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In New Hampshire, Undeclared Voters Could Be A Key Wild Card In The Primary

By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

LONDONDERRY, N.H. — Catherine Johnson’s day started at 6 a.m. She left her home in Hanover, drove 100 miles southeast across New Hampshire to a campaign event in Plaistow, then worked her way back with stops in Londonderry, Bedford and Goffstown.

Her itinerary rivals that of some presidential candidates. But Johnson will be casting a ballot, not appearing on one. She wanted to do her homework.

“I’m having so much fun,” Johnson said recently as she talked of watching Republican Sen. John McCain and planning to see Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who is seeking the Republican nomination. She also plans to attend a Democratic primary debate.

“I just want to vote for who I think is the best leader for this time in our country’s history. And I’m not sure I know who that is yet,” she said.

Johnson is registered as an independent — “undeclared” as such voters are called in New Hampshire — one of 380,993, more than 40 percent of the electorate, who can choose to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary on Feb. 9.

She grew up in Republican politics, the daughter of a former state party chairman, and said she spent her 7th birthday stuffing envelopes for her father’s Senate campaign.

After voting for McCain in the 2008 primary, she supported President Barack Obama for re-election in 2012, she said. She met Hillary Clinton this year and is considering the former secretary of State, but is concerned about Donald Trump’s standing in the polls and considering which Republican might be the best alternative.

“You want your vote to count,” she said.

Not all undeclared voters will put in her kind of mileage in weighing their options, but neither is Johnson a total anomaly in this state, which grows obsessed with presidential politics every four years. Undeclared voters represent a significant wild card here, and campaigns will work overtime to monitor their changing attitudes in the final weeks before the first ballots are cast.

“You have to recognize there’s always going to be shifting ground because of the nature of New Hampshire,” said Joel Benenson, chief strategist for the Clinton campaign. “You have to be vigilant and staying on top of it, and looking for changes and asking as many questions as you can to assess who’s going to vote where.”

Many undeclared voters are not truly independents and vote consistently in one primary or the other, analysts stress. The true swing, independent vote here might be as little as 4 percent of the final electorate, said Andy Smith, a University of New Hampshire pollster.

But in a close primary contest, those voters can make a significant difference. So can undeclared voters who lean toward one party or the other but don’t vote in every election. Both groups add another unpredictable element to a state where more than a third of voters often make up their minds in the final three days before the primary, according to exit polls taken over the years.

In 2008, the last time both parties featured contested nomination battles, 75,522 undeclared voters chose a Republican ballot while 121,515 chose a Democratic ballot, according to Secretary of State Bill Gardner. In 2012, when President Obama faced no major opposition for renomination, 90 percent of the undeclared voters who participated in the primary pulled a Republican ballot.

Undeclared voters make up an even larger percentage of the electorate now than they did at the time of the 2008 primary. How — or whether — they choose to vote could have a big impact. Currently, both parties appear to have close races here. But if the Democratic race grows less contested, for example, some undeclared voters might decide to vote in the GOP contest instead.

Their potential effect is one reason why — in contrast with the Iowa caucuses, which tend to draw a narrower and more ideological electorate — candidates in New Hampshire “have to talk to real kitchen-table issues” with the broader electorate in mind, state Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley said.

McCain, a two-time winner of the New Hampshire primary, said candidates here face “two challenges: one, convince them to register with the Republican Party; and second, of course, is to select you.”

“It means that you can’t appeal to a narrow slice of the Republican electorate,” he added. “I think what it leads to, to be honest with you, is a little bit more centrist position on the issues.”

Barbara and John Opacki of Sullivan, in the western part of the state, are among the sort of voters McCain had in mind. They say they voted for Obama but have been disappointed in him recently, and are mainly considering Republican candidates.

“We like to look at both sides of the fence, to choose wisely,” John Opacki said after he and his wife attended a Christie town hall meeting in Peterborough.

They liked the New Jersey governor’s national security message and how Christie defended his post-Hurricane Sandy appearance with Obama just days before the 2012 election.

“Forget politics,” Barbara Opacki said. “They truly did work together.”

“We realize that he was way down in the polls,” John added. “But his message is really coming out nice and clear.”

©2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) speaks during a campaign event for U.S. Republican presidential candidate Lindsey Graham (not seen) in New York July 20, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

 

Obama Meets With Gabrielle Giffords As Administration Looks To Tighten Gun Laws

By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — As the White House seeks ways that President Barack Obama could legally tighten restrictions on gun ownership, including closure of the so-called gun show loophole, he met Friday with Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman severely wounded in a mass shooting in Tucson in 2011 in which six people were killed.

The meeting with Giffords and her husband, NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, who advocate for tougher gun safety laws, was part of the Obama administration’s ongoing dialogue “with those who share the president’s passion for taking some common-sense steps to make it harder for those with bad intentions to get their hands on guns,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.

“The administration has worked closely with some of these outside groups to amplify the call of people across the country, so that members of Congress can be responsive to those public priorities,” Earnest added.

Obama renewed his push for tighter gun control after the mass shooting at a community college in Oregon in October that killed nine, as well as the gunman. Earnest said Friday that administration officials “have cast a wide net” in exploring possible actions the president could take in using executive authority to limit access to guns, but he declined to specify what was being considered and how soon Obama might announce any plan.

The leading proposal under consideration, according to White House officials, is a reinterpretation of existing law to require all or most people trying to buy guns to submit to background checks. Licensed firearms dealers must conduct background checks, but those who make “occasional sales” are exempt from the requirement, including sales at gun shows.

Such background checks might not have altered the path taken by the shooters behind Wednesday’s massacre in San Bernardino, Calif. Federal officials have concluded that Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the two assailants, legally bought two of the weapons, and two others were likewise legally purchased and given to him by a friend.

The idea for tighter background checks was one of several suggested by gun safety advocates in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., three years ago this month, though it wasn’t part of final recommendations by Vice President Joe Biden, who led the White House effort to restrict access to guns.

“I don’t know if they felt they didn’t want to do it or couldn’t do it for legal reasons,” said Jim Kessler of the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, who was in regular consultations with the administration during the deliberations. “It just didn’t happen.”

A bill to strengthen the background check system died in the Senate a few months after the Newtown rampage.

On Friday, Earnest blasted Senate Republicans who voted a day earlier to block several gun-related measures that Democrats had offered as amendments to a health care bill, including the bipartisan background check proposal that also failed to pass in 2013.

With their votes, Republicans “stood up once again with the (National Rifle Association) and in the face of common sense,” Earnest said.

Obama’s meeting with Americans for Responsible Solutions, which was not on his publicly released schedule, came on a day when he otherwise stayed out of the public eye.

The FBI announced Friday that it was investigating the shooting rampage in San Bernardino as an act of terrorism.

In comments to reporters before the FBI announcement, Earnest declined to comment on reports that Tashfeen Malik, who died in a police shootout after she and Farook, her husband, killed 14 at a holiday party for the San Bernardino County Health Department, had pledged allegiance to Islamic State on Facebook.

