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Marriage Equality

First Test of 'Pen and Phone'

In announcing that the Department of Justice will take steps to recognize same-sex marriages on Saturday, Attorney General Eric Holder took another step in the implementation of the Obama administration's "pen and phone" strategy.

Attorney General Eric Holder plans to announce Saturday that the Department of Justice will grant “lawful same-sex marriages full and equal recognition, to the greatest extent possible under the law.” This statement, which will come at a speech at a gala held by the Human Rights Campaign, represents the next step of Obama’s “pen and phone” strategy, which consists of trying to accomplish with executive action what the President cannot through the legislative process. 

The DOJ will grant same-sex couples in all 50 states the same benefits currently enjoyed by those in traditional marriages in the criminal justice system and other programs administered by Attorney General. This means, for example, that one same-sex spouse cannot be compelled to testify against the other, prisoners in federal prison with a same-sex spouse will have spousal visitation privileges, treat same-sex marriages like heterosexual ones in federal bankruptcy proceedings as well as grant federal death benefits to same-sex couples where one member is a public safety officer killed or badly wounded in the line of duty.

These benefits are relatively limited. After all, not many people are in same-sex marriages with a murdered law enforcement agent or to a federal prisoner. With Washington DC increasingly marked by partisan gridlock and Congress having difficulty passing even the most basic budget, this seems to exemplify the “pen and phone” approach announced by Obama in advance of his January State of the Union address. Bills pending in Congress, like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or ENDA, which is currently stalled in the House after passing the Senate in November would have a more significant impact in everyday life. But those bills are not likely to pass. Instead, Holder's announcement simply makes a difference around the edges, slowly advancing an important policy goal for the White House. 

Holder’s announcement Saturday marks the first major use of executive power by the administration since the immediate aftermath of January’s State of the Union.  While this “pen and phone” strategy as been attacked by conservatives as leading the United States down the road to rule by executive fiat, this order hints that the administration’s approach to using executive action will be far more restrained. After all, the policies announced by Holder only applies to the DOJ and does not expand to include cherished goals of the LGBT community, like an executive order prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation by all federal contractors.

No Immigration Bill

Another Do-Nothing Congress In '14

In his weekly press conference on Thursday, Speaker John Boehner seemed to concede that immigration reform wasn't happening in 2014.

In his weekly news conference on Thursday, Speaker of the House John Boehner threw cold water on the idea that any immigration reform legislation might pass Congress this year, citing the GOP's lack of trust in the Obama adminstration and all but acknowledged that there would be another "do-nothing" Congress in 2014.

Boehner's comments come just a week after the House GOP leadership unveiled its "principles" on immigration reform to great fanfare at their annual retreat in Cambridge, Maryland. While the House Speaker insisted that he "never underestimated the difficulty in moving forward this year," his statement comes just days after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on Tuesday that he didn't see how the House and Senate could resolve their differences on immigration reform in 2014.

The Democratic controlled Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill last summer by a significant bipartisan margin but immigration legislation has stalled in the House, where many Republicans reamin steadfastly opposed to any bill that would allow for "amnesty" for the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants currently living in the United States. 

Immigration reform has long been one of Boehner's priorities and a concern of many business-oriented Republicans who see it as necessary for the GOP to win Hispanic voters in the future. In contrast, many conservatives see immigration reform as rewarding lawbreakers who have illegally entered the country and are skeptical of any political benefits. 


State Dept. Official: 'F--k The EU'

A senior official’s private conversation got taped and put on YouTube, and as she’s planning a deal to end the crisis in Ukraine, she has some harsh words for her European Union counterparts as well as Ukrainian opposition leader Vitali Klitschko.

In the wake of revelations the NSA spied on foreign officials, the State Department’s top official for Europe has been caught on tape planning a deal to end the Ukraine crisis and she had a message for her European counterparts – “Fuck the EU.”

YouTube video uploaded by an anonymous user has publicly revealed a private conversations between Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, and Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine. In the tape, the two officials discuss a plan to broker a deal between the Ukrainian government led by Viktor Yanukovich and the Ukrainian opposition, which is led in part by former boxer Vitali Klitschko.

The origin of the recording is unclear. It was upload by a user named “Maidan Puppets,” a reference to the Maidan Square in Kiev where protesters have fought the government and the Russian accusation  that the protesters are puppets of the United States and the West. The video was first reported in the Kyiv Post.

