, 2013
You’ve heard the word “sequester” mentioned by politicians a lot lately. The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe explains what the term means, and why it matters.
The Washington Post

“We’re still ready to work with them to get something responsible done,” he added. “But we can’t do it alone.”

The reductions in defense and domestic spending are expected to begin Friday, the same day Obama will meet at the White House with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), McConnell, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The cuts would trim $85 billion from federal spending — including congressional office budgets — for the rest of fiscal year 2013.

The Senate plans to vote Thursday afternoon on replacing the sequester in part with tax increases on millionaires. The Democratic bill is expected to fail, as is a GOP alternative that would give the White House more flexibility to decide where the cuts would fall.

House Republicans were looking past the Friday meeting to the next front in the budget wars. They agreed to put a bill on the floor as soon as next week that would prevent a government shutdown on March 27; that measure to fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year would continue the sequester while providing new protections from the cuts to the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs, positions that are opposed in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

As the sequester clock ticked down, anxiety over the potential consequences continued to rise Wednesday.

As part of belt-tightening prompted by the cuts, Boehner is curbing congressional trips abroad. He told a meeting of his Republican Conference on Wednesday that only delegations headed to review the military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq would be allowed to continue once the cuts take affect, according to Republicans in the room.

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration warned Wednesday of major flight delays and the closure of hundreds of air-traffic-control towers at smaller airports across the country.

“Flights to major cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco could experience delays, in some instances up to 90 minutes during peak hours, because we’ll have fewer controllers on staff,” FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta said in a speech. “And delays in these major airports could ripple across the country.”

Huerta said most of the agency’s 47,000 employees would likely be furloughed one day every other week until the fiscal year ends in September. The FAA could be forced to close many of the 230 air-traffic-control towers at airports that are less busy, such as those in Boca Raton, Fla., and Joplin, Mo.

Last year, the House passed two bills that would have stopped the sequester and replaced some of the spending cuts with others. But the White House said the magnitude of the cuts was unacceptable and would imperil critical government programs. Instead, it has pushed for an alternative that includes spending cuts and new tax revenue, achieved by scaling back tax breaks that benefit the wealthy and certain industries.

At the beginning of the year, the two sides agreed to a deal that raised taxes on the wealthy, mainly by allowing the top rate to return to what it was during the Clinton administration. Since then, Republicans have said they are closed to new tax revenue; Obama is seeking up to $600 billion more.

The Friday meeting represents an “opportunity for us to visit with the president about how we can all keep our commitment to reduce Washington spending,” McConnell said in a statement. “With a $16.6 trillion national debt, and a promise to the American people to address it, one thing is perfectly clear: we will cut Washington spending. We can either secure those reductions more intelligently, or we can do it the president’s way with across-the board cuts. But one thing Americans simply will not accept is another tax increase to replace spending reductions we already agreed to.”

Pelosi said that she wants to see “a balanced, bipartisan solution to avoid the unemployment and economic uncertainty caused by the indiscriminate cuts set to take effect.”

As part of Obama’s efforts to put pressure on congressional Republicans, Organizing for Action, a nonprofit established to promote his second-term agenda, contacted people on its mailing list with a warning: “Prepare yourself for job layoffs, reduced access to early education, slower emergency response, slashed health care, and more people living on the street.”

The automatic spending cuts “will hurt everyday Americans — including you,” the group said in a statement e-mailed to supporters.

William Branigin, Paul Kane, Lori Aratani, Ed O’Keefe, Rosalind S. Helderman and Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.

When it comes to cuts, where you live matters

(J. Scott Applewhite / AP)
Varying impact of sequester cuts based on geography and class explains why many rural Republicans are in no hurry to strike a deal with Obama.

Clint Eastwood to Supreme Court: Drop California's ban on same-sex marriage

Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Actor and producer Clint Eastwood is seen in September 2012 in Westwood, Calif.
By Miranda Leitsinger, Staff Writer, NBC News

Clint Eastwood has joined about 130 self-described moderate and conservative Republicans in signing a brief to the Supreme Court arguing against California’s Proposition 8, which bans marriage for same-sex couples.

Former Bush administration officials, including Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of Defense, and Tom Ridge, former Pennsylvania governor and Secretary of Homeland Security, also were among those who signed the brief, which argued that the Constitution prohibits denying same-sex couples access to the legal rights and responsibilities of marriage, according to a copy of the brief released Thursday by the American Foundation for Equal Rights.

The nation’s high court will hear arguments in the case on March 26. Thursday is the last day for briefs to be filed in the case, and officials told NBC's Pete Williams that the Justice Department will urge the court to approve gay marriage in, which first reported that Eastwood had signed the brief, said he was a "long-time Republican with strong libertarian leanings," who had "become increasingly vocal politically." Eastwood's conversation with an empty chair representing President Barack Obama on the final day of the Republican convention briefly became a major topic on the campaign last fall.

Six other former governors, including Jon Huntsman of Utah and Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, and ten former and two current members of Congress signed the brief, which was organized by AFER. Members of the George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain presidential campaigns also signed.

In the brief, the group said it was better for children to grow up with married parents, and that legalizing same-sex marriage would ease couples’ access to benefits and rights afforded to heterosexual couples but would pose “no credible threat to religious freedom or to the institution of religious marriage.”

They noted that many of those adding their names did not previously support same-sex marriage. But since a number of states have allowed gays and lesbians to wed, they, "like many Americans, have reexamined the evidence and their own positions and have concluded that there is no legitimate, fact-based reason for denying same-sex couples the same recognition in law that is available to opposite-sex couples."