©2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

File photo: Chesterfield County Sheriff’s lieutenant David Lee removes rifles from a shipping container as he and other officers sort through thousands of guns found in the home and garage of Brent Nicholson, in Pageland, South Carolina, November 10, 2015. REUTERS/Jason Miczek

19 Nations To Double Their Investment In Renewable Energy

By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

PARIS — The United States and 18 other nations will pledge Monday to double their investment in renewable energy technology by 2020, joining a separate private sector effort led by Bill Gates that aims to help catalyze a major international climate agreement at a United Nations climate summit here.

President Barack Obama will join French President Francois Hollande to announce the so-called Mission Innovation initiative, which the White House says will be a critical step toward limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

According to the White House, the participating nations — which will include major carbon emitters such as the United States as well as China and India — currently invest $10 billion in research and development for new technologies. The U.S. accounts for half of that sum through various programs across the government, many centered at the Department of Energy.

The new financial commitment will be supplemented by an initiative led by Gates called the Breakthrough Energy Coalition that aims to commit the private sector to help spread clean-energy technologies, particularly through the developing world.

The private sector coalition includes major tech industry figures such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon’s Jeffrey Bezos, as well as former California gubernatorial hopeful Meg Whitman, now chair of Hewlett Packard, and Democratic donor and environmental activist Tom Steyer.

“I think there is a universal recognition that we need to do more to ensure that we are investing in clean energy technology so that we can continue to drive the type of innovation that is really going to drive down costs to make these technologies deployable across the developing world,” White House senior adviser Brian Deese told reporters Sunday in previewing the proposal.

University of California President Janet Napolitano said the involvement of the university system, which includes three national energy labs, would include working with partner countries to share approaches to developing research for private sector investment.

“As a public research institution we take the imperative to solve global climate change very seriously,” Napolitano said in a statement.

©2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: US President Barack Obama delivers a speech on the opening day of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 in Le Bourget

Clinton Campaign Will Turn Over Her Private Email Server To Justice Department

By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Hillary Rodham Clinton will turn over her private email server to the Justice Department, her presidential campaign announced Tuesday.

The decision comes weeks after government investigators said that her use of the server during her tenure as secretary of state led to classified information being breached. Clinton has said she was confident she never sent or received information that was classified at the time.

Clinton’s use of a personal email account during her service in President Barack Obama’s Cabinet was disclosed early this year as part of an investigation into the attacks that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. Her personal office said that more than 62,000 messages were sent or received over four years, and half were later determined to be private and destroyed.

The rest were turned over to the State Department, and Clinton asked that the messages, totaling 55,000 printed pages, be made public.

But questions have nagged Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner, about whether all correspondence related to official business had been disclosed. Republicans leading a congressional panel investigating the Benghazi attacks have questioned why Clinton herself was allowed to determine what constituted whether an email was personal or work-related and have pressed her to turn over her private email server.

In the meantime, the State Department and other agencies are reviewing her emails. A judge has ordered that they be released in batches once a month, ensuring that the controversy will dog Clinton’s campaign for months to come even if nothing scandalous turns up in the emails.

In a statement, Clinton campaign spokesman Nick Merrill said the candidate hoped that the reviews would quickly determine which emails were appropriate to be publicly released, and that they would be released.

“In the meantime, her team has worked with the State Department to ensure her emails are stored in a safe and secure manner,” Merrill said. “She directed her team to give her email server that was used during her tenure as secretary to the Department of Justice, as well as a thumb drive containing copies of her emails already provided to the State Department. She pledged to cooperate with the government’s security inquiry, and if there are more questions, we will continue to address them.”

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

File photo: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a Service Employees International Union roundtable on Home Care at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College in Los Angeles, California August 6, 2015. (REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni)

Obama Calls For U.S. Reckoning On Guns

By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — At a town hall meeting in South Carolina this year, President Barack Obama looked back on the most difficult moment of his presidency — the shooting deaths of 20 children and six educators in the Newtown school massacre in Connecticut — and expressed regret over his inability to enact stricter gun laws.

It was “the hardest day of my presidency,” he said. “And I’ve had some hard days.”

Faced Thursday with yet another major gun crime on American soil, this one at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, about 115 miles from where he spoke in March, the normally even-keeled president did not hide his anger.

“At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries,” he said. “It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency.”

In an eight-minute statement in which he was at turns frustrated and mournful, Obama renewed his vigor for increased limits on access to guns and, as a president nearing his final months in office, seemed to feel freer to raise the vexing political issue just hours after learning of the attack.

He blamed the shooting on someone “who wanted to inflict harm (and) had no problems getting their hands on a gun.” He said it was “particularly heartbreaking” that the victims were gunned down in a place of worship, and decried the rate of mass shootings in the U.S. as all too frequent. He quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Aides said he insisted that he address the issue in person — his 14th statement as president on a mass shooting.

The shooting in Charleston added two new elements to the president’s reaction: a personal and racial connection. Obama knew the church pastor who was killed; and the Justice Department is investigating the massacre as a hate crime — the victims were all black and the suspect is white.

As a presidential candidate, Obama had met the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who also was a state senator, and other members of the congregation. Pinckney became an Obama supporter in that tough 2008 campaign, forging a bond with him that “was strong enough to endure all the way until today,” a White House spokesman said.

Obama spoke Thursday with the mayor of Charleston to express his condolences, as did Vice President Joe Biden, who had visited with Pinckney last year at a prayer breakfast.

During Obama’s presidency, shootings — including those at the Connecticut elementary school; near a college campus in Isla Vista, California; at the Washington Navy Yard; and at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin — have brought about cries for legislative action to limit gun sales. Following Newtown, a measure in the Senate to expand background checks on would-be gun buyers fell a handful of votes short of being adopted in what became the only significant effort to enact new gun rules at the federal level.

The president, in his visit to South Carolina in March, had lamented that it seemed the carnage at Newtown would have been “enough of a motivator for us to want to do something about this. And we couldn’t get it done.”

The president has otherwise been reluctant to revisit the fight for new legislation, as intractable a fight as any in Washington, when his influence has been needed elsewhere. But, he said pointedly on Thursday, “It is in our power to do something about it.”

Still, he indicated he had little expectation that Congress would act any differently this time.

“The politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it,” he said. “At some point it’s going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it, and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively.”

The apparent racial motivation to the attack was a reminder, Obama said, of “a dark part of our history.”

The nation’s first black president has put greater attention this year on issues surrounding America’s historic struggle with race. Two days after that March visit to South Carolina, he delivered an address in Selma, Alabama, that highlighted progress since scores of blacks trying to march to Montgomery were beaten back by state troopers on Bloody Sunday there half a century ago, but he also declared that “our march is not yet finished.”

Obama has also been forced to confront tensions highlighted by a series of encounters between law enforcement and young minorities, including the deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore that sparked sometimes violent demonstrations.

Obama said Thursday that while racial hatred was a threat “to our democracy and our ideals,” he was confident the reaction to this latest incident “indicates the degree to which those old vestiges of hatred can be overcome.”

He quoted King’s comments after the death of four young girls in the 1963 bombing of an Alabama church, saying: “Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.”

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

Vice President Joe Biden, In Grieving For Son Beau, Shines As Family Patriarch

By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

DOVER, Del. — Vice President Joe Biden stood silently beside his family, huddled in grief as Delaware’s elected officials offered words of tribute to the memory of his son Beau, who will be buried Saturday after dying of cancer at the age of 46.

At times, the vice president rested his head in his hand or looked toward the ceiling to compose himself.

