Christie touts a familiar subject at CPAC

OXON HILL, Md. (TNS) — There were subtle jabs at Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, but the subject New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spent most of his time discussing at a conservative convention on Thursday was one he presumably knows best: himself.

Christie touted his willingness to take unscripted questions from voters, even when that means having sharp exchanges with some of them. He said the media elite “just want to kill” him, so he gave up The New York Times for Lent. And he said he’s not explosive or short-tempered; he’s passionate.

“I care about fighting for people I represent,” he said. “I care about fighting fights worth fighting.”

It’s the sales pitch Christie may have been forced to give at the Conservative Political Action Conference — an early stage for most potential Republican presidential candidates — because he couldn’t throw so much of the red meat that got loud ovations for his rivals.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said one of his first priorities would be repealing Obamacare. Christie has criticized the law, but also accepted the Medicaid expansion available to states.

Walker, the Wisconsin governor, said he’d signed a law allowing people to carry concealed handguns. The most Christie did for gun rights supporters was veto a limit on large-capacity magazines.

And Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal got a roaring ovation when he said he was suing the U.S. education secretary to block Common Core standards. Christie said he has concerns with the implementation of the standards, and he’s appointed a study commission.

Christie pitched the personal style that made him a national phenomenon. He was the only potential presidential contender on Thursday who did not give a speech; instead, he was questioned by the conservative commentator Laura Ingraham, who hit him with sharper questions than Cruz, Jindal or Walker faced after their speeches.

In his responses, Christie got laughs and applause, but the applause was also more tepid than the others got, overall.

Offered a chance to criticize Walker, who is touting his opposition to abortion after airing a television commercial during his re-election campaign last year in which he played it down, Christie said that he was elected as an antiabortion Republican in 2009 when no one thought he could be.

Christie also highlighted his veto of funding for Planned Parenthood health services, something he’d previously said was solely for budgetary reasons because women had other health options available.

Ingraham said Christie has been described as “short-tempered” and “a hothead” and asked if he had the temperament to be president.

“Sometimes people need to be told to sit down and shut up,” Christie said, to applause.

Asked about polls that showed him near the bottom of the pack, Christie argued that polls in 2007 showed the presidential race the following year would be between former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. Hillary Clinton, instead of the ultimate candidates, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama.

“If I decide to run for president, I’m not worried about what polls say 21 months before we elect the president,” Christie said. “I will run a hard-fighting campaign and take my chances.”

After talking about Bush, Ingraham said that voters she’s spoken with are angry that they don’t have more access to their elected officials. Christie said he had held 128 town-hall-style meetings where he called on people who had not been pre-screened and invited the audience to attend one he will hold next week in Fair Lawn, New Jersey.

“Everybody who aspires to high positions of leadership in their state or the country should be willing to take unscreened, unrehearsed questions from people who pay their salary,” Christie said.

Asked about reform of the state pension system, which he had touted for several years as one of his top accomplishments, Christie said he and the state’s largest teachers union had agreed to work together to try to find further solutions.

But he also played down a court ruling on Monday that said the state was not complying with a 2011 law Christie signed that requires increasing state contributions to the pension system.

“We don’t have a shortfall,” he said when Ingraham said he’d been ordered to put another $1.6 billion into the system. “The judge didn’t order that.”

In her ruling, Superior Court Judge Mary C. Jacobson said the state is constitutionally obligated to make the full payments to the pension fund, and she ordered Christie to work with lawmakers to meet that mandate.

Ingraham did not bring up her harsh criticism of Christie in November 2012, when she said on her radio program that Christie had embarrassed himself in his pursuit of federal aid for Superstorm Sandy, especially his embrace of President Barack Obama.

“Let me tell you something, Chris Christie, it would not surprise me if Chris Christie at some point became a Democrat,” the conservative website Daily Caller reported that Ingraham had said.

–Herb Jackson
The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

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Sen. Cruz is no ‘graybeard’

WASHINGTON (TNS) — On a gray wintry day outside the Capitol, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) stood on the grassy East Lawn and denounced President Barack Obama’s plan to temporarily defer deportation for millions of immigrants in the country illegally.

Gathered to hear the senator was a band of enthusiastic supporters, including a few like-minded lawmakers and a handful of self-described patriots. “King Obama!” shouted one person in the crowd, which included a man in a tri-cornered hat and others waving the yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags of the Tea Party.

Inside the Capitol dome, fiery events like this are met with a collective eye roll, deflating Cruz’s currency as a power broker. Members of the establishment have grown weary of such events, which they say are effective at grabbing headlines but polarize positions and hurt the party’s brand.

That hardly matters out here in the drizzle — and across America, where Cruz is taking his distinct Republican orthodoxy to new heights.

On Thursday, as his fellow senators struggled to end a standoff over money for the Homeland Security Department, a confrontation he helped set in motion, Cruz was across the river from the Capitol, at a conservative forum for potential presidential candidates.

“We need to take the power out of Washington and bring it back to the American people,” he declared to the Conservative Political Action Conference, where audience members rushed with their phones to get pictures of him.

Cruz seized on a technology metaphor he often uses, comparing himself to apps that have disrupted old ways of doing business, like Uber did to the taxi industry.

“What I’m trying to do more than anything else is bring a disruptive app to politics,” he said.

His colleagues on Capitol Hill may not appreciate the disruption, but Cruz’s backers see him as a rising political star who is redefining the conservative right.

The discord between the senator’s increasing isolation on Capitol Hill and his emerging clout outside the Beltway will only grow louder as the junior senator from Texas steps up preparations for a possible run for the Republican presidential nomination.

Can he become a viable 2016 presidential contender without the backing of Republican power brokers, or will Cruz be able to harness his grass-roots following to break into the national conversation without — or even despite — the GOP establishment?

In an interview, Cruz expressed no regrets at being seen as the cowboy-boot-wearing troublemaker of the Senate.

“You know, to be honest, that doesn’t matter,” Cruz said, his tall frame hunched in the back seat of a car as he returned from a recent appearance at a technology conference.

“In my time in the Senate, I have not focused my attention on Washington because Washington is broken,” he said. “What I’ve focused my energy on doing is energizing and empowering the grass roots, because that’s the only avenue of real change.”

That’s not always how established GOP leaders in Washington see it.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) once famously dismissed Cruz and other tea party lawmakers as “wacko birds.” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have made no secret of their displeasure with Cruz’s habit of challenging their authority, which helped lead Republicans toward the 2013 government shutdown.

For the past several weeks, Cruz has played a significant role in a standoff over funds for the Homeland Security Department. After that December rally on the Capitol lawn, he led conservatives in a strategy to use the department’s budget as leverage to try to stop Obama’s deportation plan.

As the fight over Homeland Security money turned into a logjam that threatened to tag the GOP with causing another partial government shutdown, a frustrated Boehner publicly called on Cruz to step up and fix the problem he had helped create. Cruz, in turn, blamed the GOP leadership for the strategy.

Supporters praise Cruz’s goals. “The disagreement that people had with him was more about tactics than about the substance of his positions,” said fellow conservative Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), one of the leaders of the immigration fight against Obama.

Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the conservative advocacy group Tea Party Patriots, said, “When it comes to Ted Cruz, he’s a fighter and he has stuck to his values.”

But unlike fellow Tea Party favorites, including Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, Cruz has a penchant for alienating colleagues in pursuit of bold legislative strategies that often fail.

Rather than climbing the GOP leadership ladder, Cruz covets his outsider status. His long-shot 2012 election to the Senate stunned the party.

“The nastier the reception in Washington, the more appreciation you receive outside of Washington,” he said.

Cruz honed his conservative philosophy as a teen debate star in Texas before heading off to Harvard Law School and then becoming the state of Texas’ chief appellate advocate. At 44, Cruz has tried to cultivate an image as being not only the smartest guy in the room, but the most conservative. Few can claim the space to his right, and he likes it that way.

But his quirky style and pedantic manner sometimes grate on other Republicans, whom he amicably dismisses as “graybeards.”

Cruz views his work as part of a longer strategy to bend the political agenda toward conservative values.

His goals may not have been achieved — Obamacare remains law — but his methods clearly have jolted the conversation in Washington.

His office logged 2,000 calls a day in support of the 16-day shutdown in 2013, his staff said, and his anti-Obamacare petition got more than 1 million backers.

That attention hasn’t hurt his national fundraising efforts, either, a key consideration for anyone hoping to be president. Cruz raked in more than $80,000 during the shutdown period, more than all but a few senators, most of whom were running for re-election or in leadership, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money and politics.

As the 2016 field takes shape, Cruz is trying to broaden his profile — writing a book about his life and policy preferences and burnishing his foreign policy credentials with a recent trip to a security conference in Munich, Germany, where he accompanied McCain.

Although he hasn’t announced plans to run for president, Cruz made an appearance in January at a gathering of wealthy donors aligned with the Koch brothers and was a conservative favorite at the first major Republican gathering of potential presidential contenders in Iowa.

“Ted Cruz had the highest bar to reach — and he exceeded it,” said the Iowa event’s host, GOP Rep. Steve King, a Cruz ally and regular at his office pizza parties where they spitball strategy.

Many believe Cruz understands his electoral limits in 2016, but will capitalize on the opportunity to insert himself as a major player and potential kingmaker. Not bad for a freshman senator who’s never held elected office before.

One scenario has Cruz taking a role more like that played by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin or perhaps Jim DeMint, a former senator from South Carolina who left office to become president of the conservative Heritage Foundation — outsiders who try to swing the game from unlikely centers of power.

Cruz dismisses that idea as “not remotely” accurate. But his actions during a recent private retreat of House and Senate Republicans did not look like those of someone rolling up his sleeves for the hard work of legislating.

Instead, several people noted, Cruz declined to join many of the panel sessions where lawmakers hammered out policy, preferring to chat one-on-one with a few lawmakers in the halls.

“He’s a very — obviously — bright, articulate person, and he commands quite a following,” said fellow Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in the chamber, who acknowledged having differences with his colleague’s tactics. “The question is: What do you want to do? Do you want to run for president, or do you want to be an effective senator?”

–Lisa Mascaro
Tribune Washington Bureau

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Ben Carson prepares to enter presidential arena

Ben Carson exploded onto conservatives’ radar two years ago with an in-your-face critique of Obamacare at the National Prayer Breakfast — with the president sitting nearby on the dais.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (TNS) — Get ready to hear much more from Ben Carson.

The South Florida Republican, who has a growing fan base among conservatives around the country, is on the verge of announcing his presidential candidacy.

Unlike the two big-name Florida Republicans whose presidential ambitions are widely discussed, Carson isn’t well-known outside circles of Republican activists and devotees of Fox News, where he’s a regular guest.

But Carson has been building his brand — writing, traveling to four or five states a week, and appearing on TV — from his home base in West Palm Beach, Florida.

“I love Dr. Carson. I love what he stands for. I think he is the breath of fresh air that the Republican Party is looking for and needs,” said Tami Donnally, vice chairwoman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party. “He is not the status quo. He is different, he is enthusiastic, and he’s smart. He would be a great choice for our party for president.”

