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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Former top general calls on Obama to wipe out Isis in wake of Foley killing” was written by Spencer Ackerman in New York and Dan Roberts in Washington, for The Guardian on Thursday 21st August 2014 17.42 UTC

An influential retired US general has called on Barack Obama to order the destruction the militant group responsible for murdering American journalist James Foley amid conflicting views in the administration on how to respond to the atrocity.

As Obama’s foreign policy team debates expanding its renewed air war in Iraq after the killing of Foley by the Islamic State (Isis), John Allen, a retired marine general who commanded the Afghanistan war from 2011 to 2013, urged Obama to “move quickly to pressure its entire ‘nervous system’, break it up, and destroy its pieces.”

Allen’s argument, presented in an op-ed for the DefenseOne website, echoes remarks by secretary of state John Kerry and comes amid internal dispute in the Obama administration over the future course of its two-week air war in Iraq. Much diplomatic effort is said to be spent broadening and hardening a region-wide effort against Isis, something Allen endorsed, with Turkey and Qatar being a particular near-term focus for Kerry.

The debate is said to be fluid. At present, a US official anticipated more continuity than change in future military operations against Isis, but said: “It may ultimately evolve.”

On Wednesday, six new airstrikes continued to hit Isis positions near the Mosul Dam, three days after Obama declared that it was no longer under Isis control. Nearly two-thirds of the 90 US strikes since 8 August have taken place near the critical dam.

In a grisly video produced by Foley’s captors, his killer says Foley’s death came as revenge for US airstrikes in Iraq. Soon after the video was released, the US confirmed that it had recently mounted a failed rescue bid for Foley. Elite US military forces secretly invaded Syria earlier this summer in a mission that involved dozens of special operations forces from all US military services, including the 160th special operations aviation regiment.

US forces flew into Syria in defiance of air defence batteries that senior military officials have described as highly threatening to pilots. Modified Black Hawk helicopters were involved, and “armed fixed-wing aircraft and drones” provided cover to forces on the ground, said an administration official. No hostages were found at the targeted location.

It emerged on Thursday that Foley’s family received a message from Foley’s captors on 13 August, warning them that he would be killed. They passed the message on to the US government, which helped with a response. Phil Balboni, chief executive of GlobalPost, the Boston-based online news publication that had published work by Foley, told Reuters: “It was an appeal for mercy. It was a statement that Jim was an innocent journalist,” and that he respected the people of Syria, where he was held.

Foley’s family and friends hoped the militants were bluffing and wanted a ransom, he said. The group had last year demanded a ransom of 2m for his rescue, Balboni said.

Wary of overcommitment to a new Iraq war, the Obama administration has sent mixed signals about how far it is willing to go against Isis. Kerry, who has been hawkish against Isis, said the jihadist organization “must be destroyed/will be crushed”, a goal beyond the one Obama has thus far set.

Allen proposed attacking Isis in Syria as well as Iraq “across its entire depth”, an option the Pentagon has studied after the group overran Iraq’s second largest city in June but is yet to implement.

In an interview on Thursday with National Public Radio, one of Obama’s closest advisers opened the door for attacking Isis in Syria, which would represent a significant expansion of a bombing effort whose missions have slowly evolved.

“We would not restrict ourselves by geographic boundaries,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “We haven’t made decisions to take additional actions at this time.”

Rhodes indicated that the administration believes that the incoming government of Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad will aid US efforts in assembling and deepening an anti-Isis coalition. Rejecting a recent suggestion, Rhodes ruled out a rapprochement with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to confront a mutual foe.

Writing for the DefenseOne website, Allen conspicuously praised Obama, who is wary of expansive promises made by the military. He did not propose a return to ground combat, but urged a “focused advise and assist” mission to bolster Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers and non-jihadist Syrian rebels, a commitment that would require a reintroduction of significantly more US military advisers.

Obama has ruled out US ground combat, preferring to rely on proxies, something his critics have not challenged, with memories of a bloody US occupation still fresh. The US official said working through vetted Syrian opposition groups and Iraqi and Kurdish forces “will continue to be the foundation of the US approach going forward”.

