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DEFENSE BILL GIVES OBAMA RARE GUANTANAMO VICTORY

Thursday, 19 December 2013 07:19 Published in National News

WASHINGTON (AP) — Up to half the terror suspects held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay could be closer to heading home under a bipartisan deal reached in Congress that gives President Barack Obama a rare victory in his fight to close the prison.

The deal would lift the most rigid restrictions Congress previously imposed on detainee transfers overseas and is part of a broad compromise defense bill awaiting final passage in the Senate this week. The House approved the measure last Thursday.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said the compromise could have a dramatic impact on the 160 detainees still being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"About half of the detainees would be detainees that could be transferred to their third-world countries from which they come," Levin told reporters. "About half of the detainees would remain in Guantanamo because of the prohibition on transferring them to the United States for detention and for trial."

The defense bill marks the first time since Obama came to office promising to close Guantanamo that Congress is moving to ease restrictions instead of strengthen them. And it could signal changing political views toward the prison for terrorism suspects now that the war in Afghanistan is winding down.

Obama's achievement was somewhat of a surprise, after the Republican-controlled House earlier this year voted overwhelmingly to make it harder to transfer detainees. But the deal to move in the opposite direction passed with hardly any opposition and little attention — perhaps overshadowed by more prominent defense bill debates over Iran sanctions, military sexual assaults and spying by the National Security Agency.

But even with the deal, Obama still faces big obstacles to closing Guantanamo. Congress has effectively blocked him from doing so for his first five years in office, and he faces declining clout in his final three. Yet the president seems determined as part of his legacy to push for closure of the prison he argues never should have been opened and "has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law."

Congressional proponents of keeping Guantanamo open say they felt they had to allow for transfers to other countries to maintain a more important priority — a ban on detainees from coming into the United States. The administration also pushed for the ability to transfer detainees to the U.S. for imprisonment, trial or medical emergencies but lost on that front, leaving Obama a thorny predicament of what to do with captives considered too dangerous to release.

Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, who worked on the compromise as the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he'll continue to fight to keep Guantanamo open even as some colleagues are softening their position. "There's no place else you can house these terrorists," he said in a telephone interview Wednesday, adding some former detainees have re-engaged in terrorist activity.

"I look at this and I wonder why people don't want it," Inhofe said. "But the president doesn't and he's going to keep trying (to close it). And this bill stops him from doing it."

Obama renewed his commitment to closure this spring when detainees went on a hunger strike to protest indefinite confinement without charge, now going on for 12 years. Obama responded by vowing to make the case anew to Congress that the prison hurts the United States and appointing envoys at the State and Defense Departments to work toward closure.

"Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe," Obama said. "It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed."

Top administration officials, including Obama counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco and State Department envoy Clifford Sloan, made a quiet yet effective lobbying push to convince members to ease restrictions. They pointed out the annual cost of operating Guantanamo has reached more than $2 million per prisoner while other terrorism suspects are kept in U.S prisons at a small fraction of the price.

Half of the detainees at Guantanamo were approved for transfer nearly four years ago, provided that the home country could provide security guarantees. But the Obama administration has argued that many approved transfers effectively have been blocked by restrictions imposed by Congress.

For instance, lawmakers have barred the administration from transferring any detainee without the Pentagon certifying that, among other requirements, the receiving country is not "facing a threat that is likely to substantially affect its ability to exercise control over the individual." Administration officials have said that's a bar too high in particular for Yemen, home to the world's most active al-Qaida branch and more than half the Guantanamo detainees.

The rules have prohibited transfers to countries where detainees who have been released previously have re-engaged in terrorism. That includes Kuwait, a key U.S. ally that has been lobbying for the return of its two remaining detainees and has built a still unused rehabilitation center to peacefully reintegrate them.

There's also been a prohibition on transferring detainees to countries that the United States has declared a state sponsor of terrorism. Guantanamo houses three Syrians who have been approved for transfer but would be barred from going home under the current rules. Sudan's government says its two remaining detainees were heading home Wednesday — one has completed a sentence after a conviction on terrorism charges and the other is so ill he's unlikely to pose a threat and was recently ordered released by a judge. Court ordered transfers are excluded from the congressional restrictions; otherwise the administration would not have been able to send even a debilitated prisoner home to certain countries.

