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


Missouri Senator: Obama Must Take First Step on Entitlement Reform

Photo Courtesy - ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., says he believes when it comes to budget cuts, and specifically entitlements such as Social Security, President Obama has to take the first step.

"Look, you've got the biggest microphone," Blunt said of President Obama.  "You've got the biggest podium but we're ready to sign on before you go public."

In an interview with ABC News, Blunt made it clear that if the president isn't willing to "go there" -- "there" being entitlement reform -- the Republicans probably won't either.

"They've got to get serious and we got to get serious," Blunt told ABC News, while riding the underground subway inside the U.S. Capitol.  "It is foolish for us to go out there and get a bunch of Democrats saying there's no Social Security problem or there's no Medicare problem or no Medicaid problem."

He added, "I don't think we get a result if we do it on our own."

Blunt, who served in the House of Representatives for fourteen years before being elected to the U.S. Senate last year, criticized the President for ignoring the recommendations of his own Deficit Reduction Commission.

"He's the guy who appointed the Deficit Reduction Commission. Nobody made him do that," Blunt said. "He appointed the commission and a substantial majority of it wasn't even mentioned in State of the Union."

Recalling a lesson from his time in House when the Republicans last attempted entitlement reform, Blunt conceded that while cutting such programs has to be discussed, the American public isn't always on board.

Blunt talked about the reform effort of 2005: "It was about 100 days, every phone I had rang all the time and not one person called and said thanks for trying to reform these programs or thanks for trying to cut these programs.  Every single call…was 'Don't cut my program.'"

But with a deficit looming at the $14 trillion mark -- and a polls showing a majority of Americans want to see spending cut -- it seems this push might produce a different result.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Another Democrat Departs the Senate: Daniel Akaka Not Seeking Re-Election

Photo Courtesy - Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, will not seek re-election, he announced Wednesday.

"After months of thinking about my political future, I am announcing today that I have decided not to run for re-election in 2012," Akaka said in a statement Wednesday night. "As many of you can imagine, it was a very difficult decision for me. However, I feel that the end of this Congress is the right time for me to step aside. It has been a great honor and privilege to serve the people of Hawaii. In 2006, the people of Hawaii gave me an opportunity to continue my service in the United States Senate and I fully intend to serve the last two years of my term in office."

"At the end of this term, I will have served almost 22 years in the United States Senate and, prior to that, more than 13 years in the United States House of Representatives," he said. "I am proud of my accomplishments and my incredible staff in Washington, D.C. and Hawaii. They have exemplified the true meaning of being a public servant.  They have worked tirelessly and without their dedication and loyalty, I could not have accomplished all that I did."

"Millie and I will return to Hawaii at the end of this Congress and spend time with our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I would also like to spend time documenting my life and career, and serving as a mentor to future political leaders.  I have always strived to serve the people with much love and aloha, never forgetting my humble beginnings, and it is my hope that they, too, will continue this tradition. We must never forget that we, as political leaders, work for the people of Hawaii and not the special interests."

Akaka becomes the fifth Democratic senator to decide not to run for re-election in 2012, joining a group that already includes Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Jim Webb of Virginia.

A whopping 23 Democratic-held Senate seats are up for re-election in 2012, complicating Democrats’ chances of retaining control of the upper chamber of Congress.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio 


Former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer to Announce Longshot Presidential Bid

Photo Courtesy - Getty Images(BATON ROUGE, La.) -- Newt Gingrich has company. Turns out the former House Speaker is not the only one who will be dipping his toe into presidential waters on Thursday. Former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer plans to announce a presidential exploratory committee at a news conference in Baton Rouge.

Roemer served as governor of Louisiana from 1988 to 1992, and before that, as a member of Congress from the state’s 4th Congressional district from 1981 to 1988.

He was a Democrat for most of his political career before switching to the Republican Party in 1991. He lost the GOP gubernatorial primary that year to former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke. Roemer currently serves as president of Baton Rouge’s Business First Bank, where Thursday’s event will take place.

Roemer’s news conference, scheduled for 1:30 p.m., will coincide with Gingrich’s expected announcement in Atlanta that he will begin what aides call an “explore phase” of a presidential campaign. Such a move will allow Gingrich to prepare for a presidential run, but it is legally different from an exploratory committee.

It’s unclear exactly what assets he brings to the table or what role he might play in the GOP primary, but with many of the other big-name Republicans still on the sidelines, lesser-known candidates like Roemer are taking advantage of the vacuum to soak up some media attention.

