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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Senate Panel Passes Extension of Wind Energy Tax Credit


Senate Republicans rebuffed their presumptive presidential nominee as the Senate Finance Committee passed a one-year extension of the tax credit for wind energy, just four days after Mitt Romney's campaign announced that it wanted the credit to die.

The lawmakers had tried to unite around the position of the Republican presidential hopeful, leaving the wind production credit out of a slate of business tax breaks to be formally drafted on Thursday. But that drive faltered when Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, angrily told colleagues he would join with Democrats to add the extension back, according to Finance Committee aides. Rather than have a public fight, senators quietly inserted the one-year, $3.3 billion tax break before the committee took up the suite of tax breaks and passed them Thursday afternoon.

“It's not right to single out one energy incentive over others before a broader tax reform deb ate,” Mr. Grassley said in a statement.

Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican on the committee, said presidential politics had nothing to do with the wrangling. Farm state lawmakers such as Mr. Grassley and Senator John R. Thune, Republican of South Dakota, simply were protecting an industry that is burgeoning in their regions.

Asked about Mr. Romney's decision to jump into the fray, Mr. Hatch shrugged. “The fact is people can take positions on special issues,” he said. “It will irritate some people, and it also lifts some people too.”

Senator Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, another Republican on the Finance Committee, said China had “made quantum leaps, trying to capture the entire industry.” If Congress allowed the credit to end all at once, as Mr. Romney has endorsed, “basically you'd undercut the whole industry.”

Many conservatives disagree and are trying to eliminate all tax subsidies and let competing energy sources sink or swim on their own. But wind energy has become highly political as the election draws near. President Obama has loudly promoted the industry, and giving it federal stimulus money and backing tax credits. Mr. Romney took the opposite side.

And Iowa's prominence as a swing state has only added to the bluster around wind power.

The tax package passed the committee, 19-5, with the most conservative members voting against it. The measure is likely to be a top priority when the Senate returns in September.

Using Twitter, California Politicians Join Chick-fil-A Debate


As Congress wrangles over tax cuts and agricultural assistance heading into the August recess, Representative Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, took sides in a different fight Thursday.

“What I tweeted was I'm a Kentucky Fried Chicken fan,” the House minority leader told reporters with a grin.

Ms. Pelosi, who was referring to a preference she expressed on Twitter last week, is one of the many politicians who have joined the recent debate about same-sex marriage, sparked when the president and chief operating officer of Chick-fil-A said the fast food chain supports “the biblical definition of the family unit.”

Among the politicians who have weighed in is Ed Lee, the mayor of San Francisco, who wrote on Twitter last Thursday that he was “very disappointed” in Chick-fil-A's stance.

“Closest #ChickFilA to San Francisco is 40 miles away & I strongly recommend that they not try to come any c loser,” Mr. Lee wrote.

Ms. Pelosi, whose congressional district includes most of San Francisco, said, “I believe in freedom of expression, but I believe the mayor of San Francisco has freedom of expression as well.” The issue is ultimately up to local officials, she said.

Using social media, thousands of people are planning a “same-sex kiss day” at Chick-fil-A locations Friday.

As liberals expressed their displeasure with Chick-fil-A and threatened to boycott, conservatives rallied to the chain's defense. Hundreds of thousands poured into locations all over the country Wednesday to show their support at the suggestion of Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor.

No word on whether Ms. Pelosi prefers her KFC chicken Original Recipe or Extra Crispy.

Maker\'s Mark Gets Political


Mary Matalin and James Carville's odd-couple shtick has long been a staple of cable news. He plays the irascible liberal with a sharp tongue and a penchant for bizarre Cajun metaphors. She is the conservative counterpoint, far more reserved but ever incredulous.

But now the couple are lending their routine to a pursuit that many people probably find far more palatable than politics: bourbon drinking.

Ms. Matalin and Mr. Carville, who have been married for nearly 20 years, have filmed a series of short videos promoting Maker's Mark, the Kentucky-distilled bourbon. Their connection to Maker's Mark isn't necessarily obvious. He is from Louisiana, she is from Chicago, and they now live in New Orleans.

