President Barack Obama’s 2015 NASA budget plan includes funding for a robotic mission to an ocean-bearing moon of Jupiter and could help boost commercial ventures to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, NASA officials said on Tuesday.
The White House is requesting a $17.5 billion budget for the U.S. space agency in the fiscal year that begins October 1.
That marks a 1 percent decrease from NASA’s 2014 budget. But NASA could also have access to an additional $900 million from Obama’s proposed Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative, a $56 billion fund for special projects that is separate from the regular budget.
If approved, the agency would have $1.1 billion next year to help at least two companies develop commercial space taxis to fly astronauts to and from the space station. The $100 billion research outpost, a project of 15 nations, flies about 260 miles above Earth.
Since the space shuttles were retired in 2011, the United States is dependent on Russia to fly crews to the space station at a cost of more than $65 million a seat.
For now, escalating U.S. tensions with Russia over the crisis in Ukraine have not affected the space partnership, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told reporters on a conference call.
“We are continuing to monitor the situation,” Bolden said. “Right now, everything is normal in our relationship with the Russians,” he said.
Currently, NASA is supporting space taxi designs by Boeing Co, privately owned Space Exploration Technologies and privately owned Sierra Nevada Corp.
The agency intends to select at least two companies for a final round of development funding this summer. Obama wants to have U.S. options for flying astronauts to the station before the end of 2017.
The so-called Commercial Crew program is receiving $696 million for the 2014 fiscal year ending September 30. The proposed funding increase would add as much as $400 million to the program for fiscal 2015.
The new budget also includes $3.1 billion for NASA to operate the station and provides $2.8 billion to continue development of the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and Orion capsule for future human missions to the moon, asteroids and Mars. An unmanned Orion test flight is scheduled for September 18.
One of the first operational Orion missions would send astronauts to an asteroid that has been robotically relocated into a high orbit around the moon. Planning for the so-called Asteroid Redirect Mission gets a boost to $133 million in the 2015 budget proposal, up from $78 million in 2014.
As currently envisioned, hiking spending on the asteroid initiative means cutbacks in other programs, warns the Coalition for Space Exploration, a Houston-based industry advocacy organization.
“We remain concerned and opposed to the annual effort to drain funds from our nation’s exploration programs,” the group said in a statement.
Science missions would share nearly $5 billion in 2015, including $15 million to begin planning for a mid-2020s mission to Europa, an ice-encrusted moon of Jupiter.
Scientists have strong evidence that the moon has a vast ocean beneath its frozen surface. Water is believed to be essential for life.
“It’s one of those places where life might occur, in the past or now, and so we’re really excited about going there,” said NASA’s Chief Financial Officer Beth Robinson.
The proposed budget keeps the Hubble Space Telescope successor program – an infrared observatory known as the James Webb Space Telescope – on track for launch in 2018.
It also lets NASA begin planning for a new telescope to probe the mysterious force known as “dark energy” that is driving the universe apart at faster and faster rates.
[Image via Wikipedia Commons]
That’s how Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) described a CIA move to allegedly spy on the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the committee charged with overseeing the CIA and investigating the CIA’s secret interrogation program conducted under the authority of President George W. Bush.
The New York Times reported the story Wednesday, playing down the new CIA accusations in the headline of its story. The Senate Intelligence Committee is charged with overseeing U.S. intelligence matters.
Of late, Democrats have largely kept out of sight when it comes to investigating the CIA and domestic intelligence activity. Usually, this has been the product of a single senator — Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) — who chairs the committee and has spoken out against other Democrats’ efforts to curb President Barack Obama’s NSA spying program. Feinstein has often stopped other Democrats from raising their own concerns or asking questions of intelligence leaders in public hearings, routinely announcing that such matters can be resolved behind closed doors.
“The episode is a rare moment of public rancor between the intelligence agencies and Ms. Feinstein’s committee, which has been criticized in some quarters for its muscular defense of many controversial intelligence programs — from the surveillance operations exposed by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden to the Obama administration’s targeted killing program using armed drones,” the Times notes.
