Obama in Cuba: Affirmation of Communism or Historic Thaw?

HAVANA (AP) — Stepping into history, President Barack Obama opened an extraordinary visit to Cuba on Sunday, eager to push decades of acrimony deeper into the past and forge irreversible ties with America's former adversary.

"This is a historic visit and a historic opportunity," Obama said as he greeted staff of the new U.S. Embassy in Havana.

Air Force One touched down on a rainy, overcast day in the Cuban capital. The president was joined by wife Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha in the first visit by a sitting president to the island nation in 88 years.

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North Korea Sentences American Student to 15 Years in Hard Labor Camp

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea's highest court sentenced an American tourist to 15 years in prison with hard labor for subversion on Wednesday, weeks after authorities presented him to media and he tearfully confessed that he had tried to steal a propaganda banner.

Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia undergraduate, was convicted and sentenced in a one-hour trial in North Korea's Supreme Court.

He was charged with subversion under Article 60 of North Korea's criminal code. The court held that he had committed a crime "pursuant to the U.S. government's hostile policy toward (the North), in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist."

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Obama Clemency Program Stagnates with Bureaucratic Gridlock

In April 2014, the administration of President Barack Obama announced the most ambitious clemency program in 40 years, inviting thousands of jailed drug offenders and other convicts to seek early release and urging lawyers across the country to take on their cases.

Nearly two years later the program is struggling under a deluge of unprocessed cases, sparking concern within the administration and among justice reform advocates over the fate of what was meant to be legacy-defining achievement for Obama.

More than 8,000 cases out of more than 44,000 federal inmates who applied have yet to make it to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for review, lawyers involved in the program told Reuters. That is in addition to about 9,000 cases that are still pending at the DOJ, according to the department's own figures.

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GOP: No Longer the Party of Reagan?

If there’s anything we thought we knew about the GOP, it is that it is the party of Reagan.

Paying obeisance to Ronald Reagan — his memory, his accomplishments, his policies — has long been the price of entry to Republican presidential politics. Yet here comes Donald Trump, who gives no indication of caring or knowing the slightest about Reagan’s legacy, and he has rampaged to front-runner status in the GOP presidential race anyway.

It is like Trump set out to kick down the door of the House of Reagan and the structure teetered to the brink of collapse, more decrepit than anyone had noticed.

Trump will make occasional reference to Reagan, although all he seems to know about him is that he used to be a Democrat — just like you know who. Often when Trump mentions Reagan, he refers to him as “somewhat” conservative, apparently unaware of the Gipper’s long career as a leader of the conservative movement, defending and representing views considered outrageously right wing at the time.

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As Affordable Care Act Continues Trend of Unsustainablity, the Gap Expands

Of the seven main candidates running for president, only one wants to keep the Affordable Care Act in place: the Democratic kind-of-front-runner Hillary Clinton. Everyone else wants to get rid of it.

Most Republicans would replace it by returning health insurance regulation to the states, although they would also lock in much of the ACA's new spending. Self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders would replace it with a single-payer system—Medicare for all. It's a terribly inefficient and costly idea, as many pundits have explained. 

Scalia's Impact on Conservative Thought Immeasurable

This article originally appeared on MarketWatch.

The death of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia leaves America poorer. Our country has lost not only an eminent jurist, but also a witty, humorous person who could explain the law in a way that normal people could understand. In addition, Scalia’s passing crystallizes the importance of the presidential election. For better or for worse, the Supreme Court is a far more important and politically sensitive institution in our government than it ever was before.

President Obama said he will nominate a replacement for Scalia, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that no one will be confirmed before the election in November. McConnell will prevail, of course, setting up yet another source of contention between the parties in the months ahead. The question of Scalia’s replacement featured prominently in the Republican debate.

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Speaker Ryan Announces Six Initiatives to Help Veterans and Correct VA's Misdeeds

At a VA clinic in Colorado Springs, they were falsifying records to make it look like they were taking care of our veterans when they weren’t. This wasn’t just a matter of cutting a few clerical corners. In dozens of cases, according to a new report from the VA’s own watchdog, employees made it appear as if veterans received same-day appointments when in reality they waited an average of 76 days.