Nuland told Pyatt she had discussed the plan with U.N. Undersecretary for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, a former senior U.S. Department official, and that he would appoint a U.N. representative to help move it forward. Vice President Joe Biden would also be brought into the plan at the right time, according to Nuland.


NJ Dem Quits Congress

After 23 years in Congress, Democrat Rob Andrews announced that he would resign on Tuesday.

Twelve term congressman Rob Andrews from South Jersey announced Tuesday morning that he would be resigning from Congress effective February 18, to take a job at a Philadelphia law firm in a "public affairs" role.

The New Jersey congressman had been under investigation for ethics issues around personal trips to Scotland and Los Angeles as well as a high school graduation party for his daughter that may have been used as a fundraiser that but his resignation will short-circuit any further inquiries by the Office of Congressional Ethics and the House Ethics Committee. 

Andrews was first elected to Congress in a 1990 special election after incumbent Jim Florio resigned after being elected governor of the Garden State. He tried to follow in Florio's footsteps by running statewide twice, losing in Democratic primaries for governor in 1997 and for Senate in 2008.

His 2008 Senate bid, which was a failed attempt to unseat incumbent Frank Lautenburg, drew attention because he had to give up his House seat to run. Instead, his wife ran in the Democratic primary for his seat and promptly withdrew, allowing party bosses to replace her on the ballot with her husband. It was New Jersey politics at its finest. 

Switching Parties

Parker Griffith Re-Rats

Former Alabama Rep. Parker Griffith who defected from the Democratic Party to the GOP in 2009 is now returning to his political roots to run for Governor.

In the 1920s, after switching from the Conservative Party to the Liberals and back to the Conservatives again, Winston Churchill famously remarked "anyone can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat." Now former one-term Congressman Parker Griffith is reportedly trying to follow in Churchill's footsteps by returning to the Democratic Party after defecting to the GOP halfway through his lone term in Congress.

Griffith was elected to a North Alabama district in 2008 that had long been a Democratic redoubt in the midst of a deep red sea. Based in Huntsville, a city with significant number of federal employees, it included areas made prosperous by the New Deal and the Tenneesse Valley Authority in the 1930s that had stayed loyally Democratic ever since. But, in 2009, Griffith, a former state senator just elected to succeed longtime incumbent Democrat Bud Cramer, switched parties. While this nominally gave him the advantage of incumbency, Republicans didn't quite flock to the former Howard Dean donor in a primary dominated by the Tea Party wave of 2010. Griffith lost badly by 51%-33% to Mo Brooks, a county commissioner, in an attempt to to get the Republican nomination for Congress. Brooks went on to be the first Republican elected to Congress from the seat since Reconstruction. Griffith tried again in 2012 against Brooks and lost by an even greater margin, 71%-29%. Soon afterwards, he left the Republican Party to become an Independent. But, on Monday, it was reported that the erstwhile Democrat was returning to his political roots.

WHNT in Huntsville, Alabama reported that Griffith is rejoining the Democratic Party in order to run for Governor in 2014. According to WHNT, the Alabama Democratic Party has welcomed back its prodigal son and is ready to embrace his candidacy for Governor. His candidacy would mark a sad step in the decline of the Alabama Democratic Party. Alabama had only two Republican governors in the entire 20th century. It has had two Republican governors so far in the 21st century as the state has become firmly Republican. Perhaps the best hope of the Alabama Democratic Party in the past decade, former Rep. Artur Davis lost a gubernatorial primary and then moved to Virginia where he became a Republican. The result is a bench so deciminated that the Alabama Democrats are now forced to get behind a candidate who has averaged nearly a political affiliation a year since 2009.

But, then again, Winston Churchill went through a similar period in the early 1920s. The only question is whether Parker Griffith is a politician of the same caliber as the Nobel Prize winner credited with saving Europe from Nazi domination. But that's up to the voters of Alabama to decide. 

Oh Snap

Congresswoman Disses Clay Aiken

Clay Aiken is contemplating a run for Congress against Rep. Renee Ellmers and the North Carolina congresswoman is not impressed.

Former American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken is strongly considering a run for Congress against incumbent Republican Renee Ellmers in North Carolina's Second Congressional District, and the two-term Representative is not impressed. 

In a recent radio interview, Ellmers mocked Aiken, pointing out that if he couldn't win American Idol or Celebrity Apprentice, how could he stand much of a chance for Congress? She took particular note of his finish on the 2003 season of Idol, saying “As we know he doesn’t always fare all that well. He was runner up.” Ellmers also jibed that Aiken was running because "Apparently his performing career isn’t going so well and he’s bored."

