Friday, March 1, 2013

Discord Remains at Vatican as Pope Benedict Departs


VATICAN CITY — As the sun set on Rome and on his turbulent eight-year papacy, Pope Benedict XVI, a shy theologian who never seemed entirely at home in the limelight, was whisked by helicopter into retirement on Thursday.
But while Benedict, 85, retires to a life of prayer, study, walks in the garden and piano practice, he leaves in his wake a Vatican hierarchy facing scandals and intrigue that are casting a shadow over the cardinals entrusted with electing his successor in a conclave this month.

Even as he met with the cardinals on his final day as pope, pledging “unconditional reverence and obedience” to his successor and urging the cardinals to “work like an orchestra” harmonizing for the good of the church, the discord was apparent.

On Thursday, the Vatican confirmed reports that it had ordered wiretaps on the phones of some Vatican officials as part of a leaks investigation. Other cardinals were increasingly outspoken about the crisis of governance during Benedict’s papacy.

That failing is expected to be much in the cardinals’ minds as they begin meeting informally on Monday to discuss the state of the papacy and determine when to start the conclave, which could be as soon as next week. Earlier this week, Benedict changed church law to allow the cardinals to start the conclave before the traditional 15-day waiting period after the papacy is vacant.

In his final blessing to the faithful, who gathered outside the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo where he will live for several months, Benedict appeared tired, and even relieved, saying that from now on “I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this earth.”

His towering predecessor, John Paul II, wasted away with Parkinson’s disease; Benedict, whose life’s work was aimed at reconciling faith and reason, opted for a short farewell.

“Good night, and thank you,” he said in Italian to the boisterous but small crowds at Castel Gandolfo, just over two weeks after he shocked the world on Feb. 11 by announcing his retirement, the first in the modern history of the church.

Earlier, thousands of people stood in a hushed St. Peter’s Square, forming half-moon crowds around giant video screens showing the pope’s departure as sea gulls wheeled in the waning light. Many looked up and waved as his helicopter circled the square. “Viva il Papa!” several shouted. One banner read simply “Danke!!!”

Katie Martin, 29, an aspiring firefighter from Manhattan Beach, Calif., said she delayed her visit to Rome by a week to witness the historic event. “I love my faith,” she said. “I love my church. I have a great love for the Holy Father.”

Like many, Ms. Martin said she was sad to see Benedict’s papacy end. “But I’m also really excited to see what’s next,” she said.

In many ways, Benedict never seemed to fit into his red shoes. He seemed uninterested in the spectacle of power, awkward even raising his arms to greet crowds, forever disappointing photographers. On a 2009 visit to the Holy Land, he did not stop at the muddy pool in the Jordan River where Jesus is believed to have been baptized, passing by on a golf cart instead.

His critics say that on his watch, the Vatican suffered a profound crisis of governance. On Thursday, Panorama magazine reported that the Vatican Secretariat of State had ordered wiretaps on the phones of several Vatican prelates as part of an investigation into the scandal in which confidential documents were leaked to the news media and the author of a tell-all book.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Thursday that magistrates of the Vatican “might have authorized some wiretaps or some checks,” but nothing on a significant scale.

Vatican watchers say the wiretapping was a shocking breach of trust and an indication of the high levels of distrust since the leaks scandal. But Father Lombardi dismissed that. The idea of “an investigation that creates an atmosphere of fear of mistrust that will now affect the conclave has no foundation in reality,” he said.

Earlier this week, he said that the pope decided that a dossier on the leaks affair compiled by three cardinals would be shown only to the cardinals entering the conclave.

