Repubs Fight Obamacare, Botched Executions, Firing Squads, Obama Limits Business Mergers, Failed VA Reform and the End of a Dream

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According to federal data released Wednesday to ProPublica, nearly one million transactions on the federal exchange have occurred following more than 5 million people who signed up using Healthcare.gov before April 19, the end of the open enrollment period, according to Charles Ornstein, Obamacare Website Getting So Much Traffic It’s Surprising Experts. All told, between federal exchange and 14 state exchanges, more than 8 million signed up fro coverage. The data covers the 36 states using the exchange including Texas, Florida, Illinois, Georgia and Michigan. Charles Gaba, who runs the site acasignups.net tracks enrollment numbers estimating that between 6,000 and 7,000 people sign up for coverage reach day on the exchange after the official enrollment period ended. About 86 percent of those sign ups are eligible for government subsidies to help lower their monthly payments, whole those subsidies are being challenge by lawsuits in federal court contenting that they aren’t allowed by the Affordable Care Act. Two federal appeals courts came to conflicting decisions Tuesday on the permissibility of subsidies with one saying no and one saying yes. The Obama administration said they will remain in effect as the cases proceed in court. The next time that the general public can sign up fro coverage through the exchanges is November 15 to February 15, 2015. On Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters: “You know, the discussions about Obamacare and what the replacement bill would look like continue. We’re trying to build consensus around one plan. Not there yet.” According to Igor Bobic, Don’t Worry, Republicans Are Still Working On A Plan To Replace Obamacare, the remarks were made following an April decision by the party to delay a promised alternative to the exchange. However, Boehner is intent on keeping his focus on Obamacare by trying to sue the Obama administration for failing to implement a portion of the law in a timely manner.

While healthcare seems to continue to be a hot button issue, another issue has taken the spotlight recently due to botched executions. An influential federal appeal court judge on Thursday said that the nation’s third botched lethal injection in six months reinforces his call to bring back firing squads, according to the Associated Press, Judge argues for return of firing squad executions. Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th U.S. circuit Court of Appeals, said lethal injection was a dishonest way to disguise the brutal nature of capital punishment, the AP reported. Kozinski wrote unfavorably about lethal injection in his decision Monday and while arguing against delaying the execution of Joseph Rudolph Wood III in Phoenix, who gasped for more than 90 minutes for breath taking nearly two hours to die Wednesday. According to Kozinski, a properly trained firing squad would be foolproof and quick in executing an inmate and avoid complications surrounding lethal injection. He told the AP: “I’ve always thought executions should be executions not medical procedures.” Kozinski said he supports capital punishment but states and federal government should stop lethal injections for a foolproof plan such as firing squads or the guillotine, however, he doubted that the public would accept the latter form.

From botched executions to bad business practices, President Obama is addressing misgivings about tax driven overseas mergers of U.S. corporations by issuing a new call to end the practice now and questions the patriotism and citizenship of those companies, the Associated Press explains, Obama wants limits on US company mergers abroad. The push comes as many companies try to reorganize with foreign entities partly to reduce their tax payments to the U.S. Though Obama did include a proposal to rein in such mergers and acquisitions in his 2015 budget, his administration brought more attention to these transactions last week with a letter from Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew to House and Senate leaders saying such deals known as inversion “hollow out the U.S. corporate income tax base.” Obama is urging Congress to enact legislation retroactive to May in order to stop companies from rushing into deals to avoid the law. However, Republicans and some Democrats prefer to make these changes as part of a comprehensive overhaul of corporate tax code that would also lower corporate tax rates and reduce incentives for companies to seek out countries with lower taxes. Administration officials estimate the deals if continued will cost the U.S. Treasury $17 billion in lost revenue over the next decade. Lew in the letter said: “We should not be providing support for corporations that seek to shift their profits overseas to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.”