To Donna Skeen, secretary of the Palm Beach Republican Club, Carson is “a sage, not a politician.”

Carson has won over Donnally, Skeen and like-minded activists across the country with conservative views on the size and scope of government, countering terrorism and social issues.

He exploded onto conservatives’ radar two years ago with an in-your-face critique of Obamacare at the National Prayer Breakfast — with the president sitting nearby on the dais.

Carson, who is black, attracted widespread attention for a speech later in 2013 in which he said “Obamacare is really, I think, the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.” He said the health law “is slavery in a way, because it is making all of us subservient to the government, and it was never about health care. It was about control.”

Carson, 63, moved to West Palm Beach after retiring as a pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

In a Presidents Day appearance at the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach, Carson said the U.S. should move quickly to “exterminate” the Islamic State, including, if necessary, “capturing and controlling” oil fields. He said home schooling provides the best quality education and that both private and charter schools are superior to public schools.

He said his opposition to abortion doesn’t mean he’s anti-woman and his opposition to same-sex marriage doesn’t mean he’s anti-gay. During one of his Fox appearances, he raised pedophilia and bestiality when explaining his opposition to same-sex marriage. He said last week that he believes in equal rights “for everybody, including gay people. I don’t have anything against gay people.”

Carson said the notion advanced by liberals that conservatives are not compassionate “is really a bunch of hogwash. I think conservatives are really the most compassionate, because they’re the ones that expect people to work and to improve themselves and develop the talents that God has given them.”

Politicians who support government handing out food stamps, health care and other freebies — “the ones who pat them on the head and say ‘there, there you little thing'” — are not compassionate, Carson said.

The way to get ahead in America is through work, not government largesse, he said. “You’ll never be successful sitting at home waiting for a check.”

Carson’s appeal is his willingness to say things that conservatives believe but experienced, establishment politicians won’t express, said Danita Kilcullen, co-founder of Tea Party Fort Lauderdale. She wasn’t at Carson’s speech in Palm Beach, but she’s heard him several times, including at a tea party convention last month in South Carolina.

In NBC News/Marist polls released Feb. 15, Carson had support of 6 percent to 10 percent of Republican voters in the key early primary and caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. He had 7 percent of Florida Republicans in a Feb. 4 Quinnipiac University poll.

South Florida supporters said they know their support for the idea of Carson candidacy is more in their hearts than in their heads. “I’m a realist,” Skeen said. “The American public… may not understand who this man is.”

Robert Watson, a political scientist at Lynn University, said the rhetoric of someone like Carson excites the political base of the party. The problem, he said, is “those folks just don’t get elected.”

Unlike Jeb Bush, the former two-term governor and son and brother of presidents, and Marco Rubio, a first-term U.S. senator and former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, Carson has never been elected to anything.

It’s exceedingly difficult for someone who’s never run for anything before to mount a winning campaign for president, said Ed Pozzuoli, president of the Tripp Scott law firm and a former Broward Republican chairman who served as South Florida or Broward campaign chairman for presidential candidates Rudy Giuliani, George W. Bush and Bob Dole. He added that Carson “can impact the debate.”

–Anthony Man
Sun Sentinel

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Jeb Bush wouldn’t hesitate to start ‘third Bush war’

(TNS) — Jeb Bush may be his own man, but that would not stop him from starting a war in the Middle East like his father and brother before him.

Appearing on the Hugh Hewitt radio show on Wednesday, Bush said that his family legacy would not be a factor in how he would handle potential military conflicts if the safety of the American people were at risk.

Asked by Hewitt whether he would be “overly cautious about using force for fear of having a ‘third Bush war’ occur,” Bush was resolute.

“No, that’s an interesting question, and I’m glad you asked it. It wouldn’t, if I was, if I decide to go forward with a race and I’m fortunate enough to go through that whole process, and God willing, win, then I would have a duty to protect the United States,” Bush responded, adding, “I wouldn’t be conflicted by any legacy issues of my family. I actually, Hugh, am quite comfortable being George Bush’s son and George Bush’s brother. It’s something that gives me a lot of comfort on a personal level, and it certainly wouldn’t compel me to act one way or the other based on the strategies that we would be implementing and the conditions that our country would be facing.”

Hewitt followed up by asking whether conservatives should worry that the former governor would be reluctant to use U.S. military power in the Muslim world.

“I don’t think there’s anything that relates to what my dad did or what my brother did that would compel me to think one way or the other. I think that history’s a good guide for our country. And the simple fact is you start with the premise that America’s role in the world is a force for good, not for bad things to happen, you’ll have, lessen the likelihood of having to use military force around the world.”

Bush’s answers echoed sentiments he’d expressed in a speech last week at the Chicago Foreign Affairs Council.

“As you might know, I’ve been fortunate to have a father and a brother who helped shape America’s foreign policy from the Oval Office. I recognize as a result that my views will often be held up in comparison to theirs,” Bush said in Chicago. “In fact, this is a great fascinating thing in the political world, for some reason, sometimes in contrast to theirs. Look, just for the record, one more time, I love my brother. I love my dad. I actually love my mother, I hope that’s OK. And I admire their service to the nation and the difficult decisions that they had to make, but I’m my own man, and my views are shaped by my own thinking and my own experiences.”

On Wednesday, Hewitt was able to draw out some of the most specific answers on Bush’s views on engaging in military conflict by asking whether the presumptive candidate would “hesitate to use ground forces in substantial numbers in Iraq a third time” in order to combat the Islamic State. This gave Bush a chance to put the blame for the ongoing conflict on the man who succeeded his brother in the White House.

“Well, had we kept the 10,000 troop commitment that was there for the president to negotiate and to agree with, we probably wouldn’t have ISIS right now,” Bush asserted. “So to reflect on this, there is a, by putting all these preconditions, the president has really weakened our hand. And so look, I can’t speculate about the size of a commitment going forward. It may not be necessary. But it looks to me like the president is currently building up some military support in Iraq. It may actually get back to the level that had he kept the 10,000 there, we wouldn’t have had the mess to begin with.”

In regards to the Democrat that Bush could likely face if he prevails in the Republican primary, Hewitt poised another question that, once again, hit on the question of legacy.

“And then the last question, Governor, what’s the message to the newly emerging democracies, that the world’s oldest democracy keeps recycling Bushes and Clintons and Clintons and Bushes?” Hewitt asked. “Does it send the wrong message to the Nigerias and the Indias of the world about dynasty?”

“If the campaigns are about, if the campaign’s about a dynasty, I’m not sure that that’s’ going to work,” Bush replied. “If it’s about how you advance ideas that will help people rise up, then it will be an inspiration for others. And that’s what we need to do. We need to be talking about the future by fixing a few really big, complicated things, to allow the middle to rise, and for people stuck at the bottom to rise up as well. And we can do it. That’s the good news, is the inspiration of America is going to be when we start growing at 4 percent per year rather than 2 percent per year. We will inspire the world to emulate us.”

–David Knowles
Bloomberg News

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Sen. Marco Rubio sees opportunity for redemption on the right

OXON HILL, Md. (TNS) — They should love him.

He has one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate. He talks forcefully about fighting “the Washington establishment’s big-government vision for America,” Obamacare and excessive spending.

Yet Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has met with a yawn so far from conservatives, the people who may hold the key to his shot at the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Rubio will get a prime chance to do something about it Friday, when he addresses thousands of activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a four-day gathering just outside Washington. In attendance will be the heavyweights of today’s GOP, as well as the thought leaders, pundits and conservatives Rubio needs to reach and persuade in order for him to be a viable contender in 2016.

So far, he’s polling low; and his numbers among conservatives have been lower than those among Republicans overall.

“His name, to grass-roots activists in Iowa, never comes up,” said Steve Deace, a nationally syndicated radio host based in Iowa, a pivotal early test for the presidential nomination.

Rubio’s actions over the past two years, Deace said, opened the door for others, such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, whose voting record is one tick to the right of Rubio’s.

“Cruz wins the space now that Rubio had a year and a half ago,” Deace said.

The reason, of course, is Rubio’s celebrated role in a 2013 immigration debate. Rubio pushed a bipartisan overhaul of the nation’s immigration system that made it through the Senate but stalled in the House of Representatives. Many conservatives lambasted him.

Brent Bozell, chairman of the national conservative advocacy group ForAmerica, said he was “shocked by how harsh the response was among the grassroots” toward Rubio’s immigration role.

“I asked if they could give him a mulligan because he was a brand-new face,” Bozell said. “Nobody was willing to do so. I think he hurt himself, and I think he knows it.”

Even so, Rubio’s actions on immigration are “certainly not a death sentence among conservatives,” said Richard S. Conley, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida.

“If Rubio is as astute as I think he is, I think he can turn this back around _ and the memory of two years ago will be short-lived.”

Looking ahead to the high-profile appearance Friday, Rubio told McClatchy his “message isn’t going to change for the audience.”

That message, he said, is one of acknowledging the “difficult time for millions of Americans” and the rough transition from the old economy to the new. Globalization and automation have eliminated or replaced millions of jobs, he said, and those that remain don’t pay enough.

Rubio’s message should hit right at the heart of conservatives. But the potential GOP field is crowded with contenders who do the same. Some, such as Cruz, don’t need to spend time regaining the trust of conservatives. It never went away.

After bursting onto the political scene in 2010, Rubio did build a solidly conservative record in the Senate.

According to the American Conservative Union, which organized this week’s event, Rubio’s lifetime voting record rates 98.67; two senators are tied with him and two others have 100 ratings (the highest possible).

By another measure, Rubio was the 17th most-conservative senator in 2013, according to ratings by the National Journal. Among other potential presidential candidates, Cruz fell to Rubio’s right and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky just to his left.

Rubio has started to regain his footing publicly, receiving positive press and political buzz in recent weeks — in part because of his high-octane role battling the White House’s opening to Cuba. But that has yet to translate into significant support.

In recent national polls, his support has been in single digits among Republicans, ranking sixth or seventh. While a CNN poll showed his support among self-described conservatives to be in line with his support among all Republicans, other polls have found his support among conservatives to pale in comparison.

A December McClatchy-Marist poll showed Rubio at 5 percent among moderate Republicans and Republican-leaners and at 3 percent among conservative/very conservative ones. His standing among conservatives tied him for ninth. Rubio’s support among those who identified themselves as supporters of the Tea Party was 0 percent.

As for voters in Iowa, a Quinnipiac University poll of Republicans likely to attend the state’s caucus that was released this week showed Rubio at 4 percent; moderates gave him slightly more support than conservatives did.

“I don’t think he has a standing,” said Deace, the Iowa-based radio host, who has a strong following among conservatives. “I think he’s a nonentity, presidential-wise. … He doesn’t have a home-state constituency, and he doesn’t have an issue constituency.” And it all goes back to the immigration battle, he said.

Rubio has plenty of room to improve, however, and he has the kind of support among Washington pundits that could translate into a viable candidacy. A recent Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll of definite or probable Iowa caucus-goers found Rubio with views that were “about right” — not too conservative or too moderate — and positive favorability ratings.

