A new year with the same old problems in Washington

America:  Something to cry about.
America: Something to cry about.

Congress returns to Washington after the Christmas recess but it would be an error to say the House and Senate are “returning to work.”

Work, sadly, is a lost ethic on Capitol Hill.  Work gets in the way of rabid partisanship by both Democrats and Republicans.  Work interferes with agendas demanded by the special interest groups that control both political parties.

Work requires serving the people of the United States and it has been a long, long time since the House, Senate or White House has put serving America above the petty interests of politics, partisanship and greed.

Unemployment benefits ran out for too many Americans a few days ago but odds favor any move to reinstate and extend those benefits will get lost in the rancid rhetoric that substitutes for rational debate and positive action on Capitol Hill.

Republicans will ignore real issues and focus on their endless campaign to derail Obamacare, ignoring the fact that at least two millions Americans who didn’t have health insurance before Jan. 1 now have it and that number will grow substantially in the coming months.

One of those two million is my wife, who was turned down for health insurance a few months ago because of a preexisting condition from a work-related injury more than two years ago.  She now has full health insurance, with a low deductible and prescription drug coverage, from the same company that turned her down months earlier.

Her monthly premium?  Far lower than what I pay for Medicare and supplemental health coverage.  Will Obamacare work for her?  It already is.

Sadly, her success in obtaining health insurance and the success of others who now have or will have coverage is lost amid the outpouring of partisan posturing that covers government inaction in Washing like verbal diarrhea.  Government cannot function when service to the people is lost amid the deluge of self-serving hyperbole that characterizes Congress today.

I say this with some experience in trying to make government work.  In a sabbatical from journalism that lasted more than a decade, I worked on Capitol Hill as a press secretary, a chief of staff and a House committee staff member.  I worked political campaigns for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the 1984 Reagan-Bush Presidential campaign.

For five years, I directed activities of what was then the nation’s largest political action committee as Vice President for Political Programs for the National Association of Realtors.

What I learned is that the American government does not have much hope for the future if it continues to function under the political system of the past.

America, as it exists today, is a failing nation, controlled by a political system that substitutes partisanship for patriotism and propaganda for truth.

The problems that plague America are not solely the fault of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals or the right or the left.  The blame is shared because the best interests of the nation normally finish second to the agendas — public and private — of the political interests whose goals are self-serving, selfish and greedy.

Polls show public approval of the American government is at an all-time low.  Congress gets most of the blame but the White House shares in the fault as well and it doesn’t matter which party controls 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or Capitol Hill.

If there an answer?  I wish the hell I knew of one.

But until those who claim to serve the people put their partisan pettiness aside and start working together as Americans, our chances of finding an answer are dim and what little flicker of light remains may be forever extinguished.

I pray that someone will prove me wrong.

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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

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Obama more popular on foreign policy issues

President Barack Obama (AP/Evan Vucci)
President Barack Obama (AP/Evan Vucci)

President Barack Obama’s approval ratings for handling foreign policy issues generally top his ratings for most domestic issues, including the economy and health care, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll. But the poll also suggests a majority of Americans want the president to pull troops out of Afghanistan faster than he’s doing, and many are skeptical about a tentative nuclear deal with Iran.

The poll found that 57 percent now say going to war in Afghanistan after the 2001 terror attacks was probably the “wrong thing to do.” And 53 percent say the pace of the planned withdrawal is too slow, 34 percent said the pace was just about right and 10 percent said it was too fast. All combat troops are scheduled to leave by the end of 2014.

Meanwhile, six in 10 Americans approve of the preliminary deal between Iran and six global powers to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But that support is soft and many doubt it will lead to concrete results.

Even though he garners more disapproval than approval on the handling of Afghanistan and Iran, Obama generally gets better ratings on foreign policy than on domestic issues.

Nearly half (49 percent) approve of his handling of U.S. relations with other countries while 50 percent disapprove. In contrast, just 40 percent approve of his handling of the economy, while 59 percent disapprove. And on health care, the approval rating stands at 39 percent, with 61 percent disapproving. His overall job approval is at 42 percent, with 58 disapproving.

The slightly higher ratings on foreign policy generally make sense, suggested Philip Salathe, 70, of Indianapolis, who participated in the poll.

