Wednesday, March 20, 2013

With Obama and Biden both overseas, who’s in charge?

As President Obama departs for Israel Tuesday night and Vice President  Biden returns from the inaugural Mass of Pope Francis in Rome, there will be about a 20-minute window when the nation’s two highest-ranking elected officials will not be on U.S. soil.

(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Luckily, there is no reason to panic. This brief gap does not trigger a succession crisis, as White House officials are quick to point out.
“The fact remains that President Obama is President of the United States everywhere he goes.  Vice President Biden is Vice President of the United States everywhere that he goes,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest explained to reporters Friday. ”There’s no reason that that should in any way impact the day-to-day running of the country.”

Biden spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff declined to comment on the matter, though it’s worth noting Biden did leave Rome earlier than expected Monday, bringing his arrival time at Joint Andrews Base about an hour closer to the president’s 8 p.m. departure from the same site.
Now, this is the first time this has happened during Obama’s tenure as president. American University distinguished professor of history Allan Lichtman noted this is fairly unusual: As he observed in an interview, “Before Franklin Roosevelt, it used to be very unusual for presidents to be out of the country at all.”
“However briefly out of the country together, this shows some second-term confidence on Obama’s part,” Lichtman added, “and of course it raises the question of who’s watching the store at home. I’m sure they’re hoping it’s not [House Speaker] John Boehner.”
Boehner’s office declined to comment on the fact that he might spend a quarter of an hour as the top American official on U.S. soil, or how he might take advantage of that brief home court advantage.
The fact that this situation has attracted so little attention, said Princeton University history and public affairs professor Julian Zelizer, shows how Americans are more focused on domestic issues than national security concerns.
“We’ve traveled a far distance from the months after 9/11 when the media, and the public, paid close attention to where the president and vice president where at any given moment,” Zelizer wrote in an e-mail. “With both leaders out of the country, most of the country is more concerned about the next jobs report or news about the gun legislation than they are worried about the exact precautions that have been taken to make sure our leaders are safe. This is in large part a result of some sense of security that has settled in during the past few years.”

Are people getting $3 in Medicare benefits for every $1 in taxes?

at 06:02 AM ET, 03/20/2013

(Alex Wong — Getty Images)

“We need to accomplish the big jobs now of making sure that Medicare and Social Security are there, not just for people today, but for the next generation. You know, people have paid into these programs, and for every $1, people have paid in, they're getting about $3 out in benefits in terms of Medicare.”
— Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), speaking on CNN, March 14, 2013
Back when the Fact Checker covered politics, “person in the street” interviews generally yielded a similar answer when people were asked about the government — and whether they got much in benefits for the taxes they pay. The common response: It’s a raw deal for me.
So we were struck by Barrasso’s comment. Are folks really getting $3 in benefits for every $1 in taxes they have paid? And is this really the right way to look at this statistic?

The Facts
 Barrasso spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said that Barrasso obtained this statistic from a report published by the nonpartisan Urban Institute, written by C. Eugene Steuerle and Caleb Quakenbush. The report tracked Social Security and Medicare taxes and benefits over a lifetime, for a variety of scenarios, and is embedded below. (For interested readers, Urban also has posted a Q-and-A on how the calculations were made.)

Looking specifically at the Medicare numbers, you will see that Barrasso’s ratio of 1:3 generally holds up. A single man with an average wage of $44,600 who turns 65 in 2030, for instance, would pay $90,000 in lifetime Medicare taxes and receive $311,000 in Medicare benefits. Good deal!
The numbers are even better for a two-earner couple, if one spouse earns relatively low wages. They pay $131,000 in taxes — and receive $664,000 in benefits.
But, look closely, and you will notice that these charts also include Social Security taxes, for a combined total that is listed in bold type.
The combined numbers still show people coming out ahead, but the ratio is not nearly as generous. That single male who turns 65 in 2030? He actually pays slightly more in Social Security taxes than he gets in benefits, so, combined, he pays $494,000 in taxes and receives $650,000 in total benefits.
(Note: as we have explained in our popular Social Security primer, the old-age program is not just a retirement benefit but also a disability and life insurance program, so one can’t really speak of a “return” on investments.)
We checked with Steuerle — a well-respected expert on taxes, budgets and retirement systems — and asked whether Barrasso was using his data correctly.
Steuerle said that he was not trying to single out Medicare, but was trying to focus on both Social Security and Medicare. “I think we would probably engage in a better reform if we tried to reform both systems at the same time,” he said in an e-mail.
“The complication is that these systems are essentially transfer systems: money in, money out,” he added. “A small temporary build-up of trust funds doesn’t really change that calculus. I do the calculations on lifetime benefits and taxes mainly so we can try to determine if this is the best or fairest way to engage in such transfers within and across generations. How can we judge unless we know that basic facts?”
In that vein, one could also quibble with Barrasso’s use of the phrase “paid in,” because as Steuerle suggests, it is not as if people have actually invested in the programs; they are simply paying the bills for current retirees.
“In truth, we already got our ‘money’s worth’ in terms of the benefits we provided for our parents,” he said.  “That doesn’t necessarily entitle us to some amount from our kids, particularly if there are a lot fewer of them around per recipient.”
In fact, the “money-in, money-out” aspect of Social Security and Medicare means the so-called returns are only going to get worse over time. Right now, some of the shortfall is being made up with transfers from general revenues — which crowds out the possibility of using those government funds (also from taxes) for other activities, such as investments in infrastructure.
“There are continually declining returns in these systems because they start out with windfalls for the first generations, then higher taxes on later generations,” Steuerle said. “Social Security has reached this point of maturity. Medicare has not, in no small part because these huge health benefit growth rates continually mean higher taxes (or deficits) on the younger generations to pay for them.”
The Pinocchio Test
Barrasso did preface his reference to this statistic by mentioning both Social Security and Medicare, though it might have been better to note that the so-called returns have been declining for Social Security. As we said, we might also quibble with the phrase “paid in,” since that suggests some sort of investment.
But, overall, Barrasso got the numbers right and helped call attention to the fact that, at the moment, Medicare is a pretty good bargain for people — a bargain that likely cannot be sustained. He earns the coveted Geppetto Checkmark.
Geppetto Checkmark

Senate passes government funding measure; House to vote Thursday

By Rosalind S. Helderman, Wednesday, March 20, 4:47 PM

A short-term funding measure to keep the government operating beyond the end of this month cleared the Senate on Wednesday and is awaiting final passage in the House on Thursday to avert a shutdown.

