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Senate OKs Bill To Let Congress Review Iran Nuclear Deal on 98-1 Vote

By Paul Richter and Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — In a rare bipartisan accord, the Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill Thursday that would give Congress power to review any nuclear deal with Iran, ending months of tense negotiations with the White House.

The measure, which passed 98-1, is likely to pass the House as early as next week and thus provide an outlet for lawmakers determined to have a say in an emerging deal between six international powers and Tehran.

The nearly unanimous Senate vote came after the White House had threatened to veto proposals that would give Congress a more assertive role or that would add fresh demands to the nuclear negotiations.

Despite fierce criticism from Republican lawmakers in recent days, only Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK), cast a negative vote. Cotton, a freshman senator, had challenged party leaders by introducing amendments that he said would toughen the bill, but that critics said would doom its chances of approval.

Passage came minutes after the Senate had voted 96-3 to cut off further debate on dozens of amendments that Republicans had offered.

The bipartisan bill, sponsored by Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), and Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), would give Congress “the right to vote for or against any change in the status quo, when it comes to Iran,” said Senator John Cornyn (R-TeX), moments after the vote.

The White House also portrayed the bill as a victory.

Bernadette Meehan, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, called it “the kind of reasonable and acceptable compromise that the president would be willing to sign.”

She urged the House to “similarly protect this compromise bill, which constitutes a straightforward, fair process for Congress to be able to evaluate a final comprehensive deal.”

Iran is negotiating with the United States and five other world powers in an effort to meet a June 30 deadline to produce a comprehensive agreement that would ease economic sanctions on Tehran if it accepts restrictions aimed at preventing it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

The bill that passed the Senate would give Congress at least 30 days to deliberate over any deal, and sets up a procedure for lawmakers to vote to register their support or disapproval of the agreement.

During that period, the Obama administration will be barred from suspending any congressionally imposed sanctions on Iran.

It is unclear whether critics of a deal with Iran could rally enough congressional support to block an agreement that the White House has negotiated. Opponents would need 67 senators to override an expected presidential veto.

Some senior Republican lawmakers and U.S. allies say congressional critics are unlikely to be able to stop a deal.

The measure won backing from many Democratic lawmakers who wanted Congress to have a say on the issue, and decided the measure didn’t represent a serious threat to the diplomacy as it moves into the end game.

Some Democrats said the measure doesn’t give members of Congress any leverage over the Iran deal that they didn’t already have.

President Barack Obama, who initially opposed the bill as an infringement of his authority to conduct foreign affairs, shifted ground last month and said he could accept a modified version that passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a 19-0 margin.

Conservative critics sought last week to add amendments that threatened to derail that bill.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), a presidential candidate, sought to require Iran to recognize Israel’s right to exist, for example, an issue that was never part of the negotiations.

Conservative support for the bill, which was strong when the bill passed in committee, faded when critics began to fear it would not allow Congress to derail any agreement with Iran.

Yet almost all senators ultimately voted for the measure because of their desire to give Congress a say.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH), said after the Senate vote that he looked forward to the bill’s passage in the House “to hold President Obama’s administration accountable.”

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Knives Are The New Guns In Lawmakers’ Second Amendment Expansion

By Lauren Etter, Bloomberg News (TNS)

AUSTIN, Texas — State lawmakers are bringing knives to the gunfight.

Expanding the battle over the right to bear arms, U.S. legislatures that relaxed laws after the gun lobby’s decades-long push are now loosening restrictions on switchblades, dirks, daggers, and poignards.

The charge is being led by a group whose leadership includes a wilderness survival entrepreneur, a National Rifle Association board member and a “Joy of Cooking” co-author who travels with a seven-inch Santoku knife for slicing thyme-stuffed pork loin roasted on a spit over a campfire.

Called Knife Rights, the group claims support not only from Republicans, but also from urban Democrats concerned that the laws are used to target blacks and Latinos. Since 2010, it has helped roll back bans in nine states and is lobbying legislatures in a dozen more.

“We call it the second front in defense of the Second Amendment,” said Todd Rathner, director of legislative affairs and sole paid lobbyist for the Gilbert, Arizona-based group.

On April 29, a Texas legislative committee heard testimony on a bill that would repeal a ban on daggers, swords, spears, and the Bowie knife, a blade inspired by a defender of the Alamo.

“I don’t see knives posing that big of a danger to the public,” state Representative Harold Dutton Jr. (D-TX), who sponsored the bill, said in an interview. “Now that we’re going to let everybody have a gun, I think we ought to set knives free.”