Rather, they “concluded that marriage is strengthened, not undermined, and its benefits and importance to society as well as the support and stability it gives to children and families promoted, not undercut, by providing access to civil marriage for same-sex couples,” the brief continued.

Some on the list included who have had a change of heart on the issue include Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for California governor in 2010, and David Frum, a special assistant to Bush from 2001 to 2002.

Once 'inconceivable,' Republican leaders sign pro-gay marriage brief

ational Football League players, Chris Kluwe, a punter for the Minnesota Vikings, and Bredon Ayanbadejo, a linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, also filed a separate brief in the case that was released Thursday afternoon. The pair has been outspoken supporters of gay rights.Numerous briefs have been filed in support of Prop. 8 by 20 states, religious groups, academics and legal scholars, as well as many against by businesses, labor unions, veterans, California plus thirteen states as well as the District of Columbia, and gay rights and religious groups.

The California Supreme Court said in 2008 that the state had to allow same-sex marriage, and for a short period, some 18,000 same-sex couples wed in the Golden State. But with the passage of Prop. 8 later that same year, gays and lesbians were later prohibited from marrying. Various lower courts said the law was unconstitutional, with the most recent one determining such a fundamental right like marriage, that gays and lesbians had once enjoyed, could not be taken away.

Related:The Supreme Court will also hear arguments in late March on Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of same-sex marriage. The Obama administration has encouraged the justices to strike down Section 3. In its argument, the administration noted that Proposition 8 and similar measures in other states were evidence that anti-gay discrimination remained a major problem.

Widow to Supreme Court: Same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional

US asks Supreme Court to strike down law denying benefits to same-sex couplesSupreme Court to take up same-sex marriage issue

New gun laws in Kentucky surprise just about everyone

Jen Brockman, @jenbrockchalk
3:16 PM on 02/28/2013

Grand Rapids Community College student Josh Eberly demonstrates how he would carry his “concealed” weapon on campus. Eberly was appalled when he first heard about a group advocating to allow licensed gun owners to carry their weapons in college campuses.(Hollyn Johnson/The Grand Rapids Press)

Months before the murders of 20 first graders and six staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the National Rifle Association successfully lobbied the Kentucky legislature to pass one of the most liberal gun lawsin the nation. Only 10 lawmakers in both houses voted against the bill last summer and it quietly took effect at the beginning of this year. In fact, the law took effect so quietly it took transportation officials, security guards and firefighters by surprise.

One of the best investigative reporters I’ve ever worked with, Duane Pohlman, has put together a series of stories for WLKY/Hearst about how this new gun legislation has turned Kentucky into what one lawmaker called the “new wild west”. They’re worth watching. For instance, people can bring guns, but not knives into Louisville’s City Hall.

Sign posted in the Louisville Metro Hall in Kentucky shows guns are allowed but knives are not.

Guns are legal on public buses, according to the state lawmaker who wrote it, though transportation officials have decided to enforce a gun ban anyway.

Public transportation in Kentucky weighs its options in wake of new concealed-carry laws. Source:

Firefighters in special districts are given extra rights to carry concealed weapons. Duane talked to one fire chief who explains why that could be seriously dangerous. EMTs can carry too.

Harrods Creek Fire Dept. Chief Kevin Tyler wonders if it’s safe for his crew to carry concealed weapons. Source:

I asked Duane a few questions about the law and his reports:

Duane Pohlman, Investigative Reporter

Ed Show: What inspired you to investigate the change in the gun law? Anything beyond fully reporting on the basic change in the law?

Duane Pohlman: It wasn’t much to investigate the law and its effect, but getting clear answers was difficult. The law was overwhelmingly and quietly passed by the Kentucky legislature in the Summer of ’12, with backing from the NRA. It was so quiet that many of the public officials and entities were caught off guard when it took effect this January. I received several calls from fire chiefs and mid-level managers who were in disbelief when they were informed. They called me to get some answers. That led to this simple series of stories laying out the law and its impacts.

Ed Show: I was surprised that the guard in your first story wasn’t armed with a gun, that knives were not allowed, and that one fire chief is worried about guns on his own crew. What, if anything, surprised you about the response to the law change?

Duane Pohlman: Everything! I could not believe this had passed and passed so overwhelmingly (only 10 votes opposed in both houses). I was surprised that Kentucky’s constitution provided more protections than the US Constitution, allowing guns to be carried for personal and property protection. I was surprised by the lack of caring about allowing open guns in urban areas. Above all, I was stunned by the lack of media attention to this issue, which I believe led to it quietly being passed.

Ed Show: You reported that public transportation does not allow concealed-carry. If some organizations make exceptions to Kentucky’s law, does it become hard for regular citizens to figure out where they can and cannot carry?

Duane Pohlman: It will be hard for citizens to know where they can bring their guns because, frankly, the political leaders are still scurrying for answers. For instance, TARC, the mass transit system in Louisville, is continuing its ban on guns on its buses, though the Executive Director tells me TARC leaders are still researching the legal ramifications of continuing the ban. In addition, I have been told by other leaders they truly don’t know how it applies in places where public gatherings occur. About the only places guaranteed (for now) not to be gun free zones in Kentucky are schools, colleges and universities, and prisons. Again, many of the leaders say they were simply caught off guard when the law took effect and are still sorting it all out.

