Partisan divide over partisan issue: Supreme Court debates partisan gerrymandering

By Bill Mears

As expected, a familiar partisan divide at the Supreme Court developed Tuesday in a case over partisan gerrymandering-- efforts by political parties to manipulate electoral districts for maximum advantage.

In a lively hour of oral arguments, the justices appeared at odds over whether Wisconsin lawmakers created "extreme" legislative boundaries that benefited Republicans but were dramatically out of balance with the state's political makeup.

"It's okay to stack the decks so that for 10 years or an indefinite period of time one party, even though it gets a minority of votes, can get the majority of seats?" asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor rhetorically.

 "So what's this Court supposed to do, a pinch of this, a pinch of that? Or are we supposed to actually specify" a uniform standard," asked Justice Neil Gorsuch, who questioned whether such a court-mandated formula was possible or desirable.  "That doesn't seem very fair to the states to me, to know what they're supposed to do to avoid the kind of litigation we're talking about."

More importantly, the court is being asked to endorse a workable standard going forward that would apply nationwide. The stakes are huge: the balance of power in state legislatures and Congress could tip in coming years, particularly after the 2020 census, when voting boundaries will be redrawn based on population changes.

After having lost the White House and Congress in 2008, Republicans undertook a complex plan to win control of state legislatures around the country in the 2010 mid-terms, so they could shape congressional districts going forward. They were wildly successful, and Democrats now hope a high court ruling in their favor will help them chip away at GOP gains.

Lower federal courts struck down Wisconsin's 2011 voting boundaries and state officials then asked the high court for a "workable" legal standard to determine when partisan gerrymandering is impermissibly extreme.

In closely divided "purple" Wisconsin, the GOP has a 64-35 advantage in the state Assembly and a 20-13 edge in the state Senate. This despite President Trump winning the 2016 election by a single percentage point in that swing state.

The justices have traditionally been reluctant to wade too deeply into the gerrymandering issue, with several on the bench believing it is a political issue best handled outside the courts.

"The court is ultimately going to decide, number one: is this an issue we as a court can decide and resolve, or is it something best left to the political branches?" said Thomas Dupree, a former top Bush Justice Department official.  "And number two-- if it is something we can decide, what the heck  do we do?"

Justice Anthony Kennedy seems sure to be the decisive vote for any major intervention, with court watchers citing a 2004 concurrence. Kennedy said he "would not foreclose all possibility of judicial relief if some limited and precise rationale were found to correct an established violation of the Constitution in some redistricting cases."

In Tuesday's oral arguments Kennedy appeared open to the idea of this court getting involved. He repeatedly press lawyers representing Wisconsin to answer whether a constitutional violation was at issue, and what remedy was preferred.

Other members of the court were more vocally skeptical of the Wisconsin state plan.

"What's really behind all of this? The precious right to vote, if you can stack a legislature in this way, what incentive is there for a voter to exercise his vote?" said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "Whether it's a Democratic district or a Republican district, the result, using this map, is preordained in most of the districts."

The increasing use of computer technology to create these maps has created competing analytical models that rely on such wonky metrics as "sensitivity testing" and "efficiency gaps." Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Stephen Breyer both jokingly called it "gobbledygook," but the justices are being asked to embrace some kind of social science statistical model going forward.

Supporters of reform included members of both major political parties, including former GOP California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who attended the arguments. He said the current redistricting system unfairly favors incumbents.

"You know there is something wrong with the system, and they will not fix it, the politicians.," he said. "Both parties do the same thing... I say 'hasta la vista' to gerrymandering," quoting his famous movie line.

Misha Tseytlin, the state solicitor general in Wisconsin, called claims of politics gone amok to be "scare tactics not borne out by the data," and said legislators in his state acted within the law.

Justice Samuel Alito called gerrymandering "distasteful," but added, "if we're going to impose a standard on the courts it's going to have to be manageable."

Roberts worried what would happened if the high court gets involved in a every gerrymandering dispute.