It's unusual for Ellmers to take such pointed jabs at a candidate who still has a competitive primary, yet alone even formally filed for office. While Ellmers represents a district that has been made relatively safe for Republicans through redistricting, local Democrats reportedly prefer that Aiken not run, seeing an openly gay pop star as a political liability in a rural southern district. Instead, party elites have gathered around to support Keith Crisco, a 70-year-old former state Commerce Secretary from Asheboro who has already declared that he will challenge Ellmers. However, it may be possible that she's simply trying to build Aiken up in order to make it more likely that she faces off against the pop singer in the Novemeber general election. 

Aiken still has a few more weeks to make his decision. North Carolina's two-week-long filing period for federal candidates starts on Feb. 10.

The struggle for the future of Ukraine played out on the world stage Saturday when the Ukrainian Foreign Minister and opposition leader Vitali Klitschko battled during a heated session at the Munich Security Conference.

Leonid Kozhara, the acting head of the Ukrainian government’s foreign ministry, defended the government’s handling of two months of protests that have roiled the capital of Kiev and resulted in deaths, kidnappings, and the arrest of hundreds of activists. The opposition is calling for President Victor Yanukovych to repeal laws restricing dissent, reverse his decision to enter a trade association with Russia, dissolve the current government, amend the constitution, and call early elections.

At different times during the Munich session, Kozhara railed against "terrorism" and "Nazis," denying that Ukraine's government was guilty of mistreating protesters. He defended the government's decision abondon trade talks with the European Uion in favor of the deal with Moscow.

 “It was not an easy but right decision. What we have right now is a very attractive offer from Russia,” he said, referring to a favorable price Russia gave Ukraine for energy and a $15 billion loan Moscow threw in to sweeten the deal. “Not all Ukraine supports the Maidan,” he said, referring to the Kiev square that protesters have occupied.


Christie's Bad Oppo Dump

On Saturday afternoon, New Jersey governor Chris Christie responded to allegations that he knew more about lane closings on the George Washington Bridge that he admitted with a peculiar email.

Late Saturday afternoon, Chris Christie's office leaked a tough email dumping on the New York Times and former Christie appointee David Wildstein to Mike Allen at Politico. The email came the day after a lawyer for Wildstein, the former New York Port Authority official at the center of "Bridgegate," the closing of lanes on the George Washington Bridge for political reasons in September 2013, said that evidence exists that Christie knew of the lane closings at the time. While it's natural for Christie to want to push back against Wildstein's allegations, the strange timing and content of the email leads to questions about the political acumen of the embattled New Jersey governor.

Christie's email, entitled "5 Things You Should Know About The Bombshell That's Not A Bombshell," starts off a stock denunciation of the New York Times' reporting on the letter from Wildstein's lawyer as well as Christie reiterating his claim that he was unaware of the lane closings at the time. Then it gets weird.

The email attacks Wildstein for behavior that the middle aged politico engaged in high school and it's not terribly scandalous either. Christie's office notes that the former Port Authority official was "publicly accused by his high school social studies teacher of deceptive behavior" and "as a 16-year-old sued over a local school board election." It's also worth noting that Christie and Wildstein were high school classmates who were both involved in the school baseball team.

Christie also attacks Wildstein for having spent years as an anonymous blogger on New Jersey politics known as Wally Edge---a role he only gave up in 2010 when the Christie adminstration hired him---and for having a "tumultous" tenure as mayor of Livingston, New Jersey in the late 1980s. And the source that the email cites for all of this, an article from the Bergen Record in 2012 entitled “Ex-Blogger Is Governor Christie's Eyes, Ears Inside The Port Authority." The ex-blogger referenced in the headline is Wildstein.

Kremlin Fail

We Can’t Get Assad to Do Anything

The U.S. expects the Russian government to force Bashar al Assad to make concessions that could lead to peace, but Russia simply can't do it, according to its own foreign minister.

Russia is not able to pressure the Syrian regime to make concessions to the Syrian opposition, at least not without the help of other international actors, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Saturday.

Lavrov spoke at the Munich Security Conference about the recently failed first round of peace talks between the Syrian government and the Syrian Opposition Coalition in Geneva, mediated by U.N. Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi. At the same conference on Friday, Brahimi called on Russia to use its alleged influence with the Syrian regime to encourage them to return to Geneva next month for another round of talks and to be more constructive if they do. The first round failed to achieve any progress even on ancillary issues, such as humanitarian access to the besieged city of Homs.