Dutton, a black Democrat from Houston, sees knife laws as a threat to civil rights.

“It is another one of those things that helps establish probable cause for a policeman to stop you,” he said.

Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old Baltimore man whose April death in police custody ignited riots, was arrested after police said they noticed a knife inside his pants.

Law enforcement officers are less enthusiastic about ending restrictions.

“There’s a time and a place for knives,” said Sean Mannix, police chief in Cedar Park, Texas, and chairman of the Texas Police Chiefs Association’s legislative committee. “When you start talking about weapons with 12-inch blades like bayonets and things like that, there’s just no good reason for people to carry that in public — and it’s alarming to folks.”

The bill remains in a House of Representatives committee.

Almost half of U.S. states regulate switchblade knives, whether by a limit on blade length or an outright ban, according to Knife Rights. Many of those also regulate other types of knives deemed dangerous. Cities have their own regulations, leaving a patchwork of rules that critics say confuses knife owners.

Knife Rights argues that Americans have a right to slice.

The group began in 2006 after Doug Ritter, a manufacturer of survival kits, and Ethan Becker, who oversees the cookbook his grandmother wrote in 1931, found common ground over a belief that bans were anachronistic.

Becker, a Paris-trained chef, has had a lifelong fascination with knives, designing and manufacturing them. He agreed to fund the group.

Four years later, Ritter met Rathner at an NRA board meeting. Rathner, a board member for the gun-rights group, had recently pushed Arizona’s “constitutional carry” law, which let citizens tote firearms openly without a permit. A decade earlier, he had encouraged the state to enact a so-called pre-emption law that prohibited cities from enacting their own restrictions.

“I said, ‘Let’s try to enact knife pre-emption in Arizona and see if we can make it stick,'” Rathner said.

It stuck: In 2010, then-Governor Jan Brewer signed the nation’s first such measure.

That same year, they persuaded New Hampshire to lift its ban on switchblades and other knives. In 2011, they got Utah to enact a pre-emption law.

“From there, we put together a strategy to start hitting as many states as possible,” Rathner said.

Knife Rights, which reported taking in $217,000 in 2012, receives support from individual donors and manufacturers such as Oregon-based Benchmade Knife Co. Its board includes Peter Brownell, chief executive officer of Brownells Inc., a closely held firm based in Montezuma, Iowa, that’s one of the nation’s largest suppliers of gun accessories and ammunition.

Thanks to the group, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, and Wisconsin lawmakers are considering lifting or loosening bans on knives. Michigan, South Carolina, Texas, and Vermont, are considering pre-emption bills.

The right to bear knives isn’t a familiar concept even though millions own blades that could be considered illegal for cooking, whittling, or working in the garden.

They’re the second-deadliest weapon behind guns in the U.S. In 2013, almost 1,500 people were killed by “cutting instruments,” according to figures from the FBI. Almost 8,500 were killed with firearms.

Blades are among the oldest weapons, with some dating to the Stone Age. Many modern restrictions are rooted in Reconstruction and were designed to keep weapons from newly freed slaves, according to David Kopel, a Denver University law professor who has studied the Second Amendment as it relates to knives.

After the 1957 Broadway musical “West Side Story” featured switchblade-wielding teenage gangs rumbling under a highway, Congress in 1958 banned interstate commerce of the knife and several states enacted their own bans.

In 2014, Knife Rights successfully repealed Tennessee’s prohibition on knives with blades longer than four inches that were carried with “intent to go armed.” Becker, who lives south of Knoxville in the Smoky Mountains, was relieved to see it go.

The chef often carries a traveling cooking bag that contains a whisk, tea towels, a zester, and his favorite knife. He deploys his utensils to prepare recipes on the road.

Before Tennessee’s repeal, Becker said he could have been arrested for carrying his beloved Santoku.

“Knives are just too damn useful for too many people, and to me it’s all just so silly,” he said.

Photo: TranceMist via Flickr

New Front Opens In ‘Fast-Track’ Trade Fight

By Niels Lesniewski, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — There’s no shortage of liberal opposition to President Barack Obama on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but a more serious threat to the administration’s pro-trade alliance with Republicans might come from those who want to tackle the perpetually thorny issue of currency manipulation.

Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) intends to bring an amendment to the floor as part of the “fast-track” debate that would make it a “principal negotiating objective” under TPA to create enforceable rules to combat unfair currency practices. It was voted down at the committee level, 11-15.

