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March 31 2015 9:27 PM

White House Resumes Military Aid to Egypt 

The U.S. ended its year and a half-long hold on military aid to Egypt on Tuesday, putting an end to sanctions that were imposed in the wake of the military coup that led to the overthrow, and imprisonment, of President Mohammed Morsi in 2013.

President Obama announced the administration’s change of heart during a phone call with Morsi's successor, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi. Witholding military support for the longtime ally was meant as a condemnation of the anti-democratic turn in Cairo following the Arab Spring. Since Morsi’s overthrow, however, the strategic political terrain has shifted dramatically for the U.S. with Egypt fighting both ISIS in Libya and Houthi rebels who have toppled the U.S.-backed government in Yemen.

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“The White House said President Barack Obama was freeing up the equipment and making other changes to military ties with Washington's long-time ally to support U.S. interests while encouraging Egypt's political reforms,” Reuters reports. “Obama directed the release of 12 Lockheed Martin F-16 aircraft, 20 Boeing Harpoon missiles, and up to 125 M1A1 Abrams tank kits made by General Dynamics, National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan said.”

“The President also advised President al-Sisi that he will continue to request an annual $1.3 billion in military assistance for Egypt,” according to the White House. Egypt is the second largest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel.

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March 31 2015 6:35 PM

Obama Commutes Sentences for 22 Drug Offenders, Including Eight Serving Life

President Obama commuted sentences on Tuesday for 22 drug offenders, including eight serving life sentences, doubling the total number of commutations issued during his time in office. Calling their sentences the product of an "outdated" system, the White House acknowledged that defendants convicted of the same crimes under current law would likely face far lighter punishment. From the Huffington Post:

Tuesday's announcement marks the beginning of a more aggressive approach on clemency from the White House, which has faced persistent criticism for being slow to grant pardons and commutations. Until Tuesday, Obama had only commuted the sentences of 21 people and pardoned 64, out of thousands of applications received.
The Justice Department expanded its criteria for clemency applicants last year, prioritizing defendants who would have likely been given a shorter prison term had they been sentenced today and who have served at least 10 years behind bars, have had good conduct in prison, have no significant ties to criminal enterprises and have no history of violence or significant criminal history.
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When President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, the disparity in sentences mandated for crimes involving powdered cocaine and crack was dramatically reduced. Advocates of reform have continued to press for the law to be made fully retroactive and support is slowly growing in both parties for congressional action to free inmates with sentences like those the president commuted today, which the White House describes as "years—in some cases more than a decade—longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime."

The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015, currently under consideration by the Judiciary Committees in the House and Senate, would add "clarification" to allow all prisoners whose crimes would bring lighter sentences under the Fair Sentencing Act to petition for a reduction in prison time. The bills have a decidedly bipartisan list of supporters, with Ted Cruz, Cory Booker, Rand Paul, and Dick Durbin co-sponsoring the Senate version.

Still, some Republicans are skeptical. But GOP Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, a vocal advocate for drug sentencing reform, could have the key to getting them on board: Say "socialism." Appearing at an event on sentencing reform held in February by Generation Opportunity, a libertarian youth organization, Massie described the approach he uses to lobby conservatives in favor of more lenient drug sentencing: It's not conservative to spend public resources keeping non-violent offenders locked up. When you're paying all of an inmate's living expenses and getting no public benefit, Massie says, that's "socialism with restrained mobility."

March 31 2015 5:42 PM

Arkansas Legislature Passes Religious Freedom Law Similar to Indiana’s

Arkansas’ legislature Tuesday passed a bill called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which is similar to the law of the same name that many observers believe has authorized discrimination against LGBT individuals in Indiana. Arkansas’ bill thus goes to Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson for a veto or signature on the same day that Indiana’s Republican governor, Mike Pence, announced that he now supports additional legislation explicitly forbidding such discrimination.

The political dynamics of the situation in Arkansas appear similar to those that pertain in Indiana, with businesses expressing unease over the law’s potential effect while conservative politicians and activists resist suggestions to add language preventing businesses from citing the law in order to deny service to LGBT customers. (Until today, Pence had opposed such additional language.) From the New York Times:

While there were several attempts up until the last minute to add a clause to the bill that would explicitly bar discrimination of gays and lesbians, a measure that Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana pledged to add in a news conferenceon on Tuesday, the sponsors of the bill in the General Assembly rejected such moves.
Business resistance to the bills in both states continued to ratchet up, with Gap and Levi Strauss joining Walmart, Apple, Yelp and other major corporations in expressing disapproval. On Monday, the chief executive of Acxiom, a marketing technology company based in Little Rock that employs nearly 1,600 statewide, urged the governor to veto a bill that was “a deliberate vehicle for enabling discrimination.”
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Like Indiana’s law, the text of the Arkansas bill appears designed to protect businesses that refuse service to LGBT customers, explicitly extending religious-freedom protections to for-profit entities and specifying that religious-freedom rights can be claimed in a judicial dispute between private parties. (For what it’s worth, the bill’s Arkansas sponsor appears to believe that businesses in his state already have the right to refuse service to such customers because LGBT individuals are not a specifically protected class under state law.)

