Saturday, 11 January 2014

NJ's Christie looks to recover after staff shakeup

NJ's Christie looks to recover after staff shakeup, A wounded Chris Christie is working to move beyond the most challenging test of his political career, while the New Jersey Republican governor's critics promise to keep probing a traffic scandal that rocked his administration this week and threatens to tarnish his national image ahead of the next presidential contest.

Christie's allies suggest the worst is behind him, although federal prosecutors are examining the case and thousands more internal documents are scheduled for release on Friday.

"I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team," the famously blunt Christie said Thursday while facing reporters.

Christie had previously assured the public that his staff had nothing to do with lane closings last fall that caused major backups at the George Washington Bridge. But after documents revealed Wednesday that his administration may have intentionally caused the traffic jam to exact political retribution, the governor fired a top aide and jettisoned his chief political adviser.

Christie adamantly denied any personal "knowledge or involvement" in the lane closures, a passionate pronouncement that satisfied some critics in the short term but creates political risk amid ongoing investigations. Democrats and Republicans said the governor's 2016 presidential prospects could be severely undermined, if not crippled, should new evidence emerge that contradicts this week's denials.

"Unless something new develops, I think he'll survive," said former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, a Republican whom Christie has described as a mentor. "But if there's a pattern of these things, if other incidents emerge with similar characteristics, that's going to be a real problem."

David Axelrod, a top adviser to President Barack Obama's campaigns, said Christie handled the high-profile news conference "as well as he could."

"Unless smoking gun turns up tying him 2 scheme, or others arise, he lives to fight another day," Axelrod wrote on Twitter.

Christie said he fired Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly "because she lied to me" when he demanded weeks ago that anyone who knew anything about the episode come forward. He also cut ties to former campaign manager Bill Stepien, asking him to withdraw a bid to become the next state GOP chairman.

The governor said he was disturbed by the "callous indifference" Stepien displayed in emails released this week. Stepien had widely been seen as a potential campaign manager for Christie if he runs for president and had been tapped to serve as a senior political aide on the Republican Governors Association, which Christie will lead for the next year.

Christie said he is still looking into the episode and will take action against other senior staff members if warranted.

Some Republicans defended the governor, who faced reporters for nearly two hours Thursday and then traveled to Fort Lee, a borough near the entrance to the bridge, to personally apologize to the mayor and community residents. Documents show that Christie's aides appeared to close the lanes to punish the mayor for refusing to endorse Christie during his recent re-election campaign.

"He apologized, took full responsibility and acted decisively in firing those responsible," said Fred Malek, a top Republican financial donor. "If anything, it serves to reinforce his image as a strong and effective governor."

The issue is far from over for Christie.

Democrats in the New Jersey Legislature could spend months investigating the case, forcing Christie and his staff to defend themselves. U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman is reviewing the case and the general inspector of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the bridge, also is investigating. In Washington, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, has demanded answers about the debacle.

Political strategists suggested the episode offers future opponents a readymade line of attack — who likes a traffic jam? — that strikes at the very heart of the inclusive political brand Christie has worked to cultivate. Driven by partisan politics, the lane closures clogged one of the world's busiest bridges for days, delaying children from getting to school and first responders from emergencies.

The bridge affair also reinforces a negative stereotype from critics who say Christie's no-holds-barred approach makes him nothing more than a bully in a state known for its tough guy politics. And it comes on the eve of a second term that was designed to be a springboard to a national campaign.

In less than two weeks, Christie plans to celebrate his inauguration at Ellis Island, gateway for millions of immigrants and so a symbolic location designed to showcase his ability to appeal to a broad swath of voters. He will also outline his second-term priorities in the coming weeks and begin an aggressive national travel schedule as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

Whether the traffic scandal will define Christie's future is hard to tell. But it raises the question of whether Christie can become a breakthrough figure in the Republican Party at a time when many Americans bemoan dysfunctional government or simply become part of the gridlock.

"Abuse of power by government officials is wrong, whether it's closing lanes in Fort Lee, using the IRS to target political opponents, or waiving the law regarding Obamacare," said Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots, lumping together the New Jersey scandal with incidents that have dogged Obama's second term. "Gov. Christie held some subordinates accountable. Time will tell whether this is enough."

House passes bill targeting health care law

House passes bill targeting health care law, The House has passed a bill that would impose new security requirements on the Obama administration's implementation of the health care law.

The vote was 291-122. Republicans say the bill was necessary to deal with potential security breaches, though they have offered no examples of cases in which personal data had been compromised.

