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Sen. Cory Booker, Rep. John Lewis to testify against Jeff Sessions for attorney general

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Sen. Cory Booker will apparently make history this week when he testifies before the Judiciary Committee against Sen. Jeff Sessions' nomination for attorney general in hearings that begin Tuesday.

Booker's office said Monday that the Senate historian had been unable to find any previous instance of a sitting senator's testifying against a fellow sitting senator nominated for a Cabinet position.

Noting that "I'm breaking a pretty long Senate tradition," the New Jersey Democrat said Monday on MSNBC's "All In": "We've seen Jeff Sessions — that's Senator Jeff Sessions — consistently voting against or speaking out against key ideals of the Voting Rights Act, taking measures to try to block criminal justice reform."

"He has a posture and a positioning that I think represent a real danger to our country," Booker said.

In 1986, the Senate Judiciary Committee killed President Ronald Reagan's nomination of Sessions to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama after four former Justice Department colleagues testified that he had made racially offensive statements.

Sessions turned the rejection into a launchpad for his political career. He was elected attorney general of Alabama before being elected in 1996 to the U.S. Senate, where he is considered among the more conservative members.

Several other prominent African-American figures in addition to Booker also plan to testify against Sessions, R-Alabama, a former U.S. attorney and attorney general in Alabama, including two members of the House: Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, a leader of the civil rights movement of the 1960s; and Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-Louisiana, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The NAACP has also strongly opposed Sessions' nomination, calling him "a threat to desegregation and the Voting Rights Act."

The only African-American Republican senator, Tim Scott of South Carolina, said in a statement Monday that he would be supporting Session's nomination after placing "special emphasis" on the decision at a time of "racial and societal unrest like we have not seen in a generation."

Scott said after doing his own homework, working with Sessions for four years and meeting with him personally, that he had determined Sessions to be a "consistently fair person" who is committed to upholding the Constitution.

Sessions was Trump's earliest supporter in the Senate, where his fierce opposition to illegal immigration and skepticism toward legal immigration aligned with Trump's campaign message.

He has been criticized by numerous liberal and civil rights organizations, which cite his strong opposition to expansion of rights for gay and lesbian Americans, legalization of marijuana even for medical use, legal abortion, embryonic stem cell research and President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act.

In his statement, Booker also singled out what he characterized as Sessions' opposition to "bipartisan criminal justice reform" and his "efforts earlier in his career to deny citizens voting rights."

"The Attorney General is responsible for ensuring the fair administration of justice, and based on his record, I lack confidence that Senator Sessions can honor this duty," Booker said.

 

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6 MORE REPUBLICANS SAY SLOW DOWN ON OBAMACARE REPEAL

Anxiety about repealing Obamacare without a replacement got a lot more visible in the U.S. Senate on Monday evening, as a half-dozen Republican senators called publicly for slowing down the process. It’s not clear how strongly these senators feel about it, or whether they are willing to defy party leadership over how and when efforts to repeal Obamacare proceed.

But at least three other GOP senators have now expressed reservations about eliminating the Affordable Care Act without first settling on an alternative. That brings the total to nine ― well more than the three defections it would take to deprive Republicans of the majority they would likely need to get repeal through Congress. And the restlessness isn’t confined to the Senate. Members of the House Freedom Caucus on Monday evening issued their own call for slowing down the repeal process.

At the very least, these developments suggest that taking President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy off the books is unlikely to go as smoothly or as quickly as GOP leaders once hoped.

The change in the political environment has been perceptible, and relatively sudden. Following the election of Donald Trump in November, GOP leaders indicated they intended to move immediately on Obamacare repeal, using expedited procedures reserved for certain fiscal issues.

First, Congress would pass a budget resolution, instructing committees with jurisdiction over health care to write repeal legislation. Once that work was done, the House and Senate each would vote on the legislation, work out their differences, and send a bill to the White House, where Trump would presumably sign it. 

The budget resolution is supposed to pass this week, and, as written, it calls for the committees to finish their work by Jan. 27 ― just a little more than two weeks from now.

But as the prospect of repealing Obamacare has suddenly ceased to be hypothetical, Republicans have confronted all sorts of questions ― not least among them what will happen to the roughly 20 million people getting insurance through the program right now.

Initially, GOP leaders responded by promising to let elements of Obamacare remain in place for a short time, setting up a transition period during which people who have Obamacare coverage would theoretically get to keep it. But over the past few days, several GOP senators have said that this “repeal-and-delay” strategy still leaves too much uncertainty about what would follow Obamacare, and have called for settling on a replacement plan ― or at least the outlines of one ― before voting on repeal.