After Thursday’s service, as hundreds of people familiar and less so filed by to pay their respects, the famously genial politician returned to form, hugging those who offered condolences, remembering faces, at times seeming to be the one consoling those who lined up outside the Delaware Statehouse to pass by the casket.

Over nearly four hours, Biden never took a break. He might have stayed longer but for another commitment: The vice president flew back to Washington with his younger son, Hunter, arriving in time to attend the middle school graduation of Hunter’s youngest daughter, Maisy.

Many politicians wrap themselves in the image of a loving family. Few actually live the role to the extent that Biden has done throughout his political career, according to political adversaries as well as allies. For years, he has been the patriarch of a sprawling family, one touched often by tragedy.

On Election Day in 2008, as he flew to Chicago to join then-Sen. Barack Obama to watch the returns, Biden told a reporter that his granddaughter Finnegan, Hunter’s middle daughter, had been the person who “pushed the hardest” for him to accept when Obama offered him the No. 2 spot on the Democratic ticket.

Biden recounted the pitch she had made — first that “Obama needs you,” but then a more personal one: The vice president’s official residence was a mile and a half from her house.

For years, he said, family life had been centered on his home in Wilmington, Del., which was designed to be large enough for the extended family to all stay overnight around birthdays and holidays.

A move to Washington and the vice president’s mansion would not disrupt those routines, he said then. “In a sense, it’s maybe a little easier if we were to win,” he said, without those almost daily Amtrak rides.

It has proved to be so. Biden hosts regular sleepovers for his grandchildren at the residence and attends family sporting events and school programs. When planning foreign trips, he has often arranged to take grandchildren along, making sure they have an itinerary separate from his own so he can pepper them with questions on the way home.

“He would pick up things about the country from their experiences,” said Tony Blinken, a longtime Biden foreign policy adviser who now is deputy secretary of state. “It was, in a funny way, multiplying his own presence and ability to absorb things because they would have a different kind of experience and they would relate it to him.”

“You would see both the government officials we were visiting, but also the local media and everyone we met comment on it,” Blinken said.

On Biden’s first trip to China as vice president in 2011, Hunter’s oldest daughter, Naomi, joined him for many of the stops.

“It would be more appropriate to say Naomi brought me along with her, since she’s a budding Chinese speaker,” he said in the trip’s keynote speech in Chengdu. “I’ve been listening to her on the whole trip.”

Those trips were a continuation of what Biden had done in the Senate as a member and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, when he took his boys with him on separate trips to Europe as teenagers.

Democratic Sen. Thomas R. Carper, a former Delaware congressman and governor, recalled seeing Biden kiss his younger children goodbye many days at the Amtrak station in Wilmington.

“I can’t tell you how many times I saw him bringing a granddaughter or grandson with him on the train to Washington to spend a day with them, so they could be with him, give them some special time,” he said.

Biden nearly quit the Senate before he joined it. Shortly after his election in 1972, an accident claimed the lives of his wife and infant daughter and seriously injured his two sons. The crisis would forever change the perspective of the ambitious young politician.

Delaware could get a new senator, but his boys couldn’t get a new father, he told friends and colleagues as he debated whether he should take the oath of office. Democrats including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana convinced him to take office, and he began the daily Amtrak trips between Delaware and Washington that came to shape his political persona.

By the time he was tapped for the vice presidency, his family had expanded — a new wife and daughter, and later a new son-in-law, daughters-in-law and five grandchildren.

“Because I had the incredibly good fortune of an extended family grounded in love and loyalty, imbued with a sense of obligation imparted to each of us, I not only got help, but by focusing on my sons, I found my redemption,” Biden recently told Yale students and families in a speech before the university’s graduation. “The incredible bond I have with my children is a gift I’m not sure I would have had had I not been through what I went through.”

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

Photo: Beau Biden with wife Hallie and daughter Natalie, Nov. 25, 2014. (Beau Biden via Facebook)

Obama: Riots Are Fueled By ‘Sense Of Unfairness And Powerlessness’

By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Monday that violent protests like the ones in Baltimore are fueled by a “sense of unfairness and of powerlessness” in some communities, as he helped launch a private-sector initiative aimed at boosting opportunities for minority young people.

Americans believe that everyone deserves “an equal shot” at success if they’re willing to work for it, Obama said at an event in the Bronx launching the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, a nonprofit inspired by the White House initiative called My Brother’s Keeper.

“Some communities have consistently had the odds stacked against them,” he said. “There’s a tragic history in this country that has made it tougher for some. And folks living in those communities, and especially young people living in those communities, could use some help to change those odds.”

The new organization aims to build “a national ecosystem” to help boys and young men of color, primarily through educational initiatives and intervention programs designed to close what Obama called the “opportunity gap,” boosting education and employment rates that lag behind those of their peers.

“In every community in America, there are young people with incredible drive and talent and they just don’t have the same kinds of chances that somebody like me had,” Obama said. “They’re just as talented as me, just as smart. They don’t get a chance.”

Speaking earlier after a roundtable discussion that included students from around the country, Obama said he heard stories from some who had been “stopped and put on the ground by police for no reason,” or attend schools that “don’t seem to be invested in their success.”

He also noted in his remarks later that addressing situations like those in Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., or New York need to go beyond policing strategies.

“If we ask the police to simply contain and control problems that we ourselves have been unwilling to invest and solve, that’s not fair to the communities. It’s not fair to the police,” he said.

The president’s frustration with the inability to tackle these structural issues through the political system is what helped inspire the My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

The new MBK Alliance is being led by Joe Echevarria, former CEO of consulting firm Deloitte, who helped coordinate private-sector involvement in the president’s initiative since it was launched last year. Musician John Legend will serve as the honorary chairman, heading a board and advisory council that include more than four dozen other current and former elected officials, pro athletes, celebrities and business leaders.

Its mission is the same one that first drew Obama into public service, the president noted, and one he committed himself to continuing after he leaves the White House in two years.

“We are in this for the long haul,” he said. “This will remain a mission for me and for Michelle, not just for the rest of my presidency, but for the rest of my life.”

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

Photo: Yianni Mathioudakis via Flickr

Obama Says US Must Re-Evaluate Mideast Stance After Netanyahu’s Comments

By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Tuesday that preserving the nation’s credibility internationally requires re-evaluating the U.S. stance on Mideast peace talks and that recent comments by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have severely hurt chances for progress.

Obama said Netanyahu’s pledge on the eve of Israeli elections last week to oppose a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians made hopes for progress “very dim.” Netanyahu later backed off the comment, but Obama appeared to remain unconvinced that the prime minister is serious about negotiating with the Palestinians.

“What we can’t do is pretend that there’s a possibility of something that’s not there,” Obama said during a news conference. “We can’t continue to premise our public diplomacy based on something that everybody knows is not going to happen, at least in the next several years. … For the sake of our own credibility, we have to be able to be honest.”

The president’s comments were the latest indication of how Netanyahu’s recent behavior has exacerbated an already-frosty relationship between the two leaders and tested the traditional bond between the U.S. and Israel.

Obama and other officials have called out Netanyahu for his rejection of the two-state solution and a remark made about Israel’s Arab citizens that had racial overtones. Netanyahu has also emerged as a leading opponent to a possible deal on Iran’s nuclear program that is a major goal of the Obama administration.

