.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Cracker Squire


My Photo
Location: Douglas, Coffee Co., The Other Georgia, United States

Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Ex-President Ventures Where Some Might Not - Mr. Clinton is embraced in states, mainly in the South and the West, where Mr. Obama is all but unwelcome.

From The New York Times:

When Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s Democratic Senate candidate, welcomed former President Bill Clinton to a fund-raiser here Tuesday, she offered a rendering of recent political history suited for red-state Democrats: Mr. Clinton’s tenure was showered with praise, former President George W. Bush was mildly scorned, and President Obama was implicitly rebuked.
“We all know what the problem is: it’s a Washington, D.C., that just doesn’t understand Kentucky,” Ms. Grimes said.

Her gibes at the capital’s “dysfunction” were chiefly aimed at her likely opponent, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, but her nostalgia for the 1990s, when Ms. Grimes was in her teens, and her lament about the present was also aimed at linking herself to Mr. Clinton and distancing herself from Mr. Obama.

The former president’s presence on the stage also underscored a larger truth of the 2014 midterm campaign: Mr. Clinton is embraced in states, mainly in the South and the West, where Mr. Obama is all but unwelcome.
So the party is again turning to Mr. Clinton to help Democrats in seven of the most competitive Senate races, all of which are in states Mr. Obama lost in 2012. “He’s probably the most popular national Democrat alive,” Gov. Steve Beshear of Kentucky, a fellow Democrat, said of the former president.
Democratic strategists, and some candidates, are nearly giddy in discussing Mr. Clinton’s approval ratings in private polling but are far more sober when asked about Mr. Obama. “I’m a Clinton Democrat through and through,” said Ms. Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state, in an interview, suggesting that it was highly unlikely she would invite Mr. Obama to Kentucky.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Wisconsin’s Legacy for Unions

From The New York Times:

[Gov. Scott] Walker’s landmark law — called Act 10 — severely restricted the power of public-employee unions to bargain collectively, and that provision, among others, has given social workers, prison guards, nurses and other public employees little reason to pay dues to a union that can no longer do much for them. Members of Mr. Beil’s group, the Wisconsin State Employees’ Union, complain that their take-home pay has fallen more than 10 percent in recent years, a sign of the union’s greatly diminished power.

Wisconsin was the first state to grant public-sector unions the right to negotiate contracts. Before Gov. Gaylord Nelson signed that law in 1959, only unionized workers in private companies had a government-protected right to bargain collectively. But the Wisconsin idea soon spread around the country. Act 10 is an about-face, and Mr. Walker and his Republican supporters see it as a tough-minded strategy that other states can follow. History repeating itself, if in reverse.

Many labor leaders and union members are still fuming about the law. It bars public-sector unions from bargaining over pensions, health coverage, safety, hours, sick leave or vacations. All they can negotiate is base pay, and even that is limited: any raises they win cannot exceed inflation.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

U.S. Proposes Cuts to Rates in Medicare Payments - The federal health care law squeezed substantial savings out of Medicare, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and the money will help offset the cost of subsidizing coverage for people who were uninsured.

From The New York Times:

Federal payments to managed-care organizations, known as Medicare Advantage plans, are based on a complicated formula that reflects how much it costs to care for Medicare beneficiaries, and those costs have been growing much more slowly than in the past. Experts often focus on the benchmarks used to calculate changes in Medicare payments to private plans. The administration proposed to reduce these benchmarks by 1.9 percent in 2015. Other factors in the formula will deepen the cuts.

Lawmakers from both parties had urged the White House to avoid any cuts, even though the reductions in payment were explicitly authorized by the 2010 health care law.

The announcement late Friday is likely to reverberate on Wall Street and on Capitol Hill, where insurers, employers and beneficiaries plan to lobby against the cuts. That effort was so intense last year that the Obama administration reversed itself, scrapped plans for a cut and increased rates instead.

The federal health care law squeezed substantial savings out of Medicare, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and the money will help offset the cost of subsidizing coverage for people who were uninsured.

Noonan: Whose Side Are We On? - America can take a clear stand without intervening in Ukraine

Peggy Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal:

Europe and America can do little beyond considering, threatening and imposing economic and political sanctions against the Ukrainian government. But it's all very high stakes and carries big implications for the future. So shouldn't we be making it clear where we as a nation stand? Shouldn't we make clear where our sympathies are?
Here is what Mr. Obama said Wednesday, as the moment approached crisis in Kiev: The U.S. holds the Ukrainian government "primarily responsible" for restoring peace. "We expect peaceful protesters to remain peaceful." The U.S. is "monitoring very closely the situation." The Ukrainian military should "not step into what should be a set of issues that can be resolved by civilians." The U.S. will continue to "engage with all sides."

With all due respect, this was not so much calibrated as meaningless, crouching and process-driven. Which side are we on?

The president then warned there will be "consequences" if people "step over the line." This sounded like a man who is peripheral to the drama insisting he is very, very relevant. Is this like the "red line" in Syria that Mr. Obama warned Bashar Assad he'd best not cross, and he crossed it, and nothing happened?

It is embarrassing when the president makes statements like this. He is like the father who poses on the bottom of the stairs and says in a deep voice, "Don't make me come up there!" And for a moment there's silence and then the kids erupt in giggles. Because there's no price to pay if he comes up there, and because he doesn't come up.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Public Sector Cuts Part-Time Shifts to Bypass Insurance Law

From The New York Times:

Cities, counties, public schools and community colleges around the country have limited or reduced the work hours of part-time employees to avoid having to provide them with health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, state and local officials say.

The cuts to public sector employment, which has failed to rebound since the recession, could serve as a powerful political weapon for Republican critics of the health care law, who claim that it is creating a drain on the economy.

President Obama has twice delayed enforcement of the health care law’s employer mandate, which would subject larger employers to tax penalties if they do not offer insurance coverage to employees who work at least 30 hours a week, on average. But many public employers have already adopted policies, laws or regulations to make sure workers stay under that threshold.
Even after the administration said this month that it would ease coverage requirements for larger employers, public employers generally said they were keeping the restrictions on work hours because their obligation to provide health insurance, starting in 2015, would be based on hours worked by employees this year. Among those whose hours have been restricted in recent months are police dispatchers, prison guards, substitute teachers, bus drivers, athletic coaches, school custodians, cafeteria workers and part-time professors.
For months, Obama administration officials have played down reports that employers were limiting workers’ hours. But in a report this month, the Congressional Budget Office said the Affordable Care Act could lead to a reduction in the number of hours worked, relative to what would otherwise occur.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Putin Is Playing a Game of His Own - Russis is weak, but he wants an empire, and he's runnign rings around the West

Walter Russell Mead writes in The Wall Street Journal:

The most daring and acrobatic figure in Sochi this week isn't a snowboarder; it is Vladimir Putin, whose death-defying geopolitical gamble is the hottest game in town. With more twists and turns than a bobsled race, more fancy footwork than a figure-skating final and more dips and flips than a mogul run, Russian diplomacy is a dazzling spectacle these days—and despite his considerable handicaps, Mr. Putin is skating rings around his clumsy and clueless opponents in Washington and Brussels.

The Russian president's biggest problem is simple: Post-Soviet Russia is a weak state. Take away its gas and oil resources, nuclear arsenal and Cold War-era intelligence networks, and there is not much of a there there. With an economy the size of Italy's, an ethnic Russian population in decline, a booming China rising nearby and serious and sustained unrest in the Caucasus, Russia hardly has the look of a great power.

But Mr. Putin can't tell his citizens to relax and enjoy the decline; unlike Britain or France, Russia can't let its imperial glory go. The fall of the Soviet Union is too recent, the pain of loss too great.