Meanwhile, while the tax code has failed to regulate the way it should, the VA continues to suffer from fallout of scandals and Congress failing to do its part. In an interview Wednesday night with Larry King, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) criticized President Obama for underestimating the Republican opposition causing them to spin their wheels waiting for a legislative compromise. Sam Stein reports,
How VA Reform Fell Apart In Less Than 4 Days, on Thursday Sanders told reporters he may have also been victimized by the oppositions, announcing that after weeks of negotiations with House Affairs Committee Chair Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) over reform legislation aimed at the Department of Veterans Affairs and his Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that negotiations have ground to a halt. The two men spoke on Monday for an hour via phone conference with acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson on the costs of the VA reform bill that the Congressional Budget Office valued at $50 billion for the Senate bill and $54 billion for the House bill. The money was meant to allow vets without a VA facility the option of going outside the system for medical treatment, however, the discussion moved to funding needed to repair facilities, build new ones, hire personnel and update records systems totaling $17.6 billion according to Gibson. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he was worried on Tuesday that VA reform would not get done before the recess in August. Sanders said that Gibsons request can be reduced and the cost for veterans to find care outside the VA could be lowered as well in an effort to find middle ground. However, Sanders and miller have not talked again since their Monday phone call. On Wednesday, Sanders upped the public pressure by going to the Senate floor to warn about the possibility of Congress leaving for recess without solving the issue that lawmakers deem a must fix crisis followed by a press conference to brief reporters. On Wednesday, Jessica Eggimann, Chief clerk of Miller’s committee, sent an email to a top staffer on Sanders’ committee, asking her to forward the notice that Miller was hosting an open conference committee meeting the next day to discuss the legislation. However, Sanders’ office took the move as inconsiderate and a political stunt. The worst offense for Democrats was a line asking Sanders to join Miller in convening a conference on July 28 “for a formal vote on this proposal.” Sanders organized a press conference with fellow Senate Democrats criticizing Miller for demanding a vote on a proposal that did not adhere to the outlines of earlier discussion, according to an aide. A Senate Democratic aide said that by ratcheting up the politics of VA reform, the party increased the possibility of passage. By the end of the day Thursday, both Sanders and Miller paved the way to restart talks saying that they would work through the weekend to finalize a deal.

Meanwhile, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Thursday demanded in a statement that the Obama administration needed to “wind down” a policy helping more than 550,000 undocumented workers who came to the U.S. as children which could restart deportation of young people who lived here for years. Elise Foley reports, Marco Rubio: End Relief For Dreamers, Rubio’s statement outlined suggestions to deal with the crisis of more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors who cross the U.S. border illegally since October. According to the statement, Rubio believes: “Because the recent wave from Central America spiked after DACA was announced, it is in our interest to wind down this program. If you are not currently in it, you should not be eligible for it.” New immigrants aren’t eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the Obama administration policy that allows undocumented immigrants called Dreamers who enter the country as children before June 15, 2007 to apply for temporary authorization to stay and work legally. Most Republicans have opposed the policy since its introduction in 2012, but the GOP’s calls to end the policy have gotten louder. All 24 Republican House members and both senators in the Texas congressional delegation sent a letter to Obama on Thursday calling for suspension of efforts to expand deportation relief. The letter reads: “Your Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Executive Order has shielded over half a million illegal immigrants from current law. And it has sent the regrettable message that illegal immigration will not be punished in the United States.” Last month, according to Foley, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) was joined by 32 House Republicans calling for Obama to end DACA and in a letter Issa accused Obama of selectively enforcing the law. The letter reads: “DACA rewards families and individuals who have broken our laws, further encouraging others to seek similar benefits.” Lawmakers have been vague about what to do with these undocumented young people who are eligible for DACA. Cruz’s bill would apply to future relief, while Rubio said relief should not be given out in the future meaning current DACA recipients could keep their temporary status. However, ending the policy could mean that undocumented young people could risk deportation and those current under the policy would eventually have to reapply. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) explained earlier this month that if the administration ends DACA and similar policies protecting Dreamers from deportation: “They should not be under a process created that the president doesn’t have the authority to do, and they would be in the status that they were in prior to this program being established.”

