December 1, 2023

National Briefing | Washington: Senators Say C.I.A. Misled Filmmakers

Lawmakers are accusing the C.I.A. of misleading the makers of the movie about the raid on Osama bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty,” by telling them that waterboarding and similar techniques helped track down the terrorist. A three-year Senate investigation showed that such methods produced no useful intelligence. The C.I.A.’s acting director, Michael Morell, recently contradicted that, saying harsh techniques did produce some tips that led to Bin Laden. In a letter to the C.I.A. this week, Senators Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California; John McCain, Republican of Arizona; and others asked Mr. Morell to back up his claim and to share documents showing what the filmmakers were told. The C.I.A. says it will cooperate.

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Illinois Governor Seeks Fast Vote on State’s Long-Troubled Pension Systems

Over the years, leaders here have fretted over the shortfall even as they watched it grow and grow, now reaching, by some estimates, $96 billion. Mr. Quinn, a Democrat, has come to describe the situation as the state’s “rendezvous with reality” and Illinois’s own “fiscal cliff.” He has tried — to somewhat mixed results and at least a degree of mocking — to stir up public concern by releasing videos, including one featuring an orange cartoon snake named Squeezy the Pension Python.

“We’re trying to do fundamental pension reform that has confounded 12 governors, 13 speakers of the House and 13 Senate presidents over the last 70 years,” Mr. Quinn said in a recent interview, adding that despite that troubled history, he believed that a meaningful overhaul of the state’s pension systems could be passed through the current legislature in a single week — after lawmakers begin returning to Springfield on Wednesday and wrapping up before newly elected lawmakers are sworn in at noon on Jan. 9.

“We have come to the moment,” Mr. Quinn said.

But whether the calls by Mr. Quinn and other leaders here — not to mention dire warnings from financial ratings agencies — will now suddenly make a difference remains uncertain.

Cartoon snakes aside, the task of shoring up the pension systems is legally and politically vexing, pitting a state legislature that is controlled by Democrats against the wishes of one of the party’s staunchest support blocs, public sector unions. The showdown is certain to ignite regional tensions over the way the pensions of public schoolteachers outside of Chicago are paid for, and could run up against legal barriers with a state Constitution that limits how pensions can be changed in the first place.

Mr. Quinn urged action on an overhaul last year with little success. The sudden push now comes, in part, because of the practical advantages these few days in January offer. More than 30 departing members of the State House and Senate are seen as having little to lose in casting politically difficult votes in their final days in office, and passage now would need only simple majorities rather than larger margins needed at some other points of the legislative calendar.

Still, those same advantages are prompting advocates for a long list of often-divisive causes — same-sex marriage, driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, the expansion of gambling — to push for votes on their issues before the next legislature is sworn in.

Numerous ideas being weighed in Springfield to lower the pension shortfall would affect state workers, university employees, judges and others; such proposals include cutting cost-of-living increases in retirees’ paychecks and increasing the retirement age for workers and employee contributions to their pensions. Some lawmakers have also called for pension costs for teachers outside of Chicago — traditionally financed by the state — to gradually become the responsibility of local school districts.

Labor leaders have objected to two formal proposals being considered, questioning whether they violate a provision of the state Constitution barring pensions from being diminished or impaired. “Very simply put, all of them are unconstitutional,” Cinda Klickna, president of the Illinois Education Association, said of the proposals.

In recent weeks, a coalition of labor groups said that workers would be willing to increase contributions to their pensions if the state pledged to always make its pension payments, and it suggested closing corporate tax loopholes as a way to raise revenue. Some labor leaders wondered why workers should pay a penalty for the failure of state leaders to properly finance the systems for decades, and complained that in the scramble to pass a bill in a week, they were not being included in the discussions.

“There’s no reason to rush into this, and on the contrary, you want to be deliberate,” said Henry Bayer, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 here.

Among Mr. Quinn’s explicit wishes for a pension systems overhaul is that it have bipartisan support, a notion that may reflect the only practical way such a shift in public sector workers’ pensions could survive in Springfield.

“We should do it in a bipartisan manner — it really needs to get done,” said Tom Cross, the Republican leader in the House. “But they can do it by themselves, you know,” he said of the Democrats, who hold majorities in both chambers. “At the end of the day, they don’t want to irritate the unions.”

And few here seemed willing to say whether Mr. Quinn’s vision of an overhaul by next week is truly realistic. “I don’t think he or I would venture a guess on that,” said Steve Brown, a spokesman for Michael J. Madigan, a Democrat and the longtime speaker of the State House.

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Mayor Bloomberg Lobbies Capitol Hill for Hurricane Recovery Aid

Mr. Bloomberg huddled with leaders of the House and Senate throughout the day seeking billions of dollars in support to help New York recover from the storm’s devastation.

“There’s every reason for Congress to provide us with the assistance we need, given New York City’s importance to the health of the entire nation,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Bloomberg was joined at one point by New York’s two United States senators, Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand, Democrats who seemed eager to have the mayor on hand to help the state’s Congressional delegation lobby legislative leaders for the money.

But notably missing from the group was Governor Cuomo, who held a news conference of his own earlier this week announcing that the state would need nearly $33 billion to pay for storm cleanup and an additional $9 billion to prepare for future storms.

Mr. Cuomo’s absence — combined with the fact that he has yet to schedule a Washington visit — prompted a degree of puzzlement among some officials here in the Capitol. Several have said that Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, needed to personally press his case in the Capitol — and soon, given that there are only a few weeks left before Congress adjourns.

