After a more than year-long political impasse, Congress appears close to a compromise plan to lower student loan interest rates, the New York Times reported Wednesday night.

At the beginning of July, interest rates on federal undergraduate student loans—called Stafford loans—jumped from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent after Congress couldn't agree on legislation to avert the spike. On Wednesday evening, a bipartisan group of Senators—including Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chair of the education committee, Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.)—reached a deal that would set rates at 3.86 percent for the coming year. Thereafter, the rate for undergrad Stafford loans would be calculated by adding two percentage points to the rate at which the government borrows money over the long term (currently at about 2 percent), but the plan wouldn't allow that rate to rise above 8.25 percent. (For graduate student loans, the Senate plan would add 3.6 percent to the government's borrowing rate, and set a 9.5 percent interest rate cap.)

The Senate compromise brings Congress close to a solution on the student loan interest rate log jam because the plan the upper chamber has cobbled together is very similar to a plan the House passed in May.

Many Senate Democrats had long resisted the idea of tying interest rates to market fluctuations. And they argued that the House Republican plan, and a similar plan in the Senate, would reduce the deficit on the backs of students and eventually lead to higher rates. 

But after senators met Tuesday with President Barack Obama, who was worried about ending the impasse, Democrats caved.

Progressive Dems are sure to be disappointed by the accord. When the House passed its student loan interest rate bill a couple of months ago, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said the plan "takes a bad situation and makes it worse… Our students should not be a profit center for the government." The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the Senate plan would save the government $715 million over 10 years.

"I am just trying to get the best deal for students," Harkin said Wednesday, according to Bloomberg.

Congress got itself into this mess in 2007, when it passed a law that gradually lowered interest rates from a fixed 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent over five years, then allowed the rate to shoot back to 6.8 percent in 2012. Last year, no one could agree on a compromise to prevent the rate increase, so lawmakers passed a stopgap measure to extend the 3.4 percent interest rate for a year. This year, when Congress again couldn't reach a compromise, interest rates spiked up to 6.8 percent on July 1. Since then, lawmakers and the White House have been scrambling for a solution.

Alexander said Wednesday he was optimistic the Senate deal would pass the House. "The House can hopefully accept it, send it to the president, and it [can] all be done by the end of the month," he told National Journal. A vote could come by next week.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's site describes the state's anti-sodomy law as an "anti-child predators law."

Today Virginia gubernatorial candidate and state attorney general Ken Cuccinelli launched a website promoting his effort to enforce the state's law banning oral and anal sex. "Keep Virginia Children Safe!" the site proclaims. It goes on to argue that the anti-sodomy law Cuccinelli is defending is really an "anti-child predators law" that has kept 90 people on the state's sex offender registry.

Last month, Cuccinelli appealed to the Supreme Court, after an appeals court ruled that the anti-sodomy law is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court already declared laws banning sodomy unconstitutional in Lawrence v. Texas back in 2003, but Virginia kept its "Crimes Against Nature" law on the books. Cuccinelli has been trying to use that statute to prosecute a man for having oral sex with two teenagers. The AG insists that the law is "an important tool that prosecutors use to put child molesters in jail."

With the new website, Cuccinelli is trying to put Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe on the defensive, arguing that he's "playing politics instead of protecting our children."

But as I've written before, Cuccinelli's argument will be a tough one to make before the Supreme Court, because it's basically asking the justices to rule again on an issue they've already decided on so that Virginia can keep a legal loophole open:

