HAGEL IN THE SPOTLIGHT. Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s pick for secretary of Defense, is expected to undergo heavy questioning at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee today. The 66-year-old Vietnam veteran was the target of an aggressive campaign to block his nomination, despite what The Washington Post called a “charm offensive” in recent weeks in which Hagel met with more than 50 Senators and special interest groups to beat back criticism on issues ranging from U.S. relations with Israel to defense spending. “The confirmation will not be an easy one,” committee Chairman Carl Levin told The Post. Read more
SENATE TO VOTE ON DEBT LIMIT. The Senate is expected to vote today on a proposal to suspend the nation’s $16.4 trillion debt ceiling until mid-May, staving off a government default, the Associated Press reported. The bill was passed by the House last week. If the Senate approves it, it will send the measure to the president, who is expected to sign it. If passed, the measure would allow the U.S. to take on roughly $450 billion in additional debt, according to an estimate by the Bipartisan Policy Center. Read more
GIFFORDS TO CONGRESS: ‘YOU MUST ACT.’ Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday and spoke in a soft and powerful voice. In her brief appearance (see her handwritten statement here), Giffords, who was seriously wounded in a 2011 assassination attempt that left six dead, urged Congress to be “bold” and “courageous” in dealing with gun violence. “Too many children are dying. Too many children. We must do something," she said. At that same hearing, the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre clashed with senators while defending his group, arguing that new gun laws do not stop violence and urging better enforcement of existing laws. Read more
DON’T PANIC ON GDP NUMBERS – YET. Economists expected a modest 1.1 percent gain in the nation’s gross domestic product for the fourth quarter, but the actual number—a contraction of 0.1 percent—came as a bit of a shock. Many pointed to a steep drop in defense spending as the culprit. As NJ’s Catherine Hollander writes, economists are not yet sounding the alarm on the disappointing numbers: “There is nothing in these figures to change our view that US GDP growth will accelerate as this year goes on," writes economist Paul Ashworth. Read more
SCOTT BROWN ‘LEANING STRONGLY’ TOWARD SENATE RUN. Former GOP Sen. Scott Brown is “leaning strongly toward running” for the Massachusetts Senate seat to be vacated by incoming Secretary of State John Kerry, Republican sources tell the Associated Press. The sources add that Brown is likely to make his announcement early next week. On the Democratic side, a source close to Rep. Stephen Lynch tells The Washington Post that Lynch is likely to announce his candidacy for the seat today. The only other Democrat to declare so far is Rep. Edward Markey. The primary for the special election will be held on April 30 and the general election will take place on June 25. Brown lost his Senate seat to Democrat Elizabeth Warren in November. Read more
MO COWAN TO REPLACE KERRY IN SENATE. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick spurned entreaties from former Rep. Barney Frank and instead chose his former chief of staff, William “Mo” Cowan, to serve in the Senate, The Washington Post reports. Cowan will serve until the summer, when a special election will determine a long-term replacement. Cowan, who will be the first African-American senator from the Bay State since 1978, grew up in a segregated North Carolina tobacco town, and is a graduate of Duke University. He got his law degree at Northeastern University in Boston and once helped Mitt Romney identify minority candidates who would make good judges. Cowan’s appointment means that for the first time, the upper chamber has two African-American senators. Read more
LEAHY GIVES SIGNALS ON BACKGROUND CHECKS, WEAPONS BAN. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., will oversee any legislation on gun control that makes its way to the Senate floor. At the first in a series of congressional hearings on the issue Wednesday, his line of questioning suggested that expanded background checks and closing the so-called gun show loophole will be top priorities—and perhaps the only ones that stand a chance in the full Senate, as NJ’s Rebecca Kaplan reports. Read more