Bill Samuels Jr., who inherited Maker's Mark from his father and ran it for 35 years, explained in an interview that he has been friendly with the couple since he first met Mr. Carville in the late 1980s. Mr. Carvill e was then a strategist for Wallace G. Wilkinson, a Democrat who would go on to become the governor of Kentucky.

“I said this is a fun guy,” recalled Mr. Samuels, who described his own politics as closer to Ms. Matalin's than Mr. Carville's. “I'm not sure I agree with him on all his politics, but he's a fun guy.”

When Mr. Samuels decided that Maker's Mark needed some new spokespeople for its “Cocktail Party” promotion - a marketing campaign that urges people to eschew the mainstream political parties in favor of one that embraces just one platform (bourbon) - he said he thought of Mr. Carville almost immediately. (Though Ms. Matalin and Mr. Carville were paid to star in the videos, Maker's Mark said the couple's longstanding friendship with Mr. Samuels was the reason they agreed to participate.)

Ms. Matalin and Mr. Carville filmed a few videos in which they recreate their trademark political bickering in mock newscasts. “You may be asking your selves, ‘I wonder what James's favorite Maker's Mark cocktail is,'” Mr. Carville says. Ms. Matalin is quick to shoot back, “Then again, you may not be.”

In one video, Mr. Carville and Mr. Samuels perform a wildly off-key version of “America the Beautiful” that would make Mitt Romney, who was known to belt the song out on cue during the Republican primaries, cringe. “Some of it was pretty horrendous,” Mr. Samuels laughed, blaming Mr. Carville for the idea.

“He said we ought to do something more patriotic other than walk around with a cocktail in our hands. But when he started singing, Mary left the room.”

TimesCast Politics: A Preview of the Jobs Report

Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Readers Debate Trade-Offs Between Security and Civil Liberties


Does more liberty necessarily mean less security, and vice versa?

Absolutely not, according to some of the readers who commented on my post on the security trade-offs of the post-9/11 decade for The Agenda, our continuing discussion of fundamental issues getting less than full debate in the presidential campaign. I talked about how the government's beefed-up counterterrorism measures have led to a calculated erosion of privacy and civil liberties. I asked whether the next president should consider a recalibration, since there has been nothing like a repeat of the Sept. 11 attacks, or whether the government's current surveillance programs and other intrusive measures should be maintained to protect the public.

But Marc Rotenberg, the president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, was among several readers who thought the question was posed incorrectly.

“Giving up civil liberties does no t enhance security in a constitutional democracy,” Mr. Rotenberg wrote. “It transforms the character of the society, making it less open, less resilient, and more prone to the illusions of security theater.”

Some readers cited variants of the classic Benjamin Franklin epigram: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

But who decides what liberty is “essential”? And is protection from terrorism just “a little temporary safety,” or something more crucial?

Some who wrote responses argued that security from terrorism is an essential precondition for liberty. Francine from Massachusetts wrote that “Freedom and liberty are assured by security.” She added: “I'm not a huge fan of either the Patriot Act or Homeland Security. But the idea of coordinating information among various agencies and speeding up the process by which emergencies can be dealt with was an idea long overdue.”

Air travel, she wrote, “is a privilege, not a right. I would rather not die in a terrorist attack, thank you very much.”

R.L.K. from Chappaqua, N.Y., doesn't get those who complain about security measures: “Other than some small delay getting on planes, I hardly notice much difference between the way I ran my life pre-9/11 and now.” In fact, R.L.K. added, “I am grateful for the added security. There really has been very little or no diminishing of my rights or my freedom. And I am thankful, rather than resentful, for that.”

Jon from New York City, was still more blunt: “Stare a real terrorist in the eyes in combat, and then tell me we don't need these measures.”

But other readers are more skeptical about the government's huge security build-up since the 2001 attacks. Those who attribute the absence of major terrorist attacks in the years since to government actions “confuse correlation with c ausation,” wrote Bradley Bleck from Spokane, Wash. “We have given up liberty for the illusion of security.”

