Friday, April 03, 2009

UPDATE: Vermont House Vote Sets Up Showdown With Governor Over Same-Gender Marriage


Vermont House, By 95-52 Vote, Passes Bill to Accord Full Marriage Rights to Gay and Lesbian Couples, but Falls Short of Two-Thirds Majority; Supporters Vow All-Out Push to Get 100 Votes Needed to Override Expected Veto By Governor; Poll Finds 55 Percent of Vermonters Support Same-Gender Marriage While 38 Percent Oppose It


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Vermont State Representative Peg Flory (right), a Republican from the town of Pittsford, asks a question to Dr. Louis DiNicola of the Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (not pictured), who testified in favor of a bill to legalize same-gender marriage during a hearing by the House Judiciary Committee at the Statehouse in Montpelier on March 26, while Representative Bill Lippert, the committee's chairman, listens. Lippert, a Democrat from the town of Hinesburg, is gay and would benefit from the measure if it becomes law. Flory, who opposed the state's existing civil union law in 2000, was one of only two members the 11-member panel to vote against the marriage bill. (Photo courtesy The Burlington Free Press)


(Posted 5:00 a.m. EDT Thursday, April 2, 2009)
(Updated 7:00 a.m EDT Friday, April 3, 2009)

By SKEETER SANDERS


MONTPELIER, Vermont – It's showdown time over same-gender marriage in the Green Mountain State. The Democratic-controlled Vermont House of Representatives voted 95-52 Thursday night to allow same-sex couples to marry, but the tally fell five votes short of a two-thirds majority needed to override an expected veto by Governor Jim Douglas.

The measure's supporters, however, vowed to make an all-out push for an override. Several House members who voted against the bill said they would vote in favor of the override to voice their displeasure with the governor.

The decisive vote came after five hours of impassioned debate in the House chamber packed to the rafters. The most emotional speeches were made by members of the House who were either themselves gay or who had gay family members who would directly benefit from the bill if it becomes law.

The measure would make Vermont the third state, after Massachusetts and Connecticut, to legalize marriage for same-gender couples -- but the first state to do so voluntarily, without pressure from a court ruling that declared gay and lesbian couples have a constitutional right to marry.

Douglas, a Republican, has publicly vowed to veto the measure -- breaking a longstanding practice of not announcing his intentions on pending legislation before it reaches his desk. But Douglas had previously voiced strong opposition to the bill, arguing that the Legislature needed to pay greater attention to the budget and the ongoing economic crisis first.

In announcing his intention to veto the bill, Douglas made it clear that he believed that marriage should be reserved exclusively for opposite-gender couples and that the existing civil union law -- passed by the lawmakers in 2000 after the Vermont Supreme Court declared that gay and lesbian couples had a constitutional right to the same benefits that married opposite-gender couples enjoy -- is sufficient.

SUPPORTERS SCRAMBLE TO WIN OVERRIDE; SENATE MUST OK AMENDMENT

A final vote by the full 150-member House on the measure is expected later today (Friday) -- but not before Republicans offer more amendments in a last-ditch effort to defeat it. Under legislative rules, each chamber must conduct two votes on pending legislation -- with the second vote taking place after amendments.

Douglas' vow to veto the marriage bill sets up a high-stakes drama on the House floor. While the measure's passage was never in doubt, the chances of garnering a two-thirds majority to override the governor's expected veto remains uncertain.

Even before the bill reaches Douglas' desk, the Senate must approve an amendment tacked on to the measure by state Representative Anne Donahue, a Republican from the town of Northfield, that is aimed at clarifying the distinction between civil marriage awarded by the state and the sacrament of matrimony awarded by religious institutions.

The clarification was added to a provision in the bill that exempts religious institutions from being forced to perform same-gender wedding ceremonies that are contrary to their religious principles and shields them from discrimination lawsuits against them by gay and lesbian couples.

Donahue ultimately voted yes -- one of only five House Republicans who supported the bill; eleven of the chamber's 96 Democrats voted no -- but several said they would nonetheless vote to override Douglas' veto.

All six House members from the more liberal-leaning Progressive Party voted yes.

CONSTITUTIONALITY OF EXISTING CIVIL UNION LAW IS QUESTIONED

Supporters of the marriage bill argue that civil unions constitute "separate but equal," setting up separate types of state recognition of couples' relationships -- marriage for opposite-gender couples and civil unions for same-gender couples -- constituting a latter-day form of de jure segregation that is banned under the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The preamble of the existing civil union law, in fact, defines marriage as exclusively between opposite-gender couples, explicity barring gay and lesbian couples from marrying outright. Conversely, it also bars opposite-gender couples from obtaining a civil union.