Salathe said Obama in 2008 ran against Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who during the campaign joked about dropping bombs on Iran. “I figure we could fix the economy if it gets ruined and we can repeal any bad laws that get passed,” Salathe said, but a military confrontation with Iran or other foreign policy crisis could have more disastrous consequences.

Salathe approves of the job Obama is doing overall but still thinks things are headed in the wrong direction. “We’re not doing anything about the major problems facing humanity. Basically, we have a number of disparate goals that are at odds with each other,” such as protecting the environment while promoting growth and urban development. He said Obama is the first Democrat he’s voted for as president. He said he tends to favor Republicans.

Just 16 percent of those polled said they expected the situation in Afghanistan to “get better” over the next year; 32 percent said they expected it to “get worse” while about half said they expected the situation to “stay about the same.”

Jennifer Reese, 28, of Burnsville, Minn., considers herself a Democrat and says she voted for Obama. But she questions whether he’s the cause for the economy getting better.

“I think the economy is getting better, but I don’t think it’s necessarily because of what Obama’s doing,” she said. “That’s the way things work. When things go down so far, then they’re going to go back up.”

She said she also believes both parties could do an equally good job protecting the country and that the pace of allied troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is “about right.” She favors a continued presence of allied troops in the country to train and assist Afghan troops. “My family was in the military. My father was over there for a while and he says they’re doing good things.”

As for negotiations with Iran on curbing its nuclear program, Reese says she is pleased Iran is at the bargaining table. “Let’s negotiate this, see what we can do,” she said.

The poll showed Americans broadly approve of a tentative deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Fifty-nine percent approved, 38 percent disapproved.

But that support was tentative, with more than 4 in 10 (44 percent) also saying it’s unlikely the agreement will keep Iran from seeking to build its own nuclear weapon. Just 11 percent think that outcome is extremely or very likely.

Mark Dabney, 54, of Cartersville, Ga., who describes himself as a political independent who supports the tea party movement, disapproves of Obama’s performance on both domestic and foreign policy fronts.

As for Iraq and Afghanistan, “I just believe that we shouldn’t go meddling in other countries’ internal affairs,” he said.

The AP-GfK poll was conducted Dec. 5-9 using KnowledgePanel, GfK’s probability-based online panel. For results based on all 1,367 adults, the margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

KnowledgePanel is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods, and later, completed this survey online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t otherwise have Internet access were provided with access at no cost.

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Associated Press Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta and AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.

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Online:

AP-GfK poll: http://www.ap.gfkpoll.com

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Follow Tom Raum on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/tomraum
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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press  All Rights Reserved.

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Trying to live in a politically-segregated America

President Barack Obama's 2012 election night rally in Chicago.(Reuters/Philip Andrews)
President Barack Obama’s 2012 election night rally in Chicago.(Reuters/Philip Andrews)

Can states’ rights work for liberals? It has always been a conservative cause. Conservatives use states’ rights to resist federal policies that protect civil rights, voting rights and abortion rights. Today, however, federal action is often blocked. So progressive states are passing laws that bypass gridlocked Washington and advance the liberal agenda on their own.

In his famous keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention, Barack Obama criticized pundits who “like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states.” His rejoinder: “I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America.”

Obama was wrong. Americans have become more and more politically segregated over the past 50 years. Since the 1960s, politics has come to reflect lifestyle and values, and people often choose to live among others who share their lifestyle and values. And therefore their politics.

The number of competitive states has diminished. In the 1960 presidential election, there were 24 battleground states where the margin of victory was five percentage points or less. In the 2012 election, using the same criterion, there were only seven (Ohio, Florida, Colorado, Iowa, Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania). Red states like Texas and South Carolina don’t have a single statewide elected Democrat. Blue states like California and New York don’t have a single statewide elected Republican.

The policy gap between red America and blue America is growing. Look at Obamacare. Sixteen states, plus the District of Columbia, have set up state-run insurance exchanges, as the Affordable Care Act invites them to do. Fifteen of those 17 states, including D.C., voted for Obama last year. States running their own insurance exchanges are experiencing a fairly smooth transition to the new healthcare law.

Twenty states want nothing to do with Obamacare. They’re letting the federal government run the program. Sixteen of those 20 states voted for Mitt Romney last year. In 14 states, the new law is being implemented by a federal-state partnership. Those states split in last year’s election — eight for Obama, six for Romney.