Soon after Mr. Putin came to power in 1999, he made his name by crushing a breakaway rebellion in Chechnya, which had gained de facto independence, and flattening its capital, Grozny—only to see the secular rebels he killed or jailed supplanted by ruthless Islamists. To stay in power for the long term, Mr. Putin needs to fight terrorism and insurgencies at home, to make Russia powerful and respected abroad and to make progress on the Russian establishment's dream: to reconstruct the Soviet empire in a postcommunist world.

That goal is still far off, but Mr. Putin has made more progress than many Westerners realize. He stopped NATO's post-Cold War expansion into Russia's backyard in its tracks; beyond the three Baltic republics, no other former Soviet state looks to be joining NATO soon. Meanwhile, as the U.S. war in Afghanistan winds down, Russia's economic and military power in Central Asia grows.

But for Mr. Putin, everything pales beside the battle for Ukraine. After Russia, Ukraine was the largest and most important republic within the Soviet Union; if Ukraine truly aligns its economy with the European Union, Russia can never be more than a secondary European power. Three centuries of empire-building will be over, and Russia—like Great Britain, France and other post-imperial European powers—will have to develop a new self-image and a new foreign policy as it glumly adjusts to a smaller role in the world.

Last fall was a near-death experience for the Putin project. The EU thought Ukraine was ready for an association pact that would have killed Russia's hopes of rebuilding its empire. But some fast Russian footwork—and the promise of $15 billion (with, presumably, some sweeteners for helpful oligarchs in Kiev)—changed Ukraine's mind. The EU was left at the altar as Ukraine played runaway bride.

Stunned by Russia's success, the EU and the U.S. are trying to drag Ukraine back to the wedding chapel—so far without success. The U.S. and EU's chances haven't been helped by railing at each other in public and private; "F— the EU!" the Obama administration's top European diplomat memorably told the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in a recording that someone, presumably Russian, recently released to the world on YouTube. (The State Department called the episode "a new low in Russian tradecraft.") Meanwhile, Mr. Putin continues bullying and bribing. So long as Ukraine dithers (and dithering comes naturally to a divided country with weak political institutions and strong oligarchs), his dream lives on.

Further afield, Mr. Putin has enjoyed striking diplomatic successes in the Middle East. Given the simmering Sunni jihadist insurgency in the Caucasus, plus Moscow's long-standing ties with Syria and Iran, Mr. Putin thinks Russia will be more secure if the Shiites win the sectarian struggle convulsing the region. Chechens and other Russian citizens are fighting alongside Sunni Arab militants in Syria and Iraq, he notes, and the leaders of Shiite Iran hate and fear Sunni jihadists as much as he does. Moreover, both the Iranians and the Russians would like to see the U.S. cut down to size.

Viewed from Moscow, the past six months have been a dream come true in the Middle East. The Americans kept shooting themselves in the foot, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad danced all over President Obama's self-declared "red line" against the use of "a whole bunch of chemical weapons," and the Sunni jihadists fighting Mr. Assad lost ground even as they turned their guns against one another. Washington's closest regional allies (Saudi Arabia and Israel) have rarely had less confidence in U.S. policy-making or will, and anti-Americanism is the one political idea shared by the post-coup regime in Egypt and its Muslim Brotherhood foes.

Mr. Putin has also advanced on the propaganda front. The Edward Snowden caper was a stunning Russian success—and an embarrassing U.S. failure. An old KGB hand, Mr. Putin knows that intelligence and propaganda were among the Soviet Union's greatest assets—and now, Russia's spooks and spinmeisters are back. The former National Security Agency contractor's revelations about the agency's surveillance programs weren't just fun; they drove a wedge between the U.S. and its European allies. Brezhnev and Stalin would have approved.

But time isn't on Mr. Putin's side. Russia's failure since 1989 to build an effective economy keeps his reach short. U.S. diplomacy may be wobbly, but U.S. development of shale oil and gas attacks the core of Russia's strength. With the U.S. out of the gas-importing business, a lot more natural gas is on world markets, and Gazprom's customers are demanding better terms. Fracking hurts Mr. Putin in the wallet, and Russia has never had much cash to spare.

Worse, no matter what Russia does, China keeps rising in the East, and Germany is becoming more active in the West. Russia's population is changing, with Muslim minorities growing rapidly and Christian Slavs fading away. Across Russia's south, militant Islamists quietly slip into the mosques and madrassas. As Russian power dissolves, Mr. Putin is left to vamp in the spotlights and do what he can to reverse, postpone or hide the decline.

Considered purely on form, Mr. Putin is easily the world's most accomplished diplomatic tap dancer. (The clumsy Chinese can't make a move without inflaming neighbors worried about their growing power, and the top diplomats of the EU and the U.S.— Catherine Ashton and John Kerry—are often all left feet.) But how long can Putin figure skate while the ice beneath him melts?

Still, Americans should not get too smug. Sometimes smart underdogs win. For Mr. Putin's razzle-dazzle diplomacy to succeed, he needs one thing above all: for his opponents to make mistakes. So far, the U.S. and the EU have given him all the opportunities he could want. If the West doesn't get its act together soon, Mr. Putin just might end up with a brace of gold medals.
Mr. Mead is a professor at Bard College and the author of "Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World."

Monday, February 17, 2014

Ports, Shipping Companies Retool Before Panama Canal Expansion - Project Delays, Cost Overruns Haven't Halted Global Efforts

From The Wall Street Journal:

The world's biggest ports are dredging deeper and shipping companies are building even more mammoth container vessels as a European consortium undertakes a major engineering challenge—a multibillion-dollar widening of the Panama Canal.
The prospect of delays is also prompting local officials who undertook, or are planning to undertake, expansion port projects to ponder how things will play out. Ten of the largest East Coast and Gulf Coast ports are planning projects costing more than $11 billion to dredge deeper, upgrade terminals and add super-sized cranes over the next several years.

Some ports, such as those in Baltimore and Norfolk., Va., were already deep enough for the neo-Panamax vessels. Others, including ports in New York and Miami, were racing to be ready by late 2015, jockeying to win more traffic in the expected shuffling of trade routes that the larger ships are expected to trigger.

The idea was to cement business deals before other ports caught up.

"We thought we had a window of seven to 10 years to just make hay of our natural assets," said Joe Harris, spokesman for the Port of Virginia, which can already take neo-Panamax vessels. "Maybe that window is shortened a little bit."

Jacksonville, Fla., Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C., could benefit, analysts said, because they'll now have more time to catch up to ports that had begun expanding earlier. Savannah is hoping to dredge to 47 feet by late 2017, two years beyond the date canal officials say they hope to finish. Charleston is aiming to reach 50 feet by late 2018.

In Miami, multiple interrelated projects—the underground highway to the port, dredging from 42 feet to 50 feet, and the installation of new cranes—will cost $2 billion. All of it is carefully times to the completion of the canal's expansion.

Just days before the delay in Panama began, Bill Johnson, PortMaimi's director, touted the foresight of preparing for bigger ships "as the model success story in the nation."

In the midst of the delays, he said that "if it drags on for years and years, that's not good."

Still, there is a sense among those closely following the delays that no matter what happens, ever larger ships will dominate and a deeper, widened canal will be part of the equation.

"It's too important to the world," said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority. "It is going to happen."

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sen. Ron Wyden Is Set to Get a Wider Platform - Expected Next Finance Chairman Is Likely to Take Aim at Corporate Taxes, Medicare Costs

From The Wall Street Journal (dated 1-18-2014):

When Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden sought to co-author an ambitious tax overhaul with a GOP colleague a few years ago, the two men kept hitting roadblocks as they drafted the bill.
But Mr. Wyden kept coming back to his Republican counterpart, Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, on the Senate floor, Mr. Gregg said, offering new ideas and insisting they could reach an agreement on a bill. Finally, after two years, they did so, "purely because of his unrelenting positive outlook," said Mr. Gregg, who has since retired.