White House and Congress: The Great Economic Divide

On Friday, Vice President Joe Biden called for Republican and Democratic governors to lead the nation out of the mess that has crippled Washington and insist that Congress approve billions of dollars to repair the country’s aging infrastructure. The Associate Press reports (Vice President Joe Biden calls on governors to lead nation), during a meeting of the National Governors Association, Biden explained: “The way things have gotten today, and I’m not singling out any party or any group of people – the politics, the culture in Washington, it’s become too personal, it’s too corrosive. I think you’ve got to lead us out of this mess we’re in.” The three day conference held this year in Nashville gathers state leaders from both parties to collaborate despite partisan differences on immigration, health care and education. Even with the bipartisan tone, many governors face midterm election in a season where the balance of power in the statehouses could potentially be decided and ending some presidential campaigns before they begin. Biden, a potential presidential contender himself, said the political climate in Washington was less divisive when he began serving in the Senate three decades ago at a time when white segregationists served openly in Congress. In addition, he said Republicans and Democrats have long agreed on the need to reinvest in the nation’s infrastructure and workforce development, however the current climate even with needed spending has been bogged down by politics. The main concern for governors right now is the deadline for Congress to pay for the federal Highway Trust Fund that allows states to maintain their transportation infrastructure. While a short term bill will most likely pass in Congress, governors want a long term plan. Unfortunately, many governors are reluctant to give any suggestion on how to fund their infrastructure in the long term. As for right now, fuel taxes are the main revenue source, but they have not been raised in 21 years and aren’t keeping pace with spending. In addition, the bipartisan Senate proposal to increase the federal gas tax has failed. It is hard to say whether infrastructure issues will play a role in the coming elections, although Washington’s struggles with what was long a bipartisan issues is emblematic of voters’ overall view of Congress, which as the Associate Press puts it is at an all time low.

Meanwhile back in Washington, the Treasury Department on Friday said the June surplus totaled $71 billion, following a $130 billion deficit in May, putting it on course to record the lowest annual deficit since 2008. The Associate Press reports that the government also ran a surplus in June 2013 due in part to dividends from Fannie Mae, the mortgage giant under federal conservatorship for the past six years. For the first nine months of this budget year, the deficit totals $366 billion, down 28 percent from the same period last year 2013, while tax receipts are up 8 percent compared to the prior year and spending increased 1 percent. The Congressional Budget Office is forecasting a deficit of $492 billion for the full budget year ending Sept. 30.

While strides are being made to cut the deficit, Congress still struggles to get their act together. On Friday, as Michael McAuliff reports, House Votes For Tax Breaks To Add $287 Billion More To Deficit, the GOP led House of Representatives voted to make a former stimulus measure permanent along with another related tax cut adding $287 billion to the deficit over the next 10 year. The largest part worth $263 billion is making permanent so called bonus depreciation which allows businesses to write off the cost of capital investments and improvements much quicker. The stimulus was used twice during the Bush Administration and expired last year. The idea is that if lawmakers give businesses a break during tough times then they will speed up major equipment purchases and stimulate the economy. Those who support it believe it would allow business to plan their investments, while opponents mock the idea stating that the Congressional Research Service reports found the break to be a weak stimulus and the stimulus effect will likely fall further if it becomes permanent. According to Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), a member of the Ways and Means Committee: “Even as a stimulus, the analysis shows that for every dollar that is invested we get 20 cents of growth.  A fellow could go bankrupt with that kind of economics, and that’s exactly what they would have the country doing and not meeting its other needs while funding something that doesn’t work.” In addition, Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) added: “Yesterday, the Ways and Means Committee was working on a markup of legislation for another short-term extension of the highway trust fund — you know, the transportation infrastructure investment we desperately need in this country. We were scratching and clawing to try to find an additional $10 billion over the next 10 months to try to keep some of these projects moving forward, and yet here today, we have another permanent change to the tax code at a cost of $287 billion over the next 10 years and not a nickel of it paid for.” Kind noted that his committee passed 14 permanent tax cut bills at a cost of $900 billion. Unfortunately, Friday’s full house vote allowed for two thirds of the committee’s cuts to pass. Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio), the sponsor of the cuts, said that bonus depreciation has been going on since 2002 off and on without being paid for, so it might as well be permanent. He added, “Bad policy. Even though we are giving for the first time certainty, predictability to people who actually create jobs in America, who must have a business plan and must make those big purchases. Amazing.” The White House has threatened to veto the bill along with permanent cuts and additionally the Senate will weight the cuts, but only plan for short term extensions.