Though entire divisions of the Iraqi army fled from Isis in June, “they’ve shown a lot more capability in the last two weeks than in the previous two months,” the official said.

At the State Department, officials said the US is pressuring Qatar and Turkey to help cut off flows of financing and foreign fighters to Isis, even as they cautioned that they did not see evidence of either government supporting the extremist group officially.

“We are working with governments in the region where we believe there are private citizens funding [Isis] to get them to clamp down even further to cut off those sources of funding,” said spokeswoman Marie Harf.

“We need to attack [Isis] on a variety of fronts, one of which is the bombs that the Pentagon folks are dropping on them right now. One of them is not letting them have access to resources.”

Kerry also spoke directly to the Qatari foreign minister on Wednesday, during which Foley’s death was “likely” to have come up, according to US officials, although the call was primarily about Gaza.

Asked whether Qatar, Turkey or Saudi Arabia – another alleged source of funding – were “fully on board”, Harf responded: ”Well, look, we’re talking to them every day about what more we can all do. We know there’s more that needs to be done. We know this is a long-term fight, and we know it’s a tough one. So we’re having those conversations.”

Allen said Foley’s killing “embodies” the threat from Isis, which he called “an entity beyond the pale of humanity”. The US official said Allen’s article “serves a purpose in helping explain to the American people how dire it is”.

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “How common are plane crashes?” was written by Aisha Gani, for The Guardian on Thursday 24th July 2014 16.20 UTC

There have been three aviation disasters in the last week: the shooting down last Thursday of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew, the crashing of TransAsia Airways flight GE222 while trying to land at a Taiwanese airport on Wednesday, killing 48 and injuring 10, and the crashing today of Air Algérie flight AH5017‬ from Burkino Faso to Algiers, which was carrying 110 passengers and six crew members.

It seems as though such crashes are happening very frequently at present – but, statistically, how common are plane crashes?

Last year, while more than 3 billion people flew safely on 36.4 million flights, there were 81 aviation accidents, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). That was below the five-year average of 86 accidents per year, and the equivalent of one accident per 2.4 million flights.

Last year, while more than 3 billion people flew safely on 36.4 million flights, there were 81 aviation accidents, according to the International Air Transport Association (Iata). That was below the five-year average of 86 accidents per year. (Iata says that for western-built jet aircraft, there were 0.41 "hull loss" accidents per million flights in 2013, equivalent to one such accident per 2.4m flights; a "hull loss" is an accident in which the aircraft is destroyed or substantially damaged and not subsequently repaired).

Only 20% of the 81 accidents recorded by Iata last year caused fatalities; there were 210 fatalities from commercial aviation accidents in 2013, a reduction from the 414 people who lost their lives in 2012 – despite there being a record low of 75 accidents that year.

There were 490 deaths in 2011 and a total of 92 accidents. There was a much higher figure of 786 fatalities in 2010, and 94 accidents. In 2009, there were 685 fatalities and 90 accidents.

This year's high-profile disasters have put the number of fatalities for 2014 at above 700 already – indicating that this is a particularly bad year for air crashes.

Nevertheless, flying has become safer over the last two decades. Between 2001 and 2010 the accident rate was cut by 42%, and two decades ago there were around 2,000 deaths and 250 crashes per year.

The single worst aviation disaster in history before 9/11 was the 1977 Tenerife airport disaster, in which 583 people were killed in a runway collision between two Boeing 747s at Los Rodeos Airport.

• This article was amended on 25 July 2014. An earlier version suggested that the 81 accidents recorded by Iata in 2013 were the equivalent of one accident per 2.4 million flights.

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Ouagadougou airport


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Air Algérie flight AH5017 wreckage ‘found in Mali'” was written by Kim Willsher in Paris and Monica Mark, west Africa correspondent, for theguardian.com on Thursday 24th July 2014 15.07 UTC

The wreckage of Air Algérie flight AH5017 from Burkina Faso to Algeria, which disappeared from radar with 116 people on board, has been discovered in Tilemsi, Mali, it was claimed on Thursday. However, searches were later said to be continuing.

