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DOJ: No Contempt Charge Against Former IRS Official Lois Lerner

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. Department of Justice cleared former Internal Revenue Service senior official Lois Lerner from a congressional contempt referral related to her appearances before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in connection with accusations that Tea Party groups had been unfairly targeted by the IRS when applying for tax-exempt status.

In an appearance before the Committee in March 2013, Lerner read a statement of innocence while also invoking her Fifth Amendment right not to testify. About a year later, she again appeared before the committee and pleaded the Fifth. Shortly after, the House voted to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday explaining that while the committee was right to reject Lerner's claim of Fifth Amendment privilege, she had not waived that privilege "by making general claims of innocence."

"The Constitution would provide Ms. Lerner with an absolute defense if she were prosecuted for contempt," a Department of Justice statement read. "The team of career prosecutors determined that it is not appropriate for a United States Attorney to present a matter to the grand jury where the Constitution forecloses a prosecution."

House Republicans, including chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, criticized the decision. Chaffetz argued that the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia "attempted to absolve Ms. Lerner of her actions by substituting his judgement for that of the full House of Representatives."

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US Senator Robert Menendez 'Outraged' By Indictment on Corruption Charges

Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images(NEWARK, N.J.) -- Sen. Bob Menendez said he's "outraged" by a federal indictment on corruption charges stemming from his interactions with a Florida eye doctor.

"For nearly three years, I’ve lived under a Justice Department cloud, and today, I’m outraged that this cloud has not been lifted," Menendez said at a news conference in Newark, New Jersey, Wednesday night. "I am confident at the end of the day I will be vindicated."

"This is not how my career is going to end," Menendez said. "I'm angry and ready to fight because today contradicts my public service career and my entire life."

In the short news conference, Menendez maintained his innocence, saying his actions adhered to the law.

“Prosecutors don’t know the difference between friendship and corruption," Menendez added.

Menendez sent a letter to Democratic Leader Harry Reid Wednesday night saying that the senator would step down as Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "There is no caucus rule that dictates that I do so," Menendez wrote. "I believe it is in the best interests of the Committee, my colleagues, and the Senate which is why I have chosen to do so."

Menendez, D-New Jersey, along with Dr. Salomon Melgen, was charged with one count of conspiracy, one count of violating the travel act, eight counts of bribery and three counts of honest services fraud for actions including use of Melgen's plane and his advocacy on behalf of the doctor.

After word of the indictment came down, the Newark Star-Ledger, one of the state's largest newspapers, called for Menendez's resignation.

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Iran Nuclear Talks Continue Past Deadline With No Deal in Sight

CGinspiration/iStock/Thinkstock(LAUSANNE, Switzerland) -- Some 24 hours after the deadline expired, negotiators in Lausanne, Switzerland, have yet to produce any sort of agreement on how to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for economic sanctions relief.

Comments from the State Department were sparse, but on Wednesday afternoon spokeswoman Marie Harf issued a brief statement indicating that Secretary of State John Kerry would remain overnight and continue the talks into Thursday. “We continue to make progress but have not reached a political understanding,” Harf said. “Therefore, Secretary Kerry will remain in Lausanne until at least Thursday morning to continue the negotiations.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif emerged briefly from the marathon meetings, seeming agitated with the U.S. approach. "Our friends need to decide whether they want to be with Iran based on respect or whether they want to continue based on pressure," Zarif said.

Meanwhile, critics of the deal are starting to make their voices heard. House Speaker John Boehner made a surprise visit to Israel, where he met with President Benjamin Netanyahu. At a press conference Netanyahu said “the concessions offered to Iran in Lausanne would ensure a bad deal that would endanger Israel, the Middle East and the peace of the world.”

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Federal Prosecutors File Corruption Charges Against NJ Sen. Bob Menendez

US Senate(TRENTON, N.J.) -- Federal prosecutors have filed corruption charges against New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez and Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen on Wednesday after months of investigating the relationship between the two men.

Both Menendez and Melgen have denied wrongdoing in the past. Last month, the senator told reporters that he has "always conducted myself appropriately and in accordance with the law."

The charges filed Wednesday against each man include one count of conspiracy, one count of violating the travel act, eight counts of bribery and three counts of honest services fraud. Menendez faces an additional count of making false statements.

