Archive for January, 2014

Cameron and Hollande Disagree on European Union Treaty Reform

Cameron and HollandeAnglo-French differences over European Union reform were laid bare at a summit on Friday when British Prime Minister David Cameron called for urgent treaty change while French President Hollande said such a move was not a priority.

The first summit between the two since Hollande won power in May 2012 announced joint investment in the latest phase of a combat drone scheme, cooperation on civil nuclear power research and an agreement on space and satellite technology.

But their warm words on strengthening cooperation were soon overshadowed by the prickly subject of European Union reform, a long-standing bone of contention between the two countries.

Standing alongside Hollande inside a vast British aircraft hanger, Cameron set out his long-held position on the need for sweeping

reforms to make Europe more open, flexible and competitive.

“My position absolutely remains that we want to see those changes, we want to see that renegotiation, that renegotiation will involve elements of treaty change,” he said.

However Hollande said treaty change was not a priority for France.

“If there are going to be changes to the text, we don’t feel that for the time being they are urgent. We feel that revising the treaty is not a priority,” he said.

Cameron wants sweeping reforms in the EU to make the trade bloc more efficient and hopes his agenda will both persuade eurosceptic voters to back him at a 2015 election and quell dissent within his party.

He has promised a referendum on Britain’s EU membership by the end of 2017 and wants to have agreed reforms by then.

But on Friday, Hollande firmly resisted any changes to the treaties that could be interpreted as pandering to Britain’s domestic political agenda.

“Britain’s choice cannot weigh on all of Europe… France wants the Euro zone to be better coordinated and better integrated. If the texts (of treaties) are to be changed, that to us is not a urgent matter,” he said

The official focus of the summit was on defence, where a 120 million pound ($198 million) feasibility study into the technology behind an Anglo-French combat drone project was unveiled. The leaders are due to inspect a prototype of the drone at the summit venue, a military airfield.

No decisions were announced on which companies would be involved in the study.

The focus on defence stems from a 2010 Anglo-French pact that paved the way for a joint defence force as well as collaboration on drones and other military technology development.

Friday’s summit also sealed a 500 million pound joint purchase of anti-ship missiles developed by MBDA, a consortium of BAE Systems, Airbus Group and Italy’s  Finmeccanica.

An agreement was also signed to allow the early delivery of two Airbus A400M transporter planes to Britain.

A number of collaborations on satellite technology were also announced alongside a programme for sharing research on civil nuclear power.

That scheme will include steps to involve small and medium sized British firms in the production of a nuclear power plant by French firm EDF at Hinkley point in Western England, the British officials said.


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Hillary Soars – Christie Dives in Latest 2016 Polls

2016 presidential raceAmericans will go to the polls to elect a new Congress in November, but public attention is already focused on the next presidential race more than two years away.

A new polling (Washington Post/ABC News) published on Thursday and highly publicized by US media shows that Hillary Clinton is, by and large, the undisputed odds-on favorite in the 2016 election cycle.

At this point, the former first lady, senator and secretary of state even is the biggest undeclared frontrunner for a presidential nomination the Democratic Party has ever produced. The Republican field, though, is crowded with at least seven potential candidates garnering relevant support.

Clinton trounces her potential primary rivals with 73 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. That is a 61-point lead over Vice President Joe Biden and a 65-point lead over Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren in a hypothetical primary race.

So far, the Democratic Party establishment seems to be firmly behind a Clinton candidacy, from Elizabeth Warren on the left and Senator Joe Manchin (West Virginia) on the right. But Clinton hasn’t yet decided on whether she will be a candidate or not, but almost everyone in the world of US politics expects her to run.

Clinton said earlier that she will announce her decision this year. According to the new poll, 58 percent of registered voters have a favorable view of Clinton, compared to 38 percent who view her unfavorably. That includes a 52-41 favorable-to-unfavorable split among political independents.

In addition, Clinton already disposes of huge assets that make a successful run of any other Democratic would-be candidate an uphill battle: a huge war chest thanks to the contribution of big donors, the network and logistics of the “Clinton machine”, and the grass-roots excitement of a party base that is eager to elect the first female commander-in-chief in American history.

