Sunday, August 11, 2013

Obama signs bipartisan student loan bill into law

President Barack Obama Friday signed into law a bipartisan student loan bill which the House overwhelmingly approved late week. The Senate OK'd the measure by a vote of 81 to 18 two weeks ago.

Without congressional action, interest rates on loans to college students were increasing from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. But under the law signed by Obama the interest rate for undergraduate loans will fall back to 3.86 percent. The interest rate on graduate student loans will be 5.41 percent.
Obama's signature on the bill ends months of arguments over how much the federal government should subsidize student loans and whether students in the next several years will face crushing repayment burdens if interest rates go up, as most observers expect they will.

In the Senate, the compromise bill was crafted by a bipartisan group including Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Angus King, I-Maine.

Obama signed into law a bipartisan student loan bill
Obama signed into law a bipartisan student loan bill
"We have demonstrated to the American people that this body has the capacity to overcome partisan differences….," King said when the Senate passed the bill. He said the bill "offers a long-term, market-based solution that lowers and caps interest rates for all students taking out a loan and finally gets Congress out of the business of setting rates."

At the signing ceremony at the White House, attended by King and other members of Congress, Obama said it "feels good signing bills. I haven't done this in a while."

Under the new law, the government establishes variable interest rates on Stafford loans for undergraduate college students, but caps the rate at 8.25 percent. The variable rate each year will be pegged to the rate on 10-year Treasury notes, plus 2.05 percent.

The law also sets the interest rate on loans issued to graduate or professional students at the rate on high-yield 10-year Treasury notes plus 3.6 percent, but caps that rate at 9.5 percent.

The law applies to loans made on or after July 1.

In June, Senate Democrats got 51 votes for a measure offered by Sen. Jack Reed, D- R.I., that would have set a fixed 3.4 percent interest rate for student loans over the next two years, but Reed fell short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a potential filibuster. All Democratic senators except Manchin voted to advance Reed's measure to final passage; no Republican voted for it.

One Democrat who supported the Reed bill, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, called the final compromise bill "obscene." She said that supporters of the bill "say that it will lower interest rates for students this year, and that's all that matters. That's the same thing the credit card companies said when they sold zero-interest credit cards and the same thing subprime mortgage lenders said when they sold teaser rate mortgages."

She added, "Nobody disputes the fact that within just a few years, according to our best estimates, students, all students, will end up paying far higher interest rates on their loans than they do right now."

By Tom Curry, NBC News national affairs writer

Source: The NBC News

Law enforcement can't harass suspected undocumented immigrants

For the crime of appearing Hispanic, Roxana Santos, a native of El Salvador, attracted the attention of Frederick County sheriff's deputies in 2008. At the time she was noticed and racially profiled by the deputies, Ms. Santos was doing nothing more than sitting on a curb and eating a sandwich outside the food co-op in Frederick where she worked as a dishwasher.

In Frederick, where Sheriff Charles Jenkins has publicly pledged to make life unfriendly for undocumented immigrants, it's open season for law enforcement on anyone who looks the part -- meaning anyone who looks Hispanic.

The deputies, Kevin Lynch and Jeffrey Openshaw, acted on no suspicion of criminal conduct. Indeed, Ms. Santos, who is undocumented, has no criminal history. Nonetheless, they approached her, asked for her identification and, after a considerable wait, told her to sit tight while a federal data base digested her name. No, she would not be on time for her shift.

Laws for immigrants
On Wednesday, a federal appeals court slapped down Mr. Jenkins and the county sheriff's department. The appeals court said that law enforcement officers may not go around accosting people merely on the suspicion that they may lack immigration documents, no matter what they look like or how limited their facility with English. As the court pointed out, an individual's unauthorized presence in the United States is not a crime; it's a civil violation of immigration law.

The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, is consistent with last year's Supreme Court ruling on Arizona's anti-immigrant statute. In that case, the Supreme Court allowed police to determine the immigration status of people they stop or arrest for other reasons. But Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the court's majority, noted it is not a crime for an illegal immigrant to be present in the country. "Detaining individuals solely to verify their immigration status would raise constitutional concerns," he wrote.

In the case of Ms. Santos, the appeals court pointed out that police who start asking questions based solely on the race or ethnicity of their interlocutor may also run afoul of the Fourth Amendment's equal protection clause.

All this may come as news to Mr. Jenkins, whose tough-guy political persona is wrapped up in harassing illegal immigrants, whom he blames for all sorts of problems, including Maryland's budgetary travails.