While Congress and the White House try to find common ground, three of the world’s richest men are calling for Congress to pass legislation to overhaul the immigration system and provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Igor Bobic article, Sheldon Adelson, Warren Buffett, And Bill Gates Chastise House GOP On Immigration, explains the Casino magnate and conservative donor Sheldon Adselson along with Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett and former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates criticized the House Republicans for their failure to address the current policy. In a New York Times op-ed piece published Thursday, they wrote: “Whatever the precise provisions of a law, it’s time for the House to draft and pass a bill that reflects both our country’s humanity and its self-interest.” However, the chance of any immigration reform bill moving through the House is unlikely with the unwillingness of conservative members and Speaker John Boehner to bring to the floor without overwhelming support from his caucus. Despite the obstacles, Bobic reports the three men are unphased urging Republicans to listen to reason. They added: “A Congress that does nothing about these problems is extending an irrational policy by default; that is, if lawmakers don’t act to change it, it stays the way it is, irrational. The current stalemate — in which greater pride is attached to thwarting the opposition than to advancing the nation’s interests — is depressing to most Americans and virtually all of its business managers. The impasse certainly depresses the three of us…Signs of a more productive attitude in Washington — which passage of a well-designed immigration bill would provide — might well lift spirits and thereby stimulate the economy. It’s time for 535 of America’s citizens to remember what they owe to the 318 million who employ them.”

The Human Cost of Conflicts and Wars

On Friday, protestors stood outside the Israeli Embassy in Ankara holding Palestinian flags to protest against the attacks on Gaza by Israel who allege the attacks are in response to rocket fire from Gaza. According to the Associated Press, Israel strikes mosque as death toll tops 120, the UN’s human rights office said that Israel could be violating the laws of war by bombing Palestinian homes in Gaza where the death toll from Israeli strikes have risen to 100. Israel has alleged that the Islamic group Hamas and other Palestinian militants deliberately placed military installations in populated areas of Gaza as part of its defense by using civilians as human shields. Palestinian Officials on Saturday reported that the death toll has now reached 120 after an Israeli airstrikes targeting Hamas in Gaza hit a mosque and a center for the disabled killing two women. In response, the Israeli military alleged the mosque concealed rockets similar to the ones used during the five day offensive and is looking into claims that other sites were hit. The problem no facing Israel is how to orchestrate a ground invasion in the region with such a densely populated Gaza Strip  and immense danger to civilians.

While there are no fatalities reported in Israel from rocket fire, Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Kidra confirmed the death toll from Israeli strikes at over 120 and more than 920 wounded. Though the breakdown of casualties is not clear and Hamas militants have been hit hard, dozens of the dead are civilians. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Saturday that the Israeli people should prepare for several more days of fighting making it clear that the offensive shows no signs of ceasing anytime soon. Hamas said Israel struck a pair of mosques in its offensive, however, the claim along with Israel’s claim could not be confirmed. A Hamas spokesman in Doha, Qatar, had this to say: “The bombing of two mosques in Gaza overnight shows how barbaric this enemy is and how much is it hostile to Islam. This terrorism gives us the right to broaden our response to deter this occupier.” The Israeli military released an aerial photo of the mosque it struck stating Hamas hid rockets next to another religious site and civilian homes. In addition, they said Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Gaza militant groups regularly use this tactic to endanger its own civilians. Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman explains,”Hamas terrorists systematically exploit and choose to put Palestinians in Gaza in harm’s way and continue to locate their positions among civilian areas and mosques, proving once more their disregard for human life and holy sites.”