The French media is quoting Zoheir Houaoui of Air Algérie as saying the plane was carrying 50 French passengers, six Algerians, one Malian, one Belgian, two from Luxembourg, five Canadians, one from Cameroon, four Germans, one Nigerian, eight Lebanese, one Romanian, 24 from Burkino Faso and six so far unidentified passengers. The six crew members – two pilots and four stewards – were all Spanish.

The French president, François Hollande, has called an emergency meeting with the prime minister, Manuel Valls, foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, as well as the interior and the transport ministers, for 5pm French time.

Air traffic controllers lost contact with the Swiftair-owned MD-83 about 50 minutes after takeoff at 1.17am local time (0117 GMT), said an Algerian aviation official. The news was not made public until several hours after the flight's scheduled 5.10am arrival in Algiers, by which time officials from Algeria, Burkina Faso and France had issued conflicting details.

algeria plane missing3

The flight path of the plane from Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou, was not immediately clear. The city is in a nearly straight line south of Algiers, passing over Mali, where unrest continues. Rebels who have seized the northern fringe of Mali do not have weapons capable of bringing down a commercial jet at cruising altitude, a Malian official told the Guardian. "What they have is shoulder-fired weapons, and rocket-propelled grenades."

The flight had asked to change route at 1.38am because of a storm, Burkina Faso's transport authorities said. Powerful sandstorms are frequent throughout the Sahara's northern belt around this time of year. Aviation officials in Burkina said they had handed the flight to a control tower in Niger's capital, Niamey, at 1.38am, and that last contact was at about 4.30am. That contradicted an Algerian aviation official, who said the last contact was at 0155 GMT when the plane was flying over Gao, Mali.

Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the president of Mali, said on Thursday night that the wreckage had been spotted between Aguelhoc and Kidal but did not give details. Two French Mirage-2000 planes were searching the largely inaccessible region of Gao in northern Mali.

Hollande said: "The search will go on for as long as necessary and everything will be done to find this aircraft."

According to the Spanish sports daily Marca, the SwiftAir aircraft was used as the official aircraft for Real Madrid FC between 2007 and 2009.

The French radio station Europe 1 suggested it had been told the number of French on board could be as high as 80. The French transport ministry would only confirm "a number" of French people were on the plane. Of the French passengers, 22 were due to transfer to flights to Paris or Marseilles after landing at Algiers.

French troops are in Mali as part of the ongoing Operation Serval, which started at the beginning of last year and is aimed at ousting Islamist militants in the north of the country.

Hollande was due to fly to the French Indian Ocean island of Réunion on Thursday afternoon, but delayed his flight to follow developments.

• This article was amended on 24 July 2014 to reflect the fact that the claim that the plane's wreckage had been discovered was later cast into doubt.

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I.V. Weekly Chronicle


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Congressman Bobby Rush escorted off House floor for wearing hoodie” was written by Ewen MacAskill in Washington, for guardian.co.uk on Wednesday 28th March 2012 18.41 UTC

Democratic Congressman Bobby Rush was escorted from the House Wednesday after being reprimanded for wearing a hoodie to protest against the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

Rush, a former member of the militant group the Black Panthers, came into the chamber wearing a suit, with a hoodie underneath.

As Rush began to speak, he took off his jacket to reveal the hoodie, which has become a symbol of solidarity with Martin. Pulling up the hood, he said: “Racial profiling has to stop. Just because someone wears a hoodie does not make them a hoodlum.”

As he continued speaking, he took off his normal glasses and replaced them with sunglasses. He was interrupted by the acting Speaker, Gregg Harper, from Mississippi, who said: “The member will suspend.” He added that Rush was in breach of a House regulations on decorum.

Rush, who represents Illinois, continued, quoting from the Bible. Harper, speaking over him, repeated: “The gentleman will suspend.” Looking exasperated, Harper finally said: “The member is no longer recognised.” He then asked the serjeant-at-arms to enforce the prohibition.

After he had left, Harper reiterated that Rush was in breach of the rule on decorum, which meant no hats. “The donning of a hood is not consistent with this rule,” he said.