The process of approving the proposal has been unfolding remarkably smoothly, compared with the previous efforts of a divided Congress that has gone to the brink repeatedly over spending issues.

If the House approves the bill before it leaves Friday for a two-week recess, funding will be assured a full week before the resolution keeping the government operating expires on March 27.

And yet the final Senate vote, 73 to 26, came days later than leaders had hoped. Passage was slowed by a familiar disagreement about how many amendments the chamber should consider for a bill that outlines spending priorities for every federal agency for the final six months of the fiscal year.

Many were attempts to blunt the impact on specific programs or agencies of the $85 billion across-the-board sequester spending cuts.

By late last week, senators had filed 126 amendments they wanted to be heard on the floor. Five senators, for instance, proposed slightly different versions of proposals to cut off foreign aid to Egypt.

“I love the Senate. And we love to talk. And we love to amend. . . . But we are now at the point where the bill must really come to a close,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the chairman of the appropriations committee responsible for the bill, said as she proposed a procedure on Monday that would help shepherd it to final passage.

Ultimately, the chamber voted on 10 amendments.

One, proposed by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), would have shifted $6 million in parks funds to free up money to potentially allow the White House, Yellowstone National Park and the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa., to reopen to public tours.

It failed on a 45 to 54 vote, with Democrats in opposition.

Another, sponsored by Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), would transfer $55 million in agriculture money to prevent furloughs among food inspectors. A third would require tuition assistance programs for military service members — which are to be suspended because the sequester — to be continued.

They both passed.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) wanted an amendment to keep air traffic controllers on the job — some towers at smaller airports are scheduled to close because of the sequester. He didn’t get a vote.

The amendment tussle aside, the legislation proceeded through both chambers with few hiccups. That’s something of a surprise given that some House Republicans, smarting from the year-end “fiscal cliff” drama, had promised to use the must-pass measure to force concessions from Democrats on deficit reduction, including entitlement reform.

Instead, House Republicans now seem content with a bill that locks in the sequester cuts for the rest of the year. Likewise, Democrats, who want to reverse the sequester, agreed that the short-term bill would leave it in place for now.

They have instead proposed replacing the sequester in part with higher tax revenue, but doing so through broader budget negotiations that outline future spending.

Just before the Senate voted on the full bill, Mikulski praised senators for working in a bipartisan fashion to improve on the measure the House had passed. “We didn’t want brinkmanship politics. We didn’t want ultimatum politics,” she said.

To blunt the impact of the sequester, the House introduced new priorities for military spending in its bill. The Senate measure added several other areas, including agriculture, commerce, science, justice and homeland security.

The result is to give more money to certain key programs; all were offset with cuts elsewhere.

The broader budget negotiation process will begin this week with budget blueprints in both chambers.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who took a rare stroll from the House side of the Capitol to the Senate floor to thank Mikulski for her efforts, said he expected the Senate’s bill to pass the House without difficult on Thursday.

“It’s the first time in a long time where we had a matter of this magnitude work so smoothly,” he said.

Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe explains one way Congress copes with big disagreements over the federal budget.   

Everything you need to know about the Cyprus bailout, in one FAQ

Posted by Dylan Matthews on March 18, 2013 at 9:30 am

This weekend, a group including the European Central Bank (ECB), the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the government of Cyprus announced that the small island nation was on the brink of crisis, and needed to be bailed out.

But while most previous euro zone bailout have been financed by rich Northern European countries like Germany and the Netherlands, the Cypriot bailout is an entirely different story — one that happens to involve Russian gangsters. Here’s what you need to know.

What is Cyprus? 


Source: CIA World Factbook

Might as well start with the basics. Cyprus is an island in the eastern portion of the Mediterranean sea. The northern half of the island is primarily populated by Cypriots of Turkish origin, while the south is dominated by Greek Cypriots. After nearly a century as a British colony (following an even longer period under the control of the Ottoman Empire), the island became independent in 1960, with a fragile power-sharing arrangement in place between Greek and Turkish residents. That broke down in 1963, and a U.N. peacekeeping force was sent to maintain order.

A decade-long period of inter-sectarian violence followed, with the Greek and Turkish governments intervening on behalf of their ethnic brethren, resulting in considerable population displacement. In 1974, the military junta governing Greece executed a coup d’├ętat, deposing the Cypriot president and replacing him with a dictator who supported Greek annexation of Cyprus. Turkey responded by invading the island and executing an ethnic cleansing campaign against Greek residents of the north (where they were the majority at the time). The conflict ended with the island divided between a Turkish-occupied north and a Greek-dominated south, with the United Nations policing the border.

That situation persists to this day, with the U.N. peacekeeping operation set to mark its 50th anniversary next year. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a puppet state recognized by no country other than Turkey, rules the north, while the Republic of Cyprus governs the south.

So there are two Cypruses? Then which one’s in the E.U.?

The Republic of Cyprus — or the southern, Greek one, joined the European Union in 2004, and — in a spectacular display of poor timing — joined the euro zone in January 2008, just before the crisis hit. The E.U. has stated that the northern part of the island rightfully belongs to the Republic of Cyprus, and said that it considers Turkey an illegal occupier.

How’s Cyprus been holding up during the crisis thus far? 

Pretty well, actually. As the above chart shows, Cyprus’ recession was much milder than that in the rest of the euro zone, and for most of the past five years Cyprus has outpaced its neighbors when it comes to growth.

So what happened?

  Greece happened. Cypriot banks were heavily exposed to the Greek debt crisis, by virtue of having large bonds holdings of Greek debt, both public and private. The value of that debt took a nosedive, destroying the balance sheets of Cypriot banks. Cyprus Popular Bank had €3.4 billion in Greek government debt, and the Bank of Cyprus €2.4 billion; they ended up losing €2.5 billion and €1 billion, respectively.

When Greek government debt was written down as part of a deal in 2011, that wiped out a lot of the remaining value of Greek debt. Popular Bank lost 76 percent of the value of their Greek bond holdings in the deal.