The congressional deal lifts those restrictions and allows transfers for those detainees who have been approved when the administration determines the transfer is in the national security interests of the U.S.

Administration officials say they are working with foreign governments to negotiate terms of transfers so there won't be a big movement overnight.

"The president directed the administration to responsibly reduce the detainee population to the greatest extent possible, and we would welcome much needed flexibility in this area," said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. "But even in the absence of transfer restrictions, our longstanding policy is to transfer detainees only if the threat posed by the detainee can be sufficiently mitigated and when consistent with our humane treatment policy."

INSURERS ALLOW MORE TIME TO PAY UNDER HEALTH LAW

Thursday, 19 December 2013 07:17 Published in Health & Fitness

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Consumers anxious over tight insurance deadlines and lingering computer problems during the holidays will get extra time to pay their premiums under President Barack Obama's health care law, insurers announced Wednesday.

The board of the industry's biggest trade group - America's Health Insurance Plans - said consumers who select a plan by Dec. 23 will now have until Jan. 10 to pay their first month's premium. That's 10 extra days beyond a New Year's Eve deadline set by the government.

The voluntary move comes as insurers and the government try to head off anticipated problems around the first of the year, when new coverage options for the uninsured take effect under Obama's law, and when several million people whose existing policies were canceled must switch to new plans.

Expect even bigger political trouble for the president if consumers who made a good-faith effort to get covered through the government's balky website show up at the pharmacy and can't get prescriptions filled, or if they turn up in the emergency room and there's no record that they are enrolled. The stakes would be higher this time because someone's health could be jeopardized.

The administration applauded the industry decision. It will "ultimately make it easier for consumers to enroll" through the new online insurance markets, said Health and Human Services spokeswoman Joanne Peters. The federal HealthCare.gov website is now working reasonably well, but insurers still report accuracy problems with enrollment information the government is sending about their new customers.

Karen Ignagni, CEO of the industry group, said the decision was taken "to give consumers greater peace of mind about their health care coverage." AHIP represents about 95 percent of the industry, including the major national carriers and nearly all the BlueCross BlueShield plans.

There may be a few insurers who do not follow the group's lead, so consumers are advised to check with their carrier. Consumers must pay their first month's premium on time for coverage to take effect.

The move burnishes the industry's image and has no real downside, said Dan Mendelson, CEO of Avalare Health, a market analysis firm. "It's useful for the consumer and not a problem for the plans," he said.

Insurers will still get paid for January. "They can book the revenue, and they don't need to worry about the cash flow," Mendelson said.

But the announcement does more than grant extra time. It also reduces the risk that consumers switching plans could suffer an interruption in coverage because of the technology woes encountered by the federal sign-up system, and some state-run websites.

That's particularly important for at least 4 million people whose existing individual plans were canceled because they did not meet standards under Obama's law. Disruptions in coverage for those consumers could have major political consequences for Obama and beleaguered HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Back in 2009, Obama had promised that people who liked their insurance would be able to keep it under his health overhaul plan. But that guarantee was shredded by the wave of cancellation notices, which crested right around the same time that HealthCare.gov was refusing to function for millions of potential customers. Obama's poll ratings took a nosedive.

Under the industry announcement, consumers still must select a plan by Dec. 23 - next Monday.

But instead of having to pay their first month's premium by New Year's Eve, they now have until Jan. 10. That would let them have coverage retroactive to Jan. 1. Patients who get a pharmacy or medical bill during that period can later submit it to the insurance company for payment.

Insurers have complained that a significant number of the enrollments they have gotten from HealthCare.gov have problems that could prevent a consumer from getting covered on Jan. 1. That includes missing or incomplete information, duplicative entries and garble. The administration says its technical experts are aggressively tackling the problems, and that errors have been cut dramatically. But insurers say useless or corrupted files are still getting through. Government and industry are working together to clean up the records.