The author of Kentucky’s new gun law, State Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, makes it clear. “ I feel more comfortable when citizens have a weapon to protect themselves because, chances are, they’ll protect me as well,” he told me. Fact is many, many people in this part of the country (and other parts) agree.

Kentucky is clearly out-pacing the rest of the nation in allowing citizens to carry guns in public places. The question is, will other states follow?

Obama administration steps into gay marriage battle

By Pete Williams, Justice Correspondent, NBC News

The Justice Department Thursday urged the US Supreme Court to uphold same-sex marriage in California and went even further, suggesting it is unconstitutional to block gay couples from getting married in half a dozen other states.

States violate the Constitution, the administration argued, if they offer civil unions to gay couples but deny them the right to marry.

While that position clearly applies to the legal dispute in California, it would also apply to at least seven other states -- Delaware, Hawaii Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, and Rhode Island. Each offers civil unions but not same-sex marriage.

And while the administration takes no position in its brief beyond those states, its reasoning would have even broader implications.
If the administration's legal theory were ultimately accepted, no state could, under constitutional guarantees against discrimination, deny same sex couples the right to marry.

After first suggesting it would not get involved in the California case, the Obama administration late Thursday filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the two gay couples who launched the fight over the issue four years ago.

In a statement, Attorney General Eric Holder said, "In our filing today in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the government seeks to vindicate the defining constitutional ideal of equal treatment under the law ... The issues before the Supreme Court in this case and the Defense of Marriage Act case are not just important to the tens of thousands Americans who are being denied equal benefits and rights under our laws, but to our Nation as a whole."

Related: 100 Republicans sign brief to the Supreme Court arguing that gays and lesbians should be allowed to legally wed

 Supreme Court of the United States
 No. 12-144
by Peggy Satterfield
The Supreme Court hears oral argument in late March to decide the fate of Proposition 8, an amendment to the state constitution approved by 52 percent of California voters in 2008. It banned same-sex marriages in the state and went into effect after 18,000 gay couples were legally married earlier that year.

A federal judge declared the ban unconstitutional, and a federal appeals court last year upheld that ruling, though on narrower grounds that apply only to California. In December, the Supreme Court agreed to take up the issue.

The Justice Department is not directly involved in the case, because the gay couples that brought the lawsuit are challenging a state restriction, not a federal one. But each side had urged the government to file a brief in support of its position.

After voters approved the measure stopping same-sex marriage, state officials in California declined to defend it in court. That defense has been carried on by the original proponents of Prop 8.

The Obama administration last year signaled it would stay on the sidelines. In May, when President Obama first said that "same-sex couples should be able to get married," he added that it was not a matter for the federal government.

"This is an issue that is going to be worked out at the local level because historically this has not been a federal issue. Different states are coming to different conclusions," he said in an interview with ABC News.

Related: Obama administration to express support for gay marriage before high court

But he appeared to express a different view in January, urging legal equality for same-sex couples during his inaugural address.

"Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well," he said.

In a separate case the administration is urging the Supreme Court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, a law passed by Congress in 1996 that prohibits federal agencies from recognizing same-sex marriages in states where they are legal. As a result, married gay couples are denied over 1,000 federal benefits available to traditional couples.

"The law denies to tens of thousands of same-sex couples who are legally married under state law an array of important federal benefits that are available to legally married opposite-sex couples," Solicitor General Verrelli wrote last week in urging the court to overturn DOMA.

The law is unconstitutional, he said, "because this discrimination cannot be justified as substantially furthering any important governmental interest."

Nine states currently permit same-sex couples to marry -- Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, and Washington. It is also permitted in Washington, D.C.
VAWA passes House, with full protections for LGBT, Native Americans
File photo: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., center, accompanied by fellow House Democrats, leads a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, to discuss the  reintroduction of the Violence Against Women Act. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

File photo: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., center, accompanied by fellow House Democrats, leads a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, to discuss the reintroduction of the Violence Against Women Act. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The House of Representatives passed the Violence Against Women Act, extending abuse protections to gay, lesbians, and transgender people, as well as Native Americans and immigrants.

The bill passed 286 to 138, with the support of 87 Republicans; it will now move to the president’s desk to be signed. A GOP substitute bill that left out protections for Native communities and LGBT people was defeated 166 to 257.

Democrats criticized Republicans for passing the bill the day before the sequester hits. Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md said the automatic cuts would “take a sledgehammer” to programs supporting domestic violence victims. “This is shameful,” she said. 
After months of obstruction, Congress finally passed a reauthorization of VAWA. But over one hundred Republicans voted against VAWA in the House. Rev. Al Sharpton tries to get inside the GOP mentality of why they would vote “no” on reauthorizing the bill and talks to Rep. Jackie Speier about how it’s an example

The previous VAWA, which created a National Domestic Violence Hotline and authorized federal funding for battered women’s shelters, expired in 2011. It was written by Vice President Joe Biden while he was in the Senate.

Under the current law, funding will continue for shelters and programs that prosecute perpetrators of domestic violence and sexual assault. New additions to the bill address stalking, spyware, and video surveillance. The bill specifically ensures that LGBT, Native American, and immigrant victims can access services and protections, including grants and legal aid.