How did the banks deal with losing all that money?

They didn’t, and, fearing the worst, the Cypriot government nationalized Popular Bank. The Bank of Cyprus requested assistance too.

How could the government afford that? 

It couldn’t; interest rates have spiked to 7 percent on long-term debt, which means that paying for all these bailouts is getting difficult for the Cypriot government. That’s why the Bank of Cyprus’s request, and the continued struggles of the nationalized Popular Bank, forced Cyprus to go to the Troika (that is, the European Commission, ECB, and IMF) in pursuit of a bailout covering both the government’s financial needs, and the shortfalls faced by its largest banks.

So who’s paying for this bailout? 

 Cypriots line up to take their money out of the banks before the levy on bank deposits takes effect. (Petros Karadjias / AP)

A number of people, including, most controversially, the people who put money in Cypriot banks. Deposits of €100,000 or less would be subject to a 6.75 percent levy, and any deposits greater than that could be taxed at a rate of 9.9 percent. That raises €5.8 billion, or more than half of the bailout. It’s basically an across-the-board tax on bank deposits. That’s better for Cypriots than the alternative of just raising taxes a lot, because a large share of deposits in Cypriot banks are from foreigners, in particular Russians. But with a vote on the bailout proposal by Cyprus’s parliament delayed until Tuesday, Cypriots were rushing to the banks on Monday to pull out their cash.

In exchange for instituting the levy, the Cypriot government would get €10 billion from the IMF and EU institutions to fund its banks and government. But the president of Cyprus is saying he wants to renegotiate that part of the agreement, which would make the bailout deal the first in the euro zone to include a “haircut” from bank depositors. The proposal is especially painful because Cypriots’ deposits are supposed to be insured by the government, meaning that depositors are guaranteed the right to withdraw whatever they put in. Obviously, that would no longer be possible if deposits are subject to a levy.

Now, the European Central Bank is saying that how the €5.8 billion is raised is up to Cyprus, so how much comes from insured deposits versus from larger foreign accounts remains to be seen.

What do Russian mobsters have to do with all this? 

Monty Brogan really doesn’t like these Russian mobsters. (40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks)

Spotting an opportunity to curry favor with a strategically situated island nation, Russia offered Cyprus a €2.5 billion loan at 4.5 percent interest, well below prevailing market rates. As recently as two days ago it offered to make the terms even more generous. So what does Russia get in exchange?

A blind eye, more or less. For one thing, Cyprus has been letting Russia use it to funnel weapons to the Syrian regime, in flagrant violation of an E.U. embargo against the country. But it also has allowed Russian companies to set up Cypriot subsidiaries which can evade Russia’s heavy taxes on companies that earn money abroad. That has provoked accusations that Cyprus is turning into a haven for Russian tycoons who want to launder dirty money. According to German intelligence, at least €20 billion of Cyprus’ €70 billion in bank deposits come from Russia, much of it from the country’s “oligarchs” who got rich through quasi-legal means in the chaos that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse.

One advantage to the bailout scheme is that the bank deposit tax will hit these oligarchs as much as it will native Cypriots. The Russian deposits will take a hit of between €1 and 2 billion under the bank deposit levy, a substantial fraction of the bailout’s cost.

What’s the best case scenario? 

Cyprus’ Financial Minister Michaelis Saris leaves a meeting with the president. (Petros Karadjias / AP)

The best we can hope for is that Cyprus takes the hit, gets the money, recapitalizes its banks, and recovers from there. It had a fairly conservative banking sector before the crisis, with deposits far outstripping loans, and its government was actually running surpluses, so it doesn’t have to engage in the kinds of fundamental structural reforms that appear necessary in Greece. So if the Greek losses were just a temporary shock, the rescue money should get the country back on its feet.

And the worst-case scenario? 


At least this won’t happen. Thank God for small miracles, Lana. (U.S. Air Force via Reuters)

The worst-case scenario is that this triggers a run on banks not just in Cyprus (that appears to already be happening) but in other vulnerable countries like Spain and Italy as customers worry that the E.U. will try to impose similar conditions there. That would exacerbate an already bad situation as it would increase bank shortfalls; fewer deposits, after all, mean a worse deposit-to-liability ratio. Those kinds of runs could lead to a continent-wide crisis of the kind observers have been fearing since the euro zone started its slow-motion collapse back in 2009.

Stocks end higher after Fed announcement

Stocks finished higher Wednesday, wiping out most of the past week's losses, after the Federal Reserve reaffirmed its policies on bond purchases and record-low interest rates and as investors shrugged off concerns over Cyprus.

"Count on the Fed to prop up this market for a bit longer—I think Bernanke along with investor dissatisfaction for other asset classes have been the main reasons for this remarkable resilience in the equity market," said Uri Landesman, president at Platinum Partners.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed higher, led by American Express and Coca-Cola, after earlier hitting a fresh intraday high for the eighth time this month at 14,546.82. The blue-chip index is up nearly 11 percent so far this year.

The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq also ended in positive territory. The S&P 500 came within 4 points of its all-time closing high. The S&P and Nasdaq are on pace for their fifth month of gains. The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, tumbled near 12.

Most key S&P sectors finished positive territory, led by consumer discretionary and consumer staples.

"Stocks remain attractive alternatives to fixed income and as long as that relationship stays in place, we're going to be in the cycle of buying dips in the market versus selling the rally," said Dan Veru, CIO Palisade Capital Management.

The Federal Reserve Open Market Committee indicated that it will leave interest rates unchanged near zero continue buying $85 billion in debt each month until unemployment falls to 6.5 percent and inflation rises to a 2.5 percent growth rate.

With the economic recovery continuing at a moderate pace, investors have been watching for indications that the central bank might start pulling back on its bond buying. (CNBC Explains:Federal Reserve Open Market Operations)

"The labor market has shown signs of improvement in recent months but the unemployment rate remains elevated. Inflation is expected to remain low and fiscal policy has become somewhat more restrictive," said Bernanke in a news conference following the FOMC decision. "In light of this outlook and following a review of the efficacy and cost of additional asset purchases, the committee today reaffirmed its asset purchase program and its federal funds guidance."