This specific case deals with a man who was prosecuted under the "Crimes Against Nature" statute for having had oral sex with women, a felony offense under that law. The man in the case, William MacDonald, was in his late 40s when he was charged with having consensual oral sex with two young women who were, at the time, ages 16 and 17. While that might be seen as creepy, in Virginia, the age of consent is 15 years old. It is considered statutory rape—a felony offense—to have sex with anyone under that age. Under state law, an adult can be prosecuted for "causing" delinquency by having sex with someone between the ages of 15 and 18, but that is only a misdemeanor. MacDonald was convicted of such a misdemeanor, and his lawyers aren't challenging that conviction. But they have challenged—so far, successfully—the state's attempt to prosecute him for violating the "Crimes Against Nature" law.
Because Virginia still has this anti-sodomy law on the books, the state wants to use it against MacDonald and win a felony conviction. The state, however, couldn't prosecute him under this statute if he had engaged in vaginal sex. That is, the state is trying to use a loophole in the law that makes oral, but not vaginal, sex a felony in order to go after this guy. The court of appeals determined that MacDonald could not be prosecuted under this law because the US Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that such laws are an unconstitutional "intrusion into the personal and private life of the individual."

Virginia's anti-sodomy law may not be a winner with the courts, but Cuccinelli's new campaign site makes it clear that he thinks it's a winning issue with voters.

When Mitch Daniels took the helm of Purdue University in January, after eight years as the Republican governor of Indiana, he published an "open letter to the people of Purdue" outlining his vision for the state's second-largest public college. In his letter, Daniels offered critiques and observations about the state of higher education; on the subject of "Open Inquiry," he wrote: "A university violates its special mission if it fails to protect free and open debate," adding that "the ensuring of free expression is paramount."

Now, some great muckraking by the Associated Press casts serious doubt on Daniels' commitment to protecting free speech. According to emails obtained by the AP, Daniels as governor tried to ban the works of historian Howard Zinn from the classrooms of Indiana's public colleges. When Zinn died in February 2010, Daniels wrote in an email: "The terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away." Daniel described Zinn's celebrated and widely read book A People's History of the United States as "a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page."

Daniels goes on to write: "Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?"

When told the book was being taught at Indiana University in a course on American social movements, Daniel fired back: "This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state. No student will be better taught because someone sat through this session."

More from the AP:

David Shane, a top fundraiser and state school board member, replied seven minutes later with a strategy directing Bennett and Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Teresa Lubbers to review university courses across the state.

"Sounds like we need a cleanup of what is credit-worthy in 'professional development' and what is not. Who will take charge," Daniels replied seven minutes later.

Shane replied that a statewide review "would force to daylight a lot of excrement."

Just seven minutes later, Daniels signed off on it.

"Go for it. Disqualify propaganda and highlight (if there is any) the more useful offerings. Don't the ed schools have at least some substantive PD (professional development) courseware to upgrade knowledge of math, science, etc," Daniels wrote.

Daniels also appeared to have used his position as governor to target an academic who was critical of the state's education policies. Emails show that Daniels asked for an audit focusing on the work of Charles Little, who is on the faculty of Indiana University Purdue University–Indianapolis' School of Education and who leads the Indiana Urban Schools Association, an advocate for inner-city students, teachers, and administrators. In an April 11, 2009, email, Daniels asked for greater scrutiny of Little's program and how it spent it funds.

Reached at his office, Little said he wasn't surprised that Daniels and his colleagues targeted him. "It is worrisome that some of the people mentioned in the article are still around" in state government, Little told me.

Daniels, for his part, told the AP he had no regrets about his decision to target Howard Zinn. "We must not falsely teach American history in our schools," he responded. "We have a law requiring state textbook oversight to guard against frauds like Zinn, and it was encouraging to find that no Hoosier school district had inflicted his book on its students."

On Wednesday morning, just as the GOP had settled into its apoplectic doomsaying over the Obama administration's announcement that it was delaying the part of the Affordable Care Act that requires large employers to offer insurance to their employees or pay a fine, New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that rates for New Yorkers who buy their own insurance are poised to fall by an average of 50 percent with the implementation of the new law.

New York typifies the kind of healthcare mess that the law was designed to fix. As it stands now, only 17,000 New Yorkers buy their own insurance, compared to a whopping 2.6 million who have remained uninsured in the face of the state's towering premiums for folks who don't get insurance through their employer. With less than 80 days until the rollout of the healthcare insurance exchanges—a major piece of the law that will allow uninsured Americans to buy federally subsidized coverage—the news out of New York is exactly the kind of win that the administration needed. 

