Domestic Policy

  US Inflation Worries GrowJune 28, 2007 10:40 Inflationary pressures in the US were greater than previously thought in the first three months of the year, according to data which also showed that the economy grew at its slowest pace since 2003 over the period.

Personal consumption spending excluding volatile food and energy costs, which Federal Reserve policymakers considers a key measure of inflation, was revised up to an annualised 2.4 per cent level of growth from a previous estimate of 2.2 per cent, figures from the Commerce Department showed on Thursday.

The raised spending figure makes it less likely that further data on core personal spending out on Friday will fall within Fed's preferred range of 1 to 2 per cent growth. Economists have been predicting that the price measure rose 1.9 per cent in the year until May, but may now boost their forecasts. A figure rising above 2 per cent might strengthen the Fed's resolve to keep inflation under control and hence reduce further the chance of rate cuts.

"The risks to the inflation outlook just took a long stride in the wrong direction," said Drew Matus, an economist at Lehman Brothers. "We had already anticipated that the Fed would retain its elevated language and keep its inflation bias; this lends further support to that view."

The Fed has said that inflation remains the greatest threat to US growth. Fed officials will announce their latest decision on interest rates on Thursday. They are widely expected to keep rates on hold at 5.25 per cent.

The heightened threat from inflation was highlighted in a report which also showed that first quarter US economic growth was 0.7 per cent. Although marginally stronger than the 0.6 per cent rate previously estimated, the new gross domestic product figure dropped from 2.5 per cent growth in the final quarter of last year. Behind the sharply lower growth were fresh lows in the housing slump combined with a depletion of business inventories.
  Supreme Court Ruling Could Impact 20 School Desegregation Plans In MassachusettsJune 28, 2007 09:13 The Supreme Court ruled today that race cannot be used to decide where students go to school except in limited circumstances, a ruling that advocates fear could jeopardize roughly 20 voluntary desegregation plans in Massachusetts.

By a 5-4 vote, the court struck down voluntary programs adopted in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., to attain racial diversity in public school classrooms.

In Massachusetts, advocates fear that the ruling will also impact the Lynn public schools' longstanding plan, which won a challenge in federal court only two years ago. Others fear the decision could also harm the 32 greater Boston communities that participate in the Metco program, which buses minority students voluntarily from Boston to mostly white suburbs that boast higher test scores and college-going rates.

In the Lynn case, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled, 3-2, in June 2005 that Lynn could use race as a factor in deciding student transfers. The plaintiffs appealed to the US Supreme Court, but the justices declined in December 2005 to hear the case.

Instead, the high court selected Seattle schools and Jefferson County public schools in Louisville for its test cases.

Seattle uses race as a tie-breaker to decide which students should attend schools that are in high demand, with the goal of keeping the schools close to the district's average racial and ethnic makeup. In Louisville, officials use their policy to keep the black student enrollment between 15 percent and 50 percent at most schools.
  Supreme Court Limits Student Speech In "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" CaseJune 25, 2007 09:38 The U.S. Supreme Court tightened limits on student speech Monday, ruling against a high school student and his 14-foot-long (4.3-meter) "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner.

Schools may prohibit student expression that can be interpreted as advocating drug use, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court in a 5-4 ruling.

Joseph Frederick unfurled his homemade sign on a winter morning in 2002, as the Olympic torch made its way through Juneau, Alaska, en route to the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Frederick said the banner was a nonsensical message that he first saw on a snowboard. He intended the banner to proclaim his right to say anything at all.

Conservative groups that often are allied with the administration are backing Frederick out of concern that a ruling for Morse would let schools clamp down on religious expression, including speech that might oppose homosexuality or abortion.

 
  U.S. Supreme Court Halts Challenge Of Faith-Based InitiativesJune 25, 2007 09:27 The Supreme Court ruled Monday that ordinary taxpayers cannot challenge a White House initiative that helps religious charities get a share of federal money.