The bill never got serious consideration by Congress, in part because Mr. Wyden didn't have the clout to push it to the forefront.

That could be about to change as Mr. Wyden, of Oregon, is set to bring his tenacity to one of the Senate's most coveted jobs. With the anticipated resignation of Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.) to become U.S. ambassador to China, Mr. Wyden is expected in coming weeks to become Finance Committee chairman, a storied post that has been held by nationally prominent politicians like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Bob Dole. The committee has been a crucible for major legislation, including President Barack Obama's health-care overhaul.

Until Mr. Baucus is confirmed, Mr. Wyden has resisted talking publicly about what he plans to do with the committee chairmanship, and 2014 promises to be a difficult year for big legislation. But many of his more ambitious ideas are already known.

Unlike the centrist Mr. Baucus, Mr. Wyden, 64 years old, has strong support among Democrats, thanks in part to his generally liberal views on many budget, environmental and social issues, as well as defense. On economic-policy issues in particular, though, he has reached across the aisle—occasionally to the chagrin of some liberals. The finance post will provide him a platform for more of that.

On taxes, he is likely to try to renew momentum for an overhaul. His tax plan would cut the corporate rate to 24%—lower than other Democrats propose—from its current 35%, although he also would make sweeping changes to corporate breaks that worry some multinational firms.

He wants to shore up Medicare by better focusing the program on treatment of chronic health problems, according to his former chief of staff, Josh Kardon. In addition, Mr. Wyden could want more protections for workers and digital firms in pending trade legislation, which would also move through the Finance Committee.

During 2014, Mr. Wyden also will have to focus on the relatively unglamorous task of finding ways to keep some costly programs going. Those include temporary tax breaks for businesses, as well as reimbursement rules for Medicare physicians. Both will likely require cuts elsewhere in the budget, higher revenue, or both.

Mr. Wyden "understands that true bipartisanship builds on the best ideas from both parties," said Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), the House Budget Committee chairman, who worked with Mr. Wyden a couple of years ago on an unusual proposal to overhaul Medicare by creating marketplaces where private plans could compete with the traditional federal program.

Mr. Ryan appears likely to succeed Rep. Dave Camp (R., Mich.) as Ways and Means chairman, meaning Mr. Ryan would work closely with Mr. Wyden next year, assuming their parties stay in power after this fall.

Mr. Wyden was born in Kansas and grew up in California, graduating from Stanford University. He attended law school at the University of Oregon and quickly got involved in the state's lively politics, serving as an aide and adviser to legendary populist Sen. Wayne Morse as Mr. Morse attempted a political comeback in 1972 and 1974. In 1980, Mr. Wyden improbably won a congressional seat over a powerful incumbent Democrat, wandering the aisles of Portland grocery stores to round up votes. In 1996, he won the Senate seat once held by Mr. Morse.

He has since emerged as a voice on the digital economy and electronic privacy. "He is a massive thinker" not only on digital issues but on trade, tax and health care, says Peter Cleveland, vice president for government relations at Intel Corp., a major employer in Oregon.

On the Finance Committee, Mr. Wyden will have to balance loyalties to his liberal constituencies with his desire to find ways to put Medicare and other entitlements on a more sustainable path. "His big thing is that if you're not talking about Medicare, you're not talking about [fixing] the budget," said Barbara Smith Warner, a former aide who recently became an Oregon legislator.

Go America Go!: Putin Supports Egyptian Military Chief's Presidential Bid - Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi Visits Moscow Seeking Deeper Military Ties

From The Wall Street Journal:

Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, Egypt's top military commander, got his first explicit international support to run for president with an endorsement from an old Cold War ally: Russia.

President Vladimir Putin's backing on Thursday gives the military leader a measure of international legitimacy ahead of Egypt's presidential vote in the coming months. Field Marshal Sisi led the ouster of Egypt's first freely elected president in July, which led to strained ties between Cairo and Washington.

The Egyptian commander visited Moscow on Thursday to seek deeper military cooperation between the two countries, in his first overseas trip since coming to power.

The meeting followed high-level talks between military officials and foreign ministers of both countries, and came amid Russian and Egyptian media reports that the countries are nearing an arms deal.

The former Soviet Union was a vital ally for Egypt and other Arab countries in the 1950s and 1960s, when they fought U.S.-backed Israel in a succession of Middle East wars. Egypt's then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser enjoyed staunch support from the Soviets for his fiercely nationalist policies that challenged America's role in the region.

For more than 25 years, it’s never been the right time for immigration reform - “The biggest objection I heard is . . . the legalization will happen but the enforcement never will, and we’ll be right back here in 10 years with another 12 million people,” Sen. Marco Rubio said recently

From The Washington Post:

Thirteen years ago, President George W. Bush welcomed Vicente Fox of Mexico to Washington to lay the groundwork for an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws — sensing that fellow Republicans were finally ready to go along with a new legalization effort.

The push included a rare address to Congress on Sept. 6, 2001, when Fox declared that immigrants “invariably enrich the cultural life of the land that receives them.”

Five days later, jetliners hijacked by foreign terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, heightening security fears and scuttling Bush’s immigration plans.

For more than a quarter century, it has never been the right time for immigration reform. And the biggest stumbling block always seems to be concerns, primarily among conservatives, that border controls are not tough enough and must be strengthened further before anything else can be done.

On Wednesday, Obama will travel to Toluca, Mexico, for an economic summit at a time when his own immigration campaign, launched a year ago, has stalled in Congress amid another backlash over the border. White House officials said that Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has pledged to do all he can to help, and Obama predicted to Univision that immigration reform will still happen before he leaves office.

But the situation is largely out of Obama’s hands, and the latest impasse has frustrated longtime advocates.

“When you hear someone say the key to immigration reform is to secure the border, it tells me they either don’t understand the issue or they’re just using it as a pretext,” Carlos Gutierrez, Bush’s former commerce secretary, said in an interview last week. “If we secure the border and do not have reform or a new legal system, then the economy is really going to be in trouble.”

It is a debate that has raged since President Ronald Reagan signed the last major overhaul of immigration laws in 1986, a bipartisan achievement hailed as a solution to the crisis of 5 million immigrants living in the country illegally. The Immigration Reform and Control Act put 2.7 million people on the path toward citizenship, marking the largest legalization program in U.S. history.

But in many ways, the law has been deemed a failure — and stands as one of the chief impediments to a new round of reform. The bill denied legal status to more than 2 million others who had recently arrived in the country, and failed to create a guest worker program large enough to handle the surge of workers streaming across the border over the next two decades.

The number of people living in the country illegally rose again quickly, reaching more than 11.7 million last year.

Former senator Alan Simpson, a Wyoming Republican who helped lead the 1986 negotiations, said a proposal to include a national identification system for workers — aimed at preventing employers from hiring illegal immigrants — was eliminated over Democratic civil-liberties concerns.

“That took out the guts,” Simpson said last week in a telephone interview from his home in Cody, Wyo. Asked when he knew there were flaws in the bill, he replied: “The minute it passed.”

Since then, many Republicans have blamed the law for granting “amnesty” for millions without stemming the flow of undocumented immigrants — and they have vowed not to repeat the mistake.

This month, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) cited “widespread doubt” in his caucus over Obama’s willingness to enforce tougher border controls as the chief impediment to a deal.

“The biggest objection I heard is . . . the legalization will happen but the enforcement never will, and we’ll be right back here in 10 years with another 12 million people,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said recently. Rubio helped craft a Senate-approved immigration plan last spring that included a 13-year path to citizenship, but he has since withdrawn his support.

