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Inside Politics

- - Thursday, June 16, 2011

NEW JERSEY

Benefits bill advances over labor objections

TRENTON — A bill requiring 500,000 public workers in New Jersey to shoulder a significantly larger share of the costs for their health care and pension benefits and take the issue off the bargaining table has advanced in the Legislature over staunch objections from organized labor.

The vote by the Senate Budget Committee on Thursday was 9-4. The full Senate is scheduled to vote next week.

The panel heard more than four hours of testimony Thursday, mostly from union leaders urging Democratic legislators to reject the measure. The vote was split 4-4 among Democrats. More than 2,000 protested outside the Statehouse.

The bill legislates health care changes that typically are bargained. It bases contributions to health benefits on employee income. Pension contributions also would rise.

HOUSE

Farm subsidy cuts rejected in spending bill

The Republican-led House voted to slash domestic and international food aid Thursday while rejecting cuts to farm subsidies.

A spending bill to fund the nation's food and farm programs would cut the Women, Infants and Children program, which offers food aid and educational support for low-income mothers and their children, by $868 million, or 13 percent. An international food assistance program that provides emergency aid and agricultural development would drop by more than $450 million, one-third of the program's budget. The legislation passed 217-203.

The bill would trim the Food and Drug Administration's $2.5 billion budget by almost 12 percent, straining the agency's ability to implement a new food safety law signed by President Obama this year. Democratic attempts to restore some of the food safety money were rejected.

FBI

Extending term of FBI chief OK'd by panel

The Senate Judiciary Committee has advanced legislation to extend the term of FBI Director Robert Mueller for two years.

The extension needs approval from both houses of Congress. It was requested by President Obama and supported by several major law enforcement organizations. The FBI director's term is limited by law to 10 years, and Congress must act before Aug. 3.

If the legislation passes, Mr. Obama will have taken off the table what could have become a contentious political fight in the Senate over a replacement. With the extension, Mr. Mueller would serve until the start of September 2013.

The president elected in 2012 would choose his successor at the FBI.

CAMPAIGN

Romney criticized for 'unemployed' joke

TAMPA, Fla. — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is taking flak from Democrats after telling a group of out-of-work Floridians, "I'm also unemployed."

The former Massachusetts governor and multimillionaire made the comment Thursday at a Tampa coffee shop. He told the group that he did have his eye on one particular job.

Mr. Romney was criticizing President Obama's economic performance, calling it the worst since President Carter's in the 1970s.

Democrats were quick to pounce on Mr. Romney's comment. Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said Mr. Romney is out of touch with the average American and that being unemployed isn't a joke. Mrs. Wasserman Schultz is chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said the candidate clearly was joking and that it's the president who is out of touch on the economy.

AFGHANISTAN

Obama talks drawdown with his top commander

President Obama's top general in Afghanistan has given him a range of options for withdrawing American forces as a July deadline for starting the drawdown approaches.

Obama spokesman Jay Carney said Gen. David H. Petraeus, along with other members of the national security team, met with the president at the White House Wednesday. Gen. Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has long been expected to give Mr. Obama multiple options for how to begin bringing U.S. forces home and at what pace.

"They discussed a range of options," Mr. Carney said. "As I think the general has said in the past publicly, this was a question of options, plural, and not option."

White House officials wouldn't divulge the details of the options Mr. Obama is considering. Mr. Carney said Mr. Obama will consult further with his national security team, including Gen. Petraeus, in the coming days and announce his decision to the public soon.

DEFENSE

Pentagon dreams of interstellar travel

The Defense Department first proposed Star Wars. Now it wants Star Trek.

DARPA, the Pentagon research agency that helped foster the Internet, wants someone to dream up a way to send people to a star.

The winner will get half a million dollars for the idea. This month, 150 competitors answered the federal government's initial call for private-sector cosmic ideas. Officials say some big names are among those interested. The plan is to make interstellar travel possible in about a century.

The Defense Department is known for big spending and big ideas. It devised a space-based missile-defense system in the 1980s known by its detractors as "Star Wars." Its new trademarked 100-year Starship Study concept comes from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA. The agency is spending a total of $1 million on the project. After presentations are made in the fall at a conference in Orlando, Fla., DARPA will decide in November who gets the money.

WHITE HOUSE

Obama campaigns with Goldberg, gay donors

President Obama will travel to New York next week to raise money at two events, one featuring entertainer Whoopi Goldberg and the other with contributors from the gay community.

An Obama campaign official confirmed the June 23 fundraisers on condition of anonymity because the official wasn't authorized to speak publicly about the events. The Goldberg fundraiser is for donors who give in smaller amounts.

Mr. Obama has been busy raising money since he announced his re-election bid in April. He held three fundraisers in Miami this week.

CALIFORNIA

Brown vetoes budget passed by Democrats

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday vetoed a Democratic budget plan approved by the Legislature, warning that if he fails to get the tax extensions he's seeking it will mean deeper cuts to vital public services.

The Democratic governor said he had a number of concerns about the budget package passed Wednesday by majority Democrats to close California's remaining $9.6 billion deficit.

In his veto message, Mr. Brown warned of dire consequences if Republicans continue to stand in the way of a special election on the tax extensions.

"If they continue to obstruct a vote, we will be forced to pursue deeper and more destructive cuts to schools and public safety — a tragedy for which Republicans will bear full responsibility," he said.

The plan includes several provisions that likely would face a legal challenge, including imposing a $12 fee on vehicle registrations, a firefighting surcharge on rural residents and an extension of a sales tax increase.

NEW JERSEY

Benefits bill advances over labor objections

TRENTON — A bill requiring 500,000 public workers in New Jersey to shoulder a significantly larger share of the costs for their health care and pension benefits and take the issue off the bargaining table has advanced in the Legislature over staunch objections from organized labor.

The vote by the Senate Budget Committee on Thursday was 9-4.

The full Senate is scheduled to vote next week.

The panel heard more than four hours of testimony Thursday, mostly from union leaders urging Democratic legislators to reject the measure. The vote was split 4-4 among Democrats. More than 2,000 protested outside the Statehouse.

The bill legislates health care changes that typically are bargained. It bases contributions to health benefits on employee income. Pension contributions also would rise.

From wire dispatches and staff reports