IN EMOTIONAL FAREWELL, KERRY DEFENDS SENATE. Departing senators regularly cite the gridlock and vitriol in the body as the root of their frustration, describing the chamber as past its prime. But in an emotional farewell speech to his colleagues, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., defended the institution and its rules as “a lasting memorial to the miracle of the American experiment,” The Washington Post reports. He pointedly rejected calls for reforming or eliminating the filibuster. “The problems that we live through today come from individual choices of senators themselves, not the rules,” he said. “When an individual senator or a colluding caucus determine that the comity essential to an institution like the Senate is a barrier to individual ambition or party ambition, the country loses.” Read more
MENENDEZ DENIES PROSTITUTION INVOLVEMENT. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who is helping craft immigration-reform measures, is facing questions over his relationship with a Florida doctor and frequent donor whose home was raided by the FBI this week. The doctor, Salomon Melgen, allegedly took Menendez on several trips to the Dominican Republic, according to disclosure reports. Last year, The Daily Caller, a conservative website, reported allegations that Menendez solicited prostitution. Last week, the site reported that the FBI was looking at whether the prostitutes were underage. On Wednesday, Menendez denied any wrongdoing and said in a statement that “allegations of engaging with prostitutes are manufactured by a politically-motivated right-wing blog and are false.” Read more
TAMING THE TEA PARTY ON IMMIGRATION. Tea-party conservatives are not going to throw themselves on their swords over immigration, at least not yet. The messages coming from congressional Republicans after Obama’s speech Tuesday and a bipartisan Senate proposal Monday are muted and measured: The boldest conservatives want to wait and see, as National Journal’s Fawn Johnson reports. It may turn out that tea-party conservatives aren’t as wedded to opposing an immigration overhaul as they are to reducing government spending. Read more
SENATORS WANT ANOTHER SOTU ‘DATE NIGHT.’ Sens. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, are asking their colleagues from the House and Senate to come together for the third time in as many years and do another “date night”—when Republicans and Democrats sit together during the president’s State of the Union address. Dozens of members have taken part in the past, and the duo hope to make the recent tradition permanent. "Although this gesture did not end Washington gridlock, we feel it has been a very important step in the right direction, symbolizing the importance of working together to solve the common challenges we face in securing a strong future for the United States," the two note in a joint statement. Read more
ADMINISTRATION PLAYS OFFENSE ON HAGEL CONFIRMATION. Sensing how important it would be to get Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., on board with his pick of Chuck Hagel for Defense secretary, the White House worked hard to ensure the two could meet to talk things over—in the West Wing. The administration expected the doubtful Jewish Democrat's support. "The West Wing session—followed by Schumer's effusive endorsement of Hagel—was part of an all-out offensive Obama's White House has launched to secure Hagel's nomination, administration officials and congressional aides said. The campaign has included a Pentagon task force, hours of meetings and, at times, some judicious direct intervention," according to Reuters. Read more
WHITE HOUSE: SANDY, SEQUESTER TO BLAME FOR SLOW GROWTH. White House economist Alan B. Krueger wrote in a White House blog post Wednesday that superstorm Sandy was to blame for the 0.1 percent drop in the nation's annual rate of growth for the fourth quarter of 2012. "Hurricane Sandy disrupted economic activity and Federal defense spending declined precipitously, likely due to uncertainty stemming from the sequester," he explained. Federal defense spending, for one, declined 22.2 percent last quarter—the largest quarterly drop in 40 years. And Sandy, he said, destroyed $44 billion worth of fixed capital. Read more
PRITZKER TO COMMERCE? Obama backer and hotel scion Penny Pritzker is rumored to be a possibility for the next commerce secretary, The Chicago Sun-Times reports alongside other media outlets (The Washington Post’s Al Kamen writes “there’s chatter here that she’s already the pick.”) Pritzker, whose family owns a large chunk of the Hyatt hotel chain, served as the national finance chair for Obama’s first presidential campaign, but withdrew from consideration after Obama won in 2008. She raised about $500,000 for Obama’s campaign this year, and is ranked #255 on the Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. Read more
