Democrats kill off filibusters in Senate

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Sweeping aside a century of precedent, Democrats took a chunk out of the Senate’s hallowed filibuster tradition on Thursday and cleared the way for speedy confirmation of controversial appointments made by President Barack Obama and chief executives in the future.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, who orchestrated the change, called the 52-48 vote a blow against gridlock. Republicans warned Democrats they would regret their actions once political fortunes change and they find themselves in the minority and a GOP president in the White House.

At the White House, Obama welcomed the shift. “The gears of government have got to work,” he said, and he declared that Republicans had increasingly used existing rules “as a reckless and relentless tool to grind all business to a halt.”

But Republicans warned of a power grab by Democrats, some predicting that worse was yet to come. “This drastic move sets a dangerous precedent that could later be expanded to speed passage of expansive and controversial legislation,” said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama.

The day’s change involved presidential appointees, not legislation — and not Supreme Court nominees.

The immediate impact was to ensure post-Thanksgiving confirmation for Patricia Millett, one of Obama’s three stalled nominees for the District of Columbia Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, and for others whom Republicans have blocked. Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., tapped to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, is among them

The longer-term result of the unilateral move by Democrats was harder to gauge in a Senate that has grown deeply constrained by the major political differences emblematic of an era of divided government.

At issue was a rule that has required a 60-vote majority to end debate in the 100-member Senate and assure a yes-or-no vote on presidential nominees to federal courts or to Cabinet departments or other agencies.

Under a parliamentary maneuver scripted in advance, Democrats changed the proceedings so that only a simple majority was required to clear the way for a final vote. In Senate-speak, this was accomplished by establishing a new precedent under the rules, rather than a formal rules change.

Supreme Court nominations still will be subject to a traditional filibuster, the term used to describe the 60-vote requirement to limit debate.

The day’s events capped more than a decade of struggle over judicial nominations, in which first President George W. Bush found his appointees stalled by Senate Democrats, and more recently Obama has complained that Republicans have been delaying or preventing confirmation for his picks.

The vote adds to the list of issues likely to figure in next year’s congressional elections.

In a fundraising appeal emailed a few hours after the vote, the Tea Party Express accused Reid of invoking “the nuclear option,” and said the only way to stop him “is to rip the gavel out of his hand in 2014 by electing a conservative majority.”

On Thursday, in a certain sign that a showdown was imminent, senators filed into the Senate chamber at midmorning in unusual numbers. They listened from their desks as Reid and McConnell swapped accusations that preceded a series of votes on arcane parliamentary points. Yet there was no suspense about the final outcome.

McConnell said Republicans had grown tired of threats of action. “We’re not interested in having a gun put to our head any longer,” he said, noting that Democrats have periodically talked of changing the rules in recent months.

Still, the events marked a reversal for Reid, who had threatened earlier in the year to change the application of filibuster rules for nominees to Cabinet departments and other agencies, but not for appointments to the courts.

Back then, he and McConnell clashed in highly personal, accusatory terms. This time, they recited their grievances in an exchange that was courteous if sharply worded.

“In the history of the Republic, there have been 168 filibusters of executive and judicial nominees. Half of them have occurred during the Obama administration — during the last four and a half years,” Reid said.

The Nevada Democrat accused the GOP of “unbreakable, unprecedented obstruction.” He said Republicans had blocked qualified appointees “to force wholesale changes to laws … to restructure entire executive branch departments” and because they don’t want Obama “to appoint any judges to certain courts.”

McConnell retorted that Democrats had “pioneered the practice of filibustering circuit court nominees,” beginning with Miguel Estrada, a 2001 Bush appointee to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked by Democrats under pressure from outside liberal groups. A Hispanic immigrant viewed at the time as a potential future Supreme Court pick, he withdrew his nomination after more than two years in limbo.

McConnell said Republicans had allowed confirmation of 99 percent of Obama’s appointments to the courts. And he likened Reid’s dropping of his pledge to leave rules for judicial appointees unaffected to the promise the president made that Americans who liked their health coverage could keep it under “Obamacare.

Reid, the GOP leader said, “may as well just have said, ‘If you like the rules of the Senate, you can keep them.'”

The change is the most far-reaching since 1975, when a two-thirds requirement for cutting off filibusters against legislation and all nominations was lowered to 60 votes.

The original impetus for the change came from relatively junior Democrats, including Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Udall of New Mexico, who are among the 31 members of their party who have never served in the Senate minority.

More senior Democrats came around gradually, some noting the Senate’s traditions while others fretted about the possibility that they were giving up the right to block nominees of the future whom they might oppose strenuously.

Asked about that concern after the vote, Reid said, “This is the way it has to be. The Senate has changed.”

Modern-day rules covering filibusters have evolved slowly in the Senate, where change rarely comes easily. Since 1917, the minority has enjoyed the right to unlimited debate on legislation and nominations until the majority can amass a super-majority. In recent years, that has meant 60 votes.

In the end, Democratic Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Pryor of Arkansas parted company with Reid on the switch.

Pryor, who faces a difficult re-election fight next year, said in a statement the Senate was “designed to protect_not stamp out_the voices of the minority.”

Pryor also noted he had been among a bipartisan group of senators, the so-called Gang of 14, that produced a last-minute compromise nearly a decade ago when Republicans threatened a change in procedures to assure confirmation of several of Bush’s stalled judicial nominees.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., another veteran of the Gang of 14, said he had met with Reid on Wednesday urging him to reconsider. “I reached out until my arms ached,” he said.

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Associated Press writers Donna Cassata and Henry C. Jackson contributed to this story.
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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 Associated Press  All Rights Reserved

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Obama’s approval slump: Past point of no return?

President Barack Obama: Strong, he's not.
President Barack Obama: Strong, he’s not.

Barack Obama’s second term fumbles have pitched him to record low poll ratings and splintered his credibility with the American people.

But has his presidency reached the point of no return?

History and opinion poll data suggest that when reelected presidents slump in the ratings, it is tough, if not impossible to bounce back.

Obama, stung by the amateurish debut of his health care plan, which has sent fellow Democrats into revolt, is beginning to sense the depth of his woes.

“I do make apologies for not having executed better over the last several months,” he said at a Thursday press conference, punctuated by uncharacteristic mea culpas.

“Am I going to have to do some work to rebuild confidence around some of our initiatives? Yes.”

He had better act fast.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal survey two weeks ago had the president?s approval rating down to 42 percent. A week later, Pew Research put Obama at 41 percent. By Wednesday, Quinnipiac University had him at 39 percent, a new low.

The data suggest Obama can no longer count on the solid floor of support that has sustained his crisis-strewn presidency.

“For the first time it appears that 40 percent floor is cracking,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

But do polls matter for a man who will never again be on the ballot?

Second term presidents enjoy some freedom from the tyranny of their job ratings — and become more obsessed with staving off dreaded lame duck status.

But Obama’s deteriorating image threatens to shred his remaining authority on Capitol Hill — where key priorities, including immigration reform are on life support.

He is also pleading with sanctions-wielding senators for more time to do a nuclear deal with Iran.

And Obama’s unpopularity is spooking Democrats with tough races in next year’s mid-term elections, which may doom his long-shot hopes of seeing his party recapture the House of Representatives.

