News

U.S. removes Cuba from terror list

The United States and Cuba moved one step closer to restoring formal relations today after the Obama Administration officially removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The news comes after the two countries expressed optimism last week that a larger deal that would re-establish embassies and allow for direct travel to and from each country was within reach.  Removal from the list was one of the major demands Cuba requested in its talks with the U.S. that began earlier this year.

In a statement released by the State Department on its website, department spokesman Jeff Rathke says that while policy issues between the countries still exist, ” Cuba has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.” More from Mr. Rathke below:

“The rescission of Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism reflects our assessment that Cuba meets the statutory criteria for rescission. While the United States has significant concerns and disagreements with a wide range of Cuba’s policies and actions, these fall outside the criteria relevant to the rescission of a State Sponsor of Terrorism designation.”

Last week, State Department official Roberta Jacobson told the media that while the U.S. and Cuba could not lock down a deal at the end of last week, the talks were “highly productive” and said that specific details could be negotiated between lower-level officials.

While others hurdles must be cleared to restore full diplomatic relations between the former Cold War foes, U.S. citizens are already flocking to the island nation in waves. According to The Guardian, the number of Americans that have visited Cuba since the beginning of the year has increased nearly 40% over last year. The majority of Americans visiting the island are going by way of Mexico since the U.S. tourism travel ban to Cuba remains in effect for now.  Still, The Guardian reports that over 38,000 Americans had traveled directly to Cuba from the States, nearly 10,000 more than the same time period last year.

 

 

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Education, Senate News, White House 2016

Sen. Sanders: Free college for all

Independent senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders proposed a massive bill yesterday that would make tuition at colleges and universities across the United States free for students to attend.

According to the post announcing the legislation on Sen. Sanders’ official website, schools would not charge tuition as the cost would be paid for by both the federal and state governments (two-thirds by the federal, one-third for state). In addition, the legislation would create an increase work-study programs, ban the federal government from making a profit on loans, and would create incentives to encourage colleges to bring down costs. The total cost of such legislation would be upwards of $700 billion over the next decade.

On his website, Sen. Sanders argued that if the U.S. economy is to remain competitive in the global market, then a college education should not leave graduates buried in debt and should be something readily available to all who wish to attend.

Sen. Sanders also pointed out that other modern countries have surpassed the United States in the number of college graduates they produce and the quality of the education those students receive.

“We once led the world in the percentage of our people with a college degree, now we are in 12th place. Countries like Germany, Denmark, Sweden and many more are providing free or inexpensive higher education for their young people.  They understand how important it is to be investing in their youth. We should be doing the same.”

The Vermont senator went on a media offensive yesterday to try to gather support for the bill. Among other things, Sen. Sanders appeared on MSNBC to promote the legislation, held a press conference with student organizations and recent college graduates, and peppered his social media account and website with various quotes and statistics about the rising cost of higher education.  Below is a taste of some of the senator’s social media blitz

In order to pay for the huge price tag, a tax on Wall Street transactions by hedge funds and the like would be created. With a Republican-controlled Congress currently in power, it would appear that the legislation to begin with would never pass in its current form. With a tax on Wall Street, the bill’s already slim chances are virtually non-existent.

House News, Transportation

Would-be ban on first class air travel for members of Congress vetoed

An amendment on a bill that would have prohibited members of Congress from using taxpayer money to buy first class seating on airplanes has been tabled.

The House of Representatives’ Rules Committee on Monday declined to bring the amendment (which was to be attached to a bill appropriating money to Congressional operations) to the House floor. The amendment was proposed by two Republicans (Rep. Rod Blum of Iowa and Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona) and a Democrat (Rep. Gwen Graham of Florida).

According to a statement posted on his website, Rep. Blum said House members don’t need “perks like first class travel to do our job.” Below is the full statement:

“This is not a partisan issue: members of the House of Representatives don’t need special taxpayer funded perks like first class travel to do our job. By adopting this amendment, the House can take a concrete step towards showing the American people that we are serious about good stewardship of taxpayer money — while holding ourselves accountable at a time when approval ratings for Congress remain near all time lows.”

Rep. Gosar also made his feelings known with the following tweet:

It turns out this isn’t the first time the three representatives have tried to curb the use of taxpayer money to buy first class seats on airplanes.

