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Obama Signs $1.1 Trillion Spending Bill

It's a done deal. President Obama has signed the $1.1 trillion spending bill.

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Senate Passes $600 Billion Defense Authorization Bill

Give it away, Give it away now. [Red Hot Chile Peppers]

While most of the Congressional news today is about the $1 trillion spending bill and the potential government shutdown (which won't happen), I'm more concerned about the $600 billion Defense Authorization bill that passed the Senate today and now goes to Obama to sign.

War-spending is a bottomless pit. The bill provides $521.3 billion for the military and $63.7 billion for overseas operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. [More....]

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House Passes DOJ Budget Amendment Restricting Funds Used to Fight Medical Marijuana

On Thursday night, the House of Representatives voted on the myriad of amendments to the proposed DOJ 2015 budget. Amendment No. 25, to prohibit the use of funds to prevent certain States from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana. passed, by a vote of 219 to 189. The roll call vote (no. 258) is here.

The Amendment was co-sponsored by Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) and Reps. Rohrabacher, Don Young (R-Alaska), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Paul Broun (R-Ga.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Steve Stockman (R-Texas), and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.)

Rep. Steve Cohen said:

“Marijuana does not make people commit crime. It makes them overeat.”

Also passing: An amendment to prohibit the use of funds to prevent a State from implementing its own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of industrial hemp. Vote was 237 - 170 (Roll no. 257)

Critical to the amendment's passage:

“This year’s huge vote increase can largely be attributed to the fact that lawmakers only recently began hearing the moving stories of the many children whose severe seizures are only relieved by marijuana,” said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, in a statement. “Being able to list these CBD states in the amendment text meant that more members of Congress that represent these states voted yes than otherwise would have.

Counting these states, 60 percent of the U.S. population lives in a place where state law disagrees with federal law.” [More...]

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Boehner Caves, Clean Debt Ceiling Bill Passed

The House of Representatives has voted 221 to 201 to pass a Clean Debt Ceiling bill. The bill extends federal borrowing authority for one year with no strings attached and avoids a Government shutdown at the end of February.

Without an increase in the statutory debt limit, the U.S. government would soon default on some of its obligations and have to shut down some programs, a historic move that would likely cause market turmoil.

The Republicans are in disarray.

The episode showed that Boehner still has difficulty exerting control over his fractious caucus, in which conservatives backed by the Tea Party movement hold considerable sway.

WAPO has more on Boehner's bad day.

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Amended Weakened Version of Sentencing Reform Bill Passes Judiciary Comm.

The media is full of praise for the Senate Judiciary Committee which yesterday passed a sentencing reform bill addressing mandatory minimum sentencing laws on drug offenses.

Not so fast. Here is S.1410, the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013, as originally introduced by Senators Durbin, Leahy, and Whitehouse.

The version that passed the Judiciary Committee is a watered down, amended version of Durbin's bill. Durbin introduced a "Manager's Amendment" weakening the safety valve reform provision. Then the Committee approved amendments by Republican Charles Grassley that turned the bill into an enhanced crime bill, upping sentences and introducing more mandatory minimums for some non-drug crimes.

On mandatory minimums, the bill is an improvement, but far less than what is needed and certainly not historic. It reduces the mandatory minimum terms for drug offenses from 20, 10 and 5 years to 10, 5 and 2 years, respectively, and allows the 2010 crack cocaine sentencing reductions to apply retroactively to some classes of inmates, in the discretion of the judge. [More...]

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GOP: How To Stop Worrying and Love Government Default

It's that time of year again, what to do in the face of Republican threats to push the country into default! Oh, and this time, Republicans have a primer on How To Stop Worrying And Love Default:

Q: [T]he Treasury Department came out with [a report] that said that if the US does not raise the debt ceiling in time that there would be a catastrophic effect on the economy[.]

[Sen. RON JOHNSON (Tea Party Republican Wiscosin]: I think thatís Ė I think thatís highly irresponsible for the Treasury Department to be issuing those kinds of, I mean scare-mongering reports. The Treasury Department, I think the Secretary of the Treasury, I think the President of the United States ought to be trying to calm the markets, rather than scare them. The President really ought to be leading here. [. . .] There is absolutely no reason at all for this type of government to default even if we donít increase the debt ceiling. So I think itís highly irresponsible of this Administration to be doing the type of scare-mongering theyíre doing on this issue.

Wall Street is sanguine and thinks the absurdities of Ron Johnson and Ted Yoho do not matter, but I think they may be wrong, and I worry that President Obama is not setting the stage for the actions he may have to take in response.

The issues are practical, default would be catastrophic for the nation, and constitutional, the 14th Amendment prohibits federal government default. But the President's men have taken the unusual (and imo, wrong) position that his hands are tied. I'l explain why they are wrong on the flip.

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Amash Amendment on NSA Surveillance Fails

The House rejected the Amash Amendment to block funding for NSA's mass warrantless surveillance program.

