Education Secretary Duncan Encourages Productivity and Flexibility

U.S. Department of Education(WASHINGTON) -- In a conference call Thursday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan stressed the need for governors to enhance productivity and flexibility in education despite facing a severe budget crisis.

“In these difficult financial times, meeting the challenge of improving education is even tougher, and many school districts are facing layoffs, reductions in state funding and massive budget deficits,” Duncan said.  “There is a right way and wrong way to cut spending, and the most important guiding principle I can offer is to minimize the negative impact on students.”

At the request of the states’ governors, the Department of Education released two documents Thursday to assist governors in making the best decisions about education while confronting demanding budget cuts.  The documents provide guidance for states to flexibly invest federal funds and ensure those funds are implemented in a way that fosters productivity for students.

“America’s governors are facing tougher financial challenges than any time in recent history, and we call this a ‘new normal’, but we can never allow the new normal to take us backwards.  We have to do more with less.  We have to have to put needs of children above everyone else,” said Duncan.

Duncan addressed pending teacher layoffs across the country and urged states and school districts to not simply rely on seniority when determining layoff decisions.

“We’re challenging states and districts to use teacher effectiveness in the classroom as a factor in teacher layoffs.  Districts should not let go of effective young teachers because it’s the easiest path and they should not let go of effective higher paid veterans just to save money,” he said.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Gov. Scott Walker Issues Layoff Notices in Wisconsin

Photo Courtesy - Getty Images(MADISON, Wisc.) -- Layoff notices to at least 1,500 Wisconsin state workers will start going out as early as Friday if the state legislature doesn't pass Gov. Scott Walker's controversial "budget-repair bill," which calls for the stripping away of state employees' collective bargaining rights, Walker said.

The move is seen as a ratcheting up of pressure by Walker and fellow Republicans in the state Senate against Democrats who are resisting the governor's proposals.

The two sides are engaged in a two-week budget standoff that has paralyzed the Wisconsin state capitol and touched off a national debate on how best to deal with growing government debt.

As Walker threatened layoffs, his colleagues in the state Senate filed a contempt order against 14 Democrats who fled the state and made it impossible for a new budget to pass. Republicans hold a 19-14 majority in the body, but must have 20 members present to vote on Walker's proposal.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the contempt order will call for the 14 Democrats to be "taken into custody" once they are in Wisconsin. It gives every police officer in the state the power to take them into custody and deliver them to the Senate chamber the moment they step foot back in the state. Once the Democrats return, Republicans hope to reconvene the state Senate and pass the controversial budget.

But Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson told ABC News that Republicans "are turning Wisconsin into a police state. We are not flinching."

Other Democrats have questioned if the resolution ordering them arrested even is enforceable, although they have not challenged the order in court.

Republicans have spoken harshly of the Democrats' absence.

"The purpose of this is not to pass the budget bill. The purpose of this is to force the lawmakers to do their job," said Jim Troupis, the lawyer who was hired by Senate Republicans to draft the resolution. "The issue now is whether democracy here can work. It is a constitutional crisis."

But Walker has said he won't concede on the collective bargaining issue. The 14 Democrats have maintained that they will not come back until he does. However, the Democrats will be fined $100 a day starting Friday, according to a Republican measure passed in their absence Wednesday.

Walker's bill is aimed at closing a $3.6 billion deficit over the next two years. It hinges on forcing state workers to pay more of their benefits, cuts aid to schools and local governments by $1 billion, and eliminates virtually all collective bargaining power from state workers.

Walker has said the state has to begin issuing layoff notices so that it can recoup the savings assumed if the bill passed. The layoffs will not be effective for 31 days and can be rescinded at any time. Some Democrats contend that the move is political posturing, and allege that the state remains solvent for now -- meaning that the layoff notices are unnecessary.

All state workers except those that work in prisons, state hospitals and other facilities that are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week potentially could receive the notices.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio 


Sen. Jay Rockefeller Urges Obama To Release National Oil Reserves

(WASHINGTON) -- With oil prices rising and key figures such as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warning that a continued increase could harm the economic recovery, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee Thursday called for President Obama to release national oil reserves.

