Thursday, January 24, 2013

'Valor knows no gender': Pentagon lifts ban on women in combat

Women who've passed the Army's grueling Sapper Leader course say they're well-prepared to enter combat, and in some cases, better prepared than men. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports.
Declaring that it would strengthen both the military and the country, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday lifted a ban on women in combat and said that it was “the responsibility of every citizen to protect the nation.”

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, the secretary vowed that the decision would not compromise military readiness and pledged that the armed forces would not lower standards for service, such as for physical fitness.

“If they can meet the qualifications for the job,” he said, “then they should have the right to serve.”

President Barack Obama said in a statement that the decision would “be another step toward fulfilling our nation’s founding ideals of fairness and equality,” themes that he sounded three days earlier in his second inaugural address.

The deaths of more than 150 American military women in Iraq and Afghanistan, the president said, demonstrate that “valor knows no gender.” Another 1,000 women have been wounded in the nation’s two most recent wars.

The decision replaces a 1994 military policy memo signed by Les Aspin, a defense secretary under President Bill Clinton, that excluded women from assignments to units below the brigade level if the unit would be engaged in direct combat.

The change is expected to open 230,000 front-line positions to women.
Nearing the expected end of his own time as defense secretary, Panetta spoke of visiting Arlington National Cemetery and seeing no distinction between men and women who had given their lives in defense of the country.
Paula Bronstein / Getty Images
View images of the women deployed as the second Female Engagement team in Afghanistan

“They serve, they’re wounded, and they die right next to each other,” he said. “The time has come to recognize that reality.”

The secretary said that there would be a review period for each of the armed services to see if there are any jobs that should be excluded. He wants recommendations on his desk by May 15.

But Pentagon officials said it might be next year before specifics are worked out and women can begin applying for the newly opened positions.

Asked specifically about special operations units such as the Navy SEALs and Delta Force, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the Pentagon briefing that he believes there are women who would meet those standards.

For years, women in the military, and outside groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, have argued that women already serve on the front lines but are not recognized for it. Women constitute 15 percent of the active-duty military.

Panetta said repeatedly that he had been impressed by the role of women in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We are making our military stronger, and we are making America stronger,” he said.

Critics of Panetta’s decision had expressed concern that allowing women to serve in combat roles could harm unit cohesion and weaken military readiness. Others said they worried about lower standards for physical fitness, leading to a weaker fighting force.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. and a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, said earlier Thursday that lifting the ban was “the right thing to do,” but he stressed that the military should make sure physical standards are met.

Reaction on Capitol Hill appeared mostly positive. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, congratulated Panetta for the decision in an interview on “Andrea Mitchell Reports” on MSNBC.

“I think this is a very positive step, and it reflects the reality of what’s happening, obviously, in defending our nation,” she said.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey announce that the military is lifting the ban on women serving in combat positions. Watch their statements.

'She'll kick your butt': Experts say women fit to fight

By Maggie Fox, Senior Writer, NBC News

Women don’t have enough upper-body strength. They can’t run as fast. Their monthly cycle will interfere with being on the front lines. All the arguments against letting women serve in the military are being made again as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted restrictions on women serving in direct combat roles.

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But experts on fitness and on women in the military say the past two decades have shown that being female is not the biggest barrier to serving on the front lines. Being fat is.

“I don’t think gender is a factor at all,” says retired Navy rear admiral Jamie Barnett, who is now at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. “I do think there are physical requirements and not all men or women will be able to meet those physical requirements. Those physical requirements should be tied specifically to making sure the job gets done.”

Just as with men, women selected to combat roles will be “a select few”, says Edward Archer, an exercise physiologist at the University of South Carolina. “When it comes to physical capacity, I think without any question there will be females who will be able to exceed and excel and to perform as well as the average male, in that setting.”

The various branches -- Air Force, Navy, Army and Marines -- already have differing requirements for physical fitness, by branch and by gender. All have a minimum standard, calculated using three exercises that include running, either pull-ups or push-ups, and sit-ups. Women's requirements are lower in some cases, but the Marines doesn’t give females a break at all when it comes to minimum physical fitness.

Scott Olson / Getty Images file
Marine Corps recruit Megan Shipley (C), 17, of Kingston, Tennessee lets out a yell during hand-to-hand combat training at the United States Marine Corps recruit depot June 23, 2004 in Parris Island, South Carolina. Marine Corps boot camp, with its combination of strict discipline and exhaustive physical training, is considered the most rigorous of the armed forces recruit training.

