TRNS News Notes is brought to you by Victoria Jones. Victoria Jones is the Chief White House correspondent and global analyst of the Washington DC based Talk Radio News Service, where her insight and analysis are made available to over 400 news talk radio stations around the country and internationally.

TRNS News Notes will not publish Tuesday because of the Veterans Day holiday

Breaking: Suicide bomber disguised in school uniform killed at least 47 students at school in Nigeria (AP, Reuters, BBC)

In the News

  • Obama sees momentum for trade agreement
  • Another “Asia pivot” for Obama
  • Obama on elections: “We got beat”
  • Congress’ lame duck: What could go wrong…
  • Obama nominates Lynch for AG: Lame duck confirmation?
  • Major VA overhaul coming
  • Healthcare.gov: Still not ready?
  • Govt still testing site for hackers
  • Govt made insurers sign confidentiality agreements
  • Unscheduled Iran talks today
  • FEMA wants Sandy aid back: from assisted-living residents
  • “Unbearable financial hardship”

 

Obama Sees Momentum for Asia Trade Agreement
• President Obama said today he sees momentum building for a Washington-backed free trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific, after arriving in Beijing on the first leg on an eight-day Asia tour. U.S. officials had ruled out a major announcement on the ambitious 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in Beijing, which would encompass about 800 million people
• But business leaders attending the APEC forum have been looking for signs of progress on the TPP, especially as China is pushing for a separate trade liberalization framework called the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP) (Reuters, AP, NYT, me)
• Obama and Indonesian President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, met for the first time today, discussing security and other issues. “As one of the world’s largest democracies and also one with a large Islamic population, Indonesia has played an extraordinary role in promoting pluralism and respect for religious diversity,” Obama said
• Later today, Obama gave a speech about U.S. ties to Asia at a high-level Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, then joined key Asian leaders for dinner and fireworks at the Beijing National Aquatics Center. During his three days in China, Obama will also meet with President Xi Jinping
• In their meetings Tuesday and Wednesday, Obama plans to press Xi about China’s aggressive behavior in pursuit of maritime claims in Asia and U.S. concerns about Chinese cyber-spying, WH aides say. Obama will also seek improved cooperation on regional and global problems
• President Obama said to APEC business leaders late today in Beijing that “the one constant, the one global necessity, is American leadership … backed by the renewed strength of our economy at home.” “America is a thoroughly Pacific nation.” (CBS)
Another “Asia Pivot” for Obama
• President Obama’s week-long trip to Asia allows him to escape for a few days the reduced horizons he faces on the domestic political scene. It also offers him the opportunity to reinvigorate and reorient his presidency’s rebalancing of American interests to the Asia-Pacific – at a time when many were wondering whether his vaunted “Asia pivot” was more rhetoric than action
• Obama attends an APEC summit of Asia-Pacific leaders and has bilateral meetings with several world leaders, including President Xi Jinping of China. The trip started today in Beijing for the APEC summit (CSM, Reuters, me)
• Obama will attend several important economic conferences in different countries. He’s expected to underscore the importance for the U.S. of establishing a vast Asia-Pacific trade and investment community. The first phase of that would be the 12-nation Trans-Pacific partnership (TPP) that’s been bogged down in tough negotiations
• Regional players are taking stock of whether the U.S. president once seen as a global rock star will now have diminished heft on the world stage. However, experts said sophisticated Asian watchers of the U.S. political scene may actually see Obama as liberated to spend more time focusing on Asia. He “has the Asian engagement in his blood. It’s what he wants to do.”
• President Obama announced a new visa agreement with China today. U.S. and Chinese citizens will be able to obtain business and short-term tourist visas valid for 10 years, up from one year currently. Student and exchange visas will be made valid for five years instead of one year (AP)
• China may have taken some solace in Washington’s preoccupation over recent months with other international crises, some watchers say – ISIS, Ukraine, Ebola. “The Chinese are always relieved when we’re preoccupied somewhere else,” said Douglas Paal, Asia program director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington
• Other powers in the region that don’t want to see a waning of U.S. power, particularly in the era of a rising China, are heartened by Obama’s week-long trip to Asia and what they believe it says about both Obama and the U.S. in the region. “We have strong confidence that the U.S. will keep up the effort on the pivot to Asia,” said Kenichiro Sasae, Japan’s U.S. ambassador
• Perhaps the biggest test for Obama during a week-long trip will be setting the region straight on just what the U.S. rebalance to Asia means – and the goals he intends to reach in the coming two years
• Obama plans to give what the WH calls a “major speech” in Brisbane on the U.S. commitment to Asia, and it’s likely the whole region will be attuned to how the president frames – and perhaps resets – his pivot to Asia
• After an awkward handshake, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe held formal talks today for the first time since the two leaders took office, a breakthrough in efforts to improve ties between the Asian rivals (Reuters)
Obama: “We Got Beat”
• President Obama took the blame for the Democratic drubbing in last week’s midterm elections, saying on CBS’s Face the Nation, “We got beat.” “The buck stops right here at my desk. And so whenever, as the head of the party, it doesn’t do well, I’ve got to take responsibility for it.” (should have said it at the presser) (Politico, NYT, WashExam, Hill, WaPo, Fox, me)
• “And I think there are times, there’s no doubt about it, where you know I think we have not been successful in going out there and letting people know what it is that we’re trying to do and why this is the right direction. So there is a failure of politics there that we’ve got to improve on,” Obama said
• On immigration, Obama said he intended to move forward with executive actions after giving Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) more than a year to pass a comprehensive overhaul. “I told him at the time, ‘John, if you don’t do it, I’ve got legal authority to make improvements on the system.”
• However, “The minute they pass a bill that addresses the problems with immigration reform, I will sign it, and it supersedes whatever actions I take, and I’m encouraging them to do so.”
• On the possible secret letter to Ayatollah Khameini of Iran, “I’d tend not to comment on any communications that I have with various leaders. I’ve got a whole bunch of channels where we’re communicating to various leaders around the world. Our No. 1 priority with respect to Iran is making sure they don’t get a nuclear weapon.” “We’re not coordinating with Iran on ISIL.”
• Weekend airstrikes in Iraq hit a convoy of 10 armed trucks of ISIS near Mosul, as well as vehicles and two of the group’s checkpoints near Syria. It’s unclear whether the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been wounded in the raid (NYT, me)
Congress’ Lame Duck: What Could Go Wrong?
• “They” come back Wednesday 12 November and want to go home by the week of 17 December, but there are some issues that could potentially keep Congress in session through the holidays… (Hill, me)
Funding the military: Lawmakers will be scrambling to approve legislation funding the military in fiscal 2015. The House passed its drafts of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) last spring and summer, but the Senate didn’t bring its version to the floor before the election break. And now the president has asked for $5.6 billion more to fight ISIS
Combating Ebola: The WH last week submitted a $6.18 billion funding request to Congress. In Sept, Congress approved $88 million in additional funding for Ebola. Lawmakers also signed off on shifting $750 million in Pentagon funds to Ebola. The powerful Senate Appropriations Committee convenes next week for a contentious fight for more details about the U.S. effort