According to The Hill, Rep. Gosar and Democratic representative Raul Ruiz of California proposed a bill earlier this month called the COACH (Coach-Only Airfare for Capitol Hill) Act. As the carefully-crafted name implies, the bill would have prevented lawmakers and their staffs from using money from taxpayers to secure first class seats on flights. However, it would have allowed for those lawmakers and staffers with to use public funds for such seats in the event of medical necessity. Reps. Gosar and Ruiz also were behind a bill proposed in 2014 titled “If Our Military Has to Fly Coach Then So Should Congress Act.”

Rep. Graham also introduced a similar bill a little earlier this year. This particular piece of legislation would have not only banned lawmakers from using public money for first class seats on flights, but also would have ended the use of those same funds for personal long-term car leases. That particular bill was co-sponsored by Rep. Blum.

According to The Hill, the amendment was not put up to a vote Monday because some on the Rule Committee doubted whether the abuse of such perks is a widespread issue.

“I don’t think members are going around buying first-class tickets,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts). “I just don’t think it’s a problem.”

House News, News, Senate News, Spending/Taxes

Bill introduced that could lower interest on student loans

student-loan-default

A new bill introduced into Congress on Wednesday could give relief to millions of college graduates and their families (if passed, of course).

The bill- titled “The Bank of Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act”- would attempt to lower interest rates for a range of borrowers. Ivana Saric of DailyCal.org summarized the basic parameters of the bill nicely:

With the passage of the bill, certain existing undergraduate student loans could be refinanced down to a 3.86 percent annual interest rate, graduate student loans could be refinanced to 5.41 percent, and parent loans could be refinanced to 6.41 percent. This would save borrowers on average $2,000 per loan.

For reference, here are the current interest rates on student loans, as provided by StudentAid.ed.gov:

(Screenshot from StudentAid.ed.gov)
(Screenshot from StudentAid.ed.gov)

The bill was introduced on Capitol Hill by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (D) and Connecticut Representative Joe Courtney (D), and it is co-sponsored by over 100 other legislators (79 members of the House and 28 senators). In a statement released by his press office, Rep. Courtney said (in part):

Student debt—which surpassed $1 trillion last Congress—hinders our economy because it delays borrowers from major investments, including buying a home, starting a business, and saving for retirement. As higher education becomes more crucial than ever to secure a good-paying job, keeping college affordable must be a top priority in Washington.

According to Rep. Courtney’s statement, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that about $460 billion worth of current student loans would be eligible for refinancing if this proposal were to pass (which works out to about half of borrowers).

Sen. Warren introduced a similar bill in the Senate last September, but it was shot down by Republicans in the chamber. At the time, some members of the G.O.P. opposed the proposed bill because it would raise taxes on the wealthy through implementation of a 30% tax payment on income of people making $1-2 million (also known as the “Buffet Rule”). As of yet, it is not known if the latest version of the interest rate bill would be tied to the Buffet tax proposal.

Defense, Senate News

Senate confirms Ash Carter as Defense Secretary

Carter (Photo from Department of Defense)
Carter (Photo from Department of Defense)

In a 93-5 vote Thursday afternoon, the U.S. Senate voted to confirm Ash Carter as the nation’s 25th Secretary of Defense.

Carter, 60, was nominated by President Obama in September of last year to replace outgoing Defense head Chuck Hagel, who reportedly was at odds with several members of the Obama administration concerning the plans to defeat ISIL in the Middle East.

Reaction on Capitol Hill to Carter’s confirmation was generally very positive:

And from Sen. John McCain’s (R-Arizona) speech on the Senate floor:

On Afghanistan, Dr. Carter told the committee he would consider revisions to the size and pace of the President’s drawdown plan if security conditions warranted. To achieve the success that is possible there, he urged the United States ‘continue its campaign and finish the job. Dr. Carter indicated he is very much inclined in the direction of providing defensive lethal arms to help Ukraine resist Russian aggression. He pledged to do more to streamline and improve the defense acquisition system that takes too long and costs too much. And Dr. Carter agreed it is time to roll back sequestration because ‘it introduces turbulence and uncertainty that are wasteful, and it conveys a misleadingly diminished picture of our power in the eyes of friends and foes alike.’