The Affordable Care Act also invites states to expand their Medicaid coverage for the poor. The federal government will bear 90 percent to 100 percent of the cost. The expanded program would give health insurance to everyone with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level ($23,550 for a family of four). With Medicaid expansion, about half the nation’s uninsured population would get health insurance coverage.

But the Supreme Court ruled in June that states may opt out of Medicaid expansion. Twenty-five states did. Nineteen of them had voted for Romney in 2012. Meanwhile 21 out of 27 Obama states are expanding Medicaid coverage. If you are poor, or near poor, and live in a red state, the new healthcare law probably won’t help you.

Income inequality has been growing rapidly in the United States. Congressional Democrats have tried and failed repeatedly to raise the federal minimum wage, which has been $7.25 an hour since 2009. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have a higher minimum wage; 15 of them were Obama states in 2012.

In blue America, same-sex marriage is a reality. Sixteen states plus D.C. allow same-sex marriage. All voted for Obama in 2012. Not a single Romney state allows same-sex marriage.

Look at state laws imposing restrictions on abortions. Almost 90 percent of the Romney states have passed laws banning late-term abortions (many of those laws have been enjoined by the courts). Seventeen states provide public funding for medically necessary abortions. Thirteen of them voted for Obama last year.

The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence grades states from A to F, based on the strength or weakness of their gun laws. Seventeen states were graded A, B or C on gun control. They are all blue states. Twenty-four states got an F. Twenty of them voted for Romney. Red America enshrines gun rights. Blue America means gun control.

We have always had policy differences among the states. That’s what federalism means. What’s happening here is that the divergence between red America and blue America is growing. Progressive states and conservative states are moving farther and farther apart in their policies, just as they are in their politics.

It’s creating two different societies — one where poor people, women and gay people enjoy rights and benefits and the other where they don’t. Does it really make sense that a gay couple can be legally married in Maryland but are no longer married if they move across the Potomac River to Virginia?

We’ve now had four presidents in a row who promised to bring the country together. They all failed. In a famous speech in 1858, when Abraham Lincoln was running for the Senate, he said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. . . . I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.”

The division did end. But it took a civil war to end it. If compromise isn’t happening and violence is unthinkable, there’s only one option left: peaceful coexistence in a hopelessly divided land.

Bill Schneider is professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University and a resident scholar at Third Way.
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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press  All Rights Reserved.

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Deal leaves Iran with no path to nuclear bomb

Secretary of State John Kerry embraces EU foreign policy after UN ceremony in Geneva on new deal with Iran. (AP/Keystone,Martial Trezzini)
Secretary of State John Kerry embraces EU foreign policy after UN ceremony in Geneva on new deal with Iran. (AP/Keystone,Martial Trezzini)

Iran struck a historic deal Sunday with the United States and five other world powers, agreeing to a temporary freeze of its nuclear program in the most significant agreement between Washington and Tehran in more than three decades of estrangement.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani endorsed the agreement, which commits Iran to curb its nuclear activities for six months in exchange for limited and gradual sanctions relief, including access to $4.2 billion from oil sales. The six-month period will give diplomats time to negotiate a more sweeping agreement.

It builds on the momentum of the public dialogue opened during September’s annual U.N. gathering, which included a 15-minute phone conversation between President Barack Obama and moderate-leaning Rouhani, who was elected in June.

The package includes freezing Iran’s ability to enrich uranium at a maximum 5 percent level, which is well below the threshold for weapons-grade material and is aimed at easing Western concerns that Tehran could one day seek nuclear arms.

Obama hailed the pact’s provisions, which include curbs on Iran’s enrichment and other projects that could be used to make nuclear arms, as key to preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear threat.

“Simply put, they cut off Iran’s most likely paths to a bomb,” he told reporters in Washington.

For Iran, keeping the enrichment program active was a critical goal. Iran’s leaders view the country’s ability to make nuclear fuel as a source of national pride and an essential part of its insistence at nuclear self-sufficiency.

Giving up too much on the enrichment program would have likely brought a storm of protest by Iranian hard-liners, who were already uneasy over the marathon nuclear talks and Rouhani’s outreach to Washington.

In a nationally broadcast speech, Rouhani said the accord recognizes Iran’s “nuclear rights” even if that precise language was kept from the final document because of Western resistance.

“No matter what interpretations are given, Iran’s right to enrichment has been recognized,” said Rouhani, who later posed with family members of nuclear scientists killed in slayings in recent years that Iran has blamed on Israel and allies.