OBAMA'S IMMIGRATION PLAN IS CONSERVATIVE. National Journal's Ron Fournier argues that Obama's immigration agenda isn't liberal—as those in the GOP claim—but conservative. Indeed, the argument Obama presented Tuesday for a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants is rooted in economic and social conservatism: First, Obama argued that immigration fuels corporate innovation. He also cast amnesty as a matter of economic fairness. And finally, Obama cast immigration reform as part of the country’s aspirational narrative. Read more
OBAMA APPROVAL HIGHEST IN THREE YEARS. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows President Obama enjoying his highest approval numbers in three years. “Fully 60 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of Obama in the new poll, up slightly from October but a clear shift in opinion from an election year in which his ratings hovered in the mid-to-low 50s,” The Post reports. Read more
ISRAEL ESCALATES ROLE IN SYRIAN CONFLICT. Israel assertively entered the ongoing civil war within Syria on Wednesday when it bombed a suspected shipment of antiaircraft missiles, according to regional and U.S. officials. The attack honed in on a convoy of trucks nearing the border between Syria and Lebanon. It was believed the trucks were loaded with a shipment of Russian-made SA-17 missiles for Hezbollah, an anti-Israel militant and political group in Lebanon backed and financed, in part, by the Iranian government. Israeli officials declined to comment on the report. Syrian officials alleged that Israel also bombed a Syrian military facility. Read more
DETAILS EMERGE ON U.N. DRONE STRIKE INVESTIGATION. Last week, word spread of a United Nations investigation into the legality of drone strikes. This week, Foreign Policy fleshed out some of the details. The U.N. will investigate 25 drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Palestine, “where attacks were carried out predominantly by the United States, but also by the United Kingdom (in Afghanistan) and Israel (in Palestine).” Wired also interviewed the head of the investigation, the U.N.’s Ben Emmerson. “I can’t say I’ve seen evidence that would enable me to conclude that there is a case that war crimes have been committed, although of course that is an issue we are going to be looking into,” Emmerson said. Read more
AFGHAN COMMANDER: ‘SUBSTANTIAL’ TROOPS NEEDED THROUGH SUMMER. Although the U.S. military is winding down its presence in Afghanistan, the commander of coalition forces in the country, Gen. John Allen, has recommended the White House maintain a “substantial U.S. military presence through the summer fighting season,” according to The Wall Street Journal. President Obama has not publicly detailed his plan to draw down the 66,000 American troops in Afghanistan, but has indicated he will speed up the timeline, which originally stretched to December 2014. Read more
ESCALATING NUMBER OF AFGHANS FLEEING. An increasing number of Afghans are fleeing their country in anticipation of the 2014 NATO military withdrawal. That date “has taken on near-apocalyptic symbolism in parts of the country,” The Washington Post reports. Last year, at least 50,000 Afghans fled to Europe and Australia, which was more than double the previous year’s total, according to the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations. Visas are often “nearly impossible to obtain,” so many are carried out by human smugglers. A full third of the world’s refugees are Afghans, the United Nations reports. Read more
FRENCH FORCES TAKE FINAL REBEL-CONTROLLED AIRPORT IN MALI. Early Wednesday, French troops took the remaining Malian rebel stronghold—an airport in northern Mali—from Islamist militants, ending a week in which French forces recaptured the two main cities under rebel control, The New York Times reports. Haminy Maiga, a local official, told news agencies that the French faced no resistance when their four airplanes touched down. The ground invasion followed a series of crushing airstrikes last week. And the final reclamation comes less than three weeks after the operation began. Read more
PRESSURE ON MORSI TO MEET WITH OPPOSITION. A day after the head of the Egyptian army warned that Egypt was facing a “collapse of the state” if opposing political forces did not come together, a prominent leader of the secular opposition to President Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood party called for a unity government. The opposition coordinator, Mohamed ElBaradei, said on Twitter, “stopping the violence is a priority.” Morsi was expected in Berlin on Wednesday to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is calling for a dialogue between Morsi and the opposition. Read more
