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Saudi Woman to Receive 10 Lashes for Driving Car September 29, 2011

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Saudi activists say a court has sentenced a Saudi woman with 10 lashes for defying the kingdom’s ban on women driving.

Activist Samar Badawi says Shaima Ghassaniya was found guilty Tuesday of driving without the government’s permission.

No laws prohibit women from driving, but conservative religious edicts have banned it.

The ruling comes just two days after Saudi King Abdullah announced that, for the first time, women have the right to vote and run in the country’s 2015 local elections.

Najalaa Harriri, who is also facing court for driving, told The Associated Press she needed to drive to take better care of her children.

Tuesday’s verdict is the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia. Other women were detained for several days, but had not been sentenced by a court.

‘Obamacare’ Closer to Supreme Court Review After Administration Declines to Appeal Latest Ruling September 28, 2011

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The Obama administration has decided not to ask a federal appeals court in Atlanta for further review of a ruling striking down the centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s sweeping health care overhaul.

The administration’s decision makes it more likely that the U.S. Supreme Court would hear a case on the health care overhaul in the court’s term starting next month, and render its verdict on the law in the midst of the 2012 presidential election campaign.

Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler disclosed the administration’s decision. She declined to elaborate on next moves.

The Atlanta circuit ruling sided with 26 states that had sued to stop the law from taking effect. In another case, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld the individual mandate in June.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., rejected two lawsuits on technical grounds. In one, it ruled that the penalty for not buying insurance amounts to a tax and that a tax can’t be challenged before it’s collected. In the other, the panel said the plaintiff, the state of Virginia, lacked legal standing to file its lawsuit.

In a ruling in August, a divided three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta concluded Congress overstepped its authority when lawmakers passed the individual mandate provision that requires people to buy health insurance. The administration could have asked the full 11th circuit court to hear the case, potentially delaying high court review.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the fourth appeals court to deal with a case over the law, heard oral arguments last Friday but hasn’t issued a ruling.

The Supreme Court is widely expected to have the final say on the law, especially now that the appeals courts that have considered the law have disagreed, and one of them has struck down a key provision.

The real question has been over timing, which has political as well as legal ramifications.

In order to hear and decide the case by late June, when the court wraps up its work until resuming in October, the justices would have to act by January to accept and schedule an appeal.

It typically takes a couple of months or more from the time an appeal is filed at the court until the justices decide whether or not to hear it.

In arguments leading up to the appeals court decision in Atlanta, the Obama administration said the legislative branch was using a “quintessential” power — its constitutional ability to regulate interstate commerce, including the health care industry — when it passed the overhaul law. Administration officials said at the time they were confident the 11th Circuit ruling would not stand.

In that August ruling, Chief Judge Joel Dubina and Circuit Judge Frank Hull said that lawmakers cannot require residents to “enter into contracts with private insurance companies for the purchase of an expensive product from the time they are born until the time they die.”

In a lengthy dissent, Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus accused the majority of ignoring the “undeniable fact that Congress’ commerce power has grown exponentially over the past two centuries.” He wrote that Congress generally has the constitutional authority to create rules regulating large areas of the national economy.

Senate OKs Bill to Avert Shutdown September 27, 2011

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After a heated battle between Dems and GOP over disaster aid, the Senate votes to send a temporary spending bill to the House to avoid a government shutdown.

The vote in the Senate was 79 to 12 to fund the government through Nov. 18, giving the two sides more time to haggle over long-term spending levels. The Senate also approved an even shorter-term spending bill — funding the government into next week — by a voice vote to give the House time to reconvene and approve the followup.

The breakthrough came hours after the Federal Emergency Management Agency indicated it had enough money for disaster relief efforts through Friday. That disclosure allowed lawmakers to jettison a $1 billion replenishment that had been included in the measure — and to crack the gridlock it had caused.

The events assured there would be no interruption in assistance in areas battered by disasters such as Hurricane Irene and last summer’s tornados in Joplin, Mo., and also that the government would be able to run normally when the new budget year begins on Saturday.

The agreement also spelled the end to the latest in a string of political standoffs between Democrats and Republicans over deficits, spending and taxes that have rattled financial markets and coincided with polls showing congressional approval ratings at historically low levels.

“This compromise should satisfy Republicans…and it should satisfy Democrats,” said Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, who added that Budget Director Jacob Lew had informed him that FEMA did not need any additional funding to meet its needs for the final few days of the budget year.

“It’s a win for everyone,” Reid declared.

House Speaker John Boehner’s office argued that the GOP was never opposed to disaster aid, just the process for approving the aid.

