Democratic lawmakers probably lost their last chance to moderate the bankruptcy peonage bill 3/16/05 when the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee rejected 19 amendments offered by Democrats. The House is expected to pass the bill in April, and President Bush will sign it into law. Among the rejected amendments were efforts to protect soldiers who incur medical debts because or war injuries; prevent wealthy debtors from squirreling away money in trusts exempt from the Bankruptcy Code; and "protect small business jobs in bankruptcy." The committee even rejected an amendment to protect Americans forced into debt because of identity theft. According to Rep. John Conyers, ranking Democrat on the panel, Republicans "could not offer a single response to oppose this proposal, only arguing that no more changes could be made." The bill moved forward on a 22-13 vote, with Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia the only Dem to join Republicans to support the legislation. "The fix is in,'' said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas. "This is a prime example of class warfare.''


HOLD OIL COMPANIES ACCOUNTABLE: If the budget passes both houses with a provision to open the Arctic Wildlife Refuge for drilling, a poster to DailyKos.com suggests that drivers support BP and ConocoPhillips, which have renounced their desire to drill in the wildlife refuge. ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco, however, have spearheaded the plan to drill in refuge. "We can hit them where it hurts," wrote "Lorax" on 3/16/05. Call the corporations to make your intentions known: ANWR drillers: ExxonMobil: 972-444-1000 and ChevronTexaco 925-842-1000; ANWR protecters: BP 281-366-2000 and ConocoPhillips 281-293-1000.


CASHING IN ON TERRI: A company that sells evangelical-themed mailing lists to direct marketers was cashing in on the Terri Schiavo controversy by offering up the names and addresses of individuals who have contributed to the legal fight to extend Schiavo's life, Tim Grieve of Salon.com noted. Names and postal addresses of 6,198 donors are available for $150. Email addresses go for $500.


LOOKING AT SENATE CHALLENGERS: Handicappers are starting to assess potential US Senate races for 2006. DailyKos.com (3/21/05) notes that among Republican incumbents, Sen. Jon Kyl (R) doesn't appear to have a serious challenger in Arizona so far. But in Maine, two prominent Dems, US Rep. Tom Allen and Atty. Gen. Steven Rowe, are said to be considering challenging Sen. Olympia Snowe. In Montana, Dems, cocky after huge gains in '04, are looking forward to taking on Sen. Conrad Burns, who narrowly won in 2000, 51-47, against then-unknown Brian Schweitzer, who is now the populist Dem governor. Atty. Gen. Mike McGrath and state Senate leader John Tester are possible opponents against Burns. US Rep. Patrick Kennedy said he might challenge Sen. Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island.

For Democratic incumbents, Republicans are having a hard time finding a challenger for Sen. Bill Nelson in Florida as most top-tier R's have their eyes on the open governor race. In Michigan, Republicans expect to give Sen. Debbie Stabenow a fight for her first re-election campaign. In Nebraska, Sen. Ben Nelson is vulnerable but the conservative Dem has no serious opposition so far. In North Dakota, the Republican most likely to give Sen. Kent Conrad a serious race is Gov. John Hoeven, who said he'll decide in the fall. In Virginia, if Gov. Mark Warner (D) challenges Sen. George Allen (R), this could be a "marquee race." But Warner seems more interested in a presidential race. In Washington, Sen. Maria Cantwell is also looking at her first re-election campaign. R's have Dino Rossi, who lost the governor's race by a hair's breadth in '04, but Rossi is still challenging that result. In West Virginia, Sen. Robert Byrd, 87, hasn't announced his plans but Rep. Shelley Moore (R) is hinting at running.

Democrats also will be losing Sen. Mark Dayton of Minnesota and Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland.


RNC FEARS HOUSE LOSS: The GOP is in danger of losing 25 seats and the House majority in the 2006 election, the Republican National Committee warned House members recently. Robert Novak wrote that RNC analysts are concerned that the second mid-term election of an eight-year presidency often produces heavy congressional losses for the party in power. Rep. Christopher Shays, re-elected from his Connecticut district last year with 52%, is considered by colleagues as the most vulnerable Republican incumbent, Novak wrote. Other especially shaky GOP House members include Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania and Rob Simmons of Connecticut.