The Department of Justice filed the charges in the District of New Jersey. Menendez will comment on the charges Wednesday evening.

The indictment includes allegations Menendez accepted close to $1 million worth of gifts and campaign contributions from Melgen between 2006 and 2013 in exchange for advocating on the behalf of the doctor, saying the senator "used the prestige, authority and influence of his status as a United States Senator to promote Melgen’s personal and business interests.”

Some of the gifts cited in the indictment include flights on Melgen’s private jet, vacations to the Dominican Republic, and $40,000 in contributions to his legal defense fund. Melgen also donated over $750,000 in campaign contributions. Menendez did not report the gifts Melgen provided on any financial disclosure forms.

The indictment also alleges the New Jersey senator used his position and his staff to advocate for Melgen’s interests, including stepping in in a legal dispute involving approximately $8.9 million of Medicare overbilling by Melgen and supporting visa applications for Melgen’s girlfriends.

Menendez is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has been at the forefront of many of the Senate’s recent foreign policy fights. Menendez, who is of Cuban descent, is a fierce opponent of President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba. The New Jersey senator is also leading efforts to impose new sanctions on Iran if nuclear negotiators fail reach to deal – a move that has put him at odds with the White House.

Menendez is the 12th senator to be indicted while still serving in the Senate.

The last senator to be indicted was Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who faced criminal charges due to not reporting hundreds of thousands of dollars in services he received during the renovation of his home. Stevens was convicted in 2008, but in 2009, a federal judge dismissed the conviction.

After word of the charges came down, the Newark Star-Ledger, one of New Jersey's largest newspapers, called for Menendez' resignation.


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Religious Freedom: The Difference Between Indiana's Law and All the Others

ABC News(NEW YORK) -- Gov. Mike Pence and other supporters of Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” have made a simple point in defense of their law -- that a slew of other states, plus the federal government, have the same law on the books and that Barack Obama as a state senator voted for it in Illinois.

In Arkansas, meanwhile, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he would not sign his state's "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" until the legislature changed it to more closely mirror the federal law.

So what’s the difference between all the rest of the laws -- on the federal books and in 19 other states -- and the two more recent, similar bills in Indiana and Arkansas?

Opponents and observers make a few major cases for why these two new laws are different from the rest.

1. INDIANA’S LAW APPLIES TO COMPANIES; OTHERS DON’T

“This bill is substantively different,” said Adam Talbot, spokesman for Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the Washington, D.C.-based gay rights group. “It is the broadest and most dangerous legislation of its kind.”

The main difference, gay-rights advocates say, is this: Indiana’s law expressly applies to corporations.

The federal law signed by President Bill Clinton, and the similar Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs) in 19 other states, do not say they apply to corporations, according to gay-rights advocates. Instead, they apply to people.

The laws say the government has to prove a higher standard of government interest in applying laws that may infringe on a person’s free exercise of their religion. In Indiana, SB 101 also included “corporations” in the list of entities that can sue.

After the Supreme Court ruled in its Hobby Lobby decision that “closely held” corporations can act on religious beliefs, it’s unclear whether other RFRA laws about individuals now also apply to corporations. But in Indiana, that definition has been expanded beyond the narrower definition in Hobby Lobby to include all corporations and associations.

"We want certainty under this law," said Travis Weber, director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the socially conservative Family Research Council, explaining why supporters of the bill want that corporate application included. "We want this to be resolved in our law, so we're going to specifically define 'person' as businesses."

Of the 19 states with similar laws, only Indiana's and South Carolina's statedly apply to corporations, according to a quick ABC review of all the laws.

2. IN SOME OTHER STATES, NONDISCRIMINATION LAWS TRUMP ‘RELIGIOUS FREEDOM’ LAWS

"If there is a nondiscrimination law” already on the books, says Lambda Legal National Law and Policy Director Jenny Pizer, “that law should be enforceable and enforced notwithstanding any religious claim.”

Pizer says her organization, a pro-gay-rights advocacy and legal-defense group, has found that nondiscrimination laws typically trump RFRA laws in court.

But Indiana has no statewide law barring discrimination based on sexual orientation, and only a handful of its counties have nondiscrimination laws at the local level. According to Pizer, that means there’s no protection from discrimination by companies -- where in some other states, there is.