The central bank expects the U.S. economy to grow by 2.3 percent and 2.8 percent this year, by 2.9 percent and 3.4 percent in 2014 and by 2.9 percent and 3.7 percent in 2015. Those forecasts were revised slightly lower compared to estimates in December.

Meanwhile, Haruhiko Kuroda, the new head of the Bank of Japan, is scheduled to hold his first press conference on Thursday. Shortly after 2 p.m. ET, the Japanese press leaked that Kuroda would pledge "bold monetary easing both in terms of quantity and quality."

In Europe, Cypriot leaders held crisis talks on Wednesday to avert financial meltdown after the country's lawmakers overwhelmingly voted against a controversial EU bank bailout deal on Tuesday. Stocks were under pressure in the last few days as worries over Cyprus and possible contagion to other eurozone nations curbed risk appetite.

(Read More: Don't Count Cyprus Out of the Euro Just Yet: Traders)

European markets finished narrowly mixed as investors watched to see if Russia, rather than Europe, would come to the aid of Cyprus.

Cyprus's finance minister Michael Sarris, who is in Moscow for talks with Russia, told CNBC that the country was now "looking beyond" extending an existing loan agreement with Russia, prompting speculation that Russia could come to Cyprus's financial aid.

Meanwhile, banks in Cyprus will remain closed until next Tuesday.

Model N surged more than 30 percent in its market debut on the NYSE after the software maker priced 6.7 million shares at $15.50, above the expected $12.50 to $14.50 range. The company trades under the symbol "MODN."

Apple dipped near $500 a share after Canaccord Genuity cut its target price on the iPhone maker to $600 from $650.

Caterpillar dropped after the heavy-equipment maker posted a 13 percent decline in global sales to dealers for three months through February.

Among earnings, FedEx slumped after the package-delivery company posted lower-than-expected earnings due to weakness in its air express business.

Adobe Systems rallied to lead the S&P 500 gainers after the computer software maker lifted its full-year earnings forecast and posted better-than-expected quarterly results. Separately, the company announced its chief technology officer Kevin Lynch will leave to take a job at Apple. At least three brokerages raised their price target on the company.

Lennar edged higher after the home builder reported earnings that exceeded Wall Street estimates as lower interest rates and rising rents increased home sales.

General Mills slipped after the cereal maker forecast a decline in earnings. Still, the company posted a higher-than-expected profit.

Oracle and Jabil Circuit are among notable companies scheduled to post earnings after the closing bell. (Read More: A Peek Into Oracle's Future)

Best Buy climbed after Credit Suisse reinstated its coverage on the company with an "outperform" rating.

Zynga plunged after Bank of America Merrill Lynch cut its rating on the social game services company to "neutral" from "buy."

On the economic front, weekly mortgage applications fell for a second week as interest rates climbed to a seven-month high, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

How the White House thinks about climate change, in 7 charts

The latest Economic Report of the President (pdf) has a whole chapter on energy and climate change that’s worth reading as a window into how the White House thinks about the topic. Here’s the basic story in chart form:

1) If the world doesn’t tackle global warming soon, the United States will get uncomfortably hot. “For example, according to the USGCRP estimates, under a high-emissions scenario, areas of the Southeast and Southwest that currently experience an average of 60 days a year with a high temperature above 90°F will experience 150 or more such days by the end of the century.”

ERP -- hotter

2) U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions are falling, but the country’s nowhere near on pace to meet its climate goals. Under the Copenhagen Accord, President Obama promised a 17 percent cut in emissions below 2005 levels by 2020. We’re not quite there.

ERP -- emissions projections

3) Most of the recent drop in emissions has been due to the recession. That said, improved energy efficiency and a shift from coal to renewable energy and natural gas have also played a big role.

ERP -- drop in emissions

4) The U.S. economy is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels. And note that even when it comes to renewable energy, wind and solar still play a small role compared to biomass, biofuels, and hydropower:

ERP -- primary energy production

5) Natural gas is going to continue to dominate for years to come. The White House is bullish on the shale-gas boom. Natural gas competes with coal and is a lot cleaner —producing fewer carbon emissions and other pollutants. But there are still concerns about planet-warming methane leaks.

ERP -- natural gas

6) Wind power has also seen rapid growth over the past decade. And the White House wants it to continue: “President Obama has set a goal of once again doubling generation from wind, solar, and geothermal sources by 2020, and has called on Congress to make the renewable energy Production Tax Credit permanent and refundable.”

ERP -- wind

7) The United States is getting more efficient in using energy, but it’s not quite as efficient as Germany or Japan. The White House argues that the latter two countries have stricter building codes and fuel-efficiency standards, as well as denser development.

ERP--energy intensity

So that’s the basic situation, although there’s much, much more detail in the report. Here’s how the White House sums things up:
The scientific consensus is that the anthropogenic emission of greenhouse gases is causing climate change. The results can be seen already in higher temperatures and extreme weather, and these are but precursors of what lies ahead. Although greenhouse gas emissions and climate change are global problems, the United States is in a unique position to tackle these challenges and to provide global leadership.

The Nation has made substantial progress toward the Administration’s ambitious short-term Copenhagen targets for reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, but much difficult work lies ahead. Undertaking this work, which reflects the Administration’s commitment to future generations, entails many policy steps that are economically justified by the negative externalities imposed by greenhouse gas emissions.

Policies to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases include market-based policies; encouraging energy efficiency; direct regulation; encouraging fuel switching to reduced-emissions fuels; and supporting the development and widespread adoption of zero-emissions energy sources such as wind and solar. And, as the country reduces emissions along this path, it also needs to prepare for the climate change that is occurring and will continue to occur.
Why the Easter Bunny and White House tours have become the public face of sequestration

Posted by Juliet Eilperin on March 20, 2013 at 10:46 am

Officials at Hanford Nuclear Reservation notified 237 employees Monday they will be laid off next week. An air traffic controller at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport who just won an award for saving a pilot’s life learned this week she will be furloughed.

But when it comes to what now defines the current budget standoff between President Obama and congressional Republicans, it’s all about White House tours and the Easter Bunny

President Obama with the Easter Bunny at last year’s Easter Egg Roll. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Why have two tourist rituals—visiting the First Family’s residence and the annual Easter Egg Roll—garnered much of the publicity even as the mandatory across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration are chipping away at basic government services? And how has a process that was supposed to put Republicans on the defense allowed them to go on the attack?

