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Congress contemplating small tweaks to help small businesses weather health care reform

An effort to repeal a tax on insurance companies in the new healthcare reform law is gaining momentum in Congress, fueled by concerns that the fee would hit small businesses particularly hard.

The legislation would eliminate a fee on health insurance companies scheduled to take effect when the law goes into full effect next year. The fee, commonly referred to as the health insurance tax (HIT tax), will be calculated based on the plans insurers sell directly to individuals and companies, known as the fully insured market, and excludes plans set up and managed by firms themselves, called the self-insured market.

Most large companies self-insure their employees; consequently, experts warn that insurance firms will pass the added costs of collecting the fee to small businesses, which tend to purchase coverage in the fully insured market.

“It’s pretty straightforward, what’s going to happen, that the tax is going to be passed along,” Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) said in an interview, noting that insurance agents and underwriters have told him as much. “It isn’t really taxing the insurance companies, it’s taxing the people paying the premiums, and in this case, that’s small business owners.”

Matheson is among a handful of Democrats who have thrown their support behind legislation repealing the HIT tax, joining nearly every Republican in the House. Recently, the bill, H.R. 763, hit the 218-cosponsor mark, enough to secure its passage in the lower chamber; the tally has since increased to 221.

Sam Graves (R-Mo.) credited the bill’s momentum to concerns voiced by small business owners, including many who have testified during hearings before the House Small Business Committee, over which he presides.

“We keep hearing that from small businesses; that they’re premiums keep going up, keep going up, and now this thing’s coming along, and they’re going to go up even more,” Graves said. “That’s the reason you’re hearing so much about this tax and why you’re seeing such bipartisan efforts to repeal it.”

However, those efforts are flying against the political headwinds on the Hill, where lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have shied away from proposals to tweak the health care law, but for different reasons.

In many cases, Democrats are hesitant to admit the law is not perfect. Some fear they will “open a can of worms” if they acknowledge potential problems and pursue targeted solutions, Matheson said.

Meanwhile, Republicans stand to gain politically if the law many oppose fails, which has deterred most from seeking anything less than full repeal.

But that has not deterred small business lobbyists from pursuing small fixes, and they are starting to see signs of progress. For instance, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) last week introduced legislation that would change the health care law’s definition of full-time employee from 30-hour workers to 40-hour workers, a move intended to keep labor laws more consistent for businesses.

“It makes sense to change this,” Donnelly told Post reporter Sarah Kliff. “From Maine to California, every business agrees a workweek is 40 hours. What we’re trying to do is reflect the common sense we have on this in America.”

Supporters of the bill include the National Federation of Independent Business. The small business lobbying group led an effort to repeal the law last year and (when that failed at the hands of the Supreme Court) later zeroed in on the health insurance tax and employer mandate provisions.

“Small business owners would appreciate any type of relief that we can get moving forward on some of these provisions in the law,” Amanda Austin, NFIB’s director of federal public policy, said in an interview. “It’s definitely a challenge from a political standpoint, but these small tweaks could make a big impact.”

Austin says the HIT tax repeal “is now teed up” for a serious debate in the fall, once lawmakers have completed work on immigration reform and other issues taking precedent right now in Washington.

Its biggest hurdle, though, may be finding ways to make up for revenue the health insurance tax was intended to generate for Obamacare. H.R. 763 would simply repeal the fee; it makes no mention of how to offset the losses, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates at $101 billion over 10 years.

“I’m not going to lie, that’s going to be a serious challenge,” Austin said, noting that her group is taking the offset discussions “very seriously.”

If proponents can find the revenue elsewhere, Matheson says there is reason to believe the bill can continue to gain supporters on the Hill.

“On a law of this magnitude, you know everything wasn’t done correctly and there are some tweaks that are going to have to happen,” Matheson said. “On a few of these issues, there’s a growing sense that some changes would be supported by a large group of people in Congress.”

Follow On Small Business and J.D. Harrison .

Small business owners support Obama’s clean energy and environmental policies, poll shows

Most small business owners support some of the climate control and clean energy plans outlined this week by the Obama administration, according to a poll released Thursday.

More than three-fourths (79 percent) of small employers think the the government should set a national goal to increase energy efficiency by half over the next decade, and nearly twice as many believe government incentives for clean energy innovation should be a high or top priority than believe they should be a low or non-priority.

The results are part of a report released by the American Sustainable Business Council, a business advocacy and research organization. David Levine, the group’s chief executive, noted that most of the responses did not vary based on respondents’ political persuasions.

“Small business owners across the country and across the political spectrum believe that clean energy makes sense not only for the environment, but it makes good business sense, too,” Levine said in an interview. “There’s a recognition that these clean energy policies really are better for their financial bottom lines.”

During a speech in Washington on Tuesday, Obama announced several ambitious proposals aimed at reversing recent climate changes and making the country more self-sufficient. Most notably, he ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to limit carbon dioxide emissions for coal- and gas-powered utilities by 2015.

“I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing,” Obama told students during the event at Georgetown University.

Small business owners support that objective, too. Nearly two-thirds think the EPA should cap emissions in existing power plants, including 86 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of Republicans.

More than half of employers believe the government should also encourage banks to consider environmental criteria when evaluating loan applications and investment opportunities, according to the poll, which was based on 515 responses from employers with fewer than 100 employees. Sixty-three percent support a government mandate that would require 20 percent of electricity to be generated from sustainable energy sources.

It’s a slightly surprising stance from a group that is often considered purely anti-regulations and anti-government involvement, but one small business owner noted that these rules would mainly affect large energy and electricity producers, not firms on Main Street.

Susan Labandibar, president of Tech Networks of Boston in South Boston, Mass., added that devastation from recent natural disasters, including Hurricane Sandy and the twisters in the Midwest, has probably prompted some small employers to take climate shifts more seriously.

“Small businesses are uniquely vulnerable to severe weather events, and there has been a huge amount of disruption from some of these storms,” Labandibar said, noting that her own firm was hit hard by Sandy.

Meanwhile, Levine says the overarching “businesses-hate-regulations” notion has been fueled by policy discussions that have more to do with political sparring than reviving the economy.

“This shows that, when you ask some of these questions outside of the political arena, you get a different take than what you hear in Congress,” he said. “We need to change the dialogue in Washington, and get away from party-line rhetoric and talk more about what’s actually good for business and what’s actually good for the economy.”

Follow On Small Business and J.D. Harrison .

John Boehner Sticks With Tough Path For Immigration In House

WASHINGTON — The Senate may have passed a long-awaited bipartisan overhaul of the immigration system Thursday, but House Speaker John Boehner stood by his plan to set an exceptionally difficult path for a similar measure to succeed in his chamber.

“The House is not going to take up and vote on whatever the Senate passes,” Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters, speaking shortly before the Senate bill passed. “We’re going to do our own bill, through regular order.”

Not only will that legislation have to go through the entire committee process in the House, whatever emerges will have to meet the “Hastert rule,” named after former Speaker Denny Hastert (R-Ill.), which says the majority of the party in control of the House must back a given measure for it to receive a vote by the full chamber.

“For any legislation, including a conference report, to pass the House, it’s going to have to be a bill that has the support of a majority of our members,” Boehner said, referring to the members of the Republican caucus.

GOP opponents of the Senate bill said there was no way that bill would make it in the House.

“I doubt this bill can [pass in the House], but hopefully the issue can,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) told HuffPost.

“I also don’t think this is a bill that will pass the House of Representatives,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) predicted on the Senate floor.

Republican senators who back the bill were also not confident of its chances in the other chamber.

“Speaker Boehner has a tough job,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), declining to guess if a majority of Republican House members would get on board.

“We’ll see,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), though he did argue that it was in the GOP caucus’ interest to act.

“I’m very pleased, thankful — got a long way to go,” Graham said. “I think a lot of folks in the House will have a different view of this bill, but understand that you’re not going to put everybody in jail, and self-deportation is not practical.”

He was referring to staunch opposition on the right to any pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, including any measures that allow them to be legalized while remaining in the country.

Boehner declined to give his own position on a pathway to citizenship, but said his caucus would meet July 10 to hash out a plan going forward.

In the meantime, he said, individual committees would keep working on separate parts of an overall reform — a piecemeal approach that reform proponent Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has warned will fail.

This story has been updated to reflect passage of the bill in the Senate.

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

Administration says it will press to provide marriage benefits in all states

President Obama signaled Thursday that his administration would extend federal benefits to gay couples living in states that don’t recognize their marriages, a relief for advocates left with a thicket of uncertainty a day after their historic Supreme Court victory.