March 31 2015 5:27 PM

New U.S. Climate Targets Are Letting the World Down

On Tuesday, the U.S. submitted its first-ever official, internationally recognized plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions beyond 2020. Problem is, it’s pretty much just a retread of the path the U.S. is already on, which isn’t enough to keep global warming from crossing the “dangerous” two degree Celsius threshold—a point above which scientific consensus paints an increasingly bleak future, with global impacts capable of destabilizing human society.

As the country with the greatest historical responsibility for climate change, the U.S. was expected to increase its ambition in the run up to the important UN climate negotiations in Paris later this year. As it turns out, the U.S. believes it already has done as much as it can. The Obama administration’s new plan is essentially exactly what it had already outlined as part of its bilateral pledge with China late last year: a 26-28 percent reduction in emissions by 2025 as compared to 2005 levels. The only change is that now the U.S. has pledged to shoot for the upper end of that target—which analysts believe is easily achievable, and vastly short of what’s needed.

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Tuesday’s U.S. voluntary pledge—known in UN-speak as an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution—was initially tough to download via a Google Chrome browser, which some considered symbolic:

The short five-page document contains a self-congratulatory two-page cover letter, touting the U.S. targets as “fair and ambitious.” However, according to the Climate Action Tracker, a consortium of independent climate analysts, the U.S. goal is neither. Factoring in various countries’ abilities to reduce carbon, the Climate Action Tracker preliminarily ranked the U.S. pledge as “medium,” not something to be especially proud of. The European Union and China fall into the same category.

Jake Schmidt of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, told Slate that the U.S. pledge was quite clearly a first step. “We’re going to have to strengthen ambition over time,” he said, adding that the Obama administration, dealing with a largely hostile Congress, is committing to the “most that they can” under existing law.

That may be, but given the fact the U.S. has emitted more total carbon than any other country—one-fifth of all carbon ever emitted—Obama could have at least used this moment to help developing countries transition to low carbon economies. Noticeably missing from Tuesday’s pledge were specifics on how the U.S. plans to fund its pledge to a floundering international climate change adaptation fund, for example, a key requirement that poor countries have attached to the current international negotiations, intended to partially account for the historical inequality of emissions.

But even that probably would not be enough to inspire other countries. One analysis from the consulting firm Climate Advisers shows that so far, the world’s pledges have been only half as ambitious as necessary. That’s led to leaders of the UN climate negotiations to ratchet back expectations for the agreement due to be signed in Paris in December.

March 31 2015 4:19 PM

Defense Rests in Boston Marathon Bombing Trial

Attorneys representing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in his federal trial over charges related to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing rested their case Tuesday after calling four witnesses. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s representatives have already admitted that he helped carry out the bombing and are attempting only to persuade the jury that Dzhokhar should not be sentenced to death because his brother Tamerlan was more responsible for their crimes. From the AP:

During its brief case, the defense called a cell site analyst who showed that Tsarnaev was at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth when Tamerlan purchased components of the two bombs used in the 2013 attack, including pressure cookers and BBs.
Tsarnaev's lawyer told jurors that it was Tamerlan who shot and killed MIT police Officer Sean Collier three days after the bombings. Tamerlan died after a gun battle with police hours after Collier's slaying.
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The Boston Herald notes that the defense also called an FBI fingerprint examiner who said that the only prints recovered from the marathon crime scene matched Tamerlan Tsarnaev, not Dzhokhar.

Closing statements have been scheduled for next Monday. If/when Tsarnaev is found guilty, a separate trial phase will determine whether he is sentenced to death or to life in prison.

March 31 2015 3:43 PM

Leftist Militants Killed After Taking Prosecutor Hostage in Istanbul Court

Update, 4:10 p.m.: Authorities say that Kiraz, the prosecutor who was taken hostage, has died.

Original post, 3:43 p.m.: Reports say that two leftist militants were killed when security forces raided an Istanbul courthouse where gunmen were holding a prosecutor—who has been “seriously wounded”—hostage. The captors had earlier released a striking photo of the prosecutor, Mehmet Selim Kiraz, with a gun to his head:

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Kiraz—who was taken to a hospital for emergency surgery—has been investigating the death of a teenager, Berkin Elvan, who died at age 15 after being knocked into a coma when he was hit by a tear gas canister during anti-government protests in 2013. From the AP:

A website close to the left-wing DHKP-C group said that militants from the banned organization had taken the prosecutor hostage at midday and had given authorities three hours to meet five demands, including forcing policemen held responsible for the teenager's killing to confess to the death.
The group also demanded that the policemen be tried by "peoples' courts" and for court officials to drop prosecutions or investigations against people who took part in protests denouncing the boy's death.

