HUFFPOST HILL - Obama Gives Prisoners Greatest Gift Of All: Lives As Ex-Cons In America

President Obama commuted the sentences of eight former crack users, but he didn't pardon them -- meaning they still might be eaten on Thanksgiving. Media savvy celebrities are scrambling to die before the last year-end retrospective is published. And tonight is our bureau's holiday party, where we and our liberal media conspiracy comrades will plot the next fronts in the War on Christmas. Factions disagree whether to discontinue the Hess toy truck or to eradicate the world's supply of peppermint. This is HUFFPOST HILL for Thursday, December 19th, 2013:

JACK LEW'S DEBT CEILING FORECAST - Luke Johnson: "Treasury Secretary Jack Lew warned House Speaker John Boehner Thursday that the federal government will reach its debt limit sometime in late February or early March 2014. Congress voted to suspend the debt limit through Feb. 7 in the Continuing Appropriations Act that passed in October. Lew noted that the Treasury Department can use extraordinary measures to pay the government's bills for a few more weeks after that, but not much longer. 'While this forecast is subject to inherent variability, we do not foresee any reasonable scenario in which the extraordinary measures would last for an extended period of time -- principally because the government experiences large net cash outflows in February and March due to tax refunds,' he wrote. Congress recently voted for a bipartisan budget agreement to fund the government through 2015, but that deal did not include an increase in the statutory debt limit, which is currently set at $17.2 trillion." [HuffPost]

DEPORTATION NUMBERS DROP FROM 'HORRIFYING' TO 'REPREHENSIBLE' - At this point we should dig around to see if Emma Lazarus wrote a less uplifting poem that the deportees can read on their way out. Elise Foley: "The Obama administration's deportation numbers hit a low for his presidency in the last year with nearly 370,000 total removals, down from about 410,000 in the 2012 fiscal year. The news is sure to be criticized by both immigration reform opponents and advocates, who find deportation figures a polarizing, frustrating part of enforcement under President Barack Obama. Critics who say Obama hasn't enforced immigration laws will consider the numbers proof that his administration is shirking its duties. And for the immigration activists who have dubbed him the deporter-in-chief, the removal rate's small dip will likely be considered positive, but not enough. Obama has said he does not have the power to suspend deportations more broadly, despite pleas from activists. Deportation numbers had been creeping up over the past years of Obama's presidency, hitting a high of 409,849 immigrants in the 2012 fiscal year. The government removed 396,906 undocumented immigrants from the United States in the 2011 fiscal year, and 392,826 people in 2010. In the 2009 fiscal year -- though Obama was only president for a portion of this period -- 389,834 people were removed. Immigration and Customs enforcement announced it deported a total of 368,644 people in the 2013 fiscal year, with 133,551 in the interior of the country and 235,093 at the border attempting to enter the United States." [HuffPost]

REMINDER: LAWMAKERS HEARTLESS - On Dec. 28, benefits will expire for 1.3 million Americans who've been out of work longer than six months. As it tends to do during recessions, in 2008, Congress gave extra weeks of benefits to workers who use up the 26 weeks provided by most states. Democrats say it's too soon to let the benefits expire, but Republican leaders haven't embraced their proposals. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Thursday he'd set the gears in motion for the Senate to vote on a bill to preserve the benefits no later than Jan. 7, after lawmakers return to Washington from their Christmas vacation. "It will be the first vote when we get back," Reid said. [HuffPost]

SENATE GOP SKIPS TOWN, HAS SHOPPING TO DO - Screw it, guys, we're going home. The Hill: "Senate Republicans will let their rank-and-file members leave town for the Christmas break, leaving Democrats to vote around the clock to confirm the latest batch of President Obama’s nominees. Republicans, angered over last month’s gutting of the filibuster, decided at a meeting Thursday afternoon that they will not yield back any time on the Defense authorization bill or expedite consideration of any of Obama’s nominees. Senate GOP Whip John Cornyn (Texas) said it is up to individual senators if they want to stick around Congress on Friday and Saturday to vote on nominees Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has put on the schedule. Cornyn said his leadership would make sure at least one Republican senator remains on or near the floor at all times to object to Democratic requests to waive various procedural hurdles...Republicans are refusing to cooperate on the nominees to protest Reid’s use of the nuclear option last month, which stripped Republicans of the power to filibuster nominees." [The Hill]

@nielslesniewski: McCain tells me he'll be here through the end, even if many of his colleagues are not.

Courtesy Jason Linkins, here are 20 things Sam Youngman can do instead of whining about how he is tall and successful.

Haircuts: Elahe Izadi (h/t Elahe Izadi) Igor Bobic (h/t Igor Bobic), Charlie Posner (h/t Josh Dorner).

DAILY DELANEY DOWNER - Angela Sipes, a 31-year-old unemployed medical assistant, has been receiving federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation since October. On the 28th, those benefits will go away. Sipes thinks it's stupid for Congress to skip town without dealing with the benefits. "I think it's incredibly irresponsible of them considering the state of the economy and the state of the American workforce right now," she said in a phone interview. "People are struggling." Sipes lives in Enumclaw, Wash., with her landscaper husband and their two kids. She said they've paid their rent through January, which has made their situation only slightly less stressful. She's applying for jobs like the one she lost, and also retail jobs that pay even less. "Not having a way to put food on the table for my kids -- it scares me," she said. [HuffPost]

Josh Levin has the amazing true story of Ronald Reagan's Welfare Queen.

