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World’s Largest Polluters To Meet On First Day Of Climate Talks

By Justin Sink, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will meet with the leaders of China and India on the opening day of talks in Paris to reach an international climate agreement, a symbolic gesture that the White House says underscores the commitment of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases to tackle rising global temperatures.

The announcement last year by China, the world’s largest polluter, of a commitment to cut its carbon emissions after secret negotiations with the U.S. is credited with helping drive momentum for the Paris meeting. Under the agreement, China said its emissions will peak by 2030 as it increasingly turns to clean energy sources.

The Obama administration has had more difficulty winning agreement with India. Officials there reacted angrily after Secretary of State John Kerry said in an interview last week with the Financial Times that the nation posed a “challenge” for the Paris talks.

The meetings with China’s Xi Jinping and India’s Narendra Modi, both on Monday, the first day of the United Nations summit, are intended to “send the strong message to the world about their shared commitment,” White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said in a conference call with journalists.

The Obama administration hopes that the president’s attendance at the first two days of the climate talks can help “generate momentum for a successful outcome,” Rhodes said.

In addition to his meetings with the Chinese and Indian leaders, Obama next Tuesday will meet with representatives of island nations most at risk from rising sea levels. Those countries and other developing nations want the industrialized world to provide money to help them mitigate the effects of climate change and subsidize their own transitions from carbon-emitting fossil fuels.

The White House hopes the talks will produce specific, verifiable pollution-reduction targets for the next 15 years and also lay groundwork for further reductions in the future, said Paul Bodnar, the senior director for energy and climate change with the National Security Council. The world’s wealthiest nations also want to settle on financing to assist developing countries — a difficult commitment for the Obama administration, which faces resistance in Congress from Republicans still skeptical of scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change.

“There is a lot of hard work ahead,” Bodnar said.

The climate summit also provides world leaders including Obama the opportunity to show solidarity against terrorism after the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the violence, and French President Francois Hollande declared the attacks an act of war by the extremists.

White House aides say Obama is likely to find some way to memorialize the dead during his visit, and that he and Hollande will hold a working dinner to discuss both the progress of the climate talks and their joint military campaign against Islamic State.

The pair met Tuesday at the White House and pledged to increase the pace of airstrikes against Islamic State targets and improve intelligence sharing between their militaries. Hollande is scheduled to meet Wednesday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Thursday with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Hollande and Obama agreed that an alliance with Russia against Islamic State won’t be possible unless Putin’s forces in Syria begin targeting the extremist group instead of more moderate rebel groups opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, a Russian ally.

White House officials would not say whether Obama planned to meet with Putin during the summit. Rhodes noted the two leaders usually talk on the sidelines of meetings they both attend.

©2015 Bloomberg News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama takes part in the APEC CEO Summit in Manila, Philippines, November 18, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Obama Says Bitter Partisan Debate Driving Cynicism Of Public

By Justin Sink, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said the U.S. has become fragmented by highly partisan and bitter political debate, which has driven portions of the public away from voting and made it harder to act on national interests.

American political institutions have become “detached from how people live on a day-to-day basis,” deepening gridlock and reinforcing cynicism, he said.

“There’s this big gap between who we are as a people and how our politics expresses itself,” Obama said in a podcast interview with comedian Marc Maron that was recorded Friday and released Monday morning. “Part of that has to do with gerrymandering, and super PACs, and lobbyists, and a media that is so splintered now that we’re not in a common conversation.”

Obama, who was elected in part on his promise to change the tone and the debate in Washington, said he’s spent much of his six and a half years in office looking for a way to break the political stalemate.

One area where divisiveness has stymied action is on gun control, he said. Obama said he was “disgusted” after Congress refused to enact tighter controls on firearms after a school massacre in Connecticut in 2012 and that he sees no chance of action in response to last week’s mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

“Unfortunately, the grip of the NRA on Congress is extremely strong,” he said, referring to the National Rifle Association, the nation’s biggest lobby for gun manufacturers and owners. “I don’t foresee any legislative action being taken in this Congress.”

The Charleston shootings, in which a 21-year-old white man, Dylann Storm Roof, has been charged, also demonstrate that the nation hasn’t fully come to grips with dealing with its legacy of racism.

While the U.S. has made “incontrovertible” progress on race relations, the issue is deeper than changing norms of overt discrimination, like the use of racial epithets in public, Obama said.

“Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior,” Obama said. Still, it’s wrong to say nothing has changed or that no further progress on race relations can be made, he said.