The Vermont Supreme Court's 1999 ruling in Baker v. State of Vermont that led to the civil union law stopped short of declaring flatly that gay and lesbian couples had a right to marry under the Vermont Constitution; only that they were entitled to the same spousal benefits covered by state law that married opposite-gender couples enjoy. The justices left it up to the Legislature to decide in what form Vermont's recognition of same-gender couples' relationships would take.

The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled last October that the Nutmeg State's civil union law, passed just three years ago, violated the equal-treatment clause of the Connecticut Constitution. Its counterpart in Massachusetts -- which declared that state's ban on same-gender marriage unconstitutional in 2003 -- declared in a subsequent ruling that civil unions would not pass muster under the Bay Sate constitution's equal-rights amendment, which bans gender-based discrimination.

The Connecticut Constitution's equal-treatment clause is patterned after the federal Constitution's equal-protection clause -- prompting concerns by gay rights advocates that Vermont's own civil union law is vulnerable and would not likely survive a legal challenge in federal court.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit has been filed in U.S. District Court in Boston by six married same-gender couples and the widower of the late former U.S. Representative Gerry Studds challenging the constitutionality of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of same-gender marriages and allows states to refuse to recognize such unions allowed in other states.

The plaintiffs argue that the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutionally deprives them of federal spousal benefits that married opposite-gender couples enjoy, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment -- and of the Constitution's Entitlement Clause (Article IV, Section 2), which says: "The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to the all Privileges and Immunities of the Citizens in the several States."

MEASURE HAD EASY TIME IN JUDICIARY COMMITTEE

The measure sailed through the 11-member House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday by a 8-2 vote. The committee's seven Democrats were joined by a lone Republican in voting in favor of the bill, which came after more than a week of testimony before the panel. Two Republicans voted against it -- one of whom, Peg Flory of the town Pittsford, unsuccessfully led the opposition to the original civil union law in 2000.

The 11th member of the committee, House Republican Leader Patti Komline of the town of Dorset, recused herself because she was absent from the committee hearings that took testimony on the measure, but has said she will vote for it on the House floor.

One hundred votes would be required for the bill to win a veto-proof two-thirds majority. The measure passed the 30-member Senate last week by a vote of 26-4 -- five votes more than the two-thirds majority needed for a veto override.

“It’s no secret where I stand on this issue,” said state Representative William Lippert, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, shortly before he voted yes. “I believe this is the right thing to do. I believe this is the right time to do it.”

Lippert, a Democrat from the town of Hinesburg, is gay and would directly benefit from the measure if it becomes law. Lippert and his partner, Enrique Peredo, were among the first same-gender couples to obtain their civil union when the existing law took effect on July 1, 2000.

DOUGLAS' VETO THREAT SPARKS OUTPOURING OF LETTERS, E-MAILS

Governor Douglas' vow to veto the bill has sparked an outpouring of letters and e-mails to him, both in support and in opposition to his decision. Since announcing his intentions last Wednesday, Douglas' office has been flooded with more than 1,500 letters and e-mails, according to The Associated Press.

Many of the letter-writers were highly critical of Douglas' decision -- with some of the governor's critics vowing to retaliate by voting against him if he runs for re-election to a fifth two-year term next year (Vermont and New Hampshire are the only states whose governors serve two-year, rather than four-year terms).

A sample of the letters critical of Douglas quoted by the AP:

• “[Vetoing the bill] would clearly show the deep feelings of discrimination, bigotry and hate you feel for a group of Vermont people who have already had to wait for equal marriage rights in our state too long,” wrote a man from the town of Newport, located in the state's conservative Northeast Kingdom near the Canadian border.

• “Being ahead of one’s time is what brought slavery and racial discrimination to an end ... please support the Freedom to Marry bill,” wrote a man from Putney, a town in the southeastern corner of the state.

• “ ... your choice to veto is a slap in the face and a firm reminder that in your opinion, my partner and I are worth less than others simply because we are of the same gender,” wrote a gay man from South Burlington in a civil union with his partner, who wrote that he refuses to be “a second class citizen in this state.”

Other letter-writers strongly supported the governor -- but many of the pro-Douglas missives came from outside Vermont, prompting suspicions of an orchestrated campaign by national conservative groups opposed to same-gender marriage. Vermonters are well known for jealously guarding their political independence and for resenting being told what to do by outsiders.