The bill also gives greater jurisdiction to tribal courts to prosecute sexual offenders who aren’t Native Americans, but commit crimes against Native Americans or on the reservation. Rape on reservations is very high; 34% of American Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped in their lifetimes.
Those who dare vote against VAWA
---- NOES    138 ---

Bishop (UT)
Brady (TX)
Brooks (AL)
Broun (GA)
Collins (GA)
Duncan (SC)
Duncan (TN)
Franks (AZ)
Gingrey (GA)
Graves (GA)
Graves (MO)
Griffin (AR)
Griffith (VA)
Hastings (WA)
Huizenga (MI)
Johnson (OH)
King (IA)
Miller (FL)
Murphy (PA)
Price (GA)
Rice (SC)
Roe (TN)
Rogers (AL)
Rogers (KY)
Scott, Austin
Smith (NE)
Smith (NJ)
Smith (TX)
Weber (TX)
Wilson (SC)

---- NOT VOTING    7 ---

Johnson, Sam
Miller, Gary
Young (AK)

Can aid without weapons help resolve Syrian conflict?

Hussein Malla / AP 
Syrian rebel fighters take their positions as they observe the Syrian army forces base of Wadi al-Deif, at the front line of Maarat al-Nuaman town, in Idlib province, Syria, on Feb. 26, 2013. 
By Ayman Mohyeldin, Correspondent, NBC News

News Analysis

Nearly two years after the Syrian uprising began, Secretary of State John Kerry announced the U.S. has for the first time agreed to directly supply Syria's opposition with $60 million in non-lethal aid. But, while this money is needed, it is unlikely to immediately change anything on the ground.

Speaking under the condition of anonymity, supporters of the opposition working to topple Syrian President Bashar al Assad said they were privately disappointed that the U.S. didn't extend more assistance, specifically weapons, and that the EU has not yet lifted an arms embargo. But the concern among U.S. officials is that extremist elements are increasingly filling in the vacuum in areas where the regime has been pushed back and the opposition is struggling to govern. There are worries weapons could end up in the wrong hands.

According to Salman Sheikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, Kerry’s announcement is "unlikely to change the calculation of the Syrian regime's biggest allies — Russia, Iran and Hezbollah." They will not take the U.S. decision as a serious threat to the regime's survival. 

Sheikh, who has advocated for arming the rebels, says $60 million is an insignificant amount for an opposition that is now expected to operate like a government in some parts of Syria. The salaries of civil servants who are expected to maintain law and order, as well as the country’s justice, sanitation and education services, can cost close to $500 million a month. And Sheikh estimates humanitarian assistance to meet the needs of the people displaced and suffering both inside and outside is about $40 million a day.

The U.S. aid package, which will assist the Syrian Opposition Coalition in 'liberated' areas, is aimed at helping the fledgling coalition expand the delivery of basic goods and services, including security, sanitation and educational services. The United States also will send technical advisers to support opposition staff in Egypt and work with the movement's military arm to provide non-lethal support to the Free Syrian Army, including things such as military rations and medical supplies to tend to sick and wounded fighters.

Foreign ministers from Saudi Arabia and Qatar described Thursday's announcement as a transformational point in the Syrian conflict. And British Foreign Secretary William Hague said his government would be making an announcement on additional aid to the opposition next week.

However, Yaser Tabbara, the spokesperson for the Coalition and its legal advisor, said Kerry’s Rome meeting with the head of the Syrian National Coalition, Moaz al Khatib, gave reason for "cautious" optimism.

The Syrian opposition is under increasing pressure to deliver a solution but doing so requires substantial "investment in the infrastructure of the armed opposition," Tabbara said. "A political solution without tipping the balance of power on the ground is not viable."

The Syrian opposition had promised to form an interim government by March 2 but that has been postponed for logistical reasons.

Meanwhile, Syria's official government news agency described Kerry's announcement as a paradox, saying it expressed "Washington's desire to find means to speed up the political process, which aims at ending the crisis in Syria and its desire to help and back the armed terrorist groups in the country."
U.S. to send rations, medical supplies to Syrian rebels, but not weapons

Searching for the Real Harlem Shake-Up
One man’s journey to the world capital of African-American culture looking for signs of President Obama’s ‘change we can believe in.’
By Ray LeMoine
February 27, 2013

Damian Coombs celebrates atop his car on 125th street in the Harlem section of New York City after U.S. Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) won the U.S. Presidential election, November 4, 2008. Since then, the fervor appears to have largely fizzled out. (Photos: Mike Segar/Reuters)

Saturday night in Harlem—it’s only 10 p.m., yet few people walk along 125th Street, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare. Sure it’s the middle of winter, but the lack of nightlife is stunning considering this is Manhattan. There aren’t many entertainment options, and the few bars and restaurants that are open have repressive rules. At Harlem BBQ, an Indian-owned sports bar, you have to be 25 to drink, there’s a minimum purchase required, and patrons cannot stay longer than two hours.

During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, more than 100 entertainment options, from speakeasies to jazz clubs to staged theater, vied for business along this stretch. Those days are long gone. With rare exceptions, Harlem is now closer to a mini-police state than to a cultural center.

On the streets, groups of men wearing bubble vests and crooked hats stalk corners. NYPD cruiser lights flash in front of housing projects. Almost every young male wears something red, the color of the Bloods street gang. Cars blast Hot 97, the biggest FM station in the city, credited with having invented rap. It’s fitting that the most popular song on the radio right now is Harlem native A$AP Rocky’s “F**kin’ Problems.”

Even though it has long represented the cultural capital of Black America, Harlem still has a lot of problems. It is both the most violent and incarcerated place in New York. East and Central Harlem have the most murders per capita in the city at around 20 per 100,000—war zone numbers. Harlem also has the most “million dollar blocks”—streets where the incarceration rate is so high it costs the public over a million a year to imprison the block’s residents. This culture of murder, drug dealing and prison equals a loss of adult males in the community, and Harlem has a male role model problem.