Barnett notes that these are general fitness measures that may mean little when it comes to completing a specific task or mission. “You can be a football player and if you go out with your mom on a half marathon and you haven’t trained for it (and she has), she’ll kick your butt,” Barnett said.

There is a problem with fitness that affects the military, but it doesn’t reflect on women alone. It reflects on Americans in general, says Barnett, who as a member of a group called "Mission: Readiness" signed a report on the dangers posed by obesity to U.S. security.

“We are too unfit to fight, is the term. We are definitely an unfit society,” Archer added in a telephone interview. “They need basic training to get ready for basic training. This is true of both males and females,” Archer said.

“Already we see only one in four Americans between ages of 17 and 24 who can join the military,” Barnett said in a telephone interview. “The single biggest reason is that they are overweight.”

More than two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, and experts agree that both poor diet and a lack of exercise is to blame. The military needs men and women alike who are in the best possible shape, argues Barnett.

“Once you establish objective criteria for what the requirements are for a military job, then I say let women compete for those and let the best man or woman get the position,” says Barnett, who served in Iraq and who was deputy commander of the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, with sailors serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I think what we’ll find is there will be a lot of women who will be able to meet even the hardest positions.”

Experience shows this happens, says Lorry Fenner, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who is now at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.

“Example after example can be found of women exceeding the expectations of their physical capabilities, finding work-arounds for heavy tasks, or teaming with their co-workers to complete their assignments to best effect,” Fenner writes in her book, “Women in Combat”.

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“Obviously, not all women are strong enough for all jobs -- just as not all men are,” Fenner adds -- then describes how women recruits mastered tests to show whether they could scale walls and carry heavy equipment.

“When we study history, we find that women have coped with every aspect of war. Women have demonstrated the emotional courage to withstand the brutality of war, including during lengthy imprisonment as POWs under very harsh conditions in the Pacific and in European work and death camps; in very dangerous and stressful resistance fighting; in the face of rape and mutilation; and at the moments of their deaths,” Fenner writes.

The average woman is indeed weaker and has less heart, lung and blood oxygen capacity than the average man, says Archer. “But an elite female athlete can outperform the average male soldier easily in many ways,” he adds.

Fenner and Barnett say the U.S. military needs to be able to pull from a pool of the best recruits for all jobs, including front-line combat.

“My view is you can get the job done better if you can draw on the best talents that America has to offer, regardless of gender,” Barnett said. “If you have to be able to swim 3 miles in a certain amount of time, then it doesn’t matter what gender you are.”

Critics of the new policy also raise the issue of feminine hygiene -- something women in the military will hoot at. Women worried about monthly cycles can use oral or injected hormonal contraceptives to suppress ovulation and bleeding and studies show there is no additional danger to health from using birth control in this way.

Virginia Redistricting 2013: State GOP Rams Bill Through Senate In Absence Of Democratic Sen. Henry Marsh

Posted:   |  Updated: 01/23/2013 5:47 pm EST

Sneaky Redistricting

Ricky talks to Virginia State Sen. Donald McEachin about how Republicans pushed through a redistricting plan while Democrat Sen. Henry Marsh attended the inauguration.
Republican Sen. John Watkins of Powhatan, defended the move as an effort to create another majority black Senate district.
Virginia Democrats are raising hell after Republicans unexpectedly rammed a controversial redistricting bill through the state Senate on Monday, capitalizing on the absence of a Democratic lawmaker and civil rights leader who was in Washington for President Barack Obama's second inauguration.
The Virginia Senate is currently split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, each occupying 20 seats in the legislative body. Democratic State Sen. Harry Marsh's absence paved the way for passage of the previously unannounced legislation by a count of 20 votes to 19.
"The new redistricting map revises the districts created under the 2011 map," writes Talking Points Memo's Evan McMorris-Santoro, "and would take effect before the next state Senate elections in Virginia and would redraw district lines to maximize the number of safe GOP seats."
According to the Associated Press:
After the measure was sprung on unsuspecting Democrats, its sponsor, Republican Sen. John Watkins of Powhatan, defended it as an effort to create another majority black Senate district. What he didn't say is that it would create even more GOP-dominant districts.
The move apparently came as a surprise even to Virginia's Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, who TPM described as "non-committal on the new maps," possibly because of the power play's problematic optics.
State Senator Marsh practiced civil rights law before his election as the first black mayor of Richmond, Va., and later as a six-term state senator.
Virginia Democrats are vowing to challenge the move in court, according to the Washington Post.
“We talk about the dangers of legislating on the fly. Well, this is the ultimate in danger,” Democrat Sen. Don McEachin reportedly said. “The public has no idea what we’re about to do adopting this substitute, nor would they know in the next three days that it would take for this bill to ultimately pass.”
McEachin also called the stunt “secretive and underhanded.”