“The origins of the current dispute date back more than a year, when the committee completed its work on a 6,000-page report about the Bush administration’s detention and interrogation program,” the paper’s Mark Mazzetti added. “People who have read the study said it is a withering indictment of the program and details many instances when C.I.A. officials misled Congress, the White House and the public about the value of the agency’s brutal interrogation methods, including waterboarding.”
The CIA’s alleged espionage on its own watchdog is reminiscent of the FBI under President Richard Nixon; Nixon used the bureau, then run by J. Edgar Hoover, as a tool to target political opponents.
According to McClatchy, the committee determined early this year that the CIA had monitored computers the agency provided to committee staff that they insisted they use to review documents, cables and other secret reports.
“As you are aware, the CIA has recently taken unprecedented action against the committee in relation to the internal CIA review and I find these actions to be incredibly troubling for the committee’s oversight responsibilities and for our democracy,” Udall wrote in a letter to Obama Tuesday. “It is essential that the committee be able to do its oversight work – consistent with our constitutional principle of the separation of powers – without the CIA posing impediments or obstacles as it is today.”
“Udall also called on Obama to strip the CIA of control over how much of the Senate report should be made public,” McClatchy reported. “The report remains classified nearly 15 months after the panel approved the document and turned it over to the agency for vetting.”
Sen. Udall called the CIA’s activity “unprecedented.”
Feinstein offered few details about the new revelations Tuesday. She confirmed only that her staff had begun an internal review. The Times quoted her as saying, “Our oversight role will prevail.”
Reports of the CIA’s new spying come as the Senate committee prepares to release a long-delayed report on the CIA’s secret detention program under President Bush. Completed in 2012, the study has been withheld from the public eye for years.
“The report uncovers startling details about the CIA detention and interrogation program and raises critical questions about intelligence operations and oversight,” Feinstein said in a statement in 2012. “It is a comprehensive review of the CIA’s detention program that includes details of each detainee in CIA custody, the conditions under which they were detained, how they were interrogated, the intelligence they actually provided and the accuracy—or inaccuracy—of CIA descriptions about the program to the White House, Department of Justice, Congress and others.”
Feinstein has repeatedly said she would make the report public. She has not.
[Photo credit: Shutterstock]
Conservative columnist Steve Deace descended into self-parody by complaining that the Obama administration had somehow used the first openly gay NFL prospect to distract from Benghazi.
University of Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam publicly announced last month that he was gay in advance of the scouting events that precede the annual NFL draft.
Although Sam failed to impress pro scouts last week during the annual combine in Indianapolis, Deace sensed political – not historic – motives for sportswriters covering the event.
“The leftist media’s latest contrived attempt to distract the American people from the daily failures of the president who they cover for daily,” Deace said in a Washington Times column published Monday. “Mr. Sam generated headlines from shills and wannabes who just couldn’t get enough of the first ‘openly gay football player.’”
The columnist, who is also the author of “Rules for Patriots: How Conservatives Can Win Again,” complained that these same NFL beat writers “have been trying to kill football the past two years because it’s too dangerous.”
“Now they can’t wait to rally around the rainbow flag,” Deace said. “And they wonder why their credibility is about as low as that of Congress.”
President Barack Obama expressed support for Sam during an interview he gave with former NBA star Charles Barkley before the pro league’s All-Star Game, which Deace saw as an intentional distraction.
“Not to be outdone, a flailing president who seemingly has no time to give answers to the families of four dead Americans at Benghazi, or the millions he broke a promise to that they could keep their current health insurance if they liked it, couldn’t wait to jump on Mr. Sam’s bandwagon,” Deace said.
Journeyman center Jason Collins became the NBA’s first openly gay player last week, months after announcing his status, and several former pro athletes have also announced they were gay once their athletic careers were over.