Democrats view such talk as a canard for Boehner’s inability to control an unruly caucus, and they note that the Obama administration has deported more immigrants than his Republican predecessor.

But conservatives used similar reasoning to reject immigration deals under Bush. In early 2006, after Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) had introduced a bipartisan bill the previous year, Bush saw the momentum he needed to relaunch his push.

“The debate over immigration reform has reached a time of decision,” Bush declared in a prime-time Oval Office address in May of that year.

Bush dispatched Gutierrez and Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff to Capitol Hill to make the case to Republicans, focusing on the economic and security benefits.

“Part of what I used to say to people is that absolutely people should pay back taxes, pay penalties, acknowledge they did something wrong, but in our system even if you break the law, you do not go to jail forever,” Chertoff said in an interview last week.

The backlash among conservatives was visceral. Lou Dobbs, then with CNN, launched a recurring feature called “Broken Borders,” in which he railed against the economic costs and criminal dangers of illegal immigrants entering the country.

“The environment was so hostile. We didn’t imagine the opposition would get stronger,” Gutierrez recalled. “It actually grew as we got closer to the vote. Letters going to members of Congress were 100 to 1 against.”

In June 2007, the Senate bill fell 14 votes shy of the 60 it needed to survive a filibuster. After leaving office, Bush cited his failure to achieve immigration reform among his greatest disappointments.

Obama and his allies believed this time would be different.

Although he failed to make much progress on immigration in his first term, the president was reelected in 2012 with more than 70 percent support from Latino and Asian American voters. After their loss, Republican leaders signaled they were open to immigration reform as a way to broaden their appeal to the fast-changing electorate.

Obama launched his immigration campaign with a speech in Las Vegas in January 2013, then stepped back amid fears that his direct involvement could scare away Republicans. He left the details to a bipartisan Senate group led by Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and McCain, along with Rubio and several others.

Their bill, approved by a healthy bipartisan majority last June, mandates 700 miles of new border fencing, doubles the number of Border Patrol agents to 40,000 and employs aerial drones.

But the proposal has languished in the House, whose Judiciary Committee instead approved a controversial provision that would give federal agents more power to arrest illegal immigrants, patterned after state laws in Arizona. Boehner has sent mixed signals on the prospects for legislation, declaring most recently that Republicans were unlikely to pass reforms because they did not trust Obama.

“This is always going to be a hard issue because it’s just an emotional issue,” said Margaret Spellings, Bush’s former education secretary who now runs the George W. Bush Center in Dallas. Although some of Washington’s lead players have changed, she added, the debate remains the same.

“It’s like a Greek tragedy,” Spellings said. “Here we go again.”

A keeper: For Democrats looking to post-Obama era, how populist a future? - The Democratic Party has moved to the left in the past decade. But that does not necessarily mean that progressives have become the party’s dominant force or that the policies and messages they advocate can carry the day in a national election.

Dan Balz and Philip Rucker write in The Washington Post:

With three years remaining in the presidency of Barack Obama, the party he has led since mesmerizing members with his 2008 campaign has begun debating a post-Obama future.

Though more united than Republicans, Democrats nevertheless face simmering tensions between the establishment and a newly energized populist wing, led by the unabashed liberalism of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and the fiery rhetoric of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

The schisms are as much stylistic as substantive. But however defined, they offer a challenge to the party’s next leader, whether former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden or any number of lesser-knowns who await a decision by Clinton before making their own.

All will have to grapple with this reality. The Democratic Party, by various measures of public opinion, has moved to the left in the past decade. But that does not necessarily mean that progressives have become the party’s dominant force or that the policies and messages they advocate can carry the day in a national election.

“Nothing moves a party more than copying successful people,” said Andrew Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union, as he pointed to the prominence of de Blasio and Warren. “I think the party tends to drift in the direction of its successful innovators.”

But Stern cautioned that the bigger test of who holds power inside the party is proving those ideas can attract voters beyond staunchly liberal states or cities.

“It is fair to say that more liberal places find politicians first who are more willing to step out on these issues,” he said. “But it is not a shift until it’s seen to work in Minnesota or Wisconsin or New Mexico or Arizona.”

Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a grass-roots group that has helped propel Warren’s rise, said the populist wing of the party is clearly ascendant.

“There’s been consensus in both parties since the 1990s Clinton days where big corporations run the show and both parties suck up to them and everything else falls into place from there,” he said. “The Elizabeth Warren wing really believes in challenging the current state of who has power and who has influence.

But other Democrats counter that the party must be careful about how it shapes its message and policies. Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, who came up through the centrist ranks of the party, noted that in the past when the progressive or liberal wings of the party were flourishing — he cited George McGovern’s candidacy in 1972 and Walter F. Mondale’s in 1984 — the party suffered major defeats.

“The idea of us as a party not continuing to understand where the people of the country are — we ignore all of that at our own peril,” he said.

How big a shift?

The Democratic Party of 2014 is one shaped both by the influences of former president Bill Clinton’s New Democrat ideas and the more liberal policy initiatives and cultural changes that have defined Obama’s presidency.

Obama’s tenure has intensified the debate over whether the Democrats are more ideologically liberal than they were a decade or two ago.

Conservatives see a president who has brought government much deeper into the health-care system, whose economic policies significantly increase the deficit and whose bent is for more government and more spending. But progressives see a president who lacks the populist edge they say the times demand and who has fallen short of the promise of his first campaign.

By many measures, the party is certainly seen as more liberal than it once was. For the past 40 years, the American National Election Studies surveys have asked people for their perceptions of the two major parties. The 2012 survey found, for the first time, that a majority of Americans describe the Democratic Party as liberal, with 57 percent using that label. Four years earlier, only 48 percent described the Democrats as liberal.

(In the same survey, 59 percent said they saw the Republicans as conservative, up from 52 percent four years earlier.)

Gallup reported last month that 43 percent of surveyed Democrats identified themselves as liberal, the high water mark for the party on that measurement. In Gallup’s 2000 measures, just 29 percent of Democrats labeled themselves as liberals.

Still, liberals are a plurality of the Democratic Party, not a majority, which is strikingly different from the Republican Party, where Gallup found that 70 percent identified themselves as conservative.

Joel Benenson, who was Obama’s lead pollster in 2008 and 2012, said Democrats are and always have been a progressive party, but they have balanced those ideas with practical policies that have attracted voters.

Asked about claims by some grass-roots progressives that the party is now Warren’s party, he said, “I don’t know what it means. Do you think that Harry Reid thinks it’s an Elizabeth Warren party? Do you think Chuck Schumer thinks it’s an Elizabeth Warren party? Do you think Hillary Clinton thinks it’s an Elizabeth Warren party? Do you think Barack Obama thinks it’s an Elizabeth Warren party? Or Nancy Pelosi?”

Democrats are most united on cultural and social issues, and it is here where the party has most obviously moved to the left, particularly on same-sex marriage and even the legalization of marijuana. But the party’s shift reflects overall changes in public attitudes that have kept the
Democrats within a new political mainstream on these issues.

Women’s issues have provided even more cohesiveness within the party’s coalition.

“We’ve seen a gender gap for two decades now, but what we saw in 2012 was a larger step toward women voters standing with the Democrats in a much, much larger way,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, a group that helps elect pro-choice Democratic women. “There’s such a contrast right now between the two parties on issues impacting women and families.”

On issues of national security and foreign policy, divisions remain. Obama may be president because he opposed the Iraq War and Clinton voted as senator to give then-president George W. Bush the authority to take the country to war. Obama has ended the war in Iraq and is ending the war in Afghanistan, but some progressives are at odds with him over other aspects of his national security policies.

Clinton may continue to disagree with part of her party’s base on these issues. Her record in the Senate and as Secretary of State is one where she has been, by evidence available today, fully supportive of the president’s drone policy and the National Security Agency’s surveillance policies.
Economic challenges

On economic issues, the party is torn between two key parts of its coalition.