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Iran nuclear deal: There’s a 24 Nov deadline for a nuclear deal with Iran. Lawmakers expressed outrage last month when reports surfaced that Obama might work to ensure that any deal with Iran doesn’t require approval from Congress. If a deal’s struck, it could prompt a fierce backlash from Capitol Hill – legislation to impose sanctions
ISIS: President Obama has said he plans to send lawmakers a resolution for a new authorization of military force against ISIS. There’s a split in Congress. Democratically-led Senate likes the idea, but House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has previously said the lame duck session wouldn’t be the “right way to handle this.”
Benghazi hearings: The House select committee on Benghazi will likely convene for the second time in December. The meeting’s tone could  be far less cordial than its first one. Republicans on the panel might look to use the hearing to go after Hillary Clinton, who was SecState at the time of the deadly 2012 attack (here we go)
• East Ukraine’s rebel stronghold Donetsk was pummeled on Sunday by the heaviest shelling in a month, and the OSCE said it spotted an armored column of troops without insignia in rebel territory that Kiev said proved Moscow has sent reinforcements (Reuters, TRNS)
Obama Nominates Lynch for AG / Lame Duck Confirmation?
• President Obama officially nominated Loretta Lynch, a U.S. attorney from New York, as the next attorney general of the U.S. at a WH ceremony on Saturday. If confirmed by the Senate, she will be the second woman in the post, and the second African-American, following AG Eric Holder, and the first African-American woman on the job (Politico, Hill, TRNS, me)
• Obama called for Lynch to be confirmed “without delay,” but WH aides said he’ll defer to Senate leaders on whether to press ahead with a vote during the coming lame duck session, or to wait until next year, when the Republicans will officially be in the majority. Senate Democratic aides said they’re leaning toward the lame duck – no final decision
• Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), however, made clear that he’s completely opposed, issuing a statement Friday evening promising “fair consideration,” but that Lynch’s “nomination should be considered in the new Congress through regular order.”
• The question’s a significant one – at the outset of what’s supposed to be a new effort toward cooperation. (sure it is) Obama and Senate Democrats would be doing the exact opposite by moving confirming such a senior Cabinet official in between the midterms and the Republican takeover of the majority
• Sen Chris Murphy (D-CT) on CNN Sunday urged the Senate to move forward during the lame duck session to confirm Lynch, but Sen John Thune (R-SD) disagreed. “I think it is in the best interest of the country and Congress to wait and do this under regular order, there’s a process, there’s hearings,” he said
• Americans Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller are back in the U.S. from captivity in North Korea after a visit to the secretive country from the U.S.’s top spy, director of national intelligence James Clapper, apparently in response to the North’s request (NYT, me)
Major VA Overhaul Coming
• Veteran Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald will announce today, one day before Veterans Day. a major overhaul of its scandal-plagued healthcare system. He told CBS’s 60 Minutes that the dept aims to simplify the process for patients to receive care because too many patients “don’t know where to go.” (Hill, TRNS, me)
• Some of the changes will be behind the scenes, such as streamlining the nine different organizational structures across the country. The dept will also create a website that allows people to have “one entry point” into the system. Another key improvement will involve a “customer service representative” who can offer one-on-one help (wonder of wonders)
• McDonald also pledged to take action against people who violated the dept’s mission – as many as 1,000 employees. He said it would be a slow process; the dept has a “lot of people” on admin leave until a govt judge can officially approve the disciplinary action
• The reforms will come amid a major hiring spree at the VA. McDonald says he needs to hire 28,000 healthcare professionals. McDonald acknowledged that the dept has a poor reputation but added, “We’re changing it.” McDonald’s changing a lot – he gives out his cell phone number to reporters
• When he got the call about taking the VA job, “My immediate reaction was, ‘I want to do it,’ I feel like my whole life has been designed to lead to this.” During the interview, McDonald pulled out a handwritten note he received from a veteran who once had to travel from Alabama to Boston to get medical care. “That breaks my heart,” he said