Obama dismissed a focus on his personal relationship with Netanyahu as irrelevant to their policy differences.

“This can’t be reduced to a matter of somehow let’s all hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya,’ ” he said. “This is a matter of figuring out how do we get through a real knotty policy difference that has great consequences for both countries and for the region.”

But Obama left unanswered a question posed to him about what, if anything, Netanyahu could do to convince Obama that he could be relied on to work toward peace in the region.

Senior U.S. officials also alleged in a Wall Street Journal report published late Monday that the Israeli government was attempting to undermine the Iran talks through a coordinated effort that included spying on the confidential discussions and other briefings, then sharing what it found with U.S. lawmakers.

Obama did not address that report in his news conference but said his administration has regularly briefed lawmakers and Israeli officials on the status of talks.

If a deal is reached, the president pledged “significant transparency.”

“If, in fact, an agreement is arrived at that we feel confident will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, it’s going to be there for everybody to see,” he said. “People are going to be able to lift up the hood and see what’s in there.”

Leading lawmakers cast doubt on the spying claim, which comes as the talks between Iran and six major world powers including the United States near a potential pivotal stage this week and as the administration campaigns to prevent legislation that might give Congress a say on any deal.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters he was “baffled” by the report on Israeli intelligence-sharing. “I’m not aware of that,” he said.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he’s discussed the negotiations with Israeli officials and other foreign leaders, but denied he learned anything from them he had not gleaned elsewhere.

“I think you all understand what’s happening here. You understand who’s pushing this out,” Corker said, implying that the Obama administration was seeking to neutralize an Israeli lobbying campaign against a nuclear agreement.

Israeli officials flatly rejected the claims of unidentified U.S. officials in the report.

“Israel does not spy on the U.S. _ period, exclamation point,” Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said en route from Paris, where he met with French officials to convey Israel’s concerns about an emerging nuclear agreement with Iran.

Steinitz said the accusations were aimed at undermining Israel’s “excellent intelligence cooperation” with the United States. Israel will continue dialogue with the U.S. on Iran despite grave differences on an agreement he called “bad, full of holes and dangerous to Israel, the Middle East and the entire world.”

Throughout the nearly two years of talks over Iran’s nuclear program, the Obama administration has warned lawmakers against moving legislation that may jeopardize any agreement.

Corker has co-sponsored legislation that would create a process by which lawmakers could vote to approve or disapprove any final agreement. A separate bill would authorize new sanctions in the event a deal isn’t finalized or if Iran reneges on any commitments.

Both measures could come to a vote in April and have enough bipartisan support to reach the president’s desk. Obama has promised to veto them, but Corker and other Republican leaders are working to marshal support to overcome the veto.

Key Democrats including Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Dianne Feinstein of California, the leading members of the Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees, respectively, also denied the substance of the new spying report.

(Special correspondent Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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

Photo: AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

White House Attacks McConnell Over Impasses On Capitol Hill

By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The White House on Monday delivered a starkly negative assessment of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s ability to deliver on his promises, faulting him for an “unconscionable delay” of President Barack Obama’s choice for attorney general and “inept leadership” that threatens a bipartisan trafficking bill.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest accused McConnell of breaking his commitment to give fair consideration to Loretta Lynch, Obama’s nominee for attorney general, and urged Republicans to stop “playing politics” with the post.

“There is no question that Republicans are playing politics with the nomination of the nation’s top law enforcement official, and it should come to an end,” he said.

In unusually pointed criticism of a congressional leader, Earnest also faulted McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, for a dispute over abortion that threatens to derail the otherwise bipartisan, popular bill to address sex trafficking.

Before the new Congress convened in January, the question of whether Obama and McConnell could forge a strong partnership was seen as key to the prospect of any major bipartisan legislation. When the two met after November’s midterm elections, both parties expressed confidence that they could find common ground on areas like trade and tax reform despite political differences on a host of other issues.

The relationship appears to already have hit a low. On Sunday, McConnell said on CNN that a vote to confirm Lynch could be delayed if Democrats continue to block further consideration of the trafficking bill. McConnell noted that Senate Democrats could have moved to confirm Lynch, now the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, when they still controlled the Senate last fall.

In response, Earnest noted that Obama, in a show of good faith, had agreed to McConnell’s request that consideration of Lynch be put off until this year. Earnest called it “unconscionable” that Lynch, whose nomination was recommended by the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, still has yet to receive an up-or-down vote by the full chamber.

“I get asked a lot about whether or not Senator McConnell was a man of his word and whether or not he’s willing to live up to commitments that he makes to the president of the United States,” Earnest said. “For him to suggest that, ‘Well, it hasn’t been that long, because Senate Democrats delayed introducing her until after the first of the year,’ that’s not a very good sign of faith.”

Earnest also held McConnell responsible for the impasse over abortion that has tied up what was expected to be swift approval of a bipartisan bill to give law enforcement new tools to target human trafficking and establish a $30 million victims’ fund.

Democrats say Republicans slipped in a provision to block the fund from being used to pay for abortion services without their knowledge. Republicans counter that Democrats should have been paying closer attention to the legislative language.

Earnest said McConnell should drop the abortion language to allow the bill to proceed, mocking the GOP for taking a “common-sense” bill and turning “it into partisan controversy.”

“That is not a reflection of a flaw in the bill. It’s a reflection of inept leadership,” he said. “The fact that Leader McConnell can’t build bipartisan support for a child sex-trafficking bill, I think is an indication that his leadership here in the majority is not off to a very strong start.”

Photo: Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaking at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Many Republicans Gambling That A New Shutdown Would Not Hurt Their Party

By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Republicans were hammered over the 1995-96 government shutdowns, losing House seats in the next election and boosting President Bill Clinton’s sagging approval ratings.

They shot themselves in the foot again with the 16-day government shutdown in 2013 over Obamacare, although their record-low public approval ratings rallied in time to dominate the 2014 midterm election.

Now it appears the party is heading toward another budget-related standoff, this time over immigration policy and the Homeland Security Department, which is scheduled to run out of funding Saturday.

Some Republican stalwarts fear another government shutdown, even a partial one, could deliver a deep political wound to the party.

“It irritates the hell out of me,” Tom Ridge, the first Homeland Security secretary and a former two-term Pennsylvania governor, said in an interview. “I think it is political folly. I think it is bad policy. I think the political repercussions could be very severe. And on top of that, the men and women of Homeland Security deserve better.”

But buoyed by a Texas federal judge’s order last week to temporarily halt the president’s immigration plan, other Republicans are betting heavily that this time things will end differently for the party.

They predict Democrats will shoulder the blame if the Homeland Security Department runs out of money and see no reason to drop their demand that renewed funding include amendments blocking President Barack Obama from implementing his program to defer deportation for millions of immigrants in the country illegally.

“We should be messaging to the American people that this president and the Senate Democrats are putting 5 million illegals ahead of the security of the United States,” Rep. Raul R. Labrador (R-ID) said in a recent discussion with fellow House conservatives. “We should be talking about nothing else.”

House conservatives say they are prepared to do whatever it takes to stop what they describe as the latest example of Obama’s executive overreach. “Is it an uncomfortable position to be in to have to choose between border security and the Constitution? Absolutely,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC).