Two factors–symbolism and location—account for the Obama administration’s current predicament.

The White House occupies an outsized position of importance in the American psyche, and many citizens are emotionally attached to its routine rituals. So the scaling back of activities there—or in the case of the 135th Easter Egg Roll, just the prospect of cancellation—alarmed people.

“This is a great country — no one likes to think we have to cancel events at the President’s house because we can’t afford them,” said Howard Wolfson, New York’s deputy mayor for government affairs and communications and a longtime Democratic strategist.

While only a fraction of the public might visit the White House in a given year, everyone can identify with the school trips and families who have learned in the past couple of weeks that they won’t be allowed entry.

Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University, said cancelling such symbolic events make people “feel more anxious about the future” because they “lose a sense of stability and order.”

“The American boycott of the 1980 Olympics, for example, had a similar effect even though it was not nearly as important as the invasion of Afghanistan that brought it about,” Lichtman wrote in an e-mail.

But Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), who chairs the House Administration Committee, said in the interview the administration should have anticipated people would balk at the idea of “closing, really, the people’s house.”

“I think the president badly miscalculated, and what they did blew up in their face,” she said.

Republicans have moved aggressively to capitalize on the symbolic import of things like the cancellation of White House tour. Witness this web video from House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (Calif.): 

Issa, Miller and their colleagues haven’t had to work too hard to deliver their message. While the impacts of sequestration are taking place in communities across the country, the national press is based in Washington, which makes a White House-specific story much easier to cover.

White House spokesman Jay Carney expressed his frustration with journalists’ incessant inquiries about the decision to cancel the tour during his March 14 briefing.

“We’ve been dealing with questions about this every day, quite a few of them. And as the President has said, and I and others have said, this is a very unfortunate circumstance that is a result of the sequester. And it was an unhappy choice that had to be made,” he said, adding moments later. “And I think it’s always important to remember, of course, that when we talk about that unfortunate outcome or result of the sequester, that we recognize that the impacts of the sequester go beyond whether or not people are going to be able to have tours of the White House. And in some ways you might say some of the impacts are even more unfortunate — families who lose slots in Head Start, or families who experience layoffs or furloughs around the country.”

At the Hanford Site in Washington State, for example, the sequester has forced the Energy Department to lay off nearly 250 employees and furlough 2,600 more. It will deal a serious blow to the nation’s largest Superfund cleanup effort, which is addressing the impact of 40 years of plutonium production.

“It’s a hard blow to the workforce because these are the people who actually do the work in the field,” Energy Department spokesman Cameron Hardy said of the layoffs, adding the cuts are so deep because the agency cannot reduce its surveillance and maintenance budget. “There’s no such thing as cutting surveillance and maintenance with a nuclear facility.”

Miller’s district in southeast Michigan has felt the impact of sequestration as well. The suspension of the military’s Tuition Assistance Program has cost 4,000 Central Michigan University students their aid, at least temporarily, and the Federal Aviation Administration has announced it will close the control tower at Detroit’s Coleman A. Young International Airport in April.

But the Congresswoman noted that Macomb County government employees have been taking furloughs for four years, so the idea of government cutbacks haven’t fazed her constituents.

“In the ten years I’ve been in Washington, this is the first time we’ve ever cut spending,” she said. “It’s not like there’s some groundswell of sympathy for the federal government finally taking some cuts. And the decision to cancel White House tours is going over like a lead Zeppelin.”

Can Reince Priebus save the Republican Party?

Posted by Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan on March 18, 2013 at 8:40 am

Can Reince Priebus save the Republican Party?

In the wake of two presidential defeats, the Republican National Committee chairman on Monday issued a scathing review of the party’s performance in 2012 and called for a top-to-bottom retooling of the party.

The proposed solutions include:

* A $10 million expenditure to begin a bottom-up outreach effort to minority communities including the hiring of national political directors for Hispanic, Asian-Pacific and African American voters.

* Putting a chief digital and technology officer in place, opening an RNC satellite office in San Francisco, holding hack-a-thons to bolster relationships with developers and working on an open-data platform to encourage the sharing of information within the GOP community (and outside of it).

* Reworking the presidential primary system to produce the party’s nominee earlier in the year and then nominating him or her at a convention in June or July rather than late August or September. 

These are elephants. 

Priebus’s tough talk comes less than 48 hours after Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a leading light of the tea party/libertarian wing of the Republican party, told a packed crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference that their side was winning — a contrast in approach and viewpoint that speaks to the immensity of the challenge before the head of the national party as he seeks to remake the GOP.

Proposals, of course, are just that. Priebus may sit at the top of the party but it’s not clear whether he has the power to make these sorts of changes happen.

For that, he will need two things: (1) support from the major elected (and former elected) officials in the party, and (2) money.

The first seems likely to come as people such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan should find plenty in what Priebus is proposing to get behind.

The second is slightly more difficult, particularly with the GOP out of the presidency and with stories being written daily about the infighting that dominates his party at the moment. The RNC did end January with a respectable $7 million in the bank.

And then there is the larger (and more important) question of whether fixing the mechanics of the party — outreach to minorities, data mining, etc. — can fix the message of the party. Or whether the party really believes that message needs fixing.

“Our 80 percent friend is not our 20 percent enemy,” Priebus will say. “We can be true to our platform without being disrespectful of those who don’t agree with it 100 percent.”

It’s not yet clear whether that view is one that the entire party can rally behind. Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul have built their political brands on refusing to concede on matters of principle. Will they start now — particularly after finding so much success in recent weeks?

And, if they don’t, all of Priebus’s planning and proposals could well be for naught since the Pauls and Cruzes of the world have shown a remarkable knack for drawing media attention to themselves.

All that said, Priebus should get credit for attempting to lead the party at a time when the GOP lacks any obvious top dog to guide it back toward victory.


President Obama will nominate Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez as the next labor secretary today. He’s the first Latino selection for the president’s second-term cabinet.

House Democrats will propose balancing the budget by about 2040.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) opened the door to new tax revenue.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he “absolutely” trusts Obama. He also said he believes the debt crisis isn’t “immediate,” but rather, a “looming” problem.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) won the CPAC straw poll.

