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Highlights of Day 1 of Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Gorsuch

Published: Monday, March 20, 2017 @ 4:03 PM
Updated: Monday, March 20, 2017 @ 4:03 PM

Gorsuch hearing

As the central figure in one of the most contentious confirmation hearings in years, U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch said Monday judges should not be “secret legislators” and vowed to apply the law in an impartial fashion while seeking consensus whenever possible.

Appearing before enthusiastic Republicans and skeptical Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gorsuch portrayed himself as an independent voice modeled after former Supreme Court Justices Byron White and Robert Jackson, declaring Jackson “reminded us that when you become a judge, you fiercely defend only one client – the law.”

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“These days we sometimes hear judges cynically described as politicians in robes, seeking to enforce their own politics rather than striving to apply the law impartially,” Gorsuch said in his opening statement. “If I thought that were true, I’d hang up the robe.”

“If judges were just secret legislators -- declaring not what the law is, but what they would like it to be -- the very idea of a government by the people and for the people would be at risk,” Gorsuch said. “And those who came before the court would live in fear, never sure exactly what the law requires of them it except for the judge’s will.”

Gorsuch, who faces two days of questioning Tuesday and Wednesday by committee members, clearly used his opening statement to assuage Democratic fears that he is an implacable conservative while simultaneously trying to establish his independence, a way to distance himself from President Donald Trump, who nominated him last month to fill the seat left vacant by the death last year of Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative icon for the past three decades.

RELATED: Who is Neil Gorsuch?

Gorsuch, 49, a judge on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Colorado, delivered his 15-minute statement after sitting through more than three hours of deeply partisan opening statements from committee members.

Senate Democrats, backed by progressive legal organizations, have sharply complained that Republicans unfairly kept the seat open when they refused last year to hold a hearing for federal appeals Judge Merrick Garland, nominated by former President Barack Obama.

But they also made clear their anger is directed against Trump, with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., saying the “independence of those judges has never been more threatened and never more important, and a large part of the threat comes from the man who nominated you who has launched a campaign of vicious and relentless attacks" on the judiciary.

“Just hours ago, not far from here, the director of the FBI revealed that his agency is investigating potential ties between President Trump’s associates and Russian meddling in our election," Blumenthal said.

He warned of “the possibility" that he Supreme Court might need "to enforce a subpoena against the president is no longer idle speculation,” pointing to the court’s 1974 case directing President Richard M. Nixon to yield White House taped recordings demanded by special prosecutors investigating the Watergate scandal.

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Gorsuch listened attentively through opening statements by committee members, often jotting down notes on a yellow legal pad. When it came time for him to speak, he did so in a clear, but soothing voice.

Rather than accepting the challenge from Senate Democrats, he steered clear of ideological labels and said “putting on” a judge’s black robe “reminds us judges that it’s time to lose our egos and open our minds."

“It’s for this body -- the people’s representatives -- to make new laws, for the executive to make sure those laws are faithfully executed, and for neutral and independent judges to apply the law in the people’s disputes,” Gorsuch said.

He suggested his judicial style was closer to White and Justice Anthony Kennedy, both of whom he clerked for when they were on the high court in the 1980s, pointedly saying Kennedy “showed me that judges can disagree without being disagreeable.”

By doing so, Gorsuch was doing his best to describe his role as limited to interpreting the law, much like Chief Justice John Roberts did during his confirmation hearings in 2005 when he told the same committee that “judges are like umpires. Umpires don't make the rules; they apply them.”

Reminding lawmakers that he grew up in Colorado, he said “in the West, we listen to one another respectfully. We tolerate. We cherish different points of view. And we seek consensus whenever we can.”

Because five current members of the court support abortion rights and same-sex marriage, Gorsuch will not change the balance of power on those key questions. But on a host of other issues, such as whether judges should grant broad authority to federal agencies to interpret laws approved by Congress, Gorsuch could emerge as a key vote.

House Republicans voted for tax reform, but asked for changes in the bill as well

Published: Saturday, November 18, 2017 @ 9:07 AM

As the House voted along party lines on Thursday to approve a sweeping package of GOP tax reforms, one peculiar part of the floor debate came when a number of Republicans – who voted for the bill – took to the floor to request changes in the their party’s plan, as some highlighted unintended consequences, while others objected to the basics of the measure.

Known in parliamentary parlance as a “colloquy,” the scripted exchanges between lawmakers are often done to clarify the legislative intent of a bill, or in this case, to urge action in a specific way in House-Senate negotiations.

And for some Republicans in this week’s tax reform debate, it was clear they wanted some provisions altered.

Some requests were specific, like Rep. David McKinley (R-WV), who made the case for historic preservation tax credits, which were eradicated by the House GOP tax reform bill.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QLSCynnwYUc&w=640&h=390]

“Without the credit, projects that transform communities in all 50 states, from
West Virginia to Texas, to Wisconsin, simply will not happen,” McKinley said on the House floor, as he asked for Brady’s word that he would help reverse the decision.

