Obama encouraged by Egypt ceasefire proposal for Mideast

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By Annika McGinnis

WASHINGTON, July 14 – (Reuters) – President Barack Obama said on Monday he was encouraged by Egypt’s proposal for a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians and sided with Israel against what he called “inexcusable attacks.”

Obama’s comments came as he presided over an annual Iftar dinner at the White House in celebration of the holy month of Ramadan.

In remarks to dinner guests, who included diplomats from the Arab and Muslim world, Obama said the U.S. goal continued to be peace and security for Israelis as well as Palestinians.

“Now I will say very clearly, no country can accept rockets fired indiscriminately at citizens. And so we’ve been very clear that Israel has the right to defend itself about what I consider inexcusable attacks from Hamas,” he said.

At the same time, he added: “The death and injury of Palestinians civilians is a tragedy, which is why we’ve emphasized the need to protect civilians regardless of who they are and where they live.”

Obama said the United States would do everything it could to bring about a return to a 2012 ceasefire between the parties.

“We are encouraged that Egypt has made a proposal to accomplish this goal which we hope can restore a calm that we’ve been seeking. More broadly, the situation in Gaza reminds us again that the status quo is unsustainable and the only path to true security is a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” he said.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the largest Arab-American organization in the United States, had urged Muslims to boycott the dinner to protest what the group called Obama’s condoning of the killing of Palestinians.

(Reporting by Annika McGinnis; Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Peter Cooney)

U.S. Senate Democrats’ Hobby Lobby bill fails to move forward

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By Annika McGinnis and Emily Stephenson

WASHINGTON, July 16 – (Reuters) – An attempt by U.S. Senate Democrats to override the Supreme Court’s controversial birth control ruling failed to muster enough votes to move forward on Wednesday, but lawmakers vowed to keep pressing the issue heading into the midterm elections.

Senators, including three Republicans, voted 56-43 for the bill, which would bar employers from discriminating against female employees in coverage of preventive health services, including contraception.

That was short of the 60-vote hurdle needed to move the bill forward. But Senate Democratic leaders promised to bring the contraception issue up again.

“Women across the country today watched as all but three Republicans showed they care more about protecting the rights of CEOs and corporations than about protecting the rights of women to access critical healthcare coverage,” Senator Patty Murray of Washington, one of the bill’s sponsors, said at a news conference.

The Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 decision on June 30 allowed corporations held by a family or a small number of people to forgo for religious reasons requirements in President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare reform law that employers’ health plans cover birth control.

The court’s male justices sided with retail arts and crafts supplier Hobby Lobby, whose owners objected to providing employees certain methods of contraception that the owners considered forms of abortion.

Murray and Senator Mark Udall of Colorado responded last week with the bill to override that decision. Forty-four other Democrats signed on as co-sponsors, and it was endorsed by medical groups such as the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Democrats in the House of Representatives have a companion bill that stands little chance of passage in the Republican-controlled body.

“We are going to keep working on this until we get it done,” Murray told Reuters on Tuesday. “This is the right thing to do. We’re going to fix this policy.”

“This is far from over,” Udall said after the vote.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Senate would vote on the issue again this year.

MIDTERM ISSUE

Political observers said all along that Senate Democrats could not garner the Republican support needed to reach 60 votes. Instead, they had their eye on November elections.

“This will be a huge motivator for women in the fall and a liability for Republican candidates up and down the map,” said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Roughly one-third of the seats in the Senate and the entire House of Representatives are in play. Democrats face a tough battle to hang onto their majority in the Senate.

In 2012, Democrats hung onto some seats by painting Republicans as anti-women, after several candidates made remarks about rape and other issues that were seen as insensitive.

North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan, a Democrat who faces one of the toughest re-election contests this year against Republican state lawmaker Thom Tillis, has made the issue a key part of her campaign, spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said.

“Kay’s excited to know that women are backing her and are spending time volunteering, knocking on doors,” Weiner said. “It’s certainly drawn attention and put it on the radar of North Carolina women that there is a contrast in this race when it comes to access to contraception.”

Senate Republicans have announced their own post-Hobby Lobby bill to ensure employers could not block their employees from obtaining birth control.

Republican Senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Orrin Hatch of Utah said before Wednesday’s vote that the Hobby Lobby ruling was about constitutional religious freedoms, not women’s rights.

Hatch told Reuters he was not worried the bill would persuade women to vote for Democrats in November.

