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U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (L) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speak at a news conference about the U.S. debt ceiling crisis at the U.S. Capitol in Washington July 30, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst  
The House Judiciary Committee struck a blow against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this week. McConnell is trying to force a five-year extension of the Patriot Act, without any revision of the controversial bulk data collection provision. But a growing number of members in both the House and Senate are likely to thwart him.
On Thursday, a bill that would overhaul the Patriot Act and curtail the so-called metadata surveillance exposed by Edward J. Snowden was overwhelmingly passed by the House Judiciary Committee and was heading to almost certain passage in that chamber this month.

An identical bill in the Senate—introduced with the support of five Republicans—is gaining support over the objection of Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, who is facing the prospect of his first policy defeat since ascending this year to majority leader. […]

The debate has resulted in a highly unusual alliance of House Speaker John A. Boehner, the White House, the Tea Party and a bipartisan majority in the House. They are in opposition to Mr. McConnell, his Intelligence Committee chairman, and a small group of defense hawks. In addition, two Republican presidential candidates in the Senate, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, have made it clear they will not accept a straight extension of the current Patriot Act.

The legislation would end bulk collection, but still request that phone companies hold on to records that would have to be accessed with a court order. So that still allows for a more narrow or targeted collection, the bill's authors say, and would still allow for the tracking of U.S. residents in communication with suspected terrorists.

The big question is how much leeway is still going to be included in that "narrower" collection program. When it comes to actually calling records, it does seem to narrow the process down enough to "ensure only specific individuals, accounts, and devices qualify as specific selection terms." Selection terms are what the NSA uses to query a database, or set up a collection system. But beyond calling records, the legislation seems to allow for broader selection terms. This version of the legislation has also lost the "super minimization" requirements in last year's version of the bill, which very narrowly failed in the Senate. Minimization is the requirement that any collected information that doesn't pertain directly to an investigation be deleted. Those procedures weren't included this time and should be in the amendment process on either side of the Hill.

The bill is certainly better than McConnell's alternative, but could be made an awful lot stronger in the amendment process. In fact, Section 215—the provision that the FISA court interpreted to allow for bulk collection—should be allowed to sunset as the original law's authors intended.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gives a news conference in Trenton January 9, 2014. Christie on Thursday fired a top aide at the center of a brewing scandal that public officials orchestrated a massive traffic snarl on the busy George Washington Bridge
Gov. Chris Christie's high-school buddy and former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey appointee, David Wildstein, has pleaded guilty to plotting to create a 2013 traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge as political payback against a Christie opponent.
On Friday morning, Judge Susan D. Wigenton, who presided over the case, laid out the conspiracy involving the three Christie confidants. She asked Mr. Wildstein a laundry list of questions, all of which he answered with a soft “yes,” while standing at the defense table.

She asked if he conspired with Mr. Baroni and Ms. Kelly to shut down lanes to retaliate against Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee for not endorsing Mr. Christie in his 2013 re-election campaign.

“Did you agree with Mr. Baroni and Ms. Kelly to punish Mayor Sokolich by causing significant lane access problems,” the judge asked, staring down from the bench at Mr. Wildstein.

"Yes," Mr. Wildstein answered.

Wildstein's lawyer, Alan Zegas, says that "evidence exists" that Christie knew about the closings when they occured. So that should make the next few months of Christie's president campaign posturing interesting.

In addition, Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Bridget Anne Kelly, a former deputy chief of staff to Mr. Christie have been indicted by Paul J. Fishman, the United States attorney for New Jersey. Those indictments include "multiple counts of conspiracy to commit fraud, including 'knowingly converting and intentionally misapplying property of an organization receiving federal benefits.'" You can read the full indictment here.