“One of the biggest failings of the Democratic Party,” Stern said, “is that its funders come from its traditional side of the economic spectrum and its voters come from a more populist, distributive side of the economic agenda.”

Former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer said, “I think the party increasingly is responding to the special interests they need to get elected — the military-industrial complex, big energy, pharmaceutical companies, banks.”

Yet in both policies and tone, there are indications that Democrats have moved to the left. Democratic candidates from all regions — including two potential rising stars running for the Senate in conservative states, Michelle Nunn in Georgia and Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky — have embraced raising the minimum wage. This is a centerpiece of Obama’s agenda heading into this fall’s midterm campaigns.

Democrats favor raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans, a rallying cry dating to the 1990s, but there are differences in the magnitude of tax increases and whom they would impact. New York is a microcosm. De Blasio and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo both support expanding access to pre-kindergarten programs. But de Blasio wants to pay for it by raising taxes on the rich in New York City, while Cuomo objects to paying for universal pre-kindergarten through tax hikes.

Hostility to free-trade agreements is still deep among part of the Democratic coalition, but that tension has existed for decades. While many better-educated, upscale voters do not fear the impact of free trade, others, led by organized labor, look at stagnant wages and the difficult job market and attribute those hardships to trade.

Perhaps more than any other economic issue, income inequality has animated progressive activists and voters. Party strategists say this energy is being fueled by lingering fury at Wall Street tycoons, whom they blame for the financial collapse, and deep unease about the nation’s eroding middle class.

“There’s a consciousness developing that’s related to this issue of inequality and the unfairness of our system and the wealth gap that has the potential to really grow and develop into a strong movement that will be reflected in coming elections,” former Ohio governor Ted Strickland said.

William A. Galston of the Brookings Institution said, “It’s not just a case of the very rich getting richer. If that were the only thing going on I think we’d be having a very different conversation. It’s also a case of the people in the middle at best treading water and in fact doing a little bit worse than that.”

Warren, with her calls for tougher Wall Street regulations, and de Blasio, with his campaign mantle of “a tale of two cities,” have galvanized voters with fiery lines and fresh thinking.

“Part of it is really expanding the debate beyond the sterile ideas that have been in D.C. for a while,” Green said. “When the question was should we renew current interest rates for students or not, Elizabeth Warren said, wait, why is that the norm? Let’s give students the low rates that banks get, and she focused attention on the sweetheart deals we give the big guys.”

“What folks out in the country are trying to do is find a way to maintain their lifestyle,” he said.

“Other than an intellectual exercise, they don’t see the struggle as focused on rich people. It is about their own situation and their own ability to make their way through a very difficult economy.”

Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, a leading liberal, said Democrats must not lose sight of their tradition as the party of progressive ideas.

“Fundamentally, there’s two things that elections and governing are all about — the future and whose side are you on,” he said. “Democrats win elections and govern well when we keep that front and center. . . . It’s always important to put some new face on this, and it matters how you dress it up, but fundamentally it’s the historic difference between the parties.”

Stern offered one caution to those on the left: “I think it’s really not helpful for the Democrats to turn this into an attack on the one percent. I don’t think it’s in the American spirit, or at least the Democratic Party’s future spirit. As Republicans attack immigration, we attack rich people? If you learned anything from the president, selling hope is better than selling hate.”

Looking ahead

For Democrats who could lead the party in the future, the challenge will be to articulate a new populist direction without denigrating the Obama record or abandoning the contributions of Bill Clinton. At the moment, Hillary Clinton is an overwhelming front-runner, and Democrats expect that, should she decide to run, she would define their party for the post-Obama era.

There is an assumption that if she faces a primary challenge in 2016, it would come from the left. Yet at this point, Clinton is as popular with the left in her party as with moderates and conservatives.

The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll tested Clinton against other possible Democratic candidates and found 73 percent saying they favored her for the nomination. She had the backing of 74 percent of liberals, men, non-whites and those with college degrees. She had the support of 73 percent of moderates, women, whites and those without college degrees.

But that does not take away from the fact that Clinton would be under pressure to articulate a fresh economic vision to a party in which there is growing demand for a more populist edge to the rhetoric.

“The really interesting question is what changes in the political environment mean for the kind of economic policies she will advocate,” Galston said. “I don’t think she knows. . . . I’m pretty sure two things will not work: number one, pure undistilled populism; number two, a return to the centrist economics of the past. Neither of those is a formula.”

Some potential liberal primary challengers, like Schweitzer, are provocative but would have difficulty mounting a serious national campaign.

“Remember the song that was blaring when the Clintons took office? Fleetwood Mac, ‘Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow,’ ” Schweitzer said. “If we have a candidate that’s thinking about tomorrow, we’ll be very successful. If we have candidates that are the Beatles’ song ‘Yesterday,’ we won’t.”

Biden looms as a more serious potential candidate. He has been a key player in developing the Obama administration’s economic program. He oversaw the stimulus, led a middle-class task force and is focusing this year on job-training programs.

Beyond Clinton and Biden, however, the party has few elected officials with national standing. The 2010 elections cost the Democrats control of governorships in states including Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. That has left them with a more limited pool of candidates with executive experience and a record of action.

Governors often mentioned as possible candidates, especially with Clinton not in the race, include New York’s Cuomo, Martin O’Malley of Maryland and John Hickenlooper of Colorado. California’s Jerry Brown has already said he will not run in 2016.

Attention also could turn to a liberal like former Wisconsin senator Russell Feingold or a trio of female senators — Warren, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. All three signed a letter last year saying they would support Clinton but would factor into the conversation if Clinton opts out.

One thing Democrats seem to agree on is this: If Clinton decides not to run, there will be chaos inside the party.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Nancy Pelosi persists, even as the House Democrats’ prospects fade

From The Washington Post:

It had been a good week — a very good week — for Nancy Pelosi. So good, in fact, that she and her leadership team felt the need to caution their House Democratic troops not to gloat over the fact that they had scored a clean win against the majority Republicans over raising the debt ceiling.

But as the House Democrats met for their annual retreat in this Eastern Shore town, there was one subject the minority leader appeared determined to avoid: her grim prospects for regaining the speaker’s gavel in this year’s midterm elections.

A little over a month from now, the San Francisco congresswoman, who holds the distinction of having been the first female House speaker in U.S. history, will turn 74. By the reckoning of many scholars and historians, she was one of the most powerful speakers in modern times — and one of the most polarizing.

Now, Pelosi finds herself with fewer and fewer peers in the House. Her friend and consigliere, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), has decided to retire, as has key ally Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who is regarded as his party’s most able legislator. More departures may be in the offing as well.

Pelosi argues that Democrats will ultimately be vindicated on the new health-care law, which she counts as her biggest achievement. And even with her party in the minority, she plans to make Republicans squirm on issues such as raising the minimum wage, rewriting immigration laws, extending unemployment benefits and assuring equitable pay for women.

Democrats need to win back 17 seats in November to retake the House, which would defy history. Generally, midterm elections are tough on the party of a president in his sixth year, and the persistent unpopularity of the new health-care law could prove a further drag. Indeed, Democrats are struggling to avoid losing the Senate, too.