“As the media fawned and genuflected to Mr. Sam simply because he’s another star homosexual athlete, there was no time for serious questions about what this paradigm change means for the NFL or American culture at large,” Deace sneered. “No time for debate. No time for a difference of opinion.”
The columnist wondered whether Sam’s prospective teammates should feel comfortable with him in the locker room and shower, although his former teammates and roommate have said they knew the player was gay and had no problems with him.
“If you’re making the case we should undo the moral foundations of Western civilization and rewrite the Constitution to make way for your beliefs, shouldn’t you have to answer these sorts of questions first?” Deace asked.
By Jeff Mason and Mark Felsenthal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama will propose an expansion of popular tax credits for middle class and working poor Americans on Tuesday in a fiscal 2015 budget designed to serve as a blueprint for Democrats in this year’s congressional elections.
The budget, which would also create automatic retirement accounts known as IRAs for some 13 million workers, has little chance of getting enacted.
But it codifies the president’s policy priorities ahead of the November race, in which Democrats hope to keep control of the U.S. Senate and Republicans hope to expand their majority in the House of Representatives.
The budget signals a shift away from last year’s emphasis on deficit cutting to a more pronounced focus on poverty reduction, a legacy-oriented goal the president is highlighting as he faces less than three years left in office.
Obama will unveil the document during a visit to a local elementary school at 11:30 a.m. EST.
His proposal would expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, a government anti-poverty measure that is meant to encourage low-income Americans to work. The expansion would cover some 13.5 million people who do not have children.
It would also make the program available to younger workers who are not currently eligible, the White House said.
The expansion, which would cost $60 billion, would be funded by closing loopholes such as the tax break for “carried interest,” profits earned by wealthy investors who run private equity and other funds.
The budget also puts an emphasis on saving for retirement. It proposes to create automatic Individual Retirement Accounts (IRA) for those who do not have access to savings plans sponsored by employers.
“About 13 million workers would begin contributing to retirement savings through auto-IRAs as a result of this proposal,” the White House said.
The White House signaled last month that its new budget would not extend the olive branch to Republicans that was offered in its proposal a year ago.
Officials said the president would drop a suggestion to change how the government calculates inflation for Social Security and other federal benefits that could have led to income drops for older Americans.
The change, which was unpopular with Obama’s base, was meant to show Republicans the president was serious about deficit reduction. But the White House did not feel Republicans responded with a similar concession and dropped the idea.
Instead, the 2015 document will include proposals to boost spending on infrastructure projects, job training, and preschool education programs – all Democratic priorities.
It expands a tax credit to help parents pay for childcare, benefiting 1.7 million families, and makes permanent a tax credit related to paying for college educations.
“The president’s budget will show in real terms the choices we can make to expand economic opportunity and strengthen the middle class,” the White House said.
The budget outlines how some $1.014 trillion will be spent on government agencies’ discretionary programs ranging from the military to national parks. That level, roughly in line with this year’s cap of $1.012 trillion, was set by a recent budget deal hammered out by lawmakers.
That figure is less than a third of the approximately $3.5 trillion the government is likely to spend next year. The rest will be paid out automatically through federal benefits programs that mostly care for the elderly and poor, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)
In an image suggestive of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, President Barack Obama is the new face of contraband Viagra in Pakistan. Despite unpopularity there for his frequent drone attacks — the American president remains a model of strength in marketing Pfizer’s popular sex drug abroad.
Pakistan, where Viagra is banned, has a thriving black market for erectile dysfunction drugs. The little blue pills are often smuggled in through Afghanistan, and take up shelf space alongside drugs of dubious quality and origin.
A recent video produced by Agence France-Presse, whose reporter calls Obama an unwitting “symbol of power and virility,” shows covers of the contraband drug alongside interview with merchants. Shopkeepers claim various reasons that clients buy the drugs; one explains that “they improve the duration of those who have destroyed their youth through masturbation.”