Already, Obama is getting the cold shoulder from vulnerable Democrats, including Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu who is brandishing her own bill to clean up the Obamacare mess.

Charlie Cook, a renowned political analyst, suggests Obama’s presidency is suffering a “classic case of second term fatigue.”

Bill Clinton saw his second term consumed by a sex scandal, George W. Bush was brought low by Iraq and Ronald Reagan struggled through the Iran-Contra scandal.

Obama’s self-inflicted wound is the jammed Affordable Care Act website and his discredited promise that if Americans liked the health insurance they already had, they could keep it.

The damage is obvious: Quinnipiac found that by 52-44 percent, people thought their president was not honest.

“Any elected official with an eight point deficit is in serious trouble,” Malloy said.

Obama’s spokesman Jay Carney offered the timeworn politician’s trope that his boss did not “spend a lot of time, worrying about ups and downs in polls.”

But no president in the last 60 years who has got into deep polling trouble in their second term has been able to bounce back

Only Dwight Eisenhower and Clinton bettered their approval ratings after one year of their second term before leaving town — and they were popular to start with.

Worryingly for Obama, the president whose polling track he most resembles at this point is George W. Bush, who slunk out of Washington with a pitiful 34 percent approval.

Still, Obama is lucky in his enemies: Republicans are down at 30 percent approval after a government shutdown and debt ceiling debacle last month.

Obama has also defied political logic before — historical portents had suggested that saddled with a sluggish economy and approval ratings of under 50 percent for much of his first term he would not get a second.

After better than expected jobs data last week, some believe if fixes to Obamacare that the president unveiled on Thursday work — a big if — he could be spared long term political damage.

“The question now, is whether he will continue to go down, as Bush did,” said Carroll Doherty, an associate director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

“A lot depends on what happens with the health care law and a lot depends on the economy.”

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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 AFP  All Rights Reserved

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Ethanol: A secret, dirty result of Obama’s Green Power push

A motorist fills up with gasoline containing ethanol in Des Moines. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
A motorist fills up with gasoline containing ethanol in Des Moines.
(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The hills of southern Iowa bear the scars of America’s push for green energy: The brown gashes where rain has washed away the soil. The polluted streams that dump fertilizer into the water supply.

Even the cemetery that disappeared like an apparition into a cornfield.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

With the Iowa political caucuses on the horizon in 2007, presidential candidate Barack Obama made homegrown corn a centerpiece of his plan to slow global warming. And when President George W. Bush signed a law that year requiring oil companies to add billions of gallons of ethanol to their gasoline each year, Bush predicted it would make the country “stronger, cleaner and more secure.”

But the ethanol era has proven far more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and much worse than the government admits today.

As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies, an Associated Press investigation found.

Five million acres of land set aside for conservation — more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks combined — have vanished on Obama’s watch.

Landowners filled in wetlands. They plowed into pristine prairies, releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil.

Sprayers pumped out billions of pounds of fertilizer, some of which seeped into drinking water, contaminated rivers and worsened the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where marine life can’t survive.

The consequences are so severe that environmentalists and many scientists have now rejected corn-based ethanol as bad environmental policy. But the Obama administration stands by it, highlighting its benefits to the farming industry rather than any negative impact.

Farmers planted 15 million more acres of corn last year than before the ethanol boom, and the effects are visible in places like south central Iowa.

The hilly, once-grassy landscape is made up of fragile soil that, unlike the earth in the rest of the state, is poorly suited for corn. Nevertheless, it has yielded to America’s demand for it.

“They’re raping the land,” said Bill Alley, a member of the board of supervisors in Wayne County, which now bears little resemblance to the rolling cow pastures shown in postcards sold at a Corydon pharmacy.

All energy comes at a cost. The environmental consequences of drilling for oil and natural gas are well documented and severe. But in the president’s push to reduce greenhouse gases and curtail global warming, his administration has allowed so-called green energy to do not-so-green things.

In some cases, such as its decision to allow wind farms to kill eagles, the administration accepts environmental costs because they pale in comparison to the havoc it believes global warming could ultimately cause.

Ethanol is different.

The government’s predictions of the benefits have proven so inaccurate that independent scientists question whether it will ever achieve its central environmental goal: reducing greenhouse gases. That makes the hidden costs even more significant.

“This is an ecological disaster,” said Craig Cox with the Environmental Working Group, a natural ally of the president that, like others, now finds itself at odds with the White House.

But it’s a cost the administration is willing to accept. It believes supporting corn ethanol is the best way to encourage the development of biofuels that will someday be cleaner and greener than today’s. Pulling the plug on corn ethanol, officials fear, might mean killing any hope of these next-generation fuels.

“That is what you give up if you don’t recognize that renewable fuels have some place here,” EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said in a recent interview with AP. “All renewable fuels are not corn ethanol.”

Still, corn supplies the overwhelming majority of ethanol in the United States, and the administration is loath to discuss the environmental consequences.

“It just caught us completely off guard,” said Doug Davenport, a Department of Agriculture official who encourages southern Iowa farmers to use conservation practices on their land. Despite those efforts, Davenport said he was surprised at how much fragile, erodible land was turned into corn fields.

Shortly after Davenport spoke to The Associated Press, he got an email ordering him to stop talking.

“We just want to have a consistent message on the topic,” an Agriculture Department spokesman in Iowa said.

That consistent message was laid out by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who spoke to ethanol lobbyists on Capitol Hill recently and said ethanol was good for business.

“We are committed to this industry because we understand its benefits,” he said. “We understand it’s about farm income. It’s about stabilizing and maintaining farm income which is at record levels.”

The numbers behind the ethanol mandate have become so unworkable that, for the first time, the EPA is soon expected to reduce the amount of ethanol required to be added to the gasoline supply. An unusual coalition of big oil companies, environmental groups and food companies is pushing the government to go even further and reconsider the entire ethanol program.

The ethanol industry is fighting hard against that effort. Industry spokesman Brooke Coleman dismissed this story as “propaganda on a page.” An industry blog in Minnesota said the AP had succumbed “to Big Oil’s deep pockets and powerful influence.”

To understand how America got to an environmental policy with such harmful environmental consequences, it’s helpful to start in a field in Iowa.

___

Leroy Perkins, a white-haired, 66-year-old farmer in denim overalls, stands surrounded by waist-high grass and clover. He owns 91 acres like this, all hilly and erodible, that he set aside for conservation years ago.

Soon, he will have a decision to make: keep the land as it is or, like many of his neighbors, plow it down and plant corn or soybeans, the major sources of biofuel in the United States.

“I’d like to keep it in,” he said. “This is what southern Iowa’s for: raising grass.”

For decades, the government’s Conservation Reserve Program has paid farmers to stop farming environmentally sensitive land. Grassy fields naturally convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, which helps combat global warming. Plus, their deep root systems prevent topsoil from washing away.

For Perkins and his farmer neighbors in Wayne County, keeping farmland in conservation wasn’t just good stewardship. It made financial sense.

A decade ago, Washington paid them about $70 an acre each year to leave their farmland idle. With corn selling for about $2 per bushel (56 pounds) back then, farming the hilly, inferior soil was bad business.

Many opted into the conservation program. Others kept their grasslands for cow pastures.

Lately, though, the math has changed.