The president said the government should define marriage based on where a couple weds and not necessarily where they live ? a definition of wedlock that’s essential to how the administration will implement the court’s decision Wednesday to strike a key provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

“It’s my personal belief ? but I’m speaking now as a president as opposed to as a lawyer ? that if you’ve been married in Massachusetts and you move someplace else, you’re still married, and that under federal law you should be able to obtain the benefits of any lawfully married couple,” Obama told reporters at a news conference in Dakar, Senegal, on a trip to sub-Saharan Africa.

The president called the ruling a “victory for American democracy” and said he has directed his administration to “comb through every statute” to ensure that gay couples receive federal benefits for which they are now eligible.

The task is already proving daunting.

As jubilant same-sex couples scrambled to call attorneys and agencies and scour the Internet about new rights, officials across the government continued reviewing the 1,110 federal rights, benefits and obligations that marriage confers.

They range from Social Security and pension benefits to green cards for spouses who are not citizens. All but two are regulations the administration can change without congressional action. Social Security and veterans’ benefits are the two exceptions that may require Congress to make the legal changes to ensure that married same-sex couples get the benefits of those programs.

A White House official said the process will take time, but benefits for same-sex couples will come on a rolling basis.

But since the court stopped short of ruling that the right to marry must be extended to same-sex couples no matter where they live, state lines still determine who is legally married and who is not. And that’s where much is left for the Obama administration to interpret ? and opponents of same-sex marriage to contest.

Thirty-seven states do not allow same-sex unions. Virtually every federal agency has a different standard for how it defines marriage, whether based on the place a couple weds or where they live. Some agencies do not address either definition, such as the Office of Personnel Management, which makes policy on benefits for 2 million federal employees.

The federal employee retirement law, for example, defines a marriage for retirement benefit purposes as one recognized in the jurisdiction “with the most significant interest in the marital status” of the individual, unless that law is contrary to federal policy, according to the Congressional Research Service.

A decision on which state has the “most significant interest” likely would take into account where the employee lived while working and during retirement, and where the person eventually died. Also taken into consideration would be where the couple had financial assets and where the surviving spouse lives, personnel experts say.

Some issues are more clear-cut. For example, once the ruling takes effect, gays will be able to apply for green cards for their foreign-born spouses. Under immigration law, marriages are considered valid if they were legal where they were performed.

But most others are not.

“You could have federal employees in D.C. getting all the benefits of marriage,” said Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group. “Legally, across the river in Arlington [County], they would not get them.”

Sainz called the president’s comments Thursday an “in­cred­ibly encouraging” sign to resolving the murkiness.

“We are literally sitting on pins and needles waiting on guidance from the administration on how the court’s decision will be put into practice.”

As with immigration, the Pentagon defines marriage based on the place of celebration. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the military will extend to same-sex couples medical and dental care, access to base housing and commissaries and other benefits, including the right to a burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

But for Defense Department civilians, who are covered by OPM’s murkier definition of marriage, these benefits are not as cut-and-dried.

Hagel said there is no estimate yet on how much it will cost to make the changes mandated by the ruling. “But make no mistake, it will be implemented in its entirety,” he told reporters.

Defense officials said they have launched an effort to update systems for issuing identification cards for same-sex spouses, but estimate that it will take six to 12 weeks to complete.

Stephen Peters, president of the American Military Partner Association, said some same-sex military couples now in domestic partnerships are planning to travel to states where gay marriage is legal and get married to qualify for benefits.

Shannon Simpson, who married Army 1st Lt. Ellen Schick at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in November, said the couple are already examining what steps they will need to take to get access to the same benefits provided opposite-sex couples.

“We were looking at some of that material last night, trying to figure out what kind of paperwork I’ll have to file,” said Simpson, 26.

Simpson, who lives off-post with her spouse, will also have access to the Keller Army Community Hospital on the West Point campus where Schick, a registered nurse, is assigned.

“There’ve been times I’ve gotten ill and we’ve had to drive 45 minutes over a mountain to get to an urgent-care clinic, and thinking the whole time that this is ridiculous that we can’t drive five minutes to the hospital where she works,” Simpson said.

Questions remain about how the Supreme Court decision will affect taxes and tax filings for same-sex couples. Currently, federal law treats them differently depending upon whether their states recognize same-sex marriage and whether the couple owns property.

“We had to find special accountants who knew how to do it,” said California resident Karen Golinski, a federal attorney. “I don’t think most people understand how difficult life can be when the law doesn’t treat you the same as everyone else.”

Suzanne Artis, who lives in Connecticut with her same-sex spouse, said the ruling “feels a little unfinished.”

“The result was great, but I’m looking forward to closure ? complete closure.”

Some conservative leaders who oppose the court’s ruling said Thursday that Obama may be treading on shaky legal ground by redefining marriage in states that have made it clear they do not support gay marriage.

“We would support a narrower interpretation that would only apply to the state of domicile,” said Peter Sprigg, senior fellow at the Family Research Council, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of DOMA.

“If we now say the same-sex couples will be recognized as married even where states don’t allow it, you would have inconsistent benefits,” he said. “You would have to file two tax returns, federal and state, according to different laws.”

Sprigg acknowledged that a legal challenge if the federal government extends benefits to states that don’t recognize gay marriage could be tricky:

“The challenge would be to figure out who suffers harm from that recognition,” he said.

Josh Hicks contributed to this report.

Student loan rate likely to double on Monday, but lawmakers hope to reverse hike

Lawmakers acknowledge that the rate on a low-interest federal loan for millions of college students in financial need is likely to double on Monday because of a congressional stalemate over how to stop that from happening.

But Democratic senators said Thursday that the rate hike on new subsidized Stafford loans ? to 6.8 percent from the current 3.4 percent ? will be temporary and reversible.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said the Democratic-led Senate is expected to vote July 10 on whether to take up a bill that would fix the rate for such loans at 3.4 percent for a year, retroactive to Monday.

“We’re going to keep at it until we get this done,” Stabenow said, adding that “the White House is completely in support of what we are doing.”

Whether the bill that Stabenow and 34 other Democrats are sponsoring will succeed is unclear. The Senate has been in a logjam on student loans for weeks ahead of the rate-doubling deadline that was set a year ago.

On June 6, a motion to proceed to a similar Democratic bill, which proposed a two-year extension of the 3.4 percent rate, drew 51 votes of support, well short of the 60 required to overcome a Republican filibuster. That day, a motion to proceed to a Republican bill establishing market-based rates on various types of student and parent loans died on a vote of 40 to 57.

On May 23, the Republican-led House approved a bill largely on party lines that would tie interest rates to the government’s cost of borrowing. The House bill was forecast to produce an interest rate of less than 5 percent on Stafford loans for the coming academic year. The rate on individual Stafford loans under the House bill would vary from year to year with the rise and fall of the yield of the 10-year Treasury note but would be capped at 8.5 percent.

The Obama administration threatened a veto of the House bill, saying that its variable-rate system would produce too much uncertainty for students and parents.

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said Saturday in the weekly Republican radio address that the House has done its part to solve the problem.

“We’re in this predicament because politicians put themselves in charge of setting interest rates, guaranteeing exactly this type of down-to-the-wire uncertainty for students and their families,” Kline said. “What we need is a long-term solution that gets Washington out of the business of setting rates altogether.”

Kline said in an interview that he is optimistic about prospects for a deal, citing a bipartisan plan for market-based rates that emerged this week with support from Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and others. “There’s a lot of room here for a possible agreement,” Kline said.

President Obama also has offered a market-based approach. Under his budget, made public in April, all federal education loans would be pegged each year to the yield on the 10-year Treasury note. Unlike the House bill, the Obama plan would lock the interest rate once a given student or parent takes out a loan. But the Obama plan drew criticism from some student advocates because it had no rate cap.

Last year, when Congress faced a similar issue, it froze the subsidized Stafford rate for a year at the urging of Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. But student loan policy has drawn less attention this year now that the presidential election is over.

One Step Closer

What a week it has been in politics. Just when we had started to believe that inaction and regressive social policy could become the norm, the Senate, the Supreme Court, and even the Texas Legislature showed us that it’s still possible for government bodies to do what they’re supposed to do – reflect the needs and concerns of our people, even those who have historically been marginalized and disenfranchised.  And today, the Senate’s passage of S. 744, which recognizes that immigration reform is good for our economy, our democracy, and our society, has created what I hope is unstoppable momentum.

