SOTU, Yemen, Cuba, Sheldon Silver, and more in :60


State of the Union Recap

President Obama gave the annual State of the Union speech Tuesday night, opening with a description of an economy characterized by booming energy production and the lowest unemployment level since before the 2008 financial crisis. He also praised the end of America’s combat mission in Afghanistan and the dwindling number of American troops stationed in Iraq.

Looking to the future, the President outlined an ambitious policy vision that faces an uphill battle given current Republican majorities in both the House and Senate. Nevertheless, Mr. Obama made clear his mission to stick with “middle-class economics,” which emphasizes lowering taxes for working-class families, continued devotion to affordable childcare, paid sick and maternity care, and raising the minimum wage.

Perhaps President Obama’s most ambitious plan, however, was his call to lawmakers to provide free tuition to two-year community colleges. With this plan rests the goal of putting the United States back ahead of the curve relative to the rest of the globe in terms of education, an area where the country has lagged in recent decades.

Finally, the President reinforced other key elements of his policy platform, including global trade policy, net neutrality, closing Guantanamo Bay, and combatting climate change through carbon emission reduction.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) gave the first of five Republican responses, calling for a comprehensive plan to fight Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. She also urged President Obama to reconsider his stance on the Keystone XL Pipeline, and hinted at possible bipartisan cooperation on trade and tax reform. Ernst was followed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Rep. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Rep. Curt Clawson (R-FL), and Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), who gave the Spanish language response.


Yemeni Government Collapses

President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi of Yemen resigned on Thursday in the aftermath of rebel troops seizing control of the capital city of Sanaa and the presidential palace. The Prime Minister and Cabinet resigned alongside President Hadi, although Yemen’s Parliament has yet to accept the resignation of its President.

Many believe that the Shi’ite rebel group, known as the Houthis, are backed by Iran, but the Houthis deny these charges. The Houthis have been battling against the Yemeni government intermittently since 2004, seeking greater autonomy for the province of Sadaa, their historic homeland.

This coincides with American efforts to combat Al-Qaeda in Yemen, which has historically been a safe haven for the terrorist organization. The Houthis actually oppose the Sunni Islamists of Al-Qaeda and have even been attacked by local Al-Qaeda branches.

The U.S. embassy in Yemen remains open and the ambassador is still in the country. The situation poses problems for President Obama, however, as Yemen had been a pivotal ally in the region and Mr. Obama is entering the final two years of his presidency with concerns regarding the effectiveness of his policies in the Middle East.


US Diplomats Arrive in Cuba to Restore Diplomatic Ties

U.S. diplomats arrived in Cuba Wednesday to kickstart talks that would restore relations with the former Cold War enemy. They have discussed, among other issues, the U.S. policy of allowing Cubans who set foot on American soil to apply for permanent residency, which the Cuban government opposes, and a potential partnership in addressing future oil spills in the North Caribbean.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson also recently met a group of Cuban dissidents over breakfast to underline human rights concerns, much to the dismay of the Cuban government. Jacobson responded to criticism from Cuban government officials by saying, “There is no doubt that human rights remains the center of our policy and it is crucial that we continue to both speak out about human rights publicly and directly with the Cuban government.”

President Obama first announced plans to normalize relations with Cuba this past December. At the time, many Republican politicians, most notably Cuban-American lawmakers Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, reacted negatively to the announcement, while most Democrats welcomed it. Critics argued that lifting the trade embargo would strengthen Raúl Castro’s autocratic regime, while supporters emphasized that trade restrictions have not been effective and that the new policy would greatly benefit Cuban citizens.


House Passes Bill Banning Abortion Funding

The House of Representatives passed a bill on Thursday, by a vote of 242-179, banning the use of all taxpayer money for abortions. The bill was a rewrite of a previous proposal that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks. Republican leadership abandoned the original draft after some moderate republicans labeled it too extreme. The White House promises to veto the proposal if it comes up again and passes.

The clearance of the bill through the House coincided with the 42nd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. Thousands of pro-life activists came to the March for Life in Washington, DC to protest against the 1973 Supreme Court decision. Many pro-life organizations, including March for Life, issued statements in favor of the late term abortion ban.

Thus far ten states have passed 20 week abortion bans, and activists are pushing for the ban to pass in three more states.


Sheldon Silver Faces Corruption Charges

Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the New York Assembly, was arrested Thursday on multiple charges of corruption. Late Sunday night, he agreed to temporarily relinquish his duties as speaker as he fights the charges.

One of the most powerful Democrats in New York, Silver was re-elected as speaker by his colleagues earlier this month and is a close ally of Mayor Bill de Blasio. Silver, 70, has served as Assembly Speaker since 1994, and is accused of accepting nearly four million dollars in bribes from real-estate developers and referral fees from personal-injury law firms.  

Of this sum, more than three million came from referral of real estate developers to his law firm, Weitz and Luxenburg. Another significant portion of the funds came from funneling state grants to a doctor that referred asbestos claims to a second law firm where Silver was employed and from which he received payment for client referrals.

Silver supposedly attempted to prevent the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, disbanded by Governor Cuomo in 2013, from exposing his schemes. Prosecutors allege that Silver has used his government position to accept bribes for over 15 years. Silver denies allegations of corruption and in a public statement said, “I am confident that when all the issues are aired, I will be vindicated.”


Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Dies

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud of Saudi Arabia passed away on Friday at the age of 90. Abdullah ascended to the throne in 2005 at the age of 80. The King will be remembered as a reformer who invested Saudi Arabia’s vast oil riches into education and infrastructure.

“This is a sad day. The United States has lost a friend, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Middle East, and the world has lost a revered leader,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. “He was so proud of the Kingdom’s journey, a brave partner in fighting violent extremism who proved just as important as a proponent of peace.”

The House of Saud, the Saudi monarchy, has ruled Saudi Arabia since the early 18th century, successfully avoiding colonization by the Ottoman Empire and the European Powers after World War I.  

More recently, the monarchy has been under pressure due to the falling price of oil and high youth unemployment. It remains to be seen how King Abdullah’s successor, his half-brother Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, will cope with these issues, as he is 79 and allegedly suffers from various health conditions.


In other news…

Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski became the first NCAA Division 1 Men’s basketball coach to break the 1,000 win milestone on Sunday. Don’t miss this ESPN profile on the legendary head coach. #CoachK1K

Google is introducing its own wireless service built on Sprint’s and T-Mobile’s existing networks.

Tired of telling relatives that you are, in fact, still single? The Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey has the answer: Invisible Boyfriend.

Argentina’s intelligence agency is suspected of killing Alberto Nisman, the state prosecutor investigating the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. The journalist who broke the story has since fled the country.

In “The Megyn Kelly Moment,” The New York Times Magazine offers a fascinating, in-depth portrait of Fox News’ rising star.

North Korean defector Jan Se-yul was imprisoned for watching South Korean soap operas. Now he is leading a group smuggling them into the authoritarian state in an attempt to foster anti-government movements.

The New Republic lost its sixth staffer in two weeks Friday following the mass exodus in December when two-thirds of the people on its editorial masthead quit. The New Yorker chronicled the entire saga.

The New York Time’s David Leonhardt asks if Africa’s economic growth will extend to its lagging agricultural industry. “Progress isn’t inevitable just because it’s happened before,”  he warns.

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