The Obama-era was supposed to be one of hope and change, withPresident Barack Obama as the ultimate national male role model for blacks. Yet, to hear the grumbling on the streets of Harlem, black people’s lives have failed to improve under his administration. On Valentine’s Day, a few days after the Obama’s latest State of the Union Address, the Harlem take on Obama had hardened from what it was four years ago. Back in 2008, on the eve of the election, the impending reality of a black president was just sinking in—and Harlem was delirious.

“It’s great that Obama is finally talking about the ghetto, but the kids here have two goals: Make money hustling or get big in the rap game or as an athlete. These are unrealistic goals. But sadly, that’s the only path people can see from within the broken families and horrible schools.”

But Obama’s first-term domestic policy was focused on the economy and healthcare, and advances in neither of those realms have reached 125th Street in any way that is being remarked upon.

Issues that are central to Harlem’s problems—housing, gun violence, prison-industrial complex—went ignored.

After the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, things are different, as far as the national debate on gun control goes. Obama visited the gang-infested South Side of Chicago and finally spoke to Harlem and the rest of black America’s problems.

“These guys are no different than me,” the president said, meaning they were growing up black without a male role model.

But male role models are not seen as the primary issue Uptown. Blame for the endless grind of poverty falls on the city, state and federal government.

“It’s like an Egypt before the revolution, with police on every corner, a police state,” says one veteran crime reporter. “But it’s much more violent than Egypt was—there are more guns.”

The police routinely arrest people for debatable probable cause via the controversial stop-and-frisk policy, with 17,000 stops in one East Harlem precinct last year alone, the most of any part of New York. The justice system punishes minorities at a higher and harsher rate than whites. The housing policy stuffs the poor into public projects, clusters of redbrick towers that pop up every few blocks. And then there’s education. Harlem’s schools are some of the worst in Manhattan.

Harlem people are frustrated with every authority figure, from beat cops all the way up to the White House.

“I mean, it’s great that Obama is finally talking about the ghetto,” says Sean Howard as he exits the subway on 125th in a leather jacket and new Nikes. The 29-year-old Harlem resident is headed home from work. “But the kids here have two goals: Make money hustling or get big in the rap game or as an athlete. These are unrealistic goals. But sadly, that’s the only path people can see from within the broken families and horrible schools.”

As I spoke with Howard, two NYPD officers approached and grabbed my camera. They made me show them the photos I’d been taking of the 456 train stop, then told me I could be arrested.

“That’s not true,” I protested. “This is a public street.”

“Put the camera away,” one of the cops said.

“Just chill man,” Sean said—to me, not to the cops.

I lowered the camera, and the cops gave a hard stare and backed off. Sean Howard walked in the other direction and would not talk further. I was angry that the police didn’t allow picture taking on 125th Street, but knew that Sean was right. Getting arrested in New York is not usually worth being right.

Harlem projects: The lights are on because everybody is staying home. (Photo: Ray LeMoine)

To give an idea of what success looks like in Harlem, on a recent Sunday I met Dipset rapper Juelz Santana in the VIP section of a Queens strip club. Juelz started rapping at age 12 and was discovered a few years later at the Apollo Theater during an open mic night. By 18, he had signed with fellow Harlem rapper Cam’ron and formed the Diplomats. Not unusual among rappers, Juelz has been arrested for gun and drug charges. One indictment accused Juelz of being the ringleader of a Bloods faction running a drug and gun market from his studio, though he denies any charges of gangster-ism and hasn’t been convicted.

In the VIP area there were maybe five tables, each held down by a rapper entourage. Juelz was with 20 or so members of his Dipset sub-crew the Skull Gang. Every single person there was smoking a blunt, and the whole room was cloudy. It was oddly peaceful and relaxed—was it the weed? More likely it was the fact that this was a party full of rappers, producers, DJs, managers and other people who carry thousands in cash and drive white BMWs.

“Man this is just the way we hang out,” said Skitzo, a young producer from the Bronx who has worked with Dipset since his teens. “Dipset got a bad rap, but there’s never any problems with us at the club. This is every kid’s dream man; so we live it up because we’re so damn lucky.”

A few nights later, I saw Juelz Santana again. His convoy had just pulled up to a Soho nightclub. It was 12:30 a.m., and Santana stood on the sidewalk, smiling in a camo T-shirt and sparkling chain with a few crew members watching him.

Once inside, he performed for 20 minutes. Then it was off to another club to make more money, hang out drinking “the bubbles” and hold court. MC does mean master of ceremonies, and many rappers supplement their recording careers hosting events.

With all the talk of pockets full of cash, awesome cars, guns, gold chains, nice clothes and women, the contrast with Harlem’s reality, where the poverty rate is over 35 percent, is stark. The high unemployment rate among black and Hispanic males is one factor swelling the entourages so many rappers travel with. Some kids make money for beats they produce, or are aspiring rappers under Juelz, or sell weed, or offer security. Every one of them tries to hustle some aspect of a rap game, but some mix it with the hustle game.

The system with Dipset is very tight; they run it like a military school. Yet this generation appears to have given up on politics or activism.

“Why wouldn’t I hang out with friends at the club?” one of Juelz’s associates told me. “It’s better than standing on the corner and getting arrested for standing on that corner. White people will never care about us. We have a black president, and still nothing changes.”

I thought of how I’d been threatened with arrest for taking pictures on a Harlem corner. If I were black, I would have probably spent 36 hours in Central Booking.