The Martin case has become one of the most heated race-related issues of recent years. Martin was fatally shot in Sanford, Florida, last month. He had been wearing a hoodie at the time. George Zimmerman, a member of a neighbourhood watch patrol, had called the police to say he had seen someone in a hoodie who looked suspicious. Zimmerman has not been charged.

Martin’s parents were in Congress Tuesday for a hearing of the House judiciary committee on racial profiling.

In an interview with the Washington Post, they praised Rush’s actions. The father, Tracy Martin, said: “I would like to commend Congressman Rush for pleading our case. My question would be why wasn’t Congressman Rush allowed to address racial profiling. This is something that needs to be talked about … This is a country of freedom of speech.”

Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, said: “It just shows a lot of people are passionate about his movement of Trayvon Martin.” She added that it also demonstrated that some people just did not get it.

The two met Rush on Tuesday. They told the Post they believed he had been killed because of racial profiling.

Rush co-founded in 1968 the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, a group which rejected Martin Luther King’s non-violent approach to civil rights in favour of violence. He was imprisoned for six months in 1972 on a gun charge.

A born-again Christian, he left the Panthers in 1974 and has represented Illinois in Congress since 1993. As a political veteran going back to the 1960s and respected by many African-Americans in Chicago for his role in the Black Panthers, he was contemptous when faced with a challenge for his seat in 2000 by the then little-known Barack Obama.

Rush treated him as upstart who knew little of life in Chicago’s poor, African-American neighbourhoods. Obama countered that Rush belonged to the past and there was a need to work with whites to get things done. Rush crushed him in the primary, one of Obama’s few serious setbacks.

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Supreme court health care day 3 – live” was written by Jim Newell, for guardian.co.uk on Wednesday 28th March 2012 18.45 UTC

2.44pm: And the second session of the day has adjourned – the Most Important Legal Proceeding Since The Trial Of Jesus Christ is over! Let’s see if worrywart Jeffrey Toobin escaped before his head exploded:

Toobin will survive. Again: Toobin will survive. The healthcare reform law though? We’ll have to wait a couple of months before we know about that.

2.31pm: Another thing to keep in mind about the “severability” of the individual mandate: legislators didn’t (forgot to?) include a “severability clause” in the healthcare law, which would have prevented the court from throwing out the whole bill if it found one provision – such as, say, an individual mandate – unconstitutional. That doesn’t mean it is obligated to throw out the whole bill if there’s one one provision it finds unconstitutional, and doing so would be a radical act. But if the whole thing was tossed, Democratic lawmakers would deserve part of the blame for their carelessness.

 

2.16pm: In the afternoon session, Paul Clement tried to argue that the provision for states to expand their Medicaid programs, a part of the bill expected to bring coverage for 15 million low-income Americans and children, unfairly coerces the states. The way the program would work: The federal government would pick up the states’ full tab for new enrollees through 2014, after which it would pick up a mere 90%.

This “coercion” claim is expected to be Clement’s most challenging argument, and as the Wall Street Journal liveblog notes, liberal justices were all over him as this afternoon’s session began. Stephen Breyer, for example:

Justice Stephen Breyer, meanwhile, has been hitting Mr. Clement hard on his most central claim: that the federal government will force states to leave the Medicaid program entirely if they don’t go along with the expansion under the health law. States say that they are afraid that this will destroy their budgets, which rely heavily on Medicaid funds.

Justice Breyer says that that isn’t the case — it’s up to the Health and Human Services Secretary to decide whether to kick them out altogether, and administrative law requires the secretary and other federal government officials to act reasonably, he argues. “Now, does that relieve you of your fear?” he asked.

1.51pm: Meanwhile, on the campaign trail, Rick Santorum just wants to be left alone with his lunch.

 

1.46pm: The court’s audio and transcript (PDF) from this morning’s session are online.

1.29pm: Our correspondent Chris McGreal lined up at 4am to be sure of a seat in court today. Here’s his take:

Wednesday morning’s session boiled down to dueling between the court’s liberal and conservative justices over who should have the authority to decide the fate of the rest of the health care legislation if its core, mandatory medical insurance, is ruled unconstitutional. Justice Scalia was the most aggressive in pressing the idea that it is not up to the supreme court to wade through the remainder of the legislation to decide what should remain and what should not.