Gerrymandering - Proving All Politics Is Local

What is Gerrymandering, how does it happen and why? We look at examples and explore some alternatives.

What is it?

Gerrymandering refers to the process of carving out legislative districts for political advantage. In 1810, Elbridge Gerry, Governor of Massachusetts, began the process of redistricting, or repositioning congressional districts based on population changes. Shortly after he had finished and passed into law the new districts he had created, writers at the Boston Gazette compared the shape of one district to that of a salamander. Combining the name of Governor Gerry with the word salamander, they coined Gerry’s new district as a “Gerry”-mander, and the name has stuck ever since. The practice of Gerrymandering predates Governor Gerry, as founding father Patrick Henry originally designed Virginian electoral districts with the intent of foiling the election of James Madison.

How does it work?

By shaping legislative districts in various ways, officeholders are able to affect which voters they will be responsible to on election day. The opportunity for this arises out of the once-a-decade district re-apportionment required by a set of 1960s Supreme Court cases. As voters move into different congressional districts, the population in each of these districts becomes uneven, which results in residents of relatively unpopulated districts having greater representation (because a single vote from a less populated district will comprise a greater proportion of the total votes cast).

These Supreme Court cases require state legislatures to redraw districts every ten years (coinciding with the national Census) to ensure that legislative districts are roughly equal in population. In redrawing districts, officeholders can dilute the opposition party’s votes by “cracking” its voters across several districts, making it more difficult to construct a majority in any district, and can waste the opposition party’s vote by “packing” its voters into unnecessarily safe districts, reducing its capacity to compete in the remaining districts.

Following the early creation of the term and its first use in American politics, Gerrymandering has been a highly visible part of the redistricting process. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 added racial considerations into the mix. Rather than creating districts based solely on party registration, states began to manipulate districts to concentrate certain minorities thereby altering the political landscape. Though in recent years this practice of racial redistricting has been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, gerrymandering remains constitutional and continues across the country.

Where do we see it?

 States have responded to attempted gerrymandering in several different ways. In Texas, a 2003 controversy erupted when the Republican dominated legislature redistricted in the middle of the decade, without new census data. Since no decision was reached about redistricting in 2000 when census data had first been released, Republican leaders believed they had the ability to carry out a redistricting at any point before the next census. Using the power of their majority, they maximized the number of Republican House representatives in the state and, more significantly, seemed to discriminate against minorities in the process. Democrats took the legal battle first to state then to Federal court. The Supreme Court took the case and in 2006, ruled that the redistricting itself was legal. The Court found however, that one district diluted the votes of minorities in violation of the Voting Rights Act. The Republican redistricting was largely preserved and a belief in gerrymandering with it.

A 2003 redistricting attempt in Colorado saw Republicans attempt a similar strategy as in Texas in order to maximize Republican representation. However, unlike Texas, Colorado had already redistricted in that decade. The Supreme Court of Colorado therefore struck down the redistricting, saying it could only occur once per decade according to the state constitution.
The Supreme Court of the United States refused to hear the case after a lengthy debate, ending the attempt.

In Florida, voters in the 2010 election approved a measure that outlawed drawing a district to benefit an incumbent party or politician. Although this amendment effectively outlaws gerrymandering, it does not create any new protections against the practice or change how redistricting occurs. What it does is create a new legal tool for the state’s courts to deal with cases related to electoral politics and redistricting. However, redistricting in Florida continues to be a partisan affair. Republicans control the governorship, the House, and the Senate in Florida, so they are the party primarily responsible for planning Florida’s new districts. Democratic leaders in the state have promised a legal challenge. In Florida, it appears that the amendment simply moved the fight over redistricting from the legislature to the courts.

Are there alternatives?

Unlike in Australia, Canada, or most European countries, anti-gerrymandering reforms have failed to gain much political traction in the United States due to entrenched political interests, however alternatives do exist. The most commonly proposed tactic for eliminating gerrymandering is the creation of an independent and objective commission to draw the boundaries of electoral districts rather than leave this task to the legislature; the United Kingdom and Australia have specially designated commissions for this purpose. These commissions, in the few places where they have been implemented in the United States, are usually made up of relatively apolitical members, selected with the aim of achieving equitable representation of Republicans and Democrats.