Charlie Cook of National Journal said the GOP does not appear in danger of losing its majority, with only a handful of seats in jeopardy. He sees four Democratic seats in the toss-up category: John Salazar in Colorado 3, Melissa Bean in Illinois 8, Charlie Melancon in Louisiana 3, Chet Edwards in Texas 17 and, if the GOP gerrymandering in Georgia passes Justice Department muster, Jim Marshall in Georgia 3. He sees one Republican toss-up seat: Iowa 1, which Rep. Jim Nussle is giving up to run for governor. If Colorado Rep. Bob Beauprez (R) decides to run for governor, his suburban Denver district would also be a true toss-up. Of course, Democrats' hopes improve if they can nationalize the election over Social Security or GOP Majority Leader Tom DeLay's corruption, the Democrats.


FOX 27% FAIR & BALANCED: In covering the Iraq war last year, 73% of the stories on Fox News included the opinions of the anchors and journalists reporting them, a study found. By contrast, 29% of war reports on MSNBC and 2% of those on CNN included the journalists' own views. These findings -- the figures were similar for coverage of other stories -- "seem to challenge' Fox's slogan of 'we report, you decide,'" says the Project for Excellence in Journalism, reported by the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz (3/14/05). In a 617-page report, the group found that "Fox is more deeply sourced than its rivals," while CNN is "the least transparent about its sources of the three cable channels, but more likely to present multiple points of view." The project defines opinion as views that are not attributed to others. Perhaps not a real shocker: Bill O'Reilly, host of the "no-spin zone," is a bona fide leader in dialing in the spin: "As for the most popular prime-time shows, nearly every story -- 97% -- contained opinion on Fox's O'Reilly Factor; 24% on MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews; and 0.9% on CNN's Larry King Live." Kurtz also noted: "Despite its 24 hours of available air time, cable isn't exactly bursting with new news. Seven in 10 reports involve recycling of the same subject matter, with only 10% adding meaningful updates. 'The time required to continuously be on the air seems to take a heavy toll on the nature of the journalism presented,' the report says."


RUSS RESERVES NET SITES: With rampant speculation on whether US Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., will run for president in 2008, his Senate campaign made a few notable recent moves, registering the domain name for www.russfeingold08.com as well as .org and .net versions, the Wisconsin State Journal reported 3/17/05. And, no, he's not facing re-election to the Senate that year. George Aldrich, Feingold's past campaign manager, notes that many sites, such as www.russforpresident.com, seeking to draft Feingold, are already taken and some already have content. Others are parked by supporters in case Feingold decides to run.


MONTANA: TAX BIG BOX STORES: Big retailers whose low prices and big profits depend on low wages and meager benefits for their workers should pay more taxes, state Sen. Ken Toole (D) said as he filed a bill to offset welfare costs by charging stores such as Wal-Mart, Target and Costco a 1% tax on sales over $20 mln, 1.5% on more than $30 mln and 2% on more than $40 mln. Citing research that found state taxpayers spend about $421,000 a year for every Wal-Mart store with 200 employees, Toole estimates the tax would affect 160 stores and raise $20 mln annually, according to the Sustainable Communities Network. The Senate Taxation Committee 3/17/05 approved the bill 7-4, sending it to the Senate floor, the Billings Gazette reported.


MOST LOSE UNDER BUSH SS PLAN: Nearly three-quarters of workers who opt for Social Security personal accounts under President Bush's "default" investment option are likely to earn less in benefits than those who stay with the traditional Social Security system, a prominent finance economist has concluded. Yale University economist Robert J. Shiller found that under Bush's default "life-cycle accounts," which shift assets from stocks to bonds over a worker's lifetime, nearly a third of workers would bring in less in benefits than if they remained in the traditional system. That analysis is based on historical rates of return in the US. Using global rates of return, which Shiller says more closely track future conditions, life-cycle portfolios could be expected to fall short of the traditional system's returns 71% of the time, the Washington Post reported 3/19/05. Shiller's paper, posted at IrrationalExuberance.com, adds to research that suggests the White House has been overly optimistic in assumptions about personal investment accounts. A recent paper by Goldman Sachs economists said the White House's anticipated 4.6% rate of return above inflation could be nearly 2 points too high.