Meanwhile, Sarah Palin brought out the one-liners in her speech at the conference.

Mia Love has hired Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch’s top strategist as she moves toward a rematch against Rep. Jim Matheson (D).

Might Gov. Scott Walker (R) run for president? What about Ben Carson (R)?

Former Washington governor Booth Gardner died Friday. He was 76.


“For Obama, trip is a chance to repair relations with disappointed Israelis” — Scott Wilson, The Washington Post

“Senate panel close to Obama plan on path to citizenship for illegal immigrants” – David Nakamura and Rosalind S. Helderman, The Washington Post

“GOP Taps Tech Allies To Narrow Digital Gap” – Neil King Jr., Wall Street Journal
The 10 things you need to know from the “Growth and Opportunity Project” report

Posted by Chris Cillizza on March 18, 2013 at 3:34 pm

The Republican National Committee’s autopsy of the 2012 election spans 100 pages.

And, while it’s worth reading the whole thing, let’s be honest: you’re not going to do that. That’s where we come in! The Fix has leafed through the full report and plucked out the 10 most important bits. They are below. 

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. Getty Images

Before we get to it, it’s worth noting that the RNC’s “Growth and Opportunity Project” is not a namby-pamby document chock-full of platitudes about what the party is doing right. It is instead a full-scale indictment of the way the GOP has gone off the rails and a panoply of suggestions on how to fix it. As we have written, it’s not entirely clear whether the party will listen to the tough love from the RNC and follow its advice. But that is a debate for another day.

Today we break down what you need to know from the 2012 autopsy report. What did we miss? The comments section awaits.

1. “The GOP today is a tale of two parties. One of them, the gubernatorial wing, is growing and successful. The other, the federal wing, is increasingly marginalizing itself, and unless changes are made, it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election in the near future.”

Why it’s important: The next generation of Republican stars — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — tilts heavily toward governors. Meanwhile, approval ratings for Congressional Republicans is at close to historic lows.

2. “The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself. We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue.”

Why it’s important: See the CPAC conference over the weekend. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who told the conservative crowd what it wanted to hear, was a hit. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who offered a frank analysis of what the party is (and isn’t), much less so.

3. “We have to blow the whistle at corporate malfeasance and attack corporate welfare. We should speak out when a company liquidates itself and its executives receive bonuses but rank-and-file workers are left unemployed. We should speak out when CEOs receive tens of millions of dollars in retirement packages but middle-class workers have not had a meaningful raise in years.”

Why it’s important: The Republican brand, as the report itself acknowledges, has become far too synonymous with rich white men. Mitt Romney was never able to shake the perception — aggressively fostered by President Obama and his campaign — that he was the candidate from and for corporate America. A majority — 53 percent — of voters in 2012 said Romney’s policies would favor the rich, according to the exit poll.

4. “If Hispanic Americans hear that the GOP doesn’t want them in the United States, they won’t pay attention to our next sentence. It doesn’t matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think that we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies. In essence, Hispanic voters tell us our Party’s position on immigration has become a litmus test, measuring whether we are meeting them with a welcome mat or a closed door.”

Why it’s important: This makes clear that the party — or at least the RNC — sees immigration reform as a sine qua non in terms of its attempts to win over Hispanic voters. Of course, there are plenty of elements within the party who will resist what they believe is putting politics before principle on immigration.

5. “For many of the youngest voters and new 2016 voters, their perception of the two parties was born during the Barack Obama era, and that perception will help determine their worldview moving forward. The Party is seen as old and detached from pop culture.”

Why it’s important: In 2012, President Obama won 60 percent of those 18-29; he won 66 percent of those voters in 2008. As important, young voters made up 19 percent of the overall electorate in 2012 — up from 18 percent in 2008. Those young voters will — surprise! — get older. And, Republicans must find a way to appeal to them.

6. “On messaging, we must change our tone — especially on certain social issues that are turning off young voters. In every session with young voters, social issues were at the forefront of the discussion; many see them as the civil rights issues of our time. We must be a party that is welcoming and inclusive for all voters.”

Why it’s important: The modern Republican party was built, at least in part, on its commitment to social issues — opposition to abortion, opposition to same sex marriage etc. But, the culture at large — particularly among the young — is changing on those issues, and the RNC document is a reflection of the need to change with them. One issue: Does the base of the party want to change?

7. “TV spending is out of control. Outside groups spent approximately $1 billion on TV ads in swing states in the final six months of the 2012 campaign. Despite the extraordinary amount of money that was invested in TV by outside groups in 2012, the final results of the election barely differed from the polls six months earlier. There are lots of arguments for why this is the case, and we don’t believe we lost because of third-party TV ads. However, the pendulum has swung too far when it comes to spending on TV ads.”

Why it’s important: The traditional thinking — of both parties — is that you spend all of your money on television. But, as the RNC report details, the vast spending by the likes of American Crossroads and Americans for Prosperity didn’t move the needle as much as you might expect given what they spent. (These super PACs would dispute that assessment, insisting that without their spending Romney would have lost by far more.)

8. “An allied group dedicated solely to research to establish a private archive and public website that does nothing but post inappropriate Democrat[ic] utterances and act as a clearinghouse for information on Democrats would serve as an effective vehicle for affecting the public issue debate.”

Why it’s important: This is a blatant suggestion to the conservative outside group world to start a business along the lines of the liberal American Bridge — an opposition-research clearinghouse.

9. “The number of debates has become ridiculous, and they’re taking candidates away from other important campaign activities. It should be recognized that depending on a candidate’s standing in the polls, some candidates will want to participate in an unlimited number of debates, as early as they can and as often as they can.”

Why it’s important: Fewer debates — the RNC document proposes between 10 and 12 — makes it more difficult for less well-funded/well-known candidates to emerge. Without the 20+ debates in 2012, it’s hard to imagine the likes of Herman Cain or even Newt Gingrich breaking through, at least for a time, as major players in the race. Longer shot candidates are sure to resist this change.