At present, however, the only American state which consistently draws its electoral districts in this manner is Iowa, whose nonpartisan Legislative Services Bureau has sole oversight of the process. Instances of bipartisan commission failure are more common however; one established by the Missouri legislature after the 2000 Census to redistrict that state infamously ended in intractable deadlock. In 2005 the voters of Ohio soundly rejected a ballot measure that would have established a state-level districting commission. Moreover, employing a commission is no guarantee that gerrymandering will not take place—California’s Congressional districts, for instance, are the result of a bipartisan gerrymander that effectively locks the balance of power in the state’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives at the status quo. This strategy was so effective that in 2004 not a single one of California’s 53 House seats changed hands.


As an alternative to human intervention, some political scientists and mathematicians have developed computer programs and mathematical algorithms to create electoral districts. One examples is the “shortest splitline algorithm” created by the Center for Range Voting which uses a computer to divide a state into the appropriate number of evenly populated districts using the shortest possible straight lines. Another example is a program written by software engineer Brian Olson which places voters in districts such that the average distance from a voter to the center of his or her district is minimized. Although solutions of this kind do create unbiased districts, whether or not such districts are fair is subjective; since algorithmic solutions have no concept of “communities of interest,” they can result in splitting a single city into multiple districts or lumping communities with very different interests (but geographic proximity) into the same district.

Where do we go from here?

Gerrymandering is a hallmark of American politics. The tactic serves the self-interests of whichever party is in power, and has become thoroughly entrenched in the political process. However, as recent attempts in Florida and Missouri show, there is a genuine desire for reforming the process of redistricting. Alternatives, such as bipartisan commissions and technological solutions, do exist and while both have drawbacks and have not proven successful in practice, they need to be better developed in order to compete with the status quo.


Governor McDonnell Should Veto Virginia’s GOP Redistricting Gambit

By Keesha Gaskins – 01/23/13

The 20-20 divided Virginia Senate took extraordinary action to drastically rewrite the district lines for 45 percent of Virginia’s residents on Inauguration Day. On January 21, 2013, State Senator Henry March—a Civil Rights Activist—left the state to attend the inauguration of President Barack Obama. The Virginia Senate quickly moved to take advantage of his absence and introduced, amended and passed an amendment to a House bill making technical changes to the 2011 redistricting lines.

By the time the temporarily Republican-controlled Senate was done with the technical fixes presented by the House, it had fully rewritten a number of senate districts—displacing almost 2 million Virginia residents into new districts. While the current Senate is evenly split with 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans, some estimates suggest that the newly-proposed lines might result in a far more lopsided chamber even though there has been no significant change in the makeup of Virginias's electorate in the 19 months since the previous lines were approved. The proposal could put Republicans in position to win 27 seats in the Senate at the next election, which would give Republicans a veto-proof supermajority in the chamber. This bill, as amended, passed on a party-line vote, 20 to 19, with Sen. March absent.

Beyond the stunning political chicanery of holding a vote while a state senator attended the presidential inauguration, the legislative processes also violated basic principles of transparency and representation necessary for fair redistricting. The legislation was introduced and passed in less than one day. There were no hearings, no opportunity for public comment, no advance publication of the district lines or any other opportunity for the public to understand the new lines or the impact on their legislative districts. Gov. Bob McDonnell has publicly condemned and distanced himself from the actions of the Senate Republicans but has not gone so far as to promise to veto the legislation. The Virginia House heard the revised bill on Tuesday and a final vote is expected later this week.

This attempt by Virginia’s Senate Republicans to rewrite the district lines after the 2011 lines were signed into law raises serious constitutional questions. Virginia’s constitution requires that redistricting occur in 2011 and every ten years thereafter. It does not provide for any other time for redistricting, although it does not expressly preclude it. But in 2011, Richmond District Court Judge Richard D. Taylor, Jr., in a decision addressing a dispute regarding timing of Virginia’s most recent congressional redistricting, reasoned that Virginia’s General Assembly does not have the authority to reapportion districts any time it chooses.

Given its timing, the amendment appears to be a political power grab by Virginia’s republican senators—that may very well be unconstitutional. The passage of this bill by Virginia’s senate represents the worst type of procedural manipulation and demonstrates contempt not only for a fair legislative process but also for Virginia’s citizens who were denied the opportunity to be heard on key legislation that will decide how they are represented for at least the next decade. Without question, there will be costly litigation if this bill is passed into law—some of it already promised by the Democrats.

This political gambit is poorly played with ill-considered consequences. Should this measure pass the Virginia House, Governor Bob McDonnell ought to veto this bill.