As a former U.S. trade representative under President George W. Bush, the Ohio Republican is among the Senate’s most experienced voices on trade policy, and he has consistently backed free trade. But while his stand is to be expected of a senator representing a large manufacturing state, it has put him at odds with his GOP allies on many other issues, as well as with the Obama Treasury Department.

Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, in an April 21 letter to Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT), warned that including such language in the bill to revive Trade Promotion Authority would be problematic to the Asia-Pacific free trade agreement known as the TPP.

“We have a serious concern that in any trade negotiation other countries would insist that an enforceable currency provision be designed so it could be used to challenge legitimate U.S. monetary policy, an outcome we would find unacceptable. Seeking enforceable currency provisions would likely derail the conclusion of the TPP given the deep reservations held by our trading partners,” Lew wrote. “As such, any amendment to TPA legislation requiring that the administration only seek enforceable currency provisions as a principal negotiating objective would undermine our ability to successfully conclude a TPP negotiation.”

Responding to critics at the markup, Portman has argued stronger currency protections are essential.

“This is not about derailing anything or making it harder to pass anything, it’s about how to make it easier. It’s about how to be able to say with a straight face to the people who we’re hired by, ‘This is going to be good for you, for your families, for your ability to get ahead in life,'” Portman said.

And Portman’s many allies include Senator Charles E. Schumer, the powerful New York Democrat.

Schumer, who appears a lock to become the Democrats’ next party leader in the Senate, was among the bipartisan supporters of Portman’s amendment, which could resurface on the floor as early as next week. He helped lead past efforts to crack down on currency actions by China, including a 2011 effort that received 63 “yes” votes.

“Here, I would just argue to my colleagues that we have to change the way we do trade agreements. I believe that we should do trade agreements, and I certainly believe in the administration’s goal of weaning these nations away from China and putting them more in…our economic world,” Schumer said. “That’s a very appealing rationale, but it can’t come at the expense of doing things that are so untoward and so harmful to American workers.”

Schumer last week at the Finance Committee markup won approval, 18-8, of an amendment to block the Commerce Department from avoiding currency manipulation cases. While Schumer’s offering came on a sidecar to the main TPA legislation, Hatch nonetheless said Schumer was able to “smother” him on the currency issue.

Schumer has long been a leader of a bipartisan group championing legislation to target currency manipulation, with particularly biting criticism of China, and he might be expected to throw significant weight behind efforts to force the administration’s hand in this case.

Obama has been increasingly vocal in responding to fellow Democrats critical of his trade agenda, including during an MSNBC appearance, and there’s expected to be a full push against currency language or anything else that could hamstring trade deal efforts.

In a weekend letter, Democratic Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts responded by pushing back against Obama calling some critiques “dishonest.” But that wasn’t their only message for the president.

“Fast track, as currently written, would preclude Congress from amending or filibustering any trade agreement to this Congress or any future Congress — potentially through 2021. If passed, this legislation would grease the skids for approval of any additional trade agreements that might be advanced through the next two presidencies,” Brown and Warren wrote. “While we hope that future presidents and future Congresses share our values, no one knows who will be using this authority once you leave office.”

The president used his weekly address to discuss the issue.

“If I didn’t think this was the right thing to do for working families, I wouldn’t be fighting for it. We’ve spent the past six years trying to rescue the economy, retool the auto industry, and revitalize American manufacturing. And if there were ever an agreement that undercut that progress, or hurt those workers, I wouldn’t sign it,” Obama said. “My entire presidency is about helping working families recover from recession and rebuild for the future.”

Photo: NASA HQ Photo via Flickr

Colorado City Vows To Be Carbon Neutral, Defying Partisan Politics

By Naveena Sadasivam, InsideClimate News (TNS)

Copenhagen and Melbourne have committed to the most aggressive carbon reduction goals on the planet.

Now those two cities — homes to 4.5 million people — have been joined by a perhaps unlikely companion on the fast track to carbon neutrality: the Colorado college town of Fort Collins, home to 150,000.

This month, the city approved new targets to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2050. Those goals place Fort Collins among a handful of cities playing a prominent role on the world stage in combating climate change.

“In terms of their level of ambition, they’re among the leading cities trying to tackle climate change,” said Paula Kirk, an associate in the energy consulting group at Arup, a firm that routinely advises business and government on sustainability issues.

At least 228 cities have voluntarily set goals to reduce emissions, according to the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, an organization that encourages cities to confront climate change. These cities vary widely in the targets that they’ve set — from a ten percent reduction over five years to carbon neutrality over 35 years.

