Full Rail Service Resumes At Site Of Fatal Amtrak Crash

Full Rail Service Resumes At Site Of Fatal Amtrak Crash

By Katherine Skiba, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Full Amtrak service has resumed in the nation’s busy Northeast rail corridor, almost a week after a derailment in Philadelphia killed eight passengers and injured more than 200.

Since the May 12 crash of an Amtrak train headed from Washington to New York City, Amtrak officials “have been working around the clock” to make repairs that would allow full service to resume through Philadelphia, Amtrak President and Chief Executive Joe Boardman said Sunday in a statement.

The possibility that a rock or other projectile hit Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188 moments before it derailed is one of many that safety officials are exploring as they seek a cause for the deadly accident, a top federal official said Sunday.

The FBI will be at the accident scene Monday to examine the wreckage and try to determine what may have hit the train, said Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board.

So far, officials have interviewed dispatchers and listened to dispatch tapes and have “heard no communication at all from the Amtrak engineer to the dispatch center to say that something had struck his train,” Sumwalt said as he made the rounds of Sunday morning news programs. Nor did the engineer of a nearby commuter train that was struck recall any conversation between the crew of his train and Amtrak 188, he added.

“We’re just in the fact-finding stage of the investigation,” he said. “We’re just slowly starting to gather the information and then slowly start ruling things out.”

Sumwalt said crew members on the commuter train operated by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority reported being hit by a projectile. The NTSB does not know how many other trains had been struck, he said.

Sumwalt, a former airline pilot, said the investigation would have been “significantly” helped if the Amtrak train had been equipped with inward-facing video cameras.

Sumwalt urged that advanced technology, known as positive train control, be implemented soon to avoid future derailments. He called it “very troubling” that positive train control might not be installed on passenger railways until year’s end.

Positive train control utilizes GPS technology to monitor a train’s location and can enforce speed limits.

“We have seen countless accidents over the years that could have been prevented had positive train control been implemented,” Sumwalt said.

After the crash of a Metrolink commuter train in Southern California seven years ago, Congress ordered the nation’s rail operators to install positive train control by the end of this year. Progress toward that goal has been slow.

Amtrak is closer to achieving the goal than many other railroads, with the train controls installed on parts of the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, but not in the section where the derailment happened. Most of the nation’s freight lines have lagged behind, and several have asked Congress for an extension of the deadline.

Federal regulators have ordered Amtrak to install a less advanced system, known as automatic train control, before reopening the line through the area where the derailment took place. Amtrak officials have said they will do so.

(Staff writer Matt Pearce in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)

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

Photo: John H Gray via Flickr

Boehner Says Obama’s Military Authorization Request Falls Short

Boehner Says Obama’s Military Authorization Request Falls Short

By Katherine Skiba, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

WASHINGTON — House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio said President Barack Obama’s request to Congress to authorize military operations against Islamic State isn’t sufficient and that he will aim to strengthen it in the coming weeks.

“I don’t believe that what the president sent here gives him the flexibility or the authority to take on this enemy and to win,” the Republican leader said on Fox News Sunday.

Boehner said he viewed the president’s submission as the “beginning of the process” and that there would be “bipartisan discussions about how we strengthen this authorization.”

Boehner also promised “exhaustive hearings” by three House committees: Foreign Affairs, Intelligence and Armed Services.

Obama’s request to Congress last week to authorize military operations against Islamic State set relatively few hard limits for him or his successor but appears designed to force lawmakers to shoulder more of the responsibility for a lengthy conflict.

Obama’s proposal for a three-year authorization is aimed at bridging the divide among lawmakers, who must now weigh in themselves, a top White House adviser said Sunday.

“It’s very important in questions of war and peace for Congress to be heard,” White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said on CBS’ Face the Nation.

Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who as head of the chamber’s Foreign Relations committee is a key voice in the debate, countered that the White House proposal fails to go far enough in detailing the president’s strategy and that skepticism abounds on Capitol Hill about Obama’s plans for a fight that Corker emphasized is likely to last for years.

Still, some Republicans have complained that the proposal was too restrictive. “It is important,” Corker said, “for Congress to get behind something that’s prudent.”