That didn’t happen.

“I commit to working with him and continuing to work with him on this issue because I know the importance of it,” Brady responded, making sure not to guarantee anything in some of these floor exchanges.

For Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), a staunch advocate of the GOP bill, he asked the Chairman of the House Ways and Means to do more in terms of tax help for the people of Puerto Rico, whose island was devastated by Hurricane Maria.

“I look forward to working with you on ideas to best serve the people of this island,” said Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), who thanked fellow GOP lawmakers for their concerns, but made no promises.

For Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY), the issue was with a new excise tax from Republicans that would be levied on the endowments of private colleges and universities.

Barr said that would harm Berea College in his district, a ‘work college’ that uses its endowment money to pay the tuition of all students. It was noted in press stories back home.

“I was pleased to learn that the Senate version of the bill exempts schools with fewer than 500 tuition-paying students from the excise tax,” Barr said, urging Brady to accept that position in any House-Senate negotiation.

Brady said he would try.

“Mr. Speaker, we will work together for a mutually accepted solution to make sure we exempt work colleges to use their endowments to provide tuition-free education,” the panel chairman responded.

For Rep. Don Young (R-AK), the problem he brought to the House floor was under the heading of unintended consequences, as the GOP tax bill would subject native settlement trusts in Alaska to a higher rate of taxation.

“This would make it more difficult for Alaska Native Settlement Trusts to provide long-term benefits to Alaska Natives,” Young said on the House floor, asking Brady to include provisions of a bill to remedy that and more.

Unlike some of the other requests, Brady acknowledged that the GOP tax bill would “unintentionally” change the tax rate for the Alaskan settlements, agreeing to focus on this in conference as we finalize individual rate structures between the House and the Senate.”

Others weren’t so lucky to get a guarantee of action, as they pressed for changes in maybe the most controversial part of the GOP plan, which limits a deduction for state and local taxes.

“I am concerned about its impact on some of my constituents in Maryland who pay high state and local income taxes,” said Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), the only Republican member of the House from that state, which would be one of the biggest losers on the SALT issue.

That subject also drew two California Republicans to make the same appeal to Brady later in the debate; Rep. Mimi Walters (R-CA) and Rep. Steve Knight (R-CA) echoed the concerns of Harris – all of them got a murky assurance of help.

“I am happy to commit to working with both of them to ensure we reach a positive outcome for their constituents and families as we reconcile our differences with the Senate,” Brady said, making no promises.

Other Republicans brought up education, and a provision in the GOP tax reform bill that would hinder colleges and universities from providing tax free tuition waivers and reimbursements, a matter that has drawn more and more attention in recent days.

Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) – whose district includes Dayton University – and Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) – whose district includes the University of Illinois – both appealed to Brady to make a change.

“I believe that an unintended consequence of this bill would hinder middle class Americans pursuing a higher education degree in an attempt to better their lives,” Turner said.




“I am worried it is going to have an impact on the custodians and the assistants in the Registrar’s Office who are just working at these institutions to be able to send their son or daughter to college,” said Davis.

There was no guarantee that the provision would be changed.

“I have a keen interest in this issue,” Brady told Turner and Davis. “I will work with you toward a positive solution on tuition assistance in conference with the Senate.”

Democrats noted the exchanges on both days of the House tax reform debate, arguing that it showed off the haphazard nature of how the bill was put together.

“I also was intrigued by the colloquy where Members came to ask the leadership
if they will work with them to take out egregious elements of this tax proposal,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI).

“We get this sort of, “Yes, I will work with the gentleman,” answer,” Kildee added, raising his voice on the floor.

“Why did you put it in in the first place?” Kildee yelled. “Why are you cutting historic tax credits in the first place? Why did you put it in in the first place? You just wrote the bill. You just wrote it,” he said.

GOP lawmakers said this past week that anyone can find a reason to vote against a big bill like this tax reform plan – we’ll see in coming weeks whether these publicly voiced concerns become an issue for the final version of tax reform in the Congress.

Trump delays lifting ban on import of elephant trophies from Africa

Published: Friday, November 17, 2017 @ 8:37 PM
Updated: Friday, November 17, 2017 @ 8:37 PM



Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
(Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Update (Friday, November 17)

President Donald Trump said in a tweet Friday he’s delaying a new policy allowing the body parts of African elephants shot for sport to be imported until he can review “all conservation facts.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Thursday that it will allow the importation of body parts from African elephants shot for sport. The agency said encouraging wealthy big-game hunters to kill the threatened species would help raise money for conservation programs.

Animal rights advocates and environmental groups criticized the decision. On Friday, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee urged the administration to reverse the policy, calling it the “wrong move at the wrong time.”