“Why hasn’t Russia been able to put more pressure on the Assad regime to make even small concessions?” The Daily Beast asked Lavrov. “Is it that Russia is unwilling or unable to use its influence in Syria?”

“Russia can do nothing alone,” Lavrov responded. “When people say Russia must or Russia should ensure humanitarian access and ensure dismantling of chemical weapons on schedule and see to it that Assad disappears, all those questions are addressed to us, but we cannot do anything alone.”


Keystone Could Be Obama Concession

The State Department report Friday saying the Keystone XL pipeline would have a minimal environment impact could clear the way for a debt ceiling deal.

Barack Obama may have a new bargaining chip in negotiations over the debt limit.

The release Friday of a State Department report on the Keystone XL pipeline gives the White House more wiggle room to approve the proposed infrastructure project that would transport 830,000 barrels of oil a day from the Alberta tar sands to the Gulf Coast.  Environmentalists have long opposed the pipeline because the process used to extract oil from the tar sands produces far more greenhouse gases than traditional methods of producing oil. The State Department study agreed with this but said the construction of the pipeline wouldn’t have much an environmental impact because the oil would be extracted regardless.

The report’s findings that the pipeline would have little impact on carbon emissions seem to indicate that the project will meet the strict criteria that Obama laid out in a June 2013 speech at Georgetown University. He said the administration would only approve the project if it “does not significantly exacerbate the climate problem.”

As the pipeline’s construction has been studied over the past half decade, it has become a cause célèbre both on the left and the right. Liberals and environmentalists see its construction in near apocalyptic terms because of the amount of carbon dioxide that could potentially be unleashed through tar sands extraction. Republicans, along many unions, have long pushed for it as a way to create jobs and promote energy independence. Mitt Romney campaigned on building the pipeline in 2012 and House Republicans have been pushing the project for years. In the meantime, Obama has hedged and not committed to taking any firm action.


House GOP Backs Legalization

On Thursday, House Republicans released six principles on immigration reform.

House Republican leaders presented six draft principles for immigration reform at their retreat in Cambridge, Maryland today that call for immigration to be dealt in smaller bills with border security as the first priority but would eventually allow for citizenship for "DREAMers" as well as an unclear legal status for many undocumented immigrants.

The most important aspect is that House Republicans fully embrace the idea that all illegal immigrants who “admit their culpability, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics and be able to support themselves and their families (without public benefits)” will be able to obtain legal status. However, it does warn that “there will be no special path to citizenship,” it leaves the meaning of the phrase “special path” entirely unclear whether there will be any possibility for citizenship or simply just permanent legal status.. As Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) worried aloud to reporters earlier Thursday, "If you legalize somebody without a pathway to citizenship you create, in essence, a class of people that have no chance of becoming citizens."

The principles do provide for a clear path to citizenship for undocumented residents who were brought to the United States as children, known as DREAMers, provided that they “serve honorably in our military or attain a college degree” and attain other eligibility standards.

However, this isn’t the first step of the process. House Republican insist first on securing the borders with verification and a “zero tolerance” policy towards future undocumented immigrants as well as an entry-exit visa tracking program, workplace verification, and reforms to the current immigration process to allow for more visas for skilled workers, particularly in high tech industries.

Deja Vu

GOP Ready For Debt Limit Fight

House Republicans seem ready for another fight over the debt limit. Ben Jacobs reports from the House GOP's retreat in Cambridge, Maryland.

The United States may now have a budget but it doesn't necessarily mean the government will pay its bills.

At the annual retreat of the  House Republican Caucus in Cambridge, Maryland on Thursday, members seemed ready for another showdown and were unwilling to accept a "clean" debt limit increase, one without any additional legislative language or restrictions. However Republicans were unclear what specific asks they would make in exchange for a debt ceiling vote.  

Steve Scalise, the chair of the Republican Study Committee, told reporters that "reforms that control Washington spending always have been part of the discussion when it comes to the debt ceiling." He strongly urged the pasage of legislation that mandated that the government prioritize how it pays its obligations to avoid default in case of hitting the debt ceiling. This legislation passed the House in 2013. He did not offer any specific proposals. When a group of seven younger Republican members of Congress appeared before reporters on Thursday, none would commit to supporting a clean increase in the debt ceiling. Yet none were able to say what concrete demands they would make of the White House in exchange for lifting the limit on how much the federal government can borrow. 

In fact, while the deadline approaches to avoid default at the end of February according to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, discussions about Republican strategy are still "preliminary" according to Dave Camp, the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. 

