Nation roundup for February 8


Senate poised to renew Violence Against Women Act

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senators tussled Thursday over whether Indian authorities should be able to prosecute non-Indians in domestic abuse cases, an issue that has delayed passage of legislation to renew the federal government’s main law in the fight against domestic violence.

A final vote on reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act is now scheduled for Monday.

The 1994 act expired in 2011, but reauthorization was blocked last year by differences between the Democratic-led Senate, which is seeking to extend new protections for gays, lesbians, immigrants and Native American women, and the Republicans in the House, who said the Senate bill goes too far.

Advocates of the act have been more optimistic this year because Republicans trying to shore up their losses among female voters in the November election say they are eager to pass a bill.

The Senate had hoped to pass its bill on Thursday, but a final vote was put off so that it could debate, and defeat, a substitute by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, that would have altered the provision on tribal courts. Grassley, saying subjecting non-Indians to Indian courts would raise significant constitutional problems, instead proposed that more federal prosecutors and magistrates be placed in Indian country for domestic violence and sexual assault cases. He would also have allowed tribes to petition a federal court for protection orders to exclude an abuser from Indian land.

How to deal with the alarming level of violence against women on tribal lands, often perpetrated by non-Indian partners, was also a major sticking point last year when the Senate and House passed different bills.

The Senate bill would recognize tribal authority to prosecute non-Indians who commit domestic violence against their Indian spouses or partners.

Indian women often live hours and hours away from the nearest federal prosecutor, said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a key supporter, and for those abusing women in these isolated places that “equates to nothing short of a safe haven for them.”

The National Congress of American Indians says that 39 percent of Indian and Alaska Native women will be subject to violence by an intimate partner in their lifetimes, well above rates for other races. It says U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute half of violent crimes in Indian country, and two-thirds of those cases involved sexual abuse.

“Let’s not undercut the provisions to help protect Indian woman,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. “The best legal views of which I am aware believe these provisions are both constructive and constitutional.”

Grassley’s amendment, which would also have taken steps to reduce fraud and overspending in programs covered by the Violence Against Women Act and tighten rules that govern immigrants subject to domestic abuse, was defeated 65-34.

The House last year took a similar approach to the Grassley amendment and also removed language specifying that lesbians, gays and bisexual and transgender victims should have equal access to VAWA-funded services.

A possible solution to the Indian court issue has been offered by Republican Reps. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, one of three House members of Indian heritage, and Darrell Issa, R-Calif. They have proposed giving non-Indians the right to request that their case be moved to a federal court if they feel they are not receiving a fair trial.

Cole, in an interview, said he was meeting with House Majority Leader Cantor, R-Va., and others involved on the issue and there was a “genuine effort to find common ground.” He said that one in three Native American women is subject to sexual assault in her lifetime, often by a non-Indian, and that federal authorities often are too far away to help. Cole called it “bizarre” that tribal leaders were unable to pursue cases.

Cantor, the lead player in crafting the House bill, said Wednesday he had been having daily meetings on how best to move the bill forward, and had been in touch with the office of Vice President Joe Biden, who as a senator was a lead sponsor of the original 1994 bill.

Speaking on the House floor, Cantor said that “while we want to protect the women who are subject to abuse on tribal lands,” the bill had been “complicated” by other issues. “I hope to be able to deal with this, bring it up in an expeditious manner.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Thursday urged Republicans to act quickly, saying that every minute Congress delays another 24 Americans become victims of domestic violence.

Under the existing law, the federal government provides grants to states and local governments for services such as transitional housing, legal assistance and law enforcement training. This has helped increase rates of prosecution and conviction of offenders by helping communities develop dedicated law enforcement units for domestic violence. VAWA’s National Domestic Violence Hotline receives more than 22,000 calls a month. The law also established the Office on Violence Against Women within the Justice Department.

The Senate bill would authorize $659 million over five years for the programs, down 17 percent from the last reauthorization in 2005. The bill also gives more emphasis to sexual assault prevention and takes steps to reduce the rape kit backlog.

It removes a provision that Republicans objected to last year that would have increased visas for immigrant victims of domestic violence.

Panetta says US at risk of being second-rate power

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States is at risk of becoming a second-rate power if automatic budget cuts go into effect, plunging the U.S. armed forces into the most significant readiness crisis they’ve faced in more than a decade, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Thursday.