Four states, among the 20 that have RFRA laws, also have statewide laws that protect from sexual-orientation discrimination, per the Human Rights Campaign. In other states, pro-gay-rights legal advocates have sought to get courts to interpret sex-discrimination laws as applying to cases involving sexual orientation, but that's not always a lock.

"We haven't seen that play out in the context of sexual orientation nondiscrimination," said Weber. "It has not been played out at a definitive level yet."

Anti-discrimination lawsuits are often interlaced with other constitutional rights, so it's tough to say definitively whether wedding vendors are allowed to deny services to gay couples, for instance, in other states that don't have statewide anti-LGBT-discrimination statutes.

3. THE POLITICAL CONTEXT IS DIFFERENT, AND SO ARE THE POLICY AIMS


Indiana’s top two Republican legislators denied on Monday that SB 101 was a consolation prize for social conservatives after a failed effort to ban gay marriage in the state. They also said it wasn’t intended to have anything to do with denying services to gays and lesbians.

The other side sees things differently, but it’s clear that the context was different when Bill Clinton signed the federal bill -- proposed by then-congressman Chuck Schumer, now a longtime Democratic senator from New York -- into law in 1993.

The 1993 law is seen as a response to a 1989 Supreme Court ruling, Employment Division v. Smith, against two Native American drug-rehab counselors who had taken peyote, defending that action by saying it was in keeping with their religion.

That ruling, Pizer said, led to a liberal-supported push to for a “religious freedom” law that would protect the exercise of minority religions. The focus was not Christianity, necessarily.

“The general idea on the left was, in order to have equal concern and for people of minority faiths to be able to live in ways consistent with their beliefs,” Pizer said, U.S. laws needed “to have a heightened test that challenges religious-neutral law when they’re applied against people of minority faiths.”

In a later Supreme Court case, that federal law was ruled not to apply in state courts, so states began passing laws of their own.

The gay-rights movement was smaller in those days, and gay marriage was less common and not legally recognized, so the idea of preventing Christian bakers from having to serve cakes at gay weddings wasn’t really on the radar.

"The president himself has said that his views on this have evolved," said Ted Ruger, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, pointing out how dramatically the politics and policies surrounding gay marriage has evolved over the last 10 to 15 years.

"The issue of the wedding photographer, or the wedding-cake maker, was just not an issue until the last five years, so that's the fundamental difference," Ruger said.

In other words, the laws were originally passed for a different policy reason, amid a much different political context.

4. THE INDIANA LAW APPLIES TO PRIVATE DISPUTES

In declining to sign his state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Hutchinson pointed out that the bill differed from federal law in that it applied to private disputes, not just governmental action.

Indiana's law is the same way. While other state's RFRA laws make it more difficult for the government to enforce laws when those laws incidentally infringe on religious beliefs, Indiana's applies to disputes between people, or between people and businesses.

Gay-rights advocates make that point, raising the idea that for this reason, Indiana's law more directly applies in cases where a private company denies services to a private individual.

A clause in Indiana's SB 101 states that the law applies "regardless of whether the state or any other governmental entity is a party to the proceeding" -- in other words, it could apply in private, civil suits.

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Politicians Have Some Fun on April Fool's Day

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- It's April Fool's Day, and politicians are joining in on the fun. They are, of course, keeping it partisan -- but not the way you would think.

Newt Gingrich broke the April Fool's ice Wednesday morning, tweeting that he now supports President Obama's foreign policy:

After a lot of thought i have changed my mind. President Obama has a strong, solid, thoughtful foreign policy we should all support.

— Newt Gingrich (@newtgingrich) April 1, 2015

It's a shocking turn-around, given the possibility that a nuclear framework with Iran, which his party intensely opposes, may be imminent. But Gingrich was quick to clarify his rationale for the post:

The previous tweet about President Obama's foreign policy is a sign it is April Fool's day.