At a news conference in the Capitol, Mr. Schumer thanked the mayor for making the trip and urged the governor to do the same. “Speaking for the delegation, we would like the governor to come down as much as he can,” he said.

Mr. Cuomo, who generally avoids Washington, has not made specific plans to visit Capitol Hill, his staff said. But Mr. Cuomo has invited the House speaker, John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, to come to New York to view the damage, and has said publicly that he would go to Washington to lobby the speaker if needed.

An aide to Mr. Boehner said that there had been discussions about setting up a phone call between the speaker and the governor, but that the call had yet to take place.

The mayor held eight meetings on Capitol Hill, visiting, among others: the House majority leader, Representative Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia; the Democratic leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California; the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada; and the Republican leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

New York will not be alone in seeking help. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, announced Wednesday that the cost of hurricane damage there totaled $36.8 billion.

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Michigan Cuts Jobless Benefit by Six Weeks

Democrats and advocates for the unemployed expressed outrage that a such a hard-hit state will become the most miserly when it comes to how long it pays benefits to those who have lost their jobs. All states currently pay 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, before extended benefits paid by the federal government kick in. Michigan’s new law means that starting next year, when the federal benefits are now set to end, the state will stop paying benefits to the jobless after just 20 weeks. The shape of future extensions is unclear.

The measure, passed by a Republican-led Legislature, took advocates for the unemployed by surprise: the language cutting benefits next year was slipped quietly into a bill that was originally sold as way to preserve unemployment benefits this year.

The original bill was aimed at reducing unemployment fraud and making a technical change so the state’s current long-term unemployed could continue receiving extended unemployment benefits from the federal government for up to 99 weeks — benefits that would have been phased out next week without a change in the state law to make the unemployed in the state eligible to continue receiving benefits. Republican lawmakers amended it to cut the length of benefits starting in January.

“It turns the clock back 50 years at a time when unemployment is at historic highs since the Depression,” Representative Sander M. Levin, Democrat of Michigan, said in an interview, adding that he worried that the state would set a precedent that would be followed by other states, including Florida, that are thinking of curtailing their unemployment programs. “I think that Michigan should not be to unemployment insurance what Wisconsin has become to collective bargaining.”

But Republicans and business groups said that cutting benefits was necessary, because the unemployment trust fund, which was ill-prepared to cope with the recession, is insolvent. The state owes the federal government $4 billion that it borrowed to keep its program afloat, and unemployment taxes on businesses have already been raised, and will need to be raised more, to repay the money. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce called the new law “a huge win for job providers,” and said it could save up to $300 million a year.

Mr. Snyder issued a statement after signing the bill trumpeting the fact that it would preserve the extended benefits this year — and making no mention of the fact that it would cut state benefits beginning next year. “Snyder Signs Bill to Protect Unemployed,” was the headline of the news release that his office sent out. “Now that we have continued this safety net, we must renew our focus on improving Michigan’s economic climate,” he said in the statement.

Sara Wurfel, a spokeswoman for Mr. Snyder, said in an e-mail that he signed the bill because 35,000 Michiganders would have lost their extended benefits this week, and an additional 150,000 would have lost them by year’s end, if the state’s law had not been altered. She said that about 250,000 people collected more than 20 weeks of benefits in 2010.

Advocates for the unemployed called it a bad trade. “We have a temporary change to help some jobless workers that is imposing an indefinite or permanent cost on future jobless workers,” said Rick McHugh, a staff lawyer for the National Employment Law Project, which opposed the law. “And that does seem doubly unfair when the temporary help for current jobless workers is almost totally paid for by the federal government.”

But business groups saw the state’s need to change its unemployment law as an opportunity to make the cuts to benefits that they have long sought.

“The business community, the chamber included, were opposed to a one-sided benefits increase,” said Wendy Block, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce’s lobbyist responsible for health policy and human resources initiatives, and unemployment insurance. She said that while the extended benefits were currently paid for by the federal government, the money comes from a fund that is financed by federal unemployment taxes on employers. “Employers will ultimately see higher federal unemployment taxes to pay for this,” Ms. Block said.

More than half the states together owe the federal government more than $46 billion that they borrowed to pay for their unemployment programs during the downturn. Many states had salted away too little money in their unemployment trust funds during good times — often because they cut taxes on employers — and saw their funds depleted by the length and depth of the recession, and the slow pace at which businesses have begun hiring again. Now some other states are thinking about reducing unemployment benefits.

In Florida, where the unemployment rate hovers at 11.5 percent, even higher than Michigan’s current rate of 10.4 percent, lawmakers are zeroing in on a similar bill. The Florida House also approved a bill this month to reduce the number of weeks unemployed workers could receive benefits to 20 weeks, from 26, and make it easier for businesses to deny benefits to applicants. A Senate bill takes a less stringent approach and does not cut the number of weeks workers can receive benefits. (It is unclear how the differences will be resolved.) Doing so would undo a consensus that emerged in the years after World War II that states should pay up to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits. And it would come as the average length of unemployment has risen.

Richard A. Hobbie, the executive director of the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, said “at a time when long-term unemployment is worse than ever, it doesn’t match up well with the trends in the labor market.”

One of the unemployed Michiganders who was warned that her extended benefits could run out next week without action was Melissa Barone, 42, who lost her job with a software company in August 2009, and has been collecting unemployment since then. She has gone back to school to train to be a nurse.

“Maybe what they need to do is look at giving businesses more incentives,” Ms. Barone said, “rather than taking from the guy that is unemployed and needs those funds.”

Lizette Alvarez contributed reporting from Miami.

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