Close aides say that they have no clue what Pelosi intends to do in the long run. But they add that there’s one scenario that could entice her to stick around: the prospect of serving as speaker again, working with a president named Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Union Suffers Big Loss at Tennessee VW Plant - Volkswagen workers rejected the UAW by a vote of 712 to 626

From The Wall Street Journal:

The United Auto Workers union suffered a crushing defeat Friday, falling short in an election in which it seemed to have a clear path to organizing workers at Volkswagen AG's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The setback is a bitter defeat because the union had the cooperation of Volkswagen management and the aid of Germany's powerful IG Metall union, yet it failed to win a majority among the plants 1,550 hourly workers.
Volkswagen workers rejected the union by a vote of 712 to 626. The defeat raises questions about the future of a union that for years has suffered from declining membership and influence, and almost certainly leaves its president, Bob King, who had vowed to organize at least one foreign auto maker by the time he retires in June, with a tarnished legacy.
"If the union can't win [in Chattanooga], it can't win anywhere," said Steve Silvia, a economics and trade professor at American University who has studied labor unions.
A win would have marked the first time the union has been able to organize a foreign-owned auto plant in a Southern U.S. state, and would have been particularly meaningful, because the vote was set in a right-to-work state in the South, where antiunion sentiment is strong and all past UAW organizing drives at automobile plants have failed.
The Chattanooga workers had been courted steadily for nearly two years by both the UAW and the IG Metall union, which pushed Volkswagen management to open talks with the UAW and to refrain from trying to dissuade American workers from union representation.
Mr. King made forging alliances with overseas unions the centerpiece of his strategy after he was elected in 2010. The union now must come up with a way to halt its decline. It once represented 1.5 million workers, but now has about 400,000, and diminished influence, as a result of years of downsizing, layoffs and cutbacks by the three Detroit auto makers General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group.
"The union needs new members. They have to organize the transplants or they don't have much of a future," said Sean McAlinden, chief economist at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The election was also extraordinary because Volkswagen choose to cooperate closely with the UAW. Volkswagen allowed UAW organizers to campaign inside the factory—a step rarely seen in this or other industries.
"This is like an alternate universe where everything is turned upside down," said Cliff Hammond, a labor lawyer at Nemeth Law PC in Detroit, who represents management clients but previously worked at the Service Employees International Union. "Usually, companies fight" union drives, he added.
The union's loss adds to a long list of defeats for organized labor in recent years. States like Wisconsin enacted laws that cut the power of public-employee unions, and other states, including Michigan, home of the UAW, adopted right-to-work laws that allow workers to opt out of union membership if they choose.
The vote was held amid public campaigning against the union by Republican politicians, including Gov. Bill Haslam, and conservative activist groups. Conservative political groups, including one backed by antitax activist Grover Norquist, put up anti-union billboards around Chattanooga. A small but determined group of workers who oppose the UAW also worked to tilt their colleagues against the union, an effort that ultimately proved successful.
"I'm thrilled for the employees and thrilled for the community," Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker said in a telephone interview, adding that he's "sincerely overwhelmed" by the result.
The UAW had appeared to have strong chances in the election because both Volkswagen and the IG Metall union wanted the Chattanooga plant to have a works council, a formal committee of both union and nonunion employees who negotiate with management on day-to-day working matters at the plant.
Works councils are standard in German workplaces—almost all other Volkswagen facilities around the world have one. In the U.S., however, it appears to many labor-law experts that they can only be implemented legally if workers are represented by an outside union.
Since both Volkswagen and IG Metall have expressed a strong desire to have a works council in Chattanooga, the auto maker chose to work with the UAW. In addition to letting union representatives into the plant, Volkswagen kept members of management from expressing any views on the vote, and agreed to coordinate its public statements with the union during the election campaign.
"This vote was essentially gift-wrapped for the union by Volkswagen," Mr. Hammond, the labor lawyer, said.
The chief executive of the plant, Frank Fischer, said in a statement that Volkswagen will continue to search for a method of establishing a works council.
The works council concept also proved a winner for some Chattanooga workers. Jonathan Walden, 39 years old, earns about $19.50 an hour—about $4 an hour more than starting workers at GM, Ford and Chrysler—but he voted for the union because he wants a works council. "I don't know why more companies don't do this," said Mr. Walden, who works in the paint shop.
But more workers were persuaded to vote against the union by the UAW's past of bitter battles with management, costly labor contracts and complex work rules. "If the union comes in, we'll have a divided work force," said Cheryl Hawkins, 44, an assembly line worker with three sons. "It will ruin what we have."
Other UAW opponents said they dislike the union's support of politicians who back causes like abortion rights and gun control that rub against the conservative bent of Southern states like Tennessee. Still others objected to paying dues to a union from Detroit that is aligned with Volkswagen competitors like GM and Ford.
"I just don't trust them," said Danielle Brunner, 23, who has worked at the plant for nearly three years and makes about $20 an hour—about $5 an hour more than new hires at GM, Ford and Chrysler plants.
The no-UAW vote raises questions on how the union proceeds now in separate efforts to organize other foreign-owned plants in the South, and whether international cooperation can provide any additional leverage for labor unions.
The UAW's alliance with IG Metall was forged over the last several years by Mr. King, who traveled to Germany, Japan, Brazil and South Korea in hopes of getting unions around the world to combine forces.
For the last two years the union has also been working to build support at a Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala., and at a Nissan Motor Co. plant in Canton, Miss. Its chances there now seem diminished, in view of how those companies are less willing to cooperate with the UAW than Volkswagen.
At Mercedes, workers who want UAW representation recently filed complaints to the National Labor Relations Board alleging they have been harassed by management because of their efforts to build union support. Daimler AG, the parent of Mercedes-Benz, has denied the charges.
The UAW's loss in Chattanooga also seems likely to complicate contract talks it will have with the Detroit auto makers in 2015. Right now, GM, Ford and Chrysler pay veteran workers about $28 an hour, and new hires about $15 an hour, and the UAW wants to narrow that gap.
But without the ability to push wages higher at foreign-owned car plants, the UAW is likely to have little leverage in Detroit, said Kristin Dziczek, director of the Labor & Industry Group at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"They have to organize at least one of the international auto makers in order to attempt to regain bargaining power with the Detroit Three," she added.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Health-Law Backers Push Skimpier 'Copper' Insurance Policies - The White House Said it Was Weighing the Proposal

From The Wall Street Journal:

Some backers of the 2010 health-care law are pushing to create a new kind of insurance coverage that the measure essentially had ruled out: policies offering lower premiums but significantly higher out-of-pocket costs than those now available.

The plans, dubbed "copper" because they would offer a lower level of coverage than the "gold," "silver" and "bronze" options on the government-run health-care exchanges, would be a departure from the minimum level of coverage that is one of the Affordable Care Act's core principles.

Many plans that offered less coverage were canceled when the health-care law was rolled out because they didn't meet its new requirements. Republicans accused President Barack Obama of backtracking on his promise that the law would allow people to keep their preferred health plans. In the face of an uproar, the Obama administration asked insurers to reinstate some of the millions of canceled policies for one year.

Now, some insurers and a pair of Senate Democrats are trying to change the law permanently so that individuals and small businesses can buy so-called copper plans. The plans likely would have lower premiums, but purchasers would pay more of their ordinary health costs upfront. Greater coverage would kick in for serious, unforeseen health episodes that would require, for example, a hospital stay.

Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Warner of Virginia, both Democrats facing close re-election races this year, are sponsoring legislation that would allow people to buy copper plans on the exchanges. Moreover, insurance-industry officials have been talking up the idea with federal officials, though it is unclear whether the administration could make the change through regulations.
The White House said it was weighing the proposal. "The president remains open to all ideas that would genuinely improve the Affordable Care Act and appreciates the careful thought Mr. Begich has given to his legislation," an administration official said.
Copper plans would cover, on average, 50% of medical costs, and while consumers' out-of-pocket expenses would still be capped, that limit likely would be higher than the $6,350 maximum for individuals and $12,700 for families currently set by the law.
People who selected the plan would be allowed tax credits toward the cost of premiums, as they already get for bronze plans, which cover 60% of costs; silver plans, which cover 70%; and gold plans, which cover 80%.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

How 3 Southern Women May Sway Democrats' Senate Fate - Races in Louisiana, North Carolina and Georgia Seen as Key to Control of Chamber

Gerald Seib writes in The Wall Street Journal:

The fate of Democrats this election year rests in the hands of Southern women.