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH) said this month he was “certainly” prepared to see a lapse in funding for the Homeland Security Department if the Senate could not pass the House-approved bill.

But it’s politically problematic for Republicans to disrupt operations for a department created after the Sept. 11 attacks to fight domestic terrorism, protect borders and monitor airports, particularly at a time when Americans are increasingly concerned about Islamic State and other terrorist groups.

Some in the GOP have downplayed the potential effect of a Homeland Security shutdown, noting that 86 percent of the department’s employees are viewed as “essential” and would be required to continue working, albeit with no pay.

“I’m just not that scared of sticking to principles and fulfilling campaign promises that we made back home,” said Rep. Curt Clawson (R-FL).

Hoping to increase pressure on Republicans, Obama plans to hold a town hall meeting on immigration Wednesday in Miami. Homeland Security officials and Democrats have warned that even a temporary lapse in funding would put Americans at risk and block needed money to protect borders and bolster the Secret Service.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday that as Republicans begin flying back to Washington, he hoped they would look Transportation Security Administration agents in the eye and understand that “they’re not going to get paid on time unless members of Congress step up to do their jobs.”

Republican leaders understand the political risks of a potential shutdown, particularly now that they control both chambers of Congress. One of the first vows Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made after the November election: “No government shutdowns.”

Though a shutdown may be popular with the GOP’s conservative base, polling indicates Americans overwhelmingly oppose the strategy.

A CNN poll conducted Feb. 12-15 found that 53 percent of Americans would blame congressional Republicans in the event of a shutdown, whereas 30 percent would blame the president and 13 percent would blame both.

A CBS News/New York Times poll conducted Feb. 13-17 found that 60 percent of Americans believed that funding for the department should be dealt with separately from the immigration debate, while 29 percent said they supported including immigration-related provisions in the Homeland Security funding bill.

The Senate on Monday will hold a fourth procedural vote on the House funding bill that includes the conditions to block the president’s new immigration actions and halt his 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shielded from deportation young immigrants brought to the country illegally by their parents.

Republican aides would not discuss how either chamber would proceed if, as expected, Senate Democrats remain united in blocking the bill.

Conservative strategists say they will try to win over public opinion by highlighting that some Senate Democrats who initially expressed opposition to the president’s immigration actions have refused to support the Republican bill.

Ridge questioned whether such a tactic would work.

“I don’t care how many accusatory fingers are pointed at Democrats in the Senate,” Ridge said. “Outside the Beltway, do you know who’s going to be held responsible — and God forbid — (if) something were to happen? It would be the Republican Party.”

Photo: Speaker John Boehner via Flickr

Obama To Make WWII Internment Camp In Hawaii A National Monument

By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — For more than half a century, what had once been Hawaii’s largest and longest-operating internment camp was ignored and forgotten. To the hundreds of Japanese Americans who had been forcibly confined at the camp, the experience was a source of shame and rarely spoken of until it was rediscovered by historians more than a decade ago.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama will designate the plot of land in western Oahu that was the site of the Honouliuli camp as a national monument, White House officials told the Los Angeles Times. The designation is intended to bring greater awareness to it and to Hawaii’s unique role in the World War II-era incarceration of Japanese Americans and what the White House calls “the fragility of civil rights during times of conflict.”

The announcement will come 73 years to the day after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the executive order paving the way for the internment of Japanese Americans, and a few months after Japan bombed Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor and drew the U.S. into the war.

That order ultimately led to the imprisonment of more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast at 10 mainland internment cites, including Manzanar in California. But in Hawaii, then a U.S. territory, more than 1,000 people were interrogated and ultimately imprisoned under martial law that was declared after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

There were 17 internment sites that processed individuals, primarily of Japanese ancestry but also some German and Italian Americans. But Honouliuli was the only one specifically built for prolonged detention, and it held more than 300 internees and 4,000 prisoners of war, according to a National Parks Service study that paved the way for the designation.

Located in a gulch where Hawaii’s tropical heat was particularly oppressive and mosquitoes swarmed, Japanese internees came to refer to the site as Jigoku Dani, or Hell Valley, according to the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, which has played a key role in uncovering the history of the camp.

“Honouliuli gives you that feeling of being so inaccessible, and like you’re closed into this world. But it’s only a half-hour from (downtown) to there,” said Jane Kurahara, who began researching the site’s history in 1998 after a local television station inquired about it. “The sense of place is very powerful.”

“You do get a sense of being trapped by the gulch walls,” said Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz, a Democrat.

The site itself, which is now on privately owned land, was not identified until 2002. Just two buildings remain; they are believed to be a recreation hall and firehouse. “They’re barely standing. Every time we go, they’re flatter,” Kurahara said.

In 2008, the Cultural Center took 100 former internees and relatives of others on a pilgrimage to the site, a visit that was “kind of a vindication for internees” and helped build support for making it a national historic site, said Carole Hayashino, the center’s president.

“They knew in the 1940s they did nothing wrong and they had nothing to be ashamed of. But they lived with the stigma for decades,” she said.

The goal with the president’s designation is to eventually create a site akin to what has developed at Manzanar.

“We can uncover the history of Honouliuli just as they uncovered the history of Manzanar, so people 100 years from now don’t forget what happened,” Hayashino said.

“These internment camps have been better-kept and better-resourced in California in particular,” said Schatz, who has continued an effort by his predecessor, Daniel K. Inyoue, and other members of the Hawaii congressional delegation to push for the designation. “It’s great that they’ve gotten that attention and those resources, but Hawaii had a really unique history in terms of navigating through the fact that we had so many Japanese American citizens.”

He added that it was particularly significant for Obama to make the designation as the state’s first native-born president.

“President Obama understands this part of Hawaii’s history and doesn’t need it explained to him,” he said.

The designation of the Honouliuli National Monument is one of three Obama will announce Thursday. He is traveling to Chicago to announce the site of Pullman town as the city’s first National Park Service unit; Brown’s Canyon in Colorado will also be named as a national monument.

Obama has used authority under the Antiquities Act to establish or expand 16 national monuments, including the Cesar Chavez monument in California in 2012.

Photo: Valentino Valdez via Flickr

Netanyahu’s U.S. Speech Drives Wedge Between Democrats, Israel

By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned address to Congress next month is driving an uncomfortable and rarely seen wedge between congressional Democrats and Israel — and that may have been exactly what House Speaker John A. Boehner and other Republicans intended.

For many Democrats, and especially the more than two dozen Jewish members of Congress, Boehner’s decision to invite Netanyahu to speak about Iran’s nuclear program — despite objections from the White House — is forcing them to choose between their president and their long-standing support for Israel.

On Thursday, Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) became the third Jewish Democrat to say he would not attend the planned joint session speech, a surprising expression of protest in contrast to the usual outpouring of support and standing ovations U.S. lawmakers lavish on Israel’s leader.

“There’s a tension,” said Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), who has not decided whether to attend. “The prime minister’s coming puts us who are supportive of Israel in a difficult position, especially as Jews who do support Israel, because I think it’s totally inappropriate to come at this time.”

At least 20 other members of Congress have also vowed to skip the speech. Some see Netanyahu’s visit as an affront to the president, while others view it as the latest in a continuing effort by Republicans to upset the ties between Democrats and Jewish American voters and donors.