Fighting tears, father of Newtown victim asks Senate committee to ban assault weapons

(Susan Walsh/ Associated Press ) -slin, the father of a six-year-old boy who was slain in the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, holds a picture of himself with his son Jesse and wipes his eye while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013. At left is Carlee Soto, sister of slain Sandy Hook Elementary teacher Victoria Soto.

(Susan Walsh/ Associated Press ) - Neil Heslin, the father of a six-year-old boy who was slain in the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, holds a picture of himself with his son Jesse and wipes his eye while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013.

By Associated Press, Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 5:47 PM

WASHINGTON — After weeks of arguing constitutional fine points and citing rival statistics, senators wrangling over gun control saw and heard the anguish of a bereft father.
Neil Heslin, whose 6-year-old son, Jesse, was among those cut down at a Connecticut elementary school in December, asked the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday to ban assault weapons like the one that killed his child.
“I’m not here for the sympathy or the pat on the back,” Heslin, a 50-year-old construction worker, told the senators, weeping openly during much of his hushed 11-minute testimony. “I’m here to speak up for my son.”
At his side were photos: of his son as a baby, of them both taken on Father’s Day, six months before Jesse was among 20 first-graders and six administrators killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. That massacre has hoisted gun control to a primary political issue this year, though the outcome remains uncertain.

The hearing’s focus was legislation by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to ban assault weapons and ammunition magazines carrying more than 10 rounds. A Bushmaster assault weapon was used at Newtown by the attacker, Adam Lanza, whose body was found with 30-round magazines.
Feinstein said such a firearm “tears peoples’ bodies apart. I don’t know why as a matter of public policy we can’t say they don’t belong.’”
Republicans had several answers. They argued her proposal would violate the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms and take firearms from law-abiding citizens, and said current laws aimed at keeping guns from criminals are not fully enforced.

“The best way to prevent crazy people” from getting firearms is to better enforce the existing federal background check system, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
That system is designed to prevent criminals, people with mental problems and others from obtaining guns. It only applies to weapons sold by federally licensed dealers, and expanding that system to nearly all gun transactions is the central proposal in President Barack Obama’s package of gun restrictions he unveiled last month, along with bans on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines.
As if to underscore the hurdles Obama’s plan faces on Capitol Hill, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., told reporters Wednesday that he opposed universal background checks like the president wants and predicted it would not be part of his chamber’s gun legislation. He wants the current federal background check system strengthened, improving how states provide it with mental health information about citizens and cracking down on illegal gun trafficking.
At the same time, election results from Tuesday highlighted gun control’s potency as a political issue. Illinois state Rep. Robin Kelly won a House Democratic primary in the state after a political committee favoring firearms curbs financed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Independence USA, spent more than $2 million on ads for her. Kelly’s opponent had opposed an assault weapons ban.
The Senate Judiciary panel could begin writing gun legislation Thursday, but that seems all but certain to slip to next week.
At the Senate hearing, spectators dabbed tears from their cheeks as Heslin described his last morning with his son, including getting a final hug as he dropped him off at school. The hearing room was packed with relatives and neighbors of victims of Newtown, as well as people affected by other shootings at Aurora, Colo., and Virginia Tech.
“It’s all going to be OK,” Heslin says his son told him. “And it wasn’t OK.”
Dr. William Begg, an emergency room doctor who treated some Newtown casualties, described assault weapons wounds. Begg noted that the coroner’s report said each child had three to 11 bullet wounds.
“They had such horrific injuries to their little bodies,” said Begg. He said an assault weapons bullet “opens up” and does not travel in a straight line, adding, “That’s not a survivable injury.”
The hearing featured heated exchanges, such as when Graham pressed Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn about the government’s prosecution of only a handful of the roughly 80,000 people annually who fail background checks after falsely stating they qualify for guns.
“I want to stop 76,000 people from buying guns illegally,” Walsh said, defending the background check system and heatedly interrupting Graham, a Senate rarity.
Former Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Fla., once a law enforcement officer, told the senators they have an opportunity to take effective action against gun violence. She has favored expanding the availability of mental health information to the authorities and opposes taking guns from people.
“It is not time for feel-good legislation so you can say you did something,” she said.
That drew an angry objection from Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., who said, “This is not feel-good legislation.”
Feinstein’s bill — and most of Obama’s guns agenda — will have to overcome opposition from the National Rifle Association, which has long kept lawmakers from enacting gun restrictions.
Another hurdle is uncertain support from moderate Democrats.
Feinstein’s measure has 21 co-sponsors, all Democrats. Including herself, it is sponsored by eight of the 10 Judiciary panel Democrats — precarious for a committee where Democrats outnumber Republicans 10-8. Among those who haven’t co-sponsored the measure is Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who did not attend Wednesday’s session.
Her bill would ban future sales of assault weapons and magazines carrying more than 10 rounds of ammunition, exempting those that already exist. It specifically bans 157 firearms but excludes 2,258 others in an effort to avoid barring hunting and sporting weapons.
Meanwhile, the House Education and Workforce Committee debated ways to keep students safe, such as the NRA proposal for more armed guards at schools.
“Two thousand kids die each year in automobiles each year,” said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., comparing that number with the comparatively few children who die in schools. “Schools are safe places and for the most part they really are.”
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said school safety is linked to firearms, saying, “Turning schools into armed fortresses is not the answer.”

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

House to vote on Violence Against Women Act measures

Republican leaders are prepared to allow a vote on a version favored by Democrats, pointing to GOP division.