The 5-4 decision blocks a lawsuit by a group of atheists and agnostics against eight Bush administration officials including the head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

The taxpayers' group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation Inc., objected to government conferences in which administration officials encourage religious charities to apply for federal grants.

Taxpayers in the case "set out a parade of horribles that they claim could occur" unless the court stopped the Bush administration initiative, wrote Justice Samuel Alito. "Of course, none of these things has happened."

The justices' decision revolved around a 1968 Supreme Court ruling that enabled taxpayers to challenge government programs that promote religion.

The 1968 decision involved the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which financed teaching and instructional materials in religious schools in low-income areas.

"This case falls outside" the narrow exception allowing such cases to proceed, Alito wrote.
  Court Weakens Campaign Finance LawJune 25, 2007 09:14 Reigniting the debate over campaign finance regulation, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a part of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act Monday.

That legislation, also known as the McCain-Feingold law, restricts corporations and labor unions from broadcasting ads at election time using general funds. Proponents of campaign finance reform fear Monday's ruling will create a major loophole in the legislation and cause an influx of "sham issue" ads that McCain-Feingold was created in part to combat.

Barbara Lyons, executive director of Wisconsin Right to Life, had hoped the court would "define a standard that would differentiate between genuine grassroot lobbying ads" and those ads which some believe are thinly guised election ads.
  Critics Question Epa'S Tighter Ozone LimitsJune 21, 2007 12:04 The Environmental Protection Agency offered tighter standards for ozone pollution for the first time since 1997 but critics said on Thursday the proposal is more lax than what the EPA's own experts recommended.

The environment agency proposed the new rules for ground-level ozone -- damaging pollution also known as smog that is spawned by motor vehicle exhaust, power plants, gasoline vapors and chemical solvents -- late on Wednesday, suggesting an acceptable ozone range of 70 to 75 parts per billion over any eight-hour period.

That is lower than the current eight-hour standard of 80 parts per billion but higher than the 60 to 70 parts per billion unanimously recommended by the EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee last October.

The EPA plan also leaves open the possibility of no change in the current standard. No action will be taken until March 2008, after four public hearings around the United States.

Unlike stratospheric ozone, which forms a protective layer high above Earth's surface, ground-level ozone can make it hard to breathe and can aggravate asthma and other respiratory conditions. It also can damage vegetation, trees and crops, making disease and reduced crop yields more likely.

People most vulnerable to lung problems from ozone pollution include children and teens, the elderly, those with asthma and other lung diseases and those who work or exercise outdoors.

 
  Senate Democrats Boost Programs For Health Care And The EnvironmentJune 20, 2007 23:21 Senate Democrats pressed for budget increases for party priorities such as health, special education and medical research Tuesday as an appropriations panel approved a $152 billion spending bill.

Earlier, a Senate panel responsible for environmental and public lands programs approved a $27.2 billion measure awarding increases to the National Parks system, Indian health programs and clean water projects.

Both bills enjoyed unanimous support within the collegial confines of the Senate subcommittees, where staunch conservatives such as Larry Craig, R-Idaho and reliable liberals like Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, joined forces to add to domestic accounts popular with lawmakers in both parties.

The health and education funding measure, the largest domestic funding bill, has been a favorite target of President Bush, whose budget is seeking cuts of more than $4 billion from current levels.

Instead, Democrats — without dissent from panel Republicans — added more than $10 billion to Bush’s request.

That allowed for a $1 billion increase over current funding for the National Institutes of Health, about 3 percent. Funding for community health centers would go up 13 percent, and grants to states for programs for special needs children would grow by 7 percent, or $750 million.
  High Court Says Passengers May Question Legality Of Traffic StopsJune 18, 2007 16:44 A unanimous Supreme Court ruled yesterday that passengers in vehicles pulled over by the police have the same rights as drivers to challenge the legality of the traffic stop when it results in an arrest.

The court said that passengers, like the driver, are "seized" by police when the vehicle they are traveling in is stopped and are thus covered by the Fourth Amendment and allowed to challenge unreasonable searches and seizures.