Trump said that the policy had been “under study for years.” He says he will review the issue with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Earlier

The Trump administration plans to lift a ban on Friday that barred big game hunters from bringing trophies from elephants killed in a pair of African nations to America, according to multiple reports.

>> Read more trending news

A spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told ABC News in a statement Wednesday that the decision was made after officials in Zimbabwe and Zambia provided them with information to support a reversal of the ban.

"Legal, well-regulated sport hunting as part of a sound management program can benefit the conservation of certain species by providing incentives to local communities to conserve the species and by putting much-needed revenue back into conservation," the spokesperson told ABC News.

The decision will overturn a 2014 ban implemented by President Barack Obama’s administration in response to falling elephant populations. 

African elephants are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A provision in the act, however, allows for the government to give permits that let people import trophies from such animals if evidence shows that hunting them helps conservation efforts, according to NBC News.

The rule reversal will apply to elephants hunted in Zimbabwe from Jan. 21, 2016, to Dec. 31, 2018, the news station reported. It will also apply to elephants killed in Zambia in 2016, 2017 and 2018 and “applications that meet all other applicable permitting requirements,” a Fish and Wildlife spokesperson told NBC News.

According to the 2016 Great Elephant Census, Savanna elephant populations fell by 30 percent between 2007 and 2014. About 352,000 elephants were spotted during the survey, 82,300 in Zimbabwe and 21,700 in Zambia.

Both countries had areas that saw substantial declines in elephant populations along the Zambezi river in Zambia and in Zimbabwe’s Sebungwe region, according to the census.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Hatch to Sherrod Brown: ‘Don’t spew this stuff at me’

Published: Friday, November 17, 2017 @ 10:26 AM

Sen. Hatch Shouting Down Sen. Sherrod Brown on Tax Bill. Video courtesy of CNN

Sen. Sherrod Brown and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch are garnering attention today for a yelling match they had last night at a hearing over the tax reform bill working its way through the Senate.

Hatch, a Utah Republican, took umbrage at comments by Brown saying the tax bill will help the rich at the expense of the poor.

“This tax cut is really not for the middle class,” Brown said. “It’s for the rich.”

Calling it “a nice political play,” Hatch told Brown “I’ve been here working my whole stinking career for people who don’t have a chance, and I really resent anybody saying that I’m just doing this for the rich.”

Brown, an Ohio Democrat, meanwhile, shot back that the public believes that the bill primarily benefits the wealthy. “I get sick and tired of the richest people in the country getting richer and richer,” he said over shouts calling for regular order. “We do a tax cut for the rich and the middle class loses.”

Hatch said that he came from the lower-middle class. “We didn’t have anything,” he said. “So don’t spew this stuff at me. I get a little tired of that crap.”

“I like you personally very much but I’m telling you, this bullcrap you throw out really gets old after awhile,” he said.

The fight came during the final day of the Senate Finance Committee debate over the tax overhaul bill. The committee later approved the bill on a party line vote 14-12.

What you need to know about the Republican tax plans

Published: Friday, November 17, 2017 @ 5:37 PM


            WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 16: U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) applauds during an event at the Capitol to celebrate the passing of the tax reform bill November 16, 2017 in Washington, DC. The House has passed the tax reform bill with the vote 227 Ð 205. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
            Alex Wong
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 16: U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) applauds during an event at the Capitol to celebrate the passing of the tax reform bill November 16, 2017 in Washington, DC. The House has passed the tax reform bill with the vote 227 Ð 205. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)(Alex Wong)

With House approval of a major overhaul of the nation’s income tax code last week, congressional Republicans are moving toward the most sweeping changes in tax law since 1986.

But because House and Senate Republicans are moving with unusual speed to pass the bill, it has been difficult to determine who gains and who loses under the GOP plan.

Virtually every study shows that wealthier people will receive larger tax breaks than those in the middle class. The non-partisan Tax Policy Center concluded this week that under the House bill, the “largest cuts in dollars and as a percentage of after-tax income would accrue to higher-income households.”

Corporations and sole proprietorships or partnerships will see their taxes drop dramatically. But because of some quirks in the Senate bill, some middle-income Americans may find themselves paying more in taxes sometime in the middle of the next decade.

Here are some of the key questions:

Q: Senate Republicans are ending the mandate that Americans buy insurance policies or face a fine. Doesn’t that mean Senate Republicans are taking away a premium tax credit from those who have bought federally subsidized individual insurance policies through the marketplaces created by the 2010 health law known as Obamacare? Isn’t that a tax increase on the middle class?

A: Not really. First, the premium tax credit was paid to the insurance companies, not people who bought policies. If you choose not to buy a policy through the Obamacare marketplaces, you do not pay either premiums on the policy or fines to the government. But you risk not having insurance. Those who want to buy individual policies through the marketplaces are still free to do so.