The DHKP-C is considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union. Authoritarian Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan—who was previously the country’s prime minister and is now its president—has claimed that Berkin Elvan had connections to “terrorist organizations,” though that allegation does not appear to be substantiated. (Many reports from credible outlets say Elvan was caught up in protests while trying to buy bread.)

March 31 2015 3:43 PM

What Should We Expect From Chuck Schumer as Senate Democratic Leader?

What little drama remained in the race to replace Harry Reid as the Senate’s top Democrat has all but disappeared. The New York Times reports Chuck Schumer has already locked up the support of all 42 members of the current Democratic caucus who plan to stick around for the next Congress. That group includes the man who had long been seen as Schumer’s most realistic challenger, Dick Durbin; the media’s dark-horse pick, Patty Murray; and progressive favorite Elizabeth Warren. Barring a serious surprise between now and January 2017, Schumer is now a lock to take over for Reid after the Nevadan retires at the end of this term.

So, just what can we expect when Schumer takes the reins of the Senate’s Democratic caucus? The short answer: Pretty much the same thing we got from Reid.

As my former colleague Matt Yglesias and others have already noted, Senate leaders don’t actually do a whole lot of leading, when it comes to setting their party’s policy agenda. The caucus largely decides where it wants to go, and then it’s the Senate leader’s job to plot the course to get there. By the very nature of the job, Schumer’s personal views—say on Wall Street, which he sees as his hometown industry and uses as a campaign ATM—will take a backseat to those of his party as a whole. The New Yorker will have to find middle ground between Warren and Bernie Sanders on his left, and Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp on his right—just like Reid did, and like House Speaker John Boehner has repeatedly struggled to do on the other side of the Capitol.

The good news for Democrats is that Schumer has plenty of practice doing just that.

March 31 2015 1:41 PM

Nigeria May Be Set for First Peaceful, Democratic Transfer of Power Between Parties

Former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari has defeated current President Goodluck Jonathan—whose regime has been unable to prevent the Boko Haram terrorist group from perpetrating repeated massacres and kidnappings—in Nigerian elections. If power is transferred successfully, it will mark the first democratic transition between parties in Nigeria, and the BBC reports that Jonathan has in fact called Buhari to concede defeat. From the New York Times:

With all but one of Nigeria’s 36 states counted, the former military ruler, Muhammadu Buhari, held a lead of more than two million votes over President Goodluck Jonathan.
The remaining state is in the north, where Mr. Buhari enjoys broad support and the government has been widely condemned for allowing the Boko Haram militant group to sweep through villages and towns, killing thousands of civilians.
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Some election-related killings, attributed to Boko Haram, have been reported, but no large-scale partisan violence or vote-rigging appears to have taken place.

Nigerian forces, aided by troops from other African countries, have made some recent progress in recapturing territory held by Boko Haram militants, but the group still controls a significant area in the country’s northeast.

March 31 2015 12:18 PM

Indiana Governor Backs Anti-Discrimination Fix in Self-Pitying Speech About “Religious Freedom” Law

In a press conference that repeatedly blamed the media for “mischaracterization” of the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said he now supports reforming the law in a way that prohibits businesses from denying service to LGBT individuals.

Legal experts have said that the law is in fact written to allow businesses to claim the religious right to deny service, and Pence had said previously that he was not interested in adding anti-discrimination language to the bill. Today, though, he supported such new language and called the suggestion that RFRA enables denials of service a “smear” that is “so offensive to me as a Hoosier.”

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Pence repeatedly said that the law is not a “license to discriminate,” blaming the press for asserting otherwise—but during a Sunday appearance on This Week With George Stephanopoulos, it was Pence himself who refused multiple opportunities to dispute the claim that, for example, a florist could cite the law in refusing to work a gay couple’s wedding.

Here’s a transcript of the governor’s prepared remarks on Tuesday:

Thank you all for coming. It's been a tough week here in the Hoosier State. But we're gonna move forward. Because as governor I have the great privilege of serving the greatest people on Earth. The people of Indiana.

Let me say first and foremost I was proud to sign the Religious Freedom Restoration Act last week. I believe religious liberty, as President Clinton said when he signed the federal law in 1993, religious liberty is our first freedom. And it is vital to millions of Americans who cherish faith as I and my family do. But it's also vital to the framework of freedom in our nation, and this legislation was designed to ensure the vitality of religious liberty in the Hoosier State. I believe Hoosiers are entitled to the same protections that have been in place in our federal courts for the last 20-plus years and are the law in 30 other states. But clearly, clearly there's been misunderstanding and confusion and mischaracterization of this law. And I come before you today to say how we're going to address that. We've been working over the last several days literally around the clock, and talking with people across the state of Indiana, talking to business leaders, talking to organizations across the country. And we have spent time in Indiana, enjoyed the hospitality of the people of Indiana, and we've been listening.