Keep Reading…

Fuel Efficient and Hybrid Cars Reduce State Gas Revenues; States Look for Alternative Funding Sources

State gas taxes that fund everything from new roads, bridges and paving to bike paths, mass transportation and light rail declined from $40.7 billion in 2004 to $37.9 billion in 2010, according to inflation-adjusted data from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a research group in Washington. The decline will continue and the slope downward is expected to get steeper as consumers increasingly drive fuel efficient, hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles.

The Obama administration has mandated higher fuel efficiency standards; cars must average 54.5 mpg by 2025.  Meanwhile, consumers have howled about the price of gas which now averages about $3.58 per gallon but at times has been higher than $4 per gallon. The lower price, while better for consumers, is bad for the states because it means less tax revenue. In California, the gas tax has climbed from 36 cents per gallon to 39.5 cents per gallon recently and state officials said explicitly that the state’s environmental policies, which mandate greater fuel efficiency, have reduced revenues.

Keep Reading…

Q&A: Probes of IRS treatment of tea party proceed

WASHINGTON (AP) — The head of the Internal Revenue Service testifies to Congress this week after IRS documents showed that progressive and other groups seeking tax-exempt status were listed along with conservative organizations as meriting close examination by agency screeners.

With IRS chief Danny Werfel preparing to answer questions Thursday from the House Ways and Means Committee, here’s where things stand with his beleaguered agency:

Q: Do the latest revelations mean the IRS subjected progressive groups pursuing tax-exempt designations to the same tough treatment that tea party organizations received?

A: In interviews, leaders of some liberal and other groups – such as advocates of the medical use of marijuana – say they faced detailed questions and long delays. So far it remains unclear whether the extent of the problems they faced was as widespread as the ones that dozens of conservative groups confronted. Werfel is likely to get questions on that from lawmakers, especially Democrats.

Q: Why were groups’ applications examined so closely?

A: The IRS must determine who qualifies for tax-exempt status. One designation sought by many organizations – called 501(c)(4) for its tax code section – lets groups help candidates’ election campaigns if it isn’t their primary activity.

Thanks to vague laws and regulations, that means the IRS must painstakingly study the activities of all politically active groups that apply for that designation. What was different about this episode is that conservative groups – and apparently others too – were given close scrutiny because of their names or statements on their applications or websites.

Q: Did President Barack Obama or any top White House, administration or Obama campaign official start or direct the IRS targeting of conservatives?

A: Several Republicans have suggested the operation was directed by Obama allies and was purposely aimed at his conservative adversaries. There is no evidence yet that anyone from the Obama administration or his political organization was involved in the targeting of conservatives.

Q: Then who started it and why?

A: According to Treasury Department Inspector General J. Russell George and testimony to congressional committees, the screening started with a handful of IRS workers in the Cincinnati office who process around 5,000 applications for tax-exempt status every month.

In early 2010, one worker passed an application from a tea party organization to his boss because he thought their tax treatment could attract news media attention. The boss forwarded it to his superiors, including the IRS exempt organizations office in Washington, which oversaw the Cincinnati screeners and expressed interest.

After that, the boss back in Cincinnati – who told congressional investigators that the IRS wants to treat high-profile cases consistently – had his screeners look for similar applications. Eventually they and others set aside dozens of such cases.

Q: What did the IRS do with the conservative groups’ applications that were set aside?

A: About 40 were shared with an IRS attorney in Washington, who provided technical advice.

That ended up causing a 13-month period – from October 2010 to November 2011 – during which no real work was done on tea party applications. According to testimony to Congress and George’s report in May, Cincinnati IRS workers thought their Washington bosses were working on guidelines but Washington thought work in Cincinnati was proceeding. There is no evidence yet that Washington’s involvement had any other impact on the cases.

Q: Where did the lists come from?

A: According to George, in May 2010 IRS officials began compiling spreadsheets listing characteristics that screeners were supposed to seek. That list contained the term “tea party” by August 2010 but kept evolving.

George has reported that by June 2011, the list also included “patriots” and “9/12,” plus mentions of making America better and criticism of how the country was being run. He has said that after several changes, by May 2012 the spreadsheet was revised to shift its focus away from applicants’ policy views and instead toward activities permitted by Treasury regulations.

Democrats from the House Ways and Means panel released 15 of the lists this week. They showed that various points the lists included terms like “Progressives” and “Healthcare legislation.” As recently as April of this year they contained “Paying National Debt” and “Green Energy Organizations.” Werfel, who was given his job in May by Obama, said this week that he ordered use of the lists completely halted earlier this month.

Q: How many groups were affected?

A: George’s report singled out 298 organizations for close study because of potential political activity. Of those, 96 had “tea party,” “patriots” or “9/12” in their names. There is no precise breakdown of the political views of the remaining 202 groups, but they included groups from the right, left and center.

Despite the careful scrutiny they received, George found that as of December 2012 none of the 298 political cases’ applications had been denied. Most remained undecided or were approved.

Q: What tough treatment did the groups receive?

A: Most tea party groups waited at least a year for decisions on their applications, with some waiting more than three years. In addition, the IRS sent lengthy questionnaires to many that included queries about their donors and plans, if any, by group leaders to seek public office.

Q: Who wrote these questionnaires?

A: That’s unclear, as is why the delays in processing applications persisted so long. Also blurry is why top IRS officials who said they learned about the targeting in spring 2012 didn’t tell Congress, even though lawmakers had asked them about it repeatedly because of complaints from tea party constituents.

Q: What’s next?

A: Besides Ways and Means, the Senate Finance and House Oversight and Government Reform committees and the Justice Department are pursuing investigations likely to take months.

Associated Press writer Stephen Ohlemacher contributed to this report.

©2012 The Associated Press

What’s in Obama’s plan to combat global warming

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama’s wide-ranging plan to combat global warming would for the first time put limits on carbon pollution from new and existing power plants.

Obama on Tuesday announced plans to reduce domestic carbon dioxide emissions by 17 percent between 2005 and 2020 and “put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution.”

Other aspects of the plan would boost renewable energy production on federal lands, increase efficiency standards and prepare communities to deal with higher temperatures. The 12 hottest years on record all have occurred in the past 15 years.

Obama’s plan would be put in place through executive order, bypassing Congress, which has stalemated over climate legislation in recent years.

Some questions and answers about the climate plan:

Q: What is Obama proposing?

A: The linchpin of his plan is a timetable to limit carbon dioxide emissions from new and existing power plants. Forty percent of U.S. carbon emissions, and one-third of greenhouse gases overall, come from electric power plants, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. The Obama administration already has proposed controls on new plants, but those controls have been delayed.

Under Obama’s plan, the Environmental Protection Agency will issue a new proposal by late September to regulate greenhouse gases from new power plants. By next June, EPA will propose guidance for states to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. Greenhouse gases are blamed for global warming.

Both proposals are expected to be made final in 2015, with states required to submit plans to regulate greenhouse gases from existing power plants no later than June 2016.

Q: What else does he want?

A: Obama’s plan also would expand development of renewable energy such as wind and solar power on public lands. The president hopes to generate enough electricity from renewable energy projects to power the equivalent of 6 million homes by 2020, effectively doubling the electric capacity federal lands now produce. He also set a goal to install 100 megawatts of energy-producing capacity at federal housing projects by the end of the decade.

Obama also announced $8 billion in federal loan guarantees to spur investment in technologies such as carbon “capture” systems that can keep carbon dioxide produced by power plants from being released into the atmosphere.

Q: What legal authority does Obama have to restrict greenhouse gas emissions by power plants?

A: A 2007 Supreme Court ruling declared that under the Clean Air Act the EPA has authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions as air pollutants. After the Bush administration resisted such steps, the EPA in 2009 under Obama concluded that greenhouse gases endanger human health and welfare, triggering controls on automobiles and other large sources.

Until this year, the Obama administration always has said it preferred to address global warming through legislation rather than executive action. However, in his State of the Union address in February, Obama declared that if Congress would not act on global warming, he would.

Q: What is the states’ role?

A: Ultimately it is up to states to develop standards for greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, but they do so under federal guidelines established under the Clean Air Act.

Q: Is legal action likely?

A: Yes, legal challenges are a near certainty. Some legal experts question whether the Clean Air Act allows the EPA to limit carbon pollution from existing plants before finalizing rules for future plants.

Roger Martella, an EPA general counsel under President George W. Bush, said Obama’s proposals are “very much in uncharted legal waters. This is not a settled area of law.”