The New York Times has more: 

State insurance regulators say they have approved rates for 2014 that are at least 50 percent lower on average than those currently available in New York. Beginning in October, individuals in New York City who now pay $1,000 a month or more for coverage will be able to shop for health insurance for as little as $308 monthly. With federal subsidies, the cost will be even lower.

Supporters of the new health care law, the Affordable Care Act, credited the drop in rates to the online purchasing exchanges the law created, which they say are spurring competition among insurers that are anticipating an influx of new customers. The law requires that an exchange be started in every state.

"Health insurance has suddenly become affordable in New York," said Elisabeth Benjamin, vice president for health initiatives with the Community Service Society of New York. "It’s not bargain-basement prices, but we’re going from Bergdorf’s to Filene’s here."

"The extraordinary decline in New York’s insurance rates for individual consumers demonstrates the profound promise of the Affordable Care Act," she added…

The plans to be offered on the exchanges all meet certain basic requirements, as laid out in the law, but are in four categories from most generous to least: platinum, gold, silver and bronze. An individual with annual income of $17,000 will pay about $55 a month for a silver plan, state regulators said. A person with a $20,000 income will pay about $85 a month for a silver plan, while someone earning $25,000 will pay about $145 a month for a silver plan.

The least expensive plans, some offered by newcomers to the market, may not offer wide access to hospitals and doctors, experts said.

State officials estimate that about 615,000 uninsured individuals will sign up for insurance using the exchanges in the first year, and about three quarters of them will be eligible for subsidies on top of the lower rates. If those estimates pan out, it will eliminate one of the biggest threats to the law—that nobody would sign up. States from Kentucky to Oregon have been running ads encouraging people to sign up for the exchanges, and although some Republican governors have been fighting tooth and nail against implementing the law, even when doing so will cost their states billions, successes like New York and California might force them to knuckle under.

"It is truly a historic day," Sen. Elizabeth Warren said Tuesday after the Senate agreed to allow a vote on Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the consumer watchdog agency that Warren devised and helped get on its feet. "It took nearly two years, but…now the American people will have a strong watchdog in Washington," Warren continued in a conference call with reporters. "David beat Goliath."

On Tuesday evening, the Senate confirmed Cordray by a vote of 66 to 34 after Republicans agreed not to filibuster his confirmation. The vote came after Republicans spent years trying to block Cordray's appointment and attacking the CFPB in court.

The CFPB has already accomplished much to benefit consumers—forcing credit card companies to refund nearly half a billion dollars they juked consumers out of, implementing new rules to make mortgages safer, and creating a center that fields consumer complaints about shady dealings by financial institutions. But without a director confirmed by the Senate, the agency's powers were limited. Now that Cordray has been confirmed, the CFPB is fully legitimate, Warren says. "There are no more clouds. Period. This locks all the pieces in place," she told reporters Tuesday.

It was a long struggle. Senate Republicans filibustered Cordray when Obama first nominated him to head the agency in July 2011. In response, Obama used a recess appointment—a presidential appointment that happens while the Senate is on vacation and does not require Senate approval—to install Cordray in January 2012. Republicans then sued to challenge the constitutionality of Cordray's appointment. Senate Republicans intended to filibuster Cordray again this time around, demanding fundamental changes that would weaken the CFPB before they'd allow a vote. Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate majority leader, threatened to change the rules of the Senate to block the GOP filibuster. But late Tuesday, the Senate devised a truce to avert the Republicans' filibuster—and Reid's rule change.

The agency was devised by Warren after the financial crisis, who pointed out at the time that it was "impossible to buy a toaster that has a one-in-five chance of bursting into flames and burning down your house. But it is possible to refinance an existing home with a mortgage that has the same one-in-five chance of putting the family out on the street." The agency came to life as part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform act, and Warren has aggressively campaigned for Cordray's confirmation ever since.

