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Political Scene

- - Tuesday, December 21, 2010

LABOR

Rule promotes union rights

Most private employers would have to display posters informing workers about their right to form a union under a proposed federal rule that is bound to please unions and draw the ire of companies trying to resist labor organizers.

The planned rule, announced Tuesday by the National Labor Relations Board, would require businesses to post notices in employee break rooms or other prominent locations to explain workers' rights to bargain collectively, distribute union literature or engage in other union activities without reprisal.

The move to issue a broad rule signals a more aggressive posture by the labor board, which usually makes policy on a case-by-case basis in individual labor-management disputes.

It comes less than a year after President Obama made several recess appointments to give the board its first Democratic majority in a decade. Mr. Obama's appointments to the board were held up for months over GOP concerns that one nominee former AFL-CIO counsel Craig Becker would be too sympathetic to unions.

As unions struggle to get Congress to pass pro-labor legislation, leaders are increasingly looking to the labor board and other federal agencies to help reverse what they view as an increasingly hostile atmosphere for organizing new members.

Unions are trying to reverse years of membership declines in the private sector, where just 7.2 percent of employees belong to a union.

VIRGINIA

Governor won't back gay ban in Guard

RICHMOND | Gov. Robert F. McDonnell says he would not support an effort to ban gays from serving in the Virginia National Guard.

After Congress voted over the weekend to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the U.S. military, Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Manassas Republican, said he would introduce legislation to ban gays from the Guard.

On his monthly question-and-answer show on WTOP radio in Washington, Mr. McDonnell said Tuesday that he disagrees with Congress' vote to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy based upon his own military service. But he thinks the state's National Guard should adhere to federal guidelines.

Mr. Marshall has said he will file his bill before the General Assembly convenes Jan. 12.

ILLINOIS

Judge: Ryan to stay in prison

CHICAGO | A federal judge upheld former Illinois Gov. George Ryan's fraud convictions on Tuesday and denied his request to be released from prison on bond, ending his bid to spend his wife's final days at her side.

U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer issued the 58-page ruling nearly a month after attorneys argued whether parts of Ryan's conviction should be tossed based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision curtailing anti-fraud laws known as "honest services" laws.

Judge Pallmeyer ruled that although that Supreme Court case was relevant, the circumstances for Ryan were different enough that his conviction should stand.

The 76-year-old former governor has served three years of a 6 1/2-year sentence on convictions of racketeering, conspiracy, tax fraud and making false statements to the FBI. His current release date is 2013.

Former Gov. James R. Thompson, who is one of Ryan's attorneys, told WGN-TV that attorneys would appeal the ruling "as quickly as we can."

HEALTH

Insurer rate hikes to face scrutiny

Health insurers will have to justify some rate increases starting next year under a proposed federal rule that raises scrutiny for individual and small-group policies that have slapped many consumers with soaring premiums.

The Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday it will require rate increases of 10 percent or more to be publicly disclosed and reviewed to determine whether the increases are reasonable.

The federal government will not have the authority to reject rate increases, but it will review them in states that lack the resources or authority for "thorough actuarial reviews," HHS said in a statement. If an increase is deemed unreasonable, the finding will be posted on websites for HHS and the insurer.

The new rule, which is part of the broader health care overhaul, "maximizes consumer protection and transparency without unduly burdening the industry," said Jay Angoff, head of the HHS office of insurance oversight, during a teleconference with reporters.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said consumers in individual and small-group markets don't have sophisticated purchasing teams like large employers, and they don't fully understand their options.

"Putting some tools back in their hands, I think, can be enormously helpful," she said.

ALASKA

State sues over polar bears

ANCHORAGE | Alaska says it intends to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over protections recently put in place to help polar bears faced with the effects of climate change.

Polar bears are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and because of that, more than 187,000 square miles of critical habitat in the Arctic has been designated to help the species recover.

The state says the critical habitat includes areas where there is little or no evidence that the areas are crucial to polar bear conservation.

The state on Tuesday put the federal agency on notice that it would sue unless the critical-habitat designation is changed. If no action is taken in the next 60 days, the state says it will file a lawsuit.

WHITE HOUSE

Obama won't give up 'Dream'

The White House says President Obama is not giving up on legislation that would offer a path to legal status to young illegal immigrants.

Mr. Obama on Tuesday met with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and reiterated his support for the Dream Act, which died in the Senate last weekend and appears to have even less chance when a new, more Republican Congress convenes in January.

The legislation would have provided a route to legal status for illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. before age 16, have been here for five years, have graduated high school or gained an equivalency degree, and have joined the military or are attending college.

Mr. Obama also told lawmakers a broader reform of the immigration system should be a priority for the next Congress.

SENATE

Farewell speech slams 'cannibalism'

Departing Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter on Tuesday said conservative Republicans who backed "tea party" challengers against establishment candidates in the recent elections engaged in political cannibalism.

In his final floor speech, Mr. Specter complained that there's scant room for centrists like himself in a polarized Senate, where civility is in short supply.

"In some quarters, compromise has become a dirty word," said Pennsylvania's longest-serving senator, who lost his re-election bid after three decades in the Senate.

Mr. Specter complained that some GOP senators had helped tea-party challengers beat incumbent Republicans such as Utah Sen. Robert F. Bennett and Rep. Michael N. Castle in his Delaware Senate primary.

"Eating or defeating your own is a form of sophisticated cannibalism," he said.

Mr. Specter said the re-election of Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski on a write-in vote against the tea-party challenger who toppled her in the primary may show the way to "counter right-wing extremists."

He lost the Democratic primary in May to Rep. Joe Sestak after taking the risky step of switching from the GOP in his bid for a sixth term. Mr. Specter would have faced a tough Republican primary challenge from Pat Toomey, who eventually beat Mr. Sestak in the Nov. 2 race.