The leader of the agency charged with the ObamaCare rollout is stepping down after five years on the job. Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS), announced her departure Friday, which will take effect next month. "It is with sadness and mixed emotions that I write to tell you that February will be my last month serving as the administrator for CMS," Tavenner wrote in an email to staff. Tavenner is leaving after five turbulent years overseeing the agency. Her tenure included the disastrous rollout of the government’s HealthCare.gov website as well as, most recently, an inflated tally of total ObamaCare enrollment. Republicans on the House Oversight Committee last month grilled Tavenner about the miscount, which had helped push the first-year enrollment total for ObamaCare past 7 million — a milestone that was celebrated by the administration at the time. Tavenner said some figures were “inadvertently” double-counted, an explanation that was greeted with deep skepticism from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), whose staff identified the error. “Tavenner had to go,” Issa wrote Friday in a statement provided first to The Hill.
Obamacare is about to collide with the U.S. tax-filing season, adding frustration for millions of taxpayers trying to figure out how to comply and how much they will owe the government. Tax filing for 2014 opens Jan. 20. The biggest change for most taxpayers is on Line 61 of Form 1040: a box to check if you have health insurance and a tax to pay if you don’t. Millions who received insurance through Obamacare’s exchanges will have a more complicated set of calculations to complete. “There’s going to be tons of questions and confusion and uncertainty and complexity,” said Kathy Pickering, executive director of the Tax Institute, the research and analysis division of H&R Block Inc. (HRB) “We still have a lot of questions.” ... “People are going to absolutely be blindsided,” said Steve Mankowski, a partner at EP Caine & Associates in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, who is chairman of the National Conference of CPA Practitioners’ tax-policy committee. “It can take someone from getting a refund to owing money.”
Mark your calendars: The Republican National Committee has just blasted out the 2016 presidential primary debate schedule.
Today, at the Republican National Committee (RNC) Winter Meeting in San Diego, California, the RNC announced that it has sanctioned nine debates from August 2015 through March 1, 2016. ...
In other news, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus is sticking around:
Today at the RNC Winter Meeting in San Diego, CA, Chairman Reince Priebus was reelected to a third term. Chairman Priebus will become the longest serving Chairman in modern history and is only the seventh person to serve four years as Republican Party Chairman. Chairman Priebus was first elected Chairman on January 14, 2011, and reelected on January 25, 2013.
A brief excerpt from his post-victory remarks:
I want to make three things very clear today.
First, 2014 was a historic year for Republicans, and the RNC made it possible.
Second, winning 2016 is going to take a lot more hard work.
And third, for the next two years, we’re going to be laser-focused on the White House—both its current occupant and the Democrats who want to occupy it.
Winning last November took a lot. It required an unprecedented investment in our field program—and a large and talented team. It meant using the best data we’ve ever had to guide the earliest voter-targeting operation we’ve ever deployed.
The RNC, as well as our sister committees and other groups, learned the lessons of the Growth and Opportunity Project. We adapted accordingly.
As I noted earlier in the week, the RNC Convention will be held July 18-21 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Arizona has become the first state to mandate that high school students take and pass a citizenship exam to graduate from high school or earn a GED diploma. The bill "sailed" through the Arizona legislature yesterday with bipartisan support.
From the Associated Press:
The proposal requires high school students to correctly answer 60 of 100 questions on the civics portion of the test new citizens must pass. The test includes questions about the Founding Fathers, the Bill of Rights and U.S. presidents. Passing it would be required to earn a high school or GED diploma starting in the 2016-17 school year.
The bill garnered support from all 53 Republicans in the House and Senate, plus 10 of 27 Democrats.
Fifteen other states have considered similar legislation, and a similar bill has already passed the House of Representatives in North Dakota. The Jim Foss Institute, which is the driving force promoting the laws, has a goal mandating the test in all 50 states by 2017.
Studies have shown that roughly a third of U.S. students would fail the exam given to naturalized citizens.
I'm in favor of this kind of bill. The content of the citizenship test is something every American should know. It's hard to fight for one's liberties if you have no idea what they are.
Yep. That’s right; 400 American troops will be shipped to Syria in the spring to train moderate rebels in the region (via AP):
Pentagon spokesman Maj. James Brindle confirmed the planned deployment early Friday morning. The U.S. plan was first reported by Defense One Thursday.
