Putin Saw Obama Weakness in ‘Cut of His Jib’: Conaway

NATO countries should worry about President Barack Obama’s commitment to defending them against Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a leading U.S. congressman on defense policy said.

“The real turning point would be if he takes sovereign territory away from a NATO country” and “nothing happens,” Representative Michael Conaway, a member of the Intelligence and Armed Services committees, said at a Bloomberg Government event. “Because we’ve already said we’re not going to do anything and NATO allies themselves have not properly prepared to defend against a determined foe that the Russians are.”

The Texas Republican blamed Obama for Putin’s annexation of Crimea, saying “the seeds for that were sown” when Obama embarked on a “world apology tour and pulled the missile-defense program out of Poland” during his first year in office.

A onetime business partner of former President George W. Bush, Conaway also criticized Obama for publicly stating that he wasn’t contemplating military action against Putin, even if he didn’t plan to use force.

“You’ve got to get your bluff in,” Conaway said, asserting that Putin determined he could push Obama around when he saw “the cut of his jib.”

He also said he’s concerned that Putin might push into Transnistria. “There’s a small little enclave in Moldova that I can’t pronounce that he may use as an excuse to cross eastern Ukraine to quote-unquote ‘protect ethnic Russians’” he said, “and then the next step would be the Baltics.”

Food Stamps

Conaway, openly campaigning to be the next House Agriculture chairman, said if he succeeds the panel will begin a comprehensive review of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps, that could lead to tightening eligibility.

House Republicans tried to attach stiffer work requirements, as well as drug testing, to food stamp benefits during debate on the farm law enacted in February.

Federal spending on food stamps has more than doubled in the past five years, with most of the money spent at retailers including Supervalu Inc. and Kroger Co. The program cost a record $79.9 billion in fiscal 2013, almost one-eighth of the roughly $650 billion a year that Americans spend on groceries.

Food stamp spending supported 46.8 million people in December 2013, the last month of data available from USDA, down from a record 47.8 million in December 2012.

“We kind of snuck up on the food stamp issue in the farm bill, in the sense we didn’t lay the predicate with the American people as to why it’s important, why the policies are important,” said Conaway.

New York, Pennsylvania

The review would center on getting the policies right before considering estimated costs, Conaway said. Republicans took that lesson from the last farm bill fight, when Democrats, food banks and anti-hunger activists successfully mobilized against what would have been almost $40 billion in cuts to food stamp spending House Republicans backed, he said.

Lawmakers eventually agreed on what was supposed to be an $8.6 billion reduction in food-stamp costs through changes to a program that linked federally backed home heating aid with additional food stamp money. Several states including New York and Pennsylvania effectively nullified their cuts, with New York triggering an extra $457 million in federal assistance by spending $6 million.

“Since the passage of the farm bill, states have found ways to cheat, once again, on signing up people for food stamps,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters earlier this month. “And so I would hope that the House would act to try to stop this cheating and this fraud from continuing.”

Ethics Review

Conaway, chairman of the House Ethics Committee, said that panel will move forward this year with a bipartisan proposal to rewrite the rules governing the outside Office of Congressional Ethics, which refers cases from the public to the House Ethics Committee.

Conaway said the plan, which could be included in a new House rules package in January 2015, would preserve the ability of the public to register ethics complaints against lawmakers.

While the current system has been criticized by lawmakers since its inception half a dozen years ago, Conaway said he is looking to make incremental change so that his proposals don’t create a backlash that makes it impossible to implement them.

“The watchdog groups have a tendency to overreact,” he said.

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