“I’m coming to the point where financially, it’s not feasible,” Perkins said.

The change began in 2007, when Congress passed a law requiring oil companies to blend billions of gallons of ethanol into gasoline.

Oil prices were high. Oil imports were rising quickly. The legislation had the strong backing of the presidential candidate who was the junior senator from neighboring Illinois, the nation’s second-largest corn producer.

“If we’re going to get serious about investing in our energy future, we must give our family farmers and local ethanol producers a fair shot at success,” Obama said then.

The Democratic primary field was crowded, and if he didn’t win the Iowa caucuses the road to the nomination would be difficult. His strong support for ethanol set him apart.

“Any time we could talk about support for ethanol, we did,” said Mitch Stewart, the battleground states director for Obama’s 2008 campaign. “It’s how we would lead a lot of discussions.”

President Bush signed the bill that December.

It would fall on the next president to figure out how to make it work.

___

President Obama’s team at the EPA was sour on the ethanol mandate from the start.

As a way to reduce global warming, they knew corn ethanol was a dubious proposition. Corn demands fertilizer, which is made using natural gas. What’s worse, ethanol factories typically burn coal or gas, both of which release carbon dioxide.

Then there was the land conversion, the most controversial and difficult-to-predict outcome.

Digging up grassland releases greenhouse gases, so environmentalists are skeptical of any program that encourages planting more corn.

“I don’t remember anybody having great passion for this,” said Bob Sussman, who served on Obama’s transition team and recently retired as EPA’s senior policy counsel. “I don’t have a lot of personal enthusiasm for the program.”

At the White House and the Department of Agriculture, though, there was plenty of enthusiasm.

One of Obama’s senior advisers, Pete Rouse, had worked on ethanol issues as chief of staff to Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, a major ethanol booster and now chair of the DuPont Advisory Committee on Agriculture Innovation and Productivity.

Another Obama adviser at the time, Heather Zichal, grew up in northeast Iowa — as a child, she was crowned “sweet corn princess” — and was one of the Obama campaign’s leading voices on ethanol in her home state.

The administration had no greater corn ethanol advocate than Vilsack, the former Iowa governor.

“Tom understands that the solution to our energy crisis will be found not in oil fields abroad but in our farm fields here at home,” Obama said in 2008. “That is the kind of leader I want in my Cabinet.”

___

Writing the regulations to implement the ethanol mandate was among the administration’s first major environmental undertakings. Industry and environmental groups watched closely.

The EPA’s experts determined that the mandate would increase demand for corn and encourage farmers to plow more land. Considering those factors, they said, corn ethanol was only slightly better than gasoline when it came to carbon dioxide emissions.

Sixteen percent better, to be exact. And not in the short term. Only by 2022.

By law, though, biofuels were supposed to be at least 20 percent greener than gasoline.

From a legal standpoint, the results didn’t matter. Congress exempted existing coal- and gas-burning ethanol plants from meeting this standard.

But as a policy and public relations issue, it was a real problem. The biofuel-friendly Obama administration was undermining the industry’s major selling point: that it was much greener than gasoline.

So the ethanol industry was livid. Lobbyists flooded the EPA with criticism, challenging the government’s methods and conclusions.

The EPA’s conclusion was based on a model. Plug in some assumed figures — the price of corn, the number of acres planted, how much corn would grow per acre — and the model would spit out a number.

To get past 20 percent, the EPA needed to change its assumptions.

The most important of those assumptions was called the yield, a measure of how much corn could be produced on an acre of land. The higher the yield, the easier it would be for farmers to meet the growing demand without plowing new farmland, which counted against ethanol in the greenhouse gas equation.

Corn yields have inched steadily upward over the years as farms have become more efficient. The government’s first ethanol model assumed that trend would continue, rising from 150 bushels per acre to about 180 by the year 2022.

Agriculture companies like Monsanto Co. and DuPont Pioneer, which stood to make millions off an ethanol boom, told the government those numbers were too low.

They predicted that genetically modified seeds — which they produce — would send yields skyrocketing. With higher yields, farmers could produce more corn on less land, reducing the environmental effects.

Documents show the White House budget office also suggested the EPA raise its yield assumptions.

When the final rule came out, the EPA and Agriculture officials added a new “high yield case scenario” that assumed 230 bushels per acre.

The flaw in those assumptions, independent scientists knew, was that a big increase in corn prices would encourage people to farm in less hospitable areas like Wayne County, which could never produce such large yields.

But the EPA’s model assumed only a tiny increase in corn prices.

“You adjust a few numbers to get it where you want it, and then you call it good,” said Adam Liska, assistant professor of biological systems engineering at the University of Nebraska. He supports ethanol, even with its environmental trade-offs.

When the Obama administration finalized its first major green-energy policy, corn ethanol barely crossed the key threshold. The final score: 21 percent.

“If you corrected any of a number of things, it would be on the other side of 20 percent,” said Richard Plevin of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “Is it a coincidence this is what happened? It certainly makes me wonder.”

It didn’t take long for reality to prove the Obama administration’s predictions wrong.

The regulations took effect in July 2010. The following month, corn prices already had surpassed the EPA’s long-term estimate of $3.22 a bushel. That September, corn passed $4, on its way to about $7, where it has been most of this year.

Yields, meanwhile, have held fairly steady.

But the ethanol boom was underway.

___

It’s impossible to precisely calculate how much ethanol is responsible for the spike in corn prices and how much those prices led to the land changes in the Midwest.

Supporters of corn ethanol say extreme weather — dry one year, very wet the next — hurt farmers and raised prices.

But diminishing supply wasn’t the only factor. More corn than ever was being distilled into ethanol.

Historically, the overwhelmingly majority of corn in the United States has been turned into livestock feed. But in 2010, for the first time, fuel was the No. 1 use for corn in America. That was true in 2011 and 2012. Newly released Department of Agriculture data show that, this year, 43 percent of corn went to fuel and 45 percent went to livestock feed.

The more corn that goes to ethanol, the more that needs to be planted to meet other demands.

Scientists predicted that a major ethanol push would raise prices and, in turn, encourage farmers like Leroy Perkins to plow into conservation land. But the government insisted otherwise.

In 2008, the journal Science published a study with a dire conclusion: Plowing over conservation land releases so much greenhouse gas that it takes 48 years before new plants can break even and start reducing carbon dioxide.

For an ethanol policy to work, the study said, farmers could not plow into conservation land.

The EPA, in a report to Congress on the environmental effects of ethanol, said it was “uncertain” whether farmers would plant on farmland that had been set aside for conservation.

The Department of Energy was more certain. Most conservation land, the government said in its response to the study, “is unsuitable for use for annual row crop production.”

America could meet its ethanol demand without losing a single acre of conservation land, Energy officials said.

They would soon be proven wrong.

Before the government ethanol mandate, the Conservation Reserve Program grew every year for nearly a decade. Almost overnight, farmers began leaving the program, which simultaneously fell victim to budget cuts that reduced the amount of farmland that could be set aside for conservation.

In the first year after the ethanol mandate, more than 2 million acres disappeared.

Since Obama took office, 5 million more acres have vanished.

Agriculture officials acknowledge that conservation land has been lost, but they say the trend is reversing. When the 2013 data comes out, they say it will show that as corn prices stabilized, farmers once again began setting aside land for conservation.