Three Southern women, to be specific. They are seeking Senate seats in races that, perhaps more than any others, will answer the paramount political question of 2014: Can Democrats retain control of the Senate?

Two of them, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina, are trying to win re-election on terrain no longer naturally friendly to Democrats.

The third, Michelle Nunn of Georgia, is trying to do something harder, which is to break the GOP hold in the Deep South. She seeks to take back for the Democrats a seat now held by retiring Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss. A statewide victory in the South would be a significant Democratic breakthrough.
A look at the simple math of the Senate shows why these three races are key. Democrats now hold 55 seats, counting two independents who tend to vote with the Democrats. That means Republicans need to pick up six Democratic seats to take control.
Democrats have to defend 21 seats they currently hold, while Republicans have to defend just 15, meaning the GOP has more targets of opportunity. Nine of the seats Democrats are defending are very competitive and could go either way; only two Republican-held seats really fit that description.
All three of the Southern Democratic women are running in such competitive races. The race in Georgia is the one where the Democrats have the best chance of taking away a Republican seat, which would help offset losses elsewhere.
In each of these races there are distinct limits to the amount of help President Barack Obama can provide; to some extent, he is a liability. But there are things the president can do to help.
The first is to raise money. One distinct bright spot for Democrats so far this election cycle has been their success at outraising Republicans despite the president's rough political year in 2013, an advantage a sitting president can help maintain.
Nationally, the Democrats' Senate campaign committee raised $52.6 million during 2013, while the Republicans' committee raised $36.7 million. Individually, each of the three women outraised their likely Republican opponents. Being well-funded is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for winning in a tough environment—particularly when well-heeled outside groups are sure to lend Republicans a hand.
Second, Mr. Obama can generate excitement and pump up turnout among the Democratic base, especially minorities. The African-American population is a big factor in each of these states; it represents more than 30% of the population in Louisiana and Georgia, and just over 20% in North Carolina.
Third, the president could approve the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline, which would carry Canadian tar-sands oil south across the U.S. for shipment on to refineries in the Midwest and South, tends to be a popular idea in red-tinged states, such as these three, and among independent voters of the kind these Democratic women must woo. It's particularly important to Ms. Landrieu in energy-obsessed Louisiana.
So what are the prospects for these Southern women? Consider their races in turn:
Louisiana: This state used to elect Democrats regularly but has moved steadily Republican. The GOP holds the other Louisiana Senate seat, and five of the state's six House seats, and Mr. Obama won just 41% of the 2012 vote.
Offsetting those problems is the Landrieu name, a venerable one in Louisiana politics, and Ms. Landrieu's relatively moderate voting record. Like other Democrats, though, she appears to have been dragged down by the rough rollout of the Affordable Care Act championed by the president. Odds are she'll face a tough fall runoff against Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, a solid contender.
North Carolina: This state is more favorable territory for Democrats; Mr. Obama won North Carolina narrowly in 2008, though he lost it narrowly four years later.
Still, polls suggest Ms. Hagan has her hands full. One advantage she enjoys is the fact that she has prepared for a tough race. She raised $2 million in the fourth quarter of 2013, compared with about $700,000 for state House Speaker Thom Tillis, her most likely opponent. She has $6.8 million in the bank, while Mr. Tillis has about $1 million.
Georgia: This state has become tough sledding for Democrats, but they hope there is enough magic left in the Nunn name to reverse their fortunes. Ms. Nunn has been chief executive of the bipartisan Points of Light Foundation and is the daughter of former Sen. San Nunn. Aside from that golden family name, Ms. Nunn has one other advantage: A crowded field of seven Republican contenders, who could well slice and dice one another in both a primary election and a likely runoff to determine the GOP nominee.

Health - Law Mandate Put Off Again - No Fines for Most Employers Until 2016 as Firms Pressure White House in Wake of Troubled Rollout

From The Wall Street Journal:

Most employers won't face a fine next year if they fail to offer workers health insurance, the Obama administration said Monday, in the latest big delay of the health-law rollout.

The Treasury Department, in regulations outlining the Affordable Care Act, said employers with 50 to 99 full-time workers won't have to comply with the law's requirement to provide insurance or pay a fee until 2016. Companies with more workers could avoid some penalties in 2015 if they showed they were offering coverage to at least 70% of full-time workers.

The move came after employers pressured the Obama administration to peel back the law's insurance requirements. Some firms had trimmed workers' hours to below 30 hours a week to avoid paying a penalty if they didn't offer insurance.

A senior administration official said the shift was a response to businesses' concerns, though the official said no one reason was behind the change.

Under the original 2010 health law, employers with the equivalent of at least 50 full-time workers had to offer coverage or pay a penalty starting at $2,000 a worker beginning in 2014. Last year, the administration delayed the requirement for the first time by moving it to 2015.

The new rules for companies with 50 to 99 workers would cover about 2% of all U.S. businesses, which include 7% of workers, or 7.9 million people, according to 2011 Census figures compiled by the Small Business Administration. The rules for companies with 100 or more workers affect another 2% of businesses, which employ more than 74 million people.
Monday's announcement of fresh changes comes as the administration weighs how much of the law to adjust in the wake of its troubled rollout. Health care is expected to be a central issue in the November midterm elections.
Many employers have been fierce critics of the law, and some praised the administration for giving them the flexibility they sought.
"I'm pretty pleasantly astounded by what I've seen on first read here," said Neil Trautwein, a vice president and lobbyist with the National Retail Federation. "This is really the antithesis of the botched rollout of the exchanges, and I think they have tried mightily to smooth the impact of the penalty-mandate structure on the business community."
GOP lawmakers, who oppose the law, seized on the delay to argue the administration should relax other key provisions, including the requirement that individuals carry coverage or pay a penalty, which has been in effect since the beginning of this year.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said, "It's time to extend that exemption to families and individuals—not just businesses."
The administration also signaled on Monday that big employers that currently offer coverage voluntarily will likely see simpler rules for how to prove that. Full regulations detailing the reporting requirements haven't been released.
Most large employers offer coverage to their workers, though not all employees accept it, and some companies exclude blocs of workers. Many of the companies that don't cover workers are lower-wage, smaller employers concentrated in the hospitality, retail and agriculture sectors. Some of them have begun trimming workers' hours to reduce firms' exposure to penalties.
Under the final rule released Monday, companies would be allowed to offer coverage to a subset of employees, such as those working 35 hours or more a week, during the phasing-in year.
Senior Treasury officials said the shift was aimed at giving more time for smaller employers to adjust, and for all firms to consider the number of hours their employees worked and whether they should be cutting them. The officials said firms that wanted to use the new phase-in period would have to certify they hadn't shrunk employee numbers in order to qualify.
The Treasury also set new rules for how the requirement would apply to workers such as volunteers and seasonal employees, saying that employers wouldn't be penalized for failing to offer those people coverage, regardless of the number of hours they were working.
The new regulations are likely to help employers who currently don't provide health coverage to certain employee groups by allowing them to temporarily continue that practice for at least some workers, said Paul Hamburger, a health-care attorney at Proskauer Rose in Washington.
But employers remain subject to a $3,000 penalty each time one of those workers buys coverage on a state health-care exchange and qualifies for subsidized premiums, he said, after a preliminary review of the new regulations.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Millions Trapped in Health-Law Coverage Gap - Earning Too Little for Health-Law Subsidies but Ineligible for Benefits Under Existing Medicaid Programs

From The Wall Street Journal:

Ernest Maiden was dumbfounded to learn that he falls through the cracks of the health-care law because in a typical week he earns about $200 from the Happiness and Hair Beauty and Barber Salon.

