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.

In the News

  • Iran: Late snags with a deal
  • Kerry slams GOP Iran letter
  • Israeli election: Public is fed up
  • Man arrested in Ferguson shootings
  • Budget: GOP fights with itself
  • Clintonghazi? Will House go to court?
  • Bump: Debt limit hits today
  • McConnell delays Lynch AG vote
  • Obama kills at Gridiron dinner

Iran: Late Snags With a Deal

• SecState John Kerry, in Switzerland this week for a critical round of talks, is still clashing with Iranian FM Javad Zarif over Tehran’s demand that all UN sanctions be suspended as soon as there’s a deal, as well as Washington’s insistence that international inspectors be able to promptly visit any nuclear site, even those on Iranian military bases (NYT, AP, me)

• There are also disagreements over Iran’s research and development of advanced centrifuges, which would allow Iran to produce nuclear fuel far more quickly, as well as over how many years an agreement would last. Could they reach a lesser agreement that they’ve made enough progress to justify further talks? Possible

• Areas of convergence circulating include a complex deal in which Iran would ship large portions of its stockpiles of uranium out of the country, almost certainly to Russia. In return, the U.S. and partners could allow Iran to keep roughly 6,500 of its centrifuges spinning, rather than the few hundred under discussion a year ago

• The number of centrifuges, which could change, is important. Opponents of the deal argue that it will leave the Iranians with a latent production capacity, even though the country would have limited amounts of uranium to work with

• American officials insist that for at least the first 10 years of a final deal, the mix of fuel and enrichment capacity will leave the U.S., Israel and others with at least a year’s worth of warning time if Iran raced to make a bomb – compared to just a few months of warning time today

• “I’m embarrassed for them,” President Obama said of the 47 GOP senators in an interview with Vice News to be released today. “For them to address a letter to the ayatollah, who they claim is our mortal enemy, and their basic argument is, ‘Don’t deal with out president because you can’t trust him enough to follow through on an agreement,’ that’s unprecedented.” (Vice, TRNS)

• Inside the negotiating rooms, there’s a standoff over how to phase in the lifting of UN, American and European sanctions as Iran complies with the terms. That underscores a little-discussed but politically volatile issue for the Obama admin: how quickly Iran would see economic and tech benefits from any accord

• A suspension, and ultimate elimination, of the sanctions on oil exports and financial transactions is the key issue for President Hassan Rouhani and Zarif if they hope to sell a 10-year or longer limitation on their nuclear activity to Iranian mullahs and military leaders who have opposed the negotiations

• Leaked details of the talks are being used by opponents in Tehran, especially the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which oversees the military side of the nuclear program. They argue that by limiting Iran’s capabilities for so long, the U.S. would use an accord to thwart Iran’s emergence as the major power in the Middle East

• But any rapid lifting of sanctions – by vote of the Security Council and by President Obama – could intensify the already fierce congressional debate. Congress would ultimately need to vote to remove American sanctions, and some Republicans may balk at doing that and instead try to toughen the terms – so much so that Iran might not accept them

• Kerry has called in Energy Sec Ernest Moniz, a nuclear scientist, to bolster the argument that an accord would guarantee that, for a decade or more, the U.S. and its allies have at least a year’s warning before Iran could manufacture a bomb’s worth of weapons-grade nuclear fuel

• Israeli PM Netanyahu attempted to cancel a January briefing of U.S. senators by Israeli intel agency Mossad. The meeting eventually went ahead. Mossad told U.S. officials that a recently-floated Iran sanctions bill from Sens Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) would scuttle U.S. nuclear negotiations (Time, Bloomberg, Hill)

Kerry Slams GOP Iran Letter

• SecState John Kerry said on CBS Sunday that the GOP Iran letter “specifically inserts itself directly to the leader of another country, saying. ‘Don’t negotiate with these guys because we’re going to change this.’ which, by the way, is not only contrary to the Constitution with respect to the executive’s right to negotiate, but it is incorrect because they cannot change an executive agreement.”

• Prince Turki al-Faisal, a senior member of the Saudi royal family and the country’s former intel chief, said to the BBC, “I’ve always said whatever comes out of these talks we will want the same. So if Iran has the ability to enrich uranium to whatever level, it’s not just Saudi Arabia that’s going to ask for that.” (Hill, Politico, BBC, me)

• Cotton said Sunday on CBS that he has “no regrets” about the letter. “The alternative to a bad deal is a better deal,” he echoed Israeli PM Netanyahu. “Moreover,” Cotton said, “We have to stand up to Iran’s attempts to drive for regional dominance. They already control Tehran and, increasingly, they control Damascus and Beirut and Baghdad.” (Tehran, ya think?)

• Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said on CNN, “I don’t think it

[letter] was a mistake.” “The admin would like to have a distraction, but the point is the subject of the matter. Apparently, the Obama admin is on the cusp of entering into a very bad deal with one of the worst regimes in the world.”

• Centrist Sen Joe Manchin (D-WV) blasted the letter as “wrong.” “You’ve got to stick with one voice,” he said on CBS Sunday. “It sure hasn’t helped a thing. It hasn’t helped one thing except drive this further apart.”

 

Israeli Elections: Public is Fed up – Uncertainty
• The final two surveys released Friday night gave the Zionist Union, headed by Labor Leader Isaac Herzog and Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni, a four-seat lead over PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party (AFP, Haaretz, Jerusalem Post, Reuters, TRNS, me)
• But Israel’s complex electoral system, where many parties are vying for power, means the task of forming a new govt doesn’t automatically fall to the winning candidate or list. Israel’s new premier will be the one who can build a coalition commanding a majority of at least 61 seats in the 120-strong Knesset
• Under the proportional system, voters choose party lists rather than individual candidates, with seats distributed according to the percentage of the vote received. It could take weeks of negotiations before the name of the new PM is known. Trailing in the polls, Netanyahu has come out fighting and some analysts say he may be well placed to form a coalition. Some don’t
• Speaking to a rally of thousands of right-wing voters in Tel Aviv Sunday, Netanyahu warned of “a fateful struggle, a close struggle.” “If we don’t close this gap, there is a real danger that a left-wing govt will rise to power,” Netanyahu warned from behind a bulletproof screen
• Herzog told Channel 2 on Saturday the election was “a choice between despair and hope.” “The Israeli public is fed up with Netanyahu and knows that I’m the only one who can replace him.” Thing is, Herzog doesn’t get people really enthused, but many people are fed up with Netanyahu. Less than 25% of the electorate is in play at this point

 