Panetta, who is retiring soon from his post, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that if the reductions are allowed to stand he would have to throw the country’s national defense strategy “out the window.” But Panetta also assured lawmakers the Pentagon would take the steps necessary to deal with possible threats in the Persian Gulf region after he approved the Navy’s request to halve its aircraft carrier presence in the area.

Anticipating the Defense Department will have less money to spend, Panetta said the Pentagon has already imposed a freeze on hiring and cut back on maintenance at bases and facilities. Those moves are reversible, he said, as long as Congress acts quickly to head off the cuts, known as sequestration, and approves a 2013 military budget.

The potential for the cuts to kick in on March 1 is the result of Congress’ failure to trim the deficit by $1.2 trillion over a decade. The Pentagon faces a $42.7 billion budget trim in the seven months starting in March and ending in September. The automatic cuts would be in addition to a $487 billion reduction in defense spending over the next ten years mandated by the Budget Control Act passed in 2011.

Further complicating the military’s fiscal picture is the lack of a new defense budget. Congress hasn’t approved one. Lawmakers have instead been passing bills called continuing resolutions, which keep spending levels at the same rate as the year before. That means the Pentagon is operating on less money than it planned for, and that compounds the problem, Panetta said.

Panetta said that the department understood that it needed to do its part to help bring down the federal deficit and has been adjusting its plans to deal with the lower spending levels. But adding sequestration on top of that creates an untenable situation, he said.

The result of the sequestration cuts, Panetta said, is that “instead of being a first-rate power in the world, we’d turn into a second-rate power.” He added that it would be irresponsible for Congress to allow the cuts to take place. A “sequester was not designed as a mechanism that was supposed to happen,” Panetta said. “It was designed to be so nuts that everybody would do everything possible to make sure it didn’t happen.”

Panetta has been vocal about stopping sequestration because it would leave the military “hollow,” meaning the armed forces would look good on paper but actually lack the training and equipment they need to handle their missions.

As part of that campaign, the Defense Department has been providing greater details on the effect of the reductions. The department on Wednesday said it is cutting its aircraft carrier presence in the Persian Gulf region from two carriers to one, a move that represents one of the most significant effects of sequestration. The U.S. has maintained two aircraft carrier groups in the Gulf for much of the last two years.

The deployments of the USS Harry S Truman and the USS Gettysburg, a guided-missile cruiser, are being delayed as part of the Navy’s plan to deal with the budget uncertainty.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates decided in 2010 to keep two carrier groups in the Gulf region as tensions with Iran escalated. Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway through which roughly a fifth of the world’s oil supply passes, in retaliation for increased Western-led sanctions.

“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that we are prepared to deal with the threat from Iran,” Panetta said. “We will have one carrier there and we will deploy other forces there so that we can hopefully fill the gap.”

A group of Republican lawmakers from the House and Senate have offered a plan to cut the size of the federal workforce and use the savings to replace the cuts to the Pentagon and to domestic programs, which also are affected by sequestration. Similar legislation offered last year did not pass.

Each of the military branches has described in detailed memos to Congress widespread civilian furloughs, layoffs and hiring freezes that will hit workers all around the country. Overall, the Pentagon will furlough 800,000 civilian workers for 22 days, spread across more than five months, and will lay off as many as 46,000 temporary and contract employees, according to the correspondence.

The Navy said it will cease deployments to South America and the Caribbean and limit deployments to Europe. The Air Force warned that it would cut operations at various missile defense radar sites from 24 hours to eight hours. The Army said it would cancel training center rotations for four brigades and cancel repairs for thousands of vehicles, radios and weapons.

There is also concern that the readiness levels of the U.S. nuclear force could be degraded. The Air Force general responsible for maintaining the nation’s fleet of nuclear-capable bombers said Wednesday that the possibility of sequestration and smaller defense budgets has led his command to make a 10 percent cut in flying hours for the B-52 bomber, a long-range aircraft that has been in operation since the 1950s.

Blizzard threatens NYC, New England; 2 feet feared

BOSTON (AP) — A blizzard of potentially historic proportions threatened to strike the Northeast with a vengeance Friday, with 1 to 2 feet of snow feared along the densely populated Interstate 95 corridor from the New York City area to Boston and beyond.

From Pennsylvania to Maine, people rushed to stock up on food, shovels and other supplies, and road crews readied salt and sand, halfway through what had been a merciful winter. Boston, Providence, R.I., Hartford, Conn., and other New England cities called off school on Friday, and airlines canceled more than 1,700 flights, with the disruptions certain to ripple across the U.S.

