President Obama and congressional Republicans are planning last-ditch talks in a bid to reach a deal before Friday’s sequester deadline. The impasse centers around Republican opposition to Obama’s call for ending tax loopholes favoring the wealthy. Speaking to the Business Council in Washington, Obama gave a nod to Republicans in acknowledging he’s willing to cut social spending in return for ending tax breaks.
President Obama: "Democrats have to accept the need for entitlement reform, but it also means that Republicans have to accept the need for additional revenues if we’re going to be able to actually close this deficit and provide the kind of certainty that you need to make your long-term investments. I think it was Winston Churchill who once said that Americans always do the right thing after they’ve exhausted every other possibility. And we’re getting to the point where we’ve now exhausted every other possibility."
The Senate is expected to vote today on both parties’ competing plans. A new Republican proposal would allow the sequestration deadline to pass but give Congress until late March to decide how the $85 billion in spending cuts would take effect.
The Senate has confirmed Treasury Secretary Jack Lew in a 71-to-26 vote. Lew was an executive at Citigroup from 2006 to 2008 at the time of the financial crisis and a longtime proponent of deregulating Wall Street. In a statement, Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont explained his vote against Lew, saying: "We need a secretary of the Treasury who does not come from Wall Street, but is prepared to stand up to the enormous power of Wall Street."
The Senate Intelligence Committee has again delayed its vote on the confirmation of CIA nominee John Brennan. The vote has been stalled in a standoff over the release of legal memos justifying the Obama administration’s assassination program, which Brennan has overseen. The committee is now expected to vote on Brennan next week.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was sworn in on Wednesday one day after his confirmation was approved. Hagel kicked off his tenure with an address to Pentagon staffers.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel: "I, a couple of hours ago, took the oath of office to become the 24th secretary of defense. It’s a great honor. It’s a privilege. Yes, for me, my family, but to be part of your team, who you are, is the honor. That’s the great privilege. You’re not joining my team; I’m joining your team."
The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing Wednesday on the proposal for reinstating the military assault weapons ban. In the hearing’s most testy exchange, Wisconsin Police Chief Ed Flynn sparred with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham on whether the ban would reduce killings.
Ed Flynn: "From my point of view, Senator, the purpose of the background check" —
Sen. Lindsey Graham: "How many cases have you made? How many cases have" —
Ed Flynn: "You know what? It doesn’t matter. It’s a paper thing. I want to stop" —
Sen. Lindsey Graham: "Well" —
Ed Flynn: "I want to stop 76" —
Sen. Lindsey Graham: "Can I ask the question? Wait, wait."
Ed Flynn: "I want to finish the answer."
Sen. Lindsey Graham: "Well, no. I’m asking" —
Ed Flynn: "I want to stop 76,000 people from buying guns illegally. That’s what a background check does."
Sen. Lindsey Graham: "How many AR-15s are legally owned in this country?"
Ed Flynn: "If you think we’re going to do paperwork prosecutions, you’re wrong."
Also appearing before the Senate panel was Neil Heslin, the father of six-year-old Newtown victim Jesse Lewis. Heslin made a tearful appeal for lawmakers to ban assault weapons.
Neil Heslin: "That’s a dangerous weapon, and anybody that can deny or argue that isn’t being honest. Jesse was six-and-a-half years old. His birthday was June 30th, 2006, he was born. It was the happiest day of my life. Saddest day of my life was December 14th. It was the worst day of my life."
The Obama administration is increasing aid to rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Washington Post reports the United States may provide military supplies, including body armor and armed vehicles. Without revealing details, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney confirmed plans to assist the rebels.
Jay Carney: "We will continue to provide assistance to the Syrian people, to the Syrian opposition. We will continue to increase our assistance in the effort to bring about a post-Assad Syria and a better path forward for the Syrian people."
The New York Times reports U.S. training of Syrian rebels is underway at a military base in an unspecified regional country. At a summit today in Rome, Secretary of State John Kerry announced $60 million in new aid for the Syrian opposition.
The oil giant Shell has announced it will not drill for oil in Alaska this year. Shell’s bid to begin exploratory drilling in the Arctic was approved last summer over the objections of indigenous and environmental groups. But Shell now says it will delay drilling after a series of mishaps.
Former Illinois state lawmaker Robin Kelly has won the Democratic primary to replace former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. Kelly was aided by more than $2 million in spending by Independence USA, the super PAC of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Independence flooded the airwaves with attack ads highlighting the pro-gun record of Kelly’s chief rival, former Rep. Debbie Halvorson. The Illinois special election to fill Jackson’s vacant House seat will be held in April.
A federal judge has ordered the release of two Seattle activists who have been jailed for refusing to testify before a grand jury. Katherine Olejnik and Matt Duran have been held without charge for five months, including two months in solitary confinement. They were imprisoned after refusing to appear before a grand jury reportedly investigating property damage at a Seattle courthouse on May 1st. Although neither were present when the damage occurred, they were subpoenaed to answer background questions about potential suspects.
The former French Resistance fighter Stéphane Hessel has died at the age of 95. Hessel joined the French Resistance during World War II, was caught by the Gestapo and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. He escaped during transfer to Bergen-Belsen and later helped draft the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 2010, he became an unlikely best-selling author when his pamphlet-length book, "Time for Outrage," sold millions of copies around the world and helped inspire protests like Occupy Wall Street. As the movement spread in the fall of 2011, Hessel explained to Democracy Now! why he was encouraged by nonviolent resistance.
Stéphane Hessel: "It is proper for the young generation to listen to the very old ones who tell them, 'We have been resisters at a time where there was fascism or Stalinism. You must find the things that you will not accept, that will outrage you. And these things, you must be able to fight against nonviolently, peacefully, but determinedly.' That is why I am so happy about what happens these days in Wall Street, because they’re indeed very peaceful. They are not throwing any bombs or any stones, but they’re there determined to see that their values are to be respected."
President Obama presided over a ceremony in Washington on Wednesday unveiling a statue of the late civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks. On Dec. 1, 1955, Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her act of resistance led to a 13-month boycott of the Montgomery bus system that would help spark the civil rights movement.
President Obama: "She lived a life of activism, but also a life of dignity and grace. And in a single moment, with the simplest of gestures, she helped change America and change the world. Rosa Parks’ singular act of disobedience launched a movement. The tired feet of those who walked the dusty roads of Montgomery helped a nation see that to which it had once been blind. It is because of these men and women that I stand here today. It is because of them that our children grow up in a land more free and more fair, a land truer to its founding creed."
(For more on the life of Rosa Parks, watch the Democracy Now! hour-long special on Rosa Parks with historian Jeanne Theoharis, author of the new biography, "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.")