Israel’s military, the Associate Press reports, has struck more than 1,100 targets including rocket launchers, command centers and weapons manufacturing and storage facilities, while Gaza officials said the strikes, in addition to hitting the home for the disabled and the mosques, have hit affiliated charities and banks. The “Iron Dome,” a U.S. funded, Israeli developed rocket defense system, has intercepted more than a 130 rockets from Gaza preventing any fatalities and only a handful of Israelis have been wounded. As a precaution, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv has relocated personnel to Beersheba. The frequent rocket fire, particularly in southern communities, has disrupted daily life with most people staying indoors, television channels airing non-stop coverage of the violence and radio broadcasts being interrupted by air raid siren warnings. Meanwhile, at the border of Gaza and Israel, Israel has massed thousands of troops along the border in preparation for a possible ground invasion.

However, recently, Israel has come under international pressure to halt its offensive due to the growing casualties in Gaza, the Associate Press reports. With the United States and Europeans leaders defending Israel’s actions, the United Nations has expressed its concern over civilian deaths in Gaza and anti-Israel protests in Europe. In the West Bank, Hamas supporters clashed with Israeli troops over the Gaza offensive. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has requested an emergency meeting with the Arab League and Arab foreign ministers that will happen in Cairo Monday to discuss the continued offensive and measures to urge the international community to pressure Israel. In New York, the United Nations Security Council called unanimously for a ceasefire, even though there are no signs of stopping from Israel nor Gaza.

Even with international pressures for a cease fire, Israel has widened its range of targets to civilian institution with alleged Hamas ties and deployed troops inside Gaza early on Sunday to raid a rocket launching site, according to Khaled Khazziha and Mohammed Daraghmeh, Israel troops briefly raid Gaza as offensive rages. The death toll now stands at more than 156 Palestinians killed. Four Israeli soldiers were hurt during the brief incursion to destroy rocket sites in norther Gaza, but returned to Israeli territory the military confirmed. Even though this was the first time Israeli ground troops entered Gaza in the current offensive, the military did say the operation was carried out by special forces and was not the beginning of a broad ground invasion. In a move to broaden the conflict, Israel fired into Lebanon late Saturday in response to two rockets fired into norther Israel. No injuries or damages reported, however Israel fears Lebanese militant groups may try to open a second front.

Critics say Israel’s heavy bombardment of one of the most densely populated territories in the world is itself the main factor putting civilians at risk. Sarit Michaeli of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said that while using human shields violates international humanitarian law, “this does not give Israel the excuse to violate international humanitarian law as well.”But Michaeli said civilians have been killed when Israel bombed homes of Hamas militants or when residents were unable to leave their homes quickly enough following Israeli warnings.At the United Nations, a Security Council statement approved by all 15 members called for de-escalation of the violence, restoration of calm, and a resumption of direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians aimed at achieving a comprehensive peace agreement based on a two-state solution.The statement also called for “the re-institution of the November 2012 cease-fire,” which was brokered by Egypt, but gives no time frame for when it should take effect.