“I think there are a lot of very intelligent women out there who know this is a political game, and it shouldn’t have an effect,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Jonathan Oatis)

Reuters.com original story 

U.S. House panel votes to authorize lawsuit against Obama

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(Reuters) – Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday took another step toward authorizing a lawsuit against President Barack Obama, claiming he has overstepped his executive powers in carrying out his landmark healthcare reform law.

In a partisan vote of 7-4, the House Rules Committee approved the legislation, likely setting it up for consideration by the full House next week. The Republican initiative already has spawned a bitter debate with Democrats less than four months before mid-term elections that will determine the political control of Congress next year.

Any lawsuit likely would take years to wind through federal courts.

While the lawsuit would focus on Obamacare, Republicans have complained bitterly about the president’s actions on several issues.

For example, House Speaker John Boehner wrote in June that Obama’s use of executive orders, including raising the minimum wage for federal contractors and stopping deportations of undocumented youths brought to the United States by their parents, risked giving him a “king-like authority.”

But Boehner has tamped down calls from some fellow Republicans for impeachment proceedings against Obama, which would be a first step toward removing him from office.

House Republicans in 1998 spearheaded a successful drive to impeach President Bill Clinton, also a Democrat. Clinton served out his second term, however, after the Senate acquitted him of both articles of impeachment involving perjury and obstruction of justice related to a sexual affair he had with intern Monica Lewinsky.

The episode damaged Republicans politically.

The lawsuit, if approved by the full House, would focus on Obama’s implementation of his landmark healthcare law, known as “Obamacare,” which Republicans have been trying to repeal for years. Republicans claim Obama went beyond his legal authority and bypassed Congress when he delayed some healthcare coverage mandates and granted various waivers.

But Democrats have decried the suit as an election-year political stunt and a waste of time and money. “It’s shameful. It’s embarrassing and even the amount of time we’re spending up here in this office talking about it adds to the fact that the American people are disgusted and have no faith in us to do anything,” said Representative Louise Slaughter, the senior Democrat on the Rules Committee.

In a tense hearing that deteriorated into name-calling and bickering over unrelated matters, from the administration’s response to the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, to a highway funding bill, Democrats demanded to know how much the suit would cost taxpayers and which congressional accounts would see cuts to pay for it.

Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, a Republican from Texas, said funds would come from the House’s Office of General Counsel. He said he anticipated the suit would not require any extra appropriations, but if needed, the Appropriations Committee could transfer money from other House accounts.

The committee’s Republican majority struck down amendment after amendment offered by Democrats, including one ensuring lawyers with a conflict of interest could not be involved in the lawsuit and another that would trade some Democratic support for the suit for a House vote on immigration reform.

(Editing by Doina Chiacu, Richard Cowan and Diane Craft)

Reuters.com original story 

Trading power lunches for canned tuna in U.S. minimum wage bid

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By Annika McGinnis

WASHINGTON, July 25 – (Reuters) – It was 4:25 p.m. and all Representative Tim Ryan had eaten so far were the few peanuts he foraged in a U.S. Capitol cloakroom.

His congressional salary is $174,000. But on Thursday, the six-term Ohio Democrat couldn’t afford lunch.

In a Congress thick with millionaires, Ryan and three other Democratic representatives are trying to live on the budget of a minimum wage worker this week in an effort to stir up attention to raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

Congressional Republicans have blocked the Democratic initiative, claiming it would kill jobs – a contention that is a topic of hot debate among politicians and economists.

With Congress winding down for the year and members mostly campaigning for re-election, this “week-in-the-life” stunt is more a push for votes in November’s races than for lawmakers’ votes on minimum wage legislation in 2014.

The federal minimum wage has remained at $7.25 for five years, despite inflation, putting millions of people who work at fast-food restaurants and do other entry-level jobs below the poverty line.

So this week, the four lawmakers are living on just $77: a minimum wage worker’s average weekly budget for food, transportation, medical costs and entertainment after paying for housing and taxes.

On Wednesday afternoon, Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois struggled to open a can of tuna fish in her airy apartment in a tree-lined Capitol Hill neighborhood.

She’s lived there for 16 years, but says she “rarely” cooks – most of the time she and her husband dine at restaurants or order carry-out food.

“Lee, you can open this can for me,” the congresswoman told a staffer after several unsuccessful minutes. She was making tuna salad with boiled eggs and onion.

“I think I put too much onion in,” the longtime congresswoman said. But the onions were cheap: just 86 cents.