In a letter to the president, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., became the latest lawmaker to make the request to the White House, saying he supported “careful use of this important tool” in an effort to “relieve the uncertainty and economic harm happening in our country and around the world.”

“Dramatic shifts in the U.S. and world oil market, ongoing turmoil in Libya and throughout the oil-dominant Middle East and North Africa, prompt me to write today to urge you to prepare for timely release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) in the face of further supply disruptions,” Rockefeller wrote.

Releasing the oil, he said, “is a meaningful way to respond to foreign oil-related crises.”

In Rockefeller’s home state of West Virginia, he noted, gas prices have soared to $3.46 a gallon, a 72-cent increase from one year ago. Other senators, including New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, have also called on the president to release the reserves.

Across the aisle there is also frustration with the White House on the issue. On Thursday, a member of the Senate Republican leadership -- Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. -- seized on an exchange Wednesday between ABC’s Jake Tapper and White House spokesman Jay Carney to call on the White House to provide a more concrete plan to address the problem of rising gas prices.

Citing the exchange between Tapper and Carney at Wednesday’s White House briefing, Barrasso said in a letter to the president that “the American people deserve a commonsense plan for addressing rising gas prices.  ‘Monitoring the situation’ is not a viable option.”

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio 


Wisconsin Republicans Threaten Missing Dems with Contempt

Photo Courtesy - Mark Hirsch/Getty Images(MADISON, Wis.) -- The Wisconsin standoff escalated a notch Thursday when Senate Republicans threatened to hold their missing Democratic colleagues in contempt if they don’t return to the chamber in Madison by 4 p.m. Central time Thursday.  Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said, “They’re insulting the very fabric of our representative democracy.”  The 14 Senate Democrats have been hiding out in Illinois since February 17th to stall a vote on Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to dismantle collective bargaining for state employee unions.  Fitzgerald said the Democrats could be taken into custody if they enter Wisconsin.  Attorneys who drafted the contempt order point to precedents including the U.S. Capitol Police carrying “Senator Bob Packwood feet first into the Senate chamber” when the Senate ordered the arrest of absent senators to fulfill a quorum during a campaign finance debate in 1988.

Democratic Senator Spencer Coggs told ABC News the stalemate “has taken an ugly turn” and that Republicans were attempting to be “punitive” instead of negotiating in good faith. 

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Judge Maintains Entire Health Care Law Is Unconstitutional

Photo Courtesy - Getty Images(TALLAHASSEE, Fla.) -- In a harshly worded opinion, Judge Roger Vinson, the Florida federal judge who struck down the entire health care law in January,  gave the Obama administration seven days from Thursday to appeal his ruling with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Vinson issued the 20-page ruling Thursday after the Obama administration had asked him to clarify his original opinion and tell the government whether his ruling was meant to strike down provisions of the law currently in effect.

In the ruling, Vinson is critical of Justice Department lawyers for waiting nearly two weeks before filing a “motion to clarify.”

“While I believe that my order was as clear and unambiguous as it could be,” Vinson wrote, “it is possible that the defendants may have perhaps been confused or misunderstood its import.”

He reiterated his finding that the Congress exceeded its authority when it passed the individual mandate and said that because the mandate was unseverable from the rest of the act, the entire legislation was void. He said that his order applied to all parts of the law, including those provisions currently in effect.

He said he had expected the government lawyers to immediately seek a stay of the ruling.

“It was not expected” he wrote, “that they would effectively ignore the order and declaratory judgment for two and one-half weeks, continue to implement the Act, and only then file a belated motion to 'clarify.'”

Legal experts say the chances are high that the appeals court will grant the administration’s motion to stay Vinson’s ruling pending appeal.

Vinson acknowledged the issue will ultimately end up before the Supreme Court and he said parties should move with haste.  “The sooner this issue is finally decided by the Supreme Court," he wrote, “the better off the entire nation will be.”