And as Rubio points out, he was once a long shot in Florida to win his Senate seat.

Added Bozell: “If you look at the short list of conservative candidates out there, he’s on it. If you look at the short list of moderate candidates, he’s on it. That makes him formidable.”

–Chris Adams
McClatchy Washington Bureau

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Santorum is ready for a comeback

WASHINGTON (TNS) — He’s looking a little tan, sounding rested and signaling he’s ready. He’s a former senator from a big swing state who was a senior member of the congressional leadership. He was even the runner-up for his party’s presidential nomination last cycle.

So where is Rick Santorum these days? Not only has he not cleared the 2016 field, he isn’t even close to cracking the top ranks of potential Republican candidates.

Myriad events — some readily apparent, others currently unimaginable — will shift the shape of the jumbled and sprawling GOP field many times before the actual voting starts almost a year from now. One of the set pieces is the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which lasts through Saturday.

Santorum is among 15 potential candidates scheduled to speak — he’s got 20 minutes starting at noon Friday, sandwiched between Donald Trump and Jeb Bush — and how he’s received by the party’s most conservative and libertarian activists will offer a decent clue about whether his comeback bid stands a chance.

For now, the numbers suggest Santorum is as much of a long shot as he appeared to be four years ago, when he was running for president the first time. His support among GOP voters, based on an average of the past four national surveys by Real Clear Politics, stands at 2.3 percent — tied for 10th place with Bobby Jindal, the governor and former House member from Louisiana.

Probably more concerning for Santorum is the fact that he has averaged 5 percent in the last quartet of polls of potential Iowa caucus attendees, leaving him in eighth place. But it was his late surge from obscurity to a victory in Iowa three years ago (he edged Mitt Romney by a miniscule 34 votes) that propelled him into that year’s top tier. Before dropping out in April, he had won 10 additional states, 3.9 million primary or caucus votes and 234 pledged convention delegates.

It’s not unreasonable to assume that, if he’s going to be a real contender next year, he’ll have to begin by making lightning strike twice in the opening contest, where his type of social conservatism has particular resonance among caucus-goers. He’s spent more than 10 days this year in Iowa — still sporting his trademark sweater vest — and has also made a couple of visits to gauge support in South Carolina, home of the other early contest next year where the culture wars especially resonate.

In recent appearances and interviews, Santorum is signaling that his strategy assumes the conservative GOP base remembers his social views, allowing him to downplay his opposition to abortion and gay rights while concentrating on selling his conservative economic populism: Too many immigrants, legal and illegal, and too much federal regulation in areas from education to the environment, are holding back economic advancement for the middle class.

“We have to be not just the pro-growth, but the pro-worker party,” he said on Fox News last month, reprising a 2012 theme he hopes has more currency in the current electoral climate, where there’s bipartisan frustration with income inequality. “We need to target policies that make sure everybody, low-income folks in all income groups and ethnicities, has a shot at the American dream.”

He’s also said his grounding for the presidency is superior to others hoping to be the candidate of evangelicals and other social conservatives, namely former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.

To those who spend their lives on Capitol Hill, Santorum’s congressional resume sounds tough to beat, delivering a breadth and depth of both foreign and domestic policy experience few 2016 rivals can match. He was on Ways and Means while representing the Pittsburgh suburbs for four years in the House. And during the following dozen years as a Pennsylvania senator, he was chairman of subcommittees on Finance, Armed Services and Agriculture and spent six years heading the GOP conference — the No. 3 elected party leadership job, which put him in charge of shaping the messaging for his caucus.

(To be sure, the bottom line on that resume also includes one of the most lopsided defeats of an incumbent senator in modern times. He took an 18-point, 708,000-vote drubbing from Democrat Bob Casey in 2006, at least in part because Santorum made a vigorous and often adversarial social conservatism a hallmark of his tenure representing an ideologically mixed state.)

Since his last presidential campaign, Santorum has taken the helm of a Christian film production and distribution company, EchoLight Studios, and worked to expand the reach of Patriot Voices, the grass-roots advocacy group he created using lists of small-money donors and volunteers from 2012. (Its political action committee raised and spent $2 million during the midterm cycle. Its most recent project was a petition drive to protest President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration.)

Last year, he published “Blue Collar Conservatives,” a manifesto for his putative campaign. And last week, he and his wife, Karen, published “Bella’s Gift,” about rearing the youngest of their seven children, Isabella, who has a usually fatal genetic disorder and whose medical challenges pulled Santorum off the trail several times in 2012.

Perhaps as important as all that, Foster Friess, a mutual fund mogul who donated more than $2 million to a Santorum super PAC last time, has promised to help bankroll him again and to rally financial support from other conservative millionaires.

Santorum’s party has a deep history of giving their presidential nod to the “guy next in line.” Six of the seven non-incumbent Republican nominees in the past half century had finished second in a previous national campaign. (Starting with Richard M. Nixon in 1968, the only exception is George W. Bush in 2000.)

From the outside, anyway, it looks as though Santorum has been doing all the groundwork necessary to keep that amazing streak intact. All that remains now is getting the Republican base to start noticing.

–David Hawkings
CQ-Roll Call

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Fate of Obamacare hinges on six words

WASHINGTON (TNS) — Could a simple six-word sentence fragment, buried deep within hundreds of pages of legislative text, end up destroying Obamacare?

It might sound far-fetched at first, but determined opponents think they’ve found a way to unravel the entire healthcare law.

So now the fate of President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement rests on a single, seemingly picayune legal question: Does the phrase “an exchange established by the state” make it impossible for the federal government to help pay for individual health insurance in the 34 states that didn’t set up their own healthcare exchanges?

The six words, found in the middle of 906 pages of law, will be the focus of intense scrutiny March 4 as the Supreme Court hears oral arguments on the matter.

The stakes are nearly as enormous as they were in 2012, when the justices upheld the law’s constitutionality. A ruling against the Obama administration this time around, in King v. Burwell, would mean millions of Americans could lose their health insurance. The president could see his main legislative accomplishment rendered unworkable without a fix from the administration or Congress — and neither option seems feasible.

The story of the healthcare law’s second major legal rumpus starts with a band of libertarian lawyers in Washington. They seized on an idea presented at a 2010 policy forum and developed a theory to render the law virtually moot. They found plaintiffs and recruited a star Supreme Court litigator to get the issue before the nation’s highest court.

The practical consequences of a victory are not of interest to them. Democrats in Congress who wrote the law and pushed it through are the ones ultimately to blame if the justices throw the nation’s healthcare system into chaos, says Tom Miller of the American Enterprise Institute, which hosted the 2010 forum.

“If you write a bad law in a sloppy manner under extraordinary procedures and methods, it will ultimately catch up with you,” Miller says. “That’s what created this situation.”

Looking to save the federal insurance exchange, in addition to the Obama administration, are major health companies, the American Cancer Society, AARP, 22 states and the District of Columbia.

The justices are likely to also hear about a growing constellation of “gotcha” moments and past statements from former Sen. Ben Nelson and other lawmakers that arose as the case wound through the courts.

Justices will be told about how the healthcare law calls for a one-stop shopping spot for health insurance, called an exchange, to be set up by states. In states that decline to participate, the law says the federal government must establish and operate a fallback exchange.

This time, the justices won’t be determining the constitutionality of the law, as they did when they upheld it in a landmark 5-4 decision in June 2012. Instead, they will perform one of their most common tasks: deciding what Congress intended when writing the law.

Thomas Christina, an employment lawyer from South Carolina, first realized the potential of the six-word phrase tucked in section 36(B) of the law. That is the section that authorizes subsidies for low- and middle-income residents enrolled in “an exchange established by the state.”

That seemed to him to exclude residents in states that did not set up exchanges, “which is really quite extraordinary,” Christina said at the 2010 AEI forum. At that time, the Internal Revenue Service had not yet written regulations about who could get the subsidies.

Other panelists were more direct. “This bastard has to be killed as a matter of political hygiene,” American Enterprise Institute visiting scholar Michael Greve told the crowd. “There are all sorts of contradictions and incongruities in this statute, and that is something to be exploited.”

By the time the IRS announced its rules in June 2012 and declared that residents on federal exchanges also qualified for the subsidies, two libertarian lawyers already had scoured the statute’s text, structure and congressional history.

Jonathan Adler of the Case Western Reserve University School of Law and Michael Cannon of the Cato Institute published a paper that month in Health Matrix that identified the pillars of a legal challenge. They wrote that the IRS rule — which said residents in states that did not set up state-run exchanges were eligible for subsidies — runs contrary to the plain language of those six words in the statute.

The IRS rule, therefore, is contrary to congressional intent, Adler and Cannon wrote. And, they concluded, individuals could get standing to challenge it in court.

Adler and Cannon made the rounds as the most public advocates for the challenge, fleshing out the arguments in legal circles, lectures and media outlets.

“The statute limits tax credits to state-established exchanges in a manner that is plain and unambiguous,” Adler and Cannon wrote in an amicus brief filed in December on the King case. The IRS rule “tries to achieve through regulatory fiat what (the healthcare law) supporters could not achieve through the political process: a healthcare bill that does not rely on state cooperation.”

The libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, where Greve is a board member, decided to fund lawsuits based on the argument. Their aim from the beginning was the Supreme Court, and they wanted to be in front of the justices as soon as possible. Michael Carvin of Jones Day, who argued for challengers in the first healthcare law case before the Supreme Court, agreed to handle the litigation and filed it in federal court in Virginia.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute found plaintiffs: four residents of Virginia, which did not set up its own exchange, who did not want to purchase health insurance. Media reports have questioned the backgrounds of those plaintiffs, but the intention of the litigation has been clear. The residents can sue, courts have ruled, because the IRS rule poses a direct financial burden when someone is forced either to purchase insurance or pay the penalty.

Carvin filed the King case when a separate CEI-backed case in the D.C. Circuit, Halbig v. Burwell, didn’t move quickly enough. Carvin “has always pushed the gas pedal as fast as possible,” Miller says.

The justices will look at the case through a familiar legal framework, which weighs the plain language of the statute with the intentions of the law.

First, the justices will see if the intent of Congress is clear based on the text of the law. This is where Carvin and the challengers may have the better of the argument, because the plain meaning of the six-word phrase would seem only to give subsidies to state-run exchanges.

“Certain members of the court are likely to say, ‘Look at the language Congress wrote,'” says Kannon Shanmugam, a Supreme Court litigator at Williams & Connolly. “It may be six words in the key provision, but it’s still the key provision — the one that determines who gets subsidies.”

If that is clear, then the Supreme Court can decide the case based just on that. The D.C. Circuit, in the Halbig case with the same arguments, agreed that the language was straightforward. (The Halbig case is stalled pending the outcome of the King case.)

So the Obama administration will try to create enough doubt about that sentence fragment to make the justices find the law ambiguous, at the least, about whether subsidies should go to insurance policies purchased on the federal exchange.

If the court finds the law as a whole is ambiguous, then it gives deference to the IRS rule as the correct interpretation of the law. It’s in this policy area where the Obama administration may have the better of the arguments.