He appeared firmly in favour of striking down the whole law if the individual mandate is declared unconstitutional – and gave a clear sign that he thinks it is when he argued that it would be better to throw out the whole law and let Congress begin again.

“Whether we strike it all down or leave some of it in place, the congressional process will never be the same. One way or another, Congress is going to have to reconsider this, and why isn’t it better to have them reconsider it – what – what should I say – in toto, rather than having some things already in the law which you have to eliminate before you can move on to consider everything on balance?” he said.

Some of the more liberal judges were open to the idea that it need not be the end of the health reform law. Justice Sotomayor suggested that if the individual mandate is ruled out, the rest could he allowed to stand while Congress amends the legislation to make it workable.

Justice Kagan said the legislation did not have to be perfect for it to be viable. She said the law was in any case a compromise reached in Congress. “And the question is always, does Congress want half a loaf. Is half a loaf better than no loaf?” she said.

Justice Breyer argued that there are many aspects of the legislation not directly related to the individual mandate. “I would say the Breast Feeding Act, the getting doctors to serve underserved areas, the biosimilar thing and drug regulation… those have nothing to do with the stuff that we’ve been talking about yesterday and the day before, okay? So if you ask me at that level, I would say, sure, they have nothing to do with it, they could stand on their own,” he said.

1.16pm: So the takes following this morning’s session don’t seem as gloomy for the law’s prospects as yesterday, but it was still hardly a walk in the park for the government’s lawyers. The four liberal justices seem intent on preserving the law even without an individual mandate – although, as we gleaned yesterday, they’re also intent on preserving the individual mandate. Justice Scalia, meanwhile, sounds eager to destroy the entire law with a sledgehammer as soon as possible, for various constitutional and political and congressional procedure-based reasons (whatever works, basically.) Justices Roberts and Kennedy simply would like to ask more questions, and perhaps play devil’s advocate on occasion, to mess with our heads.

The key issue is to what degree removing the individual mandate would disrupt interlocking parts of the bill. Scalia best exemplified the absolutist’s take: “My approach would be to say that if you take the heart out of this statute, the statute’s gone.” This neatly echoed the argument of the plaintiff’s lawyer, Paul Clement, who put it, “If the individual mandate is unconstitutional, then the rest of the act cannot stand.”

Perhaps there’s a bit of nuance the absolutists overlook, however? The individual mandate may be the heart of the health insurance finance mechanism in the law – if you require insurers to offer coverage to applicants with pre-existing conditions, then you need a lever for universality that keeps healthier folks in the risk pool to prevent the so-called health insurance “death spiral”, while offering generous government subsidies to further induce them into participation. But if the individual mandate was struck down, wouldn’t this just leave a bad, ineffective public policy in its wake that Congress would have to clear up (some way, somehow?) Some would say that the United States government has plenty of bad public policies in place, but that doesn’t mean they’re the concern of the supreme court.

And even if the mandate/pre-existing conditions/subsidies interlocking complex was excised, much of the rest of the bill – the set-up of state health insurance exchanges, high risk pools, the expansion of Medicaid, and more – could still stand without leading to the collapse of the healthcare market.

Of course, the afternoon session will deal the federal government’s ability to hoist healthcare mandates upon the states, so the conservative justices could simply rule all of the other stuff unconstitutional too.

12.39pm: Just like Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Antonin Scalia seems unusually concerned congressional vote-counting, which – last we checked – is not his job as an arbiter of constitutionality. It sounds like he, and others on his side, might be looking for an excuse to invalidate the whole law as a practical necessity:

12.26pm: The Romney press shop has sent out a notice that former president George HW Bush will endorse Mitt Romney in Houston today, just as he did back in December. Now it is super-official, though, we guess. He now leads his son, former President George W. Bush, 2-0 in total Mitt Romney 2012 presidential endorsements.

12.25pm: Apparently we had some argumentative comedy today, during the president’s alleged train/plane wreck inside the Supreme Court:

Who hit who with the chair or the barbed wire? These Supreme Court justices play too many violent video games.