Finding a way out of Va. redistricting trap

By , Thursday, January 24, 12:13 PM

RICHMOND — Sen. Richard L. Saslaw got wind Thursday that House Democrats might force a vote on a bill to redraw Senate lines across the state, so he dashed from his chamber to make sure that didn’t happen.

Republicans had rammed the measure through the Senate on Monday in a sneak attack Saslaw had compared to Pearl Harbor. And ever since, the Senate Democratic leader from Fairfax has been quietly pressing House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) to do away with it, according to legislators and Capitol staffers.

Even though they were in close contact, Saslaw was not sure where Howell stood on the bill that he could kill with a procedural move. And with good reason.

Howell and Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) are conflicted about how to get out of a mess their own party thrust them into, according to two Republicans familiar with their thinking but not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.

Republican redraw

A proposal to redraw Virginia state Senate districts would make eight districts, six of them held by Democrats, more heavily Republican, and leaves seven out of 40 not dominated by either party. More Democrats were added to three already heavily Democratic districts. Read related article.

Source: Virginia Division of Legislative Services. Ted Mellnik and Laris Karklis/The Washington Post. Published on January 22, 2013, 8:51 p.m.

The governor and speaker are said to be struggling over whether to advance the plan or kill it. If they opt do it in, they are discussing whether Howell should do it by way of parliamentary ruling, or McDonnell should via veto.

“They just don’t know what they’re going to do yet,” said a Republican strategist familiar with their thinking. “They’re human beings, just handed this proposal.”

As the governor and speaker to decide a course, Saslaw has been appealing to Howell, his political opponent but friend. “Dick thinks may be this can be settled short of a confrontation,” said a Democratic senator who did not want to be identified in order to speak candidly.

McDonnell, Howell and Saslaw all declined to comment on their conversations.

The redistricting shocker that Senate Republicans sprang on unsuspecting Democrats Monday came as no less a surprise to McDonnell and Howell.

The plan has the potential to give Republicans greater sway over the now-evenly divided Senate — something the speaker and governor would normally welcome. But it also threatens to derail their proposed transportation-funding overhaul, which is central to McDonnell’s bid for the sort of grand legacy that sets governors on a path to the White House.

The House is considering legislation that Senate Republicans muscled through Monday. Taking up a bill that called for minor “technical adjustments” to House district boundaries, the amended it on the floor to impose sweeping changes on all of the Senate’s 40 districts.

Republicans said the new maps would correct gerrymandered districts Democrats pushed through in 2011 when they controlled the Senate. Democrats said the plan runs afoul of the state constitution, which specifies that redistricting take place after the decennial census in years ending in one.

The new map, which would take effect in 2015, creates an additional majority-black district in Southside but also makes at least eight other districts more heavily Republican.

If McDonnell and Howell kill the map, they could enrage fellow Republicans — a group already wary of their transportation plan, which eliminates the gas tax but raises the sales tax and certain fees.

If they let it go, the governor and speaker will infuriate Democrats, who also look skeptically on the transportation proposal because it reallocates money that could be spent on schools and other “core” government services to roads.

No matter which route they go, they must consider timing. Should they get it over with? Wait it out to see if public outcry dies down? Do it during session when the bill could be used as a bargaining chip on transportation? Or wait until afterward, when the governor would have more time to decide on a veto?

McDonnell, who has cultivated a national image as a results-oriented pragmatist, is said to be leery of being tied to a partisan power grab — particularly one that has also taken on a storyline tinged with race.

Republicans were able to push their plan through the 20-20 Senate by taking it up on Monday when a Democrat was absent.

Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, who decades ago argued school desegregation cases and served as Richmond’s first black mayor, was away attending the President Obama’s inauguration in Washington.

Democrats and even a late-night comedian have seized that angle.

“They waited until a Democratic senator and longtime civil rights leader left town on Martin Luther King Day to attend President Obama’s inauguration,” comedian Stephen Colbert said as he named the Senate Republicans his “alpha dogs of the week.” “In the words of Dr. King, ‘I have been to the mountaintop, and while I was there, they heavily redistricted the promised land.’ ”

Virginia Republicans were similarly lampooned on national TV during last year’s session for a bill that, as originally proposed, would have required women to get a vaginal ultrasound before an abortion. The uproar was widely seen at torpedoing McDonnell’s chances for being picked as Mitt Romney’s running mate.

On Thursday afternoon, when Saslaw dashed to the House, he learned that Democrats there had decided not to force a vote on the matter. For the second day in a row, the House voted to pass the bill by for the day without any objection.

As he headed back to the Senate, Saslaw waved off questions about the House’s decision to put off action.