Senator John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned against Congress restraining the president in the authorization for military action, saying it would lead to “535 commanders in chief.” He noted that Congress also has the power of the purse and could cut off funding if it disapproved of the president’s actions.

McCain, who was taken prisoner of war while serving in Vietnam, was highly critical of Obama on Syria and Iraq. He said “there is no strategy whatsoever” on Syria and called pulling out of Iraq in 2011 a “huge mistake.”

There needs to be a stabilizing force in Iraq, McCain said. “You’re going to also have to have American boots on the ground,” he added. “That does not mean the massive numbers as the president sets up that straw man all the time, but it does mean forward air controllers, special forces and many others.”

The president’s proposed authorization would allow for limited ground forces, including special operations troops.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Ex-Aide Writes About Being Obama’s Friend, Valet, And ‘Surrogate Son’

Ex-Aide Writes About Being Obama’s Friend, Valet, And ‘Surrogate Son’

By Katherine Skiba, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s former personal assistant has penned a memoir, sidestepping public policy for the most part but dishing on the president’s likes and dislikes.

Obama loathes fast food, fried foods and mayonnaise, writes Reggie Love, who was the president’s “body man,” with a spot just outside the Oval Office.

He portrays Obama as fastidious about exercise and diet, preferring grilled chicken or fish. When Love delivered fried walleye to him in Iowa, he never lived it down, Love writes. Every “dubious” meal he delivered after that was met with the same critique from Obama: “At least it’s not fried walleye.”

Such tidbits enliven “Power Forward: My Presidential Education, Power Forward: My Presidential Education which is not a tell-all given Love’s abiding affection for Obama, his partner in basketball, golf, cards and the campaign trail.

The book, being published Feb. 3 by Simon & Schuster, says that few saw the Barack Obama that Love did: an “attentive father, a devoted husband, a trash-talking basketball player, a feisty card shark, a loyal and thoughtful friend with a wicked sense of humor.”

Obama dubbed Love his “iReggie,” his “go-to source for all critical, nonpolitical information,” according to the book.

“I was his DJ, his Kindle, his travel agent,” Love writes, “his valet, his daughters’ basketball coach, his messenger, his punching bag, his alarm clock, his vending machine, his chief of stuff, his note passer, his spades partner, his party planner, his workout partner, his caterer, his small forward, his buffer, his gatekeeper, his surrogate son … his friend.”

The book is heavy on light observations but has Obama taking Love to task, especially after his aide complained about his visiting parents and their friends who came to town for the first inauguration.

“Reggie, you never know how long your parents are going to be around. … There is not a day that goes by that I don’t wish my mother was still alive,” remarked Obama, who arranged for some face-time with Love’s parents in the Oval Office.

The president was 34 years old when his 52-year-old mother died of ovarian cancer. There’s some towel-slapping in the book, but mostly love. The author says Obama is “as competitive as any person I’ve met,” and he calls the president’s memory a “steel trap.”

Obama favored a breakfast of bacon, eggs and wheat toast, preferred green tea and used regular, 2-milligram Nicorette, Love writes.

He explains how he and the president came to coach then-9-year-old Sasha Obama’s fourth-grade basketball team. The president had been watching her games with the first lady while delivering a running commentary, saying the girls should be playing zone or running a certain play on offense.

After his grumbling, Michelle Obama said: “Why don’t you teach them how to play basketball?” They did — an experience Love likens to “herding giggling cats.”

“This is not a slumber party. You have to run hard, throw the ball hard, stand tall and be strong,” Love quotes the president telling the girls.

Love joined Barack Obama as a junior staffer in his Senate office in 2006. A Duke University graduate, he was on the 2001 NCAA national championship basketball team and later was team captain. The book has passages on Love’s upbringing, college years and short stints with the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys before he was cut from the teams.

After leaving the White House in 2011, Love graduated from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and now is a partner and vice president of Transatlantic Holdings.

Love says former basketball star Charles Barkley once called an exhausted Sen. Obama during a presidential campaign stop in Las Vegas and suggested they “hang out.” That prompted Obama to joke with the people around him: “Let’s just take tomorrow off and go to the Cheetah Club.”