So Wildstein throws Kelly and Baroni under the bus, and thus far Christie skates. Because despite the fact that his very old friend, his deputy chief of staff, and the guy he put in charge of the port authority were plotting political revenge on his behalf, Christie had absolutely no idea any of this was being concocted out of his office. To hear him tell it, he barely knows Wildstein. That's despite the fact that "records and interviews indicate that during his tenure at the Port Authority, Wildstein met at least twice with Christie and others in the governor's office, joined Christie at seven public events and had regular meetings with Christie's closest confidantes."

If you believe that, I've got another bridge in the greater metropolitan New York area to sell you. Still, it's hard to see how Christie manages to spin this into something that helps him run for president. Now, real right wingers might actually like the idea that he's vindictive enough to conspire on such a scheme. But the line he's decided to go with is that he was completely disconnected from this conspiracy happening right under his nose, in his office. He could go with either evil or incompetent, and has chosen the latter. Way to inspire confidence in your leadership!

There's ongoing discussion in Bethesda 1971's diary.

U.S. Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY)
Republicans might be at a total loss when it comes to creating a workable substitute for Obamacare, should the Supreme Court rule to strike subsidies down to some 8 million people. But they're not going to let their lack of a plan get in the way of making demands that President Obama gut the law in return for keeping those subsidies going until the next election.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who is leading the Senate GOP’s response to King v. Burwell, said Republicans will be willing to strike a deal with Obama to ensure that the 7.5 million people who stand to lose their subsidies are protected, at least until the 2016 elections.

But in return, they would demand that Obama to do something he has long resisted: nix the employer and individual mandates for insurance coverage.

"Is the president going to say, 'Tough, I'm going to veto that?'" Barrasso said in an interview in his Dirksen office. "There will be, as part of that [deal], things we want to have happen."

There are at least six plans out there from Republicans, all premised on essential repeal of Obamacare, and none with enough consensus to actually make it through either the House or the Senate. But Republicans have one thing, according to Barrasso, even if they don't have an actual plan: "temporary aid for people who could lose their subsidies, which Barrasso said would be the crucial bargaining chip in a deal with Obama." So there you go, 8 million people who might lose your health insurance—you're just a GOP bargaining chip. Just to reinforce that:
"The president’s going to stand up and say, 'Meet so-and-so who's got cancer. Meet so-and-so who's got diabetes," [Gov. Bobby] Jindal, a longtime foe of the healthcare law, said. "And he'll say, 'These mean, stingy Republicans simply won't make a one-page change in the law."
So if you have cancer or diabetes and face losing health insurance because of the unrelenting attacks against this law by Republicans, it's your own damned problem. Republicans clearly don't care about that, they care about how they can leverage your misfortune into trying to make Obama gut his own law. Which he's not going to do. Which Barrasso knows very well: "Since we don't have a willing partner in the White House, the best idea for actually fixing health care is not things that the president isn't going to sign. He's not going to work with us on this. So we have to have a Republican president in 2016."

Even when Obama isn't on the ballot anymore, this is all about beating Obama and repealing his signature achievement. So if you're sick of Obamacare being a political football, too bad. They're not going to let go of it. Eight million people potentially losing health insurance is just one more bargaining chip for them.

U.S. Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch speaks as U.S. President Barack Obama (R) looks on, in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington November 8, 2014. Obama on Saturday picked Brooklyn federal prosecutor Lynch to replace retiring Attorne
Attorney General Loretta Lynch capped her first, challenging week at the helm of the Justice Department by announcing a $20 million police body camera pilot project.
"This body-worn camera pilot program is a vital part of the Justice Department's comprehensive efforts to equip law enforcement agencies throughout the country with the tools, support, and training they need to tackle the 21st century challenges we face," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement. "Body-worn cameras hold tremendous promise for enhancing transparency, promoting accountability, and advancing public safety for law enforcement officers and the communities they serve."
The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets of Act of 1968 authorizes the attorney general to provide a maximum of $20 million to local governments to modernize the technology they use. The DOJ said that they would provide 50 grants and that a third would go to smaller police departments. The grants have to have a 50-50 in-kind or cash match by the departments, and all of the departments receiving the grants will have to create implementation and training programs.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth pictured with members of the Illinois Farm Bureau, February 26, 2015
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, veteran, saves the day.
House Republicans were all set to undo protections for service members from predatory lenders this week, at the behest of the banking lobby.
The military has been struggling with the financial impact of predatory lending on service members for years. A 2014 report issued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau documents a host of abuses targeting troops. One family that took out a $2,600 loan ended up paying back $3,966.84 over the course of a year. Another borrower spent $1,428.28 to pay off a $485 loan in just six months. Thousands of service members receive short-term, high-interest loans each year.