“Bill Howell doesn’t need me to tell him how to do his own business,” Saslaw said.

GOP legislators are renewing their push for requiring photo IDs and proof of citizenship.
Moderate “not comfortable” leading GOP Senate map swap, but supports the move in principle.
General Assembly, lampooned last year on ultrasound bill, again becomes butt of late-night jokes.

Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell Reach Filibuster Reform Deal

Posted:   |  Updated: 01/24/2013 1:39 pm EST

Sam Stein

WASHINGTON -- Progressive senators working to dramatically alter Senate rules were defeated on Thursday, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), set to announce a series of compromise reforms on the Senate floor that fall far short of the demands. The language of the deal was obtained by HuffPost and can be read here and here.

The pressure from the liberal senators, led by Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley and backed by a major coalition of progressive groups, created the political space for Reid to cut the deal with McConnell, which includes changes to how the Senate operates but leaves a fundamental feature, the silent filibuster, in place.

The deal will address the filibuster on the motion to proceed by changing the amount of debate time that would follow a cloture vote from 30 hours to four, speeding up Senate business and allowing more legislation to reach the floor. But the deal still requires Democrats to muscle 60 votes to invoke cloture on that motion, despite Reid's earlier suggestion that he would bar a filibuster on that motion entirely.

An alternate route to get past the motion to proceed will be implemented as a change to the rules, and a filibuster on the motion would be barred if the majority can find eight members of the minority, including the minority leader, to sign a petition. But Democrats already have 55 members in their caucus, five short of the 60 needed to end a filibuster, so it's unclear what the purpose of getting three additional Republicans would be.

Under the agreement, the minority party will be able to offer two amendments on each bill, a major concession to Republicans. This change is made only as a standing order, not a rules change, and expires at the end of the term.

The new rules will also make it easier for the majority to appoint conferees once a bill has passed, but leaves in place the minority's ability to filibuster that motion once -- meaning that even after the Senate and House have passed a bill, the minority can still mount a filibuster one more time.

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Reid won concessions on district court nominations as well. Under the old rules, after a filibuster had been beaten, 30 more hours were required to pass before a nominee could finally be confirmed. That delay threatened to tie the chamber in knots. The new rules will only allow two hours to pass after cloture is invoked before a nominee is confirmed.

The two leaders agreed that they will make some changes in how the Senate carries out filibusters under the existing rules, reminiscent of the handshake agreement last term, which quickly fell apart. First, senators who wish to object or threaten a filibuster must actually come to the floor to do so. And second, the two leaders will make sure that debate time post-cloture is actually used in debate. If senators seeking to slow down business simply put in quorum calls to delay action, the Senate will go live, force votes to produce a quorum, and otherwise work to make sure senators actually show up and debate.

The arrangement between Reid and McConnell means that the majority leader will not resort to his controversial threat, known as the "nuclear option," to change the rules via 51 votes on the first day of the congressional session. Reid may have been able to achieve greater reforms that way, but several members of his own party were uncomfortable with the precedent it would have set. And Reid himself, an institutionalist, wanted a bipartisan deal for the long-term health of the institution. Reid presented McConnell with two offers -- one bipartisan accord consisting of weaker reforms, and a stronger package Reid was willing to ram through on a partisan vote.

McConnell chose the bipartisan route.

Supporters of the deal insist that even without using the "nuclear option," Reid was able to secure tangible changes on the pace and conduct of Senate business.

The deal, said one top Democratic aide, is "not everything Reid wanted but there are significant changes. Everybody was so focused on the filibuster, but as you know there were a lot of Dems who really felt uncomfortable going there. Let's face it, if not for 60 then Roe v. Wade might be dead and Social Security would be private accounts. But, Reid gets the power to get on bills without having to file cloture. That's a big deal. Also, post cloture time for non appellate judges will be cut from 30 hours to 2. That's huge because now Reid can stack nominations, which forces the Repubs' hands."

Added another supportive Democratic Senate aide: "We are now a more efficient Senate; we'll be able to get on bills without having 60 votes and without having to spend a week to do it. We are getting the ability to confirm certain nominees who have objections against them. Instead of taking a week to confirm them, it'll take a few hours. That's all Reid ever really wanted."

The compromise is a blow to Merkley, who had been the most outspoken proponent of what he called the "talking filibuster," which would change current rules so that the minority couldn't filibuster a bill by simply objecting and sitting down or leaving the chamber.