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OBAMA ACTUALLY COMMUTES SOME PEOPLE - Yet the countless victims of his death panels await clemency. Saki Knafo: "President Barack Obama on Thursday commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates who were convicted of crack cocaine offenses. All eight have spent at least 15 years in prison, and six were serving life sentences. In a statement, Obama said they’d been sentenced under an 'unfair system.' In 2011, Congress passed a law that effectively reduced the federal government’s mandatory penalties for people convicted of crack offenses, but commuting the sentences represents the first time the reform has been applied to those convicted before it was adopted. 'If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,' Obama explained in the statement. Three of the inmates -- Reynolds Wintersmith Jr., Clarence Aaron and Stephanie George -- were featured in a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union about the thousands of people who are serving life in prison for nonviolent offenses. The report, which received attention from a range of media outlets, including The Huffington Post, revealed that more than 3,000 inmates were serving life without parole for drug, property and other nonviolent crimes as of 2012, comprising about 6 percent of the total life-without-parole population." [HuffPost]

TEA PARTY ON ANOTHER MIDDLE EAST JUNKET - Christina Wilkie: "A group of high-profile tea party Republicans are overseas this week on a taxpayer-funded trip to Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Israel, Austria and Norway. GOP Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Steve King (Iowa) and Louie Gohmert (Texas) arrived in Egypt on Saturday for the weeklong congressional delegation trip, or CODEL for short, The Huffington Post has learned. This is the second time in six months that Bachmann, King and Gohmert have visited the Middle East to deliver messages that seemingly challenge the Obama administration's foreign policy. At a time when U.S. relations with the Middle East, and Israel in particular, are incredibly delicate, the visit by some of Congress' most conservative members could send complicating, if not conflicting, signals to key allies." [HuffPost]

NEW MEXICO SUPREME COURT OKs GAY MARRIAGE - We haven't read the brief yet, but we can only assume the majority opinion featured numerous citations of the spirit animal that told the justices about their true path. AP: "The New Mexico Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in the state Thursday, declaring in a ruling that it is unconstitutional to deny a marriage license to gay and lesbian couples. New Mexico joins 16 states and the District of Columbia in allowing gay marriage. Eight of the state's 33 counties started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in August, when a county clerk in southern New Mexico independently decided to allow the unions. County officials asked the high court to clarify the law and establish a uniform state policy on gay marriage. State statutes don't explicitly prohibit or authorize gay marriage. However, the marriage laws — unchanged since 1961 — contain a marriage license application with sections for male and female applications. There also are references to 'husband' and 'wife.' The current and previous state attorneys general have said the law effectively prohibits gay marriage, although current Attorney General Gary King also has said he believes such a prohibition is unconstitutional." [AP]

SENATORS INTRODUCE IRAN SANCTIONS BILL - Josh Hersh and Grim: "Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) are threatening to push the United States toward war with Iran, circulating and planning to introduce a sanctions bill despite warnings that it could derail nuclear negotiations at a delicate moment. International observers and both parties to the negotiations have repeatedly pleaded with Congress to allow the talks to unfold -- warnings that Kirk and Menendez, the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, appear intent on ignoring. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is also part of the effort, though much of the final decision rests with Menendez. 'The White House doesn't want a bill, that's true. Menendez and Kirk are working on it and trying to build the list of cosponsors...'' said a Senate Democratic aide involved in the effort. The lawmakers are circulating a draft sanctions bill that would target the Iranian petroleum and mining industries, and set up unilateral guidelines for what would constitute compliance. Defenders of the Menendez move say it is intended to strengthen the White House hand and that if Senate Democrats don't introduce a bill, Republican hard-liners will push a much more extreme bill with an even greater likelihood of blowing up the talks. "The goal isn't to disrupt things, it's to make Iran even more willing to make serious concessions by making them aware of what will happen if they don't," said the aide." [HuffPost]

Oh no you didn't: "In a remarkable rebuke to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), 10 other Senate committee chairs are circulating a joint letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, urging him to reject an effort by Menendez to tighten sanctions on Iran and warning that his bill could disrupt ongoing nuclear negotiations. The senators write in their letter that 'at this time, as negotiations are ongoing, we believe that new sanctions would play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see the negotiations fail.'" [HuffPost]

COCHRAN FACING TOUGH PRIMARY CHALLENGE: POLL - This being Mississippi, do they debate or just yell that they "DEMAND SATISFACTION" and slap each other with white gloves? Human Events: "Six months before the Mississippi GOP primary, Sen. W. Thad Cochran is in a dead heat with attorney and former radio host state Sen. Christopher McDaniel, according to a Dec. 13 Human Events/Gravis poll of 691 voters, who voted in a Republican primary in 2010 and or 2012, with both men polling 40 percent with 20 percent undecided. 'Overall, the results indicate that Senator Cochran is in a tight spot,' said Doug Kaplan, president of Gravis Marketing, a Florida-based polling and call center company. The poll also asked about other issues and carries a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent...As if they approved of his job performance, 39 percent said they did and 40 percent responded that they were undecided, he said...When Cochran announced that he was running for reelection in the first week in December, McDaniel was already in the race and many on Capitol Hill expected him to pack it in. Instead, he is firing up his campaign, opening offices and hiring campaign staff." [Human Events]