The measure was narrowly defeated, 205-217, after last-minute lobbying by the Obama administration and House members on the intelligence panel, who said the program was crucial to national security.

The measure, from Rep. Justin Amash (R., Mich.), would have blocked funding for the National Security Agency to collect phone records unless they pertained to a particular person under investigation. The program came to public attention due to disclosures by Edward Snowden, the former NSA employee who recently released details of two classified programs.

Republicans with libertarian leanings joined with liberal Democrats in voting for the Amendment, but it wasn't enough. I, for one, sincerely appreciate their efforts.

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Senate to Vote on Immigration Reform Bill

The Senate is expected to pass the immigration reform bill today. There will be a vote at 4:00 p.m.

In addition to providing a 13-year pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, the bipartisan bill would double to 40,000 the number of federal agents on the U.S.-Mexican border and help provide American businesses with needed low- and high-skilled workers.

(Added: the use of the word "illegal" to describe immigrants is not allowed here, it was a quote in a Reuters news article. (another version here.) I just noticed it and struck the word. Newer Reuters articles aren't using the word.

The bill will then move to the House. Republicans in the House want their own bill. They oppose the path to citizenship in the Senate version.

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Vermont Governor Signs "Death With Dignity" Law

Gov. Peter Shumlin has signed Vermont's "Death With Dignity" law. The law allows doctors to prescribe medication that permitting the terminally ill to end their lives. It takes effect today.

The law, which went into effect Monday, allows for an end-of-life procedure with the consent of a patient's doctor after the patient has made more than one request for help in ending life. The bill also stipulates that the patient has a chance to retract the request.

Under the bill, a qualifying patient must be at least 18 years old, a Vermont resident and suffering from an "incurable and irreversible disease," with less than six months to live. Two physicians, including the prescribing doctor, must make that medical determination. The patient must also be told of other end-of-life services, "including palliative care, comfort care, hospice care, and pain control," according to the bill.

Vermont is the fourth state to allow physician-assisted end of life measures. The others are Oregon, Washington and Montana.

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Gun Control Bill Defeated in Senate

The Senate today rejected new gun control measures.

Among the measures that failed: One that banned high-capacity magazines with more than ten rounds, one that banned rapid-firing "assault" weapons and one calling for expanded background checks.

The vote was 54-46 vote, and 60 votes were needed.

While I'm glad the bills failed, I think it was a mistake by Obama to keep bringing out the Sandy Hook survivors in support of his plan.

It's also clear from Boston that gun laws won't stop horrific acts of violence or terrorism. If guns aren't available, anyone bent on mayhem will find another way to commit it. Bombs have a greater destructive potential than guns. [More....]

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A 15 Year Old's Testimony on Gun Control Laws

Gun control legislation is on the agenda for the Senate tomorrow. Here's an opposing view from a 15 year old.

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DOJ Proposes Increased Penalties for CyberHacking

Not long ago, in response to Aaron Swartz' suicide, a bill was proposed to ease the draconian penalties for cyberhacking.

That has not stopped DOJ from supporting an alternative bill, now under consideration, that would increase penalties. A copy of the bill is here.

DOJ has been pushing increased penalties for cyberhacking for some time. See the 2011 Statement of Deputy Section Chief Richard Downing Before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security. Details of the current law are in this 2010 Congressional Research Services report.

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Bill Introduced to Provide Some Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Relief

I think the biggest problem in our criminal justice system for the past 25 years has been rigid mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Today, Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rand Paul introduced the bi-partisan Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013. According to Sen. Leahy:

The bipartisan Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 expands the so-called “safety valve” that allows judges to impose a sentence below the mandatory minimum in qualifying drug cases to all federal crimes. By giving judges this greater flexibility, they will not be forced to administer needlessly long sentences for certain offenders, which is a significant factor in the ever-increasing Federal prison population and the spiraling costs that steer more and more of the justice budget toward keeping people in prison, rather than investing in programs that keep our communities safe.


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Senate Hearing on Gun Issues

The Senate is holding a hearing on guns today. Here's a recap from The Atlantic.

Here's who is speaking and their positions.

David Koppel of Colorado is one of the speakers. He is the Research Director for the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado, an Associate Policy Analyst for the Cato Institute, and an Adjunct Professor of Advanced Constitutional Law at the Univ. of Denver Law School. I recommend his prepared testimony, available here. (All of the prepared statements are accessible here.

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House Passes Fiscal Cliff Bill

The votes on H.R. 8 are being tallied now. You can watch live here. So far, 7 Dems and 70 Republicans have voted against it. Right now it's at 122 to 75 in favor. They are voting on a motion to agree to the Senate Amendments.

Looks like it will pass. It's been running 50 votes ahead on the ayes. 10 Dems and 100 Republicans have so far have voted no.

Vote's over. It passed easily. Final vote was 257 to 167. 16 Dems voted against it. Here's the roll call vote.

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