In Pakistan, one dollar will buy you four tablets; in America, one dollar buys you one twenty-fifth.
Viagra’s manufacturer, Pfizer, will soon begin selling the drug online without a prescription in the United States. According to AP, the company has patents allowing it exclusive sale in the U.S. through 2020.
AFP’s video appears below.
By Mark Felsenthal and Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama will strike a firmly populist tone in his 2015 budget plan on Tuesday, proposing to pay for an expansion of a popular tax credit for the working poor by eliminating tax breaks claimed by wealthy Americans.
The proposal to expand one of the most popular U.S. government poverty reduction programs, the Earned Income Tax Credit, would cost $60 billion, a modest amount in a budget in which the president has $1.014 trillion in spending to parcel out, the White House said.
Obama would pay for the tax credit expansion by closing tax loopholes used typically by wealthy investors or employees of professional service companies such as law, consulting or lobbying firms.
The president’s budget request is a scant two-tenths of a percent higher than his 2014 budget of $1.012 trillion because both amounts were set in a congressional budget deal in January.
Even so, Obama’s budget recommendation stands little or no chance of being approved as is by Congress, where Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, disagree with the president’s policy priorities, such as spending government money on job training.
But the document will provide an agenda for Obama’s fellow Democrats in a congressional election year and help the president shift the debate to poverty reduction and middle-class betterment and away from deficit reduction, a theme that has dominated Washington budget battles for the past three years.
Republicans issued their own salvo in the anti-poverty debate on Monday as House of Representatives Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a potential presidential contender in 2016, argued in a report that the government, for all its massive spending on programs to aid the poor, had barely made a dent in poverty over the past 50 years.
To pay for his proposals, Obama would close the “carried interest” tax loophole, which benefits U.S. private equity and venture capital executives.
The tax break allows those financiers – many of whom are among the wealthiest people in the country – to treat such income as capital gains, making it subject to a tax rate of only 20 percent, instead of the nearly 40 percent top rate on ordinary income paid by the highest earners.
The president’s budget will also target a controversial loophole certain self-employed individuals can use to avoid paying taxes for the U.S. Social Security and Medicare programs.
The White House referred to that as the “Gingrich” loophole after former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich. As a Republican presidential hopeful in 2012, Gingrich was criticized for taking that tax break after he publicly released his personal tax filings.
But the criticism can cut both ways: Republicans note that former Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards came under similar fire for using the tax break after he released personal tax documents on the campaign trail.
Obama will also try to use the budget to boost the middle class by making contributions to workers’ tax-protected retirement accounts automatic. Currently, workers must elect to have such contributions made to Individual Retirement Accounts, and the White House says the switch will benefit about 13 million workers.
The president has said that despite the tight spending caps on his budget, he will propose to spend $302 billion in highways, bridges and transit projects, to be paid for in part by ending some business tax breaks.
(Reporting by Mark Felsenthal and Jeff Mason; Editing by Peter Cooney)
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
President Barack Obama will take his campaign to increase the minimum wage on the road in the coming week in an effort to build pressure on Republicans who oppose the raise.
Obama will appear on Wednesday in New Bristol, Connecticut alongside four New England governors to make the case, the White House said. The president wants to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour from $7.25, where it has been since 2009.
The president will make the pitch a day after presenting his federal government budget proposal for fiscal year 2015. His budget is expected to emphasize programs aimed at speeding economic growth and creating jobs, but is not likely to be enacted in a divided Congress.
Congress must act to raise the wage floor, but House Republicans have been reluctant to do so, saying it would hurt employers and lead to job cutbacks. Even so, Obama and Democrats see the issue as a way to draw a contrast between their party and Republicans in an election year.
Partisan divisions were on display at the White House last week, when Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, said after a meeting with Obama that raising the minimum was “waving the white flag of surrender” in the face of a persistently high unemployment rate.
Gov. Dannel Malloy of Connecticut shot back, calling Jindal’s remark “insane.”