The government will argue that the law demands that when a state fails to set up an exchange, the federal government set up “such exchange” in its place. And the whole point of the law is to provide healthcare to every American, which is an integral part of the economics that make the law work, the administration says.

If Congress was trying to do what the challengers say and bully states into creating exchanges, “it’s not at all clear why you would create the federal exchanges at all,” says Tejinder Singh, an appellate litigator at Goldstein & Russell. “I think that is the hardest argument for the challengers to explain.”

In the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the three-judge panel that heard the King case unanimously found the law’s language ambiguous, siding with the Obama administration. In his separate opinion, Senior Judge Andre Davis called the challengers’ reading of the law “cramped.” The law says no reading should take place in a vacuum, Davis wrote.

“So does common sense: If I ask for pizza from Pizza Hut for lunch but clarify that I would be fine with a pizza from Domino’s, and I then specify that I want ham and pepperoni on my pizza from Pizza Hut, my friend who returns from Domino’s with a ham and pepperoni pizza has still complied with a literal construction of my lunch order,” Davis wrote.

“That is this case: Congress specified that exchanges should be established and run by the states, but the contingency provision permits federal officials to act in place of the state when it fails to establish an exchange.”

Despite the importance of the six-word phrase now, it appears there wasn’t much said about it back when the law was under debate in Congress. While many lawmakers now have weighed in on the merits of the case, no lawmaker’s words are likely to be more central to the case than those of Nelson, a former Nebraska Democratic senator.

The challengers say that section 36(B) makes subsidies available only for individual coverage purchased through state-established exchanges because it is the product of legislative compromise for “Nelson and some other senators.”

Nelson was a crucial 60th vote to avoid a filibuster, Carvin has said during court arguments. Nelson wanted to keep the federal government out of the process, and states had to take the lead role. That required serious incentives to induce such state participation.

“They couldn’t get to 60 unless Ben Nelson said we’re not going to have a federally run exchange, we’re going to implement basic principles of federalism and the states are going to run those exchanges or I don’t vote for it and it doesn’t get passed,” Carvin said during arguments in the Halbig case.

But an amicus brief filed by lawmakers, including Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), says that argument has no basis in fact and “the pertinent text was not part of any ‘compromise.'”

“The provision was not amended after (healthcare law) supporters lost their filibuster-proof majority because, as previously discussed, no one then interpreted the provision in the way petitioners now do,” the brief states.

Nelson said as much in a letter to Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), now filed at the Supreme Court.

“I always believed that tax credits should be available in all 50 states regardless of who built the exchange, and the final law also reflects that belief as well,” Nelson wrote in the letter.

Those watching the case are focused on Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. It is widely assumed that other justices will vote as they did for the initial 5-4 decision. The three conservative justices, Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Antonin Scalia, will side with challengers. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan are expected to side with the administration.

Roberts and Kennedy, however, might see this case differently from the last challenge. The 2012 case posed a constitutional challenge, which would have struck down the law. This time, if it is just a wording problem, the Supreme Court could rule for the challengers with the idea that it is up to Congress to fix the language.

–Todd Ruger
CQ-Roll Call

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Landmark net neutrality rules win FCC approval in party-line 3-2 vote

WASHINGTON (TNS) — In a landmark decision for the future of the Internet, the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday approved tough net neutrality regulations to oversee online traffic.

The new rules prohibit Internet service providers from discriminating against legal content flowing through their wired or wireless networks, such as by charging websites for faster delivery of video and other data to consumers.

In an expected 3-2 party-line vote, the agency’s Democrat majority approved a plan by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler that puts broadband providers in the same legal category as more highly regulated conventional telephone companies.

Wheeler has promised a modernized, light-touch regulatory approach that would exempt Internet service from many of the tougher provisions of that designation under Title 2 of the telecommunications law, particularly rate regulation.

“The Internet is the most powerful and pervasive platform on the planet. It’s simply too important to be left without rules and without a referee on the field,” Wheeler said in voting for the proposal. “The Internet is simply too important to allow broadband providers to be the ones making the rules.

He said the new rules and classification were “no more a plan to regulate the Internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech.”

FCC member Jessica Rosenworcel, who voted for the regulations, said: “We cannot have a two-tiered Internet with fast lanes that speed the traffic of the privileged and leave the rest of us lagging behind.”

“We cannot have gatekeepers who tell us what we can and cannot do and where we can and cannot go online,” she said.

Ajit Pai, one of two Republicans on the FCC, said the new regulatory proposal abandoned 20 years of bipartisan consensus “to let the Internet grow free from utility-style regulation.”

“It seizes unilateral authority to regulate Internet conduct, to direct where Internet service providers make their investments and to determine what service plans will be available to the American public,” he said.

The FCC’s vote culminates a decade of efforts by Internet companies such as Amazon.com Inc. and Google Inc., public interest groups, digital rights advocates and key Democrats, including President Barack Obama, to enact the toughest possible rules to protect consumers.

Chad Dickerson, chief executive of Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade and vintage goods, said his company would never have grown from a start-up had it not been for an open Internet. Many of the people who sell items on Etsy urged the FCC to enact tough regulations.

“Without strong rules to prevent discrimination online, the innovation economy would suffer,” he told the commissioners at the meeting. “Thank you for voting to protect the Internet as an engine of opportunity the likes of which we have never seen.”

However, Republicans, free-market advocates and telecommunications companies, including AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., have called the rules a solution in search of a problem that risks damaging the Internet economy.

They said that the Internet has thrived outside of strict government oversight, and they warned that burdensome regulations could hinder online innovation and investment in expanded broadband networks.

“While I see no need for net neutrality rules, I am far more troubled by the dangerous course that the commission is now charting on Title 2 and the consequences it will have for broadband investment, edge providers and consumers,” said FCC member Michael O’Rielly, who voted against the measure.

Pai saw the White House behind Wheeler’s proposal.

“Put simply, President Obama’s plan to regulate the Internet is not the solution to a problem. His plan is the problem,” said Pai, who accused Obama of improperly influencing the actions of the independent FCC.

Jim Cicconi, AT&T’s senior executive vice president for external and legislative affairs, criticized the vote. He warned of legal challenges but stopped short of saying the company would sue.

“We have never argued there should be no regulation in this area, simply that there should be smart regulation,” Cicconi said.

“What doesn’t make sense, and has never made sense, is to take a regulatory framework developed for Ma Bell in the 1930s and make her great-grandchildren, with technologies and options undreamed of 80 years ago, live under it,” he said.

Telecom firms said they support the principle of net neutrality but not the FCC’s approach, and they have promised to sue to overturn the regulations.

Legal challenges led federal judges to toss out two earlier FCC attempts to enact net neutrality rules, and new lawsuits could leave the matter unsettled for three years or more.

The FCC said it chose to take the controversial step of reclassifying broadband providers for utility-like regulation — reversing a 2002 agency decision — because the move stood the best chance of withstanding a legal challenge to the net neutrality rules themselves.

–Jim Puzzanghera
Los Angeles Times

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Aided by 85-year-old widow, pot fight heats up in Texas

WASHINGTON (TNS) — After her husband, Bob, died recently, 85-year-old Ann Lee of Houston is eager to get back to work, which means promoting the legalization of marijuana.

Lee, executive director of a group called Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, went to the state capitol in Austin, Texas, recently as part of a citizen lobby day, urging lawmakers to approve bills to decriminalize marijuana and allow the drug to be used for medical purposes.

Next, she’ll head to Washington, where she’ll have a booth at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of conservative activists and politicians from throughout the country.

“We think we can make a difference in the whole Republican structure if we pursue this. … Bob will be with me all the way — he’ll always be with me on this,” Lee said.

Long dominated by the GOP, Texas may seem an unlikely battleground for the next round of marijuana wars. But pot lobbyists say they’ve got a realistic shot at getting state laws changed this year, particularly with allies like Lee.

“She is a fiery lady who has no problem speaking her mind,” said Jax Finkel, deputy director of the Texas chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. She said Lee breaks the stereotype of a marijuana activist because of her grandmotherly image and her lifelong history as a Republican who once opposed legalization.

“You know you’re not going to argue with Grandma — because Grandma has a good argument and she knows what she’s talking about,” Finkel said.

Legalization opponents aren’t too worried about losing ground in the Lone Star State.

“Texas in play? That’s a fantasy,” said Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an anti-legalization group.

Pro-pot groups are targeting Texas after the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group based in Washington, commissioned a poll last year that found 58 percent of Texans backing medical marijuana and saying pot should be regulated and treated similarly to alcohol.

“The times they are a-changin’,” said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project.

Pot lobbyists want Texas lawmakers to pass three bills.

The first, which would decrease the penalty to $100 for possession of less than an ounce of pot, got its initial reading recently on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives and was sent to the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.

A second would add Texas to the list of 23 other states that allow marijuana to be used as medicine.

And a third — the most ambitious and a long shot at best — would set up a system to tax and regulate marijuana for recreational use, similar to laws approved by voters in Washington state and Colorado in 2012.

Even if no legislation is approved this year, legalization backers say the shifting battleground to a red Southern state shows that momentum for legalization is building across the nation.

“When there is cannabis law reform talk in Texas, you know the end of the national prohibition can’t be too far away,” said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the Washington-based NORML, who went to Austin and Houston earlier this month to lobby for the bills.

With Texas just one of many states now debating marijuana-related issues, O’Keefe said that 2015 could be a “record-breaking year for marijuana policy reform in state legislatures.”

O’Keefe said it’s clear that more Republicans are joining the cause, noting that 53 percent of Alaskans voted in November to back legalizing recreational marijuana.

“More Republicans are realizing it’s not in their party’s interest to be on the losing side of history,” O’Keefe said.

Sabet said the strategy of pro-pot lobbyists is to try to sell a message that legalization is inevitable.

“They have a long way to go for that to be true,” the anti-legalization activist said. “They may have gained momentum in the past two years, but the finish line is a long way away.”

–Rob Hotakainen
McClatchy Washington Bureau

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Vacation pot-smokers should beware back home

(TNS) — A visitor to Colorado or Washington state can enjoy all sorts of fine legal activities in those states. Ski. Hike. Drink local beer. Eat local food. Take a scenic drive on a twisting mountain highway. Smoke pot.

But only one of those pastimes might get a traveler in trouble when he gets back home — and it’s not the scenic drive.

Softening attitudes about marijuana have created new avenues for tourism but also created a quandary for travelers: Yes, you are free to smoke or eat weed in Colorado and Washington. But should you face a drug screening back home, that perfectly legal activity a few states over suddenly doesn’t seem quite as legal.

“An employer is very much empowered to fire you for any trace of marijuana in your urine regardless of where it comes from,” said Erik Altieri, spokesman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “All it takes is for your employer to call you in for random drug test after that trip to Aspen, and you could lose your job.”

Though attitudes about marijuana are changing rapidly — Oregon and Alaska have approved recreational use, and five more states will put the matter before voters in 2016 — an obvious gap is growing between updated laws and antiquated ideas.

Courts are still in the early stages of sorting out the matter. In October, the Colorado Supreme Court took up the issue of whether a man’s legal use of medicinal marijuana could be grounds for his employer, Dish Network, to fire him in 2010.