DOJ spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler offered this response:

“We appreciate the court's recognition of the enormous disruption that would have resulted if implementation of the Affordable Care Act was abruptly halted.  We welcome the court's granting of a stay to allow the current programs and consumer protections, including tax credits to small business and millions of dollars in federal grants to help states with health care costs, to continue pending our appeal in the Eleventh Circuit.

“We strongly disagree with the district court’s underlying ruling in this case and continue to believe – as three federal courts have found – that this law is constitutional.  There is clear and well-established legal precedent that Congress acted within its constitutional authority in passing the Affordable Care Act and we are confident that we will ultimately prevail on appeal.”

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Newt Gingrich Confirms Presidential Announcement

Photo Courtesy - ABC News(ATLANTA) -- Just hours before he is scheduled to hold a news conference to discuss his presidential ambitions, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich confirmed that he would take the first steps toward a campaign on Thursday. He told Georgia talk radio host Martha Zoller Thursday morning that he would be launching a website to kick off the exploratory phase of his bid for the 2012 Republican nomination that will go live Thursday.

"[Gingrich's wife] Callista and I are prepared to see if there are enough folks who want to get this country back on the right track," he said on the radio show. “It's a great challenge but it's one that we both take very, very seriously, both as citizens and behalf of our grand children and all the young people of America."

At an event Thursday afternoon with Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, Gingrich intends make it clear that he is exploring a presidential run. He plans to start raising money more aggressively and moving in the direction of a formal exploratory committee and, as many expect, an official announcement of his candidacy.

"Callista and I promised, as you know, for well over a year that we would make a decision in late February or early March and we have kept our promise," Gingrich told Zoller. "We will have a website up later on today, people can go to it. It's and it's an effort to reach out to folks and say if we really want to get back to being a country of American exceptionalism and we really want to create jobs competing with Germany and China and India, and we really want to shrink government, get power out of Washington, balance the federal budget, and we really want to have a stronger national and homeland security so we're safer. Lots of folks are going to have to decide if that's a project they want to be engaged in."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Gates, Clinton Say Libyan No-Fly Zone Would Be Difficult

Photo Courtesy - Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The Pentagon has pushed back against calls on Capitol Hill and from human rights groups for the United States to become involved in setting up and enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya.

In public statements and testimony on Capitol Hill, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, top generals, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have increasingly emphasized the difficulty the U.S. would have in keeping the Libyan Air Force grounded. The chief concerns are that it would require striking inside Libya to disable anti-aircraft capabilities and even if it were a NATO operation, it would divert resources from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There were calls throughout the week from Capitol Hill that the U.S. and NATO could be eventually be compelled to set up a no-fly zone to keep the Libyan military from attacking rebels trying to overthrow the regime of Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

"I believe that the global community cannot be on the sidelines while airplanes are allowed to bomb and strafe," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing Wednesday. "A no-fly zone is not a long-term proposition, assuming the outcome is what all desire, and I believe we ought to be ready to implement it as necessary."

But the response from the Pentagon has been decidedly cool and top American diplomats have tried to lower expectations. Clinton began the week seemingly open to the idea of a no-fly zone in Geneva on Monday -- she called it "an option we are actively considering." By the time she gave testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday, however, her tone had changed.

"With respect to the no-fly zone, we have been discussing that with a lot of our allies and are looking at it, but there are many, many challenges associated with it," she said. "So at this time, we're focusing on how we can get medical supplies and food in to the people who are in safe enough zones that it can be delivered to assist them as they try to rid themselves of this regime."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Biden to Lead First Meeting on Bipartisan Spending Negotiations

Photo Courtesy - Joe Raedle/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Vice President Biden will be on Capitol Hill Thursday to start negotiations between Congressional Democrats and Republicans on a long-term spending deal.

Now that Congress passed a stop-gap bill earlier this week, lawmakers have until March 18 to strike a deal that will fund the government through the rest of this fiscal year and avert a federal shutdown.

The Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell, said he will attend Thursday's meeting, signaling a new willingness on the part of the GOP to sit down at the negotiating table.  But that doesn't mean he has high expectations regarding cooperation across the aisle for the talks: "We're happy to go to the meeting, but putting a meeting on the schedule doesn't change the fact that neither the White House nor a single Democrat in Congress has proposed a plan that would allow the government to remain open and that would respond to the voters by reining in spending," McConnell said on the Senate floor Thursday morning. "All we get is talk."

"If the president's measure of success as he said is a plan that makes sure we live within our means the way most people do, count on me showing up early," he added.  "Unfortunately, I suspect the president is once again just saying things people want to hear.  The fact is if Democrats had a plan of their own that would cut one dollar in spending, I think we would have seen it by now.  But we haven't."

Republicans have expressed reluctance to start negotiations on a long-term deal, saying that Senate Democrats should either come up with a plan of their own that cuts spending or simply take up the House-passed bill with $61 billion in cuts.

On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called that GOP stance "shallow" and "foolish," while the Senate's number-two Democrat, Dick Durbin, remarked that it would take "a superhuman effort" from both sides to reach a long-term deal.

Also attending Thursday's meeting will be House Speaker John Boehner, the leading House Democrat Nancy Pelosi, and Reid.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Social Security Scare: Is Government Running Out of Funds?

Photo Courtesy - Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle are hesitant to put Social Security on the chopping block, but with the U.S. debt so large, time to reform the 76-year-old program is running out, experts say.

The debate over a program that has become a sacred cow for senior citizens comes at a time when Democrats and Republicans are wrangling about how to fund the government for the rest of the year and beyond.

Democrats charge that the Republicans' continuing resolution would cut essential funds from the Social Security Administration and in turn hurt thousands of retirees who may not get their benefits or be able to enroll on time.  The cuts, Republicans say, would amount to $125 million from current levels and $500 million from the reserve fund.

The SSA has warned of possible worker furloughs if the Republicans' plan is approved.

Republicans say the cuts are needed to balance the budget.  They blame President Obama for not seizing the opportunity to lead the charge on reforming Social Security, which the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates will post a deficit of $600 billion over the next ten years.

Social Security comprises 20 percent of the White House's 2012 budget proposal.  Even though the report acknowledges that the program faces a "long-term financing shortfall," it doesn't suggest any reforms.  Instead, the budget provides an additional $1 billion from 2010 -- for a total of $12.5 million -- to reduce the backlog of disability claims.

More than 54 million Americans -- about one in four U.S. households -- receive benefits each month through Social Security.  About 70 percent of those checks, which average $1,076, go to retired workers and their families, and the rest to disabled Americans and recipients' survivors.

The number of enrollees is expected to grow as the baby boomer generation begins retiring, while the pool of workers who contribute to Social Security grows relatively smaller.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


White House Eyes Sale of 14,000 Unused Federal Buildings

Photo Courtesy - Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Five office buildings in Fort Worth, Texas, a million-square-foot warehouse, and parking lot in Brooklyn, New York, and thousands of other government-owned properties sit vacant every day, costing taxpayers more than $1 billion a year to maintain.

The Obama Administration says it's now time to shutter them for good and sell them to help trim the federal deficit.

The White House announced Wednesday that it would form an independent board of experts to help the federal government "cut through red tape and politics to sell property it no longer needs."

"The plan will save taxpayers $15 billion over the first three years the Board is fully up and running," said Jeff Zients, the federal chief performance officer and the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.

Zients said the administration has already identified 14,000 properties that are "excess," or vacant, and ready to be sold.  The full list will be made public within the next month.

"There are unneeded properties throughout the country, from downtown city centers to suburban shopping districts to rural locations," he said.  "When you go property by property, you see the properties range from empty warehouses to underutilized office buildings."

The proposed so-called Civilian Property Realignment Board would formalize their recommended real estate sales and issue a proposal to Congress for an up-or-down vote.

The plan is modeled after the Pentagon's Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which has closed hundreds of military installations since 1989, officials say.  Twenty-four federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, reported more than 45,000 underutilized buildings in fiscal year 2009, according to the Government Accountability Office.  The annual cost to operate them is estimated at $1.66 billion.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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