House Republicans were advised to avoid talk of Social Security privatization during their spring break, USA Today reported 3/17/05. Shaken by raucous protests at open "town hall"-style meetings in February, House Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce of Ohio and other GOP leaders urged lawmakers to hold lower-profile events. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll conducted in late February found only 35% approve of Bush's handling of the issue. A Washington Post poll conducted 3/10-13 found 35% approval, 56% disapproval. An Ipsos poll conducted 3/7-9 found 37% approval, 56% disapproval.


HAWAII SENS SELL OUT ENVIROS: An agreement with Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, to bring up Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii)'s bill for native Hawaiian sovereignty was one of the reasons Akaka and Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, voted to allow oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, which turned out to be key in the 51-49 vote, Steve Soto of the Left Coaster reported 3/17/05. The "Native Hawaiian Recognition Bill," now known as the Akaka/Stevens Bill, would begin the process for Native Hawaiians to be recognized by the US government as an indigenous people and give them a framework for Native Hawaiian governance. That government would then be empowered to negotiate with the US and the State of Hawai'i over the disposition of Native Hawaiian assets. Jerome Armstrong of MyDD.com noted the ironic twist that "Native Hawaiian's will arrive with self-governance at the cost of signing off pristine Alaska wilderness to industry."


MORE STATES ACT ON MINIMUM WAGE: New Jersey raised its minimum wage to $7.15 on 3/16/05 and the Vermont legislature gave preliminary approval to a bill that would raise the state's minimum wage to $7.25 next year and automatically increase the minimum wage in future years. The Vermont bill would link "increase[s] in the minimum wage to increases in the state's average weekly wage." Vermont, which already has a minimum wage of $7, explodes the right-wing myth that a reasonable minimum wage hurts job growth, supporters of the minimum wage hike noted. The state has one of the highest minimum wages in the country, but also one of the lowest unemployment rates. New Jersey joined the dozen states that have raised minimum wage on their own, NathanNewman.org noted. Oregon, Washington and Florida laws also index the wage rate to inflation.


PROBE FALSIFIED NUKE DUMP DATA: The departments of Energy and the Interior are probing allegations that government scientists submitted phony data to demonstrate that a proposed nuclear waste dump in Nevada's Yucca Mountain would be safe, the Los Angeles Times reported 3/16/05. Salon.com notes 3/18/05 that news from Yucca Mountain seems extreme even for a department known for putting its own spin on the facts: The Interior Department didn't like the results of a study from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which concluded that rainwater moved through fissures in the mountain quickly enough for radioactive isotopes to penetrate the ground in a few decades. (It wasn't imaginary nuclear waste the Los Alamos study was dealing with, either -- the study found that leftovers from World War Two-era nuclear testing have already penetrated Yucca Mountain's rock.) Undeterred, the Interior Department started its own study, and apparently was determined that this one would yield the results it wanted. Energy Department lawyers, reviewing emails as part of a routine confidentiality assessment, uncovered an exchange between Interior Department scientists that suggested they'd invented data to prove that the 70,000 metric tons of waste would be safely contained in the mountain for the next 10,000 years. The Los Alamos results seem to validate the concerns of Nevadans who have been opposing the dump since it was first proposed in 1978. Nuclear waste in the groundwater is the kind of disaster any state would fight tooth and nail to avoid. Problem is, even if the waste doesn't get stored in Yucca Mountain, it has to go somewhere, and currently, according to the *Salt Lake Tribune*, it's scattered across approximately 130 sites nationwide, many of which are dangerously close to population centers and vulnerable bodies of water. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., wants to funnel the Yucca Mountain money into containing the waste at the 130 sites of origin, and work to invent ways to neutralize the waste on-site. (Salon.com)


SENATE DERAILS AMTRAK: An effort to restore the federal subsidies for the Amtrak passenger rail system was defeated in the Senate 3/16/05. The amendment, offered by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., would have returned $1.04 billion to government financial assistance for the system, but it was killed in a 62-46 vote. In his 2006 budget, President Bush proposed eliminating Amtrak's operating subsidy and setting aside $360 million to run trains along the Northeast Corridor if the railroad ceased operating. In the current budget year that ends Sept. 30, Amtrak gets $1.2 billion in operating subsidies and capital investment, Associated Press reported.