The Harvard-educated Louisiana native tried and failed to launch a political comeback in 1995 with another gubernatorial run and flirted with a Senate bid in 2004, but eventually declined to enter the race. Roemer, 68, underwent serious heart surgery in 2005.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Obama Administration Fights To Save Embattled Housing Program

Photo Courtesy - ABC News (WASHINGTON) -- In the spring of 2009, the Obama administration unveiled a program that they said would help three to four million struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure, but to date the plan has fallen so far short that non-partisan government watchdogs are blasting it and House Republicans are trying to do away with it altogether.

The Home Affordable Modification Program -- known as HAMP -- has only helped around 540,000 borrowers receive permanent loan modifications to enable them to stay in their homes. By comparison, more than 800,000 homeowners have dropped out of the program.

On Capitol Hill, the program has become a lightning rod for criticism. On Wednesday, a government watchdog ripped the plan before a House subcommittee. 

Neil Barofsky, the outgoing Special Inspector General for TARP (SIGTARP), said the program “continues to fall woefully short of meeting its original expectations” and there is now “near-universal agreement that the program has failed.”

That will only be fuel for the fire of House Republicans, who have unveiled a bill to end the program before it expires at the end of next year, contending that it is wasting tens of billions of taxpayer dollars.

While Treasury has acknowledged that the program will not meet its stated goal of keeping three to four million homeowners in their homes, they have argued that is still helping some 25,000 to 30,000 borrowers every month, so getting rid of it would hurt the housing market.

But that may not be enough to stop Republicans from pulling the plug on it.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio 


Texas House to Vote on 'Sonogram Bill'

Photo Courtesy - Getty Images(AUSTIN) -- The Texas House of Representatives will vote Wednesday on the so-called "sonogram bill," which requires women having abortions to see the ultrasound image, hear the baby's heartbeat, and wait 24 hours.

The bill has polarized legislators, with mostly Democrats providing dissent and a largely Republican support. The measure has been described as a guilt procedure by critics.

If the bill is passed in the house, then it will be fused with a similar proposal passed by the Senate in February. Texas Gov. Perry has expressed his support of the bill.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Fox News Suspends Contracts Of Newt Gingrich And Rick Santorum

Photo Courtesy - ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- Fox News announced on Wednesday that is has suspended the television contracts of two potential presidential candidates -- Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum -- for 60 days at which point they will have to inform the network whether or not they are running for president.

The suspension will remain in place until May 1 at which point their contracts with Fox News will be terminated.

Anchor Bret Baier announced the suspension on the network Wednesday morning, saying that it was the network's policy.

"This is the announcement that's being made today," Baier said. "This does not preclude other announcements that may be made in the future. But that's what we have today. The 60-day suspension and then by May 1 a determination whether they're going to run and then those contracts will be terminated."

Neither Baier nor Fox announced whether other potential candidates with ties to Fox New Channel, including Sarah Palin, John Bolton, and Mike Huckabee -- the latter of whom hosts his own weekly show on the network -- would also face similar suspensions.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Senate Passes Spending Bill To Avoid Government Shutdown 

Photo Courtesy - Architect of the Capitol(WASHINGTON) -- The Senate on Wednesday passed a stopgap spending bill to avert a government shutdown at week’s end and buy lawmakers two more weeks to reach a long-term funding deal, with the White House offering up Vice President Biden to lead those negotiations.  

The Senate voted 91-9 to pass the two-week extension that would cut $4 billion in funding. The bill now goes to the White House for President Obama’s signature.

The nine senators voting against the bill included Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the Senate’s number-four Democrat. The other lawmakers opposing the bill were Democrats Tom Harkin of Iowa, Carl Levin of Michigan, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Republicans Mike Crapo of Idaho, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Jim Risch of Idaho.

Republicans touted the bill’s passage as a victory after Democrats ultimately relented in their efforts to pass a short-term bill with no cuts at all.

“This is a long-awaited acknowledgement by Democrats in Congress that we have a spending problem around here,” the Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell, said on the chamber floor Wednesday morning. “It’s hard to believe when we’re spending $1.6 trillion more than we’re taking in a single year, that it would take this long to cut a penny in spending, but it’s progress nonetheless.”

“It’s also encouraging to hear the White House say yesterday they’d be supportive of a four-week CR with $8 billion in cuts. So it’s encouraging that the White House and Congressional Democrats now agree that the status quo won’t work, that the bills we pass must include spending reductions.”

Democrats led by Harry Reid initially blasted the GOP’s stopgap proposal last Wednesday. Reid spokesman Jon Summers denounced it as an “extreme package,” a “non-starter” in the Senate, and “a two-week version of the reckless” $61 billion seven-month bill passed earlier by House Republicans.