“Senate Democrats have conceded that the spending level in the House-passed bill was the most responsible solution,” Boehner spokesman Mike Steel said in a written statement. “If it weren’t for House GOP efforts, the American taxpayers would have been on the hook for even more reckless borrowing by Washington Democrats.”

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said the latest legislation was a “reasonable way to keep the government operational.”

But not even the dispute-resolving agreement prevented Democrats from proceeding to a politically charged vote earlier in the evening that was designed to force Republicans to decide whether immediate aid to disaster victims or deficit concerns held a higher priority.

And the rhetoric was far harsher during the day on the Senate floor, when Mary Landrieu, D-La., unleashed an unusually personal attack on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., saying the weeks-long controversy started when he said, “Before we can provide help we need to find offsets in the budget.”

She called that “the Cantor doctrine” and said the controversy “could have been avoided if Cantor had just said, `I’m sorry, but I made a mistake.’ But instead of saying that, he doubled down,” she said.

Laena Fallon, a spokeswoman for Cantor, responded that the Virginia Republican had “never said the things she alleged, he has only suggested that we ought to provide disaster aid dollars to those who need them in a responsible way — something that she’s voted to block despite the urgent need.”

In fact, House Republicans insisted that any new disaster aid for the expiring budget year be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget, a decision that Democrats seized on in hopes of reshaping the political terrain to their advantage.

Hours earlier, FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen, said the agency had $114 million left in its disaster relief fund, enough to last until Thursday or Friday, the final business day of the current budget year. She said the exact timing would depend on the number of emergency victims who apply for aid, and whether any new disasters occur.

FEMA officials had said previously the funds would run out early this week. That concern prompted the Obama administration a few weeks ago to ask Congress to approve a replenishment to tide the agency over through the Sept. 30 end to the fiscal year.

House Republicans agreed weeks ago to provide $1 billion and include the money in a bill that also provides money for most federal agencies for the first few weeks of the 2012 budget year. At the same time, they insisted on cutting spending elsewhere in the budget by $1.5 billion to prevent the deficit from rising, an amount later raised to $1.6 billion.

That, in turn, produced a quick attack from Senate Democrats, who opposed cuts.

While it was unclear precisely how long FEMA’s remaining funds would last, one official said the agency began conserving funds last month as Hurricane Irene approached the U.S. mainland, prioritizing its aid to help individual disaster victims and pay states and local governments for immediate needs such as removing debris and building sand bag barricades.

Funding of $450 million has been put on hold for longer-term needs such as reconstruction of damaged roads, the official said. In addition, the agency has been able to reclaim unused money from past disasters, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing lack of authority to discuss the matter publicly.

Cain No Rodney Dangerfield, but Waiting for Respect After Florida Straw Poll Victory September 25, 2011

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Ecstatic off a Florida straw poll victory that is sure to elevate his visibility, Republican presidential contender Herman Cain said Sunday that the GOP establishment better start paying attention because he’s getting respect from voters.

“The takeaway from Florida, that we took away, is that number one, the citizens movement is more powerful than the establishment wants to give me credit for. So yes, they keep treating me like the Rodney Dangerfield of this primary contest,” Cain told Fox News.

“The voters, the people out in the field are saying we want to send a message to Washington, D.C. The establishment is not going to make this call, the people are going to make the call and that’s what you saw in the Florida straw poll yesterday,” he said.

Cain won the straw poll decisively on Saturday, garnering 37 percent of the 2,657 votes cast. Far behind was Texas Gov. Rick Perry with 15. 4 percent and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney with 14 percent. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum came in fourth with 10.88 percent.

The results were a stunner to many since Cain is out-funded and doesn’t have the same name recognition as other candidates like Perry, who also spent time and money on securing a strong showing at the event. 

Romney had vowed before the primary season to sit out straw polls but the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO has also invested his time in Florida. The winner of the straw poll wins the Florida GOP endorsement ahead of the primary, the date of which is still being disputed. 

Cain also performed above expectations in Thursday’s Fox News-Google debate. But even after the victory, Cain says he is still struggling to get some respect from party insiders. In response to the results, frontrunner Perry issued a statement focusing on Romney, his top rival. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who had suggested earlier that the winner of the poll would be the party nominee in 2012, backpedaled from his earlier statements.

“Congratulations to Herman Cain for his victory. Today’s results reinforce the crucial role Florida’s primary will play in the selection of our nominee and show that no candidate can take Florida for granted,” Scott said in a statement after announcing the winner at CPAC-Florida. “I believe that as we saw in 2010, a challenging primary between our Republican candidates will serve our party, state and nation well in preparing to defeat President Obama in 2012.”