— Newt Gingrich (@newtgingrich) April 1, 2015

Scott Walker, who is a likely GOP candidate for the 2016 presidential race, harped on the excitement of campaign announcement season, tweeting he was about to make a "big" one:

Big announcement coming up at 10:00AM CT. Signup to hear the news first: http://t.co/rET7OzxkQw - SKW #Forward

— Scott Walker (@ScottWalker) April 1, 2015

For basketball fans, it was a big announcement, although not terribly surprising; he's supporting his state's university in the final four this weekend:

America needs big, bold leadership & that's why I'm supporting Coach Ryan & the @BadgerMBB Saturday.- SKW #AprilFools pic.twitter.com/1PwSaZtjab

— Scott Walker (@ScottWalker) April 1, 2015

The Democratic Party did have quite the cheeky response:

.@ScottWalker Hey Governor Walker, was your promise to create jobs for Wisconsin an April Fools' joke too? pic.twitter.com/iRTnwnRkNw

— The Democrats (@TheDemocrats) April 1, 2015

Inevitably, the Clintons came up:

I applaud the Clinton Foundation for adhering to the letter & spirit of their ethics agreement w/ the Administration http://t.co/7JKSiNwu08

— Reince Priebus (@Reince) April 1, 2015

But House Speaker John Boehner's staff pulled a prank on him that was completely non-partisan. Both sides of the aisle would likely identify with his reaction:

Got pranked by the team with a good #AprilFools joke last year. VIDEO → https://t.co/ugmXbOdV7Q #NoCoffee #AreYouKiddingMe

— Speaker John Boehner (@SpeakerBoehner) April 1, 2015

 

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Arkansas Governor Asks Legislature to Change 'Religious Freedom' Bill

KATV(LITTLE ROCK, Ark.) — Arkansas Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has asked his state's legislature to alter a religious-freedom bill sent to his desk before he will sign it.

"I ask that changes be made in the legislature, and I've asked that the leaders of the General Assembly to recall the bill so that it can be amended to reflect the terms of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act," Hutchinson said.

The Governor noted that the bill applies to corporations and litigations between private citizens or entities, neither of which are included in the federal law signed by Bill Clinton.

"We want to be known as a state that does not discriminate but understands tolerance," Hutchinson said, referencing the controversy around Indiana's law. Hutchinson pointed out that his own son signed a petition asking him to veto the bill; he also said a debate will continue over whether to add protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation to the state's laws or constitution, either through the state legislature or through a popular vote.

Passed Tuesday by the state legislature, the law is similar to the one Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed last week, sparking a national wave of backlash from businesses, pro-gay-rights activists, and the NCAA.

Similar pressure has been brought to bear on Hutchinson in Arkansas, as Walmart CEO Doug McMillon urged Hutchinson on Twitter Tuesday to veto the bill, saying it violated the "spirit of inclusion" in Arkansas. Walmart is headquartered in Arkansas. The Little Rock Chamber of Commerce and Little Rock Democratic Mayor Mark Stodola have also urged Hutchinson to veto the bill.

On Wednesday, Walmart commended the governor for his call to change the bill.

We commend Gov. @AsaHutchinson for reconsidering #HB1228 pic.twitter.com/mRtYS7AkWY

— Walmart Newsroom (@WalmartNewsroom) April 1, 2015

Hutchinson's son Seth posted to Facebook that he had voiced his opposition to the bill to his father. "I'm proud to have made a small contribution to the overall effort to stop discrimination against the LGBT community in Arkansas, the state that I love," Seth Hutchinson wrote.

"I love and respect my father very much, but sometimes we have political disagreements, just as many families do," the younger Hutchinson added.

Like Indiana's SB 101, the Arkansas's HB 1228 states that the government must prove a higher standard of government interest in enforcing laws that infringe on the free exercise of a person's religion. Like the law in Indiana, the law in Arkansas applies to corporations, and opponents have warned that the bill would allow businesses to deny services to gays or lesbians.

After the wave of controversy over Indiana's bill, Pence appeared Tuesday to say he would support a change to the law that would make it clear businesses would not be allowed to deny services to gays and lesbians.

Similar legislation is on the books in a total of 20 states, although only Indiana's and South Carolina's laws apply to corporations. A federal law was signed by President Bill Clinton; that law was proposed after a Supreme Court ruling against two Native Americans who defended their taking of peyote on religious grounds.

Just moments before Gov. Hutchinson's press conference, Hillary Clinton -- a former first lady of Arkansas -- tweeted her thoughts on the state's religious freedom bill.