Forecasters said this could one for the record books.

“This one doesn’t come along every day. This is going to be a dangerous winter storm,” said Alan Dunham, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Taunton, Mass. “Wherever you need to get to, get there by Friday afternoon and don’t plan on leaving.”

The snow is expected to start Friday morning, with the heaviest amounts falling at night and into Saturday. Wind gusts could reach 65 mph. Widespread power failures were feared, along with flooding in coastal areas still recovering from Superstorm Sandy in October.

Boston could get more than 2 feet of snow, while New York City was expecting 10 to 14 inches. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said plows and 250,000 tons of salt were being put on standby.

“We hope forecasts are exaggerating the amount of snow, but you never can tell,” Bloomberg said, adding that at least the bad weather is arriving on a weekend, when the traffic is lighter and snowplows can clean up the streets more easily.

Amtrak said its Northeast trains will stop running Friday afternoon. The organizers of New York’s Fashion Week — a closely watched series of fashion shows held under a big tent — said they will have extra crews to help with snow removal and will turn up the heat and add an extra layer to the venue.

Blizzard warnings were posted for parts of New Jersey and New York’s Long Island, as well as portions of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, including Hartford, New Haven, Conn., and Providence. The warnings extended into New Hampshire and Maine.

In New England, it could prove to be among the top 10 snowstorms in history, and perhaps even break Boston’s record of 27.6 inches, set in 2003, forecasters said. The last major snowfall in southern New England was well over a year ago — the Halloween storm of 2011.

Dunham said southern New England has seen less than half its normal snowfall this season, but “we’re going to catch up in a heck of a hurry.” He added: “Everybody’s going to get plastered with snow.”

Diane Lopes was among the shoppers who packed a supermarket Thursday in the coastal fishing city of Gloucester, Mass. She said she went to a different grocery earlier in the day but it was too crowded. Lopes said she has strep throat and normally wouldn’t leave the house but had to stock up on basic foods — “and lots of wine.”

She chuckled at the excitement the storm was creating in a place where snow is routine.

“Why are us New Englanders so crazy, right?” she said.

At a Shaw’s supermarket in Belmont, Mass., Susan Lichtenstein stocked up, with memories of a 1978 blizzard on her mind. “This is panic shopping, so bread, milk, a snow shovel in case our snow shovel breaks,” she said.

In New Hampshire, Dartmouth College student Evan Diamond and other members of the ski team were getting ready for races at the Ivy League school’s winter carnival.

“We’re pretty excited about it because this has been an unusual winter for us,” he said. “We’ve been going back and forth between having really solid cold snaps and then the rain washing everything away.”

But he said the snow might be too much of a good thing this weekend: “For skiing, we like to have a nice hard surface, so it will be kind of tough to get the hill ready.”

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick ordered non-emergency state employees to work from home on Friday and urged private employers to do the same.

Terrance Rodriguez, a doorman at a luxury apartment complex in Boston, took the forecast in stride.

Pa. mistrial declared when prosthetic eye pops out

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — An assault trial over a fight that cost a man his left eye ended in a mistrial Wednesday when his prosthetic eye popped out as he was testifying, startling jurors.

John Huttick was weeping on the witness stand in Common Pleas Court as he testified about the impact of losing his eye in the August 2011 fight in the parking lot of a bar called the New Princeton Tavern, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Suddenly, the $3,000 prosthetic blue eye popped out. Huttick caught it and cried out as two jurors gasped and started to rise.

“I couldn’t believe it just came out,” Huttick said.

Judge Robert Coleman, who called it an “unfortunate, unforeseen incident,” granted a mistrial motion by defense attorney Eileen Hurley. He scheduled a new trial for March 4.

A group of people including Huttick and defendant Matthew Brunelli had been drinking at the bar, Assistant District Attorney Mark Gilson said. Brunelli left with a girlfriend but got into an argument with another patron that turned into a fight in the parking lot, and when Huttick tried to separate the pair Brunelli threw a punch that hit Huttick’s left eye, Gilson said.

Hurley said her client, who’s charged with aggravated assault, struck Huttick with a fist, but Gilson said he “stabbed” Huttick with a metal key sticking out between his fingers.

Huttick, who’s suing Brunelli, said that he lost his job because of the injury and that depression drained his finances and nearly broke up his relationship with his girlfriend.

“A year later,” Huttick said, “I have no place to live, and I ran out of money.”

 

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