Though the case concerns medicinal consumption, it could be a bellwether on whether legal recreational use also is protected, at least in Colorado. Though the man fired by Dish Network, Brandon Coats, insists he was never high at work, traces of marijuana can remain in the system for weeks, which led to his positive test result.

Therein lies the issue for travelers: What was legally done two weeks ago can remain in the body. Unlike alcohol testing, most drug tests do not necessarily indicate present impairment.

“I don’t think the 55 percent of voters that supported decriminalization thought their jobs would be at risk for their legal behavior,” said Rachel Gillette, a Lafayette, Colorado, attorney whose practice focuses on marijuana law. “The intent and will of the voters was to say that this is a lawful activity.”

Gillette, who also is the executive director of Colorado NORML, said she hears “every couple of months” from out-of-state residents who have lost their jobs after smoking legally in Colorado. She said there is nothing she can do to help them.

“People need to be very aware of their employer’s drug-testing policy before they come to Colorado and partake,” she said. “Most people probably haven’t read it for a while, and maybe they need to.”

–Josh Noel
Chicago Tribune

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Activist warns: Return of warm weather to St. Louis could mean violence

TNS/A St. Louis County police car was set on fire along South Florissant Road in Ferguson following the announcement of the grand jury decision on Nov. 24, 2014.

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. (TNS) — A leader of a community outreach group warned fact-finders for a federal civil rights agency Monday that warm weather could spark more street violence in lingering resentment of police shootings.

“As St. Louis walks into this next warm season, and it’s right around the corner, we’re not ready for what’s going to come out of our neighborhoods,” said James Clark, vice president of the nonprofit organization Better Family Life.

“This is going to be a very, very challenging time in our community as it relates to crime and violence. Once this weather breaks there are going to be challenges for the police officers,” Clark said. “How the police are going to manage it — my prayers are with them.”

Clark participated in one of several panels addressing the Missouri Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. It is examining police use of force relating to race or color.

The commission is an independent, bipartisan agency that advises the president and Congress on civil rights matters. It took an active interest here after the shooting of a black 18-year-old, Michael Brown, by a Ferguson police officer Aug. 9.

Panels of academics, activists, police and government officials met through the day at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Public attendance appeared light, about two dozen as Clark spoke.

St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson said he is being as transparent as possible about shootings by officers, and touted creation of a unit dedicated to investigate them.

Capt. Mary Edwards-Fears said the department provided a rapid and detailed account when two St. Louis officers fatally shot Kajieme Powell about a week after Brown died. Officials said Powell came at the officers with a knife.

“People will not tolerate being kept out of the information loop, especially when it comes to policing and public safety,” Edwards-Fears said. “When it comes to critical incidents, we must explain ourselves fully and quickly.”

Dotson has admitted that in a rush to provide information that day, he passed along an observation of a witness that turned out to be contradicted by a bystander’s video of the killing. The police have not released the officers’ names, something Dotson said he will do once Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce has completed her review of the case.

Edwards-Fears said the “truly tragic” killing of Powell “presented us a huge opportunity to educate the public, especially on our use-of-force policy and why we do things the way we do them.”

Joining Clark on a panel of activists earlier in the day were Charli Cooksey with the Young Citizen’s Council of St. Louis, J. Alfredo Chavez with Latinos en Axon St. Louis, David Nehrt-Flores with Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates, and the Rev. Traci Blackmon with Christ the King Church in Florissant.

Chavez said that Latinos are the victims of racial profiling more often than statistics indicate, because of the way police tally stops.

“When they stop you, they don’t put you as Latino or Hispanics. They put you as a white,” he asserted.

He also alleged that officials are quick to deport Latinos after minor traffic stops. “They don’t take us to jail. They deport us. They take us out of here. They don’t care about the separation of families,” Chavez complained.

Blackmon said police cannot gain public trust unless they hold officers accountable for their own illegal or unethical behavior.

“When somebody gets hurt or there’s a robbery, (police) will come on and say, ‘We know somebody saw it. But no witnesses will come forward.’

“I feel the same thing, the same way about when an officer who has taken an oath to serve and protect violates that oath and other officers are present and nobody speaks up,” she said.

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar and Dotson responded with statistics from internal affairs investigations.

Dotson said St. Louis police logged 200 internal affairs complaints from other officers in 2014 and 57 from the public. Belmar said his department had 138 from officers and 69 from the public.

“We do a better job of making allegations against officers than the public does,” Belmar noted.

It will be tough to regain public with the fragmentation in St. Louis County, Belmar said. He noted there are 63 separate police departments, some he said operating solely to “tax the driving public.”

“The parts do not equal the sum,” Belmar said. “People don’t know the difference between us, we’re just the police and we get lumped together.”

A commission member asked Belmar what can be done about rogue departments. The chief suggested that the state, which sets standards for individual officers, also impose standards on police departments.

“I’ve had a front row seat to all of this for 29 years, and the political will to discuss these issues wasn’t there until Michael Brown’s death,” Belmar said.

The committee plans a follow up meeting in Kansas City later this year, after which it will issue findings and recommendations.

–Paul Hampel
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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Some radio hosts in Iowa are among most powerful people in GOP

DES MOINES, Iowa (TNS) — Everybody wanted a piece of Steve King. The Iowa congressman was co-hosting a Freedom Summit that would bring most of the GOP’s 2016 hopefuls together with an attentive audience and 200 often-attentive journalists. King had a few minutes here, a few there, until — finally — he had a full 60 minutes for Simon Conway.

The radio host descended from his WHO studio, down an elevator and past pictures of a young Ronald Reagan — the station’s favorite son. Conway, born in Britain but adopted by Iowa, wanted to know what King was up to.

“I’ve got plates spinning, but they haven’t wobbled and fallen off yet,” said King. “Cranking out two amendments for the border bill.”

King and Conway strolled into the studio; in a total coincidence, they wore identical black cowboy boots. The host took his place behind monitors, with a stack of printed-out news stories. King slapped on his headphones and smiled at a webcam. Conway prodded King to make news; the congressman obliged.

He handed Texas Representative Louie Gohmert some credit for the campaign to bring Israel’s prime minister to Washington. “He and I sat together, along with Michele Bachmann, in his office in Jerusalem just last year,” said King. “I had conversations about him coming to speak to a joint session of Congress.”

Conway, 54, who’d spent some formative years reporting in Israel, wanted to know a bit more about the state of things in Congress. King had voted against giving John Boehner another term as speaker of the House. Had he been punished?

“I know this is 50,000 watts, I know there’s a webcam, but it feels to me like my juice is stronger, not weaker, because of this,” said King.

“That’s fine, but it also seems to me like you’re not having lunch with the cool kids,” suggested Conway.

“Oh, I wrestled with it,” said King. “I sat down that Sunday, wrote up the rationale in a one-page document, and now that document stands as a response.”

They cut to commercial, and the host read some copy about a shaving razor company: “Enter my code, ‘Conway,’ in the promo box to get $5 off your first order.” Then it was time for the phone calls, with Iowa’s most conservative congressman encouraged to be himself.

Since 2011, when he took over the drive-time WHO slot, Conway has acted as a gatekeeper for political candidates. He’s not the only one in Iowa. Jan Mickelson, who hosts the morning block, gets his own time with would-be senators and presidents. Steve Deace, who used to host Conway’s block, now broadcasts a syndicated show with less meddling and many of the same guests. When candidates stump in the Quad Cities at the eastern end of the state, they typically sit with former reporter Jim Fisher.

Iowa’s Republican caucus-goers have an outsized influence on who becomes the party’s presidential nominee. Iowa’s radio talkers have the same power, just in greater quantity, spread among fewer people. They can’t be handled with precious walk- and-talk interviews or sound bites, like the national press. They can’t be blown off like newspaper editorial boards; Republican voters are more than three times as likely to trust their talk radio hosts than to trust their local fishwrap.

The men entrusted with this power are not angling for jobs on the coasts, or virality, or even the sort of questions that make guests sputter and gaffe. “My interest is not in ‘taking down,'” Conway explained in an interview. “For example, let’s say Mike Huckabee is on one day. I could interview him by digging out and quotes and saying, ‘Aha, you said this!” Instead, I’ll say ‘There’s been some controversy about you and Common Core.’ I don’t like throwing peoples’ quotes back at them.”

Mickelson agreed with that. Being an Iowa host meant that the phone would ring with potential presidents. The voice that could deliver the State of the Union would be warming your microphone, in between the car ads. There was no need for “gotcha” questions.

“It’s not a career moment when I interview a candidate,” said Mickelson. “We don’t want to be jaded, but we’re not impressed. Having high-profile personalities in Iowa — well, we’re kinda halfway used to it and we think we’re qualified to vet them. I’m like a public utility, light the light company or water company. I have a pragmatic use, and even if listeners don’t agree with me they know I will ask the right questions.”

That can lead the candidates into traps. By the time they’ve reached Iowa, they’ve figured out how to feed the daily journalism beast with harmless quotes. The interview with a Mickelson or Conway, somebody who is not out to hurt them, could wrap them around the axle. In 2007, Mickelson spent 10 minutes with Mitt Romney and asked about his Mormonism. Romney, who unlike Steve King did not realize the omniscience of the WHO webcam, started in on a doomed theological discussion.

“I understand my faith better than you do,” said Romney. “You don’t believe that, do you?”

“I think you make a big mistake when you distance yourself from your faith,” said Mickelson.

Fisher, who shares the anti-“gotcha” mantra, traced it to his days as a reporter. Taking candidates seriously got him closer to them. “My first full-time radio guest was Ronald Reagan,” he remembered. “This was in January 1980 — though before that, we were carrying Reagan radio commentaries, and I’d met him half a dozen times. Hell, I sat in a hotel room and had a beer with him.”

Reagan was the first of dozens of candidates who sought out Fisher and got a friendly hearing interspersed with phone-ins. “One of the things you’ll find with talk show hosts is that we are incredibly lazy,” said Fisher. “If someone calls me and wants to do an interview, I’ll say yes.”

That was Steve Deace’s philosophy, too. In his studio, a two-room office in a complex in the midst of Des Moines’ growing sprawl, Deace faces a push-pin map of his markets and a flat-screen TV playing college football.

“We don’t chase candidates,” said Deace, eyes trained on the laptop where he was organizing show notes. “We just don’t. I learned early on that I have everything that a candidate would want: access to an audience of people that they need to communicate to. Every time I had to track somebody down, they always sucked. Every time.”

The awards in Deace’s office are almost completely ironic. A caricature, from his WHO days, shows the portly host being carried by colleagues while shouting advice: “Remember! Fat people are harder to kidnap!” On another wall, he’s displayed the election-year prize he won from the CityView alt-weekly: “Best Self-Righteous Media Hog.”

He can take that prize whether or not the red light’s on. Over a couple days in February, the always-accessible Deace was quoted in a Washington Post story about Rand Paul’s absence from the Freedom Summit (“Dude, who do you think you are?”), a RealClearPolitics story about Scott Walker’s sudden popularity (“He’s just now getting vetted.”), and an NBC News story about the same thing (“He’s the only Republican who has a trophy.”).