"Like IN law, AR bill goes beyond protecting religion, would permit unfair discrimination against #LGBT Americans. I urge Governor to veto," she said. 

Like IN law, AR bill goes beyond protecting religion, would permit unfair discrimination against #LGBT Americans. I urge Governor to veto.

— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) April 1, 2015

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Senators Ask FIFA to Deny Russia 2018 World Cup

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., are leading a letter calling on FIFA to deny Russia the 2018 World Cup based on the country’s role in the crisis in Ukraine.

"Given Russia’s ongoing violations of the territorial integrity of Ukraine, we respectfully request that you convene an Extraordinary Congress of FIFA to consider stripping Russia of the privilege of hosting the 2018 FIFA World Cup," the letter addressed to FIFA President Josef Blatter says.

"Allowing Russia to host the FIFA World Cup inappropriately bolsters the prestige of the Putin regime at a time when it should be condemned and provides economic relief at a time when much of the international community is imposing economic sanctions," it continues.

Eleven other senators have also signed onto the letter, including potential presidential candidates Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

"With the goal of ending the crisis in Ukraine and ensuring a successful 2018 World Cup, we strongly encourage FIFA to deny the Putin regime the privilege of hosting the 2018 World Cup and make preparations for an alternate host country," the letter concludes.

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‘National Emergency’: US to Slap Sanctions on Hackers

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Cyber-attacks against the U.S. have become so bad that President Obama on Wednesday declared it a “national emergency” and announced the first-ever sanctions program designed specifically to go after foreign hackers.

In an executive order signed Wednesday and released by the White House, Obama said that “the increasing prevalence and severity of malicious cyber-enabled activities originating from, or directed by persons located, in whole or in substantial part, outside the United States constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”

The order calls for a sanctions program not unlike those used in counter-proliferation or counter-terrorism programs that can target “individuals or entities that engage in significant malicious cyber-enabled activities” that harm the U.S. -- including attacks on critical infrastructure, denial of service attacks or cyber espionage, according to the White House.

“This new executive order is specifically designed to be used to go after the most significant malicious cyber actors we face,” Lisa Monaco, assistant to the president for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, wrote on the White House website. “It is not a tool that we will use every day.”

Some cyber security experts have long lobbied for sanctions to be added to America’s tools to counter prolific cyber-attacks -- in addition to public condemnation and the filing of criminal charges.

In January, Obama did use sanctions in response to a cyber-attack for the first time, according to U.S. officials at the time, but that one specifically targeted North Korea for its alleged hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment -- an accusation North Korea denied. The new executive order would broaden the United States’ ability to freeze hackers’ assets virtually anywhere.

Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder and CTO of the cyber security firm Crowdstrike, said on Twitter the new program was a “very big deal.”

“Today the White House is making yet another huge leap forward in the effort to raise the cost to our cyber adversaries and establish a more effective deterrent framework to punish actors engaged in serious intentional destructive or disruptive attacks that present a threat to national or economic security, as well as anyone engaged in economic espionage for commercial benefit or theft of financial information on a massive scale,” Alperovitch wrote on the company’s blog.

While the U.S. government and military reportedly have been the target of seemingly unending cyber-attacks on a daily basis, the U.S. is also suspected of having played a role in some of the most high-profile cyber-attacks in recent history, including the Stuxnet worm that targeted an Iranian nuclear facility.

Documents from the National Security Agency revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden also show the American government’s alleged aggressive, relentless efforts to use its own cyber-attacks to electronically spy the world over.

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POLL: Obama's Approval Rating Flattens -- Albeit with No Sign of GOP Tailwinds

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza(NEW YORK) — A flattened approval rating is softened by some underlying gains for Barack Obama in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll -- with no sign of tailwinds for the Republicans in Congress.

After a 9-point jump in overall approval in January, Obama’s landed at an even split: Forty-seven percent of Americans approve of his work in office, while 47 percent disapprove. Partisan and ideological divisions are profound, including a record low in approval from Republicans.

[See PDF with full results and charts here.]