Undeterred, Cain said his message is resonating because he’s offering solutions rather than “just talking the problem.” He added that the Florida straw poll is a better indicator of a contender’s standing because it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of Iowa’s Ames poll in August, where the candidates heavily court voters. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann won that vote.

“Look, the Iowa straw poll you can stack the deck, you can practically buy that. Several people tried to do it and now you see what happened. With all due respect to Representative Michele Bachmann, but her star has fallen because it was temporary. The difference is in Florida, these were delegates that were making the call, they were making the call based on who they saw with the most substance in that message,” he said.  

Cain added that once he is more recognized by the public, voters and the media will look more closely at his candidacy.  

“Now they’re going to have to talk about Herman Cain, as my name ID goes up. They are going to compare Cain versus more of the same. Cain versus more of the same is what’s coming through. And that’s what you saw in Florida. They prefer Cain and not more of the same,” he said. 

And if “Cain versus more of the same” doesn’t fly, Cain said he’s going to borrow from the season opener of “Saturday Night Live,” in which comedian Kenan Thompson played Cain’s character in a mock debate and suggested that Cain’s pizza mogul background will serve him well as a presidential contender. 

“When you ask for it, pizza will be there in 10 minutes,” Thompson said trying to adopt Cain’s Georgia-drawn cadence. “If you order it, pizza will come, pizza will come, oh, pizza will most definitely come. And if you vote for me, America, I promise you that I will deliver.” 

“I think that’s great,” Cain said, laughing. “I’m going to use that in my next debate. ‘If you vote for me America, I will deliver.’ That’s what people are hearing.”

Putin Says He’s Running for President September 24, 2011

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 Vladimir Putin on Saturday agreed to run for the Russian presidency in 2012, almost certainly ensuring his return to the office he previously held for eight years and likely foreshadowing more years of strongman rule. His United Russia party also approved his proposal that the current president Dmitry Medvedev take over his Putin’s role as prime minister.

Putin ruled Russia as president from 2000-2008 with a steely command that was widely criticized in the West as a retreat from democracy. Because constitutional changes have extended the presidential term to six years from four, Putin’s power is likely to be even more enhanced. If he wins two terms in a row, Putin will have been atop the Russian hierarchy for almost a quarter century.

Putin’s nomination at a congress of the United Russia party end months of intense speculation as to whether he would seek to return to the Kremlin or whether he would allow the more mild-mannered and reform-leaning Medvedev to seek another term in next year’s election.

Despite apparently growing discontent among ordinary Russians with the party, United Russia exerts such an overwhelming presence in the country’s politics that Putin’s election and Medvedev’s switch to the premiership is virtually ensured.

Not only have genuine opposition parties been marginalized, but Putin’s personal popularity is immense among Russians who laud him as the strong and decisive figure needed by a sprawling country troubled by corruption, an Islamist insurgency and a vast gap between the impoverished and the grandiosely super-rich.

The presidential election, for which a date has not been set, is preceded by national parliamentary elections on Dec. 4, in which United Russia will seek to retain its dominance; the party has 312 of the 450 seats in the current parliament.

Putin started a carefully orchestrated series of manuevers at Saturday’s session of the party congress by proposing that Medvedev head the party list for the December elections. Medvedev then proposed that Putin be the party’s presidential candidate, and Putin returned to the stage to accept the proposal and express support for Medvedev as prime minister.

The congress approved the moves with no apparent opposition.

Moving Medvedev to the premiership could set him up to take the brunt of criticism for austerity measures that Putin has warned will be necessary for Russia amid global economic turmoil.

Putin also proposed Saturday that Russia’s richest citizens face higher taxes. The flat income tax that came into effect during Putin’s 2000-2008 presidency has been widely praised as improving tax collection and Putin’s proposal would not change that, but he called for increases in consumption and real estate taxes that hit the rich comparatively harder.

The period for formal submission of presidential candidates’ names has not yet begun, and it is unclear who might choose to challenge Putin for president.

Putin became prime minister in 2008 after two terms as president, stepping aside because of constitutional term limits, but as Russia’s most powerful and popular politician he nonetheless overshadowed Medvedev, his handpicked successor in the presidency.

Medvedev was widely seen as a caretaker figure. As president, he has struck a reformist posture, calling for improvements in Russia’s unreliable court system and for efforts against the country’s endemic corruption. But his initiatives have produced little tangible result.

Putin, who built his popularity on the back of strong economic growth, told the party congress on Friday that salaries and pensions would continue to grow, and he promised increased funding for education, health care and housing.

But he also cautioned that the government may need to take unpopular steps to cope with the global financial turmoil.

“The task of the government is not only to pour honey into a cup, but sometimes to give bitter medicine,” Putin said. “But this should always be done openly and honestly, and then the overwhelming majority of people will understand their government.”