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Losing conservation land was bad. But something even worse was happening.

Farmers broke ground on virgin land, the untouched terrain that represents, from an environmental standpoint, the country’s most important asset.

The farm industry assured the government that wouldn’t happen. And it would have been an easy thing for Washington to check.

But rather than insisting that farmers report whenever they plow into virgin land, the government decided on a much murkier oversight method: Washington instead monitors the total number of acres of cropland nationwide. Local trends wash away when viewed at such a distance.

“They could not have designed a better approach to not detect land conversion,” said Ben Larson, an agricultural expert for the National Wildlife Federation.

Look closely at the corn boom in the northern Great Plains, however, and it’s clear. Farmers are converting untouched prairie into farmland.

The Department of Agriculture began keeping figures on virgin land only in 2012 and determined that about 38,000 acres vanished that year.

But using government satellite data — the best tool available — the AP identified a conservative estimate of 1.2 million acres of virgin land in Nebraska and the Dakotas alone that have been converted to fields of corn and soybeans since 2006, the last year before the ethanol mandate was passed.

“The last five years, we’ve become financially solvent,” said Robert Malsam, a farmer in Edmunds County, S.D., who like others in the central and eastern Dakotas has plowed into wild grassland to expand his corn crop.

The price of corn is reshaping the land across the Midwest. In Wayne County, Iowa, for example, only the dead can stop the corn.

A gravel road once cut through a grassy field leading to a hilltop cemetery. But about two years ago, the landowners plowed over the road. Now, visiting gravesites means walking a narrow path through the corn.

People have complained. It’s too narrow for a hearse, too rutted for a wheelchair, too steep for the elderly. But it’s legal, said Bill Alley from the board of supervisors.

“This is what the price of corn does,” he said. “This is what happens, right here.”

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When Congress passed the ethanol mandate, it required the EPA to thoroughly study the effects on water and air pollution. In his recent speech to ethanol lobbyists, Vilsack was unequivocal about those effects:

“There is no question air quality, water quality is benefiting from this industry,” he said.

But the administration never actually conducted the required air and water studies to determine whether that’s true.

In an interview with the AP after his speech, Vilsack said he didn’t mean that ethanol production was good for the air and water. He simply meant that gasoline mixed with ethanol is cleaner than gasoline alone.

In the Midwest, meanwhile, scientists and conservationists are sounding alarms.

Nitrogen fertilizer, when it seeps into the water, is toxic. Children are especially susceptible to nitrate poisoning, which causes “blue baby” syndrome and can be deadly.

Between 2005 and 2010, corn farmers increased their use of nitrogen fertilizer by more than one billion pounds. More recent data isn’t available from the Agriculture Department, but because of the huge increase in corn planting, even conservative projections by the AP suggest another billion-pound fertilizer increase on corn farms since then.

Department of Agriculture officials note that the amount of fertilizer used for all crops has remained steady for a decade, suggesting the ethanol mandate hasn’t caused a fertilizer boom across the board.

But in the Midwest, corn is the dominant crop, and officials say the increase in fertilizer use — driven by the increase in corn planting — is having an effect.

The Des Moines Water Works, for instance, has faced high nitrate levels for many years in the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers, which supply drinking water to 500,000 people. Typically, when pollution is too high in one river, workers draw from the other.

“This year, unfortunately the nitrate levels in both rivers were so high that it created an impossibility for us,” said Bill Stowe, the water service’s general manager.

For three months this summer, workers kept huge machines running around the clock to clean the water. Officials asked customers to use less water so the utility had a chance to keep up.

Part of the problem was that last year’s dry weather meant fertilizer sat atop the soil. This spring’s rains flushed that nitrogen into the water along with the remnants of the fertilizer from the most recent crop.

At the same time the ethanol mandate has encouraged farmers to plant more corn, Stowe said, the government hasn’t done enough to limit fertilizer use or regulate the industrial drainage systems that flush nitrates and water into rivers and streams.

With the Water Works on the brink of capacity, Stowe said he’s considering suing the government to demand a solution.

In neighboring Minnesota, a government report this year found that significantly reducing the high levels of nitrates from the state’s water would require huge changes in farming practices at a cost of roughly $1 billion a year.

“We’re doing more to address water quality, but we are being overwhelmed by the increase in production pressure to plant more crops,” said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership.

The nitrates travel down rivers and into the Gulf of Mexico, where they boost the growth of enormous algae fields. When the algae die, the decomposition consumes oxygen, leaving behind a zone where aquatic life cannot survive.

This year, the dead zone covered 5,800 square miles of sea floor, about the size of Connecticut.

Larry McKinney, the executive director of the Harte Institute at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, says the ethanol mandate worsened the dead zone.

“On the one hand, the government is mandating ethanol use,” he said, “and it is unfortunately coming at the expense of the Gulf of Mexico.”

The dead zone is one example among many of a peculiar ethanol side effect: As one government program encourages farmers to plant more corn, other programs pay millions to clean up the mess.

___

Obama administration officials know the ethanol mandate hasn’t lived up to its billing.

The next-generation biofuels that were supposed to wean the country off corn haven’t yet materialized. Every year, the EPA predicts millions of gallons of clean fuel will be made from agricultural waste. Every year, the government is wrong.

Every day without those cleaner-burning fuels, the ethanol industry stays reliant on corn and the environmental effects mount.

The EPA could revisit its model and see whether ethanol is actually as good for the environment as officials predicted. But the agency says it doesn’t have the money or the manpower.

Even under the government’s optimistic projections, the ethanol mandate wasn’t going to reduce greenhouse gas right away. And with the model so far off from reality, independent scientists say it’s hard to make an argument for ethanol as a global warming policy.

“I’d have to think really hard to come up with a scenario where it’s a net positive,” said Silvia Secchi, a Southern Illinois University agriculture economist.

She paused a few moments, then added, “I’m stumped.”

In June, when Obama gave a major policy speech on reducing greenhouse gas, he didn’t mention ethanol. Biofuels in general received a brief, passing reference.

What was once billed as an environmental boon has morphed into a government program to help rural America survive.

“I don’t know whether I can make the environmental argument, or the economic argument,” Vilsack said in an interview with the AP. “To me, it’s an opportunity argument.”

Congress and the administration could change the ethanol mandate, tweak its goals or demand more safeguards. Going to Congress and rewriting the law would mean picking a fight with agricultural lobbyists, a fight that would put the administration on the side of big oil companies, which despise the ethanol requirement.

So the ethanol policy cruises on autopilot.

Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, the ethanol lobbying group, said there’s no reason to change the standards. Ethanol still looks good compared to the oil industry, which increasingly relies on environmentally risky tactics like hydraulic fracturing or pulls from carbon-heavy tar sands.

Leroy Perkins, the farmer agonizing about what to do with his 91 acres, says he likes ethanol as a product and an industry. But he knows it fuels the corn prices that are transforming his county.

“If they do change the fuel standard, you’ll see the price of corn come down overnight,” he said. “I like to see a good price for corn. But when it’s too high, it hurts everybody.”

Investors from as far away as Maryland and Pennsylvania have bought thousands of acres in Wayne County, sending prices skyrocketing from $350 per acre a decade ago to $5,000 today.