But Congress overall, and the Republicans who now control it, remain in considerably worse shape, with 22 and 27 percent approval, respectively. The latter shows no renaissance in GOP ratings after the party’s big gains in last fall’s midterm elections. Instead, perhaps given the fractious nature of the Republican caucus, the public by a 7-point margin says it’s Obama who’s taking a stronger leadership role in the government these days.

That compares with a scant 2-point gap between them in January. Further, among people who see Obama as taking the leading role in Washington, 73 percent say that’s a good thing. Among those who see the Republicans as taking the lead, fewer call it a good thing, 58 percent.

Even with the lack of momentum in his overall approval, Obama’s rating for handling the economy, 49 percent, is numerically its highest (albeit by a single point) since January 2013, shortly after he won re-election. And he’s tied with the Republicans in Congress in trust to handle the economy -- a measure on which the president trailed by 9 percentage points in mid-December.

The Democrats in Congress, for their part, have rebounded from 30 percent approval last October, advancing by 8 points to come within a single point of their best since 2009. While hardly popular, they may be benefitting simply from not being at the helm. Congressional Republicans’ approval rating, by contrast, is a non-significant 2 points from its level in mid-October.

And while 33 percent of Americans disapprove “strongly” of the Democrats in Congress, that rises to 44 percent for the GOP. These differences aside, political sentiment overall is largely at loggerheads. One basic question in this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, asks whether Americans trust Obama or the Republicans in Congress more to handle the nation’s main problems. Like Obama’s job rating and trust on the economy, the result is another even split, 42-41 percent, in a gauge on which he led by 15 points after his re-election.

THE ECONOMY – The economy, while better, still is an irritant. Well fewer than half, 40 percent, say it’s in good shape, essentially unchanged from January after improving sharply in the fall. It matters, particularly in Obama’s ratings; he gets 72 percent approval among those who say the economy is excellent or good, plummeting to 38 percent among those who say it’s not so good and just 12 percent among those who say it’s in poor shape.

There’s essentially no such effect for Congress, however; it’s in the tank regardless of economic attitudes. At the same time, economic and political views are closely related, a phenomenon that may occur especially when economic conditions are mixed, opening the door for political predispositions to color such judgments. Sixty-one percent of Democrats say the economy’s in good shape; just 37 percent of independents and 22 percent of Republicans agree.

POLITICAL and OTHER GROUPS
– More generally, while it’s become commonplace to note the extremely sharp political and ideological divisions in this country, they’re still breathtaking. Obama has a 7 percent job approval rating from Republicans in this survey -- his lowest on record in 74 ABC/Post polls to ask the question since he took office.

That compares with 79 percent approval among Democrats and 48 percent among independents. Obama’s rating is notable in even longer historical terms. Ronald Reagan never got less than 20 percent approval among Democrats in ABC/Post polls, and George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton never did worse than 13 and 12 percent in the opposition party, respectively. George W. Bush did go lower than Obama, 5 percent approval from Democrats, but at a time when he was in desperate straits generally, including just 18 percent approval from independents (and 57 percent in his own party). Further, Obama’s approval rating ranges from 78 percent among nonwhites (including 94 percent among blacks) to 32 percent among whites.

That 46-point gap is the widest of his presidency. (Notably, too, the Democrats in Congress have gained a broad 20 points in approval from nonwhites since October.) Even with a split in approval, another result indicates that Obama’s 2012 coalition still breathes. His approval rating is 52 percent in the blue states he won for a second term. It drops sharply, to 38 percent, in the red states he lost to Mitt Romney.

As far as the parties in Congress go, one reason for the approval gap between Democrats and Republicans is that the Democrats are more popular in their base (69 percent approval) than are congressional Republicans in theirs (52 percent). It helps Obama that self-identified Democrats outnumber Republicans, 30 to 22 percent. But, as has become customary in these politically disaffected times, independents predominate, and they give 8 points more approval to the Democrats in Congress than to the Republicans now running the show.

METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by landline and cellular telephone March 26-29, 2015, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 1,003 adults. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points, including design effect. Partisan divisions are 30-22-38 percent, Democrats-Republicans-independents. The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y., with sampling, data collection and tabulation by Abt-SRBI of New York, N.Y.

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Indiana Democrats Want Religious Defense Law Repealed

Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images(INDIANAPOLIS) — Indiana Democrats are apparently not satisfied with a promise by Republican Governor Mike Pence to clarify the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. They want the entire law repealed.

