Trump Considers Tying Criminal Justice Reforms to Border Wall Funding

The FIRST STEP Act might get shoved into an end-of-year spending bill.

There appears to be enough bipartisan backing to pass some modest reforms to federal prison conditions and mandatory minimums. Even the Fox Broadcasting Company has put out a statement of support for the FIRST STEP Act. Yet the bill is still stuck in the Senate, and the future of federal criminal justice reform legislation remains unsettlingly cloudy.

President Donald Trump formally announced his support for the law in November, and it has already passed the House. But Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.) says it might not get a floor vote until January. McConnell is being pressured by fellow conservatives who back the bill and say they know they have the votes to pass it, but a group of Republicans is apparently trying to remove some “safety valve” provisions that permit judges to deviate from mandatory minimum sentence guidelines in some cases. That safety valve has the potential to reduce the sentences of more than 2,000 defendants a year.

Trump reportedly has a plan to get the law passed. According to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.), the president wants to shove the FIRST STEP Act into a year-end must-pass spending bill. Lawmakers just passed a stop-gap bill to continue funding the federal government for a couple more weeks. But that runs out right before Christmas.

Senator Graham tweets:

In other words, Trump is trying to tie the FIRST STEP Act to funding for his border wall. He wants $5 billion to start the wall. Senate Democrats have said that they’re willing to fund $1.6 billion for more border security but that they’re not going to give Trump all the money he wants. And obviously, once the Democrats take over the House they’re not going to give him the funds.

Republican Senators have introduced legislation to give Trump $25 billion for the wall, but that bill has no chance of going anywhere at all.

Trump’s tactic here is not terribly unusual. Year-end “must pass” omnibus spending bills have become a depository for unrelated legislation when congressional leaders are struggling to pull together votes. Some of these bills wouldn’t survive public scrutiny. Back in 2016, Reason.com explored several of the unrelated pieces of legislation that got dropped into a $1.1 trillion spending bill passed before the end of 2015.

So the big question here is whether the two demands can be separated. Could the FIRST STEP Act get tossed in the spending bill even if Democrats refuse any consideration of more border wall spending? And will Trump still support it in that case? If he’s stubborn, could that actually cause politically ambitious Democratic senators like Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to turn against the FIRST STEP Act so they can use it as a bludgeon against Trump?

UPDATE: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) who had been opposing the FIRST STEP Act (after previously supporting it) says he’s back on board after an amendment was added to “exclude violent offenders from being released early.”

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Radio Search for Artificial Emissions from ‘Oumuamua

It’s the first time a visitor from another star system has been seen nearby. But what is it? An asteroid, a comet … or an alien artifact?

Scientists at the SETI Institute have attempted to address this question by using the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) to observe ‘Oumuamua when it was about 170 million miles away, or slightly less than the diameter of Earth’s orbit.

The intention was to measure artificial radio transmissions which, if found, would be strong evidence that this object is not simply a rock tossed into space by a random gravitational slingshot interaction that occurred in its home star system.

“We were looking for a signal that would prove that this object incorporates some technology – that it was of artificial origin,” says Gerry Harp, lead author of a paper to be published in the February 2019 issue of Acta Astronautica.

“We didn’t find any such emissions, despite a quite sensitive search. While our observations don’t conclusively rule out a non-natural origin for ‘Oumuamua, they constitute important data in accessing its likely makeup.”

Following its discovery in October 2017, ‘Oumuamua was the subject of popular speculation about a possible non-natural origin largely because it brought to mind the interstellar spaceship in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Rendezvous with Rama. Its highly elongated shape and the fact that no coma was observed strengthened this hypothesis for some, as these are uncharacteristic of asteroids and comets.

A recent paper published in Astrophysical Journal Letters by researchers at Harvard has also suggested the possibility that ‘Oumuamua is a deliberate construction. The Harvard researchers argue that the slight, unexpected acceleration observed for this object could be caused by pressure from sunlight as ‘Oumuamua swung around the Sun.

Their hypothesis is that the object might be a light sail, either deliberately or accidentally sent our way. A deliberate origin is considered somewhat more likely because our solar system is a very small target for any object that is not being aimed.

Such arguments strengthen the importance of observations such as those conducted on the ATA that can constrain the true nature of ‘Oumuamua.