One in every four acres of in the county is now owned by an out-of-towner.

Those who still own land often rent it to farming companies offering $300 or more per acre. Perkins could make perhaps $27,000 a year if he let somebody plant corn on his land. That’s nothing to dismiss in a county where typical household income is $36,000.

But he knows what that means. He sees the black streaks in his neighbor’s cornfields, knowing the topsoil washes away with every rain. He doesn’t want that for his family’s land.

“You have to decide, do you want to be the one to…”

He doesn’t finish his sentence.

“We all have to look at our pocketbooks.”

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Associated Press writers Jack Gillum in Washington and Chet Brokaw in Roscoe, S.D., contributed to this report.

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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press

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Obama’s drop in public approval may be irreversible

Barack Obama
Barack Obama

Insiders say it is hard for the President to accept, but Barack Obama’s personal appeal and public approval ratings aren’t what they once were.

In his first term, Obama’s personal favorability ratings gave him protection from the economic recession, bruising confrontations with Congressional Republicans and re-election prospects that seemed questionable until Republicans put up a weak candidate.

That, as the cliche goes, was then and this is now.

Americans currently see Obama in a largely unfavorable light and an examination of polling trends show it could be difficult to impossible for the President to rebound to a level that he so desperately wants.

“It’s a slow cumulative effect,” Republican pollster David Winston tells The Associated Press, adding that personal favorability “is a much harder number to move if it starts to go south.”

The public’s increasingly negative view of Obama may be less of a concern for his future given that he is barred from running for re-election. But the president still needs a strong connection with the public in order to rally Americans around his policy proposals and, in turn, to show Congress he remains politically relevant at a time when lame duck status is lurking.

The president’s advisers need only look at Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, to see the impact of a crumbling relationship with the public. Positive impressions of the Republican trailed off in the beginning of 2005 amid public frustration with the Iraq war and the government’s flawed response to Hurricane Katrina. Bush’s favorability rating never recovered and he struggled to fulfill significant policy goals throughout the rest of his presidency.

A series of recent polls show Obama’s personal favorability now leaning negative, including an NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll released last week that found positive views of Obama at the lowest point of his presidency and down 6 points from earlier in October. The drop follows the 16-day government shutdown, the cascade of problems during his health care law’s rollout, and another flood of revelations about U.S. government spying.

White House officials blame the shutdown in particular for Obama’s falling favorability, given that it resulted in shuttering many federal services and furloughs for hundreds of thousands of Americans, while again highlighting the troubled ties between the president and Capitol Hill. But Obama aides note that the impact of the shutdown on congressional Republicans has been even worse, with both their personal and job performance ratings at record lows.

“Everybody gets hurt when there’s dysfunction in Washington,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Throughout Obama’s presidency, his job approval and personal favorability ratings have generally risen and fallen in tandem. But his favorability numbers, which often reflect the public’s gut-level reaction to a politician, generally remained the more positive of the two measures.

That, the president’s supporters argue, made the public more likely to give him a chance even when they disagreed with his policies or the direction the country was headed. His strong likability was seen as a particular asset during his 2012 re-election campaign when most polls showed that voters saw him in a more favorable light than his Republican rival Mitt Romney.

“For the president, it’s meant that people have cared about what he had to say because they liked him,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster.

The question for the White House now is whether that dynamic will hold if the public’s personal opinions of the president continue to sour. An Associated Press-GfK poll from early October found that 52 percent of Americans didn’t think Obama was very honest and were split on whether he was even likable.

The president’s favorability has taken hits during other points in his presidency. Most polling found the public’s impression soured in late summer 2011 around the first round of debt ceiling negotiations and again last summer in the midst of his presidential campaign.

Although Obama’s favorability improved somewhat after each hit, he never fully recovered, with each rating rebound peaking below earlier average favorability ratings.

For example, Obama began 2011 with majority favorable ratings in most polling. When the debt ceiling fight pushed his favorability below 50 percent in late 2011, he came back to an average right around 50 rather than above it. This latest battle has led to average ratings in the mid-40s, worse than he’s seen at any point previously.

Past presidents have also struggled to recover from dips in their favorability ratings.

Bush left office with majorities saying they had both a negative impression of him personally and disapproved of his job performance. And former President Bill Clinton’s favorability numbers never recovered after a fall in 1998 as the Monica Lewinsky story unfolded, though his job approval remained strong through his last days at the White House.

Republican President Ronald Reagan evoked the warmest reaction from the American public, leaving office with high job approval numbers, 63 percent according to Gallup polling in December 1988, and a majority holding a favorable impression of him personally.

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Follow White House Correspondent Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC and AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta at http://twitter.com/jennagiesta
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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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Partisanship: A real threat to the American way of life

102913partisanship2Whenever anyone tries to start a political debate by saying something like “as a Republican” or “as a Democrat,” I stop listening.

I’m sorry but anyone — and yes, I mean anyone — who touts political party as a priority in their life is an immediate turnoff.  My initial thought is: “Why bother?”

At a time when many Americans wonder what lies at the core of the problems that threaten this country, I wonder more and more if the answer is simply “partisanship.”

Government is Washington is locked in partisan gridlock.  Watch any of so-called “news” talk shows on a Sunday and all one sees are hard-core partisans locked in carefully-rehearsed rhetoric that delivers standard, political agenda controlled propaganda without any consideration of fact, rational thought or desire for resolution.

Republicans spit out words like “liberal” and “Democrat” with venom.  Democrats return with acidic references to “conservative” or “right-wing.”  Any hope for resolution is hopelessly lost in a sewer of political pomposity or partisan posturing.

Both Republicans and Democrats defend the misdeeds and mistakes of their own because they are simply one of their own.  Barack Obama is, when one puts aside any partisan considerations and looks at hard facts, a poor President.  So was George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and, yes, even the object of Republican political lust — Ronald Reagan.

Yet the failures of any and all of these Presidents were overlooked by the partisans who distorted facts and manufactured hyperbole to try and turn each into something they weren’t — capable leaders of a nation that needed leadership in times of crisis.

America, sadly, has lost its ability to elect leaders because the system is controlled by partisan power brokers who place greed and adherence to money-driven private political agendas above what may be best for the nation.

In 1984, I served as the principal writer for the Reagan-Bush “Voices for Victory” program.  It was my job to develop and deliver the “message of the day” for use by the campaign.  After the election, GOP strategist Lee Atwater praised me as “true believer.”

But I wasn’t.  I was a paid hack who delivered a product of pure propaganda for a nice, large check.  The system was then — and is now — dominated by such people — pure political whores in it for the money.

And when America is served by a system dominated by political whores, it is important to remember that the best that anyone can expect from such a system is to get screwed — nothing more, nothing less.

Partisanship, sadly, is not limited simply to party affiliation. A few years later, as Vice President for Political Programs for the National Association of Realtors — which billed itself as the world’s largest trade association — I controlled a political action committee that handed out millions to candidates and ran what was then the nation’s largest independent expenditures program — which ran campaigns to influence voters to vote for or against a particular member of Congress.

That program was a precursor to the large, third-party campaigns that many now feel exert too much “outside” influence on elections.  At the Realtors, I compiled an 85-percent victory record with independent expenditure campaigns — all designed to serve the extremely narrow-focus of single-interest issues that served the real estate industry and it alone.