Republicans will continue to push for changes to the agency, such as forcing the agency to be subject to the congressional appropriations process so Congress can revoke its funding and allowing other regulatory agencies to veto CFPB actions. And the Supreme Court will review the constitutionality of Cordray's previous recess appointment in the fall.

But Warren is not worried. "They can introduce whatever [legislation] they want. The political stalemate is over," she told reporters, adding that any Supreme Court ruling would have few implications since Cordray now has the Senate's official approval. As she said in a statement after the Tuesday vote, "The consumer agency is the law of the land and is here to stay."

A coalition of odd bedfellows—including Greenpeace, CalGuns Foundation, the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, the Council on American Islamic Relations, and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws—are suing the National Security Agency (NSA) over its alleged "illegal and unconstitutional program of dragnet surveillance." The groups, which are being represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are bringing the suit in the wake of revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that the secret US spy court forced Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint to hand over customer records to the feds. 

"When the government has access to your communications records for a period of up to five years, it creates a chilling effect on your willingness to participate in political discourse and join political groups," Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in a press call on Tuesday. EFF also sued the NSA in 2008 over the Bush Administration's warrantless wiretapping program—a case that has yet to be resolved. 

The plaintiffs allege that through the NSA's tracking program, "defendants...continue to collect, acquire, and retain, bulk communications information of telephone calls made and received by plaintiffs, their members and staffs. This information is otherwise private." They also claim that the collection of this information was "neither relevant to an existing authorized criminal investigation, nor to an existing authorized investigation to protect against international terrorism." The charges are being brought as violations to the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments, among other laws. 

The Director of National Intelligence, Keith Alexander—who is also listed on the suit—testified last month that the NSA's surveillance program has helped stopped more than 50 terror plots since 9/11. The NSA maintains that the only information that has been collected through phone surveillance is basic information called metadata, which includes information like which numbers made and received a call, when it took place, and how long it lasted. 

At the call on Tuesday, representatives for the groups said that even though the coalition comes from across the political spectrum, they have one big thing in common: They feel their First Amendment rights are being squashed. Reverend Rick Hoyt from the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles noted that the church played an important role in fighting hysteria during the McCarthy years, and he sees this as more of the same: "We're very aware how organizations can be affected by government surveillance...we want to make sure our current church members feel they have the right to associate with this church." Gene Hoffman, chairman of The Calguns Foundation, which fights gun control laws, said his members are "definitely" hesitant about calling his organization because of surveillance concerns. "It's common to have caller-ID block for our members even before this [came out.]"

Shahid Buttar, the executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a civil rights organization that fights to end racial profiling, notes, "A lot of our members have had concerns about these kinds of activities happening for a long time, they've been dismissed for years by the broader public as paranoia... The people who suspected they were being watched, until now, couldn't prove it."



Michael Dunn mugshot; undated Jordan Davis family photo

Update, October 17, 2014: On Friday, Michael Dunn was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the murder of Jordan Davis.

A white man named Michael Dunn shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Jordan Davis in Florida last year after a brief dispute. The prosecutor overseeing the case is Florida state attorney Angela Corey. Dunn, who will be tried for murder, claims the shooting was in self-defense. Sound familiar?

Now that the state's nationally televised and notorious self-defense case has ended with the acquittal of defendant George Zimmerman, a next potentially high-profile test of the state's criminal-justice system may come when Dunn goes on trial for first-degree murder this September. And while Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground gun law wasn't invoked during the trial (although it did factor into the jury's decision, according to one juror)*, it may be tested in the Dunn case.

The killing took place in November 2012, while Dunn was parked at a gas station convenience store, waiting for his girlfriend to emerge from inside. Four teenagers, including 17-year-old Davis, were parked* next to Dunn's car in an SUV. After an argument over the teens' loud music, Dunn fired on the boys from his car, killing Davis. Dunn claims he opened fire only after one of the teens threatened his life, brandished a gun, and started to exit the SUV. Later he told police that he had "never been so scared" in his life.