SCOTT BROWN LIES - Scott Brown says he's moving to New Hampshire for strictly "personal" reasons, missing the chance to describe himself as a refugee from Taxachusetts. Roll Call: "Former Sen. Scott Brown said goodbye to Massachusetts on Thursday, confirming in a statement released to the press that he is moving to New Hampshire. The Republican has been flirting with a Senate bid in the neighboring Granite State for months. But in the statement published by WMUR, Brown called his move to the Granite State 'strictly personal” and said he had “nothing to announce with regard to my future political plans.' 'Once we get settled, we will do what many other people have done upon moving into New Hampshire,' Brown said. 'We will register to vote, get new licenses and enjoy the fact that there is no income or sales tax in New Hampshire.' Brown sold his four-bedroom home in Massachusetts earlier this week." [Roll Call]

Candidate announces that she'll announce thing when most people announce said thing: "The nation may not have to wait much longer to learn the future plans of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state who's considered the leading Democrat for the 2016 presidential race. In a Wednesday interview with ABC's Barbara Walters, who named the former first lady the 'Most Fascinating Person of 2013,' Clinton said she hadn't yet made up her mind on a presidential run. She assured Walters her announcement would come soon. 'Obviously, I will look carefully at what I think I can do and make that decision sometime next year,' Clinton said." [HuffPost]

MITCH MCCONNELL IS NO CHRISTMAS APPEASER - Luke Johnson: "The reelection campaign of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wants you to donate money to him to help him fight the 'War On Christmas.' In a fundraising blast sent out Thursday and posted by Kentucky blogger Joe Sonka, his campaign manager, Jesse Benton wrote: 'This War on Christmas is real, and it's unconstitutional. Please take a stand right now and chip-in with $50, $25, or $10 to help us protect Christmas.'" [HuffPost]

BOBBY JINDAL DEFENDS HOMOPHOBIC 'DUCK DYNASTY' STAR - For fun we're going to try to write a second-day story about this, "Is This Bobby Jindal's Sister Souljah Moment?" without laughing. Luke Johnson: "Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) on Thursday became the latest politician to defend Phil Robertson, a cast member of the reality show 'Duck Dynasty' who was suspended from the television network A&E after making graphic anti-gay comments and saying African-Americans were 'singing and happy' before civil rights in the South. 'Phil Robertson and his family are great citizens of the State of Louisiana,' Jindal said in a statement. 'The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with.' Jindal did not specifically condemn Robertson's comments. 'I don’t agree with quite a bit of stuff I read in magazine interviews or see on TV. In fact, come to think of it, I find a good bit of it offensive,' he said. 'But I also acknowledge that this is a free country and everyone is entitled to express their views. In fact, I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment. It is a messed up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh, and Phil Robertson gets suspended.' Jindal has a misguided notion about the First Amendment. While the Constitution covers free speech from government interference, private businesses are generally free to punish their employees for what they say." [HuffPost]

BECAUSE YOU'VE READ THIS FAR - Here is a dog who loves his Christmas present.
HARRY REID CLAIMS WE LIVE IN A SOCIETY WHERE YOU CAN'T DENIGRATE A RACE OF PEOPLE - Bob Cusack: "Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Wednesday that the Washington Redskins should change their name. In an interview with The Hill, Reid said, 'I think [Washington Redskins owner Dan] Snyder is so shortsighted on this.' He added, 'We live in a society where you can’t denigrate a race of people. And that’s what that is. I mean, you can’t have the Washington Blackskins. I think it’s so shortsighted.'" [The Hill]


- Dog plays streetball. [http://bit.ly/1f3hnH7]

- A look back in 2013 set to Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start The Fire." [http://nym.ag/1cTIYKP]

- A collection of the year's best Tumblrs. [http://bit.ly/JHrPcn]

- A map shows all the places mentioned in U.S. news reports over the last four years. [http://bit.ly/1bSSVTY]

- Bill Gates was a redditor's Secret Santa. "Sorry for the apple ipad on my wishlist, that was really awkward." [http://bit.ly/1kX5gvT]

- Bloopers from "Die Hard," which the internet has decided is history's greatest Christmas movie. [http://huff.to/18ZU4ML]

- Guy is the boy king of Michael Jackson jumbotron dancing. [http://bit.ly/1c4uDuF]


@kaylaepstein: "I See You've Got Mail" #NSAmovietitles

@ddayen: Maybe if I noted homeowner abuse & toothless law enforcement in an essay on how I had to leave DC b/c I'm a sexed-up lush,it'd get some heat

@achorowitz: Bqhatevwr RT @morningmoneyben: Who can sum up 2013 in a single word?

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