Love’s retort: He’d claim a rain check for “the minute you are the ex-President.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Congressional Aide Who Criticized Obama Girls Is Quitting, NBC Says

Congressional Aide Who Criticized Obama Girls Is Quitting, NBC Says

By Katherine Skiba, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — A Republican congressional staffer who took Malia and Sasha Obama to task for how they behaved at last week’s White House turkey pardoning is quitting her job, according to NBC News.

The staffer, Elizabeth Lauten, has been communications director for Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-TN).

A firestorm arose when Lauten’s comments about the first daughters, which she posted on Facebook, went viral. “Try showing a little class,” she wrote in a post addressed to the girls.

“Rise to the occasion. Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at the bar,” she continued. “And certainly don’t make faces during televised, public events.”

Lauten later apologized.

Malia Obama is 16 years old and Sasha Obama is 13. The girls appeared uninterested as their father was speaking during the traditional pre-Thanksgiving event.

Lauten did not respond to an email Monday from a Tribune reporter seeking comment.

In Fincher’s Washington office, a woman who answered the phone Monday declined to comment on the reported resignation. “This is a personnel issue and we are not discussing it,” said the woman, who declined to give her full name, then hung up.

Attempts to follow up with Fincher’s office were not immediately successful. Callers heard a pre-recorded message of the lawmaker saying: “We have a high number of calls right now and cannot answer the phone.”

Messages could not be left because of a full mail box, callers were told.

AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin Wins Fourth Term

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin Wins Fourth Term

By Katherine Skiba and Kim Geiger, Chicago Tribune (MCT)

CHICAGO _–Sen. Dick Durbin charged to victory Tuesday against Republican challenger Jim Oberweis, becoming the first Democrat in Illinois history to win a fourth term in the U.S. Senate.

Oberweis conceded shortly before 8:45 p.m. CST, saying competing in a heavily Democratic state was difficult. With 24 percent of the precincts reporting, Durbin had captured 53 percent of the vote, with 42 percent for Oberweis and 3 percent for Libertarian Sharon Hansen.

The triumph by Durbin was somewhat undercut by uncertainty over control of the Senate, with Republicans mounting a strong challenge. Durbin is the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat.

In his three previous general elections for Senate, Durbin won by 15 percentage points or more. He was always considered the favorite against Oberweis, a Republican state senator from west suburban Sugar Grove and perennial candidate for higher office.

As of Oct. 15, the incumbent had pumped $9.7 million into this race — more than four times the $2.2 million spent by his challenger.

Oberweis, an entrepreneur known for his family’s ice cream business, lent or gave more than $1.5 million of his own money to his war chest but had little success persuading others to contribute. Competitive Senate races across the country siphoned off Republican money that might otherwise have gone to Oberweis.

Nor was he able to find a strong issue to chip into Durbin’s long-term popularity.

According to University of Chicago political scientist Charles Lipson, Durbin won because a strong majority of Illinoisans “think he’s doing a perfectly good job, including servicing constituents and remaining connected with the state. He hasn’t gone Hollywood. Most people think of him as the senator from Illinois.”

Oberweis was also hampered by his own reputation as a candidate unable to win major office. Before making his run this year, he had lost five tries for top political posts, including failed U.S. Senate primaries in 2002 and 2004.

Some of those past races created lasting negative impressions, such as his 2004 U.S. Senate race in which a controversial TV ad on immigration alienated Latino voters.

Another misstep came just before this year’s primary when Oberweis was derided as a “snowbird” for leaving the state to celebrate his wife’s birthday at their condo in Bonita Springs, Fla., as a snowstorm bore down on Illinois.

While his general election campaign against Durbin lacked such gaffes, it never made a compelling case that voters should reject the incumbent and choose him.

One avenue of attack for Oberweis was to challenge the political longevity of Durbin, who entered the Senate in 1997 after serving in the U.S. House beginning in 1983.

Oberweis criticized him as a “career politician” who had been in office too long and was responsible for the failures of Washington, but Durbin emphasized his experience and ability to get things done.