Our veterans deserve better, which is why today the House is taking up six more initiatives to address the problems at the VA:

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Grand Jury Has Anti-Abortion Activists Indicted, Planned Parenthood Cleared of ANY Wrongdoing

HOUSTON — A grand jury here that was investigating accusations of misconduct against Planned Parenthood has instead indicted two abortion opponents who made undercover videos of the organization.

Prosecutors in Harris County said one of the leaders of the Center for Medical Progress — an anti-abortion group that made secretly recorded videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood officials trying to illegally profit from the sale of fetal tissue — had been indicted on a charge of tampering with a governmental record, a felony, and on a misdemeanor charge related to purchasing human organs.

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Iran Continues to Remind U.S. Why We Shouldn't Trust Them

Iran's hardliners have had themselves quite an "implementation week." As the U.S. and Iran ironed out the final details of a prisoner exchange and coordinated the implementation of the complex nuclear deal, the Islamic Republic's deep state went on a spree.

First they boarded two U.S. Navy boats at gunpoint. Then they tried to detain the mother and wife of one of the hostages they were releasing. Topping that, on Sunday Iran's hardliners voted to disqualify nearly all of President Hassan Rouhani's political allies from running in next month's parliamentary elections.

The disqualifications are a blow to President Barack Obama and European leaders who had hoped the accord would benefit Iran's moderate (by comparison) president. Much of U.S. strategy in the nuclear talks has been aimed at strengthening perceived moderates in the hopes of weakening perceived hardliners. This was Obama's argument to Congress when he urged Democrats to oppose sanctions on Iran. Privately, U.S. officials have pointed to February's elections as a chance for Iranians to give the nuclear deal popular legitimacy inside Iran. 

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Senate Dems Weigh Fillibuster on Refugee Bill

Senate Democratic leaders are weighing whether to advance a controversial bill that would strengthen vetting standards for refugees coming from Iraq and Syria — but only to force Republicans to take tough amendment votes.

If leaders allow the measure to move forward, it won't be because Democrats back the bill. They largely oppose the legislation, arguing it would effectively shut down the nation’s refugee resettlement program, which came under heightened congressional scrutiny following the terrorist attacks in Paris in November.

But even while vowing that the bill won’t pass in its current form, Democratic leaders are considering helping Republicans to start debate on the legislation so they can pepper the GOP with amendments, both political and substantive, according to aides. And they'd still have another chance to filibuster the measure before any final vote to pass it.

"We don't know yet. We're still working on the position," said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). "I wouldn't call them Trump amendments, but there are a variety of amendments ... we need to talk it over."

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European, Asian and Western Markets Continue to Plummet

U.S. stocks traded sharply lower Friday ahead of a long weekend and the onslaught of earnings season, after a slew of disappointing U.S. data, a plunge in oil to below $30 a barrel, and a sell-off in Chinese stocks added to mounting concerns about slowing global growth.

Stocks came well off session lows in afternoon trade, with about an hour to the close. The Dow Jones industrial average traded about 400 points lower after earlier falling nearly 537 points.

"I think some of that was overselling. Still, (about) 400 points is pretty serious. I think going into the close I think things could possibly get better," said Douglas Cote, chief market strategist at Voya Investment Management. He's telling investors, "stick to global diversification and don't panic."

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Graham Endorses Jeb Bush in Race for the White House

Republican candidate Jeb Bush was endorsed by former rival Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on Friday, winning an important ally in a state where a Feb. 20 vote could prove critical in the 2016 race for a presidential nominee.

The move by the hawkish Graham, who ended his own presidential campaign on Dec. 21, reflected his view that Bush offered the best plan to defeat Islamic State militants and to do so by forming alliances with Muslim nations in the region.

Graham's decision could be significant in swaying not only South Carolina Republican voters but also his good friend Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee who remains an influential figure in the party and who has spoken warmly about Bush in recent months.

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Obama, McConnell Shirk Away from AUMF in Predictable Election Year Move

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared to dash any hope that Congress would formally authorize President Obama to wage war against ISIS.

His remarks came as McConnell’s House counterpart, Speaker Paul Ryan, is examining the feasibility of passing such an authorization this year. During an interview on ABC’s “This Week,” McConnell said he couldn’t imagine voting for any authorization to use military force that the president would actually sign because he believes the war authorization President Obama wants would, in McConnell’s words, “tie the hands of the next president.”

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