"We'll have to decide in every case whether the Democrats win or the Republicans win," said Roberts. "That is going to cause very serious harm to the status and integrity of the decisions of this Court in the eyes of the country."

More than three dozen states rely on the state legislature to redraw boundaries. Other states such as California rely on an independent commission to create what supporters say would be less extreme districts. Two years ago Kennedy was the deciding vote in a ruling allowing Arizona voters to take put the process into such a commission.

Federal courts are deciding whether Maryland's Democrat-crafted maps go too far, and similar lawsuits challenge the GOP-controlled version in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

The high court case is Gill v. Whitford (16-1161). A ruling is expected by next summer.

 

Trump lays out tax reform plan

Reporting by John Roberts

In Indiana today, where Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly faces a tight race for re-election next year, President Trump laid out his plan for tax reform.

“This is the right tax cut and this si the right time. Democrats and Republicans in Congress should come together finally.”

While many of the details have yet to be filled in, President Trump is proposing three tax rates for individuals.

Trump would double the standard of deduction from $12,000 for an individual and $24,000 for a married couple.

The corporate rate would be slashed from 35 to 20%, which President Trump, who has repeatedly said he doesn’t set red lines, today insisted was a red line:

“Very much a read line. In fact, I wanted to start at fifteen so that we got twenty. It just—the numbers were— fifteen was so low. We did not take in the revenue, but I wanted fifteen so we got twenty. Twenty is my number I am not negotiating that number. I am really—I am not gonna negotiate.”

President Trump would also reduce the tax rate for small businesses—so called s-corps or “pass through” companies to 25% and increase child tax credit from its current level of $1000 per child, though he’s leaving it to Congress to determine the exact amount.

The plan is to eliminate most itemized deductions, but keep mortgage and cahritbale deduction. The president would also eliminate “marriage” penalty, eliminate “death tax” and eliminate alternative minimum tax.

But from Capitol Hill, a warning came from Utah Senator Orrin Hatch forecasting a difficult time getting tax reform through.

“So I would like to bring those rates down for basically everybody, including businesses as well. It’s gonna be tough to do. We’re so equally divided it’s going to be almost impossible to do without some democratic help. And I’m hopeful we can do that.”

As an enticement, President Trump today threated Senator Joe Donnelly and other vulnerable Democrats.

“If Senator Donnelly doesn’t approve because he’s on the other side. We will come here and we will campaign against him like you wouldn’t believe.”

President Trump also revealed today that he has yet another backup plan for the repeal and replacement of Obamacare—insisting he has the Republican votes, just not at the m moment.

“We have the votes for healthcare. We have one senator that’s in the hospital. He can’t vote because he’s in the hospital. We have two other votes that are coming, and we will have them.”

The president was referring to Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran who had been in the hospital, but is now home recuperating. President Trump says he can’t cobble together enough votes by the reconciliation deadline of this Friday, but that he will try again in the new year.

“We’re going to do it in January or February because, as you know, we have the votes but we can’t go longer than Friday.”

The president also revealed he will likely sign an Executive Order next week to allow insurance companies to sell healthcare policies across state lines. That would fulfill a major campaign promise and something Republicans have pledged for years.

But the president‘s health secretary may never see the changes implemented. Tom Price is on thin ice after it was revealed he spent more than $400,000 on private planes. President Trump today said he was not happy about it and let Price know it. As for Price’s job…the president had this to say:

“I am going to see. I’m going to look at that very closely. I am not happy with it. I will tell you I am not happy with it.”

Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosello is hoping the federal government will waive the Jones Act

Reporting by Jake Gibson

Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosello is hoping the federal government will waive the Jones Act, which would lift some restrictions on ships providing aid to the island which is now facing a potential humanitarian crisis in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

Department of Homeland Security officials refute what they call erroneous reports that the department has rejected a waiver request. Rather, the Department of Homeland Security is presently reviewing a waiver request submitted by eight members of congress, led by Nydia Velazquez (D-NY).