• SecState John Kerry says he wants to “re-ignite” negotiations with President Bashar al-Assad to end the conflict in Syria. “Everybody agrees there is no military solution, there’s only a political solution,” Kerry told CBS on Sunday (BBC)
Man Arrested in Ferguson Shootings
• St Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch said Sunday a man charged in the shooting of two police officers last week during a demonstration outside the Ferguson PD had attended the protest earlier that night, although multiple activists said he wasn’t a consistent fixture in their tight-knit group (AP, NYT, me)
• McCulloch said Sunday in announcing the charges that 20-year-old Jeffrey Williams told authorities he was firing at someone with whom he was in a dispute. “We’re not sure we completely buy that part of it,” McCulloch said, adding that there might have been other people in a vehicle Williams is accused of firing from
• The officers were shot early Thursday as a late-night demonstration began to break up following the resignation of Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson in the wake of a Justice Dept report that found widespread racial bias in the police dept. Several activists said they weren’t familiar with Williams, who was on probation for receiving stolen property
• Brittany Ferrell, 26, a protest leader with Millennial Activists United said no one in the group knew Williams and they checked with other frequent protesters – who also hadn’t heard of him. Ferrell suspected McCulloch tried to cast him as a protester to reflect negatively on the movement. “This is a fear tactic,” she said. “We are very tight-knit.”
• John Louis, a St Louis NAACP leader, said, “I don’t know him. I’ve never seen him.” / AG Eric Holder said in a statement Sunday that the arrest “sends a clear message that acts of violence against our law enforcement personnel will never be tolerated.”
• For the first time in the 114-year history of Boston’s St Patrick’s Day parade, gay rights activists marched openly on Sunday under rainbow banners in the city’s annual celebration of its Irish heritage, after organizers lifted a longtime ban (Reuters)
Budget: GOP Fights With Itself
• The congressional push this week to secure the first Republican budget plan in nearly a decade is revealing a chasm between fiscal hawks determined to maintain strict spending caps and defense hawks who are threatening to derail any budget that doesn’t ensure an increase for the military (NYT, me)
• The divisions will be laid bare Tuesday when congressional leaders unveil blueprints that hew to spending limits imposed by the budget battles of 2011. Unlike legislation, the spending plan Republicans will be creating this week requires only a majority vote in both the House and Senate, can’t be blocked by a filibuster and isn’t subject to presidential approval or veto
• The budget plans set overall spending levels for domestic and defense programs. They can’t overturn the Budget Control Act of 2011, which imposed a decade’s worth of spending caps and across the board spending cuts. That will take another law, which defense hawks are trying to craft now, with the help of Democrats
• President Obama has already proposed raising spending caps in the fiscal year that begins this Oct by nearly $80 billion, half for defense, half for domestic. Democrats in the House and Senate will offer no help to Republican leaders as they try to assemble a majority to approve plans that will be far more austere
• Sen John McCain (R-AZ) and Rep Mac Thornberry (R-TX), chairs of the Armed Services Committees, have promised a fight. McCain vowed last week to do “whatever it takes” to lift the defense caps, including making a deal with Democrats to bolster defense spending. Some 69 House Republicans last week demanded the budget match Obama’s
Push to Spend Intensifies
• The budget debate is coming as falling deficits have eased fiscal pressures. This month, the CBO updated its deficit forecast, projecting $486 billion in red ink this fiscal year, dropping to $455 billion next year
• The push to spend more is also intensifying, especially on defense. The warnings from military leadership have grown increasingly dire – deep cuts in personnel that would leave the smallest Air Force in history, tens of thousands of soldiers taken from combat-ready units. Democrats say vital nondefense programs are no less imperiled
• But most conservative Republicans aren’t budging in the face of sky-is-falling warnings. The strict caps “are one of the best things that’s happened to the finances of the country,” said Sen Jeff Sessions (R-AL), a senior Republicans on the Budget Committee
• Lawmakers are scrambling to finesse the problem. Sen Mike Enzi (R-WY), Budget Committee chair, and Sen Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), are pressing for a place-holder in the budget – a “deficit-neutral reserve fund” – that they say would allow Congress to come back in the summer with legislation to lift the spending caps
• To some Republicans – and most Democrats – a “deficit-neutral reserve fund” is a grand deception. McCain dismissed the fund as a gimmick. Sen Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a member of Budget and Armed Services Committees, said he’d vote the budget out of committee this week, but without assurances that spending would rise, wouldn’t vote for final passage
• House Speaker John Boehner plans to announce a new investigation this week into Hillary Clinton’s use of email when she led the State Dept, ABC News reports
Clintonghazi? House to Go to Court?
• House Benghazi select committee chair Trey Gowdy (R-SC) said on Fox News Sunday, “The House as an institution may be forced to go to court to get access to that [Hillary Clinton’s private email server].” Gowdy said he doesn’t have evidence that Clinton has lied or committed a crime (WSJ, WaPo, NYP, me)
• “I have zero interest in looking at her personal emails. I don’t care about her yoga practice, I don’t care about bridesmaids dresses,” Gowdy said. “The House has no business looking at purely personal emails, but by the same token she doesn’t get to decide what is purely personal and what is public.”
• “Let’s be fair about this – we are talking about investigation on Benghazi, right? What does this have to do with Benghazi? And the answer is absolutely nothing,” Benghazi committee member Rep Adam Schiff (D-CA) said. “It’s now a special investigation of SecState Hillary Clinton. Otherwise what possible relevance does that have on Benghazi?”
• “She’s willing to come in under oath and testify as to” how she selected what emails were turned over to the govt, Rep Elijah Cummings (D-MD), top Dem on the committee, said. “And we ought to have her come in not only to testify about the emails but also to testify about Benghazi.”
• Meanwhile, the NYP claims that Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama, leaked details about Clinton’s use of the private email address as part of a broader effort to undermine her chances of becoming president. A source told the paper that Jarrett has held secret meetings with former Gov Martin O’Malley (D-MD) and Sen Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)
• Vine: Bill Higgins and his goat Izak waited patiently to meet the presidential candidates – as they do every four years – this weekend in NH. It’s a test. “I judge the candidates by how they react to the goat,” Quite right. But Sen Ted Cruz (R-TX) snubbed Izak twice on Sunday. Hmmm. Doesn’t bode well for the senator from Canada… (WaPo, me)
Bump: Debt Limit Hits Today
• The nation hits its statutory debt limit today of about $18 trillion. The Treasury Dept is hunting for funds to continue to pay the bills. Experts believe that the country will be in danger of a catastrophic default around Oct or Nov – roughly overlapping with the deadline Congress needs to hit to avoid another govt shutdown (Hill, me)
• Republicans now enjoy a majority in both chambers. But with power comes responsibility. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has repeatedly said he has no designs on a govt shutdown or debt default. This month he noted that some “other important legislation” could accompany a limit increase
• Some Republican lawmakers appear tired of high dramatics, especially after the recent Homeland Security funding debacle. “Senate Finance Committee chair Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said, “The debt ceiling is kind of a phony issue anyways. Whatever it takes to not shut the place down, I’m all for.”
• But other Republicans are still keen to use the debt limit. “I’ve consistently been one of those who’ve felt that we should use the debt ceiling as a vehicle to drive further reforms. I would like to see that,” said Sen Mike Crapo (R-ID)
• Friday, Treasury Sec Jack Lew warned Congress not to view the borrowing cap as a “bargaining chip,” indicating that the WH will again be looking for a “clean” debt limit increase, free of other policy prescriptions from GOP lawmakers. He said Treasury is already deploying its set of “extraordinary measures” to continue paying the nation’s bills
• The proof of the pudding is in the meeting. If Russian President Vladimir Putin meets today with the President of Kyrgystan in St Petersburg as scheduled, then we know Putin’s not been abducted by aliens or died from bad Botox. Where did he disappear to for days on end? Latest rumor is that he had the flu… (me, BBC)