“Ready for Hillary”, an independent political action committee, is already up and running, waiting for Clinton to declare her candidacy. Last weekend, organizers met with rank-and-file

Democrats and labor leaders in the early-voting state Iowa (midwest) to initiate an effort to get her on the ballot.

While the Democrats are prepared for a coronation of Hillary Clinton, it is going to be a merciless battle for the Republican nomination. According to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, there is a crowded field of potential contenders.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who seemed to be the frontrunner in many public opinion surveys last year, has suffered from the fallout from “Bridgegate” and other scandals engulfing his administration. Christie now has the support of 13 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.

That puts him in third place behind Wisconsin congressman and Mitt Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan (20 percent) and former Florida governor Jeb Bush (18 percent). Conservative senators Ted Cruz (Texas), Rand Paul (Kentucky) and Marco Rubio (Florida) register 10-12 percent support. In another opinion survey by Public Policy Polling, former Arkansas governor and evangelical leader Mike Huckabee leads the field with 16 percent support.

Christie has once benefited from the general perception that he has a strong appeal among independents and even some Democrats, a reputation he burnished with his 2013 landslide re-election is his strongly Democratic state.

But this image has been tarnished since a scandal involving a four-day traffic chaos on the George Washington Bridge broke a couple of weeks ago.

The lane closures that caused the traffic jam were orchestrated by top Christie staffers and public officials close to the governor in an alleged plot to punish a local Democratic mayor for not endorsing Christie for re-election. The scandal is now subject of federal and state investigations.

With still two more two years to go until the start of the presidential primaries, Christie not only lost ground against his intra-party rivals. In a theoretical head-to-head match-up, he would also lose against Hillary Clinton. According to the latest poll, Clinton leads Christie among registered voters 53 percent to 41 percent.

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Britain promises to act swiftly to aid Syrians

William HagueBritain will act “straight away” to provide a refuge for hundreds of vulnerable Syrians brutalised by their country’s civil war, Foreign Secretary William Hague said Thursday.

Speaking in the Philippine capital during a Southeast Asian tour, Hague said his government would act quickly on the pledge announced Tuesday by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

“We’re getting on with it straight away,” Hague told a joint news conference after meeting his Philippine counterpart Albert del Rosario.

“We will take people into the United Kingdom in order to help them and give them some respite and some care after some of the things that they have been through.”

Female victims of sexual violence, the disabled, the elderly and torture victims would be the targets of the programme, Clegg said on Tuesday.

When asked when or how the scheme would be implemented, Hague did not give specifics but stressed the details would be known soon.

Hague added the British government had not set a precise figure for those who would profit, but Clegg’s office said Tuesday the overall number of refugees was likely to be in the hundreds.

The United Nations said the number of Syrian refugees had grown from 588,000 at the end of 2012 to 2.4 million in late 2013.

Britain has granted asylum to more than 2,000 Syrians since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011 — 1,500 of them last year.

The British government has pledged to slash total net migration to the UK to under 100,000 by 2015, and has defended its policy of focusing on giving aid to Syrians rather than offering a comprehensive resettlement programme.

It said it has committed £600 million ($993 million) in humanitarian aid to help alleviate the situation for displaced Syrians, making it the second largest donor after the United States.

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Competing Republican factions deliver response to President Obama’s SOTU Address.

McMorris RodgersRepublicans in the US Congress responded in competing voices on Tuesday to President Barack Obama’s annual State of the Union address as various wings of the party vied to advance their prescriptions for the country’s best way forward.

Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who delivered the sanctioned Republican response to Obama, queued up long-standing party doctrine that “champions free markets and trusts people to make their own decisions, not a government that decides for you.”

McMorris Rodgers, a five-term congresswoman from Washington state, took a broad swipe at Obamacare, the 2010 landmark healthcare law that Republicans have tried to repeal, delay or significantly alter nearly 50 times since its enactment.

“We’ve all talked to too many people who have received cancellation notices they didn’t expect or who can no longer see the doctors they always have,” McMorris Rodgers said of the Affordable Care Act, which got off to a troubled start.

“No, we shouldn’t go back to the way things were, but the president’s health-care law is not working,” she said.

Republican Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, two favourites of the anti-Washington Tea Party movement, staged separate responses to Obama’s speech.