Observations were made between November 23 and December 5, 2017, using the wide-band correlator of the ATA at frequencies between 1 and 10 GHz and with a frequency resolution of 100 kHz. No signals were found at a level that would be produced by an omnidirectional transmitter on-board the object of power 30 to 300 milliwatts.

In portions of the radio spectrum that are routinely cluttered by artificial satellite telemetry, the threshold for detection was as high as 10 watts. In all cases, these limits to the powers that could be detected are quite modest – comparable to that of cell phones or citizen band radios.

While no signals were found coming from ‘Oumuamua, the types of observations reported by SETI Institute scientists may have utility in constraining the nature of any interstellar objects detected in the future, or even the small, well-known objects in our own solar system.

It has been long-hypothesized that some of the latter could be interstellar probes, and radio observations offer a way to address this imaginative, but by no means impossible, idea.

Electronic Skin Bridges The Gap Between You and Iron Man

Human skin contains sensitive nerve cells that detect pressure, temperature and other sensations that allow tactile interactions with the environment. To help robots and prosthetic devices attain these abilities, scientists are trying to develop electronic skins.

Now researchers report a new method in ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces that creates an ultrathin, stretchable electronic skin, which could be used for a variety of human-machine interactions. See a video of the e-skin here.

Electronic skin could be used for many applications, including prosthetic devices, wearable health monitors, robotics and virtual reality. A major challenge is transferring ultrathin electrical circuits onto complex 3D surfaces and then having the electronics be bendable and stretchable enough to allow movement.

Some scientists have developed flexible “electronic tattoos” for this purpose, but their production is typically slow, expensive and requires clean-room fabrication methods such as photolithography. Mahmoud Tavakoli, Carmel Majidi and colleagues wanted to develop a fast, simple and inexpensive method for producing thin-film circuits with integrated microelectronics.

In the new approach, the researchers patterned a circuit template onto a sheet of transfer tattoo paper with an ordinary desktop laser printer. They then coated the template with silver paste, which adhered only to the printed toner ink. On top of the silver paste, the team deposited a gallium-indium liquid metal alloy

Pelosi Rides Rough Road To Speaker As More Democrats Threaten To Withhold Support

More Democrats threaten to withhold support for Pelosi’s House Speaker role

WASHINGTON – A group of nine Democrats threatened Friday to withhold support for Nancy Pelosi’s House Speaker bid, creating a potential roadblock for the California Democrat who has been lobbying for weeks to get her old role back.

Pelosi was already fighting for support from a group of 16 Democrats who penned a letter, declaring they wouldn’t support the minority speaker and instead called for new leadership.

The new group of nine Democrats from the Problem Solvers Caucus threatened to withhold support for Pelosi until she agrees to a list of demands that includes House rule changes that could potentially allow for more bipartisan legislation to pass.

The group, in a statement, said it would “only vote for a Speaker candidate who supports ‘Break the Gridlock’ rules changes.”

The group met with Pelosi last week after sending her a letter about calls to change House rules that would allow all members to push bills in the House, which currently is only done by the leadership, according to CNN.

“While we appreciate Leader Pelosi’s broad commitment to our effort, we have yet to receive specific commitments to our proposed rules changes that would help ‘Break the Gridlock’ and allow for true bipartisan governing in this new era of divided government,” a statement from the group reads. “Without specific changes, we will face more of the same — small pockets of extreme ideologues will continue to block the will of the commonsense majority.”

While Pelosi is widely expected to win the House Speaker nomination next week in her caucus, she faces a tougher battle when the full House votes on her nomination in January. She will need a majority, 218 votes, to win the position.

The caucus’ threat to withhold nine votes along with the 16 members who signed a letter last week could be a potential roadblock for Pelosi. Democrats will hold at least 234 seats in the House when new members are sworn in, meaning she can only afford to lose 16 votes.

Pelosi still has weeks to lobby those on the fence before the final January vote.

Already some of those who voiced opposition have caved and now are supporting Pelosi for the role. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., who was one of 16 to sign the opposition letter last week, reversed his position after Pelosi said she was open to Medicare for people over 50 and an infrastructure bill, something many Democrats have said would likely receive bipartisan support.

The Problem Solvers Caucus has pushed for ‘Break the Gridlock’ rule changes, which Politico notes include proposals that would allow individual House members to propose bipartisan bills, which over the years have been overlooked.