In 2006, Congress passed legislation imposing a 36 percent cap on interest rates for payday loans, auto title loans and tax refund anticipation loans to military families. Lenders responded by slightly tweaking the terms of their loans to avoid the limits. Since the law applied to payday loans with terms of 91 days or less, and amounts of $2,000 or less, credit companies were able to shirk the rules with 92-day loans, or loans of $2,001.

Big banks were even more creative, issuing "deposit advance products"—functionally almost identical to payday loans, but with a different name and with effective annual interest rates of around 300 percent. Congress responded to these tricks in 2012 by passing another law directing the Pentagon to fix these loopholes, and new rules were finalized in September of last year.

House Armed Services Committee Republicans put their proposal to postpone those rules in the National Defense Authorization Act, and it was the sharp eye and action on the part of Democrats on the panel—including Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL)—that stopped it from happening. Duckworth offered an amendment in committee to strip the language from the bill, and it very narrowly passed early Thursday morning. It's good to know that at least a few Republicans are capable of being shamed.

It's likely not the end of the banksters' efforts, though. There will almost certainly be another amendment offered on the floor to block these rules from protecting the troops when the bill comes up in a few weeks.

Congressman Tom Cotton of Arkansas speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.
This is precisely what Republican leadership deserved to get when recruiting and backing unhinged zealots like the newly elected Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR). Now the Republican conference in the Senate is as ungovernable as the House Republican conference.
Sens. Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio used a hardball procedural tactic on Thursday to force contentious votes on a bill allowing congressional review of a nuclear deal with Iran, a move that jeopardizes the measure’s future.

After being blocked by Democrats for several days, Cotton (R-Ark.) and Rubio (R-Fla.) used a parliamentary procedure to attempt to compel votes on amendments that would make Iran relinquish its nuclear facilities before getting economic sanctions relief and require that Iran recognize Israel’s statehood as a condition of any nuclear deal.

Cotton and Rubio’s maneuver, made under the guidance of top conservative policy aides, blew up a tentative agreement to vote on several other amendments on Thursday, likely including one from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that would require Congress affirmatively vote for any nuclear deal with Iran. But that series was unlikely to include Cotton and Rubio’s proposals and a frustrated Cotton instead forced the chamber to consider their proposals.

Just consider that for a moment. Cruz had an amendment that wasn't as extreme as Cotton's or Rubio's (who is in presidential campaign mode and laboring under the misconception that he'll get the Jewish vote). Cotton, on the other hand, is viewing himself as some kind of fucking savior of the Senate or something. When Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, actually managed to get the White House to agree to his plan along with Senate Democrats—that's called "winning," called out the senator's poison pills, Cotton responded "I would say these are not poison pills. These are vitamin pills."