REPORT: MILITARY LACKING IN EFFORT TO REDUCE SEXUAL ASSAULT. The Government Accountability Office released a new report Wednesday detailing the progress—and in many cases the lack of progress—the Pentagon has made in reducing instances of sexual abuse in the military. Specifically, the report asserts that medical first-responders often lack proper training and knowledge of services available to sexual-abuse survivors. These issues arise from a lack of standardized guidance “for the treatment of injuries stemming from sexual assault,” which the Pentagon requires. Read more
GOP AT RISK OF REPEATING TODD AKIN DEBACLE. In several battleground states, a handful of gaffe-prone Republican candidates, who are well-positioned to win primaries but risk getting thumped in a general election, have stepped forward. Rep. Steve King of Iowa, an anti-immigration hard-liner, is already giving serious consideration to running for the seat being vacated by Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. Joe Miller, who lost in 2010 to a write-in candidate, is reportedly talking about a repeat run in Alaska. A House member from Georgia who accused President Obama of following the Soviet constitution is probably running to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss, and another who defended Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment is considering a campaign. Meanwhile, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota is a possible contender against Democratic Sen. Al Franken. Read more
STRATEGISTS TO GOP: MOVE TO CENTER ON GAY RIGHTS. As the Republican Party tries to moderate its position on immigration, it faces a much more difficult task dealing with an even more polarizing issue where the demographic trend lines are against it. For many in the Republican Party, the trajectory is now unmistakable. Just as Republican leaders have urged the party to tackle immigration reform in order to appeal to Hispanics, a smaller but equally vocal group of strategists are urging the party to reconsider positions on gay rights to win over younger voters. Read more
COULD ASHLEY JUDD’S BREAK-UP HURT McCONNELL? The actress is ending her marriage with Indy car driver Dario Franchitti, which may be terrible news for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, as NJ’s Michael Catalini reports. After all, there's a chance Judd won't want to jump into a messy political campaign following a messy personal matter. If she doesn't enter the race, it would be bad news for McConnell, whose campaign has indicated they're looking forward to running against the actress. There are other more-conservative Democratic candidates waiting in the wings, such as Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who would be better-positioned to give the vulnerable McConnell a serious challenge. Read more
MORE POWER ADDED IN 2012 FROM WIND THAN NATURAL GAS. The American Wind Energy Association said on Wednesday that the industry added installations totaling 13,124 megawatts in new capacity in 2012, Bloomberg reported. That’s 42 percent of all new power supply added in the U.S., more than from natural gas. Much of the impetus for the surge in new wind installations comes from the Dec. 31 expiration of a wind-production tax credit, and the majority of the installations—8,380 megawatts’ worth—came online in the fourth quarter. Production of new installations has since plummeted. Read more
GASOLINE RULE EMERGES FROM ELECTION-YEAR OBSCURITY. After facing election-year delays, an environmental rule requiring cleaner gasoline is now back in the regulatory pipeline, and a top Environmental Protection Agency official said Wednesday that the agency expects to propose the rule by March. The regulation, which requires lower levels of sulfur in gasoline, had all but disappeared from the regulatory process for the better part of last year as President Obama was seeking reelection and didn’t want to be perceived as imposing new regulations that could raise prices at the pump for voters. “There is a lot of momentum for moving forward with that [rule] quickly,” EPA Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation Gina McCarthy said at a National Journal policy summit Wednesday. Read more
ELECTRIC UTILITIES, AMERICAN PUBLIC SIGNAL SUPPORT FOR CARBON TAX. Two-thirds of Americans prefer a carbon tax to spending reductions to address the country’s budgetary problems, according to a Mellman Group poll released Wednesday. The poll, commissioned by Friends of the Earth, comes on the heels of other endorsements for carbon pricing. “Markets, when properly framed, are incredibly powerful tools for getting socially desirable results at an efficient cost,” said John Rowe, former chairman and CEO of Chicago-based electric utility Exelon, at an event held by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management on Tuesday night.