The challenger took a swipe at Durbin’s wife, Loretta, a state-registered lobbyist, after a Chicago Tribune investigation found that some of her clients had received federal funding supported by the senator.

“Look, my family business happens to be ice cream,” Oberweis said during a debate. “Sen. Durbin’s family business happens to be lobbying and the sale of influence.”

Wayne Steger, a political science professor at DePaul University, said Durbin’s built-in advantages scared off more formidable Republicans from making the race.

“So it becomes mostly a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Steger said. “They run a weak challenger, and they lose, and Durbin looks that much stronger because he vanquished a Republican.”

In an interview last week, Oberweis said he jumped into the race because a private poll showed he would fare better against Durbin than former Rep. Joe Walsh, now a radio talk show host. Oberweis said he had urged the controversial Walsh to run but Walsh had told him to get in instead.

Durbin never took winning for granted and drew on Democratic star power while out on the stump. President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts headlined events for him.

Midterm elections generally don’t favor the party of a sitting president, and the popularity of Durbin’s friend, Barack Obama, has sunk below 50 percent, even in his home state of Illinois. But Durbin’s political popularity rose above that on Tuesday.

In 1996, Durbin beat attorney Al Salvi 56 to 41 percent. In 2002, he won against state Rep. Jim Durkin 60 to 38 percent. And in 2008, he breezed past physician Steve Sauerberg, 68 to 29 percent.

At times, the campaign of Oberweis, 68, seemed like an infomercial for his family’s dairy. He courted African-American voters — traditionally a Democratic bloc — while handing out free ice cream.

At an African-American worship service in Chicago on Sunday, he stood at the entrance and pressed fliers into worshippers’ hands as they entered. “Where’s the ice cream, man?” one parishioner joked as he swept past the Republican. “We don’t want no fliers.”

Tuesday night, Oberweis hosted supporters at an Oberweis ice cream parlor in Glen Ellyn.

With this defeat, Oberweis has contributed a total of about $10.5 million in loans and donations on his failed bids for public office.

Some political observers speculate that this race was the last in Illinois for Durbin, who will mark his 70th birthday Nov. 21.

Asked last month whether this would be his final campaign, Durbin said: “I’m making no plans beyond Nov. 4. If the voters of Illinois are kind enough to give me another chance, I plan to complete my term and have made no other decisions beyond that.”

He is assistant majority leader, serving under Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Reid, 74, said he’ll run for re-election in 2016, but he faced a tough challenge in 2010, and experts expect his next race to be hard-fought.

If Democrats lose the Senate, Lipson said it’s unclear if Reid would become minority leader. If he doesn’t, Durbin could try for the job. But Lipson said having an Illinoisan in the White House would not improve Durbin’s chances, because that might give Illinois Democrats outsized influence.

“It’s not as if Illinois is nationally considered a model of strong growth, good governance and positive social change,” Lipson said.

Matt Streb, political science chairman at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, envisions Durbin maintaining his high profile even if his party loses its majority. “He’ll remain one of the leading voices in the Senate, whether Democrats are in the majority or minority,” Streb said.

The junior senator from Illinois is Republican Mark Kirk, so whichever party controls the Senate, the state will have one member in the minority and one in the majority.

The last previous Illinoisan to win a fourth U.S. Senate term was Everett Dirksen, a Republican. He won term No. 4 in 1968, and he died less than a year later, at age 73.

Freelance reporter Joseph Ruzich contributed to this report.

Photo: Center for American Progress Action Fund via Flickr

Democrats To Introduce Bill To Target Corporate Inversions

Democrats To Introduce Bill To Target Corporate Inversions

By Katherine Skiba, Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON — Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) said he and other Democrats will unveil a bill Tuesday to curb corporate tax dodging.

No federal contracts would go to businesses that engage in corporate “inversions” to lower their tax bills, Durbin said.

The measure is called the No Federal Contracts for Corporate Deserters Act.

Durbin will appear at a news conference in Washington at 10:15 a.m. EDT to talk about the bill.

The bill would mean no federal contracts would go to businesses that incorporate overseas, are at least 50 percent owned by U.S. shareholders and do not have substantial business opportunities in the foreign country in which they are incorporating.