Paul, who joined the Senate in 2011 and is often mentioned as a possible 2016 presidential candidate, appealed to the conservative base of the Republican Party.

“Economic growth will come when we lower taxes for everyone,” Paul said. “Government spending doesn’t work.”

McMorris Rodgers is relatively unknown nationally, even though as No 4 House Republican she is the highest-ranking female member of her party in Congress. She also holds the distinction of being the only person to give birth three times while serving as a member of the House of Representatives.

Discussing her eldest child’s Down syndrome diagnosis, McMorris Rodgers brought a softer tone to her party, which is often accused by Democrats of helping the rich at the expense of the poor and middle-class.

“Today, we see a 6-year-old boy who dances to Bruce Springsteen, who reads above grade level and who is the best big brother in the world,” McMorris Rodgers said, adding, “We see all the things he can do, not those he can’t.”

Her moment in the limelight came as Republicans see November’s congressional elections and the 2016 race for the White House as opportunities to close a “gender gap” that contributed to their 2012 election losses.

That gender gap was on full display in 2012, when Obama received 55 per cent of women’s votes, while failed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney got 44 per cent.

Even as Republicans tried to broaden their appeal with women voters, they pushed through the House on Tuesday a partisan bill that would make it more difficult for some women to get abortions.

One year ago, a USA Today/Gallup poll found that by a 53-per cent to 29-per cent margin, Americans said they wanted the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision granting abortion rights to be kept in place.

Attacking another gap among Hispanic-American voters Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida delivered a speech closely tracking McMorris Rodgers’ but spoken in Spanish.

In 2012, Obama won 71 per cent of the Hispanic vote to Romney’s 27 per cent. Since then, House Republicans have blocked comprehensive immigration reform moves that are important to Latino voters.

In his address to a joint session of Congress, Obama called for finishing work this year on comprehensive immigration reform.

Ros-Lehtinen was vague about immigration reform’s prospects in the House, noting that Congress needed to “fix our broken immigration system with a permanent solution,” she said in a Reuters translation of her remarks.

On Thursday, House Republican leaders are expected to make public their “principles” for pursuing immigration reform this year. It was unclear whether those principles will advance any further amid deep Republican divisions.

An outspoken opponent of such legislation, Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, on Tuesday warned: “Ten million Americans are unemployed and millions more have given up looking.

“We should put them first,” before giving “work permits” to people who came to the United States illegally, Smith said.

Like McMorris Rodgers, Senator Lee also demanded a smaller federal government.

The rise of the Tea Party helped Republicans win control of the House in the 2010 elections, but some of its Senate candidates in the past few elections have fallen short, leaving that chamber in the hands of Democrats.

Nevertheless, the Tea Party’s war against large federal budget deficits set the agenda for Congress in 2011, 2012 and 2013, when Democrats and Republicans battled each other over spending cuts.

Tea Party initiatives, Lee said, ranging from welfare and criminal justice reforms to ending corporate subsidies, “will put Americans back to work, not just by cutting big government, but by fixing broken government.” After all the pomp of a presidential State of the Union speech, complete with standing ovations and celebrities in the audience, McMorris Rodgers, Lee and Paul may have known they would have a tough act to follow with their response speeches.


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President Obama’s SOTU Address: Big Stage – Small Ideas

Barack ObamaPresident Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address, amounted to a rehash of a lot of old promises and offered little in terms of creative of new imaginative ideas. The President in recent days saying he has a phone and a pen and will act where he could however; despite the threat, President Obama will find the reality very different.

The constitutional constraints on his authority and lack of cooperation in Congress are a recipe for low-yield initiatives with limited reach. But limited executive actions, such as the ones he announced on Tuesday night, might be all government can bear to do in an election year when Congress’ balance of power is on the line.

The president renewed his call for Congress to increase the national minimum wage, to overhaul immigration laws, to broaden access to preschool education, to expand international trade. These were all features of his 2013 State of the Union address and remain unmet goals of his second term. This time Obama presented them as pieces of a larger whole, parts of an overarching opportunity agenda that acknowledges that even in a recovering economy, not all Americans are reaping the benefits.