Pribilof of Denver agreed: “I think we have gone too far in giving up liberty for ‘security,'” Pribilof wrote. “Do you really want the government wiretapping and gathering your G.P.S. data without a warrant or judicial review? Do we really want habeas corpus suspended, even for terrorism suspects? What a terrible precedent to set.”

Cameron Bedard, of Providence, R.I., connected the government's increased surveillance measures and those of private companies, whose databases the government often acquires. “Suppose you are a law abiding citizen and you have ‘nothing to hide'. You are comfortable with the increasing number of surveillance cameras lining your streets, the expanding powers given to law enforcement officials to monitor your emails and electronic communications without warrant and you do not have an issue when subjected to more rigorous security checks at rail stations, airports or on public transportation.”

But Cameron asks: “How would you feel if an affair were disclosed to your significant other after a private investigator requested your driving record from Microdesign's Electronic Toll Collection database? That is the company that aggregates data on automobiles passing through toll booths across the country. They also sell that information for profit, not only to the state but to restaurateurs. The point is, we all have something to hide.”

Scott H., from New York, concluded that the government was unlikely to give up any of the powers it has obtained over the last decade: “Assuming the next president is Obama or Romney, I see no evidence of either one of them heading toward conclusion B” â€" that is, downsizing the security measures.

Another reader using the screen name Angry Panda echoed that view: “Power, once gained, is not easily surrendered, whether by the Wh ite House (extrajudicial killings, etc.), the Pentagon (enemy combatant rules), or the national security complex (warrantless wiretaps, etc.).” Today, this reader wrote, “There are huge economic and political interests in play here, not to mention a very convenient expansion of the security state as far as the elite are concerned. Why would this change now?”

In the next few weeks, we will try to move from this animated but general debate to some more focused posts on striking developments in security, surveillance, the technology that drives them and the laws that enable them.

Options for Providing Women With a More Secure Retirement


It's easy to see why elderly women are at a higher risk of living in poverty during retirement than their male counterparts: women tend to earn less, live longer, and they often spend more time out of the work force to care for family members, both young and old.

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, recently studied the challenges women face, and highlighted several dramatic statistics. Take, for instance, the effects divorce and widowhood had on women versus men: Women's household income fell by 41 percent, on average, when they divorced, which was almost twice the size of the drop that men experienced. And once women were widowed, household income fell by 37 percent, while men's fell by only 22 percent.

This was also illuminating: Median income for women over the age of 65 was about 25 percent lower than men's over the last decade, and the poverty rate for women in this age g roup was nearly two times higher than men's in 2010, according to the study.  Women - particularly widows and those over 80 years old - were also more likely to depend on Social Security benefits for a larger percentage of their income than men.

The G.A.O. compiled several potential options that, while they would be available to everyone, may especially benefit women planning for retirement. Many of these ideas, however, will cost the government money, while others would require the blessing of Congress, which could make any changes difficult in this political environment. So what did they come up with?

Automatic I.R.A. Employers who do not offer a retirement plan would be required to automatically enroll employees in an Individual Retirement Account, unless the worker opted out.

Expand the Saver's Credit This credit - a tax credit for retirement savings for low- and middle-income workers - could be made “refundable,” which means the credit would reduce the amount of tax owed, dollar for dollar. And if the amount of the credit exceeds your tax bill, you get to collect that extra cash.

Caregiver I.R.A. contributions This would allow all caregivers to contribute to I.R.A.'s up to the qualified contribution limit, based on the individual's adjusted gross income in the year prior to becoming a qualified caregiver. That would allow people to continue to save while providing care, if they could afford to.

Expand catch-up contributions Right now, workers age 50 and over can make additional “catch-up” contributions of up to $5,500 to their defined contribution retirement plans like 401(k)'s. This proposal would allow workers age 40 to 49 to make the extra contributions to those plans, too, which means women could make larger contributions for an extra decade. Of course, the women must have the wherewithal to save more.

Several other options would allow workers more opportunities to accumulate earnings credits for Social Security, like letting the jobless count their unemployment insurance payments as earnings under the system or allowing caregivers to accumulate credits, too. (It's hard to see this passing muster since it would increase costs to the Social Security system.)