 

• Pic: The 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was celebrated in that city on Sunday

 

Healthcare.gov: Still Not Ready?
• Behind the scenes, federal health officials and govt contractors are scrambling, according to confidential docs and federal and outside experts familiar with the work. They’ve been making contingency plans in case the info technology or other aspects of healthcare.gov prove less sturdy than the admin predicts (WaPo, me)
• “We’re really making sure that the web site works super well,” President Obama said at a presser a few days ago. “We’re double- and triple-checking it.” People can start buying health plans under Obamacare in less than a week. Confidential docs written in recent weeks hint at elaborate backup planning
• One doc from late October describes a new system known as “throttling,” which will be deployed if the number of people trying to use healthcare.gov at the same time strains the web site’s enlarged capacity. This throttling could send groups of people using different parts of the site into separate online “waiting rooms.” (sounds familiar…)
• It’s a “structured approach,” says the doc from the Dept of Health and Human Services’ Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). This method, the doc says, would detect overloads sooner and be more efficient than the long online queue federal officials devised last winter – dubbed the “blue screen of death” that many consumers got
Govt Still Testing Site For Hackers
• Other confidential CMS docs show that federal health officials drafted contingency plans involving notices for people who have insurance through the exchanges. The notices provide important info, such as whether enrollees appear eligible for federal subsidies for the coming year
• The notices were supposed to be in consumers’ hands by 1 Nov. But by the third week of Oct, a doc says, fewer than 1 million of 7.6 million notices were ready to be mailed or emailed. Officials considered sending some late and other options, and now they’re going out in batches
• Meanwhile, another October doc says that insurers will continue to test a new part of healthcare.gov for small businesses – not ready last year – for about a month after enrollment gets under way (still not ready?)
• In another behind-the-scenes effort, testing continues to try to ensure that the computer system is safe from hackers. The GAO recently joined congressional Republicans who oppose the healthcare law in warning that the system doesn’t have strong enough privacy protections. Govt computer experts are trying once a day to hack into healthcare.gov to test it
Govt Made Insurers Sign Confidentiality Agreements
• Some details about the readiness of the web site are unavailable partly because CMS officials this year have insisted that every insurer involved in testing the site sign a confidentiality agreement requiring them to refrain from discussing the results (outrageous throttling)
• For their part, top federal health officials are straddling a line, working to build public confidence without overpromising. The system “will be very, very good,” Andy Slavitt, CMS principal deputy administrator, said in an interview. “I won’t commit to perfection. … The one thing I can predict is we didn’t think of everything.”
• HHS Sec Sylvia Mathews Burwell says healthcare.gov will have two jobs this year: signing up new insurance customers while, for the first time, renewing coverage for existing ones. The enrollment window will be half as long as the first one: 15 Nov to 15 Feb
• The admin has refrained from saying how many uninsured Americans it hopes to attract this time. The CBO has predicted that 13 million people will be covered in 2015 through health plans sold through the federal insurance exchange and separate ones run by one-third of the states: nearly twice as many people as signed up for 2014