The law now defines a company as being “inverted” if it is at least 80 percent owned by U.S. shareholders after it reincorporates overseas, according to Durbin.

Drugmaker AbbVie and Walgreen Co. are among the most recent corporations to announce they are “moving their mailbox overseas to avoid paying their fair share of taxes,” according to a statement from Durbin and the other Democrats.

The others are Senator Carl Levin of Michigan and Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Lloyd Doggett of Texas, who are to appear with Durbin at the news conference.

The White House estimates that nearly $20 billion in corporate taxes could be lost over the next 10 years because of the corporate merger deals known as inversions.

Photo: Center for American Progress Action Fund via Flickr

Kerry Says Five Released Taliban Risk Death If They Fight Again

Kerry Says Five Released Taliban Risk Death If They Fight Again

By Katherine Skiba, Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John F. Kerry, in his first remarks on the prisoner swap involving American soldier Bowe Bergdahl, warned Sunday that the five released Taliban leaders risk being killed by the United States if they re-enter the fight.

He spoke as reports emerged that Bergdahl, held for five years and released May 31, had been locked in a metal cage for long periods as punishment for trying to escape his captors.

Bergdahl’s release in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay detainees dominated the Sunday talk shows amid reports that the FBI was investigating death threats against Bergdahl’s family.

Kerry, talking about the prospect of the former Guantanamo prisoners returning to the battlefield, said: “I’m not telling you that they don’t have some ability at some point to go back and get involved, but they also have an ability to get killed doing that.”

Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” he said Qatar, where the Taliban leaders will live for one year, would be monitoring the men and that the U.S. would also keep an eye on them. Asked whether he meant the U.S. would kill them, he replied, “Nobody, no one should doubt the capacity of America to protect Americans.”

Sen. John McCain, who was held captive in Vietnam for more than five years, took issue with Kerry in a separate interview on the same program, saying that 30 percent of the detainees released from Guantanamo Bay had resumed fighting and “we certainly haven’t been able to kill all of them.”

“So what we’re doing here is … reconstituting the Taliban government, the same guys that are mass murderers,” said McCain, an Arizona Republican who was the 2008 GOP presidential nominee.

McCain said he had previously signed off on the outlines of a prisoner swap to retrieve Bergdahl, but not specifically the “top five picked by the Taliban.”

Asked whether reports that Bergdahl deserted his Army unit made him less worthy of rescue, McCain said no. But he added that the obligation to bring back captured military personnel had to be weighed against whether the effort “would put the lives of other American men and women who are serving in danger.”

“And in my view, this clearly would,” he said.

Top Senate Intelligence Committee officials, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said they had not been briefed by the Obama administration on Bergdahl being tortured or kept in a cage, allegations first reported Saturday on the New York Times website. Feinstein chairs the committee; its top Republican lawmaker, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, echoed her.

Both said they had heard “rumors” that Bergdahl had tried to flee and both had concerns about the prisoner swap and what they saw as the administration’s lack of openness with congressional leaders. They spoke on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

“What’s unfortunate is that I see no sign of the Taliban relenting,” Feinstein said. “And so some of us worry very much when we pull out (of Afghanistan), the Taliban finds its way back into power. And that would be tragic.”

David Rohde, who was abducted by the same Taliban faction as Bergdahl more than five years ago while on leave from The New York Times to write a book, said news reports about Bergdahl enduring harsh treatment sounded “very credible.”

Rohde, who also spoke on “Face the Nation,” escaped after being held hostage for eight months.

Now working for Reuters, he said Bergdahl needed to explain why he left his Army outpost, but cautioned that many rumors surrounded his own kidnapping in 2008. The journalist said he still regretted going to an interview with a Taliban official that led to his abduction near the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Of Bergdahl, Rohde said: “He will regret this for the rest of his life, I guarantee you.”

Rohde said he had spoken to Bergdahl’s parents, and alluded to the reports of death threats against them. “They are heartbroken by what’s been happening,” he said.

If any U.S. troops had died in the search for Bergdahl, “that would break their hearts as well,” he said.

©afp.com / Jacquelyn Martin