In the specific case before the court, a California passenger named Bruce Brendlin was charged with drug possession because of drug paraphernalia found in the car in which he was traveling. He argued that the discovery of the evidence was the result of an unconstitutional seizure because police lacked probable cause to make the traffic stop.

But the California Supreme Court said Brendlin had no grounds to make such a challenge because he had not been seized by the police and had given tacit approval to the search by staying in the car rather than leaving the scene.

The Supreme Court said that made no sense.

"We think that in these circumstances any reasonable passenger would have understood the police officers to be exercising control to the point that no one in the car was free to depart without police permission," Justice David H. Souter wrote for the court. During the case's oral arguments, several justices expressed that opinion.

 
  For Reid, A Tricky Course To Democratic VictoryJune 18, 2007 07:56 For most of the past 10 days, Harry Reid had a ready explanation of why the Senate abruptly gave up on a highly volatile immigration overhaul: President Bush hadn’t done enough to rally Republicans to the cause.

“This is the president’s bill, and we are doing our very best to see if we can help the president,” the majority leader had said June 7, just before his third attempt to break a logjam that threatened to undermine months of negotiations. Confident that no more than a handful of Republicans would vote to end the debate and limit amendments, Reid suggested a headline for when senators voted to keep talking indefinitely and he pulled the bill off the floor: “The president fails again.”

In the days that followed, Bush seemed to take the senator’s challenge. He traveled to Capitol Hill to press fellow Republicans in the Senate and then, at the end of last week, helped devise a strategy for reviving the measure before Congress recesses for the July Fourth holiday.

Still, success for the premier domestic policy initiative of the president’s final years will depend on the Nevada senator as much as anyone. Senate passage remains uncertain. And enactment, which will require passage by the House and then successful conference negotiations, will be even more problematic. Yet the majority leader is maneuvering to wind up on top — regardless of the legislative outcome.

At the moment, Reid seems well-positioned to win either way. If a new immigration law is put on the books, he’ll be able to say it happened only because he extended the hand of bipartisanship at a crucial moment. If the bill dies, he’ll just as easily be able to blame the president while positioning his party to make immigration a 2008 campaign issue.

But for the majority leader — whose own public approval ratings are in the teens — to keep his options open, he must carefully manage deep divisions in the Senate, in the Democratic Party and back home in Nevada.

At the Capitol, a majority of Republican senators and an increasing number of Democrats oppose this immigration measure, which would create a new guest worker program, legalize millions of illegal immigrants already in the United States and increase spending on border security. Across the country, Democrats are of two minds about whether an immigration overhaul is good for the party’s efforts to expand its congressional majorities and win the White House next year.
  U.S. Senate Leaders Revive Immigration BillJune 14, 2007 19:39 U.S. Senate leaders agreed on Thursday to revive a stalled immigration overhaul after lawmakers worked out a plan to overcome conservatives' objections to a bill that would legalize millions of immigrants.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, and Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said in a joint statement the Senate would reconsider the legislation after completing work on an energy bill some time next week.

"We met this evening with several of the senators involved in the immigration bill negotiations," the two leaders said in a statement.

Based on that discussion, the immigration bill will return to the Senate floor after completion of the energy bill."

The new agreement would limit the number of amendments and include a measure to ensure funding for tighter border security measures, something sought by conservatives, lawmakers and aides said.

The bill, which ties tough border security and enforcement of workplace rules to a temporary worker program and a plan to legalize most of the 12 million illegal immigrants, was shelved last week after failing to win the 60 votes it needed to advance in the 100-member Senate.