Once that provision looked to be faded, reformers gravitated toward a proposal from Reid that would flip the onus onto the minority by requiring Republicans to affirmatively come up with 41 votes to sustain a filibuster, rather than requiring Democrats to find 60 to end it. Reid was only willing to go forward with such a move if McConnell had rejected his offer.

At Tuesday's closed-door caucus meeting, Merkley was upbraided by Reid for breaking unspoken Senate rules and naming specific senators in a conference call with Democratic activists last week, according to sources familiar with the exchange. "He's pissed off so many in the caucus," said one Democratic aide piqued at Merkley. "He has been having conference calls with progressive donors and activists trying to get them energized. He's named specific Dem Senators. Many are furious. He was called out on Tuesday in caucus and very well could be again today."

A Reid staffer was on the conference call with the activists and donors, and Merkley's move was reported the next day by Politico:
On a private call with the Bay Area Democrats on Wednesday, Merkley identified Reid as the key person in the talks, and he urged activists to target members of Reid’s leadership team ahead of their meetings next week, according to people on the call. He also characterized Democratic Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Joe Manchin (West. Va.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.) as wrestling with his proposal, sources say.
According to a source familiar with the call, the host, Wade Randlett, encouraged donors who were going to the inauguration to seek out senators at events, such as the Majority Trust reception last Saturday, and offered to coordinate contacts.

UPDATE: 11:45 a.m. -- Fix the Senate Now, a coalition of over 50 progressive and labor organizations that has been tirelessly advocating for an end to the silent filibuster, called the emerging deal a "missed opportunity."

"While the provisions included in the likely agreement may help with streamlining certain nominations, potentially a significant step forward, the agreement avoids measures that would actually raise the costs of Senate obstruction," the group said in a statement. "Neither the talking filibuster provision nor the shifting the burden provision is expected to be included in the final package. While certain details remain important and unresolved, such as potential conditions attached to the elimination of filibusters on the motion to proceed, we know enough to sum up the agreement as follows: a missed opportunity to provide meaningful filibuster reform, while advancing some decent procedural improvements."

In its statement, Fix the Senate Now also praised the "tireless advocacy" of Merkley and fellow Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.).

The coalition had been pushing for the Senate to adopt Merkley's talking filibuster proposal, and also called on Reid to implement other far-reaching reforms, such as requiring the minority to find 41 votes to maintain a filibuster. If the agreement proceeds as expected, the group said, the Senate "will have missed an opportunity to restore accountability and deliberation to the Senate, while not raising the costs of obstruction."

UPDATE: 1:30 p.m. -- CREDO, another group that had been pressuring the Senate to pass strong filibuster reform, criticized the deal in a statement.

"In 2010, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sold out Senate Democrats by striking a 'gentleman's agreement' with Republican Minority Leader McConnell instead of pushing for strong filibuster reform," said Becky Bond, CREDO's political director. "And now he's done the exact same thing, again. When will Democratic Leadership learn the lesson that Republicans will not negotiate in good faith?"

UPDATE: 4:00 p.m. -- As Senate Democrats trickled out of their caucus meeting, where Reid presented his deal with McConnell, the consensus appeared to be that while the reforms were not as far-reaching as they had hoped, compromise was better than taking matters into their own hands.

"It's a compromise, and I'm big on that," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). "I think it's progress, and we're starting on the right foot. And if we would have started with blowing everything up, I think it would have been months before we could get back to a place where we could hope to try to really get back to regular order."

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said the deal was a real agreement between both leaders. "That is a very positive environment to start this session," he said.

Asked about complaints from filibuster reform advocates who were seeking an end to the silent filibuster, Durbin essentially said that life isn't always fair.

"Let me tell you, that's how this world works," he said. "People start aspiring at very high levels, then you get a negotiation, then you reach something called compromise. And I think we are at that point."

Durbin said there was overwhelming support for the deal among Senate Democrats, though he conceded that he was uncertain whether it would make it easier to pass bills.

"It can," he said. "It requires good will [and] good faith."

Durbin also backed up Reid's claim that he had the 51 votes necessary to use the so-called nuclear, or constitutional, option, but he said the goal was always to avoid using extreme measures and instead reach a compromise that both the majority and minority would be comfortable with.

McCaskill, too, hinted that more could have been done had Reid gone forth without Republicans -- but she remained enthusiastic about the deal's prospects.

"Will it work as well as some of us want to? That remains to be seen," she said. "But it's going to be better."

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who cosponsored the bipartisan bill that the final deal most closely resembles, had no complaints.

"It'll give great momentum to working on a bipartisan basis in the Senate," Levin said. "What we've avoided in a bipartisan approach is the use of this nuclear option or constitutional option, which Democrats strongly opposed when the Republicans threatened it a few years ago."