Senate confirms Lew as Treasury secretary

Senate confirms Lew as Treasury secretary Jack Lew gets Senate green light in a 71-26 vote just as economy faces potentially severe budget cuts.

Sequester spin gets ahead of reality

Sequester spin gets ahead of reality How bad will the cuts really be? No one really knows. The dire warnings the reflect a lot of guesswork.

4 Pinocchios for Arne Duncan’s false claim of ‘pink slips’ for teachers

Education Secretary asserted three times that some teachers have already gotten ‘pink slips.’

Boehner cuts House members’ greatest perk

Boehner cuts House members’ greatest perk
Citing the impending sequester cuts to the federal budget, the Speaker canceled all House congressional delegation travel on military jets.

Christie: CPAC snub no big deal

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Boehner cuts House members’ greatest perk

Boehner cuts House members’ greatest perk Citing the impending sequester cuts to the federal budget, the Speaker canceled all House congressional delegation travel on military jets.

Duncan says teachers getting pink slips but local officials say not so

Duncan says teachers getting pink slips but local officials say not so West Virginia teacher moves are not a result of sequestration, local officials explain.

Cut the pork but hold the sequestration, protesters say

Cut the pork but hold the sequestration, protesters say Protesters with a giant pink pig want defense cuts without sequestration

Supreme Court conservatives express skepticism over voting law provision

By , Wednesday, February 27, 1:10 PM

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images - Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), left, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) attend a rally on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 27

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority strongly suggested Wednesday that a key portion of the landmark legislation protecting minority voting rights is no longer justified and that the time had come for Southern states to be freed from special federal oversight.

At stake was Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which even challengers credit with delivering the promise of political inclusion to minority voters and eventually leading to the election of the nation’s first African American president.

With the voting rights case and an upcoming decision about whether universities may consider race in their admission policies, the court is poised this term to render a powerful verdict on the progress the United States has made in remedying its history of discrimination and the role government may play in what is left to do.

Next month, in another pair of major civil rights cases, the justices will consider the right of same-sex couples to marry and the government’s recognition of those unions.

The sharp ideological differences that mark the court have rarely been on display more than in Wednesday’s dramatic and at times tense oral argument, which played out before a courtroom filled with political leaders such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and civil rights activists such as Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.

The justices’ questioning of the lawyers was so intense that Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. allowed the session to run into overtime.

Section 5 of the law requires nine states, mostly in the South, and jurisdictions in other states to “pre-clear” any changes in voting laws with federal authorities.

Justice Antonin Scalia said Congress’s decision in 2006 to reauthorize the law was not the result of a studied decision but of a “phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement.” Politicians, he said, are afraid to vote against something with the “wonderful” name of the Voting Rights Act.

The liberals on the court defended the reauthorization, saying Congress amassed overwhelming evidence of a continued need for Section 5, which covers Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, as well as Alaska and Arizona, plus parts of seven other states.

“I don’t know what they’re thinking exactly,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer said of the nearly unanimous majorities in Congress that reauthorized Section 5. “But it seems to me one might reasonably think this: It’s an old disease, it’s gotten a lot better, a lot better, but it’s still there.”

The court in 2009 considered whether extending Section 5 was constitutional. The justices decided that case without a definitive answer but sent an unmistakable message to Congress that the court was dissatisfied with the formula used to determine which states were covered by Section 5.

In the 2009 case, Roberts wrote that such an imposition on state sovereignty must be justified by current needs. “The statute’s coverage formula is based on data that is now more than 35 years old and there is considerable evidence that it fails to account for current political conditions,” he wrote for seven other justices. Justice Clarence Thomas said he would have found the reauthorization unconstitutional.

Congress took no action after that decision, and there were signs Wednesday that conservatives on the court had lost patience. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who often casts the deciding vote when the court is ideologically split and is a strong supporter of federalism, said the current situation leaves Alabama under “the trusteeship of the United States government.”

He also criticized the use of the formula, which originally was based on measures such as literacy tests and voter registration percentages, to determine which states Section 5 covers.

“If Congress is going to single out separate states by name, it should do it by name,” Kennedy said. “Congress just didn’t have the time or the energy to do this; it just reenacted” the existing formula.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. called the Voting Rights Act “one of the most successful statutes that Congress passed in the 20th century ” but nevertheless said the selection of jurisdictions covered by Section 5 makes no sense today.

Comparing jurisdictions that are covered with those that are not, he questioned whether discrimination is “a bigger problem in Virginia than in Tennessee, or it’s a bigger problem in Arizona than Nevada, or in the Bronx as opposed to Brooklyn.”

Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., who along with Debo P. Adegbile of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund was defending the law’s reauthorization, was bluntly asked by Roberts: “Is it the government’s submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North?

Verrilli said the government was not making that claim but instead was arguing that Congress had found that Section 5 was still needed in those jurisdictions and, in doing so, was relying on a formula that the court had found constitutional in four previous examinations.

The law was being challenged by Shelby County, Ala., a growing suburb south of Birmingham. The county was represented by Bert W. Rein, a Washington lawyer who said today’s Alabama bears “no resemblance” to the state that earned its spot on the 1965 list.

But the liberal justices were armed with statistics. “You’re objecting to a formula, but under any formula that Congress could devise, it would capture Alabama,” said Justice Elena Kagan, citing findings that a greater proportional number of violations of the act occur in the South.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said it was a recent violation by a town in Shelby County that led to the current case. “Why would we vote in favor of a county whose record is the epitome of what caused the passage of this law to start with?” she asked.