But late last Friday they changed their stance, arguing that the two-week bill was actually a concession to Democrats since it included cuts they had previously supported. On Tuesday, Reid told reporters that “these are our programs, so we’ll pass this.”

Other lawmakers on that side of the aisle were left fuming at the GOP. Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, accused Republicans of hypocrisy for opposing higher taxes for the wealthy but then turning around and prioritizing deficit reduction.

“When it came to giving huge tax breaks to the wealthiest people in this country I didn’t hear my Republican friends say, ‘Oh gee, we can’t do that because it’s going to drive up the deficit,’” Sanders said.

“Now suddenly we have people who have great concerns about the national debt and the deficit and they intend to balance that budget on the backs of working people, the elderly, the sick, the poor, the children.”

While lawmakers used Wednesday's short-term deal to avert a shutdown at week’s end, they have merely kicked the can down the road – the next question becomes whether they can reach a long-term deal to avert a shutdown come March 18.

Reid said at a press conference after the vote that members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have been invited to meet with Vice President Biden, either on Capitol Hill or at the White House, to start discussing a long-term measure.

“In the next 24 hours there will be some meetings that will be directed by Vice President Biden,” Reid said.

“Negotiations on a long-term measure need to begin immediately,” urged Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, calling on Republicans to “sit down at the negotiating table right away.”

As an indication of how challenging that road ahead could be, the Senate’s number-two Democrat, Dick Durbin, said it would take “a superhuman effort” from all sides to reach a long-term deal.

“I don’t think we should be celebrating today,” he cautioned.

Already the war of words has started to heat up. Republicans have expressed a reluctance to negotiate until Democrats unveil a plan of their own, a stance that Reid on Wednesday called “shallow” and “foolish.”

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Can Former Attorney General John Ashcroft Be Sued for 9/11 Policies?

Photo Courtesy - Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Abdullah Al-Kidd, a U.S. citizen and former football star at the University of Idaho, was arrested by the FBI nearly eight years ago and held for 15 days because of his connections to a suspected terrorist.

Al-Kidd was never charged with a crime, arguing now that he was improperly detained and should be able to sue former Attorney General John Ashcroft, which the U.S. Supreme Court will take up Wednesday.

Like many people after the attacks of 9-11, Al-Kidd was held under the material witness statute that allows law enforcement to detain individuals if their testimony might be material to an ongoing criminal proceeding.

However, Al-Kidd, 37, alleges Ashcroft stretched the material witness law and used it not to detain witnesses for testimony but to hold them without probable cause as terrorism suspects.

A lower court ruled that the case could go forward because Ashcroft, as a former government official, does not have immunity against such suits. The Supreme Court will review the ruling Wednesday.

In court papers, Ashcroft -- who, as a former government official, is being represented by the Obama Administration -- argues that a federal magistrate issued a warrant for Al-Kidd's arrest under the material witness statute because of Al-Kidd's ties to Sami Omar Al-Hussayen.

Al-Hussayen, a citizen of Saudi Arabia, was at the time being investigated for false statement and visa fraud offenses. Ashcroft argues that the FBI moved to detain Al-Kidd after learning he had immediate plans to fly to Saudi Arabia.

But Al-Kidd, a Muslim who is being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, said he was going to Saudi Arabia to study, and that his only connection to Al-Hussayen was a charitable organization where they both worked.

He says that when held for his potential testimony against Al-Hussayen, he was confined to a high security wing, strip-searched, and routinely shackled. Al-Kid's attorneys claims that Ashcroft improperly instituted a nationwide policy regarding the material witness statute, using it as a pretext to detain terrorism suspects for investigative purposes. 

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Scotus Rules on Protests at Military Funerals: Victory for the Westboro

Photo Courtesy - Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the First Amendment protects members of the Westboro Baptist Church, known for their controversial protests staged at military funerals. The Court affirmed a lower court judgment that threw out damages awarded to Albert Snyder who sued the Church after it protested at his son's funeral. His son, Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder died in Iraq. The church's members target funerals like Snyder's, carry signs like: "Pray for More Dead Soldiers" and "Thank God for IEDs."

Chief Justice John Roberts, in an 8-1 majority, said Wednesday's ruling is a narrow decision dealing strictly with Westboro's picketing activity. Justice Roberts said: "Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and -- as it did here -- inflict great pain.  On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation, we have chosen a different course -- to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case."

Justice Samuel Alito issued a scathing dissent: "Our profound national commitment to free and open debate,"he wrote, "Is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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