They cited the case of Target Corp., which was the victim of hacking last year.Democrats say the bill is designed to scare Americans from enrolling for coverage.

The administration opposes the bill, which stands no chance in the Democratic-led Senate.
The House voted more than 40 times last year to repeal, replace or undo parts of the law. Republicans see the law's troubles as paying political dividends in this election year.

Fla. parents of sick children seek use of new pot strain

Fla. parents of sick children seek use of new pot strain, Parents of children suffering from severe epilepsy and other illnesses got a sympathetic reaction on Thursday from Florida lawmakers considering the legalization of a new marijuana strain that shows promising results for controlling seizures.

"We don't have time to wait," said Paige Figi, the mother of a 7-year-old girl for whom the strain "Charlotte's Web" is named.

Figi, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, told lawmakers during a three-hour committee hearing that her daughter could not leave Colorado, where "Charlotte's Web" is legal, because of her dependence on the specialized strain, which does not get users high.

Its use has helped reduce her daughter's seizures to one or two a month, compared with hundreds previously, she said.Figi's appearance came as organizers in Florida work to put a proposed constitutional amendment to allow medical use of marijuana on state ballots during the November congressional election, the latest effort in a national campaign to reform laws banning the drug.

Florida state officials are fighting the ballot initiative, which is also opposed by Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican leaders of the state legislature.

The use of "Charlotte's Web" is viewed by Florida lawmakers as a separate issue from legalizing the medical use of marijuana, and state legislators have invited parents to testify about uses for the marijuana strain.

The strain is low in THC, the psychoactive compound that gives users the feeling of being high. The product, which has no value to traditional marijuana consumers and comes as an oil, is high in the compound cannabidiol, or CBD, which helps calm seizures.

Figi said doctors are advising patients to move to Colorado, which legalized marijuana for recreational use as of Jan. 1. She said there are hundreds of families with children suffering from Davet Syndrome and other forms of seizures that have responded to marijuana when all else failed.

Coy Browning and his wife, Elizabeth, brought their 21-month-old daughter, Isla Grace, to the hearing. Browning, a lawyer in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, said he bought a home in Breckenridge, Colorado, so his daughter can get the drug if Florida does not legalize the marijuana oil.

"If I have to, once it gets bad enough, I'll have my wife take her out there," said Browning.

Another parent, Renee Petro of Tampa, said her son, Branden, developed a condition called FIRES — fibril infection-related epilepsy syndrome — about four years ago.

Now 12, she said, her son "talks about killing himself, constantly. He says he's tired of being sick, and would rather 'be up there.'"

Petro said she will move to Colorado, if necessary. Several other parents who testified said they know families whose children have died from illnesses that might be helped by the "Charlotte's Web" strain.

A Republican lawmaker, Rep. Charles Van Zant, a Baptist minister, told the parents he is adamantly opposed to any kind of legalization of marijuana for non-medical purposes.

But he agreed with their testimony.

"I think this is not substance abuse," said VanZant. "It's using substances wisely."

Drug probe undercuts Hagel pep talk to nuke force

Drug probe undercuts Hagel pep talk to nuke force, Moments before he launched a carefully planned pep talk to members of the Air Force's nuclear missile force, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was undercut by yet another sign of trouble in their ranks: a drug probe of two missile officers.

Hagel flew here Thursday to deliver a message he felt needed to be heard by men and women who sometimes tire of toiling in a job that can seem like military oblivion. He wanted to buck them up, while also insisting they live up to their own standards, which he said should never be compromised in a business as potentially dangerous as the launching of the world's deadliest weapons.

"We depend on your professionalism," he declared to an assembly of members of the 90th Missile Wing, which operates 150 Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles, one third of the entire ICBM force.

What Hagel did not count on was the news — disclosed just as he was preparing to deliver his words of praise and encouragement — that two Minuteman 3 launch control officers at an ICBM base in Montana had been removed from duty because they were under investigation for illegal narcotics.

Details of the illegal narcotics case were not released, but the two officers were members of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. The Air Force Office of Special Investigations was handling the probe.

Hagel did not mention the news, which he was told about by aides while he was visiting a missile launch control center in "Flight Echo" of the 319th Missile Squadron at a remote site just across the state line in his home state of Nebraska. The Pentagon's press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said Hagel was the first defense secretary to visit an ICBM launch control center since Caspar Weinberger in 1982. Since then, defense secretaries have visited ICBM bases but none has ventured to a launch center, a pill-shaped capsule buried at least 60 feet below ground.