Three of the anti-same-gender marriage letters received by Douglas and quoted by the AP included the following:

• “It takes courage,” wrote a woman from Ovando, Montana. “Keep up the fight. Our prayers are with you. You are setting an example for other states.”

• “Our children, grand children will be harmed by this bill,” wrote a woman from Milton, Vermont. “I’ve seen what their teaching can do to a impressionistic teenage (sic) like my nephew, who is very confused. Please, please, please veto this bill.”

• “Your stance is reasonable and not unkind,” wrote a woman from Vermont's largest city, Burlington -- a staunchly liberal bastion. “It must have been a difficult political decision, but right nonetheless. There are many Vermonters who are with you, but simply don’t know how to articulate it. Hold firm!”

SENATE LEADER: GOVERNOR 'ON WRONG SIDE OF HISTORY'

A day efore Thursday night's House vote, Vermont Public Radio reported that House Democratic leaders were already working on assembling a veto-proof two-thirds majority in the lower chamber.

In an interview with the public broadcaster, state Senate President pro-tempore Peter Shumlin said backers of the bill must continue to put pressure on the governor and undecided lawmakers. "[House] Speaker [Shap Smith] and I are going to work very hard to ensure that we have veto-proof majorities," he said.

"We need Vermonters of all persuasions to call up the governor and tell him he's on the wrong side of history that he should change his mind and sign this bill," said Shumlin, a Windham County Democrat. "And he needs to hear that message loud and clear over the next several weeks as we push this bill through the House."

Douglas' promise to veto the measure may also run counter to public opinion. On Monday, state Senate Republican Leader William Doyle of Washington County, who is one of the longest-serving members of the Legislature, released the results of his annual Town Meeting Day Survey, a questionnaire that seeks Vermonters' views on the issues of greatest concern to them.

Although the Doyle survey -- which is distributed each year in March to every town, village and city across the state as an informal companion to the official ballot cards used in local elections -- is not scientific, it's been an accurate barometer of Vermonters' mood since 1968.

For 2009, the survey asked Vermonters if they supported or opposed same-gender marriage. of the more than 12,000 people who responded, a solid 55 percent majority answered "yes," while a 38 percent minority answered "no." Seven percent of respondents said they were undecided.

(Doyle voted in favor of the same-gender marriage bill.)

The results are a dramatic turnaround from 2000, when debate over the civil union law was bitter and divisive. When the Doyle survey asked the same question in 2000, 58 percent of respondents opposed same-gender marriage and only 38 percent supported it, with the remaining four percent undecided. Vermonters that year were almost evenly split on civil unions, with 49 percent in favor, 46 percent opposed and four percent undecided.

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Volume IV, Number 26
Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.







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Monday, March 30, 2009

Can Obama Avoid Repeating Soviets' Disastrous Experience in Afghanistan?


As President Shifts America's Emphasis in the 'War on Terror' to Afghanistan, His Greatest Challenge Will Be Crushing al-Qaida and the Taliban Without Igniting Afghans' Longstanding Hatred of Being Subjugated by Foreigners -- Just Ask the Kremlin, Whose Invasion 30 Years Ago Ultimately Proved Fatal to the Soviet Union

CBS

President Obama, appearing on CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday before departing for the G-20 summit in London, said that even as he increases the number of GIs in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida, the mission "will not be an open-ended commitment of infinite resources" -- but did not spell out an exit timetable. The president announced Friday that he will send more troops to Afghanistan, more money to Pakistan and push for renewed diplomatic attention to the region to combat terrorism. While this represents a significant departure from the Bush administration's approach to the "war on terror," it nonetheless comes with a very high risk of stoking Afghans' long-held resentment toward foreign troops in their country and triggering an all-out war to drive the GIs out -- which the Soviet Union learned the hard way after its troops invaded Afghanistan 30 years ago. (Photo courtesy CBS News)


(Posted 5:00 a.m. EDT Monday, March 30, 2009)

By SKEETER SANDERS


As President Obama enters the final leg of his first 100 days in office, his attention -- which until now has been focused almost exclusively on the U.S. economy and other domestic issues -- is turning dramatically toward foreign affairs for the first time since his inauguration in January.

On Friday, the president announced that he will send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, more financial aid to Pakistan and will push for renewed diplomatic attention to the region to combat terrorism.