The man is a total nutjob, as bad as any in the House who has over and over and over snatched Republican defeat from the jaws of victory. And no one deserves this more than Mitch McConnell.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) speaks about funding for the Department of Homeland Security during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington February 25, 2015. Conservative Republicans urged House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner no
Republican lawmakers know very well that they're in an awful bind completely of their own making. They insisted on pursuing every possible avenue for destroying Obamacare, and now one might work out for them. The Supreme Court could very well decide in June to strike down subsidies to the around 8 million people who have purchased insurance on the federal exchange, making keeping that insurance impossible for many, and making those 8 million people very, very angry. Most Republicans have now come around to the idea that maybe that's not going to be such a great thing for them, particularly those who have to be re-elected next year. One of them, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) has introduced legislation that would extend the subsidies into 2017. But Johnson isn't the only one who has some kind of fix, and most of those "fixes" create real problems going forward.
The Johnson plan would prohibit new customers in both the state and federally operated exchanges from receiving subsidies and repeal the individual and employer mandates. In addition, it would eliminate the Affordable Care Act's minimum essential benefit requirements, allow states to set those benefit rules, and grandfather in existing health plans that are not compliant with the ACA.

Another proposal, by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), would continue premium subsidies for 18 months but phase them out over that period. For six months after the court rules, financial assistance for all subsidy-eligible exchange customers would be set at a flat 65% of premium costs. That would decrease by 5 percentage points each month until the subsidies were completely eliminated. During the transition period, insurers would be prohibited from raising premiums. In addition, the Sasse bill would prohibit HHS from providing federal exchange technology to states interested in establishing their own exchanges. […]

On the House side, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and two other committee chairmen have proposed to offer a flat tax credit to people now receiving subsidies through the federal exchange. In addition, they would let states opt into an alternative Republican reform model without insurance mandates and including traditional GOP policy nostrums such as allowing insurers to sell plans across state lines.

What the two Senate proposals would do is just to make the end to subsidies happen a lot more slowly, and force the law to wither on the vine. No new people could enroll in Johnson's plan and it's essentially a slow-walk back to the pre-Obamacare status quo, where insurance is too expensive for too many. Sasse's would have the same result, with the nice added bit of blocking states from forming their own exchanges. Ryan's plan is Obamacare lite, his tax credits being pretty much exactly the same as Obamacare's subsidies, just with some GOP stuff scattered in.

Here's the really fun part though: "in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling in King v. Burwell striking down subsidies, any proposal that offers any subsidies could be scored by the Congressional Budget Office as new spending." Get that? New spending. Republicans would have to spend new money on Obamacare or face the political consequences of millions of people losing their insurance—millions of people mostly in red states. Their only other option is to try to pass one of these "fixes" with reconciliation in the budget process, and do it before the Supreme Court rules an existing law is still the baseline that CBO uses to calculate costs.

Beyond this is their very basic problem of finding enough Republicans to vote for a fix, and if they even manage to do that in the House, keeping Ted Cruz or Rand Paul from derailing it in the Senate. Right now, you gotta believe that the most fervent wish of Republican congressional leaders is that the Supreme Court bails them out and upholds subsidies.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD)
Rep. Chris Van Hollen
The House has started working on spending bills, and of course has started with the most important thing ever: defense. But they encountered a big hiccup right out of the box, when they were faced with the prospect of an amendment to a spending bill actually passing. Yes, you read that right. The problem is the amendment could have passed. So they pulled the bill and delayed the vote.
House GOP leadership aides denied there was a problem with the whip count. Aides said the votes were delayed so that the House can first vote on the budget conference agreement that reconciles the two chambers' spending plans before proceeding with votes on the appropriations bills.

But an amendment from Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, and Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, also appeared to be a potential problem for passage. The amendment offered by the political odd couple would strike provisions of the bill for military construction projects that use funds from the Pentagon's war fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations account.

Both Van Hollen and Mulvaney argued it represented a budgetary "gimmick" to avoid spending caps established by the 2011 budget deal known as the Budget Control Act (BCA).

That's bipartisanship you can believe in, a Democrat and a Republican joining up to show just how much bullshit is in your typical Republican budget. In this case, using what's basically emergency war funding to increase defense spending in other areas, and not paying for it by actually paying for it, say with new taxes. Van Hollen says they had the votes to pass it, hence it got pulled, at least for now.
Pie chart and bar graph showing percentages of people in Medicaid gap working full or part time and industries they work in, as well as size of employers.
Take a close look at that chart, from this month's issue brief by the Kaiser Family Foundation. That shows how many people in the Medicaid gap in the states that didn't expand Medicaid under Obamacare are employed at least part time: 66 percent are in a family where someone works and 54 percent are working themselves. So keep in mind that the majority of people who would be covered by Medicaid expansion in the red states are working or live in families that have at least one person working.