On Monday, five of them put their protests on paper ― by introducing an amendment to the budget resolution that would push back that Jan. 27 date until March 3.

“Repeal and replace should take place simultaneously, and this amendment will give the incoming administration more time to outline its priorities,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said. “By exercising due diligence we can create a stable transition to an open health care marketplace that provides far greater choice and more affordable plans for the American people.”

The four other GOP senators behind the amendment are Bill Cassidy (La.), Susan Collins (Maine), Rob Portman (Ohio), and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).

As a legal matter, the amendment wouldn’t mean much. Neither the old nor the new deadline would be binding, Capitol Hill aides said, and it’s entirely possible that Monday’s statement will prove an empty gesture.

Nor is it likely that one extra month would give Republicans enough time to settle on an Obamacare replacement.

But the decision to propose the amendment ― and to attach strong quotes to it ― could also indicate something more, as Jim Manley, longtime aide to former Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and before that the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), told The Huffington Post.

“The senators on this letter are smart enough to realize that the train is about to leave to station when it comes to repealing Obamacare without any alternative,” Manley said. “And they want to slow down the process by offering this amendment before the legislative process starts spiraling out of control.

“This letter is yet the latest indication that at least some Republicans realize that just simply repealing Obamacare without any viable alternative in place is completely unworkable and unrealistic and maybe just a little bit crazy,” Manley said.

The other big development on Monday was a statement from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). According to Talking Points Memo, Alexander said, “We have to take each part of it and consider what it would take to create a new and better alternative and then begin to create that alternative, and once it’s available to the American people, then we can finally repeal Obamacare.”

David Kurtz 
 
@TPM_dk

HELP chair Lamar Alexander sure sounds like he's ready to derail the McConnell/Ryan Obamacare repeal train http://talkingpointsmemo.com/dc/key-goper-we-ll-replace-ocare-once-replacement-is-available 

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It’s difficult to know how far Alexander or other Republican senators are willing to go on slowing Obamacare repeal, particularly if they face intense pressure from party leaders and conservative activists. 

Shortly after the election, for example, Alexander said that Republicans needed to put their replacement together before going forward with repeal. “What we need to focus on first is what we would replace it with and what are the steps we would take to do that,” he told reporters on Nov. 17. “I imagine [it] will take several years to completely make that sort of transition to make sure we do no harm, create a good health care system that everyone has access to and we repeal the parts of Obamacare that need to be repealed.”

But after Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) indicated that repeal would include a transition period, Alexander got in line. “The American people expect us to” repeal, he told reporters in the Capitol on Dec. 1, endorsing the repeal and delay strategy. “I think Senator McConnell wants to make it an early item. And the important thing to emphasize is it’s just a beginning. ... We want to start immediately, but it’ll take a matter of years to fully replace and rebuild the health care system that it has taken six years to damage.”

Alexander’s new statements would appear to suggest he’s still not comfortable with moving quickly. And that’s critical, given the role he would play in any Obamacare repeal effort, as a senior, widely respected member of the caucus ― and, more important, as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which has direct jurisdiction over health care legislation.

The reticence about junking Obamacare too hastily reflects certain realities that the GOP hasn’t really confronted until now. Different elements of the party have wildly different perspectives on what a new system should look like. And delivering the kind of financial protection most Americans want without dramatically reducing the number of people with insurance is going to be difficult, if not impossible, without the kind of federal spending most Republicans oppose.

Two senators proposing the budget amendment touched on those concerns. Cassidy, who is a physician, spoke specifically about the needs of people with serious medical problems ― the type of people who, in the years before Obamacare, could sometimes be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions, or would run up against lifetime limits on benefits.

“As Obamacare is repealed and replaced, we must always keep in mind the mom with a breast lump who cannot afford Obamacare and wants something better but also needs to maintain her coverage,” Cassidy said. “This amendment will ensure adequate time is given to repeal Obamacare AND replace it with a substantive alternative that will work for her.”

Murkowski focused on importance making insurance widely available: “I remain committed to repealing the Affordable Care Act,” she said, “and I am equally committed to ensuring that all Alaskans and Americans, especially the most vulnerable among us and those in rural communities, have access to affordable, quality health care.”

Repealing Obamacare was a top priority for Trump during his campaign, and his call thrilled the millions of voters who say they are angry about the law. But Trump also vowed that “everybody has got to be covered,” which is not a promise that GOP leaders like House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) have endorsed.