At the same time, the U.S. quietly began talks in Moscow with an old adversary aimed at ending the conflict in Afghanistan -- not with Russia, but with Iran.

On Sunday, the president told a TV interviewer that while his focus was on stopping the growing power of the Taliban and al-Qaida in both Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, he ruled out sending U.S. troops to Pakistan, declaring that he was not changing his policy with regard to honoring Pakistan's sovereignty.

And tomorrow (Tuesday), Obama will arrive in London in the first major overseas trip of his still-young presidency to attend the summit of the Group of 20 major industrialized and developing nations, which will tackle the global economic crisis -- and to build international support for his new anti-terrorism strategy, which represents a significant departure from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Obama's shift in emphasis of the "war on terror" from Iraq to Afghanistan -- while consistent with his assertions throughout his campaign for the White House that the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to oust dictator Saddam Hussein was a major distraction from fighting al-Qaida and its Taliban allies -- is being greeted with surprising support by conservatives and with equally surprising backing -- some silent, some public -- by all but the most die-hard anti-war activists.

OBAMA: MISSION IN AFGHANISTAN 'NOT OPEN-ENDED'

The U.S. presence in Afghanistan will not "be an open-ended commitment of infinite resources," Obama said in an interview aired Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation."

The president said security is "tenuous in that nation" in part because of neglect by the Bush administration. "I think [Afghanistan is] America's war. And it's the same war that we initiated after 9/11 as a consequence of those attacks. [But] the focus over the last seven years I think has been lost [because of Iraq] . . . Unless we get a handle on it now, we're going to be in trouble."

Obama said the situation in Afghanistan is not as bad as it was when the Taliban ruled and al-Qaida operated with impunity, but it has deteriorated over the past several years. "This is going to be hard," the president said. "I'm under no illusions. If it was easy, it would have already been completed."

When asked by "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer if he might order U.S. forces across the border into Pakistan to attack or capture insurgents hiding in safe havens there, the president said he is not changing his policy with regard to honoring Pakistan's sovereignty, noting, "If we have a high-value target within our sights, after consulting with Pakistan, we're going after them. But our main thrust has to be to help Pakistan defeat these extremists."

A SURPRISING DEGREE OF PRAISE BY THE RIGHT . . .

Republican leaders on Capitol Hill were quick to compare Obama's troop increase in Afghanistan to Bush's "surge" in Iraq -- and are even calling it a "surge." Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) praised the new strategy as "a surge of forces and a renewed commitment to dismantling al-Qaida and combating the Taliban." McConnell said Republicans "will work with the administration to develop policies to secure greater cooperation from the government of Pakistan to rid the tribal areas of terrorist sanctuaries."

Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) said that it was his hope that "President Obama's surge in Afghanistan achieves results similar to the surge in Iraq, enabling victory and bringing our fighting men and women home as soon as possible."

While most conservatives welcomed the president's new strategy, his defeated 2008 rival for the White House, Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), questioned its logic, telling The Washington Times that he found the plan insufficient.

"There's a little bit of incrementalism in that, that could make the decision tougher this fall when the situation is tougher," he said.

. . . AND EVEN SOME TACIT SUPPORT BY THE LEFT

Most liberal groups reacted to the president's announcement with either silence or tacit support. MoveOn.org, the most highly visible critic on the left to the Iraq War, declined to comment, according to Greg Sargent, writing in his "Plum Line" blog at WhoRunsGov.com.

Americans United for Change, which ran $600,000 worth of TV ads against the Iraq War in the summer of 2007, also declined to comment, Sargent wrote. And Jon Soltz, the head of VoteVets, one of the staunchest critics of the Iraq War, came out in support of Obama’s Afghan strategy in a column on the liberal-leaning Huffington Post Web site.

"For those of us who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was extremely important that the new president get the situation in Afghanistan right. Not just for America's security, but for those troops still in Afghanistan, and those heading to Afghanistan to put their lives on the line in the war," wrote Stoltz, a former U.S. Marine captain who served in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. "With [Friday's] announcement, President Obama has shown that he 'gets it.'"

But the plan does not include an exit timeline -- and that drew a sharp denunciation by the hard-line anti-war group United for Peace and Justice. In a statement issued Friday, UFPJ National Coordinator Leslie Cagan branded the buildup as "a danger to the ability of the Obama administration to respond to the intensifying financial crisis."

Cagan, demanding that "our troops should be brought home now," said her group will organize protests across the country next month.