• Vid: DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL) pledged a full review of her party’s poor performance in recent midterm elections. “We are going to look at where we fell short. We’re going to identify our mistakes.” (Stand for something. Be unified. Don’t be wonky, speak to people’s hearts)

Unscheduled Iran Talks Today
• Iran, the U.S. and EU are holding an unscheduled second day of talks today, on disagreements blocking resolution of a dispute over Tehran’s nuclear program, a U.S. official and Iranian state media said. Representatives from the other P5+1 members will attend talks on Tuesday (Guardian, WSJ, Reuters, me)
• In the U.S., President Obama said a final step in the talks would involve Iran providing “verifiable, lock tight assurances that they can’t develop a nuclear weapon.” “There’s still a big gap,” he said. “We may not be able to get there.”
• With two weeks to a deadline for a comprehensive accord on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, SecState John Kerry, Iranian FM Javad Zarif and EU envoy Catherine Ashton met in Oman’s capital, Muscat, on Sunday. Discussions aim to put verifiable limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment work in return for a gradual lifting of sanctions
• The thorniest unresolved issues are the size of Iran’s enrichment program, the length of any long-term agreement and the pace at which international sanctions would be phased out. Washington also wants intensive verification and monitoring measures to ensure Iran is living up to its end of the bargain
• Meanwhile, Kerry on Saturday denied that the Obama admin has linked progress on negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program to cooperation on any other issues in the Middle East. “There is no linkage whatsoever of the nuclear discussions with any other issue. And I want to make that absolutely clear. The nuclear negotiations are on their own.”

 

• Moving vid: Queen Elizabeth II leads Remembrance Sunday services at the Cenotaph in London, honoring the nation’s war dead, amid unprecedented security. There’s two minutes silence across the nation, followed by a laying of wreaths and gun salutes at the Cenotaph (Telegraph)

FEMA Wants Sandy Aid Back – From Assisted-Living Residents
• The residents of Belle Harbor Manor spent four miserable months in emergency shelters after Superstorm Sandy’s flood waters surged through their assisted-living center on New York City’s Rockaway peninsula (AP, me)
• Now, the home’s disabled, elderly and mostly poor residents have a new headache: FEMA has asked at least a dozen of them to pay back thousands of dollars in disaster aid. Robert Rosenberg, 61, was told he’d been declared ineligible for aid he received two years ago. FEMA wants $2,486 back by 15 Nov or he can file an appeal
• The problem, FEMA’s letters have said, was that the money was supposed to have been spent on temporary housing, but that never happened because the residents were moved from one state-funded shelter to another. Rosenberg, who suffers from a spinal disability and other health problems, spent the money on food and clothing – in short supply after the storm
• The demands are part of a broader FEMA effort to recover millions of dollars in aid payments that went to ineligible households, either because of errors, a misunderstanding of the rules or outright fraud
“Unbearable Financial Hardship”
• After their chaotic evacuation, Belle Harbor Manor residents were initially taken to a huge evacuation center inside a Brooklyn armory, then spent a brief time sleeping four-to-a-room in a crime plagued neighborhood, where they were advised not to go out at night

• The state then moved the residents, many of whom suffer from mild mental illnesses, to a halfway house on the grounds of a partly abandoned psychiatric hospital in Queens, where they bunked on cots and were barred from having visitors in their rooms

• Rosenberg said that FEMA workers who urged him to apply for assistance never explained that the money could only be used for housing. Legal aid lawyers who have offered to help the residents say it “would be an unbearable financial hardship and unjust” to require the residents to repay the money. They don’t have it
• FEMA spox Rachel Lemaitre said the agency was required by law to recoup improper payments but didn’t directly address the residents’ situation. “FEMA remains committed to working with applicants and ensuring they have an understanding of the options available to resolve their debt.” (they were told it was aid – not a loan)

• Pic: Macauley Culkin isn’t dead, but pretends to be. He pokes fun at a celebrity death hoax by posing like he’s dead, parodying a scene from dark comedy “Weekend at Bernie’s” (E! Online, Us Magazine)

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Victoria Jones

TRNS’ Nicholas Salazar and Celina Gore contributed to this report

 

The Talk Radio News Service is the only information, news booking and host service dedicated to serving the talk radio community. TRNS maintains a Washington office that includes White House, Capitol Hill and Pentagon staffed bureaus, and a New York office with a United Nations staffed bureau. Talk Radio News Service has permanent access to every breaking newsevent in the Washington, D.C. area and beyond.