In his speech later back at F.E. Warren, Hagel stepped lightly on the sensitive issues of misbehavior and occasional performance, training and leadership lapses in the ICBM force.

"You are doing something of great importance to the world," Hagel told the group. Lest they sometimes doubt that importance, he said, "You have chosen a profession where there is no room for error — none."

Hagel made no direct reference to problems revealed in the past year by The Associated Press, including an unprecedented sidelining last spring of 17 launch control officers at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., after commanders deemed them unfit to fulfill their duties, which include the potential launching of nuclear war, and none in his audience asked his views on the state of their profession.

One asked Hagel what the future holds for ICBMs, and the Pentagon chief said the Obama administration was committed to preserving all three legs of the strategic nuclear triad: ballistic missile submarines, heavy bombers and ICBMs. He said the Pentagon was making progress on a study it began last year to determine what kind of missile should replace the Minuteman 3, which was first deployed in 1970 and is approaching obsolescence.

Some have questioned whether the U.S. can afford to further modernize its ICBM force at a time of shrinking defense budgets.

"You are doing something of great importance for the world," Hagel said. At the same time, he said he realizes that their jobs must be carried out in isolation, with little public recognition or acclaim.

"No fanfare, no TV cameras," Hagel said.

The unsung nature of their work, coupled with increasing talk about ICBMs being an expendable element of the U.S. nuclear force, has weighed on the morale of many in the missile force. The AP disclosed in November that a RAND Corp. study of the ICBM force had detected signs of "burnout" among a sample of missile launch officers and some missile security forces.

In an apparent allusion to breakdowns in discipline, Hagel said, "How you do the job really is as important as the job itself."

F.E. Warren Air Force Base, which is headquarters for the organization in charge of all 450 U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles, has more than 3,000 enlisted airmen and officers and saw 12 courts-martial in 2013, compared with nine the year before, 12 in 2011 and eight in 2010, according to Air Force statistics provided to the AP last week in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

In each of the past four years, the courts-martial rate at F.E. Warren was higher than in the Air Force as a whole, the statistics show.

Drug offenses have been at or near the top of the list at F.E. Warren. Of the seven top offenses that led to courts-martial there last year, for example, the most common was "use of controlled substances," and also on the list was the distribution of controlled substances, according to statistics provided by the Air Force Legal Operations Agency. In 2012 the top offense in courts-martial was "wrongful use of marijuana."

Scientists: Americans are becoming weather wimps

Scientists: Americans are becoming weather wimps, We've become weather wimps.

As the world warms, the United States is getting fewer bitter cold spells like the one that gripped much of the nation this week. So when a deep freeze strikes, scientists say, it seems more unprecedented than it really is. An Associated Press analysis of the daily national winter temperature shows that cold extremes have happened about once every four years since 1900.

Until recently.

When computer models estimated that the national average daily temperature for the Lower 48 states dropped to 17.9 degrees on Monday, it was the first deep freeze of that magnitude in 17 years, according to Greg Carbin, warning meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

That stretch — from Jan. 13, 1997 to Monday — is by far the longest the U.S. has gone without the national average plunging below 18 degrees, according to a database of daytime winter temperatures starting in January 1900.

In the past 115 years, there have been 58 days when the national average temperature dropped below 18. Carbin said those occurrences often happen in periods that last several days so it makes more sense to talk about cold outbreaks instead of cold days. There have been 27 distinct cold snaps.

Between 1970 and 1989, a dozen such events occurred, but there were only two in the 1990s and then none until Monday.

"These types of events have actually become more infrequent than they were in the past," said Carbin, who works at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. "This is why there was such a big buzz because people have such short memories."

Said Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the private firm Weather Underground: "It's become a lot harder to get these extreme (cold) outbreaks in a planet that's warming."

And Monday's breathtaking chill? It was merely the 55th coldest day — averaged for the continental United States — since 1900.

The coldest day for the Lower 48 since 1900 — as calculated by the computer models — was 12 degrees on Christmas Eve 1983, nearly 6 degrees chillier than Monday.

The average daytime winter temperature is about 33 degrees, according to Carbin's database.

There have been far more unusually warm winter days in the U.S. than unusually cold ones.

Since Jan. 1, 2000, only two days have ranked in the top 100 coldest: Monday and Tuesday. But there have been 13 in the top 100 warmest winter days, including the warmest since 1900: Dec. 3, 2012. And that pattern is exactly what climate scientists have been saying for years, that the world will get more warm extremes and fewer cold extremes.