Malloy on Sunday called Jindal’s remark a “cheap shot” and said it illustrated how Republicans want to score points with their followers simply by opposing the president.
“In the past we’ve seen wage increases under Republican administrations,” he said on a conference call with reporters. “Now, because a Democratic president is talking about it, they’re automatically against it.”
The president’s efforts to win support in Congress for the increase were set back earlier this month when the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said that increasing the pay floor could lead to the loss of 500,000 jobs as employers raise prices for goods and services and cut back staff.
But Malloy said Congress should feel pressure to keep low-wage workers from living in poverty. A wage raise would be a shot in the arm for the sluggish economy because it would give people more money to spend.
“What we are talking about is bringing a level of relief to millions upon millions of people in the country,” he said.
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, said regional solidarity behind raising the minimum was important.
“So often we hear states fearful of raising the minimum wage because other states around them might not,” he said.
Both Connecticut and Vermont have higher minimum wages than the federal minimum. Connecticut’s floor is $8.25 an hour and Vermont’s is $8.60.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
By Natalia Zinets and Alissa de Carbonnel
KIEV/BALACLAVA, Ukraine (Reuters) – Ukraine mobilized for war on Sunday and Washington threatened to isolate Russia economically after President Vladimir Putin declared he had the right to invade his neighbor in Moscow’s biggest confrontation with the West since the Cold War.
“This is not a threat: this is actually the declaration of war to my country,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said in English. Yatsenuik heads a pro-Western government that took power in the former Soviet republic when its Moscow-backed president, Viktor Yanukovich, was ousted last week.
Putin secured permission from his parliament on Saturday to use military force to protect Russian citizens in Ukraine and told U.S. President Barack Obama he had the right to defend Russian interests and nationals, spurning Western pleas not to intervene.
On Sunday, they surrounded several small Ukrainian military outposts there and demanded the Ukrainian troops disarm. Some refused, leading to standoffs, although no shots were fired.
As Western countries considered how to respond to the crisis, the United States said it was focused on economic, diplomatic and political measures, but made clear it was not seriously considering military action.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will visit Kiev on Tuesday to show “strong support for Ukrainian sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, and the right of the Ukrainian people to determine their own future, without outside interference or provocation,” the State Department said in a statement.
Ukraine’s security council ordered the general staff to immediately put all armed forces on highest alert. But Kiev’s small and under-equipped military is seen as no match for Russia’s superpower might.
The Defence Ministry was ordered to stage a call-up of reserves, meaning theoretically all men up to 40 in a country with universal male conscription, though Ukraine would struggle to find extra guns or uniforms for significant numbers of them.
“You just don’t, in the 21st century, behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext,” Kerry told the CBS program “Face the Nation”.
“They are prepared to isolate Russia economically. The rouble is already going down. Russia has major economic challenges,” he said. He mentioned visa bans, asset freezes and trade isolation as possible steps.
Obama discussed the Ukraine crisis in calls with allies, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron said they agreed Russia would pay “significant costs” unless it changed course.
Analysts said U.S. economic sanctions would likely have little impact on Russia unless they were paired with strong measures by major European nations, which have deeper trade ties with Moscow and are dependent on Russian gas.
At Kiev’s Independence Square, where anti-Yanukovich protesters had camped out for months, thousands demonstrated against Russian military action. Speakers delivered rousing orations and placards read: “Putin, hands off Ukraine!”
“If there is a need to protect the nation, we will go and defend the nation,” said Oleh, an advertising executive cooking over an open fire at the square where he has been camped for three months. “If Putin wants to take Ukraine for himself, he will fail. We want to live freely and we will live freely.”
The new government announced it had fired the head of the navy and launched a treason case against him for surrendering Ukraine’s naval headquarters to Russian forces in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, where Moscow has a major naval base.
REACTION FROM THE WEST
Obama spoke to Putin for 90 minutes by telephone on Saturday after the Russian leader declared he had the right to intervene and quickly secured unanimous approval from his parliament.