Like millions of other Americans caught in a mismatch of state and federal rules, the 57-year-old hair stylist doesn't make enough money to qualify for federal subsidies to buy health insurance. If he earned another $1,300 a year, the government would pay the full cost. Instead, coverage would cost about what he earns.

"It's a Catch-22," said Mr. Maiden, an uninsured diabetic. Without help, he said, he must "choose between paying the bills and buying medicine."
The 2010 health law was meant to cover people in Mr. Maiden's income bracket by expanding Medicaid to workers earning up to the federal poverty line—about $11,670 for a single person; more for families. People earning as much as four times the poverty line—$46,680 for a single person—can receive federal subsidies.
But the Supreme Court in 2012 struck down the law's requirement that states expand their Medicaid coverage. Republican elected officials in 24 states, including Alabama, declined the expansion, triggering a coverage gap. Officials said an expansion would add burdensome costs and, in some cases, leave more people dependent on government.
The decision created a gap for Mr. Maiden and others at the lowest income levels who don't qualify for Medicaid coverage under varying state rules. The upshot is that lower-income people in half the states get no help, while better-off workers elsewhere can buy insurance with taxpayer-funded subsidies.
The federal government offered to pay the full cost of the expansion for three years, and then states would pay 10% of the annual expansion costs. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the current expansion will cost the federal government nearly $800 billion over the next 10 years.
Some GOP-led states are revisiting their decision as complaints pile up over the coverage gap—and its consequences for businesses—in such states as Utah and Florida. The state senate in New Hampshire last week reached a tentative deal to expand Medicaid. In Virginia, newly elected Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe hopes to get legislators to reverse his Republican predecessor's stance against expansion.
Lawmakers are also getting a push to boost Medicaid rolls from hospitals that expected a vast new pool of paying customers under the health-care law. Instead, the failure to expand Medicaid coverage by some states not only adds fewer insured patients, it also eliminates the payments hospitals had long received to cover the cost of uninsured people they treat free.
Obama administration officials are touring some states that resisted the expansion, including Texas. "Expanding Medicaid will significantly increase the number of patients with insurance," said Aaron Albright, a spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency overseeing the law's implementation. "This is a critical opportunity to help millions more Americans gain access to quality, reliable health coverage."
For now, nearly five million people ages 18 to 64 get no financial help to buy coverage because of the gap, according to estimates by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Many of those people are clustered in the South, living in states where income limits for Medicaid coverage have historically been among the lowest in the U.S.
Eugene Steuerle, an Urban Institute economist and former Treasury Department official who served under presidents in both parties, said he couldn't recall a social program that excluded beneficiaries because they earn too little.
In Alabama, Gov. Robert Bentley, a physician, said in his annual address last month that Medicaid expansion carried costs he doubted the federal government or his state could afford. Medicaid accounts for more than one-third of Alabama's budget, the state's costliest service after education, and it would have to grow larger to comply with the health-care law.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Bentley said his position was clear in public statements.
One of Mr. Bentley's constituents, 27-year-old Tanisha Fields, who is uninsured, arrived at University of Alabama at Birmingham's flagship hospital on a recent evening for treatment after a miscarriage. Hospitals are obligated to treat emergency room patients, regardless of their ability to pay.
Ms. Fields, who has a 4-year-old son, earned about $7,000 last year working at a cleaning service. That is too little to qualify for federal help buying coverage in new health-law marketplaces, and too much for coverage in Alabama's Medicaid program, which has an income ceiling of $2,832 for a family of two, after deductions. If Ms. Fields could buy insurance for $50 a month, she said, "I definitely would."
Governors in some states that refused to expand Medicaid now say the coverage gap is hard to ignore. "I am not a fan of the Affordable Care Act," Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said in an interview. But, he said, he is working with state legislators on a plan to expand Medicaid after advisers calculated that about 60,000 of his constituents would fall through the gap.
"That is not fair," Mr. Herbert said. "When I say doing nothing is not an option, I'm talking about the 60,000 people in Utah who live below the poverty line and don't have access to health care."
Mr. Maiden, the hair stylist, learned in a Dec. 23 letter from the federal government that he wasn't eligible for help. The cheapest "bronze"-level insurance plan available to Mr. Maiden, who is single and a smoker, costs $437 a month. That plan, from Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Alabama, has a $6,350 annual deductible.
Mr. Maiden would have to spend about $11,600 a year—more than his entire annual income—on premiums and the deductible before Blue Cross would begin paying for most services. If he earned an extra $1,300 a year, he would qualify for about $470 a month in federal subsidies under the health-care law to pay premiums, and additional subsidies that would reduce the deductible for certain plans to as little as $100 a year.
Earning more, he said, is a challenge. Demand in Birmingham for his styling services is low, he said: "These are difficult times."
A Blue Cross spokeswoman said the insurer offered "some of the most cost-effective health insurance premiums in the country" and noted that Alabama has among the lowest average rates of states using HealthCare.gov, the federal insurance exchange.
But higher-wage families in some cases pay less for coverage in Alabama. Cal Morris, 37 years old, opened Church Street Coffee & Books with his wife, Heather, in a wealthy Birmingham suburb nearly three years ago.
The coffee shop and Mr. Morris's second job as a church janitor yields about $35,000 a year for the couple, who have three children.
Under the law, the family qualifies for a subsidy of as much as $439 a month. They could pay as little as $83 a month for a midlevel—or so-called silver—Blue Cross plan that lists at $522.43 a month, according to HealthCare.gov. The couple's children are covered by the state's Medicaid program.
Mr. Morris, who has severe and untreated psoriasis, said he looked forward to seeing a doctor, now that he has coverage.
Federal census data show about two-thirds of nearly 30,000 uninsured people living in Jefferson County, which includes Birmingham, would qualify for Medicaid if the program was expanded to fit with the health-care law.  
While Birmingham's unemployment rate is low, many of its workers are poor. The bottom 10% of local workers employed full-time in 32 professions—including health-care aide and hairdresser—earn less than $16,000 a year, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Many of these people are only now learning of the health-care gap. Shunteria Taylor, 28 years old, lost a job as a personal-care aide in 2012. She lives on about $10,500 a year in child support and disability benefits for her 9-year-old son, Brandon. She said she was looking for work.
Based on her income, the cheapest insurance coverage would cost Ms. Taylor $146 a month, with a $6,350 deductible. "I have a lot of health problems," she said, "but I just can't afford" insurance.
Hospitals, including UAB Health System, see the coverage gap as a threat.
"All we see is our revenues going down," said Will Ferniany, UAB's chief executive. Like other hospitals, it faces deep cuts in federal reimbursement for treating uninsured patients under the health-care law, he said, but won't see many new paying patients without the Medicaid expansion.
On a recent evening, as a rare blizzard struck Birmingham, dozens of uninsured patients filed through the emergency room at UAB's main campus. Complaints ranged from headaches and swollen feet to broken bones. Such visits contribute to more than $100 million in uncompensated care costs at the hospital, according to 2012 Medicare data.
Seneca Womack, age 38, arrived that evening seeking treatment for an epileptic seizure. A couple of hours later, he was discharged but then slipped on a patch of ice on his way home, breaking his leg.
Since losing his last two jobs—as a ride operator at an amusement park and restaurant cook—Mr. Womack has had no regular income, leaving him below the threshold for health insurance subsidies.
Before his latest mishap, Mr. Womack had piled up more than $50,000 in hospital bills for treatment of seizures and related injuries. He said he borrows $130 a month from his sister to buy drugs for high blood pressure, depression and epilepsy.
"I need insurance," he said.