Some of those issues became part of the easy mortgage scandal that undermined the nation’s economy and led to the recession that still grips the nation.

Such was, and remains today, the dangers of partisan politics in America.  Partisanship is not just Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, right or left.  Partisanship is also found in the special interests that control government at local, state and federal levels.

Such partisanship is, in my opinion, a threat to America.  Until people stop using stereotypical political labels to identify themselves and start thinking without the constraints of party identification or philosophical beliefs, we cannot function as Americans or actually confront and deal with the problems we face.

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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

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Judge rules Texas abortion limits unconstitutional

Texas Sen. Wendy Davis filibustered against bill found unconstitutional. (AP/Eric Gay)
Texas Sen. Wendy Davis filibustered against bill found unconstitutional.
(AP/Eric Gay)

A federal judge has determined that new Texas abortion restrictions violate the U.S. Constitution, a ruling that keeps open — at least for now — dozens of abortion clinics that were set to halt operations Tuesday had key parts of the law taken effect.

In a decision released Monday that the state is certain to appeal, District Judge Lee Yeakel wrote that the regulations requiring doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital creates an undue obstacle to women seeking an abortion.

“The admitting-privileges provision of House Bill 2 does not bear a rational relationship to the legitimate right of the state in preserving and promoting fetal life or a woman’s health and, in any event, places a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a nonviable fetus and is thus an undue burden to her,” he wrote.

While Yeakel found that the state could regulate how a doctor prescribes an abortion-inducing pill, he said the law did not allow for a doctor to adjust treatment taken in order to best protect the health of the woman taking it. Therefore he blocked the provision requiring doctors to follow U.S. Food and Drug Administration protocol for the pills in all instances.

“The medication abortion provision may not be enforced against any physician who determines, in appropriate medical judgment, to perform the medication-abortion using off-label protocol for the preservation of the life or health of the mother,” Yeakel, appointed by President George W. Bush, wrote.

Lawyers for Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers that brought the lawsuit had argued the requirement that doctors have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the abortion clinic would force the closure of a third of the clinics in Texas. They also complained that requiring doctors to follow the FDA’s original label for an abortion-inducing drug would deny women the benefit of recent advances in medical science.

Other portions of the law, known as House Bill 2, include a ban on abortions after 20 weeks and a requirement beginning in October 2014 that all abortions take place in a surgical facility. Neither of those sections was part of this lawsuit.

Amy Hagstrom Miller, president of Whole Woman’s Health, celebrated the victory on admitting privileges but said the judge did not go far enough in overturning the requirement that doctors follow an 18-year-old protocol in prescribing medical abortions.

“Nearly 40 percent of the women we serve at Whole Woman’s Health choose medication abortion and now Texas is preventing these women from the advances in medical practice that other women across the United States will be able to access,” she said. “These restrictions are not based on sound medical practice.”

The Texas attorney general’s office had argued that the law protects women and the life of the fetus. Attorney General Greg Abbott was expected to file an emergency appeal of Yeakel’s order to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

“Today’s decision will not stop our ongoing efforts to protect life and ensure the women of our state aren’t exposed to any more of the abortion-mill horror stories that have made headlines recently,” Republican Gov. Rick Perry said in a statement. “We will continue fighting to implement the laws passed by the duly-elected officials of our state, laws that reflect the will and values of Texans.”

The law requiring admitting privileges was the biggest obstacle facing abortion clinics in Texas, and the ruling gives them a temporary reprieve until new regulations go into effect next year.

Mississippi passed a similar law last year, which a federal judge also blocked pending a trial scheduled to begin in March. Mississippi’s attorney general asked the 5th Circuit to lift the temporary injunction so the law could be enforced, but the judges have left it in place signaling they believe there is a legitimate constitutional question.

Unlike the Mississippi case, Yeakel’s order is a final decision, setting the groundwork for the 5th Circuit to review the merits of the law, not just an injunction against it.

The proposed restrictions were among the toughest in the nation and gained notoriety when Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis launched a nearly 13-hour filibuster against them in June. The law also bans abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy and beginning in October 2014 requires doctors to perform all abortions in surgical facilities.

The filibuster forced Gov. Rick Perry to call a second special legislative session for the Republican-controlled Legislature to pass the law. Davis is now running for governor on a women’s rights platform. Since Perry is retiring, Abbott is Davis’ likely Republican opponent, adding a political layer to the legal drama.

During the trial, officials for one chain of abortion clinics testified that they’ve tried to obtain admitting privileges for their doctors at 32 hospitals, but so far only 15 accepted applications and none have announced a decision. Many hospitals with religious affiliations will not allow abortion doctors to work there, while others fear protests if they provide privileges. Many have requirements that doctors live within a certain radius of the facility, or perform a minimum number of surgeries a year that must be performed in a hospital.

Beth Shapiro, chairwoman of board of directors of Lubbock’s Planned Parenthood Women’s Health Center, said no hospital in Lubbock has granted privileges to the lone doctor from East Texas who flies in to do abortions when there are procedures scheduled. There is not incentive for hospitals to do so, she said.
“I don’t see why local hospitals would give privileges to someone who’s not going to admit patients,” Shapiro said. “I don’t see what the business and financial incentive would be. …it’s “more work and not going to increase patient load.”

Hospitals are required to do yearly reviews on physicians to keep accreditation up to date, she said.

Shapiro said she wasn’t aware of a woman getting an abortion in Lubbock who had complications and needed hospital care.

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AP correspondent Betsy Blaney contributed to this story from Lubbock.

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Follow Chris Tomlinson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/cltomlinson

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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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Make government shutdowns illegal? A tough sale

Yosemite Park Ranger Ron Morton takes payment for admittance after park reopened. (AP/Gary Kazanjian)
Yosemite Park Ranger Ron Morton takes payment for admittance after park reopened.
(AP/Gary Kazanjian)

There is a way to prevent government shutdowns. A change in U.S. law would keep federal workers on the job and ensure that treasured sites like the Statue of Liberty and Yosemite stay open during a budget fight, instead of becoming political pawns.

The idea’s been around for three decades, but even after a 16-day shutdown that cost billions of dollars and outraged voters, it’s a tough sell in Washington.

Why? Without the risk of a shutdown, there’s no telling how long politicians might put off making hard budget decisions.

The United States could end up with government by autopilot.

Even those who say an anti-shutdown law could avoid that trap find it tricky to come up with a plan that’s acceptable to the various factions locked in budget gridlock these days.

Nevertheless, a prominent fiscal conservative in the Senate is reviving the idea as lawmakers seek a budget deal to head off the risk of another shutdown in January. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, will use his spot on the House-Senate negotiating team to push his shutdown prevention measure, said his spokeswoman Caitlin Dunn.

“It’s appealing to take the risk of shutdown off the table,” said Marc Goldwein of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a bipartisan group seeking to curb the national debt. “But it has its risks.”

Money to fund the federal government is appropriated each fiscal year, but Congress almost never finishes its regular appropriations bills on time. The usual solution is to approve “continuing resolutions” that let agencies keep going at current spending levels. Without spending power, they must send workers home.