The bill signed by Pence last week has come under fire by critics who say it can lead to discriminatory behavior by businesses towards gays and lesbians based on the owner's religious beliefs. Pence contends that was never the law's intention and blames a national smear campaign for this perception.

However, Indiana Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane said Tuesday that a growing list of corporations that have looked at the law have determined that it "sends a terrible message about what's going on in the state of Indiana."

Pence says that clarifying the law will demonstrate that discriminating against anyone was never part of protecting religious freedom but some Democratic lawmakers aren't happy with that explanation.

Indiana House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, who also wants the law scrapped, suggested that the governor has yet to make an admission "that a true mistake has been made."

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Iran Nuclear Deadline Will Pass, But Worth Continuing to Negotiate, US Says

State Dept photo(WASHINGTON) -- Negotiators trying to produce a nuclear accord with Iran will fail to meet their self-imposed March 31 deadline to come up with a broad political understanding about eliminating Iran’s pathway to a bomb, the State Department said Tuesday.

"We've made enough progress in the last days to merit staying until Wednesday,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement to reporters in Lausanne, Switzerland, where the talks are being held. “There are several difficult issues still remaining."

Less than 24 hours ago, Harf said there was a “50/50” chance that they could come to a deal. Officials inside the negotiations are not commenting on why more time is needed, but the sticking points during these talks have been clear.

They’ve included disagreements on how many centrifuges -- which are used to enrich nuclear fuel -- might remain online at Iran’s deep-buried Fordo nuclear reactor, whether or not Iran will be allowed to continue nuclear research and development for scientific purposes, and what to do with the stockpile of enriched uranium already owns.

Negotiators on all sides have been working towards this deadline since November 2013. That’s when Iran and the so-called P5 1 (U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China plus Germany) agreed on a Joint Plan of Action, an interim agreement that paved the way for talks by temporarily halting Iran’s nuclear enrichment program and subjecting it to daily inspections in exchange for the loosening of some economic sanctions.

Though there is still hope in Lausanne that an agreement can be reached, Congress is likely to see this most recent delay as a failure of diplomacy.

 "The decision to extend the nuclear negotiations in the face of Iranian intransigence and duplicity proves once again that Iran is calling the shots," Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, said in a statement. Cotton gained notoriety after authoring a controversial letter to Iran's supreme leader, warning in it that future U.S. presidents have the power to overturn any nuclear deal.

"The best solution is walk away from the nuclear negotiations now and return to a position of strength," Cotton added. "We should reinstate existing sanctions suspended under the Joint Plan of Action and Congress should act immediately to impose new sanctions. It's time for the United States to regain the upper hand and quit negotiating out of weakness."

Two weeks ago, 367 members of Congress, many of them Democrats, signed a letter expressing “grave and urgent” concern over the Iran nuclear negotiations. Many of them have threatened to derail any potential deal by voting to enact tougher economic sanctions on Iran. President Obama has threatened to veto that legislation, but it’s possible Congress could get the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto.

Congress, however, is on a two week recess, which could explain why the Obama administration believes it still has more time.

Later Tuesday night, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz briefed President Obama and other members of his administration on the latest negotiations.

 

President Obama receives an update on the P5 1 negotiations with Iran from @JohnKerry and @ErnestMoniz. pic.twitter.com/bP4kebVDPR

— The White House (@WhiteHouse) April 1, 2015

 

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IRS Commissioner: Agency Has Corrected Backlog in Tax Exemption Applications

marcnorman/iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said Tuesday that the agency has corrected a backlog in processing tax-exemption requests after Tea Party groups claimed in 2013 that they had been singled out for tougher treatment.

"In the tax exempt area we acted on all of the inspectors general's recommendations to fix the management problems they identified nearly two years ago," Koskinen said in front of the National Press Club. "These problems should not have happened and we continue to work to make improvements to ensure that they never happen again."

Koskinen credited a new form, the 1023EZ, with helping to clear the backlog. The form allows smaller non-profit groups to file and has led to the current status, which Koskinen describes as being "current."