“You want to get to those decent, well-meaning Americans who would agree with that, but when it gets translated into politics it gets all confused,” Obama said. “Trying to bridge that gap between I think the good impulses of the overwhelming majority of Americans and how our politics expresses itself continues to be the biggest challenge.”

Obama said that his inability to make headway on gun control was “the exception rather than the rule” because in other areas where Congress has proven unwilling to act, he has been able to pursue his agenda through regulation.

Part of what Obama said he learned during his time in office was the importance of communicating policy priorities “in a way that is digestible, easily enough for the public that you can move the needle of public opinion.”

He said the decision to do an interview with Maron, a stand-up comedian known both for his acerbic and neurotic tendencies and an ability to draw intimate conversations out of his guests, was part of a strategy to reach new audiences.

The president also acknowledged a “mythology about me about being very professorial and removed” in his relationships with lawmakers in Washington.

“I think it has to do with me not schmoozing enough in Washington because I got two kids,” he said. “It’s true that I don’t do the cocktail circuit and some of the backslapping.”
Despite his admitted reluctance to play the political game — and his continuing frustrations with Congress — Obama said he believed he was a better president now than he was earlier in his term.

“I’ve been in the barrel tumbling down Niagara Falls,” he said. “And I emerged and I lived. And that’s always a — that’s such a liberating feeling, right?”

(c)2015 Bloomberg News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Comedian Marc Maron’s WTF podcast has been one of the most popular on iTunes for a few years now. He often interviews high-profile guests like Louis C.K., Judd Apatow, and Terry Gross. But this week he landed the biggest get of his career: The President of the United States. On June 19, 2015, President Obama went to the tiny Los Angeles garage where Maron records his podcast for an hour-long interview. He is photographed in his garage studio later in the day. (Barbara Davidson/Los AngelesTimes/TNS)

Republican ‘Hawks’ Cited By Rand Paul For Rise Of Islamic State

By Justin Sink, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The rise of Islamic State extremists in the Middle East can be traced to Republicans who backed arming fighters in the region, presidential candidate Rand Paul said in an interview broadcast Wednesday.

“ISIS exists and grew stronger because of the hawks in our party who gave arms indiscriminately, and most of those arms were snatched up by ISIS,” said Paul, a Kentucky Republican, using an alternative abbreviation for the terror network on MSNBC.

“Everything they have talked about in foreign policy they have been wrong about for 20 years,” he said.

Paul, who polls show in the middle of a crowded 2016 Republican presidential field, said members of his party “trapped inside the Beltway” may paint him as outside the mainstream on issues like foreign policy, but his message had resonated with many Republican voters. The senator said the party also needed to be more diverse by appealing to black, Hispanic, and young voters.

“I’m the only one out there saying the Patriot Act went too far,” Paul said, noting that a majority of young voters oppose the government’s surveillance programs. Paul earlier this month blocked a Senate measure that would have reauthorized expiring provisions of the USA Patriot Act, and this week said he will press for a vote on ending bulk records collection by the National Security Agency.

If elected, Paul said he would raise the age of eligibility for Social Security benefits and eliminate the U.S. Department of Education.
Paul argued his willingness to engage on such issues made him the most viable challenger to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is favored to win the Democratic presidential nomination.

“If you look at me in the purple states, I’m the only one who beats Hillary Clinton,” he said.

(c)2015 Bloomberg News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Obama Seeks Ban On ‘Conversion’ Therapy For Sexual Orientation

By Justin Sink, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is calling for a ban on psychiatric “conversion” therapies aimed at changing the sexual orientation of gay, lesbian, and transgendered youth, a top aide said Wednesday.

The White House shares concerns over the “potentially devastating effects” of the therapy, senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said in a blog post on the White House website. She was responding to a petition calling for a federal law banning the practice.

“The overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates that conversion therapy, especially when it is practiced on young people, is neither medically nor ethically appropriate and can cause substantial harm,” Jarrett said. “This administration supports efforts to ban the use of conversion therapy for minors.”

(c)2015 Bloomberg News, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

In this Jan. 21, 2013, file photo, President Barack Obama delivers his Inaugural address at the ceremonial swearing-in at the U.S. Capitol during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington. Obama’s emphatic gay-rights advocacy in his inaugural address thrilled many activists. Yet almost immediately came the questions and exhortations as to what steps should be taken next. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Senate Committee Sets Vote On Iran Deal Approval For April

By Justin Sink, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — A Senate panel will wait until after a deadline this month elapses on a deal with Iran over its nuclear program to vote on legislation allowing Congress to review and approve a final agreement.