Now, read this report from Politico about the governors in some of those red states who are considering expansion but won't do it unless they can shame their low-income citizens.

In Indiana, Florida, Utah, and at least eight other GOP-dominated states, either the governor or state lawmakers have sought to tie Medicaid to work. Supporters see it as a way of taming a health care entitlement they regard as excessively costly and riddled with fraud and abuse.

Arkansas’ Asa Hutchison is one GOP governor who is striving to find a way to keep the millions of dollars flowing to his state under its version of expansion—now covering around 230,000 people—amid demands of conservatives. He’s open to a work requirement.

"This is supposed to be an incentive and encouragement for people to work versus an incentive for people to just receive the government benefit and not be part of a working culture of Arkansas," Hutchison told POLITICO during a recent interview about Medicaid in the state Capitol.

His fellow Republican Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah put it this way: "I wanted to be able to say, 'If you want the taxpayers to fund your health care, then you need to go out and be involved in a work program, no ifs, ands or buts.' I've been accused by the Obama administration: 'Well, you're trying to turn this health care program into a work program.' And I've said, 'You're right.'"

Most of these people are already working, assholes. How about instead of trying to embarrass them further for being poor, you work on embarrassing their employers for refusing to provide them health insurance or refusing to pay enough that they can buy it with Obamacare subsidies? And why isn't the fact that most people who would qualify for Medicaid who are now in the gap are working the beginning point in any discussion about Medicaid expansion and work requirements?

To Politico's credit, they do report (about 15 paragraphs in) that the majority of these people work, and add that among "those who don’t work, about a third said they were taking care of a home or family member, 20 percent were looking for work, and 17 percent were mentally ill or disabled." They point out that those numbers are close to the national labor force participation rate. There's a reason why this population is called the "working poor." Because they are working!

The Obama administration is standing tough on this one. While they're happy to work with states to coordinate job services with people applying for Medicaid, Obama's Medicaid Director Vikki Wachino says, "Medicaid is a health coverage program," and "requiring employment may not be a condition of eligibility." Adding any kind of work requirement (which is clearly redundant for the majority of these folks) or time limit or any other restriction subverts the goal of the law: getting people insured and bringing down the costs of health care for states and for the country. Health care isn't welfare. Period.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)
Rand Paul, doing his "bro" thing.
It's not really clear who besides the "hate Obama for everything" crowd Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is trying to court with his latest grandstand, which is repealing the FCC's net neutrality rule.
The move will do little to endear Paul to Silicon Valley executives, who largely support the new rules, as he tries to raise money from them for his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. And it cuts against his image as the candidate most in touch with young and tech-savvy voters.

Paul's resolution also undermines the strategy of Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, a South Dakota Republican who is trying to craft a bipartisan compromise on the issue.

But it does put Paul at the forefront of fighting the Internet regulations that are reviled by conservatives.

In the olden days, there was actually a pretty diverse community behind net neutrality, including lots of conservative groups who recognized that they could be shut off the internet just as easily as the rest of us. But that all changed. Those internet regulations are now only reviled by conservatives since they were issued by an FCC headed up by an appointee of President Obama's, and because Obama also called for the strong net neutrality rules. Paul is, however, wrapping it up in his libertarian schtick:
"This regulation by the FCC is a textbook example of Washington's desire to regulate anything and everything, and will do nothing more than wrap the Internet in red tape," Paul said in a statement. "The Internet has successfully flourished without the heavy hand of government interference. Stated simply, I do not want to see the government regulating the Internet."
Paul doesn't have any cosponsors on this, and probably won't get any. This is just grandstanding to try to compete with Ted Cruz for the people who would support, well, Ted Cruz. Including the Koch brothers. Rand Paul, libertarian crusader, is becoming increasingly indistinguishable from the rest of the tea party crowd.