"Fifteen months ago we had a backlog of applications from groups seeking status as private non-profit organizations. Those applications came in at the rate of 70,000 a year," Koskinen noted. At one point, the backlog was greater than 60,000 forms.

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White House Calls Indiana 'Religious Freedom' Law 'Not Fair'

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The White House on Tuesday ripped the Indiana "religious freedom" law signed last week by Gov. Mike Pence, calling it "not fair" and not consistent with "our values."

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest denied claims from the law's supporters that it was "in line" with a federal law passed during the Clinton administration.

"I know that Governor Pence has tried to falsely suggest that the law that was signed in Indiana is the same as the law that was passed on the federal level in 1993," he said at Tuesday's White House press briefing. "That is not true."

Instead, Earnest countered, the Indiana law "seems to legitimize discrimination." The White House sees the federal law, on the other hand, as "an effort to try to protect the religious liberty of religious minorities based on actions that could be taken by the federal government."

"The Indiana law is much broader," Earnest claimed. "It doesn't just apply to individuals or religious minorities. It applies to...'a partnership, a limited liability company, a corporation, a company, a firm, a society, a joint stock company, or an unincorporated association.'"

"We've seen business leaders all across the country say that they're reluctant to do business in Indiana," he pointed out, referencing statements criticizing the law last week from Apple CEO Tim Cook and Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff. Those business leaders he said, made their statements "because this law could make it more likely that the customers of those businesses, and that the employees of those business, are now more likely to be discriminated against."

"It's important for everybody to stand up and speak out," Earnest concluded.

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Disturbing Songbooks Surface In New Military Sexual Assault Suit

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Susan Burke isn’t going to war with the U.S. military, she just wants it to have its day in court.

The Baltimore attorney has become the face of the movement to reform how the military handles sexual assault cases, and on Tuesday she announced a new federal lawsuit aimed at combatting the problem.

At issue for Burke and the four former military members involved in the suit is that sexual assault allegations within the military are handled entirely within the command structure.

Burke and other like-minded reform advocates believe the judicial process should be handled outside units by a process independent of the chain of command.

This latest suit filed in the Eastern District Court of Virginia alleges instances of retaliation, sexual harassment and abuse in various levels of command that Burke said ought to lead to complete removal of the members from the judicial process.

In one particular case, former Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Smith brought forward an unofficial Air Force songbook that contained dozens of sexist and violent lyrics. She said she had filed an administrative complaint over the book in 2012.

But Smith said the general assigned to address her complaint sang the sexist songs with the airmen regularly.

“These are not judges or lawyers, these are actual battlefield commanders,” Burke said. “They have extraordinary judicial powers despite having no legal training and in many instances having the type of personality that openly sings these incredibly sexist songs in front of their soldiers and airmen.”

The complaint alleges some of the most disturbing content is found in the songbooks of the 55th, 77th, and 79th fighter squadrons of the Air Force.

Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Brooke Brzozowske didn’t comment on the lawsuit itself to ABC News, but noted that the book was from 2012, prior to the Air Force initiating a health and welfare inspections program where such materials would have been confiscated.

In the news conference though, retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen alleged the songbooks were still used by airmen to this very day.

Brzozowske said she didn’t know the current status of the books, but said the Air Force had contacted the Inspectors General Tuesday to reach out to make sure the books were not still in use.

While Congress has sought to address sexual assault in the military in recent years after increased media attention and disturbing revelations in the documentary The Invisible War, in which Burke was a central figure, Smith told ABC News that the fight has turned political.

“They keep dancing around the issue, when the real remedy is just to take it out of the chain of command,” Smith said. “I was assaulted, but I couldn’t count on my reporting it to go anywhere because of who I knew was in charge.”

Burke said that while Congress has been able to enact “incremental steps” to fix the inner workings of the military justice system, that is like “building a house on a weak foundation.”

The songbook is one of several allegations in the 44 pages provided to reporters Tuesday, but Burke said the biggest hurdle will be getting the federal court to take up the case.

To date, the Department of Defense has successfully fought off Burke every time she has filed suit on this issue, citing the need for military discipline. But Burke said if the federal court agrees to take up the case this time, she expects it would go to a hearing in the next six months.

“You have the laws that give people the rights but you have no enforcement mechanism, and a right without an enforcement mechanism is an empty right,” Burke said.

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