Even if courts uphold the EPA’s right to act, further legal challenges are likely. Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a coalition of utilities and energy companies, said previous EPA regulations have had technical and methodological errors that had to be fixed, often under court order.

Q: What is the political reaction to the president’s plan?

A: Obama cited global warming as top priority in his first presidential campaign and he suffered a major defeat in the Senate when a climate bill was withdrawn without a vote. The president largely ignored the issue during his campaign for re-election in 2012, but mentioned it on election night and recommitted to fight climate change at the start of his second term. Environmental activists have been irked that Obama’s high-minded goals never materialized into a comprehensive plan.

Republicans quickly dismissed the plan announced Tuesday as a “war on coal” and jobs. “It’s tantamount to kicking the ladder out from beneath the feet of many Americans struggling in today’s economy,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a major coal-producing state.

Environmental groups offered a mix of praise and wariness that Obama would follow through on his ambitious goals. “People are happy that the president is finally staking out ownership of this important issue. That enhances the idea that something will get done,” said Frank O’Donnell, executive director of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch.

Bill Snape of the Center for Biological Diversity said Obama’s proposal “isn’t big enough, doesn’t move fast enough to match the terrifying magnitude of the climate crisis.”

Q: What’s the industry’s reaction?

A. Nick Akins, CEO of Ohio-based American Electric Power, one of the nation’s largest utilities, said in an interview Tuesday that as long as utilities like his are given enough time to transition to a cleaner fleet of power plants, Obama’s plan can be carried out “without a major impact to customers or the economy.”

Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, which represents electric power companies, said officials look forward to working with the administration as it develops the plan, along with members of Congress and the states, “which will play a critical role.”

Q: What about the Keystone XL Pipeline?

A: In a surprise move, Obama offered a rare insight into his deliberations on Keystone XL, a proposed oil pipeline from Canada to Texas Gulf Coast refineries that has sparked an intense fight between environmental activists and energy producers. The White House has insisted that the State Department is making the decision independently, but Obama said Tuesday he’s instructing the department to approve it only if the project won’t increase overall net emissions of greenhouse gases. “Our national interest would be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution,” Obama said.

Obama’s remarks appeared designed to reassure environmentalists, but they also could indicate an easing of the way for the pipeline, if the carbon standard is met, as pipeline supporters argue.

“The almost five-year review of the project has already repeatedly found that these criteria are satisfied,” said Russ Girling, president and CEO of TransCanada, the Calgary-based company that has proposed the pipeline.

But Daniel J. Weiss, a senior fellow at the liberal leaning Center for American Progress, said that “for the first time, the president has set a do-no-climate harm standard before he approves the Keystone XL pipeline. That will be difficult standard to meet.”

Associated Press writer Jonathan Fahey in New York contributed to this report.

Follow Matthew Daly on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC

©2012 The Associated Press

States promise quick action after court ruling

ATLANTA (AP) — Across the South, Republicans are working to take advantage of a new political landscape after a divided U.S. Supreme Court freed all or part of 15 states, many of them in the old Confederacy, from having to ask Washington’s permission before changing election procedures in jurisdictions with histories of discrimination.

After the high court announced its momentous ruling Tuesday, officials in Texas and Mississippi pledged to immediately implement laws requiring voters to show photo identification before getting a ballot. North Carolina Republicans promised they would quickly try to adopt a similar law. Florida now appears free to set its early voting hours however Gov. Rick Scott and the GOP Legislature please. And Georgia’s most populous county likely will use county commission districts that Republican state legislators drew over the objections of local Democrats.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the 5-4 opinion that struck down as outdated a key provision of the landmark 1965 law credited with ensuring ballot access to millions of black Americans, American Indians and other minorities. Roberts’ opinion gives Congress an opportunity to retool the law’s so-called preclearance sections that give the U.S. Justice Department veto power over local elections. But the prospects of a quick fix seem uncertain, at best, given stark ideological divides on Capitol Hill on a host of matters.

Southern Republicans largely hailed Roberts’ opinion as recognition of racial progress since President Lyndon Johnson signed the law at the apex of the civil rights movement.

“Over the last half-century, Georgia has reformed, and our state is a proud symbol of progress,” Gov. Nathan Deal said. “Today’s decision guarantees that Georgia will be treated like every other state – a right we have earned.” In neighboring Alabama, where the case originated, Gov. Robert Bentley said, “We have long lived up to what happened” in the Jim Crow era, “and we have made sure it’s not going to happen again.”

Democrats and civil rights attorneys lambasted the ruling as a setback for the very advancement Republicans highlighted, and the dissenters predicted a proliferation of laws designed to curtail minority participation in elections.

Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat and civil rights activist who was beaten as he advocated for voting rights in the 1960s, called the ruling a “dagger.”

President Barack Obama said he was “deeply disappointed” in the court overturning “well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair.”

At Obama’s Justice Department, officials opted for caution. They said the agency, which enforces federal voting laws, has in hand 276 submissions from state and local governments seeking preclearance. The department will issue guidance on those pending laws and procedures in the next few days, they said.

For five decades, the law required that certain states and localities with a history of discrimination submit all of their election laws – from new congressional district maps to the precinct locations and voting hours – to Justice Department lawyers for approval. Congress reauthorized the law multiple times, the latest in 2006 with overwhelming bipartisanship capped by a 98-0 Senate vote.

Election officials in Alabama’s Shelby County, a suburban enclave nestled between civil rights hot spots Birmingham and Selma, brought suit asking the courts to invalidate Sections 4 and 5, which set preclearance parameters.

The Roberts majority, which included conservatives Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, sidestepped whether the advance approval requirement is constitutional, ostensibly leaving Section 5 on the books. But the justices, all appointed by Republican presidents, threw out the Section 4 formula that determined what jurisdictions must have the advance federal oversight. Roberts reasoned that the original formula – extended through reauthorizations – is obsolete because Congress based it on 1960s voter registration and turnout data. The chief justice emphasized, however, that Congress can rewrite the formula to reflect “current conditions,” though he didn’t offer recommendations or acknowledge the inherent political challenges involved.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented on behalf of the court’s liberal bloc, all of them Democratic appointees. Ginsburg argued that continued discrimination, which Roberts himself noted in the majority opinion, demands continued federal oversight.

Critics of the majority also chided court conservatives for striking down congressional action, given that the 14th and 15th amendments authorize Congress to enact laws enforcing the amendments’ protections against discrimination.

Before the ruling, the formula required reviews for all of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia; and parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota.

Justice Department attorneys have used Section 5 in multiple cases to block voter identification laws, saying they discriminate against minority and poor voters who are less likely to have the required government-issued documents. Over the law’s existence, many Southern states have ended up watching courts drawing legislative and congressional district lines after federal authorities used Section 5 to invalidate what state lawmakers did.

South Carolina has successfully implemented a voter identification law, but only after revising its preferred policy after Gov. Nikki Haley and other Republicans negotiated with the Obama administration. Under the court’s ruling, no negotiations would’ve been necessary.

Within hours of Tuesday’s decision, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott declared on Twitter, “(U.S. Attorney General) Eric Holder can no longer deny VoterID in Texas.” The Texas Department of Public Safety announced later in the day that on Thursday it would begin distributing photo IDs under a 2011 law that Holder’s lawyers had blocked under Section 5.

In Mississippi, the secretary of state said her office would begin enforcing a pending voter ID law for primaries in June 2014. North Carolina Republicans said they plan swift action on a pending voter ID bill.

Laughlin McDonald, who heads the American Civil Liberties Union’s voting rights office, said he agrees that pending submissions to the Justice Department are now moot. It’s less clear what happens to scores of laws that the feds have already denied since the 2006 reauthorization. McDonald said he believes a state or other covered jurisdiction would have a strong case to argue that it could implement any affected law it has passed since the reauthorization.

That could be an issue in some disputes over at-large voting districts. The Justice Department denied some proposals where the population of an entire county or city would elect all representatives of a governing body, potentially diluting the influence of a minority that would otherwise be able to influence outcomes within single districts.

The case does not affect the act’s Section 2 prohibition against voter discrimination based on race, color or other minority status. Still, the burden shifts to a citizen who must prove discrimination, whereas the preclearance process required state and local governments to prove in advance that a policy wouldn’t harm minority voters. Also untouched is Section 3, which allows the government to require preclearance based on more recent discrimination. The Justice Department has used that provision to extend oversight in Arkansas and New Mexico.