Keep up the rabble rousing. You won net neutrality. Now, are you ready to defend it? Call the congressional committees working to defeat us.

Line chart showing Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of annual filings to state insurance departments over past five years, showing 46 percent increase between 2013-14.
Nice graph, huh? That's what the individual market in health insurance looks like right now, after two enrollment periods in Obamacare.
Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of recently-submitted 2014 filings by insurers to state insurance departments (using data compiled by Mark Farrah Associates) shows that 15.5 million people had major medical coverage in the individual insurance market—both inside and outside of the Marketplaces—as of December 31, 2014. Enrollment was up 4.8 million over the end of 2013, a 46% increase. […]

The insurance company filings do not break down whether coverage was purchased through a Marketplace or in the outside market, nor whether coverage was first purchased after January 1, 2014 and therefore subject to the new ACA insurance market rules. However, juxtaposing these enrollment figures with the federal government’s estimate of 6.7 Marketplace enrollees as of October 15, 2014 suggests that about 43% of all individual market coverage was purchased through the marketplaces in 2014. It also means that new enrollment in the individual market among those who would have otherwise been uninsured likely took place inside the Marketplaces, driven by the availability of premium subsidies. Among those signing up for Marketplace plans in 2014, 85% qualified for premium subsidies.

That's 85 percent of all those enrollments that could be jeopardized if the Supreme Court decides to end subsidies for people buying on the federal exchange. That's going to piss off not just all those people losing their insurance, but the insurance companies losing all that business.
U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts arrives prior to President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 28, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES  - Tags: POLITICS)   - RTX17Z1K
Now this is intriguing. In a decision released Wednesday, Chief Justice John Roberts joined with the court's liberals to restrict fund-raising by judicial candidates. Yes, the same John Roberts who voted with conservatives on Citizens United and McCutcheon, the cases that gut most campaign spending limits. Judges, Roberts has decided, "are not politicians."
The justices ruled 5-4 that Florida's judicial code of conduct can ban candidates from asking for donations. As a result, in 30 states that elect state and local judges, restrictions on fundraising by judicial candidates can remain in place.

Chief Justice John Roberts was joined by the court's four liberal justices in an unusual alignment against the other four conservatives. He wrote for the majority that "judges are not politicians, even when they come to the bench by way of the ballot."

While he acknowledged that Florida's code allows a judicial candidate's political committee to solicit funds, and even lets the candidates thank donors, Roberts said directly asking for money is most likely to harm the public's confidence in an independent judiciary.

"The identity of the person asking for money matters, as anyone who has encountered a Girl Scout selling cookies outside a grocery store can attest," he said. "When the judicial candidate himself asks for money, the stakes are higher for all involved."

This is indeed a curiosity. In his dissent, Justice Kennedy pointed out that there was some irony in this court deciding that while they say the First Amendment protected the donors who want to give unlimited money without disclosure, it doesn't protect judges asking those same donors for money directly. But judges are different, Roberts says, and shouldn't be soliciting. From one of the most political justices on what is definitely the most politically activist Supreme Court, that's pretty surprising.

While it's impossible to know where Roberts is on the other big political cases this term—King v. Burwell on Obamacare and Obergefell v. Hodges on marriage equality—until he actually rules, this does lend itself to some fun speculation. Maybe Roberts feels just a little bit burned by the reaction to Citizens United and McCutcheon and being lumped in with Scalia, Alito, and Thomas as extremely activist judges. Maybe he's looking to appear just a little less politicized himself, and figures siding with the liberals on some of these cases might be a way to burnish his legacy a bit. Or maybe he really does think judges are different and we can't draw any conclusions. Either way, he's intrigued plenty of court watchers with this decision.

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