Other ideas would make it easier for people who move in and out of the work force or who work part time to - namely, women - to become eligible for defined contribution retirement plans, which often require workers to log about 1,000 hours during a 12-month period.

Women also tend to benefit from options like annuities that provide lifetime income, the report said, since they are more likely to live longer and outlive their spouses. So some experts recommended encouraging employers to include annuities within their defined contribution retirement plans like 401(k)'s.

There were several other potential ideas listed in the report, none of which would resolve the r etirement problem on its own. The report also underscored that the difficulties in achieving a secure retirement is a national problem, regardless of gender. In fact, much of the relative improvement in women's situations has come only because men's situations have gotten worse.

What do you think of the potential options outlined above? What sort of solutions do you think would help women and retirees as a whole?

The Caucus Click: Rafalca\'s Olympic Debut


Rafalca, the horse co-owned by Ann Romney, made her Olympic debut on Thursday.

The horse scored 70.243 with rider Jan Ebeling in dressage, which involves horses carrying out controlled movements and has been compared to ballet.

Mrs. Romney told The Associated Press the horse's performance “thrilled me to death.” She won't know until Friday if her horse has qualified for the next stage of the competition on Aug. 7.

New Obama Ad Takes Shot at Romney Tax Plan


The Obama campaign is wasting no time getting an ad on the air touting a new study showing that Mitt Romney's plans would mean additional large tax cuts for millionaires at the expense of other Americans. The spot, titled “Stretch” takes a double-barreled approach, beginning by reminding viewers of Mr. Romney's own tax history, before pivoting to an analysis from the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center of the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute, two centrist Washington-based policy research organizations. The ad's closing message is: “He pays less. You pay more.”

The Times's Catherine Rampell wrote Wednesday that the analysis concluded that the sort of tax code that Mr. Romney has proposed “would provide large tax cuts to high-income households, and increase the tax burdens on middle- and/or lower-income taxpayers.”

The Romney campaign and the Republican National Committee has dismissed the study as partis an, noting that one of its three authors had been on the staff of Mr. Obama's Council of Economic Advisers.

President Obama seized on the report Wednesday while campaigning in north-central Ohio, taking particular note in of study's finding that if Mr. Romney reduced or eliminated other tax breaks to offset the revenue loss of his tax cuts - as he has promised, without specifics - the changes would shift $86 billion of the tax burden away from the high-income taxpayers and onto everyone else. Americans would lose some or all of existing tax breaks for mortgages, college tuition and health insurance. He is likely to continue to trumpet these results as he campaigns Thursday in Florida and Virginia.

Obama for America said the ad would be broadcast in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia.

House Reprimands Richardson


After hearing Representative Laura Richardson speak in her own defense, the House of Representatives on Thursday briskly approved a report by its Ethics Committee to reprimand her for compelling her Congressional staff to do campaign work. The resolution, which imposes a fine of $10,000 and which she had agreed to accept, passed on a voice vote.

In remarks that reflected a detailed statement that she had submitted earlier to the committee, Ms. Richardson, a California Democrat in an uphill fight to retain a seat in the House, said that she had never told staff members that they would have to work for her campaign office or lose their government jobs.

But leaders of the committee said they had already taken her version of events into account. Their scathing report, adopted unanimously by the bipartisan committee and released on Wednesday, roundly rejected her assertions.

The committee chairman, Representativ e Jo Bonner of Alabama, noted that members of her staff had continued for the past two years to complain to the committee about their treatment. One, he said, was a war veteran who said it would be better to deploy to Afghanistan than to work for a corrupt legislative office.

Thursday Reading: Dieting vs. Exercise for Weight Loss


A variety of consumer-focused articles appears daily in The New York Times and on our blogs. Each weekday morning, we gather them together here so you can quickly scan the news that could hit you in your wallet.

The Early Word: Taxing


In Today's Times:

Seizing on the results of a nonpartisan policy study, President Obama criticized his Republican rival Mitt Romney on Wednesday for offering a tax plan that would return to top-down policies that benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor and the middle class. Jackie Calmes writes that Mr. Obama was referring to a joint study by the Tax Policy Center of the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute, whose analysis concluded that a tax plan like the one Mr. Romney has offered would not offer relief to the vast majority of Americans.