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican who supports the court’s finding, said Section 2 gives citizens a legal recourse, while Section 3 gives the government a tool to police wayward local officials. He noted that Holder used Section 2 to go after Pennsylvania’s voter ID law in a state not covered by preclearance.

“Look,” he said, “this is already happening in other states and nobody is screaming and hollering about it.”

©2012 The Associated Press

Supreme Court Gay Marriage Ruling Will Tighten Ethics And Campaign Finance Laws

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court’s ruling overturning the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act will alter a host of ethics and campaign finance laws that apply to elected and appointed officials as well as campaign donors.

Ethics laws requiring disclosure of spousal income, banning gifts to spouses from certain sources and banning nepotism will now apply to elected, executive and federal agency officials in same-sex marriages and unions. Also, married same-sex couples will now be able to give joint contributions from a single bank account to political campaigns.

These changes underline how much the DOMA affected federal statutes, beyond those debated when the law was passed. The court, in the ruling issued Wednesday, noted that, because of DOMA, key “government-integrity rules do not apply to same-sex spouses.”

The government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a brief in the DOMA case arguing that the application of DOMA provided exemptions from ethics laws for married gay couples and harmed the public by opening avenues for nepotism and corruption while limiting certain disclosure laws.

“It means that the same sorts of restrictions that apply to heterosexual married couples will apply to gay married couples,” said CREW executive director Melanie Sloan after the court’s ruling. “It’s terrific because there shouldn’t be exemptions from disclosure.”

The first real example of the disclosure exemption under DOMA emerged when Sean Eldridge, a Democratic congressional candidate and the husband of Facebook millionaire and New Republic owner Chris Hughes, filed his first financial disclosure report, as required by federal ethics laws. Normally, candidates must list their spouse’s assets in such reports, but Eldridge did not disclose Hughes’ vast wealth because DOMA prevented recognition of their marriage.

This exemption from disclosure also applied to agency heads in the executive branch. Under DOMA, the same-sex spouse of an agency head could receive payment from a company or industry under the agency’s regulatory power without making that payment public information.

Gifts over $1,000 and honoraria given to spouses will also now be required to be disclosed on financial disclosure reports filed by both congressional candidates and executive officials covered by disclosure laws in the Ethics in Government Act. Same-sex spouses will also be covered by a host of other congressional ethics laws limiting payments and paid travel, among other things.

Bribery laws will be expanded to cover same-sex spouses of federal and District of Columbia officials, previously not the case under DOMA. As the CREW brief noted, “as a result [of DOMA], same-sex spouses might avoid culpability for engaging in conduct that would be criminal for opposite-sex married couples.”

While most of the changes to ethics laws involve expanding restrictions and disclosure requirements to cover same-sex spouses, campaign finance law will be ever so slightly expanded.

The Federal Election Commission will now have to allow same-sex couples to make joint contributions from a single bank account.

In an April advisory opinion brought about by Dan Winslow, a Senate candidate in the Republican special primary election to fill the seat vacated by Secretary of State John Kerry, the FEC ruled that because of DOMA same-sex couples could not make joint contributions from a single bank account.

The FEC opinion states that, if the court overturns DOMA, the FEC would happily revisit the issue. “If DOMA is held to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court – or is otherwise modified or repealed – the Commission will, upon request, revisit this issue,” it says.

Paul Ryan, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center, a campaign finance watchdog group in Washington, D.C., doubted that the FEC would even need to issue a new opinion. “I wouldn’t think there would be any need to go back to the FEC for clarification, it’s pretty simple.”

The court ruling will also have an effect on federal lobbying laws, which in the House ban the spouses of Congress members from lobbying their spouse’s office. In the Senate, spouses are banned from lobbying anyone in the body. These laws will now have to recognize same-sex spouses as lobbyists and extend these restrictions to them as well.

Congressional insider trading rules enacted in the 2012 STOCK Act, requiring members of Congress and their spouses to report stock trades more frequently and banning them from using information gained from their position to trade stocks, will now apply to same-sex spouses.

Anti-nepotism laws also will be expanded to cover the same-sex spouses of federal judges. Laws requiring judges to recuse themselves from cases where their spouse holds a financial interest will now apply to same-sex spouses of federal judges.

Supreme Court’s DOMA decision: What’s next

Big questions remained unanswered for many same-sex couples across the country Wednesday, even after the gay rights advocates responded with jubilation to the Supreme Court’s 5 to 4 decision overturning a key element of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Thousands of couples living in states that do not recognize gay marriage do not know yet whether they will be allowed to file their federal income taxes jointly. They also don’t know whether they are entitled to a range of marital tax exemptions, such as the estate tax provision at issue in the case that prompted the ruling.

That’s because the Internal Revenue Service, like many other federal agencies, defines marriage based on where a couple lives and not on where they married.

As a result, although the DOMA ruling grants full federal benefits to a gay couple living in Maryland, where same-sex marriage is now legal, it does not immediately grant full benefits to a couple living in Virginia, where gay marriage is not recognized.

Gay-rights supporters were quick Wednesday to press President Obama to address that inconsistency through executive action or other means.

Activists from the Human Rights Campaign and other gay-rights groups have proposed that Obama issue an order that all federal agencies define marriage based on the “place of celebration.”

Obama and his top aides, meanwhile, asked for patience. telling activists in a phone call within hours of the ruling that it will be complicated to figure out how to reinterpret or revise the hundreds of federal agency provisions affecting benefits for gay couples across the country.

Administration officials, requesting anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said White House lawyers and Justice Department officials had begun analyzing all the relevant laws with an eye toward swift action.

Yet, these officials said, the administration was confronting complex questions that require careful consideration to avoid future legal battles. Losing such battles, they added, could prove counterproductive to gay rights.

Some conservative leaders have already threatened to sue if Obama uses his authority to issue what evangelical organizer Gary Bauer called a “de facto redefinition of marriage in states who through their democratic processes have made it clear they oppose such a change.”

Some issues are relatively clear-cut, according to people familiar with the administration’s deliberations, because a number of agencies already define marriage based on where the wedding took place.

That is true for immigration matters. As a result, the court ruling defuses an emotional question that has been part of the debate over immigration policy raging in Congress. Once the ruling takes effect, legally married gays who live anywhere in the U.S. should be permitted to apply for green cards for their spouses.

The Pentagon also defines marriage based on the place of celebration. Secretary Of Defense Chuck Hagel said Wednesday that the agency “intends to make the same benefits available to all military spouses ? regardless of sexual orientation ? as soon as possible.” That, for instance, would give married gay couples the ability to live together in on-base housing and receive military health care.

A task force to begin assessing the ruling’s impact was created inside the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel several days ago, according to people familiar with the process.

Obama’s gay supporters signaled Wednesday that they are willing to show some patience ? but only to a point.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, pressed Attorney General Eric Holder on the matter during a private phone conversation Wednesday, according to people familiar with the call. Holder promised Griffin a “thorough and thoughtful process,” according to a statement from the gay-rights group.

Holder issued a separate statement Wednesday pledging that his agency would work “expeditiously” with other executive branch departments to put the court ruling into effect.

Senators amend the immigration bill to bolster border security

Senators on Wednesday approved a plan to double the number of officers along the U.S.-Mexico border, a key concession to Republicans who plan to join with Democrats in supporting a comprehensive immigration measure this week.

At the same time, House Republicans signaled that there will be no quick resolution to the months-long debate over the nation’s immigration laws, regardless of what happens in the Senate.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told colleagues Wednesday that he will only hold votes on immigration proposals that are supported by a majority of his own caucus, and another senior Republican lawmaker suggested that Congress might not settle the issue until next year at the earliest.

By a vote of 69 to 29, senators amended the immigration bill to include provisions that would double the size of the U.S. Border Patrol along the Mexican border, require the construction of 700 miles of fencing along the southern border and authorize the use of new radar and unmanned aerial drones to track illegal border crossings.

“Americans want immigration reform, but they want border security first,” said Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), a key backer of the amendment who helped secure 15 GOP votes for it.

But a majority of the Senate Republican conference banded together against the proposal, calling it a costly and ineffective way to keep people from crossing into the United States illegally.

The amendment “throws money at the border, but it doesn’t get the job done,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).

Supporters of the comprehensive immigration bill, led by the bipartisan “Gang of Eight,” hope to hold a final vote by Thursday evening. But Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) complained again Wednesday that talks on wrapping up debate had gone “backwards” amid GOP objections to proceeding.

One potential sticking point was settled Wednesday when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal benefits to same-sex couples who are legally married.

