Thursday, December 23, 2010

House GOP shuns hard line on immigration

If conservatives expected Republican Rep. Lamar Smith to champion the most controversial anti-immigration measures when he takes control of the House Judiciary Committee next month, they’re in for a surprise.

After weeks of speculation that he would pursue a scorched-earth immigration agenda, Smith detailed his to-do list for the first time in an interview with POLITICO – and it’s an early but important signal that the new House Republican majority plans to attack the issue of immigration through the prism of jobs, rather than red meat for the base.

Smith’s first two hearings will focus on expanding E-Verify, a voluntary electronic system for checking the immigration status of workers that President Barack Obama supports, and scrutinizing the administration’s record on worksite enforcement.

“They are what I call 70-percent issues – 70 percent or more of the American people support those efforts,” Smith said. “I think they are popular across the board and I think they will be appreciated by all American workers regardless of their ethnicity or background or anything else.”

At the same time, he downplayed the key planks in the conservative immigration agenda.

He won’t say when his committee plans to tackle birthright citizenship, the policy of granting citizenship to every child born in the country. He doesn’t want to talk about whether he will pursue reducing the level of legal immigration, family migration or work visas – all at the top of the wish-list for anti-illegal-immigration advocates.

“That is later on in this Congress; that is not our initial focus,” Smith said. “We don’t have any specific plans now in the early months to move on these issues. The focus is on creating jobs and protecting jobs.”

But if Smith takes too long to get to the more controversial policies, he could be squeezed by his party's conservative wing, which is anxious to make progress on issues that have been stalled while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held the gavel.

The GOP’s incoming freshman class includes dozens of members who ran on strict immigration limits, and they may not be willing to settle for a muted approach. And the lawmaker poised to become chairman of the Judiciary’s immigration subcommittee is Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an immigration hard-liner.

“If he is not willing to do it – there is a lot of public support for reducing legal immigration – he is going to find he will be pressured on that issue,” said Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies.

Smith’s early emphasis on jobs flows from the House Republican leadership. Michael Steel, spokesman for incoming House Speaker John Boehner, said Republicans “heard – loudly and clearly – that the biggest issue right now is jobs. So I imagine that will be our priority in a number of issue areas.”

But it also underscores Smith’s cautious streak, a politician who is unquestionably conservative on immigration, but tends to take a more measured public tone than fellow stalwarts, such as King and former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.).

“People like to really vilify Lamar Smith, but he is not Tom Tancredo,” said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, which favors putting illegal immigrants on the path to legal status. “He is someone who will not push legislation if he thinks it doesn’t have the wide support of the American people.”

Camarota said he believes Smith is enough of a dealmaker that he might even consider a modified DREAM Act legalizing young immigrants, if it was coupled with a cut in legal immigration and stronger enforcement – although pro-immigrant advocates would be all but certain to dismiss it as a bad deal.

“He is a very cautious guy, personally and politically,” Camarota said. “Every time I have talked with him, all of his staffers, he is a very careful guy. Contrast that with someone like Steve King who is willing to say what is on his mind.”

That is not to say, however, that pro-immigration activists are at all comfortable with Smith’s agenda or even agree with the logic behind his approach – that reducing the number of illegal immigrants frees up jobs for legal workers and pushes down the unemployment rate.

“He is a very disciplined politician, but he is also very ideological. He is very smart at having lots of smallish-looking measures that add up to a whole lot of harsh enforcement,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, which supports more enforcement but only if it’s coupled with a broad legalization program.

Even as he pursues his jobs-first approach, Smith could find others in the GOP caucus – such as Rep. King – want him to go further.

A sign-in book outside King’s office encapsulated the roiling debate. One visitor wrote “No amnesty.” Another visitor penned, “Remember your ancestors were immigrants too” – but it was countered by a sharp response from a different visitor, “That came here legally.”

Known for his controversial remarks – he once said the country should deport a liberal for every illegal immigrant who receives citizenship – King has many of his own ideas, although he declined to discuss them until Smith announces all the subcommittee chairmanships in early 2011.

“I read the Pledge to America. It wasn’t particularly moving,” King said. “So, OK, they decided not to write the treatise that I would have on immigration. It wouldn’t be the first time that I worked on an agenda that wasn’t laid out for me. I can deal with that.”

But King may be kept reined in.

“The chairman defines what hearings the subcommittee holds,” said a senior Judiciary Committee aide. “He will set the tone for all the issues for the committee.”