McConnell Delays Lynch AG Vote

• Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on CNN Sunday said Loretta Lynch, President Obama’s nominee to succeed Eric Holder as AG, will not move until Democrats cooperate on a human trafficking bill. “I had hoped to turn to her next week, but if we can’t finish the trafficking bill, she will be put off again.” (Hill, me)

• Democrats have threatened to veto the bipartisan trafficking measure because Republicans included a measure that would prohibit restitution funds from paying for abortions. McConnell said he offered Democrats an up-or-down vote to remove the language. Democrats would almost certainly lose that vote

• Some Democrats have argued they overlooked the language when they first voted for the legislation. They say that it was not included on a list of changes to the bill that was submitted to them by Republicans but was instead snuck into the legislation. They also say the provision goes further than previously in restricting new funding

• Sen Chuck Schumer (D-NY, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, said in a statement Sunday, “For months and months, Republicans have failed to move forward with her nomination using any excuse they can, except for any credible objection to her nomination itself.”

• A Democratic aide said deliberation of the trafficking bill isn’t a valid excuse and pointed out that the Senate approved four executive nominees last Thursday and will consider two more today while the bill is on the floor. Lynch’s nomination has been awaiting confirmation for 129 days, longer than the past five attorneys general (its about immigration policy, really)

• Wealthy eccentric Robert Durst was arrested on a murder warrant by FBI agents Saturday just before the finale of the HBO documentary show “The Jinx.” He was caught on a mic rambling to himself in a bathroom: “What the hell did I do? Killed them all of course.” He’s been linked to the disappearance of his wife and two killings (AP)

Obama Kills at 130th Gridiron Dinner
• President Obama Saturday night told Washington’s elite journalists and politicians at the black tie affair that Democrats had determined they need to do better with older white voters. “Which is why I’m here.” He noted that if the crowd laughed more at his jokes than in 2013 there might be a reason: “I’m not saying I’m any funnier. I’m saying weed is now legal in DC.”
• Remember, a loose Obama said, when he was considered the tech-savvy hipster in the executive mansion? But now, “Hillary has a server in her house!” he exclaimed. “I didn’t even know you could have one of those. I am so far behind.” (WaPo, NYT, me)
• Several jokes were aimed at Gov Scott Walker (R-WI). “The other week he said he didn’t know whether or not I was a Christian. And I was taken aback, but fortunately my faith teaches us forgiveness. So, Governor Walker: as-salamu alaykum.”
• Obama added that Walker “got some heat for staying silent when Rudy Giuliani said I didn’t love America. If I didn’t love America,” Obama joked, “I wouldn’t have moved here from Kenya.”

• Obama said he was concerned about a possible “conservative coup aimed at John Boehner,” “or as Bill O’Reilly calls it, ‘reporting from the war zone.'” “The good news is, Bill has an eye witness who can back up some of his claims. The bad news, of course, is that it’s Brian Williams.”

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___________________

Victoria Jones – Editor

TRNS’ Luke Vargas and Nicholas Salazar contributed to this report

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