Last month, President Barack Obama signed into law a massive defense policy bill that endorsed his plan to fight Islamic State militants, including air strikes and training Iraqis and moderate Syrian rebels. The law authorized the training and equipping of moderate Syrian rebels battling the extremists for two years, and provided $5 billion to train Iraqis battling the militants who brutally rule large sections of the two countries.
It’s projected that up to 5,400 Syrian rebels will be trained. The U.S. already has over 2,000 military personnel in Iraq working with their forces, but military commanders feel the situation hasn’t reached a “tipping point” there. With Syria, it’s a whole other animal. One of the arduous tasks ahead of this mission is finding out which rebel groups are friend or enemy for a lack of a better term; a phrase that should be take lightly, if not with complete skepticism in this part of the world (via Defense One):
In addition to the trainers, the U.S. military expects to deploy hundreds of additional U.S. military personnel as so-called enabling forces who will deploy alongside the trainers to provide security and other support at the training sites, according to senior defense officials. Coalition partners are expected to contribute forces as well for an effort that for now is envisioned to train about 5,400 rebel forces each year for three years.
U.S. military commanders and intelligence sources say that while there is not yet a tipping point in Iraq, the combination of the airstrike campaign and the assistance to the Iraqi forces there has at least slowed the Islamic State’s ability to maneuver.
But Syria is a different story. With no American combat boots on the ground and limited intelligence, the U.S. is struggling to have an impact there against Islamic State militants or the Assad regime.
One of the biggest hurdles for the U.S. training program for Syrian rebels is identifying and vetting individuals to train. Defense officials said earlier this month that the U.S. is working closely with other U.S. government agencies as well as partner nations to find rebel fighters who would be candidates for the program.
“That process is very active right now,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters Jan. 6.
But identifying rebel fighters who don’t have ties to Jabhat al-Nusra, the main al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, is extremely difficult for a Pentagon with limited resources on the ground.
Still, the Pentagon is confident its forces can identify, recruit and then train a moderate force. American military forces, particularly Special Forces, have decades of experience screening foreign military forces for training, Pentagon officials said.
The Friday Filibuster: The one-stop-shop for everything you need to know about this week in politics.
Paris Unity Rally, Obama’s Absence, & the White House’s Response
Led by dozens of world leaders, more than a million people marched through the streets of Paris on Sunday to rally for unity, solidarity, and defiance after three days of terror, which Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula took credit for. Noticeably absent from the rally was the U.S., and the media excoriated the White House for not sending any high-ranking officials. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest admitted on Monday that the U.S. had ‘erred’ in skipping out on the rally, but when further questioned, refused to “unpack” the decision-making process that led to the absence. And to make matters worse, the White House still questions the judgment of Charlie Hebdo for their decision to publish satirical cartoons of Mohammed.
Charlie Hebdo Is Back, (Some) Media Continue Showing Solidarity, & Jews Are Leaving France
Since last week’s attacks, a newspaper in Germany that reprinted some of Charlie Hebdo’s Mohammed cartoons was firebombed. One paper in Montreal cleverly published a “Draw Mohammed” connect-the-dots picture. And “The Simpons” paid tribute by running a clip of Maggie holding a “Je Suis Charlie” sign. Proving they aren’t afraid of anything, the remaining Charlie Hebdo editors went ahead with its publication this week, complete with more Mohammed cartoons. They ended up printing 3 million copies, which sold out before dawn. But some countries, like Turkey, took steps to ban websites showing the cover. Britain’s Sky News wasn't far behind, though, after cutting away and apologizing to viewers after a Charlie Hebdo writer displayed the new cover on air. In light of the attacks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has implored French Jews to come to Israel, and it seems the wounded owner of the Kosher supermarket where one of the attacks took place is taking him up on the offer. Shockingly, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter linked the attacks, in part, back to Israel. On an uplifting note, the Muslim immigrant who hid shoppers from the gunman during the attack on the supermarket will be given French citizenship.
