July 17, 2014

Who says Congress is slacking off this summer? A day after the House passed a bipartisan bill to bar state and federal governments from taxing internet service forever, lawmakers in the lower chamber passed a bill Wednesday aimed at giving legal marijuana businesses access to regular banking services. The amendment to an appropriations bill, which passed 231-192, prohibits financial regulators from spending any money to prosecute banks that do business with marijuana growers and purveyors in states where pot is legal.

Banks have generally refrained from doing business with marijuana operations because while the drug is now legal in Colorado and Washington, and partly legal in dozens of other states — Washington, D.C., decriminalized weed at midnight tonight — possession and sale of pot still violates federal law. Also on Wednesday, the House rejected a measure that would have voided Treasury Department guidelines announced in February aimed at sort-of getting banks to work with the legal pot industry.

So really, the GOP-led House voted for legal marijuana twice in one day — another milepost on pot's long, strange trip to respectability. In May, the House passed another bill the prohibited the Justice Department and DEA from interfering with state medical marijuana programs. It's not clear that any of these wills will be cleared by the Senate. The pot industry is still celebrating. "This is a huge step forward for the legal cannabis industry," said Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, in a statement. At least it's a baby step. Peter Weber

8:15 a.m. ET

Mel Tillis, an eminent country singer-songwriter famous for his song catalog and stuttering when he spoke but not when he sang, died on Sunday in Ocala, Florida, likely of respiratory failure though his publicist said Tillis had "battled intestinal issues since early 2016 and never fully recovered." He was 85. Tillis' long career began in Nashville in 1957, after a stint in the Air Force and trucking and railroad jobs, plus some college.

When he was playing rhythm guitar for Minnie Pearl in the late 1950s, Pearl urged him to use his stutter for comedic effect, and he found that audiences responded to his humor. But he is remembered more for serious songs like "Detroit City" and "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town," the latter about a paralyzed Vietnam War vet whose wife is cheating on him. It was a 1969 hit for Kenny Rogers, but here is Tillis singing it on The Porter Wagoner Show in 1967:

Tillis himself scored six No. 1 singles on the country charts, including "Coca-Cola Cowboy," and 35 singles in the Top 10, mostly in the mid-1970s through early 1980s. He was voted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1967, inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007, and awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama in 2012. He had mixed feeling about his stutter, saying he always hoped to beat it even as it propelled him to fame — as in the 1972 bit for the The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.

Tillis is survived by six children, six grandchildren, one great grandson, his longtime partner, Kathy DeMonaco, and his first wife, Doris Tiliis. Peter Weber

8:09 a.m. ET

Jana Novotna, the Czech tennis player who earned 17 Grand Slam titles over the course of her career, died Sunday at the age of 49, The New York Times reports. In a statement, the Women's Tennis Association said Novotna's passing followed "a long battle with cancer" and that she "died peacefully, surrounded by her family in her native Czech Republic."

Sixteen of Novotna's Grand Slam titles came in doubles and mixed doubles, and she also earned three Olympic medals in the category. Novotna was famously consoled by the Duchess of Kent after losing to Germany's Steffi Graf at Wimbledon in 1993. Novotna eventually won her solo Wimbledon singles trophy five years later after overcoming Venus Williams, Martina Hingis of Switzerland, and Nathalie Tauziat of France.

"Jana was an inspiration both on and off court to anyone who had the opportunity to know her," said WTA CEO Steve Simon in a statement. "Her star will always shine brightly in the history of the WTA." Jeva Lange

7:50 a.m. ET
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Here is another name to add to your list of potential 2020 candidates: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

De Blasio will travel to Iowa in December in a move many interpret as testing the waters on a national next step, Politico reports. Although de Blasio denies he is running for president, he has also signaled in interviews that his sights are set on much more than just his city: "I think the Democratic party is ill-defined right now and I think it's ill-defined because it's lost touch with what should be its core ideology," he said Sunday. "Because it's ill-defined, they're not winning elections and the two go together."

While de Blasio ran Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign in 2000, Politico reports that he is now "fully embracing the Sen. Bernie Sanders wing of the party." De Blasio's trip to Iowa is paid for by Progress Iowa, which, as the name implies, champions progressive candidates. The mayor is scheduled to be the headliner of the organization's holiday party, "the group's largest event of the year and its most important outlet for fundraising," Politico notes.

Hizzoner waved off speculation about his trip as being "infantile," but he didn't deny he is looking at the big picture these days. "The big future of this country is when a handful more states start to move and they include Texas and Arizona and Florida too," he said. "Those will be decisive to the future of the country and the future of New York State and New York City. That change is available — I'm saying that as a Democrat and a progressive — that change is available to us and I'm obsessed with it." Read more about a possible de Blasio 2020 at Politico. Jeva Lange

7:13 a.m. ET
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

On Thursday night, President Trump fired off a crude tweet about sexual harassment claims against Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and the photo of him posing with his hands over a sleeping woman's breasts — despite the clear echoes with Trump's own hot-mic confession to groping multiple women. On Sunday night and Monday morning, Trump tweeted that he should have left three black college basketball players in jail in China because one of their fathers had failed to thank him for interceding, criticized a black NFL player over an anthem protest, insulted Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and predicted he would vote against the Senate GOP tax bill, and suggested that China's punishment of 5-10 years in jail for shoplifting is "as it should be."