Shutdowns are so disruptive and unpopular that politicians have rarely resorted to them. This month’s was the first in 17 years. While many operations of government shut down, the closing of national parks is one of the disruptions most visible to the public. Parks were shut down from the museums and monuments along the National Mall to the Statue of Liberty to popular getaways like the Rocky Mountain National Park, prompting angry public reactions.

Trying to eliminate the risk of a shutdown could create persistent new troubles, however.

“If funding for the previous year never actually expires, their motivation to pass an appropriations bill would be lower,” Goldwein said. If lawmakers shirk their duty to adjust spending to reflect the nation’s changing needs, he said, “It would be bad for the country.”

Portman, a former White House budget director in the George W. Bush administration, wants to goad lawmakers to finish their overdue work by cutting spending as time goes by.

If lawmakers miss their Oct. 1 appropriations deadlines, agencies would stay at last year’s spending level for 120 days. After that, spending would drop by 1 percent for every 90 days that go by.

Senate Democrats rejected that plan by a nearly party-line vote in January, although Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is a co-sponsor. Portman is also getting resistance from some conservatives who don’t want to lose the shutdown leverage embraced by tea partyers.

Shutdowns didn’t become a political tactic until 1980, when the Carter administration took a closer look at a decades-old budget law and realized that it requires agencies to send all but the most critical workers home if their funding lapses. The comptroller general recommended that Congress fix the problem back in 1981.

Lawmakers tried many times but only came close once, after the budget showdown in the winter of 1995-96.

The Republican-controlled Congress, branded with most of the blame for two shutdowns, attached a shutdown prevention measure to a flood relief bill. But their plan was anathema to Democrats — it would have kept agencies open but imposed a 2 percent budget cut.

Democratic President Bill Clinton vetoed the bill because it would let Republicans cut spending by failing to act.

Depending how they’re designed, automatic funding schemes can create an incentive for either budget cutters or defenders of the status quo to block spending bills because they prefer the default option. Richard Kogan of the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calls that “governing by paralysis.”

“It would make government less responsive than it already is,” Kogan said. “That’s got to be a bad thing.”

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Follow Connie Cass on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ConnieCass

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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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GOP woes deepen a year after Romney debacle

House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor:  Two failures leading a party of losers. (AP/Susan Walsh)
House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor: Two failures leading a party of losers.
(AP/Susan Walsh)

A year after losing a presidential race many Republicans thought was winnable, the party arguably is in worse shape than before. The GOP is struggling to control tensions between its tea party and establishment wings and watching approval ratings sink to record lows.

It’s almost quaint to recall that soon after Mitt Romney lost to President Barack Obama, the Republican National Committee recommended only one policy change: endorsing an immigration overhaul, in hopes of attracting Hispanic voters.

That immigration bill is now struggling for life and attention in the Republican-run House. The bigger worry for many party leaders is the growing rift between business-oriented Republicans and the GOP’s more ideological wing. Each accuses the other of bungling the debt ceiling and government shutdown dramas, widely seen as a major Republican embarrassment.

The problems don’t end there.

Polls show the GOP nominee trailing in a Virginia governor’s race that history says a Republican should win. At the national level, it’s hard to recall when Republicans seemed so leaderless. Romney has returned to private life. Potential rising stars have stumbled, as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida did when he angered conservative activists by pushing the immigration measure through the Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is preoccupied with his Kentucky re-election bid, squeezed between a tea party GOP challenger on the right and a well-regarded Democrat on the left. In the House, Speaker John Boehner of Ohio cemented his support among Republican colleagues only by letting them vote heavily against a bipartisan plan to avert an unprecedented default on U.S. obligations.

The legislation, which also reopened the government, passed mostly with Democratic votes. That’s hardly the type of victory a Republican speaker hangs on his wall.

Eyeing this troubling landscape, many Republican campaign veterans hope conservative die-hards will narrow their differences with the party’s more pragmatic members before next year’s elections and the 2016 presidential campaign.

“If we don’t find common ground and stand on the same side of the line, we’re going to have a very ugly and rough couple of years,” said Sara Taylor Fagen, who directed political affairs in President George W. Bush’s White House.

Fagen acknowledged newfound tensions between business-oriented Republicans and pro-tea-party Republicans, many of whom refused to raise the debt limit unless Democrats agreed to politically unattainable demands. At risk in the impasse was a government default that would have hammered the economy.

Yet it will be hard to close the rift between the two factions, Fagen said. “I don’t think they communicate.”

To John Ullyot, former Senate aide to moderate Republicans, “the big takeaway from this last battle was the true separation of the pro-business, establishment Republicans, and what they see as the rebels who are driving the party over the cliff.”

Many GOP donors, Ullyot said, “are starting to hold off on any contributions for the time being, until the party figures out how to deal with these upstart Republicans.”

Other Republicans say the situation isn’t so dire.

GOP Gov. Chris Christie is coasting toward re-election in Democratic-leaning New Jersey. Many throughout the country are complaining about the troubled sign-up process for Obama’s health care law, the Republicans’ favorite policy target.

Talk of a party rift “is way overplayed,” said Henry Barbour, an activist from Mississippi and co-author of the RNC’s post-mortem report on Romney’s loss. He said Republicans of all stripes overwhelmingly agree on basic issues, including reduced federal spending, opposition to the health law and “preserving freedom.”

But Barbour agreed that top Republicans differ over tactics. He took issue with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s ultimately doomed drive to block Obama’s health care law by taking the federal budget hostage.

Longtime Republican adviser Charlie Black said the battles over the budget and debt ceiling clearly hurt the party. But Black, who advised Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, played down the internal divide.

“In most places,” he said, “we’re 95 percent together.” But he added, “there will be a few primaries where there will be some differences.”

The specter of Republican primaries disturbs many party loyalists. In the past two Senate elections, tea party-backed insurgents defeated nearly a dozen mainstream Republicans — three of them incumbent senators — in primaries.

Campaign professionals say the results cost Republicans up to five Senate seats they could have won if their nominees were not tea-party candidates.

Now there’s talk of an establishment Republican counterrevolution, in which business-oriented candidates would challenge tea party incumbents in next year’s primaries.

In Michigan, investment banker Brian Ellis is taking on tea party-backed Rep. Justin Amash, and real estate lawyer David Trott is seeking to oust Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, considered by some Republicans to be more of a gadfly than a reliable tea partyer.

It’s not clear whether more than a handful of such challenges will emerge. A bigger question is whether business groups, often supportive of Republicans of all ideological types, will steer more money into bids to oust tea partyers who played down the threat of a federal default.

In interviews, numerous business leaders took wait-and-see stands.

“We have no idea what we’re going to have on the table” in the 2014 primaries, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue told reporters.

Peter A. Wish, a veteran GOP fundraiser from Sarasota, Fla., said the activists he talks with are “pretty much divided” over the fallout from the debt and shutdown debates. Some support Cruz’s hard-line stand “regardless of the consequences,” Wish said. But another faction, he said, “is totally fed up” with an ideological group “picking fights it can’t win.”

Tea party groups aren’t waiting.

For a third straight election, they hope to oust Republican incumbents they view as too willing to work with Democrats. Those targets could include 35-year veteran Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, whose resume includes managing the 1998 effort to impeach President Bill Clinton.

Many Republican consultants say the party’s internal struggles will continue until a leader emerges as the 2016 presidential nominee. Fagen, however, says she worries that the nominee could be nearly perfect, “but it’s not good enough for the ideologues, and they run a third-party candidate.”