 
  U.S. Purging 'Radical' Religion Texts In PrisonsJune 11, 2007 21:35 Inmates at the federal prison camp in Otisville, N.Y., were stunned by what they saw at the chapel library on Memorial Day — hundreds of books had disappeared from the shelves.
The removal of the books is occurring nationwide, part of a long-delayed, post-Sept. 11 federal directive intended to prevent radical religious texts, specifically Islamic ones, from falling into the hands of violent inmates.
Three inmates at Otisville filed a lawsuit over the policy, saying their constitutional rights were violated. They say all religions were affected.
"The set of books that have been taken out have been ones that we used to minister to new converts when they come in here," inmate John Okon, speaking on behalf of the prison's Christian population, told a judge last week.
Okon said it was unfortunate because "I have really seen religion turn around the life of some of these men, especially in the Christian community."
The government maintained that the new rules don't entirely clear the shelves of prison chapel libraries.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Feldman told U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain that prison libraries limited the number of books for each religion to between 100 and 150 under the new rules. He said officials would expand the number after choosing a new list of permitted books.
Feldman said the removal order stemmed from an April 2004 Department of Justice review of the way prisons choose Muslim religious services providers. It is not exactly clear why it took so long for the order to be put into effect, but prison officials said they needed time to examine a long list of books.
Feldman said the study was made out of a concern that prisons "had been radicalized by inmates who were practicing or espousing various extreme forms of religion, specifically Islam, which exposed security risks to the prisons and beyond the prisons to the public at large."
Feldman said the review by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons concluded that prison chapel libraries were not adequately supervised.
  Prosecutor Wants Paris Back In JailJune 07, 2007 23:07 Celebrity party girl Paris Hilton left jail after just 72 hours sparking cries of favouritism, but returns to court on Friday on a prosecutor's demand she serve her 45-day sentence behind bars.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department spokesperson Steve Whitmore cited "medical reasons" for releasing Hilton, saying she was not free, but "reassigned" to house arrest while wearing an electronic tag.

Within hours city prosecutors filed a motion seeking her return to jail.

Jeffrey Isaacs, Chief of the City Attorney's Criminal Branch, said, "the decision whether or not Ms. Hilton should be released early and placed on electronic monitoring should be made by Judge (Michael) Sauer, and not the Sheriff's Department".

Sauer, who had ordered Hilton not get an ankle monitor, set a hearing for 9am on Friday morning, the statement said.

Hilton (26) reported to jail late on Sunday to serve her sentence, meted out in May for driving with a license that had been suspended after a drunk-driving arrest.

She was freed early on Thursday, fitted with an electronic ankle bracelet and told to serve out the rest of her sentence in her luxury Hollywood home.

Hilton thanked the sheriff's department and jail personnel "for treating me fairly and professionally".

"I am going to serve the remaining 40 days of my sentence. I have learned a great deal from this ordeal and hope that others have learned from my mistakes," she said.

But her early release triggered a wave of anger from civil liberties groups and on the internet, with people condemning the special treatment allegedly being accorded to the heiress of the Hilton hotel fortune.
  Gay Groups Decry Surgeon General NomineeJune 06, 2007 16:16 President Bush's nominee for surgeon general, Kentucky cardiologist Dr. James Holsinger, has come under fire from gay rights groups for, among other things, voting to expel a lesbian pastor from the United Methodist Church and writing in 1991 that gay sex is unnatural and unhealthy.

Also, Holsinger helped found a Methodist congregation that, according to gay rights activists, believes homosexuality is a matter of choice and can be "cured."

"He has a pretty clear bias against gays and lesbians," said Christina Gilgor, director of the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, a gay rights group. "This ideology flies in the face of current scientific medical studies. That makes me uneasy that he rejects science and promotes ideology."

Holsinger, 68, has declined all interview requests, and the White House had no immediate comment Wednesday.

Holsinger served as Kentucky's health secretary and chancellor of the University of Kentucky's medical center. He taught at several medical schools and spent more than three decades in the Army Reserve, retiring in 1993 as a major general.

His supporters, including fellow doctors, faculty members and state officials, said he would never let his theological views affect his medical ones.

"Jim is able, as most of us are in medicine, to separate feelings that we have from our responsibility in taking care of patients," said Douglas Scutchfield, a professor of public health at the University of Kentucky.