Boehner insisted the invitation was intended only to give a key ally a forum for discussing the Iran nuclear talks, in which Israel has a significant stake.

But privately, Republican aides haven’t hidden their delight at how the issue is vexing Democrats, without conceding that was the intent.

Democrats suspect politics were part of the reason Boehner broke the usual protocol by not coordinating the invitation of a foreign leader with the White House.

“I don’t know what’s in the speaker’s mind,” said Democratic Rep. Lois Frankel, who represents a district in south Florida with a sizable Jewish population and plans to attend the speech. “He could be thinking about Iran, he could be thinking about politics. … I am just very disturbed — and I would say upset — that Israel is to be used as a political football.”

Though Israel has long coveted the bipartisan support it enjoys in Congress, Netanyahu’s Likud Party and U.S. Republicans have moved closer together in recent years, joined by shared conservative ideologies and hawkish foreign policies. Evangelicals, who are often more pro-Israel than many Jewish Americans, have also pushed the GOP toward greater support of the Netanyahu government.

So have wealthy donors like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who contributed more than $100 million to Republicans in the 2012 campaign and is expected to be a major player in the 2016 presidential race. Adelson, who is Jewish and is married to an Israeli, is also one of Netanyahu’s biggest political patrons; he owns a free, pro-government daily newspaper in Israel that has become one of the country’s most-read.

But in the U.S., 70 percent of American Jews identify with the Democratic Party, while just 22 percent with the GOP, according to a 2013 study by Pew Research Center. President Barack Obama won 69 percent of the Jewish American vote in 2012, according to exit polling reported by NBC News, though support dropped from 78 percent in his 2008 election.

“You’re seeing an emerging split between a part of the community that is politically in line with the prime minister and in line with the Republican Party, and a part of the community that is more supportive of a progressive political agenda here and the Labor Party there,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group. Boehner’s invitation “has successfully exposed that that difference can no longer be papered over.”

Obama publicly declined this week to offer advice to fellow Democrats when asked whether they should attend Netanyahu’s address, though he has said he wouldn’t meet with the prime minister when he comes next month, citing the proximity to Israel’s March 17 election.

Vice President Joe Biden, who would usually attend the speech as the president of the Senate, is proceeding with plans to travel abroad then.

Amid the initial controversy over the invitation, top Israeli officials worked the halls of the U.S. Capitol last week to gauge the level of concern, particularly among Democrats.

The speaker of Israel’s Knesset met separately with Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and the Israeli ambassador to the United States met with a small group of pro-Israel Democrats who expressed concern at how the planned visit had devolved into a partisan fight.

But this week Netanyahu sought to quell speculation that he might change plans, saying on Twitter that he was “determined” to address Congress.

Major Jewish groups have largely stayed out of the fray, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which will also host Netanyahu during his visit. But the Republican Jewish Coalition launched a petition urging support for the address. J Street, meanwhile, is calling on Boehner to reschedule the speech after Israeli elections.

For now, most Jewish Democrats plan to attend. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-CA) said it was “unseemly” to invite a foreign head of state to speak against White House policy, but that he would be a “gracious host.”

“One of the things that overshadows this whole controversy is the fact that there have been efforts over the last few years to politicize support for Israel,” he said. “The strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship has always been at its core a very bipartisan one. I think anything that threatens to jeopardize that is not good for the U.S. and is not good for Israel.”

Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, dismissed the controversy as “a tempest in a teapot.”

“It doesn’t matter that the president and the prime minister don’t like each other,” he said. “I’m mostly concerned about the U.S.-Israel relationship and that it remains strong and remains bipartisan. … The minute Israel becomes a partisan issue, then the U.S.-Israel relationship suffers.”

The most vocal Democratic critics of the invitation have been non-Jews. Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the most senior Democratic senator, accused Republicans of orchestrating a “tawdry and high-handed stunt that has embarrassed not only Israel but the Congress itself.”

The Jewish Americans who are skipping the speech have been careful in discussing the issue, wary of escalating the controversy.

“There are other venues where I’d be open to hearing from Mr. Netanyahu, and there are other time periods where I think it’d be appropriate,” said Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI). “But I think this was done in a way that was unhelpful to the America-Israel relationship, and I don’t want to participate in it for that reason.”

Noting that some outside political and pro-Israel groups are already threatening electoral retribution for lawmakers who don’t attend, Yarmuth posted a 600-word statement explaining his view that Netanyahu “has plenty of other places to express his opinions.”

“It is both sad and ridiculous that attending this speech will be used as a litmus test for support of Israel,” Yarmuth said. “I will not contribute to the impression that this body does not support the president of the United States in foreign affairs.”

Photo: ehpien via Flickr

Standoff Continues On Homeland Security; Ted Cruz Denies He’s To Blame

By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) rejected blame for an impasse in Congress that threatens to cut off funds for the Department of Homeland Security, saying Sunday that it was up to House and Senate leaders to chart a path.

“This was not my plan. This was leadership’s plan,” Cruz said on ABC’s This Week, referring to the stalled legislation that would fund the department while attempting to undo President Barack Obama’s recent immigration programs.

In December, “I said this plan doesn’t make sense,” Cruz said. “It gives away all our leverage, and it’s a plan that is designed to fail. So, I would ask leadership, this is their plan they designed. Let’s see what their next step is.”

Cruz’s comments on a pair of Sunday news shows extended a round of Republican finger-pointing over who is responsible for the showdown over the department’s budget and Obama’s immigration policies. Homeland Security funds are set to run out Feb. 28.

The showdown began in November, when conservative lawmakers demanded legislative retaliation for Obama’s executive action deferring deportation for up to 5 million people living in the U.S. illegally. Republican leaders sought unsuccessfully to win support for a plan to fund all government departments through the end of the government’s fiscal year. The two Republican factions agreed on a compromise that provided money for most of the government for the full year, but funded Homeland Security for just three months.

The idea of the compromise was that the GOP would have leverage to fight Obama anew this year. But so far, that plan has not worked.

In January the House passed a bill to fund the department and included amendments that would undo not only the actions Obama announced last fall, but a 2012 initiative that allowed more than half a million young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to temporarily remain in the U.S. Some Republicans in both the House and Senate argued that measure went too far.

Senate Democrats have blocked multiple attempts by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to open debate on the proposal, reflecting the limits of the conservative strategy.

Many in Washington call Cruz the instigator of the conservative plan. As Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH) urged the Senate to approve the House-passed bill, for example, he took the rare step of singling out Cruz as needing to do more to get the measure approved.

But the Texas senator sought to disavow the plan Sunday. Efforts to label him as the plan’s author were a “talking point for people who want to shift blame,” he said.

On CNN’s State of the Union, Cruz also sought to turn attention to Democrats, saying they were “holding national security hostage for partisan political objectives.”

“I’ve been willing to … take on my own party when my own party is not standing for the principles we’re supposed to stand for. It is time to see some Senate Democrats willing to take on their own president, but right now they’re putting partisan politics ahead of principle and that’s why they’re filibustering the funding for Homeland Security,” he said.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, in a separate interview on CNN, said the long-running uncertainty over his department’s budget has limited its ability to fulfill its mission.

If the funding runs out, most border security and transportation security officials would be required to work without pay. The department also would need to furlough 80 percent of the workforce for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Johnson warned.