MEXICO OK'S FRANKENFOODS: The Mexican Congress on 2/15/05 voted to legalize genetically engineered (GE) crops. Up until now, GE crops have been banned in the country in order to keep GE contamination away from what is the world's most diverse, important, and pure collection of maize (corn) varieties. Although the vast majority of Mexican citizens oppose the legalization of GE crops, intense pressure from the US eventually won over. Monsanto, which owns the patents and distribution rights to 91% of GE seeds in the world, is now one of the leading advertisers in Mexico, second only to Coca-Cola. See www.organicconsumers.org.


CAFTA HEARINGS IN SENATE: The Senate Finance Committee will start hearings 4/6/05 on the controversial plan to expand the North America Free Trade to six nations in Central America. The Bush administration postponed action on CAFTA until it could gain support from the US pharmaceutical industry, which first wanted Guatemala to reverse a law eroding protections on drug-testing data. Guatemala's Congress did so 3/10/05, despite protests that the move would delay access to generic drugs for the poor. El Salvador and Honduras already have approved it, but Doreen Hemlock wrote in the *South Florida Sun-Sentinel* that the administration still appears to lack enough Republican votes to pass CAFTA, as the US sugar industry opposes increased sugar imports from Central America.

The AFL-CIO noted that CAFTA does not include protections for workers' rights to form a union or safe working conditions in a region with a history of human and labor rights violations. As a result of NAFTA, US workers have lost 879,280 jobs and real wages in Mexico have fallen in the past 10 years, the Economic Policy Institute (epinet.org) reported.

Alan Tonelson of the US Business & Industry Educational Foundation noted at americaneconomicalert.org that if trends from previous trade agreements hold true, CAFTA will send more jobs overseas. The six Central American nations combined have an economy the size of New Haven, Conn., he noted. US exports to the CAFTA nations rose 35.7% from 1997 to 2004 but many of those were parts and components that were assembled or processed in Central America and shipped back to the US for consumption. The US trade deficit with the CAFTA 6 rose nearly 60% from 1997-2004. Enactment of NAFTA, the Caribbean Basin and Sub-Saharan Africa trade agreements since the 1990s have resulted in more outsourcing, particularly in textiles. The US global trade deficit in textiles has jumped from $2.89 bln in 1997 to $7.96 bln in 2004. Call the Capitol switchboard, 202-224-3121. See citizenstrade.org.


US LIED ABOUT LIBYA NUKE SUPPLIERS: In an effort to increase pressure on North Korea, the Bush administration told its Asian allies in briefings earlier this year that Pyongyang had exported nuclear material to Libya. That was a significant new charge, the first allegation that North Korea was helping to create a new nuclear weapons state, the Washington Post reported March 20. But US intelligence actually reported that North Korea had supplied uranium hexafluoride -- which can be enriched to weapons-grade uranium -- to Pakistan. It was Pakistan, a key US ally with its own nuclear arsenal, that sold the material to Libya. The US government had no evidence, officials told the *Post*, that North Korea knew of the second transaction. The Bush administration's approach, intended to isolate North Korea, instead left allies increasingly doubtful as they began to learn that the briefings omitted essential details about the transaction. North Korea responded to public reports last month about the briefings by withdrawing from talks with its neighbors and the US.


W: 'DON'T TRUST FED BONDS, SS.' President Bush spends so much time talking bull about Social Security that the press hardly bothers to point out his gaffes/lies anymore, but blogger Atrios noted 3/11/05 that during one of Bush's choreographed townhall meetings in Alabama March 10, one of those people selected to speak with Bush was Sarah Garrison Webster. As a federal employee, she is eligible for the federal Thrift Savings Plan, which lets federal employees put some of their retirement money into stocks. When asked about the Thrift Savings Plan, she said, "I chose the safe plan, government bonds." Bush replied, "That's all right. Well, not so safe, unless we fix the deficit." DailyKos.com noted, "Except that he's doing nothing to fix the deficit, so has he just said that government bonds aren't safe bets anymore, because of the irresponsible deficits his government has run?"

Then, in his 3/16/05 press conference, Bush said there was no such thing as a Social Security trust fund. "A lot of people in America think there is a trust: Your money goes in, the government holds it, and then the government gives your money back when you retire. That's just not the way it works. And it's important for the American citizens to understand. It's a pay-as-you-go system. And right now, we're paying for a lot of programs other than Social Security with the payroll tax coming in, thereby leaving a pile of IOUs. And part of why I think a personal account is an attractive option for a younger worker is that there will be real assets in the system at this point in time."

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