12.16pm: Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog has an interesting, practical take – that some justices may not be interested in striking down the individual mandate alone because it would be too much of a pain to figure out what to do afterwards:

The Supreme Court spent 91 minutes Wednesday operating on the assumption that it would strike down the key feature of the new health care law, but may have convinced itself in the end not to do that because of just how hard it would be to decide what to do after that. A common reaction, across the bench, was that the Justices themselves did not want the onerous task of going through the remainder of the entire 2,700 pages of the law and deciding what to keep and what to throw out, and most seemed to think that should be left to Congress.

12.08pm: The morning session has adjourned. Here’s CNN/New Yorker legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, giving his latest apocalyptic, sky-is-falling tweet that will terrify Obamacare supporters for the rest of the day whether it has merit or not:

11.59am: The Los Angeles Times has the latest from inside, and its take, at least, is that conservative justices want to tear down the whole law if the individual mandate is invalidated. Oh, they’re feeling frisky today:

The Supreme Court’s conservative justices said Wednesday they are prepared to strike down President Obama’ s health care act entirely.

Picking up where they left off Tuesday, the conservatives said they thought a decision striking down the individual mandate means the whole statute should fall with it.

The court’s conservatives sounded as though they had determined for themselves that the 2,700 page law must be declared unconstitutional.

“One way or another, Congress will have to revisit it in toto,” said Justice Antonin Scalia.

Agreeing, Justice Anthony Kennedy said it would be an “extreme proposition” to allow the various insurance regulations to stand after the mandate was struck down.

11.38am: Longtime Democratic Representative Bobby Rush was kicked off the House floor this morning for donning a hoodie in honor of dead Florida teen Trayvon Martin. Rush supposedly violated chamber rules against wearing hats. Hats!

 

11.31am: The Wall Street Journal live blog, fed by its reporters in the Supreme Court indicates that things are, again, shockingly, breaking down along ideological lines!

Liberal justices are making a strong case for “salvaging” the law even in the event of the individual mandate being ruled unconstitutional; and Chief Justice Roberts – considered, along with Justice Kennedy, one of the two conservative justices who remain open to upholding the law – is exploring another, well, another option:

Chief Justice John Roberts has asked several questions of Mr. Clement that further the case for striking down the whole law, and echo other remarks from Justices Alito and Scalia.

He has suggested that the whole of the health-law should be considered to be linked to the individual mandate because its myriad of other provisions, such as black-lung payments, were actually included as sweeteners to pass the main bill. Without them, Congress “would not have been able to cobble together the votes to get it approved,” he said.

So now Chief Justice John Roberts fancies himself the House Majority Whip, checking out vote counts?

11.14am: Supporters of the health care law – or at least defenders of its constitutionality – dug up all the bitterness they could muster in some sweeping reactions to the liberals’ rough day in court Tuesday.

Slate legal writer Dahlia Lithwick, for example, nearly gave up on modernity, community, and hope altogether:

This morning in America’s highest court, freedom seems to be less about the absence of constraint than about the absence of shared responsibility, community, or real concern for those who don’t want anything so much as healthy children, or to be cared for when they are old. Until today, I couldn’t really understand why this case was framed as a discussion of “liberty.” This case isn’t so much about freedom from government-mandated broccoli or gyms. It’s about freedom from our obligations to one another, freedom from the modern world in which we live. It’s about the freedom to ignore the injured, walk away from those in peril, to never pick up the phone or eat food that’s been inspected. It’s about the freedom to be left alone. And now we know the court is worried about freedom: the freedom to live like it’s 1804.

The New Yorker’s John Cassidy gave up on humanity, calling the case “a bad joke”:

But, of course, this case isn’t ultimately about the law—it is about politics. The four ultra-conservative justices on the court—Alito, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas—are in the vanguard of a movement to roll back the federal government and undermine its authority to tackle market failures. The movement began in the nineteen-eighties, when the Federalist Society got its start and Ronald Reagan appointed one of its members, Scalia, to the court—and for thirty years it has been gathering strength.