“This is not a situation to make light of,” he said. “In these challenging times, we need a fully funded Department of Homeland Security right now.”

Democrats have echoed Johnson’s call for a so-called clean funding bill — one that would provide the money without any immigration provisions. Congress is scheduled to be in session for just two weeks before the deadline.

Asked Thursday if he knew what the Senate’s endgame was on the measure, Boehner bluntly replied: “No.”

“Listen, he’s got a tough job,” Boehner said, referring to McConnell. “God bless him and good luck.”

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Holder Says Lack Of New Gun Laws Is His ‘Single Failure’

By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The inability to enact new gun safety laws after the Sandy Hook school shooting ranks as “the single failure” of his tenure, Attorney General Eric Holder said in a televised interview.

“The gun lobby simply won, you know?” Holder said in the interview shown Sunday on MSNBC, conducted to mark the end of his time as attorney general.

Holder has called his visit to the site of the December 2012 massacre of 20 first-graders and six educators the worst day he had in office. After the shootings, President Obama appointed Vice President Joe Biden to lead a task force that would make recommendations for how to avoid such attacks.

The shooting spurred an effort in the Senate to enact stricter gun laws, particularly a broader requirement for background checks for gun purchases proposed by Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), a conservative with a strong gun-rights record, and Senator Patrick J. Toomey (R-PA).

In part because of opposition from the National Rifle Association, the Manchin-Toomey amendment fell five votes short of adoption, leading the Senate’s Democratic leadership to abandon the underlying bill. With Republican majorities leading both the House and the Senate, gun safety legislation is all but impossible on the federal level.

A group of Democrats led by Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and members of the Connecticut delegation introduced a bill last week Thursday to limit high-capacity magazines but said its passage would depend on a major public movement behind further gun control measures that has not happened.

In the interview, Holder was asked if the United States was “a nation of cowards” when it comes to guns, a reference to a statement he made in 2009 that the U.S. was a nation of cowards when it came to discussing race relations.

“I don’t think we are a nation of cowards. But I think that members of Congress need to have a little more backbone and stand up to what is a distinct minority even within, for instance, the NRA, and do the kinds of reasonable things that the American people simply want to have happen,” he said.

Holder downplayed what has been a largely hostile relationship with Republicans, calling his dealings with Congress “interesting” and claiming they had accomplished some things.

The nation has made “remarkable progress” on racial equality, he said, but he added that it was “extremely worrisome” that restrictions on voting have been adopted 50 years after the Voting Rights Act.

“There have certainly been hits that the civil rights movement has taken, but nothing that I think can’t ultimately be overcome,” he said.

Holder will step down as attorney general upon confirmation of his successor. Obama’s nominee to replace him, Loretta Lynch, appears on track to be approved by March.

AFP Photo/Alex Wong

As House Benghazi Committee Reconvenes, Democrats Renew Complaints

By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Democrats are renewing a public battle over the intent of a special House committee’s probe of the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi consulate attack, saying Republicans have intentionally excluded them from witness interviews and other key aspects of the investigation.

In a letter sent Friday to the Benghazi committee’s chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), top Democrat Elijah Cummings of Maryland also cited two instances in which the committee dismissed testimony from witnesses interviewed only by Republicans that contradicted allegations made by Republican members in public over the State Department’s cooperation with an independent review of the attack.

Cummings asked Gowdy to delay a planned public hearing set for Tuesday until both parties agree on a formal set of rules to govern the investigation, including guaranteeing that any witness interviews are conducted jointly by both parties and that any decisions to subpoena further witnesses and documents can be debated publicly.

Cummings said the panel should mirror the example of the House Intelligence Committee instead of the House Oversight Committee, previously led by Rep. Darrel Issa (R-CA), which he accused of manipulating testimony “to promote false political narratives.”

“In order for this committee to ‘transcend politics,’ as you put it, we must break significantly from (that) model,” Cummings wrote. “We should work together to go where the facts take us, and we should hold joint meetings, interviews and discussions with potential witnesses.”

Republicans are dismissing the Democrats’ complaints as simply picking a fight over process where they lack a substantive case to end the investigation.

In a statement, Gowdy spokesman Jamal Ware said there was no precedent in similar investigatory committees for a requirement that both parties interview witnesses at the same time, and that Republicans “will talk to Benghazi sources with or without the Democrats present just as they are welcome to talk to sources with or without Republicans present.”

“Chairman Gowdy has operated the Benghazi Committee in a more-than-fair and fact-based manner,” Ware said, adding that Gowdy has offered to establish rules that are “much more generous” than those that govern other congressional committees. “He will continue to work to address any legitimate minority concerns. He will not, however, allow the committee’s investigation to be hamstrung by politics.”

House Speaker John A. Boehner called for a special select committee to be formed on the Benghazi attacks last May, accusing the White House of withholding documents from other congressional panels in what he called a “flagrant violation of trust.” He later dismissed an Intelligence Committee report that found no wrongdoing by administration officials, saying that it was the Select Committee that would produce the “definitive” report. The House voted to continue the investigation in the new Congress as part of a larger package of rules approved on the first day of the 2015 session.

Democrats had debated whether to participate in the panel at all, initially seeking commitment on ground rules before doing so but ultimately agreeing to appoint members to act as a watchdog. Subsequent attempts to reach an agreement over rules, which included a meeting with Boehner in December, have failed.

The panel held just two public hearings that year, both somewhat mundane discussions of embassy security and the State Department-initiated review of the 2012 attack that claimed the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

Tuesday’s hearing was expected to address additional requests for documents from the CIA and the State Department.

But Cummings’ letter addresses the work of the committee behind closed doors, specifically his contention that Democrats were excluded from at least five witness interviews — first raised in another letter to Gowdy last November — and more recently that the panel’s Republican members dismissed testimony that would corroborate a previous House Intelligence Committee’s finding that there was “no support” for allegations that the CIA was collecting and shipping weapons from Libya to Syria.

“It is time to implement committee rules and practices that ensure transparency, fairness and bipartisanship,” Cummings wrote.

Boehner also said at the time he expected the committee “to work quickly to get answers for the American people.” But as the committee begins its work in the new year, Democrats are concerned that Republicans are intentionally slow-walking the process and will use it as a staging ground for attacks against former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a likely 2016 presidential candidate. Gowdy said in December that Clinton “is a witness that we would like to talk to.”

A spokesman for Gowdy did not respond to requests for comment.

Photo: Speaker Boehner via Flickr

Biden Promotes Community Policing To Ease Tensions

By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Citing the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Vice President Joe Biden said Monday that the U.S. needs to “bridge that separation” that exists between law enforcement and communities of color and suggested a return to “genuine community policing” to restore trust between the two.

In a possible preview of recommendations coming from the president’s so-called Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Biden recalled a major component of the 1994 crime bill he wrote was an infusion of billions in federal dollars to help hire 100,000 new police officers through what was known as the COPS program. Funding for that program has dropped by 87 percent since 1998.

“That means fewer cops in the streets, in the neighborhoods, building recognition, trust — seeing one another,” Biden said at a Martin Luther King Day breakfast in Wilmington, Del. “The result — more separation, less communication, more hostility, and a place for crime to thrive in a neighborhood (where there) are decent and honorable people.”