The Foreign Relations Committee will vote on the measure on April 14, said committee chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, and the panel’s top Democrat, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, in a joint statement on Thursday.

“We have been working together very closely to ensure we have the strongest vote possible on the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act and to achieve that result, we have agreed to a markup of the bill” in the committee on April 14, the senators said.

The move may win additional Democratic support for the legislation. The White House has said President Barack Obama would veto the proposed bill, which then would require a two-thirds vote in each chamber to override.

The U.S. and five other world powers are negotiating with Iran, with a goal of agreeing on a framework by the end of March and a detailed agreement by the end of June. Iran would freeze its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

The White House has lobbied against the Senate bill, which would require the administration to wait 60 days before suspending any sanctions against Iran.

During that 60-day period, lawmakers would have the opportunity to approve, reject or take no action on the deal. The administration would also be required to provide regular assurances that Iran had not breached any provisions in the agreement.

Over the weekend, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough sent Corker a letter saying the White House was worried the legislation could jeopardize the negotiations, but that the administration would work to share details of any accord with Congress.

“Passing this kind of legislation would interfere in the negotiations, and it would be a piece of legislation both that we would encourage members of Congress in both parties, frankly, to not support,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Thursday.

Photo: Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) (World Economic Forum/Flickr)

Republicans Feeling Heat Over Iran Letter Express Some Regrets

By Justin Sink, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — At least a few of the U.S. Republican senators feeling the backlash from signing an open letter to Iran’s leaders are expressing some second thoughts.

Amid mounting criticism from allies, home-state editorial boards and colleagues who opted not to sign the missive, Senator Ron Johnson became the latest Republican to suggest he might do things differently if given another chance.

While Johnson said he stood by the content of the letter, which warned Iran that any deal they get from President Barack Obama might not outlast his term in office, he said it probably shouldn’t have been directed to leaders of the Islamic Republic.

“I suppose the only regret is who it’s addressed to,” Johnson said at a Bloomberg breakfast in Washington. The Wisconsin Republican said it may have been a “tactical error” and that the letter could have been addressed to Obama’s administration or the American people.

Arizona Senator John McCain, a prominent Republican voice on foreign affairs and national security, has said that haste and an impending snowstorm in Washington short-circuited more measured consideration of the letter.

“It was kind of a very rapid process. Everybody was looking forward to getting out of town because of the snowstorm,” McCain told Politico in an interview. “I think we probably should have had more discussion about it, given the blowback that there is.”

The White House, which was facing pushback on the Iran nuclear negotiations from some Democrats as well as Republicans, seized on the letter to argue that Republicans were making foreign policy a partisan issue. Obama and his aides have responded with a mix of scolding and disdain.

The president told reporters at the White House on Monday that the lawmakers seemed to be “wanting to make common cause with the hardliners in Iran.” In a recorded interview with the website Vice, an excerpt of which was released Friday, Obama said, “I’m embarrassed for them.”

European allies who also are party to the Iran negotiations have condemned the letter as counterproductive.

“Suddenly, Iran can say to us: ‘Are your proposals actually trustworthy if 47 senators say that no matter what the government agrees to, we can subsequently take it off the table?'” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Thursday during remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“This is no small matter we’re talking about,” Steinmeier said. “This is not just an issue of American domestic politics.”

The letter has shifted attention away from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech earlier this month to a joint meeting of Congress. His presence, at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner, and remarks had forced the White House to defend the framework of a nuclear deal.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee, who didn’t sign the letter and is shepherding legislation that would require congressional approval for any nuclear deal with Iran, said it wasn’t helpful to his efforts to round up Democratic votes for the measure.

The letter was signed by 47 of the 54 Republican senators, including four who are considering bids for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination.

One of the candidates, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, said on NBC’s Today Show on Wednesday that the letter was intended to “strengthen the president’s hand” in negotiations.

No Republican has stepped back from the content of the letter, which warned Iran that any agreement they struck with Obama to curb its nuclear program may be reversed by his successor or changed by U.S. lawmakers. McCain told reporters he was “glad” to have signed it.

South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said he doesn’t have any second thoughts about sending the letter.

“At the end of the day, I want the ayatollah to understand that our president doesn’t have the ability on his own to waive congressional sanctions without our input and he is claiming he has that right,” Graham said on Fox News. “This is a constitutional crisis in the making. No Senate or House should ever let any president do away with congressional sanctions created by the bodies without their approval.”

Photo: U.S. Senator John McCain speaking at the Arizona Republican Party 2014 election victory party at the Hyatt Regency in Phoenix, Arizona. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)