The Davis family attorney, John Phillips, told HLN recently that Davis' parents are "freaking out about justice" after the Zimmerman verdict. But in another HLN interview, he cautioned that the two cases aren't identical, saying "the justice process is different for both. You gotta keep them separate."

He's right—there are some crucial distinctions. No one but Zimmerman and Martin himself bore witness to Zimmerman pulling the trigger. But there were several eyewitnesses to the Davis killing, including his three friends who survived. Despite Dunn's claim that one of the victims had a gun, police recovered no weapon, and witnesses say no one involved got out of a vehicle except for Dunn, who allegedly did so as he fired his final shots. Instead of calling 911 or waiting for police to arrive, Dunn then fled the scene with his girlfriend, went back to his hotel and ate pizza, and later returned to his home without calling police. Whereas Zimmerman walked free for nearly six weeks and was only arrested and charged after a national outcry, police arrested Dunn the day after he killed Davis.

Corey has been under fire over the outcomes of two self-defense cases she recently oversaw. Since the Zimmerman verdict, some critics have blasted her for charging him in the first place, while others argue that her team didn't present the case against him effectively. Zimmerman's case has been likened to another one handled under Corey in 2012: that of Marissa Alexander, a black woman who tried to use Stand Your Ground as her defense against aggravated assault charges. She said she fired a warning shot into a wall to fend off her abusive estranged husband; she was sentenced to 20 years in prison for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Corey claims there are "zero parallels" between the two cases.

In the upcoming Dunn trial, the issue of race is obvious to Davis' mother, Lucia McBath, but she told HLN's Raising America recently that it should not be the main focus.

"It's apparent that Michael Dunn is white, it's apparent that Jordan is black," McBath said. "But the issue is the Stand Your Ground laws. The issue is not the racial part of it. We're not going to center and focus on that, because that doesn't do any good for the country. We're not going to incite racism in this country. The bigger picture is making a change in the laws so that…this doesn't continue to happen."

*Correction: The original version of this article mistakenly stated that "stand your ground" did not factor into the Zimmerman trial. It also stated that the vehicle Jordan Davis was in pulled up next to Dunn's car. It was already parked there when Dunn arrived.

Liz Cheney is running for Senate. On Tuesday, the former State Department official and daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney kicked off her primary challenge to Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) with a YouTube video warning that, among other things, President Obama is "working to preemptively disarm America":

Cheney has never run for elected office, but she's no stranger to national politics. Here's a quick primer:

1. She moved to Wyoming last year.

2. She is Darth Vader Dick Cheney's daughter. (Did we mention that?)

3. She thinks the president isn't serious about disarming Al Qaeda. It's a good thing he waited until after he killed Osama bin Laden.

4. Not only that, but she's convinced he's doing this because he actually wants to make America weaker: "The president has so effectively diminished American strength abroad that there is no longer a question of whether this was his intent. He is working to pre-emptively disarm the United States."

5. She thinks it's "libelous" to call waterboarding "torture."

6. Her organization, Keep America Safe, referred to lawyers who advocated for the rights of Guantanamo detainees as the "Al Qaeda Seven" and suggested they sympathized with terrorists:


8. She fought the construction of the Park 51 Islamic center in Lower Manhattan, arguing that it would be a victory for terrorists:

9. She defended birthers by explaining that "people are fundamentally uncomfortable and fundamentally I think increasingly uncomfortable with an American president who seems to be afraid to defend America, stand up for what we believe in."

10. She supported the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. No really.

Wyoming, a state with two working escalators, has two senators in Washington due to the infallibility of the Founding Fathers. The official state dinosaur is the triceratops. In February 2012, legislators in Cheyenne briefly considered building an aircraft carrier to prepare for a societal collapse.