Without the extra time granted Wednesday, a consumer who paid in early January would have had to wait until Feb. 1 for coverage.

© 2013 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED. Learn more about our PRIVACY POLICY and TERMS OF USE.

 

 

BIPARTISAN BUDGET AGREEMENT NEARS FINAL PASSAGE

Wednesday, 18 December 2013 11:02 Published in National News

WASHINGTON (AP) — A modest, bipartisan budget pact designed to keep Washington from lurching from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis and to ease the harshest effects of automatic budget cuts is on the brink of passing the Senate Wednesday.

The Senate is on track to clear the bill for President Barack Obama's signature after a 67-33 vote Tuesday in which it easily hurdled a filibuster threshold.

The measure would restore $45 billion, half the amount scheduled to be automatically cut from the 2014 operating budgets of the Pentagon and some domestic agencies, lifting them above $1 trillion. An additional $18 billion for 2015 would provide enough relief to essentially freeze spending at those levels for the year.

The bill advanced with the help of 12 Republicans, several of whom promised to oppose the measure in Wednesday's final vote because it fails to take on the nation's most pressing fiscal challenges. It would barely dent deficits that are predicted to lessen in the short term but grow larger by the end of the decade and into the next.

One provision, cutting the inflation increases of pensions for military retirees under the age of 62, was proving to be especially unpopular. Members of the military are eligible to retire after 20 years at half pay. The provision was included in the bill at the direction of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

"We had to look at how we could find compromises," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., who negotiated the bill with Ryan. "There's things in this I like and there's things I don't like."

The deal is a step toward restoring the trust of Americans who feel their government isn't working, and also toward restoring lawmakers' faith in each other, Murray told CNN on Wednesday.

Top Democrats said they would revisit the change in military pensions, which raises $6 billion over 10 years, before it takes effect in two years. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said the cut could reduce by $80,000 the lifetime benefit of a soldier who retires in his or her early 40s.

In a document defending the cut, Ryan's staff called pensions to middle-aged military retirees "an exceptionally generous benefit, often providing 40 years of pension payment in return for 20 years of service" and noted that "most begin a second career after leaving the military."

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who faces a potentially tough re-election campaign next year, promptly announced she would seek to repeal the military pension cut. The proposed pension cut has drawn howls of protest from senators with large military presences in their states.

"I promise you this. If we don't fix it now, not only are we going to review it, we are going to fix it," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said. "How could any commander in chief sign a bill that does this?"

Shaheen was joined by more than a dozen other Democrats in announcing legislation to restore the military retirement benefits and make up the money by closing a tax loophole on offshore corporations.

The bill caps a sometimes chaotic year in Washington that began with a January deal to avert a "fiscal cliff" of automatic spending cuts and expiring Bush-era tax cuts. The year also featured brinksmanship over the federal debt limit and a 16-day partial shutdown of the government sparked by Republicans in a futile attempt to curb implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

The budget agreement allows lawmakers to claim a modest accomplishment as they leave a bitterly divided Washington.

It sets the stage in January for the pragmatic-minded House and Senate Appropriations committees to draft a trillion-dollar-plus omnibus spending bill combining the 12 annual appropriations bills for the budget year that began Oct. 1. It would provide $1.012 trillion for the fiscal 2014 year already underway, a $45 billion increase over what would be required under the penalty imposed by a 2011 budget deal.

Agency budgets totaled $986 billion in 2013 after automatic cuts called sequestration were imposed, causing numerous furloughs, harming military readiness and cutting grants to local school districts, health researchers and providers of Head Start preschool care to low-income children, among numerous effects.

Due to the design of the automatic cuts, even with the boost the Pentagon still would see its non-war 2014 budget essentially frozen at 2013 levels, while domestic agencies would see an increase of about 4 percent. But those levels remain well below what was envisioned in the 2011 budget pact.

The cuts would be replaced with money from things such as higher airline security fees, a requirement that new federal workers pay more toward their pensions, the 1-percentage-point cut in the pensions of working-age military retirees and premium increases on companies whose pension plans are insured by the federal government.

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