About 8 percent of Frederick County's 240,000 people are Hispanic, and minorities generally have contributed heavily to the county's rapid growth. That may be jarring to some county residents; it surely has presented political opportunities to officials such as Mr. Jenkins, who have gotten mileage from bashing illegal immigrants.

Nonetheless, it is the sheriff's job to uphold the law. And in the absence of probable cause to suspect criminal activity, the Fourth Amendment prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures forbids police from harassing people based solely on their presumed immigration status.

Ms. Santos, a mother of three, remains in the country while her court case continues, although she may still face deportation. In the meantime, the appeals court has determined that her constitutional rights were violated. Let's hope Mr. Jenkins gets the message.

By Editorial Board

Source: The Washington Post

Friday, August 2, 2013

Gay couples rush to wed under new Minnesota law

Dozens of gay couples began tying the knot early Thursday morning at Minneapolis City Hall as Minnesota became the latest state to legalize same-sex marriage.

The law allowed weddings to begin just after midnight Wednesday, and 42 couples were expected to be married by Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and several Hennepin County judges in the hours before dawn.

Weddings were scheduled to start at the stroke of midnight at Minneapolis City Hall, St. Paul's Como Park, Mall of America's Chapel of Love and at county courthouses around the state. One group planned a cluster of weddings in a Duluth tavern.

"I don't think either of us ever thought we'd see this day," said Mike Bolin, of the Minneapolis suburb of Richfield, who was marrying Jay Resch, his partner of six years, at Minneapolis City Hall. "We met at low points in both of our lives, and to have arrived at this point -- there's going to be a lot of tears."

Minnesota legalizing gay marriage
On the eve of Minnesota legalizing gay marriage
Rhode Island was joining Minnesota on Thursday in becoming the 12th and 13th U.S. states to allow gay marriage, along with the District of Columbia. The national gay rights group Freedom to Marry estimates that about 30 percent of the U.S. population now lives in places where gay marriage is legal. The first gay weddings in Rhode Island were planned for later Thursday morning.

In Minnesota, budget officials estimated that about 5,000 gay couples would marry in the first year. Its enactment capped a fast turnabout on the issue in just over two years. After voters rejected a constitutional ban on gay marriage last fall, the state Legislature this spring moved to make it legal.

Rhode Island becomes the last New England state to allow same-sex marriage. Lawmakers in the heavily Catholic state passed the marriage law this spring, after more than 16 years of efforts by same-sex marriage supporters. Both Minnesota and Rhode Island will automatically recognize marriages performed in other states.

Bolin and Resch celebrated Wednesday night with several hundred others at Wilde Roast Cafe along the Mississippi River north of downtown Minneapolis. Many at the event planned to walk to City Hall for the mass nuptials.

Dayton proclaimed Aug. 1 to be "Freedom to Marry Day" in Minnesota.

Golden Valley-based General Mills Inc. donated Betty Crocker cakes for the event, which was also to feature performances by local musicians and services donated by wedding photographers, florists and other businesses.

Weddings were not limited to the Twin Cities. In St. Cloud, Stearns County court administrator Tim Roberts planned to marry a couple at 12:01 a.m. at the courthouse. "It feels historic. It's an honor to be a part of it," Roberts said. Midnight weddings were also planned for courthouses in Clay County, Polk County and elsewhere.

At Mall of America, Holli Bartelt and Amy Petrich from the southeastern Minnesota town of Wykoff were set to become the first couple married at the Chapel of Love. Owner Felicia Glass-Wilcox said she hoped to start the ceremony a few minutes early, so the vows could be pronounced seconds after midnight.

"We'd like for them to be able to say they are the very first married in the state, but for sure they'll be able to say they're one of the first," Glass-Wilcox said. She said the chapel had four more gay couples booked for weddings in the next five days.

Bartelt, 33, proposed to Petrich, 37, in April in a photo booth at the Bloomington mall. It was a few weeks before the Legislature approved the law, but Bartelt said she was confident by then that it would pass. She had been in contact with a mall employee about the proposal, who later suggested the couple could be first to get married at the chapel.

Bartelt, a health coach, planned to wear an ivory-colored dress, while Petrich, a baker for Mayo Clinic, was wearing an ivory suit. A group of about 50 family members and close friends were planning to join them, including Bartelt's 10-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter.

"Everybody deserves the right to be happy," said Bartelt. "That's really what it's all about. It's a big day for us, and a big day for Minnesota, and something I hope my kids look back on some day and say, ‘Wow, we got to be part of that.'"

By Patrick Condon, AP

Source: The Time

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Republicans refuel effort to cripple Health Care Law

With the House poised to vote Friday on yet another bill to cripple President Obama's health care law, the question arises: Why do Republicans persist in their so-far futile efforts?