However, DHS officials also tell us that the current situation is having, “no impact on our ability to deliver supplies,” to Puerto Rico.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has also been outspoken about the need for the federal government to push besides the Jones Act in this situation, however we know of no official request from the Arizona Senator’s office.

The issue seems to be that if the Jones Act were waived the price of some goods might come down.

However, DHS officials point out that the only reason the department can issue a waiver is, “in the interest of national defense.” They add that if congress wants to change that law, they should go ahead and do so. “We don’t have the authority to issue a waiver simply to lower costs.”

A waiver was granted to lift the Jones Act during the days immediately following Hurricane Harvey. That was in response to a request from the Department of Defense, which has not requested a waiver in the case of Puerto Rico.

Part of the requirements for DHS to issue a waiver would be, “insufficient US-flagged vessel capability.” However, DHS officials tell Fox News, “There not presently a lack of availability of US-flagged vessels,” at this point.

A decision from DHS could be coming before the end of the week.

EXCLUSIVE: Iran did not launch a missile last weekend despite claims, US officials say

Reporting by Lucas Tomlinson

Iranian state television released video footage Friday claiming to show the launch of a new type of medium-range ballistic missile, a few hours after it was displayed during a military parade in Tehran. Senior Iranian officials declared a test-launch would occur “soon” afterwards.

Turns out Iran never fired a ballistic missile.

The video released by the Iranians was more than seven months old--dating back to a failed launch in late January--which resulted in the missile exploding shortly after liftoff, according to two U.S. officials.

Saturday evening, President Trump responded to the reported launch in a tweet, “Iran just test-fired a Ballistic Missile capable of reaching Israel. They are also working with North Korea. Not much of an agreement we have!”

Last week in front of world leaders at the United Nations, Trump called the nuclear deal an “embarrassment” to the United States.  

“We cannot let a murderous regime continue these destabilizing activities while building dangerous missiles, and we cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program,” he said.

Trump later told reporters he had made up his mind about the deal, but would say whether or not he would pull the United States out of the nuclear accord with Iran.

Iran’s President Hassan Rohani spoke at the UN one day after Trump saying his country’s missile program was “solely defensive” in nature.  “We never threaten anyone, but we do not tolerate threats from anyone,” he added.  Rohani returned to Tehran two days later to preside over the missile parade featuring the new medium-range design and said his country would build as many missiles as necessary to defend itself.  

In late January, Iran attempted to launch its new Khorramshahr medium-range ballistic missile for the first time.  It flew 600 miles before exploding, in a failed test of a reentry vehicle, officials said at the time. Iranian defense minister Brigadier Gen. Hossein Dehqan said a year ago that Iran would start production of the missile.

The missile took off from a well-known test site outside Semnan, about 140 miles east of Tehran, according to American officials.

The failed late January launch was first reported by Fox News and prompted the White House to put Iran “on notice” days later.

Iran’s new medium-range missile is based on a North Korean design—Pyongyang’s BM-25 Musudan ballistic missile, which has a maximum range of nearly 2,500 miles, putting U.S. forces in the Middle East and Israel within reach if the problems are fixed.  

Last weekend, a senior Iranian general said the missile had a range of less than 2,000 miles.

"The Khoramshahr missile has a range of 2,000 kilometers [1,250 miles] and can carry multiple warheads," Iran’s official IRNA news agency quoted Revolutionary Guards aerospace chief General Amir Ali Hajizadeh as saying, more than 1,000 below U.S. estimates.

The missile “is capable of carrying multiple warheads,” Hajizadeh added.

“I am not sure why the Iranian’s are lying about the range,” said one U.S. official.  “I think they don’t want to piss the Europeans off.”

The official and others declined to be identified because they were not authorized to disclose sensitive information to the press.

“The very first missiles we saw in Iran were simply copies of North Korean missiles,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a missile proliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “Over the years, we've seen photographs of North Korean and Iranian officials in each other's countries, and we've seen all kinds of common hardware.”  