Nine of 11 outside climate scientists and meteorologists who reviewed the data for the AP said it showed that as the world warms from heat-trapping gas spewed by the burning of fossil fuels, winters are becoming milder. The world is getting more warm extremes and fewer cold extremes, they said.

"We expect to see a lengthening of time between cold air outbreaks due to a warming climate, but 17 years between outbreaks is probably partially due to an unusual amount of natural variability," or luck, Masters said in an email. "I expect we'll go far fewer than 17 years before seeing the next cold air outbreak of this intensity.

And the scientists dismiss global warming skeptics who claim one or two cold days somehow disproves climate change.

"When your hands are freezing off trying to scrape the ice off your car, it can be all too tempting to say, 'Where's global warming now? I could use a little of that!' But you know what? It's not as cold as it used to be anymore," Texas Tech University climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe said in an email.

The recent cold spell, which was triggered by a frigid air mass known as the polar vortex that wandered way south of normal, could also be related to a relatively new theory that may prove a weather wild card, said Rutgers University climate scientist Jennifer Francis. Her theory, which has divided mainstream climate scientists, says that melting Arctic sea ice is changing polar weather, moving the jet stream and causing "more weirdness."

Ryan Maue, a meteorologist with the private firm Weather Bell Analytics who is skeptical about blaming global warming for weather extremes, dismisses Francis' theory and said he has concerns about the accuracy of Carbin's database. Maue has his own daily U.S. average temperature showing that Monday was colder than Carbin's calculations.

Still, he acknowledged that cold nationwide temperatures "occurred with more regularity in the past."

Many climate scientists say Americans are weather weenies who forgot what a truly cold winter is like.

"I think that people's memory about climate is really terrible," Texas A&M University climate scientist Andrew Dessler wrote in an email. "So I think this cold event feels more extreme than it actually is because we're just not used to really cold winters anymore."

Former Bank of Israel head gets Fed vice chair nod

Former Bank of Israel head gets Fed vice chair nod, President Barack Obama intends to nominate Stanley Fischer, a former head of the Bank of Israel, to be vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, replacing Janet Yellen, who is ascending to the central bank's chairmanship.

Fischer, a dual citizen of the United States and Israel, is considered a leading expert on monetary policy. He was a long-time professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Departing Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke was one of his students.

Obama also is nominating Lael Brainard as a Fed governor. Brainard served as the undersecretary for international affairs at Treasury during Obama's first term. She left the administration recently. He also is renominating Jerome Powell to the Fed for a second term.

"These three distinguished individuals have the proven experience, judgment and deep knowledge of the financial system to serve at the Federal Reserve during this important time for our economy," Obama said in a statement.

In selecting Fischer, Obama is tapping someone with extensive experience in global economics to serve on the Fed's seven-member board. Fischer served as chief economist at the World Bank and deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund. He led the Bank of Israel from 2005 until 2013.

During his time as the No. 2 official at the IMF from 1994 to 2001, Fischer dealt with a number of countries in financial crises. The 1997-98 Asian currency crisis forced a number of nations to seek support packages from the IMF to stabilize their currencies and emerge from deep recessions.

"He is widely acknowledged as one of the world's leading and most experienced economic policy minds, and I'm grateful he has agreed to take on this new role, and I am confident that he and Janet Yellen will make a great team," Obama said.

Obama praised Brainard as "one of my top and most trusted international economic advisers during a challenging time not just at home, but for our global economy as well."

Economists said they did not expect Fischer, 70, to dissent from the activist approach to Fed policy that Bernanke and Yellen have supported. That effort has kept interest rates low in an effort to stimulate growth and fight high unemployment in the wake of the 2007-09 recession.

Critics of this approach have worried that the central bank's low interest rate policies, including massive purchases of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities, could be setting the stage for future economic problems. The concern is that the prolonged period of low interest rates could trigger unwanted inflation down the road and also threatens to build up bubbles in assets such as stock which could destabilize financial markets.

David Jones, chief economist at DMJ Advisors and the author of several books on the Fed, said that Fischer had an excellent reputation in the field of monetary policy and would bring expertise in global economics.

"The White House has reached out to someone who has a wealth of not only theoretical experience but practical experience in monetary policy," Jones said.

In addition to serving as Bernanke's faculty adviser when he was writing his doctoral thesis at MIT, Fischer also taught Mario Draghi, the current head of the European Central Bank. He also wrote or co-authored a number of influential college economics textbooks.