The US Senate doesn't appear to be going "nuclear," after all.

On Tuesday morning, senators were close to a deal, brokered in part by Republican John McCain of Arizona, to prevent Majority Leader Harry Reid from changing the rules of the Senate with a simple majority vote—a tactic called the nuclear option. For years, Reid has been frustrated by Senate Republicans, who have used filibusters to block votes on 16 of President Barack Obama's nominees for executive-branch positions. (Only 20 executive-branch nominees were filibustered under all previous presidents combined.) Unless Republicans allowed votes on Tuesday on a handful of key nominees, Reid threatened to use the nuclear option to change Senate rules so that nominees could be approved with just 51 votes instead a filibuster-proof 60.

But it looks like there will be no nuclear option. Instead, Senate Republicans say they'll drop their opposition and allow votes on five nominees, including Richard Cordray to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), Tom Perez to the Department of Labor, Gina McCarthy to the Environmental Protection Agency, Fred Hochberg to the Export-Import Bank, and current National Labor Relations Board chairman Mark Gaston Pearce. In exchange, Obama will toss out two other NLRB nominees, Richard Griffin and Sharon Block, and replace them with two new people. Labor unions will reportedly get a say on who Obama nominates.

On the status of deal, Reid said at noon on Tuesday: "We have a few little Is to dot and Ts to cross. Everything's doing well."

The Senate's compromise comes after days of brinkmanship, nasty rhetoric, and intense talks between Democrats and Republicans. On Monday night, all 100 members of the Senate met in the Old Senate Chamber to hash out some sort of deal to avoid using the nuclear option. No specific deal was reached then, but those talks appeared to have laid the groundwork for Tuesday's compromise. "I hope that everyone learned the lesson last night: that it sure helps to sit down and talk to each other," Reid said on Tuesday.

This is not the first time senators have threatened to go nuclear. In 2005, a group of 14 senators cut a deal to vote on several of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees after the GOP leadership threatened to use the nuclear option.

In an appearance at the left-leaning Center for American Progress think tank Monday, Reid chalked up the GOP obstruction to wanting to gum up the government while also undercutting agencies like the NLRB and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "We have a situation where Republicans have created gridlock, gridlock, gridlock," he said. "And it has consequences. It's not only bad for President Obama; it's bad for the country. The status quo won't work."

With a compromise in the works, the Senate moved ahead to vote on the Obama administration's nominees. The Senate voted 71 to 29 to allow a full vote to confirm Richard Cordray, whom Obama nominated to run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau during a recess period two years ago. That's a good sign that Cordray's nomination will be approved. It's also a tough vote for Senate Republicans, 43 of whom pledged to block any nomination—including Cordray's—to run the CFPB because they oppose how the CPFB functions.

So where does this leave the Senate? Reid may have backed down from using the nuclear option this time, but there's nothing stopping him from threatening to use it again. And if—really, when—Republicans retake control of the Senate, they can threaten to use it, too. As Ezra Klein at the Washington Post explains, "This will be the new normal."

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.)—the tea party lawmaker who served as one of the main inspirations for season five of True Blood—recently attacked the Obama administration's push for immigration reform in the most Michele Bachmann way possible. Here she is talking about immigration reform, and how conservatives in Congress can stop the president from granting undocumented immigrants the right to vote in American elections:

[Obama] has a perpetual magic wand, and nobody's given him a spanking yet and taken it out of his hand. That's what Congress needs to do. Give the president a major wake-up call. And the way we spank the president is we do it through the checkbook.

Bachmann, the one-time front-runner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, had more to say about Obama's "magic wand," claiming that in 2012 he unilaterally gave undocumented "Latina" immigrants the right to vote, and that he will likely do the same in 2014, thus dooming the GOP forever. (That's not true. Click here for a breakdown of why.) Bachmann made the magic wand comments in a recent interview with WorldNetDaily, a premiere birther and conspiracy-mongering website.