Thus the creation of a new legal theory to sink Obamacare: the idea that while the federal government might well have the authority to regulate economic activity, it doesn’t have the right to regulate inactivity—such as sitting around and refusing to buy health insurance. Now, it is as plain as the spectacles on Antonin Scalia’s nose that opting out of the health-care market is about as realistic as opting out of dying. But necessity is the mother of invention. And, judging by his questions this morning, it is this invention that Kennedy has fastened on.

As I said at the beginning, it’s a bad joke—upon us all.

And Mother Jones’ Adam Serwer poured a few tons of salt into Solicitor General Donald Verrilli’s wounds:

Stepping up to the podium, Verrilli stammered as he began his argument. He coughed, he cleared his throat, he took a drink of water. And that was before he even finished the first part of his argument. Sounding less like a world-class lawyer and more like a teenager giving an oral presentation for the first time, Verrilli delivered a rambling, apprehensive legal defense of liberalism’s biggest domestic accomplishment since the 1960s – and one that may well have doubled as its eulogy.

Reactions on the conservative side, meanwhile, are all more or less in line with that of Senator Ron Johnson, who apparently thought he was watching Braveheart during the hearing:

10.43am: Mitt Romney is now even more deeply engaged in a spat with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, writing at Foreign Policy, “It is not an accident that Mr. Medvedev is now busy attacking me. The Russians clearly prefer to do business with the current incumbent of the White House.” As president, Mitt Romney will… never do business with Russia, or something.

9.57am: If you’re looking to kill a few hundred hours reading something, The New York Times Magazine’s Matt Bai has written an impossibly detailed 10,000-word account of how last year’s debt ceiling negotiations between President Obama and Speaker John Boehner went. (They went poorly.)

9.45am: Good morning. This is Jim Newell in Washington, ready to cover the final day of oral arguments in the Supreme Court health care case, and assorted other political item. There will be two sessions at the court today. At 10am, justices will hear arguments relating to whether the whole health care law should be struck down if the individual mandate is found to be unconstitutional. The second, at 1pm, deals with the health care law’s Medicaid expansion and issues of states’ rights.

While we wait for the excitement to begin, here’s Ryan Devereaux‘s summary of Supreme Court and campaign news today.

President Barack Obama’s signature health care law appears to be in peril, as a number of the Supreme Court’s more conservative judges continue to raise questions about the legislation’s constitutionality. The court’s decision is expected in June. Given the centrality of the Affordable Care Act to the president’s first term, the Supreme Court challenge will undoubtedly impact his efforts at re-election and the arguments of his challengers.

Newt Gingrich has admitted he can’t win the GOP presidential nomination outright and is cutting his staff in order to focus on winning at the Republican convention this summer. Tuesday night Gingrich’s campaign manager announced one third of the former House speaker’s staff would be leaving soon. The Gingrich camp believes neither Mitt Romney nor Rick Santorum will collect enough delegate votes to clinch the nomination. They hope to “take it to Obama” with Gingrich’s “big ideas”, which currently reportedly include a $2.50-a-gallon gasoline and two or three other things.

Mitt Romney appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno Tuesday evening. The Republican frontrunner played a game of word association with Leno and joked about his rival Rick Santorum’s recent struggles with the media, suggesting the former Pennsylvania senator could serve as “press secretary” in a Romney administration. Romney resisted Leno’s attempts to go into detail about who he’d like to enlist as a vice president. He did, however, suggest he would be okay with Santorum filling the role. “I’m happy with him saying he’d like to be part of an administration with me, nothing wrong with that, if he’s the V.P. that’s better,” Romney said. “I’d rather be the president. Let him be the vice president.”

A new poll finds President Obama leading his Republican rivals in three important swing states. According to the latest Quinnipiac survey, Obama beats Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In Florida, Obama leads Romney 49% to 42%, and Santorum 50% to 37%. Obama has an advantage of 47% to 41% over Romney in Ohio, and beats Santorum 47% to 40%. The race is closer in Pennsylvania, where Obama tops Romney 45% to 42 %, though Romney is well within the margin of error. Obama beats Santorum in home state of Pennsylvania 48% to 41%.

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