Experts say Iran possesses the largest arsenal of ballistic missiles in the Middle East, with more than 1,000 short and medium range ballistic missiles.  Tehran has conducted over 20 missile test since 2015.

“Iran has also become a center for missile proliferation, supplying proxies such as Hezbollah and Syria’s al-Assad regime with a steady supply of missiles and rockets, as well as local production capability. Furthermore, Iran is likely supplying Houthi rebel groups with short-range missiles in the ongoing conflict in Yemen,” says the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

U.N. resolution 2231 -- put in place days after the Iran nuclear deal was signed -- calls on the Islamic Republic not to conduct ballistic missile tests, but does not forbid them from doing so, after Russia and China insisted on the watered-down language in order to pass the resolution.

Iran is "called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology," according to the text of the resolution.

Iran claims the tests are legitimate because they are defensive in nature.  

Pentagon: US pulls back from watching ISIS convoy at request of Russians

Reporting by Lucas Tomlinson

The US military has pulled back its surveillance aircraft that had been watching an 11-bus ISIS convoy filled with hundreds of militants  including some of their family members at a request of the Russian government.

The ISIS convoy was given safe passage over 10 days ago to travel from the Lebanon-Syria border across the Syrian desert to the Iraqi border in a deal struck between Syria and Hezbollah, which angered the U.S. military.

Since the convoy departed, U.S. drones have picked off ISIS fighters when they left the convoy to relieve themselves, according to U.S. officials.

“We were able to exploit it and take advantage,” said Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a U.S. coalition spokesman Thursday during a press conference from Baghdad. 

The Russian military requested U.S. drones depart the area through the “de-confliction” line as Russian-backed Syrian forces battle to recapture the ISIS-held city of Deir ez-Zor located in eastern Syria.

The U.S. official was confident the U.S. military would pick up surveillance of the ISIS fighters in the future and said they would not threaten US military forces located in other parts of Syria.

A U.S. Army general said he would hold the Assad regime in Syria responsible for dealing with the convoy.

"The regime's advance past the convoy underlines continued Syrian responsibility for the buses and terrorists. As always, we will do our utmost to ensure that the ISIS terrorists do not move toward the border of our Iraqi partners," said Brig. Gen. Jon Braga, director of operations for the coalition.

A week ago the outgoing top U.S. commander in Iraq suggested he had no intention of letting this convoy make it across the desert.

“When ISIS came out to link up with them, we started striking ISIS, said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend. “We have struck every ISIS fighter and/or vehicle that has tried to approach that convoy, and that -- will continue to do that.”

Townsend said the U.S. coalition did not target any civilians in the convoy, but now that there is no surveillance on the convoy there is no stopping the convoy from moving again.

President Trump reaches across the aisle

Reporting by John Roberts

In the Oval Office today, meeting with the Emir of Kuwait, President Trump reassured people in the path of Irma that while it has been strained to the max, the federal government is on the job.

“We’ve never had a thing like this where you get hit with Harvey which was about as bad as it gets, and then you get hit with Irma,” the president said. “ I think FEMA’s been—I don’t think anybody has done anything like they’ve done at FEMA, and they have done a really good job.”

The president also weighed in on the surprise deal he cut with Senator Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi yesterday, indicating that there may be more such deals ahead.

“The people of the United States want to see it coming together. At least to an extent,” Mr. Trump said. We’re different parties and we have different thoughts, different feelings, and different ideas. But I think you’re going to see a much stronger coming together.”

Already, President Trump is in preliminary discussions with the democratic leadership on how to do away with the need for repeated measures to raise the debt ceiling.

And a tweet President Trump sent out this morning telling DACA recipients: “For all of those that are concerned about your stats during the 6 month period, you have nothing to worry about—No action!”

The tweet was prompted by a morning phone call with Leader Pelosi: “When he called this morning, I said, thanks for calling. This is what we need; the people really need a reassurance from you, Mr. President, that the 6 month period is not a period of roundup.