The Great Immigration Debate
Ahead of the House passing a DHS spending bill that effectively defunds Obama’s executive amnesty, Sen. Jeff Sessions this week delivered a 22-page memo to every Republican member of Congress on how the GOP should reframe the immigration debate. House Speaker John Boehner defended the House’s action this week and said the president’s executive amnesty is an “affront to the rule of law and the Constitution itself.” But the White House promised that President Obama would veto the House-passed DHS funding bill, should it reach his desk. Republican moderates, for their part, are using the recent terror threat (from a mama’s boy) on the U.S. Capitol as an excuse to cave on amnesty. Meanwhile, the Mexican government is making it easier for illegal immigrants to take advantage of Obama’s amnesty by issuing birth certificates to its citizens at consulates in the U.S.
Campaign & Election Rumblings
The focus of this week’s election news was that Mitt Romney will likely run again, leading many to wonder if there’s a Romney-Bush war looming. In Iowa polling, Romney is still on top, leading Bush by 7, and he’s even said to be courting Sen. John McCain’s vote. Gov. Scott Walker, however, has gently suggested Romney is a candidate from the past and that the GOP needs a fresh face to beat Clinton. Speaking of Hillary, there is no doubt left that she’s running, as she’s hired a number of key Democratic players to help with her ‘emerging presidential bid,’ including the architect of Obama’s imperial presidency, John Podesta. Back on the GOP front, Paul Ryan will not seek the Republican nomination in 2016, but Sen. Rand Paul is reportedly making moves, and yes, even Sen. Lindsey Graham is considering a White House run. At the state level, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom will not run in the state’s Senate race for retiring Barbara Boxer’s seat. And in Missouri, Sen. Claire McCaskill has decided she's not tossing her hat into the gubernatorial ring in 2016. The RNC also announced this week the dates for the 2016 Convention in Cleveland.
House and Senate Republicans headed off to Hershey, Penn., to discuss a number of policy issues and legislative realism. Sen. John Thune and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said the retreat was about unveiling America’s new Congress. At the Heritage Foundation, which released a new book on Monday embracing conservative populism, Rep. Luke Messer outlined the conservative plan for school choice and Rep. Chris Smith exposed another lie in Obamacare about funding for abortion. The Keystone Pipeline also marched forward in the Senate this week, which is still wildly popular in polling.
Obamacare, the IRS, & That Terrible Liberal Policy
Washington Examiner editor Phil Klein released a book this week about how Republicans can reverse the government takeover of health care. In the meantime, however, The Chicago Tribune reminded consumers about the law’s higher costs and fewer benefits for workers. With tax season about to open, IRS commissioner John Koskinen is warning that budget cuts to the agency will result in delayed refunds, identity theft, long wait times, and a possible shut down of the agency. He’d do well to collect back taxes from the agency’s own employees first, however. And back to the IRS scandal, new emails obtained through a FOIA request also came out this week about Lois Lerner begging her supervisor not to visit the Cincinnati office just ahead of the 2012 elections. Finally, yet another study has come out finding that minimum wage hikes may have accounted for an astonishing number of jobs lost during the 2008 recession.
Terrorism & National Security
The White House is refusing to use the words “radical Islam” to describe radical Islam, which is exactly what human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali believes it is. Since the Charlie Hebdo attack, multiple ISIS-affiliated sleeper cells are being activated across Europe, and Belgian authorities have already foiled major terrorist attacks. Saudi Arabia, for their part, is constructing a 600-mile wall in an effort to keep ISIS out. And in Iraq, their gruesome attacks continue, with new video out showing the jihadists throwing men off buildings for being gay, women being stoned for adultery, and men being crucified for theft. In the U.S., ISIS sympathizers hacked CENTCOM’s Twitter and YouTube accounts this week while Obama was speaking about cybersecurity. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is going full steam ahead with its plan to shut down Guantanamo Bay, releasing five more detainees originally from Yemen.
Graphics by Feven Amenu.
British Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed Friday that he is calling U.S. Senators to lobby against passing new sanctions again the regime in Iran.
"To answer you very directly," Cameron said at a joint press conference with President Obama at the White House, "yes I have contacted a couple of Senators as British Prime Minster not to tell the American Senate what it should or shouldn't do, that wouldn't be right. But simply to make the point as a country that stands alongside America in these vital negotiations that it is the opinion of the United Kingdom that further sanctions or further threat of sanctions at this point won't actually help to bring the talks to a successful conclusion."
For his part, Obama reiterated his promise to veto any new bill that threatened new sanctions on the Iranian regime. "I will veto a bill that comes to my desk," Obama said, "and I will make this argument to the American people as to why I'm doing so."