In response, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) withdrew two proposed amendments to the immigration bill that would have allowed same-sex foreign spouses and partners of U.S. citizens to apply for visas. Senate Republicans had threatened to jettison the entire package if the same-sex provisions were included.

Boehner, meanwhile, once again told his colleagues at their weekly closed-door meeting that no matter what the Senate does on immigration reform, the House will act on its own.

“It’ll be a bill that reflects the will of our majority and the people we represent,” Boehner said, according to GOP aides in the room.

Boehner’s reassurances pleased rank-and-file members, most of whom want the chamber to deal with border security before addressing the legal status of the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

“I think this train is getting ready to slow down” in the House, said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a key Boehner ally.

Cole predicted that the House won’t seriously debate any immigration legislation until congressional leaders and the White House broker deals to fund government operations in the fiscal year that begins in October and to raise the federal debt ceiling.

“I don’t see how a big immigration brouhaha helps you going into trying to figure out how to keep the government funded and what to do about the debt ceiling,” Cole said.

Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), a tea party-backed lawmaker and immigration lawyer, said the House should move methodically and should not accelerate the process to seek political gains with the nation’s fast-growing Hispanic population.

“We’re running around like chickens with our heads cut off, thinking that we have to do this for political reasons,” Labrador told reporters. “We don’t have to do this for political reasons. In fact, the biggest mistake we can make as conservatives is to pander to the Hispanic community.”

Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), another outspoken conservative, agreed. “If we’re going to do it for political expedience, it’s the flat-out wrong reason to do anything,” he said. “Everything we do should be based on sound, right policy.”

Obama climate strategy represents piecemeal approach

President Obama will invoke his executive authority Tuesday by undertaking a slew of measures aimed at curbing climate change and its impacts, from imposing the first carbon limits on existing power plants to requiring all federal projects to withstand rising seas and more intense storms.

The laundry list of policies Obama will outline in a speech Tuesday afternoon at Georgetown University ? some new, many of which build on existing programs ? hint at both the opportunity and challenge the president faces when it comes to global warming.

Freed from the need to compromise with Congress, Obama can enact regulations and issue directives that will change both government and the marketplace before he leaves office. But he is embarking on a piecemeal approach that targets individual sectors of the economy, with many of the details to be sketched out in the next two years.

Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute said the speech is “of extraordinary importance” because the president would be “resetting the climate agenda” by articulating a national strategy for the United States. “Now it matters because until it is clear where a nation is going on this, private investors and citizens don’t really know what long-term signals to follow,” Steer said.

But even as Obama answers a central question facing him in his second term ? by instructing the Environmental Protection Agency to issue a proposed rule to regulate carbon dioxide from existing coal and gas-fired utilities by June 2014 and finalize it a year later ? it remains unclear exactly how the agency will do that, and what it will cost industry.

The EPA has not yet begun drafting the rule, according to individuals familiar with the agency’s plans who asked not to be identified, and has only devised an “outreach” document aimed at starting discussions with state officials and other key constituencies. Furthermore EPA will now re-propose its rule limiting greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants in September, according to these individuals, and will establish separate standards for gas and coal-fired power plants as the utility industry had sought.

Jeffrey Holmstead, who represents several utilities as a partner at the firm Bracewell & Giuliani, said the administration will not specify how much the new power plant rule will achieve in emission reductions or what it will cost to implement, since “EPA just doesn’t know what’s realistic because the statute doesn’t give a lot of options.”

Kyle Danish, an attorney at the law firm Van Ness Feldman, said that the regulation of carbon dioxide from existing coal plants required a “novel interpretation of this part of the Clean Air Act,” because there is no best available technology for reducing CO2 emissions. “It’s a little bit of a twist but that’s the tool that they have,” he said.

Holmstead, who headed EPA’s air and radiation office under President George W. Bush, said the approach highlights the administration’s dilemma: “The White House faces a challenge because there’s not a single, big, bold action that shows they can deal with climate change.”

Instead the administration will expand on several of its current initiatives: developing fuel-economy standards for heavy-duty trucks, buses and vans beyond model year 2018; implementing energy efficiency standards for appliances and buildings that, combined with earlier rules, will reduce carbon emissions by a total of 3 billion metric tons or more by 2030; and pursuing a global agreement to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, potent greenhouse gases used in refrigerants and air conditioning worldwide.

Obama will also set some new clean energy targets, such as instructing the Interior Department to permit 10 gigawatts of renewable power on public lands by 2020 and pushing for negotiations at the World Trade Organization aimed at eliminating tariffs on the trade in environmental goods such as clean-energy technologies.

The agenda has drawn plaudits from environmentalists, who have been pressing the administration for months to take bolder action on global warming in the face of congressional opposition.

“Not only is this by far the most comprehensive and ambitious administrative plan proposed by any president, it’s also common sense and very popular with the public,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, an advocacy group.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) spokesman Don Stewart questioned that assessment, asking in an e-mail why Obama did not press this issue harder before the 2012 election. “In what amounts to a national energy tax, the president will pivot away from jobs ? the No. 1 issue for constituents,” Stewart wrote.

Both Republicans and some business leaders say they are concerned the proposals will jeopardize access to cheap fossil fuel energy that has helped keep America competitive with manufacturers overseas. Shares of U.S. coal mining companies slid sharply Monday, in part over concern of how the president’s plan would affect their future viability.

Robert M. “Mike” Duncan, president of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry group, said if the administration imposes impractical standards on coal companies, “taking America’s most significant source of electricity offline would have disastrous consequences for our nation’s economy.”

Still, the list of policies does not give environmentalists everything they wanted. It remains silent on two critical climate decisions the White House will have to make later on ? whether to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, and whether to compel federal agencies to take climate change into account when conducting environmental reviews of agency decisions.

And Joseph Stanko, who heads government relations at the firm Hunton and Williams and represents several utility companies, wrote in an e-mail that the president’s climate strategy “is a collection of previously announced efforts, so it’s really a ‘re-action’ plan.

Paul Billings, vice president for national policy and advocacy at the American Lung Association, said that while he was pleased to see the president focus on curbing carbon emissions from power plants, “One thing we’ve learned with this administration, proposing a regulation and finalizing a regulation is two different things. You have to start, but you have to finish.”

Several of the new initiatives Obama will outline Tuesday focus on helping the U.S. cope with global warming’s impact. The president will not only direct agencies to make it easier to spend federal funds on making communities more resilient to climate change, he will launch an initiative to ensure hospitals can withstand climate impacts and require the federal flood insurance program as well as any new federal road, building or project to take sea level rise and increased storm surge into account during planning and construction.

Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

How to Update the Voting Rights Act

Five Supreme Court Justices just rolled back the most effective civil rights provision in our nation’s history. What should we do now?

One option is to declare “mission accomplished” and forget about race in politics.

That, however, will not work. Although we have made amazing progress in the past fifty years, too many state and local politicians still maintain power by manipulating election rules.

Nueces County, Texas, provides one example. After the rapidly growing Latino community surpassed 56 percent of its population, the county gerrymandered local election districts to diminish the influence of Latino voters. The Voting Rights Act blocked Nueces County’s gerrymandering in 2012, but now that the Court has rolled back the Act, state and local politicians will have more opportunities to manipulate voting rules.

Voting rights protections are still needed, and it is feasible to design up-to-date and adequate protections. While today’s Supreme Court decision is a setback, Congress has the power to do the right thing and update the Voting Rights Act.

Republicans and Democrats should agree to modernize the Voting Rights Act based on two principles: (1) updating the Act’s preclearance and litigation provisions; and (2) requiring disclosure.

Update Preclearance & Litigation

The preclearance process of the Voting Rights Act applied to all or part of 15 states, and required those areas to submit proposed changes in voting rules to federal officials for approval. The Supreme Court held that the coverage formula requiring preclearance by some states but not others was outdated because it was based on election data from the 1964, 1968, and 1972 elections.

Congress should update the coverage formula to require that states and localities with recent voting rights violations preclear new election law changes. In addition, states and localities that violate voting rights in the future should be required to preclear their election law changes.

Congress should also update the voting rights litigation process. The law needs to stop unfair election rules before they are used and harm voters. For example, the updated Act should bolster the process for obtaining a court order to stop unfair rules from being used in an election. States and localities generally have more information about their proposed election law changes, and the updated Act should shift more responsibility to states and localities to show that a change is fair. Further, litigation standards designed for redistricting cases should be updated to more effectively address other problems — such as hurdles to casting a ballot.