Republicans who were blindsided by what President Trump did on the debt ceiling and government funding yesterday were left to put their best spin on it this morning.

Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters, “The president made it really clear, and what he was aiming for in that meeting yesterday was a bi-partisan moment, while the country is facing two horrible hurricanes.”

Sources tell FOX News the president went into the meeting with the intention of clearing the decks on the knotty issue of debt ceiling and government funding so congress could stay focused on tax reform.

Sources also say the president grew weary of the dithering that was consuming the meeting. When the two sides appeared to hit a stalemate, agreeing to disagree, President Trump jumped in to close the deal he could get—if not the one he wanted.

The move shocked the Republican leadership, angered many conservatives, and produced a remarkable photo of the president and Senator Chuck Schumer locked in a partial embrace—but it appears to have the intended effect.

“This is our number one priority this fall,” said Speaker Ryan. “As you may have heard me say earlier, we want Americans to begin the new year with a new tax system.”

 

Senator Bob Menendez on trial for bribery

Reporting by David Lee Miller

New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, on trial from bribery, was on the verge of tears as he proclaimed his innocence outside a federal court in Newark today.

“I appreciate my family, my son and daughter, for being here today and appreciate all my supporters.”

Menendez faces a dozen criminal charges. He is accused of accepting more than $700,000 in campaign related cash and thousands of dollars in free hotel rooms and air travel from a longtime friend, Dr. Solomon Melgen.

During opening statements the prosecution told the jury that as part of the bribery scheme Menendez sent the doctor an email asking him to provide a $1,500 a night Paris hotel room with a limestone bath and a view of the courtyard.

Prosecutors say Menendez in exchange helped the doctor in multi-million dollar business deals and allegedly tried to get visas for the doctors foreign girlfriends.

Both Melgen, who has a previous conviction for Medicare fraud, and Menendez are on trial, but there is more at stake. The trial could change the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.

The judge rejected a motion by Menendez to change the trial schedule to allow him to attend crucial votes such as healthcare.

In a testy exchange today, Menendez’s attorney accused the judge of disparaging the defense in his written opinion. At one point the judge told Menendez’s lawyer “shut up for a moment, if you don’t mind.”

Menendez says he will exercise his constitutional right to attend trial, but acknowledged the conflict he faces if Democrats need his vote in the senate.

“When conflict exists, the clash between those constitutional rights, I will make a decision based upon the gravity of the situation and the difference that my vote would make.”

During his opening statement Menendez‘s lawyer told jurors “a single word can cut through a mountain of evidence.” That word—friendship. The defense says this isn’t a case of bribery, just one friend helping another out.

The trial is expected to last six weeks.

U.S. settles suit over Trump travel ban

Reporting by Rich Edson

Hameed Khalid Darweesh is an Iraqi immigrant who worked with the U.S. military. In January, he was detained in New York—a result of the Trump administration’s first travel ban.

Under his settlement with the administration, the government must notify those wrongly blocked from entering the United States in January and help them reapply for U.S. visas.

A Justice Department spokeswoman tells FOX news: “Although this case has been moot since March, when the president rescinded the original executive order and issued a new one that does not restrict the entry of Iraqi nationals, the U.S. government has elected to settle this case on favorable terms.”

Department officials say the decision affects fewer than 20 people and that they had the right prior to this settlement to reapply for a visa.

The next and ultimate legal destination for the president’s travel ban is the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Trump administration unveiled its first travel ban in January barring citizens from entering Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen from entering the U.S. All are Muslim-majority countries.

The next day, a federal judge in New York blocked some of the order. Days later a U.S. district judge in Seattle halted the immigration ban nationwide.

A month later, the Trump administration issued a new, more limited order.

The following week, a federal judge in Hawaii blocked that executive order and in June, the Supreme Court reinstated some of it while it considers the issue.

Supreme Court oral arguments are scheduled for next month. Justices will consider how much power a president has over immigration, national security concerns and any role religion may have played in the order.