The new Secretary of Defense is returning to a familiar place, as he served as the Deputy Secretary of Defense from 2011 to 2013. Carter had also served in the Department of Defense going back to the first term of President Bill Clinton. He has a bachelor’s degree in physics from Yale University in 1976, and received his doctorate from Oxford in theoretical physics in 1979.

Defense, House News, Senate News

Pres. Obama asks Congress to approve force against ISIL

President Obama speaking to military families in 2013 (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley)
President Obama speaking to military families in 2013 (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley)

In a letter sent to Capitol Hill Wednesday, President Obama has asked Congress to approve his request to use force against the terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

According to the official AUMF (authorization for use of military force), the president is asking Congress to approve a plan that would allow military use against the group for up to three years, but would permit the U.S. military from putting actual boots on the ground. The AUMF also would require the president to give reports to Congress every six months regarding what specific actions have been taken against ISIL under the approval of the authorization (the official request can be found here).

The following is a portion of President Obama’s letter to request (as found on the White House website), where he details what approval of this AUMF would allow him to do:

My Administration’s draft AUMF would not authorize long‑term, large-scale ground combat operations like those our Nation conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Local forces, rather than U.S. military forces, should be deployed to conduct such operations.  The authorization I propose would provide the flexibility to conduct ground combat operations in other, more limited circumstances, such as rescue operations involving U.S. or coalition personnel or the use of special operations forces to take military action against ISIL leadership.  It would also authorize the use of U.S. forces in situations where ground combat operations are not expected or intended, such as intelligence collection and sharing, missions to enable kinetic strikes, or the provision of operational planning and other forms of advice and assistance to partner forces.

Shortly after the White House announced its request, the office of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) released a statement saying the president’s request falls short of “a robust authorization.” More below:

ISIL is at war with our country and our allies.  If we are going to defeat this enemy, we need a comprehensive military strategy and a robust authorization, not one that limits our options.  Any authorization for the use of military force must give our military commanders the flexibility and authorities they need to succeed and protect our people.  While I believe an AUMF against ISIL is important, I have concerns that the president’s request does not meet this standard.  Now we will begin hearings and rigorous oversight so lawmakers and the public can provide their input.  Ultimately, our objective is to show the world that the United States is resolute in our commitment to destroy ISIL.

On the Senate side, majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) said the Senate would review the president’s request “thoughtfully” and would seek the advise and consideration of military leaders. You can see Sen. McConnell’s full comments below from his YouTube channel (everyone has one nowadays it seems, don’t they?)

The request is the first formal presidential request to use military force sent to Congress since President George W. Bush asked and received permission back in 2002 to invade Iraq. According to Yahoo!News, there is no timetable as of yet for Congress to consider and approve President Obama’s request for authorization.

House News, Immigration

Dueling Pianos: President, Speaker battle over Immigration

This photo says it all about their working relationship, doesn't it? (Photo from OutsideTheBeltway.com)
This photo says it all about their working relationship, doesn’t it? (Photo from OutsideTheBeltway.com)

“You say yes/ I say no/you stay stop/ and I say go, go, go”

The Beatles were such a great band that they apparently could write a song in 1967 about American politics in the 21st century. Who knew?

Ever since President Obama announced his plans to allow millions of undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States through the use of executive action in November of last year, Congressional Republicans have bashed the action and have threatened to tie the funding for the immigration action to the finances of the Department of Homeland Security, which are scheduled to run out at the end of this month.

In recent days, the rhetoric coming from the White House and Republican leadership has increased (that increase is probably due to the president introducing his budget, which included the money to fund the executive action, to Congress last week). First, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) hit the president’s action hard during a press conference last Tuesday. You can see it below (via the speaker’s YouTube account):

Not to be outdone, the White House released a video on its YouTube account of a meeting President Obama had with DREAMers. In the video, the president makes his case for why people like the DREAMers in the Oval Office that day should be allowed to stay in the country.

There you have it. The battle over immigration has spilled into cyberspace, and we’ll likely have more of these video battles in the weeks ahead. Or maybe the political duo will take the advice mentioned in another Beatles song:

“We Can Work It Out”