Congress Leaders to Meet With Obama as Budget Cuts Begin


President Barack Obama’s meeting with congressional leaders today won’t yield a breakthrough to avert $85 billion in federal spending cuts set to start before midnight, members of both parties say.
Republicans John Boehner, the House speaker, and Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, and Democrats Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, and Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, will attend the morning meeting.
Democrats and Republicans are in a standoff over how to replace the cuts totaling $1.2 trillion over nine years, $85 billion of which would occur in the remaining seven months of this fiscal year. Republicans reject Democrats’ call for higher taxes on top earners to replace part of the spending reductions.
“Middle-class families can’t keep paying the price for dysfunction in Washington,” Obama said in a statement yesterday. The president has until 11:59 p.m. to issue the order officially putting the cuts into effect.
“How much more money do we want to steal from the American people to fund more government?” Boehner said at a press conference in Washington yesterday. “I’m for no more.”
The White House meeting follows the Senate’s rejection yesterday of a pair of partisan proposals to replace the spending reductions. No additional congressional action is planned before the start of the cuts, to be split between defense and non-defense spending.
Market Reaction
Stocks erased gains in the final half hour of trading yesterday after the Senate votes. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell 0.1 percent to 1,514.68 at 4 p.m. in New York, after rising as much as 0.6 percent earlier. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 20.88 points, or 0.2 percent, to 14,054.49.
Treasury 10-year notes gained for the first month since November. The yield fell three basis points, or 0.03 percentage point, to 1.88 percent at 5 p.m. in New York, according to Bloomberg Bond Trader prices.
Obama and Republicans have traded blame this week for the impasse. The president and members of his Cabinet drew a picture of lost jobs, long lines at airports, delays at ports, furloughs of Pentagon employees and cutbacks at popular national parks as a result of the cuts.
Still, most of the effects of the across-the-board cuts probably won’t be seen for weeks, giving both sides more time to strike a deal.
Obama told congressional leaders this week that “he hoped we all came with the idea that we would find solutions,” Pelosi of California told reporters yesterday when asked about the White House meeting.
Public Relations
While Boehner said yesterday he would be “happy” to work with the president on finding alternative spending cuts, congressional Republicans said they viewed today’s meeting as no more than a public relations move.
“The president has organized a photo op,” Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, said in an interview.
The session’s purpose is “mostly optics,” said Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican. “The president was feeling pressure to do something to show that he’s trying to resolve this and so he called a last-minute meeting,” Thune told reporters yesterday. “I don’t think that fools anybody.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Feb. 27 the president anticipates a “constructive conversation” with congressional leaders at the meeting, though probably not one that will immediately result in a compromise to stop the cuts from taking effect.
Symbolic Votes
Yesterday’s votes in the Senate were symbolic and designed to give Democrats and Republicans political cover when the reductions take effect. Senators turned back a Democratic proposal, 51-49, and a Republican plan, 38-62, with 60 votes required for each measure.
Democrats’ plan would have replaced this year’s part of the spending reduction with a smaller cut to defense programs, a halt in direct payments to farmers, and a tax increase that would impose a minimum 30 percent rate on top earners. The bill, S.388, was supported by the White House.
Senate Republicans’ proposal would have retained the $85 billion in cuts this year while requiring Obama to submit a proposal by March 15 on how to allocate them. The measure would have let Congress vote within a week to reject the president’s plan and keep the original, across-the-board cuts in place. The measure, S.16, was opposed by the Obama administration.
Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told reporters yesterday that a stopgap government funding measure will provide the next opportunity for Democrats to press for a spending-cut replacement plan that includes tax increases. Current funding for government operations expires on March 27.
‘All Done’
“Get it all done at once,” Reid said. “It would be so easy to do.”
Democrats will keep contrasting their fiscal vision with Republicans’, starting with their fiscal 2014 budget proposal, said Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the chamber’s third- ranking Democrat.
“These votes will not be the last word on the issue,” Schumer said. “The debate is just beginning.”
Senate Democrats are preparing to offer a $1.043 trillion spending package to finance the government’s military and domestic discretionary programs for rest of the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, said Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The Senate plan, which wouldn’t reflect the automatic spending cuts, will be offered in place of a $974 billion spending measure the Republican-led House is preparing to vote on next week. The House proposal would keep the spending cuts.
Economic Growth
Unless there’s a resolution in coming weeks, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that budget reductions will cause a 0.6 percentage-point reduction in economic growth this year. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke told the Senate Banking Committee on Feb. 26 that “this additional near-term burden on the recovery is significant.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me if it starts to kick in and some of the effects of it are being felt all over America -- both in industries and the civilian workforce, in the usual maneuvers in training and operations of our military -- to the point where it drives us back together,” said Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican. “That’s my hope.”

Obama Lawyers Back California Gay Marriage at High Court


President Barack Obama’s administration urged the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate same- sex marriage in California, calling for broad constitutional protections that ultimately could let gays marry nationwide.

The filing adds a new and powerful voice behind the legal bid for same-sex marriage. The administration stopped short of directly calling for that right across the U.S., saying the court should focus on “the particular circumstances presented by California law.” At the same time, the government’s reasoning would leave the 41 states that ban gay marriage little room to defend their laws.

The designation of marriage “confers a special validation of the relationship between two individuals and conveys a message to society that domestic partnerships or civil unions cannot match,” U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli argued.

The administration said gays should be afforded special constitutional protection, known as “heightened scrutiny,” much as racial minorities and women are under the Constitution’s equal protection clause. That would shield gays against discrimination in housing and employment, as well as marriage.

The brief “creates a clear path for marriage equality across the United States,” said Theodore Boutrous, one of the lawyers challenging the California ban, known as Proposition 8. “The arguments from start to finish would apply to other states.”

Charles Cooper, a lawyer representing the defenders of the California ban, said he didn’t have a comment on the brief.

Courting Administration
The 33-page filing came just hours before the court’s deadline yesterday, ending months of White House and Justice Department deliberations. Both sides in the California case met with Verrilli in January to seek the administration’s support. The White House had the option of staying out of the case.

The brief was one of a slew this week to call for same-sex marriage rights -- a move aimed at influencing the court and particularly Justice Anthony Kennedy, the likely swing vote.

One brief came from dozens of publicly traded companies, including Apple Inc. (AAPL) and Morgan Stanley (MS), while a second was filed on behalf of scores of prominent Republicans, including seven former governors and actor Clint Eastwood.

Fourteen states also are backing gay marriage at the high court. They include California and four other states that currently don’t offer same-sex marriage licenses: Delaware, Illinois, New Mexico and Oregon. A group of 13 states led by Massachusetts argued that Proposition 8 “codifies the second- class status” of gays and their families.

March Argument
The justices will hear arguments on March 26 on Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that halted gay marriage after it was allowed for five months following a California Supreme Court decision. Yesterday’s filing means Verrilli, Obama’s top courtroom lawyer, will probably take part in that session, making the case for gay marriage in the nation’s most-populous state.

Obama and Verrilli “have taken another historic step forward consistent with the great civil rights battles of our nation’s history,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, which supports gay marriage.

The activists challenging Proposition 8 are asking the court for a sweeping ruling that would force all 50 states to allow such unions. Nine states and the District of Columbia now permit same-sex marriage.

Eight States
The Obama filing hinted at one path for the court that might quickly boost that number to 17, an approach that has been dubbed the “eight-state solution” by Kenji Yoshino, a professor at New York University School of Law.

The administration said those eight states -- California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island -- improperly let gay couples form partnerships that have all “substantive rights and obligations of marriage,” without marriage itself.

“Proposition 8’s denial of marriage to same-sex couples, particularly where California at the same time grants same-sex partners all the substantive rights of marriage, violates equal protection,” Verrilli argued.