"What Trump may not realize — and what new data shows — is that he may be tweeting his way into losses in 2018 and 2020," Democratic strategist Jim Messina writes in Politico Magazine. Advisers during the campaign and lawyers in the early days of his administration tried to set parameters on Trump's Twitter habit, but "none of the advice seemed to have any lasting effect on a president who views acting on his own impulses as a virtue," reports Annie Karni at Politico. "And these days, the staff has basically stopped trying: There is no character inhabiting the West Wing who is dispatched to counsel the president when he aims the powerful weapon of his Twitter feed at himself."

The Franken tweet, while putting White House officials on the spot all weekend, isn't even among "the high-water marks of self-destructive Trump tweets," Karni says. A former Trump administration official said Trump's tweet-attacks are par for the course for a "White House with a sub-40 job approval rating with a tough midterm cycle ahead. It doesn't matter if there are vulnerabilities on their own side: They're going to take anything they can get." Or at least get it while he can. Peter Weber

6:14 a.m. ET
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In late September, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union-Christian Social Union (CDU-CSU) party won a plurality of seats in Germany's parliament, but early Monday, her bid for a fourth term as chancellor hit a significant snag when the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) unexpectedly pulled out of coalition talks. FDP leader Christian Lindner told reporters that in their four weeks of negotiations, the DCU, FDP, and Greens were unable to agree on policy or a direction for Germany. "It is better not to rule than to rule badly," he said. "Goodbye!"

Merkel said Monday morning that a deal had been within reach and that she intended to stay on as chancellor but would inform President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the failed talks and discuss how to move forward. Steinmeier could call new elections or Merkel could lead a minority government with the Greens — both of which would firsts for post-war Germany — or try to convince the Social Democrats (SDP), her coalition partners in her previous term, to stick around, despite the beating they took after aligning with her. The SDP has ruled out governing with Merkel's party again, though Germany's traditional parties are wary of the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party gaining strength in new elections.

The FDP had been coalition partners with Merkel from 2009 to 2013, before losing all their seats for four years. After their comeback, it's strange they would walk away from governing with Merkel again, Jackson Janes at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University tells Reuters. "And it is also a dangerous game of poker for Germany." The talks reportedly broke down over immigration as well as taxes and environmental policy. Peter Weber

5:29 a.m. ET
Zinyange Auntony/Getty Images

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has agreed to step down in a deal with the military that grants him and his wife, Grace, full immunity from prosecution and lets them keep their property, CNN reports, citing a source "with knowledge of negotiations over Mugabe's future." Still, a deadline from the ruling Zanu-PF party passed on Monday and there was no public statement or resignation notice from Mugabe, 93.

On Sunday, the party ousted him as party leader and Mugabe stunned Zimbabweans by refusing to resign in a rambling televised speech. If Mugabe does not step down, the Zanu-PF party said, they will impeach him. Last week, the Zimbabwean military put Mugabe and his wife under house arrest, prompting thousands of Zimbabweans to take to the streets demanding an end to Mugabe's regime. Peter Weber

3:39 a.m. ET

Last week, an Associated Press photographer captured a photo of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and his wife, Louise Linton, holding up a sheet of freshly printed $1 bills. The photos caused quite a splash. "Some folks," Chris Wallace told Mnuchin on Fox News Sunday, "say that you two look like two villains from a James Bond movie. ... I guess my question is: What were you thinking?" It's unclear what a real (fictional) Bond villain would say, but Mnuchin — who has produced several Hollywood hits — was apparently pleased with the comparison.

"I guess I should take that as a compliment that I look like a villain in a great, successful James Bond movie," Mnuchin said. "But let me just say, I was very excited of having my signature on the money." He actually changed his signature to be legible, he told Wallace. But when it came to the photo, taken by the most famous American wire service at a public event, "I didn't realize that the pictures were public and going on the internet and viral," Mnuchin said. "But people have the right to do that. People can express what they want. That's the great thing about social media today."

The AP photographer, Jacquelyn Martin, wasn't surprised that the photo went viral — but she was surprised Mnuchin and Linton posed for it. "When I got to the assignment, I didn't envision an image quite like this," she wrote. "Once I was there and Mnuchin gestured for Linton to come over and be in the photo op, then I knew for sure this image would get some interest. Based on their history and previous images that have been put out there — I had a feeling that this would take off. There is something about this couple that people are just fascinated by." Something, yes. Peter Weber

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