Smith would not say whether he plans to push a bill mandating the use of E-Verify by all private employers, which he has supported in the past, until after the hearing. The administration supports the mandatory use of E-Verify, but only if it’s part of a comprehensive immigration reform package, according to an administration official.

On worksite enforcement, Smith contends that the Obama administration has abdicated its responsibility to go after illegal workers, citing statistics that show a drop since the Bush administration in the percentage of administrative arrests, criminal arrests, criminal indictments and criminal convictions.

“We have a situation where the administration looks more like (it supports a policy of) worksite endorsement of illegal workers, rather than worksite enforcement for the benefit of American workers,” Smith said.

But an official with Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Smith ignores the fact that the Obama administration shifted strategy from one focused on penalizing illegal workers to the employers who hire them and create the demand.

The administration cites its own set of statistics: Criminal prosecutions of employers, audits of I-9 forms, which determine a worker’s eligibility, fines and debarment of immigration violators are all up over the Bush administration.

“We look forward to laying out the numbers and the telling the full story,” the official said. “I think people will agree this is a rationale, sound, sensible approach to spending taxpayer money to do immigration enforcement like no other administration has done.”

Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which favors tighter restrictions on legal and illegal immigration, said Smith’s focus on E-Verify and worksite enforcement will do as much as anything else to bring order to the system.

“We think there are a lot of issues in the Internet world that people get really excited about, and in many ways, it is a side show,” Beck said, referring specifically to cutting off benefits for illegal immigrants. “It is not as important as one thing, which is taking away the jobs. So if Lamar Smith is going to focus on keeping illegal aliens out of the jobs, that is more important than all the illegal immigration stuff put together.”

From a political standpoint, framing immigration as a jobs issue makes sense, Camarota said.

“Democrats have to essentially argue it is a good idea to leave those seven million illegal immigrants in those jobs,” Camarota said. "It puts Democrats on the defensive."

POLITICO Carrie Budoff Brown

Body found near Lake Mead could be missing dancer

Las Vegas homicide detectives were investigating late Thursday whether a woman's body found in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area is that of 31-year-old Deborah Flores-Narvaez, who has been missing since Dec. 12.

A source familiar with the investigation said the burned victim and the missing burlesque dancer share a similar body type. The source said there was nothing at the scene to indicate that the dead woman wasn't Flores-Narvaez.

Las Vegas police spokesman Jay Rivera said the body was discovered Thursday morning by a couple hiking in a desert area near Kingman Wash, about a mile from the O'Callaghan-Tillman Bridge.

While the body was found in Arizona, Las Vegas homicide detectives responded to the scene. Clark County Coroner Mike Murphy said his office will autopsy the body today, but that the Mohave County medical examiner will be present. He gave no timeline for making a positive identification but his office would work as fast as possible to be able to notify the victim's family.

It has been almost two weeks since the 31-year-old dancer was reported missing, a day after she failed to show up for a Dec. 13 performance in the Luxor show Fantasy. Three days later, police found her Chevrolet Prizm abandoned in the northeast area of the valley, its license plates removed. The disappearance of the beautiful young woman has made national headlines, in part because her family has made high-profile appeals for help in finding her.

Authorities have been actively investigating, but have been baffled. Police have questioned a number of people and have searched the home of a former boyfriend, but had few leads until the grim discovery near Lake Mead.

In recent days, detectives had focused on Jason "Blu" Griffith, the Fantasy performer's ex-boyfriend, because Flores-Narvaez accused him of beating her in October. Flores-Narvaez also told police she was pregnant with Griffith's child at that time.

Griffith has told detectives Flores-Narvaez visited him at his home on the night she went missing, but the conversation was brief and she seemed OK before leaving his residence, police said.

Investigators have searched Griffith's North Las Vegas home and his car, said Patrick McDonald, an attorney representing Griffith in a felony domestic violence charge stemming from the Oct. 22 incident.

McDonald said Griffith volunteered for an interview with detectives, and is most concerned about Flores-Narvaez' "whereabouts and her wellbeing."

Police are also looking into the other relationships that have gone sour, however. One was with another professional dancer, Jamile McGee.

In April, Flores-Narvaez won a $250,000 civil judgment against McGee, who she also accused of beating her, according to court records. Court records do not indicate that she has ever received any money, however.