10. “To facilitate moving up primary elections to accommodate an earlier convention, the Party should strongly consider a regional primary system or some other form of a major reorganization instead of the current system. The current system is a long, winding, often random road that makes little sense. It stretches the primaries out too long, forces our candidates to run out of money, and because some states vote so late, voters in those states never seem to count.”

Why it’s important: Like limiting debates, seeking to truncate the nomination fight will tend to favor candidates with broader organizational support and better funding. As such, it will be resisted by candidates without those things. It’s also not clear whether the RNC can enforce its desire for a shorter nominating fight given the variety of competing interests among the states for a coveted spot on the primary calendar.

Prying open drone secrets
By Ari Melber
March 18, 2013

A federal appeals court rebuffed the Obama administration’s drone policy on Friday, ruling that the CIA stretched its considerable secrecy powers “too far.” The stinging decision may be the biggest news in the war on terror that you’ve never heard about.

The ruling lays down a key marker for a significant shift in counterterrorism policy. Under President Barack Obama, the United States has moved from detaining suspected terrorists to killing many of them in targeted attacks. There were 10 times as many drone deaths in 2010 as 2004, according to the Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative. This is why there are now fewer pressing questions about detention or Guantanamo, a vestige of post-September 11 battles. The United States hardly ever captures any new terror suspects.

The politicians and the chattering class, however, have been slow to recognize this shift.

Congress still keeps reauthorizing bans against transferring Guantanamo detainees into the United States, a backward-looking restriction that hampers prosecutions. Meanwhile, it has failed to pass any laws to meaningfully oversee drone killings. The media has also overlooked the president’s expanding authority to order killings without any oversight by the other branches of government.

That left a vacuum.

Most Republicans gave Obama a pass on executive power. A few Democrats objected, primarily through careful letters. The White House simply ignored many of them, as Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) documented. So the loudest stand on the issue was left to Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), in his instantly infamous filibuster this month.

Paul raised some important questions – but Washington focused on the politics. He united Democrats, frustrated with a pattern of selected outrage against Obama, and splintered his Senate colleagues, who ranged from angry solidarity (Ted Cruz [R-Texas]) to angry embarrassment (John McCain [R-Ariz.]). This new court ruling, however, signals a different opening.

The Washington Court of Appeals is second only to the Supreme Court in prestige and authority over how the federal government operates. It is often deferential to national security arguments, and on drones, it was hearing a case Obama had won in lower court. Yet, a bipartisan panel unanimously ruled against the administration – partly because all the public debate over drones served to undermine the administration’s bizarre defense of aggressive secrecy.

There is no easy way to describe the CIA’s argument in the case without making it sound bad.

The intelligence agency literally told the court that it could not respond to a request for drone documents because the program may not exist. Even to discuss the request, without releasing documents, would compromise the (potential) program’s secrecy.

That kind of defense can work for genuine secrets. It makes no sense, however, for a program that’s been discussed everywhere from congressional hearings to the president’s own “Google Hangout.” In fact, the court cited that hangout to note that Obama “himself publicly acknowledged that the United States uses drone strikes.”

The White House wanted it both ways – pretend drones are a secret to duck court oversight, then tout them as a tough security tactic in the public debate. The court basically told Obama’s lawyers to take a hike on that argument. In judicial-speak, that translates to this: “The CIA [proposed] a fiction of deniability that no reasonable person would regard as plausible.”

Implausible fiction is a very diplomatic smackdown.

Until last week, it may have been fairly easy to dismiss Paul or the civil libertarians or the pacifists. (Picking extreme detractors as the face of the opposition is an old tactic, anyway.) Yet this federal appeals court rebuke is harder to ignore, not only as a matter of law – the administration must now discard its “fiction,” and provide a measured secrecy defense back in the lower court – but also in the public debate over the secretive kill list.

It is not the only crack in the administration’s policy, either. The White House had lost a major ally in this fight two days before this ruling.
I f you drew one circle of Obama’s most trusted confidantes, and another for White House officials who have wrestled with the toughest security and secrecy dilemmas, John Podesta, chairman of the Center for American Progress, would be smack in the middle. The former White House chief of staff, a Democratic heavyweight, was tapped by Obama to head his transition team.

So it was widely noticed when Podesta wrote in a Washington Post Opinion piece, though “some information must be closely held to protect national security,” Obama “is ignoring the system of checks and balances” that governs the country, and is undermining accountability with excessive drone secrecy.

Podesta’s very public argument suggests his private appeals were ignored. After all, this is not a man who needs a newspaper to get his words to the West Wing. He can email. Or drop in. (Podesta has been to the White House 94 times since Obama’s election, including a dozen to see the Big Guy.)

The confluence of well-meaning criticism – Podesta wants Obama to succeed in every way – and judicial pushback could provide an opening for Obama to correct course.

“The ruling,” said Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU attorney who argued the case, “provides the administration with an opportunity to reconsider both the secrecy surrounding the program and the scope of the program itself.”

It has happened before. A lawsuit seeking records on interrogation and torture led Obama early in his presidency to release key legal memos from the Bush era. The comparison has its limits, though. This time, the records are about Obama’s own actions – not his predecessor.

But that is always the true test of transparency: Shining a light on yourself.

PHOTO (Top): President Barack Obama nominates White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan (R) to be the next CIA director at the White House in Washington January 7, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

PHOTO (Insert): Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland March 14, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

PHOTO (Insert B): John Podesta when he was serving as co-chairman of President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team, in Chicago, November 7, 2008. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Many Americans are aware that George W. Bush has had the worst job creation record since the government began tracking these figures in 1939. But Bush's colossal failure to manage the economy overshadows a much larger story.

The record shows two unmistakable patterns:
  1. Every time a Republican succeeds a Democrat in the White House, the job creation rate plummets.
  2. Every time a Democrat succeeds a Republican in the White House, the job growth rate soars. Every time! No exceptions!

Considering the steady growth in population of the United States during this time frame the job creation rate should steadily increase each month (currently it must grow by 128,000 per month to keep up with population growth). This trend only manifests itself when examining Democratic administrations:

Listed below is the average job growth increase for all terms served:

 By: mike kohr Graphics by: Bonny Kohr

Malala Yousafzai, Pakistani teen shot by Taliban, back at school -- in UK
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The Pakistani schoolgirl, Malala Yousufzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban for fighting for the right of girls to be educated, spoke of her pride today and said being back in school was her "happiest moment." ITV's Rupert Evelyn reports.
By Tracy Connor, Staff Writer, NBC News

The Pakistani teen marked for death because she campaigned for girls' education went back to school Tuesday for the first time since a Taliban gunman shot her in the head five months ago, a family spokesperson said.