Sung Won Sohn, an economics professor at the Martin Smith School of Business at California State University, said that Fischer's selection to be a top official at the U.S. central bank after he had headed Israel's central bank followed a pattern set recently by Britain. That country tapped Mark Carney, who had been head of the Bank of Canada, to take over this year as the new head of the Bank of England.

"I think we are going to see more and more such moves," Sohn said. "Because of globalization, the world economy is now very interconnected."

During his time as head of Israel's central bank, Fischer earned praise for his handling of Israel's economy in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

After leaving the IMF in 2001, Fischer worked from February 2002 to April 2005 at U.S. banking giant Citigroup, holding various positions including president of Citigroup International.

US economy adds 74K jobs, rate falls to 6.7 pct.

US economy adds 74K jobs, rate falls to 6.7 pct.,  U.S. employers added a scant 74,000 jobs in December, the fewest in three years. The disappointing figure ended 2013 on a weak note and raises questions about whether the job market can sustain its recent gains.

Economists cautioned that cold weather likely played a role in the sharp slowdown in hiring. Job gains had averaged 214,000 in the previous four months.

The Labor Department said Friday that the unemployment rate fell from 7 percent in November to 6.7 percent, its lowest level since October 2008. But the drop occurred mostly because many Americans stopped looking for jobs. Once people without jobs stop looking for one, the government no longer counts them as unemployed.

The proportion of people either working or looking for work fell to 62.8 percent, matching a nearly 36-year low. Last month's expiration of extended unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans could accelerate that trend if many of them stop looking for work. They had been required to look for work in order to receive benefits.

The stock market fell in early trading. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 46 points to 16,398 . And the yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.88 percent from 2.97 late Thursday.

It's unclear whether the sharp hiring slowdown might lead the Federal Reserve to rethink its plan to slow stimulus efforts. The Fed decided last month to pare its monthly bond purchases, which have been designed to lower interest rates to spur borrowing and spending.

"I don't think the Fed is going to be panicked by this," said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors.

Naroff suggested that the 6.7 percent unemployment rate — a drop of more than a full percentage point since 2013 began — will eventually lead many employers to raise wages.

"It doesn't change what they're thinking," Naroff said of the Fed.

Many economists said they would want to see more data before concluding that the economy had lost momentum.

"We stop short of making larger observations based on this number," said Dan Greenhaus, chief global strategist at brokerage firm BTIG. "The economy, based on any number of other indicators, has been picking up steam of late which makes today's number..curious."

Unusually cold weather might have slowed hiring in December. Construction companies, which are heavily dependent on weather conditions, cut 16,000 jobs, the biggest drop in 20 months.

Michael Hanson, an economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, estimated that the cold weather lowered hiring by about 75,000 jobs.

It would still be a weak report even if those jobs were added back in, Hanson said. But he cautioned against reading too much into a single month's jobs report.

"It's a warning sign that things maybe weren't as strong as we thought," Hanson said. But "it's really hard to make an inference from one number."

Other economists were also skeptical. Mark Vitner of Wells Fargo noted that several industries reported unusually steep job losses. Accounting and bookkeeping services, for example, lost 24,700 jobs, the most in nearly 11 years.

And performing arts and spectator sports cut 11,600, the most in 2½ years. The movie industry shed 13,700 jobs.

"These are not the areas that tend to sway the employment report," Vitner said.

Health care cut 6,000 positions, that industry's first monthly cut in 10 years. It could raise questions about the effect of President Barack Obama's health care reform.

Vitner noted that health care layoffs had been announced over the fall and that these figures appear to be "genuine."

Transportation and warehousing cut some jobs, suggesting that shippers hired fewer workers for the holidays. Governments cut 13,000 positions.

Despite December's sharp slowdown, monthly job gains averaged 182,000 last year, nearly matching the average monthly gains for the previous two years.

One bright spot was manufacturing. Factories added 9,000 positions, the fifth straight gain. Still, that's down from 31,000 in November. Retailers added 55,000 jobs.

Recent data have painted a picture of an economy on the steady rise. Exports hit a record level in November, lowering the U.S. trade deficit. Businesses have ordered more manufactured goods. Auto sales reached a six-year high in 2013.

Analysts now estimate that the economy expanded at a healthy annual rate of 3 percent to 3.5 percent in the October-December quarter. That's up from earlier forecasts of a 2 percent rate or less. It would follow a strong 4.1 percent growth rate reported for the July-September quarter.