On her minimum-wage budget, Schakowsky can’t afford to pick up her laundry from the cleaners. She’s concerned about the $14.50 she’ll spend on gasoline driving to her granddaughter’s birthday party and even the 49 cents to mail her grandson a postcard at summer camp.

When she had friends over for dinner on Thursday, Schakowsky and her husband ate chicken and broccoli while the “guests” brought their own Thai takeout.

She said her dog, Lucky, definitely won’t be getting any steak this week.

Schakowsky, who takes medication for high blood pressure, warily eyed the nutrition labels on her packages of low-cost Rice-A-Roni and ramen noodles: 28 percent and 38 percent of recommended daily sodium intake, respectively.

On Thursday morning, Ryan was hit with a $24 prescription bill for his newborn baby – about 15 percent of his budget for himself, the baby, his wife and two stepchildren.

Ryan did not make it through a similar “Food Stamp Challenge” in 2007 after airport security agents threw away his peanut butter and jelly jars.

He said he is participating to “illuminate” moments many take for granted, especially in Washington, where politicians’ and lobbyists’ salaries are way above the national norm.

Representatives Barbara Lee of California and Keith Ellison of Minnesota joined Ryan and Schakowsky in the week-long experiment.

Polls show that more than 60 percent of Americans support raising the minimum wage, and several states have upped their own minimum wage in recent months, including Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maryland and Michigan.

Republicans, hoping to broaden their voter appeal, have produced their own poverty-fighting plan: On Thursday, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan advocated expanding the earned-income tax credit to include single earners.

As the four Democrats struggle to get through mornings without their Starbucks coffee, they kept their sights on the long-haul fight for a minimum wage increase.

“I hope the 64,000 workers in my district recognize that they need to be registered to vote and active for politics,” Ryan said. “We need their political support if we are to get this done.”

(Editing by Leslie Adler)

Reuters.com original story 

Republican efforts to rein in Washington on pot, guns draw protests

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By Annika McGinnis

WASHINGTON, Aug. 21 – (Reuters) – Efforts by congressional Republicans to block new laws in Washington, D.C., decriminalizing marijuana possession and tightening restrictions on guns have provoked a summer tempest between residents of the capital and U.S. lawmakers.

The District of Columbia’s non-voting representative in the House, Eleanor Holmes Norton and its residents are taking on Maryland Representative Andrew Harris, who is attempting to overturn a law that took effect last month making possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil, rather than criminal, offense. They also are focusing on Kentucky Representative Thomas Massie, who wants to cut off funding to enforce a ban on assault weapons in the city.

“No red-blooded American would take what these members have tried to do to this city,” Norton said in a July 25 speech on the House floor, adding that residents of the liberal-leaning district were being treated as second-class citizens.

A 1973 law gave Washington an elected mayor and council and the city has had a non-voting House delegate since 1971. But Congress, which has constitutional oversight over the district, still must approve its laws and budget.

Harris and Massie’s moves to block district laws through riders to a budget bill were an attempt to limit the autonomy of the city of 646,449 people, Norton said.

Massie’s budget amendment struck funding to enforce the ban on assault weapons, as well as a rule forbidding the private sale of guns without background checks. About a week after his amendment passed on July 16, a federal judge also ruled unconstitutional the district’s ban on carrying handguns outside the home.

The district was once known as the U.S. murder capital but in recent years the homicide rate has fallen to 50-year lows.

Massie said he did not believe “home rule means that you get to violate somebody’s rights, basic civil rights” regarding guns.

Harris said he wants to safeguard children’s health from the “devastating effects” of marijuana and that Congress was authorized “to stop irresponsible actions by local officials.”

Although Washington voters ratified an act last year to release the city from congressional budget approval, a U.S. District Court ruled in May that only Congress could take that step.

Last month, a Senate Appropriations subcommittee proposed a district budget bill including self-rule for its laws and budget. President Barack Obama gave residents hope when he said last month he supported the idea of statehood for Washington but he conceded it was politically unlikely.

The fate of the gun and marijuana laws likely will be decided in compromise talks over the House and Senate versions of the bill in September.

Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, said the city council should be able to make its own decisions.

“I have long resented the fact that some lawmakers treat D.C. like a colony,” Schakowsky said.

In July a group of residents stormed Harris’ office to complain about more mundane district issues – potholes, an outdated sewer system and the need for more health clinics.

Residents met in small groups with Harris’ chief of staff.