Q: Does the Senate bill raise taxes on middle income people?

A: To avoid a Democratic filibuster, Senate Republicans are relying on a parliamentary maneuver to pass the measure with their 52 GOP votes. But there is major drawback. By using the maneuver, the Senate bill cannot add to the deficit beyond 2027. So to get around that, the Senate bill makes the corporate tax cuts permanent, but ends most individual tax cuts on December 31, 2025. Republicans insist that Congress in 2025 will extend those tax cuts, just as Congress did in 2012 when the tax cuts signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2001 expired after 10 years. But if Congress does not extend the reductions, middle-class people would pay higher taxes in 2027. Watch for Senate Republicans to offer an amendment on the floor to restore those tax cuts.

Q: But don’t other middle and upper-middle class families face a tax increase?

A: The congressional Joint Committee on Taxation concludes 60 percent of taxpayers in all income groups will pay lower taxes in 2019 under the Senate Republican bill. But the study predicts 10.4 percent of households with incomes between $75,000 and $100,000 a year would pay at least $500 more annually in federal taxes.

Q: Why is that?

A: Both House and Senate bills provide incentives for Americans not to itemize their returns and fill out their returns on a single card. They do so by doubling the standard deduction to $24,000 a year for married taxpayers and $12,000 for those who are single filers. By taking the higher standard deduction, Americans could not deduct home mortgage interest, charitable contributions or medical expenses.

Both the House and Senate bills end the $4,050 personal exemption taxpayers can take for themselves and their family. The Senate bill scraps a major deduction 44 million Americans take for paying state and local taxes, including property taxes. If you live in a state with high taxes, such as California or New York, the standard deduction may not be enough to compensate for what you lose by not deducting state and local taxes. The House bill eliminates state and local income and sale taxes, but allows Americans to deduct as much as $10,000 in property taxes.

Q:Any other tax breaks for middle-income people?

A: Yes. The Senate bill expands the child tax credit from $1,000 per child a year to $2,000 a year. The House extends the tax credit from $1,000 per child to $1,600 per child, but that increase ends after five years. Neither the House nor the Senate make the additional credit refundable, meaning low-income families who do not pay income taxes will not be able to take advantage of it.

Q: Why cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent and drop to 25 percent the tax on sole proprietorships or partnerships currently taxed at the owner’s individual income tax rate, which can be as high as 39.6 percent?

A: The White House Council of Economic Advisers last month argued that cutting business taxes would make U.S. companies more competitive internationally and increase the nation’s gross domestic product. The White House claims the average household income would see an increase in wage and salary income by $4,000 by the end of 2027.

Q: Does anyone question that?

A: Yes. Organizations which champion lower deficits dismiss such projections as “magical economic growth that defy history and all credible analyses.”

Q: What happens to the Alternative Minimum Tax, which impacts roughly five million tax filers in the mostly upper middle income and upper income households?

A: Both bills scrap the AMT, but to comply with Senate budgetary rules, the Senate bill brings the tax back in 2026.

Q: Will the bill add to the publicly held debt, which is money the government owes to those who buy treasury bonds and other government securities?

A: The White House says no, but if they’re wrong the bill could produce staggering debts that will be a huge burden on future generations. House and Senate Republicans approved a budget resolution allowing the tax bill to add $1.5 trillion in publicly held debt during the next decade. During those same years, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office projects – without any change in tax or spending laws — the government will add nearly $10 trillion to the federal debt. The result could be the highest ratio of debt to gross domestic product since the end of World War II.

The House bill creates four brackets for taxable income:

  • 12 percent: Up to first $45,000 of taxable income for individuals; $90,000 for married couples filing jointly.
  • 25 percent: Over $45,000 to $200,000 for individuals; over $90,000 to $260,000 for married couples.
  • 35 percent: Over $200,000 to $500,000 for individuals; over $260,000 to $1 million for married couples.
  • 39.6 percent: Over $500,000 for individuals; over $1 million for married couples.

The Senate bill creates seven brackets for taxable income:

  • 10 percent: Income up to $9,525 for individuals; $19,050 for married couples filing jointly.
  • 12 percent: Over $9,525 to $38,700; over $19,050 to $77,400 for couples.
  • 22.5 percent: Over $38,700 to $60,000; over $77,400 to $120,000 for couples.
  • 25 percent: Over $60,000 to $170,000; over $120,000 to $290,000 for couples.
  • 32.5 percent: Over $170,000 to $200,000; over $290,000 to $390,000 for couples.
  • 35 percent: Over $200,000 to $500,000; over $390,000 to $1 million for couples.
  • 38.5 percent: Over $500,000; over $1 million for couples.

Source: CNN Money