OBAMA WILLING TO TALK TO THE TALIBAN

The United States currently has about 38,000 troops in Afghanistan, in addition to the 17,000 additional U.S. forces Obama ordered to be deployed in February and around 42,000 NATO troops.

But Obama also hinted that the U.S. may be willing to talk to some members of the Taliban, saying there would be "no peace without reconciliation among former enemies."

"In Iraq, we had success in reaching out to former adversaries to isolate and target al-Qaida," he said, referring to Sunni tribal leaders who fought against American troops but later turned against al-Qaida after members of the extremist group began killing other Muslims, mostly civillians.

"We must pursue a similar process in Afghanistan, while understanding that it is a very different country," the president said.

However, Taliban hard-liners told the al-Jazeera TV network that Obama "is repeating the mistakes of [former Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev." In a statement issued in response to Obama's announcement, a Taliban spokesman said that if sending more troops Afghanistan would win the war, "The Russians would already have done so."

MEANWHILE, U.S. TALKING QUIETLY WITH IRAN

Meanwhile, in Moscow, U.S. and Iranian officials quietly held their first talks Friday about ending the war in Afghanistan, The Sunday Times of London reported.

The talks, arranged by Russia, brought together Patrick Moon, the chief U.S. diplomat in charge of south and central Asia, and Mehdi Akhundzadeh, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, as well as an unnamed British diplomat who acted as a mediator.

"We’ve turned a page to have Iranians and Americans at the same table all discussing Afghanistan," Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, told delegates.

A Western official who attended the talks, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that,"For the first time in two years, I’m optimistic about Afghanistan."

The Iranian-American talks in Moscow followed official contacts with Iran by NATO two weeks ago, when the Iranian ambassador to Belgium visited NATO's assistant secretary-general at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels.

BUILDUP RISKS A REPEAT OF SOVIET DEBACLE

The president's new strategy in Afghanistan is fraught with high risk. Seven years after U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban regime from power, the new strategy comes at a time when the situation in Afghanistan is, according to a review by the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community ordered by the president, "increasingly perilous."

The U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai -- which quickly praised Obama's new approach -- is widely considered to be weak and corrupt, unable to govern outside the region of Kabul, the Afghan capital, while the Taliban and al-Qaida control vast swaths of the country, particularly the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.

With a presidential election in Afghanistan scheduled for August 20, the question that will be uppermost in the minds of most Afghans is will the election -- in which Karzai is expected to seek a second term -- be free and fair? What will the 17,000 extra GIs expected to be in the country by then -- in addition to the U.S. and NATO troops already there -- do once they're on Afghan soil?

And how will Afghans, particularly tribal leaders, regard the increase in foreign troops in their country? Will they resentfully see them as occupiers, as they saw Russian troops -- then the Red Army of the Soviet Union -- when they invaded Afghanistan 30 years ago? No doubt the Taliban and al-Qaida certainly will. Indeed, al-Qaida already is girding for an all-out jihad, or holy war, to drive the Americans out.

AFGHANISTAN PROVED TO BE THE SOVIETS' VIETNAM

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which began on December 27, 1979, triggered an all-out war between the Red Army, which invaded to prop up the communist regime of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (which had seized power the previous year with the help of the Afghan Army), and the Mujaheddin resistance, a conflict that lasted for nine years -- and ultimately proved to be the USSR's Vietnam and a contributing factor to its collapse in 1991.

Indeed, today's Taliban are something of a Frankenstein monster created by the United States: The Islamist group that ruled Afghanistan with a reign of terror from 1998, when the Soviets pulled out, to 2003, when they were ousted by the Americans, began as the Mujaheddin resistance against the Soviets.

The Mujaheddin received direct aid from the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran -- and even China, which at the time was locked in a bitter ideological feud with the Soviet Union for supremacy of the communist world and saw the Moscow-backed regime in Kabul as a threat to Beijing's sphere of influence.

According to Wikipedia, an estimated 620,000 Soviet troops fought in the USSR's nine-year occupation of Afghanistan. Of these, nearly 54,000 were wounded, and an incredible number of Soviet troops -- nearly 416,000 -- fell ill from local climate and sanitary conditions. More than 115,000 contracted hepatitis, over 31,000 developed typhoid fever and more than 140,000 contracted other diseases.

After the war ended, the Kremlin acknowledged that more than 15,000 Soviet soldiers were killed in action. According to the official figures, the Red Army lost 14,427, the KGB lost 576, with 28 others reported missing.

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Volume IV, Number 25
Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.







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