Let me say first and foremost, as I've said to them, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is about religious liberty, not about discrimination. As I said last week, had this law been about legalizing discrimination I would have vetoed it. This law does not give anyone a license to discriminate. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana does not give anyone the right to deny services to anyone in this state. It is simply a balancing test used by our federal courts and jurisdictions across the country for more than two decades.

Now let me say on the subject of the bill itself, I don't believe for a minute that it was the intention of the General Assembly to create a license to discriminate or a right to deny services to gays, lesbians, or anyone else in this state. And it certainly wasn't my intent. But I can appreciate that that's become the perception not just here in Indiana but all across this country, and we need to confront that, and confront it boldly in a way that respects the interests of all involved.

A personal reflection for a moment if I can. I abhor discrimination. The way I was raised was like most Hoosiers, with the golden rule, that you should do unto others what you'd have them do unto you. And I believe in my heart of hearts that no one should be harassed or mistreated because of who they are, who they love, or what they believe. And I believe that every Hoosier shares that conviction. But as I've said we've got a perception problem here because some people have a different view. And we intend to correct that.

After much reflection and in consultation with leadership of the general assembly, I've come to the conclusion that it would be helpful to move legislation this week that makes it clear that this law does not give businesses the right to deny service to anyone. Let me say that again. I think it would be helpful, and I'd like to see on my desk before the end of this week, legislation that is added to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana that makes it clear that this law does not give businesses a right to deny services to anyone. We want to make it clear that Indiana's open for business. We want to make it clear that Hoosier hospitality is not a slogan, it's our way of life. It's the reason why people come here from around the world and they come back again and again. Because Hoosiers are the kindest, most generous, most decent people in the world.

Let me say I believe this is a clarification, but it's also a fix—it's a fix of a bill that through mischaracterization and confusion has come to be greatly misunderstood. And I'm determined to address this this week. And to move forward as a state. And I know we will. Indiana has come under the harsh clare of criticism from around the country. And some of us get paid to be under that harsh glare and that criticism, so we don't complain about it. But the things that have been said about our state have been at times deeply offensive to me. And I will continue to use every effort to defend the good and decent people of Indiana. I think it's important that we take this action this week. I've spoken to legislative leaders all the way through the last hour and we're going to be working to make that happen.

With that I'll be happy to take questions.

(That’s seven uses of Hoosier in the speech.)

Pence also added, echoing earlier comments on Fox News, that he was upset to be accused of fostering intolerance because he is a longtime supporter of civil rights who, as he said on Fox, once “walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge with John Lewis” during “the pilgrimage to mark the 45th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.”

March 31 2015 9:18 AM

“Fix This Now,” Indiana’s Largest Newspaper Demands in Huge Front-Page RFRA Headline

Update, 9:55 a.m.: Indiana Gov. Mike Pence indicated Tuesday in a Fox News appearance that he would be open to legislation preventing the RFRA from being used to discriminate against LGBT individuals. From the Hill:

Pence seemed more open than before to allowing debate over passing a statewide non-discrimination law that protects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, which would likely mitigate what critics say are the negative effects of the religious freedom law.
“Let me say, that’s not been my position — that’s not been the position of the state of Indiana — but If the legislature brought that up, they can certainly have that debate,” Pence said.
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In an ABC appearance Sunday, Pence had said a nondiscrimination law was “not on my agenda” and “doesn’t have anything to do with [the RFRA].”

Original post, 9:18 a.m.: Joining a number of other individuals, groups, and businesses from across the political spectrum, Indiana’s largest newspaper called Tuesday in a front-page editorial for legislation guaranteeing that LGBT individuals cannot be discriminated against under the state’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act. (For more on the way Indiana’s RFRA enables discrimination, you can read this Monday Slate piece.) From the Indianapolis Star’s article:

Gov. Mike Pence and the General Assembly need to enact a state law to prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, education and public accommodations on the basis of a person's sexual orientation or gender identity.
Those protections and RFRA can co-exist. They do elsewhere.

On Monday a number of potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates said, with varying levels of equivocation, that they support Indiana’s RFRA. Jeb Bush’s unambiguous take was perhaps most notable given that he’s seen as a relative moderate. (Marco Rubio and Scott Walker, two other “electable” candidates, were relatively noncomittal in their statements on the law.)

“I think Gov. [Mike] Pence has done the right thing,” former Florida governor and likely 2016 contender Jeb Bush said in a Monday interview. “I think once the facts are established, people aren’t going to see this as discriminatory at all.”

Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Ben Carson also praised Indiana’s legislation.

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