The House voted on Wednesday to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for all incomes, pitting the Republican plan against a Senate-passed Democratic plan that would allow rates to rise on earnings over $250,000. Jonathan Weisman writes that the maneuvering gives both parties some political cover for the economic calamity expected in January, when the cuts are expecte d to expire, an event that will coincide with deep automatic spending cuts if lawmakers do not reach an agreement.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta issued a strong warning to Iran over its nuclear program on Wednesday in Israel. Elisabeth Bumiller and Jodi Rudoren write that tough talk from Israel in recent days has raised concerns within the Obama administration that Israel might be planning to launch a military strike against Iran as early as this fall.

Scott Shane reports that the F.B.I.'s sweeping criminal investigation of intelligence disclosures has crippled news media coverage of national security issues as the Senate considers legislation intended to curb officials' interactions with reporters. In the battle over government secrets, Republicans including Mr. Romney have seized on the leak issue to criticize Mr. Obama's security record.

Rebecca Berg profiles Representative Frank D. Lucas of Oklahoma, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, who finds himself in the spotlight as House Republicans try to resolve an intraparty dispute over the farm bill.

Around the Web:
Senator Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts is now a colonel in the National Guard, The Sun Chronicle reported. Mr. Brown, who has been in the guard for 32 years and had previously been a lieutenant colonel, said he did not know if he would ever become a general.

Happening in Washington:
Economic data expected Thursday include weekly jobless claims at 8:30 a.m., followed by the Chamber of Commerce's quarterly economic briefing at 9. June factory orders and weekly mortgage rates are expected at 10.

The House will convene at 9 a.m and lawmakers are expected to consider a disaster assistance bill.

At 10 a.m., the Senate Finance Committee will meet to mark up a package of expired or expiring tax breaks.

At 3 p.m., the oversight subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee will examine how corruption affects the development of Afghanistan's security forces.

House Approves Tightened Sanctions Against Iran


The House on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved new sanctions targeting Iran's oil industry, strengthening efforts to thwart Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Lawmakers voted 421-6 in favor of the Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, a set of measures that lawmakers said would starve Iran of revenue from its energy production and shipping trade, the country's largest export sectors. The legislation would punish financial institutions, insurance companies and shippers that help Tehran sell its oil, closing loopholes that have allowed Iran to circumvent existing sanctions.

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is the legislation's sponsor, said the bill “blacklists virtually all of Iran's energy, financial and transportation sectors, and cuts off companies that keep doing business with Iran from access to our markets in the United S tates.”

The Senate is expected to pass the legislation this week before Congress leaves on a five-week recess.

The rush to pass new sanctions came after Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, visited Israel over the weekend and pledged to support its decisions about confronting Iran.

The White House and lawmakers have acknowledged that their pressure campaign has not deterred Iran and that multilateral negotiations over the country's nuclear program have stalled. In Israel on Monday, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta urged the American ally to give diplomatic and economic sanctions more time to work before carrying out a military strike.

In a joint statement with Mr. Panetta on Wednesday, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, acknowledged that existing sanctions had damaged Iran's economy, but said they had no impact on its nuclear program.

“Right now, the Iranian regime believes that the international community does not have the will to stop its nuclear program,” he said. “This must change, and it must change quickly, because time to resolve this issue peacefully is running out.”

Repeating assurances by the Obama administration, Mr. Panetta said the United States would not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon “and we will exert all options in the effort to ensure that that does not happen.”

The sanctions bill was endorsed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and J Street, two powerful lobby groups based in Washington.

Some lawmakers from both parties opposed the bill, including Representative Dennis J. Kucinich, Democrat of Ohio. In a floor speech before the vote, Representative Ron Paul, Republican of Texas, said passage of the new sanctions would be “an act of war.”

“We're over there poking our nose, and poking our nose in other people's affairs, just looking for the chance to start another war ,” he said. “First in Syria, then Iran. We have too many wars. We need to stop the wars. We don't have the money to fight these wars any longer.”