Require Disclosure

Congress should also update the Voting Rights Act to require that states and localities with significant minority populations disclose election law changes via an online portal that is open to review by the public. States and localities should disclose the reasons for the changes, their anticipated effect on minority voters, and demographic data about the area.

Like the preclearance requirement, the disclosure rules should be comprehensive. The effects of all new election rules would be public, and this transparency would deter many unfair rules. Disclosure would increase states’ compliance with the Act and thereby reduce the amount and cost of litigation. Increased transparency would help federal officials and voting rights groups detect trends, devise non-litigation solutions where appropriate, and concentrate finite litigation resources on the most significant problems. While disclosure does not solve all problems, it can add value, as it does with securities trading, mergers that may trigger antitrust concerns, environmental impact statements, and campaign finance disclosure.

An updated Voting Rights Act will help not just voters of color, but our nation as a whole. Removing voting barriers and deterring politicians from manipulating election rules improves democracy for all Americans. Protecting voting rights also provides legitimacy to our nation’s efforts to promote democracy and prevent corruption around the world.

This is a critical moment. Public attention on the Supreme Court’s decision presents an opportunity to update the Voting Rights Act in Congress. But eventually public interest will fade, and the chance to update the Act will be lost. Congress must start the process now.

Spencer Overton is a Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School and a Senior Fellow at Demos. He is the author of the book Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerOverton.

Investing in the American Dream: Immigration and the EB-5 Program

Immigration is back in the headlines — the Senate judiciary committee has just approved a new immigration law, propelled by the efforts of a so-called “Gang of Eight” bipartisan grouping of senators.

Lost in the doubtlessly shrill debate that will soon begin in the Senate is an existing, little known but highly innovative path for foreign nationals who want to contribute to the U.S. economy, and become permanent residents in return.

Created in 1990 by Congress, the “EB-5,” or the Investment Immigration Program, aims to incentivize foreign nationals to invest capital and create jobs in the U.S. To qualify, an immigrant must create or preserve 10 full-time jobs in a period of two years, and make a minimum investment of $1 million ($500,000 for specially defined areas), and invest in a commercial enterprise (from a sole proprietorship to a corporation).

Data from the Department of Homeland Security shows that the program has grown from granting 142 permanent residencies (PRs) under the category “employment creation (investors)” in 2002 to 806 PRs in 2007 and finally to 3,340 in 2011. Considering that the annual authorization under the EB-5 program is for 10,000 visas, clearly the huge potential of this program is yet to be tapped.

It’s not just potential immigrants who look at the EB-5 as a great opportunity; domestic U.S. businesses also have great expectations from the program’s ability to provide alternative sources of capital. George Olsen, who worked on the $228 million EB-5 financing of the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, N.Y., is quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying “In the past, you had to explain it to people–people didn’t believe that the program was around.” Now, two Manhattan-based residential projects are planning to use the EB-5 route to raise the $260 million required.

So what trends is one seeing from analyzing EB-5 immigrant data? A study done in 2010 by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) by sampling 295 beneficiaries showed real estate is overwhelmingly the No. 1 industry for investors. California was the No. 1 immigrant destination, with New York and Florida being other popular states to settle. The study also revealed that while South Korea, China, and Taiwan were the top three countries from where EB-5 beneficiaries came, the program granted permanent residency to nationals from 30 other countries, making it truly global.

The program has not been without its share of criticisms and pitfalls. Charles Lane savaged it as a “visa-for-dollars program” in a Washington Post article, saying that “EB-5 has created a lot of jobs — for consultants, brokers and other fee-seeking middlemen.” Worryingly, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) recently indicted Illinois-based Anshoo Sethi for misleading about 250 Chinese investors by using the promise of EB-5 visas to sell $145 million in securities to finance a hotel-cum-conference center that had not yet received the necessary project clearances.

This makes the task of legitimate immigration consultants like Abbas Hashmi, and his firm, Long Island-based Green Card Capital, that much tougher. “Black Box investments with the promise of high returns where little is known about the people or the project where the money is going, is something we steer our clients away from.” The firm’s website also has a section on EB-5 fraud listing the various scams to educate potential EB-5 applicants.

Despite such issues, the EB-5 program has great potential. The Obama administration created Council on Jobs and Competitiveness has stated that, fully leveraged, the EB-5 program can generate 40,000 new jobs per year based on $4 billion in investment.

Maybe the future is indeed green.

7 Voting Measures That Didn’t Actually Need Preclearance, According To The Supreme Court

In a 5-4 decision on Tuesday, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, effectively releasing certain states, counties and towns from the requirement to receive federal preclearance before making changes to voting laws.

The majority opinion in Shelby County v. Holder found that the formula under Section 4 for determining which jurisdictions had to “preclear” voting changes was no longer valid because “things have changed dramaticallyâ€? in the South since the Voting Rights Act was signed in 1965. To preserve the preclearance process under Section 5, Congress must come up with a new formula to decide which places receive greater legal scrutiny.

Sections 4 and 5 were not arcane or rarely used provisions. They covered a lot of territory, including Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia and parts of California, Florida, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota and Michigan.

And they kicked in with some controversial efforts. Since the 2010 elections, GOP-controlled legislatures across the country have passed stricter voter ID proposals, limited accessibility to voting and polls, and drafted partisan redistricting measures. Seven of these actions were delayed by preclearance and, without the now-unconstitutional Section 4, would have had a more direct path to implementation.

Farm bill smackdown time to break up the bill

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Monday, June 24:


House Republicans revolted against their leaders last week, rejecting a farm bill that would have cost $940 billion over the coming decade. So for the second time in less than a year, Congress has failed to pass a renewal of the massive legislation that funds farm subsidies and food stamps.

While all the focus was on the Republican revolt, this was in fact a bipartisan tubing. Only 24 Democrats voted in favor of the House bill, which was defeated on a 195-234 vote. Republicans had counted on their rank-and-file to pass this, but 62 Republicans voted “no.”

Democrats and Republicans rejected the bill for different reasons. Many Democrats thought the cuts in food stamp spending were too severe. Many Republicans thought there should be deeper cuts in food stamps, others objected to the preservation of unjustified farm subsidies.

There’s value in this defeat. The Senate, which passed a $955 billion farm bill two weeks ago, is on notice that the House isn’t interested in business as usual.

Here’s an opportunity for Congress to do something revolutionary: Break up the farm bill. Debate and vote on food stamp policy and farm policy as entirely separate matters.

Republican Rep. Marlin Stutzman, an Indiana farmer, filed amendments to do just that, but House GOP leaders ignored him. They were counting on the usual alliance of interests to prevail. Farm-state Republicans and Democrats would vote “yes” for the subsidies that enrich rural landowners and Big Agriculture, and liberal Democrats would vote “yes” for the food stamps that benefit low-income constituents.

Take these issues separately.

Farm subsidies, the obsolete, Soviet-style affronts to the free market, have got to go. The concept of a farm safety net has been twisted into a grotesque abuse of taxpayer dollars.

Since 1996, farmers have been getting hefty government checks, called direct payments, for doing nothing but being farmers. Even their keenest supporters have given up trying to justify that transfer of wealth from taxpayers to some of the wealthiest people in the countryside.

Over the same period, federally subsidized crop insurance has morphed from a reasonable effort to protect against drought and flood into a costly and inefficient mess. The program funnels money to foreign financial companies, invites fraud on a massive scale and encourages degradation of the heartland by eliminating the risks that reward farmers who are good stewards and punish those who aren’t.

The House and Senate bills would eliminate direct payments, but crop insurance would be expanded. That can’t be justified.

Food stamp spending has soared over the past decade, partly because of the recession but also because rule changes have made it easier to qualify for aid.

The federal government provides a justifiable safety net to prevent hunger. But the food-stamp program’s expansion to $74.6 billion in 2012 from $18.3 billion a decade ago is alarming. The House bill proposes more substantial cuts than the Senate bill does.

When farm legislation failed last year, Congress passed an extension that expires on Sept. 30. If Congress is compelled to pass another extension because its members won’t embrace reform, it should at least exclude direct payments and crop insurance from the reauthorization.

Better yet, start over. Break up the farm bill.


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GOP Leaders Playing Both Sides On Immigration Reform

WASHINGTON — Support for comprehensive immigration reform is much broader in Congress than Republican leaders are letting on. To gauge which way the wind is blowing in Washington, watch which direction the money is flowing, and, more importantly, who’s directing the money.

