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The Buzz

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Issue: "Schock factor," Jan. 31, 2009

Rules rules rules

Although House Democrats had vowed to sustain bipartisan cooperation in the 111th Congress, on Jan. 6 they rewrote House rules in a move aimed at silencing minority Republicans. The new rules package for the 111th Congress will limit the GOP's use of a "motion to recommit," a century-old safeguard that gave the minority party the opportunity to offer an alternative to a bill and send it back to committee for further deliberation.

In the last session of Congress, Republicans used the procedural rule 50 times, primarily to block tax increases tacked onto larger bills. But under the new rules package, Republicans will have a much harder time stopping such measures. California Rep. David Dreier, ranking Republican on the House Rules Committee, says the changes fly in the face of President-elect Barack Obama's campaign promises: "While he's calling for the most transparent administration in history, his congressional Democrats are launching the most closed Congress in history."

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House Democrats insist the rule changes will enable the House to function more efficiently and prevent minority Republicans from "abusing" parliamentary roadblocks. But according to Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., it wasn't Republicans who were abusing the legislative process but rather Democrats, who during the last Congress brought legislation to the floor that had not gone through a committee before going to a vote. "The Democrats call this century-old tool that sends a bill back to committee for revision a gimmick or abuse," he said. "But last Congress the only gimmick we saw was what Democrats called a fair and open legislative process."

Inaugural test

George Washington didn't chop down that cherry tree, and he also may not have been the first to add "so help me God" to the end of his inaugural oath. American lore says Washington was the first, but USA Today quotes historical experts saying there's no eyewitness documentation of Washington adding the phrase. Washington's inaugural address, however, was full of references to religion and God.

The phrase is religiously under legal attack now. Michael Newdow-along with the American Humanist Association, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Atheist Alliance International, and others-filed suit to remove God from the oath and ban traditional inaugural prayers. In response, attorneys general from all 50 states filed a brief against Newdow, saying inaugural prayers and oaths invoking God have been part of inaugural ceremonies throughout American history and at every level of government. As he awaited a hearing, Newdow told CNN, "I have no doubt I'll lose."

African model

Africa isn't a continent well known for its stable democracies, but Ghana may serve as a model for the dozen African countries holding elections this year. Thousands of Ghanaians packed into the West African nation's capital in January to inaugurate President John Atta Mills, the opposition candidate who won by a razor-thin margin. Mills' election marked the second time Ghanaian government has peacefully transferred power from one legitimately elected leader to the next, a milestone for a continent marked by coups and violent elections.

Worsening crises in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo threaten to upset critical elections in the neighboring nations later this year, but elections in South Africa may provide a bright spot: Jacob Zuma, the favored presidential winner, has condemned spiraling conditions in Zimbabwe under President Robert Mugabe and may press for an end to the deepening crisis that threatens thousands of lives.

Power politics

In the subzero temperatures of Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester, bread supplies dwindled and homes grew frigid as businesses and residents endured Russia's mid-winter cutoff of natural gas. Russian authorities stopped its gas supplies to Eastern Europe that flow through Ukraine, accusing Ukrainian officials of siphoning off supplies and demanding higher payments for gas. The cutoff affected nearly 20 European nations, with at least two countries-Bosnia and Bulgaria--completely dependent on gas from Russia. A handful of countries said they had enough reserves to last for a few weeks, but Slovakia declared a state of emergency and said it would restart an aging Soviet-era nuclear reactor if supplies were not restored soon. Electricity use skyrocketed in countries like Croatia, where officials cut off gas to factories, shops, and restaurants, as negotiations between Ukraine and Russia stalled.

Legally wed

A third Pennsylvania county judge has upheld the legality of marriages conducted by Universal Life Church ministers ordained over the internet, even though another Pennsylvania court had ruled earlier that a minister must have a congregation or house of worship in order to perform valid marriages. The initial 2007 ruling in York County had sparked statewide confusion and led to three ACLU suits, which argued that state law only requires ministers to belong to an established church to perform marriages.

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