Obama suggested a timeline of possibly "60 or 90 days" for securing a nuclear deal with Iran, but stressed he was not threatening war if the negations failed. "I am not, repeat not, suggesting that we are on immediate war footing should negotiations with Iran fail."
Reaching a deal with Iran on their nuclear program is the biggest foreign policy priority of Obama's second term and the regime in Iran has been using Obama's ambition as leverage during the talks.
According to John McCain, his “illegitimate son” is actively “exploring” a White House run.
Is he? Why yes, yes he is:
“I’m not doing it to make a statement. I’m doing it to change the country and offer what I have to offer to the American people, and to my party. And I think I’m uniquely qualified to deal with the threats we’re talking about.
In these troubled times, a candidate like Graham who can articulate a path forward would perhaps capture the attention of the American people, if only briefly. But my hunch is that there would be very little interest in Graham as a presidential candidate outside his home state. Despite running an excellent re-election campaign (winning in large part because he avoided a credible primary challenge), Graham seemingly lacks the charisma and support to mount a serious bid. He also does not command the respect of the grassroots, as evidenced by his support for amnesty and other pet projects of the establishment. His only path to victory, of course, is through South Carolina. And how likely is that in a crowded field of successful governors, ex-governors, and former GOP nominees?
Still, don’t be surprised if the most unlikely and unexpected candidates continue to put their names forward in 2016.
It's what politicians do when there's no incumbent.
Some in the West prefer not to consider themselves at war with radical Islam, refusing to even call the threat by its name. But radical Islamists aren't the least bit murky on this question. Following the Charlie Hebdo massacre and subsequent hostage situations in Paris, Belgian authorities have foiled "major terrorist attacks," which they say included a plot to murder police officers. Here's nighttime video of the initial (lethal) raid, followed by a news account:
The plan was to gun down law officers in Belgium's streets or at police stations, possibly disguised in police uniforms themselves. But police stopped suspected terrorists in the city of Verviers in a raid Thursday night just before they were about to strike, Belgium's federal prosecutor said Friday. "Could have been hours, certainly no more than a day or two," Eric van der Sypt said. Officers killed two suspects, and wounded and arrested a third in Thursday's operation...overnight, police fanned out across Belgium in 12 raids, where they arrested 12 people in various cities, including the capital, Brussels, van der Sypt said. They got everyone on their list. In France, police also made 12 arrests on Friday in last week's slaying of 17 people -- at satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, a kosher store and during a police stop. Two of those arrested were Belgians and will be extradited, van der Sypt said. But there does not appear to be any connection between the shootings in Paris and the terror plans in Belgium, he said.
A Western Intelligence source tells CNN that the ongoing terror threat appears to involve up to 20 sleeper cells of between 120 to 180 people ready to strike in France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. The source said that European Union and Middle East intelligence agencies identified an "imminent threat" to Belgium, possibly also to the Netherlands...The Belgian counterterrorism official said indications of ISIS ordering attacks in Europe mark an apparent significant shift by the terrorist group.
More than three months of U.S. airstrikes in Syria have failed to prevent Islamic State militants from expanding their control in that country, according to U.S. and independent assessments, raising new concerns about President Barack Obama’s military strategy in the Middle East. While U.S. bombing runs and missile strikes have put Islamic State forces on the defensive in Iraq, they haven’t had the same kind of impact in Syria. Instead, jihadist fighters have enlarged their hold in Syria since the U.S. started hitting the group’s strongholds there in September, according to the new estimates. Islamic State’s progress in Syria is partly the result of the U.S. decision to focus its military efforts on Iraq, where the militant group has seized major parts of the country and declared them part of a new Islamic caliphate. The U.S.-led military effort has pushed the forces out of some key battlegrounds in Iraq. But Syria still serves as a haven for Islamic State fighters...
An offshoot of the Middle East's Islamic State insurgency has begun operating on southern Afghanistan, less than three months after British combat troops withdrew from the region. A man identified as Mullah Abdul Rauf was actively recruiting fighters for the groups, flying black flags and, according to some sources, even battling Taliban militants. Local sources said Rauf, a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner, had set up his base in Helmand province and was offering good wages to anyone willing to fight for the Islamic State.