“If you’re saying we’re your constituents, then start helping our city,” resident Barbara Helmick said. “We wish you cared just as much about potholes as you do about pot.”

(Reporting by Annika McGinnis; Additional reporting by Moriah Costa; Editing by Scott Malone and Bill Trott)

U.S. nutrition program for mothers, infants sees falling demand

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By Annika McGinnis

WASHINGTON, Sept. 19 – (Reuters) – A government nutrition program for pregnant mothers and small children has not kept pace with technology and U.S. poverty experts say its paper voucher system is driving low-income women away from the program when they need it most.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, has seen a sharp drop in participation since 2010, unlike food stamps and other anti-poverty programs that ballooned during the 2007-9 recession and the economic recovery that followed, government figures show.

“WIC providers are tearing their hair, beating their chests, ‘what are they doing wrong?'” said Laurie True, California WIC Association director.

Poverty experts say the shrinking demand does not reflect less need. They are pushing for faster changes to an outdated, cumbersome distribution process they say stigmatizes recipients.

Participants complain of customers “shaming” them in grocery lines, said Sarah Monje, California’s Native American Health Center WIC director.

“I can feel the aura: ‘Oh my god, this girl is taking forever,'” said WIC recipient Marquel Davis of Austin, Texas.

With a generation of Americans “used to getting everything on their smartphones,” True said, WIC is still “stuck in the hands-on experience.”

“That doesn’t make the program as attractive to people who may be on the border lines, the working poor and very busy – most of our participants work at least one job,” she said.

Congress mandated in 2010 that WIC switch to electronic benefit cards by 2020. All but nine U.S. states still rely on paper vouchers that program directors say hold up grocery-store lines and embarrass mothers.

Davis, 26, said it was a hassle trying to redeem her WIC checks before Texas switched to an electronic system several years ago. The program pays only for specified foods sold in certain quantities.

“You’ve got to separate [your groceries] and make sure it’s the right one, right size, and on top of that, you got to sign and they got to initial,” Davis said. “It’s just hectic, especially if you have a kid shopping with you and you’re trying to get home.”

WIC gives low-income pregnant, post-partum or breastfeeding women and kids up to age five vouchers worth about $43 each month for formula and healthy foods that adhere to federal nutrition requirements, such as limiting added sugar in yogurt and mandating that bread include whole wheat flour.

The program requires recipients to attend classes on eating well and breastfeeding.

Though WIC grew fairly steadily since its inception in 1972, U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows it shrank 10.6 percent between fiscal year 2010 and May 2014.

Staff members “don’t have a sense of declining need in their communities,” said analyst Zoe Neuberger of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a poverty-focused think tank.

Participants dropped from 9.2 million to 8.2 million from 2010 to May, decreasing in every state and the District of Columbia, according to USDA. In Georgia, caseload plummeted 46 percent since 2009.

Conversely, food stamp enrollment skyrocketed from 28.2 million in 2008 to 47.6 million in 2013 under expansions in President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus package, though it fell to 46.2 million in May after benefits expired last November.

But the smaller, more targeted WIC started shrinking years earlier and to a greater extent relative to enrollment, USDA data shows.

SOCIAL STIGMA

The social stigma, always a factor for some people, was accentuated by a distribution system largely unchanged in four decades, directors said.

Many women have switched to food stamps, which use a debit-like card but lack such WIC benefits as affording expensive baby formula, feeding children healthier food and learning workplace breastfeeding rights, directors said.

Being required to attend WIC advising sessions every one to three months can be a problem for low-income workers.

Those include illegal immigrants, who may be deterred over fear of an immigration crackdown, New York-based nonprofit Community Food Advocates co-founder Agnes Molnar said. The WIC program does not require proof of citizenship, though state or tribal residency is required.

Michael Osur, who runs 18 WIC clinics in southern California’s Riverside County, saw an almost 40 percent drop in the percentage of people requesting materials in Spanish from 2007 to 2013.

Lingering effects from last October’s government shutdown, when clinics shuttered or scraped by on reserve funds, also hurt WIC, National WIC Association CEO Douglas Greenaway said.

If caseload continues to drop, Congress will cut funding and clinics will close, consolidate and limit overtime and weekend services, True said.

In California, Osur was opening mobile neighborhood clinics, insisting many women were neglecting critical help.

“I think the need is there,” he said. “We’ve just got to find a way to reach them.”

(Reporting by Annika McGinnis; Editing by Caren Bohan and Doina Chiacu)

Reuters.com original story