Flores-Narvaez filed suit against McGee in August 2009. According to court documents, Flores-Narvaez claimed she suffered scarring as a result of a June 2009 assault by McGee in which he kicked her stomach, dragged her from her car and held her "hostage in his apartment while continuing to beat (her)."

Damages were awarded to Flores-Narvaez because the scars cost her numerous modeling jobs, leaving her with only a steady income of $40,000 per year from dancing part-time in a local show, according to court documents.

McGee is a professional dancer who has been featured in music videos, television reality shows and as a dancer in 2009 for Wayne Brady's "Making $%&* Up" show at The Venetian.

In court papers, McGee's attorney, Scott Holper, called the allegation frivolous and at one point offered to settle for $1.

Holper said Thursday there were never any medical or police reports to support Flores-Narvaez' claims, and that she won the case only because his client ran out of money and could not continue fighting it.

McGee was never prosecuted by law enforcement, according to court records.

Holper said McGee left Las Vegas more than a year ago.

Flores-Narvaez' attorney in the civil case, Luke Ciciliano, did not immediately respond to messages left at his office.

Meanwhile her sister, Celeste Flores-Narvaez of Georgia, is staying in Las Vegas to help in the search. She said she plans on remaining here until the dancer is found.

"My nerves are shot. It feels like it's all been a bad dream and I'm trying to wake up," said Celeste Flores-Narvaez, who sounded emotionally exhausted during a Thursday telephone interview.

Celeste Flores-Narvaez said she is helping police organize a list of friends her sister had in Las Vegas. She added that private investigators have volunteered to help.

Friends and family members said she would never leave without telling her parents or employer that she was going.

Flores-Narvaez moved to Las Vegas to pursue dreams of dancing and soon was hired at some of the Strip's poshest nightclubs -- Jet at The Mirage and Haze at Aria, among others.

She grew up in Puerto Rico before moving to Maryland, where she studied international business and law. She served as an ambassador for the Washington Redskins in 2007, a non-performing position that sent her into the community.

Celeste Flores-Narvaez said she called a Las Vegas police detective Thursday afternoon after hearing about the body found near Lake Mead. The detective gave no indication whether the body is thought to be her sister, she said.

Celeste Flores-Narvaez said she was not allowing herself to think negatively.

"I'm still hopeful I'm bringing my sister home for the holidays safe and sound," she said.

Debbie Flores-Narvaez is described as Hispanic, 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighing about 120 pounds.


Oprah Winfrey on Michael Jackson, Sarah Palin

Oprah Winfrey on Michael Jackson, Sarah Palin, and Starring in Her Own Reality Show.
The queen of talk discusses everything from her new venture to supporting Obama, and, maybe, becoming an ambassador.

In these exclusive extras from PARADE's cover story, Oprah reveals what made her relax about taking a risk with her new network. Plus, her thoughts on Sarah Palin and starring in her own reality show.

On how thinking about Michael Jackson made her relax about taking a risk with the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN):

"I was moving forward--we were planning shows, doing deals, creating programming, signing up people. But still I would wake up clutching my chest, like, Omigod.
When I looked at it in terms of the vastness of what needed to be accomplished I would start feeling overwhelmed by it.
And then I read this article about Michael Jackson in the July edition of Vanity Fair, and the author of that article spoke to his friends and said, 'The mistake that Michael Jackson made is that he didn't recognize that Thriller was a phenomenon and he spent the rest of his life trying to chase the phenomenon.'

"I went, That's what I've been doing. I've been thinking that if I don't match what I've already done then I'm a failure. And I thought, I don't want to be Michael Jackson.
This article specifically said that after Thriller, which sold over 100 million albums and is still the highest-selling album of all time, when he then did Bad, which sold 20 million albums, he felt like a failure. Anybody today would bow down in prayer for 20 million.

"I didn't want to be that person who's been given this great opportunity of a network and thinking, but how am I going to make it what the Oprah Show has been for 25 years? What I recognize is that it took me at least 10 solid years to build [that show]."

On being a "brand":
"I hate the word brand, but now I have succumbed to the fact that I guess I am one."

On being the subject of a reality show (on Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes, premiering on OWN January 1 at 8 p.m. ET/PT):

"What did I say yes to that for? You know what that's taught me? All these people doing these reality shows--I don't know why anybody wants to be followed by a television camera all the time.
There was great discussion amongst my team as to how we would document this last year [of The Oprah Winfrey Show]. I said, 'I think it should be a documentary.'