“Let’s make this a year of action,” Obama declared, in what has become the rallying cry of his sixth year in office. “What I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class.”

But the new packaging can’t mask the hard slog Obama still faces in Congress. And his path might be obstructed not just by adversaries, but by allies as well.

Certainly Republicans, who control the House, can do much to thwart him on efforts such as immigration. House GOP leaders say they want to act on legislation this year, but conservative lawmakers have been mounting stiff opposition. Republicans also could initiate a showdown over increasing the nation’s borrowing authority later this month by insisting on spending cuts or rollbacks on the president’s health care law. Obama has vowed not to negotiate.

Obama’s call for Congress to raise the national minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour could be the type of initiative that serves Democrats more as an election-year issue than an accomplishment. Polls show that a majority of Americans support the increase, a finding Senate Democrats might seek to exploit by scheduling votes that are bound to fail as a way to illustrate Republican opposition.

Obama also is calling for an expansion of the earned-income tax credit, which helps boost the wages of low-income families through tax refunds. Some Republicans and conservative economists have also called for broadening the tax credit so it provides additional help to workers without children. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has even proposed replacing the tax credit with a federal wage supplement for certain low-paid workers. Unlike Obama, however, Republicans have suggested expanding the tax credit as an alternative to increasing the minimum wage. So which one will it be?

Obama has also been pressing for trade legislation, asking Congress for “fast track” authority that would allow him to more easily complete negotiations with Asia-Pacific nations and with the European Union. Republicans favour the trade agreements, but Obama has faced opposition from Democrats. On Monday, a broad coalition of groups typically associated with Democrats, including labour unions and environmental organisations, released a letter demanding Congress vote against Obama’s request.

Indeed, with Democratic control of the Senate at stake in the November election, Democrats will be eager to show voters contrasts between the two parties and won’t be in a mood to challenge some of their main constituent groups. As the year unfolds, Obama and Senate Democrats could face competing interests.

“The tricky piece in this is Senate (Democrats) and whether or not there will be a full alignment of what they think works for them going into 2014 and what works for him,” said Patrick Griffin, a Democratic lobbyist who handled legislative affairs in President Bill Clinton’s White House. “I’m not sure the Senate Democrats could care less whether they make a deal on anything.”

That gloomy prospect places the burden on Obama to act on his own.

“America does not stand still, and neither will I,” he declared.

But executive actions have their limits. They can’t assign new spending, their impact tends to be narrowly targeted, and they can be reversed by subsequent presidents.

In his showcase go-it-alone initiative of the night, Obama said he will increase the minimum wage for new federal contracts. But the increase won’t affect existing contract workers who may be working now below the minimum wage, and renewed contracts will only require the higher wage if other terms of the contract change. The order will cover those new contracts that take effect in the beginning of 2015.

Republicans fret that Obama might overstep his bounds. But on this one, House Speaker John Boehner was dismissively unimpressed:

“The question is, how many people, Mr. President, will this executive action actually help? I suspect the answer is somewhere close to zero.”

As is common with President Obama he now heads to Maryland and Pennsylvania for economic-themed events Wednesday after calling for 2014 to be “year of action” in his State of the Union speech. Thursday the president will travel to Wisconsin and Tennessee in an effort to sell his policy prescription directly to the public after the ceremonial report to the nation.


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President Obama to announce increase in Minimum Wage in State Of The Union Address

state_of_the_unionPresident Barack Obama will raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour for all new federal contract workers, the White House announced today.

The decision will be featured in his State of the Union address tonight and after he signs the executive order, it is expected to go into effect at the beginning of next year.

The increase from a national minimum wage of $7.25 an hour will not affect existing federal contracts, only new contracted workers like janitors and construction workers as well as workers in military bases who wash dishes, serve food and do laundry.

The order would be one of the biggest examples in the State of the Union of Obama’s vow to use presidential authority to push for policies by circumventing Congress.

Obama has been under pressure from liberal groups and employee advocates to use his executive authority to raise the minimum pay for federal contractors.

By limiting the increase to new contracts, the order would affect far fewer employees than if it applied to all government contractors.

Still, the issue dovetails with what will be Obama’s broader call for Congress to increase the national minimum wage to $10.10 and tie future increases to inflation. Obama called last year for an increase in the minimum wage to $9.