The Kremlin said Putin told Obama that Russian speakers were under threat from Ukraine’s new leaders, who took over after Yanukovich fled huge protests against his repression and rejection of a trade deal with the European Union.
Putin reiterated that stance in a telephone call with Merkel on Sunday, the Kremlin said, adding he and Merkel agreed that Russia and Germany would continue consultations to seek the “normalization” of the situation.
But in a sign of concern among Russian liberals, members of Putin’s own human rights council urged him on Sunday not to invade Ukraine, saying threats faced by Russians there were not severe enough to justify sending in troops.
Ukraine, which says it has no intention of threatening Russian speakers, has appealed for help to NATO, and directly to Britain and the United States, as co-signatories with Russia to a 1994 accord guaranteeing Ukraine’s security.
Despite expressing “grave concern”, NATO did not agree on any significant measures to apply pressure to Russia, with the West struggling to come up with a forthright response that does not risk pushing the region closer to military conflict.
“We urge both parties to immediately seek a peaceful solution through bilateral dialogue, with international facilitation … and through the dispatch of international observers under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council or the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe,” NATO said in a statement.
So far, the Western response has been largely symbolic. Obama and others suspended preparations for a G8 summit in Sochi, where Russia has just finished staging its $50 billion winter Olympic games. Some countries recalled ambassadors. Britain said its ministers would stay away from the Paralympics due next in Sochi.
“Right now, I think we are focused on political, diplomatic and economic options,” a senior U.S. official told reporters.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier urged world leaders on Sunday to work to calm the crisis and defended Russia’s membership of the G8, saying it enabled the West to talk directly with Moscow.
RUSSIANS IN CRIMEA
Ukraine’s military is ill-matched against its neighbor. Britain’s International Institute of Strategic Studies estimates Kiev has fewer than 130,000 troops under arms, with planes barely ready to fly and few spare parts for a single submarine.
Russia, by contrast, has spent billions under Putin to upgrade and modernize the capabilities of forces that were dilapidated after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Moscow’s special units are now seen as equals of the best in the world.
In Crimea, Ukraine’s tiny contingent made no attempt to oppose the Russians, who bore no insignia on their uniforms but drove vehicles with Russian plates and seized government buildings, airports and other locations in the past three days.
Kiev said its troops were encircled in at least three places. It pulled its coast guard vessels out of Crimean ports. Ukraine said its naval fleet’s 10 ships were still in Sevastopol and remained loyal to Kiev.
A representative of the base commander said troops on both sides had reached agreement so no blood would be shed.
“We are ready to protect the grounds and our military equipment,” Valery Boiko told Reuters television. “We hope for a compromise to be reached, a decision, and as the commander has said, there will be no war.”
Igor Mamchev, a Ukrainian navy colonel at another small base outside Simferopol, told Ukraine’s Channel 5 TV that a truckload of Russian troops had arrived at his checkpoint and told his forces to lay down their arms.
“I replied that, as I am a member of the armed forces of Ukraine, under orders of the Ukrainian navy, there could be no discussion of disarmament. In case of any attempt to enter the military base, we will use all means, up to lethal force.”
In Donetsk, Yanukovich’s home city, the local government building was flying the Russian flag for the second day on Sunday. The local authorities have called for a referendum on the region’s status, a move Kiev says is illegal. A pro-Russian “self-defence” unit held a second day of protest, attracting about 1,000 demonstrators carrying Russian flags.
(Additional reporting by Peter Graff, Sabina Zawadzki, Pavel Polityuk, Timothy Heritage and Stephen Grey in Kiev, Lina Kushch in Donetsk, Peter Apps and Guy Faulconbridge in London, Will Dunham, Arshad Mohammed and Matt Spetalnick in Washington, and Lou Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Peter Graff, Paul Taylor, Frances Kerry and Peter Cooney; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Meredith Mazzilli and Mohammad Zargham)