"But I saw a first cut last week that they've been working on since August. Didn't like it. And I'm bringing the team in here today to say, 'Ya'll have got to get real and the whole thing has to be restructured.' I don't like trying to create tension where there isn't any.
I think that there is enough natural tension and anxiety and exasperation going on here all the time without having to create it. If I'm going to have a piece that is representing my life behind the scenes, it has to be truthful."

On Sarah Palin:
"I don't know her so I can't speak to [whether or not she'll be a candidate].
But I would say that America's going to fall in love with her from [her reality series, Sarah Palin's Alaska]. When I saw that first episode, I went, 'Whoa! She is charming and very likable.'"

Asked whether the thought of Palin's running for office scares her, Oprah said:
"It does not scare me because I believe in the intelligence of the American public."

Every 'Responsible Economist' Has Been Driven From GOP

Paul Krugman Tells Rachel Maddow Every 'Responsible Economist' Has Been Driven From GOP

Last night Rachel Maddow had NYT columnist Paul Krugman on to further discuss the problem Nouriel Roubini apparently put in her head earlier this week: is a sustained bad economy good for Republicans?

Krugman, who has been a increasingly harsh critic of Obama, said "the things the Republicans are opposing are exactly the things we need right now to get ourselves out of this trap." And (probably not surprisingly) advocated for more stimulus. A lot more. "At least as big as we already got," said Krugman.

He also thinks that the controversial tax deal Obama made is that big a deal: "if it's really just for two's not going to matter." But that the reason to get upset is that we're going to have to "play this whole game again" in two years and there is always the chance they will become permanent.

Asked Maddow: "Are there are no responsible economists that the Republicans will listed to who will make the case about the need for stimulus?"


Said Krugman: "Those people have been driven out or scared into silence....we've seen all sanity driven from one of our two great political parties."

Obama Quits Smoking 'THAT's Great'

The real test will be whether he can stay off them during the next Congress:

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs announced via Twitter Thursday that

President Obama “hasn’t had a cigarette in about 9 months.” During his first medical examination last winter, Obama was still smoking.

The forgotten accomplishments of the 111th Congress

It's already been pointed out endlessly that the 111th Congress has been one of the most productive in decades. But here's another way to look at it: Consider all the things this Congress has accomplished that we aren't talking about.

Health care reform, the overhaul of Wall Street regulations, the ratification of New START and the repeal of don't ask don't tell are, of course, the accomplishments that will define this Congress in the history books. But there are a whole host of other relatively under-the-radar achievements that in and of themselves would normally be considered major achievements, had they not been completely overshadowed by the big ticket items.

Before we all depart for the holidays, let's pause for a moment of reflection on these also-ran accomplishments, some of which passed with broad bipartisan support. There's the Lily Ledbetter fair pay act, which reversed a Supreme Court decision limiting the ability of women to sue over salary discrimination. There's the sweeping credit card reform measure putting a halt to unfair and deceptive industry practices. There's the landmark legislation that greatly expanded the FDA's authority to regulate the manufacturing and marketing of tobacco products.

There's the largely forgotten measure that vastly expanded Federal aid to college kids that ultimately passed as part of health reform. More visibly, there is the food safety bill and the measure granting health benefits to 9/11 responders, both of which passed this month. And two women were confirmed to the Supreme Court, one of them a Latina -- a historic accomplishment.

This is only a partial list.

Under normal circumstances, these alone would have constituted significant achievements. "When you look beneath the surface just a little bit there's an enormous amount that under normal circumstances would have been heralded but got very little attention," Congressional scholar Norm Ornstein tells me.

The larger story here, though, is that if you add in these accomplishments with the more visible ones, it becomes clear that Congress has expanded government's reach as a defender of the middle class and poor even more than commonly thought. For all the justifiable criticism of health and Wall Street reform for not going far enough -- and for all the talk about the coming battle to repeal them -- the bigger story is that the sum total of this Congress's major and minor achievements have produced an expansion of government's role in society that will be very hard to undo.

"Taken together, the smaller accomplishments may have an impact on society that rivals the main accomplishments, and they have all bolstered government's role as a protector of the public interest," Ornstein says.

And so, one more tip of the hat to the 111th Congress and its leadership.

Greg Sargent WashPost

Sarah Palin's BOY loses again! Or will the sore loser try another legal stunt?

Alaska Supreme Court rules against Joe Miller

The Alaska Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down Alaska Senate candidate Joe Miller's lawsuit, dealing his campaign what appears to be a death blow.