Harvey cleanup: Only 1 in 6 have flood insurance

Reporting by Mike Emanuel

The grim reality is many of Hurricane Harvey’s storm victims do not have flood insurance and soon they must decide if they’ll try to rebuild, or if it’s time to go elsewhere.

FEMA is trying to point all displaced families in the right direction, advising those with insurance to activate their national flood insurance policies, but for those without the Small Business Administration offers loans to homeowners and renters with 1.75% interest rate--more affordable than banks or credit cards.

For many, that loan would be on top of a mortgage, which may be difficult for many residents to juggle.

For those with insurance, people who default with rebuilding after Superstorm Sandy in New York and New Jersey warn it has been a very frustrating process.

“It’s a nightmare,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said during a recent interview. “And it’s one of the worst run programs in America, the National Flood Insurance Program.”

That flood insurance program is $25 billion in debt after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Sandy in 2012. It has less than $2 billion cash on hand with only $6 billion in borrowing capacity as it prepares for Hurricane Harvey recovery.

Congress must act to reauthorize it by October 1st, and some lawmakers are saying it’s time to fix flood insurance by creating a reserve fund for these kinds of disasters.

“We should look over the horizon and say how do you make this program work,” said Congressman Sean Duffy (R-WI). “We have properties that will flood multiple times, and when your property floods, you get mold in your house, let’s help people get out of those homes and into a different house that is actually safe and secure for them.”

Republican congressional leaders are considering putting some Harvey relief, government funding, and the debt ceiling all in one package.

“We obviously have now the hurricane spending which is an issue so that’s going to have some impact on our September spending but more importantly, we’re going have to go to Congress to get authorization to spend more,” said Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

In Texas this week, President Trump expressed a sense of urgency, saying “There’s never been anything so historic in terms of damage and in terms of ferocity as what we’ve witnessed with Harvey.”

There are only 12 legislative days in September that the House and Senate are both due to be in session so that would suggest a mega bill would seem likely. Plus, the Harvey components would make it much more difficult for lawmakers to vote no.

Trump heads to Missouri to push tax reform

Reporting by John Roberts

As the president kicked off his campaign for tax reform in Springfield, MO, a new FOX News poll finds his approval rating at just 41%. That’s down 4 points from April. 55% disapprove –a 7 point rise since April and a record high.

56% of registered voters think President Trump is tearing the nation apart vs 33% who believe he is drawing the country together.

His highest marks were on his handling of the economy with 49% giving him a thumbs up.

The president’s speech in Missouri was all about why tax reform is important to the economy, now how plans to do it, with a particular focus on the people who put him into the Oval Office—middle income Americans.

“We believe that ordinary Americans know better than Washington how to spend their money and we want to help them take home as much of their money as possible and then spend it,” the president told the crowd.

His speech set the table for meetings at the White House text week.

Tuesday, the president will strategize with the so called “big 6” on tax reform—Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Orrin Hatch, Kevin Brady, Stephen Mnuchin, and Gary Cohn.

Wednesday, he’ll meet with the bipartisan congressional leadership. Tax reform is not officially on the agenda, but likely to come up.

After the repeal of Obamacare fell flat, the president laid down a stern marker to his colleagues on Capitol Hill.

“I am fully committed to working with Congress to get this job done and I don’t want to be disappointed by Congress. Do you understand me?”

And he took specific aim at Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill who is up for re-election next year.

“She must do this for you and if she doesn’t do it for you, you must vote her out of office!”

President Trump also appeared to take notice of criticisms about his visit to Texas yesterday and his fire station address to people in Corpus Christi. Several publicans said the president’s tone lacked empathy and was more akin to that of a political rally.

At the top of his Missouri speech the president did reach out to victims of Harvey, saying “to those affected by the storm, we are praying for you and we are here for you every single step of the way.”

The president’s response so far to hurricane Harvey received middling marks. 44% of registered voters said they approve. Just 26% say they disapprove while 30% said they were unsure. With so much yet uncertain in the aftermath of Harvey a lot of folks have yet to make up their minds.

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