Saying “trust is a two-way street,” Rouhani insisted that talks on a comprehensive agreement should start immediately.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who led his country’s delegation, called on both sides to see the agreement as an “opportunity to end an unnecessary crisis and open new horizons.”

But initial reaction in Israel was strongly negative. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, called the deal, a “historic mistake.”

Speaking to his Cabinet, Netanyahu said Sunday that Israel is not bound by the deal and reserves the right to defend itself. That is a reference to possible military action against Iran.

Netanyahu has said the international community is giving up too much to Iran, which it believes will retain the ability to produce a nuclear weapon and threaten Israel.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who joined the final negotiations along with the foreign ministers of Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany, said the pact will make U.S. allies in the Middle East, including Israel, safer reducing the threat of war.

“Agreement in Geneva,” he tweeted. “First step makes world safer. More work now.”

The deal marks a milestone between the two countries, which broke diplomatic ties 34 years ago when Iran’s Islamic revolution climaxed in the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Since then, relations between the two countries had been frigid to hostile.

Although the deal lowered tensions between the two countries, friction points remain — notably Iran’s support of the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. The United States also has said Iran supports terrorism throughout the region and commits widespread human rights violations.

The Geneva negotiations followed secret face-to-face talks between the U.S. and Iran over the past year, The Associated Press has learned. The discussions, held in the Persian Gulf nation of Oman and elsewhere, were kept hidden even from America’s closest allies, including its negotiating partners and Israel, until two months ago.

A White House statement said the deal limits Iran’s existing stockpiles of enriched uranium, which can be turned into the fissile core of nuclear arms.

The statement also said the accord curbs the number and capabilities of the centrifuges used to enrich and limits Iran ability to “produce weapons-grade plutonium” from a reactor in the advanced stages of construction.

The statement also said Iran’s nuclear program will be subject to “increased transparency and intrusive monitoring.”

“Taken together, these first step measures will help prevent Iran from using the cover of negotiations to continue advancing its nuclear program as we seek to negotiate a long-term, comprehensive solution that addresses all of the international community’s concerns,” said the statement.

Since it was revealed in 2003, Iran’s enrichment program has grown from a few dozen enriching centrifuges to more than 18,000 installed and more than 10,000 operating. The machines have produced tons of low-enriched uranium, which can be turned into weapons grade material.

Iran also has stockpiled almost 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of higher-enriched uranium in a form that can be converted more quickly to fissile warhead material than the low-enriched uranium. Its supply is nearly enough for one bomb.

In return for Iran’s nuclear curbs, the White House statement promised “limited, temporary, targeted, and reversible (sanctions) relief” to Iran, noting that “the key oil, banking, and financial sanctions architecture, remains in place.” And it said any limited sanctions relief will be revoked and new penalties enacted if Iran fails to meet its commitments.

Kerry said the relief offered would give Iran access to $4.2 billion from oil sales. Approximately $1.5 billion more would come from imports of gold and other precious metals, petrochemical exports and Iran’s auto sector, as well as easier access to “humanitarian transactions.”

“The core sanctions architecture … remains firmly in place through these six months, including with respect to oil and financial services,” Kerry said. He said those sanctions will result in more than $25 billion in lost oil revenues over six months.

Those conditions are being highlighted by the U.S. administration in its efforts to demonstrate that Iran is still in pain. The administration has urged Congress to hold off on any new sanctions and give the accord a chance to prove its worth.

But one influential member of Congress was quick to criticize the deal.

Rep. Ed Royce, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed “serious concerns,” saying the United States was “relieving Iran of the sanctions pressure built up over years,” while allowing Tehran to “keep the key elements of its nuclear weapons-making capacity.”

Obama hailed the deal as putting “substantial limitations” on a nuclear program that the United States and its allies fear could be turned to nuclear weapons use.

“While today’s announcement is just a first step, it achieves a great deal,” Obama said. “For the first time in nearly a decade, we have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program, and key parts of the program will be rolled back.”

Iran’s currency, the rial, got a small boost after news of the deal, strengthening to about 29,000 rials against the U.S. dollar, compared with about 29,950 in recent days.

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Associated Press writers George Jahn and Deb Riechmann in Geneva, Julie Pace in Washington, Robert H. Reid in Berlin and Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.
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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 Associated Press  All Rights Reserved

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