ECONOMY & BUDGET
FED CITES ‘PAUSE’ IN ECONOMY, WILL MAINTAIN AGGRESSIVE STANCE. As widely expected, the Fed reiterated its policy of keeping short-term interest rates near zero until unemployment drops below 6.5 percent, The New York Times reports, at the same time quelling some fears that its bond-buying strategy would end earlier than expected. The Fed further said that economic growth had “paused”—due to Hurricane Sandy, among other factors—and noted it would continue to stimulate the economy for as long as necessary. Read more
IRS DOING BETTER JOB HIRING EMPLOYEES. The IRS is doing a better job of hiring new employees, according to a report from the Treasury Department’s inspector general. The Hill reports that “the IRS has almost met the goal, set by the Office of Personnel Management, to bring on new hires in 80 days or less.” In 2009, it took an average of 157 days, or roughly five months, to hire staffers. Keeping the timelines low is important, because as the economy improves, “and the IRS competes more with the private sector, the IRS may encounter difficulties attracting highly qualified candidates,” according to the report. Read more
THIS UNEMPLOYMENT CHART COULD FETCH $30K. Art and economic policy are about as far apart as two subjects can be. One is an expression of human creativity. The other is the dismal science. But leave it to Andy Warhol to find a way to marry the two. Warhol, who challenged the art world by using popular culture in his work, created a nearly 2-by-3-foot chart of the U.S. unemployment rate in 1984. The piece shows the spike in unemployment during the recession in the early 1980s. It goes on sale at Christie's next month and is expected to bring in $20,000 to $30,000. Read more
KAISER’S MEDICARE-REFORM MENU. With Congress back, and budgeteers on the hunt for Medicare savings once again, the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation has published a hefty compendium of places to save money in the program. Its analysts do not advocate for the merits of various changes, but the 200-plus-page report, complete with MedPAC study cites and Congressional Budget Office scores, is likely to become a handy reference for congressional staffers considering their options in the weeks ahead.
NO MANDATE FOR PEOPLE IN THE MEDICAID DONUT HOLE. A proposed rule released on Wednesday answered questions about how the Affordable Care Act’s rules will change in states that decide against expanding their Medicaid programs. The rule clarifies that people who would have been eligible for Medicaid will not be subject to fines if they can’t obtain insurance. Additional new proposed rules also give the Health and Human Services secretary the authority to certify that state packages of basic health benefits pass muster and spell out details on how individuals can claim tax credits to buy health insurance.
MEDICARE COMPETITIVE BIDDING EXPANDS. HHS announced Wednesday that it would be expanding its efforts to subject durable medical equipment to a competitive bidding process. In addition to expanding a largely successful program from a few test markets to a larger swath of the country, the department also outlined how it would expand bidding to cover diabetic testing supplies, as required under the recent fiscal-cliff legislative package. That move has raised the hackles of suppliers, who are concerned that the process will drive down the quality of available supplies. HHS estimates that the changes will save the government $25.7 billion and beneficiaries $17.1 billion over the next 10 years.
CARDIO HOSPITALIZATIONS IN CLEVELAND DECLINE. Cleveland may have found the secret to reducing heart-condition hospitalizations: better access to primary care. Over 2,800 fewer patients were hospitalized in Cuyahoga County during a three-year period, saving $20.1 million compared with the next five largest Ohio counties. The cardiovascular conditions that the survey covered—including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart failure, and angina—are those for which "the likelihood of hospital admission for complications can be dramatically reduced by access to appropriate primary care," a release said.
(YOU DON’T NEED TO KNOW. Ben Affleck’s fast-paced Iranian hostage thriller “Argo” was never released in Iran. But the bootleg DVD has hit the streets and quickly become a best seller. “Young hipsters in northern Tehran, fruit peddlers in the bazaar, teachers in the suburbs, parliamentarians and members of the plainclothes Basij militia loyal to the regime have seen it,” writes The Wall Street Journal. Read more)
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