Although polls have consistently shown pluralities of Americans disapprove of the law, those same polls have shown that most of its elements ― including not just protections for people with pre-existing conditions, but also tax credits for buying insurance ― to be highly popular.

Senate Republicans have seen those polls, just as they have heard from GOP governors in states that have expanded Medicaid eligibility using funding that Obamacare made available. Those governors, among them Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio), have said that it’s important to make sure Republicans have an alternative ready to go before getting rid of Obamacare.

Meanwhile, three other GOP senators ― Tom Cotton (Ark.), John McCain (Ariz.), and Rand Paul (Ky.) ― have expressed reservations about repeal without a replacement, albeit for different reasons.

How Trump feels about all of this remains something of a mystery. On Monday evening, he and his advisers huddled with Capitol Hill Republicans over several matters. Afterwards, in response to a reporter’s question about the specifics of repealing and replacing Obamacare, Trump adviser Steve Bannon said they were “still thinking that through.”

 

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Young Black Men Killed By Police Disproportionately High In 2016

Young Black Men Killed By Police Disproportionately High In 2016

For another year, police officers disproportionately killed young Black men in 2016, the Guardian reports. Black males aged 15-34 were nine times more likely than other racial groups to be killed by an officer last year, and they were killed by police at four times the rate of young White men, the newspaper said.

The Guardian’s analysis is based on data it collected for The Counted, which records all reported police-involved killings.

Disparities continued in 2016 even as the total number of police killings declined. There were 1,091 recorded deaths last year, compared to 1,146 in 2015. There was also a decrease in the number of unarmed people killed by police, from 234 in 2015 to 169 in 2016.

Deaths were most likely to occur during traffic or street stops. Domestic disputes also resulted in a significant number of fatal police encounters.

The analysis revealed that few police officers faced criminal charges. According to The Guardian, prosecutors charged law enforcement officials in just 18 deaths from last year. Those exceptions were typically from widely reported incidents, including the fatal shooting of Terence Crutcherin Tulsa, Oklahoma.

President Barack Obama addressed many of the disparities in the system through criminal justice reforms and police department probes. There’s concern that some of those advances may be rolled back under President-elect Donald Trump, who vowed to be a  law-and-order president.

Trump’s attorney general nominee, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), also raises a red flag for the civil rights community.

report on Sessions’ criminal justice record, by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, noted that he has criticized federal “interference” with police oversight. He has also blasted Black Lives Matter for making “really radical” and “absolutely false” statements about the police.

 

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First African-American Crewmember To Join The International Space Station

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Astronaut Jeanette Epps made African-American history on Wednesday when NASA announced that she’ll be the first black American astronaut to board the International Space Station. While NASA has sent 14 black astronauts into space over the decades, none have ever stayed aboard the ISS as a crew member. Epps will be the first African American and the 13th woman to call the ISS home since the space station was founded in 1998. Epps, who is from Syracuse, New York, will join astronaut Andrew Feustel as a flight engineer on Expedition 56 in May 2018, according to NASA. She will also stay on board for Expedition 57.

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Epps has a PhD in aerospace engineering and has served as an astronaut since 2009. She has also spent seven years as a technical intelligence officer for the Central Intelligence Agency. Epps, who is also a former NASA Graduate Student Researchers Project fellow, will be one of among 200 astronauts who have visited the ISS. 

“Each space station crew brings something different to the table, and Drew and Jeanette both have a lot to offer,” said Chris Cassidy, chief of the Astronaut Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, in a NASA press release. “The space station will benefit from having them on board.”

The timing of NASA’s announcement came mere days before Friday’s widespread release of “Hidden Figures,” which tells the story of three black women who played pivotal roles in NASA’s successful attempt to put astronaut John Glenn into orbit in 1962. 

Big congrats to Epps!

 

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Intelligence Report Concludes That Vladimir Putin Intervened In U.S. Election To Help Donald Trump Win

Intelligence officials concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin directed efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election, with the goal of helping President-elect Donald Trump win. In a highly anticipated report prepared by the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency, intelligence officials doubled-down on earlier assertions that Moscow was responsible for cyberattacks directed at the Democratic National Committee.

“Russian efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations,” the intelligence community concluded in the declassified version of the report, which was released Friday afternoon.

The CIA and FBI have a high degree of confidence that Putin’s aim was to boost Trump’s chances of winning, while discrediting his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The NSA has a moderate degree of confidence in this assertion.

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