The caucus said in its statement that this month’s midterms showed that “the American people have had enough of obstructionism and pure partisanship” and instead want Congress to govern and pass meaningful legislation.

“Although we are at a stalemate in our discussions, and therefore cannot support Leader Pelosi for Speaker at this time, we will keep working with the Leader and others in hope of reaching consensus on specific rules changes for more bipartisan, common sense governing,” the group said.

Republicans and Democrats Find Common Ground: Sessions Resigns

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III has resigned as attorney general effective immediately after being asked to do so by President Trump, ABC News has reported.

“At your request, I am submitting my resignation,” Sessions wrote in an undated letter to the president.

“Since the day I was honored to be sworn in as Attorney General of the United States, I came to work at the Department of Jusitce every day determined to do my duty and serve my country,” Sessions wrote. “I have done so to the best of my ability, working to support the fundamental legal processes that are the foundation of justice.”

Trump tweeted that Sessions’ chief of staff, Matthew G. Whitaker, will serve as acting attorney general.

On Twitter, Trump thanked Sessions for his service and announced that Sessions’ chief of staff, Matthew G. Whitaker, will serve as acting attorney general and that a permanent replacement will take place at a later date.

Previously, Trump would not say whether Sessions — who he has repeatedly criticized throughout his tenure — would be safe in his job after the midterm elections.

“I just would love to have him do a great job,” Trump told Bloomberg News on Aug. 30.

“I’d love to have him look at the other side,” Trump added, underscoring his demand for Sessions to reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton and the origins of the Russia investigation.

Earlier in August, in an interview with Fox News, Trump lashed out at Sessions, saying he failed to take control of the Department of Justice.

In his most forceful public rebuke to date, Sessions hit back shortly after, saying he “will not be improperly influenced by political considerations.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close Trump confidante, predicted Sessions would be out of his job in the near future, but insisted Trump should wait until after November’s midterm elections.

“The president’s entitled to an attorney general he has faith in, somebody that’s qualified for the job, and I think there will come a time, sooner rather than later, where it will be time to have a new face and a fresh voice at the Department of Justice,” Graham said at the time. “Clearly, Attorney General Sessions doesn’t have the confidence of the president.”

Tensions developed between Trump and Sessions in March 2017, when Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation and Deputy Attorney Rod Rosenstein took over.

Rosenstein soon appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller to oversee the Russia probe, angering the president.

Trump repeatedly called on Sessions to end the probe on Twitter and TV interviews.

“…This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further. Bob Mueller is totally conflicted, and his 17 Angry Democrats that are doing his dirty work are a disgrace to USA!” Trump tweeted on August 1st.

Sessions was the first sitting U.S. senator to endorse then-candidate Trump.

Sessions parlayed that support to become attorney general, a role he held at the state level in Alabama.

The president’s priorities and Sessions’ mirrored each other. Both tough on immigration, the opioid crisis, and crime, both men have a pro-law enforcement perspective.

Aside from the president lashing out at him, Sessions’ tenure as attorney general has largely been focused on carrying out the policies of the administration and most notably, the zero-tolerance immigration policy which lead to the separation of families on the U.S.-Mexico border.

When Attorney General Sessions announced the policy in May, he warned those coming to the country illegally that the administration would prosecute them.

“I have put in place a ‘zero tolerance’ policy for illegal entry on our Southwest border. If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple. If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” he said at an event in San Diego.

The policy was criticized by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Sessions also sent more judges and prosecutors to the southern border to help with processing illegal border crossers.

The attorney general also focused on pro-law enforcement priorities and often echoed the president in touting law enforcement’s objectives.

“Let me say this loud and clear: as long as I am the Attorney General of the United States, the Department of Justice will have the back of all honest and honorable law enforcement officers,” Sessions said at the 25th Annual Top Cops Awards in May.

Sessions was also a regular steward for rigorous opioid prosecution. Just recently, in Cleveland, Sessions announced four opioid cases, each targeting the selling and distribution of opioids, something that he stressed was important to the president.

It has been commented upon by many that Sessions’ actions as attorney general in regards to treatment of federal sentence reform legislation and his draconian approach to treatment of immigrants already within America’s borders may have cost the Republican party control of the House in yesterday’s elections.