Rough Trade

GOP Pushes Trade Deal

On Thursday, Speaker John Boehner tried to drive a wedge between Barack Obama and Senate Democrats by joining Obama in supporting fast track trade authority, which Harry Reid opposes.

In a press conference at the House GOP retreat in Cambridge, Maryland on Thursday, Speaker John Boehner touted his party's support for fast track trade authority and criticized Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for opposing President Obama on this issue. Obama touted this trade promotion authority in his State of the Union Tuesday as a way to create more jobs and foster bipartisan cooperation.

Boehner dared the Preisdent to confront Reid on this issue, saying "The question is, is the president going to stand up and lead on this issue. We cannot pass this bill without his help. This is one of his own priorities. You would think he would have the Senate Majority Leader working with him."

If approved, fast track trade authority would allow the president to negotiate trade deals with foreign countries that could then be directly submitted to Congress, which would not be allowed to amend the deals. Both Boehner and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) touted the House GOP's support for this authority to reporters, which many Democrats oppose due to concerns about labor and environmental protections in potential trade agreements.

Congress first granted fast track trade authority in 1975 but this lapsed in 1994 in the aftermath of the controversial negotiations and approval of NAFTA. Although it was restored in 2002 under President George W. Bush, it was allowed to expire yet again in 2007.

Troll So Hard

Congressional SOTU Troll Ruined

When Staten Island Republican Michael Grimm threatened a reporter Tuesday night, it ruined Texas congressman Randy Weber's bid for fame.

Randy Weber was poised to become a minor conservative celebrity Tuesday night and then Michael Grimm had to pick a fight with a reporter.

Weber, a first-term Republican congressman from Texas, gained a brief burst of national attention for a somewhat bizarre anti-Obama tweet Tuesday night. Less than an hour before the President arrived in the House chamber, Weber tweeted "On floor of house waitin on "Kommandant-In-Chef" [sic]... the Socialistic dictator who's been feeding US a line or is it "A-Lying?" The tweet went viral, getting retweeted more than 1000 times. After all, it had something for everyone. He called Obama "Kommandant" and a "socialistic dictator" to excite those on the right. For those more minded towards snark, he seemingly omitted the letter I from "chief" and,of course, the "a line" "A-Lying" is comedy gold for Norm McDonald fans.  It seemed that Weber, once described as "a conservative legend in his own mind" might finally go national; or at least get some hits on Fox News.

But, after the speech, Weber became a non-entity. Michael Grimm, a two-term Republican congressman from Staten Island stole all the oxygen.

When Grimm physically threatened a reporter for NY1 on camera Tuesday night, he not only stole the limelight from Weber but perhaps even from Barack Obama too. The entire saga played out in incremental parts. First video emerged with only garbled audio. Then, a transcript emerged and it became clear that Grimm told a reporter "I'll break you in half. Like a boy" after threatening to throw him off a balcony.

Not Cool

Congressman Threatens Reporter

New York Republican Michael Grimm physically threatened a reporter Tuesday night.

After the State of the Union Tuesday night, Congressman Michael Grimm threatened Michael Scotto, a reporter with local television news station NY1, with being thrown off a balcony, saying, "You're not a man. I could break you in half."

Scotto was finishing an interview with Staten Island Republican Michael Grimm about the State of the Union when he decided to ask one more question. He didn't get to finish. Grimm immediately cut him off saying, "I'm not speaking about anything that is off-topic. This is only about the President's speech." The reporter then spoke to the camera saying that he hoped to ask Grimm about the ongoing campaign finance investigation around his 2010 campaign. Grimm has been linked to an allegedly corrupt Israeli rabbi and his ex-girlfriend has been indicted on charges of being a straw donor, among other controversies. Prior to this incident, the New York City Republican was considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents in his party in 2014.

Shortly thereafter, Grimm, a former FBI agent first elected to Congress in 2010, went back and got into the reporter's face. The two had a heated back-and-forth that was barely audible while the camera was still running. In a full transcript posted by NY1, Grimm said, "Let me be clear to you, you ever do that to me again I'll throw you off this f-----g balcony." Scotto interjected, saying that he had "a valid question." The New York Republican then responded by saying, "No, no, you're not man enough, you're not man enough. I'll break you in half. Like a boy."

In a statement afterwards, Grimm didn't apologize. Instead, he struck a defiant tone. The statement reads in full:

Obamacare's 2014 Midterm Effect

Are Democrats in trouble in the upcoming midterm elections? Yes, says The Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky, but not because of the Affordable Care Act.

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