Biden used the holiday speech to discuss the polarizing political issue, presenting himself as a bridge between the two camps by playing up his reputation as a law-and-order politician and his personal connection to the local black community without which, he said, he “wouldn’t have this job.”

“I know when I see the decency and the honor and the dignity that exists in each of the communities of this city, they’re a reflection of the decency all of you represent,” he said. “But through that same period of time I’ve also worked with thousands of honorable women and men wearing a uniform. … And at times I’ve seen in their eyes the uncertainty and fear that comes with being asked to put their lives on the line, them wondering, ‘Who has my back?'”

He said Americans all need to agree on two points: that “cops have a right to go home at night” and that minorities “no matter what the neighborhood, have a right to be treated with respect and with dignity.”

Weeks after he attended a funeral service for one of two New York police officers who were murdered in the line of duty, he noted that both were minorities — and that in fact the city police department is now a majority-minority force.

“They had a humanity that was denied them by an assassin’s bullet, who judged them by the color of the uniform they wore, as Dr. King would say, not by the content of their character,” Biden said.

President Barack Obama formed the policing task force in December in the wake of violent confrontations between law enforcement and individuals protesting the death of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo. Its recommendations were to be delivered in 90 days.

In addition to beefing up community policing programs, Biden said the commission was looking at ways to increase diversity in police forces, increase the use of technology like body cameras, and new training methods that would educate officers “how to respond to dangerous situations without inflaming them.”

In his speech Biden made no mention of a law enforcement matter closer, literally, to his home — an incident Saturday night when an individual fired shots at his Delaware residence while driving past on a public street. New Castle County police and the Secret Service are investigating.

Photo: Tony Webster via Flickr

White House Plans To Tout Economy In Run-Up To State Of The Union

By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

HONOLULU — Returning to Washington with fewer numbers and increased doubt about their direction in the new Congress, Democrats are pushing President Barack Obama to pursue a more aggressive economic agenda that lays the groundwork for a political rebound in 2016 by focusing sharply on helping the middle class.

In interviews and public speeches since voters delivered an electoral gut-check in November, Democrats have offered a number of ideas for how the president should approach his final two years in office, ranging from specific policy proposals to suggestions for changing the way he works with both parties in Congress.

Democrats worry they lost ground to Republicans due to the absence of a clear economic message that balances claiming credit for progress since the 2008 recession with a call to expand benefits for middle-class families that still need help. Many lawmakers have concluded the presidential bully pulpit will be critical in framing the debate.

“In the minds of a lot of voters, economic fairness and the Democratic brand have in some ways separated, which is really tragic because that really is what we stand for,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), co-chairman of the House Progressive Caucus. “The president can help rebuild that brand.”

Democrats acknowledge the need for Obama to show he can work with Congress’ new Republican majorities, be it on tax reform, trade or the push to improve infrastructure that appears to be gaining steam.

But many, particularly those in the more progressive wing on the party, say the president needs to fiercely stand his ground on party priorities such as energy, health care and Wall Street reform.

“I think he knows where to draw the lines and he will,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH). “He’ll have plenty of support here to do it.”

Democrats hope the president will craft a more consistent and disciplined economic message than he did last year, when political pressures from the midterm election and a series of unexpected crises at home and abroad posed constant distractions.

“I think he really has to decide what’s most important to him and the country, and then he’s got to work very hard to put an edge on those issues,” said George Miller, the just-retired veteran Democratic congressman from California. “You can’t just do that with a single speech. You can’t just do that with a meeting or having a group of people to the White House. … Every day you’ve got to put your long pants on and go to work.”

The White House says the president will begin such an effort this week in the run-up to his State of the Union address this month. In a three-city tour starting Wednesday, Obama plans to highlight successes in the automotive, manufacturing and housing sectors and discuss new initiatives on college accessibility and job training.

“The president is eager to get to work, and looks forward to working with the new Congress on policies that will make sure middle-class Americans are sharing in the economic recovery,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said.

Obama’s relationship with his congressional allies has always been complicated, whether Democrats enjoyed significant majorities, as they did at the start of his first term, or after Republicans took over the House in the 2010 election.

Those differences have become more public since the November losses. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, suggested in a major speech in November that the decision to focus on passing health care reform, rather than continuing with a broader economic agenda, was at the root of the party’s struggles today.

“Had we started more broadly, the middle class would have been more receptive to the idea that President Obama wanted to help them,” he said. But the Americans who stood to benefit the most from the law were those least likely to vote, he added. “When Democrats focused on health care, the average middle-class person thought, ‘The Democrats are not paying enough attention to me.'”

Obama himself seemed to respond to Schumer in a recent NPR interview, saying Democrats across the board had not made “as good of a case as we should have” about his record, and that the Affordable Care Act was actually “one of the best examples” of how the party was addressing working-class voters’ concerns.

“There’s a burden on Democrats to need to make very clear to a broad swath of working-class and middle-class voters that we are, in fact, fighting for them,” he said.

The party’s challenge in 2015 is to unite with an approach that serves potentially conflicting interests — the president’s desire to cement his legacy and congressional Democrats’ need to set a foundation on which to challenge the GOP in 2016.

“We should all have the same interests in having a strong economic legacy, not only for the president but for the people that we represent,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a new member of the Democratic leadership team in the Senate. “I hope those interests will merge, and that includes doing what we can on income inequality … and the kind of things that there might be some common ground on.”

Some pointed to the aggressive moves made by the president since the election — on immigration and in foreign policy — as hopeful symbols that Obama will not hesitate to wield his clout when necessary.

“I think he’s already got his swagger back and is starting to have fun again in the job,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI). “I think he should feel free politically to try to fulfill every promise that he made in 2008 and 2012. And I think what he will find is rather than turn off independent and centrist voters, they will be attracted to a president on the move, who is taking action and not waiting for a Congress which has demonstrated its desire to stop him.”

Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, one of Obama’s earliest political backers and the Democratic National Committee chairman during the president’s first term, said Obama should shed his “admirable” reluctance to be seen as taking credit for successes.

“We would have these conversations and I would say, ‘Look, you’ve done something that’s very positive. You ought to tout it,'” Kaine recalled. “Your opponents are going to argue against you with the full force that they can muster, even to the point of making ridiculous arguments. So if you’re not promoting your own positive story when the other side is full-throated in their criticism, then you’re at a disadvantage.”

Others want the president to take a more engaged approach in shaping legislation to prevent Republicans from passing unpalatable bills that he will simply veto.

“The administration can sit back and wait until it shows up on his desk and sign it or veto it, or they can be constantly present in the legislative process,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-CT). “That hasn’t always been this administration’s strength.”

Other Democrats warned against veering too far out of the political center, particularly if Republicans do the same.

“If the right and the left want to hold their position just for the sake of just sensationalizing things, you’re not going to get anything done here,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-WV). “There’s not enough of us in the middle to hopefully pull everyone back together with some common sense.”

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said his main advice to the president is to be “relentlessly engaging.”

“We have to recognize that we can’t be purists here,” he said. “Whether it’s trade or tax or energy or health, there are a lot of things we can do. I think we’ve got to go with that attitude. Let’s make the most of the next 24 months and see where we can build on what they’ve been able to do so far. There’s a rich agenda if they want to pursue it.”

AFP Photo/Doug Mills