Democrats have many theories. Republicans, they suggest, care little about the uninsured. Many, they say, dislike Mr. Obama and want him to fail.

"The health care law has become the Republicans' great white whale," Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, said Thursday. "They will stop at nothing to kill it."

Gary Cohen
Gary Cohen testified
Republicans say they persist because the law is an example of government overreach and is proving unworkable. For many elected in the 2010 Republican wave, their opposition to the law is the reason they are in Congress. And, they say, voting to repeal the law is good politics, as it remains extremely unpopular among Republican voters.

Republicans and some business owners also say they resent the way in which the law was written and passed by Democrats in 2009-10. Jeffrey S. Kelly, the chief executive of Hamill Manufacturing, a small Pennsylvania company that produces metal parts for Navy ships, made that point at a recent hearing to examine the effects of the law on businesses.

"Haven't you really reaped what you've sown?" Mr. Kelly asked House Democrats. "Look at the history of this law. It was passed without any support on the Republican side."

Though the White House and Congressional Democrats say they sought bipartisan support for the bill, Congressional Republicans argue that they were shut out of the legislative process.

"We offered 30 amendments when we were in the minority that were swatted away by the majority late into the night, not considered, not adopted," said Representative Peter Roskam, an Illinois Republican on the Ways and Means Committee.

Representative Michael C. Burgess, Republican of Texas, said: "No governor of either party was involved in the development of this law, even though the administration now says, ‘We want the states to be involved and to be leaders in carrying it out.' "

With the battle over health care still raging, some lawmakers say they now understand what Thomas Jefferson meant when he said, in 1808, that "great innovations should not be forced on slender majorities," or enacted without broad support.

When Congress created Social Security in 1935 and Medicare in 1965, the majorities in both chambers were larger and more bipartisan than the ones that passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010.

The bill coming up in the House on Friday would prohibit enforcement of the health law by the Internal Revenue Service, the agency responsible for imposing penalties on individuals who go without insurance and on employers that fail to offer coverage.

Representative Jim McDermott, Democrat of Washington, said one reason Republicans kept voting to repeal or gut the health care law was that they feared it would succeed.

"What we are hearing right now is the sound of Republican heart rates going up," Mr. McDermott said. "It's a frenetic expression of Republican anxiety over the president's signature legislation working. Washington, Oregon and California are already reporting lower rates for 2014. New York premiums were cut by 50 percent. Sick children are getting covered. The promise we made Americans is being fulfilled, and Republicans see a giant election map slowly losing red blocks."

Republicans say that public opinion is on their side. In 2011-12, the House voted more than 30 times to roll back some or all of the law, but Speaker John A. Boehner said that more votes were needed this year because freshman Republicans wanted a chance to go on the record.

Republicans were encouraged to see some Democrats voting with them last month. Twenty-two House Democrats joined them in voting to delay a crucial part of the law that requires most people to have insurance, and 35 voted to postpone a requirement that large employers offer coverage to full-time employees.

Moreover, Republicans cite concerns about the law expressed by labor unions, including the Teamsters. In a letter last month to the top Democrats in Congress, James P. Hoffa, president of the Teamsters, and two other union presidents said that perverse incentives in the Affordable Care Act were "already creating nightmare scenarios." They said that "numerous employers have begun to cut workers' hours" to avoid the cost of providing them health benefits.

Marilyn B. Tavenner, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told Congress on Thursday that she had heard of only "isolated incidents" in which employers tried to cut back hours. Representative Steve Scalise, Republican of Louisiana, told her that she must be "living in some cocoon" because he heard of such actions almost every day.

Votes to repeal the law are also a way to unite Republicans who cannot agree on other aspects of health policy.

"Republicans have never, never, never had a comprehensive health care reform plan," said Representative Sander M. Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee.

Republicans are sparring among themselves over whether they should try to block all legislation that includes money to carry out the health care law. Some of the most conservative Republicans in Congress say they are prepared to force the issue in debate over a stopgap spending bill, needed to keep the government in operation beyond Sept. 30.

"Under no circumstances will we support a continuing resolution that funds one penny of Obamacare," said Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas.

More experienced Republicans, including Senators John McCain of Arizona and Roy Blunt of Missouri, agree with the goal, but oppose the tactic, fearing that Republicans would be blamed for any government shutdown, as they were in 1995-96.

Whatever the reasons for Republicans' opposition to the law, it is unlikely that Friday's votes will be their last on the issue.

By Robert Pear

Source: The New York Times