Although the discrimination of 1965 may no longer be present, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “the discrimination continues in other forms.”

The question of deference to Congress provoked the most dramatic moments. When Scalia said that the 98-0 Senate vote for reauthorization was evidence that lawmakers had not seriously considered the issue, Kagan took the unusual step of addressing him directly.

“Well, that sounds like a good argument to me, Justice Scalia,” she said. “It was clear to 98 senators, including every senator from a covered state, who decided that there was a continuing need for this piece of legislation.”

Addressing Verrilli, Scalia repeated his concern that extending the voting rights law is “not the kind of a question you can leave to Congress.”

Verrilli disagreed, saying, “We are talking about the enforcement power that the Constitution gives to the Congress to make these judgments to ensure protection of fundamental rights.”

Kennedy suggested several times that another part of the law, which applies to the entire nation, is enough to prevent discrimination.

The symbolic significance of Section 5 could make the court reluctant to strike it down entirely. Instead, the justices could keep the section but declare that the formula used in selecting the covered states is outdated and must be revisited. Proponents of the law say that would effectively doom Section 5, because it would be so hard to get a new formula through a partisan and polarized Congress.

The case is Shelby County v. Holder .

Lowering Discretionary Spending

President Obama has led the way on forcing government to live within its means through a balanced approach that protects key priorities and ensures that everyone pays their fair share. In August, President Obama signed into law a bipartisan agreement that kept our nation from defaulting and achieved significant deficit reduction, including a down payment on reform of about $1 trillion, by reducing discretionary spending to its lowest level as a share of the economy since Dwight D. Eisenhower was President while protecting critical investments critical to our long-term competitiveness. And under this agreement, Congress must pass another $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction, or trigger massive cuts to domestic and defense spending, providing an incentive for both sides to come together. The agreement is consistent with the President’s values of achieving meaningful deficit reduction in a common-sense balanced manner, in which low-income and middle-class families do not bear the entire burden, in which the most fortunate Americans pay their fair share, and in which cuts are spread across both the security and non-security sides of government.

The Budget Control Act locks in historic spending discipline, balanced between domestic and Pentagon discretionary spending. Highlights include:
Brings domestic discretionary spending to its lowest level since Eisenhower: As part of the down payment on deficit reduction the President signed this August, domestic discretionary spending will be brought to its lowest level as a share of the economy since Dwight D. Eisenhower was President. At the same time, the President has insisted that these cuts include both domestic and defense spending, and has made clear that they cannot threaten our long-term competitiveness or our commitments to the most vulnerable – for example, by ensuring that historic expansions of Pell Grants are maintained.
Saves more than $900 billion over 10 years by imposing long-term spending restraint:  The Budget Control Act mandates historic levels of spending cuts—nearly $1 trillion—done in a way that will not harm the economic recovery. The cuts are balanced between domestic and Pentagon spending, and protect critical initiatives like aid for college students;
Protects core investments from deep and economically damaging cuts: President Obama is adamant that in order to fundamentally rebuild our economy, we have to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world, tapping the creativity and imagination of our people. We have to take responsibility for our deficit, but we need to continue investing in what makes America stronger and cutting what doesn’t. The Budget Control Act allows us to continue investing in innovation, infrastructure and education.
Saves $350 billion from the base defense budget: For the first time since the 1990s, defense spending will decline. The Budget Control Act puts us on track to cut $350 billion from the defense budget over 10 years. These reductions will be implemented based on the outcome of a review of our missions, roles, and capabilities that will reflect the President’s commitment to protecting our national security.
Protects the President’s historic investment in Pell Grants: Since taking office, the President has increased the maximum Pell award by $819 to a maximum award $5,550 per year, helping over 9 million students pay for college tuition bills. The deal provides specific protection in the discretionary budget to ensure that the there will be sufficient funding for the President’s commitment to making college more affordable for all Americans.
Protects low-income and middle-class families from shouldering the sole burden of deficit reduction: The President stood firmly against proposals that would have placed the sole burden of deficit reduction on lower-income and middle-class families. This includes not only proposals in the House Republican Budget that would have undermined the core commitments of Medicare to our seniors and forced tens of millions of low-income Americans to go without health insurance, but also enforcement mechanisms that would have forced automatic cuts to low-income programs. The enforcement mechanism in the deal exempts Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare benefits, unemployment insurance, programs for low-income families, and civilian and military retirement.
And, the President has proposed to go beyond this down payment and is proposing important reforms to mandatory programs saving hundreds of billions of dollars. He has called on the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction to enact these reforms. Highlights include:
Strengthens Medicare and Medicaid: President Obama is recommending a series of reforms that build on the historic savings in the Affordable Care Act. Overall, these proposals will save $248 billion in Medicare over 10 years and $73 billion in Medicaid and other health programs—and more than a trillion dollars in deficit reduction in the second decade. They accomplish this in a way that does not shift significant risks onto the individuals these programs serve, slash benefits, or undermine the fundamental compact they represent to our Nation’s seniors, people with disabilities, and low-income families. Even though these reforms can and will save money, they also will strengthen these vital programs and ensure that they are robust and healthy to serve Americans for years to come.
Reforms to other mandatory programs throughout the budget:  The President is proposing $257 billion in cuts and reforms to a wide range of mandatory programs from Federal retirement to agricultural subsidies, reform of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, new program integrity initiatives, and getting rid of unneeded Federal real estate property to reduce the deficit.