Deace doesn’t formulate “gotcha” questions, exactly. But he’s less interested than Mickelson or Fisher or Conway in the personal questions. “After we ask the positions,” explained Conway, “we get into something like, ‘What was it like the moment you laid eyes on your wife for the very first time?'” Deace is more moved by accountability. One the day before the Freedom Summit, with a Bobby Jindal interview on deck, Deace was thinking about the honesty he’d force out of Rand Paul.

“He used to come on a lot more often,” said Deace. “Now, I want to ask questions like, ‘Why have you taken every conceivable position on the immigration issue?’ Suddenly his staff’s not as interested in talking anymore.”

Paul won’t avoid Deace if he runs. None of the contenders can avoid any of the key talkers. If they do, the listeners hear about the gutlessness of the people who think they’ll save America from Hillary Clinton. Their interlocutors expect nothing less.

“You know what?” Mickelson asks. “When this job started, I thought it was the coolest thing. I had talk show disease really bad. I thought: OK, because I’m talking to important people, I must be important. It took me one election cycle for me to realize that was bull hockey.”

–David Weigel
Bloomberg News

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UFO activist to Capitol Hill: ‘Beam me up!’

WASHINGTON (TNS) — Stephen Bassett, executive director of Paradigm Research Group and founder of the Extraterrestrial Phenomena Political Action Committee, or X-PPAC, has devoted the past 18 years to overcoming the “truth embargo” about government involvement in alien affairs.

He’s now ready for Congress to officially weigh in.

“Once this evidence is properly looked at, the way it should be, any reasonable person will come to the same conclusion,” Bassett told Roll Call’s Heard on the Hill about the cumulative knowledge his advocacy group wants to share with interested lawmakers.

Bassett laid the groundwork for his latest congressional outreach a few years back, hosting a 30-plus-hour mock hearing (spanning five days) at the National Press Club in 2013. He had copies of the recorded sessions of the Citizen Hearing on Disclosure delivered to every Capitol Hill office — a bundle containing 10 DVDs, a letter signed by the participating witnesses and a request to meet with Bassett — immediately following the midterm elections.

The NPC event was chaired by a handful of former pols Bassett recruited to the task. “Their presence gave it a great deal of gravitas,” he said of snagging ex-Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.), Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), Darlene Hooley (D-Ore.), Merrill Cook (R-Utah) and ex-Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) to review the marathon-length testimony presented by Paradigm Research Group’s panel of experts.

Woolsey noted that her fellow panelists, now permanently off the campaign trail, had nothing to lose by participating in the self-funded gathering on extraterrestrials.

“This would be one of the issues that a sitting member would risk losing an election over,” she said, hinting that attaching one’s name to this effort is to invite attack ads — and possibly the revocation of security clearance.

Kilpatrick appeared genuinely interested in the intellectual exercise.

“I think the Congress has a role to play… and I think we ought to educate Americans as to what it is and what it might become,” she posited on the second day of the conference.

Getting retired legislators to listen was step one.

Bassett’s latest lobbying tactic revolves around flooding 180-odd members, including dozens of fax-enabled offices, with meeting requests.

The highest-value targets in this advocacy dragnet are the Republican leaders Bassett believes have jurisdiction over this particular issue: Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr; House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes; Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman John Thune; House Science, Space and Technology Chairman Lamar Smith; Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson; House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul; and House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz.

“The goal is to get one of the committees to commit for comprehensive hearings,” he said of his endgame. “Not three witnesses, come up (to) the Hill for half a day and give ‘em a spiel. I’m talking about 25, 30, 35 witnesses, at least, testifying over a week, two weeks if possible. The reason is we’ve got those witnesses and the issue is not an issue that you can dispense with something trivial.”

None of the committee aides Heard on the Hill probed about Bassett’s info dump responded to inquiries about whether they had received (much less reviewed) the Citizen Hearing materials.

Per Bassett, the last time Congress delved into extraterrestrial issues was back in 1968 — but he maintains that was just for show.

“The government wanted this wrapped up. They were being driven crazy by the public,” Bassett said, noting the Air Force shot down everything lawmakers were presented with a year later in its report.

But Bassett believes recent developments, including former White House chief of staff John Podesta’s social media blast about the truth still being out there (“X-Files” fans’ mantra) and former President Bill Clinton’s out-of-left-field chat with late night host Jimmy Kimmel about Area 51, means the stars have aligned for a serious discussion about whether we’re the ne plus ultra of intergalactic governance.

“There is no doubt in my mind Podesta posted that tweet because of the faxes sent to the 70 congressional offices. He knows the Rockefeller Initiative is about to come into play,” Bassett relayed via email.

That’s why Bassett wants President Barack Obama to bite the bullet and formally announce that we have been — and continue to be — visited by otherworldly beings.

“Ultimately, it’s not that big a deal,” he said. “It’s a non-partisan issue.”

Anyone tempted to wait on this would be a fool to do so, Bassett said.

He advised Republican strategists against dragging their heels until after the next presidential election because another prominent world leader — he mentioned Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping specifically — could swoop in and claim the pro-disclosure glory.

Same goes for the presumptive Democratic nominee.

“As far as I’m concerned… Hillary Clinton is not going to become the president of the United States without going through the extraterrestrial issue. Period,” he asserted. “It’s time for these people to start talking.”

–Warren Rojas
CQ-Roll Call

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Juries like those in Chris Kyle case hear little of how those found insane live

(TNS) — A Texas jury will decide on Eddie Ray Routh’s next home: a maximum-security prison cell or a room with an open door and no lock.

Routh’s defense attorneys have argued that their client is not guilty because he was insane when he killed Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield in February 2013. But lawyers who have staged similar defenses say it will be a hard sell to jurors, in part because they are told little about what comes after an insanity verdict and how Routh’s life in a state hospital would differ from life in prison.

The upshot: Routh would have more freedom at a state hospital and could be let out at some point. He would have a regimented life — and difficulty convincing doctors and a judge that he should be released permanently.

But it’s not prison.

“Our mission is treatment and recovery, not punishment,” said Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services. “Our whole focus is empowering patients to become responsible for their own lives.”

Routh would go to one of two state mental health maximum-security facilities. Both are in small towns: Rusk, in East Texas, and Vernon, near the Panhandle.

“Once inside the secured perimeters, it looks very much like a local community college,” Williams said.

The hospitals have regimented days, regular shower times and jobs such as janitorial work or gardening. They have classes, such as those that deal with social skills, anger management and life skills.

Patients can learn about their illnesses, medication and treatments. Their rooms, with twin-size beds and a small wardrobe, are bathed in soothing colors. The doors stay open. There is TV, but not in the bedroom. The Internet is restricted. Cellphones and other contraband aren’t allowed.

David Self, retired chief of the forensic unit at Rusk State Hospital, said the daily programming is both therapeutic and good for security.

“If you keep people busy, there are fewer problems,” Self said.

If Routh is sent to the Vernon campus, which has 274 maximum-security beds, he would be assessed and assigned to one of the hospital’s two units, said Kelly Goodness, a former chief forensic psychologist at one of the Vernon units. Adults at Vernon are placed there through courts and the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation.

Goodness said the Maple unit’s patients are more introverted and less prone to outbursts except at predictable times, such as when staff requires them to attend classes or therapy.

She said that at the Behavior Management Treatment Program unit, patients are more unpredictable.

Routh spent time at Terrell State Hospital before the trial.

Goodness said that people found not guilty by reason of insanity typically are stable when they arrive at Vernon because they received medication while in custody.

“But they still need to have treatment and be assessed over a long period of time to see if anything is going to trigger violence and if so, what to do about that,” Goodness said.

And since the mentally ill often self-medicate with illegal narcotics — prosecutors have argued that Routh abused alcohol and drugs — substance-abuse classes are a major component of many patients’ treatment programs.

McKinney lawyer David Haynes represented Dena Schlosser, a Plano woman who killed her infant daughter in 2004 by cutting off the 10-month-old’s arms. Schlosser was found not guilty by reason of insanity. She was first sent to the Vernon campus, where she was roommates with Andrea Yates, a Houston woman who drowned her five children in a bathtub in 2001. Yates is still hospitalized; Haynes said Schlosser is now a patient at Kerrville State Hospital.

Haynes said Routh’s attorneys “have my respect and sympathy” for pursuing the not-guilty verdict.

“It’s kind of like going out your front door and going out to your front lawn to get your newspaper and finding a unicorn grazing there,” he said. “It’s hard to sell this defense. Juries are hostile to it.”

Robbie McClung, a defense attorney who has represented high-profile mentally ill clients, said prisons aren’t equipped to deal with the mentally ill, who need to be medicated. But she said juries aren’t educated on mental illness treatment.

“They don’t get told how the insanity process works,” she said. “They are never told the lengths of stay and know what the regimen is to get someone out of the hospital once they’ve been found not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect. They think the person just walks out the door.”

Getting out isn’t easy. McClung said the hospital staff might find that a patient improved enough to be released and start outpatient treatment. Then the decision is up to a judge.

Haynes said persuading a judge that the patient is not a threat might be difficult — especially when the patient was demonstrably violent at least once in his or her life. McClung said some patients remain a risk to themselves or others.

“Most of the clients I’ve had that are committed to the hospital are more than likely not ever going to be able to get out,” McClung said.

Even if patients are released, the judge can place restrictions on them.

“The hospital can’t just say that they are cured, bye-bye, here’s your bus pass home,” McClung said.

–Jeff Mosier and Tristan Hallman
The Dallas Morning News

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Obama vetoes Keystone pipeline bill, heightening clash with GOP

WASHINGTON (TNS) — President Barack Obama rejected a bill Tuesday that would have approved construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, the first veto of a year that seems likely to feature repeated such moves as the Democratic president confronts the Republican-led Congress.

The veto came as no surprise to GOP lawmakers, who passed the measure in early February. The decision to reject the bill came within hours of its formal delivery to the White House on Tuesday.

Before Congress passed the bill, Obama had promised to reject it, saying that it improperly infringed on his executive powers by moving the process of reviewing the pipeline from the administration to Congress.

Republican congressional leaders are expected to schedule a vote in coming days in an attempt to override the veto, but that effort is almost certain to fail. The bill passed both houses of Congress with less than the two-thirds vote needed for an override.

Even before the veto, Republican congressional leaders attacked Obama’s expected action. “It’s hard to even imagine what a serious justification for a veto might be,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a floor speech Tuesday.

“This bipartisan bill is a solution for fixing a review the Obama administration broke as it ignored deadlines and interfered for political reasons,” he said.

The White House has preserved the possibility that the administration might yet approve the Keystone project if officials determine after further review that it is in the national interest. The project’s backers, however, have become increasingly gloomy about ever receiving a green light from Obama.

Keystone is designed to move oil from the tar sands deposits under Canada’s prairies more than 1,000 miles to refineries along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Because it crosses an international border, U.S. law requires that the State Department find the project to be in the national interest before granting a license for construction.