Malala Yousafzai is attending classes in Birmingham, England, and not her homeland, where the Taliban had vowed to make another attempt on her life.

Still, it was a sweet victory for a 15-year-old who endured multiple surgeries to reconstruct her skull and restore her hearing after she was shot on her way home from school Oct. 9.

"It’s what I dreamed," she said in a video released by the public relations firm that works with her family.

"I dream for all the children that they should go to their school because it’s their right…their basic right.”

She wore the school’s green uniform top over a long black skirt, her head covered in a dark scarf, with a pink backpack slung over her shoulder.

She joked about the overcast weather in Britain with her father, saying, “I wish I could see the sun.”

Malala was already a well-known activist in Pakistan when a militant stormed her school bus and opened fire, wounding her and two other girls and sparking international outrage.

Slideshow: Schoolgirl attacked by Taliban in Pakistan
Fifteen-year-old Malala Yousufzai was shot by the Taliban for speaking out against Pakistani militants and promoting education for girls.

The Taliban, which opposes education for girls, later said it wanted to punish her "Western thinking."

She said in the video that being able to go back to school was “the happiest moment.”

“Today I will hold my books, my bag and I will learn. I will talk to my friends and I will talk to my teacher,” she said.

“I want to learn how to bring change in this world.”

Her two wounded friends, whose injuries were less severe, are also back at school in Pakistan's Swat Valley, where they are protected by government guards, the Christian Science Monitor reported.

"Before I was a normal girl," Kainat Riaz, 16, told the paper. "Now I am afraid to go out and can't go anywhere freely."

Malala Press Office via AP
Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl shot in the head by the Taliban, with her father Ziauddin, as she attends her first day of school.

NBC Islamabad Bureau Chief Amna Nawaz contributed to this report


Malala, teen champion of girls' rights, nominated for Nobel Peace Prize
Thousands rally in Karachi for Malala, 14-year-old Pakistani girl shot by Taliban'Spy of the West': Al-Qaida, Taliban struggle to justify attack on Pakistani teen

Polish rescue workers reach 19 miners trapped in collapsed shaft

Rescue workers reached 19 workers trapped in Polish copper mine and were bringing them to the surface, a spokesman for the mining company told Reuters Wednesday.
The miners were trapped underground after an earthquake caused a cave-in late Tuesday night, Reuters reported.
Dariusz Wyborski, a spokesman for mine operator KGHM, told reporters that all the workers were alive.
Earlier reports initially mentioned 17 workers, then 18 trapped.
Reuters reported that the miners were  trapped about 600 yards below ground at the Rudna mine, about 249 miles southwest of the Polish capital, and workers on the surface lost contact with them for several hours.
"There was a quake in the Rudna mine," Wyborski said earlier, according to Reuters. "The rescue operation is difficult because huge amounts of rocks have to be removed."
Four injured miners were able to come out of the mine on their own, according to newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.
The mine, which has been in operation since 1974, is in the Silesia region, near Poland's borders with Germany and the Czech Republic. The operator, KGHM, is Europe's second-biggest copper producer.
Poland has large numbers of mines, mostly in the heavily industrialized Silesia region. In 2006, a gas explosion at a coal mine in the region killed 23 miners.

Buyer hopes to have Twinkies back on shelves by summer

DAVE KAUP / Reuters
A bankruptcy judge has approved Hostess Brands' sale of Twinkies, Ding Dongs, Ho Hos and other brands to Apollo Global Management and Metropoulos & Co. for $410 million.

NEW YORK -- A bankruptcy judge has approved the sale of Twinkies to a pair of investment firms, one of which has said it hopes to have the cakes back on shelves by summer.

Hostess Brands Inc. is selling Twinkies, Ding Dongs, Ho Hos and other brands to Apollo Global Management and Metropoulos & Co. for $410 million. Evan Metropoulos, a principal of the latter firm, said in an interview that he wants to have the snack cakes back on shelves by June and that the brands could benefit from new flavors and other product extensions.

"There's no mistake, we've got to move smartly, we've got to move quickly," Metropoulos said.

He also said that comedians Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis are at the top of his "wish list" for potential pitchmen. But he doesn't plan on formally approaching anyone about marketing deals until after the sale closes in coming weeks.

Metropoulos, which owns Pabst beer, has already used Ferrell in its ads. Apollo's investments include the fast-food chains Hardee's and Carl's Jr., which is known for indulgent burgers and splashy ads starring scantily clad women.

Judge Robert Drain of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court of the Southern District of New York also approved the sale of Wonder bread to Flowers Foods, which makes Tastykakes and other breads. Flowers, based in Thomasville, Ga., would also get Nature's Pride, Butternut, Home Pride and Merita as part of the $360 deal.

Hostess has said the Justice Department is reviewing that sale.

The sale of Beefsteak to Grupo Bimbo was also approved. Grupo Bimbo makes Entenmann's cakes and Thomas' English muffins and is paying $31.9 million for the regional bread brand.

A separate hearing is scheduled for April 9 to approve the sale of Drake's cakes, which include Devil Dogs and Yodels. Hostess picked McKee Foods, the maker of Little Debbie snack cakes, as the buyer for those brands at $27.5 million.

Taken together, a Hostess spokesman said 29 of the bankrupt company's 36 bakeries were sold as part of the transactions. It will be up to the new owners whether to hire back the thousands of workers who lost their jobs when the company went out of business.

Mark Semer, a spokesman for Metropoulos, said the firms would hire "the most qualified employees for each of our facilities, and this certainly includes many excellent, former Hostess workers."

The bakers union for Hostess, which had previously objected to the sales, said in a statement that it shared the enthusiasm exhibited by the new owners to bring Hostess brands back to shelves quickly.

The Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union said it believed "our highly-motivated and skilled workforce will serve as indispensable partners in the seamless re-opening of factories."

Hostess closed its factories in late November following a strike by the union. The company had been struggling financially for years.