Fort Collins’ six city council members, who are chosen in nonpartisan elections, voted unanimously to approve the revised goals. Although the council members don’t have an official party affiliation, at least three of them identify as Republicans. The city’s mayor, Karen Weitkunat, is also Republican.

“It’s very positive that the council determined it’s appropriate to strive for this. It will get us farther than we otherwise would,” said Lucinda Smith, the city’s sustainability director.

Smith, who is in charge of proposing and carrying out a plan to reach the emission goals, said wildfires and floods that caused catastrophic damage in recent years pushed climate change into the public consciousness. In 2013, floodwaters along the Big Thompson River carried away homes and roads, causing more than $2 billion in damages. The same year, the Black Forest Fire, the most destructive in Colorado’s history, raged for nine days, destroying more than 500 homes and killing two people.

She also said Mayor Weitkunat played an “important role” in raising the issue of climate change to the public.

Weitkunat, who has been mayor since 2011, served on the 26-member President’s Climate Preparedness and Resilience Task Force to assess how the federal government can support communities in preparing for the worst effects of climate change.

“Overall, it’s a progressive city,” said Scott Denning, a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University. “But, to be a little more cynical, several of the council members who might have been inclined to say ‘no’ didn’t, because all they were committing to was a goal.”

Another reason the proposal sailed through with few objections is that Fort Collins is primarily a college town. Colorado State is the city’s largest employer, with a payroll of about 6,725. The fossil fuel industry, which typically objects to carbon cuts, does not have a stake in the city’s economy.

The city has had strategies to reduce carbon emissions in place since 1999. In 2008, Fort Collins adopted a 20 percent emission reduction by 2030, and 80 percent reduction by 2050.

In 2012, the Rocky Mountain Institute, one of the city’s partners on sustainability initiatives, studied the costs and benefits of raising emission goals and recommended accelerating them. This led the city to put the new goals to a vote and formally adopt them.

More than half of the city’s emissions come from power production. The Platte River Power Authority, which powers Fort Collins, relies on coal for almost 75 percent of the electricity it produces.

However, the city is in the unusual position of owning the Platte River Power Authority with three nearby cities, Estes Park, Longmont, and Loveland. As a result, the utility is free from financial obligations to shareholders and is beholden only to the four cities that own it.

“In the states, that’s rare and that’s a great thing to have,” said Adam Friedburg, an associate sustainability consultant at Arup. “If you have that control, you can do a lot that aligns with the city’s goals as opposed to the utility’s goals.”

Vehicles are responsible for another 25 percent of emissions. Burning natural gas to heat homes and buildings, and its use in industries, account for an additional 20 percent.

Before the new goals were put to a vote, city staff presented the council with a broad-strokes plan to decrease emissions 80 percent by 2030. The plan includes a number of strategies: retrofitting buildings and homes to make them energy efficient; investing in renewable sources such as solar and wind energy; and promoting public transportation.

Smith, the city’s sustainability director, said her staff plans to submit a complete implementation plan to the city council early next year.

Smith and the city’s staff have many hurdles to overcome if they are to hit their targets.

One significant challenge will be to convince the three other cities with a stake in Platte River Power Authority that switching to a cleaner energy portfolio will work for all. So far, the utility has modeled scenarios to transition to renewable energy but has not made any commitments.

“The plan is wonderful, but the real challenge is implementing it,” said Denning, who represented CSU on a citizen advisory committee that worked on updating the city’s climate action plan. “It will require constant vigilance.”

Another major obstacle will be to find a way to finance investments in cleaner technology and infrastructure upgrades, most of which are expensive. For instance, the city is considering a plan to upgrade homes to make them more energy efficient at no upfront cost to the owners. The costs would be paid back through electricity bills over time.

“How it’s going to be financed is the first big hurdle,” said Kevin Cross, a member of the Fort Collins Sustainability Group, a community organization that for years has been pushing the city to take more aggressive action on climate change.

The city estimates that it will need to spend $600 million by 2020 and between $3.4 billion and $4.6 billion by 2050. In the first few years, the city does not expect any significant savings. But, by 2050, the city estimates energy and fuel savings of $5 to $10.8 billion, a figure that far exceeds the costs.

Cross also said that he hopes that in spite of the challenges, the city will meet the goals and provide a model for other communities.

“We’re a tiny piece of the world puzzle,” he said. “What we also need to consider is that if small communities and cities can show the path forward, then we have a chance of addressing the global problem.”

Photo: The Neenan Company via Flickr