The court ruled that the state of Alaska did not err in counting write-in ballots for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) even if the ballots did not correctly spell Murkowski's name. Miller had been pushing for a stricter standard, which could have helped him make up about 8,000 votes as he seeks to overcome Murkowski's wide lead.

Miller will now have two days to file any additional complaints; otherwise Murkowski will be certified as the winner and remain seated when the next Congress convenes next month.

Though Miller could feasibly keep fighting, the decision effectively takes away any shot he had of putting the outcome of the election in doubt. Even if the decision on the write-in ballots had gone his way, Miller would have trailed Murkowski by more than 2,000 votes.

In its decision (found here), the court said there "are no remaining issues raised by Miller that prevent this election from being certified."

Miller defeated Murkowski in the Republican primary in August, but the senator decided to wage a write-in campaign. If she is certified as the winner, as appears imminent, she would be the first candidate to win a write-in campaign for Senate since 1954.

For the President, a Moment to Reflect, and Then to Depart

WASHINGTON — President Obama on Wednesday made note of his setbacks as well as his victories in the surprisingly productive lame-duck Congress, and served notice that he would resume the fights on immigration, spending priorities and more when the new Congress with its Republican reinforcements convenes in January.

“One thing I hope people have seen during this lame-duck: I am persistent,” Mr. Obama said, with a flash of energy, at a valedictory news conference. “If I believe in something strongly, I stay on it.”

Many in his party, especially liberals, have openly questioned just that — how strongly Mr. Obama holds his beliefs and how willing he is to fight for them.

Earlier on Wednesday, Mr. Obama was able to dispel such doubts on one issue when he signed a measure repealing the 17-year-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy against openly gay people serving in the military.

“No longer will tens of thousands of Americans in uniform be asked to live a lie or look over their shoulder,” Mr. Obama said at a signing ceremony held at the Interior Department to accommodate hundreds of celebratory supporters. Holiday tours made the White House unavailable for the ceremony.

Mr. Obama quoted the chairman of his Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, who was present and received a standing ovation from the gay rights advocates: “Our people sacrifice a lot for their country, including their lives. None of them should have to sacrifice their integrity as well.”

In just the few hours between that morning bill-signing and his late-afternoon news conference, Mr. Obama notched a couple more achievements. The Senate ratified the New Start arms-reduction treaty with Russia, which the president had declared his foreign-policy priority for the session, and also passed legislation covering medical costs for rescue workers sickened after the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

Both legislative victories came after leading Senate Republicans surrendered, though Mr. Obama’s persistence and personal commitment of time and legislative capital was said to be more a factor in the case of Start’s ratification than in passage of the Sept. 11 legislation, which was pushed by an unusual, de facto alliance of New York’s Democratic senators and hosts on the conservative-leaning Fox News.

The president refused to back down on pushing for repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law when some Republican senators suggested he do so as the price of their support for the arms-control treaty.

The final day’s developments completed a string of bipartisan legislative triumphs for Mr. Obama that were all but unthinkable just seven weeks ago, when Democrats suffered what he once again on Wednesday called a “shellacking” in the midterm elections.

Supporters credited Mr. Obama’s tenacity even as some complained that he too rarely showed the trait in earlier dealings with Congress. Instead, they say, he often deferred on legislative strategy to the Democratic leaders — Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who will no longer command a majority in the coming House, and the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, who will have a much smaller majority in January — and to his since-departed White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, a former congressman.

Often cited is Mr. Obama’s failure to act earlier in seeking an extension of the expiring Bush-era tax cuts except those on high incomes; delaying action until after the midterms gave Republicans more leverage to force a compromise that also extends the high-end tax brackets for two years.

At his news conference, Mr. Obama vowed that he would take on Republicans in the next two years to end the tax cuts for the richest taxpayers, and to protect spending programs for education and innovation even as the two sides try to reduce the budget deficit.

Mr. Obama said “maybe my biggest disappointment” of the Congressional session was Senate Republicans’ blockage of the so-called Dream Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for college students who were brought to the United States illegally as children. He called their predicament “heartbreaking,” and promised that in the next Congress, “I’m going to go back at it.”

But first Mr. Obama is taking a delayed vacation, joining his family in Hawaii, where he grew up, for their traditional holiday break. Leaving the news conference, his last words were “Mele kalikimaka” — Hawaiian for “Merry Christmas.”