This year he is lending his support to legislation sponsored by Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Representative George Miller from California.

Their bill also would raise the minimum wage for tipped workers for the first time in more than two decades.

Increasing the wage for federal contractors does not require congressional action.

Republican Congressman Steve King, a six-term conservative and tea party favorite, said that Obama’s proposal is unconstitutional.

‘We have a minimum wage. Congress has set it. For the president to simply declare I’m going to change this law that has passed is unconstitutional,’ King said Tuesday.

The Tuesday night address will be wrapped in a unifying theme: The federal government can play a key role in increasing opportunities for Americans who have been left behind, unable to benefit from a recovering economy.

Yet, at the core of the address, the president will deliver a split message.

Even as he argues that low income Americans and many in the middle class lack the means to achieve upward mobility, Obama will also feel compelled to take credit for an economy that by many indicators is gaining strength under his watch.

As a result, he will talk positively about a recovery that remains elusive to many Americans.

Some Democrats are warning Obama to tread carefully.

‘We hope that he does not dwell on the successes of the economy, which may be apparent in employment statistics, the GDP and stock market gains, but which are not felt by folks at the grocery store,’ Democratic political analysts James Carville and Stan Greenberg wrote in a recent strategy memo.

The president will present Congress with an agenda largely unchanged from what he called for a year ago, but one that nevertheless fits neatly into this year’s economic opportunity theme.

He will continue to seek an overhaul of immigration laws, an increase in the minimum wage and expanded pre-school education.

But after a year in which those proposals languished and gun control failed, the White House is eager to avoid letting Obama be defined by quixotic ambitions.

As a result, he will stress success through executive actions, though their reach would be far more modest than what he could achieve through legislation.

‘It’s not a question of looking at Congress,’ White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said on Tuesday morning.

‘As we sit here and try to make sure there’s access to good jobs, we’re going to roll out on our own. Congress is slow to action and we’re not going to wait for that,’ he said in an interview on ‘CBS This Morning.’


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Netanyahu runs into trouble with his coalition partners

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem January 26, 2014. REUTERS/Ronen ZvulunIsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will insist that Jewish settlers in the West Bank have a right to remain under Palestinian rule in any future peace deal, a government official was quoted as saying on Sunday.

The apparent trial balloon, reported on the English-language Times of Israel website, drew a no-comment from a spokesman for Netanyahu and angry words from Naftali Bennett, a key pro-settlement partner in his governing coalition.

“The idea of Jewish settlements under Palestinian sovereignty is very dangerous and reflects an irrationality of values,” Bennett wrote on his Facebook page.

The Israeli report quoted an official in Netanyahu’s Office as saying he did not intend to uproot Jewish settlements anywhere in the West Bank, land that Palestinians seek for a state under U.S.-brokered peace talks showing few signs of progress since they resumed in July after a three-year break.

Netanyahu would “insist that settlers be given the free choice of remaining in place and living under Palestinian rule, or relocating to areas under Israeli sovereign rule,” the official was quoted as saying.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Friday, Netanyahu said he did not intend to uproot a single settler in a future Palestinian statehood agreement.

The Times of Israel quoted the unidentified official as saying Netanyahu’s idea of allowing settlers the option of staying in their homes under Palestinian rule fell under that pledge.

Some Israeli political commentators suggested the leak was aimed at heading off settler opposition to a framework deal, or as guidelines for a final peace agreement that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been trying to formulate.

Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party and an advocate of Israeli annexation of the West Bank, demanded in his Facebook post that Netanyahu “immediately refute this dangerous proposal.”

There was no immediate Palestinian reaction to the report.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has already balked at an Israeli demand to keep an Israeli troop presence in the Jordan Valley, an area likely to be the eastern border of a Palestinian state.

Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war. Palestinians seek to establish a state in those areas and fear that settlements, which most countries view as illegal and an obstacle to peacemaking, will deny them a viable country.

More than 500,000 Israeli settlers live among 2.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In 2005, Israel pulled its troops and settlers out the Gaza Strip, now controlled by Hamas Islamists opposed to the U.S.-brokered peace efforts.


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