The top two Republicans in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and John Cornyn of Texas, might not be working for immigration reform in the upper chamber, but their allies off Capitol Hill are leading the advocacy efforts. Two of the most well-funded groups working on behalf of reform are being run by senior aides in McConnell and Cornyn’s circle. One, American Crossroads, is run by close McConnell ally Steven Law, and is pledging to spend seven figures to press Republicans to approve reform. Law has said that reelecting McConnell, his longtime mentor, is the group’s top electoral priority.

FWD.us, the tech-funded group pushing for immigration reform, has tens of millions of dollars pledged to the fight. Rob Jesmer runs FWD’s D.C. operations as its campaign manager. He was executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee for the 2012 cycle, meaning he was in charge of electing and reelecting Senate Republicans, reporting to both Cornyn and McConnell. Previously he served as Cornyn’s chief of staff and is now a partner with FP1 Strategies, which represents Cornyn. Brian Walsh, the former spokesman for the NRSC, is also closely working with FWD. Jesmer and Walsh are both known in Washington as part of John Cornyn’s circle, having worked in his personal office and under him at the NRSC. Cornyn is now the No. 2 Republican in the Senate and has been speaking out against immigration reform amid his reelection bid in Texas. An amendment he pushed to include was considered by reform backers as an attempt to kill the legislation, and its defeat gave the process a boost of momentum.

And immigration reform backer the Chamber of Commerce is as closely allied with GOP leaders as any organization in Washington. Its spokeswoman, Blair Latoff, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. (Latoff is married to McConnell’s current chief of staff.)

The outside advocacy amounts to a classic Washington two-step, where politicians up for reelection tell the base one thing, while hoping for a different outcome.

It’s a sleight-of-hand that grassroots conservatives are starting to react against. On Monday, the Senate Conservative Fund accused McConnell of playing both sides, arguing that he was “quietly allowing” immigration reform to ease its way through the Senate. The Fund is allied with former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). “I feel like [McConnell] could block the sunset if he wanted to, yet somehow can’t stop immigration reform. They’re just pandering to the far right,” said a Senate Democratic operative, concurring with the Conservative Fund’s assessment.

On Monday, 67 senators cast a key vote in favor of immigration reform, signaling that the legislation will move through the chamber and head to the House. Cornyn was not among them. He told HuffPost after the vote that there shouldn’t be any conclusions drawn from the advocacy of those in his circle.

“It shows how they’re free agents,” Cornyn said, laughing. “They’re available to be retained to represent clients.” Asked if he was in touch with them, he said: “Not about this.”

Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a member of the gang of eight negotiating the Senate’s immigration compromise, said he hadn’t noticed that Cornyn and McConnell’s teams were allied with him, even as the leaders themselves aren’t. “I hadn’t looked at it that way,” he said. “We’re glad to get support wherever we can. I’m glad to have it.”

One GOP operative working for immigration reform said that it’s widely understood that getting reform done will be a boon for the party in general. “Every major donor meeting they go into, they’re told, ‘We’re getting our ass kicked with Hispanics,’ and they want that to go away,” he said of GOP leaders in Washington. “Most of the bread-and-butter groups in our party are for this, for the same reason leadership is — they’re just sick and tired of hearing about this.”

The Chamber and Crossroads are spending conservative donors’ money on the project to pass immigration reform. When it comes to FWD, it’s being done with Silicon Valley money, most of it ponied up by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Joe Green, the founder and president of FWD.us, the tech-funded group pushing for immigration reform, has reportedly referred to its tactics as “Machiavellian.” Green said the organization will refrain from running ads against opponents of immigration reform, according to a source who was briefed by Green on the tactic. Jesmer joined the GOP consulting firm FP1 Strategies in December, following the elections. The firm, meanwhile, has worked with GOP clients who are opposed to immigration reform, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who pleaded with Congress to oppose reform in the name of “our humanity”. Running pro-immigration ads against Cornyn, McConnell or Cruz, however, would likely do them no harm, and might even help them.

But in states where immigration is unpopular, FWD hasn’t stayed away. Instead, it has run ads on entirely unrelated issues. Its ad backing immigration proponent Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) slams Obamacare and its namesake, for instance.

FWD has been running ads praising Mark Begich, an Alaska Democrat, for pushing to open the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.

Similar ads praised backers of the Keystone XL pipeline. (Several backers of the group, including SolarCity and Tesla’s Elon Musk, pulled their funding after learning their money was paying for ads that ran counter to their own positions.)

“I simply don’t understand what they’re doing,� said one Democratic member of Congress involved in the closed-door House negotiations, declining to speak publicly so as not to alienate the group’s donors.

Begich told HuffPost it was unclear whether the ads would help or hurt him, and that nobody from the group had lobbied him on immigration reform. He voted for the key amendment on Monday. He also noted that much of the money was wasted because the weather is lovely in Alaska this time of year, and most people are outdoors, making radio ads much more effective.

“It’s their money, their choice,” Begich shrugged.

Aaron Bycoffe contributed reporting

A look at 48 years of the Voting Rights Act

WASHINGTON (AP) — The voting law that became a major turning point in black Americans’ struggle for equal rights and political power is now outdated, the Supreme Court says.

Whether that’s a marker of racial progress or proof of backsliding will be hotly debated. But neither side denies that remarkable changes were wrought through the nearly half-century-old Voting Rights Act.

As the issue moves to Congress, a look at the law’s history:


The right to vote, for American men at least, was supposed to be guaranteed when the 15th Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution after the Civil War.

The amendment says: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Freed slaves began voting and even winning office, but former Confederate states came up with tactics to evade the 15th Amendment.

These literacy tests, poll taxes and other discriminatory laws, as well as intimidation and violence, continued for decades. In 1940, only 3 percent of eligible blacks in the South were registered to vote, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Nearly a century after the amendment was ratified in 1870, the civil rights movement forced the nation to acknowledge the injustice.


Activists who tried to help blacks register in the South in the 1960s were met with violence. The fatal shooting of a demonstrator by a law officer in Alabama inspired the idea of a march to the state capital on March 7, 1965.

Hundreds of marchers on their way to Montgomery were clubbed and tear-gassed by state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge near Selma. TV news cameras captured what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Protesters across the country rallied in support of the marchers. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. flew to Selma to lead demonstrations. And President Lyndon Johnson seized the momentum to propel the Voting Rights Act through Congress.

He signed it into law on Aug. 6, 1965.


The law outlawed racial discrimination against voters in local, state and federal elections.

Some entire states, as well as counties in other states, were subjected to special federal enforcement, based on a formula used to weigh their record on voting rights. They had to get approval in advance before they could make even minor changes to voting laws, such as moving polling places.

The enforcement provisions were originally seen as emergency measures that might be allowed to expire in 1970 if no longer needed.

But lawmakers extended the provisions in 1970, 1975 and 1982. In 2006, Congress voted overwhelmingly to keep them another 25 years.

“We’ve made progress toward equality, yet the work for a more perfect union is never ending,” President George W. Bush said as he signed the legislation.


The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision Tuesday effectively halts enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, unless Congress updates it.

The court said Congress has failed to adjust the law to reflect decades of strides toward racial equality. The United States now has a black president; a black justice sits on the Supreme Court. And 48 years after “Bloody Sunday,” Selma is governed by a black mayor, Chief Justice John Roberts noted, writing for the court’s conservative majority.

The Supreme Court decision means that a host of state and local laws in covered jurisdictions now can take effect without Justice Department approval. Prominent among those are voter identification laws in Alabama and Mississippi.

The other covered states are Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, and some local jurisdictions in Michigan, are also included.

Enforcement coverage has been triggered by discrimination not only against blacks, but also against American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaska Natives and Hispanics.

Under the law, jurisdictions can break away from federal oversight if they show a clean record on voting rights for 10 years. Towns in New Hampshire were released in March.


President Barack Obama said the Supreme Court decision was a disappointing setback. He called on Congress to act to rectify the situation.

The Republican-led House and Democratic-led Senate find few points of agreement these days, however. And Congress did nothing in response to a 2009 Supreme Court ruling that warned lawmakers that the Voting Rights Act’s enforcement formula needed to be updated.

Unless Congress acts, there will be no deterrent to changes that would undermine voting rights, such as redrawing districts to dilute the power of minority voters. Voters can still use lawsuits to challenge such changes.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, writing in dissent, said throwing out effective enforcement was akin to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Associated Press writer Mark Sherman contributed to this report.

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©2012 The Associated Press