TransCanada, which proposes to build the pipeline, filed its application with the State Department in September 2008, and the project has been under review ever since.

Republicans said they passed the bill, which would order the project’s approval, in order to fulfill their commitment to pursue job-creating policies.

In a video released Monday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said “Keystone XL pipeline is a good idea for our economy and it’s a good idea for our country.” The project would create up to 42,000 direct jobs, Boehner said.

Administration officials say most of the jobs the project would create are temporary, related to construction, and that the number of permanent jobs involved is minuscule. At the same time, the project could have serious negative environmental consequences, mostly by contributing to global warming, they say.

Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency reported to the State Department that the pipeline would add as much carbon dioxide to the air each year as 6 million passenger vehicles.

Obama has said previously that the project would only promote the U.S. national interest if it didn’t significantly worsen carbon emissions, the leading cause of global warming.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the EPA assessment doesn’t necessarily decide the question. The EPA study is part of the State Department’s review, he said, and no conclusion has been made yet about whether the proposed pipeline would significantly worsen carbon emissions.

The president’s decision to veto the Keystone bill, Earnest said, was based not on the merits of the project but rather on his concern about respecting the process of review.

–Christi Parsons
Tribune Washington Bureau

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Feds: No civil rights charges for George Zimmerman in Trayvon Martin shooting

ORLANDO, Fla. (TNS) — Citing a lack of evidence, the U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday announced that George Zimmerman will not face federal civil rights charges in the February 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.

In a statement, the DOJ said that a federal investigation “found insufficient evidence to pursue federal criminal civil rights charges” against Zimmerman, who shot the unarmed Miami Gardens teen during a struggle Feb. 26, 2012.

Despite the decision not to charge Zimmerman, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in the statement called Martin’s death a “devastating tragedy” that “sparked a painful but necessary dialogue throughout the country.”

“Though a comprehensive investigation found that the high standard for a federal hate crime prosecution cannot be met under the circumstances here, this young man’s premature death necessitates that we continue the dialogue and be unafraid of confronting the issues and tensions his passing brought to the surface,” Holder said.

He added: “We, as a nation, must take concrete steps to ensure that such incidents do not occur in the future.”

Zimmerman did not answer a call seeking comment after the decision was announced Tuesday afternoon.

In a statement distributed by their attorneys, Martin’s family expressed disappointment, but thanked federal officials for an “extensive and thorough” investigation.

“We would also like to thank the millions of people around the world who have supported us through prayer and vigilance,” the family’s statement said.

On the night of the shooting, Zimmerman called police to report Martin as suspicious, after seeing the teen walking through his neighborhood, the Retreat at Twin Lakes.

Martin, who was staying with his father in the community, was on his way back from a nearby 7-Eleven.

Zimmerman excited his vehicle as he spoke to police, leading to a confrontation with the teen. Zimmerman said he fired in fear for his life after Martin attacked him and began beating him. Martin suffered a fatal gunshot to his chest.

Zimmerman was not initially arrested, leading to outrage that spread to worldwide protests.

Federal agents began their investigation amid the initial fervor, but paused it when state authorities charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder. The federal probe resumed after Zimmerman’s acquittal in July 2013.

According to the DOJ statement, federal officials reviewed all evidence from the state court case, independently conducted 75 new witness interviews and also studied Zimmerman’s interactions with police since his acquittal.

Federal investigators also “retained an independent biomechanical expert who assessed Zimmerman’s descriptions of the struggle and the shooting,” the Department of Justice said.

In the agency’s statement, officials detailed their efforts to weigh Zimmerman’s actions against federal civil rights laws.

“This included investigating whether there is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman violated (civil rights laws) by approaching Martin in a threatening manner before the fatal shooting because of Martin’s race and because he was using the residential neighborhood,” the statement said.

The evidence was found to be insufficient, so the case was closed, the DOJ said.

“Although the department has determined that this matter cannot be prosecuted federally, it is important to remember that this incident resulted in the tragic loss of a teenager’s life,” Vanita Gupta, acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.

She added: “Our decision not to pursue federal charges does not condone the shooting that resulted in the death of Trayvon Martin and is based solely on the high legal standard applicable to these cases.”

–Jeff Weiner and Rene Stutzman
Orlando Sentinel

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Alaska legalizes marijuana; Wasilla bans pot brownies

(TNS) — On Tuesday, Alaska became the third U.S. state to allow recreational use of marijuana, joining Colorado and Washington. In July, Oregon will become the fourth. The Pacific Northwest has a reputation for relaxed thinking; but Alaska, north to the future — as its state motto runs — and more Pacific, too, has less of a chilled-out, hippie reputation. It is, now that the ballot measure adopted last November has taken effect, the first red state in America to legalize marijuana.

Citizens 21 and older can possess, grow, transport, display, process — though not sell, buy or publicly smoke — marijuana. Or at least, according to the “Highly Informed” column of Anchorage’s Alaska Dispatch News (send your question to cannabis-north@alaskadispatch.com),you can “possess, grow, process and transport up to six marijuana plants, three of which may be flowering.”

After the last presidential election, Gallup examined the political axis of the United States and observed that Alaska, which “typically votes Republican and has a high Republican identification… has the highest percentage of moderates” of any state in the country.

To that end, the state decriminalized marijuana early, in 1975. In 1998, medicinal marijuana became legal, though there are still no medical marijuana dispensaries in the state. Taylor Bickford, spokesperson for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska told Vox, “People here generally want to be left alone and really don’t think the government is the solution to their problems.”

Despite relatively lax marijuana laws, the government still makes its feeling known; thousands of Alaskans are arrested annually for marijuana possession, at a cost of almost $8.5 million to law enforcement. To the woman who might be the world’s best-known Alaskan, that doesn’t make sense.

Several years ago, Sarah Palin appeared with Ron Paul on Fox to label marijuana a “minimal problem.” She stressed that she doesn’t believe in the legalization, but remarked, “If somebody’s gonna smoke a joint in their house and not do anybody any harm, then perhaps there are other things our cops should be looking at to engage in and try to clean up some of the other problems we have in society.”

The city council on which Palin once served, that of Wasilla — where she went on to be mayor — itself has mixed feelings. On the eve of marijuana legislation, not three hours before marijuana use became legal, Wasilla’s city council made it illegal to make pot brownies (edibles, concentrates, or extracts) at home.

One couple who attended the meeting, Keenan and Sara Williams, are hoping to set up a dispensary in Wasilla next year, once the state clarifies rules for retail operations. They plan to call it Midnight Greenery. During a break at the city council meeting, Keenan Williams told a reporter that “the ignorance displayed by the council is amazing.” The Alaska Dispatch News reported that some members “displayed confusion about ‘wet’ marijuana compared to cured product, and at least initially seemed to conflate edible products with riskier methods needed to extract marijuana oils.”

But many in the know welcomed the news. Tim Hinterberger, chair of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, said in a statement that “Alaska now has some of the most sensible marijuana laws in the nation.” The state’s officials are meeting Tuesday to address gaps in the law and to define, for instance, the boundaries of a “public place” where it is illegal to smoke marijuana.

Although some citizens express worry, the more pressing concern, at least among the police, is public health and safety. Jenifer Castro, the Anchorage police spokesperson, told Reuters, “We want to make sure that people are not operating their vehicle impaired or under the influence of marijuana.”

Moderation seems to be working well for Alaska. Last week, as part of its “State of the States” series, Gallup published a bulletin announcing that Alaska leads the whole country in terms of well-being.

–Emily Greenhouse
Bloomberg News

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Rep. Granger urges Obama to send arms owed to Egypt

WASHINGTON (TNS) — Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) is pushing the White House to release weapons systems, especially F-16 fighter jets, to Egypt as well as aid to Jordan and the Iraqi Kurds, as the region warily eyes the military intentions of the Islamic State.

In a letter to President Barack Obama last week, Granger, chairwoman of a key funding subcommittee, sharply criticized the administration for failing to provide arms that have been withheld from Egypt since 2013.

“As Egypt, Jordan and the Kurds retaliate and defend themselves against ISIL’s heinous acts,” Granger wrote, using one of the common acronyms for the Islamic State, “U.S. security assistance is being held or delayed by bureaucratic processes and ill-advised policy decisions by your administration.”

She pointed out that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi retaliated against the Islamic State with F-16 strikes after the militants beheaded 21 Coptic Christians in neighboring Libya.

“However, it is more of the same F-16s that your administration continues to prevent from being delivered to Egypt,” said Granger.

The U.S. withheld arms to Egypt, including 20 F-16 fighter jets, 20 Harpoon missiles and 125 M1A1 battle tank kits, in 2013 after the military overthrew the elected leadership. The Pentagon is paying the F-16 builders, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Corp., of Fort Worth, Texas, to store the aircraft there. Granger represents Fort Worth.

“We cannot, and need not, do this alone,” Granger said of the fight against the Islamic State, in her letter to the president. “We have partners willing and eager to fight with us, to be the ‘pointy end of the spear.'”

The Obama administration has said that it will not commit U.S. troops to fight the Islamic State.

Asked about Granger’s concerns, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday, “We’ve obviously worked through and, in some cases, are even still working through some of the differences that we have with that government. But there is an important counterterrorism relationship between the United States and Egypt, and we continue to believe that the interests of the United States are well served by continuing to have a strong counterterrorism relationship with them.”

He added that “we certainly welcome her interest in this issue” and said the administration was also supportive of “a strong security relationship” with Jordan and the Kurds.

Granger is the chairwoman of the subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee that oversees funding for the State Department and foreign operations and is threatening to hold up funding unless the administration acts.

One defense expert thinks the pressure will work.

“Representative Granger is likely to get what she wants,” said Loren Thompson, defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based conservative think tank, “because the Obama administration has a renewed appreciation for the value of Egypt’s military. The Egyptians have demonstrated a willingness to get involved in fighting” the Islamic State.

–Maria Recio
McClatchy Washington Bureau

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Senate again blocks Homeland Security funding bill over GOP amendments

WASHINGTON (TNS) — Senate Democrats on Monday again stifled a GOP attempt to advance a Homeland Security funding bill that would undercut President Barack Obama’s immigration actions, leaving Congress’ new GOP majorities in need of a new strategy ahead of a Friday deadline to avoid a department shutdown.

The 47-46 vote Monday was the fourth failed attempt by Senate Republicans to open debate on a House-passed measure providing $39.7 billion for Homeland Security operations on the condition that the new money not be spent to implement Obama’s immigration actions — both a new program to defer deportation for more than 5 million people living in the U.S. illegally and a 2012 program that deferred deportation for 600,000 so-called Dreamers. Sixty votes were needed to cut off the Democratic filibuster.

Republicans had tried unsuccessfully during the Presidents Day break last week to turn up political pressure on Senate Democrats who had expressed reservations with Obama’s newest policy.

“There are times when we must reach across the aisle in defense of something greater, when party lines dissolve, disagreements fade and what is right must triumph,” Virginia’s Republican members of Congress wrote to the state’s two Democratic senators, Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, on Monday. “The true threat is that any future president will take this precedent and choose which laws they wish to enforce and ignore the will of Congress and the American people.”