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Associated Press writers Ken Thomas in Washington, Bill Barrow in Atlanta, Steve Peoples in Boston and Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.

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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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Obama’s increasing record of incompetence

President Barack Obama: Just not up to the job.
President Barack Obama: Just not up to the job.

So many examples that illustrate that Washington is composed of jut one amateur hour after another bombard us each day that keeping track is all but impossible.

Over the weekend, President Barack Obama took center stage as the leader who just can’t get things right.

Our leader faces increasing questions about the use of the National Security Agency’s spying apparatus to track the phone calls and other activities of leaders of nations that we supposedly consider our allies.

Reports now suggest the NSA has been tracking German Chancellor Angela Merkel since 2002, at least, and an open question is how long Obama knew about the spying and what, if anything, he did to stop it.

Some say the President ordered the tracking of Merkel and other leaders of allied nations stopped when an internal review revealed the actions.  Others suggest he knew about it all along and only took action to halt it when it threatened to become public.

On another front, as more and more information emerges, it becomes all-too-apparent that Obamacare was far from ready from its rollout earlier this month and needs a lot of fine tuning and reworking before it becomes workable, assuming such is even possible.

The latest prediction by the Obama White House is that the technical problems that continue to haunt the healthcare.gov web site that was rushed into place long before it was ready for prime time will, somehow, be corrected by the end of November.

Another empty promise by an administration that is defined by missteps?  Yes, more than likely.  A problem with the so-called health-care reform program’s data operation shut down enrollment in all 50 states over the weekend.

In retrospect, the rabid right Republicans who laughingly made the demise of Obamacare the centerpiece of their failed strategy that led to the government shutdown and debt limit debacle would have been better off if they had just shut up and left the debut of Obamacare’s health exchanges alone to fail on their own.

The problems that keep the healthcare.gov web site down more often than up stem from inherit ineptitude that has become the hallmark of the Obama White House — just the latest example of what can happen when the American voting public is conned into turning the leadership of America over to a junior Senator who lacked neither the experience for the job or the ability to find competent people to occupy important jobs in his administration.

Hard-core supporters of the President who is not up to the job pick and choose from his mounting list of failures a few items that, somehow, managed to succeed in spite of the missteps of an administration that is not really up to the job.

We here at Capitol Hill Blue become more and more convinced that Barack Obama is a failure as President and a monument to what can happen when style overrules substance in a political campaign and voters make the mistake of choosing rhetoric over reality..

Granted, the Republicans did more than their part in offering failures like John McCain and Mitt Romney as alternatives in 2008 and 2012 — a repeat of the mistakes made by Democrats who offered no real choice to the mismanagement and mistreatment of America by George W. Bush.

In the end, we have an America devoid of leadership and controlled by a government that stumbles from one crisis to another with the grim reaper of disaster also watching, always looming and always ready.

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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

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Are Obmacare’s glitches, problems fixable?

Obamacare's constantly-crashing web site.
Obamacare’s constantly-crashing web site.

The federal government’s biggest foray into online commerce has left millions of tech-savvy Americans thoroughly bewildered.

But the insurance industry and others experienced with rolling out new programs say there’s still enough time to fix the glitches with President Barack Obama’s health care law before uninsured people start getting coverage on Jan. 1.

The online enrollment system at healthcare.gov was down again for upgrades in the wee hours Tuesday. It made its debut just a week ago and technical experts already have been called in to fix problems several times.

Consumers in different parts of the country Monday continued to report delays, as well as problems setting up security questions for their accounts. However, the administration says the site’s crowded electronic “waiting room” is thinning out.

Despite the confusion, the insurance industry has held off public criticism. Alarmed that only a trickle of customers got through initially, insurers now say enrollments are starting to come in and they expect things to improve.

The last major federal health care launch — the Medicare prescription drug program in 2006 — also had big startup problems. Government leaders who oversaw it say things could look very different in a couple of months for Obama’s law if the administration manages to get a grip on the situation.

“There wasn’t enough time for testing, so the dress rehearsal became opening night,” said Michael Leavitt, who as President George W. Bush’s top health official was responsible for the Medicare drug plan debut.

“They do have an incentive in the next couple of weeks to get this right,” added Leavitt, who currently heads a consulting firm that advises states on the health overhaul. “The real crunch is going to be coming Nov. 15 through Jan. 1. That’s when the system really has to function smoothly.”

The insurance industry is calling for patience. “This is a marathon and not a sprint,” Karen Ignagni, head of the trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans, said in a statement. “We anticipate enrollments will continue to increase in the days and weeks ahead.”

Obama’s law — the Affordable Care Act — was designed to provide insurance for people who don’t have access to coverage on the job. Middle-class uninsured people can buy a government-subsidized private plan, while the poor and near-poor will be steered to Medicaid in states that agree to expand the safety net program. The online insurance markets were envisioned as the 21st century portal to an overhauled system.

But when the health care markets went live last week, millions of curious Americans overwhelmed federal and state insurance websites. The level of interest could be read as a good sign, since polls just prior to the launch found most uninsured people unaware it was coming. Yet for many, the consumer experience was like a Saturday morning spent twiddling thumbs at the local motor vehicle department.

Some prospective customers got a screen that told them to wait — and nothing happened, for hours. Others started to sign up and got trapped by a recurring glitch when they tried to set up security questions to protect their personal accounts. Some who got through all the way to the end found their sessions had timed out, and they had to start over.

The federal website that serves 36 states wasn’t the only problem; several states also had rough launches. As Republicans opposed to “Obamacare” showed they were willing to shut down the government in an effort to stop it, the administration seemed to be its own worst enemy.

Technology experts say the problems are probably due to a combination of factors: unexpectedly high demand, as well as possible software flaws and shortcomings in design. Sometimes a high volume of users can expose software problems that went undetected in testing, they said.

The administration has mainly blamed high volume. The Health and Human Services Department says it is adding servers —workhorse computer equipment — to the system to handle the volume of user requests.

Official media releases have hinted at software and system design problems, without providing detail. For example, one referred to procuring “dedicated hardware” for an unnamed “specific component of the system that became over-stressed.”

Problems caused by website overload should ease as more equipment is added. Software and design flaws are trickier to fix, meaning more overnight repairs.

Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said officials would not release enrollment data on an “hourly or daily or weekly basis,” although outside experts say the administration is certain to have those numbers. Officials regularly report the number of unique visitors to healthcare.gov — they just don’t say how many get to the end of the application. Those numbers will be released at “regular monthly intervals,” Carney said.

Mark McClellan, who ran Medicare during the bumpy prescription program rollout in 2006, said during that time he had detailed daily tracking stats, and he’s sure the Obama administration must have at least the same level of information.

“I would think they have a good handle not only on enrollment, but on each step of the process where the drop-offs are occurring,” McClellan said. “If you aren’t tracking those kinds of performance metrics for the system in close to real time, it’s awfully hard to figure what’s wrong in order to fix it.”

Now a health policy expert with the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, McClellan says the message for consumers is: “Take a deep breath. If you are interested in this program, you do not need to make a decision this week, or even this month. You should make a decision by November. Given the issues a lot of people are having, that’s probably a good reason to wait.”

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