It seems Saudi Arabia is taking a page out of World War Z–or the Great Wall of China–concerning their latest defensive effort to repel ISIS’ advance. The Saudis are constructing a 600-mile long wall, dotted with motion sensors, twin chainlink fences, sand embankments, 38 communication towers, and 32 rapid response centers that will come with helipads. Welcome to Fortress Saudi Arabia (via the Telegraph):
The proposal had been discussed since 2006, at the height of the Iraqi civil war, but work began in September last year after Isil’s charge through much of the west and north of the country gave it a substantial land border with the Kingdom to the south.
The border zone now includes five layers of fencing with watch towers, night-vision cameras and radar cameras.
Riyadh also sent an extra 30,000 troops to the area.
Hershey, PA -- At the Joint Republican House-Senate retreat today, NBC’s Luke Russert asked House Speaker Boehner about the attempt on his life by a bartender, the foiled plot on the Capitol, and how he felt about the security situation for himself and his colleagues.
The Speaker noted that it’s just a daily reminder of the dangerous world we live in, citing the horrific Paris Shootings as an example. He did not go into his own security detail. As for the bartender, the speaker hoped he gets the help needed to address his apparent mental health issues, after which he thanked the FBI, Capitol Police, and the West Chester police department for handling this issue.
As for the planned ISIS-inspired attack on the U.S. Capitol, Speaker Boehner said, “we would have never know about this if had it not been for the FISA program, and our ability to collect information on people who pose an imminent threat.”
Congress is set to debate reauthorizing the FISA program.
“Our government does not spy on Americans, unless there are Americans who are doing things that–frankly–tip off law enforcement officials to an imminent threat. And it was our law enforcement officials–and those programs–that helped us stop this person before he committed a heinous crime in our nation’s capitol,” he added.
Boehner said that Ohio plot to attack the Capitol would not have been picked up w/o FISA. But the plotter was talking on social media— Tim Mak (@timkmak) January 15, 2015
Yet, Christopher Lee Cornell, who was arrested by the FBI for planning this alleged attack, only used social media, prompting one reporter to interject by asking if the speaker knew something that we don’t.
Apparently, there is something more to this incident.
“I will just let the whole story roll out there, but it was far more than just that,” said the speaker.
Regarding the other issues asked throughout the day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that divided government is the perfect time to work on tax reform, as then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil and President Reagan did it in the 1980s.
The president has said that he’s only looking into reforming the corporate tax code, which the Senate Majority Leader said was problematic since it leaves out most American businesses.
On immigration, ABC News’ Jeff Zeleny asked if the Senate has the 60 votes, and if not, what was the secondary protocol. McConnell simply said, “Well, we’re going to try and pass it,” though, Sen. Thune made it clear that the Senate will do what’s possible given the 60-vote threshold.
As for Plan B, McConnell added, “we’ll let you know what comes next.”
Legislative realism was on the docket for discussion at this retreat with regards to what bills are realistically possible to get through both chambers. An example that was used–as always–the DHS funding bill.
“I’ll just go first,” said the speaker:
“The House is going to work its will. The Senate is going to work its will, and then we’ll get in conference, or we’ll find some way to resolve the differences. That is what we call regular order. That’s the legislative process. There are 535 of us on Capitol Hill, and to try to get all of us to agree is not an easy job. The Founders never envisioned it to be easy, and it certainly isn’t–but I think each of the chambers has to do what they’re capable of doing and then we try to resolve the differences."
Mitch McConnell declined to jump into that one.
As for areas for potential agreement, given President Obama’s threat to veto much of the Republican agenda, like approval of the Keystone Pipeline, Sen. McConnell did say that cyber security, Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), tax reform, infrastructure. Yet, he said the last two were more potential areas of agreement, but certainly common ground can be found on cyber security and TPA.
As expected, members of Congress–and their staffs–were very tight-lipped and members of the press were politely ushered back into the media room if we got too close to the area where House Representatives and Senators were gathering for their retreat.
Sen. Mitch McConnell also said that newly elected Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa would deliver the Republican address.
Sen. Ernst, barely taller than the microphones on the podium, told reporters that she’s “humbled and honored” to deliver the Republican address, which was reported by my colleague Christine yesterday.
“We’re very anxious to get to work,” she said. “We want to ensure that the America we are building leaves a stronger economy and more opportunity for our children and our grandchildren,” she added.