But Democrats saw little reason to change course, and accused Republicans of playing politics with the nation’s security.

“I don’t understand what my Republican friends are trying to do here,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said, citing a new potential threat to American shopping malls by a Somalia-based terror group.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, during an event with agency workers, warned Monday that 75 percent to 80 percent of his workforce would have to come to work without pay while another 30,000 would be forced to stay home until new funds were approved. Such a disruption, he said, would compromise his agency’s ability “to stay one step ahead of groups” such as Islamic State.

“On behalf of the men and women up here on this stage, and for homeland security and public safety, we need a fully funded Department of Homeland Security,” Johnson said.

In remarks to the nation’s governors on Monday, Obama called the standoff the latest example of “manufactured crises and self-inflicted wounds” that have held the nation back for years. A department shutdown, he warned the state leaders, “will have a direct impact on your economy, and it will have a direct impact on America’s national security, because their hard work helps to keep us safe.”

Fewer than two months into the first all-GOP Congress in eight years, the immigration standoff is forcing party leaders into a decision that may have negative consequences either way.

Conservatives insist on blocking the Homeland Security money unless it includes the immigration-related provisions. If Republican leaders drop that demand and bring up a bill that would fund the department’s budget, they risk turning a restive conservative base against them.

If they don’t, they risk public anger over a partial government shutdown — something new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had vowed would not occur.

After the vote, McConnell introduced a new stand-alone measure — separate from the overall Homeland Security funding bill — that would block funding for Obama’s new immigration actions and leave in place the program for Dreamers. It could be the first step in ultimately trying to pass a so-called “clean” funding bill to keep the department running, at least on a short-term basis.

“It’s another way to get the Senate unstuck,” McConnell said, giving no other hints as to how he would proceed.

Senate Republicans will meet Tuesday to discuss the path forward, as a growing number in the party push to let a court battle over the new policies play out before seeking to address them legislatively.

The Justice Department filed a motion in Texas district court seeking to overturn a preliminary injunction issued last week by U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen just as the new immigration programs were about to begin.

Whether such a plan would be acceptable to Republicans, particularly in the House, was unclear. The House does not return to Washington until Tuesday night.

–Michael A. Memoli
Tribune Washington Bureau

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DOJ doesn’t protect its whistle-blowers, says watchdog

A new report out from the Government Accountability Office indicates that the FBI discourages employees from exposing interagency misconduct with lackluster whistle-blower protection.

According to the government watchdog, FBI officials routinely reject the complaints of employees who believe they are being mistreated by colleagues or superiors for exposing wrongdoing. Between 2009 and 2013, the FBI received 62 complaints and rejected 55.

“The FBI and Department of Justice, in particular, have a vested interest in investigating wrongdoing, yet when an FBI employee uncovers misconduct within the agency’s own ranks, it’s not so easy to sound the alarm without the risk of retaliation,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a statement on the findings. “This report confirms that reforms are needed to empower whistle-blowers at FBI and ensure they are effectively and efficiently protected against retaliation in the workplace.”

The Justice Department, which oversees the FBI, “could deny some whistle-blowers access to recourse, permit retaliatory activity to go uninvestigated, and create a chilling effect for future whistle-blowers,” GAO officials contend.

The analysis found that employee complaints were routinely disregarded for frivolous reasons, with at least a third of them being rejected because whistle-blowers complained to the wrong supervisor.

When the Justice does follow up on complaints, it does so slowly. According to the GAO report, DOJ officials took between two and 10.6 years to follow up on four of the complaints they received. Officials also failed to give complainants estimates on how long the process could take.

“Unlike employees of other executive branch agencies, FBI employees do not have a process to seek corrective action if they experience retaliation based on a disclosure of wrongdoing to their supervisors or others in their chain of command who are not designated officials,” the report said.

Supreme Court justices wary of expanded rights for new immigrants

WASHINGTON (TNS) — Supreme Court justices gave a mostly skeptical hearing Monday to a California woman who wants the State Department to explain why it barred her Afghan husband from joining her in this country.

The government argued it has an undisputed “power to exclude aliens” from entering the United States, and “there is no right to judicial review” of a decision to deny a visa to such a person, said Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler.

During questions and comments, the court’s conservative justices appeared to agree with the government’s strict position.

They said they were wary of establishing new rights that might encourage spouses, parents or children to go to court whenever one of their close relatives is barred from entering the United States.

The case of Kerry vs. Din asks whether a U.S. citizen has a right to object after his or her spouse is turned down for a visa.

Fauzia Din, an Aghan native and a naturalized U.S. citizen, married an Afghan man in 2006 and sought to have him join her in this country.

But the State Department rejected his application for a visa in 2009, citing a provision of the law that bars foreigners connected to “terrorist activities.”

She denied her husband had any connection to terrorists, winning a partial victory from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last year. Its judges said that as a married woman, she had a right to demand an explanation for the government’s decision to deny a visa to her husband.

Her position won some support during Monday’s argument. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer said they were troubled by the possibility the government had made a mistake.

“That’s what we were told after 9/11,” Sotomayor said. The government said then it had good reasons for arresting and holding foreigners, only to admit later they made a mistake in some instances, she said.

Kneedler insisted the State Department double-checked before denying a visa, and that officials need not explain their reasons for excluding someone.

“No matter what?” Breyer asked. What if the consular official denied the visa for racist reasons or because he thought husbands and wives should not live together? Kneedler denied such a possibility.

But when Los Angeles attorney Mark Haddad rose to argue Din’s case, Chief Justice John Roberts and several of his colleagues said they did not want to extend new rights to relatives to contest immigration decisions.

If wives have a constitutional right to go to court in such cases, they may also have a right to object when their imprisoned husbands are sent to a facility that is far away, said Justice Samuel Alito.

Justice Anthony Kennedy also said that since such decisions involve national security and intelligence gathering, he was reluctant to air them court.

–David G. Savage
Tribune Washington Bureau

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Obama administration seeks to block judge’s immigration ruling

WASHINGTON (TNS) — The Obama administration is seeking to block a federal judge’s ruling last week that halted programs intended to grant deportation waivers to up to 5 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

The motion, filed Monday in the U.S. District Court in Brownsville, Texas, said a delay in implementing President Barack Obama’s efforts to offer legal protection to qualified immigrants would cause “irreparable harm” even if the administration ultimately wins the legal case on appeal.

“A stay pending appeal is necessary to ensure that the Department of Homeland Security is able to most effectively protect national security, public safety and the integrity of the border,” the filing states.

The motion seeks to overturn a preliminary injunction issued last week by U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen just as the new immigration programs were about to begin. The motion asks Hanen to decide whether to grant the stay by Wednesday.

Hanen ruled Feb. 16 that Obama exceeded his legal authority when he announced in November he would provide immigrants the opportunity to stay in the United States for three years, without fear of deportation, if they met certain criteria.

Twenty-six states challenged Obama’s actions in the court case.

The administration also filed a notice of appeal of Hanen’s ruling to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

Legal experts say Hanen is unlikely to overrule his own preliminary injunction. By seeking a stay, the administration is trying to send a message of urgency to the courts and to immigration advocates who are pressing for quick action to get the deportation waivers back on track.

In the motion, Obama’s lawyers argue that the 26 states lack legal standing to challenge what amounts to an exercise of prosecutorial discretion by a federal department. They also contend that the stay is justified because they believe the government will win on appeal.

–Joseph Tanfani
Tribune Washington Bureau

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Rubio is on the comeback trail in nascent presidential campaign

WASHINGTON (TNS) — Marco Rubio is hot again.

The junior senator from Florida is in the midst of a comeback, helped by a stand against easing relations with Cuba, some savvy campaigning in Iowa and a meeting that impressed wealthy donors.

He still faces a daunting path to the White House. Voters in his own state would rather he seek a second Senate term in 2016. He’s no longer the only young Republican star in the field. And he continues to come under fire for a shift on immigration, particularly from the Latino community that Republicans want to attract.

Rubio seems unbothered by all this as he inches back to being one of the post-baby-boomer political stars, a status given him when he came to Washington four years ago. Political guru Karl Rove called him “the best communicator since Ronald Reagan.” By February 2013, Rubio was on Time magazine’s cover, hailed as “The Republican Savior.”

Days later, Rubio’s awkward lunge for a water bottle during a State of the Union response speech was a communications disaster.

Then he helped push a bipartisan overhaul of the nation’s immigration system through the Senate. It went nowhere in the Republican-led House, and conservatives blasted Rubio for being too conciliatory. At a Capitol Hill Tea Party rally, signs blasted him as “Republican in name only.”

He stopped praising the Senate approach, saying the House should simply pass less ambitious measures. Supporters of his immigration efforts were stunned.

“He was brave. He did a brilliant job in pushing the Senate bill. Then he got scared,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group. “He’s gone from being a profile in courage on immigration to being another crass politician.”

To the right, though, his move looked good.

“Now he gets it,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a leading critic of the bipartisan legislation.

Rubio was also getting serious about running for president. He went for Iowa, an early supporter of Joni Ernst, then one of a crowd of Republican Senate candidates. She stunned experts with a landslide primary victory and easily beat a Democratic congressman in November.

“He got a lot of chits from that,” said Iowa Republican Party Chairman Jeff Kaufmann.

Then came Cuba, and Rubio was suddenly the nation’s most prominent critic of President Barack Obama’s plan to normalize relations with Cuba.

His self-confidence seemed to reach into other areas. The senator said last week that he has not changed his communications strategy. If he seems more confident, he said, “none of that was a way of changing public perception.”

Ask about his changing views on immigration legislation and last year’s 20-minute answer is now a virtual sound bite. “The difference is that reality has set in,” Rubio said. “The reality is we don’t have the votes to pass a Senate bill or a comprehensive measure.”

Times have changed, he said. Obama took executive action to allow millions of illegal immigrants to remain here, and Republicans won elections last year with an enforcement-first message.

Rubio continues to gain presidential traction. When he joined three other potential Republican presidential candidates in January at a meeting of major donors in California, he was a hit, winning an informal straw poll.

Rubio still faces huge challenges.

He has a habit of talking quickly, rattling off his points at length, and he must persuade voters wary of Obama to support another first-term senator as president.

Rubio also faces a reluctant home-state audience. In a Mason-Dixon poll of Florida voters last month, 57 percent wanted him to seek another Senate term, while 15 percent thought he should pursue the presidency. A Quinnipiac poll last month had former Gov. Jeb Bush winning nearly one-third of Republicans in Florida, historically a pivotal primary state, while Rubio got 15 percent.

“Rubio said Bush will not influence his own decision about running for president.

“Suffice it to say that I’ve said before that my decision on whether I run or not will not be based on anyone else’s decision. And he would tell you the exact same thing,” Rubio said.

More problematic is whether he can find a comfortable niche in the crowded Republican field. Even at 43, Rubio’s no longer the only incandescent young up-and-comer.

Rubio dismissed the doubters.

“The campaign changes people’s minds,” he said. “If I run for president, I believe I can make a very compelling argument the Republican Party should choose me.

–David Lightman
McClatchy Washington Bureau

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