"If it were used, if it had to be used, it would have turned a gridlock into a meltdown," he added. "The Senate would have had a meltdown."

This article was clarified to note that the proposed two-hour post-cloture debate rule would only apply to district court nominees, rather than all judicial nominees.

In Senate confirmation hearing, Kerry addresses Hagel, Syria

By Tom Curry, National Affairs Writer, NBC News

Updated at 11:42a.m. ET: President Barack Obama’s choice to be secretary of state, Sen. John Kerry, D- Mass, began his confirmation hearing Thursday morning before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, one day after the same committee conducted a fractious hearing with current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over last September's attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.

Unlike Wednesday’s sometimes-contentious hearings, Republicans welcomed Kerry, who is currently the chairman of the same committee, warmly at the outset. Sen. John McCain R-Ariz. joined Clinton and Sen. Elizabeth Warren D-Mass. in introducing the nominee. 
"Should he be confirmed, and I'm confident he will be, and become our next Secretary of State, I'm sure we'll have our disagreements, which I know neither of us will hesitate to bring to the other's attention,” McCain said. “But I know he will acquit himself in that office with distinction, and use his many talents and his indefatigable persistence to advance our country's interests, and I commend his nomination to you without reservation.”
McCain praised Kerry for “a masterful accomplishment” and “exemplary statesmanship” in his work on an accord to allow opening of normal diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995.

While the hearing remained cordial, Republicans did press Kerry on some of their specific concerns with the Obama administration’s foreign policy, including the use of executive agreements in place of treaties that must be ratified by the Senate.

The committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, asked Kerry about Obama’s nominee to be defense secretary, former Sen. Chuck Hagel and his support for Global Zero, a group which calls for the total abolition of nuclear weapons.

Kerry said Hagel would be “a strong secretary of defense secretary” and that Hagel would not weaken the U.S. nuclear arsenal which serves as a deterrent to an attack on the United States.

A world without any nuclear weapons, Kerry said, was a goal “worth aspiring to,” but “we’re not talking about today’s world” and it might take “many centuries” to achieve abolition of nuclear weapons.

Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images
Senator John Kerry, D-Mass., President Barack Obama's nominee for Secretary of State, speaks with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., before he testifies at the Senate Foreign Relations committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on Jan. 24, 2013.

In his opening statement, Kerry did not mention Syria – where more than 60,000 have been killed in a civil war.

But in response to a question from Corker, Kerry – who has met several times over the years with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, said perhaps the United States and Assad had missed an opportunity to cooperate. “There was a moment where Syria had an interest” – partly because of its booming population -- to “reach out to the West and see if there was some kind of accommodation.” But cooperation is “now moot,” he said, because Assad was waging war on his own people “and is not long for remaining as the head of state in Syria.”

Kerry also addressed Iran's nuclear program.

“The President has made it definitive--we will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he said in his opening statement. “I repeat here today: our policy is not containment. It is prevention and the clock is ticking on our efforts to secure responsible compliance.”

He added, “No one should mistake our resolve to reduce the nuclear threat.”

He said Obama “knows that American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone. We cannot allow the extraordinary good we do to save and change lives to be eclipsed entirely by the role we have had to play since September 11th, a role that was thrust upon us.”

Referring to the impasse over reducing budget deficits and the growing national debt, Kerry said to the committee members that “the first priority of business which will affect my credibility as a diplomat – and our credibility as nation – as we work to help other countries create order, is whether America at last puts its own fiscal house in order.”

He called for “an economic patriotism which recognizes that American strength and prospects abroad, depend on American strength and results at home.” He said it is difficult for an American leader to tell foreign leaders they must adopt responsible fiscal policies “if we don't resolve our own.”

In his opening statement, Kerry showed one brief moment of emotion. His voice shook when he referred to his father, who was a Foreign Service officer. Kerry said he was proud that “the Senate is in my blood – but equally proud that so too is the Foreign Service. My father’s work under presidents both Democrat and Republican took me and my siblings around the world for a personal journey that brought home the sacrifices” that American diplomats abroad make or their country.

A Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, Kerry said to the committee that he wants “us all to keep in our minds the extraordinary men and women in uniform who are on the front lines, the troops at war who help protect America. As a veteran, I will always carry the consequences of our decisions in my mind and be grateful that we have such extraordinary people to back us up.”

Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004 and a member of the Senate since 1985, is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee but will be ceding that post to Sen. Robert Menendez, D- N.J.
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