While Israel faces international criticism for his possible human right’s violations, on Saturday, the Human Rights Watch alleges that Iraqi security forces and government affiliated militias have unlawfully executed 255 prisoners over the past month in apparent revenge for killings by Islamic State fighters. According to Reuters’ Stephen Addison, Iraqi Forces Executed 255 Prisoners: Human Rights Watch, the group claims the killings took place in six Iraqi towns and villages since June 9 and at least eight of the dead are under 18. On the groups website, the groups says that the killing took place while the Iraqi forces were fleeing from Islamic State militants and other armed groups. In addition, most of the security forces and militias are Shiite, while the murdered prisoners were Sunni. HRW said,”The mass extrajudicial killings may be evidence of war crimes or crimes against humanity, and appear to be revenge killings for atrocities by (Islamic State).” The Islamic State was formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The militants have never hid the face that mass executions of their prisoners occurred. Days after they began sweeping through norther cities last month, they released videos showing their masked fighters machine gunning captive government soldiers in shallow graves, Addison reports. In addition, Addison states, “HRW said it has statements from witnesses, security forces and government officials indicating Iraqi soldiers or police, pro-government Shi’ite militias, or combinations of the three had extrajudicially executed prisoners, in nearly all cases by shooting them….(HRW) has documented five of Sunni prisoners between June 9 and 21 in Mosul and Tal Afar in northern Nineveh province, in Baaquba and Jumarkhe in eastern Diyala province, and in Rawa in western Anbar province. It said residents and activists those areas believed Iraqi security forces and militias killed Sunni prisoners released by Islamic State, to stop them joining the rebellion and in revenge for the killings of government troops.” Joe Stork, HRW deputy Middle East director believes the actions of the government are “an outrageous violation of international law” adding that “While the world rightly denounces the atrocious acts of (Islamic State), it should not turn a blind eye to sectarian killing sprees by government and pro-government forces.”

On Saturday, the same day that Israel and Iraq had accusations of human right’s violations and international law, Ukrainian war planes attacked separatists along the broad front causing huge losses according to Kiev, after President Petro Poroshenko said that many will pay for a deadly missile attack on Ukrainian forces. According to Richard Balmforth and Natalia Zinets, Ukrainian Fighter Jets Pound Rebels, a military spokesman confirmed that jets struck at the epicenter of the battle against the rebels near the Russian border. The planes targeted positions where high powered Grad missiles were fired by separatists on an army motorized brigade that killed 23 servicemen Friday. The warplanes also struck near Donetsk, the east’s main town where rebels have dug in, destroying a powerful fighter base near Dzerzhinsk, a spokesman for the anti-terrorist operation, Andriy Lysenko, said. Lysenko told reporters, “According to preliminary assessment, Ukrainian pilots … killed about 500 (rebel) fighters and damaged two armored transporters.” In addition, an earlier attack on a base near Perevalsk, two tanks, 10 armored vehicles and 500 rebel fighters were destroyed. However, Luhansk based separatists, referring to the Peravalsk attack, said,”There were no volunteers (rebels) where the Ukrainian aviation was active yesterday.” So far, Lysenko reports, during Friday evening and throughout Saturday, five Ukrainian servicemen were killed and 16 overflights by Ukrainian fighter jets have taken place.

The increasing violence require now more than ever a need for diplomacy to end the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War. Since the ousting of the Moscow backed president in February and the annexation of Crimea by Russia, more than 200 Ukrainian servicemen have died and hundreds of civilians and rebels have died also. The United States and the EU have brought sanctions against Russian businesses as Ukrainian government claims Moscow has aided in the conflict and turned a blind eye to military equipment and Russian fighters crossing its border. On Saturday, the EU targeted 11 Ukrainian separatist leaders with travel bans and asset freezes without new sanctions on Russian business in order to avoid antagonizing its main energy supplier. Lysenko explained, “The situation on the border is very difficult because there is a strip of border there which has been turned into the epicenter of confrontation. This is because this is a part of the border through which the Russian terrorists are trying to bring in military equipment and arms. Ukrainian forces are there to cover that part. If the Ukrainian unit pulls out of there then columns of military equipment will start to flow on to Ukrainian territory again.” Poroshenko, urged by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to use a sense of proportion in actions against separatists, had talked on Friday with Donetsk mayor Aleksander Lukyanchenko on the issue. Meanwhile,  western allies and Russia are pushing for a new meeting of the contact group involving separatist leaders to negotiate an end to the crisis. Poroshenko has proposed various venues for these talks to take place, but has said he will not repeat a 10 day unilateral ceasefire by government forces like the one that ended June 30. The rational is due to the fact, the Ukrainian government alleges that rebels repeatedly violated the ceasefire and more than 20 Ukrainian servicemen were killed while it was enforced.